Stiff Neck?

For June 2, 2019, Ascension Sunday

Read: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3,6-9; Ephesians 1: 17-23, Luke 24: 46-53

Have you ever had the experience of hearing an idea for the first time, and then suddenly hearing that idea again in different circumstances? I told you that Fr. Peter had given an excellent presentation at the General Assembly on Liberation Theology, a school of religious thought that aligns very well with the writings of St. Charles of Brazil, the founder of our own Catholic Apostolic Church.

Fr. Peter described two Church Fathers of the early Christian Church, and their theology in the years 300 – 400 AD. The first was St. John Chrysostom, who wrote this, “If a poor man comes to you asking for bread, there is no end of the complaints and reproaches and charges of idleness, you upbraid him, insult him, jeer at him.  You fail to realize that you too are idle and yet God grants you gifts!” He certainly was direct!

The second was St. Basil the Great. He wrote, “(The rich) seize what belongs to all, they claim it as their own on the basis of having got there first, whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest for those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor!”

The point is that the church in the early years strongly emphasized that we must be about the love that Jesus taught and practiced. Mercy, good works, generosity, love – those were the necessities of faith.  But by the Middle Ages, the Church began to struggle to maintain itself against growing secular power: Kings and Kingdoms.  In response, the Church teaching shifted more to personal salvation.  The mindset changed from relieving suffering of others to viewing suffering as a way to be free of sin in preparation for eternal life.  This new focus was somehow stretched to mean that other people’s suffering was good for them, somehow could be written off as deserved or even necessary, and not any of my business as I pressed to ensure my own passage thru the pearly gates.

The very next week after I heard Fr. Peter’s presentation, I managed to borrow The Time is Now, the newest book from Sister Joan Chittister. If you’ve had the experience of reading anything written by Sister Joan, a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania, you know hang on to your hat.  She could well be compared to a strong wind storm.

She begins her book by describing her early days in the convent. A leader would read a passage from a Gospel, and ask the listeners to see themselves in the scene.  So, Jesus debates with the Pharisees or raises the girl from the dead, and then turns and sees you.  He holds you in his gaze, and asks, “What will you do for these ones – simply stand there looking on?”  The purpose of this was to develop a spiritual practice, but it soon became apparent to Sister Joan that she was to immerse her own life in the life of Jesus.

Out of this would emerge a personal challenge to her own focus, her own behavior, her own life. She learned the teaching of the early Church Fathers which Fr. Peter quoted, and found embedded in them the primary spiritual obligation: to reshape a world that has lost its focus, its integrity, and its understanding of Jesus’ teachings and his purpose in our world.

Sister Joan says, “The question, ‘What will you do?’ is at the core of spiritual maturity, of spiritual commitment.” We may tell ourselves that by risking nothing, we can lose nothing.  Sister Joan says we like our religion served calmly, silently.  And we fail to realize that when we risk nothing, we actually risk everything.  When there is no room in the inn for hungry children, when people fleeing violence must live in tent cities, when there is a growing culture of poverty or paying workers pennies to create clothing which sells for hundreds of dollars, when affordable housing is replaced by mansions, and wars are being fought where the innocent are used as shields, what are we to do?  Stand there, looking on?

It is not a new question. Jesus rose from the dead.  He appeared to believers for 40 days after his crucifixion, he presented proof of his resurrection, and the Holy Spirit was given to the Church.  Jesus directed us to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.  And then he was taken from their sight.  And two heavenly beings appeared, asking, “Why are you standing there looking up at the sky?”

Some people want to focus on “he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.” It was written by someone who had no words to describe what happened.  We are savvy people, we understand special effects, our satellites and telescopes and probes reveal the secrets of the universe.   But surely, you have seen something in your lifetime that was impossible to describe using the words. For instance, I have never talked with a brand-new parent who had words to describe the experience of birth.  The Ascension is a moment of wonder, mystery if you must, unable to be articulated in a way that we have.

Likewise our various accounts of the Ascension don’t exactly match. Each author belonged to a different faith community, and had a different emphasis in their preaching. They used settings that matched the background of those they were teaching.  Any good teacher does that, making the lessons appropriate to the life and culture of the students.  But they all proclaimed the same message – Our Lord is Alive, is with God, and the Holy Spirit is within us. We say: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

So, now what will we do with this information? Do you want the risen Jesus to remain in the Bible story, where you can close the book, put it on the shelf and go on with life?

Do you want to leave the risen Jesus to the clergy, and let them carry the burden of faith? Do you want to leave the work of Jesus to the Social Service agencies, have Bill Gates fund it, have public safety keep the homeless off the streets?  Shall we let Mother Nature take care of the earth? Is the ending of Thrones or the newest superhero movie enough for you?

Or do you want to stop looking at the sky and invite people to church, to share your wealth of talent and experience and compassion with people who simply need some help?  Do you want to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the dying and visit those in prison? (Don’t blame me, those are Jesus’ ideas.) Do you want to get dignity by giving dignity, pride by nurturing pride, joy by sharing joy?  Do you want to give people a voice by speaking out? Do you want to make a difference and be a Christian, not just a consumer?

If what I see in the church today is accurate, I would guess that moving our focus from the Love for one another taught by Jesus to a focus on personal salvation wasn’t the answer to growth of secular power. We are here together in this place because of a Catholic Bishop who decided loving each other, especially the poor and powerless, was essential.  If Sister Joan is right, having taken her cue from the angels in the white garments, then standing and looking is the wrong answer.   There is no joy to be found there.   I say, “My neck is getting stiff looking up, let’s look around us, see the needs and opportunities, and get busy.”

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Stones in the Road

May 16, 2019 Nationa Church General Assembly –  Closing Mass

Acts 13:13-25, Ps 89:2-3, 21-22, 25, 27, John 13: 16-20

Our readings start tonight with St. Paul.  We first met Saul, as he was called then, at the stoning of Steven.  Saul was there, graciously watching over the coats of those who were stoning Steven, and he watched as Steven died.  Saul was a proud Roman Citizen and an accomplished Pharisee.  Saul knew what was being done and approved of it. He believed he was doing the right thing, preventing the spread of Christianity at all costs – even murder.  He saw his sin as justified.

If Saul had been a stone that day, we wouldn’t have stopped to pick him up. We certainly wouldn’t think of him as a gemstone; but more like a ragged lump of broken concrete.  A lifetime in the tumbler, we think, would not improve him.  But everyone has their Steven- the person they should have helped, but didn’t, the cause they should have supported, but didn’t.  Did that make Saul any less valuable to God?  No.  Did God turn away from him?  No. God is a God of 2nd chances, regardless of how it appears to us at the time.

From there, Saul headed out on the road to Damascus, not to throw stones, but to arrange for the arrest and death of other followers of Jesus.  It was an unusual and dramatic journey.  In Acts chapter 9, you can read the whole story of the appearance of Jesus to Saul.  Note that Saul’s change was not instant, but there were a lot of Christian believers who helped and a learning curve was involved.  It took time for people to believe his conversion and for him to be accepted by the apostles.

Now we see Saul again. There have been some changes since we last saw him. He is a changed man; so changed that his name is now Paul. He is traveling with Barnabas, one of the first Christians to take Paul under his wing. They had been in Antioch in Syria, went next to Paphos in Cyprus, next headed north to Perga in Asia Minor, to go on to the other Antioch, in Pisidia.  They had been teaching the Good News of Jesus, telling of his resurrection, baptizing, laying on hands, establishing faith communities, and encouraging those who were persecuted or ridiculed for their faith.

Paul was going to the Synagogues, praying that his fellow Jews might understand Jesus as the promised Messiah, the One Sent by God. He hoped the Holy Spirit would come to them with wisdom and open their hearts, as his heart had been opened. So he speaks in the traditional teaching style, recounting the history of the Israelites, from when God chose them to the Exodus from Egypt, brought them to the Promised Land, and gave them King David, who had the heart to fulfill every wish of God. Now we see Paul as a jewel of a witness and evangelist, a reflection of the glory of God.  Not too shabby for a broken concrete; that was all we saw him as before.  Perhaps our rating system isn’t always the same as God’s.

Then we have a Psalm about King David. If you remember, his father Jesse did not even bother to bring David in from the fields when the Prophet Samuel (1 Sam: 15) came to anoint a new king to replace King Saul (where have we heard that name before?).  David was too young, too simple, not able to be the crown jewel of a nation, his father thought. He was just a boy who sang psalms and who smelled of sheep.  Pope Francis would have approved! Scholars guess it might have been 20 years later before Saul was killed in battle and David became king. Again, there was a long learning curve, a slow process of David’s development, and David had a history of mistakes along the way. Oh yes, and David had his Bathsheba, when in a moment of human desire he abandoned his freedom, stole her liberty, and selfishly hijacked his God-given gift of authority.  We all do, in one form or another.  We all fail; we embarrass ourselves and those who love us.  Sometimes, even a King like David must prostrate them self in front of God and beg for forgiveness and face the consequences.

Neither Paul nor David ever became perfect, they both made mistakes, sinned, grieved and asked forgiveness. They struggled and became discouraged, faced betrayal and were let down by others they trusted.  In the end, they had to depend on God; they had to face life with all the twists and turns and disappointments.  The Blessed Virgin may have been born without sin, the most pure of women, but she still stood in front of the cross and had to watch her tortured son die in agony.  My father was a jeweler He often said, “There are no gems that are not cut to reveal their beauty.”  There are no smooth stones that have not been hammered or smashed against other rocks to snap off their ragged edges.  Even Jesus tells us that “there is no messenger who outranks the one who sent him.”  Just because we are Christians doesn’t make us perfect or superior or glorious.  The perfection and the glory is God’s.

Does this make us inadequate or without value? No, very much No!  We each have great gifts to bring, blessings to bestow on others, the joys of gratitude to share.  We have the gift of self to give, again and again, to friends and family and strangers and neighbors and to God.  We can bless others with simple acts, with gentle words, with forgiveness and generosity.  We can move from just coming to church, to bringing others to church so they might meet the Risen Christ in the breaking of the bread.  We can read the story of the Good Samaritan or we can go out into the word and be the Samaritan that ministers to the innocent victims of our society.  That is how we bless and share and give the gift that we are.  No Christian can just be a spectator.

Jesus said, “(The person) who accepts anyone I send – accepts me…and in accepting me accepts (God) who sent me.” The person standing in front of you at any given time is the one Jesus sends.  Someone wrote once that any one who walks into a church is seeking God, although they might not know it.   All the stones in you find in the path of life represent the blessings of the past and of the future.  They represent your cries for help and your prayers of thanksgiving.  They remind you of your choices made and yet to be made.  May Almighty God give you joy and be with you every step of your journey.+

 

 

Where is God’s “House”?

The Holy Family, 12-30-18

1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28, Ps 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10, 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24, Luke 2:41-52

Our readings start with 1st Samuel, and the story of the prophet Samuel as a child. His mother had not been able to have a child, so she had gone to the Temple and prayed, telling God she would bring the child back to the Temple for a lifetime of service there. The Hebrew phrases it more like she had borrowed the child, and them returned him to God. In our terms, Samuel became an “adopted” child of God, a child who grew up in God’s “house”. It sets the stage for the Gospel nicely in terms of the importance of the Temple as a place representing God’s “Home” and presence among us, and the way we connect deeply with God for a lifetime.

Many people have translated today’s Psalm into modern English. Leslie Brandt starts it: “O God, the center of your will is truly the place of fulfillment. I long incessantly for the peace and security of walking with you. You are the only purpose and meaning for my life. Those who discover and follow you are forever blessed.”

Nan Merrill finishes the Psalm this way: “Blessed are they who put their strength in you, who choose to share the joy and sorrows of the world. They do not give way to fear or doubt; their lives are quickened by Divine Light and Power; they dwell within the peace of the Most High, They go from strength to strength and live with integrity.”

I know of no one who can live this way solely because of their own intellect or self-determination. Life is too complex to live without love, too full of stumbling blocks to be without God’s strength, too short to be without hope and faith.

Our second reading from 1st letter of St. John also used to prepare us for the Gospel. John writes that we are “children of God”. It does not mention the Temple. The Temple was probably destroyed by the Romans before this was written, but it was definitively written after Pentecost. John writes somewhat differently about what it is to live in God’s “house”.

He says: God’s commandment is that “(1) we should believe in… his Son, Jesus Christ, and (2) love one another as he commanded us.” So John concludes that “Those who keep (God’s) commandments remain in God, and the way we know that God remains in us, is from the (Holy) Spirit God gave us.” So, God’s dwelling is no longer understood as a building where we go to be with God. Instead, God is within us – which is a huge step when you think about it. But it makes sense, since we were created “in God’s image”, and God proclaimed us “good”, as Fr. Peter talked about last week.

If we are the dwelling place of God – “God’s House” – what is an appropriate and sensible way to run our lives? When God’s dwelling was a building, it was easy to understand there were certain ways to act and behave in God’s house. Ever since God had Moses create a Tent which housed the Ark of the Covenant, great care was taken to use the best of building materials, precious metals, and furniture and lamp stands of certain shapes. Desecrating the Temple was to show contempt or be irreverent. Being abusive, profane, sacrilegious, or disrespectful in the Temple was something that only mortal enemies did after every-able bodied person had given their lives to prevent it.

But my question was this: If God dwells in us, if we are God’s house, what are our responsibilities? John’s answer is straightforward: “to believe” and “to love.” We can trust God; there is no nanosecond of time when God does not love us; God never turns away from us. God is never out of town, or asleep or glued to a screen. Too many people have treated God like “Santa, Baby”- a demanding relationship where we stop believing in God if the blue convertible, the ring, the condo and the checks weren’t delivered by Christmas.

For the Gospel, we must return to the 3-level way of reading. Level 1 is the story line – most of us have heard this story before. Level 2 is the deeper meaning and symbolism. Level 3 is how to make use of it in our lives.

Finding deeper meaning may include asking: How did Mary and Joseph look for Jesus? They looked first among friends and family.  They looked to those who they knew well, they trusted, and who shared their faith and values.  That’s why we have God parents, and faith communities – because we need to be surrounded by people of faith.  But Jesus was not there.

They returned to the Temple, which they saw as the House of God, the center of faith and truth, where they went to be devout and faithful people of God, and observe the time-honored customs of worship.  They diligently conducted an intense search for a child they loved, and who was precious to them.  They would not leave until they found him, the child Jesus was all they thought about. They looked for their son in every corner of the Temple, not just in the open courts.  They even went to the special places where the teachers, the wise ones and the scholars met, those who devoted their lives to the study and practice of their faith, and they found him there, to their astonishment.

How do we use the passage we read to find Jesus in our own lives? In the first paragraph of Luke’s Gospel, he writes that he has closely studied the life of Jesus “from the beginning…from eyewitnesses and ministers of the word…so that (we) may know the truth…”  The Bible, then, is a good place to start the search for Jesus.

The community of faith often searches for Jesus together, sharing what their experiences have taught them. But that is not enough. Our search must be diligent and intense, including regular daily prayer and study time, which may mean re-working your daily schedule. We choose to be obedient to God and grow in wisdom.  Becoming an active participant in the worship of the faith community is important. This is the pattern of faithful Christian living that brings us to fullness of life. Continuing the search persistently is absolutely necessary.  It must continue until our last day.

So these readings are not just story lines from long ago, not just poems about a God that lives in a place far away. Rather, they point us toward a way of life – the Christian Life, a life of community of belief, and a pattern of love.  They are about the way we are to live going forward from the manger where the child was born, the God who created everything we know, who came to earth to live with us and live as one of us, and live within us.

St. Martin of Tours and Us

November 11, 2018  32nd Sunday of Ordinary time

1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9: 24-28; Mark 12: 41-44

Saint Martin’s day, also known as the Feast of Saint Martin, or Martinmas, is the feast day of Saint Martin of Tours and is celebrated on November 11 each year.

Saint Martin was a Roman soldier as a young man.  The most famous legend concerning him was that he had once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the beggar from the cold. That night, Martin dreamt of Jesus, who was wearing his half-cloak and saying to the angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is now baptized; he has clothed me.” So Martin was baptized as an adult and became a monk.

The goose became a symbol of St. Martin of Tours because of a legend that he tried to avoid being ordained bishop by hiding in a goose pen, where he was betrayed by the cackling of the geese. He would have preferred to be a hermit, but became the Bishop of Tours, France.

St. Martin was known as friend of children and patron of the poor. This holiday originated in France, and then spread to the Netherlands, the British Isles, Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe. St. Martin’s feast day comes at the time when autumn wheat seeding was completed, and the annual slaughter of fattened cattle as well as geese and pigs happened. It celebrated the end of the farming year and the harvest.

St. Martin’s Day was an important medieval autumn feast.  It became the custom of the wealthy to eat goose at the feast. In the peasant community, not everyone could afford to eat goose, so many ate duck or chicken instead. (An old English saying is “His Martinmas will come as it does to every hog,” meaning “he will get what he deserves” or “everyone must die”.)

In the 6th century, Church councils required fasting on all days except Saturdays and Sundays from Saint Martin’s Day to Epiphany on January 6, a period of 56 days, but of 40 days fasting, like the fast of Lent. It was therefore called Saint Martin’s Lent. This period of fasting was later shortened and became what we call the season of “Advent”.

Saint Martin is also credited with a prominent role in spreading wine-making throughout the Touraine region of France and facilitating the planting of many vines. Martin is also credited with introducing the variety of grapes from which most of the white wine of western Touraine is made.

The feast coincides not only with the end of the Octave of All Saints, but with the time when newly produced wine is ready for drinking as well as the completion of the harvest. Because of all this, St. Martin’s Feast is much like the American Thanksgiving: a celebration of the earth’s bounty. St Martin died on Nov. 8, 397.

Sources: Wikipedia & “A Calendar of Saints”

A story about St. Martin and his namesake

November was Martin’s favorite month, because it contained his birthday, precisely on St. Martin’s Day.   Martin was finally old enough to go to the festival by himself. He put on his coat and wrapped his favorite, bright-striped scarf around his neck.  He put a few coins in his pocket so he could buy himself some hot fruit punch and a doughnut.  Then he set off to the marketplace in the center of town.

Everyone was happy and excited, and nobody noticed the beggar hunched up in a dark doorway next to the church.  Martin could see the beggar was shivering with cold.  He felt sorry for him and wanted to help him.  But how?  He could hardly copy St. Martin and cut his coat in two!

The beggar looked up in surprise. With a smile he said something in a foreign language.  Martin smiled back and thoughtfully fingered the coins in his jacket pocket.  Should he give them to the beggar or perhaps invite him for some hot fruit punch?  But this man needed winter boots, a jacket, or a warm scarf.  Then suddenly Martin knew exactly what he could do. “Come on!” he cried excitedly, waving.  “You must come with me.  Please!”

Martin led the man to a brightly lit doorway behind the church. This was the used clothing store that was run by the church and in which his grandmother sometimes worked.  Martin rushed in, put all his money on the counter, and said, “Please may I have a pair of men’s boots – or a winter coat?”  The assistant looked at Martin and laughed. “Yes, St. Martin, I’m sure we can find something.”  She got a mug of hot tea for the man and had him sit by the heater.  Then she brought him two pairs of woolen socks, fur lined boots, a shirt and a sweater, a coat, a soft hat, and gloves.

She took the beggar to a little room where he could wash and change. When he came back in his warm clothes, his cheeks were rosy, and his whole face was covered with a radiant smile.  He shook the assistant’s hand.  Then he bent down to thank Martin too.  “Wait!” said Martin. “There’s something missing…” and around the man’s neck he carefully wound his favorite, bright-striped scarf. Then Martin waved happily to the beggar and ran across the marketplace to join the other children. Inside he felt wonderfully warm and comfortable, even though he no longer had a scarf, and he hadn’t drank a drop of hot fruit punch.

Source: 24 Stories for Advent/ Brigitte Weninger, written in Germany 2015, NorthSouth Books- edited and abridged

So, here is the “punch line”. What do we do with our coins? What is Holy Trinity Parish doing for our Christmas charity?  How do we continue the work of the Saints?  Come to the Parish Council meeting next Sunday prepared to answer that question.

Love, not Legalism

27th Sunday Ordinary Time 10-7-18

Genesis 2:18-24; Ps 128:1-6 ; Hebrews 2:9-11;Mark 10:2-16

These readings are often used to preach about the ideal marriage. Marriage is a life-long job, requiring patience, gentleness, compromise, graciousness to sometimes carry more than your half of the relationship, and maturity to weather the hard times.  I have been married and divorced twice, so that is all I have to say about marriage.   But this is an interesting Gospel today, and I do have a few things to say about it, for it is NOT primarily about marriage.

It is about what we will call “Legalism”. I don’t like labels, but legalism is generally defined as depending on laws rather than… faith.  In Galatians 3:3, Paul writes, “How foolish can you be?  After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles…by…the law, or because you have heard about Christ and believe?” Another problem with legalism is that someone is always blamed.  The people of CACINA say that we “are Catholic without the guilt”.  What if we could approach issues without finding fault? “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:1

Jesus and the disciples leave Galilee for the last time on their way to Jerusalem.  Jesus has spent time on the road privately teaching his disciples, and discussing his upcoming death.  Their public ministry begins again now, and the Pharisees arrive from Jerusalem in an attempt to justify their plot to kill him.  They are “testing him;” Mark uses the same word he used in Chapter One, when Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days and enduring “testing” by Satan. He is clear that the Pharisees’ intent is evil.

The topic of divorce was a minefield for the Jews. If Jesus denied the legality of divorce, he will sin by contradicting the Law of Moses.  If he tried to make divorce a morality issue, he will be following in John the Baptist’s footsteps.  John was beheaded by Herod for that approach.  Various groups of Rabbis had positions on if only men could ask for a divorce, the acceptable grounds for divorce, and so forth & so on, endlessly.  The Pharisees thought for sure they could trap Jesus in this web of opinion; surely Jesus would offend someone.

Jesus responds to their question about divorce by asking “What did Moses command you?” Moses tolerated divorce as an existing custom for the purpose of stabilizing the community.  But God said in our first reading, that two people are to “become one flesh.” Jesus, Moses, and the Pharisees all understood that God’s command did not include divorce.  Once again, Jesus defeated the Pharisees’ ploy by using the Scriptures to prove their question was not sincere, only a political trick.  But that left the disciples riled up about the issue of divorce.  They later privately ask Jesus, and he simply states a fact: “whoever divorces their spouse and marries another, commits adultery.”

Is Jesus throwing us under the bus? About 35-40% of all Americans who have been married are divorced. If you have read the Gospels, Jesus never throws any sincere person who comes to him under the bus! Read Mark 2:17: “Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do.  I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners.” Are we not aware of the times Jesus outright forgave the sins of people? In Luke (19:10) Jesus said: “For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.” And in John 12: 47, “If anyone hears me and does not obey me, I am not his judge—for I have come to save the world and not to judge it.” We always start each Mass with, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  There is great power in those words! In Mark 3:28-30, Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, all sins and blasphemes will be forgiven … (except) blasphemes against the Holy Spirit.”

So here it is: Jesus said that divorce is wrong, and forgiveness is waiting for all who confess and repent. It doesn’t seem like a secret to me!  In fact, I think the voice that accuses any divorcee of committing a sin that denies them the sacraments, is the voice of evil.  Jesus responds to that voice in John 10:10: “(Satan) comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  Revelation 12: 10-11 says it again, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers (and sisters) has been thrown down… And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb…”

Jesus even stopped those who would stone a woman “caught” in adultery, with these words: “I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.”  Jesus makes clear that adultery is a sin, but forgiveness is freely given.

All in all, our reading is another trap for Jesus to deny God or the Scriptures, set by men who already have decided to break God’s law themselves by killing Jesus. This time the issue chosen to bait the trap is divorce.  But Jesus prevails by knowing Scripture and knowing what his mission is.

Marriage is one sign of the social nature of humans in which the “two shall become as one.” Another sign is the Eucharist, for as Paul says in Romans 12:5: “We, though many, are one body in Christ…” Fr. Gerald Darring wrote, “Marriage and Eucharist are signs of sharing lives and living (in unity).  The unity of humankind is shattered every day by the evil of injustice: racism, sexism, poverty, hunger, homelessness, war. We are constantly violating the fundamental principle: ‘Let no man separate what God has joined’.  God has joined us in a society of brothers and sisters because it is not good for us to be alone: let no one separate that society through injustice.”

Law will never unify us, but love will.  I said last week, that Jesus was always making the circle larger, always including people that were different, who had experiences unlike the others.  He did not make laws and rules to bring those people together, but taught them to love God and love their neighbors like themselves.  “Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.” (1Cor 13:13)

Culture and Changes

19th Sunday Ordinary time, August 12, 2018

Texts:  Kings 19:4-8; Ps 34:2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

We continue to read from the Gospel of John, chapter 6.  Two weeks ago, we read the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 or more people with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.  Everyone ate as much as they wanted, and still there were leftovers.   We also learned that John’s Gospel was primarily written for people who had already accepted Christianity, and John’s goal is to deepen their faith and their understanding of Jesus.

Last week we found Jesus trying to enlarge the crowd’s understanding of “bread” and “work”; he told them to not work for food which perishes, but for food that leads them to eternal life. They ask Jesus for manna, the heavenly bread that God gave the Israelites after they escaped Egypt.  Jesus responded that God gives the true bread from heaven, and they ask for that bread.  Jesus then says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He talks of becoming close to God, of gaining wisdom and understanding.

We pick up there today, and we begin to notice some changes in the way the story is told. First, we start off with “The Jews” murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  In our first two readings, the crowd is referred to as “the people” or just “they”.  Suddenly they are referred to as “the Jews”.  That label, in John’s Gospel, indicates unbelievers, especially those hostile to Jesus in Jerusalem. The crowd came looking for free food, and they are disappointed that no magic bread has appeared.  They are critical because Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” Oddly enough, John did not record Jesus saying that exact statement in the previous verses.

There are two pieces of Mediterranean culture you need to know to understand this scene. First, “Honor” was very important, and honor required that a person stay in their family’s social status, maintain it, and never consider “getting ahead.” Unlike our culture, any attempt then to raise your social status or behave differently from your birth status was shameful because it was seen as divisive and disruptive to the community. Second, the way that people were pressured to follow the rules of society was to be sharply criticized and shamed. So the crowd immediately and bluntly reminds Jesus of who his parents are (not from heaven) and what their social status is, in attempt to belittle him and “keep him in his place”. Jesus tells them to stop complaining.

John used the exact same word for their “murmurs” (or complaints) as is used for the complaints of the Israelites in Exodus (the people who received the manna from God). Those people were portrayed as shallow people who had just been divinely rescued from hard labor and slavery and were not only ungrateful but outrageously rude to and demanding of God. The crowd who, a few verses ago, had difficulty grasping the symbolism of bread now sounds like Rabbis arguing about scripture. Now they use the formal “How can he say” format that was traditional when debating a meaning of the scriptures.

The crowd is behaving just as the label “The Jews” would indicate, with hostility. So Jesus offers the crowd an alternative to hostility. He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father…draws him…” Draw means to “bring near”. In this case, it means to bring someone near to Scripture, and open to them the knowledge of God. For John, when we listen and learn from God, we become close with/ near to Jesus. Jesus quotes a verse from Isaiah 54:13, that in the New Jerusalem, in the last days, “(the people) shall be taught (directly) by God”, a very personal relationship indeed.

It seems that someone different wrote this part of our reading, maybe a later editor added something or changed it. Biblical studies can be complicated by such events. We don’t have the originals of any of the Gospels, only copies that have been made by scribes whose tedious jobs were to copy them by hand, and the copies do not always agree. We do not know for sure who the original writers were, and who may have changed or added information, and Bible experts do not always agree even to what the author meant.

This is a good place to look at our other readings. In 1st Kings, we see the angel of God bring bread to Elijah, who was in deep despair and exhausted. It was a way to heal and restore Elijah to health and wholeness; it shows great care and gentleness. Likewise, the 2nd reading urges us to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. Bitterness, anger, shouting, abusive language, and intent to harm or injure others has no place in our lives and grieves the Holy Spirit. We are to imitate God, living in love as Christ loved us. The Psalm urges us to “taste and see” how good God is. All 3 readings speak of God’s love and goodness.

So today we had new and different language (“The Jews” instead of ‘the crowd);  we have the mood of the crowd change, as they belittle Jesus. Last week, I said, “The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves opened the door for people to have an insight into who Jesus was and how he will “feed” our souls for eternity. Now, we have a new image for the bread, a more traditional Eucharistic image of the bread as the body of Christ. Now Jesus says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, they will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” This is the introduction of another way of viewing bread, one that speaks strongly of the Eucharist rather than just manna/bread and learning wisdom and coming to understand God. And that is where we will pick up next week!  Join me then!

Fullness of Life

13th Sunday Ordinary Time, 7-1-18

Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24; Psalm: 30:2-6, 11-13; 2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-15; Mark 5:21-43

Often I look for a theme word or idea that ties the readings together. It seemed relatively easy to find that unifying word today – the word is “life”.  Our first reading from the Book of Wisdom, written only about 100 years before Christ, would seem to use the idea of “life” very literally.  Our writer says, “God formed man to be imperishable…we were made in the image of God’s own nature”.   Now that sounds familiar, from Genesis 1: 26, that we are made in God’s image, after God’s likeness.  But it clearly doesn’t mean that we have share God’s nose or eye color.  The writer of Wisdom takes it to mean that we, like God, were meant to be eternal beings, not just to be a dot on the landscape for a moment in time.  Jesus told us the same thing in Luke 12:27 when he said, “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”  If God creates flowers of great beauty for only a day or two, how much more does God, who loves us so very deeply, create us to be eternal!  There are voices in our culture that tell us life is just hard and we have to plod along until it’s over, that life is cheap, and certain people are expendable, that lives of some are without value.  The author of Wisdom makes clear that those voices are absolutely wrong and come from darkness and evil.  Life is a precious gift of God.

Psalm 30 was written as a song of joy and thanksgiving to God for an escape from enemies. It was later used to celebrate the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BC after the Maccabean Revolt for Jewish independence.  Think of it as an ancient 4th of July-type song.  It is a celebration of life; first there was weeping when life and liberty were lost, and then came dancing for the joy of freedom.

But then we have the Gospel, where the concept of life becomes much broader. We find the stories of a dying girl and a desperate woman wrapped around each other.  We’ve seen these “sandwich stories”, or “stories within stories” in Mark before.  They are meant to work together to explain each other and to act as “surround sound”, with the message coming at us from multiple directions.  Jesus obviously knows a great deal about love.  He knows that love is powerful – so powerful it is stronger than death.  For Jesus himself is life – both life and light to us.  In Him there is no darkness. For God created light to end the darkness.

So what do the woman and the girl have in common? The woman has been dying a slow death.  She has died a social death – she has been shut out of the temple and separated from her community and social supports because the religious authorities declared her “unclean”. To this day, some Christian churches have continued to declare all women as unable to be priests – perhaps unwittingly following an ancient misunderstanding about women’s bodies.  Still, around the world women are blocked from leadership positions.

The woman in the story has also been financially dying as her money has all been spent on medical treatments that have not worked, and her hope has been dying as her health has deteriorated. Jesus, frankly, is a last-chance option, and it is not entirely clear, given her “fear” after she touches his clothes, if she understands who Jesus is.  But Jesus is very clear about who he is.  It is her faith, not magic or chance, he tells her, which saved her.  She is to live in God’s peace now; it is not that she just kept looking until she found the “right cure”, but that God has cured her.

The girl is dying a sudden death. She had not been ill long.  Her death was probably caused by a bacterial infection, or a virus, and nearly half of all children at that time died before they were 18.  There simply was little that could be done, and little or no time to try to help her.   To both the woman and the girl, Jesus gives a second chance at life – a full life, with hope and love and peace.

But why does Mark keep these stories alive for us, so long afterwards, and what do they have to do with us? Surely this is not about preventing every death or about every sick child being resurrected.  We know better.  Christians who do not understand Mark’s story have cruelly broken many people’s hearts and created great anguish and anger by insisting that prayers will save every life or cure every disease.  Meanwhile, every human still dies.

There are many people whom we love or work with or pass on the sidewalks, who have parts of their souls and their psyches dying. An estimated 23.5 million Americans are addicted to alcohol and drugs, about 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 12.  89% of them do not receive treatment – and the high cost and lack of availability of treatment are the primary reasons.  Add to those numbers the number of Americans who are born with disabilities, those seriously injured in automobile crashes and those who are suffering with chronic health issues and you begin to understand the real America.  And consider the numbers of people in 3rd world countries who have no access to heath care, those trapped in the middle of wars and those who are unwilling immigrants from other kinds of violence, and you have the beginnings of a realistic picture of the life of the majority of the people in our world.  Some of us live, for the most part, my friends, in a bubble.

We must remember the great efforts expended by both the woman and the girl’s father to seek healing. They did not sit at home and say, “Ain’t it awful!”   They acted in a brave and heroic way, in front of a huge crowd, and were willing to face shame and ridicule for their efforts. Why did their communities make it so hard?  Perhaps Mark would like us to consider that.

Perhaps healing comes best when there is grace – the love of God -freely demonstrated by believers, and community – when there is support and openness and inclusiveness.  Healing is a type of thing where if “you aren’t with us, you’re against us.”  People who need medical care need to access it at affordable rates, provided by well-trained professionals and volunteers who will offer transportation, moral support, gentleness and kindness.  People seldom heal themselves without good information, quality food, and encouragement.  Power to give life comes from grace and community, for the strength of community is greater than the strength of individuals.  The hems of our garments are the clothes that people are reaching for.

These stories in Mark are not just stories made up to enhance the image of Jesus. They are not just historical stories to take up space on a shelf.   They are stories about what God continues even now to do through faith – faith that Jesus did rise from the dead, and that death and hatred and prejudice and violence are no longer necessary in our world – and our actions and our behavior do make a difference.  When Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you” or “Do not be afraid, just have faith,” he is looking at us who call ourselves Christians.

When we feel those small parts of ourselves die when we are repeatedly disappointed by those we care about, or the sexual harassment we experience at work, or the inability to control our finances, or the covert prejudice we face, do we hesitate to take them to Jesus for healing, and to our community for support? Do we “put on a brave face” and bury our feelings so that our family and friends don’t know about our suffering?  How do we react when someone else tells us of their struggles?

Finally, the Greek word for healing (sozo) in Mark’s Gospel is the very same word which he also uses for what we call salvation. Salvation is forgiveness of our sins, a type of healing, which opens the way to God for us. There is a real and clear link between physical healing and spiritual healing.  It’s not science vs religion, but just two parts of the unity of life.  In other words, healing and a full life are offered to all in many difference ways.  Each of us can describe in our own unique way what “fullness of life” means to us.

This week, spend some time in prayer; tell Jesus the healing you need, from things you have done, or things you have failed to do, or things which have been done to you.  Make a plan to change one thing in your life, with God’s help, which will make your life – or the lives of those around you – fuller, richer, more meaningful.  Find another believer to walk this journey with you. Let this change grow in you, nurture it as it becomes more mature and natural to you, and find the joy which comes from reaching out to touch Jesus and find life.