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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Love Triumphs Over Loss

5th Sunday of Lent 4-7-19

Readings: Isaiah 43: 16-21, Psalm 126:1-6, Philippians 3: 8-14, John 8:1-11

There are two pivotal stories of the Jewish people. The first is the Exodus from Egypt, the people being led from slavery to the Promised Land.  They are literally led by God and fed by God on the journey. But most importantly, they must go thru some big changes; God must de-program them from slave mentality, they must leave their fear of Egypt behind, with all the physical and emotion abuse they had suffered.

Their sons had been slaughtered by the Egyptians, their daughters made concubines of the pharaohs, they were used to eating what the Egyptians gave them to eat, and worshiping the idols they were told to worship. They were accustomed to doing what they were told and to cower before their masters. The journey took 40 years not because of the distance, but because of the enormity of the task of freeing them from looking back at their old life, and preparing them for a new life ahead.

The second pivotal story of the Jewish people is the captivity in Babylon for 40 years, and their ultimate release to return to their homeland.  The brutality of the war with Babylon, the total destruction of their temple, their homes, their cities, and their culture – all this left them deeply wounded psychologically.  Again, they must begin all over, and rebuild their buildings, their infrastructure, their very way of life, and their worship of their God that they hardly remembered.

God took the initiative here.  So God tells them, “don’t look back.”  Don’t waste your time rehashing your troubles and clinging to what had seemingly become “the new normal” of captivity.  He calls them to wake up, he says look and see what I’m doing, something new, it springs forth, can’t you see?!  Even the animals can see it, but I do it for the people I formed, “That they might announce my praise.”

This story continues in our psalm, with the people’s response. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.  We need help as large as and powerful as of a mass of rushing water, like a torrent in the time of flood. We are weeping at the destruction of our land and of our hopes, but we will rebuild, and we will rejoice in what we accomplish with your help.”

We know the pivotal story of the Christian people. Paul writes of his losses in the decision to follow Christ. He lost everything he had.  He lost his place and status as a learned Pharisee.  He lost his home, and became a traveler.  He certainly lost friends, he was physically attacked, he lost his wealth, and had to work as a common tent maker to buy food.  Yet he always looks forward to what God is doing. Paul had discovered himself on the receiving end of a divine love that enabled him to live by the law of love.  He says all the things he lost were “so much rubbish” in the light of his faith, in knowing Christ, and the “power of his resurrection.”   Paul says that he lets go of and forgets what lies behind, but strains forward to what lies ahead, and continues pursuit of the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling to eternal life.

The strength of the faith of the Jews as they rebuilt their lives, the strength of Paul as he pursued God, sound to me like that sound rushing water makes in flood time. There is a power behind them, they see the new things that God is doing, a force which stronger than any opposition and better than anything they had lost.

Then we have Jesus and the woman. The woman was as battered and beaten down as the Jews had been in Egypt.  Most likely she was a woman who had been widowed and had no family to support her.  Prostitution was then and is now the last resort for women who are not loved, who have lost hope, and have lost any sense of value of themselves.  Since this situation is clearly a set up by the Pharisees, there is no doubt in my mind that this poor woman was just hoping to have enough payment for her services to buy one meal that day.  Clearly, she was just being used and shamed one more time by people who regarded themselves as superiors.

I remember when my last church was a brand new church, searching for worship space. They were renting a single basement room, it used to be a Sunday school room in a church that was dying, financially on it’s last legs, had spent all its reserves, was in an area where gun shots were heard and the copper gutters had been stolen off the church building. A beautiful old church nearby had been purchased by another independent Catholic group, and some discussions had started about moving there.

It was mentioned that a group of local prostitutes would sit on the church steps in the early evening, getting ready to go “to work.”  Everyone at the meeting acted like they had not heard that piece of information, like it had nothing to do with them.  Afterwards, I approached the speaker, and commented that there was a great opportunity to help those women.  The speaker, sighed, and said quietly, “You’re the only who mentioned that.” Now and then, such women are still considered expendable.

But God was initiating something new that day for the woman in front of Jesus. The Pharisees had no authority to inflict capital punishment on this woman.   That authority belonged to Rome.  She was being used like a trap against Jesus, but she might become the laughing stock of Jerusalem by nightfall and, as a result, die of starvation anyway.  He saved her with a single sentence, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

With those words, he reminds the Pharisees that they, like the woman, had no power in this situation, and thereby shames them with their own sins – the lies they have told and their pretense of authority they did not have, authority they had prostituted to Rome in a desperate attempt to salvage their social status.  Once again, as you read the story, you hear that torrent of water, water of truth, life-giving water, and power…the power to rebuild, to change, for her to become whole again and shine with God’s light.

I hope you don’t drive down the road looking in the rearview mirror, but rather “staining to see what lies ahead.   During Lent weep over the past, but in the celebration of Easter we return rejoicing.  Both long ago and today, Jesus forgives the sinner without denying the sin. Listen, Believe, See something new, And Rejoice.

Shedding a Little Light on Candlemas

Candlemas is a Christian Feast day celebrated annually on February 2, which is traditionally the 40th day (and end) of the Christmas-Epiphany season. Candlemas is one of the oldest Christian Feasts, and has been celebrated since the 4th century, beginning in Jerusalem.

It celebrates three occasions according to Christian belief. In Luke 2: 22-40, we read that Mary and Joseph took the Infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth.

(1) A woman was to be presented for purification by sacrifice 33 days after a boy’s circumcision in accordance with Leviticus 12: 2-8.

(2) The parents also had to perform the redemption of the firstborn son, in obedience to Numbers 18: 16. (Baptism was an adult cleansing from sin, not for infants.)

(3) Finally, it was Jesus’ first entry into the temple and a presentation to the world of the Christ Child. Two witnesses appear, Simeon and Anna, to prophesy and give thanks and blessings (Luke routinely balances women and men in his Gospel).

Christians speak of Jesus as a guiding light, or “the light of the world.” This title was more easily understood before electric lights, when darkness was a real factor in daily life; the end of daylight brought isolation and danger. The theme of light and goodness is a thread which goes through the Bible, beginning with creation in Genesis. The scripture readings of the day support this. Jesus, the King of Glory (Psalm 24: 7-10), yet like us in all things (Hebrews 2: 14-18), comes to his temple Malachi 3:1-4), to be a light for all the nations (Like 2:22-40).

Candlemas Day is sometimes called the Christian festival of lights. This coincides with an ancient festival on the midpoint of winter, halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox. It was the beginning of the preparation for planting crops. We call it Candlemas, since all the Church’s candles for the year were blessed that day.

We find the traditional ideas of Candlemas still celebrated in our “Groundhog Day” events (yes, I did watch Bill Murray in the film last night, a modern-day tale of conversion and redemption). Most European countries have their own similar traditions, such as the German tradition of the badger. The British have a weather poem:                   “If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter will have another another fight.   If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,winter won’t come again.”

(I was glad to see the snow and clouds this morning.)

Candlemas is then followed by a memorial of St. Blaise on Feb 3, in which candles play a role in the blessing of throats. Not only do we honor the devout Christian martyr and skilled healer and physician St. Blaise, but we also pray that the words that come out of our mouths are full of God’s grace and mercy.

First…and Last

28th Sunday Ordinary Time, year B, 10-14-2018

Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30

Our 1st and 2nd readings today prepare us for the Gospel.  I would paraphrase our first reading like this: “ I would rather have (Wisdom) than to be King;  having riches is nothing in comparison with being wise. Wisdom is far greater than pearls or diamonds; and gold, next to Wisdom, is just a little sand.  Beyond even health and beauty, I love Wisdom. I chose to have wisdom rather than the light of the sun. ”

How many times have you heard people say that your health is more valuable than anything else? How many times have you talked with someone who blocked off their beauty appointments before anything else on their calendar?  How many people do you know that valued their job so highly that their spouse divorced them and their children despised them? We all have met people who have wanted wealth so badly they gave up their integrity and cheated their boss or their customers.  I could name names of people I have seen make those decisions, and listened to people who later realized how they had hurt themselves and those they loved by their choices.

In the readings from Hebrews, we find, “The Word of God is living and effective, sharper than any 2-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit…able to discern…thoughts of the heart.” It reminds me of the movie, “The Bodyguard” with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. Houston treats Costner’s sword carelessly, like a stage prop, but when he gently tosses her silk scarf into the air, to her amazement, the blade of the sword silently slices it cleanly in half as it floats down.  Only then does she recognize the sharpness of the blade.

In our Gospel, we find the Word of God, in the form of Jesus, penetrating the mind and motives of a man. This man brings so much to like and admire to the scene.   He is full of ambition, intelligent, obedient to the Law of Moses, honest and accomplished, and seeking eternal life.  He runs up, not afraid, or embarrassed, and kneels in respect to Jesus.  He is enthusiastic, he willingly comes to be taught, and he recognizes the authority of Jesus.

We would quickly label him as a man to watch. He has already amassed wealth, he takes action when he wants something, speaks confidently, and has the attitude of one whose name will be known to many. And he seeks out opportunity.  But he does not know how to “inherit eternal life.”  It seems he has found something he desires that he cannot obtain.

However, when he addresses Jesus, he reveals a lack of understanding – he calls Jesus a “Good Teacher”. The term means he admires the skill of Jesus as a teacher/rabbi.  He believes that “goodness” is something that we do, that our own effort creates.  He does not know yet that “goodness” comes from God, as a gift. He also asks, “What must I DO that I may” (get) eternal life”.  While he is willing to work hard, to pay, to earn eternal life, he does not understand that it, too, is a gift, a gift from the Cross, which it is not his to “earn”.

He longs for something that he does not find in the market place or buy from merchants; he knows there is something spiritual about it, for he has come to a traveling teacher who speaks of God in a way that no one else can.  He also senses that what he needs to be fulfilled will not rust or tarnish or die; it must be lasting, “eternal”.

I am on the Standing Committee for CACINA, which interviews people who wish to begin the process of preparing to be ordained as a Deacon or Priest. I can imagine how Jesus might have felt about this man.  Who wouldn’t want this man on your team of clergy?  This the type of person that could be someone you would want to build congregations with; a person who would draw parishioners from miles around, who could deliver the Good News so very well, who would work relentlessly for the Kingdom.  Mark says that Jesus loved him.  This encounter is so very personal, so unusual, so unlike the bitter debates with the Pharisees.

“One thing you lack,” Jesus says, and answers the man’s question, telling him how to have treasure in heaven, how to be fulfilled, how to find that which he is looking for.  Sell your stuff, he says, let go of the stuff, give the money away, release yourself from the hopeless burden of accumulating things that will not last and distract you from the gifts God gives. Then you will be ready to face your death, ready to give of yourself without counting the cost…and follow me.   There was no more conversation.  The man leaves, sad.  He had a lot of stuff, and he was willing to be in bondage to that stuff, he was willing to be a slave to it.  And Jesus said with compassion, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”

Here is where we need an historical note. The common Jewish theology of the day was that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing on a person.  Think about fasting – if you cannot afford food, you cannot fast.  Only the wealthy could fast.  The poor starved.  Think about giving alms – you must have wealth to give to the poor.  Wealth created the ability to be spiritual.  Wealth gave the opportunity to pay for the ritual cleansings,  and buy the animals to be sacrificed for your sins.  Wealth opened the way to heaven, or so they thought.

Now Jesus turns it all around. “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”  He continues with a metaphor from his time (and has been found in other literature from the period), “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Teachers then especially loved using enormous exaggeration for the purpose of teaching, and a camel was likely the largest animal people there would have encountered.  It is the contrast between the huge camel and the tiny eye that Jesus is going for. Some imaginative speakers tried to make this expression into a tiny doorway of sorts several years ago.  Forget all that, and focus on what Jesus is trying to tell us: that only with God’s gifts of love and faith and forgiveness do we enter heaven.  Nothing else works, regardless of how grand and glorious our works and our possessions might be.

Peter thinks, Hey! The apostles had given everything they had to be with Jesus! Jesus responds with an assurance of immense blessings – hundredfold! – and then sums it all up in one phrase: “Many who are first will be last, and the last, first.”  Let us be last to depend on wealth to open heaven, and the last to rely on self-created goodness. Let us be the first to praise God’s love and forgiveness, and the first to be thankful for all those who have carried their cross so that we might have faith.

 

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)

Astonishment

23rd Sunday Ordinary time, September 9, 2018

Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm  146; James 2: 1-5; Mark 7: 24-31

When kids go back to school, they tell their friends and classmates about their summer vacation. When adults return to work after a summer vacation, they tell their co-workers about where they went and what they did.  It may sound a little odd at first, but our Gospel reading today tells about Jesus’ “summer vacation”.

Jesus started his ministry by teaching the people at the local synagogue, and he healed a sick man there. The people were amazed!  Soon everyone was talking about Jesus, and all the people in the city gathered around the house where he was staying.  So many people came to see him and hear him that he had to go out in the countryside to have enough room.

All this was good. But some of the religious leaders from Jerusalem became jealous because Jesus had become famous.  They wanted to be in charge, they wanted to be in power.  So they started charging Jesus and his followers with sins – they didn’t want Jesus to heal the sick on the Sabbath, they even said that Jesus was evil, a terrible lie.  But Jesus kept on teaching and healing and even raised a little girl who had died back to life.  He was so busy that he and the apostles had no time even to eat!  People followed him, and when he walked from one village to another, a new crowd was waiting for him. People recognized him, where ever he went   He was working non-Stop!

Then Pharisees came to criticize him again for not washing his hands according to tradition. Jesus told them that what we eat or some dirt on our hands isn’t evil, but the evil we do comes from within us.  It comes from what we think about and our failure to love God with all our hearts. The Pharisees were really angry with him, wanting to end his teaching & healing permanently.

Now, we’re all glad to go on vacation because we work hard, we’re busy, we need time for rest, to get away and do new things. If you think your life is hard, and that no one understands, you need to talk with Jesus.  Sit down and tell Jesus that you work too hard, the demands are too great, and people around you are cruel.  He’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

So Jesus told his apostles, “Come away to a lonely place, and rest a while.”  Jesus and the apostles got away from the crowds and the threats of the Pharisees.  They got out of town, out of the country of Israel, away from Galilee, to the region of Tyre and Sidon (sy’don).  It was very different there – the culture was different.  And would you believe it?  Immediately, a woman with a sick child had heard of Jesus, and came and fell down on the dirt in front of Jesus and begged him to heal her child, and she kept asking him, over and over.

So, here’s what you need to know to understand what he said to her: She was Greek, meaning she is not Jewish, as Jesus was.  The Jews referred to themselves as “The Children of God”.  Jesus is not calling her or her child a dog.  He is saying that any Father (God) would feed his children before he would give that food to dogs, even cute little puppies.  Remember the interaction he’d just had with the Pharisees.  They were religious; they spent their days studying the Scriptures.  Yet they had not only tried to block his teaching, they had refused to listen, and they were even plotting against him, calling him “evil”.  But she answers with deep humility; all she wants is a little crumb of healing for her girl.  She does not want riches or power or social status or fame, but only enough for her daughter to be well.  What a contrast between this mother, who has thrown herself at Jesus’ feet, desperately begging for a crumb, and the Pharisees who threaten Jesus in their jealousy of his God-given power by which he helps people.  Jesus praises her, and assures her the child had been cured.

The rest of Jesus’ summer vacation must have been the quiet and restful time he and the apostles had been wanting, for we hear no more of Jesus until he has returned to Galilee.  It’s a walk that could have taken months.  And now, like you, he is back to work. He is surrounded by crowds again. A man is brought to him who was deaf and whose speech couldn’t be understood.   We have that word, “Ephphatha” (ef-fa-tha’), an Aramaic command to open, which gives the scene real authenticity.  And immediately, says the Gospel, he could hear and speak plainly.  Jesus says to tell no one; the crowd is already so large.  Perhaps Jesus even thinks back to those quiet times he had on vacation. But the word spreads quickly.  “And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, He has done all things well; he makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak,” they say, coincidentally matching the description of the Messiah in Isaiah 35.

When was the last time you were astonished beyond measure? When was the last time you heard something that left you breathless and so delighted that you were at a loss for words?  Do you even remember?  But there are those days when a heartfelt prayer is answered, when you laugh and cry at the same time; and those moments always seem to come from The One who does all things well.

Perhaps this day of Homecoming should not only be a day of returning to Church, and all the opportunities for worship and service, but also a day to return to astonishment, the type of astonishment that comes from a deep and certain confirmation that Goodness is alive and well and available to us in this world.

Perhaps it is time to get away from the anger and hatred of the Pharisees, and go to love and desire to help others, like the Mother. It is time to seek healing from God, like the deaf man.  Change always takes courage, but the littlest crumbs from God’s table are enough to cure the soul. It is always the season for a change of heart.  The time to open our ears to hear God and speak out clearly about God’s love is always right now.

Choices and Decisions

21st Sunday Ordinary time 8-26-18;

Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ps 34:2-3, 16-21 Ephesians 5:2a, 25-32; John 6:60-69

We need to take the readings in order today because they work nicely together to make a particular point about choices that we face.  For a Bible scholar, Joshua 24 is highly important in the history of Israelite traditions. It preserves remnants of an ancient liturgy for the renewal of the covenant.  Joshua led the tribes of Israel into the Promised Land after the death of Moses.  He wanted to have the people united by worshiping a single God.  Joshua calls all the people and leaders together, and he puts before them the question of who that God will be.  Will it be one of the idol-Gods that the neighboring tribes worship?  Joshua makes clear that he and his family will worship the Lord.  And the people also vow to worship the Lord, for the Lord was the one who freed them from slavery.  They have seen the great miracles the Lord did to protect them and feed them. The Lord was their God and they were the Lord’s people.

The reading from Ephesians is also about a choice. Because of cultural misunderstandings, and a very questionable translation of very complex Greek grammar, this passage has been inappropriately used to twist the love of Christ for the Church into an invalid excuse to claim that St. Paul is demanding that wives be “subordinate” to their husbands.  As the passage was read today is closer to the real meaning.  It starts by saying that Christ chose to come to earth because he was deeply in love with us, a love which far exceeds anything else we experience in this life.  You know, of course, that the word “Church” as used here is not a religious institution created by humans.  Rather, it means all of the people who believe in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and who strive to follow Christ’s life of love.  Through Christ’s gift of love, we are presented to God in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish.  We are to model that relationship in our love of each other, particularly our spouse, but we are to commit to love within a marriage with that level of depth and intensity.  Paul is not talking about convenience or hormones, but choice.  Once again, the covenant agreement that the Israelites made with the Lord is the same image as marriage vows between spouses.

Now we are ready to look at a choice to be made between Jesus and the people he is teaching. A reminder – anyone could or can be a disciple of Jesus.  The disciples of Jesus were and are a very large group of people who want to live the life he teaches.  The Twelve Apostles are a small group who were selected by Jesus to be with him through his entire ministry on earth.

It’s best to go thru this Gospel reading closely to see what is happening. When we left off last week, Jesus had just said, “The one who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him…” Not surprisingly, many of the disciples respond, “This saying is harsh; this sort of talk is hard to take.”   The sense of the Greek is that what Jesus said was somewhere between fantasy and offensive. They hear him say it, but they cannot accept it.   Jesus says, “Does it shock you/ scandalize you, or does it shake your faith?”

Have you ever found yourself in that position, where something shook your faith? I knew an Independent Catholic priest whose young adult son died of cancer. His father was so shocked that he walked out of his church and never returned. He felt certain that prayers would save his son, that he would be healed. He was so overcome by his loss that he walked away from his faith. The idea of disciples walking away from Jesus because of something harsh or scandalizing is not just an event in the Bible; it is something that happens now, too.

So then Jesus proposes a question. “What if you were to see him ascending to heaven?” Of course, John’s Gospel was written after the ascension of Jesus, so this question makes perfect sense to the readers. Back in verse 42, the crowd had already protested when Jesus had said he had come from heaven (“don’t we know his father and his mother?”) But this crowd couldn’t imagine such a thing.   He continues, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless.” Flesh is like flowers that wither and fade, worth no more than to be thrown in the fire.

You are probably thinking, but – Jesus had just said in verse 52 that …”my flesh is true food…the one who feeds on my flesh …remains in me and I in him.” Perhaps you also noticed in the first two readings in our series from John, Jesus talked the “crowd”. For the last two weeks, Jesus has been talking to “the Jews” and now Jesus is talking to his “disciples.” We simply do not know how or when or why or who made these changes. Some people find the seeming inconsistencies in Scripture difficult, or scandalizing. One theory is that later editors of the Scriptures have made changes or added teachings to make the reading reflect the changes that happened as the understanding of theologians became clearer and more unified among the churches. As archeology and scholarship advances, we come to different conclusions about the early church. Our knowledge of the way words were used and our understanding of the culture of Jesus’ day have grown. We have the guidelines of the Bible and Tradition to help us get through these changes with our faith intact and even enriched. And the Holy Spirit is there to translate the words of Jesus to us in a true and helpful way. We have been given the Spirit that we might have a fuller life, more abundant truth, and the Spirit’s intercession with God. As Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you are both Spirit and life…”

At the time John wrote this Gospel, there were heresies that taught that Jesus was not divine, but only a prophet or wise man. That is why Jesus is described here as all-knowing, having divine knowledge of who will believe in Jesus’ teachings, as illustrated by the comment that “Jesus knew from the beginning who would not believe in him.” In no way does this suggest that people lack the full capacity of free choice and or that they cannot change.

Again, a note about culture: in the Mediterranean world, allegiance between each apostle of a group and its leader was strong. The leader recruited each apostle personally and individually. So Peter answers Jesus’ question about the apostles leaving. Peter’s response translated into Mediterranean cultural values is: we have made a commitment to you, no matter what (“we have believed”). I think John is hoping that we will recognize Peter as the leader of the apostles after Jesus’ ascension, and that we will be strengthened in difficult times by his response. Peter gives 3 reasons not to leave the faith in the face of crisis. One, there is no alternative to the One true God. Two, Jesus has given us the words of eternal life. His teaching not only has wisdom, but Jesus has opened the way to eternity. Lastly, Peter has been convinced by what he has seen and heard; that Jesus is the long-awaited “Holy One”.

Even, or maybe especially, when life is hard, the way seems dark, and we struggle, we must continue in the faith, stay in the Word of God, and cling to the Holy Spirit. That is the decision Peter made, along with the other apostles, and the choice that John is urging us to make, too.