The Greatest Travelogue Ever!!

1st Sunday of Advent

Dec. 4, 2018, Beginning of liturical year C

This year I thought we would take a little different approach to Advent. From the 1st Sunday of Advent, today, thru the Christmas season, we will highlight each week specific characters or events in the Christmas story.  The goals are to make parts of the story come to life a little more, to better see the intent of the Gospel writers, and discover deeper meaning.

This week we start with the trip that Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  We start with a reminder that the Roman Empire occupied the Holy Lands at that time.  A call for a census could not be ignored.  This story begins in a time and place of bondage, of fear, and oppression.  It was a time that religion demanded that people make blood offerings to appease God.

Let us follow the journey of Mary and Joseph to see what it tells us. We start in the hill country of Nazareth, about ¾ the way up a map of Biblical Palestine.  They have two choices to get to Bethlehem.  The is to travel east and cross the Jordan River, then follow the heavily traveled caravan road south, cross back at Jericho, and climb the steep grade to Jerusalem, and go south to Bethlehem.  This was the longer of the 2 routes, and the busiest.  The 2nd route is an ancient road called the “Way of the Patriarchs”.  It is less traveled, shorter (20+miles), but you must pass through Samaria. It is about 95 miles, ten days on foot; for us, a drive of 2 ¼ hours.

You remember the prejudice against the Samaritans. They were considered “unclean” and even “dangerous”.  But you also remember the parable of the “Good Samaritan” and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, in Sychar.  It is interesting to consider that Jesus used a Samaritan to teach the command to love our neighbors; he may have first learned that love from Mary and Joseph.

But much of what is called the “West Bank” today was Samaria in the day of Jesus; the Palestinians there now are the “Samaritans” of our day.  Many tours have stopped going there because of the “danger.” We don’t know for fact that Mary and Joseph took this 2nd road, but Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor and author of “The Journey”, and noted archaeologist Avner Goren agree that this road makes sense.

As Mary and Joseph traveled south out of Nazareth, they traveled around beautiful Mount Tabor, mentioned in the Psalms, an ancient site of worship, and said to be the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Then they moved into the plain of the Jezreel Valley, which is now the most fertile farmland in Israel.  There were hundreds of olives trees there then, and trees still remain that are believed to be from that time.  Our anointing rites are based in the use of sacred oils, olive oils.

The Jezreel Valley was the site many ancient battles, including the battle between King Saul and the Philistines (think David and Goliath) , where evil Queen Jezebel killed a man to get his vineyards, Gideon defeated the Midianites, and prophesized to be the site of the final battle in the end times (Armageddon/ in Megiddo).

So Mary and Joseph have begun a trip of Biblical history covering a period of some 16 centuries. Abraham came from the north, from Haran, thru Shechem, Beth El, and down to Hebron.  The tombs of Abraham and Sarah are in Beer-sheva.  Jacob, their grandson, was given land in Samaria, and Jacob’s well is the Well in Sychar, where the “Woman” met Jesus. No doubt Mary and Joseph made camp near that well.   Jacob’s son Joseph was buried near Shechem also.  As they moved south, they went through Shiloh, where Joshua set up the tent of the Ark of the Covenant after entering the Promised Land.  This is where Samuel, Elijah and Elisha were prophets.

The Assyrian and Babylonian armies entered Israel on this road – and left on it taking the people as exiles and all the gold and silver from the Temple.  It is also how the exiles re-entered their homeland some 40 years later, to rebuild their nation.  It is amazing to think that God walked with those exiles as they returned, and now, almost 550 years later, Mary carries a child who is called the Prince of Peace over this same route.  It feels like a point of closure to thousands of years of history.

Luke begins his Gospel this way: “Inasmuch as many have… set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us… it seemed good to me also, having had a perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account,… that you might know the certainty of those things…” (Luke 1:1;3-4)  

There certainly are those who dismiss Luke’s account of Mary and Joseph’s journey as a fictional story. But we have historical sources concerning the Governor Quirinius, like the Roman historian, Tacitus (Annals 3.48) and the Jewish/Roman historian, Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 18.1-2). New Testament historian Jack Finegan says, “Many actual census returns have been found, and they use the very same word (ἀπογράφω) which Luke 2:2 uses for the “enrollment.” (From web site: Cross examined. Org.) So, on the factual level, it is entirely possible it did happen.

But all of the Gospels should be read on three levels – the simple reading of the event itself, the meaning intended by the author, and the application to our lives. The simple meaning (the storyline): In extraordinary love, how God came to earth as a fragile and vulnerable baby, in humility, meager circumstances, and with all the normal inconveniences of life.

What about the intent of Luke’s story?  Luke is certainly placing Jesus in the spotlight of salvation history. Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised One, and his entry into the world is straight down the main aisle of the Cathedral of what is the “Holy Land”, as if he is on the last, most awaited and most important float in the parade of all parades. All the main characters of the ancient faith line the side of the road, waiting for hundreds of years just to have a glimpse of him, to be able to say, “I was there that day.” Luke has taken the story from the very beginning, so that you might know, even before you read about the teaching, the miracles, the rising from the dead, that Jesus was the Son of God.

And there is where we come in. Have you ever sat down and read Luke? I mean all of it, the 24 chapters.   It would take you 3 weeks if you read a little each day. It is one of the most documented, literary, and polished Gospels. You have just about (coincidentally) that much time before Christmas. Stop! Picture the scenes! Think about the message! You will find the Holy Spirit there, waiting for you, waiting to stir your heart. Warning: it will make 1 hour on Sunday too little for you. It will make you want more. It will take your “comfortable ignorance” as one Catholic put it, and turn it into thirst and hunger. When that happens, I will tell you about the sequel to Luke’s story.

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Jesus and the level playing field

26th Sunday Ordinary time, 9-30-18

Numbers 11:25-29; Psalm 19:8-14, James 5:1-6, Mark 9: 38-48

I was talking to a priest friend a couple of weeks ago, and we were discussing how to make our faith lives more meaningful. She said she had bought a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet.  I was pretty skeptical that a bracelet would help; I asked, “Really?” “Yes,” she said with great enthusiasm, “It makes me think about what I’m doing, and ask if Jesus would do it.”

And that is exactly what all of our readings are about today. They all are “rubber meets the road”/ “what would Jesus do” situations.  If you heard Fr. Joe’s homily last Sunday, you heard him explain that a child was the least valuable person in a household in Jesus’ day.  A child was not an asset, but a liability!  And yet Jesus teaches that if anyone welcomes a child into their life (and we can expand that to mean any social outcast or any marginalized person), then they welcome Jesus into their life, and not only welcome Jesus but also God.

Our reading in Mark begins today with the very next verse; you could call it an attitude adjustment session. John speaks up and asks about a man he saw performing a healing miracle in the name of Jesus. This is the same John who was arguing last week about being the greatest of the apostles. John would like to shut that healer down, since that man wasn’t with Jesus and the apostles.  He says, “We tried to prevent him from doing it”. That guy was a “them” and not one of “us”.  Jesus says, “Don’t stop him!  If he can do a miracle in my name to heal someone, at least he won’t be bad mouthing me!”

This is a wonderful answer, so very practical, with a touch of humor. At the same time, it tells us exactly what Jesus would do when confronting prejudice, or exclusion by someone who thinks they are elite and an insider, someone who imagines they have  privilege and priority over others just because of the people they know or travel with.  Some people always try to make the circle smaller.  By that I mean, they want to keep the power for themselves. They want to only associate with people who will agree with them.  Jesus is always making the circle bigger, including non-Jews, a tax collectors (Matthew), women, (like the one who washed his feet with her tears), political activists (Simon the zealot), a thief (Judas), fishermen (Peter/James/John),  and Paul (a Pharisee-of all things- and tent maker), to name a few.

Wait, there’s still more about any ideas of feeling superior. What about the poor and the needy?  Jesus has a way of making this very personal to the apostles.  There must have been many times that an apostle was given a cup of water on the long, dusty road to Jerusalem (no vending machines).  Jesus says that a person will be given a reward by God for as simple a thing as giving a follower of his a drink of water. In Luke, the apostles wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village that wouldn’t give them water. (9: 54) A cup of water was important, just like many simple kindnesses we can do for others.  People can be rich or poor and still need kindness.  There is no “us” or “them” for Jesus.  Jesus is the ultimate level playing field.

What about the “children” of the world- those who are innocent, or naïve, those who are not clever, not quick, not wise, not experienced; those who have no one to protect or teach them, those who struggle with their faith or are easily led astray? There is no “me” and “you” in the kingdom of God, but there are severe consequences for taking advantage of the vulnerable or using them unfairly – like being thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck! Have you ever seen a millstone? It doesn’t take a WWJD bracelet to figure out Jesus’ attitude toward those who prey on the vulnerable.

Finally, we get the three ways Jesus uses the body to give us an image of how important our choices are. Your hand, your foot, or your eye, he says, is a small price to pay to avoid sin and the punishment of “unquenchable fire.”  But loss of a hand or foot or eye is an enormous loss; the loss is great to illustrate how very great the consequence is.  Jesus is suggesting, of course, that while old habits die hard and change is difficult sometimes, we must change our attitudes, our thoughts, and our behaviors to be his followers.

But there is another lesson here, equally important or possibly more so, about our desires to feel “greater”. To understand, we must look more closely at Jesus.  Two weeks ago I asked you, “How do we, on 1 hand, confess that Jesus is the Christ, and on the other hand, accept the violence and shame and humiliation of the cross?”  Jesus tells the apostles three times that he will be killed; he will die at the hands of men in Jerusalem. St. Paul wrote “We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and foolishness to the Gentiles.” (1Cor1:23)

Some people found the humility of Jesus to be ridiculous, absurd. The Messiah, they thought, would come with thousands of angles, who would wipe out the Romans, and take control. They expected a strong, military leader, like King David, who would use force to set the world right – or at least, right for them.

Yet this Jesus was the Son of God? Who allowed himself to be berated and ridiculed, beaten and whipped, tortured and crucified? He traveled with “lowlife” fisherman, people who were sick, and known sinners, instead of demanding the power and status of a god.  Jesus held no property, had no job or income, had left his family and never used his popularity for political gain.  James says “He offered no resistance (to his death).

Can people look at me and see anything that looks like Jesus?  Does my life show humility?  I think I need to have 2nd chances on some things.  Can others tell I am a Christians even I never speak?  Can we live as the last of all and the servant of all?  Maybe the behavior of Christ speaks even louder than his teaching, and “What Would Jesus Do?” is, in fact, the pivotal question.

Inside/ Outside

22nd Sunday Ordinary time 9-2-18

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8;  Psalm 15:2-5; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23

After reading from John’s Gospel for more than a month, we need a re-orientation to the Gospel of Mark. John wrote to help established Christians deepen their understanding of their faith, while Mark wrote to a non-Jewish, or “Gentile” audience new to the faith.  One reason we know this is that Mark has to explain hand washing, and other Jewish traditions.

We’re not yet half-way in Mark’s Gospel, but the Pharisees are already plotting how they can destroy Jesus. They have already tried to shame and discredit Jesus by pointing out that the Apostles did not fast (which was required), and that they had picked some grain to eat when they were hungry on the Sabbath (which was forbidden).  Meanwhile, Jesus had raised a little girl from the dead, he had walked on water, and wherever he went, the sick were brought to him, and he healed them.  He had taught great crowds and did the miracle of multiplying the fish and loaves; it must have been an exhilarating and amazing time for the apostles.  If ministry was always like that, everyone would want to be a priest!

But now the Pharisees return to verbally attack Jesus again. When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t keep the tradition of hand-washing, their question isn’t a request for information. It’s a challenge to his whole ministry. From the point of view of the Pharisees, a person couldn’t be from God and not wash his hands before dinner in accordance with the tradition. (Remember “germs” hadn’t been discovered yet.) Now, there is nothing wrong with cherishing Traditions that have been handed down to us, tried and true. But if we cherish tradition, we must also be careful that we are clear about what it is that we’re cherishing. Otherwise, the focus on things like clean hands and cups could threaten the whole point of God’s Law—and that is to have right relationships among people and between people and God.

The Pharisees challenge Jesus’ disciples’ failure to observe what Mark calls the “tradition of the elders” (7:5). It’s described by modern anthropologists as “The Great Tradition,” a set of practices defined, maintained, and practiced by urban-living elite Jews of Jesus’ day.   Peasants, travelers like Jesus, fisherman, and those who raised sheep and goats simply weren’t able to maintain these traditions because of the realities of their living conditions and their jobs, as well as the scarcity of water.  The Pharisee’s criticism was, from the start, very unfair and unreasonable.

So where did the tradition of hand washing start? Like many Jewish rituals, it began during the Exodus (30:19-20) from Egypt.  God told the priests they must wash their feet and hands before they entered the tabernacle (temple) tent.  The spiritual reason for this was to enter the presence of God with a pure heart.  So God gave them a meaningful symbol (hand washing) of an important spiritual truth (purity of heart).  To pray, to worship, to enter sacred space, we must prepare ourselves, as we do when we say our confession and be absolved of sin at the beginning of our service each Sunday.  We try to begin with a pure heart, with open ears and mind.

But we humans often have a way of making required spiritual exercises out of meaningful symbols. The Jews turned God’s request to begin worship with a pure heart into an elaborate and highly detailed bureaucratic, burdensome procedure of ritual cleansing with strict regulation of the amount of water, the way the hands were held, etc., etc. for which the priests received payment.  Sadly, it reminds me of my grandson’s baptism, which was so openly void of spirituality that my son and his wife never went to church again.

Anyway, before long, the Jewish ritualized cleansing replaced the spiritual exercise that it had represented in the beginning. The outward symbol of washing was no longer a sign of an inward grace of purity, but the ritual had become an end in itself.  Why was it done?  Because it was required; it was “what we do”. Religion had lost its spirituality; instead ritual controlled -rather than enriched- life.  The cleansing ritual caused people to lose sight of the goal: purity of heart.  Thus Jesus says, “Their heart is far from me, and in vain they worship me.”  He calls the Pharisees “Hypocrites” they have replaced heart-felt religion with lip service, and turned God’s symbol of washing into a type of theater.  In fact, The Greek word hypokrites means “actor.” An appropriate way to read Jesus’ insult in English would be: “You actors! Scripture may be the lines you quote, but is it not the script by which you live.”

Jesus tells the crowd that a little dirt – or anything else- on the outside of a person has nothing to do with how pure their heart is. Instead, he charges, our hurtful words and evil behavior come from inside of us. It is those muddy thoughts we do not control, those dirty images we keep in our heads, those horrible greedy and evil things humans do which destroy our purity of heart and separate us from God.

In our 2nd reading, James, always the practical preacher, gives us this definition: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God… is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Pure religion is not necessarily done in a typical sacred space. Pure religion is caring for the innocent and helpless, helping the destitute, the starving, the sick, and those who have lost hope. There is an incredibly urgent need for pure religion in this world.

James warns us, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” We must keep our focus on the goal of love, and not become lost or stained by the divisive, angry, bickering, backstabbing world. So every time you wash your hands, think of having a pure heart, with your heart, soul, and mind always ready to be in the presence of God.

Love and The Body & The Blood

20th Sunday Ordinary time; August 19, 2018

Proverbs 9:1-6; Ps 34:2-7; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Our Gospel reading today is likely one of the top ten hardest readings to preach on. Even the people Jesus was speaking to “quarreled” among themselves when He spoke about the living bread saying, “…the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”  You need to know that the word “quarreled” in Greek is a word for violent fighting, not just a mild spat.  These words have been the source of division among Christian communities always, a major fountain of violence during the Reformation, so contentious that people were tortured and killed over different views of the meaning of the Mass. In fact, 3 years ago when we came to these readings, I preached on the 2nd Reading from Ephesians instead of focusing on the Gospel.

Three weeks ago, Bishop Ron told you that John was written to deepen the faith of people who were already Christian believers. The Last Supper or the original “Mass” is found in Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and 1 Corinthians 11.  It makes sense that John would not see a reason to repeat that in his Gospel; but John did spend time and effort teaching about the Mass.

It also makes sense that John would present multiple teachings on the Mass. The first was the “Wisdom and Understanding” approach.  We have a sample of that from Proverbs for our first reading today.  Wisdom is portrayed as a woman (whole different homily) who prepares wine and food and sends out invitations over the city, inviting the simple and those lacking understanding to come to her table.  Our 2nd reading tells us to be wise, to be filled with the Spirit, and to gain understanding of the will of God.

Then there is the symbol of bread that ties into a long history of sacred bread in Jewish liturgy and practices in the temple, as well as in the scared Jewish writings. Unleavened bread and wine are major components of the Passover celebration.  Manna is a significant part of Exodus.  But keep in mind that it was an abomination for the Jews to eat human flesh and drink blood.  Blood was understood then as the substance of life, for without blood we die, and it was a substance of great mystery.  Any contact with blood required a ritual cleansing. All this helps us understand the image of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus to give us life.

So in the opening of today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” It seems a pretty direct reference to the crucifixion. Of course, the Temple ritual sacrifices called for the slaughter of animals.  Historians tell of blood running down the streets of Jerusalem during Passover, with the slaughter of hundreds of animals.  To make the scene even more vivid and realistic, Jesus uses a word for “eat” which is best translated as “gnaw or munch.” And how can anyone eat his flesh without him being slaughtered like an animal? Then, Jesus adds, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”  So after the slaughter comes the resurrection.

Jesus does not let this teaching slide by quickly. He goes on to insist that his flesh and blood have genuine value as food and drink.  Also, he adds the image of “remaining”.  Jesus tells us that coming to communion is a way to really be “into Jesus”, a way to remain with him always, the way to have life always. He explains how the bread at communion is not like the ordinary bread we eat, or even the heavenly manna which fed the Israelites as they escaped from Egypt.  Those other types of bread we eat, they only feed us for a day, and do not remain with us.  The bread Jesus gives us stays with us forever, and gives us eternal life.

That being said, we still have an elephant in the room. Catholics teach that when the bread and wine are consecrated by a priest, they become the true body and blood of Christ.  It is called transubstantiation (a change of the very substance of the bread and wine).  Christ then is present whole and entire in each crumb of the bread and drop of the wine. It is one of the mysteries of our faith, and requires a leap of faith, as our eyes do not see the change.  If there is any place in the Bible that says this is true, this reading is identified as that place.

I stand at this altar and I say those words. I have come to believe that altars such as this are very sacred places, and that by saying the words of the Mass, we do indeed enter a very holy moment.  I also recognize that not everyone experiences what I experience when I stand there.  I also know that it is not because of my holiness, but a gift of God.  So I do not pressure others to believe what I believe.  When I offer the consecrated bread and wine to people, I say that it is open to all who come in reverence; they must come respectfully and with dignity, and hopefully with a sense of awe.  My task and duty is to offer an opportunity to understand the ancient history of this sacrament, its basis in wisdom tradition, and the traditions and teachings of the Church which surround it.

But on Tuesday, as I was writing this homily, the Attorney General of PA announced that a Grand Jury had possession of internal documents from six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania showing that more than 300 “predator priests” have been credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 child victims, dating back to 1947.  Their report said that the numbers may be “in the thousands”, as records have been lost and people are still afraid to come forward.  Quoting from the report, “The men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades… priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals have mostly been protected….”  Once again, the Holy Spirit is grieved, as are we.

Jesus gave us a commandment to love one another. He also said in Matthew 18:6 , “… whoever ensnares one of these little ones who trust me, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the open sea.”  That is very harsh, and we should be quick to pray for the healing of those children, as well as forgiveness for those clergy, and that strong steps be taken to prevent this in the future.

My friends, it is right and good to understand our sacraments and continue to learn about them, expanding our faith. But I would best like to be identified as a Christian by the way I show love to others and the way I protect the vulnerable and innocent.  It makes sense to me that Jesus would want us to be his body and blood by the lives we live.

Focus on God, not food!

 

17th Sunday Ordinary Time,  7-29-18

2 Kings 4:42-44; Ps: 145:10-11, 15-18; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15

This Sunday starts a series of 5 readings taken from the Gospel of John. This is year B, when we expect to read from Mark, so why are we in John for 5 weeks?  It’s no great theological issue, just practicality.  Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, and there simply isn’t enough of Mark to read all year.  So John supplements our readings.

But the Church hasn’t simply found 5 random readings from John. All of them come from the 6th chapter of John, which has been called the “The Discourse (discussion) of The Bread of Life.”    And it starts with the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, a story we have probably all have heard.  A large crowd followed Jesus to hear his teaching and see the healing of the sick, so Jesus went up on a mountain, where the sound of his voice could be best heard.

Of course, the image of a mountain should bring up an image in any Bible student’s head – the image of Moses meeting God on Mt. Sinai, the gift of the Ten Commandments and the covenant.  Moses led the people to freedom, and here is Jesus, with the gifts of God for the people, to lead them to new life.  John uses these images and comparisons often in his Gospel to help people understand the importance of Jesus, his teachings, and the role he will play in our lives.

I need to say up front that this Gospel was not given to us to teach about sharing. Sharing is important and most of us are to some degree infected with the greed of materialism that is an epidemic in our society.  I would love to see a more even distribution of food and resources in this world, but that’s not why John wrote this passage.

Sadly, I also have to add that this is not about feeding hungry people particularly. Hunger is only the setting in which John tells his message.  Feeding the hungry is a terrific and urgent need in this world.  The most recent numbers tell us that every year more people die from preventable hunger than died in the Holocaust, yet the food to feed them is available in this world.  Clearly hunger is a huge and pressing problem, but that is not what John is trying to tell us here.

So, Jesus turns to Philip, asking where to buy food for the people. Philip is the go-to guy here because Philip was from Bethsaida, which is where the story takes place.  Oddly enough, it would seem some scribe was startled by this question, and not wanting Jesus to appear as less than the “Son of God”, assures us that Jesus is just testing Philip.  It is a humorous and enlightening line in the story which serves to remind us that the Bible is not always a book you can simply pick up and read with understanding without studying the background information, the culture, and a sense of the point of the passage.  Trillions of hours of study have been spent comparing the many manuscripts we have and knowledgeable scholars can sometimes trace where a scribe’s comments have altered the text.

But Philip is not concerned with where to go shopping, because the cost would far exceed possibility. Then Andrew appears with a boy who has 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.  What does this seemingly simple verse tell us?  Well, three important things actually.   First, where have we heard about barley loaves before?  In our first reading – the story of the 20 barley loaves feeding 100 people!  That story would have been a classic story well known to the audience John wrote for.  Bingo!  We know this story has something to do with the power of God.  There is a miracle going on here.  But Jesus is not a prophet, like Elisha, but far greater, and will feed 5,000 people with 5 loaves.  A multiply of 1,000 tells us we have surpassed human ability to provide food, and moved into the range of divine.

But secondly, barley was an important crop in Jesus’ land. It was drought resistant, grew well in the heat, and ripened quickly.  The harvest would have been at Passover time, and Passover has some very important implications in our story.

Passover was near, John mentions. It was the event that began the escape from Egypt for the Israelites, one of the cornerstone events of the Jewish faith.  Passover is about the death of the cruel slave holders and the freedom of the slaves.  Part of the journey to freedom for the Israelites included the bread (“manna””) which God gave the people to eat as they traveled to the Promised Land.  It was not just bread, but “supernatural” bread, the “daily bread” which Jesus included in the Lord’s Prayer.  John’s Gospel is full of Passover references, linking the Jewish history to the death and resurrection of Jesus.  And where else does our eternal life with God begin but with the resurrection of Jesus?  A barley loaf may sustain life, but the gift of life is in the resurrection.

Our Psalm says, “The eyes of all look hopefully to you, and you give them their food in due season; you open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” John wants us to stop focusing on a desire for food, and focus on our natural and necessary desire for God.

After the people reclined to eat, Jesus gave thanks, blessing the food, and they ate as much as they wanted. Will God only portion us out small allotments of grace and mercy?  Will God weigh out tiny morsels of love?  Are we permitted only a few drops of joy in God?  No, no; God gives us grace and mercy, love and joy in abundance!  God is a God of plenty, of more than we ask for.   Luke (6:38) has a wonderful way to put it:  “…give, and it will be given to you; a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.”

And what about the fragments? The early Christians had a collection of teachings called “Didache”, which tells us how they understood the fragments of left-over food. It says, “Concerning the fragmented bread, ‘We give thanks to you, our Father.  As this fragmented bread was scattered on the mountains, but was gathered up and became one, so let the Church be gathered up from the four corners of the earth into your kingdom.’”  Still today, we treat the crumbs left from our Eucharistic bread as precious creations from God’s hand, as the Body of Christ, and we do that as we remember how God gathers people, more numerous than bread crumbs at the table, as precious lives that would have yet another life in the light of  God’s Kingdom.

But our passage ends on a somber note. The people saw the sign, the miracle of the food, and called Jesus, “the one who is to come into the world”.  Moses had told them of the “one who is to come” back in Deuteronomy (18:19), but John is warning us that Jesus is not just a replacement for an earthly military king like David.  John wants us to understand the true meaning of why the Son of God came to earth.

So our task today is to remember why we “do” Eucharist. “The very word, “Eucharist” means to give thanks.  We remember Jesus, and we give thanks for his love for us, his sacrifice of himself for us, for what he taught us and for how he showed us the way to live fully, deeply, and with love.  We remember that he is the Son of God, the Holy One who came to fulfill a prophecy from long ago, the One who had victory over sin and death, the One who changed everything.

SLOW SEEDS??

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time 6-17-18

Ezekiel 17:22-24, Ps 92:2-16, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, Mark 4:26-34

All of our readings are beautiful and encouraging today. Our first reading, from the Prophet Ezekiel, brings us poetry about God’s love for us. After the Exile to Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the people of Israel feared that all the promises God had made to King David were forgotten. Ezekiel assures them that God has not forgotten, and that he will restore them as his people. God’s people will be like a “withered tree that blooms.” In fact, God will take from the very top of the giant cedar tree a tender shoot, a small branch, and he will plant that shoot on a mountain top. In time that small tender shoot will become a giant cedar tree. This is a poetic reference to a descendent of the last King from David’s line who was still alive. The promise that the Messiah will be a descendent of King David will still be fulfilled in Jesus. Not only that, but all the nations of the earth, represented by all the birds that nest in the tree, will gather once again. It is a wonderful image of evil overcome and goodness triumphant.

The Psalm also speaks of flourishing palm trees and great cedar trees, trees bearing fruit even in old age, vigorous and sturdy, a testament to God’s goodness and justice. Again, this poetic image brings us confidence in the permanence of God and God’s care for us. We can depend on the eternal security we find with God. We find strength and stability, as well as refreshment and restoration with God.

St. Paul in the 2nd reading speaks as a missionary who has traveled thousands of miles for God, facing multiple threats to his life as well as rejection and ridicule for his faith. He has found that wherever he is, home or away, in life or in death, his goal is to be pleasing to the Lord.   We will all face a final judgment, and all that we have done will be open to view. But that does not frighten us if what we have done has been good and we have led a life in imitation of Christ’s.

In our Gospel, we have two parables about seeds. Both parables deal with the same problem…why things appear as they do if the kingdom of God is indeed present. How can we experience evil and sickness if God is God of the world? We ask the same questions that the people asked of Ezekiel – has God forgotten us? Why is there so much evil, and why is life so difficult?

In the first parable we have today, the Growing Seed, the man sows, he sleeps and rises (this image indicates the passage of time) and then the man harvests the crop. There is every reason to believe the man also tills the soil, weeds, irrigates, and protects the crop while it grows. Ask any farmer – they do not sit idly by and wait for God to do all the work. Likewise, farmers will tell you they do not create the growth. They do the sowing and God begins process of growth.  But the parable says in effect, “The Kingdom is like a farmer who goes about his normal process of sowing seeds in the earth. Then the hand of God produces a plant and its fruit, and then comes the harvest.” It is a process of waiting patiently for the crop to ripen, and only at the right time can the harvest begin. The Kingdom of God will be ripe at the right time; the reign of God will be complete in God’s time.

The parables of the Sower who casts seed on the path and the rocks, in the thorns, and in the good soil, the Growing seed and the Mustard Seed ( all found in the same chapter of Mark) all answer questions and challenges to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom. Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom earlier in this same chapter of Mark when he told the parable of the man who sowed seed on the path and on the rocky ground, in the thorns and on good soil. He told his disciples then, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God…” But the people’s response was, “where?” and “why aren’t we free from Roman rule?” and “why are we still poor?” and “why are bad things still happening?” So Jesus tells us that it’s not a simple thing, this Kingdom. It is not an outward remodeling job of the world, where workers come and repair things on a schedule. Rather, the Kingdom is a total change of human hearts. It is happening at just the right speed, and the passage of time will be necessary. But there was a time of sowing (interpreted as being in the ministry of Jesus), a period of time is necessary for growth (now), and there will be a time of harvest. Traditionally in the Bible, “harvest” is the time of judgment and the end of time. Like the plant growth, some of which is not visible because it happens under the ground, we will not see all that happens during the growth of the Kingdom.

So we do not bring in the kingdom – we are the servants of the King who continue to sow and weed and water and protect, but we are not the cause or creator. Our own lives must follow the same process. God continuously reaches out to us, teaching us to obey, to reach out in love, to better understand the scriptures, to worship with a more pure heart. God is constantly planting the seeds of Godliness in us and others. We must nurture those seeds so that new life may grow within us. The process is slow, often delayed by our own distraction with other things.   The change within us must occur at what we might call a sub-cellular level, which cannot be rushed. I have often wondered, at the rate of one wafer per week, how many years it would take for all of my body cells to be made of Jesus. I haven’t done the math, but I am sure that the answer is, “a lifetime.” The fullness of the kingdom will come when the time is right. We can be confident that God, the cause and creator, is at work and God can and will bring us safely to harvest. Jesus is reassuring us the process is in motion; the goal has been set and will be achieved.

It is easy to become discouraged when we see dishonest people with tremendous wealth and power. It is hard to watch liars and thieves prosper. It makes us angry when we see innocent people suffer, it is terrible to see children shot down in schools. It is hard to watch people loose their savings and freedom to sickness or injuries which might have been prevented. We want to shake our fist at God, question the very existence of God, or demand an explanation of this world which seems filled with evil and injustice. Why would we not question that the kingdom of God is here, now?   How and when will the Kingdom finally overcome everything we judge to be wrong and unfair?   That is the question that we are given an answer for today.

Paul says it best when he writes, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7) The Prophet Isaiah says God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), and St. Peter said, “Do not ignore this one fact, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2Peter 3:8-9)

Continue to sow the seeds of love and truth, and believe.

The Trinity Today – in Action

Holy Trinity Sunday, 5-27-18

Deuteronomy 4:32-40, Psalm 33, Romans 8:14-17, Matthew 28: 16-20

 

We’ll start with a little background for our first reading. Josiah (Joe-zi-ah) became king of Israel about 600 years before Christ.  He took the throne when he was only 8 years old, after a series of wicked kings who had turned their backs on God. But Josiah led the people back to worshiping God.  The Temple in Jerusalem had been allowed to fall into disrepair, so he began renovations.  During the work, a “book” (scrolls) of the laws of Moses was found. (2 Kings 22) That “book”, according to Tradition, was the Book of Deuteronomy, from which our first reading is taken.

 

Deuteronomy is a series of three speeches by Moses, and ends with the death of Moses. In essence, this book records Moses’ last words.  The speeches not only repeat the Covenant that the Israelites had with God, but they interpret it in more contemporary terms.  Our reading today is the end of the 1st speech.  The question Moses puts to the people is this:  “Do you realize how great God is?”  He reminds the people that God created the entire world, including us – all human-kind.  No one else had ever claimed that their God had spoken to them.  No other god had claimed their nation for his own, had done wonders and miracles, and had protected that nation by military might, defeating a large nation like Egypt to bring the people out of slavery.

 

Moses also told the people that all this evidence demands that people must obey God’s commandments and keep God’s laws which will enable them to live a long and prosperous life. Our Psalm gives us the same message in a poetic way:  “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made…the eyes of the Lord are upon those who fear him…to deliver them from death and preserve them in spite of famine.”

 

There was one problem with all this – the Israelites came to believe that they were the “Chosen People” and that God would always protect them and provide for them, however faithful or unfaithful they were to God. This was despite the clear instruction by Moses that when people are not faithful to God, they break the covenant, thereby removing themselves from God’s protection. It was Jesus who came to resolve this constant breaking of the covenant, when he said, “…this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.”

 

Our 2nd reading speaks of the Spirit of God leading the sons and daughters of God.  God’s spirit is not one of oppression or fear.  Instead the image used is one of God “adopting” us.  Each of us then enters the inner circle of family, enjoying the highest level of love and protection; we are raised as the siblings of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit assures us with this beautiful image of close and enduring relationship with God.

 

Finally our Gospel is the last paragraph of the Gospel of Matthew, and gives us the final words of Jesus. Notice the similarity to our first reading, which records the final words of Moses.  Following ancient tradition, the last recorded words of a famous person or a great leader summarize the goals of their lives, and leave important and final advice for their followers.  Our Biblical authors use the same tradition.

 

So Matthew writes that Jesus’ last words were words of assurance: “I am with you always…” But some people may be amazed at the other thing Jesus emphasizes.  “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me”, he says.  All right, that fits with our understanding of the Risen Christ.  But what are we supposed to do with that information?  Well, we are to make sure everyone knows it; we are to teach it; and we are to share all of Jesus’ teachings.  “GO, therefore,” says Jesus, “And make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

 

It’s one thing if you view this as some kind of abstract statement of doctrine, something that someone else is responsible for. “Let someone else do it,” we think.  We put a $20 check in the mail and let some overseas mission team help the Christians in Palestine or Pakistan or Puerto Rico.

 

It’s something very different if we understand that Jesus was speaking to us. In a 4-mile radius circle of where we are sitting right this moment are thousands of people, and I can assure you that there are lots people who have never heard the teachings of Jesus, nor been baptized, nor know that God loves them.  I have every reason to believe that Jesus was speaking to us, personally, calling us to action, expecting us to look outward to our neighbors.  This interpretation is supported by the parable of the Good Samaritan (who is my neighbor?) and the parable of the talents (if we fail to invest in God’s Kingdom, we stand to lose what little we have!).  Pope Paul VI made it clear when he proclaimed, “Evangelization is in fact…the church’s deepest identity.  The church exists in order to evangelize.” Pope Benedict told us we are… “Agents of the Holy Spirit helping people have a profound experience of Jesus’ love…a love that opens them to the Word of God and the sacraments.”

 

So Moses urgently begged us to view God as the Creator of our world and of life itself. In turn, we are to love God and willingly follow the path, the guidance, and the life style God has shown us.  The result is a close and deep relationship with God.  The Spirit brings enduring love to us that can never be broken or stolen from us.  And Jesus is with us always, helping us make sure that all our neighbors join in this love and intimacy of family.  It is a view of the universe which far exceeds all our prayers and longings – but it must start by our action, our reaching out, our sharing of the faith and the joy that God brings us.