Meditations on the 2nd Sunday of Lent

2nd Sunday of Lent 2-25-18

Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Psalm: 116:10, 15-19; Romans 8:31b-34; Mark 9:2-10

Many primitive cultures have practiced human sacrifice, including the ancient tribes in the Middle East. Archeologists tell us that the area outside of Jerusalem, the valley of Gahenna, was once a place where human sacrifice was practiced.  It was a place that provoked great fear. These very early people instinctively knew that to sacrifice a human life was the greatest and most supreme sacrifice that could be made. More grapes and wheat could be grown. More lambs and goats could be bred. But humans came only from the mysterious event of birth.

I am always a little sickened by the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. It seems to go against every thing we hold as right and decent as well as everything we believe about a loving God. Even the ending, when the ram appears and is used as the sacrifice, leaves me uneasy about the story. Nevertheless, since we are told that God is good, and since Isaac was a child who was brought to life by a miracle, we should know that Abraham was right to trust God.

Sacrifice was a significant ritual for the Jewish people. Historians tell us that the blood from the lambs ran in red rivers down the streets of Jerusalem from the temple during Passover. We usually think of gifts as benefiting the person they are given to. At Passover, animals were sacrificed so that the givers could receive something valuable; as a community they recalled being protected from the plagues God put on the Egyptians, and thereby were freed from slavery and lead into the Promised Land. Animal sacrifice ended when the Temple was destroyed, only some 30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, but a ritualized image of sacrifice remains in our own Mass.

The Lectionary uses all this to set the tone, to prepare us to think deeply about the crucifixion, which occurred at Passover. It is framed in the immensity of the thought of a loving and all-powerful God willingly sacrificing his son to a frenzied mob motivated by little more than silver coins and the desire for power. That mob continues to haunt us; too much of human interaction is still mob mentality, where superficial information and ignorance leave people open to faulty conclusions and horrific actions.

It is not hard to understand why Pontius Pilot handed over Jesus to the mob to be crucified – giving them what they wanted was the only way to avoid a full-blown riot. The worst part of the Good Friday reading of the Passion is when the congregation is expected to read the words the crowd spoke: “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” At that point, I always say a prayer that I will never be part of a mob chanting like that.

I recently heard from a woman who had lost both her husband and her only daughter within 2 months. Naturally, she was in shock. Among other things, I suggested that she lean on the Blessed Mother, because she too, as a widow, had lost her precious child in the most terrible of circumstances.   It was an image that helped this grieving woman.

Likewise, the Lectionary gives us the story of Abraham and Isaac to help us understand the idea of God losing his precious and sinless son to mob who had no respect for his life. At the same time, our Gospel reading reassures us that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God. Jesus is transfigured, and his clothes become an unearthly dazzling white; he talks with Elijah and Moses. God says Jesus is “my beloved Son.” Afterwards, Jesus warns his disciples not to tell anyone about this except when the “Son of Man had risen from the dead,” which confuses the disciples even more.

So what are we to take away from this muddle of sacrifice and death, alongside transfiguration? The Abraham story assures us that God’s promises can be trusted, even when the situation is dire. Indeed, the children of Abraham did become as many as the stars in the sky, through his son Isaac.   The transfiguration story is also to build trust for the apostles, because very shortly their faith will be badly shaken. Jesus is the son of God and will rise from the dead. The apostles could trust in this message from God, as can we, for the risen Christ is the primary foundation of Christianity. If the 2nd Sunday of Lent were to have a name, it would be “trust”. This Lent, let us set aside our fears of the future, and trust that Creator, Son and Holy Sprit will be with us as we travel together through these 40 days leading to Easter Morning, and beyond.

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Those Teeny Tiny Christmas Tree Lights and Advent

2nd Sunday of Advent 12-10-17

 Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; ; Psalm: 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14;  2 Peter 3:8-14;  Mark 1:1-8

Our Gospel reading is the opening 8 verses of Mark’s Gospel.  Mark chooses to begin with a quotation from Isaiah, chapter 40.  Mark clearly has chosen carefully, and we need to understand why he uses Isaiah and how he uses the images in it.

Chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah are referred to as the “Book of Consolation of Israel.” Israel was overrun by the Babylonian army some 500 years before Christ.  It is a story of great shame and loss. Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple looted and burned to the ground.  The people were captured and taken from their homeland into exile.  According to Isaiah, the refusal of the Israelites to follow God’s laws, and their unwillingness to obey God was the reason for this great tragedy.  But now the Israelites are being forgiven by God, and they will be granted their long-awaited freedom and return to rebuild their homeland.

It is a time of reconciliation. Isaiah is told to speak tenderly to the Israelites, or literally to “speak to their hearts”.  The expression is very maternal- suggesting that Jerusalem is the “mother city”, and the people are children returning to a mother’s love.  Although their punishment was severe, the Lord is returning to their midst, and the Lord should be welcomed as a great and majestic King.  The people will restore the road for God’s arrival, as God will restore his people.   Once again the Glory of the Lord will be in the temple, and the people will know God’s presence.   It is a level of joy only known to people who have suffered great losses and held against their will.

Purification was historically a big issue for the Jews. Ritual bathing was required after breaking any of a long list of laws before one could worship God again.   In a land of deserts and limited access to water, washing took on a significance that is unfamiliar to us.  Jewish tradition has it that Adam stood in the Jordan River for 40 days after he ate the fruit which was forbidden.  The prophet Elisha had Naaman wash 7 times in the Jordan River to heal his leprosy.  Traditionally, any one converting to the Jewish faith must do ritualized bathing in water.  This constitutes a rebirth, and brings purity “like that of a child just born”.  Sound familiar?  The Essenes (the Desert Fathers), of all people, were baptized each morning!

So Mark is using Isaiah, the Prophet of all Prophets, to announce that Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, is coming to restore his people. It is obvious that John is the voice crying out, literally, in the desert.  Mark knows that it has been some 300 years since Israel has had a prophet of God in their midst.  John the Baptist looks and talks and preaches like an old-time prophet.  John presses the people to repent of their sins and be right with God.  Instead of preparing the road for the king, John was preparing the people’s hearts for the King. The Psalmist says it with poetic grace: Justice (John) shall walk before (the Lord), and prepare the way of his steps.

What was the attraction to John? It wasn’t the wardrobe. I think that we all are looking for second chances.  We all, to some degree, carry around a burden of regrets for some of the choices we have make and the selfish acts we commit.  We all have a little part of us that relates to the Israelites who thought they were smarter than God and ended up being homeless captives in Babylon.  We find John in a scene stripped of the liturgical niceties; just a man in camel skins, in the barren land, next to a muddy river, providing what the people needed.  Their religious leaders at the Temple were too busy with finances and politics.  So the people from the countryside and people from the city of Jerusalem were streaming out to John.  No vestments, no holy orders, no stained glass windows, nothing but raw confrontation of sinfulness and the urgent desire for forgiveness and inner peace.

But John’s purpose in life was not to only address the people’s thirst for reconciliation. He was to create anticipation, a longing for more.  He was to proclaim the coming of the Messiah.    The road that John was preparing was for One mightier and holier than John, One who would baptize with, not water, but the Holy Spirit.  You see, people were confused about the messiah- would he be a fierce warrior who would battle the Romans, or a savior, who would bring salvation and peace?  The Messiah had been promised in Genesis; people despaired he would never come. Psalm 90 answers, “A thousand years in (God’s) eyes are merely a yesterday.”  Our 2nd reading from the 2nd letter of Peter, echoes that, saying, “Do not ignore this one fact…that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years..”  But this letter does not leave the issue there.  It goes on with, “…what sort of persons should you be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…”

And that is where the road of Advent leads us: to ask the questions of “what sort of persons we ought to be,” and how do we “prepare the road” for the Lord? How do we wash away the old presumptions and excuses, realize our failings, open our hearts for the Lord’s arrival?  How do we move toward holiness and hasten the coming of God?  I think sometimes those teeny tiny energy-efficient lights we have on our Christmas trees are a symbol of how much light we really want to have shine in the darker places of our lives.  But we have already been baptized with the Holy Spirit, so we pray, “O, Come Lord, O, Come Jesus, O, Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.”

Homily November 19, 2017- the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

33 sun3This week’s readings again speak of waiting and accountability and the end or return of Jesus. The parable of the talents comes at the end of Matthew and is part of Jesus final days and preparation of his apostles. Three servants are entrusted with either 5, 2 and 1 talents. A talent was a very large sum, an amount far surpassing a lifetime of wages for a typical Jew. The most interesting and at the same time, puzzling thing, was the reaction of the Master to the servant who had 1 talent and was afraid to act and use it for fear of his Master. The first two acted correctly and made a nice return on what was given them. Now this parable was meant for the apostles and the early church which was waiting for 33 sunChrist’s imminent return. So we might ask, what is it Christ could have given to the early church that they could fail him in an accounting on his return. In fact, what today also? That one thing has to be love and sharing the faith, the foundation of church and community. All his followers are called to love and spread and teach the faith and spread Christ’s love to the world. So what our parable tells us, is that if we in some way bury or stifle our love we are not using our talent. Love is a thing that must be worked at to grow and spread. Growth and change are important parts of loving, as people in a loving 33 sun 2relationship will tell you. When stagnation sets in, growth can stop and in Christ’s church the result can be harmful to it mission. The Holy Spirit is alive in the church to keep it active in its growth to bring all into a loving community. The church is a people, a community, not an institution or buildings. Change has always been in the church, yet never without many different voices challenging one another that lead to the many splits in the body of Christ through the centuries.

As individuals, we have been given our faith and are called to love as best we can. Surely the questions of the larger community is beyond us in a sense, but nothing prevents us from loving and sharing person to person on a daily basis as we go about our daily business. Nothing prevents us from be that loving person we are all called to be.

100% God

29th Sunday Ordinary time, 10-22-17. Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Palm 96:1-10; 1Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22: 15-21

 

We start today with Cyrus. To help us understand this, and indeed all our readings today, we need to know who Cyrus was, what he did, and why Isaiah gives such glowing praise to him.

Here’s some history: Babylon came into prominence in ancient history about 1,830 years before the birth of Christ.  But the Babylon we read about in the Bible is mostly the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 BC they captured and destroyed Jerusalem, taking all the treasures from the Temple, killing many of the people, and taking most of the remaining population as captives to exile in Babylon.  The military tactics of Babylon were to take everything of value and kill and burn everything else. They ruled over other nations by destroying the population centers, the culture, and the very way of life of their victims.  This is why the Bible uses Babylon as a symbol and synonym for evil.

But what goes around comes around, and brutal Babylon fell to Cyrus, the Persian king, in 540 BC.  Cyrus had an entirely different style from Nebuchadnezzar. He would negotiate with nations before he used force. In the end, he ruled most of Europe and Asia, and created the largest Empire in history.  Cyrus respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered and is still recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy. He established a government which –listen to this!-worked to the advantage and profit of its subjects; and he repatriated the people to their original homelands, even decreeing that the Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt.  Cyrus is the only non-Jew to be called “the anointed one”, the same title given to Israel’s kings, because he restored the Jewish Nation.  His behavior, and by extension, his image is forever a part of Jewish history.  But God is still God, and the only God.

The truth is that Cyrus acted more like God than many of Israel’s kings. The people of Ancient Israel were to understand that their true King was indeed God, not the man who sat on the throne.  Our Psalm then, is an enthronement Psalm, which was to be sung at the annual feast where the king took his throne to symbolize God’s kingship over the people.

Moving on to the Gospel, it is important to start by saying that Jesus does not pull off a “smooth dodge” to a difficult question, but rather roughly confronts his challengers. They were immediately stripped of their pretense and proven to be hypocrites. Jesus won round one by the fact that they were carrying and handed him a Roman coin which proclaimed Caesar to be divine and had an image of him (considered by Jews to be a sinful and idolatrous “graven image”).

Secondly, is this about a 40/60 or 30/70 split between God and Caesar? No! Even the question of what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar is meaningless.  We have missed Jesus’ point if we try to sort our lives into two piles: one for God and one for the Caesar-type God-want-to-be’s.  For we were created in God’s image.  If the image of Caesar on the coin means the coin belongs to Caesar and recognizes Caesar as head of the Roman Empire, then if we bear the image of God, who do we belong to?  Who rules over our lives?  God, of course, 100%. God ruled over Caesar and all human leaders, even the Pharisees and the Herodians.  Jesus won round two when he sent a clear message of shame to them by revealing their question as a denial of God’s role in their lives.  They were resisting what they themselves taught as God’s message and they were not acting as God has taught them.

Finally, Jesus is not talking about a division between church and state.   That is a modern American concept, and would be unheard of in Judea in Jesus’ day.  It’s not about paying taxes.  That was just the cover story of the challengers. This is a confrontation regarding the teachings and authority of Jesus, and over the last few weeks we have read a total of 5 confrontations where Jesus has used increasingly strongly worded and pointed parables to shame those who challenged him into seeing their errors.  We have heard the laborers in the vineyard, the two sons in the vineyard, the landowner whose tenants killed his son, the wedding feast, and now the coin question.  In Matthew’s Gospel, all these stories are told during Holy Week.  It is as if Jesus is pulling out all the stops to help his challengers understand, and instead they become more entrenched, angrier, and increasingly determined to silence him.

The saddest paradox of this exchange is that these Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and Herodians, have Jesus standing in front of them. This is what ultimately reveals their blindness to God. It’s painful to read about the stubbornness of those men.  It’s even more painful to have people we care about in our lives who will not change their response to God.  It’s especially painful to find those hidden places in our own lives that do not reflect Christ’s love, his prayers and teaching, his generosity and patience, and his sacrifice for us.  To live our lives in God’s image, we can look to Christ.

But St. Paul had found, in Thessalonica, people who had chosen to look to Christ.  Paul leaves us more hopeful as we read what he wrote to them, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope.”  The Gospel, Paul says, “…did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”  And so, we are encouraged to seek the Gospel in Word and in Power and with much conviction, with the help of the Holy Spirit, who stands ready, day and night, to bring us a constantly deeper understanding of God, allowing us to live in God’s image.

Homily October 1, 2017- the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

26sun2 (2)Today’s gospel actually is located in Matthew’s gospel in Holy Week after Jesus’ entrance and his cleansing of the temple. It is in response to a challenge by the chief priests. His question was who did the father’s will between the two sons. They said the first and he said, that yes the son who said no actually did the work, while the son who said yes appeared to be doing the right thing but was only looking out for himself. In light of this, Jesus asked that when you had John the Baptist, the tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners believed and followed him but you did not. You stuck to keeping the appearance of following the law but were only concerned with your power.26sun3

There is a big lesson here for us today. God calls us to love and respect all who are around us. It means we must be ready to forgive and always ready to welcome even those we do not know. It means that we not put our self first, that as Jesus served and even offered 26sunhis life so we to are called to serve. It means that in our life we have a position that in someway oversees others, we must humbly and in a just way manage and serve those we serve.

We know that Jesus encounter in today’s gospel was preliminary to his execution, yet Jesus was faithful to why he came and to what was to come. It certainly means for us that the right thing is not always the easiest thing.