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.

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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.

Homily September 10, 2017- the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

23 sun1Today’s gospel is interesting and possibly misunderstood by many who read it. In context, Jesus is instructing his disciples about community. We must remember that in Israel and surrounding areas, the make up of was very tribal or community or family oriented. Within a particular village or town everyone was related in some fashion to others. Everyone knew everyone else and disputes would be worked out with the help of elders if needed. It is very different for Us to understand it completely in a time and different culture. But certainly, Jesus was 23sun2speaking of reconciliation and the necessity of getting along if we are to follow his command to love one another. In a marriage, hopefully, a couple learns to settle disputes and disagreements before a wall is between them. Certainly this is what Jesus had in mind in saying those offended or offending should seek out and 23 sun 3resolve hurts and things harmful to a person or the community. A second step would be to bring in two or three other to help. If that failed then bring it to the community. In many ways this works in a small community and in the early church that Matthew was writing for.23 sun4

Matthew lived a long time ago and much has happened over the centuries to Christianity. Division, arguments, disagreements, and all other manner of human failure has proven that humans are far from perfect. Despite all this, Christ’s word is still among us and we are still called to live it out as best we can. We are still called to a community of faith and love and living as Jesus called us to do. That is why we as a church, welcome all who come and do not judge but embrace all who want to follow Jesus and journey with us. Let us pray we can invite and lead more to come and follow him.

Lights, Sounds, Visions: Transfiguration

Transfiguration 8-6-17

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Ps: 97:1-2, 5-6, 9; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Matthew 17:1-9

In 2017, Americans are not ones to talk about visions. In fact, if someone even talks about a dream they had, it seems kind of odd.  We like scary books, we like science fiction, and we like our movies loaded with special effects.  But when we mention visions, or the mystical, or we mention a Saint who had visions, someone inevitably rolls their eyes or starts making woo-oo sounds, like a silly old ghost movie.

Our Gospel today has that one little word that I never really noticed before, and hadn’t really taken into account. The last sentence was Jesus saying, “Don’t tell the VISION to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

I can’t think of ever hearing a homily that didn’t treat the Transfiguration as an actual event, the kind of thing you could calendar, google a map for. For sure, Matthew collected every bit of symbolism he could from traditional sources. Examples: the mountain (being higher up makes you closer to God- mountains are almost always the site of important theological events); brilliant lights and white garments (found in most near-death experiences); overshadowing cloud (protecting you from seeing God).  Of course, Moses is the symbol of the Law, while Elijah is the prophet of all prophets.  There are 3 apostles, symbol of the divine Trinity, and a repeat of the voice of God from when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.  Peter suggests 3 booths, or tents, to bring Jewish liturgy of the Feast of Tabernacles in to the mix, recalling the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.  You can find all this and more in Matthew 26:37, Exodus 24: 12-18, 1 Kings 19: 8-18, Daniel 10:6, Revelations 4 and 9, Leviticus 23: 39-42, Matthew 3: 17, Deuteronomy 18: 15, Daniel 10: 9-19, as well as in historic Jewish writings on the Last Days which were not included in the Old Testament.

I think it is crucial that we are able to accept that some religious experiences are not the same as “normal” every day life. Perfectly sane and stable people have visions, which are a way for the brain to interpret events and facts beyond their imagination in ways they can relate to.   It is really important to not expect that the Bible gives us a detailed video-style account in every passage.  The Gospel writers, like Matthew, had a purpose for writing – to record the oral history of Jesus as the eyewitnesses died out AND give us certainty for our faith.  The object as stated in our second reading, is to let us know that Jesus was not a “cleverly devised myth”, but real, and the Christian message is “altogether reliable.”

So our primary job is to determine the message the Gospel writer wants to give us. Just from the words used to describe the scene, I think it is fair to say that Matthew wants us to know that while Jesus was a humble itinerant Jewish preacher to his contemporaries, Jesus is also the Son of God; his teachings are divine wisdom, and his miracles are acts of God.  Also, since Matthew has placed the Transfiguration in between Jesus’ 1st and 2nd predictions of his suffering, death and resurrection, we need to take special care to view those events in the light of Jesus’ divinity and God’s plan for his people.

By extension, the crucifixion is not shameful, but instead becomes a divine gift and an entryway to holiness for all people who are fully aware of their sins, their un-retractable actions of hurt and pain to others, their crimes and failings. Crucifixion was supposed to put an end to the idea that the actions and teachings of this unique and charismatic teacher could be implemented.  Crucifixion was designed as a powerful barrier to following Jesus’ teachings.

But now all can draw strength and courage from his suffering and death. The Transfiguration would be that vision that would be forever burned in the memory of all as God-given proof of who Jesus was and what he had done for us.  Matthew presents it as the pivotal point of change in lives and attitudes.

Jesus, then, has foretold his resurrection, and dies making clear that death itself has been overcome. If Jesus had such confidence in God’s desire and ability to turn senseless violence and suffering into triumph, then why should anyone else fear to follow his footsteps?

The Transfiguration is so very much “not normal”; it is so very much designed to startle us and get our attention. It is like a gigantic heavenly spotlight, giving us light, sound, and visuals; we get a clear view of who Jesus is. It sets our understanding straight.  St. Peter’s letter makes a point of testifying to the power and coming of Jesus as real; His majesty and divinity are real.  Those moments of seeing Jesus in Glory were designed to provide confirmation, certainty, hope and proof.  God has the last word: Listen to him!

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

3rd Sunday Lent, 3-19-17

Exodus 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Our first reading – is so much like the society we live in; I read it and I think about shopping malls and huge department stores full of children demanding every thing that catches their eye. Just two chapters before, God had opened the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk thru on dry land and the Egyptian army, which was pursuing them, was destroyed.  The Israelites had their freedom after generations in slavery.  Then in the next chapter, the people had become discouraged in the desert and feared they would be without food.  God provided them with quail for meat and manna for bread, as much as they needed.  Now there is an uprising because of the scarcity of water; the people are full of anger and rebellion, and Moses fears they will kill him by stoning, the death reserved for someone who has sinned against the community.

But I don’t find it amazing the people were full of blame and empty of faith in the face of all their blessings. What I find amazing is that God doesn’t sweep them all into a garbage bag and start over with a new nation.  Sorry, I know that was a Grinch-like, heart-two-sizes-too-small thing to say.

But Moses nearly worked himself into a nervous breakdown over freeing these people, and there is no hint that the faintest idea of thanking him ever crossed the people’s minds. We would say he was “between a rock and a hard place”, and a miracle of God was the only thing that saved him.  No wonder we see deserts as places of trial, temptation, hardship – and we see water as life-giving, cleansing, refreshing, freeing, forgiveness.

By the time our Psalm was written, someone had figured this out. Our Psalmist says, “For he is our God, and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides; let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.” But notice that the Psalmist uses the image of a “rock.”  Moses had feared that rocks would be hurled at him by an unruly mob and he would be killed.  Then rock had been a geo-physical thing in the desert, used by God for the miracle of water, almost an image of grace.  Now the Psalmist speaks of God as the “Rock” – an image of steadiness, reliability, permanence, dependability, an instrument of safety, certainty, and protection.  Being between a rock and a hard place is all right – if God is your rock.

St Paul backs up the image of the Psalmist. He says, that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Paul had been a “Grinch” of a guy before he encountered the Risen Christ on his way to Damascus.  Now, he deeply believed, even as he waited on death row to be martyred, that God’s love, the rock of his salvation, would bring him to eternal life regardless of the most difficult “hard place” one can imagine.

And then we read John’s account of “the woman at the well.” I have a confession to make about this woman.  At first, when I read about her, I liked her even less than the rebellious Israelites in the desert.  She comes alone to the well, not with the other women, as she should have; she spoke to Jesus, as she shouldn’t have.  She’s pretty bold, even hard in her responses, saying, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” She’s not ashamed of immoral behavior, but blunt and in-his-face about where the Samaritan’s place of worship.  Given a little attitude in her voice when she says, “I know that the Messiah is coming…he will tell us everything”, her response is rock-hard, rude.  No wonder she was alone and shunned by the community.  No wonder the women had decided this woman was beyond their help, a lost cause, evil.  She seems to have chosen the hard place she’s in, determined to deflect any attempt to help her with stony bitterness.

Then a miracle happens that makes Moses and his staff hitting the rock look simple. All Jesus says to this woman is, “I am he, the one speaking with you.”  These few words accomplish in seconds what it took 40 years to accomplish with the Israelites.  She not only took to heart what he said, but she was quick to abandon her water jug, having accepted the living water.  She told the others with such intensity and certainty that they believed her and come to Jesus themselves, saying, “We know that this is the savior of the world!!”

Perhaps the woman would have done well in our society, been a great corporate CEO with her edgy repartee, blunt questions, and boldness in sorting out a situation. Perhaps the rigid limits on women in that society, reflected in my own negative initial assessment of her, contributed to her outcast status.

Maybe the love that Jesus felt for all God’s lost children was enough to dissolve the stony fortress this woman had constructed around herself.  Maybe it was a miracle healing; the living water of the Spirit broke open her rocky heart and that water power-cleaned her soul.  I don’t know what happened.  She was like a forgotten potted plan, wilted and dying, suddenly transplanted near a running stream of water, becoming a strong, food-yielding tree.

I do think some conclusions to these readings are warranted. I have 4 to offer:

  1. God loves us, despite how badly we behave. God gives us freedom from oppression long before we learn how to live freely. We need to look to God for ways to get out of our hard places.  Love can provide enormous freedom.   Status quo and expectations can be jails.
  2. God is the faithful one. Us – not so much. But God is good and provides for us.  God created a world that gives us water and food and shelter and all we need, if we look.  God gives us good people to pray for us, who lead us in God’s ways, if we listen.
  3. The Psalms are full of wisdom. We need to give thanks, we need to worship, and we need to recognize we are God’s people. We need to make sure our hearts don’t get rocky.
  4. People are not always what they appear to be. Society is not always just. Outcasts are loved by God and sometimes used to wake the rest of us up.  All of us need a brain-flush on occasion with some living water of repentance and renewal.  Lent can happen at any time.

 

 

Grasphing the Gracious Gift

1st Sunday Lent A,  3-5-17; Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7 ;  Ps: 51:3-6, 12-13, 17; Romans 5:12-19Matthew 4:1-11

 Grasping the Gracious Gift   

This reading from the second & third chapters of Genesis always makes me sad. It is likely one of the most used and abused, most misinterpreted passages in the Bible.  It has been used to prove that women should be oppressed, that men are spineless wimps, that God’s creation is faulty, and that both humans and snakes are inherently evil – when that was never the intention of the story.

What was the intent? It’s a beautiful creation story and by far more sophisticated in its vision than anything comparable found in the ancient world.    It is older than the story we find in Genesis chapter one, and shares themes with other creation myths in the Mesopotamian region.  And just in case you feel the need to explore your Bible a little more closely, check out the creation story in the book of Ezekiel chapter 28 that you’ve probably never heard.

But there are two things we really need to pay attention to here. First – the eternal question of evil.  God in chapter one is said to create a good world.  God is pleased with it.  When you read Proverbs chapters 3-8, you find this theme again and again.  So, where did the cunning of the serpent come from, and why did it lie to Eve?  Interesting question, but that’s not really what we need to know, so I ask the 2nd question, and that is- what was Eve’s reason for making the choice of listening to the serpent’s lies?  The text tells us, “the tree was… desirable for gaining wisdom.”  The serpent had said, “Your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods (little “g”) who know what is good and what is evil.” Sometimes I wonder if the story suggests that in Eve’s ears, she heard that she would be like “GOD”?

So what was humanity’s relationship to God when they were created? God had created humankind, and blew the breath of life into man.  God gave mankind the power of naming the animals, and thereby giving man power over animals.  God gave these humans the very best of everything.  In chapter one, the creation of humans is the climax of creation, the grandest and greatest of creation, actually in the divine image.  We are not God, but we are a reflection of God.

And somehow Eve thought that the glory of God, the wisdom and knowledge of God was something she and Adam could grasp by eating a piece of fruit. It is a concept still pitched by marketing snakes.  Buy this car, and you will look rich and powerful and women will be attracted to you.  Drink this diet soda and your body will be sleek and desirable.  Take this drug and your sports performance will be Olympic.  It’s the same old lie.  And why do we still fall for it?  Because we want to grasp the goal without developing the grit.

What does scripture say? Look at Philippians 2: 5-11:  “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Which is why in Psalm 51 David doesn’t say to God, “The devil made me do it.” Instead he claims his evil choice of taking another man’s wife and having her husband killed.  David admits his desire to be all-powerful (like God) is wrong, too great to be grasped.  He asks instead for the “joy of (God’s) salvation” – a joy which God, and only God, freely gives to those who empty themselves of the pride of power, the need to control that which they did not create, the desire and greed for that which was not theirs to grasp.

St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reassures us there is a way out of our folly. He teaches that although these impulses of pride and control and desire haunt us, “how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift- of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for (us).”  What was the gracious gift?  It was his good and selfish choice of being obedient and coming to us as a humble man to face and overcome our murderous actions – actions which grow out of pride and power and control and desire.

Of course, Jesus was never one to simply tell us how to live and walk away, shaking his head at our endless repetition of the same bad decisions. He demonstrates it for us, he lives the trials; he shows us success and gives us solutions.  Our reading from Matthew is only one example of that.  He is tempted at his most vulnerable, when he was near starvation, when he saw power at hand and close enough to reach for, when he was shown glory and fame in its most magnificent and attractive forms.

Shucks, I hear the word “temptation” and I think of double chocolate cake with Breyer’s mint ice cream with chocolate chunks in it. But the solution is still the same- obedience.  Trying to grasp the joy of the stomach or the joy of ego or the joy of stuff never really works, only the freely given joy of the soul lasts beyond the end of the day.

This time of Lent is when we re-set our moral compasses, when we hold out our intentions in the cold light of day and ask if we act with justice and love. We look at those things we do without thinking the rest of the year and consider the fruit of our actions.  What do we seek to grasp, what do we reach out for?