Do We Hear God’s Voice?

4th Sunday in Ordinary time

Deut 18:15-20; Psalm: 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28

Our 1st reading today starts with a reminder of when Moses brought down the 10 commandments from the mountain (Exodus 20: 10).  There was thunder and lightening.  The earth trembled, the clouds were thick, and there was a sound like trumpets blasting.  It was scary; the people were afraid.  They believed that they could die from getting too close to God.  They never again wanted to hear the voice of God.

We believe God loves us, “and we long to see his face.” But have you ever wondered why God does not speak to us directly?  Have you ever said, “I wish God would just tell me the answer to my problems”? We complain that God does not communicate with us clearly, making it hard to know the right thing to do.

In Moses day, there was an answer to the problem – people were called to be “prophets”. A prophet does not foretell the future; a prophet just relates a message clearly and accurately from God to a person or a group of people.  Of course, that was no guarantee that anyone would do what the prophet said.  The Old Testament is filled with the stories of people who found God’s message too difficult, or found the advice of other people more appealing, which always lead to humiliations and hardships.

Our Psalm mentions one of the occasions when this happened. While traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land, God gave Moses and the Israelites manna and quail to eat.  But when they camped at a place which had no water, the people quarreled and rebelled against Moses’ leadership.  They still failed to trust when Moses told them that God would provide for them, even after they had eaten the manna and seen God’s strength lead them out of slavery in Egypt!  They rebelled against both God’s message and the prophet who brought the message.  That is why the place was named Massah (quarrel) and Meribah (rebel).  Once again, their fear had stopped them from hearing God.  The Psalm is a prayer that we might to be able to hear God without a messenger.

Finally, our reading from Mark follows immediately after Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John from their fishing to follow him. It is the first time Jesus teaches in a local synagogue and does a healing miracle.  They know Jesus only as the son of Joseph, a carpenter.  The amazement of the people is somewhat skeptical.  How is Jesus able to speak and teach with more understanding and knowledge than even the scribes, who are educated, who read and write with ease?  Why is Jesus so sure of himself and teaches as one with vast experience and understanding? He is like a prophet who confidently announces words which come from God, and heals, too!

The unclean spirit in the man recognizes Jesus’ authority. The spirit cries out, literally shrieks in fear of Jesus, as Moses’ people had feared God.  The spirit is unable to disobey and leaves the man. The people debate among themselves, trying to understand what they have witnessed.  But they cannot deny what they have seen, and the news spreads rapidly.  The fame of Jesus builds as the people recognize, even if they do not name the source of it, his authority and his power.

If only Mark had recorded the teaching! We do not know what he said, only the stunning impact he created on the people.  It is hard not to wish we had been there to experience what amazed the people so. We also wish we had the clarity of Jesus’ teaching and his presence among us.

But we do! We have 4 Gospels, 4 different and fascinating records of the life, teaching, and miracles of Jesus.  We also have all the letters by Paul and others that have been saved. We have some 2000 years of church history and Tradition.  Many wise and faithful Christians have left their legacies, their lives, their writings, their studies for us.  It is an incredible and vast collection to help us grow in the faith.  We no longer have to wonder who Jesus was.  Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit; we have the Spirit indwelling in our hearts to guide us.

But what if we fail to read or study the teaching of Jesus? We are like people who read only the first paragraph of each chapter of a book and think they are ready to attend a book club discussion. We would be like students who don’t read the assigned text book, expecting a couple of important bulletin points to be emailed to them by the professor.  Hearing just short passages on Sunday robs us of the crucial settings and background of why, for example, Jesus told a particular parable.  Jesus often refers to Moses and Abraham – how can we understand those references unless we know those characters and their stories.

Have you ever been pressed to explain or defend baptism or the Eucharist, and had difficulty? Do we take the Traditions of the church seriously? Do we learn all we can about why we pray as we do, why we have the sacraments and the depth of their meaning? No wonder we are so hesitant to tell other people about our faith and what it means to us.  For our message to be attractive to others, it must include our knowledgeable and personal experience with God as Father, Brother, and Friend.

Perhaps we think God is silent because we are silent about God. Perhaps we have stopped listening to God and focused on all the “thunder and lightening” of our culture instead.  Perhaps we still fear God, because we do not yet know God.  Oh, that today we would hear God’s voice!

 

Advertisements

Church Correction; Growth in Godliness

23rd Sunday Ordinary time, 9-10-17; Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm: 95:1-2, 6-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-2

We have been reading in the 4th section of Matthew, which discusses the Kingdom of God and the Church.  It focuses on the care and respect that believers must have for each other; we must guard each other’s faith with correction, seek out the lost, and forgive each other.  Unfortunately, the lectionary chops up Jesus’ discourse. Let’s take a quick look at the three paragraphs just before our reading so we can be centered in the discussion.

First, the disciples ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus’ response: “Whoever humbles himself like (a) child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  This deflates our egos quickly when we remember what limited value was put on children then, especially girls.  Greatness is not about power or prestige.

Next, Jesus warns the disciples: “Whoever causes one of these little ones (the humble) who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hug around his neck and to be drowned in the…sea.” That image is worth a thousand words.

Just before our reading is the parable of the Lost Sheep. Jesus’ own recap: “It is not the will of our heavenly Father that one of these little (humble) ones be lost.”  You can hear a theme of the value to God of the individual, especially the humble and those of seemingly “Little Value”. There are thousands of “lost” people within a couple of miles of our church! “Lost” can be translated as lacking the necessities of life, or treated as worthless, or as unaware of God’s love.

Today our Gospel reading is about Jesus telling us how to function with each other in a church community. Why? Jesus was Jewish.  They didn’t have churches; they had synagogues and the temple.  Jesus never, at any time recorded in the scriptures, told his followers to start “a church”.  Some theologians suggest that Jesus was beginning to realize that at some time his teachings would cause a separation from the Jewish faith.

Others suggest that the growing antagonism between the followers of Jesus and the Jews was due to other political, social, and economic reasons, along with general human hard-heartedness. Remember that the Jews had several internal sects that were in armed rebellion against Roman rule, and that the Romans, completely fed up with them, destroyed the temple, along with much of Jerusalem in the year 70 c.e.  A lot was going on in the first century, and one part can’t really be separated from the rest of the story.

But we also have evidence that Matthew’s faith community was having the kind of problems that many faith communities have. There were some people doing things that annoyed others, things that were counter to Jewish and/or Christian morals, things that were disruptive, or stole the attention away from the faith.

The teachings we read today are ones that Jesus may have spoken as admonishment to the apostles, and served Matthew’s pastoral needs.  They are based on well-known Jewish scriptures in Leviticus19: 17, “You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow man, do not incur sin because of him.”  Also in Sirach 19:16 “Admonish your neighbor before you break with him; thus will you fulfill the law of the Most High.” Some corporate headquarters did not create this type of process to settle disputes; it’s been around a long time.

Gerald Darring, a long-time Catholic theologian, professor, catechist, and author of many books, has written this better than I can, so I will quote him,                                                       “We are a church, an assembly of people gathered to do the work of God. This work brings us together around the table of the Lord and sends us out to renew the face of the earth.   The task that faces us in the world is awesome, and the obstacles are formidable. The only way we can succeed is by staying together, with Jesus in our midst, and our staying together must involve community efforts to correct our faults. When there is racism or sexism in our church, we must confront them and work to eliminate them. When economic injustice is found…, we must speak out against it and work to eliminate it. When militarism makes its way into the fabric of our community, we must stand up for peace and proclaim the gospel message of nonviolent change. An essential component of … love should be the help (notice he didn’t say “condemnation”) we give each other in overcoming the shortcomings that get in the way of our becoming a universal sacrament of salvation.”

If you have read, “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road”, you know that one of the issues stressed in that book is not the faults of other religions, but the faults and darkness that have made their way into our own belief systems.  It is challenging to look at the history of our religion and the structure of our religious institutions.  If you haven’t read it yet, you still have time.  As CACINA Catholics, many of us have already had to face up to some social teachings and practices of other Christian groups which we had found to lead away from Christ.  Sometimes someone must be asked to leave; at times some of us have had to leave.  The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America’s goal is open discussions as a way to test our beliefs and grow in Godliness.

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!

The Continuing Miracle of the New Manna

Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ / Corpus Christi, 6-18-17

Deut 8:2-3, 14b-16a, Ps: 147:12-15,19-20, 1Corinth 10:16-17, John 6:51-58

             The Continuing Miracle of the New Manna

We started our readings today in Deuteronomy, when God fed the people with the miracle of manna as they escaped from slavery in Egypt.  God had told Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven” for you.  According to Exodus 16, manna was a daily reminder of the promise of God’s goodness.  Manna had never been seen before, never appeared on the Sabbath, was present for 40 years, and then stopped forever when the Israelites were able to eat produce in the Promised Land (Joshua 5:12).

Ps 78:24 reads, “Man ate the bread of the angels; God sent them food in abundance.” Wisdom 16:20 reads, “You nourished your people with food of angels and furnished them bread from heaven.”  This manna was recognized as holy, and a jar of manna was kept in the Temple’s most holy place with Ark of the Covenant.

It won’t surprise you that there were many Jewish Traditions about manna. One was that manna was kept in the Heavenly Temple where God dwells.  They believed that manna was an eternal reality, existing long before it “rained down” on the Israelites. Another Tradition said when the Messiah came, he would be a “new Moses” and manna would return to earth; the miracle of manna would again occur between the coming of the Messiah and the final resurrection of the dead/ the final judgment.  That, in fact, is the period of time we live in, and Jesus gave us the new manna.

Why am I telling you Jewish Traditions that are found in rabbinic writings from the first and second century? Well, here’s an idea for you: the whole context of Jesus’ bread of life discourse in the Gospel of John is centered on the Jewish hopes for the coming of a New Moses and the return of the manna from heaven.

Chapter 6 of John starts with the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus, like Moses, provides all the bread (and more) the hungry crowd could eat.  The people “get” the symbolism and prepare to “take (Jesus) by force and make him king”, which fits their political interpretation of the role of Messiah.  They call out, “This is indeed the prophet (Moses) who is (prophesized) to come into the world!”  They pursue Jesus and demand a sign, saying that “Moses gave (the people) bread from heaven…give us this bread always”.

So Jesus responds, “I AM the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they (later) died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever and the bread that I give… is my flesh for the life of the world.” (Jn 6:51)

Many of his followers were horrified! Jews in Jesus’ time had good reason to doubt.  Jews were directly forbidden to drink blood in the Law (Lev 17:11), because it contained the very essence of life, and to never eat the flesh of another human.  What Jesus said truly offended them, and they left him and returned to their former way of life.  They thought they understood, but they did not believe him.   Peter emphatically says he & the apostles believe, but not so much that they understand.  No one understood until Easter.

This is the point in the Gospel at which our lectionary stops, as do most homilies. However, it is also the point at which Jesus begins an explanation.  Obviously, Jesus is talking about the Last Supper – the elements of the Mass, and we have to return to the discussion of “manna”.  Once again, John uses “bookends.”  Jesus starts this part of the discourse with “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness” (6:48) and ends it with “This is the bread that comes down from heaven.  Unlike your ancestors, who ate and still died; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” (6:58) Manna is the teaching vehicle.  This is how it works: OT/ NT, prefiguration/ fulfillment, foreshadowing/clarity.   Just as Moses was a great father of the faith/ Jesus was the Son of God. If the old manna was “food of the angels”, then the new manna couldn’t be just bread…and wine, but the food of eternity for all people.

John’s Gospel provides us 2 keys to understanding. 1st key: Jesus says, “What if… you were to see (me) ascending to where (I) was before?”  Would it change your mind? Remember that Jesus claimed the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2); that he was the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12); and referred to himself as God by saying “I AM” (John 8) –when Moses asked God his name, God said, “I AM” (Exodus 3).  He had come from heaven and was divine.  God.  The discussion has changed from human to divine.

2nd Key- equally important-Jesus says, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh (a Greek expression meaning earthly things, not meat) is of no avail.” (John 6: 63) What you see & touch on earth can’t create life.  Instead, he was talking about his risen body and blood; his resurrected body is Spirit, the Spirit of Life.  His body then was no longer bound by earthly time, form, or space, as we know from the post-resurrection appearances.  We are no longer talking about daily earthly events.  We moved to the rhelm of eternity.

The Spirit came with the appearance of the familiar, yet fully divine. Jesus links his resurrection to our resurrection when he says, “(They) who eat my flesh and drink my blood (meaning the fullness and very essence of the eternal God who created life) have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:53-54). Jesus said, “God is Spirit” in John 4:24, and now says, “It is the Spirit that gives life”.  Bread feeds our cells and allows us to live on earth; the manna of the Mass feeds us for eternal life.

I was thinking as I wrote this that if I showed my cell phone to the disciples, they wouldn’t have understood it. We have difficulty understanding the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Thinking of eternity in the mystical sense is more than tough for us.  Yet, I can’t describe what I feel when I kiss the altar nor can I count the number of people who have believed in the Eucharist thru the years.  Even Melchizedek, in the time of Abraham, already seemed to have this “bread & wine” ritual.  I know this: it must be from God.  As you receive today, focus on that fullness of life, the resurrected Christ in these elements, and know that he is able to bring you, pure and made whole, into the presence of God. It is God’s gift to you, so come in faith and give thanks.