Flipping Greatness Upside Down

29th Sunday of Ordinary time, 10-21-2018

Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-20, 22; Hebrews 4:14-16;  Mark 10:35-45

We left Jesus last week saying, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Then, for the third time, Jesus predicts his coming death. He says, “…the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests…and will (be) condemned to death…they will mock him and scourge Him and spit on Him and kill Him.  And on the third day He will rise again.”

If you remember, the first time (8:31) Jesus said this, Peter scolded Jesus for saying such a thing. Jesus compared him to Satan, and accused Peter of tempting him as Satan did in the desert.  The second time (9:31), everyone was afraid to ask any questions.  Now (10: 32), James and John oddly choose to ask Jesus for a favor immediately after Jesus proclaims his coming death the 3rd time.  It’s more like a demand that Jesus do “whatever they ask”.  Have John and James not paid attention to his teaching about the first being last, and the last first?

So what do they want? What immediately comes to mind is power, prestige, to be “great”.  The 1st Nicene Council was in 325, after Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire.  The historical records include who sat on the right and the left of the Emperor Constantine.   They were highly contested places to sit,  won by strong arm political maneuvering – and you can be assured the man who sat on the right of the Emperor was the one who promoted the winning theology which resulted in the first Canon Laws of the Church. Were James and John doing some serious political moves to be leaders when the time came for Jesus to defeat Rome and take over the government?  Seems like a timely passage to be reading just before a hotly contested election, doesn’t it?

Jesus warns them that they don’t understand the enormity of their request. Yet they agree to drink the cup of suffering, and to be submerged in the baptism of death.  And of course, word leaks out about their demands, and anger and jealousy erupt among the rest of the apostles, so much so that Jesus must sit them down and straighten them out.

Jesus does not deny that there is rank in the Kingdom of God.  But it is not a result of shrewd political maneuvers.  Jesus reminds the apostles of their Roman Conquerors, and how they chose leaders.  It was a corrupt system, and the Jews were subject to men who were anxious to “lord it over” them.  The apostles are close to trying to do the same thing.   It is always interesting, and usually depressing, when there is a shift of political power. Once people gain power, they tend to try to suppress other people. Power is a breeding ground for unrestrained ambition and jealousy.

Or perhaps I am terribly wrong about James and John. I was reading an article by Eleonore Stump, Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University. She said her son-in-law read this Gospel and immediately understood it to mean something other than what we usually think. He said, that after Jesus had announced his coming death three times, James and John understood he meant it. Perhaps they were ready to be on the right and left of Jesus when he was crucified, which might account for the odd time they approached him. But God had already chosen those at the right and left of Jesus – two unknown, nameless, lowly criminals were on his right and his left. One of them did, in fact, follow Jesus to eternal life.  Perhaps the other apostles misinterpreted the request made by James and John, seeing it all through a lens of their own ambition, as people traditionally do when reading this.

Jesus offers another way to live, another way to become great, turning the entire measure of greatness around and flipping the scale of greatness upside down. “Whoever”, he says, “desire to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever desires to be first shall be slave of all”.  Servant!  Slave!  Is he telling us to become great by being the lowest of the social order?  Inwardly, we wince.  “No one could do that”, we think.  Jesus hears our doubt.  He responds, “For even (I) did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give (my) life as a ransom for the many.” It is so counter to our culture it takes our breath away, and we feel a dark urge to not take it too seriously.

Our reading from Hebrew offers us reassurance that Jesus is in fact serious and does understand our weaknesses, as he too was subjected to temptation. So we may run to Jesus with confidence, for only in his perfect power, we will receive mercy and grace, and find the true greatness of service to each other.

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Hear, see…..and do!

25th Sunday Ordinary Time September 23, 2018

Wisdom 2:12, 17-20, Ps 54:3-8; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37

Last Sunday we “saw” our readings in the very center of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is beginning to reveal himself for who he really is.  The readers, like the disciples, are beginning to see the true face of Jesus – his actions, his teaching, his miracles come together  to prove him to be the Messiah.   While the Gospel might at first look appear to be simple, we are finding the arrangement of the events and teachings are carefully woven together.  This Gospel can be compared to a complex tapestry.  If we look at the reverse side first, we see the colors, but the pattern seems random and disorganized.  Only when we turn the tapestry over to the front, we see the artistry and the picture that those many threads were woven together to create.

So, again as last week, our lectionary has omitted some important and relevant events. Shortly after Jesus’ teaching about his upcoming crucifixion, death and resurrection, he takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain to witness the transfiguration.  Jesus’ appearance changes, they hear the voice of God, and see Elijah and Moses.  What Jesus has said is now experienced by the 3 apostles.  It strengthens Jesus for his upcoming death, and better prepares the apostles for the trauma of his death and the shock of his resurrection.  Again, Mark wrote his Gospel as if it was it was a picture being woven– the readers, along with the apostles, are given threads that must be assembled, with the resurrection and Pentecost completing the picture.

They come down the mountain from the transfiguration. The disciples who stayed behind have tried to heal a boy who has had terrible seizures since birth.  They are unable to heal him, and the Jewish scribes are verbally attacking them.  Jesus intervenes and heals the child, then takes the disciples aside privately.  No doubt the disciples are embarrassed and saddened at their failure, and ask Jesus what went wrong.  He replies that “This kind (of illness) can come out by nothing except prayer.”  No matter how well trained, how gifted, how experienced, or how well intentioned we are, our ability to overcome struggles, temptations, and evil all rely on God’s strength, not our own.  Prayer connects us to God, and allows God to heal through us in ways that are impossible otherwise.  This incident, directly following the transfiguration, should have made crystal clear to the apostles the difference between human beings and The One True God.  It should do the same for us.

Our reading begins with the disciples alone with Jesus, walking through Galilee toward Jerusalem.  For the 2nd time, he says, “The Son of Man is being delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him.  And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.”  The statement, a repeat of what we heard last week, is delivered in the third person.  Jesus does not say “I” but by the title of “The Son of Man”, stressing his divinity, and making clear this is a true prophecy of a divine event.  This is not a magic show contrived by a man.  This teaching draws in all that the disciples have watched, heard, and participated in over the last few weeks.  Like us, they struggle with the intense needs of the people around them, their own desires to control what happens in the future, the (somewhat selfish) pride they feel from being in the center of attention as they travel with Jesus, and the fear they experience as the Temple leaders threaten them and the very life of Jesus.  If Jesus will be killed, what will happen to them?  Jesus has told them to “Take up their cross”, and follow in his foot steps. They were afraid to ask, probably because they were afraid to know.

Their response is very human. Their fears become anger, and in their anger they try to grasp power.  It’s an attempt to deny that they are not in control of the situation.  I strongly expect their emotions were obvious, for on arrival in Capernaum, Jesus asks, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?”  Embarrassed by his question, they realize their big posturing and proud words were really just cover for their feelings of fear and inadequacy. It’s something that frightened people do, regardless of age. It’s why politicians and salesmen tell you that you are in harm’s way and that something terrible will happen if you don’t buy their product or vote for them.  Fear is a very old way to control people who have not listened to wise teaching and/or searched out facts.  So now Jesus has their attention, and he teaches the facts that will remove their fear.

How can we say this in modern language? If you want to be a leader, your concern must not be centered on yourself. Your attention must be on the people around you.  Instead of striving for wealth and possessions, you must use wealth to see that others have what they need.  You must use your influence and position to ensure others are treated with compassion.  Grasping power and status will not calm your fears. Instead, ease the fears of others with truth and transparency and wisdom.  Reach out to the “children” of the world – people with physical and emotional problems which limit their chance to gain employment, safe and decent housing, and access adequate education and training.  Mentor those people who do not have support from their families, those who have lived with fear and bullying, abuse and neglect, those isolated in prisons and institutions.  Treat those who are considered the “least” in our society as the most valuable, uncover the value of those people which awaits underneath the pain of their past.  In doing this, you will find not only your own value, but you will find God.

How to do this? We don’t need to just talk about it, but actually do it.  Let’s start by getting more information from St. Timothy on their many existing outreach programs.  Many programs need time more than they need money.  It is what Jesus asked us to do.  It will be rewarding to work with other Christians who share our goals.  It will bring us closer to God.  Why not?

Astonishment

23rd Sunday Ordinary time, September 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Fullness of Life

13th Sunday Ordinary Time, 7-1-18

Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24; Psalm: 30:2-6, 11-13; 2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-15; Mark 5:21-43

Often I look for a theme word or idea that ties the readings together. It seemed relatively easy to find that unifying word today – the word is “life”.  Our first reading from the Book of Wisdom, written only about 100 years before Christ, would seem to use the idea of “life” very literally.  Our writer says, “God formed man to be imperishable…we were made in the image of God’s own nature”.   Now that sounds familiar, from Genesis 1: 26, that we are made in God’s image, after God’s likeness.  But it clearly doesn’t mean that we have share God’s nose or eye color.  The writer of Wisdom takes it to mean that we, like God, were meant to be eternal beings, not just to be a dot on the landscape for a moment in time.  Jesus told us the same thing in Luke 12:27 when he said, “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”  If God creates flowers of great beauty for only a day or two, how much more does God, who loves us so very deeply, create us to be eternal!  There are voices in our culture that tell us life is just hard and we have to plod along until it’s over, that life is cheap, and certain people are expendable, that lives of some are without value.  The author of Wisdom makes clear that those voices are absolutely wrong and come from darkness and evil.  Life is a precious gift of God.

Psalm 30 was written as a song of joy and thanksgiving to God for an escape from enemies. It was later used to celebrate the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BC after the Maccabean Revolt for Jewish independence.  Think of it as an ancient 4th of July-type song.  It is a celebration of life; first there was weeping when life and liberty were lost, and then came dancing for the joy of freedom.

But then we have the Gospel, where the concept of life becomes much broader. We find the stories of a dying girl and a desperate woman wrapped around each other.  We’ve seen these “sandwich stories”, or “stories within stories” in Mark before.  They are meant to work together to explain each other and to act as “surround sound”, with the message coming at us from multiple directions.  Jesus obviously knows a great deal about love.  He knows that love is powerful – so powerful it is stronger than death.  For Jesus himself is life – both life and light to us.  In Him there is no darkness. For God created light to end the darkness.

So what do the woman and the girl have in common? The woman has been dying a slow death.  She has died a social death – she has been shut out of the temple and separated from her community and social supports because the religious authorities declared her “unclean”. To this day, some Christian churches have continued to declare all women as unable to be priests – perhaps unwittingly following an ancient misunderstanding about women’s bodies.  Still, around the world women are blocked from leadership positions.

The woman in the story has also been financially dying as her money has all been spent on medical treatments that have not worked, and her hope has been dying as her health has deteriorated. Jesus, frankly, is a last-chance option, and it is not entirely clear, given her “fear” after she touches his clothes, if she understands who Jesus is.  But Jesus is very clear about who he is.  It is her faith, not magic or chance, he tells her, which saved her.  She is to live in God’s peace now; it is not that she just kept looking until she found the “right cure”, but that God has cured her.

The girl is dying a sudden death. She had not been ill long.  Her death was probably caused by a bacterial infection, or a virus, and nearly half of all children at that time died before they were 18.  There simply was little that could be done, and little or no time to try to help her.   To both the woman and the girl, Jesus gives a second chance at life – a full life, with hope and love and peace.

But why does Mark keep these stories alive for us, so long afterwards, and what do they have to do with us? Surely this is not about preventing every death or about every sick child being resurrected.  We know better.  Christians who do not understand Mark’s story have cruelly broken many people’s hearts and created great anguish and anger by insisting that prayers will save every life or cure every disease.  Meanwhile, every human still dies.

There are many people whom we love or work with or pass on the sidewalks, who have parts of their souls and their psyches dying. An estimated 23.5 million Americans are addicted to alcohol and drugs, about 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 12.  89% of them do not receive treatment – and the high cost and lack of availability of treatment are the primary reasons.  Add to those numbers the number of Americans who are born with disabilities, those seriously injured in automobile crashes and those who are suffering with chronic health issues and you begin to understand the real America.  And consider the numbers of people in 3rd world countries who have no access to heath care, those trapped in the middle of wars and those who are unwilling immigrants from other kinds of violence, and you have the beginnings of a realistic picture of the life of the majority of the people in our world.  Some of us live, for the most part, my friends, in a bubble.

We must remember the great efforts expended by both the woman and the girl’s father to seek healing. They did not sit at home and say, “Ain’t it awful!”   They acted in a brave and heroic way, in front of a huge crowd, and were willing to face shame and ridicule for their efforts. Why did their communities make it so hard?  Perhaps Mark would like us to consider that.

Perhaps healing comes best when there is grace – the love of God -freely demonstrated by believers, and community – when there is support and openness and inclusiveness.  Healing is a type of thing where if “you aren’t with us, you’re against us.”  People who need medical care need to access it at affordable rates, provided by well-trained professionals and volunteers who will offer transportation, moral support, gentleness and kindness.  People seldom heal themselves without good information, quality food, and encouragement.  Power to give life comes from grace and community, for the strength of community is greater than the strength of individuals.  The hems of our garments are the clothes that people are reaching for.

These stories in Mark are not just stories made up to enhance the image of Jesus. They are not just historical stories to take up space on a shelf.   They are stories about what God continues even now to do through faith – faith that Jesus did rise from the dead, and that death and hatred and prejudice and violence are no longer necessary in our world – and our actions and our behavior do make a difference.  When Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you” or “Do not be afraid, just have faith,” he is looking at us who call ourselves Christians.

When we feel those small parts of ourselves die when we are repeatedly disappointed by those we care about, or the sexual harassment we experience at work, or the inability to control our finances, or the covert prejudice we face, do we hesitate to take them to Jesus for healing, and to our community for support? Do we “put on a brave face” and bury our feelings so that our family and friends don’t know about our suffering?  How do we react when someone else tells us of their struggles?

Finally, the Greek word for healing (sozo) in Mark’s Gospel is the very same word which he also uses for what we call salvation. Salvation is forgiveness of our sins, a type of healing, which opens the way to God for us. There is a real and clear link between physical healing and spiritual healing.  It’s not science vs religion, but just two parts of the unity of life.  In other words, healing and a full life are offered to all in many difference ways.  Each of us can describe in our own unique way what “fullness of life” means to us.

This week, spend some time in prayer; tell Jesus the healing you need, from things you have done, or things you have failed to do, or things which have been done to you.  Make a plan to change one thing in your life, with God’s help, which will make your life – or the lives of those around you – fuller, richer, more meaningful.  Find another believer to walk this journey with you. Let this change grow in you, nurture it as it becomes more mature and natural to you, and find the joy which comes from reaching out to touch Jesus and find life.

 

“Do This”

Sunday of the Body and Blood of Christ 6-3-18

Exodus 24:3-8; Psalm 116:12-18;Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-26

 

In the largest sense of human history, the Solemnity we celebrate today is the story of God’s relationship with all of creation; an intimate relationship of The Creator with the creation. Without the soil and the sun and the rain, the plants do not grow, and there is no food.  Without food, there are no animals.  Without God, nothing exists.  It is a good day to pause and remember our interrelationship and the necessary balances God established in creation to sustain life.

But meditating on the largest sense of human history can make us feel tiny, and we can feel too tiny to think about the enormity of it all. So, perhaps it is well to focus on the small parts of creation at a level where we can better grasp ideas that seem to impact our lives more personally.

Our reading from Exodus is about Moses sprinkling the blood of animals which have been sacrificed as peace offerings to God. Moses sprinkles the blood on the altar, as our rituals might have us incense the altar.   Then there is a reading of the covenant with God, and the people renew their vows to be God’s People and obey the commandments God has given them, just we renew our baptismal promises on Easter.

Then Moses sprinkles blood on the people, just as we sprinkle the water of baptism. But there is another side to this idea.  Our Eucharist speaks of “the cup of my blood”, the blood of Jesus which is shed for all so that sins are forgiven.  Today we have dozens of laundry products specially designed to remove stains.  Blood and wine are always first on the list of difficult stains to remove.   It is a startling idea that the blood of Jesus should not stain us and ruin us, but instead washes us clean of sin, removes all guilt and eliminates the need for punishment, allowing us to live eternally with God.

Our Psalm speaks of the “cup of salvation”. This Psalm could have been written by a contemporary Christian poet.  We take up the communion cup of salvation, calling on the name of the Lord, who has freed us from evil, selfishness and sin.  We remember our vows to God.  In order to give thanks to God, we must sacrifice our overinflated egos and all our “dead works”, as our 2nd reading calls our behaviors such as attempting to reduce God to an hour on Sunday.

So, like the early Christians, we experience the Body and Blood of Christ in the Mass as a sacrament, meaning an effective sign of grace, which works to give us divine life through the Holy Spirit. How did that look just after the first Pentecost? Well, in Acts 2:42 we find that (Christians) “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  The identity of Christians, then, was formed in unity, unity in belief and charity, both of which were founded in Eucharist, centered in thanksgiving for the gifts of Christ’s body and blood.

Some twenty years after Pentecost, The Church in Antioch left us a manual of liturgical prayers which we call the “Didache”, Greek for teaching.  In about the year 100, Pope Clement wrote a letter to the church at Corinth, saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might!” Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the church to “Confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”  In about the 150’s Justin Martyr wrote a detailed description of the Mass as it was celebrated in Rome.  We have historical evidence of the Mass in letters & prayers.

What was the impact of this Mass on the early church? The church had a growth rate estimated at 40% per decade, and by the middle of the 4th century, there were 33 million Christians in an Empire of 60 million people.  The Church Fathers quoted Malachi 1:11, “From the rising of the sun to its setting, my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, with a pure offering” –  as to say that always and everywhere in the Empire, the Mass was offered.

By then the Mass was called, “the Breaking of the Bread”, “the (once-for-all) Sacrifice”, “the Liturgy”, “the Mysteries”, “the Table of the Lord”, “the Lord’s Supper”, “the Altar”, and “the Communion.” But “the Eucharist” won out, because it was the Greek word for giving thanks, and Mark 14:23, Matthew 26:27, Luke 22:17, and 1 Corinthians 11:24 all used that word. Although great care was taken to keep the liturgy within Christian tradition, the spread of the Gospel from place to place included new and local ways to express worship, but the Words of Institution as found in 1 Corinthians 11 were kept intact. (“On the night when he was betrayed, he took bread and when he had given thanks; he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me…” Likewise the cup..)

We keep these words because Jesus commanded us to do so at a most solemn moment anticipating his death. St. Paul emphasized that this action is at the center of the church.  The cup “is the new covenant in my blood.”  Thus, all the subsequent generations have meticulously preserved the Lord’s words and actions as precious and divine.  The many ways that the Christian liturgy shares the prayers of our Jewish brothers and sisters is a fascinating study all by itself.

For early Christians, Mass was the meeting of heaven and earth. But the Mass was also preached as the unifying power of the church.  “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1Cor 10:17).  Ignatius wrote, “For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to show forth the unity of His blood.”  Great reverence and care were taken with the elements, which were regarded as more precious than gold or jewels.  Likewise, clergy were to give careful attention to the worlds of the liturgy, and great emphasis was placed on John 6:51, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, they will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Finally, the disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Christ when he opened the Scriptures for them, but rather in the breaking of the bread. In the same way, many millions of people have come to know Jesus after he ascended to heaven.  It reminds me of a quote from Pope Benedict XVI – “Evangelization is…the opening of the heart…(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…”

We have here a sacrament of depth beyond our imaging, a sacrament which has roots in the earliest moments of creation. We have a liturgy for this sacrament which opens the hearts of people to God with the same power that it did centuries ago.  We have words and actions which we share with those who have gone before us and which we are responsible for passing on to those who come after us.  May the Holy Spirit lead us in this journey, may you find the fullness of God’s mercy and grace, and may Jesus remain in you as you partake from his table.

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.