Sunday, January 18, 2015

What Are You Looking For?

January 18, 2015 –– 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Samuel 3:3b–10, 19 / 1 Corinthains 6:13c–15a, 17–20 / John 1:35–42
What Are You Looking For?

We are two weeks past Epiphany Sunday when we remembered the Magi who were looking for Jesus. They expended considerable time, trouble, and expense to follow the star. Today’s Gospel jumps about three decades with John the Baptist directing two of his disciples to Jesus. The Baptizer made it easier for those who would hear, identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God. Those two disciples, Andrew and John, follow Jesus and become two of his twelve disciples, and we are told it was Andrew who brought his brother Simon (who we know better as Peter) to Jesus.

It is worth noticing that the first thing Jesus says in John’s Gospel is to ask those initial inquirers, What are you looking for? That is a question for all of us.

Speaking collectively of our human situation, we are always looking for something. Many of us are familiar with one of Saint Augustine’s best known Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” The problem is that too few people in the world recognize this as a basic truth. So we keep looking.

Especially in our culture we keep looking. Though we have hundreds of entertainment options today––video games, the Internet, CD and MP3 players, home entertainment centers, sporting events, megamalls, movie theaters, and even robotic toys––Western culture is battling an insidious disease. It's an epidemic of boredom. Boredom is seeing our lives as dull, tedious, and lacking in stimulation. In a paradoxical twist, our incessant saturation with entertainment ultimately leads to a "deadness of the soul", an overpowering feeling of indifference and callousness towards life. We were made for more than intense amusement and personal pleasure.

It is amazing that in our materially saturated society we can have so much and yet have such limited contentment. How many days (or hours!) after Christmas morning do we hear children whining, “I’m bored.” It is not because they didn’t get enough presents. And it’s not just children; that is the frustration (even if it’s not verbally expressed) of so many adults who keep looking for the next thing they hope will make them happy.

As we start a new year, let’s do some personal inventory. What am I looking for? I need to ask myself this regularly. What are you looking for? Are we, above everything else, looking for Jesus? Are we finding in Jesus the hope and peace and joy that motivates us to tell others about him? It only took Andrew one evening with Jesus for him to go and tell his brother.

Let’s pray for a grace not be more excited about a big ballgame or our next big purchase or even a coming family celebration than we are about the one thing that has wonderfully changed the course of the world forever. We say it every week: Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world…. Let’s seek to be people who embrace it and live it and share it. Everyone faces this question in some way: What are you looking for? Let’s look for Jesus. Let’s look to Jesus. Let’s lead others to Jesus. What are you looking for?


Twenty-five years ago I was preaching serially through Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.  This text was part of today's lectionary reading, so I'm posting some long-ago thoughts that are all too relevant today.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

This is not a subject I gladly come to in a sermon.  One of the advantages, though, of preaching through a book of the Bible is that one takes what comes; there is little chance of riding a favorite hobby horse, nor, if one is honest, avoiding some of the hard things we read in the Scriptures.

The next several sermons will focus on some facet of sexuality.  That is good, because we need a word from God about our sexuality.  We are sexual.  We are male and female, and that affects the way we think and act with one another in this world.  We are all the more affected because this world is fallen, and the fall has distorted our sexuality.  We need a word from God.

At the same time, this is a hard subject to address.  It can be depressing.  It can be disgusting.  It is hard for me to know when I have said enough or too much.  Some of you may have opposite opinions, some thinking I did say too much while others feel the need for even more explicitness.

We live in our own Corinth today.  Corinth was an X-rated world when Paul wrote this.  William Barclay quotes an early Greek, Demosthenes, saying:

“We keep prostitutes for pleasure; we keep mistresses for the day to day needs of the body; we keep wives for the begetting of children and for the faithful guardianship of our homes."  So long as a man supported his wife and family there was no shame whatsoever in extra-marital affairs.

That was the moral climate in which the Corinthian Christians lived.  That was the attitude Paul was calling to holiness.

We live in our own Corinth.  I remember going quite regularly to one of the local drug-stores when I was about thirteen to browse through the monthly issues of Playboy and Cavalier.  That caused no little struggle when I surrendered to Jesus, and later, even in my marriage.  Back then it was nude women in mostly demure positions with a wisp of fabric strategically placed so that the genitals were concealed.  That was over 25 years ago.

Today one can go into a store that sells "adult magazines" and be confronted with myriads of titles, some of which cannot be repeated in public by decent people.  Inside these magazines today you will find full male and female nudity.  And they do not stop with mere nudity; there are simulated sex scenes of men with women and women with women, portraying manual and oral fondling of genitals.  Such magazines are openly displayed in many small towns in our country.

And not just magazines –– one can also rent videos that do not stop at simulation.  These videos offer any kind of sexual variation the fallen mind can concoct: straight, lesbian, oral, anal, and all kinds of combinations.  And the reason those things are available is because people (many and all kinds of people) rent them.  Some people who go to church look at such regularly.

I talked with a Christian psychological counselor.  He told me that he sees little difference in the lives of professing Christians who come to him compared to non-Christians.  People who come to see him are sleeping around outside of marriage, feeding on pornography, and getting involved in extra-marital and homosexual affairs.  He told me of a ten-year-old boy who is already sexually active.

There are phone numbers where a person can call and either get a recording of a woman detailing what she would do if she were there or a live conversation willing to lead in any fantasy the caller wants to pursue.  I read of two boys, thirteen and fourteen, and an eleven-year-old girl who called one of those numbers.  Following the phone call the boys forced the girl to do all the things they had just heard.

Young people today are afraid to admit they are virgins –– if they are!  Virginity is jokingly called the horrible disease that comes with a simple cure.  Sex is used to sell any and everything in magazine ads and on TV.  Calvin Klein jeans advertisements have half-nude men and women in suggestive poses, and I do not mention this one brand because it stands alone.  Everywhere we look our culture is obsessed and reeling with sexual immorality.  That is what Paul is talking about here in I Corinthians 6.

In v13 we find the body is not meant for sexual immorality and in v18 flee from sexual immorality.  The Greek word is porneia, which means prostitution or any other sexual wrong.  It's the basis for our word, pornography.  I am sorry for being so explicit about the kinds of things that are around us today, but if I merely talk about sexual immorality in a general kind of way, many would not know how stark and pervasive it is, and some who do (among whom are our youth) would yawn and tune out one more predictable morality lecture.

There are two reasons why this sermon is necessary.  The first is that sexuality is so powerful.  Don't think those advertisers do not know what they are doing.  There is something about sex that grabs our attention and holds it.  Don't think the people who produce and market pornography do not know that once a person gets hooked, he or she wants more and more.  Don't think, young person, that you are the exception –– that you can be alone with a girl or boy friend in a compromising situation and not be tempted beyond your ability to say no.  Don't think, married man or woman, that you can feed that fantasy of another person and come out unscathed.  And let's not any of us think we can uncritically absorb the stuff that comes at us through the media without our moral fibre breaking down.  We live in Corinth!  Ours is an X-rated world.

Sexuality is even more powerful because of the lies that we use to rationalize wrong behaviors.  That was one thing Paul recognized in the Corinthians.  One was the line of argument in v13: food for the stomach and the stomach for food.  The Greek view of life at that time regarded sexual activity as just as natural, necessary and justifiable as eating and drinking.  Sexual abstinence was regarded as unnatural and even harmful.  "If it feels good, do it."

That line of thought obviously has not died.  Some secular psychologists and sociologists today try to say that sexual suppression causes mental illness and social inhibitions with resulting frustration, and even violence.  Don't you think it is odd that we have far more frustration and violence today when sexual freedom runs rampant than a hundred years ago in what is today sneeringly called "Victorian prudishness?"

Another lie Paul had to deal with was a perversion of the gospel.  He starts his comments in v12 with something the Corinthians were saying to justify their immorality: everything is permissible for me.  Is a Christian free to do any and everything?  Does Christian profession and baptism mean you can sleep around and feed on pornography and yet get by with it?  Paul asked the same question of the Romans: Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?  His answer was, "By no means!  How can people who have died to sin continue to live in it?"

Another variation of the Corinthians' rationalizing was the idea that what they did with their bodies did not matter.  The body was temporal anyway, and what mattered was what was on the inside.  It took Paul to remind them that what is on the inside is seen by what happens on the outside.  Those who have hearts for God in the inside act like it on the outside.

New lies come up –– things that Paul does not explicitly mention (but you might be surprised at how much is here for those who are willing to see!).  One subject today that is rife with lies is “freedom.”  The foundation of "pro-choice" is that we should be free to do with our bodies whatever we choose.  Of course it is mostly connected with women and abortion, but it goes beyond that.  "It's my body" and "reproductive freedom" means she is free to sleep around with whomever without reaping the full fruit of the action.  For the homosexual, "freedom" means the right to have sex apart from the laws of nature (which by the way are consistent with the moral laws of the Creator).  Such thinking does not want to consider what "freedom" would mean for the man who desires young children.

Whatever else our culture might call these things, God's Word calls it porneia –– a prostitution of what God meant when he created sexuality.  The problem is that when human culture rejects God's truth, there is no truth.  That is yet another lie: there is no absolute right or wrong.  The culture tries to say that sex is the same as love.  Men say to women, "If you love me you'll do it."  Women do it hoping desperately that along with the heat of passion they will get a bit of tenderness and true care.  Men and women keep doing it, believing that more is better.  We judge each other by our bodies, believing the lie that a perfect body will give perfect satisfaction, and that physical satisfaction is the most important thing in the world.  We are told the excitement can’t last with the same old person; it is assumed that “looking” certainly won’t hurt anything.  The goal is “safe sex,” and that only means a condom.  We never hear anything about sex that is wrong.  All such attitudes are what the Bible calls porniea –– sexual immorality.

I read a cartoon that was far more pointed than funny.  A boy was asking his grandfather, “Gee Granddad, your generation didn’t have all these social diseases.  What did you wear to have safe sex?”  The grandfather’s wise reply was, “A wedding ring.”

There is a reason why sexual practices are getting worse and worse.  It is because people are trying to find satisfaction through the physical sensation of sex.  Sex that is cut off from a committed and lasting relationship is doomed to hurt and frustration.  When physical sex is all you have, you have nothing when it is over.  People who live for “now” find that it doesn’t last.

This is not to say that sex cannot be wonderful.  If not, it could not have the power it does.  When we come to the next section in this Corinthian letter we find human sexuality as God meant it to be. Yet even before that, we need to know who we are.  It is when we know and believe the truth about ourselves and God that things like human sexuality begin to fall into the right place.

The first thing we need to know is that our bodies are not our own (v19b).  None of us had anything to do with being here.  God is behind every conception as well as our particular characteristics. Speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David wrote:

For you created my inmost being;
  you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
  your works are wonderful, I know full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
  when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
  your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
  before one of them came to be (Psa 139:13–16).

Not only is God our Creator, he is our Redeemer.  He bought us with the blood of his Son, so Paul says you were bought at a price (v20a).  The reason God did this was so his Spirit would be free to live inside us.  This is our hope of fulfillment –– a hope realized:  your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.... (v19).

It matters what we do with these bodies of ours.  We cannot use our bodies for immorality without it affecting our inner person.  The people Paul was writing to were going to prostitutes for physical gratification.  It was an accepted part of their culture (culture is never an excuse for illicit behavior).  Prostitution was part of pagan temple worship.  Prostitutes were readily available, and the Corinthian Christians easily could have said, “everyone does it.”

For us today the issue is greater than one dimension of immorality.  This word porneia means any prostitution of sexuality –– any use of sexuality other than what God has intended and sanctioned.  It means that sleeping around before marriage is a prostitution of sexuality.  It means filling your mind with images of people misusing sexuality so that your desires are both warped and inflamed is a prostitution of sexuality.    Christians are not to behave that way.

Why?  Because if we are Christians we belong to Jesus.  Our bodies belong to Jesus, and what we do belongs to Jesus.  When we sin these ways we are sinning against a body that belongs to Jesus.  We cannot embrace sexual immorality and Jesus at the same time.  Those who try to do so find that God is serious about this.

God hates sexual immorality.  Do you believe this?  When you see the seductive scenes on TV, does something in you say this would make you happy?  When you see the sensual magazines on the rack, can you remember there is a coiled snake ready to strike?  When a passing encounter seems so inviting, are you tempted to see how far it might go?

God wants people who will honor him in every way.  The final word here is: honor God with your body.  Is that your covenant?  God’s way is for our eyes to see only what the Holy Spirit wants us to see.  God’s way is for your body to be held only by the one with whom you make a life-long commitment.  God’s way is not to use your body except in those ways that honor the Lord who died to make you holy.

Hear these words as J. B. Phillips captured them in his NT translation:

The calling of God is not to impurity, but to the most thorough purity, and anyone who makes light of the matter is not making light of a man’s ruling but of God’s command.  It is not for nothing that the Spirit God gives us is called the Holy Spirit (1Thess 4).

As you live in an X-rated world, remember who you are.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Body, Soul, and Spirit

Wednesday: 14 January, 2015 –– First Week in Ordinary Time
Hebrews 2:14–18 / Mark 1:29–39
Body, Soul, and Spirit

What’s the big deal in Hebrews that Jesus was made like us and not like the angels?

Well, God made humans to be body, soul, and spirit. All three are necessary for us to be complete. On the other hand, angels are ministering spirits. Angels can assume a form when it’s important for humans to see them (Gabriel with Mary, the angels with the shepherds, etc.), but by nature angels are spirits.

Being fully human means living with body, soul, and spirit the way God intended. Sin has messed that up. Our “natural” tendency now is to give our bodies a far greater priority than our spirits. We feel it when we are hungry. We know it when we are uncomfortable (and others around us usually do, too). On the other hand, a person can be starving spiritually and be mostly unaware. It takes a finely tuned human spirit to be sensitive to a harmful environment. Too few people seem to feel pain and turn away with remorse and disgust when, for example, something on TV is immoral or totally demeaning.

A repercussion of this is the penalty of death: the separation of body from spirit. When we die, our bodies go into the ground to await the general resurrection at the time of the Great Consummation; our spirits are conscious and aware of our ultimate destiny ––with or separated from the Lord (e.g., St Paul in 2Cor 5:1–4 and Phlp 1:20b–23). This is a time of being unfulfilled (think of those with the Lord around the throne waiting for the full salvation of bodily resurrection––Revelation 6:9,10).

The writer to the Hebrews is saying that Jesus became like us––body, soul, and spirit––so he could give us a full salvation. His coming was not like that of an angel, nor for angels. This is modeled on several levels in today’s Gospel.

Jesus is healing bodies (because the human body is important). Jesus is delivering people from spiritual oppression (because evil can make us sick and destroy us).

Jesus also goes away alone to pray. In the popular days of his early ministry––with all his approval and the display of mighty words and mighty deeds––Jesus took the time to stay close to the Father. Jesus modeled a right ordering of body, soul, and spirit.

Our bodies are important, but the one we have now will not last forever. We wait in hope for a resurrection. Our spirits are even more important, because the person we are at core in our spirit determines the existence we will have forever.

Body, soul, and spirit…. Let’s be people who follow Jesus and nurture the healing of our spirits.

Following Jesus in Baptism

This past Sunday's sermon.... a few days late!

Sunday: 11 January, 2015 –– The Baptism of the Lord
(Year B) Isaiah 55:1–11 / 1 John 5:1–9  / Mark 1:7–11
Following Jesus in Baptism

Catholic identity is grounded in Baptism. On this Sunday the Church celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ. It's an event that is recorded in all four gospels, so we know it's important. But why was Jesus baptized?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, baptismal grace means forgiveness of original sin and all personal sins, and birth into the new life by which a person becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit and incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ....  [CCC 1279].

Jesus didn't need any of those things! So, again, why was he baptized?

The baptism of Jesus is part of his mission, and his mission is clearly stated in the Scriptures: The angel had told Joseph: he will save his people from their sins (Mtt 1:21).

How does Jesus save us? The Scriptures give more answers than I can put in one homily. One medium of salvation is preaching. Isaiah gives God’s promise that my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it. If we listen well, we know Scripture gives both stern warnings and comforting promises. The warnings are meant to direct us to the promises. Again looking at the Isaiah text we hear about our God who is generous in forgiving…. the God who invites us: come to the water.

In our physical world, water is life; we cannot live without it. And because our physical world is created by God and reveals something of who he is, water is used throughout Scripture with rich spiritual significance. As Jesus appears on the scene to initiate his saving work, he comes to the water to be baptized by John. So the question comes yet again: why did Jesus need to be baptized?

Here is the “heart” of the word for today: To save us, Jesus goes ahead of us and gives us a path to follow. Particularly, in his death he was taking upon himself our death. In his resurrection Jesus destroyed the power of death. When we follow Jesus, we too die to sin and thus have the hope of resurrection to eternal life.

This is the way we understand Baptism. To take our sins upon himself and die our death, Jesus submitted to baptism to take the initial step of identifying with sinners so he could take the path to the cross to be our Savior. It was one more way the Son of God humbled himself to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

Hear what the Church says in the Catechism: “Baptism is the first and chief sacrament of forgiveness of sins because it unites us with Christ, who died for our sins and rose for our justification, so that we too might walk in newness of life” (CCC #977). Jesus became like us in every way but sin so that we could become like him. Baptism is the first step in the process of becoming a saint!

It is important to know, however, that Baptism is not an end in itself; it is the “gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC #1214, emphasis added). Unfortunately, not all baptized people live up to their baptism––“the grace of Baptism delivers no one from all the weakness of nature” (CCC #978). But here is the issue for us on this day that we honor the baptism of the Lord: Am I living out of my Baptism?  

Being baptized into Jesus Christ is our highest calling. Nothing is greater than being identified with Jesus Christ. The implications are eternal.

As I progressed in my journey into the Church––as I began to understood more of the tangible things that mark Catholic life––I was pulled into the power of the Sacraments. I began to think more about my own Baptism (which, until then, had merely been some almost forgotten event in my past history).  I really started to take notice when I came to understand that when I come to church and make the sign of the cross with holy water it is a renewal of my Baptism.

I hope it is not redundant to repeat something I said two years ago. Maybe you will remember; perhaps some of you have been doing this. I want to challenge you to do something I try to do ever since I learned this lesson. I use the simple gesture of entering the church to renew my Baptism. I try to enter the church early enough not to be hurried, so that I can focus on what I am doing, and then as I dip my finger into the water, I offer a prayer that goes something like this:  I belong to you, my Lord. I give myself to you fresh and new. Let the power of your baptismal waters again make me clean and totally yours. In your grace, never let me make this a mindless, mechanical gesture.

Jesus Christ gave his life for your salvation. He suffered death for you. He rose from the dead for you. And he initiated it by being baptized for you. Christian Baptism marks who we are.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

God At Work

December 21, 2014 –– 4th Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1–5, 8b–12, 14a, 16 / Romans 16:25–27 / Luke 1:26–38
God At Work

Prehistory is a term used for human history in the period before recorded events. This means we can give a reasonably firm date for Abraham, but not for Adam and Eve. Still, if we take Scripture seriously––the Church does, and so do I––we can believe that some particular things happened in prehistory even if we cannot know all the details we might wish.

One thing that happened long ago is a horrible decision by our first human parents. God created them to love him, but love always means a choice––and our first parents made the wrong choice. They chose to say no to God and yes to a spirit of disobedience that has infected our world ever since. We have awful reminders of this every day (if we have the faith and insight to connect the dots). This past week a man in eastern Pennsylvania went on a murderous rage and killed his ex-wife and several members of her family. In world news, the Taliban in Pakistan killed 148  children plus others at a school. But the news doesn’t have to be so dramatic or gory; every time we hear of a “natural” death or hear about abuse and addiction, we are being brought face to face with what it means to live in a world that is in rebellion against God. It would be a hopeless situation for all of us… except God gave a special promise way back in prehistory. After confronting the man and woman with their disobedience, God speaks of someone in the future––the seed of a woman–– who will crush the head of the serpent who had tempted the woman (in Genesis 3:15). This is called the protoevangelium, or the “first gospel.”

We in the Church take so much for granted. We hear the stories all of our lives. Some may think of it as being force-fed. There is a danger that we resist or, perhaps worse, get inoculated with just enough “religion” that it never takes good root in our lives. Then we wonder why, even in the Church, our lives are ripped by much of the same horrible stuff in the world around us: the abuse, the addictions, the selfishness, the desperate grabbing for a bit of pleasure and happiness.

As we enter the closing days of Advent, we need to know that the Christmas we are waiting for is real! One of the most important things we can do is recognize that we need it. We don’t need “Christmas” as it is often popularized. It doesn’t matter if our celebration matches a Currier & Ives print or follows the script of a favorite holiday movie. We do not so much need Happy Holidays as we need a real Christmas.

Just as God gave a special promise in prehistory, he has fulfilled it in true history. The readings for today all but shout this out. When God gave his promise to King David––your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me––he was not just being “nice” to David. God was taking a next step in what he had been doing since that first promise when “history” was still unable to be defined. Then the biggest shout of all came from the Archangel Gabriel to a young virgin girl named Mary. St Paul said it this way to the early Roman Christians: the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages but now manifested….

God sent the angel Gabriel to give Mary a singularly unique message: Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. This was God’s historical promise to David coming true. This was God’s prehistorical promise to Eve coming true. There is a way back to the love that God offered us in the very beginning.

We cannot love as we ought. We cannot always love even as much as we ourselves might desire.

We cannot fix this world by ourselves. We cannot guarantee security, much less happiness, for ourselves and those we love.

We cannot even understand all the ramifications of the revelation of the mystery that has been given through the Scriptures and the Church. Still, we understand far more than Eve did when the first promise was given. We understand more than David did, though he was a man after [God’s] own heart (Acts 13:22). Incredibly, we understand more than Mary did when the angel first gave her this message. We have the advantage of hindsight within the Church.

What shall we do with what we do understand? Are we ready to say to our Lord:
I don’t always understand all the implications of my faith, but I want to….
I don’t know to respond to the hard things in my life and in this world, but I want to…
I don’t how to love as I should, but I want to….

What I hope you will remember as we come to the glory of Christmas is that God has been at work for our salvation for a long, long time. In the womb of the Virgin Mary God took on our humanity and has come into our world. Hear the parting words of the angel: nothing will be impossible for God.

God will work in your life when you invite him. He will help you understand. He will help you respond to this world with grace. He will help you love.

God has even given us the ultimate model of prayer to open the door to all that Christmas means. We are to pray with Mary: May it be done to me according to your word. Pray that from your heart, and see what God will do.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


November 30, 2014 –– First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 63:6b–17, 19b; 64:2–7 / 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 / Mark 13:33–37

The purple we use in Advent is connected to its use in Lent. Both are penitential seasons in which we are called to give special attention to our sins and our need for salvation. Advent has long been a time for Christians to take part in such practices as fasting and abstinence, but in our culture Advent has lost most of its penitential focus. Our society has absorbed Advent into a popular (and very secular) celebration of what it calls “Christmas.” Instead of fasting there is partying and feasting. We do not like to hear about sin any time, but the resistance can be even deeper when we’re being constantly cooed with Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.

Still, we in the Church place ourselves under the authority of Scripture. What we find in these readings is a focus on repentance and a warning about the ultimate coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples WATCH! Why? Because you do not know when the time will come. We are, figuratively, to keep an eye to the sky. And to do that, Jesus says we need to guard against something: spiritual carelessness––lest he comes suddenly and find you sleeping….The warnings given by Jesus in the Gospel are expanded by the prophet Isaiah. The tone of this Old Testament reading certainly does not match our culture’s attempt at “holiday cheer.”

Sometimes I struggle with my intensity. I often feel like an OT prophet trying to break through the lethargy of comfort and seduction. I can’t forget the definition of preaching that was burned into my soul early in my formation: Preaching is a dying man speaking to dying people. Someday I’m going to face the judgment of a holy God––and so are you. I want to be ready; I want you to be ready. It is a grace when we can take God’s warnings seriously.

Really think about what we confess: I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead…. I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Advent is a time to renew our perspective that we live in two worlds, and that this world we see carries a grave danger of so dulling us to the unseen world that we have no real time or affection for it––and in that condition close ourselves off to God and his salvation.

Maybe you’re like me and sometimes wonder, Why does it have to be so hard? Isaiah asks God a question like that: Why do you let us wander? It is a common human tendency that we wander or drift. I read an article this week about people who wander off trails in Great Smoky Mountain National Park; they get lost and need to be found by a Search and Rescue Unit. Left to ourselves, we can become absorbed by something that catches our eye so we forget where we are.

This tendency to let ourselves wander seems even greater in our spiritual lives. It is rare for people to reject God outright if they were raised in the Faith. Rather, people just drift away. When I talk with people who have left the Church, most of them do not point to a time when they walked out of Church and said, “I’ll never come back.” Instead, they missed a Sunday here or there, little by little, until missing became the norm. They drifted from the practice of the faith. This is such a common spiritual tendency that one of the great hymns has a phrase: Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love….

The thing about drifting is that the further off course one gets, the harder it is to get back. Bad habits become hard to break; Isaiah says we get hardened. God seems more and more distant; we lose our sense of reverence and holy fear. Isaiah shows this by taking up Israel’s voice (and ours!) and “blames” God for it all. Why do you let us wander? Somehow it is “his fault” for our tendency to wander since he lets us do it.

Yes, God has made us free. He respects our freedom. We could not love God if we were not free, because forced “love” is not love at all. We can wander so far that only God can find us and save us. And so in Advent, the Church cries out, Come Emmanuel… Come Lord Jesus!… Seek and find us…. don’t let us drift away.

These verses from Isaiah can lead us to a healthy repentance: we are sinful; all our good deeds are like polluted rags…. our guilt carries us away like the wind…. There is none who calls upon your name…. This is a hard truth. Speaking collectively for our contemporary culture, we have no passion for God. We get all worked up about politics, sports, a favorite T.V. show (or whatever), but have almost no motivation to pray, go to Church, or read Scripture. We can find time for everything else, but God can wait.

Yet there is Good News in this otherwise bad news: Our focus is not to be on our failings. That is not to say we do not need to make detailed confession, but our focus is on who God is and what God does. Here is how the old prophet Isaiah concludes it: we are the clay and you the potter; we are all the work of your hands. Even more, the hope of the prophet is realized: Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down. Think of the Creed we profess. God does come. He sends his Son. We are not forsaken. Our Advent cry, Come Lord Jesus, is heard and heeded by our Heavenly Father, who loves us and––like a master potter––is molding us into his very image

This is our Faith. The ancient cry of Israel through the prophet Isaiah was fulfilled so that the Apostle Paul could write to the Corinthians of the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus… so much so that he gives this promise: He will keep you firm to the end…. God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Yet we need to face our part. That’s why we have Advent. The wandering heart that led Israel to the depths of despair will lead us astray if we do not remember this Gospel warning. Do not let him come suddenly and find you sleeping. As we start preparing for Christimas, the word from our Lord is WATCH! …Jesus is coming!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Building A Church

November 9, 2104 –– Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica
Ezekiel 47:1–2, 8–9,12 / First Corinthians 3:9c–11, 16–17 / John 2:13–22
Building A Church

My journey into the fullness of Catholic Faith began in the free-church––even a “low church”––tradition. By that I mean that there was no prescribed liturgy, there were no sacraments, there was “freedom” in worship to be spontaneous or merely to do whatever the pastor had planned for that Sunday. Of course, for the latter years the “pastor” was me so I had a lot of control over what characterized our worship.

My spiritual formation was nurtured in a pursuit of personal holiness, and the highest criteria for a church gathering was whether there was a “spirit of anointing” on the worship, but especially on the preaching. The physical setting held little priority. We were not opposed to a nice church building, but I remember one of the early preachers who had a deep influence on me saying (in an “anointed” sermon), “better to meet in a barn and have the glory of God than meet in a cathedral without knowing the glory.” It’s hard to argue against that logic, and I’ve always sought the anointing of God in my ministry––but that is not to say that the physical and material in worship are unimportant.

One of the ways that Catholic Faith is distinctive is the importance it gives to the material. A cute way to say it is that “Matter matters.” So it is a common observation, for those who bother to notice, that one of the discernible characteristics of Catholicism is beautiful churches. This is because “Matter matters.” 

We believe that in the Incarnation God gave the ultimate affirmation to his crowning verdict at Creation: very good. The Son of God took upon himself a true human existence. It boggles the mind. There is no wonder that the Church wrestled with the nature of Jesus for the first couple of centuries. Once it was settled –fully God and fully Man––the Church has embraced a sanctified view of the material world. What the Old Testament modeled with Tabernacle and Temple and vessels and vestments is really true: “things” can be holy!

Some people want to argue that holiness is only “spiritual”––that it’s an attitude or disposition or some other abstract expression. Think about it: the only way to live a holy life is in the body God has given you. Once any object is made, there is an immediate question: how will this item be used––in ways that honor God or dishonor him? Paul told Timothy: In a wealthy home some utensils are made of gold and silver, and some are made of wood and clay. The expensive utensils are used for special occasions, and the cheap ones are for everyday use (2Tim 2:20). Paul’s point is simply, “What kind of vessel characterizes godliness?” Notice the care that is used with a chalice, that which holds the Precious Blood. To apply the household imagery, we do not mop our floors using a silver punch bowl, nor do we serve our dinner vegetables in a bed pan.

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. Up until the early 300s Christian existence was tenuous. Varying degrees of persecution were common and Christians could not be open with their worship. When Emperor Constantine officially validated Christian Faith in the Roman Empire there were almost immediate outward changes. One was places of worship; suddenly it was okay––safe––to have an open place for worship. Church buildings began to be built. A renovated palace of the Lateran family was consecrated in 324 and it became the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome. It is “the mother of all the world’s churches” and is a visible symbol of the universal Church. As we gather for worship today, we are tangibly connected to a Church that is indeed catholic.

Do buildings matter? Can a collection of bricks and stones be holy? Seriously consider what Jesus did: He made a whip out of cords and drove [those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers] all out of the temple area… His disciples remembered the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me (not zeal for the Lord, but zeal for his house!). Think about the care throughout the Old Testament for the place where God’s people would worship and how they were to approach God.

God’s “type” for the Church is the Jerusalem Temple, but the Temple gives way to the more complete Body of Christ. Christ’s Body is now the dwelling of God’s “glory” among us. By faith we see it in our Tabernacles, but it does not stop there. Today’s Epistle reading says the Spirit of God comes to dwell in us and makes us God’s building…the temple of God.

The focus is surely not only a material building, and yet the building should never be insignificant. Because God created the heavens and the earth, and because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, there is in Christianity a union of the spiritual and the material. Our own salvation is not achieved by laying down our physical bodies. Salvation is not "the soul being set free.” Rather, our salvation will only be complete when we are raised with resurrection bodies even as our Lord has led the way with his own resurrection body (see 1 Corinthians 15).

Even now God is working his glory into us (see 2 Cor 3:18). Our highest calling as Christians is to become like Jesus Christ in every way––in love, in holiness, and in the resurrection of our physical bodies. One effect of this is being able to see God’s glory in the things we do. A place of worship and how we worship is meant to show the glory of God. We are the Church of God––the Body of Christ. A body is something with material substance. Matter matters.

One day in the Middle Ages, during the construction of one of the great cathedrals, a nobleman was walking among the workers asking about their labors. He asked a stone mason what he was doing, and the mason tried to explain the care involved in raising a plumb wall. The man asked the glass worker what he was doing and was shown the detail of a leaded glass picture. Then the carpenter told about the wooden frame which provided the support for the whole building.  Finally the nobleman spotted a peasant woman with a broom and a bucket going around cleaning trash. Asked what she was doing she replied, "I'm building a cathedral for the glory of God!”

In your personal life… in this parish…. in our community… throughout the world…. let’s build a “cathedral”––the true temple of our Lord’s Body––for the glory of God. This is our faith.

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