Sunday, July 14, 2019

Godly Perspective

July 14, 2091 – 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 30:10-14 / Psalm 69 / Colossians 1:15-20 / Luke 10:25-37
Godly Perspective

Part of my ministry—actually it’s a huge part of living a Christian faith—is listening to people. One thing I hear again and again is the struggle of personal faith.

There is a basic understanding of what we as Christians believe. We say the Creed every week, and that’s wonderful. Even more people have some familiarity with John 3:16—God so loved the world that gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Yet, there is an ongoing struggle: What does it means for me in my world?

Some people are always asking questions: Why? How? They tell me their mind never turns off. Sometimes they fight cynicism because the struggle seems so much bigger than any immediate answers. Other people deal with a seemingly endless assault of hard circumstances—relational, financial, physical, or emotional. Some people are continuously hit with all of these at the same time. So I hear painful questions: What is God trying to tell me? Why aren’t my prayers being answered? Does God care? Is God really there?!

All of today’s readings converge to give a perspective on this mindset. To be honest, they do not answer these questions directly. God’s way is not to give a detailed answer to our particular issues; instead (and I use this word again), God gives us a perspective that enables us to live in faith. And with that, I remind all of us that if we could “see” everything clearly, it would not be faith (Romans 8:24)—and as Scripture tells us, without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).

We need godly perspective….

A good place to start is to remember that no one who struggles deeply with personal faith is alone. It is common to humanity to have critical questions which go to the core of one’s being. It is even more common to face circumstances that strike at the heart of life’s meaning and purpose (that is the effect of the original disobedience). If you have deep questions…. if you have been hit with suffocating circumstances…. you are not alone.

One way we know this is because Moses—and this was ca. 4000 years ago—was facing people who were looking for answers. It was near the end of their 40-year wilderness wanderings. The Israelites had gone through hard times. The first generation of the Exodus pilgrims had died and their children, now adults, wondered if the God who had given their parents those promises years before was going to do what he had said. Their thoughts had turned in on themselves and they were asking: “What do we need to do to get God’s attention?”

Moses gives a short answer: Listen to God and obey. But how do we listen to God? It’s as if Moses reads their minds (actually, God is speaking through Moses): You don’t have to go on a big pilgrimage. You don’t have to go anywhere. What God is saying is something very near to you…. There are mistaken ideas and insidious lies loose in our world that say God is too remote and that issues are too complicated. NO! God is here.

This has been powerfully presented to us in the Incarnation. When God took on a fully human form it was beyond what even Moses could have perceived. Jesus Christ is God with us. That is what St Paul tells the Colossians: Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God…. in him all things hold together.

The modern world has become so “scientific” that we don’t look beyond the (amazing) natural laws and explanations of how the universe works. But beyond and behind and underneath all the natural laws which we mistakingly think explains everything is the One who created it all. The sustaining presence of God is as close as the sunrise each day. God is as close as each beat of our hearts. God is in control. God is at work.

Sometimes we get so absorbed in our personal issues and problems that we lose perspective. Hold your open hand up to your nose. All you can see is the palm of your hand. Yet on the other side of your hand is the larger world. Your hand doesn’t make the world go away; it just blocks you from seeing it.

Our issues and problems can do that to us. Big questions and hard circumstances can come so close that they obliterate the larger reality from our perspective. God is here. God is in control. God is at work. Our loss of perspective doesn’t stop God.

So how do we keep perspective? That’s the Gospel. The man asked Jesus: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus answered with a question that takes us back to what Moses told the people: Heed the voice of the Lord your God and keep his commandments…. What does God command? Love.

We make this command difficult. We are the ones who, like the man in the Gospel story, want to raise complicating questions that focus on ourselves. Above and beyond all other questions and issues there is one way to be close to God: to love as he wants us to love.

You see, God is already close to us. We are immersed in God every second of every day. There is no place where he is not! Moses told the people that the command is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts. We confess the Creed with our mouths and are enlivened in baptism. So, if God is close to us, what is the problem?

It’s whether we truly want to be close to God! Beyond our questions…. beyond our issues…. even beyond hard circumstances and pain…. Do I want to be close to God above and beyond everything else?

If so, we open our hearts. Moses told the people, and the law scholar admitted to Jesus, all your heart. We open our hearts to love God. We open our hearts to love others. We open our hearts so that we can see beyond the hand in front of our face. Then we find that God is here, and his Name is Love. It is out of that godly perspective that we can live and love.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Way to Life

June 23, 2019 –– Corpus Christi Sunday 
The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
The Way to Life

For over 50 years I was rooted in a Christian tradition that emphasized “come to Jesus.” I based my life and my vocation on the core doctrines which proclaim Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Son of God who died for the sins of the world and rose from the dead to give us eternal life. I understood the basics of what Jesus has done for us; it was only after decades of pastoral ministry that I began to see something much deeper––that what Jesus did for us is something he does in us, and that he comes into us in the the simple and yet most profound way of the Eucharist. And with that, I found something else: The Catholic Church is a seamless garment of Christian Truth which pulls its members into the very life of Christ. This is woven into all we do as Catholics, but it is so standard and pervasive that many miss it because of its familiarity (and then, in our human weakness, it can become “mechanical”). I want to remind us, in a bit overview, of what brings us to the summit of the Church’s life: the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. 

When God first created humans in his image (Genesis 1:27) he did two things: the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (Genesis 2:7). In other words, God gave humans a physical body and a life based in Divine Spirit.

When our human parents responded “poorly” (to put it mildly!) to the privilege of choice––when they disobeyed God––their spiritual life died. Without God’s Spirit indwelling us, we are like animals without instinct. We do foolish and harmful things to ourselves and others. That is not what God intended, so still honoring the esteem of creating us in his image, God set out to win us back. That is one way to understand the ongoing intricacies of the biblical story.

Everything that God intends for us is incapsulated in the life of the God-Man Jesus. In Jesus, the Incarnation is the permanent unification of the Spirit of God with the human body. That is what Christmas is all about. It is the beginning of the story of what it truly means to be a godly human being.

Then the details get played out. When Jesus is on the verge of high visibility through his public ministry––as he begins to draw explicit attention as a truly spiritual man––he goes through a developing series of experiences which the Church came to understand as being significant for human reconciliation with God. We can enter into the life of Jesus through the Church’s liturgies. From the Incarnation at Christmas and progressing to the Real Presence of Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, we are being pulled into the life of Jesus so that God’s Life can be in us.

In his baptism, Jesus is identifying every human’s basic need of the indwelling Spirit. As Jesus is baptized, he made the waters of baptism the beginning source of God’s Life.

Immediately following his baptism, Jesus was tempted. Once again the privilege of choice was being offered to a man who was totally possessed by the Spirit of God. But unlike the first man (see 1Corinthians 15:45), Adam (see also Romans 5:12–17), we find in Jesus one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). So it is possible to live in a human body and say no to sin. It is possible to live in a human body and please God. It is possible be human and be holy!

But in a world where so many people still want to please themselves instead of God, holy people are often mistreated. The more Jesus taught and modeled a life full of God’s Spirit, the more a growing animosity wanted to get rid of someone who put a spotlight on the ugliness of a self-obsessed humanity.

In the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus we see the ultimate result of rejecting God. Rebelling against God always leads to hatefulness and pain and death. When Jesus suffered and died, he was taking upon himself the result of all human rebellion against God.

It can often seem that evil is stronger than good. It can feel as though hate is more powerful than love. We can begin to think that in a world where so many things go wrong, God won’t really do anything to change it. That misses the whole point. God’s way is not to lash out (but he does allow the repercussions of sin to bear its deadly fruit in the world and in our lives). God’s way is to win us back. God is working for the long-term. We are too easily obsessed with now. We spend our chips trying to be happy; God is at work to make us holy.

After a rebellious world had done its worst to the Son of God––dead and in the grave, Jesus came back from the dead––in his body––never to die again. That is why the Church is all about Easter. Our biggest enemy has been defeated by a man in a human body like ours. As we follow Jesus in baptism and trusting God in our temptations, and as we follow Jesus in allowing all that is not pleasing to God to go the Cross so that we die to whatever blocks God’s Spirit in our lives, then we have every reason to believe that we will follow Jesus in Resurrection. Like Jesus, our bodies will be raised up never to die again.

But it doesn’t stop there. Forty days after his Resurrection, Jesus ascended to heaven. This can be perplexing, but understanding the physiology of the Ascension is not the point. There is another “dimension” that is all around us but invisible and usually hidden from our natural senses. The huge point is this: Jesus, in his human body, already has an eternal existence in a dimension we call “heaven,” and as surely as we share a common humanity with Jesus, Jesus leads all who follow him from the Cross to Resurrected Life and then to a dimension of Eternal Life––in our bodies––that we cannot begin to comprehend. Then, to bring it to fullness for all God’s people, Pentecost released the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:11) to all who receive him (John 1:12).

So how do we follow Jesus into all these wonders? God has put a desire in every human heart for what is right and beautiful and good. When that desire is embraced and not rejected we are beginning to follow Jesus. And “following Jesus” is not left to our own effort and understanding; Jesus has given us the Church to guide us in Truth and show us the way. Jesus has given the Church access to the significant events in his life so that the power of what Jesus went through in his human body is passed on to us through the Holy Spirit. This is one way to understand the Sacraments.

When we come into the Church, we enter into the very Life of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Liturgy is a celebration of the presence of the living Christ among us. The Liturgy is a connection to that dimension where Christ has already gone. Liturgy expands NOW so that in the present moment, and especially in the Eucharistic Presence of our Lord, “the past becomes a present presence that opens a new future” (George Weigel, “Eastern Catholic Churches and the Universal Church” in First Things, 6/6/19). The Church offers a powerful reminder that “the way to God passes through things that can be seen and touched.” Jesus came in a body; he comes to us now again and again in his Body.

The very Presence of our Lord is with us in the Eucharist. We are not alone. Even more, Jesus gives himself to us as Heavenly Food, strengthening us for the journey and making all that he has done for us real and present right now! Believe… take…. eat…. worship…. and LIVE.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Path of Knowing God

May 26, 2019: Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 15:1–2, 22–29 / Psalm 67 / Revelation 21:1-–14, 22–23 / John 14:23–29
The Path of Knowing God

One of the most famous quotes by St Augustine comes early in Confessions, his spiritual memoir: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Around the world and throughout time, the whole human race has a record of seeking God. As Christians we know why: There is a “God-shaped hole” in our hearts––we are the result of special creation in the image of God. We should also understand why it is hard for humans to perceive God––as Paul wrote to the Romans, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened (Romans 1:21).

But the love of God that created us continues in a love that does not leave us abandoned to find God by ourselves; God comes to us. Just as God created us in love, he comes to us fully human and fully God as Jesus of Nazareth. As Jesus told Philip earlier in the chapter of today’s Gospel, Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9).

Yet Jesus is no longer here literally in his physical body. We can’t go to Israel and see him. As he told the disciples, I am going to my Father….  Having died for our sins and rising from the dead to secure our eternal life, he invites those who believe: follow me. One way we follow Jesus is a phrase in today’s Gospel: keep my word.

This invitation takes us from mere history and doctrine to something that fills the empty place in our hearts: Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. God comes to us through Jesus and lives in our hearts!

This is the Good News of Christian Faith. And it seems that with this, everyone should be “fixed” and life should be easy. Jesus even says, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. What happened? Our world is not at peace, and even Christians do not live in peace.

One problem is that we have taken this too personally. “Personal” too easily becomes “self-focused.” If we try to live a Christian life with a “just me and Jesus” formula, we get into trouble. By ourselves we often get things wrong. While Christian Faith is indeed personal, it is not individualistic.

When we come to Jesus, we come into his Body. It’s called the Church. Collectively, we have a wisdom that goes beyond our individual selves. Just as Jesus is Incarnate––fully human and fully God, the Church is also incarnate. The Church is indeed the composite of the people who belong to Jesus, but it is also a fusion with the Holy Spirit. God has provided a spiritual wisdom that goes beyond our individual abilities. This is one reason we have the Church.

We should not be surprised by questions and frustrations. From the beginning those who follow Jesus have needed to find a common way through the Church. The early Christian community had barely gotten started before it was faced with a huge question: what about people who are not Jewish who want to follow Jesus? This was crucial, and Jesus had not left a specific instruction.

But God had come to dwell in those who believed and wanted to follow, and as the assembled leadership met they came to a solution. This was the beginning the Apostolic Rule of Faith and the developing authority of the Church. Through this we see that God is at work to complete the circle that takes us back to the basic issue: how can I best fill that “God-shaped hole” in my heart?

I have shared more about my journey from Evangelical to Catholic than I have about my early commitment to Jesus. In my early teens I was in rebellion against God. I had bought into the hellish lie that the Church was something invented by old people to keep young people from having fun. I was profane and blasphemous. My focus was on the world’s triad of idols: money, sex, and power. I didn’t know to get any of them, but they were my goal. I was all about “me.”

But deep down I did not like myself, and decent kids who were my peers didn’t seem to like me very much, either. One Sunday night when I was fifteen I was in church (very much against my will, but my dad had a way of keeping authority!). As usual, I was tuned out––but as the service was ending that night the Holy Spirit flooded me with a picture of myself before God. I was worse than the Laodiceans in the book of Revelation: wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (3:17). With that I saw that the One alternative was what God had done through Jesus Christ. My heart melted. I gave myself unconditionally to the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. I was changed. I knew then––and know now––that apart from Jesus I am helpless and hopeless. Compared to having the life of Jesus, nothing else matters. And while my journey has had its ups and downs, I have not turned away from Jesus being my focus in what is now over fifty-something years.

One thing that has kept me on course and brought me to today is the Church. Just as we’re lost without Jesus, we need the Church to help us find and follow Jesus faithfully. The Apostolic Tradition takes us through the Holy Spirit to Jesus, and Jesus leads us to all the fullness of God because, as he said, I and the Father are one.

Do you have questions? Do you sometimes (or even often) feel frustrated? Be sure you are listening to the Church in a way that keeps the focus on Jesus. Always cultivate that hunger for God which inhabits every human heart––a hunger that prays: You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Give yourself unreservedly to Jesus. Jesus has promised us his peace. His desire is to live in our hearts. Trust the graces he has given to help us through his Church. This will fill that “God-shaped hole” in your heart with the fulness of God.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Feed My Sheep

May 5, 2019 –– Third Sunday in Easter
Acts 5:27–32 / Revelation 5:11–14 / John 21:1–19
Feed My Sheep

There is a mental and even spiritual fog permeating our society. Social media flood us with divisive issues and poorly-formed opinions. Too many people speak more quickly and more often than they listen. Huge things are at stake: issues that touch our safety and security; others go to the core of the definition and meaning of human life. We find ourselves debating what is right or wrong, good or bad, false or true. Who are we to listen to? Who are we to trust?  Today’s Scripture readings help answer these questions.

We can start with Peter. Peter’s prominence among the apostles is obvious. As the book of Acts unfolds, Peter is the spokesman. Peter is the one whose presence verifies the gift of the Spirit as the Faith extends from Jerusalem to Samaria and then to the Gentiles just as Jesus said. The Church is, indeed, being established by Peter.

Today’s Gospel gives the story of Jesus affirming Peter three times, surely for each of Peter’s three denials. For each time that Peter had proclaimed “I don’t know the man,” Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” And each time that Peter humbly and tenderly tells Jesus, “you know that I love you,” Jesus tells him, “Feed my sheep.”

There are numerous biblical themes converging here. Earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus refers to those who follow him as his “sheep”: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me (10:27).

When we embrace our baptism––when we own the name of “Christian”––we are among those Jesus calls “my sheep.” So returning to my opening observations and questions, how are we to hear the voice of Jesus? As the issues of our world whirl around us with a cacophony of voices trying to tell us to think this…. do that…. be for something or against something, we need to be able to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. How do we recognize Jesus’ voice? Many people in our world claim to speak for Jesus, and they often totally disagree with each other. Who are we to trust?

Jesus makes it clear. He calls Peter and gives him the opportunity to express his heart: “Do you love me?” And when Peter declares his love Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

We see Peter doing this in the Acts reading. He and the other apostles are preaching Jesus. The very ones who arrested Jesus and had him put to death now arrest Peter and the others. They are blunt: “Quit doing this.” They threaten the apostles, but Peter loves Jesus. He does not back down: We must obey God rather than men. Peter is feeding the sheep. He is declaring what is true. He is modeling how the sheep are to follow the Good Shepherd. It’s not what human authorities say. It’s not what popular opinion thinks.

Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus had another word for the sheep: If you love me, keep my commandments (Jn 14:15). How do we know what Jesus commands? How do we know what to obey? For almost 2000 years the Rule of Faith initiated and confirmed by Peter and the other Apostles has formed and guided Catholic belief and practice. Above all the other voices trying to get our attention for the many issues inundating our world, we are called to listen to the teachings that flow from the Petrine Office. When the voice of the 2000-year-old Church instructs us, warns us, and seeks to guide us, it is living out this calling Jesus initiated with Peter: Feed my sheep. When we listen to the established teaching of the Church and obey it, we show that we are sheep who hear the Shepherd’s voice.

Jesus told Peter, Feed my sheep.

Peter declared boldly: We must obey God rather than men.

Jesus tells all of us, If you love me, keep my commandments.

These are inseparably connected. Jesus is still asking, “Do you love me?” In our world of competing voices, we need to listen to him. When the Church speaks, Peter is feeding the sheep!

Sunday, March 10, 2019

All The Good

March 10, 2019 –– 1st Sunday of Lent
Deuteronomy 26:4–10 / Psalm 91 / Romans 10:8–13 / Luke 4:1–13
All The Good

How did you get here today?

You might describe your vehicle and the exact route from your home to the church.

You might think through all the steps you took to dress and get ready for church today. (I am always amazed at parents who get here on time with several small children!).

We could expand our perspective to include the many and various influences which motivate us to be in church. Some of us are fortunate enough to have had faithful parents who nurtured us in the Faith, and our presence in church is a continuous flow from childhood. Some have been raised in the church and then took a conspicuous detour, but now the connection has been restored. Some were raised in what be called a “neutral” environment––not religious, but not antagonistic––and along the way “faith happened.” Still others have come from broken, abusive, and hostile backgrounds, but the love of Jesus broke through and now church is “home.”

Regardless of how we came to be here, belonging to Christ and his Church is a grace story of God’s goodness. And to begin to comprehend the extent of that, we have to go far beyond our personal stories. What God is doing in each of us individually is just a small part of what God is doing and has been doing for thousands of years of human history.

One facet is in our first reading: my father was a wandering Aramean…. Long before you and I were a projected thought (other than in the eternal mind of God), the Lord was calling and building a people who distinctively belonged to him. Hundreds––thousands––of years ago God was doing something special in the life of a man who we know as Abraham, and what God was doing in Abraham would have long-term effect stretching all the way to today into your life and mine.

Yet the stories of God’s people include some awful things. The first reading recalls affliction and toil and oppression. That is why God’s grace and goodness are so incredible. The story of God’s goodness is light breaking into darkness and hope rising out of oppression and death. Over and over there is a reality expressed by the Psalm’s antiphon: Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble. This is affirmed in something Jesus told his first disciples: In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John16:33).

We see one way that Jesus overcame the world in today’s Gospel. In his Temptation Jesus faced the most basic human desires which can be twisted in a way that puts our desires above God and blocks his grace. Jesus would not bow to the traps of power, pride, and even physical hunger. As the book of Hebrews says: tempted in all points as we are, but without sin. Even in our temptations we see that in Jesus we have a Savior. Lent is all about learning to trust a loving Father.  That’s what Jesus did in the desert in his own personal “Lent.”

So, how did you get here today? The undergirding and overwhelming answer is that the goodness of the Lord has brought you to this place. It is not merely the fact of your physical presence in church (although that is good). It is Goodness that provides comfortable homes and ample food and clothing. It is Goodness that we have convenient vehicles to take us where we go.

Even more, the disposition of your heart that moved you to be here today is God’s goodness at work. Goodness is the awareness you have of God when you are moved to pray and serve and give. Goodness is the awareness of God that comes when you are tempted and know you need to turn away. Goodness is even the awareness of God that is there when you have disobeyed and you sense that inner voice to turn and put things right. Wherever we go, we’re the child of a wandering Aramean who learned to trust God.

This is because we can go anywhere in life except outside of God’s embrace. At its core, Christian Faith is embracing the reality that God is here and he has done everything for us to make things right through his Son’s entrance into our world. Did you pay attention to the second reading?

What does Scripture say? The word is near you, in  your mouth and in your heart––that is, the word of faith that we preach––for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

The message that was birthed at Christmas continues into the struggles of Lent: God is with us. As we leave this place today, God is with us. As we go into the coming week with all of its demands––even stresses and fears, God is with us. Wherever we go, God is with us.

And because God is with us, we are immersed in goodness. Sometimes it is so obvious. Sometimes we have to look for it. But we are here today because of God’s goodness, and that Goodness with follow us into a future that is beyond our imagination.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

A Hard Teaching From Jesus

February 24, 2019 –– 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Samuel 26:2, 7–9,12–13, 222–23 / Psalm 103 / 1 Corinthians 15:45–49 / Luke 6:27–38
A Hard Teaching From Jesus

Does Jesus actually mean what he says? Jesus said some hard things. In saying love your enemies and bless those who curse you and offer the other cheek we certainly have words coming from Jesus that go against the grain. Did Jesus intend this to be taken literally or was he speaking in hyperbole to get effect?

There are those who understand these words literally as a basis for total pacifism. I traveled this road earlier in my spiritual journey, but I do not think Jesus is negating the use of force for social order in the world at large. The Church does not teach unqualified pacifism. There is an argument that Jesus was using figurative language here, but if Jesus was using figurative language we still need to know what he meant. He surely meant something! One problem with taking Jesus figuratively is that Jesus is not taken seriously at all.

Jesus is addressing his disciples here, and he is at least speaking to the way his followers should respond in their personal relationships. How do we handle it when others do bad things to us? Jesus' answer can be summed up in one word: love. We use this word “love” in a multitude of ways. No, we do not love our enemies with the same kind of love as our nearest and dearest family and friends, but we can choose to seek any person's good.

In this context, the admonition to love our enemy stands in direct contrast to the desire for personal retaliation. We inherently want to “get back” at those who harm or even threaten us. This was Abishai’s counsel to David––to “get” Saul while he could: let me nail him to the ground… God has always been concerned with retaliation among his people. In the Old Testament God gave laws limiting retaliation. When he told Israel An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, it was a divine limitation on the vengeance that says “if you break one of my teeth, I’ll smash all of yours!”

As if to emphasize that he expects people committed to his kingdom to respond differently than others, Jesus contrasts the behavior of “sinners" (this word is used in the context of those not concerned with what God wants). Jesus says that any person can love the people who love back. Most will lend if they expect to be repaid. But to love people who hurt you, and to give to people who not only are not able to repay but who may not seem to deserve it anyway, and to forgive without getting nasty about it, is to show that we really believe what Jesus says. When we choose to respond in love and forgiveness, and to give even when it hurts us, we are saying that nothing in this life is more important than showing Jesus’ kind of love.

Maybe your neighbor has a cat that seems always to be messing up your flower bed. How you respond to the neighbor is the issue Jesus is addressing. Did someone mistreat you maybe five weeks or five months or even five years ago and you can’t let it go?

The big issue here is whether anything in this life is more important to us than seeking to obey and be like Jesus. The desire to retaliate or the tendency to withdraw and sulk is part of everyone of us. Jesus isn't denying that; he wants to correct it and heal our souls.

There is a story from the gas shortage back in the early 70’s that deserves classic status. It happened in California where the population is dense and the lines were long. As one man sat waiting and waiting, a woman pulled in and cut in a small space in front of him. He was angry and got out of his car and walked up to the window of the woman's car. She locked her doors and just smiled at him. So he went back to his car and took off the gas cap which had a lock on it. He put it on her car, locked the gas cap, and drove off.

We instinctively think: the woman got what she deserved. But what if God gave us what we deserve? Maybe we think it's easy for God to forgive. We can feel so strongly whatever injustice has been done to us. But if we think it is easy for God to forgive we need to get alone and think about Jesus on the cross.

I know this is hard. It’s easy to think, "But that's not normal!" and I admit, "That's right!" But that is what the Christian life is all about––anyone can be "normal" according the world's definition. It doesn't take the love of Jesus to hit back or hold a grudge; it takes grace not to. And that's what Christianity is––being people who understand the need for God's grace, and being open to grace for ourselves so that we become channels of grace to others.

As Christians, our standard is God himself. Our calling is to respond to our enemies the way God responds to his. Paul tells the Romans: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners [v10--God's enemies], Christ died for us (5:8). Jesus says this in the Gospel reading: ...the Most High / is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. We cannot lower the standard that Jesus sets and be faithful; what we can do is ask for the grace to live this way and repent of our failures every week if that’s what it takes. This is how to be faithful.

If you are holding a grudge today, if you are withholding forgiveness, I ask you to decide right now to pray to let it go. If you have withdrawn from a person because of something he said or did, let it go. If he didn't mean to hurt you, why let it stand in the way? If someone did mean to hurt you, then forgive him and leave it with God. Don’t let someone else's sin ruin your life as well!

As we learn to absorb the personal blows that come our way, we learn more and more what it means to know and follow Jesus. When we give ourselves to Jesus, it affects everything we are and do. 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

A Call For Change

February 3, 2019 –– 4th Sunday in  Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 1:4–5, 17–19 /  Psalm 71 / 1 Corinthians 12:31–13:13 / Luke 4:21–30
A Call For Change

Change is hard. We are mostly creatures of habit. We get accustomed to traditional expectations, familiar friends, and particular routines in our own lives.

Perhaps change is the very hardest when it is something that threatens the essence of the way we see ourselves It’s really hard when we realize that the highest values we hold have lost their place in the world at large. That's one way to see this incident of Jesus in his hometown.

We know things about Jesus that his hometown did not know. We have the whole story in the Gospels. We have almost 2000 years of Christian Tradition. We know to expect the life and words of Jesus to be different and challenging because he was and is the Son of God.

So as we come to this story about Jesus in Nazareth, we have inside knowledge. The hometown people of Nazareth did not know what we now know. These are people who would have had well-defined expectations. As first-century Jews, they expected the Messiah to come some day and turn their fortunes around. Coming out of that was  a bit of prejudice. God's promises were for them (and them alone)..

Do you see the collision? There is Jesus with his mission from the Father as it came with the fresh life of the Holy Spirit. Here are people with their own expectations of what God is going to do, how he's going to do it, and who he will do it for.

Jesus read from Isaiah. It was a Scripture that triggered the hopes the people would have had. Jesus said he was the one to fulfill this prophecy. At first it seems they might believe him. They had never heard Scripture read like that before. And no wonder––can you imagine what it must have been to hear the Living Word read the written Word?  But the doubt trickles in. "Isn't this Joseph's son?” they asked. Again, they didn’t know what we know. Jesus was not “Joseph’s son” in the way they assumed.

It's here we see something else about Jesus. He doesn't coddle unbelief. He is like an Old Testament prophet. Jeremiah described some of this in the first reading. We might think that Jesus would have responded with understanding. He could have said, "I know it must be hard for you to believe this, but,…" Instead Jesus responds in a way that he does again and again: he says something else to push the offense.

He told them two Old Testament stories that they knew very well. In the two stories, the one common theme is that God's grace came to the outsider instead of an Israelite. It was a Gentile woman and a Gentile man that received the prophet's blessing. Jesus was telling them that their attitudes were causing a repeat performance; he was bringing good news to those who could truly receive it––people like Gentile sinners. If they were not open to that, they were acting like those who persecuted the prophets of old.

We need to recognize that it is easy for us to be like the townspeople in Nazareth––expecting God to fulfill all our hopes while at the same time trying to keep our own boundaries and prejudices. This cuts us off from people God loves––people God wants to love through us.

We come to church each week, I hope, because we want to identify with God's good news. Jesus' words to the people of Nazareth tell us it is not good news if we can't get beyond our own expectations.

Jesus brings all people to a point of decision. He pushed the issue with his hometown people. He will push issues in our lives. And the big issue is simply this: are we going to be like Jesus, or like the people of Nazareth? How tightly do we hold to our own boundaries and insist on our own way?

This kind of change does not come easily, but change is what Jesus is after for all of us. He does not intend to leave any of us the way we are. We all need to be in that process of change that turns sinners into saints. Our calling is to be like Jesus and not like the people at Nazareth.

God is always asking us to change our minds about things that pad our self-interest. God is asking us to change our minds about who is worthy of our attention and our love. It may mean changing our expectations of what it means to be the Church. It will surely mean going against the prejudices that are accepted by the popular culture around us.

Our culture has many wrong ideas, but there is one that needs to be front and center before us right now. As the attempted justification of late-term abortions swirls around, we need to know and proclaim (and vote): it is never okay.

We are called to invite the Spirit that lived in Jesus to extend God's kingdom through what we believe and say and do. That is the way sinners are changed into saints.

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