Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Impossible Rules of God’s Kingdom (Life in the Spirit)

February 19, 2017: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18 / Psalm 103 / 1 Corinthians 3:16–23 / Matthew 5:38–48
The Impossible Rules of God’s Kingdom (Life in the Spirit)

What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? There are, indeed, signs and gifts. One important “sign” is character and the behavior that comes out of it. The Sermon on the Mount is a picture of life in this world lived in the Spirit of Jesus. Christianity is not just doctrines and rules; it's who a person is––a person who is alive to God in the Spirit given through Jesus.

Jesus speaks to what this life is like by using several issues––murder, adultery, divorce, oaths and revenge. The Pharisees had built rules around these things. Jesus exposed how they used these laws to make themselves look good. That is not what it means to have “spiritual life.”

The issues that Jesus uses show us something about God and his life in his people. When we truly see what God wants of us, the first thing we will do is cry out for his mercy and grace. We fall so short. We cannot obey the Sermon on the Mount, or any of the Commandments, by ourselves ––at least not from the heart. We can force some things outwardly, but God has to work his life into ours through his Holy Spirit. That is the beginning and the end of the Christian life.

The text today focuses on a difficult subject: one’s response to evil in others. It is an oversimplification to hear Jesus say we are not to resist evil at all. Scripture is clear that God's people are to resist evil. Paul writes to the Ephesians to put on the whole armor of God so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground.... (6:13). Peter, speaking of the devil in his first letter, says, Resist him.... (5:9). James gives instruction along with a promise, Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (4:7). Christians are not to be passive in the face of evil.

The particular issue here is how a godly person responds to evil in others. This affects us in two ways. First, all of us sometimes get the brunt of human evil––we are lied about, short-changed, lusted after or even abused. But secondly, none of us is totally without evil, and we all have extended, in some way, our own evil to others (at least by God’s standard). Confessing that and wanting to be different (like God) is what it means to be poor in spirit and mournful and meek (to use Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes). In today’s verses, Jesus focuses on what it means to live as God's people in a world where evil is the rule rather than the exception. A good translation could be: Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.

If we’re honest, we know the desire for revenge runs deep. Some years ago I saw a bumper-sticker that read: You toucha' my truck, I breaka' your face. The evil of human revenge is such that we can want to do more “back” than was done to us. God says that is wicked.

Jesus gives illustrations from his day of what he is talking about. Slaps in the face, giving one's cloak and going another mile were situations that touched personal insults, rights to personal property and government interference with personal convenience. (Note that Jesus did not give examples of a one's wife being assaulted and abused or a gang trying to beat a person to death. In fact, when Paul was in danger of being beaten by the mob in Jerusalem, he gratefully accepted help from the Roman army––Acts 21:30ff). The issue here is not civil order. The New Testament speaks plainly to that in other places. Here, Jesus is directing his disciples to the heart attitude of people  who want to be like God––to show his life and character––as they live in this world.

The issue is really one of self. Do I put myself first? When I am insulted, do I retaliate? Do I try to "get back" at someone who hurt me in order to satisfy my itch for revenge? This is different than having a desire for justice for the sake of a stable society. If we are victims of heinous crimes, we can have two very different heart responses: One wants the state to execute the death penalty so we can have some personal revenge; the other recognizes that the state needs to act in justice to maintain right and order for everyone, but we also have concern for the person who committed the evil so that we personally forgive and pray for their salvation.

Here is what Jesus says to do: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.... (v44). Now here is where we need to be careful. This is not a mere rule. This is not an abstract obligation that we, in our broken humanity, will miserably fail to obey. Yet, this is the standard for people who want to embrace God and his kingdom. What are we to do?

The main thing is to know that we cannot obey what Jesus says by making a bunch of rules. These are “impossible rules”, and to view them that way will only result in failure. We “naturally” want revenge. We cannot “naturally” love our enemies. So again, what is Jesus really saying? What is he calling us to do? We are to focus on who God is and what he has done.

The focus of life in God's kingdom is God himself. Jesus concludes everything by saying, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. This is after Jesus has described God's character as that of one who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (v45). As Christians, we are called to respond to our enemies the way God responds to his. How does he do that? Paul is explicit in his letter to the Romans: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners [v10--God's enemies], Christ died for us (5:8). The more God's Spirit controls us, the more we will be able to respond according to his character. So you see, as in the whole Sermon on the Mount, the emphasis is not so much on what we do in any given situation as it is on who we are. There are not enough rules to guide us in godly living, even if we could keep them by ourselves (which we cannot). But what rules cannot accomplish, God's life in us can as we “live in the Spirit.”

The way you and I respond to evil and enemies is in direct proportion to how much the Spirit of God controls us. If you want to see someone who perfectly lived in God's Spirit, look at Jesus. The power of Jesus’ life in us is the way we can truly be God's people and have his own character growing in us. Do you see the glory? Can you believe that you and I can be enabled to respond to people with God's love? What if the world could see Jesus in us to this degree? Listen to Jesus again: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…. be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What Truly Matters (or, “Jesus, You’ve Got To Be Kidding”)

January 29, 2017: 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12–13 / from Psalm 146 /  1 Corinthians 1:26–31 / Matthew 5:1–12a
What Truly Matters (or, “Jesus, You’ve Got To Be Kidding”)

We live in a culture that prioritizes personal pleasure and convenience. If we pay attention to what the commercial world tries to sell us we will hear a seductive invitation to pursue bigger, better, nicer, sexier…. We are told to go after what makes us look good, whatever makes us happy, how to be the envy of others. There is a constant message that security comes from owning and controlling. Wealth, pleasure, power, and honor are the ultimate goals.

Jesus says the opposite as he begins The Sermon the Mount with what is commonly called the Beatitudes. He says God’s blessing rests on things that are polar opposites of what the world-spirit urges us to seek. Jesus uses words like poor, mourn, meek, insult, and persecute as a context for a right relationship with God. As Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, he commends them for being foolish, weak, lowly, and despised in the eyes of the world.

The world is full of ‘somebodies’ and ‘nobodies’….. That’s not the way God intended it to be. Every human being, man, woman, child, and even unborn child, bears the image and likeness of God, [no one has] more nor less dignity because some other people have heard of them, look up to them, or think they’re special. But [most] people feel that it’s better to be ‘somebody’ [in some way that makes them “better” than others. (N. T. Wright)

A right understanding of what God has said and done through his Son calls us to dare to believe that we do not need to live under the burden of what consumes our world, either frantically seeking the so-called good or living in fear of the bad. Christian Faith turns the world’s common values upside down. As Christians, you and I are asked to believe that there is another world far more important than this one….. and then let that belief––that faith––affect the way we think and speak and act.

For the next several Sundays, the Epistle and Gospel readings are going to be taken mostly from this section of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and from Matthew’s presentation of The Sermon on the Mount. Again and again St Paul is going to contrast so-called human wisdom with God’s wisdom. The whole concept of wise and foolish is turned inside out. Paul insists that our glory as Christians is the cross of Jesus Christ.

Today’s Christians are mostly inoculated to the image of the cross. A cross is often a gold ornament on a nice chain that we wear. We even make a crucifix a work of art (and there is justification for that in the right context). Yet in those early years of the Church the cross was a scandal. It was nothing but an instrument of the most cruel and shameful death of its day. Imagine wearing a hangman's noose around your neck for ornamentation, or having an oil painting of an electric chair on your living room wall; that gives a bit of context for what people felt when Paul exalted “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

We hear these Gospel readings and we know, on some cerebral level, that it is Jesus giving divine teaching. But if we truly hear Jesus we can hardly believe he is serious: Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad….. What?! Jesus, you have to be kidding…. you’re using hyperbole, right? You are all about love and mercy, right? You want us to be happy (don’t you?)…. What is this about insult and persecution when we don’t deserve it? ….But let’s finish that one verse: Rejoice and be glad…. for your reward will be great in heaven.

As we hear the readings over the next weeks, please try to remember this foundational truth (it’s the only way that Christian Faith makes any sense): Jesus came to bring––and teach and show––a whole new world: the Kingdom of God. Although we now can only see it by faith, we believe that Jesus and his kingdom is the lasting reality. What the world calls "the good life”–– the world’s veneer of nice things and beautiful people is going to dissolve. Jesus invites us to be free of the rat race and the fear of threats.

Think about it: no matter how wealthy or otherwise secure we are in this life, every one of us is going to die. Most people want to run from that reality. So much around us functions as a decoy to keep our minds and emotions occupied with something––anything––that seems to be important enough to keep us going and distracted. None of it is going to last.

Now it’s not that bad things do not matter, that we shouldn’t be concerned about them. It’s not that we should not desire good things. It’s just that even good things can be bad if they keep us distracted from what is most important, and no bad thing on earth is the worst thing that could happen. Jesus warned us to be more afraid of what can kill the soul than what can kill the body.

So we have Scripture readings like these to call us to a deep reality. The only way to live with any security in this world is to trust God. In love, God lets hard things come to teach us––to draw us––to run to him. God’s own Son, our Lord Jesus, suffered to the point of death so (among other reasons) we could see, in the context of our own fears and sufferings, that God is bigger than evil and death.

We will each leave here today and go out into a world that has all kinds of delightful distractions. Let’s not let them be too important in our lives. We will leave here today and perhaps have to face something awful (and if it doesn’t happen this week, something awful eventually comes to all of us); let’s dare to believe that God’s love in Christ Jesus is bigger than pain and death––even bigger than evil and hell.

Hear again part of our readings today: ….you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. God forgives us and heals us and delivers us from our false attachments through his Son. So hear again the words of our Lord himself: Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. This is our faith.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church

Sunday: January 1, 2017–– Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Numbers 6:22–27 / Psalm 67 / Galatians 4:4–7 / Luke 2:16–21
Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church

The Church teaches that Mary is the Mother of God. Catholics grow up with Mary as a key figure in the life of the Church. That is good.... but it's not so good if there is little understanding of why and how Mary is so important. On the other end of the continuum, though, are many Evangelical Christians, who think––as I once did––that Catholics worship Mary. This means that, other than a brief cameo role at Christmas, Mary is at best ignored and, sadly, even demeaned in order (it is thought) to “correct” the Catholic error. I know this is true because it was part of my journey. One of the biggest hurdles separating most Evangelical Christians from Catholic Faith is the person and place of Mary.

This first Marian dogma goes back to 431 A.D and the ecumenical Council of Ephesus, which raised the question of whether Mary is rightly called theotokos. That’s a Greek word meaning "bearer of God.” One popular teacher, Nestorius, did not want to give Mary the title theotokos, preferring to call her christotokos, "the bearer of Christ" because he separated the divinity and humanity of Christ. The Council of Ephesus said that this destroyed Jesus as one undivided person. Nestorius' teaching was declared heretical and Mary was formally given the title theotokos, “God-bearer”, as the orthodox way to describe Mary.

This title was not meant to exalt Mary so much as to assert the unity of divinity and humanity in her Son. When properly understood, all the Marian dogmas are about Jesus. We use God-bearer language for the mother of Jesus to confess who Jesus really is: the beloved Son of the Father, born of a woman (Gal 4:4), and thus God manifested in the flesh (1 Tim. 3:16). Yet implicit in this is indeed a great honor for Mary. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Mary says (in the Magnificat): all generations will call me blessed. There was a point where I truly “saw” that for the first time, and with it was a shocking realization: the Christian tradition that had formed me had not taught me to call Mary “blessed.” It was a hard pill for me to swallow when it first dawned on me that it was the Catholic tradition which has fulfilled this prophecy of Mary recorded by Luke.

One of the objections from my past was the argument that Mary does not have prominence in the New Testament––that she has little role in Acts and is hardly mentioned in the Epistles. This point of view ignores the implication of Luke’s early chapters. Where did the details of those chapters come from if not from Mary herself? There is one vignette after another that can only be known because Luke, in composing his Gospel, sat at the feet of Mary and––inspired by the Holy Spirit to do so––recorded her “ponderings” so that we have their fruit today as Scripture.

If we take that as a premise, we then have in Mary a very important figure who is a source of authority for the earliest part of the “Jesus story”. She has stored these memories in her heart and she is highly revered. After she was taken to heaven and the Church was facing great persecution, there was an emphasis on the memory of the holy people who had first formed the Church. From the beginning Mary was uniquely remembered as the virgin in whom the Holy Spirit conceived our incarnate Lord. This was part of the Apostolic Tradition that guided the Council of Ephesus.

The declaration that Mary was the theotokos, the Mother of God, does not imply Mary’s divinity; again, it was primarily about Christ’s humanity. Jesus took his human flesh from his mother. The Church teaches clearly, and has always taught, that Mary is not divine. She is human, a creature, just like us, created by God. When we come to faith in Jesus, we are adopted so that Jesus is our brother (Heb 2:11) and Mary becomes our mother. Then we are all one in Christ in his mystical Body. This Body, of course (as Paul explicitly teaches), has different parts, different roles, and different gifts. Not everyone does the same thing. Mary has a special role: She is Mother, because she is literally the mother of Jesus’ physical body, and as we are joined to Christ through the Holy Spirit as his mystical Body she comes our Mother, too. Jesus, on the cross, explicitly gave his mother to his disciple (and implicitly to the Church). So everything about Mary is connected to the communion of saints, of which we are a part––and of which she is the preeminent member (everything in Catholic Faith interfaces, as a seamless garment). As Catholic piety began to develop and grow, Mary’s role as an intercessor became important as early as the early second century.

Yet this was another cause for concern in my former tradition. How can Mary not be ascribed divine omnipresence if she is constantly able to hear millions of individual prayers all around the world? Then a wonderful analogy came to me: Facebook. It is possible to have a friend on Facebook who has thousands of other friends. That friend can have all other friends tell him their fears and woes. How? Through the internet. I do not mean this to be disrespectful in the least, but the internet functions something like the Holy Spirit. The internet is everywhere. The internet can deliver messages seemingly at the speed of light. A FB friend does not have that power by himself, but it is available. So with prayer, the “vehicle” is always God. We can only pray in and through the Holy Spirit, but because every Christian is a partaker of the Spirit and because physical death does not cut the bond all Christians have in the Spirit, there is a communion of saints, and at the pinnacle of all saints is Holy Mary, the Mother of God. No other human being has greater intimacy with Jesus than Mary. She is is a powerful intercessor. In the Spirit, we can ask for her to pray for us just as we ask for the prayers of our dearest living friend.

Yet there is a caution here. Even as we honor Mary with the title Mother of God and seek her motherly aid, we need to remember than Mary is not the source of holiness, or love, or mercy. Those things come first from God; God’s people have those qualities derivatively as gifts of grace. Let’s not think that is Mary more merciful than Jesus.

But among all the people of God––among all the saints, no one has greater fulness of grace than Mary. She is first in the Church. She is first among the saints. She alone gave flesh to the eternal Word, and in so doing became the very Mother of God. In that grace, and from the very words of Jesus on the cross––Behold your mother, she is our mother, too. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Prepare the Way for the Lord

December 4, 2016 –– 2nd Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10 / Psalm 72:1-2,7-8,12-13,17 / Romans 15:4-9 / Matthew 3:1-12
Prepare the Way for the Lord

The promise of Isaiah is fulfilled in the Gospel: In those days John the Baptizer came, preaching....“A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

Some people were excited. God was visibly at work. Some other people were not so excited––and many of them were religious leaders. John preached repentance. John confronted people with their sins. Many people who knew they were sinners welcomed this invitation to repent and find God’s mercy. Other people, though––mostly the religious elite––did not see themselves as sinners. For them, “evil” was expressed only through the “big, bad sins,” and since they did not commit any of them (at least outwardly), a call to repent was an affront. But the heart of the matter was this: they did not want God messing up their convenient little world. Through John, God was offering the next step to bring his peace into the world, but the people in control did not want it if it meant giving up their place of control.

Down to today, many people are willing to be “religious” as long they can choose what it means. Some make great claims of spirituality, but will not give Jesus Christ his exclusive place. Then there are people who claim to be Christians, but they reserve the “right” to have a “personal choice” on social issues on which the Church has spoken with clarity and conviction: abortion, sexual purity outside of marriage, homosexual practice, etc. Others claim to be Christian but fervently support political agendas that protect extravagant living at the expense of much of the world. Many more claim to be Christian and yet live in relational discord, even with unforgiveness and disdain, with other Christians.

You know, any of us can look around and find other people to judge. If we’re honest, we know we too often do just that. What God was saying through John, and continues to say, goes beyond that: all of us have sins, and repentance should be a regular part of our spiritual lives. The call to repent of our sins and believe the good news was the message of both Isaiah and John the Baptizer, and it is the ongoing message of the Church. As we go into this Advent season of preparing for the true meaning of Christmas, it is right for all of us to repent of our sins and affirm our belief that the only way to salvation is through the forgiveness God gives in Jesus Christ.

We never grow beyond the practice of repentance. I believe a big obstacle to Christian unity is the failure to repent. St Paul calls the Christian community to a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus (Rom 15:5). Hardly anything gives greater testimony to the Spirit of Jesus in a person than saying, “I am sorry; I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” That is repentance, and the Christian community needs to model more of it to a watching world.

It is human nature to balk at this. It is human nature to say, “you don’t know what he did to me!” Yet Paul reminds the Christian community: Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…. (Rom 15:7). Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our Savior, the one who has become a servant (v8) so that we may glorify God for his mercy (v9). The only claim we have to salvation is God’s mercy, and the only way to allow mercy to do its work in us is through repentance.

This is the Gospel…. and because the Gospel is real and true, there is an effect. John the Baptizer proclaimed a fire (Mtt 3:11b,12) that is unleashed to destroy evil. In a Christian’s life, that fire is a burning love. God’s love is so intense that it consumes sin. We are invited to enter into the love of God with such abandon that all our sin is burned up. That actually happens in the process of repentance and forgiveness. 

But for those who will not repent––who persist in sin––then both Isaiah’s and John’s words give the grim reality: with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked (Isa 11:4), and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Mtt 3:12). When God’s burning love is rejected, it turns to fiery judgment. The readings today tell us that true and full peace will only come when God’s burning love destroys all that is evil. Only then will all of creation be at peace so that even among the animals they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain (Isa 11:9).

As Christians, we long for that, but at the same time we must face a real problem. It’s easy to worry about animals and world peace and yet not be willing let peace start in us with our own families or neighbors or co-workers. As the old spiritual says, Not my brother or my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Advent is a time for us to face our own sins. The message of John the Baptizer comes down to us today: Prepare the way for the Lord.... Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Let’s Prepare the way for the Lord in our own hearts.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The End Is The Beginning

November 13, 2016 –– 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachi 3:19–20a / Psalm 98 / 2 Thessalonians 3:7–12 / Luke 21:5–19
The End Is The Beginning

This is my favorite time of year. The crisp temperatures and the beauty of autumn colors combine to make this season invigorating. I love the longer evenings that give an embrace of coziness. When the celebration of Thanksgiving and the anticipation of Christmas are thrown in, it’s about as good as life gets in this world.

Yet there are those who have different feelings. They see the beauty, but even more they see in autumn a blatant picture of coming death. The warmth of vibrant green is waning; the longer evenings are merely the darkness of shorter days. For them, the cold, dark days of winter bring the same effect to the soul.

Both perspectives are true. As with life in general in this world of ours, warmth and coldness––especially of spirit––are always coexisting. To use the language of spiritual direction, we face a mixture of consolation and desolation. The Church affirms this in many ways, and the Gospel itself illustrates it.

We are at the end of the liturgical year. In two more weeks we’ll be in Advent, which should come as no surprise since the secular version of “Christmas” is already being thrown at us. But while the culture at large wants to rush to what it calls Christmas and find a shot of happiness in the next party, the Church calls us to something quite the opposite. Even before we get to Advent (which is not just a “church-word” for Christmas; it’s supposed to be a time of spiritual examination and preparation), the Church brings its liturgical year to a close with what is called The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

The Scripture readings for today are not warm and cozy. The world that is described is not Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pies nor Christmas trees and Yule logs. A fire is indeed burning, but it is a fire of judgment on everything in rebellion against God: all the proud and all the evildoers will be stubble. This is not limited to stereotypical Old Testament fire and brimstone; Jesus warns of mighty signs that will bring havoc to the world. And then he says, Before all this happens, they will seize and persecute you…. and they will put some of you to death.

We “know” that Christians have died for the Faith, but such a thing has not literally come close to us––at least not yet. But as we enjoy the beauty of this fall season and anticipate the joys of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Church––and Jesus––has a warning that corresponds with the waning of the year: Along with the assurance we can have of God’s love, mercy, and grace…. mixed in with the temporal consolations of family and feasts and cultural frivolities…. there is something else (that we’d rather not think about): Every one of us must face the reality of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

The world around us tries to calculate ways to secure ourselves: If we can “go green” in time, we can save our planet. If we can just figure out which candidate is the anti-Christ or which candidate is likely to trigger Armageddon and avoid letting that person get in office, the we will be safe. If we will tolerate everything and everybody, then everyone will leave everyone else alone and we can all live happily ever-after. This world just doesn’t work that way.

It is a mercy when the Church keeps these Scriptures before us that remind us that we are going to die. Every one of us is one day closer to our death than we were yesterday.

The judgment of God is coming. All of us will face a particular judgment in which we each will give a personal account to God of our lives. The whole world is moving to a general judgment when all that is unholy will be burned up and a new earth is ushered into the fulness of God’s forever kingdom.

As a result of that judgment, every one of us faces either heaven or hell. God promises heaven for every person who will not shut him out, because the essence of the nature of God is love and Jesus carried the sins of the world to the cross. Yet God gives every one of us the ability to shut him out; love is not forced, and the only way to open ourselves to God’s love is to love him. We cannot love God if we reject his ways. The commands of God are not arbitrary rules; the commands of God are safety codes given in love, Manufacturer’s instructions to insure that we function according to the way we were created.

We look out on a world where many things are not going right: nation against nation…. earthquakes…. famines…. plagues…. These things happen because our world is in rebellion against God. It will not always be this way. One day God will say Enough!

As surely as the year cycles to its place of dying, life in this world faces The Four Last Things. But that is not the final word. The final Word is Jesus. On the other side of death and judgment is a promise from our Lord that comes in the final book of the Bible: Behold, I make all things new (Rev 21:5). That is why Malachi could end his prophecy of the coming fire with these words: for those who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.

It is a grace to listen to the Church’s warning of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. We end the  old year realistically. This takes us to the true meaning of Advent and Christmas that starts a new liturgical year. In the powerful mercy of God, the end is the beginning.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Context of Mercy

October 23, 2016–– 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sirach 35:12–14, 16–18 / 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16-18 / Luke 18:9–14
The Context of Mercy

A contrast is not the same as having to choose only between the two options. Jesus extends a stark contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector. Clearly the tax collector is commended and the Pharisee is condemned. But it’s not as if these two men represent the only options; Jesus is not giving an all-encompassing “either/or” with these two characters.

If we stop to remember, outward appearance does not always match our inner desire or motive. Sometimes that is good: What if our worst thoughts always showed themselves outwardly?! We would be afraid to go out in public. But sometimes our outward behavior is far worse than what we desire or intend; we mean to do good, but it turns out wrong to others. That is one reason Jesus said not to judge. Then there are those people who “do good” on the outside just to promote themselves, because on the inside they are vain and selfish. That, of course, is not true goodness.

Pharisees were the most outwardly religious Jews of their day. The Pharisee in Jesus’ story had have some very commendable qualities (assuming he was telling the truth, and he likely was): He was honest in business dealings. He practiced sexual morality. He fasted. He gave a tenth of his total income. All of those are good. Our world would benefit if everyone did these things.

The tax collector was a despised person in Judea. Usually it was a Jew who collaborated with the occupying and oppressive Romans by doing exactly what they were called: collecting taxes from the citizens so that the conquered had to foot the bill for the conquerors. On top of that, tax collectors usually demanded much more than the tax itself, which they used as a lucrative source of income for themselves. Tax collectors were considered guilty of everything for which the Pharisee smugly announced his innocence.

Is Jesus saying God prefers us to be despicable rather than practice outward goodness? Is he using this contrast to bring our focus to how we appear to others? Of course not. Do outward issues matter? Yes––in their proper place. Today’s Gospel is something else. This particular teaching of Jesus goes to the core of how we come to God.

I do not know how many times in Scripture God gives some kind of welcoming invitation for us to come to him as our God…. our Refuge and Helper…. our Savior…. our Father…. our Friend….  Yet there are requirements; perhaps “protocol” is a good way to understand it. If God is God, then we need to come with proper protocol––an attitude that says, “You are God; I am not the one calling the shots.” This honors who God is. This puts us in the place where we can receive the good things God wants to give us.

The Pharisee in Jesus’ story was focused on himself. A vain and selfish attitude is probably the biggest obstacle that stands between God and people who are estranged from him. When we put ourselves first, we shut God out. God is honored and we are rewarded when we do good things with a desire to obey and please him. But if we try to use good things to justify ourselves and if we expect God’s favor because of what we do, we build our own wall that cuts God off.

So here was the tax collector who was not doing good. He was siding with evil rulers. He was helping to oppress his own people. He was using a rotten system for his own advantage. But somewhere in that mix of awful stuff, he became aware of it. He seemed to realize suddenly that he needed God’s love and mercy more than he needed the benefits of his conniving position. So from deep within the core of his being came this honest and humble cry: God be merciful to me, a sinner! That is an attitude of heart that tears the wall down and allows God to be God. And when God is allowed to be God, his gift is always mercy.

So, if you are aware of things in your life that are not right, let those things show you your need of God’s mercy. If you sincerely pray, God be merciful to me, a sinner, God will give you mercy and mercy truly received will change your life.

In this context, we’re not to worry about the “other person.” We cannot look at what seems to be good or not-so-good people on the outside and fully know what is in their hearts. We’re each to look into our own hearts and always pray, God be merciful to me, a sinner.

To tell the truth, on the outside I’m more like this Pharisee. I seek to live a meticulously moral life. I read the Bible and pray every day. My wife and I tithe regularly. I even fast sometimes (but I’m not very good at it). Everyone who follows Jesus should practice an obedience that models good things. But no matter how “good” I might appear to be, not one thing I do “buys” God’s favor. If God does not have mercy on me––no matter how “good” my outward practices, I have no hope.

I hope all of us know that is true. No matter how much goodness we have attained, we all fall short (Rom 3:23) of always loving as God loves. None of us has yet attained to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (Eph 4:13). If God does not have mercy, we have no hope. But the whole Gospel is based on this: God is merciful. God be merciful to me, a sinner.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Man in Hell

September 25, 2016: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Amos 6:1a,4–7 / 1 Timothy 6:11–16 / Luke 16:19–31
A Man in Hell

I grew up in a church where “fire and brimstone sermons” were not unusual. As a boy I would always shudder when a visiting evangelist would say, "My text for this evening is found in Luke chapter sixteen." I knew what would come next. He would continue by quoting the line around which his whole sermon would revolve. The old King James language is still clear in my mind, "And in hell he lift up his eyes..."

It may not be popular, but the Church does believe in hell. Preaching about hell is not inappropriate, but it’s always secondary at best. Hell is an eternal antithesis to embracing the glory of God. We take hell seriously because the salvation given to us in Jesus Christ offers us a glorious alternative. The purpose of this story given by our Lord is not just to tell us there is a hell; it tells us why one man found himself in hell. It is a story that warns others not to make the choice this man made.

Why would anyone “choose” hell? It is one's own choice. Of course most people do not make the choice of hell explicitly; people choose hell passively by choosing other things above God. What kinds of choices lead people into hell? There is a stereotypical list of mortal sins, but nothing is said about the rich man in this story being sexually immoral or running an abortion clinic. This is a story of a man who chooses hell when he chooses to do nothing.

In that day and culture it was common to wipe greasy hands on chunks of bread and then toss the bread to the dogs. It was that bread which Lazarus waited for at the gate. It seems the rich man was well-aware of Lazarus (he knows the beggar’s name). Maybe he thought himself quite merciful in not calling the authorities to have the vagrant put away (Lazarus did not help beautify his gateway). No, the rich man was not cruel; he merely lived his own life and let Lazarus live his.

That is how the rich man chose hell. Mortal sin is not limited to acts of violence or illegitimate sex. Sin is not limited to crude and repugnant people. One way to understand the essence of sin is selfishness. Selfishness is merely putting one's self first. Selfishness is living as though other people do not matter as much as “me”. It seemed not to matter one way or the other to the rich man that Lazarus lay at his gate. The rich man was too comfortable to care. He did not have to worry about Lazarus' hunger; he went to bed full of wonderful foods every night. He gave no thought to the rags with which Lazarus tried to cover himself; he was handsomely dressed in the best clothing available. He was not concerned about Lazarus' sores; he was comfortable.

But this warning is not limited to people who can qualify for television's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (if that program isn’t current, it seems there are many more which exalt the same values). In Jesus' day a “rich” person was someone who lived very comfortably, had not only enough to eat but a wide variety of foods, someone who lived in a relatively carefree environment with nice possessions, had the luxury of different clothes for different occasions, and enjoyed a social life with the people of his choice. So not only are we rich compared with most of the world's present population, we are “rich” as Jesus would have used the term.

Maybe this word "rich" is a mental block for us. Let's not say "rich"; let's say we are "comfortable." Comfortable people have discretionary income. What do we do with our discretionary income? If we spend it all on ourselves we are like this man in Jesus' story. What story does our homes and wardrobes and tables and vehicles and vacations tell when placed beside our giving? This is exactly what Amos was prophesying as he warned of God’s judgment on people given to self-obsessed pleasures. With a bit of imagination we might bring his words into our world:

This is what the Lord, the Almighty God says: There is bad news for everyone who is living in the delusion of comfort and convenience. You have your Craftmatic and Sleep Number beds; you recline in your La-Z-Boy recliners; you carefully buy from Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and Omaha steaks. You entertain yourselves with your favorite music. You get wine and beer as if there is no limit. You pamper yourselves with the delicacies from Bath and Bodyworks. Yet you pay no attention to the things that break God’s heart; others can be miserable, but as long as you are healthy and happy, you think all is well. It’s about to be turned upside-down. Your comfort is going to evaporate.

We are bombarded with the temptation to be self-indulgent. We want to be comfortable. The rich man wanted this, and who doesn't? We sleep on beds instead of on the floor. And choosing comfort is not all wrong––unless it becomes our top priority. Is our desire for comfort greater than a willingness to love? Are we most concerned with pleasing ourselves or following Jesus? The rich man chose himself, probably without even thinking about it, and in doing so, he chose hell.

It seems the rich man did not know this. That should not be surprising; many people today do not understand it either. Somehow we've gotten sidetracked by limiting sin to a few visible “nasty” sins. As long as we avoid those we think we are good people. In fact, using that standard, it's very hard to discern any difference between "good" people in the church from "good" people who have nothing to do with church at all. Christian Faith––following Jesus––is more than that. God calls his people to love as he loves. Yes, we find it much easier to seek our own happiness and our own comfort; that is our natural tendency because of the Fall. Apart from the grace of God, it is also what causes us to choose hell.

It was in the clutches of hell that the rich man finally understood. He asked if Lazarus could go back from the dead to warn the living. He hoped his own brothers who were caught up in their comforts would be shocked into listening if someone came from the dead. The Gospel is that this rich man's request has been granted. Someone has come back from the dead. Jesus Christ died for our sins and came back from the dead to show us that God’s ways are above human reasonings and hopes. And believing that, we are called to follow Jesus in the way he loves––not putting our own comfort and convenience above a commitment to be like our Lord.

The choice that the rich man made still confronts each of us today.  All we have to do to choose hell is choose to live only for ourselves. I close with a question I ask myself: How am I learning to be different than this man who was so comfortable that he could ignore Lazarus and end up in hell? Only in following Jesus…. Every day, we ask for the grace to follow Jesus. We pray each day, forgive us our trespasses…. We feed on the Living Word. And as we give ourselves to Jesus  he frees us from slavery of our selfish desires. That is the Gospel. That is our hope that our own story will not be like this one about a man in hell.

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