Monday, July 30, 2012

Understanding God’s Stories

Monday: 30 July, 2012 –– 17th Week in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 13:1–11 / Matthew 13:31–35
Understanding God’s Stories
People usually like stories. Stories often entertain us. Stories give us tangible images that we can visualize and often place ourselves in the context. Jesus told stories and used common images in much of his teaching. Preachers are often encouraged to follow the model of Jesus and tell more stories.
There are many stories in the Bible beyond those told by Jesus. The Old Testament is full of stories. I knew many of them by the time I was five years old because my parents began reading them to me early. It is an invaluable thing to grow up knowing Bible stories; the Scriptures give a child an incredible foundation for learning to hear God’s voice.
It is important, though, to learn that the stories are not ends in themselves. A person can know the storyline of the great biblical epics and still not know how to hear God’s voice. The stories in the Bible, when they fulfill their true purpose, provide “hooks” to pull us into the very life of God.
Some of the stories in the Bible are shocking (especially to modern sensitivities).  Many stories in the Bible are hard to understand, or at least it’s hard to be sure we get the point. The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus often spoke in parables –– stories –– so the general hearer would not easily get the point!
It’s not that God does not want us to understand. There is nothing God wants more than for us to hear his voice and to understand his ways. But there is a catch.... (remember, I said that the stories God gives us are meant to be a hook to pull us into his life).  God loves us, and he wants us to love him.  Part of the nature of love is discovery and the unfolding intimacy that comes from progressive disclosure. [A pertinent example from today’s culture is that it is a false intimacy when romance moves too quickly to sexual intimacy; people are physically intimate when they don’t even truly know each other, and the result is hurt and pain.]
Listening to God’s stories is meant to pull us into his life. And the more we truly listen, the more we will understand. Jesus told stories that delighted the people who had open hearts; those same stories often left the self-righteous and critics puzzled and angry.  You see, God’s stories are not meant merely to entertain us; they are designed to win our hearts.
That is the point of Jeremiah’s story. God had him take an intimate garment and abuse it so that it was ruined. The truth is simple: God wants to be intimate with us, but if we do not listen –– and if we do not honor what is given to encourage us –– then we’ll be left with nothing but our vulnerability and the pain of what was lost.
When we hear God’s stories, let’s have open and obedient hearts. Then, the more we hear, the more we will understand.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Like Sheep Without A Shepherd (or just dumb chickens)

Sunday: 22 July, 2012 –– 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 23:1–6 / Ephesians 2:13–18 / Mark 6:30–34
Like Sheep Without A Shepherd (or just dumb chickens)
The details of the Bible can cause it to seem far removed from the world we live in. How are the  writings of the prophet Jeremiah relevant for us? And if you bother to read much of Jeremiah’s message, you will find it mostly depressing. I always heard Jeremiah called “the weeping prophet.” We want things that make us happy, so Jeremiah’s prophecy has two strikes against it.
Yet, if you stick with it so that you understand what God is saying through Jeremiah, you will find he had plenty of reasons to weep. And if we are honest with ourselves and honest about the world we live in, we know there are good reasons for us to feel some grief and pain. Some days are worse than others, but it’s not hard to find something in the news every day worthy of tears.
One way we try to “handle” that is to keep the bad things at a distance. And we can –– for a while –– as long as the grief doesn’t actually touch us or the ones we love the most. We can keep ourselves busy with work. We can keep ourselves busy with entertainment. We can even keep ourselves busy trying to help others. Those are each good things in their proper place, but we then allow ourselves to listen to voices that compel us and drive us to seek our own satisfaction and security. And when we are driven so hard that we are just running –– from ourselves and almost everything else –– then it is time to realize we are being scattered by bad “shepherds.”  We may not call them that today, but our world isn’t really so different from Jeremiah’s, at least not in the context of spiritual things.
The image of the shepherd is common in the Bible. This image is extended almost everywhere if we broaden it to the language of God “leading” his people. The first biblical comparison of the people to sheep without a shepherd comes in the book of Numbers (27:17-18). It is from the prayer of Moses as he begs the Lord to appoint a leader for the people after his death. Moses knew that people need good leaders. We need good spiritual leaders.
There are biblical examples of good shepherds and bad shepherds (in the context of spiritual leadership). God commends good shepherds and warns of judgment on bad shepherds. Likewise, people who follow good shepherds are commended, and people who choose to follow bad shepherds need to know they are inviting the judgment of God. God gives warnings because he loves us.... but then he does so much more.
God promises to provide good shepherds. That is a repeated Old Testament theme. The Twenty-third Psalm is a well-known and much-loved promise of the Lord’s provision. Then God does something incredible: In the New Testament he comes into our world as one of us so that God himself becomes our Shepherd.  Today’s Gospel has one of the most tender images of Jesus as God-with-us: his heart was moved with pity for [the people], for they were like sheep without a shepherd....
One way to express the Good News of Christian Faith is this: God wants to be your Shepherd. This is foundational. This is basic. This is the Good News.  God has done his part; he wants to be your Shepherd.
Do you know how God can be your Shepherd? There are a number of ways to answer this question, but I want to give you one that is the point of our Scriptures for today: You can know that God is your shepherd in a personal and powerful way to the extent that you realize and confess that you need a Good Shepherd. We say that in the confession of sin, but how often do we merely say the words?
It is sometimes hard for us genuinely to sense our neediness. We live in such a comfortable and convenience-filled society. Further, part of our sinfulness is holding to a pride that does not want to admit we need help. We want to justify ourselves; we can think “I’m as good as most people, and better than many. I do okay for myself.”
I have a friend who is a genuine naturalist. She loves plants and rooting around in dirt. She loves animals and enjoys caring for them. She works on a public farm, and part of her duties is taking care of chickens. One of the reasons the Bible uses sheep as a metaphor for our relationship with God is that sheep can be so helpless and, in all honesty, quite dumb. Well, chickens are worse. My friend was reflecting on this and wrote some of her observations in an email with the observation that it might serve as a homily illustration. I think she’s right. Listen to what she says:  
Lately I have been seeing people through the eyes of taking care of chickens. They bully each other, they pick on each other and sometimes are just not nice to each other at all. And here I am as their caretaker, wishing that they would stop their bickering and hurtfulness, knowing that they are well provided for and there is no need for the strained relations. Of course, they don't hear my thoughts and go about their meanness, and I think of how we often behave so much like chickens while God offers us something better.
When I enter the pen most of them run off nervously, assuming that I am out to do them harm. I've been with them day in and day out since last October and have not hurt any of them ever, and yet they still run or freeze in fear when I am near them.  On the other hand, if I come with a bucket in hand they automatically assume I have something tasty for them and they'll swarm over to me, but not to see me –– just to get what they assume I have to offer them, grab it and run off with it.  How like chickens we are –– afraid of knowing the God who only wants what is best for us, approaching him only for the gifts he bestows, and then going our own ways.  
One evening, one of the chickens I had raised from the time they were chicks was out of her chicken yard, running around, seemingly concerned about getting back to her friends but not figuring out how. It took my husband and me quite a while to get her back into her own yard. So here again was a perfect, visible example of how much we can be like chickens when it comes to trusting Jesus.  All we wanted to do was to return that poor, confused, agitated chicken to where she really wanted to be, but in her fear and stubbornness, she fought us every step of the way. Our patient perseverance finally paid off and she ran in the gate to join her flock, but how much easier on all of us it would have been if she had been able to assume that we knew what we were doing and wanted the best for her.  The longer I live in this role as chicken keeper, the more I am coming to know God as a parent and savior and shepherd –– and seeing in us the same foolish behavior as in chickens.
Can you see that we need a Good Shepherd? Do you believe today’s Gospel?  Jesus has pity on us and loves us because, without him, we are sheep without a shepherd.... chickens, running around on our own.  Hear the Gospel –– and believe the Good News.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

This IS My Body

St Ambrose was active in the second half of the 300s.  He is one of the four Latin original doctors of the Church.  The following is both a brilliant application of basic truths we believe about the supernatural nature of our Faith and a clear testimony to the "transubstantiation" of the bread and wine (although that word was not actually used until much later when some effort at definition became more necessary).  The Church has believed from the beginning "This is my body...."

From the treatise On the Mysteries by Saint Ambrose, bishop
(Nn. 52-54,58: SC 25 bis, 186-188,190)

The sacrament that you receive is effected by the words of Christ

We see that grace can accomplish more than nature, yet so far we have been considering instances of what grace can do through a prophet’s blessing. If the blessing of a human being had power even to change nature, what do we say of God’s action in the consecration itself, in which the very words of the Lord and Savior are effective? If the words of Elijah had power even to bring down fire from heaven, will not the words of Christ have power to change the natures of the elements? You have read that in the creation of the whole world he spoke and they came to be; he commanded and they were created. If Christ could by speaking create out of nothing what did not yet exist, can we say that his words are unable to change existing things into something they previously were not? It is no lesser feat to create new natures for things than to change their existing natures.

What need is there for argumentation? Let us take what happened in the case of Christ himself and construct the truth of this mystery from the mystery of the incarnation. Did the birth of the Lord Jesus from Mary come about in the course of nature? If we look at nature we regularly find that conception results from the union of man and women. It is clear then that the conception by the Virgin was above and beyond the course of nature. And this body that we make present is the body born of the Virgin. Why do you expect to find in this case that nature takes its ordinary course in regard to the body of Christ when the Lord himself was born of the Virgin in a manner above and beyond the order of nature? This is indeed the true flesh of Christ, which was crucified and buried. This is then in truth the sacrament of his flesh.

The Lord Jesus himself declares: This is my body. Before the blessing contained in these words a different thing is named; after the consecration a body is indicated. He himself speaks of his blood. Before the consecration something else is spoken of; after the consecration blood is designated. And you say: “Amen,” that is: “It is true.” What the mouth utters, let the mind within acknowledge; what the word says, let the heart ratify.

So the Church, in response to grace so great, exhorts her children, exhorts her neighbors, to hasten to these mysteries: Neighbors, she says, come and eat; brethren, drink and be filled. In another passage the Holy Spirit has made clear to you what you are to eat, what you are to drink. Taste, the prophet says, and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who puts his trust in him. Christ is in that sacrament, for it is the body of Christ. It is therefore not bodily food but spiritual. Thus the Apostle too says, speaking of its symbol: Our fathers ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink. For the body of God is spiritual; the body of Christ is that of a divine spirit, for Christ is a spirit. We read: The spirit before our face is Christ the Lord. And in the letter of Saint Peter we have this: Christ died for you. Finally, it is this food that gives strength to our hearts, this drink which gives joy to the heart of man, as the prophet has written.

Friday, July 20, 2012

In the Grip of Tensions

Friday: 20 July, 2012 –– 15th Week in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 38: 1–6, 21–22, 7–8 / Matthew 12:1–8
In the Grip of Tensions
We cannot comprehend God in his fullness.  We can only grasp facets of his being, and then we are often left with bewilderment, wondering how to reconcile what seem to be opposites. Our faith often leaves us in the grip of tensions.
In the Isaiah passage we find King Hezekiah facing his death. The account is very “human.”  When the bad diagnosis is given, he is angry and depressed. He complains that God owes him more than that. We have a different model in the NT with the Apostle Paul. He told the Philippians he was torn, wanting to stay on earth to continue his ministry but also wanting to go be with the Lord (Phlp 1:23–24).  There is a tension between the natural desire to have a long and healthy life on earth and the reality that this world is not our final home.
The story goes on to say that God gave Hezekiah the promise of fifteen more years along with an incredible sign: the shadow of the sun reversed direction!  From a natural standpoint, this implies the earth reversed its rotation. Perhaps there are other explanations (besides denying that anything really happened), but we are left with at least two tensions here. The first is the issue of supernaturalism:  does God, indeed, sometimes suspend the natural order?  Christian faith is established on the belief that he does. The second issue is that of signs: why does God give some people a spectacular sign to encourage their faith, but does not do that for everyone? Or why does God sometimes help us see things so clearly, and yet other times faith is so hard? Why do we sometimes get quick answers to our questions, but other times we wait and wait? Remember my first sentence: we cannot comprehend God in his fullness.
We can, though, embrace a particular orientation. We can choose to have an attitude of faith rather than skepticism. We can choose to be open to what it means for God to be at work actively in our world.  This will help us not hold onto this world so tightly, because our focus will be on the Lord instead of our own perspectives.
But even when we focus on the Lord we will find further tensions. Today’s Gospel illustrates a big one:  are we to have a general orientation toward judgment or mercy?  We find both qualities revealed in God himself. Sometimes it can be good for us to stand up for what is right, even when others think we are judging. But when there is a doubt, especially on a personal level (in contrast to a general, principled issue), it is right for us to maintain an attitude of mercy. Jesus is always showing us that God desires a loving relationship more than strict adherence to a set of principles.  Yes, we believe there some things that are absolutely right and absolutely wrong, but none of us live up to that standard and all of us need mercy.
So, in the tension of life and death, let’s remember this world is not all there is. In the tension of faith and skepticism, let’s be people of faith. And in the tension of judgment and mercy, let’s be people of mercy.  God will take care of the details in his own way, whether we fully understand it or not –– and chances are, we won’t.  Still, we trust....

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Seeing God At Work

Wednesday: 18 July, 2012 –– 15th Week in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 10:5–7, 13b–16  / Matthew 11:25–27
Seeing God At Work
God is at work in our world all the time. It is a gift of faith to be able to recognize this. Not everyone has faith, and embryonic faith needs to be nurtured beyond a basic belief in “God.”
Scripture gives us stories of God at work. Here we can see details chronicled by people whose relationships with God withstood the test of time. But when we read the details, we find that God’s ways are not easy to understand. God says exactly this in another part of Isaiah’s prophecies –– that his thoughts and ways are above ours.
There are hard things in God-stories. In today’s Isaiah passage we are told that God is using Assyria –– a pagan and profane empire –– to chastise Israel. The pagans think they are acting on their own power, and God promises to straighten out their thinking on that later. But in the meantime, God is going to allow Assyria to do some hard and awful things to Israel.
This seems to be in conflict with a more narrow understanding of God at work: God is at work in our world all the time for our good. Why, then, the hard things? It is important here to focus on the word “good.”  It is human nature for us to want to define “good” according to our own measure. We think something is good if it is pleasant, comfortable or convenient. We are short-sighted.  We too quickly focus on the things that affect us immediately.
God is working for our good beyond right now –– even beyond this world as we now know it. Another way to say that “God is at work all the time for our good” is to say “God is at work all the time for our salvation.” This is our greatest good.
If God needs to work through hard things to break our sense of self-sufficiency and our stubbornness in choosing our own way, then that is a good thing to do. When God lets us see or even taste a bit of the effect of rebellion (i.e., the repercussions of sin), then that is a saving thing to do.
In Jesus Christ, we see the working of God (and his full character) compressed into a single human life. In the teachings and examples of Jesus we see perfect goodness. In Jesus’ death on the cross we see the repercussion of our self-will and and rebellion. Jesus gives us the context to understand all the other God-stories. In Jesus Christ we see God at work in our world for our salvation.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus himself rejoiced in prayer to the Father, exclaiming that it is faith that lets a person see these things. God is at work in our world all the time.... for our good.... for our salvation. The Father sent the Son. The Son shows us the Father. It is the gift of faith that enables us to “see.”  If you can see, be thankful. If you can see, show it in the way you live.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Outward and the Inward

Monday: 16 July, 2012 –– 15th Week in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 1:10–17 / Matthew 10:34–11:1
The Outward and the Inward
Inherent to human expression of religion is the desire to do something. All major world religions have particular practices and gestures. In the Old Testament we can see that God gave very exact instructions both for corporate worship and for personal daily living. Common expressions of faith are meant to be helpful. They can be instructive. They can help provide identity. They can give a tangible focus where otherwise “faith” can be a rather abstract thing.
So in the Church we have the Sacraments. We also have standard gestures like the sign of the cross and genuflection. We have devotional aids such as the Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours. We have special memorials and feast days. We have various sacramentals like the scapular.  All of these things can be instruments of grace in our lives, helping us to focus on Jesus and learn to love him more and more.
Yet there is a danger. It is the danger identified by Isaiah. Outward expressions can become such a focus that they supplant their intention, which is to keep our hearts fixed on the Lord. Because while religious form is inherent, it is also inherent for human nature to seek its own way. Even “religious” people are tempted to use religious activity to rationalize selfish behavior. Religious activities can be merely a veneer of practices which are easily seen on the outside and yet mask what is truly in the heart. But God knows.... and He is not impressed with counterfeit religion. This is message through Isaiah in today’s reading. God wants our hearts. He asks for first place.
One way we can assess our spiritual integrity is by what has first place in our lives. An honest look at our budget will show how we use our money: selfishly or charitably. Another context is our relationships. Do we try to impress people? Do we seek our Lord’s approval above all else, or do we calculate what our friends or even our family will think? Jesus says a hard thing in today’s Gospel –– that he has come to set members of a household against each other! Of course Jesus wants us to have godly families, but he is adamant that even family cannot be “god.”
This reality has come to my wife and me in an acute way. As we have grown in giving Jesus more and more of our hearts through our journey into Catholicism, her immediate family does not understand. They see the outward things that Catholics do more than they see the true heart of the Church, and they are afraid that we have been attracted to the kind of empty religious forms Isaiah warns about.
That is a warning we all need to heed all the time, but Isaiah’s warning is not about the forms themselves. It is empty form that God hates –– forms and activities which do not come from our hearts. Jesus wants us to love him, and anything that helps us love Jesus more is good. Use the forms; enter into the established practices. Just don’t let the outward take over so that our hearts are somewhere else.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Too Easy?

Wednesday: 11 July, 2012 –– 14th Week of Ordinary Time (Cycle B)
Hosea 10:1–3, 7–8, 12 / Matthew 10:1–7
Too Easy?
If we listen to modern wisdom at all we know the peril of being a couch potato. Too much sitting and lying around –– taking life too easy –– is a major hazard to physical health. The same is true in our souls. If we always take the path of least resistance, cutting ethical corners and making moral rationalizations, our souls shrivel and die.
Hosea was writing to a people who thought things were going great. The harvests were good, but instead of a deepening thanksgiving and loyalty to God, there was presumption and a celebration of temporal pleasures. Hosea warns that if God has to cause hard times in order to jolt a bit of spiritual reality, it will indeed happen.
We live in probably the most comfortable society the world has ever known. If we think about the general attitudes around us we can quickly recognize spiritual lethargy, a love of convenience and pleasure, and a sense of entitlement.  Things can be too good –– too easy –– and the price can eventually be devastating.
No earthly “king” (politician) is going to save us. The more we try to live independent of God, the more we invite disaster upon the things we have come, as a society, to love so much –– our idols.  It is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain down justice upon you.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Catholicism and the Sectarian Spirit

My years of pastoring in a Protestant context were representative of St Augustine's in today's Office of Readings.  Catholic baptisms (plus those from other Protestant traditions that practiced infant baptism) were rejected; a "believer's baptism" was required to join the community.  The sectarian spirit which exploded after the Reformation was not foreign in the earlier years of the Church.  These words of insight from one of the greatest of the Church Fathers should have greater exposure today...

From a discourse on the psalms by Saint Augustine, bishop
(Ps. 32, 29; CCL 38, 272-273)

Whether they like it or not, those who are outside the Church are our brothers

We entreat you, brothers, as earnestly as we are able, to have charity, not only for one another, but also for those who are outside the Church. Of these some are still pagans, who have not yet made an act of faith in Christ. Others are separated, insofar as they are joined with us in professing faith in Christ, our head, but are yet divided from the unity of his body. My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers; and they will only cease to be so when they no longer say our Father.

The prophet refers to some men saying: When they say to you: You are not our brothers, you are to tell them: You are our brothers. Consider whom he intended by these words. Were they the pagans? Hardly; for nowhere either in Scripture or in our traditional manner of speaking do we find them called our brothers. Nor could it refer to the Jews, who do not believe in Christ. Read Saint Paul and you will see that when he speaks of “brothers,” without any qualification, he refers always to Christians. For example, he says: Why do you judge your brother or why do you despise your brother? And again: You perform iniquity and common fraud, and this against your brothers.

Those then who tell us: You are not our brothers, are saying that we are pagans. That is why they want to baptize us again, claiming that we do not have what they can give. Hence their error of denying that we are their brothers. Why then did the prophet tell us: Say to them: You are our brothers? It is because we acknowledge in them that which we do not repeat. By not recognizing our baptism, they deny that we are their brothers; on the other hand, when we do not repeat their baptism but acknowledge it to be our own, we are saying to them: You are our brothers.

If they say, “Why do you seek us? What do you want of us?” we should reply: You are our brothers. They may say, “Leave us alone. We have nothing to do with you.” But we have everything to do with you, for we are one in our belief in Christ; and so we should be in one body, under one head.

And so, dear brothers, we entreat you on their behalf, in the name of the very source of our love, by whose milk we are nourished, and whose bread is our strength, in the name of Christ our Lord and his gentle love. For it is time now for us to show them great love and abundant compassion by praying to God for them. May he one day give them a clear mind to repent and to realize that they have nothing now but the sickness of their hatred, and the stronger they think they are, the weaker they become. We entreat you then to pray for them, for they are weak, given to the wisdom of the flesh, to fleshly and carnal things, but yet they are our brothers. They celebrate the same sacraments as we, not indeed with us, but still the same. They respond with the same Amen, not with us, but still the same. And so pour out your hearts for them in prayer to God.

Monday, July 9, 2012


Monday: 9 July, 2012 –– 14th Week of Ordinary Time (Cycle B)
Hosea 2:16, 17c–18, 21–22 / Psalm 145 / Matthew 9:18–26
One common theme in today’s Scriptures is “waiting.”  Waiting is hard. We get impatient waiting in a service line or waiting in traffic.  We can get despondent waiting for the resolution of some big issue that brings stress into our lives when it seems any solution is either impossible or a long time coming.
When we read Scripture, the focus is usually on a “happening” “event”  ....some conclusion or consummation.  For example, we read about the great deliverance of the Exodus and can easily skip over the impact of the Israelites waiting for hundreds of years before anything happened. The OT promise of the coming Deliverer –– whom we know with the convenience of hindsight to be be Jesus –– took multiple centuries to unfold.  Waiting.
The overall tone in today’s Hosea reading is waiting –– the verbs are future.  After all the years of chastisement, God’s people were waiting for His promises to be fulfilled.
The Gospel gives two contexts for waiting.  The official’s wait was short and intense; the woman’s wait was twelve years with growing hopelessness and increasing despair.
We do not know when the Lord will answer our prayers.... or even if He will answer according to our desires. In the meantime, we join with the host of God’s people throughout time, and we wait.  Waiting refines our faith and gives focus to godly hope.
How? We find it in the refrain of the Psalm:  The Lord is gracious and merciful.  ....Even while we are waiting....

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Who Speaks For God?

Sunday: 8 July, 2012 –– 14th Week of Ordinary Time (Cycle B)
Ezekiel 2:2–5 / 2 Corinthians 12:7–10 / Mark 6:1–6a
Who Speaks For God?
We live in a world of noise, and noise –– with the confusion it usually brings –– is often a major block to the voice of God. Our society is filled with voices shouting out to us. There are advertisers. There are political pitches. There are multitudes of opinions on the hot-button issues of our time. Talk Radio can provide more “voices” than you ever need to hear. There is also the (sometimes unsolicited) advice of family and friends. Mixed into all of it is the voice of the Church trying to give witness to Christian Truth.  How do we recognize what is true? Who speaks for God?
It seems there is a tolerable acceptance of “God-talk” if it’s in a context of “love” –– at least how we define love. We want God to love us not only just as we are (and he does), but also to “love” us by leaving us alone (at least in terms of asking us to do anything unpleasant, inconvenient, uncomfortable or unpopular).  We are mostly open to hear about grace that forgives our sins, but it’s not easy to get people to understand that grace is always directed at obliterating sin.
If we want to understand what God says, and if we truly want to follow Jesus, we need to know that being a Christian brings an inherent conflict with many (if not most) of the other voices vying for our attention. To hear and understand what God says, we must embrace an attitude of mind and heart that questions the popular voices.  The closer we live according to God’s Truth –– the more we have the boldness to speak Christian Truth into our social settings –– the more likely we are to experience hostility.... and even hate.... and possibly “crucifixion.”  As we follow Jesus, we should not be surprised to draw some of the same responses he received.
It has always been this way for those who speak for God. This was the root reason that Cain killed Abel. It is why we find the Lord telling Ezekiel: I am sending you to [those] who have rebelled against me.... Hard of face and obstinate of heart.... But you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord God!  And whether they heed or resist –– for they are a rebellious house –– they shall know that a prophet has been among them.
In today’s Gospel, Mark lets us see that Jesus himself was rejected by his own “house.” Up to this point in Mark's story people have noticed that Jesus had power and Jesus had authority. , and many believed. Here, though, Jesus is met with unbelief and ridicule. In the verses that follow these, Jesus sends the Twelve out to give the message and do the ministries he has been doing,  just as God spoke through  Ezekiel, and he prepares them for rejection –– just as he had been rejected.
A big part of being a Christian is to be like Jesus so that his very life –– even his character –– is working through those who belong to him.  Christians are meant to be people who live in such ways that when others look on, they see something of God's truth –– whether they accept it or not.  The warning here is that many will not believe prophets from God who speak his truth.
What does a person who follows Jesus look like? Who speaks for God? This is Paul’s point in today’s selection from Second Corinthians, but his emphasis is hard for us to comprehend because it so goes against our broken human nature. And even if we see it, it is not easy to accept. What do we look for if someone claims to speak for God? Paul alludes earlier to the “surface things” people first see (11:22–28).  Paul was aware of the poor assessment he often received, and Jesus identifies our tendency to disdain the overly familiar: A prophet it not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.  People grab any excuse not to hear God’s prophets if the message is hard. It seems even worse in our day; we don’t want anyone telling us what to do!
What does a person who follows Jesus look like? Paul has previously listed some of the most unappealing things about his life that repelled people: beaten, stoned, whipped, shipwrecked, attacked by bandits, hungry, thirsty and cold....  Who finds things like that appealing?!  But then, Paul comes to a main emphasis in this second letter to the Corinthians: he says that a person who follows Jesus is best seen in the context of weakness! That’s not what we want to hear.
Think about the Gospel story. Isn’t there something in us that wants Jesus to overwhelm the hometown bunch and then say, “There! Wha’cha think of that!?”  In contrast, Paul says that one of the best ways he has entered into the life of Christ has been through a weakness that was so awful (humanly speaking) that he asked the Lord three times to take it away, but the Lord said no.
We want life to be safe and easy. We want to be comfortable. We like to belong –– to fit in. On the other hand, God wants to prepare us for a forever existence in his new kingdom. God wants us to enter into the intimacies of knowing him. We want to be happy; God wants us to be holy. In the paradox of God’s ways, holiness happens when, in our weaknesses, we find God’s strength.
What does a person who follows Jesus look like? Who speaks for God? This question goes beyond our personal circumstances and preferences. It’s not often the popular voice.  It’s not always the person who is smooth and polished –– the person who seems to have it all with health, wealth and popularity. Those things may be temporary gifts Jesus gives to some of his people, but those are not the outward verifications of God’s voice. God’s Word breaks into our world and often causes discomfort and contention.  The result can be ridicule and rejection and even persecution.  
What does a person who follows Jesus look like?  Who speaks for God? If you are learning to be honest and invite God into your weaknesses, then a person who follows Jesus looks like you. If you are learning that embracing God’s Truth does not mean being comfortable in this world, especially with its conflicting voices and self-serving opinions, then you –– in contrast to those who rejected the prophets and Jesus himself –– are hearing the voice God.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Stories of Grace

Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time –– Cycle B
Wisdom 1:13–15; 2:23–24 / 2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13–15 / Mark 5:21–43
Stories of Grace
I have preached hundreds of sermons, but now I find myself in new terrain. I first came to South-Central Pennsylvania in 1980 as an Associate Pastor of the Grantham Church at Messiah College –– just a few miles from this current new beginning. I would have thought it preposterous if  someone had told me then that I’d be a Catholic thirty years later.  Yet here I am at the inception of an assignment as Pastoral Associate at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish.  I have much to learn, and yet I also trust that the graces I’ve received over the years will help all of us grow more and more into the fulness of what it means to belong to Jesus Christ. In the epistle reading, Paul wants those who follow Jesus to excel in every respect.
I will be sharing more of my own Christian journey over the next weeks and months (and perhaps years). Christian Faith is not only a series of concepts expressed in a Creed (although that component is certainly there); Christianity is personal.  It is personal because God is personal –– Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christianity is personal because it is rooted in our being created in God’s image: the image of his own nature he made him (Wisdom). Christianity is personal because God the Son entered our world by becoming fully human, thus enabling the Spirit of God to dwell in Man (and I use that term in the technical, theological sense). We are here today because God calls us to know him, and he has done amazing things to make that possible.
As you and I come to know God in and through Jesus Christ, we have a story to tell.  If you are a Christian, your life is a story of grace –– and you need to know how to recognize your story and to tell your story.  No two stories are exactly alike, and each of our stories contribute something to the full picture of what God’s grace can do.
We each have our faith journeys. We each have our strengths and weaknesses. Maybe that's one reason Mark incorporates these two people into the same story. Here we find two vastly different people who show faith. Being different people, they expressed their faith differently, but both give us good models of faith. They help us to see that the basic issue in Christian Faith is reaching out to Jesus, and not so much the personal circumstances on which we tend to focus.
Jairus was the ruler of the synagogue.  This meant he was the leading elder in the local fellowship of the Jews. Here was a man of religious prominence and probably some degree of wealth and social prominence. He was one for whom things usually went right without much fuss or bother, but now he found himself in a situation where wealth and prominence offered no help. 
Sometimes it takes a back-to-the-wall situation for us to see the relative unimportance of temporal success. What good are wealth and prestige to a man who is about to lose his child? Mark says this prominent ruler of the synagogue publicly went out to Jesus and fell at his feet. The word he used can be translated, "I beg of you, please!" Ruler of the synagogue or not, social prominence aside, Jairus found himself on the dusty dirt before Jesus when the issue was the life of his daughter. What might it take for us to get beyond standards of public “respectability” and seek God in desperation –– even publicly?  Scripture says that God gives grace to the humble.
But before Jairus and his story of faith can be resolved, we are interrupted –– as Jesus was ––with someone else. It was this woman who had a chronic hemorrhage. Her approach wasn't like that of Jairus. While Jairus did humble himself to approach Jesus, maybe it wasn't too hard for him because he had so many other advantages. Yet it’s true that humility does not come easy, and Jairus is willing to embrace humility (and, again, that is a good way to get God’s positive attention).
The woman did not need any further humiliation. For twelve years she had been a "nobody."  She was "unclean" according to Mosaic Law (Lev 15:25). This meant that no one could touch her.  Imagine not being touched –– being avoided ––for twelve years!  She had learned to be figuratively invisible. 
We have people like that today. There are people who have been down for so long, and kicked while they're down, that they have little or no hope of ever getting up. Can we imagine their hurt and despair?  There are the people in our culture who literally match this woman in her predicament –– overlooked.... ignored.... despised....
Jesus has a heart for desperate people. This woman found that out right away. She had been invisible for so long that she assumed Jesus himself would ignore her; she hoped for an anonymous healing. Our Lord does not operate on an impersonal basis. The whole retinue stopped right there while Jesus identified the woman and allowed her story to come out. Something else came out, too: the affirmation of her faith. It was because she believed in Jesus, and acted on it, that she was healed. Yet we still do not know her name –– only that she knew Jesus and Jesus knew her. Here we see that Jesus loves people who are so desperate that they cannot believe anyone really cares.
Now the scene switches back to Jairus. Don’t you think he was overwrought with the delay? Minutes seem like hours when there's a crisis, and Jairus’ desperation was surely escalating. Yet Jairus had just witnessed something amazing. Maybe he took some brief consolation that this man Jesus was indeed the answer for his daughter.... but his assurance was quickly put to the test. Just as his confidence was perhaps building, the report comes that his daughter is dead.
We know the story. Again, there's a miracle. Jesus went to the home, took the little girl by the hand, told her to get up, and she did! Yet this does not seem to be the driving point of the story! Instead, there is the juxtaposition of Jairus and the woman.
That points to the issue here for us –– who Jesus is, and how we respond to him. It doesn't matter if you are wealthy and have influence as Jairus had. Nor does it matter if you feel as rejected as the woman. Neither is the issue whether or not God will do a sensational miracle in your life or before your eyes. What counts more than anything else is having a heart that reaches out to Jesus Christ, willing to believe he is truly the Son of God.  Jesus wants us to know him in that way.
If you believe that, then you have a story of grace that is being written in your life right now.  Your story may not seem as miraculous as either of these St Mark tells in today’s Gospel, but if you can have hope in the face of despair.... that is no small thing. Some might even see it as a miracle. And if you can show love where many others would lash out in retaliation (or merely ignore another’s need), and if you sense a desire for holiness as you live in this world that seems to celebrate selfishness and debauchery, then you have the makings of a story of grace.
God reaches out to all kinds of people:  people who the world ignores and thinks are worthless, as well as people who have position and prestige. But let’s remember that we live in a world where, eventually, something awful will seem to strip everything else in life away. In their pain, Jairus and the unnamed woman, different as they were, each reached out to Jesus. They each found out who Jesus really is. God reaches out to all kinds of people  –– people like you and me. Every one of us needs the mercy of Jesus Christ, and he is ready to make every one of our lives a story of grace. Do you believe Jesus can do that in you?

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