Friday, November 30, 2012

On Man’s Mortality by Saint Cyprian

The following is from the Office of Reading for Friday in the 34th Week of Ordinary Time.  It sounds like the preaching of the holiness tradition of my youth...

From a sermon on man’s mortality by Saint Cyprian, bishop

Let us banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows it

Our obligation is to do God’s will, and not our own. We must remember this if the prayer that our Lord commanded us to say daily is to have any meaning on our lips. How unreasonable it is to pray that God’s will be done, and then not promptly obey it when he calls us from this world! Instead we struggle and resist like self-willed slaves and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity. And yet we expect to be rewarded with heavenly honors by him to whom we come against our will! Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? What is the point of praying so often for its early arrival if we would rather serve the devil here than reign with Christ.

The world hates Christians, so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you? John is most urgent in his epistle when he tells us not to love the world by yielding to sensual desires. Never give your love to the world, he warns, or to anything in it. A man cannot love the Father and love the world at the same time. All that the world offers is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and earthly ambition. The world and its allurements will pass away, but the man who has done the will of God shall live for ever. Our part, my dear brothers, is to be single-minded, firm in faith, and steadfast in courage, ready for God’s will, whatever it may be. Banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows it. That will show people that we really live our faith.

We ought never to forget, beloved, that we have renounced the world. We are living here now as aliens and only for a time. When the day of our homecoming puts an end to our exile, frees us from the bonds of the world, and restores us to paradise and to a kingdom, we should welcome it. What man, stationed in a foreign land, would not want to return to his own country as soon as possible? Well, we look upon paradise as our country, and a great crowd of our loved ones awaits us there, a countless throng of parents, brothers and children longs for us to join them. Assured though they are of their own salvation, they are still concerned about ours. What joy both for them and for us to see one another and embrace! O the delight of that heavenly kingdom where there is no fear of death! O the supreme and endless bliss of everlasting life!

There, is the glorious band of apostles, there the exultant assembly of prophets, there the innumerable host of martyrs, crowned for their glorious victory in combat and in death. There in triumph are the virgins who subdued their passions by the strength of continence. There the merciful are rewarded, those who fulfilled the demands of justice by providing for the poor. In obedience to the Lord’s command, they turned their earthly patrimony into heavenly treasure.
My dear brothers, let all our longing be to join them as soon as we may. May God see our desire, may Christ see this resolve that springs from faith, for he will give the rewards of his love more abundantly to those who have longed for him more fervently.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Marketing the Gospel?

Wednesday: 28 November, 2012 –– 34th Week in Ordinary Time
Revelation 15:1–4 / Luke 21:12–19
Marketing the Gospel?

In my last decade or so as a pastor in the Evangelical world I began to be besieged with the idea of “marketing the church.”  There was a push to use business and commercial “principles” to make outreach and evangelism more “attractive” to what was supposed to be our potential “customer base.” The whole approach seemed like one big gimmick to me, and it was one of my motivations to make an ecclesiastical change.

I cannot read these words from Jesus and begin to understand how the Gospel can be (mis)interpreted as a divine How to Win Friends and Influence People. The principles of Dale Carnegie’s book do have a place, but it’s only one side of the truth. Sometimes Truth –– if it really is true! –– divides and alienates. Jesus would not compromise with the whole Truth, and it took him to the cross. He says again and again that if we follow him faithfully the same can happen to us.

The reading from Revelation, when juxtaposed with this Gospel reading, offers a major choice: Which “world” has our ultimate loyalty?  One world offers being hated by all because of my name.  The “other world” (the pun is appropriate) has martyrs singing the song of the Lamb.

Jesus does not “market the gospel” on the basis of public popularity. Jesus never invites people to follow him with a promise of comfort and ease and pleasure. Yet it is only right for us to recognize that these are the very idols of our society. Already we can hear the anger of a decadent populace directed at any expression of the Church that would restrict or hinder our “right” to personal pleasure.  The choice of the two worlds is increasingly coming into focus.

By your perseverance you will secure your lives –– not in this world, but the one that is coming that is forever. It is those who have won the victory over the beast who know we cannot evangelize this world by embracing this world’s values.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Future Focus

Tuesday: 27 November, 2012 –– 34th Week in Ordinary Time
Revelation 14:14–19 / Luke 21:5–11
Future Focus

We so easily focus on the immediate and the sensational. Manufacturers, advertisers and entertainers recognize this and take advantage –– to their profit and mostly to the public loss. We can even get drawn into religious sensationalism. Jesus noticed people giving their attention to the decorations of the temple. His response is an exhortation not to be distracted by things that end up being inconsequential.

Jesus warns of false teaching (do we truly appreciate the teaching office of the Church?!), especially in a time when the idea of absolute truth is ridiculed. Jesus is matter-of-fact about some of the biggest threats that get our attention: wars, earthquakes, plagues.... and these are big things for life in this world –– but as Christians, our ultimate focus is not life in this world.

John’s Revelation is full of images which can be hard for us to comprehend, but the overall message is clear: this world as we know it is not all there is, and we are all progressing toward an existence that goes beyond this life.

Christian Faith not only accepts this as “true” but embraces this reality as an attitude of mind and heart. As Christians, our calling is not to focus on present circumstances as if they are of ultimate importance.  They are of secondary importance. The way we respond to present circumstances is forming an eternal character in each of us. Christian Faith, then, looks beyond the present. We look to the past to see what God has done in Jesus Christ by entering our world and overcoming death. We look to the future to see what God is going to do: to make all things new for those who follow Jesus in his resurrection to eternal life.

So here is what we do: by faith (through the grace of our Lord and the strength of his Spirit) we focus on what is promised to those who love and obey God, and allow that perspective to affect the way we understand –– and respond –– to the present circumstances.

We cannot control the things swirling around us, but we can respond as people who believe that this world does not have the last word –– as people who truly believe that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord, our eternal King forever and ever.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Positioned to Receive

Monday: 19 November, 2012 –– 34th Week of Ordinary Time
Revelation 1:1–4; 2:1–5 / Luke 18:35–43
Positioned to Receive

In other parts of the Gospel Jesus says: Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened (Matt 7:7,8).

The blind man in today’s Gospel asks Jesus for what he wants. He kept asking. Others discouraged him. He kept asking until he received what he asked.

James tells us:  You do not have, because you do not ask (4:2b).

How often do we really ask Jesus for our heart’s desire? When we ask for something half-heartedly we are not asking out of desire. When we ask, but do not continue to ask, are we not showing that we are not desperate?

This man knew he was blind, and he believed Jesus could do something about it. This man surely thought, “This is my one chance to turn everything around,” and so he kept calling all the more.

How often do we really ask Jesus for our heart’s desire? If we are desperate, we will be unable not to ask. Can we be honest?  What are we passionate about?

All of us are passionate about something. It can be anything from a sports obsession to material possessions to politics to.... knowing God. 

Sometimes God does not give us what we ask.... for our own good. James goes on to say: You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (4:3).

I do not mean to say that prayer is a formula, and that if we get it figured out we will always get what we ask for.  I do, however, believe that prayer and true desire are intimately connected, and if we can so turn to the Lord that our passions match his desires for us, our prayers will be answered in amazing ways.  This is what Jesus says: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you (Jn 15:7).

May the Lord give us hearts that are passionate for him, so that we desire what he so graciously wants to give us. And then let’s ask, because our Heavenly Father loves to hear from his children.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thinking About The World (as we know it)

18 November, 2012 –– 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Daniel 12:1–3 / Hebrews 10:11–14, 18 / Mark 13:24–32
Thinking About The World (as we know it)

We live in a hard and frightening world. We usually try to avoid thinking about that. We give our attention to distractions that give us pleasure (or at least keep us busy). We can even perpetuate the mirage that our day-to day lives are relatively secure.... until something painful comes so close that it intrudes and shatters what we thought was our comfortable reality.

I do senior care and home Communions fairly regularly, and I am reminded of what Time has in store for most of us. I see people fighting cancer. I work with families who have recently lost a loved one. Libby and I are closely following the reports from a ministry acquaintance whose recently-born daughter has been diagnosed with abnormal brain development; the hopes of these young parents have been vastly altered apart from a divine miracle.

On a broader scale we stress over social and political issues that seem to threaten us.  The news from the Middle East right now is quite foreboding. (Isn’t this an encouraging start to a homily!?)  Life in this world is hard.  I think of my grandchildren and the huge issues it seems they will face. We want some word of comfort and hope.

There are two ways to seek hope.  One can give some immediate relief, but is no real hope at all –– it’s the human tendency to find pleasurable distraction. The “world” offers us all kinds of lies that provide distractions, but the relief we feel is not real.  Our spirits can be anesthetized so that we do not sense the disaster around us. That is not so comforting.

The second way to seek hope is by taking a realistic look at two things: first, the true nature of this world, and second, what God has said and done about it. I’ve already said enough about the true nature of this world. It is often hard and painful.

BUT.... God has told us –– and shown us –– that this world does not have the last word. The whole biblical story is one of God breaking into a hard and painful world with signs of life and hope. The signs are partial and incomplete because God wants us to learn to trust him.... to develop a spiritual life that is not so focused on and affected by the substitutes for God that our broken world offers us.

Think about the circumstances that surround the word of hope God gives Daniel: a time unsurpassed in distress. And yet in the midst of that, your people shall escape, everyone who is found written in the book (the Book of Life mentioned in the NT book of Revelation). 

There is a reason for this hope, and the writer of the Hebrews letter explicitly tells us what God has done through the death of Jesus Christ: by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated. As we give ourselves in faith to Jesus (consecrated life –– it’s not only for the vocationally religious; we are all called to be saints) we can have hope that we have been given a perfect atonement for our sins.

In this 13th chapter of Mark’s Gospel Jesus is honest with his disciples about the nature of life in this world, especially for people who give a priority to spiritual faithfulness –– being consecrated to Jesus. There are awful things in this chapter of Mark’s Gospel. I have my own fears as I think about these things, and I pray for the strength to be faithful.

Still, Jesus told his disciples what is someday going to happen –– the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.... he will send his angels to gather his elect from the ends of the earth (v26,27). Yes, terrible things happen; that is the kind of world we live in.  And there is little we can do to stop it. Wars happen, accidents and tragedies come, sometimes God’s people are persecuted (even horribly)... the list goes on. But these things do not have the last word.

For God's people, these things are reminders of a greater reality: this world will not always be this way. Someday Jesus will return and make it new, but until then the devil and all his hellish demons will fight like crazy to keep the world the way it is now –– and to try to distract us. Jesus gives his disciples these words to help us understand what is happening around us, and to know how to respond in the midst of hard things.

How shall we respond to a world that is falling apart? The invitation is always the same: open our hearts to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This world is passing away; his kingdom is forever. As the world around us crumbles, God's word is sure. All of us look to something for security and hope. In the readings today we are encouraged to fix our eyes on Jesus. May the Lord give us eyes to see....

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Response of Love

Thursday: 15 November, 2012 –– 33rd Week in Ordinary Time
Philemon 7–20 / Luke 17:20–25
The Response of Love

How do we recognize the Kingdom of God?  The Jews in Jesus’ day had very explicit expectations.  They assumed the emergence of God’s kingdom would deliver Israel from all its temporal hardships and catapult the Jews into prominence as a world power.

There is something deeply rooted in human nature that wants to force its own way. From sweeping political power plays to little manipulations even between husband and wife, it is only too easy for us to calculate and try to manipulate what we want. It’s even more insidious when an attempt is made to baptize power and control with religion. When we are convinced that “right” is on our side, the temptation to force an agenda and coerce behaviors can indeed become a religious crusade.

How do we recognize the Kingdom of God?  The first thing we need to do is listen to and look at Jesus. Did Jesus manipulate and coerce?  Think of that basic, early word he gave to his first followers: By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).

The Kingdom of God comes to us in love. The Kingdom of God is extended by love.  Life in the Kingdom of God is love.

St Paul models that in a very specific situation. Onesimus was a run-away slave, owned by a Christian acquaintance of Paul named Philemon. Onesimus crossed paths with Paul, who brought this run-away slave to faith in Jesus. Paul then sends Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter, asking certain responses from Philemon. [There are many issues which could be raised here from the perspective of our day, but we first need to deal with the realities of that time and the details of this text.]

My point here is that Paul models the loving –– the wooing –– stance of the Lord. St Paul could have used “apostolic authority” and demanded any number of responses from Philemon, but here is the essence of what Paul says: I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary....

Yes, we have God’s Commands.  We have the dogmas and other teachings of the Church. We have bishops and the Magisterium. Sometimes the more faithful of the Church want the authority and “force” of Canon Law to swoop in and straighten everyone out. Jesus wants our hearts. The Church is at its best when it models and motivates us to do as God has done for us in Christ Jesus (and modeled here by his Apostle): not to do anything without consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary....

When we see genuine love for one another, we can know that the Kingdom of God is among us.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Wednesday: 14 November, 2012 –– 33rd Week in Ordinary Time
Titus 3:1–7 / Luke 17:11–19

This story in the Gospel raises the issue of thankfulness.  Ten lepers were healed by Jesus; only one returned to give thanks –– and he was an “outsider” (a Samaritan, a “foreigner” in Jewish opinion).

The more highly we think of ourselves, the more difficult it is to practice thankfulness. To use the illustration in the letter of St James (2:1–4), if a man with gold rings on his fingers and in fine clothes is shown some public deference, it is easy for him to assume it is his due. On the other hand, if a poor person in shabby clothes is given some open kindness, he is likely to feel he has been noticed and valued in spite of his appearance, and will more likely say “thank you.” Back when I was associate pastor at the Messiah College Campus Church, I was one day given the task of accompanying a prominent visiting speaker to his various engagements. He wanted to be driven everywhere (it’s a walking campus), and he had a list of expectations that unfolded throughout the day. I found it increasingly difficult to listen to his presentations. If we have an attitude that believes we “deserve” blessings and do not “deserve” hardships, then we will be presumptuous about the good things in our lives and we will focus on all the things we find uncomfortable and inconvenient. People who do that are miserable (and so are those around them).

We live in a society that encourages us to embrace the idea that we deserve good things. Our cultural values have become increasingly twisted, seeking to find blame for situations that are unpleasant. There is a growing entitlement mentality which all but demands comfort and convenience.

The root of Christian Faith is a recognition of what we deserve –– and it’s not good. The reading from Titus is quite explicit: we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, deluded, slaves to various desires and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful ourselves and hating one another....

There is one reason we are not left in hopeless despair: when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us....  If we truly comprehend and believe this, how can we not live every day in utter gratitude?

And that is not mere concept. Notice how St Paul tells Titus to behave as the reading begins: to slander no one, to be peaceable, considerate, exercising all graciousness.... Why? For we ourselves were once foolish.... In these post election days, we followers of Jesus would do well to think about who we are apart from mercy.... and to be thankful that the grace of God is not limited by any circumstances.  Be thankful, and so glorify God.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Things That Matter

11 November, 2012 –– 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 17:10–16 / (Hebrews 9:24–28) / Mark 12:38–44
The Things That Matter

In my “previous life” I was overly-aware of image. I recall classmates in my high school who were obsessed with the right “look” to earn the yearbook’s official title of “Best Dressed” and, while my family didn’t have the money for me to be a candidate, I copied the preppie style.  For the next forty years my oxford, button-down dress shirts were always laundered with heavy starch. Non-liturgical Protestant pastors do not have a fixed dress code –– but usually it’s shirt and tie, so as I both progressed into my pastoral years and intensified my avocation of bird hunting, I dressed as a country gentleman with tweeds, my starched shirt and a club-style tie with bird, bird-dog, or shotgun motifs on it. About ten years ago, as the Lord began to take my conversion deeper, I quit wearing a tie; I didn’t think as pastor I should present myself as looking like a country gentleman (or a Wall Street broker or a Mormon missionary).

We live in a culture that makes a big deal about appearance. Certainly we cannot avoid personal appearance, and as the saying goes, there’s only one chance for a first impression, but obsession with public appearance does not mix with a Christian attitude. In today’s Gospel Jesus criticizes people –– and pointedly, the religious leaders –– for dressing to get attention and positioning themselves to be honored. Claiming expertise with the Scriptures, it seems they did not comprehend what God had spoken hundreds of years earlier through the prophet Samuel: Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1Sam 16:7). Negating Mark Twain’s famous quip, clothes do not make the man.  When “appearance” and “success” and “power” rank high on a person’s value system, the good news of the Kingdom of God has not been embraced.

We live in a world that tries to maintain an illusion that we are here forever.  Part of this is good –– there is an eternal yearning in all of us –– because we were created to know God (who is himself Eternal Life) and, as the Psalmist said, to finish, I must be eternal, like you (Psalm 139, The Grail). But when we try to grasp the eternal apart from God we are only reaching for bubbles. When we seek the euphoria of the eternal in the world’s counterfeits deftly presented by slight of hand –– things like “appearance” and “success” and “power” –– we are left with emptiness. While it’s true that a bit of recognition and honor and deference can feel exhilarating (for a brief while), it does not last and it cannot satisfy. 

Some people do see beyond the shallow pursuit of an appearance that is contrived and looks that will only fade away. Even then the world tries to snare us with our desire for “security.”  This is far more basic. We really do need to eat and to have income for the “basic necessities.” The world takes this and offers us the “Survivalist Mentality” that led to stockpiling during the approach toY2K, or more recently, the “end of the world” scare with the Mayan calendar (or any number of similar things). What shall we who follow Jesus do if something horrible happens and we have food while our neighbors have none?  Will we shoot them if they come for our food?  Or will we share what we have and then see what God will do next?

It is good for us to think about things like this. Do we in the Church really think through the things that matter? These were my thoughts as I read the Old Testament story alongside the Gospel. The widow in Zarephath was faced with a decision: to “take care of Number One” or lay aside her inclination to put her and her son’s self-interest first and give all she had to the prophet.  She chose to let self-interest die, partly because she had the clarity of understanding to know she would die anyway. This is foundational for anyone who really wants to know the things that matter. Sometimes I ask myself in a given situation: what difference will this make tomorrow.... or next week.... or next year?  What will I wish that I would have done when I’ve passed from this life and face our Lord God? The Epistle for today reminds us: it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment....  I want to live in the here-and-now on the basis of the things that matter.

While the scribes and their kind were basking in the privileges of their position, Jesus turned his disciples’ attention to a woman that no one else would likely have noticed. She had not just left the beauty salon, and she was no candidate for a magazine cover. She had next to nothing, and the tiny bit she did have she willingly gave as an offering. Some commentators have suggested it was just this kind of people that provided the scribes’ opulence. There were laws that governed the temple tax, and the scribes knew how to use the law to force widows to liquidate their houses in order to pay the taxes –– which padded the scribes’ pockets. This is likely what Jesus means when he says, They devour the houses of widows....  and then they try to hide it as they recite lengthy prayers. This is not the kind of religion that honors God and fulfills the character of Jesus. James tell us in his letter: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (1:27).

“The world” in this sense is a spirit of rebellion against God that is obsessed with privilege, applause and “places of honor.” Conversely, the Spirit of Jesus is the epitome of love, and St Paul tells us that, among other things, love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude (1Cor 13:4b,5a). Each of us lives in this world every day by choosing, either intentionally or by default, the things that matter. We can easily find ourselves giving deference to power and arrogance instead of recognizing the Spirit of Jesus in whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.... (Phlp 4:8).

This attitude starts with embracing Jesus as Model, as Savior, and as Lord. The corollary to that is to turn away from selfish concerns of how we look to others and trying to manipulate our own security. Like the widow of Zarephath recognized, we are going to die –– but the one thing we have some control over is how we respond to God and others while we are alive.

After I was ordained to the diaconate I heard that someone from my past said something to the effect, “Well, David will like this; he always enjoyed dressing up.”  I do admit that I take a bit of refuge in vestments; it means I do not have to think about my “image.”  I do not have to be concerned with what tie I should wear or what kind of statement my suit might make.  And I openly confess that I delight in the white alb –– it’s meant to symbolize the righteousness of Christ that is ours by his forgiving death, and there is never a day I do not need that.

May our Lord save us from being consumed with how we look.... how we can impress others. And heaven help us to know that we cannot secure ourselves in this world; Jesus meant what he said: It is better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). Life in this world is not about me (and I say that both for myself and inclusively for all of us). Our concern needs to be the things that matter. I had rather have the commendation of Jesus than the applause of people; I’d rather be welcomed into the Kingdom than leave a legacy of worldly success. It’s not okay to be religious on the outside, but not give the Lord our whole heart. We have this Gospel to help us remember that.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Who's On First?

Tuesday: 6 November, 2012 –– 31st Week in Ordinary Time
Philippians 2:5–11 / Luke 14:15–24
Who’s On First?

"Who's on First?" is a comedy routine made most famous by Abbot and Costello. The premise of the routine is that Abbott is identifying the players on a baseball team to Costello, but their names and nicknames can be interpreted as non-responsive answers to Costello's questions.  It’s a farcical exercise in misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

There is an understanding gap that could go by the same title that is far worse and much more serious between faith-filled Christians and those without faith. The issue for each of us is simply who’s on first? The unbelieving world tells us to take care of Number One. The assumption is that every person naturally puts himself in first place.

We live in a society that is self-obsessed. It seems that everything is oriented to personal safety, personal comfort, and personal convenience. We are invited to believe that no one should have to wait more than 90 seconds in a fast food line. A true catastrophe can turn people into hysterics or mad mobs.  It’s all about me....

This is the underlying reason the people in Jesus’ story did not respond positively to the dinner invitation: they each had something that was personally more important to them. An honest look at our daily calendars (or our bank receipts) can show us our true priorities.

St Paul exhorts the Philippians –– and through him the Holy Spirit tells us –– that Christians are to be people who have the same attitude as Christ Jesus: Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather.... he humbled himself....  Jesus did not put himself first

Every day we are faced with multitudes of little decisions –– and sometimes big decisions.  May the Holy Spirit give us “the same attitude as Christ Jesus” so that we regularly ask ourselves: Who’s on first?  The unbelieving world may not understand.  We may appear as ridiculous as Abbot and Costello.  But as we put Jesus first, we can live in the hope of being present at that Heavenly Banquet where every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

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