Sunday, September 22, 2013

Passion for Living

September 22, 2013: The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Luke 16:1-13
Passion for Living

Jesus is making the point that his hearers are in the same position as this steward who saw his imminent dismissal threatening him with ruin. Yet, the crisis which threatens Jesus' hearers (including us today) is even more serious. As Christians, we believe there are two worlds: the unseen world as well as the one that is visible––the world which is eternal as well as the one that is passing away. Some people live as though this world is all there is and ever will be. That means all their values, all their energies and all their hopes are focused on the here and now. Living that way is the essence of unbelief.  To live that way is to leave God and his kingdom out of the picture. It is an attitude which thinks that being “happy” right now is the most important thing––and “security” is the top priority in having happiness.

The man in this story acted "prudently" (v.8). [The Greek word is phronimos, sometimes translated “wisely” (KVJ) or “shrewdly” (NIV, emphasizing the devious side of being “wise”).] He had foresight and recognized the critical nature of his situation. Jesus is not commending his character or what he did; Jesus respects the intensity of the man’s perception and motivation. So he says: For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

In other words, people who live for the here and now know how to go after what they want. Worldly people know how to be worldly. They are shrewd. They know how to get their way. They know how to take care of Number One. A shrewd businessman knows how to manipulate situations to his own advantage. A playboy knows how to seduce. A “shark” knows how to cheat people; their kind goes after their goal with abandon. People consumed with this world know what they want and they know what they have to do to get it. That is how they can be a model to us for how to live with passion for the kingdom of God. The dedication it takes to achieve advancement and pleasure in the here-and-now is the kind of dedication Jesus calls his disciples to have.

We live in a world where most people get things backwards. Beginning with the first disobedience in the Garden, people have always tried to rationalize away God's laws. The Pharisees did it  (see v14). Many “religious” people do it today. God calls for his people to look at life in an upside-down kind of way.

One way to think about our priorities and motivations is through our children (I “borrowed” this example from Msgr Charles Pope; he has a wonderful homiletical blog from the Archdiocese of Washington). Almost all the focus with our children is on worldly success. Little Johnny might know little or nothing about God, Scripture, or Sacraments, but let Johnny bring home a bad report card, and the reaction is quick. Here is a problem to get to the bottom of, because if Johnny doesn’t get better grades, he might not get into the best college, and then he won’t be able to make a killing––I mean.... a living.

Or, more likely, the kids are taught that sports is the most important thing. Weekly church attendance is not so easy, but daily practice is certainly accommodated. Parents can feel that an hour sitting in church is next to eternity, but most of a Saturday or Sunday (or both) watching games and going to meets is no big deal. Meanwhile Johnny and Susie, who can kick a soccer ball or shoot baskets for hours, barely know the Our Father, have no clue at Mass, and all they know about Adam and Eve is that they were “in the Bible or something.” But those things haven’t been important to Mom or Dad, so maybe they’re not important at all.

One day the father proudly says to his pastor, “Great news! John has gotten a full scholarship to Princeton.” The pastor says “Great!” What he should say to the father is “That’s fine, but how will he get his spiritual nurture there? You know what it will be (like most college campuses)––a moral cesspool of fornication and drinking. If we’re not serious about John’s spiritual life, he may go in there, come out with a great career, and yet be heading straight for Hell. What’s the plan for his spiritual welfare and growth?”

And it’s not just families with kids and young adults. “Mature adults” can spend a lot of hours worrying and strategizing to make sure their retirement income enables them to “live life at the standard they have come to expect” (that line was in a commercial). Retirees can passionately give themselves to the pleasures “we worked for so long to enjoy,” and that’s supposedly the crowning glory of life.

It is so easy for all of us––parents, pastors, families and parishes––not to be responsible in what matters most to God. Our children hear that they should study hard, get good grades etc., to make it in this world. Of itself, this is not wrong––but their souls are more important. We allow our heroes and models to be sports superstars and entertainers who make it big in this world. What is our focus? Where are our plans and dreams directed?

We all have a God-given capacity to go after what we want.... with abandonment. People around us do it all the time. “Go-getters" usually have the admiration of a lot of people. One exception to that is people who are super-motivated about Jesus.... they are usually looked upon as "fanatics." Think of the most compulsive thing in your life. What holds your nose to the grindstone when almost nothing else will?

Jesus is calling us here to be disciples who are willing to live for his kingdom with the same intensity with which worldly people pursue their own self interests. An unbelieving world cannot easily hear the Church’s moral teachings if Christians are not modeling distinctiveness in their values and commitments. May our Lord have mercy on us all. May he give us, who claim the name of Jesus, the desire and the strength to serve him with passion.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Prayer and the Purposes of God

I wrote two different homilies for this Sunday, one based on the Epistle and the other on the Gospel.  I'll preach the Gospel and post that one later, but here is the one for Sunday's Epistle reading....

September 22, 2013: The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
1 Timothy 2:1–8
Prayer and the Purposes of God

On September 7, 2013, 100,000 people joined Pope Francis for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world. Across the globe, millions more participated. It had seemed inevitable that the U.S. would launch some level of attack on Syria, but––dare we say, miraculously––Russia offered an alternative that has prevented a military strike. Is it coincidence that a day of prayer and fasting was called by the Church? Can prayer really have that kind of effect in our world?

Behind the words of this letter is a story. This story has a setting and characters––Paul and Timothy and false teachers in a congregation at long-ago Ephesus. Jesus said and did certain things to reveal God’s truth, and the apostles exercised great care to establish an accurate account of the facts and a right interpretation of their meaning. The words of this letter are part of the Holy Spirit’s wisdom within that story. Once we begin to see God’s wisdom in that context we can try to see what the Scripture is saying to us today.

A close look at these verses brings a focus on the subject of prayer. Prayer is a place where the presence of God and human activity intersect. One way God’s truth comes to us is through prayer. I say it again: prayer is a place where the presence of God and human activity intersect. So the work of prayer lies at the center of church life. The work of prayer lies at the heart of personal faith. Prayer undergirds order, both in the church and in the world-at-large.

God created people to have influence––even a measure of control––over what happens on earth. That’s one implication of humanity as special creation, in God’s image. When the Man and Woman disobey God they have a horrible effect on life in this world. Even today there is a sense in which people who disobey God are “praying” to the spiritual forces of evil (some do this intentionally; most do it in sheer ignorance), and this affects the world negatively. On the other hand, people who know God and desire to obey him exercise a good spiritual influence; when they pray according to God’s will, they “cooperate” with God in ways that give life in the world.

This kind of understanding can be found in ancient Christian writings. Theodoret (ca. 393–466) was a bishop who offered these thoughts: “The central purpose of prayer is the cultivation of that good order, peace and godliness that make the authentic practice of Christian faith possible, such that the peace represented in the union of united human and divine natures in Christ becomes manifest in the world.”

This is one reason Paul gives this call to prayer for the civil order. God’s people need to pray for people who have the role of civil authority in this world. As hard as it is for us to grasp the idea, God’s power and mercy and grace are released in a special way to intervene and even bless civil leaders when his people, exercising their God-given spiritual authority on earth, ask him to do this. There is a general good for everyone: that we may live peaceful and quiet lives... (2:2).

There is also a specific reason for Christians to pray for civil order, and it is tied into the ultimate purpose of God for this world: that the people he created to know him can best learn who God is and what he has done to fix this broken world. Here is the heart of God, given with full apostolic authority: I was appointed a herald and an apostle―I am telling the truth, I am not lying... (2:7). What is the heart of God? God... wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (2:4).

How can that happen? Remember that the context here is prayer. Again, prayer is a place where the presence of God and human activity intersect. We must always start with God, and the undergirding truth of who God is and what he has done is affirmed here: there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men (2:5,6).

So if God has done this through his Son, and if God desires the salvation of all, what more is there to say or do? Isn’t God Sovereign? Won’t God do what he wants to do anyway? Paul says that we are to pray! The Scriptures do not give us a neat formula for how prayer or salvation work. God does sometimes seem to sovereignly “grab” a person and save him. Other times there is a witness or a presentation of the gospel followed by a challenge for people to choose their response. Interwoven in this is the thread of human action on behalf of others―prayer. God has made it possible for his people to pray other people into salvation. We can pray so that the call of God on a person makes him unable to say “no.”

So here are two substantial things where the the prayers of God’s people work in our world. First, prayer releases God to work through the civil process of our world. Second, prayer enhances and expands God’s saving work through the gospel.

What do you expect when you pray? I confess that I am far too weak in this area. But... prayer does not depend on our understanding! The power of prayer is unleashed when we do it!!

Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives us some specific things to pray for as he wrote to Timothy so long ago. May the Lord help us to be people of prayer.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Message With Signs and Wonders

Wednesday: 4 August, 2013 –– 22nd Week in Ordinary Time
Luke 4:38–44
A Message With Signs and Wonders

In John's first letter (3:8) we find these words: The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work. Jesus has power not only over the “spiritual” dimension, Jesus also has power over the more natural and observable aspects of our lives. The people saw the connection. All it took was for Jesus to raise up Simon's mother-in-law, and it seems that everyone who had a physical need was on their way to see Jesus.

Jesus did not heal people merely for their own comfort. Jesus healed them because he loved them, yes, but he healed them also because he was sent to testify to the reality of the kingdom of God.  His mighty words said that God's great day had dawned;  his mighty deeds proved that his mighty words were true.

Often people ask questions: How can I know God is there? How can I know Jesus is real?  Jesus did not come only with the word that God's rule had come to earth, he came with deeds to back up his words. Jesus gave such signs of spiritual reality that people were brought to an issue of decision. Because Jesus performed mighty deeds to prove his mighty words were true, he could not be merely ignored.

So many people in our society ignore the gospel we say we believe. It's easy for them to have a nonchalant attitude about what we say we believe is both true and the most important truth in the world. Instead of Christians today giving unbelievers undeniable evidence that the power of God has been unleashed in the people in whom the Spirit of Jesus lives, we have inherited a generation of people who can casually say:  "You do your thing and I'll do mine." or "Different strokes for different folks."

What would our witness be if there were signs of spiritual power in our lives like it was with Jesus (and the first apostles after Pentecost)? Do we truly believe that the Spirit who lives in Christians today is the same Spirit that lived out a life of obedience and power in Jesus when he was on earth?

I know that what I'm saying is pretty far out to many people, but we have the authority and the example from our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to believe God can do mighty things through us so the message of the gospel will be mighty in this day of unbelief. Jesus brought a message proved with signs and wonders.  Do we truly believe it?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Problem of Pride

September 1, 2013 –– 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sirach 3:17–18, 20, 28–29 / Luke 14:1, 7–14

Sirach and the Gospel draw our attention to pride. Pride is not delight in that which is truly good. Pride is not what we would call appropriate self-esteem. True human pride is something God hates. Depending on which English version of the Bible one uses, the words pride and proud occur a bit over 100 times. Many of the notable Christian thinkers throughout church history have understood pride to be the root of sin. Pride is a major barrier to salvation. Pride does not want to admit that we are not our own center of the universe. Pride does not want to admit dependence. Pride does not want to confess any weakness or wrong. Pride does not want to be indebted to anyone. Jesus is confronting pride in today’s Gospel.

Actually, we all detest pride―in someone else. There is no sin that makes a person more unpopular. We can detect pride so easily―in another person. There is no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves and yet so aware of in someone else. We recognize our aversion to pride in its synonyms: conceit, arrogance, snobbishness, know-it-all, big-head, self-centered. Someone described a proud man as one who "struts even while sitting down." Another picture is that of a person who is often wrong, but always insists he is right. Then there is the person who is always whining that he deserves better than he is getting. Who likes someone who comes across like that? 

Pride is an attitude that each person is his own "number one." Pride is thinking I know what is best, and "best" is always defined by whatever is safe, convenient and comfortable for me. This  is an attitude that displaces God! We may not jockey for the best seats at a church dinner, but we instinctively take the best piece of meat––or more than we should––if we’re in front of the line at a pot-luck. We usually are not thinking about belonging to Jesus when we get angry at the people who “get in my way” while driving our cars. Pride is a spiritual cancer which eats up the possibility of love.... or even contentment. Chaucer called it "a swelling of the heart" which leaves no room for others.

Pride is often about image, and keeping up an image separates us from God. Pride is “being in love with me.” Pride is wanting to be seen and to be praised. It turns everything in life into competition; pride wants always to come in first place. Pride is calculating and posturing and posing for attention and credit. Pride destroys the possibility of the personal intimacy we all long for by being too self-protective―too concerned with what others see―to be real. MTV (and its Video Awards) is pushing an image. The Home & Garden Channel is pushing an image. Almost all advertising is about image. It appeals to our pride, trying to convince us to look successful or sexy or embrace any facade that is rooted in a pecking order. 

Pride keeps everyone at arm's length so they can’t see the real me. Whenever we put ourselves first or project a manufactured image instead of who we really are, we shut others––and God––out. The only way this can change is when we admit that we are not so good in perfectly following God's ways. That is the door to salvation. But it’s no wonder it doesn't look inviting––we have to embrace humility.  Repentance goes against our proud natures.

One of the most powerful shapers in my and my wife’s early spiritual formation was being taught that selfishness––putting self first––is sin. Wanting our own way or not being open to correction is spiritual death. Libby can remember, as a young child, times that her pastor-father––an intense man––would come and kneel before her and apologize for jumping to a conclusion or getting too irritated over some small issue, telling her that he had not modeled Jesus and wanted her to forgive him. Because we are Christians, we should understand the insidious nature of pride more than anyone. Jesus on the cross is a picture of where selfishness will go; he was hated because his life exposed self-worship. No wonder Jesus gives these warnings.

Yet even in the church there is pressure to appear better than we really are. Yes, there is a standard of godliness the church is to uphold and model, but the first way we do that is always to model the truth that God uses broken, imperfect people. The best way to nurture spiritual life is to be honest, and honesty is hard on pride. No matter where we are in our Christian journey.... no matter how far we have progressed in our sanctification.... no matter how much we have grown in maturity.... no matter how wholehearted our obedience, we are still people who fall short of God's glory and we are people who need to pray every day as Jesus taught us, forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. This is for all of us, from Pope to peon. This is for me. I preach to myself and let others listen.

We need to see that it is not others who get in our way, but we ourselves who too often project ourselves in ways that we know are not right. If pride keeps us from God by trying to take care of life on our own, then pride is defeated when we believe that God loves us enough to care for us better than we can care for ourselves. This is one way to understand faith.

Jesus invites us to be honest before God―to open wide the door of our heart.... to hold nothing back (God knows it all anyway).... to find the incredible grace of being loved in spite of everything about us that's weak and broken and ugly―and then, in the strength we get from God loving us anyway, to learn to be honest with God and even other people. This is the way to fight pride. And in the overall battle, there is one thing of paramount importance: giving ourselves continually to Jesus Christ. We can't do anything in the fight against pride unless we are inviting Jesus to live his life in ours. Jesus always shows us the way.

Jesus invites us to be honest before God―to open wide the door of our heart.... to hold nothing back (God knows it all anyway).... to find the incredible grace of being loved in spite of everything about us that's weak and broken and ugly―and then, in the strength we get from God loving us anyway, to learn to be honest with God and even other people.  This is the way to fight the sin of pride. And in the overall battle against sin, there is one thing of paramount importance:  giving ourselves continually to Jesus Christ. We can't do anything in the fight against pride unless we are inviting Jesus to live his life in ours. Jesus always shows us the way.

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