Sunday, December 21, 2014

God At Work

December 21, 2014 –– 4th Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1–5, 8b–12, 14a, 16 / Romans 16:25–27 / Luke 1:26–38
God At Work

Prehistory is a term used for human history in the period before recorded events. This means we can give a reasonably firm date for Abraham, but not for Adam and Eve. Still, if we take Scripture seriously––the Church does, and so do I––we can believe that some particular things happened in prehistory even if we cannot know all the details we might wish.

One thing that happened long ago is a horrible decision by our first human parents. God created them to love him, but love always means a choice––and our first parents made the wrong choice. They chose to say no to God and yes to a spirit of disobedience that has infected our world ever since. We have awful reminders of this every day (if we have the faith and insight to connect the dots). This past week a man in eastern Pennsylvania went on a murderous rage and killed his ex-wife and several members of her family. In world news, the Taliban in Pakistan killed 148  children plus others at a school. But the news doesn’t have to be so dramatic or gory; every time we hear of a “natural” death or hear about abuse and addiction, we are being brought face to face with what it means to live in a world that is in rebellion against God. It would be a hopeless situation for all of us… except God gave a special promise way back in prehistory. After confronting the man and woman with their disobedience, God speaks of someone in the future––the seed of a woman–– who will crush the head of the serpent who had tempted the woman (in Genesis 3:15). This is called the protoevangelium, or the “first gospel.”

We in the Church take so much for granted. We hear the stories all of our lives. Some may think of it as being force-fed. There is a danger that we resist or, perhaps worse, get inoculated with just enough “religion” that it never takes good root in our lives. Then we wonder why, even in the Church, our lives are ripped by much of the same horrible stuff in the world around us: the abuse, the addictions, the selfishness, the desperate grabbing for a bit of pleasure and happiness.

As we enter the closing days of Advent, we need to know that the Christmas we are waiting for is real! One of the most important things we can do is recognize that we need it. We don’t need “Christmas” as it is often popularized. It doesn’t matter if our celebration matches a Currier & Ives print or follows the script of a favorite holiday movie. We do not so much need Happy Holidays as we need a real Christmas.

Just as God gave a special promise in prehistory, he has fulfilled it in true history. The readings for today all but shout this out. When God gave his promise to King David––your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me––he was not just being “nice” to David. God was taking a next step in what he had been doing since that first promise when “history” was still unable to be defined. Then the biggest shout of all came from the Archangel Gabriel to a young virgin girl named Mary. St Paul said it this way to the early Roman Christians: the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages but now manifested….

God sent the angel Gabriel to give Mary a singularly unique message: Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. This was God’s historical promise to David coming true. This was God’s prehistorical promise to Eve coming true. There is a way back to the love that God offered us in the very beginning.

We cannot love as we ought. We cannot always love even as much as we ourselves might desire.

We cannot fix this world by ourselves. We cannot guarantee security, much less happiness, for ourselves and those we love.

We cannot even understand all the ramifications of the revelation of the mystery that has been given through the Scriptures and the Church. Still, we understand far more than Eve did when the first promise was given. We understand more than David did, though he was a man after [God’s] own heart (Acts 13:22). Incredibly, we understand more than Mary did when the angel first gave her this message. We have the advantage of hindsight within the Church.

What shall we do with what we do understand? Are we ready to say to our Lord:
I don’t always understand all the implications of my faith, but I want to….
I don’t know to respond to the hard things in my life and in this world, but I want to…
I don’t how to love as I should, but I want to….

What I hope you will remember as we come to the glory of Christmas is that God has been at work for our salvation for a long, long time. In the womb of the Virgin Mary God took on our humanity and has come into our world. Hear the parting words of the angel: nothing will be impossible for God.

God will work in your life when you invite him. He will help you understand. He will help you respond to this world with grace. He will help you love.

God has even given us the ultimate model of prayer to open the door to all that Christmas means. We are to pray with Mary: May it be done to me according to your word. Pray that from your heart, and see what God will do.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


November 30, 2014 –– First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 63:6b–17, 19b; 64:2–7 / 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 / Mark 13:33–37

The purple we use in Advent is connected to its use in Lent. Both are penitential seasons in which we are called to give special attention to our sins and our need for salvation. Advent has long been a time for Christians to take part in such practices as fasting and abstinence, but in our culture Advent has lost most of its penitential focus. Our society has absorbed Advent into a popular (and very secular) celebration of what it calls “Christmas.” Instead of fasting there is partying and feasting. We do not like to hear about sin any time, but the resistance can be even deeper when we’re being constantly cooed with Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.

Still, we in the Church place ourselves under the authority of Scripture. What we find in these readings is a focus on repentance and a warning about the ultimate coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples WATCH! Why? Because you do not know when the time will come. We are, figuratively, to keep an eye to the sky. And to do that, Jesus says we need to guard against something: spiritual carelessness––lest he comes suddenly and find you sleeping….The warnings given by Jesus in the Gospel are expanded by the prophet Isaiah. The tone of this Old Testament reading certainly does not match our culture’s attempt at “holiday cheer.”

Sometimes I struggle with my intensity. I often feel like an OT prophet trying to break through the lethargy of comfort and seduction. I can’t forget the definition of preaching that was burned into my soul early in my formation: Preaching is a dying man speaking to dying people. Someday I’m going to face the judgment of a holy God––and so are you. I want to be ready; I want you to be ready. It is a grace when we can take God’s warnings seriously.

Really think about what we confess: I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead…. I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Advent is a time to renew our perspective that we live in two worlds, and that this world we see carries a grave danger of so dulling us to the unseen world that we have no real time or affection for it––and in that condition close ourselves off to God and his salvation.

Maybe you’re like me and sometimes wonder, Why does it have to be so hard? Isaiah asks God a question like that: Why do you let us wander? It is a common human tendency that we wander or drift. I read an article this week about people who wander off trails in Great Smoky Mountain National Park; they get lost and need to be found by a Search and Rescue Unit. Left to ourselves, we can become absorbed by something that catches our eye so we forget where we are.

This tendency to let ourselves wander seems even greater in our spiritual lives. It is rare for people to reject God outright if they were raised in the Faith. Rather, people just drift away. When I talk with people who have left the Church, most of them do not point to a time when they walked out of Church and said, “I’ll never come back.” Instead, they missed a Sunday here or there, little by little, until missing became the norm. They drifted from the practice of the faith. This is such a common spiritual tendency that one of the great hymns has a phrase: Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love….

The thing about drifting is that the further off course one gets, the harder it is to get back. Bad habits become hard to break; Isaiah says we get hardened. God seems more and more distant; we lose our sense of reverence and holy fear. Isaiah shows this by taking up Israel’s voice (and ours!) and “blames” God for it all. Why do you let us wander? Somehow it is “his fault” for our tendency to wander since he lets us do it.

Yes, God has made us free. He respects our freedom. We could not love God if we were not free, because forced “love” is not love at all. We can wander so far that only God can find us and save us. And so in Advent, the Church cries out, Come Emmanuel… Come Lord Jesus!… Seek and find us…. don’t let us drift away.

These verses from Isaiah can lead us to a healthy repentance: we are sinful; all our good deeds are like polluted rags…. our guilt carries us away like the wind…. There is none who calls upon your name…. This is a hard truth. Speaking collectively for our contemporary culture, we have no passion for God. We get all worked up about politics, sports, a favorite T.V. show (or whatever), but have almost no motivation to pray, go to Church, or read Scripture. We can find time for everything else, but God can wait.

Yet there is Good News in this otherwise bad news: Our focus is not to be on our failings. That is not to say we do not need to make detailed confession, but our focus is on who God is and what God does. Here is how the old prophet Isaiah concludes it: we are the clay and you the potter; we are all the work of your hands. Even more, the hope of the prophet is realized: Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down. Think of the Creed we profess. God does come. He sends his Son. We are not forsaken. Our Advent cry, Come Lord Jesus, is heard and heeded by our Heavenly Father, who loves us and––like a master potter––is molding us into his very image

This is our Faith. The ancient cry of Israel through the prophet Isaiah was fulfilled so that the Apostle Paul could write to the Corinthians of the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus… so much so that he gives this promise: He will keep you firm to the end…. God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Yet we need to face our part. That’s why we have Advent. The wandering heart that led Israel to the depths of despair will lead us astray if we do not remember this Gospel warning. Do not let him come suddenly and find you sleeping. As we start preparing for Christimas, the word from our Lord is WATCH! …Jesus is coming!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Building A Church

November 9, 2104 –– Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica
Ezekiel 47:1–2, 8–9,12 / First Corinthians 3:9c–11, 16–17 / John 2:13–22
Building A Church

My journey into the fullness of Catholic Faith began in the free-church––even a “low church”––tradition. By that I mean that there was no prescribed liturgy, there were no sacraments, there was “freedom” in worship to be spontaneous or merely to do whatever the pastor had planned for that Sunday. Of course, for the latter years the “pastor” was me so I had a lot of control over what characterized our worship.

My spiritual formation was nurtured in a pursuit of personal holiness, and the highest criteria for a church gathering was whether there was a “spirit of anointing” on the worship, but especially on the preaching. The physical setting held little priority. We were not opposed to a nice church building, but I remember one of the early preachers who had a deep influence on me saying (in an “anointed” sermon), “better to meet in a barn and have the glory of God than meet in a cathedral without knowing the glory.” It’s hard to argue against that logic, and I’ve always sought the anointing of God in my ministry––but that is not to say that the physical and material in worship are unimportant.

One of the ways that Catholic Faith is distinctive is the importance it gives to the material. A cute way to say it is that “Matter matters.” So it is a common observation, for those who bother to notice, that one of the discernible characteristics of Catholicism is beautiful churches. This is because “Matter matters.” 

We believe that in the Incarnation God gave the ultimate affirmation to his crowning verdict at Creation: very good. The Son of God took upon himself a true human existence. It boggles the mind. There is no wonder that the Church wrestled with the nature of Jesus for the first couple of centuries. Once it was settled –fully God and fully Man––the Church has embraced a sanctified view of the material world. What the Old Testament modeled with Tabernacle and Temple and vessels and vestments is really true: “things” can be holy!

Some people want to argue that holiness is only “spiritual”––that it’s an attitude or disposition or some other abstract expression. Think about it: the only way to live a holy life is in the body God has given you. Once any object is made, there is an immediate question: how will this item be used––in ways that honor God or dishonor him? Paul told Timothy: In a wealthy home some utensils are made of gold and silver, and some are made of wood and clay. The expensive utensils are used for special occasions, and the cheap ones are for everyday use (2Tim 2:20). Paul’s point is simply, “What kind of vessel characterizes godliness?” Notice the care that is used with a chalice, that which holds the Precious Blood. To apply the household imagery, we do not mop our floors using a silver punch bowl, nor do we serve our dinner vegetables in a bed pan.

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. Up until the early 300s Christian existence was tenuous. Varying degrees of persecution were common and Christians could not be open with their worship. When Emperor Constantine officially validated Christian Faith in the Roman Empire there were almost immediate outward changes. One was places of worship; suddenly it was okay––safe––to have an open place for worship. Church buildings began to be built. A renovated palace of the Lateran family was consecrated in 324 and it became the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome. It is “the mother of all the world’s churches” and is a visible symbol of the universal Church. As we gather for worship today, we are tangibly connected to a Church that is indeed catholic.

Do buildings matter? Can a collection of bricks and stones be holy? Seriously consider what Jesus did: He made a whip out of cords and drove [those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers] all out of the temple area… His disciples remembered the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me (not zeal for the Lord, but zeal for his house!). Think about the care throughout the Old Testament for the place where God’s people would worship and how they were to approach God.

God’s “type” for the Church is the Jerusalem Temple, but the Temple gives way to the more complete Body of Christ. Christ’s Body is now the dwelling of God’s “glory” among us. By faith we see it in our Tabernacles, but it does not stop there. Today’s Epistle reading says the Spirit of God comes to dwell in us and makes us God’s building…the temple of God.

The focus is surely not only a material building, and yet the building should never be insignificant. Because God created the heavens and the earth, and because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, there is in Christianity a union of the spiritual and the material. Our own salvation is not achieved by laying down our physical bodies. Salvation is not "the soul being set free.” Rather, our salvation will only be complete when we are raised with resurrection bodies even as our Lord has led the way with his own resurrection body (see 1 Corinthians 15).

Even now God is working his glory into us (see 2 Cor 3:18). Our highest calling as Christians is to become like Jesus Christ in every way––in love, in holiness, and in the resurrection of our physical bodies. One effect of this is being able to see God’s glory in the things we do. A place of worship and how we worship is meant to show the glory of God. We are the Church of God––the Body of Christ. A body is something with material substance. Matter matters.

One day in the Middle Ages, during the construction of one of the great cathedrals, a nobleman was walking among the workers asking about their labors. He asked a stone mason what he was doing, and the mason tried to explain the care involved in raising a plumb wall. The man asked the glass worker what he was doing and was shown the detail of a leaded glass picture. Then the carpenter told about the wooden frame which provided the support for the whole building.  Finally the nobleman spotted a peasant woman with a broom and a bucket going around cleaning trash. Asked what she was doing she replied, "I'm building a cathedral for the glory of God!”

In your personal life… in this parish…. in our community… throughout the world…. let’s build a “cathedral”––the true temple of our Lord’s Body––for the glory of God. This is our faith.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Longing for Love

October 26, 2014 –– 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus 22:20–26 / 1 Thessalonians 1:5c–10 / Matthew 22:34–40
A Longing for Love

A broad look at pop music over the years offers an excellent illustration of the many ways love is perceived. When I’m with my Dad we revisit our Southern-country roots by listening to Bluegrass music. Last week I heard one of those country songs about “love” that ooze with its own unique mode of expression; the song was bemoaning that love doesn’t die naturally, “it was honkey-tonked to death”.

As I thought about that, there is a sense in which it’s true. We have attempted to find a sure way to love through romance, sentimentality, and sexuality. Pop songs about love––whether country, rock, rap, easy listening, or any other genre––are full of it. It also seems a majority of the songs are full of disappointment, frustration, and pain. Our world is filled with a longing for love that is not easily satisfied.

The theme of love is never far away because we were made for love. The Beatles got it right when they sang All You Need Is Love, but the crucial truth was left hanging. What is love?

On the surface, the same thing might be said about Jesus giving the The Great Commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…. What is “love”? Certainly “love” is personal, yet love is not is selfish. When “love” is self-focused, the result is––as I said above–– disappointment, frustration, and pain.

Of course, if we truly listen to Jesus we are given the most important orientation from the start: love the Lord your God…. This sets the stage for the biggest decision any of us can make. Every person on earth has to make a choice: Will you give yourself to loving God? Or, will you embrace the pattern of loving yourself?

There is a brokenness in our world that is set in default mode for seeking fulfillment through self-love. Another pop song offered these words: You see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself. We are fed the lie that “love is all about me”––getting my desires fulfilled.

A God-focused love is totally different. Choosing to love God is to make the choice not to focus on one’s self. This seems like the opposite of happiness. It looks like a sure path to misery. Why does Jesus say the greatest commandment is to love God?

First, our longings for love are rooted in God. Scripture says God is love (1 Jn 4:16). It should be apparent that the One who is love and the One who made us for love is the One who will fulfill our longing for love.

Second, God himself shows us what love is really like (and it’s the opposite of selfishly trying to have one’s own way). Jesus told his disciples: Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). And then Jesus did just that–– This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and gave his Son…. (1 Jn 4:10).

This is why love is most of all about God and our neighbor. When we try to make “love” all about ourselves, we destroy both love and ourselves. The country song is too often right: love gets “honkey-tonked to death”, at least in the lives of those who selfishly try to find it on their own terms.

One of the best ways to love God is to love our neighbor. This is the context of the Exodus reading––loving God means something, and it shows in the way we treat others. There is an incredible joy that both goes deep inside us and stays with us for a long time when we choose to do something truly good for someone else, especially when it costs us something. Giving and loving are inseparable.

Years ago I heard a retreat speaker ask a question that the Holy Spirit has used to draw me and change me again and again: “What are you sacrificing for the redemption of the world?” When we love ourselves most, we do not want to hear the word “sacrifice”. When we are seeking to love God above everything else, sacrifice becomes a way of life. St Catherine of Siena once noted: “The devils are afraid to get near a soul on fire with divine charity.”

We are all hungry for love. Let’s be people who learn more and more to love God and our neighbor, and to turn loose of the things we think we “have to have” to be happy. I offer a practical assignment: Go into each day asking yourself this double-sided question: Am I going to do what I want to do, or am I going to do what God wants me to do as I follow Jesus?” Love the Lord your God with all your heart….

This is how our longing for love will be nourished. Then we will grow in the kind of love that both satisfies our deepest hunger and helps others see Jesus (see 1 Thess 1:7,8).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Living in Two Worlds

October 19, 2014 –– 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 45:1, 4–6 / 1 Thessalonians 1:1–5b / Matthew 22:15–21
Living in Two Worlds

Christians live in two worlds. As we gather in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (and remember that this happens all around the world), we meet in a specific place. In each place where Christians gather––under the authority of Jesus and his Church––there is another authority, the particular nation state of each locale. Christians live in two worlds.

The two worlds are not equal. The world we see seems to be the most important. Christian Faith holds that the world we cannot see is the most important.

This is a theme throughout Scripture. Early in Genesis we find that Cain built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch (Gen 4:17). This set in motion a growing tension between “the city of Man” and “the city of God.” St Augustine traces the development of this theme in one of his most significant books aptly entitled The City of God. He presents human history as a conflict between the City of Man and the City of God. The City of God is marked by people who forgo earthly pleasure to dedicate themselves to the eternal truths of God, which are revealed fully in the Christian faith. The City of Man, on the other hand, consists of people who have immersed themselves in the cares and pleasures of this present, passing world which is destined for destruction.

St Paul tells the Corinthians explicitly: the present form of this world is passing away (1Cor 7:31). This is an encompassing point of view in all the New Testament. It is the reason why the “upside-down” values of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teachings make any sense at all. Why be meek and forgiving and patient with hardships or even mistreatment if this world is all we have? Or as Jesus told Pilate, My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would fight…. (Jn 18:36).

And yet…. as Christians we do live in “this world”. So how do we keep our moorings? What is a good balance for giving our ultimate allegiance to our Lord while also living in the midst of day-to-day demands and cares?

First, there is not a detailed description of what we are to do and not do in this world. There are a few specifics that all Christians are to obey at all times and in every situation, but even those are more in the context of attitude and character. We are given a “perspective”, which is itself an incredible gift of faith. Do we truly believe that “this world” is not all there is? Faith––that ability to see what is unseen––really makes all the difference. Paul tells the Corinthians that if the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not true, and with it the hope of our own resurrection––certainly something that is beyond “this world”––then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1Cor 15:32). As Christians, our ultimate hope and allegiance is to a world beyond this one. 

It is crucial that we understand this. This is the essence of what we say every week in the Creed. This is the context for believing that Jesus comes to us both spiritually and physically in the Eucharist. This is why we concern ourselves with such a thing as sin and salvation while the world around us says (and practices), Live for yourself, and If it feels good, do it.

So, how do we live in this world? The readings for today give us some parameters. The Isaiah text speaks of Cyrus. Cyrus was the Gentile king of Persia at the end of the seventy-year captivity of the Jews. God speaks through Isaiah to let his people know that the actions of a non-Jewish king exercising his reign very much in “this world” was part of what God was doing to fulfill his divine purpose. This is a general truth extending throughout time. As we live in this world with all its frustrations and threats––ISIS, ebola, politicians who are both evil and stupid, government structures (both local and national) which make poor decisions and policies––God is at work, all the time and in all circumstances, to fulfill his ultimate purposes. We need to believe and remember this as we live in this world.

Also, it is right and good for Christians to be involved in this world. We have a witness to give. We have contributions to make (as long as our contribution will be received without a demand that we compromise our greater allegiance). Christians should be among the best of citizens.

But…. there is something higher. Our ultimate allegiance is not “to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands….” Our ultimate allegiance is not to anything rooted in this passing world. This is what Jesus is saying in the Gospel: Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God’s (Mtt 22:21). There are some things that go beyond the political state and its power––even the best of governments. 

Earlier this week, the city of Houston, the fourth-largest city in the U.S., issued a subpoena to a group of pastors demanding copies of sermons that touched on the subjects of “homosexuality, gender identity or Annise Parker, the city’s first openly-lesbian mayor.” This is in flagrant violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the backlash has been strong. But the implication is clear: there are those who want a change in our national state so that Christian convictions are silenced.

A government has the authority to make something legal; a government has no autonomous authority to make something right. Right and wrong belong to God alone. Whenever a government does anything to tell its citizens that it is “wrong” to do right, the Christians who live among that citizenry need to say what Peter told the authorities at the very beginning of the Church: We must obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29).

How are we to know where to draw that line? We are not left to the angst of individual conscience. As Christians, we belong to the Church. We have a Tradition of belief and practice that informs us. This is affirmed in today’s reading from the Epistle: Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians…. For we know that our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction….

As Christians, we are called to a Faith having the power of conviction that God has revealed himself through Jesus Christ, and that Jesus continues to speak Truth into the world through the Church he founded. We are called to embrace the tension of living in two worlds. We do that by giving ultimate allegiance to things which belong only to God. This is our Faith.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Beyond “Fair”

September 21, 2014–– 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55:6–9 / Philippians 1:20c–24, 27a / Matthew 20:1–16a
Beyond “Fair”

It has been said that there are two types of people in the world, including those who divide people into two groups and those who do not. I think one of the most basic contrasts is between the attitude of people who believe they always “deserve” what is best or even fair as opposed to those who tremble at the thought of getting what they deserve. There is another way to say this: proud and humble gets to the root. Jesus’ story of the proud Pharisee and the humble publican comes to mind.

Our human nature has an inherent recognition of right and wrong. We instinctively know when we are treated unfairly. Except… fair is not really much of a biblical theme. God’s revelation to us has a lot to say about justice and mercy and love, but “fair” is much more a human construct. Fair is almost always connected to what we think we deserve, and what we think we deserve is tempered ultimately by whether we are, in biblical language, proud or humble.

The Gospel of John (ch 6) tells of an incident in which people come to John the Baptizer with praise and adulation. His response is, No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven. St Paul confronts the Corinthians with the same thought: What do you have that was not given to you? (1Cor 4:7a). This is a picture of biblical humility.

Contrast this attitude with that of the prophet Jonah. He had a proud, uncharitable spirit. Jonah neither expected nor desired the welfare of the Ninevites; he only went there to declare and witness their destruction. It was all about Jonah. Sometimes even God’s people show us how not to be!

Several of our popular magazine titles illustrate this. First there was People (all of us), then there was Us (as opposed to “them”), and then there was Self, which mostly reduces the focus to me. My point is to suggest that a very large portion of “popular culture”, as evidenced by our magazine names (and even more by their content!), is almost completely opposed to anything that is essentially Christian.

This takes us to Jesus’ parable about the vineyard workers. It is typical of our fallen human nature to see things selfishly from our own point of view. The all-day workers complained––it was “unfair” that the one-hour workers were paid the same. And yet this story has a much greater point: the mercy of God goes beyond fair. God does not give us what we deserve. He certainly does not give us less than we deserve. God gives us more than we deserve. Beyond fair.

To grasp this, we need to be converted. We need to be changed. We need to be transformed from people who look at the world around us and our own situations merely from our own selfish perspective (What’s in it for me?). When our focus is on ourselves––how much do I get?…. is yours bigger or better than mine?…. why am “I” having to go through this hard thing?…. ––we are only making ourselves miserable (and worse, cutting ourselves off from being able to see God’s mercies). St Paul expresses transformation when he tells the Philippians, For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. This world is not all there is. So Paul asked the Corinthians, What do you have that was not given to you? What we have is mercy. From God’s perspective, if we got what we deserved, we’d have less than nothing; we’d be in hell. It’s all about gift and grace. Beyond fair.

This is what God is saying through Isaiah: ….my thoughts are not your thoughts…. your ways are not my ways…. Humbling ourselves before the greatness of God is not meant to demean or discourage us. It is the greatness of God that goes beyond fair. This is why we can dare to be different and have hope in spite of all the things that seem so unfair and the many things which are, indeed, unjust.

There is an incredible picture of what this looks like which happened not too far from us in this part of Pennsylvania, and with which most of us are familiar. It is the epitome of what we would call “unfair”. On October 2, 2006 a milk truck driver named Charlie Roberts who serviced the local community drove to the West Nickel Mines Amish School in Lancaster County (PA). Then the sound of gunfire was heard from inside. When local police broke into the one-room schoolhouse they found 10 Amish girls ages 6-13 had been shot by Charlie Roberts, who then committed suicide.

In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, they didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family. On the afternoon of the shooting an Amish grandfather of one of the girls who was killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer. That same day Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain. Later that week the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed, and Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral.

In a world where violence and suffering dominate the news, and in a society that often points fingers and blames others for what is “not fair”, this reaction seems incomprehensible. Many have asked, “How could they forgive?” The short answer is simple: This is Christian Faith. This is how God has loved us through his Son, and so we pass that kind of mercy forward. The Amish understand that part of Christian Faith so well, and we need to know it has its origin and home in Catholic Christianity. If the world is divided into two kinds of people (and I believe it is in many ways), we are to be those who live, in Jesus Christ, beyond fair.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

September 14, 2014–– 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Numbers 21:4b–9 / Philippians 2:6–11 / John 3:13–17

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Each one of the Scripture texts for today is worthy of book-length reflection, but perhaps it’s best to make three basic points.

The Numbers story illustrates the nature of sin: Sin is a poisonous snake always ready to bite, and its venom means death (apart from intervention beyond anything we are able to do for ourselves). [1] If you are “playing with sin” today––any kind of sin––you are risking eternal death.

The Epistle and the Gospel tell us what God has done. He has provided a remedy for the poison of sin. The Divine Son takes the sin of the world upon himself, and because he is God, he “absorbs” sin and defeats it. Just as Moses mounted an image of a snake on a pole and invited those bitten to look upon it and be healed, [2] when Jesus was lifted up on the cross the salvation of everyone who believes in him was accomplished.

If this incredible thing is true, why are the effects of sin still so devastating in our world and even in our personal lives? God does not force spiritual healing on anyone. Moses mounted the image of the snake, but each Israelite had the personal responsibility to look at it in order to be healed. Jesus makes the same point in his words to Nicodemus: ….the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Clearly one meaning of lifted up is the literal physical crucifixion of Jesus, so when Jesus mounted the cross he was taking the sin of the world upon himself. Every week––and for some of us, every day––we acclaim, Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.

Still, there is more in what Jesus said. What marks a person who has faith in the saving death of Jesus Christ? What does “believe” mean (for it can so easily be a cliché)? There is a figurative way to understand lifted up––it is extended to us! [3] When we model faith in his death on the cross for sin, so that our very lives proclaim Jesus Christ is Lord, then in each and every Christian believer, Jesus Christ is being lifted up.

On this day when the Church calls us to exalt the Holy Cross, let’s be people who do just that by honoring Jesus Christ in all that we are and all that we do. The foundation for real living is knowing that Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross to save us from the poison of sin. Then––starting from the inner passion of our hearts and extending into the way we live each day––we can truly be his witnesses. When our own lives cause Jesus to be lifted up, we join all those for whom every knee bend[s] and every tongue confess[es] that Jesus Christ is Lord. This is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Responsible Love

September 7, 2014 –– 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 33:7–9 / Romans 13:8–10 / Matthew 18:15–20
Responsible Love

This past Wednesday was the Feast Day of St Gregory the Great. He was elected Pope as the Church entered the 7th Century, was one of the four great Latin Fathers and named Doctor of the Church. In the Office of Readings for that day there was a selection taken from his writings based on the text in Ezekiel:

….a preacher is called a watchman. A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming. Anyone appointed to be a watchman for the people must stand on a height for all his life to help them by his foresight.

He goes on to confess how hard this is, for human preachers have to deal with their own weaknesses and the distractions of life in this world: “So who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness?” Then he gives the only solution that offers any peace: “Truly the all-powerful Creator and Redeemer of mankind can give me, in spite of my weaknesses, a higher life and effective speech; because I love him, I do not spare myself in speaking of him.”

Preaching is a fusion of two seemingly incongruent things: the knowledge and authority of God joined to the weak limitations of a human messenger. But because we believe God has spoken, and that he has formed the Church to be the medium of his truth, those of us ordained by the Church (to proclaim what God has said and done) do this often criticized act of “preaching”. One way that I seek to give integrity to my preaching––to take seriously what I believe comes from God––is preach to myself and invite you to listen. I do this because of the serious charge given here to Ezekiel. If I do not declare God’s truth faithfully, then God holds me accountable for my listener’s sins. If I do declare God’s truth faithfully, then (speaking of a wicked man) if he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt but you shall save yourself. It is a frightful thing to be a preacher!

The bottom line here is that we take who God is and what he says as top priority. This is why Jesus says, If your brother sins…. go and tell him his fault. If he does not listen, take one or two more others with you…. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. This extends beyond “preachers” to all  Christians.

What is going on here? First, Jesus wants us to take sin seriously. In the Epistle reading St Paul tells us to love one another. “Love” is a loaded word in our world. It is used (and abused) to speak of many things, from the trite and ridiculous to the grossly immoral. How do we know what love really is? Paul puts “love” here in the context of keeping the commandments. Jesus said, If you love me you will keep my commands (Jn 14:15). Jesus is also saying in today’s Gospel that love for our brothers and sisters means being concerned about sin in their lives. Remember, all Christians are called to be holy ––“different for Jesus’ sake.” And, we are to help each other!

Just as there is a tension in the act of preaching––the contrast of strength and weakness (in God and a human messenger), there is a tension in our mutual quest for holiness. We are to be both critical and humble. Jesus says that if two people can come to one mind about what is right, then that is doubly good. Maybe it takes the counsel of several; often our perspectives are too much our own (or that of the world around us). The ultimate arbiter and authority is the Church. I do not ask you to live according to my opinions and practices, and you are not to judge me merely from your personal understanding (although we cannot escape our personal perspectives, and sometimes they are right). But we are all called to subject our thoughts, words, and actions to the teachings of the Church. It is in the Church that whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Do we take what God says through the Church seriously enough that we truly try to live it? Do we take what God says through the Church seriously enough that we are willing to confront our brothers and sisters with it? Do we take what God says through the Church seriously enough that we all are willing to be humble with each other and admit that we are a work in progress? Do we remember each day, and embrace the reality, that as Christians we are called to be saints?

Not all of us are called to be preachers, but every one of us who owns the name of Christian is responsible to let the life of Jesus flow into and through us. And we are responsible to others who also own that name; they are our brothers and sisters.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself…. love is the fulfillment of the law. Love means telling each other the truth, and humbly letting God’s truth come to us through the Church.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Other Side of the Gospel

August 31, 2014–– 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 20:7–9 / Romans 12:1–2 / Matthew 16:21–27
The Other Side of the Gospel

Gospel means Good News. The Good News can be expressed a number of ways. Perhaps the most well-known is John 3:16––For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God’s love is a major and recurring theme throughout Scripture. A popular Evangelical cliché says “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” So, again, Gospel means Good News.

There is a prominent TV preacher (whose name I’ll forgo) who uses a stadium for the crowd that gathers each week to hear his always positive “talks” (I can’t bring myself to call them sermons). Now, only the Lord knows his heart, but he is not proclaiming the whole counsel of God. His is an incomplete and stunted “gospel”. I have never heard or read anything from him that boldly proclaims Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel: Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. This is the other side of the Gospel.

There is no good news without bad news. The very word “good” requires a larger context that provides its contrast. No one has reason to be happy about being found if they have no idea that they are lost. To have any comprehension of being “saved” we must first know that we are in grave danger. The Good News of the Gospel comes to us in the context of the bad news of sin and the very real and appropriate fear of a holy God.

We live in a part of the world that can avoid facing this. We can insulate and distract ourselves from ultimate reality––for a while. Our danger right now is not that of our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria. For them, the danger is a very real persecution. They are faced with the issue of whether Christian Faith is worth dying for (the very literal application of Jesus’ words here). Our greatest danger is seduction. We are inundated in an atmosphere of comfort, convenience, and pleasure. We face hard things, of course, but we want answers that do not cost us the price of even a personal inconvenience. The world tells us we should be able to spend our money on what makes us feel good. The world tells us that our culture’s obsession with sex as a means (and a so-called “right”) for personal pleasure is not so wrong. The closest we get to persecution (so far) is the ridicule and vitriol directed at us when we try to give a witness to traditional Christian values and morality. And there is a suggested way to avoid that: keep religion private; do not give your “personal” beliefs expression in the “real” world because “faith” (instead of being any kind of objective reality) is just an inner feeling that helps some people feel good. This is a betrayal of the Gospel.

We can too easily forget––too “conveniently” avoid––facing a huge divide that is clearly revealed in Scripture and taught by the Church. Jesus warns Peter about thinking not as God does, but as human beings do. We do not like to hear this. It goes against everything the culture around us believes. It goes against our natural desires for ease and comfort. It is obvious that a one-sided “positive” gospel can attract––the popular stadium preacher proves it, but that does not negate Jesus’ warning in another place: Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mtt 7:13,14).

The Scriptures give this other side of the Gospel over and over. God speaks through Isaiah:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts (55:8,9).

This is what St Paul is exhorting in today’s Epistle: Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…. (Rom 12:2). If we are too much like the world around us, our souls are in danger!

Yes, our salvation is based totally in Jesus Christ. Yet this is more than what Jesus has done for us. Christianity is not merely forgiveness. Billy Graham’s famous Crusade invitation was accompanied by the song Just As I Am. That is indeed the love of the Gospel. God welcomes you just as you are. We do not have to become, first, “good enough” to gain God’s attention or earn his love. But––and this is a huge interjection––God does not leave those who belong to him where they are. We are to be transformed. We are to become like Jesus.

Christian Faith means following Jesus. And before we can hope to follow Jesus into the glory of the resurrection, we first follow him to the cross. This is the other side of the Gospel. The way that we are transformed into his likeness is to put to death in us all that is not like Jesus. When I want to please myself instead of loving and serving others, the Spirit of Jesus in me wants to put that to death. When my thinking is not as God does, but as human beings do about things such as money, possessions, sex, power, or even “freedom”, then I need to follow Jesus and submit my errant thinking to the cross.

It would be nice if the role of a Christian preacher was only to make people feel good. Sometimes I feel like Jeremiah in today’s reading: 

I am ridiculed all day long;
    everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
    proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
    insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, “I will not mention his word
    or speak any more in his name,”
his word is in my heart like a fire,
    a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
    indeed, I cannot.

I have been called a “Bible thumper”. I have known people to leave the congregation because what was preached offended them. But some day I am going to stand before the Judge of all the earth––as are each of you––and there will be an accounting. Matthew gives us these words from Jesus: I promise you that on the day of judgment, everyone will have to account for every careless word they have spoken (12:36, CEV). I do not want to be “careless” in my preaching. I want to be faithful to what God has said. To be faithful to my calling, I must give the other side of the Gospel, especially when the Church faithfully draws our attention to texts such as these.

But before I quit I want to be clear. It is not my intent––and Jesus did not say these things––to discourage us or merely make us feel guilty. Notice that I said “merely”. Guilt is a good thing when it accomplishes its intended purpose. Paul told the Romans: God has locked all people in the prison of their own disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all (Rom 11:32). God wants us to know the full hard truth so that we run to him. That is the Gospel. In spite of the hard things––even through them––God is at work for our salvation. Jesus gives us the whole truth because he is our Savior.

Hear, truly hear these words of our Lord: Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. This is the Gospel.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

God At Work

August 24, 2014 –– 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 22:19-23 / Romans 11:33-36 / Matthew 16:13-20
God At Work

Peter’s profound declaration about Jesus and the response of Jesus to Peter is one of the bedrock Scriptures of Catholicism. We hear this and it seems so apparent. Yet there are devout Christians who read and hear this and do not see it. I was one of them for almost fifty years of a dedicated faith life. When I finally “saw it”, it was as if someone gave me a major missing piece to a puzzle. After years of trying to be sure I was interpreting the Bible properly and faithfully proclaiming Christian Truth, I found relief in this text about the Church because it released me from trying to figure out all the things of God within my own understanding. Jesus has provided a protected authority.

On the other hand, being overly familiar with a text––as most practicing Catholics are with this Gospel––can limit one’s understanding. Even as I found a new “release” in these words, it is also possible for some people to hear this with a “restriction” from seeing beyond one basic truth. There is more here than Jesus founding the Church and establishing Petrine primacy.

This is not some isolated incident. It does not stand alone. It is not meant to be lifted out of its scriptural setting and isolated into one of several key dogmas. As we read and hear Scripture, we are being pulled into the activity of God who is at work for all that is right and good and true. This is part of God at work for our salvation. I say “part” because God was at work before this and he has been at work since. God is at work right now for our salvation!

God was at work when Isaiah was writing. There had been unfaithfulness in Israel. God’s desire for his people had been corrupted. Instead of being a model to the nations of who God is, Israel had become like the pagan nations around them. But in the words of St Paul in last week’s Epistle, the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. God never abandons his purpose to have a people who are distinctively his, and belonging to God “distinctively” means being holy––“different, for Jesus’ sake”. There comes a point where God says Enough! to the Shebnas who profane his name; God raises up people like Eliakim, people who honor the ways of God.

Think about this: God at work means, among other things, that he uses real people. Eliakim was a man, like us, who had a heart for God. Peter was a man––very much a regular human person with idiosyncrasies and weaknesses just like we have––but Jesus set him apart in a very special way for the work God is doing to save us.

In last week’s homily I differentiated between the big-picture––macro––activity of God and the small, detailed––micro––ways that God works in individual people. Peter was selected for a huge role in the big plan of God. The scope of the Church is beyond any one person’s comprehension, yet Peter was indeed a single individual. Jesus responded to Peter on the basis of who he was as one person. The same can be said today of Pope Francis. There is excitement and a palatable Spirit of Life in Pope Francis because he opens himself to Jesus.

Now, just because the “big” and the “personal” come together so demonstrably in people like Eliakim and St Peter and Pope Francis does not mean the same dynamic does not happen in people like you and me. We may not have recognition nor high visibility in the Church at large, but you and I can be personally so plugged into the big activity of God at work that we give witness to what is right and true and good within our own circles. When we confess with personal conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, as Peter did, we get pulled into the same saving scope of God at work that has marked all the people of God through centuries and millennia. Each one of us can model holiness: being different for Jesus’ sake.

As we gather week by week in the Church that Jesus inaugurated with Peter, you and I––as individual persons––are participating in what it means––and has meant through the ages––that God is at work for our salvation. It is so intimate and at the same time so immense that we cannot fully comprehend it. All we can do is worship…. to bow our minds and hearts before the God who can work a salvation big enough for the whole world––truly a catholic salvation, and at the same time meet each one of us at the point of our personal need. Do you see it? God is at work in the Church founded by Peter; God is at work in you as you give yourself to him

What is your response to our Lord? How can we express such grandeur? The Holy Spirit has given us words through the Apostle:

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” "Or who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Macro and Micro Salvation

August 17, 2014 –– 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7 / Romans 11:13-15, 29-32 / Matthew 15:21-28
Macro and Micro Salvation

We frequently hear the words macro and micro in a technological context of some kind, but today’s Gospel brings these two concepts into a biblical and theological focus. Just to be clear, “macro” refers to the largest scale and “micro” to the smallest scale.

If you think about it, both of these are the object of God’s concern in the Scriptures. The Psalmist juxtaposes the two when he writes: When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than God, and you crown him with glory and honor (8:3-5). From the macro heavens to the micro individual person, God is intricately involved.

It is important to see this distinction when we turn our attention to salvation. Sometimes the Scriptures address macro salvation––the big picture. Sometimes the focus is more on micro salvation––the individual person. In the first reading, the Lord says My salvation is about to come. This has the macro perspective of a panoramic scope. Here we are reminded that God has been at work in what we call Salvation History for longer than we can comprehend. Salvation is a BIG thing, and it belongs to God. I hope you know the comfort of a salvation that is bigger than you are. While we do have a response to make, salvation is something God has initiated. It is God himself who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1Tim 2:4).

Yet God has created us with the privilege (and responsibility) of true choice. It takes time and considerable drama for God both to save us and at the same time honor human decisions. God does not force our personal salvation, and he even allows us to choose evil (and how well we should know that!).

The Romans reading is dealing with the huge issue of salvation among Jews and non-Jews. The details of God’s promises and purposes were first revealed and offered through Abraham and his physical descendants. Those promises are still important. St Paul affirms that the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. This is macro––big picture––salvation. It does not mean, though, on the micro level, that every single Jewish person is going to embrace the promises of God.

It is important to grasp these two perspectives when we come to today’s Gospel story. It appears that Jesus is totally out of character––seemingly cold and non-compassionate. He refuses to answer the woman’s cry. Then, he tells her his mission is only to Israelites. Finally, he implies she is a “dog” (which was an epithet commonly used back then for non-Israelites). Is this our loving Savior?

Yes. First, he was testing her. (How many of us get what we ask of the Lord after the first prayer?!) Second, Jesus is keeping his primary mission in focus. In order to bring salvation to a single Canaanite woman––or you and me––he must first accomplish that for which he was sent: to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. In other words, Jesus was in the world first of all to work salvation on the macro level in the unfolding plan of God––his death and resurrection for the salvation of the whole world.

But it was not all of one and none of the other. In other words, Jesus modeled micro salvation (mercy for the individual) even as he did everything necessary for macro salvation (unleashing righteousness for all people). If you think about it, it could be no other way: the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. God’s salvation works on the micro level because it has been secured on the macro level. And because God has chosen on the macro level to save, it means that you and I––on the micro level––can have confidence in the mercy and grace of God.

We see a great picture of this in the Canaanite woman. She believed Jesus was Lord––the Son of David sent to bring salvation. Because she believed this, this woman would not be deterred. She was desperate. Any parent who has agonized over the need of a child understands. Somehow this mother was able to understand: “Jesus, as you fulfill your destiny as Savior of the world, let some of that grace spill over right now on my need.” In the big picture of salvation, you and I are part of the detail. The huge grace of God is for little ol’ you and me.

Are you discouraged? Do you sometimes wonder if God knows you are here? Is your guilt or pain or bewilderment so big that you feel swallowed up? I repeat something from last time: Jesus knows that when we are vulnerable we are most open to God. Sometimes a hard thing is the very thing that gets us beyond our own agenda so that we can receive the grace we need.

In the big sweeping work of God––his macro salvation––there is a place for each one of us. Personal faith draws us into God’s great salvation on the micro level. What is man that you are mindful of him?  ….you crown him with glory and honor. In the big plan of God, there is a place for you.

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