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.

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