Sunday, December 4, 2016

Prepare the Way for the Lord

December 4, 2016 –– 2nd Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10 / Psalm 72:1-2,7-8,12-13,17 / Romans 15:4-9 / Matthew 3:1-12
Prepare the Way for the Lord

The promise of Isaiah is fulfilled in the Gospel: In those days John the Baptizer came, preaching....“A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

Some people were excited. God was visibly at work. Some other people were not so excited––and many of them were religious leaders. John preached repentance. John confronted people with their sins. Many people who knew they were sinners welcomed this invitation to repent and find God’s mercy. Other people, though––mostly the religious elite––did not see themselves as sinners. For them, “evil” was expressed only through the “big, bad sins,” and since they did not commit any of them (at least outwardly), a call to repent was an affront. But the heart of the matter was this: they did not want God messing up their convenient little world. Through John, God was offering the next step to bring his peace into the world, but the people in control did not want it if it meant giving up their place of control.

Down to today, many people are willing to be “religious” as long they can choose what it means. Some make great claims of spirituality, but will not give Jesus Christ his exclusive place. Then there are people who claim to be Christians, but they reserve the “right” to have a “personal choice” on social issues on which the Church has spoken with clarity and conviction: abortion, sexual purity outside of marriage, homosexual practice, etc. Others claim to be Christian but fervently support political agendas that protect extravagant living at the expense of much of the world. Many more claim to be Christian and yet live in relational discord, even with unforgiveness and disdain, with other Christians.

You know, any of us can look around and find other people to judge. If we’re honest, we know we too often do just that. What God was saying through John, and continues to say, goes beyond that: all of us have sins, and repentance should be a regular part of our spiritual lives. The call to repent of our sins and believe the good news was the message of both Isaiah and John the Baptizer, and it is the ongoing message of the Church. As we go into this Advent season of preparing for the true meaning of Christmas, it is right for all of us to repent of our sins and affirm our belief that the only way to salvation is through the forgiveness God gives in Jesus Christ.

We never grow beyond the practice of repentance. I believe a big obstacle to Christian unity is the failure to repent. St Paul calls the Christian community to a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus (Rom 15:5). Hardly anything gives greater testimony to the Spirit of Jesus in a person than saying, “I am sorry; I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” That is repentance, and the Christian community needs to model more of it to a watching world.

It is human nature to balk at this. It is human nature to say, “you don’t know what he did to me!” Yet Paul reminds the Christian community: Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…. (Rom 15:7). Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our Savior, the one who has become a servant (v8) so that we may glorify God for his mercy (v9). The only claim we have to salvation is God’s mercy, and the only way to allow mercy to do its work in us is through repentance.

This is the Gospel…. and because the Gospel is real and true, there is an effect. John the Baptizer proclaimed a fire (Mtt 3:11b,12) that is unleashed to destroy evil. In a Christian’s life, that fire is a burning love. God’s love is so intense that it consumes sin. We are invited to enter into the love of God with such abandon that all our sin is burned up. That actually happens in the process of repentance and forgiveness. 

But for those who will not repent––who persist in sin––then both Isaiah’s and John’s words give the grim reality: with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked (Isa 11:4), and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Mtt 3:12). When God’s burning love is rejected, it turns to fiery judgment. The readings today tell us that true and full peace will only come when God’s burning love destroys all that is evil. Only then will all of creation be at peace so that even among the animals they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain (Isa 11:9).

As Christians, we long for that, but at the same time we must face a real problem. It’s easy to worry about animals and world peace and yet not be willing let peace start in us with our own families or neighbors or co-workers. As the old spiritual says, Not my brother or my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Advent is a time for us to face our own sins. The message of John the Baptizer comes down to us today: Prepare the way for the Lord.... Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Let’s Prepare the way for the Lord in our own hearts.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The End Is The Beginning

November 13, 2016 –– 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachi 3:19–20a / Psalm 98 / 2 Thessalonians 3:7–12 / Luke 21:5–19
The End Is The Beginning

This is my favorite time of year. The crisp temperatures and the beauty of autumn colors combine to make this season invigorating. I love the longer evenings that give an embrace of coziness. When the celebration of Thanksgiving and the anticipation of Christmas are thrown in, it’s about as good as life gets in this world.

Yet there are those who have different feelings. They see the beauty, but even more they see in autumn a blatant picture of coming death. The warmth of vibrant green is waning; the longer evenings are merely the darkness of shorter days. For them, the cold, dark days of winter bring the same effect to the soul.

Both perspectives are true. As with life in general in this world of ours, warmth and coldness––especially of spirit––are always coexisting. To use the language of spiritual direction, we face a mixture of consolation and desolation. The Church affirms this in many ways, and the Gospel itself illustrates it.

We are at the end of the liturgical year. In two more weeks we’ll be in Advent, which should come as no surprise since the secular version of “Christmas” is already being thrown at us. But while the culture at large wants to rush to what it calls Christmas and find a shot of happiness in the next party, the Church calls us to something quite the opposite. Even before we get to Advent (which is not just a “church-word” for Christmas; it’s supposed to be a time of spiritual examination and preparation), the Church brings its liturgical year to a close with what is called The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

The Scripture readings for today are not warm and cozy. The world that is described is not Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pies nor Christmas trees and Yule logs. A fire is indeed burning, but it is a fire of judgment on everything in rebellion against God: all the proud and all the evildoers will be stubble. This is not limited to stereotypical Old Testament fire and brimstone; Jesus warns of mighty signs that will bring havoc to the world. And then he says, Before all this happens, they will seize and persecute you…. and they will put some of you to death.

We “know” that Christians have died for the Faith, but such a thing has not literally come close to us––at least not yet. But as we enjoy the beauty of this fall season and anticipate the joys of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Church––and Jesus––has a warning that corresponds with the waning of the year: Along with the assurance we can have of God’s love, mercy, and grace…. mixed in with the temporal consolations of family and feasts and cultural frivolities…. there is something else (that we’d rather not think about): Every one of us must face the reality of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

The world around us tries to calculate ways to secure ourselves: If we can “go green” in time, we can save our planet. If we can just figure out which candidate is the anti-Christ or which candidate is likely to trigger Armageddon and avoid letting that person get in office, the we will be safe. If we will tolerate everything and everybody, then everyone will leave everyone else alone and we can all live happily ever-after. This world just doesn’t work that way.

It is a mercy when the Church keeps these Scriptures before us that remind us that we are going to die. Every one of us is one day closer to our death than we were yesterday.

The judgment of God is coming. All of us will face a particular judgment in which we each will give a personal account to God of our lives. The whole world is moving to a general judgment when all that is unholy will be burned up and a new earth is ushered into the fulness of God’s forever kingdom.

As a result of that judgment, every one of us faces either heaven or hell. God promises heaven for every person who will not shut him out, because the essence of the nature of God is love and Jesus carried the sins of the world to the cross. Yet God gives every one of us the ability to shut him out; love is not forced, and the only way to open ourselves to God’s love is to love him. We cannot love God if we reject his ways. The commands of God are not arbitrary rules; the commands of God are safety codes given in love, Manufacturer’s instructions to insure that we function according to the way we were created.

We look out on a world where many things are not going right: nation against nation…. earthquakes…. famines…. plagues…. These things happen because our world is in rebellion against God. It will not always be this way. One day God will say Enough!

As surely as the year cycles to its place of dying, life in this world faces The Four Last Things. But that is not the final word. The final Word is Jesus. On the other side of death and judgment is a promise from our Lord that comes in the final book of the Bible: Behold, I make all things new (Rev 21:5). That is why Malachi could end his prophecy of the coming fire with these words: for those who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.

It is a grace to listen to the Church’s warning of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. We end the  old year realistically. This takes us to the true meaning of Advent and Christmas that starts a new liturgical year. In the powerful mercy of God, the end is the beginning.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Context of Mercy

October 23, 2016–– 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sirach 35:12–14, 16–18 / 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16-18 / Luke 18:9–14
The Context of Mercy

A contrast is not the same as having to choose only between the two options. Jesus extends a stark contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector. Clearly the tax collector is commended and the Pharisee is condemned. But it’s not as if these two men represent the only options; Jesus is not giving an all-encompassing “either/or” with these two characters.

If we stop to remember, outward appearance does not always match our inner desire or motive. Sometimes that is good: What if our worst thoughts always showed themselves outwardly?! We would be afraid to go out in public. But sometimes our outward behavior is far worse than what we desire or intend; we mean to do good, but it turns out wrong to others. That is one reason Jesus said not to judge. Then there are those people who “do good” on the outside just to promote themselves, because on the inside they are vain and selfish. That, of course, is not true goodness.

Pharisees were the most outwardly religious Jews of their day. The Pharisee in Jesus’ story had have some very commendable qualities (assuming he was telling the truth, and he likely was): He was honest in business dealings. He practiced sexual morality. He fasted. He gave a tenth of his total income. All of those are good. Our world would benefit if everyone did these things.

The tax collector was a despised person in Judea. Usually it was a Jew who collaborated with the occupying and oppressive Romans by doing exactly what they were called: collecting taxes from the citizens so that the conquered had to foot the bill for the conquerors. On top of that, tax collectors usually demanded much more than the tax itself, which they used as a lucrative source of income for themselves. Tax collectors were considered guilty of everything for which the Pharisee smugly announced his innocence.

Is Jesus saying God prefers us to be despicable rather than practice outward goodness? Is he using this contrast to bring our focus to how we appear to others? Of course not. Do outward issues matter? Yes––in their proper place. Today’s Gospel is something else. This particular teaching of Jesus goes to the core of how we come to God.

I do not know how many times in Scripture God gives some kind of welcoming invitation for us to come to him as our God…. our Refuge and Helper…. our Savior…. our Father…. our Friend….  Yet there are requirements; perhaps “protocol” is a good way to understand it. If God is God, then we need to come with proper protocol––an attitude that says, “You are God; I am not the one calling the shots.” This honors who God is. This puts us in the place where we can receive the good things God wants to give us.

The Pharisee in Jesus’ story was focused on himself. A vain and selfish attitude is probably the biggest obstacle that stands between God and people who are estranged from him. When we put ourselves first, we shut God out. God is honored and we are rewarded when we do good things with a desire to obey and please him. But if we try to use good things to justify ourselves and if we expect God’s favor because of what we do, we build our own wall that cuts God off.

So here was the tax collector who was not doing good. He was siding with evil rulers. He was helping to oppress his own people. He was using a rotten system for his own advantage. But somewhere in that mix of awful stuff, he became aware of it. He seemed to realize suddenly that he needed God’s love and mercy more than he needed the benefits of his conniving position. So from deep within the core of his being came this honest and humble cry: God be merciful to me, a sinner! That is an attitude of heart that tears the wall down and allows God to be God. And when God is allowed to be God, his gift is always mercy.

So, if you are aware of things in your life that are not right, let those things show you your need of God’s mercy. If you sincerely pray, God be merciful to me, a sinner, God will give you mercy and mercy truly received will change your life.

In this context, we’re not to worry about the “other person.” We cannot look at what seems to be good or not-so-good people on the outside and fully know what is in their hearts. We’re each to look into our own hearts and always pray, God be merciful to me, a sinner.

To tell the truth, on the outside I’m more like this Pharisee. I seek to live a meticulously moral life. I read the Bible and pray every day. My wife and I tithe regularly. I even fast sometimes (but I’m not very good at it). Everyone who follows Jesus should practice an obedience that models good things. But no matter how “good” I might appear to be, not one thing I do “buys” God’s favor. If God does not have mercy on me––no matter how “good” my outward practices, I have no hope.

I hope all of us know that is true. No matter how much goodness we have attained, we all fall short (Rom 3:23) of always loving as God loves. None of us has yet attained to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (Eph 4:13). If God does not have mercy, we have no hope. But the whole Gospel is based on this: God is merciful. God be merciful to me, a sinner.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Man in Hell

September 25, 2016: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Amos 6:1a,4–7 / 1 Timothy 6:11–16 / Luke 16:19–31
A Man in Hell

I grew up in a church where “fire and brimstone sermons” were not unusual. As a boy I would always shudder when a visiting evangelist would say, "My text for this evening is found in Luke chapter sixteen." I knew what would come next. He would continue by quoting the line around which his whole sermon would revolve. The old King James language is still clear in my mind, "And in hell he lift up his eyes..."

It may not be popular, but the Church does believe in hell. Preaching about hell is not inappropriate, but it’s always secondary at best. Hell is an eternal antithesis to embracing the glory of God. We take hell seriously because the salvation given to us in Jesus Christ offers us a glorious alternative. The purpose of this story given by our Lord is not just to tell us there is a hell; it tells us why one man found himself in hell. It is a story that warns others not to make the choice this man made.

Why would anyone “choose” hell? It is one's own choice. Of course most people do not make the choice of hell explicitly; people choose hell passively by choosing other things above God. What kinds of choices lead people into hell? There is a stereotypical list of mortal sins, but nothing is said about the rich man in this story being sexually immoral or running an abortion clinic. This is a story of a man who chooses hell when he chooses to do nothing.

In that day and culture it was common to wipe greasy hands on chunks of bread and then toss the bread to the dogs. It was that bread which Lazarus waited for at the gate. It seems the rich man was well-aware of Lazarus (he knows the beggar’s name). Maybe he thought himself quite merciful in not calling the authorities to have the vagrant put away (Lazarus did not help beautify his gateway). No, the rich man was not cruel; he merely lived his own life and let Lazarus live his.

That is how the rich man chose hell. Mortal sin is not limited to acts of violence or illegitimate sex. Sin is not limited to crude and repugnant people. One way to understand the essence of sin is selfishness. Selfishness is merely putting one's self first. Selfishness is living as though other people do not matter as much as “me”. It seemed not to matter one way or the other to the rich man that Lazarus lay at his gate. The rich man was too comfortable to care. He did not have to worry about Lazarus' hunger; he went to bed full of wonderful foods every night. He gave no thought to the rags with which Lazarus tried to cover himself; he was handsomely dressed in the best clothing available. He was not concerned about Lazarus' sores; he was comfortable.

But this warning is not limited to people who can qualify for television's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (if that program isn’t current, it seems there are many more which exalt the same values). In Jesus' day a “rich” person was someone who lived very comfortably, had not only enough to eat but a wide variety of foods, someone who lived in a relatively carefree environment with nice possessions, had the luxury of different clothes for different occasions, and enjoyed a social life with the people of his choice. So not only are we rich compared with most of the world's present population, we are “rich” as Jesus would have used the term.

Maybe this word "rich" is a mental block for us. Let's not say "rich"; let's say we are "comfortable." Comfortable people have discretionary income. What do we do with our discretionary income? If we spend it all on ourselves we are like this man in Jesus' story. What story does our homes and wardrobes and tables and vehicles and vacations tell when placed beside our giving? This is exactly what Amos was prophesying as he warned of God’s judgment on people given to self-obsessed pleasures. With a bit of imagination we might bring his words into our world:

This is what the Lord, the Almighty God says: There is bad news for everyone who is living in the delusion of comfort and convenience. You have your Craftmatic and Sleep Number beds; you recline in your La-Z-Boy recliners; you carefully buy from Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and Omaha steaks. You entertain yourselves with your favorite music. You get wine and beer as if there is no limit. You pamper yourselves with the delicacies from Bath and Bodyworks. Yet you pay no attention to the things that break God’s heart; others can be miserable, but as long as you are healthy and happy, you think all is well. It’s about to be turned upside-down. Your comfort is going to evaporate.

We are bombarded with the temptation to be self-indulgent. We want to be comfortable. The rich man wanted this, and who doesn't? We sleep on beds instead of on the floor. And choosing comfort is not all wrong––unless it becomes our top priority. Is our desire for comfort greater than a willingness to love? Are we most concerned with pleasing ourselves or following Jesus? The rich man chose himself, probably without even thinking about it, and in doing so, he chose hell.

It seems the rich man did not know this. That should not be surprising; many people today do not understand it either. Somehow we've gotten sidetracked by limiting sin to a few visible “nasty” sins. As long as we avoid those we think we are good people. In fact, using that standard, it's very hard to discern any difference between "good" people in the church from "good" people who have nothing to do with church at all. Christian Faith––following Jesus––is more than that. God calls his people to love as he loves. Yes, we find it much easier to seek our own happiness and our own comfort; that is our natural tendency because of the Fall. Apart from the grace of God, it is also what causes us to choose hell.

It was in the clutches of hell that the rich man finally understood. He asked if Lazarus could go back from the dead to warn the living. He hoped his own brothers who were caught up in their comforts would be shocked into listening if someone came from the dead. The Gospel is that this rich man's request has been granted. Someone has come back from the dead. Jesus Christ died for our sins and came back from the dead to show us that God’s ways are above human reasonings and hopes. And believing that, we are called to follow Jesus in the way he loves––not putting our own comfort and convenience above a commitment to be like our Lord.

The choice that the rich man made still confronts each of us today.  All we have to do to choose hell is choose to live only for ourselves. I close with a question I ask myself: How am I learning to be different than this man who was so comfortable that he could ignore Lazarus and end up in hell? Only in following Jesus…. Every day, we ask for the grace to follow Jesus. We pray each day, forgive us our trespasses…. We feed on the Living Word. And as we give ourselves to Jesus  he frees us from slavery of our selfish desires. That is the Gospel. That is our hope that our own story will not be like this one about a man in hell.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Look at the Cross

Wednesday: September 14, 2016 –– Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Look at the Cross

To know God…. look at the cross.

To see the effect of disobedience, of selfishness, of sin…. look at the cross.

To see how God responds to hate…. look at the cross.

To chase the nagging accusations of guilt…. look at the cross.

To have true hope for salvation…. look at the cross.

To stay close to Jesus…. look at the cross.

To know how to respond to others…. look at the cross.

To know how to LIVE…. look at the cross.

“No other god, no other power, no other being in all the world loves like this, gives like this, dies like this. All others win victories by fighting; this one, by suffering. All other gods exercise power by killing; this one by dying.”  (N.T. Wright)

Let us, every day, say with St Paul: May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Struggle of Discipleship

September 4, 2016: 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Wisdom 9:13–18a / Philemon 9–10,12–17 / Luke 14:25–33
The Struggle of Discipleship

Understood on a surface level Paul’s letter to Philemon is a conundrum. Critics of Holy Scripture––indeed, those who see themselves antagonistic to Christian Faith––love to use this letter as an example how out of touch, or even oppressive, the Bible and Christianity are.

Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, a slave-holder, asking him graciously to take back Onesimus, a slave who had run away. Philemon was a fellow Christian believer. Onesimus had met Paul during one of Paul’s imprisonments and evidently come to faith. In spite of loving Onesimus as a spiritual child and wanting Onesimus to stay with him, Paul is conforming to the law of the land (at the time) and sending Onesimus back to his “owner”, Philemon.

What is going on here? Does the Bible support slavery? Is Paul putting immoral social convention above the law of Christian love? Where is the line between obeying God and the laws of Man? How does this letter fit into Catholic Social Justice or Christian involvement in socio-political issues?

Okay… I’ve asked more questions than I can answer––but, I hope this homily can be an agent for the Holy Spirit to help us think in the context of Christian commitment. Single issues and simple answers are far short of God’s truth. So if we can learn to be thinking always out of an attitude of total allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom (and God help us to do so), then we will be growing into the kind of disciples that honor Jesus.

It helps to understand that Paul was writing a letter to Philemon as a fellow Christian and not an essay on social justice. The intent of this letter is not primarily Christian social ethics (it’s just that modern sensitivities want to make it go that way). In the context of the day in which it was written, Paul is writing to ask (to sensitize) Philemon to look at Onesimus as a new Christian brother and not as a run-away slave. That in itself, at the time, was revolutionary. Given the social order of the day, the best way to undermine the immorality of slavery was for slave-owners to begin to see their slaves as people who are in the image of God and not as property. That did happen through the expanse of the Chuch, and the change (when it followed that pattern) was transformative rather than insurrection and violent revolution.

So this letter to Philemon is about Christian discipleship. Discipleship always takes place within a given socio-political climate, and Christian discipleship is not primarily a temporal political endeavor. Discipleship will always be subversive when it is properly understood and practiced. This is because no earthly socio-political structure is ever conformed totally to the Kingdom of God. When a nation-state is relatively “good” it is still not worthy of ultimate allegiance. When a nation-state is oppressive (and many Christians have suffered under such in the Church’s history), God’s people still obey the government to the extent they can––but all the more give ultimate allegiance to the King whose Kingdom goes beyond anything we can yet fully imagine.

In Paul’s day, regardless of slavery being legal and normal, Christians were to treat others with Jesus-love. If Philemon honored Paul’s request and treated Onesimus as a Christian brother it would change his status even if Onesimus was technically still a “slave”. The “system” would then have a crack.

This is a real-life example (from Paul’s day) of the Wisdom reading and what Jesus is saying in the Gospel. When our hearts are fully given to the Lord and his ways, there is a different way of seeing the various relationships in the world around us regardless of the circumstances. Under the Lordship of Christ, even family relationships are different. Under the Lordship of Christ, political issues and tactics are different. We need to remember this as we are inundated right now with election hype.

Christian discipleship is always misunderstood by the world-spirit. That is why Jesus says: Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Anyone who chooses to follow Jesus will have a cross. Onesimus had the cross of being a Christian slave; Philemon had the cross of being a Christian slave-owner. Each had to face the implications of his own discipleship. We all do. It may be the discouragement of something hard (such as the slavery that touched Onesimus and Philemon). It may be the tempting distraction of something that is inherently good (such as the family relationships which Jesus mentions). 

We live in a socio-political environment that has largely bought into the idea that the purpose of government and social mores is to make everyone as comfortable as possible. Paul’s words to Philemon––and Jesus’ words about carrying a cross––make no sense to the so-called “wisdom” of our world. The world-spirit is about convenience and comfort in the here-and-now; Jesus is calling people to be disciples.

If we do not understand that, we cannot understand Scripture and we will not be able to make peace with the true nature of the Church. We are here to follow Jesus. Understanding what that means is not always easy. When we do understand what it means, it is often harder still to practice. But if we open our hearts to the grace that is always saying Follow Me, we will be disciples in the midst of our questions and struggles. Right now you can tell Jesus all over again, Lord, I want to follow…. give me the grace to follow…. I want to be a true disciple above everything else.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Fire of Judgment and Baptism of Death

August 15, 2016 –– 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 38:4–6, 8–10 / Psalm 40 / Hebrews 12:1–4 / Luke 12:49–53
The Fire of Judgment and Baptism of Death

Early in Luke's Gospel angels sing to the shepherds when God's Son is born: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace…. What a contrast with what Jesus says here: Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. That does not sound like the angels’ message. Jesus even speaks of bringing division to family. What is going on here?

The usual tendency is to over-simplify our understanding of Jesus for our own tastes and convenience. Yet anyone who is honest will recognize that Jesus said some hard things. They can be hard for two reasons: they are either hard to understand or hard to accept. Mark Twain once quipped that it was not the things in the Bible that he did not understand that bothered him; it was the things he did understand.

The Gospel today is one of the hard sayings of Jesus. He talks of setting the earth on fire (v49). There is a baptism that threatens even Jesus (v50). Then he says he comes to bring division (v51ff). Here it helps to remember two important elements in our faith: understanding and commitment. One can have understanding of Christian faith without commitment to it, but commitment is impossible without an understanding of what you would be committed to. We need a good understanding of Jesus to be able to give him the obedience of true commitment.

Luke earlier told his readers (9:51): As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. This is the context for everything after that. Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. He is aware of what lies before him; it’s never far from his mind.

So we come to these words today: I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing (v49). What is this "fire" that Jesus came to bring? Think back to Jesus' baptism. As he was doing his water baptism, John was speaking of a fuller event: I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come.… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Lu 3:16).

The picture here is of cleansing judgment. Jesus' death brought judgment on sin. And having died for our sins, the day is coming when the wind of God's Spirit will blow across humanity and separate the grain from the hull (the Bible calls it the "wheat and chaff").  In Psalm 1, the wicked are like chaff which the wind drives away. Wind and fire are both images of the Spirit. John was foretelling the Coming One who would unleash God's Spirit in the world, and one result would be shining forth of the true children of God’s kingdom. Saints are people who are enveloped with the very fire of God (e.g., Isaiah 33:14–15, Luke 24:32, and Hebrews 12:29). We have an incredible honor and privilege: Our lives can burn with the love of God!

It is here that the third part of Jesus' words begins to fall into place. As Jesus thinks about all that lies ahead, he tells what the result will be. It will be division––a division between those who embrace his way and those who will not. It has been that way since the first disobedience. Those who hated God’s truth wanted to kill Jeremiah. The reading from Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured such opposition from sinners that he endured the cross. Godliness draws opposition.

It helps here to differentiate between effect and purpose. When Jesus said he had not come to bring peace but to bring division, he was talking about the effect of his coming, not that this was the purpose of his coming. Later in his Gospel Luke reports Jesus clearly saying, For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Lu19:10). God desires our salvation; that was the purpose for Jesus coming. Yet God gives everyone free will––the freedom and responsibility to choose, and there are some who will not submit to God. Again, allegiance to Jesus Christ always carries the threat of conflict.

That is what it meant when Jesus spoke to his disciples as they walked toward Jerusalem. That is what it means for us today. First, there is basic faith. We are invited to believe that Jesus did undergo that baptism of death, and that in so doing he forever altered God's judgment on people who believe. This is the essence of baptism and professing Christian faith.

Then there is living it out––“proving” our faith. When a conflict of interest comes up, what is our response? Where is our commitment? Think of the criticism and animosity that comes from the press and and the general culture when the Church confronts evil with God’s truth. Do we stand up for our Faith? People who are “Christians” in name only do not want to draw conflict. It is hard to pick an argument with a person who has no convictions, but who really cares about a church that doesn't stand for anything?! Half-heartedness did not take Jesus to the cross,

In a more recent context, think of Martin Luther King, Jr. His was a message of peace and justice and love for all people. On the other hand, it is also true that almost everywhere he went, hate and violence accompanied him. He carried such a positive force of justice and spoke with such authoritative love that evil forces of hate could not help but retaliate.

As Jesus goes to his death, he is calling disciples who will follow him to the cross, to be people who are willing to sacrifice everything else for loyalty to God and his ways. This part of the Gospel asks: what passion fills my life? What is my supreme loyalty––above love even of husband, wife, father, mother, sister or brother? For what are we willing to sacrifice life itself? We honor people who will die for their country and call them patriots; people who sacrifice everything––money, status, and even family––for Christian faith are too often called fanatics.

Jesus did come into our world to bring peace––God’s peace. But that is not a “surface” peace, and Jesus did not teach or model a peace that denies the implications of obedience in a rebellious world. As we follow Jesus it is ours is to obey, as he did, all the way to the cross. If others will not go, if our obedience causes division, so be it. We cannot choose an inferior allegiance and at the same time say “Jesus is Lord.”

The fire of judgment and  baptism of death….  In Jesus Christ, this is the way to life.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Regarding Prayer

July 24, 2106 –– 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Genesis 18:20–32 / Psalm 138 / Colossians 2:12–14 / Luke 11:1-13
Regarding Prayer

Today’s readings focus on prayer. Last Sunday’s Gospel told us the story about Mary choosing to spend time with Jesus instead of helping Martha with the serving.

What do you expect of prayer? Some people approach prayer with the theological sophistication of Huckleberry Finn:

Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing came of it. She told me to pray everyday, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn't so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn't make it work. I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn't make it out no way.

Haven't there been times when you felt that way? You asked God, praying quite sincerely for something, and it didn't happen. So prayer becomes a big mystery, and like Huck Finn, we can't "make it out no way."

The disciples recognized that Jesus was a man of prayer. Jesus once said, when fully trained, the disciple will be like his teacher (Lu 6:40). The disciples must have recognized that if they could follow Jesus in prayer, then they would grow to be like him. Jesus wants his disciples to follow him in prayer. So Jesus gives a story that, at the end, shows a contrast to the way we can easily think of prayer. There are three common misconceptions in this story Jesus gives.

The first is that prayer mainly rises out of desperation. The arrival of the late traveller caused the householder an embarrassing situation. Because the cupboard was bare he could not fulfill the sacred obligations of hospitality. He was desperate, so he went to a friend way past acceptable hours. Jesus is warning that it is easy to view prayer as begging and the last resort in a desperate situation.

That sets the stage for the second misconception about prayer, that prayer is an imposition on God. Certainly the request in Jesus’s story was an imposition on the friend.

In the east no one would knock on a shut door unless the need was imperative. In the morning the door was opened and remained open all day, for there was little privacy; but if the door was shut, that was a definite sign that the householder was not to be disturbed. But the seeking householder was not deterred. He knocked, and kept on knocking (William Barclay).

It was an imposition to go to the friend after bedtime. And sometimes we can feel that it's an imposition to go to God with our needs. We can feel guilty asking him for something, especially if we've allowed God to be distant and only go to him as a last-resort desperation.

Well, the man finally received what he wanted, but he did so on the basis of a third misconception about prayer, that earnest prayer is mostly persistent begging. We must be careful here because there is a legitimate persistency in praying––Jesus does say ask… seek… knock, but prayer is not just begging for something long enough to get it.

So what is prayer? Rather than a desperate last resort, prayer is the natural breath of a human spirit that was created to know God. Prayer is a way of always being in touch with our Father in heaven. Just as we breathe constantly, we are to pray without ceasing (1Thess 5:17). This is being persistent in prayer. We are have a standing invitation to confidently approach the throne of grace (Heb 4:16). We are given repeated assurance for coming to God: Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith (Heb 10:22). Come near to God, and he will come near to you (Ja 4:8). The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer (1Pet 5:12a).

Jesus wants us to know that if an unwilling householder can finally be coerced by a friend's shameless persistence into giving him what he needs, how much more will God, who is a loving Father, supply all his children's needs? If human fathers know how to give their children good things, then how much more does our perfect Father in heaven know to give us good things! (But we must remember that God is the one who defines “good”.)

This brings up one other question about prayer: Why do we ask God for something when he is our perfect Father and already knows what we need? We do not pray because God needs to know. We pray because we need to have that kind of contact with our heavenly Father…. and he loves for his children to come to him. But, God has left the initiative up to us.

Yet our loving Lord has even provided for that initiative. The best gift from God is his Holy Spirit. In the name of Jesus we are invited to believe that the Father gives us his Spirit so that we can both talk to him and know what to talk about. When that happens we are already on our way to being like Jesus–– being able to pray like Jesus prayed because we know the Father through the Spirit he has given us. So as we commit ourselves to have quiet time with God––to be like Mary with Jesus, and like Jesus with the Father––we come just as those first disciples when they said, Lord, teach us to pray…. If we ask that and mean it, we will be a praying people. We will become more and more like our Lord, and we will make a difference in our world.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Faith: Seeing Obstacle or Opportunity?

July 10, 2016 –– 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 30:10–14 / Psalm 69 / Colossians 1:15–20 / Luke 10:25–37
Faith: Seeing Obstacle or Opportunity?

There is a sense in which everyone is motivated by faith. Faith activates our will when we do anything. Reason usually provides a foundation, but then we take a step of faith. When we get into a car very few of us understand how the thing totally works, but we “believe” two things implicitly: we believe a car can actually transport us, and we believe––perhaps with greater faith––that we will actually arrive safely at our destination. If we did not believe those two things, we would not get into the car.

Sometimes people have warped perceptions that prevent them from taking a reasonable step of faith. When this happens, we call it a disorder. People who are afraid to go out into the “big world” often have agoraphobia. People who will not get in elevators can have claustrophobia. Acrophobia prevents many from flying or even going up into high-rise buildings.

This dynamic is true in the spiritual world. Faith is simply the way one sees and understands greater reality. When God’s revelation through Israel, and ultimately through Christ, is truly believed, the world and its issues are seen very differently in contrast to those who do not believe. Paul wrote to the Colossians, that in Christ Jesus all things were created through him and for him… and in him all things hold together. If we can’t “see” that, our lives will be disordered.

In C. S. Lewis’ final Narnia story, The Last Battle, the dwarfs are sitting inside a stable with all Narnia around them having just been renewed. They refuse to believe it. In their minds they are safely huddled inside a dingy stable and refuse to see anything else. They say, “The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. We won’t be taken in.” So Aslan (the lion King) explains: “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

We live in a world created by God. We are people who, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, have been loved and offered healing from all that hurts us. It is right here. The ancient words of Moses are even greater today than when he first gave them to Israel: this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off…. But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

Christian Faith is a gift from God that is meant to open our eyes to an entirely new and different way of seeing. We are immersed in love and goodness. We are given every reason for hope.

Of course there is also pain, hatred, and evil. But it is important to understand that love and hate, goodness and evil are not equal competitors. Bad things exist because people, for now, are free to make choices in defiance of the love of God. God’s love is the ultimate reality. God’s love is what will endure. Faith is able to see this. That is why the greatest commandment is love.

Is it reasonable to have this kind of faith? Some say no, but two things support a reasonable Christian Faith. First, there is a witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that has not been able to be discredited or stamped out, despite intense effort, for almost two thousand years. Second, Christian Faith, rightly understand, best explains and answers the most basis issues and hardest questions of our existence. Those who are open to faith will increasingly “see” it.

When we exercise Christian faith, life begins to change. God’s kind of love starts to imprint our lives and affect the things we do. This is one way to understand Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan. Think about this contrast: Having or not having faith in God’s kind of love makes a difference between seeing either an obstacle or an opportunity. Luke tells us that the lawyer who questioned Jesus wished to justify himself. His world revolved around himself. He wasn’t really concerned with loving God; he wanted to look good. And so in Jesus’s story the priest and Levite, for all their outward stature as religious people, looked at the ravaged victim and saw an obstacle. Maybe helping would have made them late to an appointment they thought more important than giving love. Maybe they were afraid the same violence would happen to them if they tarried too long in the area in order to give love to the stricken man. Maybe they thought the wounded man just wasn’t worth it. All they saw was a situation that, if they got involved, would derail their own priorities. They saw an obstacle. 

The Samaritan, to put it simply, saw an opportunity to love. It’s relatively easy to talk about God’s kind of love. (And talk can be good IF if leads to appropriate action; that’s one reason we  have sermons and confess the Creed each week.) But truly choosing to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself will mean doing something…. something with two of the commodities we treasure most: our time and and our money. The Samaritan gave time and used his own money to help the man who had been assaulted.

If we choose to use our time and money to love in godly ways it is because our hearts are open to the reality of faith. We all make a choice of faith. We will either see the unpleasant things around us as obstacles which hinder our personal pleasure, or we will see them as opportunities to show the love of God. We all model a “faith” by what we do and how we do it.

Can we dare to believe, every day and all day, that we are immersed in love and goodness simply because God has given himself to us in Jesus Christ? Jesus is calling us to love like him and see the world around us as an opportunity to live in the love of God.

This past week our nation has been in shock at the recurring violence. What if all who profess faith in Jesus would simply choose to love like our Lord? Can you see it? It is not too hard for you, neither is it far off…. it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

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