Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Mercy That Changes Everything

April 23, 2017 –– 2nd Sunday of Easter: Sunday of Divine Mercy
Acts 2:42–47 / from Psalm 118 / 1 Peter 1:3–9 / John 20:19–31
A Mercy That Changes Everything

Last week I read of one man asking a second how his marriage was going. The second man replied, My wife treats me like a god.” “Wow,” said the first man, “you mean she adores and obeys you?” “No,” said the second. “She generally ignores me unless she wants something.”

Jokes sometime give a hard truth that is merely couched in laughter, but perhaps the worst part of this one is the analogy to many people’s relationship with God. Marriage is one way to understand our relationship to the Lord. But how is it going? We “believe” in the sense that we come to church. We say the Creed. Beyond that, do we truly adore and obey? Or could it be that we are like the second man’s wife––“she generally ignores me unless she wants something”?

As we go through this Easter Season and seek to enter more fully into the Resurrection I have been impressed with one question: How is my life different from a non-believer because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead?

Scripture is honest. At first even the inner circle of disciples were doubtful and afraid. They locked themselves away, but locks cannot keep out the Love of God. Jesus came to them and his first words gave his assurance of Peace. Then he showed them his wounds––it really was Jesus.

All of this had a purpose. God had just released a heavenly cascade of Mercy on the world. The death and resurrection of Jesus was the source; the disciples and the Christian community that was about to be formed was to be the channel: Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained. The death and resurrection of Jesus is about God’s mercy!

Jesus was giving the Church, through the Apostles, authority over sin. Peter grew in his understanding so that he could later write: God… in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable…. kept in heaven for you.

There are two things there that every person on earth desires and seeks in some way: a living hope and an inheritance that is imperishable. What gives us the motivation to start a new day? It is hope that something good is going to come. What are we hoping for? Something good that is worth having and something that will last.

Yet the very things that we spend the most time and energy trying to acquire are the very things the early Christians actually gave away! They were donating their property and possessions so that no one had too much and everyone had enough.

How are we to understand this? I guess volumes could be written (and have been) on the implications of the just the readings for today. I would like to suggest one succinct idea that encompasses everything else: Those early Christians were so affected by the mercy of God that their greatest desire was to extend the mercy they themselves had received.

Let’s think honestly about our lives for a quick reflective minute (if that is possible). Before the many advantages of modernity, common people mostly lived “on the edge.” Immediate threats (especially by our standards) were common: simple illnesses could quickly turn serious; food supply was dependent on local availability and that was always affected by the variables of weather and harvest; life expectancy was often much shorter; extensive travel was unusual for most, and land travel was either two-footed or four-footed; staying alive was generally the single focus. Those who were relatively comfortable and secure had much to lose in a world where it was hard to maintain any luxuries. Those who had little had to work all the harder merely to maintain.

Here we are today, certainly with threats and worries, yet our lives are filled with what we might call “discretionary” pleasures. We have daily choices that would have dazzled people a few generations ago; just think of our menu options. On the larger front, a child does not have to do what his father did, and women have open doors to education and vocational opportunities. Our culture present us with so many options, and we have the resources to pursue them.

The downside to this is that we can live such distracted lives that we take the good things for granted and hardly know how process the truly hard things that hit us. This means that we can live our lives inoculated to mercy, and when we are not aware of the mercy that surrounds us it is very hard to extend it to others.

We gather and worship in a beautiful and comfortable setting. It is mercy. We go out from our gathering and, far from going hungry, have good meals with likely just the foods we particularly want to eat. Many of us have a “bucket list”; we often have a list of purchases we hope to make along with ideas of how to channel a bit of discretionary income to cover them. Having such options is mercy; one way to assess wealth is by the number of choices we have.

But there is a danger: The mercies which can enrich our lives can also have the counterproductive effect of an attitude of entitlement and a tendency to grasp instead of give. Those early Christians saw in Jesus a person who confronted a grab-and-grasp-world, surrendered to its anger of being exposed, and then made a reappearance that shouted “this world is not all there is.” When we can see that, it is the biggest mercy of all.

What is your heart’s desire? What is your biggest fear or your greatest hurt? What is your dearest treasure? Are those things tempered by the mercy of God or could it be that they are crowding an awareness of God’s mercy and the life of Jesus out of your life? Like the actually not-so-funny joke, do we often ignore God except when we want something?

Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is the basis of all we are as Christians. The resurrection of Jesus Christ has unleashed the mercy of God.

I’d like to suggest a prayer for this coming week (or maybe for the rest of your life): Lord Jesus, I open my life today to your mercy. Help me to adore and obey you. Give me the grace never to ignore you. Let me be a channel of your mercy to the people I meet today. Amen.

Then ask yourself regularly: How is my life different from an unbelieving world because I believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Anger, Fear, and Inner Hurts

I copied (and edited slightly)  the following from a friend's post because it is so true.....
When a person is "always angry",  it is often a telltale sign that he secretly feels he is “never good enough”, and must use anger, exasperation and eye-rolling to shield this painful inner wound.

And while anger is not a bad thing by itself, it can quickly cross over into a pattern of unhealthy abuse of oneself and others, when it is also accompanied by a single, powerful factor: FEAR.

The fear that, “if I am EVER proven wrong or weak in any way, then I will NOT be worthy of love.”

In other words, the Angry One has a powerful and deep-seated feeling that he is loved only conditionally: that he will ONLY be worthy of love as a person, if he is totally invulnerable, perfect and “never wrong” - something which is impossible to attain, exhausting to pursue, and ultimately leads to the further wounding of oneself and the people around you - your loving partner, family and even children.

How to Heal It
The key to truly healing this deep wound is not to suppress the harsh inner voice of anger and fear of loss of love, or to forcibly numb it with alcohol, food, self-focused sex, or media, but instead to try and rescue it – this forceful inner voice is actually an integral part of you – a part of your deep inner self, which has been cut off from you, and it is wounded and in pain.
It is trying to come home to you, and it needs your help.

This is the true meaning of “recovery” – that you must recover this exiled part of you, so that you may become truly whole and healed.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Other Side of Death

April 2, 2017 –– 5th Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37:12–14 / Psalm 130 / Romans 8:8–11 / John 11:1–45
The Other Side of Death

This past week my wife and I made a hurried trip to South Carolina and back. Libby’s father’s cancer of ten years ago recurred and “traveled”; he was starting chemo. Understandably, Libby wanted to see her daddy.

What happens to our faith when the hard things come (and they do!)? What happens when we struggle with the thought that God has not answered our prayers the way we hoped, or even assumed, he would. That is certainly what Martha thought when Jesus finally showed up four days after Lazarus was buried: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Martha did not lack faith. She told Jesus: But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.

Jesus affirms her basic faith: Your brother will rise.a

So Martha again shows her faith. And, using a word that is important to faithful Christians, Martha shows her orthodox faith: I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.

This was a growing realization in the Old Testament. Ezekiel’s prophecy is one of the early declarations of the hope God’s people have that extends beyond this world and life-as-we-now-know-it: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them….

That is a basic hope of Christian faith that we hold onto when death comes crashing into the inner boundary of our lives. We dare to believe that there is something good on the other side of death.

What is harder to understand is why such a horrible thing as death (and the pains associated with dying) are inescapable when contrasted with the even more basic confession that God is love  (1John 4:8). Why does Love allow us to suffer? Why does Love make us wait?

In the context of God’s love, there are many opposites. One negative list is the “seven deadly sins” (pride, envy, anger, greed, lust, sloth, gluttony––all are perversions of true love). Ultimately, rejection of true love leads to death.

There has been a rejection of God’s love. Death has entered our world and affected everything. We get desensitized and make “peace” with all but the worst expressions of the brokenness that has corrupted the creation that God first called “very good.” A blend of “good” and “broken” are so intermingled that we have a very hard time discerning the two. In fact, we are often mostly clueless.

God tells us things we would never otherwise know through the Church and the Scriptures. So in his letter to the Romans, St Paul gives this insight. He uses two words that can refer to our physical existence, but he gives them two very different meanings. One is “flesh” (Greek, sarx) and the other is “body” (Greek, sōma). “Body” means what we all assume––this material substance that we see and feel; “flesh”, however, carries a negative connotation in Paul’s writings––the brokenness in our existence that dims our spiritual vision and pulls us away from God. Our physical bodies have been affected by “the flesh” and the result is decline and death.We learn to cope with the decline until it becomes critical, and then we panic and wail and grieve.

The brokenness in our existence is so deep and pervasive that we hardly comprehend all the implications. With our limited understanding, we want a quick and surface fix. So often our prayer is: “Lord, make this horrible thing right––right now!” Life doesn’t work that way, and facing what true healing means is the reason God allows suffering and subjects us to waiting.

If Jesus had met Martha’s expectation, he would have arrived in time to heal Lazarus before he died. Jesus had healed others; Lazarus would have been one more (v37). Instead, Jesus waited, and so provided compelling rationale for two huge things:

In this final major miracle-story in John’s Gospel, Jesus sets the stage for the ultimate show-down between life and death. The closing commentary tells us: Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him. This was a crisis that is explained in detail in the next section of the chapter:

….the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, "What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish." ….So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death. 

So Jesus has set in motion the final stage of God’s plan to heal this world-of-death by his own death.

This is the Gospel: God’s love is bigger than death, which is proven in the power of Jesus to overcome death itself.

Ultimately, this is what Jesus himself has done. He was killed and came back from the dead. God’s love is bigger than death.

In this act of raising Lazarus––and waiting to do it, even though it caused Mary and Martha more distress––Jesus showed his power over death even before he himself went to the cross. Jesus did not merely heal a very sick man; he raised a man from the dead who had been in the grave for four days. There was no question of resuscitation. Lazarus was dead, and through the spoken word of Jesus Lazarus came back.

It has been noted that Jesus called Lazarus particularly by name; if he had merely said “Come out,” all the dead would have risen! A time is coming when Jesus will give that command. We all wait for it. In the meantime we may have to suffer. We may have to wait. Still it remains: Death does not have the last word. Our God is a God of life.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Looking for God at Work

March 26, 210017 –– 4th Sunday of Lent
1 Samuel 16:6–7, 10–13a  / Psalm 23  / Ephesians 5:8–14 / John 9:1–41
Looking for God at Work

Where are we most likely to see God at work? Surely we see his power and glory in the spectacular. Nature shows us the grandeur of majestic mountains, pristine beaches, huge storms, and a star-studded universe. The psalmist was aware of God’s green pastures and still waters.

Scripture also gives us stories of a sea dividing so people could walk through on dry land, and even people being raised from the dead. We sometimes hear incredible conversion stories and are aware of examples of extraordinary love and service to others. In those situations and more it is relatively easy to say “God is at work.”

Yet that level of divine activity is not aways so common. I often think, and remind others, that Scripture itself is very selective and encompasses thousands of years. For the average Israelite, spectacular miracles were not everyday occurrences. C. S. Lewis reflected:

You are probably quite right in thinking that you will never see a miracle done:...They come on great occasions: they are found at the great ganglions of history--not of political or social history, but of that spiritual history which cannot be fully known by men. If your own life does not happen to be near one of those ganglions, how should you expect to see one? If we were heroic missionaries, apostles, or martyrs, it would be a different matter. But why you or I? Unless you live near a railway, you will not see trains go past your windows. How likely is it that you or I will be present when a peace-treaty is signed, when a great scientific discovery is made, when a dictator commits suicide? That we should see a miracle is even less likely. Nor, if we understand, shall we be anxious to do so. "Nothing almost sees miracles but misery." Miracles and martyrdoms tend to bunch about the same areas of history--areas we have naturally no wish to frequent.
~C.S. Lewis, Miracles, Chapter 17 (1947)

Where are we most likely to see God at work? There is a sense in which we can see God at work anywhere we look if our spiritual eyes are open. Speaking of Christ, St Paul tells the Colossians In him everything continues in being. That means the very active presence of Jesus in our world is what holds everything together; neither we ourselves nor anything else can even exist apart from the ongoing active work of God. It is the presence and power of God that upholds and energizes what we understand as “science”. Behind the “rising” of the sun and the orbits of the planets and a seed germinating into a plant is the light and life of God.

We need to understand that God works in these spectacular and powerful ways. We need to be awestruck sometimes. We need to be humbled sometimes. Knowing that God works in these ways which are beyond our comprehension is right and good. But we also need to be able to see God at work in a way that is much more intimate and personally encouraging.

In our personal lives, where are we most likely to see God at work? The second reading calls us to be children of light. There is a spiritual darkness in our world that will not––cannot––see God at work. It is a spiritual darkness that gets most things wrong. Truth gets twisted; right and wrong become inverted. Worthless things are prized and true values are disdained. God is dismissed and every effort is made to explain how the universe is self-generating and people are free to do whatever they want to do. This is spiritual blindness.

The light of God reveals those distortions and enables all who are willing to be able to see. This is the bigger context of today’s Gospel. The blind man is every human being who needs to be able to see the glory of God. Any time we are able to “see” God, grace is at work; the Spirit of life––the very Spirit of Jesus––is close to us and actually at work in us whenever we have times of God-consciousness. God loves us so much that he wants to heal of the blindness that keeps us from seeing God at work all the time.

Isn’t it amazing that some people can see even the spectacular signs of God’s glory––the grandeur of majestic mountains, pristine beaches, huge storms, and a star-studded universe––and still have no sense of the reality of God?! That is spiritual blindness. It is a tragedy.

But here is the word for today: We do not have to be always experiencing something spectacular to see God at work. The amazing thing is that God is at work, mightily, in the small things. God is at work in every one of us every day, and he wants to heal any hint of blindness that prevents us from seeing him in everything.

In the story of Samuel coming to anoint David we find another kind of blindness to the work of God. The assumption is that God would choose those who were visibly impressive. David’s older brothers were strong and mature. They made great first impressions. They fulfilled everything we usually look for when we look for prime candidates. David, at the time, was young; he was not yet “filled out”, and I’m sure that when he was called in from the shepherd field he looked and smelled far less than impressive. Yet the young and outwardly inferior David was exactly the person where God was most mightily at work at the time.

Think abut the man Jesus healed. He was a cultural nobody; the Pharisees considered him an especially marked “sinner.” Consider even the establishment opinion of Jesus: he too was judged a sinner because he had healed on the Sabbath.

Look around. Take an inner look at  yourself. You may see nothing particularly spectacular, but if your heart in open to Jesus Christ you will be able to see God at work.

Can you see it? If you can, the grace of Jesus is removing your blindness. Look out at a world where things are not always what they seem. Look into your own soul and understand that God can do something incredible beyond what anyone else thinks. That is how we are healed of blindness. That is how you can see God at work even in your own personal experiences.

Sunday, March 12, 2017


March 12, 2017 –– 2nd Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1–4a / 2 Timothy 1:8b–10 / Matthew 17:1–9

What if we could go back in time and see Jesus when he was on earth! What did people see when they looked at Jesus? They saw…. a man. Sometimes they saw him do some amazing things, but he was still a man who dressed like them, ate like them, walked the roads and paths like them.... a man who the Scriptures and the Church confess to be fully human.

Still, those looking at him during those earthly years would have asked (if they had been told this Man was God): What? How? Jesus seemed—even though he was engaging, puzzling, commanding, divisive and exasperating—just another man.

But one day—one time on one particular day—Peter, James and John saw Jesus in his glory: he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And so John wrote later in his Gospel: we have seen his glory. The writer to the Hebrews says that the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. The glory that covered Adam and Eve at the beginning, the glory that came down on Mt. Sinai and caused Moses’ face to shine, the glory that inhabited the Tabernacle and the Temple, and the glory promised by Isaiah and Ezekiel came into our world in the person of Jesus Christ.

Yet God does not overwhelm us. God wants us to trust him. So Jesus let three of his disciples see his glory once during those ministry days. It was enough to pave the way for a Faith that would change the world. We can believe today because there is a credible eyewitness record that has been established by the Apostles. Peter and John both wrote that they saw.... and they testified that these things are true.... and then they lived —in such a contrasting way to who they previously were—so that people looking at them took notice that they had been with Jesus.

What do you “see” when you come to church? Do we limit our vision to the human side of the liturgy? Do we ever wonder:  If Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, why isn’t there an obvious and overwhelming glory? The Transfiguration calls us—warmly and powerfully invites us—to “see” the glory of God beyond what is usually considered “normal” in the world around us. Without faith, we do not see beyond outward appearance, but Jesus came to show us what is real.

As Christians, we live in the hope of glory. Our destiny is to be like Jesus. As we journey through these days of Lent, let’s not forget the bigger picture. Jesus gave this early glimpse of his glory so that his disciples (and that includes us) could have a brief picture of reality. The truth of Jesus… his presence in the Eucharist… the transformation he is doing in us…. it’s all right here.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Impossible Rules of God’s Kingdom (Life in the Spirit)

February 19, 2017: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18 / Psalm 103 / 1 Corinthians 3:16–23 / Matthew 5:38–48
The Impossible Rules of God’s Kingdom (Life in the Spirit)

What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? There are, indeed, signs and gifts. One important “sign” is character and the behavior that comes out of it. The Sermon on the Mount is a picture of life in this world lived in the Spirit of Jesus. Christianity is not just doctrines and rules; it's who a person is––a person who is alive to God in the Spirit given through Jesus.

Jesus speaks to what this life is like by using several issues––murder, adultery, divorce, oaths and revenge. The Pharisees had built rules around these things. Jesus exposed how they used these laws to make themselves look good. That is not what it means to have “spiritual life.”

The issues that Jesus uses show us something about God and his life in his people. When we truly see what God wants of us, the first thing we will do is cry out for his mercy and grace. We fall so short. We cannot obey the Sermon on the Mount, or any of the Commandments, by ourselves ––at least not from the heart. We can force some things outwardly, but God has to work his life into ours through his Holy Spirit. That is the beginning and the end of the Christian life.

The text today focuses on a difficult subject: one’s response to evil in others. It is an oversimplification to hear Jesus say we are not to resist evil at all. Scripture is clear that God's people are to resist evil. Paul writes to the Ephesians to put on the whole armor of God so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground.... (6:13). Peter, speaking of the devil in his first letter, says, Resist him.... (5:9). James gives instruction along with a promise, Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (4:7). Christians are not to be passive in the face of evil.

The particular issue here is how a godly person responds to evil in others. This affects us in two ways. First, all of us sometimes get the brunt of human evil––we are lied about, short-changed, lusted after or even abused. But secondly, none of us is totally without evil, and we all have extended, in some way, our own evil to others (at least by God’s standard). Confessing that and wanting to be different (like God) is what it means to be poor in spirit and mournful and meek (to use Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes). In today’s verses, Jesus focuses on what it means to live as God's people in a world where evil is the rule rather than the exception. A good translation could be: Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.

If we’re honest, we know the desire for revenge runs deep. Some years ago I saw a bumper-sticker that read: You toucha' my truck, I breaka' your face. The evil of human revenge is such that we can want to do more “back” than was done to us. God says that is wicked.

Jesus gives illustrations from his day of what he is talking about. Slaps in the face, giving one's cloak and going another mile were situations that touched personal insults, rights to personal property and government interference with personal convenience. (Note that Jesus did not give examples of a one's wife being assaulted and abused or a gang trying to beat a person to death. In fact, when Paul was in danger of being beaten by the mob in Jerusalem, he gratefully accepted help from the Roman army––Acts 21:30ff). The issue here is not civil order. The New Testament speaks plainly to that in other places. Here, Jesus is directing his disciples to the heart attitude of people  who want to be like God––to show his life and character––as they live in this world.

The issue is really one of self. Do I put myself first? When I am insulted, do I retaliate? Do I try to "get back" at someone who hurt me in order to satisfy my itch for revenge? This is different than having a desire for justice for the sake of a stable society. If we are victims of heinous crimes, we can have two very different heart responses: One wants the state to execute the death penalty so we can have some personal revenge; the other recognizes that the state needs to act in justice to maintain right and order for everyone, but we also have concern for the person who committed the evil so that we personally forgive and pray for their salvation.

Here is what Jesus says to do: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.... (v44). Now here is where we need to be careful. This is not a mere rule. This is not an abstract obligation that we, in our broken humanity, will miserably fail to obey. Yet, this is the standard for people who want to embrace God and his kingdom. What are we to do?

The main thing is to know that we cannot obey what Jesus says by making a bunch of rules. These are “impossible rules”, and to view them that way will only result in failure. We “naturally” want revenge. We cannot “naturally” love our enemies. So again, what is Jesus really saying? What is he calling us to do? We are to focus on who God is and what he has done.

The focus of life in God's kingdom is God himself. Jesus concludes everything by saying, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. This is after Jesus has described God's character as that of one who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (v45). As Christians, we are called to respond to our enemies the way God responds to his. How does he do that? Paul is explicit in his letter to the Romans: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners [v10--God's enemies], Christ died for us (5:8). The more God's Spirit controls us, the more we will be able to respond according to his character. So you see, as in the whole Sermon on the Mount, the emphasis is not so much on what we do in any given situation as it is on who we are. There are not enough rules to guide us in godly living, even if we could keep them by ourselves (which we cannot). But what rules cannot accomplish, God's life in us can as we “live in the Spirit.”

The way you and I respond to evil and enemies is in direct proportion to how much the Spirit of God controls us. If you want to see someone who perfectly lived in God's Spirit, look at Jesus. The power of Jesus’ life in us is the way we can truly be God's people and have his own character growing in us. Do you see the glory? Can you believe that you and I can be enabled to respond to people with God's love? What if the world could see Jesus in us to this degree? Listen to Jesus again: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…. be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What Truly Matters (or, “Jesus, You’ve Got To Be Kidding”)

January 29, 2017: 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12–13 / from Psalm 146 /  1 Corinthians 1:26–31 / Matthew 5:1–12a
What Truly Matters (or, “Jesus, You’ve Got To Be Kidding”)

We live in a culture that prioritizes personal pleasure and convenience. If we pay attention to what the commercial world tries to sell us we will hear a seductive invitation to pursue bigger, better, nicer, sexier…. We are told to go after what makes us look good, whatever makes us happy, how to be the envy of others. There is a constant message that security comes from owning and controlling. Wealth, pleasure, power, and honor are the ultimate goals.

Jesus says the opposite as he begins The Sermon the Mount with what is commonly called the Beatitudes. He says God’s blessing rests on things that are polar opposites of what the world-spirit urges us to seek. Jesus uses words like poor, mourn, meek, insult, and persecute as a context for a right relationship with God. As Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, he commends them for being foolish, weak, lowly, and despised in the eyes of the world.

The world is full of ‘somebodies’ and ‘nobodies’….. That’s not the way God intended it to be. Every human being, man, woman, child, and even unborn child, bears the image and likeness of God, [no one has] more nor less dignity because some other people have heard of them, look up to them, or think they’re special. But [most] people feel that it’s better to be ‘somebody’ [in some way that makes them “better” than others. (N. T. Wright)

A right understanding of what God has said and done through his Son calls us to dare to believe that we do not need to live under the burden of what consumes our world, either frantically seeking the so-called good or living in fear of the bad. Christian Faith turns the world’s common values upside down. As Christians, you and I are asked to believe that there is another world far more important than this one….. and then let that belief––that faith––affect the way we think and speak and act.

For the next several Sundays, the Epistle and Gospel readings are going to be taken mostly from this section of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and from Matthew’s presentation of The Sermon on the Mount. Again and again St Paul is going to contrast so-called human wisdom with God’s wisdom. The whole concept of wise and foolish is turned inside out. Paul insists that our glory as Christians is the cross of Jesus Christ.

Today’s Christians are mostly inoculated to the image of the cross. A cross is often a gold ornament on a nice chain that we wear. We even make a crucifix a work of art (and there is justification for that in the right context). Yet in those early years of the Church the cross was a scandal. It was nothing but an instrument of the most cruel and shameful death of its day. Imagine wearing a hangman's noose around your neck for ornamentation, or having an oil painting of an electric chair on your living room wall; that gives a bit of context for what people felt when Paul exalted “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

We hear these Gospel readings and we know, on some cerebral level, that it is Jesus giving divine teaching. But if we truly hear Jesus we can hardly believe he is serious: Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad….. What?! Jesus, you have to be kidding…. you’re using hyperbole, right? You are all about love and mercy, right? You want us to be happy (don’t you?)…. What is this about insult and persecution when we don’t deserve it? ….But let’s finish that one verse: Rejoice and be glad…. for your reward will be great in heaven.

As we hear the readings over the next weeks, please try to remember this foundational truth (it’s the only way that Christian Faith makes any sense): Jesus came to bring––and teach and show––a whole new world: the Kingdom of God. Although we now can only see it by faith, we believe that Jesus and his kingdom is the lasting reality. What the world calls "the good life”–– the world’s veneer of nice things and beautiful people is going to dissolve. Jesus invites us to be free of the rat race and the fear of threats.

Think about it: no matter how wealthy or otherwise secure we are in this life, every one of us is going to die. Most people want to run from that reality. So much around us functions as a decoy to keep our minds and emotions occupied with something––anything––that seems to be important enough to keep us going and distracted. None of it is going to last.

Now it’s not that bad things do not matter, that we shouldn’t be concerned about them. It’s not that we should not desire good things. It’s just that even good things can be bad if they keep us distracted from what is most important, and no bad thing on earth is the worst thing that could happen. Jesus warned us to be more afraid of what can kill the soul than what can kill the body.

So we have Scripture readings like these to call us to a deep reality. The only way to live with any security in this world is to trust God. In love, God lets hard things come to teach us––to draw us––to run to him. God’s own Son, our Lord Jesus, suffered to the point of death so (among other reasons) we could see, in the context of our own fears and sufferings, that God is bigger than evil and death.

We will each leave here today and go out into a world that has all kinds of delightful distractions. Let’s not let them be too important in our lives. We will leave here today and perhaps have to face something awful (and if it doesn’t happen this week, something awful eventually comes to all of us); let’s dare to believe that God’s love in Christ Jesus is bigger than pain and death––even bigger than evil and hell.

Hear again part of our readings today: ….you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. God forgives us and heals us and delivers us from our false attachments through his Son. So hear again the words of our Lord himself: Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. This is our faith.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church

Sunday: January 1, 2017–– Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Numbers 6:22–27 / Psalm 67 / Galatians 4:4–7 / Luke 2:16–21
Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church

The Church teaches that Mary is the Mother of God. Catholics grow up with Mary as a key figure in the life of the Church. That is good.... but it's not so good if there is little understanding of why and how Mary is so important. On the other end of the continuum, though, are many Evangelical Christians, who think––as I once did––that Catholics worship Mary. This means that, other than a brief cameo role at Christmas, Mary is at best ignored and, sadly, even demeaned in order (it is thought) to “correct” the Catholic error. I know this is true because it was part of my journey. One of the biggest hurdles separating most Evangelical Christians from Catholic Faith is the person and place of Mary.

This first Marian dogma goes back to 431 A.D and the ecumenical Council of Ephesus, which raised the question of whether Mary is rightly called theotokos. That’s a Greek word meaning "bearer of God.” One popular teacher, Nestorius, did not want to give Mary the title theotokos, preferring to call her christotokos, "the bearer of Christ" because he separated the divinity and humanity of Christ. The Council of Ephesus said that this destroyed Jesus as one undivided person. Nestorius' teaching was declared heretical and Mary was formally given the title theotokos, “God-bearer”, as the orthodox way to describe Mary.

This title was not meant to exalt Mary so much as to assert the unity of divinity and humanity in her Son. When properly understood, all the Marian dogmas are about Jesus. We use God-bearer language for the mother of Jesus to confess who Jesus really is: the beloved Son of the Father, born of a woman (Gal 4:4), and thus God manifested in the flesh (1 Tim. 3:16). Yet implicit in this is indeed a great honor for Mary. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Mary says (in the Magnificat): all generations will call me blessed. There was a point where I truly “saw” that for the first time, and with it was a shocking realization: the Christian tradition that had formed me had not taught me to call Mary “blessed.” It was a hard pill for me to swallow when it first dawned on me that it was the Catholic tradition which has fulfilled this prophecy of Mary recorded by Luke.

One of the objections from my past was the argument that Mary does not have prominence in the New Testament––that she has little role in Acts and is hardly mentioned in the Epistles. This point of view ignores the implication of Luke’s early chapters. Where did the details of those chapters come from if not from Mary herself? There is one vignette after another that can only be known because Luke, in composing his Gospel, sat at the feet of Mary and––inspired by the Holy Spirit to do so––recorded her “ponderings” so that we have their fruit today as Scripture.

If we take that as a premise, we then have in Mary a very important figure who is a source of authority for the earliest part of the “Jesus story”. She has stored these memories in her heart and she is highly revered. After she was taken to heaven and the Church was facing great persecution, there was an emphasis on the memory of the holy people who had first formed the Church. From the beginning Mary was uniquely remembered as the virgin in whom the Holy Spirit conceived our incarnate Lord. This was part of the Apostolic Tradition that guided the Council of Ephesus.

The declaration that Mary was the theotokos, the Mother of God, does not imply Mary’s divinity; again, it was primarily about Christ’s humanity. Jesus took his human flesh from his mother. The Church teaches clearly, and has always taught, that Mary is not divine. She is human, a creature, just like us, created by God. When we come to faith in Jesus, we are adopted so that Jesus is our brother (Heb 2:11) and Mary becomes our mother. Then we are all one in Christ in his mystical Body. This Body, of course (as Paul explicitly teaches), has different parts, different roles, and different gifts. Not everyone does the same thing. Mary has a special role: She is Mother, because she is literally the mother of Jesus’ physical body, and as we are joined to Christ through the Holy Spirit as his mystical Body she comes our Mother, too. Jesus, on the cross, explicitly gave his mother to his disciple (and implicitly to the Church). So everything about Mary is connected to the communion of saints, of which we are a part––and of which she is the preeminent member (everything in Catholic Faith interfaces, as a seamless garment). As Catholic piety began to develop and grow, Mary’s role as an intercessor became important as early as the early second century.

Yet this was another cause for concern in my former tradition. How can Mary not be ascribed divine omnipresence if she is constantly able to hear millions of individual prayers all around the world? Then a wonderful analogy came to me: Facebook. It is possible to have a friend on Facebook who has thousands of other friends. That friend can have all other friends tell him their fears and woes. How? Through the internet. I do not mean this to be disrespectful in the least, but the internet functions something like the Holy Spirit. The internet is everywhere. The internet can deliver messages seemingly at the speed of light. A FB friend does not have that power by himself, but it is available. So with prayer, the “vehicle” is always God. We can only pray in and through the Holy Spirit, but because every Christian is a partaker of the Spirit and because physical death does not cut the bond all Christians have in the Spirit, there is a communion of saints, and at the pinnacle of all saints is Holy Mary, the Mother of God. No other human being has greater intimacy with Jesus than Mary. She is is a powerful intercessor. In the Spirit, we can ask for her to pray for us just as we ask for the prayers of our dearest living friend.

Yet there is a caution here. Even as we honor Mary with the title Mother of God and seek her motherly aid, we need to remember than Mary is not the source of holiness, or love, or mercy. Those things come first from God; God’s people have those qualities derivatively as gifts of grace. Let’s not think that is Mary more merciful than Jesus.

But among all the people of God––among all the saints, no one has greater fulness of grace than Mary. She is first in the Church. She is first among the saints. She alone gave flesh to the eternal Word, and in so doing became the very Mother of God. In that grace, and from the very words of Jesus on the cross––Behold your mother, she is our mother, too. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

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