Sunday, July 9, 2017

a sermon by Saint Augustine

Perhaps I've posted this before. If so, it is worth repetition(s)....

From a sermon by Saint Augustine
A sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit

I acknowledge my transgression, says David. If I admit my fault, then you will pardon it. Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg for pardon. But men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others. They seek to criticise, not to correct. Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others. This was not the way that David showed us how to pray and make amends to God, when he said: I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. He did not concentrate on others’ sins; he turned his thoughts on himself. He did not merely stroke the surface, but he plunged inside and went deep down within himself. He did not spare himself, and therefore was not impudent in asking to be spared.
   Do you want God to be appeased? Learn what you are to do that God may be pleased with you. Consider the psalm again: If you wanted sacrifice, I would indeed have given it; in burnt offerings you will take no delight. Are you then to be without sacrifice? Are you to offer nothing? Will you please God without an offering? Consider what you read in the same psalm: If you wanted sacrifice, I would indeed have given it; in burnt offerings you will take no delight. But continue to listen, and say with David: A sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God does not despise a contrite and humble heart. Cast aside your former offerings, for now you have found out what you are to offer. In the days of your fathers you would have made offerings of cattle – these were the sacrifices. If you wanted sacrifice, I would indeed have given it. These then, Lord, you do not want, and yet you do want sacrifice.
   You will take no delight in burnt offerings, David says. If you will not take delight in burnt offerings, will you remain without sacrifice? Not at all. A sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God does not despise a contrite and humble heart.
   You now have the offering you are to make. No need to examine the herd, no need to outfit ships and travel to the most remote provinces in search of incense. Search within your heart for what is pleasing to God. Your heart must be crushed. Are you afraid that it might perish so? You have the reply: Create a clean heart in me, O God. For a clean heart to be created, the unclean one must be crushed.

   We should be displeased with ourselves when we commit sin, for sin is displeasing to God. Sinful though we are, let us at least be like God in this, that we are displeased at what displeases him. In some measure then you will be in harmony with God’s will, because you find displeasing in yourself what is abhorrent to your Creator.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Great Exchange

June 25, 2017 –– 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 20:10–13 / Psalm 69 / Romans 5:12–15 / Matthew 10:26–33
The Great Exchange

Over a forty year span I can still hear many different people who have said to me: “The Apostle Paul is so hard to understand!” Yet we believe the Holy Spirit inspired his words, and the Church affirms our need to hear them. This Romans text is one biblical passage where many would read it and say “Huh?” One of my passions for pastoral ministry is helping people better understand what God has chosen to give us in Scripture. It means we need to focus and think, but good things usually require a bit of work.

Paul is giving the foundation for God’s act of justifying sinners. The whole story of the human race can be summed up in terms of what happened because of Adam, and what has happened and will yet happen because of Christ. In these verses there are both commonalities and contrasts between Adam and Christ. Christian faith is grounded in something that, having a humanity in common with Adam, Jesus did in specific contrast to something Adam did.

Every person born into this world comes with an identity in Adam. It is an identity that brings with it alienation from God (guilt), a tendency to live for one’s self (commit sin), an inevitable curse (death) and a threat of God’s future wrath (eternal punishment). This identity makes us helpless and hopeless. But (3:21) God has chosen to provide another identity, in Christ––who is another, and last, Adam (1Cor 15:45)––so that all the hard things that we received from the first Adam can be undone and reversed in the last Adam: Jesus Christ.

How did the sin of Adam effect everyone? Paul says that the trespass―the disobedience―of one man (Adam) brought God’s judgment (physical death and spiritual condemnation) to all Mankind. Somehow, all of humanity participated in what Adam did. St Augustine, the great theologian from the turn of the fifth century said that when Adam acted the whole race acted and when he was judged, the whole race was judged.

This is the reason the Gospel is truly Good News. Something has been accomplished by Christ which is as universal in its effectiveness as was the sin of the first man. So, even as we are condemned on account of what Adam did, we can be justified because of what Christ did. Christ’s part is already done––he was sacrificed once for all (Heb 9:12). It’s like a free meal––the meal is already paid for, but (and this takes us to the aspect of our faith) unless a person goes and eats the benefit is lost.

The point here is the union of the race with Adam and the further union of the race with Christ and ratified in those who believe. It is like the law of gravity and the law of aerodynamics. Both are true all the time, with the law of gravity being the normative default (as is the law of sin), but able to be superseded by the law of aerodynamics. The law of gravity applies to all; the law of aerodynamics applies to those who are in aircraft. The disobedience of Adam marks all people; the obedience of Christ marks those who embrace the Second Adam. When we follow Jesus Christ we are lifted up from the bondage of sin so we can wing our way to heaven. And so, as Paul opens his letter to the Romans, the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes... (1:16).

We do not have a choice not to be born in solidarity with Adam; we do have a choice to live in solidarity with Jesus Christ. When God first created Man, he wanted Adam’s “yes.” Instead he received Adam’s “no.” Now God offers a second chance through his Son, the second Adam, in order to remake us into a new creation. We do not have to keep our identity in Adam. Saying “yes” to God’s life in Christ is saying “no” to the legacy of sin in Adam, and in that “yes” there is the great exchange.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Spirit Makes A Difference

June 4, 2017 –– Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1–11 / Psalm 104 / 1 Corinthians 12:3b–7, 12–13 / John 20:19–23
The Spirit Makes A Difference

Fear and loneliness….. A sense of belonging and being loved…. Those are huge contrasts that come into focus at Pentecost.

The disciples were afraid. They had locked themselves away. It seemed that Jesus was gone. Even though they were together in a room, I wonder if each one didn’t feel surrounded by people they no longer knew––sort of like being at party where you know no one else and loneliness is intensified because everything seems strange.

We can easily have those feelings. It can seem that others see my problems more than they see me. It’s easy to think that so many others are living the Christian life better than I. Why is it that we so quickly sense our problems and weaknesses, and so easily overlook our blessings and strengths?

God did not create us to live life alone and in our own strength. One of the first things God says about his human creation was It is not good for the man to be alone…. (Gen 2:18). Before his death, when he was preparing the disciples for his absence, Jesus told them I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you (Jn 14:18).

Yet it had to have been confusing to their ears. Jesus had also told them: It is for your good that I am going away…. (Jn 16:7a). Why? Unless I go away, the Comforter will not come to you (Jn 16:7b).

Pentecost shows us the meaning and power of what Jesus has made possible. In the body, Jesus could only be with a few people at one time; in the Spirit, the presence of Jesus is available to everyone all the time. The Spirit is like the air around us, present and ready to be breathed. Through his death for us, Jesus makes it possible for us to breathe―spiritually. His death removes our sins; his life gives us life.

The story in Acts describes a bit of the wonder and the power. Maybe we wonder about the different manifestations of the Spirit and even what we might call the “levels” of intensity. Compare two people. One is a baby, new-born and weighing 7 pounds, who has just begun to breathe; the other is a full-grown man, 6 feet in height weighing 190 pounds. Both are fit and healthy; both are breathing properly; and both may be described as "filled with air." What, then, is the difference between them? It lies in the capacity of their lungs. Both are "filled," yet one is more filled than the other because his capacity is so much greater.

The same is true of spiritual life and growth. A new-born babe in Christ is filled with the Spirit. Likewise, a mature and godly Christian of many years' standing is filled with the Spirit also. The difference is their spiritual lung-capacity. The life of the Spirit in the Church means there is a place and purpose for every single person whose life is open to Jesus. This means our fears and loneliness and personal inadequacies do not have to control our lives.

The devil wants us to cower in fear because of our sins. Jesus gives us forgiveness of sins. Our human weaknesses push us to pull away from others. We think we need to be self-reliant. We try to hide our sins and faults. The Holy Spirit living in us is always saying, “Let me help you.” And one way the Spirit helps us is when we join our personal gifts to others so that we all give and receive, and then learn the joy that we do not have to face all the issues of life in our own wisdom and strength.

Just as he did with the first disciples long ago, Jesus is here to breathe on us and say, Receive the Holy Spirit. Believe it. Tell Jesus yes and thank you. Ask Jesus to make his Spirit strong in you every day. Instead of being fearful and lonely, know that you are loved. Know that you belong to the One who is stronger than sin and death.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Suffering and Glory

May 28, 2017 –– 7th Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:12–14 / Psalm 27 / 1 Peter 4:13–16 / John 17:1–11a
Suffering and Glory

The readings today present three things that are hard for us. In Acts, the disciples have just witnessed the Ascension and, even though they have their “marching orders” (the Great Commission, Mtt 28:28), now they are being obedient: they have retreated to an upper room in Jerusalem to wait for the gift my Father promised (Acts 1:4). Waiting is not easy for most of us, but “wait time” can open doors to the Holy Spirit beyond our comprehension. If you are in a major “wait” right now, trust that the Lord is using it for something good he wants to do in your life.

The second thing that is hard for us is suffering. Incredulously, Peter puts a totally different spin on it: Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ…. When and how do we do that? Peter gives one explicit example: if you are insulted for the name of Christ…. This happens whenever we give witness to any part of God’s truth and, in response, are ridiculed or rejected or even assaulted. But sharing in Christ’s suffering can go far beyond that. The very reason there is suffering in this world is because of the brokenness caused by the old, nasty word sin. That is not to say all suffering is the direct cause of sin; it’s just that a world where rebellion against God is not only possible but prevalent has repercussions, and everyone is affected. When we choose to see suffering as part of the process God uses to brings the world to repentance and healing, we share in the sufferings of Christ. This is the real meaning, and the proper use, of the phrase, Offer it up…. When you believe that God can and will use a hard thing in your life for your holiness and the salvation of others, you share in the sufferings of Christ.

The third thing that is hard in today’s readings is the word glory. It is hard because it is difficult to define and comprehend. We can see that glory is a good thing, but it’s hard to pin down. Whether we fully understand it or not, there is something in us (it’s God-planted) that deeply desires the glory that is so much the focus of Jesus’ prayer.

Jesus, talking to the Father, is aware of the glory that I had with you before the world began....  St Paul says that Jesus lay that glory aside in his Incarnation (in the form of God.... but emptied himself––Phil 2), and yet here Jesus is anticipating not only the restoration of that glory, but the “joy” of going to the cross (Heb 12:2) because he knew that he was opening the door to glory for us.

And so Jesus prays in today’s Gospel: I am praying for.... those whom thou hast given me, for they are yours (Father); and everything of mine is yours, and everything of yours is mine, and I am glorified in them. Jesus is praying for you…. for me!

Think about this: As we follow Jesus, we are heading to the same place where he has gone. That is the meaning of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus suffered and was then glorified. Because Jesus has gone ahead of us into glory.... because even now the Spirit of Christ is changing those who belong to him into his likeness from one degree of glory to another (2Cor 3:18).... because of the hope we have as Christians––Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:27), we can wait with patience and we can even suffer in hope.

What is your biggest burden or fear right now? It is not forever. Our Lord is at work even in those hard things. We are being prepared for the full glory of God!

I’m borrowing a few texts from St Paul’s writings: If then you have been raised with Christ, (this is what Jesus is praying about in today’s Gospel) seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (this is the reality of the Ascension). Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (this is what it means to live distinctively for Jesus). Why?! For you have died (this is what baptism means), and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Col 3:1–4).

As we follow Jesus, we are destined for glory. It’s beyond anything this world can imagine. Let's not allow the world to discourage us.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Getting Ready for Our Eternal Home

May 14, 2017–– 5th Sunday in Easter
Acts 6:1–7 / Psalm 33 / 1 Peter 2:4–9 / John 14:1–12
Getting Ready for Our Eternal Home

Many non-Catholic Christians think that Catholics diminish the importance of the Bible. Catholics who know better can point to the prominence of Scripture readings in the Liturgy. Over the three-year cycle of the lectionary, a majority of the Bible is read aloud. Hearing the Scriptures is vitally important in Catholic life. One of my goals in a homily is to make the readings we hear more understandable, and in understanding to embrace what God is telling us.

In the second reading Peter challenges us: let yourselves be built into a spiritual house….  C.S. Lewis extends this:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing.  He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised.  But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense.  What on earth is He up to?  The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of— throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage, but He is building up a palace.  He intends to come and live in it himself (C. S. Lewis,  Mere Christianity).

This is a wonderful personal application, but the context is not merely our personal lives. Christian Faith is far bigger than that. While our tendency is to focus on ourselves as a “house,” Jesus gives a much broader perspective: In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. Maybe it’s best to think of this as one house…. many rooms. Or, to use another image, there is one edifice with many stones.

Today’s Gospel is a favorite for funerals, and rightly so. It is a promise from Jesus that there is a place for us after this life. Jesus himself goes ahead of us, through death and resurrection, so that we can know the way. Jesus himself is the way and the truth and the life. As we follow Jesus, we will arrive at just the right place.

But to “follow Jesus” we face all kinds of obstacles. It is not surprising that Thomas asked, how can we know the way?

Many Christians assume the early Church was almost perfect. Some Protestant sects seek to be “restorationist” movements trying to recover some ideal that never actually existed. The Church has been in process since the beginning. Our Lord, the Head of the Church, has been leading his Body to “grow up” into the fulness of what it means to be the “House of God” since he gave these words to his disciples on that night before he went to the cross.

The first reading tells us there was tension between the early Jewish and non-Jewish Christians (the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews…). So even back then there were feelings that some people received special attention and treatment above others. Many of the letters (Epistles) deal with problems the early Church was having (it has been noted that if the early churches did not have those problems, the written record which became our New Testament would be much shorter!).

All of this is to say that the Church exists in a broken world and we need the spiritual healing that Jesus came to bring. Too often we assume that everything is fine except those times when something painful and disturbing comes too close to us personally. The reality is that every day there is catastrophe and pain and despair going on around us. Every day we deal with disappointment and, if we are honest, wish that others understood us better. From the little hurts to the huge pains, we need the healing that Jesus brings.

This is one reason it is important to get a vision of our calling to grow up into the beautiful house that God is making. Each one of us is meant to be a living stone; each of us is to make our own contribution to that spiritual house built on the cornerstone (who is Christ Jesus).

For that to happen, we need the Church. It was out of the early tension about the Hellenist widows that the Apostles initiated the diaconate. I am here in a line that goes back to Stephen and Philip and the others who are named. As we gather, the Church is here in all its parts to help us heal and be beautiful stones in the edifice of God’s “house”.

This brings our personal lives back into focus. We each need to be responding every day to the grace of God that is at work for our healing and ultimate salvation. We seek what Jesus promised the disciples: so that where I am you also may be.

So we open ourselves to be remade…. to be a living stone…. to be a dwelling place for God himself. This week, while you are getting dressed, look at yourself in the mirror. Look yourself in the eyes and into your soul. Then affirm your faith in Jesus and tell yourself: "the risen Son of God lives in me.... I am a living stone in God’s house!” As you do that, God will show something of himself through your life. And some day, you will be with Jesus in the Father’s house.

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.

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