Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Miracle of God Feeding Us

July 29, 2018: 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
2 Kings 4:24–44 / Psalm 145 / Ephesians 4:1–6 / John 6:1–15
The Miracle of God Feeding Us

Christian Faith believes in a personal God who is actively involved in our world. While God is “other” ––infinite and beyond imagination so that our minds can never fully know God nor our hearts completely grasp his ways, he is also immanent. He is here.

Because God is here and actively at work, we should expect times when God does the unexpected and the unusual. [We should also expect God to act always “in character”––as Paul wrote to Timothy (2Tim 2:13), he cannot disown himself.] As Creator, God will show himself as above and in control of creation. As Redeemer, God will always be acting for good and the salvation of the world (but again, we need to remember that with our limitations––especially in contrast to God––we will not fully understand what God does and does not do; God defines “good”, not us).

One reason that God inspired the Scriptures, a written record of things he has said and done, is to help us recognize what we otherwise would never grasp. Even as God is at work for our good, we need help to see it. When what is unusual recurs in Scripture, it’s an added emphasis to help us recognize God at work.

The first reading gives us an incident that becomes a precedent for a similar but much bigger event. God used the prophet Elisha to feed a large number of people miraculously with a small amount of food. In the Gospel we have the more familiar story of Jesus doing the same on a larger scale. It is so important that all four Gospels tell the story.

As a bit of an aside, we might wonder (and skeptics often cynically ask) why God doesn’t routinely do such “miracles” (or always do them at our request). One answer is that God will not overwhelm us in order to make us believe. He wants us to learn to trust, and in trusting, to fall in love with him. Love is never coerced.

God does enough to give us plausible reason to believe. When we open ourselves to that, we begin to “see” more and more. We are always going in a direction of being more open to God or more closed. That is why Scripture tells us to seek the Lord constantly. One of this past week’s Gospel readings has Jesus saying, To anyone who has, more will be given…. from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away (Matthew 13). When we are growing in our relationship with Jesus, we understand more and more; if we allow our faith to grow dim, even the things we have previously believed will dim in our understanding.

This is illustrated by the underlying point of Jesus feeding the multitude. The first part of chapter 6 in John’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus miraculously feeding the multitude. By the end of the chapter Jesus has said, I am myself the bread which has come down from heaven (v41) and it concludes with Jesus saying, The man who eats my flesh and drinks my blood enjoys eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives continually in me and I in him (v56–58).

This so startled those listening that they protested. When Jesus reiterated, John tells us that some who had followed Jesus turned away. Then Jesus asked the twelve if they were also leaving. Even the twelve did not yet understand, but they had an open faith. Peter (forever the spokesman) responded, To whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life.

From the beginning this was the Faith of the Church. As the Apostles came into fuller understanding, the Eucharist (“the breaking of bread”) became the mark of the common life (koinonia) of Christian community and the pinnacle of worship. Thus it was for 1500 years. When the unity of the Church was torn apart by self-appointed “reformers”, the early leaders (notably Luther and Calvin) tried to honor in some measure the Sacrament of the Eucharist. But as they turned away from the authority of the Apostolic Tradition (the one faith in the second reading), look where Christianity is today. Many faith communities say Communion is only a symbol and they reject any idea of Sacraments. Why has this happened? To get back to the earlier point, it is because the understanding of the Faith, particularly the Eucharist, was dimmed.

Some Christians argue today that it is preposterous that Jesus comes physically and totally in the Bread and the Cup. One reason is because Modernity has sowed seeds of skepticism so well that we have watered down what it means that God is actively involved in our world.

My personal Christian faith was not formed in a community that believed in the Eucharist. That came much later. I am thankful that God’s grace is bigger than our personal understanding. Yet our Lord is always wanting to expand his life within us, and that includes our understanding.

I remember how one process of thought finally broke into my consciousness. While my early faith was incomplete (in a Catholic sense), the faith I did have was solid. I believed with all my heart (and still do) that the God who created the heavens and the earth became incarnate in the Man, Jesus Christ. Think about it: The infinite God is able to “condense” himself totally and faithfully into the person of a human being! Then it hit me: If God, the Maker of heaven and earth is miraculously able to become a Man in the person of Jesus Christ, then that same God-Man Jesus is miraculously able to come physically again and again into what looks to us like simple bread.

Jesus fed the multitude that day to get their attention. Then Jesus tells them what it really means: The man who eats my flesh and drinks my blood enjoys eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

We believe in a God who is actively involved in our world. We believe in a personal God who comes to us to save us. Jesus is giving himself to us yet again today. When we truly believe that, it is eternal life. Expect God to be at work in your life.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Like Sheep Without A Shepherd

Sunday: 22 July, 2018 –– 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 23:1–6 / Ephesians 2:13–18 / Mark 6:30–34
Like Sheep Without A Shepherd (or just dumb chickens)

Jeremiah has been called “the weeping prophet” and he had plenty of reasons to weep. One of the worst was “bad shepherds” ––religious leaders who were supposed to guide the people in right ways, but instead used their position selfishly. They even turned people away from God because they were doing evil in the name of God. We can look around and see that our world isn’t really so different from Jeremiah’s. And like Jeremiah’s day we still need good spiritual leaders.

God promises to provide good shepherds. The Twenty-third Psalm affirms the Lord’s provision. Today’s Gospel has one of the most tender images of Jesus as God-with-us: his heart was moved with pity for [the people], for they were like sheep without a shepherd....

One way to express the Good News of Christian Faith is this: God wants to be your Shepherd. This is foundational. This is basic. This is the Good News.  God wants to be your Shepherd.

Many people do not see a need for God to be personally involved in their lives. It is human nature to want to be self-sufficient and independent. We live in such a comfortable and convenience-filled society that we can assume too much. Part of our sinfulness is holding to a pride that does not want to admit we need help. We want to justify ourselves; we can think “I’m as good as most people, and better than many. I do okay for myself.”

I have a friend who once had a job of taking care of chickens. One of the reasons the Bible uses sheep as a metaphor for our relationship with God is that sheep can be so helpless and, in all honesty, quite dumb. Well, chickens are worse. My friend was reflecting on this and wrote some of her observations. Listen to what she says:  

Lately I have been seeing people through the eyes of taking care of chickens. They bully each other, they pick on each other and sometimes are just not nice to each other at all. And here I am as their caretaker, wishing that they would stop their bickering and hurtfulness, knowing that they are well provided for and there is no need for the strained relations. Of course, they don't hear my thoughts and go about their meanness, and I think of how we often behave so much like chickens while God offers us something better.

When I enter the pen most of them run off nervously, assuming that I am out to do them harm. I've been with them day in and day out since last October and have not hurt any of them ever, and yet they still run or freeze in fear when I am near them.  On the other hand, if I come with a bucket in hand they automatically assume I have something tasty for them and they'll swarm over to me, but not to see me––just to get what they assume I have to offer them, grab it and run off with it.  How like chickens we are––afraid of knowing the God who only wants what is best for us, approaching him only for the gifts he bestows, and then going our own ways.  

One evening, one of the chickens I had raised from the time they were chicks was out of her chicken yard, running around, seemingly concerned about getting back to her friends but not figuring out how. It took my husband and me quite a while to get her back into her own yard. So here again was a perfect, visible example of how much we can be like chickens when it comes to trusting Jesus. All we wanted to do was to return that poor, confused, agitated chicken to where she really wanted to be, but in her fear and stubbornness, she fought us every step of the way. Our patient perseverance finally paid off and she ran in the gate to join her flock, but how much easier on all of us it would have been if she had been able to assume that we knew what we were doing and wanted the best for her. The longer I live in this role as chicken keeper, the more I am coming to know God as a parent and savior and shepherd––and seeing in us the same foolish behavior as in chickens.

Can you see that we need a Good Shepherd? In today’s Gospel Jesus has pity on us and loves us because, without him, we are sheep without a shepherd.... like chickens, running around on our own.  We need a Good Shepherd. Jesus invites us to follow him.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

When God Speaks

July 8, 2018: 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 2:2–5 / Psalm 123 / 2 Corinthians 12:7–10 / Mark 6:1–6a
When God Speaks

God has been speaking throughout eternity. John opens his Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Scripture begins with Genesis saying that God spoke all that exists into being; at the core of creation are the words, And God said…. 

God’s speech has continued coming into the world since the beginning of creation. The Psalmist affirms (19:1–4):
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

God also speaks specifically in special and explicit ways through people he chooses and inspires. The writer to the Hebrews starts his letter saying, In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets (1:1). Then the letter gives the culminating point that is the basis of our Christian Faith: in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature (1:2–3a). This is why Jesus told Philip, He who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9).

Today’s readings give us some insight into how and why God speaks. This is important because, since God is always speaking into our world––and to each one of us, we need to know what to listen for and how to understand what God is saying. One big clue is in the closing book of Scripture. Jesus says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Revelation 3:20). God speaks to us so we can know him and love him and have an ongoing relationship with him!

Sometimes God says hard things. He says things we do not want to hear. He says things that we cannot understand if we are not open to what he is wanting to do. God sent Ezekiel to speak to people who had rejected him. Even though Israel had the special graces of God’s redemption and revelation, they rebelled and closed their hearts, choosing to do what seemed more pleasurable than obeying God. In spite of that––in spite of rebellion and disobedience and some awful sins–– God still speaks to them. This is to let us know that our sin is not bigger than God’s Father-heart. God always longs for us to truly know him and live under his blessings.

God spoke another way through St Paul. This time the focus is on the messenger rather than the recipients. Yet it still a hard word from a human point of view. Israel, as the recipient of Ezekiel’s words, was being rebuked for her sins; Paul, as the messenger of God’s words, was struggling with what he called a thorn in the flesh. We aren’t sure what this was, but it was something so hard and so discouraging to Paul that he confesses he asked the Lord three times to remove it from his life. All three times the prayer of St Paul, the spiritual giant, was rejected.

Why does our loving Father not take a hard thing away when we humbly, and yet in the strong name of Jesus, ask him for relief? Paul says it was so he could understand something deeper––something that only comes through weakness and suffering. God says, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

One of the most dangerous times in our spiritual lives is when things are going so well that we think we’re doing pretty good by ourselves. Paul understood that God had given him a hard thing to keep me from being too elated. When God speaks through people, it important that it is clear it is God who speaking and working, and not the self-promotion of the human messenger. So even with St Paul, the Lord chose to speak through a “wounded servant.”

This should not surprise us (but it seems to do so––continually) because God spoke his ultimate Truth through his Suffering Servant Son. We see this in today’s Gospel. After being out in ministry in neighboring towns, Jesus went back home. He was ridiculed and rejected. As I said earlier, the Lord says things that we cannot understand if we are not open to what he is wanting to do.

The rejection of Jesus in his home town was a preview of what was to come. His final rejection was the cross, and as he hung there the onlookers ridiculed his seeming helplessness. Yet God was “speaking” the ultimate Word. It was the full expression of Life through the Son’s death on the cross! This is our Faith! And it is wonderful…. but it is not easy.

God is speaking today.

To people addicted to their sins, God is saying “you know this is wrong; please let me come in.” 

To people who feel crushed with weakness and pain and stress, God is saying, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

To all of us, God is saying that being open to Jesus––having faith in Jesus––is wisdom and life and eternal salvation.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Good News in a Hard World

July 1, 2018: 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 1:13–15, 2:23–24 / Psalm 30 / 2 Corinthians 8:7,9, 13–15 / Mark 5:21–43
Good News in a Hard World

We do not need to be convinced we live in a hard world, but we should regularly think about what that means for Christian Faith. In my rather small circle of what I consider to be “close” family and friends are ongoing issues of cancer, acute financial insecurity, relational stress, and imprisonment. At Pastoral Council this past week we heard a ministry report about people only ten miles from our church who are never sure from day to day if they will have enough to eat. It is hard to follow national and international news because the stories are often so awful and seemingly next to impossible to solve.

If all of us were open and honest, we would admit there is no one who goes through life with no serious worries and struggles. Today’s Gospel tells us of two scenarios where people are hurting. One is Jairus, a synagogue official––a man of relative wealth and high position––whose twelve-year-old daughter is at the point of death. The other is a poor woman––a socially “insignificant” person––who had suffered from a chronic hemorrhage for twelve years. Stress and suffering has no respect for social status. Hard things can and do hit any and every one.

The Gospel proceeds to tell of the power of God and the gracious healing action of Jesus. This is the essence of the Good News. God is more powerful than the awful things in this world. Jesus has come into our world to turn what seems “natural” upside down and to give a hope that the brokenness we see and experience in the created order will be healed.

When Jesus was on earth he healed some people. In today’s reading he healed the woman and even raised the young girl from her death bed. Yet nowhere does Scripture or the Christian Tradition claim that Jesus healed everyone around him who was ill or distressed.

On one level this is one of the great unanswerable questions. If God is all powerful and loving, why doesn’t he heal everyone? Why does he allow awful things at all?!

As Christians, we need to have a good grasp of the early story line of our Faith. The Wisdom reading affirms the initial two chapters of Genesis: God created the world very good. Wisdom is explicit: God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living….. For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him.

Because God created us in his image—rational, creative, and volitional, we were created with the ability to make real choices. The most basic of those choices is whether or not to honor God as our Creator and so obey him as Sovereign Lord. Writing to the Romans, St Paul summarizes what happened: Humans have made the choice not [to] accord him as God, and there was an  awful result––they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened (Romans 1:21). Our human parents made a choice that brought brokenness (Christian theology calls this the Fall) not only in human nature; the whole physical universe has been affected: creation was made subject to futility (Romans 8:20).

And so we have stories like Jairus and his daughter, and the afflicted woman. We have awful reports in our news. And we face hard thing in our own lives and the lives of those we love. This is because God allows the effects of bad decisions made by millions of people throughout history to happen. God honors the image of his own nature he created in us, and that includes being able to make real (even if awful) choices. But beyond our limited choices, God is still at work to restore all of creation to fullness of life.

In the meantime, the big issue is how we handle these things. One popular way in our culture is to be entertained to distraction. Keep life full. Try not to think about the bad things. Have as much fun as possible. Focus on dreams of accomplishments and purchases and vacations that we hope are yet to come. That works…. for a while.

But how do we really handle the hard things? My wife’s father is fighting a battle with late-stage cancer right now. It’s not something that is going to go away. What is real and sure and lasting when all that is temporal is going to be lost?

The Gospel tells us that this world does not have the last word. The battles we face and fight are not between equal forces of good and evil. God formed man to be imperishable.

God is the author of life, not death. No matter what the hard circumstances might be, God is greater. Goodness and life are always at work, even in the hard things.

I had a close friendship with a psychiatrist in one of my previous congregations. I once asked him, out of all the horrible things he heard from many of his patients, what surprised him the most. His answer totally surprised me; he said, “The one thing that surprises me the most is how so many people are able to function as normally as they do.” For all the awful broken things he helped people deal with, he saw the power of God’s life and grace at work beyond anything he could understand or ever take credit for.

God does not magically “undo” a world that has been affected by that choice long ago to let a power other than the Lord of all to have influence. But God will not allow the power of sin and death to have the last word. In his Son he has shown us what happens when Death tries to extinguish the Light. John starts his Gospel saying, The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. [Yet] the true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

That Light came visibly and powerful into the lives of Jairus, his daughter, and the afflicted woman. Jesus is about to come to us yet again in the Mystery of the Eucharist. Keep your life open to Jesus. The Light and Life of God himself is here for all of us.

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