Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 5th, 2017)

The Church’s first scripture is an excerpt from the Book of the Old Testament Prophet Malachi.

If you were attentive and listening, the scripture passage likely made little sense and came off as a rant. What’s missing is a context for the prophet Malachi’s words- and for that context we have to know about two extraordinary events that happened in the course of Israelite history.

The first event is the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the temple of Solomon by the armies of the Babylonians in the year 587 BC. This was a catastrophe that haunts the Israelites to this very day. They literally lost everything they believed to be important about their identity as a people- their ancestral lands, the city of Jerusalem, the royal family, the descendants of their greatest king, David, were humiliated and massacred, and the dwelling place of God on earth, the temple of Solomon was desecrated and reduced to a ruin.

Add to all this that the Israelites were rounded up like cattle and marched off as slaves to Babylon where they would languish for years crying out to God for deliverance.

The second event happened in 516 BC, when after long years of exile, the Israelites had returned their ancestral lands and began the long painful process of rebuilding their lives from the ground up. It was in 516 BC that the Israelites built a reduced version of their once great temple, and in doing so re-established the worship that was central and essential to their identity as a people.

These two events are the context for the prophet Malachi’s words- he remembers the events of 587 BC and is speaking about the rebuilding of the temple in 516 BC- and his words to the Israelites, particularly her priests, are words of warning.

 

You see, Malachi believed that the catastrophe of 587 BC was not an accident, but had its direct cause in the fact that the Israelites had abandoned the worship of the one, true God for idols- false gods- gods of wealth, pleasure, power and honors. Idolatry had led to the destruction of Israelites and Malachi held the priests of the Israelites largely responsible for this. In his reckoning- bad priests led to bad worship which led to idolatry which then led to chaos destruction.

So, when in 516 BC, when the temple and worship of the Israelites is finally restored, he has harsh words of warning- “listen up priests, your responsibility is profound and the consequences of your screwing things up are catastrophic. Be warned. God is not mocked nor is God indifferent”.

Now what’s the lesson and what does this scripture from the Prophet Malachi have to do with us?

Remember, the story of the Israelites continues in the Church. The Church is created by Christ as a new kind of Israel and those baptized are created by Christ as a new kind of Israelite. Malachi’s warning reaches across time and space and speaks to us and it is a warning as relevant to us as it was for the Israelites centuries ago- bad priests lead to bad worship which leads to idolatry which leads to destruction. Malachi’s logic holds across time- as true today as it was centuries ago.

Priests are given as their sacred and solemn responsibility leading people in the worship of the one, true God. If they eschew that responsibility, idolatry inevitably takes hold of people’s minds and hearts- and the result of this is never good. The idols that threaten us if our priests fail are not merely mythological beings, but the elevation of our desires, desires for wealth, pleasure, power and honors to our ultimate concern. We will make gods of these desires and these gods inevitably wreak destruction in our lives. We might think otherwise, but for the Bible the worst sin is idolatry and worshipping false gods is the most destructive thing we can do. In the Bible, the function of the priest is not parish administration or offering vague spiritual advice, but to act boldly to thwart the worship of false gods and rescue people from the destructive power of idolatry.

 

The worship of the one, true God happens to us in the Mass, and Christ’s priests are servants of this worship. The Mass is the worship that God wants and it is the worship that has the power to rescue us from the power and influence of false gods. Good priests know this and will do everything they can to lead the people to the worship God in Christ has given to us, the worship that God in Christ wants- the worship of the Mass. That’s our lesson from the Church’s first scripture.

The second scripture is from the New Testament, an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. You might remember that we heard an excerpt from this particular letter last week. In these scriptures, the apostle Paul is complimenting the Thessalonian Christians, identifying them as models for believers everywhere and he is also identifying those qualities that make them such good Christians.

One of those qualities that the apostle Paul identifies is the attentiveness and reverence that the Thessalonian Christians have for the Sacred Scriptures, for what we know as the Bible. “In receiving the Word of God you received not a human word, but, as it truly is, the Word of God”. The Scriptures are not just for the Thessalonian Christians interesting historical documents, but the Word of God communicated to them in the words of men- and because of this, they listen carefully when the Scriptures are proclaimed and attend to every word they hear with great care.

Why? Because they believe that in the Scriptures God is making himself known to them in an extraordinary way.

Do you believe this? What have the Scriptures, the Bible come to mean for you?

If you are a Christian, you believe that the Bible is the privileged way of knowing what God wants of you, and further, that the Bible is a God-given way of coming to know who he is and what he is all about. St. Jerome once aptly commented that ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. He has got that right! Being a Christian is bottom line about coming to know God in Christ and how well we really know Christ is in direct relationship to how well we know the Scriptures that make him known to us!

 

Finally, in his Gospel, Christ has some harsh words of judgement to two groups that were very prominent in terms of the religion of the Israelites- the scribes and the Pharisees. Think of the scribes as experts in regards to the laws which directed Israelite religion and the Pharisees as experts in how one would take those laws and apply them to daily life.

Christ is certain that there is something way off about how both the scribes and Pharisees are presenting and practicing the religious law and he is fiercely determined to set them right.

Christ detects a hypocrisy in the scribes and Pharisees- they are not as pious and virtuous as they appear to be. In fact, many are using the religious law of Israel as a subterfuge, a kind of mask, so that we can reap the benefit of appearing to be pious and virtuous, while really being neither. They are using religion for an ulterior motive, specifically so that they can be esteemed and honored. Religion is not a genuine expression of faith, but is instead a means to their own ends, in this case, getting people to give them the respect they think they deserve.

Using religion as a means to our own ego driven ends… Appearing to be religious, rather than actually being religious… Denigrating religion by lashing it to our ulterior motives- this is the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees. And we should not let ourselves off the hook in this regard.

Instead, we should be humble enough to examine our own consciences.

Our religion, the Christian religion, is not given to us by God in Christ so that we can make of it whatever we want. Nor is the Gospel given to us so that we can make it the servant of worldly aspirations, or use it to ratify our ideologies, or advance our political causes or cultural agendas. The purpose of our religion is not to give us what we want, but to order our desires towards what is good and to prepare us to make sacrifices so that we can fulfill the commands of Christ.

When we lose sight of all this, our Christian religion becomes akin to the distorted religion of the scribes and the Pharisees. We become hypocrites. And the judgement that Christ dropped on the scribes and Pharisees, falls with great weight upon us.

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Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 29th, 2017)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Exodus.

Remember, the Book of Exodus details the marvelous events that changed the people of Israel forever. God intervened in history in an extraordinary way, defeating the false and fallen gods of Egypt and bringing the Israelites from cruel slavery to freedom as God’s own chosen people.

God’s choice of the Israelites was to make of them a people different from the other nations. The nations would see the Israelite’s unique way of life and the curiosity this experience of difference would evoke would them become a kind of bridge, a route of access to coming to know the God of the Israelites. God intended the Israelites to become for the world his invitation to knowing who he is and what he desires for humanity.

We receive a glimpse of the radical difference, the unique way of life, that God chose the Israelites to bear into the world. Their God, the God of the Israelites, is not merely a God of a particular place or of a particular culture, but the One, True God- the God of every place and every people. And the One, True God demands that his people treat others with a reverence and respect that recognizes one should treat others as they would desire to be treated.

What is true of the Israelites as a people is also true of the Church. Remember, the Church proclaims the great story of the Israelites, not for the sake of historical interest, but because Israel foreshadows and anticipates the Church. The Church is the continuation of the story of Israel and the Old Testament’s descriptions and insights about Israel are for us Christians reference points to help us to understand our own identity and mission.

God chose all the baptized in Christ and through Christ made all the baptized his very own people. He chose us as his people so that we could be, like the Israelites, unique, and through our unique way of life, lead others to God in Christ.

Our way of life should look like what is described in today’s first scripture- and that is the lesson. Consider today’s scripture from the Book of Exodus If our way of life as Christians is a mere imitation of the values of the culture around us, if our practice of faith is mediocre, if our witness to the faith is thin, then we will fail in the purpose that God in Christ chose us for and fail in our mission as well.

In the Church’s second scripture, the apostle Paul writes to the Thessalonians, one of the earliest communities of Christians. He praises these Christians for their witness. They are a model of what a community of Christians should be.

Why is the witness of these Christians so extraordinary? Why have they become a model for Christians everywhere?

St. Paul tells us- because they abandoned the worship of idols.

Idolatry, the worship of false and fallen gods is the capital sin of the Bible. Remember, the first of God’s great commandments is a condemnation of idolatry.

Now, idolatry is not just the worship of mythological beings. Idolatry happens when anything worldly becomes our ultimate and primary concern. Examples of worldly idolatry are things like the rapacious desire for wealth, pleasure, power and honors. But idols can also be things like the need to be right all the time or the need to have things our way or the need to feel secure all the time, or even an unwillingness to ever forgive. These attitudes are idols.

Idols make false promises to us, insisting that if we serve them and give them priority, then we will find purpose, meaning and fulfillment. But that’s all a lie. All that idols can deliver is our destruction- and this is why God opposes any and all idols. God’s joy is that humanity would flourish, not be destroyed.

Christians are as susceptible to idolatry as anyone else. Just because we give intellectual or cultural assent to the content of the Christian faith does not free us from power and influence of false and fallen gods. Christian faith is not just ideas in our minds or a cultural expression. Christian faith is a new way of life, a way of life that begins when we do what the ancient Thessalonian Christians did- abandon the worship of false and fallen gods.

Christ is his Gospel distills all the commandments of the Law of Moses, commandments which were concerned with every aspect of life, from eating to drinking, to what one should or should wear or touch, to where one should live and how one should conduct their business- Christ distills all these commandments to love of God and love of neighbor.

Now remember, by love, Christ does not mean something sentimental, but love is for Christ an expression of that for which we would literally give up our lives, that which would be our priority and our greatest concern. Christ is saying that God and neighbor should be our greatest love and worthy of our greatest sacrifices.

Further, for Christ, love is not about our emotions, but our will. Love is not simply what we feel, but is an action and it is expressed in what we are willing to do- thus if we love God, truly, we will worship him. And if we love our neighbor we will serve him.

This worship and service happens for us Christians in the Mass and in what are called the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We Christians don’t make up our worship- God in Christ gives it to us in the Mass. We Christians don’t decide how our neighbor should be treated, God in Christ tells us in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Love of God and of neighbor are not abstractions of the mind or vague public policy decisions, but acts of our own will that are expressed in worship and in service.

Worship and Service. God in Christ commands both of his disciples. If we love God in Christ, then we will do what he commands us to do.

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Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 8th, 2017)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of the longest and most elegantly written books of the Bible. It interprets hundreds of years of Israelite history in light of what God was accomplishing through particular events. Remember, the God of the Israelites, the one, true God, does reveal himself as a distant cosmic force or merely a feeling in our hearts, but as a living, divine person who chooses to act in history, in our world. Prophets like Isaiah interpret the how and why of God’s actions. The Church reverences texts like the Book of Prophet Isaiah, not because they have literary or historical value, but because the Book tells us who God is and what God wants.

Further, by considering how God has acted in history, we have a frame of reference for how God is acting right now and may act in the future.

Today’s Scripture passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is the kind of Biblical texts that makes preachers wince and congregations shift uncomfortably in their seats. Why? Because it is about a recurring theme of Biblical revelation that contemporary Christians find uncomfortable- God’s judgement.

Though we live in a culture that is relentlessly judgmental and ever more unforgiving, we find God’s judgment to be hard to take. Former generations accepted God’s judgment as natural and deserved. Our culture judges God and weighs him in the scale of our expectations.

But I digress…

The Prophet Isaiah turns the gaze of his keen spiritual vision on the Israelites and offer to them an image of a vineyard owner who finds his vineyard to be a bust- the fruit of the vines is unworthy of its purpose- to create fine wine. In fact, all that the vines produce are grapes that are repellent to the taste.

This image of the failed vineyard is interpreted as Isaiah as an image of Israel itself- God established Israel with a particular purpose, and instead of achieving that purpose, Israel has been a disappointment. The purpose of Israel had been to reveal to the nations of power and presence of the one, true God and to invite the nations of the world to know him. But the Israelites had been distracted in this purpose by the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and honors and thus the fruit of their relationship with God had soured.

And here is where it gets uncomfortable for the Israelites: God weighs the Israelites in the scales of his judgment and finds them wanting. He will withdraw from Israel their God given mission and purpose- and without that mission and purpose, the vineyard of Israel will be laid waste, become a ruin.

Biblical prophecy testifies that this dire prophecy, the destruction of the vineyard, will come to fruition in the terrifying events of 587 BC, when the armies of Babylon will invade and lay waste to the lands of the Israelites and the city of Jerusalem. The Israelites will lose everything that God had given them that was supposed to lead the nations to God- their land, their king, the temple, their way of life. They had given these things over to pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and honors and now they would reap a bitter, sour harvest of desolation.

What are we to make of this? What might this mean for us?

The Church presents the Old Testament to us, not just to teach us about the past, but to illuminate the present. The story of Israel has become for us Christians the story of the Church and thus when we hear about Israel and the Israelites our reference point for understanding is the Church.

The meaning of this text is discerned in reference to the Church, which in Christ is the new Israel with us Christians being new Israelites. Thus, the vineyard in Isaiah’s vision is understood as the Church and the warning of judgment is for us.

Are we allowing the Church to fulfill her mission and purpose, not a mission and purpose that we think it should be, but the mission and purpose Christ has given us? Do we use the Church to get what we want or to serve our ideological, political, economic or cultural interests? Is the Church simply a means to our own end, our objectives, our goals? If so, the vineyard is in danger. The warning of Isaiah is for us!

Our second scripture is an excerpt from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

The Apostle Paul testifies that our anxiety about the world, our lives, our salvation, can be assuaged if we seek those attitudes, behaviors, ideals that are Christ-like. Truth and honor. Justice and purity. Beauty and grace. Peace of mind and heart comes from these things.

The lesson? The world testifies that peace comes and anxiety is assuaged if we order our lives in accord worldly attitudes, behaviors, and ideals. These attitudes, behaviors and ideals do not seek to know and emulate Christ, but possess wealth, pleasure, power and honors. Rather than Christ, we esteem the politician, the celebrity, the financier and order our desires accordingly. Would we not be happier if we had what they had? Less anxious? At peace?

It is all a lie and deep down we know it. There are perhaps no other things in the world that generate more anxiety and conflict than wealth, pleasure, power and honors. How many lives are wasted and destroyed by these things!

St. Paul testifies that there is another way- the way of a disciple of the Lord Jesus- and he invites us to accept this way as our own. Wealth, pleasure, power and honor can all be redeemed by Christ, but in order for this to happen, we must know him, and prioritize in our lives, not the attainment of worldly concerns, but knowing and serving Christ.

Finally, Christ the Lord echoes the words of the Prophet Isaiah, for he speaks of the vineyard, yes of Israel- for he testifies to his rejection by his own people, but like the text from Isaiah, the vineyard of which Christ speaks is not just for our understanding to be Israel long ago, but of ourselves.

Christ testifies that the vineyard of the Lord is unproductive because of unproductive workers. These workers would do violence to God’s prophets and would even harm God’s beloved Son.

We may understand ourselves as those workers. Christ’s judgment falls on us.

The owner of the vineyard knows if we are unproductive or hostile.

Some might protest: That we as Christians might be inclined to do violence to Christ, to refuse him, to reject him, seems absurd. How could we ever hurt him?

But remember: Christ’s Body does not dwell simply in a heaven far away, but he is with us as he promised- in the suffering bodies of the poor, in the Sacraments that bear his life and presence into the world, and in the Church, which is not merely an institution or a corporation, but his Body- the continuation of his Incarnation in the here and now.

How do we treat the poor? Christ suffers in those bodies? Do our actions and attitudes demonstrate reverence for Christ in his Sacraments? We do not receive in the Sacraments mere symbols, but Christ’s life and presence. How do we treat the Church? The Church continues to bear the revelation of Christ into the world?

The judgment of God is never popular or easy, but it is necessary because it tells us the truth that we might be content to ignore- the very truth that can save us and set us free.

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Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 1st, 2017)

Today’s first scripture is a small excerpt from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel.

The prophet Ezekiel was not only a prophet, but a priest. During his lifetime he would witness the terrifying catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem and its great temple. He writes his magnificent book as an exile, a refugee- displaced by war. Ezekiel envisions that God will one day act to effect the restoration of the Israelites, and that they would receive from the God of Israel a king, a land and a temple greater than what they had had in the past. As such, Ezekiel is a prophet of hope, insisting that the Israelites, who had lost everything, should not despair. God was acting to accomplish their restoration- for their part the Israelites had to trust and to believe.

Today’s particular scripture from the prophet Ezekiel concerns divine justice and punishment and mercy. What should God do to those who while having repented of their sins, remain still responsible for having perpetrated great harm? Why should it simply be enough for God to forgive them if they repent? Should they not expect the full force of his wrath despite their contrition? Why should God forgive rather than justly rendering to the sinner what they should have coming?

Ezekiel’s answer is that God’s way of dealing with sin and sinners is his own way and he does not need of our advice or counsel to act. What is it to us then if in the face of human sinfulness God chooses to be merciful, to forgive and to dispense with punishment, even if that punishment seems to us to be deserved?

Ezekiel is testifying to God’s mercy, his willingness to forgive and if need be, set right, circumstances that we cannot in our own power change.

At times, it may seem to us, that God’s mercy resists the kinds of standards that worldly justice would impose, but in these cases, it is most likely that our standards of justice are distorted and what God’s mercy effects is actually the proper standard of justice that our own narrowness and sin prevents us from seeing and understanding.

This is hard for us to understand. Concretely, Ezekiel’s words find their fulfillment in the cross of the Lord Jesus, in which God allows his mercy to set right a terrible injustice that humanity could not of their own efforts ever remedy. Remember, the cross of the Lord Jesus is not simply a martyr dying for a cause, but a direct and vicious assault on God himself. God came into this world in Christ and humanity demonstrated just how callous, cruel and stupid we can be- God came into this world in Christ and he was tortured and killed. What should God do to a humanity capable of such a horror? What reason would God have to forgive us? What could humanity ever do to set such a wrong right?

God answers these questions with a display of his mercy, the gift of an undeserved and unexpected second chance.

God’s response to the cross defies worldly characterizations of justice- we don’t get what we deserve. Instead, we get what we truly need- mercy.

That’s the lesson we can take from the Church’s first scripture.

Our second scripture us from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians.

In this scripture, the apostle Paul references a poem, really a hymn, that recounts the mighty deeds of God in Christ.

What God accomplishes is to empty himself of his great power and to live as one like us. Remember, the great revelation of God in Christ is not merely an ethical ideal, but that God has in Jesus Christ, accepted a human nature and lived (like us) a real, human life. This is what the apostle Paul refers to when he testifies that God has in Christ “emptied himself and taken the form of a slave”. God’s acceptance of a human nature in Christ is so total and complete that he even allows himself the experience of suffering and death.

Because the story of God in Christ may be so familiar to us, we may have lost an appreciation for just how strange and off putting this peculiar revelation really and truly is.

 

Worldly expectations would assume that when God appeared he would reveal himself in worldly power- he would assume the position of highest status, cloth himself in prosperity and success. He would fill himself up with those things that to the world, matter most- wealth, pleasure, power and honors and take the form, not of a slave, but of a politician, a celebrity, a financier- someone who instantly capture our attention and admiration.

But in his revelation, God is Christ does none of that- he takes the lowest place and does so that he can raise us up. And he raises us up not so that we can conform to the standards of the world, but so that being transformed in him we might change the world with him- by emptying ourselves, and taking the form of his slaves.

God, who in Christ, put his divine life at our disposal, asks that we place our human lives at his disposal.

That is the lesson of our second scripture.

Finally, the Gospel- Christ offers us a brief parable, a story of a father with two sons- one who tells his father what he wants to hear, but does not do what his father asks him to do. The other son, tells his father what he doesn’t want to hear, but he does what his father asks (him to do). The father in the parable is God, the two sons are stand ins for us, and the vineyard is the Church, and through the Church- the world.

Christ is asking us to consider whom we think is more pleasing to God- someone who identifies himself as a Christian, but does not live in accord with the commandments of God or someone who rejects Christ, and yet comes to repent of their refusal and seeks to follow God’s commandments.

Christ’s concern is hypocrisy- a willful disconnect between our profession of the Church’s faith and the manner in which we live.

Christian Faith, the Church’s Faith, being a disciple, a Catholic is not about merely giving an assent to propositions or ideas. It is not enough to merely think correctly about the content of the Church’s teachings or to consider them in the abstract. Instead, the Christian faith, the Church’s faith, being a disciple, a Catholic, is a way of life and this way of life only becomes intelligible, it only makes sense to us, if it is practiced, enacted, lived.

There are many we claim the title Christian and that is all that being a Christian means- claiming a title. It’s as if being a Christian for some is like preferring one consumer brand over another, wearing a shirt with a logo or clothes from a designer. This is the way of appearances. Appearing to do God’s will is easier than actually doing God’s will and thus what is easier is preferred to what it actually true.

There is another way- repenting of a superficial appropriation of the Church’s Faith and actually, intentionally, deliberately practicing the Church’s faith as a way of life.

Only one way is pleasing to God. Which way have we chosen? Which way will we choose?

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Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 3rd, 2017)

Our first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah spoke the Lord’s word of truth during the terrifying time of the total and complete collapse of what had once been the mighty kingdom of David. The armies of Babylon were poised and ready to strike. The Babylonians would unleash a destructive power upon the Israelites that haunts the people of God to this very day. In 587 BC the armies of Babylon laid siege the city of Jerusalem and with lightning speed conquered the mighty city of David.

Jeremiah saw all this coming. He repeatedly warned the Israelites, but the distractions of wealth, pleasure, power and honors made them indifferent or hostile to the Lord’s prophet. When the end finally came, and the Babylonians had destroyed everything that the Israelites held dear, the Israelites turned on Jeremiah and killed him. Thus are the rewards of the prophets.

In today’s scripture, the prophet Jeremiah laments that his mission as a prophet has brought him nothing but suffering. He told the people the truth, but the people did not want the truth- what they wanted was affirmation. What the people wanted was for the prophet Jeremiah to tell them what they wanted to hear, to confirm them in their opinions and their prejudices.

And so the prophet Jeremiah is tempted- he could alleviate his suffering. He could profit from his prophecy, all he had to do was accommodate his message to his audience and tell the people what they wanted to hear.

All he had to do was lie.

But he cannot. The Lord’s word of truth is like a fire burning within him and when he speaks it is as if he is breathing that fire.

What is the lesson?

The mission of prophecy now resides by Christ’s will in his Church. And so it is that the Church must, like the prophet Jeremiah, tell us, not what we want to hear, but what the Lord commands his Church to preach. The Church is not ours, it is Christ’s, and the voice with which the Church is compelled by Christ to speak is Christ’s voice, not our own.

If it is not Christ’s voice with which the Church is speaking then the Church is faltering and failing in her mission.

The word of the Lord is as uncanny and off putting now as it was in the days of the prophet Jeremiah. In a world that prefers as its gods, the idols of wealth, pleasure, power and honor, the words of one true God, Jesus Christ, will always incite opposition. A world enamored by idols will tempt the Church to be silent or insist that it will reward the Church if her words simply sanction the opinions and prejudices of the people. Some in the Church will acquiesce to all this. Others, like the prophet Jeremiah, will breathe fire.

Our second scripture for today, an excerpt from the New Testament Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, insists that Christians not be conformed to the times in which they live, but rather offer to the times (to the world) an alternative, a different way of life. This unique way of life is one which has been transformed by one’s relationship with Christ in his Church.

This does not mean that one lives as if one’s way of life is merely a screed against the world, but instead as an invitation to a different way, one that is ordered by love of Christ and in his name, love of neighbor, a way of life that entails sacrifice, but that ultimately makes the world a better and more hopeful place.

The Church has as its mission to bear the power and presence of Jesus Christ into the world it does this through word and sacrament, but also through a way of life. Christian faith is not something that can only be preached, it must also be practiced if it is to deliver its true meaning and purpose.

The Church is attractive in every age of its long life, not because it accommodates or imitates the values of a given time, but because her way of life is unusual, different, and unique- like the Lord Jesus.

In his Gospel, the Lord Jesus testifies that his mission is to be publicly humiliated, to suffer and to die, and in doing so reveal God’s power in an extraordinary and unexpected way.

Peter will have none of this. His opposition to Christ may rise out of concern for his friend, but it more likely arises out of his expectation that Christ would reveal himself as a mighty conqueror and worldly king, who would crush his enemies with violence and rule through the force of his will. In the distortions of his spiritual vision, divine power is equated with worldly power- he doesn’t understand the difference. And so he misses the revelation.

Christ’s rebuke of Peter is brutal. He chastises him not just for missing the point, but for acting like the worst creature in the universe- Satan. What Christ is saying is that Peter doesn’t just want what he wants; Peter wants what the devil wants.

And lest his disciples think they are off the hook, he turns to them and informs them that everything he said would happen to him will likely happen to them as well. God in Christ means to transform the world through the power of love and true love manifests itself in suffering and in sacrifice.

And there is the harsh lesson- not just for Peter, but for all of us.

Most of us think at some point in our lives that we have God all figured out and the universe would be a far better one if only God would do what we want him to do and place his power at our disposal. Of course, in all this egoism and posturing, we are both flattering and fooling ourselves. Be honest: what would most of us do with God’s power?

That God’s ways are not our ways seems to many to be merely a cliché, but it is also true. And this truth is revealed in the most extraordinary way in the unusual, and at times disconcerting, revelation of Jesus Christ.

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Monday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time (August 21st, 2017)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Judges.  The Book of Judges presents an interim period in the history of the Israelites, the years between the Exodus from Egypt (remember, the Israelites had lanquished in slavery in Egypt for generations until the God of Israel defeated the gods of the Egyptians and liberated the Israelites from bondage) and the establishment of the monarchies of Saul and David.

The Judges are the men and women who provided leadership during this critical juncture in Israelite history.

Today’s scripture from the Book of Judges warns us against the sin of idolatry.  Idolatry is truly the capital sin of the bible.  There are more warnings about idolatry than any other transgression in the Bible and of the Ten great commandments, it is a warning against idolatry that is given priority.

Our understanding of idolatry should not be limited to that of the worship of pagan gods and goddesses.  Idolatry happens when we take any finite reality and elevate it to our ultimate concern and give it a place in our lives that should only properly belong to God.  Our idols can be such things as wealth, pleasure, power and honors, but it can also be things like ideology or the need to be right or to have things our way.  Many contemporary ideologies are the elevation of feelings to our ultimate concern.

The Bible is clear that nothing good comes from idols.  False gods allure us with false promises.  False gods destroy those who would worship them and thus does the one, true God burn with passionate intensity to warn us about idolatry and deliver us from their power.

The Book of Judges tells us that the best of the Israelite judges opposed the idolatry of the Israelites, thus also it should be with the leaders of the Church.

The Lord Jesus encounters a young man who asks him what he must do to attain eternal life?  Christ responds that fulfilling the precepts of the Ten Commandments will suffice.  The young man presents himself as willing to do more than this and Christ then asks him to abandon the pursuit of wealth, giving what he has to the poor, and placing his life wholly and completely at Christ’s disposal.

This the young man will not do and his refusal results in much grief.

The highest expression of the Christian spiritual life is expressed in the rigorous demands of what are called the evangelical counsels- poverty, chastity and obedience.  These values constitute a way of life of total and complete dedication to Christ, not just in some things, but in all things.  It is not an easy way, and not all will be able to live out the evangelical counsels in their fullest expressions.

Those who are able are Christ’s great athletes.

All of Christians must accept the evangelical counsels, even if it means we accept them at less than their fullest expression.  Wealth should not be squandered, but given over to help the needy.  A Christian recognizes that no one is simply a means to satisfy our base desires.  Adherence to the command of Christ to love God and neighbor is not merely an option.

The Christian spiritual life demands more of us than adherence to the 10 Commandments.  Living a way of life integrated by the 10 Commandments is basic to the Christian life, it is ordinary not extraordinary.

The extraordinary way takes us where the young man in the Gospel would not go- accepting less for ourselves so that others might have more, disciplining our desires and ordering them to Christ’s will and purposes, and seeking to live in communion with Christ, not just in those things that we choose, but in all that Christ chooses for us.

 

Hofmann Christ and the rich young ruler 1889

 

 

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 20th, 2017)

 

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, one of the lengthiest in the Bible, expresses God’s perspective in regards to some of the most momentous, indeed troubling events in the history of the Israelites.  Kings and nations and fall.  The people suffer triumph and tragedy.  Hymns of praise and lament are sung.  Monuments are raised and brought down. The prophets speak.  And God acts.  He acts in the midst of real world circumstances in ways that surprise and confound us.

Today’s excerpt from the Book of Isaiah speaks of a holy mountain upon which all Israelites will one day gather, but not the Israelites alone will be assembled in this sacred place.  The Israelites will be joined by foreigners, those whom had been previously been excluded from the Israelite way of life and worship.  This is God’s plan.  This is God’s will.  He means to gather his chosen people along with all the nations of the earth and once gathered, he will offer them the opportunity to worship him as he intends for them to worship.

The holy mountain that the prophet envisions is coded language for the temple, the great sanctuary in Jerusalem, where the divine presence dwelled and that was the singular place where the Israelites gathered to worship.  But the holy mountain of Isaiah is a new kind of temple, established by the Lord not just for the Israelites, but for the nations.  In this new temple, God’s presence would reside.  In this new temple, the nations would be gathered for worship.

Christians believe that this new temple is the mystical Body of Christ which we experience as the Church and the worship of this new temple is the Mass.  In these ways do we see and understand that the vision of the Prophet Isaiah is being fulfilled in reality, in the here and now.  The house of prayer for all peoples is the Church and the prayer of the people is the prayer of the Mass.

Thus, do we believe that God in Christ is bringing the prophecy of Isaiah to its fulfillment.

The Church and its worship, the Mass, are not just constructs of culture, artifacts of history, or expressions of ethnic identity.  The Church does not gather for worship to celebrate itself or express appreciation for the good deeds of the community.  The Church’s worship is not intended as a form of peculiar religious entertainment.

Instead the meaning and purpose of the Church and the Mass is discerned in reference to the prophecies of the Old Testament and the Revelation of God in Christ.  It is only in reference to these that meaning and purpose of the Church and the Mass can be understood.

The prophet Isaiah testifies today that the Church is to be the gathering of the nations for worship in a new kind of temple.  God in Christ reveals that this gathering of nations is his Church, and the worship he gives to this assembly, the worship he wants, is the prayer of the Mass.

This is the meaning of today’s first scripture.

The Church’s second scripture for today is an excerpt from the New Testament Letter to the Romans.  The author of the Letter to the Romans is the apostle Paul.

The great theme of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is the extraordinary way God has acted in Christ to draw both the Israelites and the Gentiles into a new kind of communion with one another, a new kind of communion the Apostle speaks of as a new kind of Israel, a new kingdom with a new king- a kingdom that is God’s that is meant to include all the peoples of the earth and a new king who is God in Christ himself!

This new kingdom and new king is offered to all people by God as an extraordinary opportunity, but while it is offered to all, God in Christ imposes it on no one.  Our acceptance of communion with God’s new Israel, his new kingdom and the new king, God in Christ, is meant to be a free act of our will.  God chooses us all for his kingdom, but then we must choose what our relationship to the king and the kingdom will be.

It is deeply mysterious to the Apostle Paul that some, who have been offered communion with the new Israel, with the new kingdom and the new king, have refused God in Christ’s invitation.  Many refused in the time of the Apostles.  And many refuse God’s invitation today.

St. Paul ponders this refusal in today’s excerpt from his Letter to the Romans.  He wonders what such a refusal means and testifies that God must permit it to reveal something extraordinary and wonderful.

What this extraordinary and wonderful thing must be is that God reveals in the face of our refusals to accept an offer of his mercy.  A mercy is an act of compassion that is undeserved and inexplicable.  It seems, that God in Christ remains faithful even when we are unfaithful, and willing to forgive us, when we do not deserve his forgiveness.  God’s mercy in Christ is revealed, not as a willingness to accept us simply as we are, but as a prompt for us to change. In his mercy, God in Christ does not meet our refusal with a threat, but with an open invitation.  His offer of the gift of the new kingdom and the new king still stands, even should we refuse to take it.  Christ reveals that God in his mercy offers us the possibility of another chance.

It is God’s mercy that is for St. Paul so extraordinary and wonderful.  God reveals himself in Christ as being capable of an uncanny generosity, of giving to us his forgiveness, even when we do not deserve it, and imparting mercy, when what simple justice would require would be his wrath.

As believers in Christ, we accept that the privileged moment of God’s mercy, the sacred encounter where God offers us another chance, happens in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  In this Sacrament, God in Christ acts to meet our refusals with the extraordinary gift of his mercy.  This Sacrament is a privileged encounter with Christ and the means by which his mercy meets and overcomes our refusals.

Finally, Christ speaks to us in his Gospel, which presents an extraordinary encounter between the Lord Jesus and a Canaanite woman.

 

The details that the woman Christ meets happens to be a Canaanite is not incidental.  This person belongs to a nation that was one of the great enemies of the Israelites.  Emnity and hatred between Israelites and Canaanites was ancient with both peoples bearing grudges and tearing open old wounds that went back generations to time immemorial.

And yet, this woman, an enemy of the Israelites, comes to Christ, who is himself the God of the Israelites, seeking his aid, confident of his help.

And to her surprise. and the surprise of Christ’s Israelite companions, Christ, the God of the Israelites comes to the aid of the woman and answers the pleading of a Canaanite.

The God of Israel will help.  He will even help those who have been his enemies.

This confounds and confuses many Christians today as much as it confounded and confused the Israelites who knew God in Christ face to face.

Many believe that the power of God is a power that we can wield against those who might oppose us.  Many believe that God will justify us in our hatred and sanction us in our pain filled unwillingness to ever forgive.

But God in Christ reveals something else about God.  He is not a totem to be carried into our battles against our enemies or a power to be leveraged on behalf of our causes.  He is not a force that we are to apply to those who disappoint us or a sentence of condemnation we pass on those who might disagree with us.

He trivializes our worldly divisions with the offer of his grace.

He intends to do to our enemies what he did for the Canaanite woman.

The lesson?

God in Christ intends to gather the Israelites and Canaanites (enemies) together for worship on his holy mountain.  He wants to gather us there too…

 

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