Second Sunday of Advent (December 10th, 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 books in the Bible and likely sounds cryptic, even unintelligible to our ears. The prophet speak of events, circumstances and people that have long since faded from the memory of nearly everyone except scholars and historians. As such most preachers will try to derive some abstraction from the text if they speak about it at all.

This can be helpful as far as it goes, but it just doesn’t go far enough. The Bible is not a book of abstractions but a book about how God acts in the real world, in real lives, in real events and circumstances. The God of the Bible (your God!) is not a cosmic force, feeling in your heart or idea in your mind. The God of the Bible is a living, active, divine person who seeks a relationship with his creation and in particular a relationship with us. This relationship happens, not just in a far away heaven, but in the here and now of this world.

And so, what is this first scripture about?

Basically, the prophet Isaiah is reassuring the Israelites in the face of one of the most cataclysmic events in their history. Around 720 BC the armies of Assyria invaded the territories of the Israelites, cutting the nation in two and driving 10 of the 12 tribes of the Israelites out of their ancestral homeland. These 10 tribes would be lost forever. In 702 BC the armies of Assyria were at the gates of the city of Jerusalem where the remaining Israelites had taken refuge. The Israelites were facing sure and certain destruction.

The prophet speaks words of courage and consolation to the Israelites, insisting that God would come to fight on behalf of his people. God would come to set a world gone wrong right. Isaiah presents God as a mighty warrior who hearing the distress of the Israelites, will come into the world with the full force of his power and deal with the enemies of Israel.

Oddly enough, the armies of Assyria would withdraw, forced into retreat by a plague that breaks out and takes the lives of many in the Assyrian army. Isaiah understood this plague to be God’s intervention.

What does this have to do with us?

This prophecy from Isaiah highlights one of the great expectations of Israel- that God would intervene in the midst of their real life struggles and set a world gone wrong right. The Israelites, who were so often besieged and beleaguered by other nations, hoped that God would come into the world as a warrior and fight on their behalf, defeating their enemies.

It is our faith as Christians that this is precisely what God does in Christ. God comes into this world in Christ ready for a fight, prepared for a showdown with all the dark powers that have opposed God from the beginning- the dark powers of sin, death and the devil (and all who serve them). Thus, this prophecy from Isaiah is proclaimed during Advent so that we Christians can remember just who Christ the Lord is- he is God the Warrior, who comes into this world to set wrongs right and wage war against the powers of sin, death and the devil.

This is why in a world in which so much is wrong, we Christians continue to heed to the words of the prophet Isaiah- and seek comfort and consolation in God who in Jesus Christ, fights on our side against the dark powers and comes into this world to set things right.

Christ coming into the world is the concern of our second scripture, an excerpt from the New Testament Letter of Peter.

In this letter, the apostle Peter warns us not to become too preoccupied and enamored of this world and the things in it. We are only here a short while and the things of world, being finite, will one day all pass away.

The apostle then evokes a dramatic and terrifying day when God in Christ will come in the fullness of his power and bring his creation to an end. But that end will itself be a new beginning, the occasion for a new creation.

This frightening text from the apostle Peter is meant to highlight for us one of the great truths, the great revelations of Christian faith- that God in Christ has come into this world, but this is not his last and final revelation. God in Christ will come again, and he will come, not as he did as the tiny baby of Bethlehem, but with the full force of his divine power, a power that made creation and can also unmake creation.

This would terrify us into complete paralysis if not for the truth Christ reveals that when he comes again in the full force of his power, and not as a baby, he still comes as he did the first time- as our Redeemer and our Savior. His final battle is not so much with us, but with the dark powers that continue to afflict us. We need only turn to him in the midst of this conflict and he will fight on our behalf and rescue us from the power of sin and death and the devil that rage against us. God in Christ loves his people so much that he will upend creation itself if that is what it takes to defeat the dark powers and to save us.

That’s the lesson from Letter of Peter.

Finally, in Christ’s Gospel, we hear the voice crying in the wilderness, the voice of the wild man himself- John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was a priest who had gone rogue. Distressed and disgusted by the ruling elites of his time, in particular, the dynasty of King Herod, who had presented himself as Israel’s long awaited messiah and the true successor to King David, John had left his service in the Jerusalem Temple and retreated to the wilderness, where he called the Israelites away from the Temple (which had been rebuilt and financed by King Herod as a sign to the Israelites that he was their one, true king) and insisted they repent- because John believed that God’s coming into the world was imminent and when he came, he would deal with the ruling elites of the Israelites and set what was wrong right.

And on that day the Lord arrived, you didn’t want to be between those elites and God- you wanted to be standing with God.

And so, John’s message is get away from Jerusalem, get away from the Temple, get away from the Herodians and the ruling elites, because when God gets here, he is going to deal with all that and you don’t want to be in his way.

It is John the Baptist who sees correctly that Christ the Lord is God who is come into the world to set things right. And in his own way, Christ the Lord will deal with Jerusalem, the Temple, the Herodians and the elites, but he does so in a way John did not expect. He wages his war against the powers that prop up all the world’s corruption- the dark powers of sin, death and the devil.

Sin, death and the devil are real, and God comes into the world in Christ to deal with them.

He comes into our lives to deal with them as well, for these dark powers do not just afflict the world, they afflict us, personally and individually. We cannot of our own power or will defeat them, and that is why Christ comes to us repeatedly, personally and individually, through the Sacraments of the Church to defend us and to defeat the dark powers that subvert us.

And there is the lesson of today’s Gospel. Get ready. Christ the Warrior comes. Get out of his way. He has sin, death and the devil in his sights. And he has come for a fight. On our part, we have to make a decision, when the fight against the dark powers comes close- whose side will we be on?

saint-john-the-baptist-in-the-wilderness-bartolome-esteban-murillo

Advertisements

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (November 26th, 2017)

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

The visions of the prophet Ezekiel interpret one of the most catastrophic events in the history of the Israelites.

In the year 587 BC the last remnant of what was once one of the mightiest kingdoms of the ancient world was destroyed- the Kingdom of David.

In 587 BC the armies of the Babylonian empire invaded the city of Jerusalem; desecrated and destroyed the temple of Solomon, (which had been one of the wonders of the world), slaughtered the royal family, (the descendants of Israel’s greatest king, David); enslaved the Israelites (who would spend long years of painful exile in Babylon); and tore down the walls of city, leaving nothing but ruins.

Israel was no more, at least so it seemed.

Ezekiel interprets these terrifying events, and he does so theologically- that is, he asks what God is doing and why. Why has such suffering been brought upon the very people that God called his own? What would God do in response to the sufferings of the Israelites?

Today’s excerpt from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel is written as a kind of code- God speaks to Ezekiel, indicating that the rulers of his people, whom Ezekiel identifies as “shepherds”, the descendants of King David, had for the most part been a disaster and had led the people astray. The preoccupation of the cultural and political elites of the Israelites with wealth, pleasure, power and honors had poisoned the hearts and minds of the people, and the consequence of this were the horrific events of 587 BC. The rulers and elites’ preoccupation with wealth, pleasure, power and honors ultimately delivered God’s people into the hands of their enemies.

What would God do in response? Would he abandon his people?

Ezekiel counsels that God would not abandon his people, but he would rescue them from their enemies and he would himself become the shepherd of his people- that is, in coded language, Ezekiel’s way of saying that God would become their king. No longer would the people be subject to the corruptions of earthly rulers or elites, for God would make himself their king.

Ezekiel also insists that when God the king revealed himself he would set things right and bear a judgment upon all those who through their preoccupation with wealth, pleasure, power and honor, had brought such harm to the Israelites.

What does all this mean?

For us Christians, the vision of Ezekiel and the promise of God the Shepherd who reveals himself as the king, foreshadows or anticipates the revelation of Christ the Lord. Remember, we Christians believe that the Lord Jesus is not merely one of many great men of history. Christ the Lord is not merely a philosopher, social activist, political agitator, or spiritual guru. Instead Jesus the Lord is really and truly God, who has accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life- and God has done this so as to reveal himself as not only the king of the Israelites, but of all the nations, indeed of all of heaven and of earth, of the universe itself.

The Church’s second scripture is from the New Testament, an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Christians who lived in the ancient city of Corinth.

The apostle Paul’s purpose in this particular scripture is to give testimony- testimony to Christ- who he is and what he has accomplished and in his testimony St. Paul insists that Christ has a power that no earthly power can claim- and what is this unique power? The power to defeat death, a power that Christ manifests in his resurrection from the dead.

Remember, we Christians believe that the Lord Jesus who is God, revealed himself in real flesh and real blood- he lived, God lived, like us a real, human life and he died a real human death. But death was not the end of him, for in dying, God in Christ revealed his power to be greater than death and this is what his resurrection signifies to us. And just as his flesh and blood is real and the human life he lived is real, and the death he died is real, so also is his resurrection from the dead.

Christ’s resurrection is no mere symbol or metaphor, but a real event that happened in real space and real time and in a real place. Christ’s body rose from the dead through God’s power in his real body and because of that, St. Paul insists, the world has changed.

That’s what we Christians believe and we refuse to accept anything less than a real event in a real body when it comes to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

For St. Paul, the resurrection of Christ reveals the extent of his power, a power greater than any earthly power- a power greater than the rulers and elites of any age or any nation. St. Paul testifies that so often the rulers of world claim power over our lives, even threatening us with death if we do not yield to their claims. Earthly powers claim and exercise the power to kill, to take life, but God in Christ nullifies their claim to power because he has the power to not only give life, but to raise that life from the dead.

And while we might be enamored and pre-occupied with earthly powers- the politician, the celebrity, the financier, St. Paul insists we pay attention to Christ the Lord, for only he can give life and deliver us from death.

That’s the testimony of St. Paul to the Christians of Corinth- and his testimony to us Christians gathered here today.

Finally, the Lord Jesus presents a frightening vision in his Gospel. He evokes the end of all days, the revelation in this world of an ancient vision from the Old Testament Book of Daniel of one called the “Son of Man”. This Son of Man, who reveals in himself the power of God in the form of a man, comes into the world to set things right and this setting right means that those who have been the victims of earthly powers, whose cries for help were drowned out in the cacophony of politics, whose dignity was assaulted by the pretenses of culture, and whose lives were made miserable by the deprivations of poverty, will finally receive justice. And this justice will also mean a harsh sentence on those who preference and preoccupation with wealth, pleasure, power and honors, made them indifferent to the sufferings of those around them.

Who is this Son of Man? It is Christ the Lord himself. And when will this frightening vision of Christ who comes to set things right come to pass? Sooner than we think.

Remember Christians, it is our faith that Christ the Lord really and truly comes into our lives and into our world- personally and does so in history, in mystery and in judgement.

Christ comes in history in his revelation as God, who has accepted a human nature and lived a real human life- and it is this revelation in history that the scriptures attest to. Thus did God in Christ reveal himself in history.

Christ also comes in mystery, really and truly, but mysteriously in the Church, which is his Body in the world, continuing his revelation in the flesh throughout space and time and through the Church he makes his presence known in the Sacraments, in the lives of the Saints and in the suffering bodies of the poor. Thus does God in Christ reveal himself in mystery.

But Christ also comes in judgement. And what is his judgement? It is the revelation of our truth, a ruthless test of our sincerity as his disciples. He has given us his Word- have we believed it? He has entrusted his with his Church- have we been willing to serve? He has given us his way of life- have we lived it? He has insisted that we love one another as he loves us- have we done what he asked us to do?

That moment of judgement is not in a future far away- it is right now. For in history Christ came into this world and in mystery he remains in world. And in our encounter with him, in history or mystery, our truth will be revealed and our sincerity tested. The Son of Man has come. The day of judgement of which Christ speaks is now.

ChristtheKing-672x372

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.

christ-in-the-house-of-simon-the-pharisee-philippe-de-champaigne

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.

TV_Eucharist

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.

Marten_van_Valckenborch_-_Parable_of_the_wicked_husbandmen_(October)

 

 

 

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?

Jesus_meets_John_the_Baptist

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.

jesuspeter