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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