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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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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Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (January 29th, 2017)

 

The first of the Church’s scriptures for today is an excerpt from the book of the

Old Testament prophet, Zephaniah. Zephaniah spoke the Lord’s word of truth in

the years preceding a horrific catastrophe- the destruction of the Kingdom

established by David by the armies of Babylon. This catastrophe is foreseen by

Zephaniah, but he discerns more than destruction- God will act, the prophet

testifies, God will act to effect the restoration of his people. But this restoration

will not produce an Israel like before, worldly, pre-occupied with wealth, pleasure,

power and honors, but an Israel that will manifest to the world their relationship

with God through humility and lowliness. The mighty kingdom of David will pass

away, but the remnant, what appears to the world to be nothing and nobodies,

will be precisely the means through which God reveals himself to the world.

 

In other words, Zephaniah understood the catastrophe that the Israelites would

face, the loss of everything the world considered to be important, to be not just a

loss, but an opportunity. Stripped of worldliness, Israel might become what God

had intended his people to be- true representatives to the world of the one, living

and true God. Bereft of the distractions of wealth, pleasure, power and honor,

the Israelites might better appreciate and understand what it truly mean to be

God’s chosen people.

 

The lesson in all this for us is properly understood by correlating or connecting

what the prophet Zephaniah says to the Israelites and to the Church. The

prophet’s words are for us- for the Church (and by Church I do not mean just the

hierarchy, but all the baptized). How are we enamored by worldliness? How

much of our time and efforts is spent in pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and

honors? And what does our attainment of worldly things contribute to our

mission as representatives of God in the world? The prophet insists that the

chosen people of God will make him known in humility and lowliness- what would

the prophet make of us? What does God make of us?

 

The Church’s second scripture is from the New Testament letter of St. Paul to the

Corinthians. In this text, the Apostle Paul speaks of a reality that appears to the

worldly to be foolish and weak, a nothing and a nobody, contemptible and

despised. What is this reality of held in such contempt by the worldly?

 

It is Christ and those who belong to him- Christ and his Church.

 

However, what appears to so worthy of the world’s contempt, is in actual fact,

God and his chosen people. In other words, the worldly have got everything

wrong- what the worldly think is power is actually their own weakness, and what

the world thinks is glory, is actually their own foolish pride. What the worldly

think matters most, doesn’t actually matter all that much at all.

 

In Christ, God reveals himself to the world in a way that confounds and confuses

all the expectations of who God is and what he is supposed to do. In Christ, God

makes himself small, in fact, he makes himself seem like a nothing or a nobody,

going so far to allow himself to be maligned, tortured and executed, all so that he

can reveal his power over death, and in doing so, show the worldly just how

empty their own claims to power really and truly are.

 

As it is with Christ, so it is with his Church. Real power, divine power in the

Church is not revealed by those who manage her wealth, preside over her

bureaucracies, or who receive the most in terms of public attention. Real power,

divine power, in the Church is foremost revealed in her Sacraments and in her

Saints- for in her Sacraments and Saints, the Church is most like Christ. The world,

indeed many in the Church, think little of either the Sacraments or the Saints,

preferring the Church’s wealth and power as their preoccupation, but true power

resides in the Sacraments and the Saints. The worldly cannot see and appreciate

this, but to those who are faithful to Christ- they see things rightly and they

appreciate and they understand.

 

Finally, the Church presents to us a select passage from the Gospel of Matthew-

and it is one of the most cherished and renowned passages in the Gospel!

 

The Gospel for today are the Lord Jesus’ own words concerning beatitude or

blessedness. In other words, how does one discern God’s favor?

 

Whom does God single out for his particular attention? Who are the ones that

God chooses to be the means through which he reveals his will and his purposes?

 

The answer to this is revealed to us by God in Christ in today’s Gospel.

 

The worldly insist that divine favor is manifested in worldly attainments- in

wealth, in pleasure, in power and in honors. The worldly prize success in terms of

worldly attainments- who is the richest, who is the most powerful, who is it that is

recognized and rewarded, who is it that lives in comfort and security? The

worldly consider such success as blessedness, as beatitude. These things

represent God’s favor and having these things is the measure, the evidence of

blessedness or beatitude.

 

But God in Christ reveals something else entirely. God in Christ identifies himself

with those who often have little of what the worldly deem to be valuable and

important. In his beatitudes, in his revelation of who is truly blessed by God and

why, Christ overturns our expectations of who has divine favor and what it really

means to be in an authentic and true relationship with God.

Sermon on the Mount
Copenhagen Church Alter Painting

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 26th, 2016)

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

The Book of Kings is one of the historical books of the Bible, describing people, events and circumstances that contributed to the rise and fall of the Kingdom of David. The Kingdom of David is important because it was the means that God used to unite the tribes of the Israelites into a single people. Strengthened by their unity, the Israelites could better accomplish their mission, which was to invite the world into a relationship with the one, true God.

The Kingdom of David was subverted from its beginning by pride and idolatry, yet despite human folly, God’s plan would be accomplished. God’s plan was fulfilled when the Christ-child was born into a remnant of the family of King David. Thus God came into the world. The Kingdom of David would fail to bring the world to God and so God would come into the world in Christ.

Throughout the history of the Kingdom of David, God would send prophets to the Israelites to remind them of their unique mission. Two of the greatest of these prophets were Elijah and Elisha. Both men were forces to be reckoned with, great wonderworkers and today’s scripture details how the prophet Elisha was summoned by God to mission.

Elisha abandons everything the world considers to be important- his family and wealth- for the sake of his mission. His focus on what the Lord wants him to do will be singular. He risks poverty and loneliness, trusting that God will provide for what he lacks. Heroic efforts always necessitate heroic commitment and true prophets are God’s heroes and no one becomes a hero without risk and sacrifice. Where an act of faith in God is accompanied by risk and sacrifice you have the possibility of a hero and the potential for a saint.

The heroism of Elijah and Elisha, indeed of all the biblical prophets endures in the Church in those men and women who eschew family and wealth for the sake of the Church’s mission. These men and women can be found in what are called religious orders, communities like the Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans. Without the witness of the prophets, the Israelites languished in mediocrity and lost a sense of God’s purpose for their lives. Without the witness of men and women religious, the Church falters and fails in its mission.

The Church is not merely a secular corporation or a nation state, whose goals can be accomplished by only by salaried employees and bureaucrats. God advances the mission of the Church through the efforts of men and women willing to take great risks and make great sacrifices. Inasmuch as the Church’s communities of prophets, men and women who accept a religious life of risk and sacrifice, fade and diminish, so also will the Church. As the Church fades and diminishes, so also does the love of Christ that the Church bears into a loveless world.

The mission of the Church by necessity requires heroes- men and women of risk and sacrifice. The age of God’s heroes did not end with Elijah or Elisha, but even now is the age of heroes. Who are God’s heroes right now? Who will be God’s heroes for his Church? Who is God calling into mission- into risk and sacrifice? Is it you? Remember: It is not just you who choose your mission- it is God who has chosen a mission for you.

In the Church’s second reading for today the Apostle Paul offers a distinction between a way of life which is given direction by the flesh in contrast with a way of life given direction by the spirit.

This might seem confusing. St. Paul is using the categories of “flesh” and “spirit” to indicate the difference between a way of life that is directed by God’s purpose as contrasted with a way of life that is directed by self-interested or self-indulgent purposes.

A self-interested or self-indulgent way of life tends towards conflict, antagonism and violence, whereas a truly spiritual life, one that is intentionally directed towards God’s purpose tends toward love- and by love St. Paul means willing, or desiring, the greatest good for other people.

St. Paul muses that if only we could love one another as Christ has commanded us to love, then most of the laws that become so necessary to reign in our selfish ambitions and desires, laws that can so quickly become stifling and oppressive would fall away. Loving as Christ loves opens up for us the possibility of true freedom, for freedom is not getting to do what we want, but doing what is good.

Love for the Christian is not merely an emotional experience or the fulfillment of a personal desire. Love is an act of the will, and it is willing for another person what is really and truly good. This good is not by necessity what the person wants, or even what you prefer to give, but it is what is good, it is the good that God wants.

Love reduced to emotional need or affectation will inevitably lead to antagonism and conflict. It becomes an exercise in self-interest and self indulgence. Love expressed as willing what it is truly good for other people is the manner in which God in Christ loves us and it is the way in which Christ commands us to love one another.

Christ the Lord has some words of advice for his disciples as they go out into a culture on mission. Remember, the purpose of the Church is missionary. The Church is not merely a faith-based clubhouse or an institution that we matriculate through and use to fulfill our personal goals. The Church is a missionary endeavor. The mission of the Church is to introduce people to Jesus Christ and invite people to share his unique way of life. Through the Church people meet the Lord Jesus and from the Church people receive from him the gifts he wants people to enjoy.

Christ’s advice to us as we go out into our neighborhood and introduce people to Christ is this:

Number One: Accept people’s hesitancy, even opposition, with an attitude of kindness. Do not threaten those who refuse our invitation. As Pope Benedict aptly said the Church proposes, it does not impose. We seek freedom to live our unique way of life, but our way of life must be freely chosen, it cannot be imposed on people by force or threats.

Number Two: Mission will always entail sacrifice and risk as well as an attitude of trust in God to provide what we need. You cannot, as a disciple, postpone your mission until you have everything figured out. We might have plans, but Christ’s plan takes precedence. What Christ asks of us is never all that easy, and at times outcomes may be uncertain, but as I said earlier, without risk and sacrifice there cannot be heroes and Christ wants us to be his heroes- he wants us to be his saints.

Number Three: Mission necessitates that we have a broader understanding of family than one that is limited to merely our own relatives. The Gospel expands our sense of family to include people in our lives who are not related to us, different than us, and people who we may not of our own desire want to know or become friends with.

The Church cannot by her essential nature simply be limited to those people with whom we are related, or those people whom we feel comfortable with, or those people that we prefer to associate with. Christ makes the Church his family and chooses those whom he wants to be in his household. The Church is not a sect or a club. The Church is not simply an expression of nationality or ethnicity. The Church is the people Christ has chosen, not only those people that we have chosen.

The Church is not just ours to make into whatever we want, it is a gift that we receive from Christ and this gift is a mission- a mission to introduce people to Jesus Christ and share with people the gifts that Christ wants all people to enjoy!

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Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 19th, 2016)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament book of the Prophet Zechariah. The prophet Zechariah proclaimed God’s truth during a time of restoration and renewal for the Israelites. A time of great trial and tribulation was coming to an end, as the Israelites were freed to return to their ancestral lands after a long and painful exile in Babylon. The Israelites had languished in Babylon as captives after the catastrophic events of 587 BC, when the Kingdom of David came to a violent end, conquered by the armies of Babylon.

The Israelites had literally lost everything in 587 BC, but during the ministry of the Prophet Zechariah, things changed in favor of the Israelites. The Israelites were going home. Thus the prophet Zechariah proclaims that God has given the Israelites a second chance and new opportunities.

 

The specific passage from the Prophet Zechariah you heard today is very mysterious. He foresees that one day the Israelites will look upon a man who is pierced, and in their grief they will recognize that God has visited his people in an extraordinary way, and from this pierced man will come forth an opportunity for communion with God.

Christians have understood the Zechariah’s words as referring to Christ. Christ is the pieced one of Zechariah’s vision, a vision that becomes reality in his cross, which is contrary to all appearances, God’s means of offering us communion with his divine life.

This might seem hard to understand, but here in your sanctuary is a monumental representation of Zechariah’s vision- the image of the crucified Savior, the pierced and wounded Christ. This image of Christ crucified is not merely a decoration, but a point of reference that helps you to understand what is happening in this place, in the Holy Communion of the Mass. It is always in relationship, in communion with the Pierced Christ that God reveals himself to us.

For it is the cross that God’s identification, his relationship with us is most profound and deep- God experiences for himself the pain of suffering and the loneliness of death. God is with us, and he is with us, not just in some things, or in pleasant things, but in all things, all the events and circumstances of life. This is the covenant of his Body and his Blood (the Pierced Christ)- it is his promise that he keeps and it is the promise that he renews each time the Mass is offered and the Blessed Sacrament is adored and received.

The Church’s second scripture is an excerpt from the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians. In his testimony, St. Paul makes it very clear that the categories of identity that the world considers important- political, ethnic, familial, economic, cultural are not as important as the identity that is given to us through our Baptism, the identity that comes from being in relationship with Christ.

All the worldly categories that we prize and deem so important will all one day fall away. When we meet the Lord Jesus face to face, all the worldly markers of identity that we cherish and value will merit barely a fraction of a second of the Lord’s attention. He will not see us in accord with the identities that we construct out of our worldly categories, but will know us and measure us and judge us only in reference to the identity that he has given us- that being a son and daughter of God.

This is not pious boilerplate. It is a revelation. In the end, when each of us comes to meet Christ face to face, he will not ask us what political party we belonged to, or what university we attended, or what degrees we attained. He will not ask us how much wealth we created or the status of the corporations we owned or worked for. Christ will not ask us our nationality or ethnicity or our family name. What he will be interested in is what we did with the gifts he bestowed on us, the opportunities he placed before us to love and to serve- and most importantly he will demand to know whether or not the Baptism he gave us was appreciated and taken seriously.

We might not take our Baptism seriously, reducing it to merely a quaint custom, convince ourselves nothing much is at stake in our Baptism, but God in Christ takes it very seriously, because it is the only identity we take with us from this life to the next. Any identity that we have in this world passes away in the world to come- except that identity that comes from our Baptism.

The Christian knows this, and for this reason, the Christian does not cling to worldly identities that are passing away, but holds fast to the identity Christ gives to us in Baptism- the identity of being a beloved member of God’s household, a member of his family, a brother or sister of the Lord Jesus- a son or daughter of God.

This is the meaning of the Apostle Paul’s testimony, his insistence that for those who are baptized in Christ, all are one, and the worldly distinctions we make absolute and cling to, are all just passing away.

Much of the hard work of being a disciple is letting go of worldly identities and coming to fully accept our Baptismal identity, our relationship with Christ.

Christ begs a question of his disciples in his Gospel, and in begging a question of his first disciples- he begs the same question of us- who do you say that I am?

Note that Christ has only cursory interest in what others have to say about him. He is not interested in a disinterested answer, the kind of answer a journalist or historian or biographer would contrive.

Instead he insists that each of his disciples answer the question personally- and further, he indicates that there are many wrong answers and only one answer that is really and truly right. Our idea about him, or our opinions or our feelings do not make him who he is. He is always boldly and serenely himself. Christ is asking us to profess our faith and to tell the truth. Who do we think that he is- and in terms of what we think, are we getting him right or just making things up, or worse, remaining passive and indifferent.

Do we know who the Lord Jesus really and truly is?

Now mind you, the question is not what we know ABOUT the Lord Jesus, but whether or not we know him personally- as one knows a friend. To be in relationship with Jesus Christ is to be a friend of God. It is only in this relationship of friendship that the fullness, the grace and truth of the Lord Jesus is revealed.

If we truly know Christ as a friend, then we can introduce him to others, and in our willingness to introduce others to Christ, the Church can flourish and grow.

But if we do not know Christ as one knows a friend, then the Church will falter and fail, for the purpose of the Church is to serve as a means of introducing people to Jesus Christ.

You see, the Church is not merely an institution we fund with our surplus wealth or a private religious club of our own making. The Church is the means that God in Christ has chosen to make himself known. The Church is first and foremost, the way Christ chooses to introduce himself to people. It is through the Church that a relationship with Jesus Christ happens and it is relationship to Christ and the Church that one becomes a Christian.

Therefore, being a Christian, is not about being a privileged recipient of faith based services or matriculating through Catholic-themed institutions. You can do these things and still not be a Christian- or worse, be a bad Christian.

Being a Christian, in faith and in truth, is about knowing Jesus Christ as one knows a friend and inviting others to know him too!

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