Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 12th, 2018)

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, meaning that it provides details regarding real people and real events, giving us a glimpse of the events and circumstances that shaped Israelite identity and culture. This identity and culture are significant to the Church because it helps us to understand the Lord Jesus, for in Christ, God chooses to become an Israelite and embeds himself in that identity and that culture. But, also, because the Church is a new kind of Israel and we look to the great historical books, indeed all of the Old Testament help us to understand the Church’s identity and culture. Neither the Lord Jesus or the Church are realities that we simply make up for ourselves, projecting upon them our willful desire so as to make them into whatever serves our ego driven needs and purposes. We don’t make the Lord Jesus or the Church, we receive both from the Lord himself, and they are what the Lord wills for them to be.

Now, our scripture from the Book of Kings presents the prophet Elijah, one of the greatest of the Israelite prophets. Elijah was a wonderworker who not only spoke the Lord’s word of truth, but also performed mighty and miraculous deeds. He said and did things that demonstrated that God was not only interested in the Israelites, but that he had had it with their corrupt politics, willfulness, and idolatry. Elijah did not flatter the Israelites with spiritualized niceties, but told the truth, and for that he paid a high price.

Specifically, he took on the political establishment, King Ahab and his wife Queen Jezebel, who were hell bent on leading the Israelites down a path of moral corruption and rebellion against the Lord God. And of course, the wicked king and queen acted, forcing Elijah to flee into the wilderness. And that’s where we find Elijah today.

Elijah is bereft, despondent that his mission is going nowhere and his efforts are a work of futility. He sees no positive effect. Even the great signs and wonders he performs, impressive as they are, do not provoke conversion. And in that moment of his despair, the Lord God intervenes, sending him food and drink, a sign of the Lord’s favor and encouragement.

This sign of favor and encouragement is meant as what is called a foreshadowing- that is a sign from the past that indicates something that will have significance in the future. The food and drink given by God through the hand of an angel to the prophet Elijah foreshadows the gift of the Eucharist, the food and drink of our Holy Communion.

The life of faith, the way of Christian discipleship is understood by many as merely a comfort and a crutch, and it is not untrue that faith in Christ comforts and supports us in times of distress and trial, but when we reduce Christian faith to this we lose its plot, forgetting that Christian discipleship is always about a mission and that mission will enact a cost, and because of that cost, there will be suffering, even, as it was for the prophet Elijah, moments of desolation, even doubt.

What God in Christ gives to us in those moments is an invitation to receive from him the food and drink of the Blessed Sacrament, which is not, as too many Christians think, merely a nice symbol of community, but it is the Lord’s own divine life given to us so that we can be sustained in our mission- a mission that if accepted will be very much like that of Elijah’s telling the truth, even when it is unpopular to do so, even when it conflicts with the times in which we live, even when it gets us on the wrong side of cultural elites, even when there is a personal cost. The mission of the Church is not about doing what we want, but what Christ wants and letting him take us where he wants us to go.

The Eucharist is food and drink for the mission.

In the Church’s second scripture for today, the Apostle Paul writes to the Church in Ephesus, reminding the Christians there that the way in which they behave, particularly towards one another, is not insignificant. The Christian way of life engenders specific values, ways of acting, and if we do not live in a way that is in accord with what Christ wants, the Church will falter, fail, and fall.

Primary for the Christian is the hard work of compassion and forgiveness, giving to others what often times they need the most, but do not deserve. This is, perhaps, the hardest, and most necessary, work of being a disciple.

Compassion for the Christian is not simply giving to others what they want, but what they need and it’s easy to pay lip service to the value of forgiveness until somebody hurts us. The Christian way is not an easy way. But it is always God’s way, revealed in Christ, and without God’s way, we are lost.

In his Gospel, the Lord Jesus presents the revelation of his Eucharist, the mystery and meaning of the gift of Holy Communion.

The Eucharist is not just a symbol of Christ or a metaphor for community values or an expression of our ethnic identity. All these ideas are just ways of evading the demand that the Eucharist places upon us, ways of trying make Eucharist more palatable to our desire for a religion that is easy and safe.

What the Eucharist is is the life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself, given to us as his gift, given to us to sustain us in our mission, a mission that is anything but merely easy and safe.

Refusal of the Eucharist is also a refusal a Christ, and today’s Gospel makes this connection- those who reject the Eucharist inevitably find themselves rejecting Christ for the Eucharist and Christ are one and the same.

The refusal of some is because they think they can create for themselves a kind of Eucharist, the reduction of the Eucharist to a symbol of the community or cultural artifact is the first step in this direction. But this is just manna in the desert, Christ’s reference to realities that may satisfy us in the short term, but ultimately will betray us. There is but one real presence, one real Eucharist, one Holy Communion, and that is the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus, given to us as food and drink.

Most Catholics no longer receive the Eucharist and this should disturb the faithful deeply. Many have abandoned Christ in the Blessed Sacrament because of an experience of dissonance between what Catholics profess to believe and how we behave. Others have abandoned Christ in the Blessed Sacrament because while seeking an invitation to salvation they have perceived that the Church offers not an invitation, but threats. For some the way towards the Blessed Sacrament is so wrought with policies and procedures and politics that they simply give up and go elsewhere. Others still, come to the Church with questions and face Christians within the Church who are so ignorant or befuddled that it leaves the impression that we have lost our minds. And perhaps most tragically, many come to the Church seeking a relationship with God in Christ and discover that many of us know neither God or Christ and even if we claim we do, we present ourselves as embarrassed to speak about them.

But for most, Christ in the Blessed Sacrament has been abandoned because they have settled for the manna of secularism, preferring worldly experiences and attainments, the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and honors to the Lord who asks that we give up these things for a higher purpose. For these the Eucharist has become unnecessary, after all, doesn’t secularism promise us that in terms of religion or spirituality, we are just making things up as we go along?

For the Christian who is here, for whom the Eucharist is accepted as a gift, none of this can simply be accepted. Our mission is to go out as Elijah did and meet the challenge head on, whatever the cost may be. Because you see, the Eucharist is not given to us to lull us into complacency, but to sustain us for mission. The mission is, as Christ commanded, to make disciples, to draw people into the Church, to offer to them the gifts of Christ that we ourselves enjoy.

If this isn’t happening, then we are as unfaithful in our reception of Christ in the Eucharist as those who have refused to receive him at all.

 

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Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 29th, 2018)

The Lord’s Gospel for today presents a startling and strange revelation, indeed a miracle.

This revelation, this miracle, is meant to demonstrate the astounding truth regarding the identity of the Lord Jesus- that he speaks and acts in the very person of God, indeed, that he is, as the faith of the apostles testify: the one true God, who has accepted for himself a human nature and lived a real human life.

Thus, we have a revelation that is leading us to an even greater revelation.

What Christ accomplishes in multiplying mere fragments of food is foreshadowed in the power demonstrated by the Old Testament prophets, indeed their mighty deeds point towards him.

The lesson? Christ is God. He is not, as some claim, merely a prophet, an ethicist, a philosopher or social activist. None of these things can adequately give us an account of Christ’s identity. Christ is the one, whom the Gospels testify “that the winds and seas obey”. He is the one who can forgive sins. He is the one who can bring life out of death. He is the one who fulfills the Law and the Prophets. He is the Lord of Sabbath. And he is the one whose mighty deeds include feeding a multitude with only a few scraps of food at his disposal.

He is God and in the brilliant light of this revelation, we are compelled to a decision. Will Christ be the God that we worship or will we follow some other god? The other god need not be the mythological beings of pagan religion. The other god can be anything that we raise to ultimate concern in our lives- it could be wealth, or power, or honors, or pleasure. It can be any of the strivings of our egoism. It can be our politics or our culture. It can be the pretenses of our opinions or our ideologies. False gods are as ubiquitous and plentiful as human desires and Christ is contrary to all of them.

Will it be Christ or will it be someone or something else that we will worship?

Those who decide for Christ set themselves on the path towards becoming his disciples.

Disciples receive from Christ the privilege of knowing Christ in such a way that they can become like him, and this is the other revelation that today’s Gospel invites us to see and understand.

We become like Christ, not just as a result of knowing certain facts or even doctrines about him, or even from doing good deeds, but of partaking of his divine life.

Partaking of Christ’s divine life means that he offers his life to us in response to our offering our own lives to him. This exchange happens for us, to us, in a mysterious revelation we Christians call the Eucharist or Holy Communion.

The Eucharist or Holy Communion is our reception Christ’s divine life as food and drink.

Thus, the revelation of the multiplied loaves and fishes, presented to us today in the Lord’s Gospel, foreshadows a an even greater revelation- God will give to us not just food and drink, but his divine life as our food and drink, and partaking of this we can become like him- for it is his life that we will consume, it is his life that we will eat and drink. It is his life that we hope to become for our own sakes and for the sake of the world.

This all is, of course, the great mystery and meaning of not only the Lord’s Gospel for today, but of the Eucharist, the Holy Communion which we will be invited to receive. We decide. We decide to give our lives to Christ and he gives his divine life to us.

I know that for many, Christ exists in their lives as but one God among many gods and that for many, the Eucharist is no longer Holy Communion, but merely a symbol of community and culture, but here today, you have before yourself the opportunity to finally decide for Christ, to abandon the false gods and to receive from Christ, not just a symbol, but the gift of his real presence, the gift of his divine life.

But know that if you do, your life must and will change.

You will not find here at this altar the mere earthly food, but the transformation of earthly food into Christ’s divine life. The multiplication that God in Christ effects here is not merely loaves and fish but his divine life in and for you.

God in Christ does not want you merely to glory in his power, to accept his sacraments as mere spectacles, to revere his wonders with the same reverence you give to a symphony or a beautiful vista. God in Christ wants you to share in his life. That’s what the Eucharist is. That’s what Holy Communion is. For those who are content with mere symbols, ask yourself why you would settle for less than what God in Christ desires to give to you. And so, if you expect anything less than Christ’s divine life, you are in the wrong place and you are seeking a god that is not here.

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Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 17th, 2018)

Today’s first scripture is an excerpt from the 17th chapter of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, one of the most beautiful and interesting texts of the Old Testament.

Ezekiel is a priest who is trying to prepare the Israelites for what will be one of the most catastrophic events in their history.  In the year 587 BC, the lands of the Israelites will be invaded by the armies of Babylon, Jerusalem will be ransacked, the royal house of David put to the sword, the temple will be destroyed and the people scattered, enslaved and sent into exile.

In the 17th chapter of his book, Ezekiel offers an allegory which explains how an arrogant and foolish political decision was the turning point for this disaster.  The king will break a treaty with the Babylonians, attempt to form with alliance with the Pharaoh or the Egyptians, and in doing so will provoke Babylon to invade.

This is harsh for the Israelites to hear, because Ezekiel places responsibility for the catastrophe on the Israelites themselves, a reckoning he believes is necessary if they are to repent.  Truth sets us free- all the biblical prophets insist on this and it is especially coming to terms with the hardest truths we refuse to admit that do the most to free us from our self-deception.

At the conclusion to Chapter 17 is the scripture passage we heard this morning.

The meaning is that though the Israelites have been cut off, indeed, cut down, by the terrifying events of 587 BC

In this respect, the surviving Israelites are like the “crest of the cedar tree” that Ezekiel is referencing.  The Lord will take this remnant of a once great and now fallen tree and from it will renew its life.  In other words, the Israelites, reduced and humiliated, will, through God’s power, be restored.

The events of 587 BC haunt much of the Old and New Testament.  In fact, much of what the Lord Jesus has to say about the Israelites concerns the fulfillment of the promises and insights of prophets like Ezekiel.  We know little about the events of 587 BC and their significance, which is one reason why there is a tendency for the scriptures to sound strange, even unintelligible to us.

The sages and saints of the Church have understood that the story of the Israelites from the Old Testament has a great deal to tell us about the story of the Church.  And this is how we can try to understand Ezekiel’s insights.  Coming to terms with our own complicity in events that have diminished the Church is what a prophet like Ezekiel imparts to us.  Admitting the hard truth that if the Church is not flourishing, it is far too easy to blame someone else, rather than accept what we ourselves have done or failed to do, is a necessary crucible.  And further, remembering the Church did not begin as a massive international institution with seemingly unlimited resources and unassailable prestige.  How did the Church begin?  It began small.  And in every age, when through human wickedness the Church falters and fails in her mission, God preserves enough of what is good to assure that the Church continue.

It is most often through small movements, small communities, that the Church is reformed and renewed.  It seems that this is God’s favored way of doing things- he can even take the seemingly diminished and withered Church that is the experience of so many, and from that remnant, make the Church bloom with renewed life and vigor.

The second scripture for today is an excerpt from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

The Apostle speaks about his body and our bodies and in doing so he makes a very important point about the Christian way of life- our bodies matter.  But why does the body matter so much for the Christian?

Because it is the Body of the Lord Jesus revealed in his Incarnation that saves us; it is into the Body of Christ, the Church, that the Lord Jesus gives his way of life to us, it is the Body of the Lord Jesus given to us in Eucharist that sanctifies and sustains us, and it is the suffering bodies of the poor in whom Christ dwells that we serve the Body of Jesus himself.

Knowing Christ, encountering Christ is not simply a matter of our mind or our emotions, but of our bodies and it is through our bodies, practicing the Faith of the Church in worship, Sacraments and works of mercy that Christ redeems us all.

Christ reveals himself in a body, a body like our own and in our bodies that his salvation happens to us.

It is mistake to reduce our faith to having the right ideas or thoughts or having the right kinds of feelings- as if ideas and thoughts and feelings are all that it means to be a Christian.  Christian Faith is about the significance of bodies, Christ’s Body, the bodies of our neighbors, and yes, even our own bodies.

This physicality of the Christian way of life is hard for many to take.  Bodies are, after all, messy, often times non-compliant, and very difficult for us to deal with.  A faith that is reduced to ideas and feelings is far less demanding than dealing with bodies.  But the significance of the body is a non-negotiable necessity for the Christian for God in Christ has chosen the significance of our bodies.  How so?  By accepting for himself a body, a human nature, and through that body, living like us, a real, human life.  In doing so, God made the body, our bodies an inescapable fact of our faith and a necessary route of access to him.

Finally, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God, testifying that it will always first manifest itself in what is small, like seeds sown, and as a particular example, a seed as miniscule as the mustard seed, which can produce an enormous plant.

Now, I know we Christians have a tendency to spiritualize the kingdom of God, thinking of it as being an otherworldly reality like heaven, but this is really a mistake.

Connect our first two scriptures with this Gospel: Ezekiel speaks of the restoration of an actual people in this world, the Israelites and St. Paul emphasizes the physical, bodily reality of our faith.  And in his Gospel Christ speaks about a kingdom, a kingdom that starts small and has the potential to grow and grow.

This kingdom of which Christ speaks is a new kind of Israel in this world, a kingdom composed of real flesh and blood, of bodies.  This kingdom is the Church and the Church has and will always start small, but it isn’t supposed to just stay small, because like the small seeds Christ references in his Gospel, the Church is filled with the potential to grow and grow and grow.

The Church is the kingdom of God.  And the seeds of the Church have been given to us to sow into the world.  The seeds of the Church are small, and as such, many Christians try to protect them, keeping them safe as if planting them in the world would mean they would be lost.  But this over protectiveness simply results in a Church that never realizes its purpose and the life that the Church does have ends up withering away and dying.

The task of every generation of Christians is to sow the Church, to plant the Church in the world, that is, to facilitate the growth of the Church and in doing so bring the kingdom of God to life- not just in heaven, but in the here and now.

This task is not something that can be delegated away to religious professionals, it is the mission of every Christian.  So, ask yourself now, because the Lord Jesus himself is going to ask each of us later, and our answer is going to matter more than anything else- are you sowing, planting the seeds of Church and helping the Church to grow?  Or are you missing in action in the fields of the world or worse, tearing up what he has already planted?

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Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 10th, 2018)

The scriptures for today all have a particular darkness about them, a raw honesty about what it means to be human that causes one to tremble, but then to exalt in the gift, the grace we are privileged to share in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Spirituality is not, merely the resolution of our problems in a way that pleases us, but the light God in Christ casts over the darkness as we move towards him through everything raw and real in human existence that cannot be so easily explained.

Our first scripture today is taken from the beginning of the Bible- from the Book of Genesis- and it describes a catastrophe.

The catastrophe is the first time human beings defied God’s will and purposes and in doing so brought great suffering upon themselves and all the generations that would follow.  The Church describes this as the “original sin”.  The great Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton once remarked that of all the doctrines of the Church it is only original sin for which the Church has empirical evidence.

Original sin inaugurates an inclination in all of us to believe that we know better than God what is right and wrong and that we can defy God’s will without consequences to ourselves or others.  It is the soul crushing illusion that we can choose evil over good because it is useful and somehow through our own will or power transform evil into good.  Our innate capacity to resist God is passed on generation to generation- it is that insidious, and neither innocence or vigilance can protect us from its effects.

The result of this original sin is described in today’s scripture from the Book of Genesis- turning against God we turn against one another, indeed against creation itself, and a world that was a paradise becomes hell on earth.  The sufferings of the world, of being human, are increased exponentially as a result of original sin and we cannot lift the crushing burden of that suffering by our own efforts.  What is needed is not a self-help program, but a revelation.

In other words, we can no more escape or evade the consequences of original sin than we can escape or evade our own bodies.  It goes that deep within us.  This is the meaning of the scripture you heard from the Book of Genesis, not just to identify a catastrophe that happened before recorded history, but to identify a catastrophe that resides in all of us- right now.  The defiance of God, the accusations, the divisions, the curse, and the exile described in our first scripture are not just a matter of the past, but of the condition of all humanity.

Thus, the lament of St. Paul in Chapter 7 of his Letter to the Romans “who can save us from these bodies of death”?

His answer is not, ourselves, for that is in fact what got us into this predicament in the first place.  Instead, the answer is God, who in Christ overcomes the curse of original sin with the blessing of his grace.  Uniting our compromised human nature with his divine nature, God in Christ gives us the revelation that can deliver us from catastrophe of original sin.  He is the answer to St. Paul’s question.

St. Paul expresses gratitude for this gift in the Church’s second scripture- from the New Testament- his Letter to the Corinthians.  In this scripture, the Apostle Paul not only sees Christ as the revelation that saves from the original sin, offering us a way through and beyond it, but also as a revelation that saves us from death.

The world is not only compromised by sin, but also by death.  All things pass away and we pass along with it.  The strength and vigor of youth gives way to the weakness and decline of old age.  The world offers us much, but in the end, what it offers is consumed by death.  The best we can do is to preserve what this world offers, prolong our experience of life, but in the end, we must yield- despite all our efforts, in the words of St. Paul; “our outer self is wasting away”.

God in Christ reveals to us a possibility beyond death.  This is the meaning of his resurrection and the purpose of his own suffering and death.  This is the reason that St. Paul has the audacity to identify our decline and death as a “momentary light affliction”.  He says this because of his faith that God in Christ has accomplished something in his death on the cross and in his resurrection from the dead which is to our benefit. God, who is Christ, accepted a human nature, and in doing so, accepted suffering, has also in accepting death, transformed what appears to be an end, into a new kind of beginning.

In this world, death will afflict us, but that affliction is not our end, because God in Christ has revealed his power as being greater than death.  The solution to the problem of death is not some power within ourselves, some kind of innovation, that simply prolongs life and insulates us from what is inevitable, but in the power of God in Christ.

God in Christ is greater than our sin and he is greater than our death.  This is why St. Paul acclaims in chapter seven of his letter to the Romans; “thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord”.

Sin and death afflict us, but God in Christ reveals that he gives us greater possibilities than both.  And there is one more affliction into which God in Christ casts his light- the devil.

In his Gospel for today, an excerpt from the testimony of Mark, Christ is accused of being the devil himself or at the very least in league with her.

Christ will have none of this and he testifies that the words of his accusers betray not only their ignorance, but also their malice.  In many cases those who accuse others of being in the thrall of the evil one are themselves her pawns.

But more than this, Christ announces that the days of the kingdom of Satan are nearing their end.  One stronger than the devil and his minions has come into the world, and he has come to take back what the devil has stolen.

That which the devil has stolen are our hearts and our minds and through both the devil acts to usurp God’s purposes for his creatures and his creation.  His purpose is that we flourish in this world and enjoy his company in the world to come, and Satan will have none of this.  In his hatred of God in Christ he seeks to deprive him of that which he loves- us.  God in Christ signals that Satan’s plotting and planning is futile and he will run around and render useless every one of the devil’s schemes and deliver us from his traps.

God in Christ, who is more powerful than our sin and of our death, is also more powerful than the devil.

The Church teaches and insists that we believe that the devil is not just a myth or a metaphor, but a malign entity of great spiritual power that negatively impacts our lives and this world.  His plotting and planning is something with which we all must contend.  But at the same time, there is no equivalence between God in Christ and the devil.  Thus, her power is limited.  The devil is cunning enough to know that directly assaulting God is futile, and so he strikes at what God loves- us, but God in Christ that he is on our side and just as he will not abandon us to the power of sin or death, he will not let the devil have his day.  This is why the Church describes the devils overtures to us as “pomps” (or illusions) and his promises as “empty”.  The only power over us he has is the power that we give to him, but even this God in Christ will seize away.

As I noted in the beginning, there is a darkness that casts shadows over the scriptures for today- shadows of sin, death and the devil.  But the revelation of God in Christ insists that greater than those shadows is the light he casts into our darkness…  We Christians must learn to see not only shadows, but Christ’s divine light!

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