All posts for the month September, 2002

The 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

September 29, 2002

Ezekiel 18:25-28 +Philippians 2:1-11+ Matthew 21:28-32

The entry to Jerusalem is complete. The palms are cleaned up. The Hosannas have echoed away. Jesus has made a mess in the Temple, and the authorities are demanding to know who he thinks he is. Tension is building that will eventually explode in a hostile confrontation. The vineyard is the focus of conversation. We heard it last week and again this week, and we shall hear of it again next week before we go to a wedding. All are full of hard sayings to those authorities who are closed to any action of God they cannot control.

This parable is a strange one, because neither of the two options presented are perfect. There are always three levels to the parables we proclaim: the original level at which the historical Jesus is the teaching Rabbi at a certain time in a particular place. The second level is where we find the evangelist; in this case Matthew retelling the parable at another time to a totally different audience. We are the third level: another time, a different place, and different audience.

Jesus addresses those confrontational Pharisees who remain closed to his ministry and the slightest change in the way God may be working. Matthew addresses the Jewish Christians struggling for their identity in the face of the Jewish communities emerging from the chaos of the Temple’s destruction. Today the parable is proclaimed in Norman, Oklahoma and everywhere else in the world this autumn day by a church stunned by its own sins against justice, children, and its own servants.

We have every reason to look at this family and wonder if the father might not have another son or two. If parables are supposed to move us to wonder, in this age we might then wonder if there could not be another option or two. Neither of these two sons is an example of what we want to be, and even though Matthew uses the parable as a story of conversion’s power when it comes to the work of the vineyard, many of us listen to this story from a much deeper spiritual level and don’t care to identify with either of them. Beside that, this Father, God, has plenty of children who say “No” and mean “No.” Another issue of wonder is how we are we to live with them?

The best option is not even offered, but perhaps we ought to wonder about it, and the wonder stirred by this parable might lead us there. There is the option of saying, “Yes”. It is, in the end, a parable about promise and performance; about words and deeds giving us cause to wonder about perfection and what it might look like for us who seek to do the Father’s Will.

True disciples are distinguished from false disciples by what they do, not by what they say. All the power in this world and the next means nothing; knowing all correct theology and making oneself look pious and perfectly orthodox means nothing. Doing the Will of God is what brings in the harvest from this vineyard. Our integrity as disciples of Jesus and as a church has to do with what we do when no one is looking. That is my favorite definition of integrity. It means we have integrated what we say with what we do, and the two have finally become the same. It has nothing to do with who is watching or what anyone is going to think. It has to do with backing up what we say with what we do, and that is the style of the third son we do not meet in this parable, but are left to wonder about. The third son – who says yes, means yes, and goes out to do his best. It’s a great ideal – integrity of this sort. My own experience is that only God pulls it off perfectly. God’s Words are Deeds. God speaks and something happens. Only God perfectly achieves this unity of word and action, or action that becomes one word: Love. But the children of this God strive to achieve this perfection, and this is the offer of this parable, that like the others says as much about God as about anything else.

Our prayer today springs from this parable and it is a prayer that we shall be worthy of the work to which we are called, that we shall become more and more a people of integrity, and open ourselves to the possibility that God can work and is working in ways we do not understand, and with people whose presence in this vineyard may surprise us.

The 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

September 22, 2002

Isaiah 55:6-9 + Philippians 1:20-27 + Matthew 20:1-16

“The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…..that is the point of this parable, a landowner. It has nothing to do with wages, work, hours, or justice. It has to do with the landowner – God. It tells us about God, and in so doing, we find out something about ourselves. It does not explain divine justice, but stirs us to wonder about how God acts toward us. Even adjusted to the time and place in history from which it comes, the story makes no sense. After all, what employer who was going to do what this one did would have the ones who worked the longest hang around to be paid last and see what was going on? He would have paid them first and had them out of there so they would not see what those who came last received. This behavior makes no sense unless you are Matthew’s Jesus and want to stop people in their tracks and leave them wondering.

Wonder, we should, at this story of God’s care for us. The trouble is, we don’t wonder. We are too busy looking around at everyone else. Instead of being focused on God, and living in that provident, loving friendship, we are comparing and competing, day in and day out. Instead of living with our gaze on the source of all that we have, we are looking to see who got what, how much, and when. Echoes of our childhood are heard in our whining. “It’s not fair! He got a bigger piece!” “How come he gets to stay up longer than me?” Sometimes the laments are unspoken, but heard nonetheless. The rejection comes from a job we wanted. Someone we know gets more financial aid for school, and we need it more. Someone else gets a raise, and their work isn’t as good as ours……

Toxic thoughts that get internalized and lead to depression and anger. A parable about God gives us reason to think about ourselves. A parable about God calls into question the ideology of entitlement and uncovers our self-centered, self-serving, competitive vision of things. But the Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner, it says. And the landowner is the one we should leave here thinking of. If the parable is true, it leaves us humbled, embarrassed by our whining, and stunned once again by grace. Few of us have earned a full day’s wage; and I suspect that those who have would think they had not done enough.

The question asked in the parable is probably one being asked again today: “Why are you standing around all day idol?” It’s a loaded question that invites us to take a long look at what we do all day. When you think about how far we still have to go to establish the Kingdom of God; we know there is work to do in the vineyard. The work of Justice, the work of Peace, the work of Forgiveness, the Work of Healing and Reconciliation. Probably if we were not so worried about what everyone else has, concentrated a little more on what we do have and what we can do with it because of the one who gave it and called us to use it, there would be a lot less anger, resentment, and jealousy spoiling our days in the vineyard. The results of those days would certainly be more productive. Then when we saw God’s gifts lavished on others we could rejoice with them and for them.

In moments of clarity and honesty, we ought to breathe a sigh of relief, for when we look honestly at how we often think and behave, and then remember that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways, it’s probably a good thing! This Parable is about God and about us. It is not about anyone else. It is about the awe we experience when we think of how God cares for us, and it is about our work in the vineyard.

The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

September 15, 2002

Sirach 27:30-28:7 + Romans 14:7-9 + Matthew 18:21-35

The final verses of Matthew’s “Discourse on the Life of the Church” are the sum and substance of it all

for those who would count themselves among the saved, the faithful, and the loved. From what has just been said, and we heard it last week and the week before, we are not to be soft on sin, and there is no reason to think that “mercy” means looking the other way or that it proposes some kind of “denial” in the face of evil. On the contrary. The church has been given a step-by-step instruction on what to do and how to respond.

The final verses here before Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem address what happens when the sin has been named, and the sinner has been identified. These verses serve as a corrective against a too zealous application of the earlier verses. They serve as check against continuing the wrongdoing by repeating the offence in a spirit of revenge or by an effort to “get even.” Pay attention to the parable. The one forgiven his debt turns right around and does what he has been forgiven for doing. He ends up trading places with the other man! This Gospel is about revenge and the foolishness of calling it “justice.” This Gospel insists that for those who would be “church” for those who would be one with Jesus forgiveness is about the future, not the past. There is no future if the sin is repeated. If someone smacks you in the face and your smack them back, there is no future without the offence. It has just continued. If someone takes a life, and we take one in punishment, we’ve made no progress toward ending the sin.

Forgiveness is about ending the sin, stopping the evil, having a future. This forgiveness Jesus speaks of is a process, not a feeling. To be a forgiver does not always mean that we shall feel good. It means we make a choice to stop the evil in its tracks and not become part of its story. It means we chose to be guided by another force and use another power. As is clear from the earlier verses, forgiveness in the Christian heart is part of conversion. It goes on and on and it has more to do with what we are becoming than what we have been. The reconciliation to which we are called has as much to do with inner peace as it does with external unity. At its most basic level, forgiveness occurs within the heart and mind of the one who was wronged. This level of forgiveness involves replacing thoughts of anger and revenge with a simple desire for the other’s well-being. That is where forgiveness begins. Genuine forgiveness is a movement of grace that takes us beyond the limits of human justice.

Doing the work of forgiveness is an ongoing process we repeat seventy-seven times. It requires courage, understanding, and wisdom: “Gifts of the Spirit” for which we ought to pray. This would be a good time for that prayer, and Matthew suggests it would be a good time to begin – not with the sentimental toleration of hurtful behavior, not with ignoring offence too often and too quickly, but with looking within ourselves to honestly inquire about our own participation or contribution to the conflict, surrendering the fantasy of our own perfection, and humbly embracing the truth that we are all made from the same clay.

Forgiveness then is about the future. It creates for us a reason to hope. It provides for us a taste of the Kingdom. It secures for us a measure of peace and gives us reason to rejoice.

The 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

September 8, 2002

Ezekiel 33:7-9 + Romans 13:8-10 + Matthew 18:15-20

In Roman Catholic tradition, the “REAL PRESENCE” is a significant issue. It is a matter of faith. Yet for many that idea is focused only on the Sacrament of Eucharist. To leave it there, to think that this is the only “REAL PRESENCE” is to live one’s faith in a very passive and very incomplete way. The promise of Jesus recorded for us in Matthew 18 is a promise of presence, but it is not a presence reserved only for the Eucharist. It is a presence to be felt deeply in the human heart, acknowledged humbly in human life, and celebrated joyfully in the reconciliation of those who have been isolated, alienated, and broken by sin. I would suggest to you that Matthew is proposing that the experience of real presence that Jesus offers is first to be found in forgiveness. Those of us who have known in our lives the experience of reconciliation, the overwhelming peace and powerful joy that fills the human heart at the moment of reconciliation with another have known the presence of Christ as really and as surely as anyone. They have seen the victory of love over anger and hate and hurt.

This world and this church are filled with people who long for the presence of Christ; who seek him; who have felt his absence; who know the suffering of alienation and estrangement. Some in this world seek him, or what Christ provides in money, power, prestige, and privilege. Some come here week after week to begin their search for God, to sustain and renew it, or to bring it to a joyful close. No matter where, the longing and the search for God continues day in and day out.

What we proclaim as church, what Matthew announces as Good News is that it is possible to know the real presence of Christ, and we may live in that presence by the power of forgiveness. The heart of the Gospel text that we proclaim this day is the remarkable promise of Jesus: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am in their midst.” Do you hear that ancient Biblical language: “I AM?”

This is Matthew – Old Testament images and references are important. This is “I AM” speaking – this is “I AM” revealing where he is to be found. This promise is not simply about the power of prayer, but in the context of this Gospel, much, much more. Sin isolates and estranges us from one another. It leaves us in alone and impossible to “gather as two or three.”

Reconciliation breaks through that isolating barrier, and in that coming together, “I am in your midst.”

This promise is not a recipe for prayer. It is an invitation to discover the presence of Christ. The very identity of and essence of Church is found in the reconciling experience. Forgiveness and Healing is what we are, and it is where we first discover the one for whom we long in the depth of our hearts. Reconciliation is the ministry of Jesus Christ. It is where he is to be found and where His glory will first be discovered.

Only after there is reconciliation can we move into the union and peace of the Eucharist. In ritual this is why we begin with: “Lord Have Mercy”. In ritual it is why we reach out to each other in peace before we come to the altar. To do this in ritual, it must be so in life itself. In as much as we are reconciled and at peace with each other, we shall be in the Presence of Christ.

The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK

September 1, 2002

Jeremiah 20:7-9 + Romans 12:1-2 + Matthew 16:21-27

It would be easy to think that this Gospel is about Peter, but I don’t think so. The easy way is rarely the right way, or the way that is going to take us deeper into what is revealed or into what God is saying to us through His Word. It is more difficult to focus on Jesus in these verses than on Peter. We understand Peter’s reaction. It is our own. Nothing in his history; nothing in his scriptures; nothing in his tradition prepared him for a Messiah/Hero who would suffer disgrace. We do not connect with Peter here. There is nothing to be gained by identity with him or his attitude.

We know things differently. We have seen and come to believe in the Messiah, Jesus. We are not invited by this Gospel to follow or imitate Peter, but rather, Jesus Christ. In the structure of Matthew’s Gospel, the very next story is the Transfiguration; but up to this point, Peter is in the dark. He has no clue about how things are going to work out. We do. Jeremiah is the clue that opens this Gospel for us and shifts our focus from Peter to Jesus. He is the prophet who meets opposition, is ridiculed and mocked, yet stays with God’s plan because in the first chapter of Jeremiah God says: “…have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you.”

So the task we find in this text is to focus on Jesus Christ, to wonder how he was able to remain faithful,

and then draw from his story the strength, the knowledge, and the understanding to do the same. We must avoid the temptation to trivialize or minimize his trust in God by the thinking that because he was Divine, he had it made. The Divinity of Christ did not keep him from fear, doubt, or anxiety. Minimizing his full humanity robs this text of its power to transform and encourage us. Just as Peter had to surrender his preconceived ideas about a messiah, we must surrender any idea that proposes that good, holy, just, and faithful people should be free of suffering, free of fear, and free of doubt.

If we live in this life, we are going to know those things, and having terrible things happen does not mean that we are bad, being punished, or that God has turned away from us. In the face of tragedy and suffering there is no reason to think God has left us. On the contrary, these times are the greatest occasions to discover just the opposite. That is what Jesus found, and what Peter had to learn. He learned it by going to Jerusalem with Jesus. He learned it by going all the way, and losing his life in order to find it, just as the master did before him. “Losing” one’s life does not always mean the ultimate act of martyrdom.

None of us lives a day without losses. Things do not happen the way we had planned. People do not say what we expect. Disappointments and frustrations pile up, and the best made plans fall apart. Large and little losses can make those who bear them bitter and cause them to complain that life is not fair. But this is what we learn from Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. Losing one’s life can mean finding one’s soul. These losses can set us free, and when we are free like Jesus to surrender to and embrace the will of God, we shall know what Jeremiah knew, believed and lived: that there is no reason for fear because God is with us.