All posts for the month August, 2013

Sirach 3, 17-18, 20, 28-29 + Psalm 68 + Hebrews 12, 18-19, 22-24 + Luke 14, 1, 7-14

It would be very easy to sit back and think that this episode in Luke’s Gospel is all about pride and humility. There is plenty here to reflect upon in that regard, but there is a lot more about this story that addresses our lives and behavior these days than pride and humility. As I was sitting with this text and imagining the dinner, my mind wandered to the very popular British Series: “Downton Abbey” where many events of the day and much of the lives and values of the characters are revealed over grand sumptuous meals. Somehow those meals reveal a great deal about those times, the people, their values, and their sense of self.

Much the same thing is taking place in the home of this Pharisee. Jesus is there, and so are we. In the light of His presence we learn a lot about the guests and the host; and we if we want this Gospel to come to life, we might place ourselves in both roles. We are always guests at the divine table. We are also often the host who invites, nourishes, and provides for others. Read in this way, we can do some serious reflection on just what kind of guests we are, and how we behave as a host. Perhaps, and very likely, Luke is retelling this story for the sake of his community wanting them to think about their behavior at Eucharist. We can allow Luke to do the same for us and broaden the image even wider, because we not only feast at the Eucharistic Banquet, but also at the Banquet of Life on this earth.

The whole idea of places of honor is called into question by this Gospel. Jesus takes offense at the whole idea of privilege. Does someone have a “right” to be invited or included? If they find themselves invited, is there some “right” to sit in one place or another? This is serious business for those who find themselves at the table. It is no privilege, it is a gift. No “rights” are included, he seems to say to the guests. Then he speaks to the host about who is to be included, and the same principal applies. For us believers, any thinking about a “host” ought to remind us of the Divine Host who must be our model. Since God, the Divine Host does not seem interested in “privileges”, then how is it possible that those who are made and live in His image would do otherwise?

We know how this works and what it means. It happens all the time. “What am I going to get out of it?” is always the issue when it comes to choices: choices about who to invite, who to serve, who to welcome, or who even who to acknowledge. This question has no place in the lives of disciples of Jesus. There is no pay-back in this life other than the pay-back of knowing we have come closer to life in the Kingdom of God as Jesus models for us.

Perhaps to get to the heart of this Gospel, we simply need to go back to the table where we learned to pray; the table in our homes with brothers and sisters, Mom, Dad, and anyone else who pulled up a chair at that table. Sadly in these times, such tables are too few with fast-food meals eaten in the car on the way to or from some meeting or game. Too few are the meals where people sit together and talk without the TV or Phone texting, or Video games for children to keep them quiet.

While her sons were away during a war, my Grandmother always insisted that any soldier who was at the Fort alone on a Sunday or holidays be brought to the house. It made no difference where they were from or what color their skin. Around that table were people I never saw before and never saw again. The custom passed down to my own generation, and I grew up in a home were people joined us for dinner. There we learned to pass the bread so that everyone had a piece. When someone came unexpectedly, we knew to take a little less so that there would be enough to go around. It was never a matter of whether or not the guests deserved a share. The rule was simple, everyone who came got a portion of what was provided. I grew up with people who lived the same way, and many times I was invited at the last minute, and there always seemed to be enough with people who understood this Gospel story.

It’s not all about pride and humility. It’s about eating. It’s about being a guest, and how to be a host. It’s not about rights and privilege. It is about gratitude, and a right attitude about the abundance in which we find ourselves, how we share it, as well as how we feel about being at that abundant table. This is what Jesus revealed at that dinner in the house of a Pharisee; and it is what he reveals to us again today.

Isaiah 66, 18-21 + Psalm 117 + Hebrews 12, 5-7, 11-13 + Luke 13, 22-30

Understanding the question in light of the times is not difficult. It was a very measured world. There was only so much to go around, and when it ran out, that was all there was. It worked that way with food and everything else, and there was never really a “lot” of anything for those people. So the question brought to Jesus is not unusual for someone who was trying to figure out how this message of Jesus was going to work out.

If you look at the long history of our faith, most of the great spiritual writers were of the opinion that few would be saved. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and many others believed that not many would “get to heaven.” This may have been based upon their judgement of their times, their own lives. Their expectation carried on until just about my time. Many of us who are over 60 remember very well the catechesis of our age which insisted that we might not get to heaven, that it was very, very difficult, that only the most heroic, people like the saints, especially the martyrs were the only ones sure to be saved.

The consequence of this was a lot of scrupulosity, very narrow minded, rigid and almost paranoid spirituality that led us to hope that at best we might must slip into “purgatory”. That would be our best hope! “O Lord, I am not worthy.” was the style of prayer. “Have Mercy on us, O Lord.” was the theme of our spirituality.

Then sometime around the late 1960s, perhaps stirred by the Holy Spirit through the Vatican Council, things changed. Personally I don’t think the Council had anything directly to do with it. There were other factors at work at that time in history as the wealth of the world was increasing along with literacy, and a kind of world view that was marked by secularism. At any rate, the change is noticable. Now, instead of “few” being saved, “few” if any are lost. Heaven has become a kind of all-inclusive place where everyone will be found. When you come to think about that idea, you ought to begin to wonder then why did God bother to send Jesus and what in the world was his suffering all about. If everyone was going to be saved, and I mean everyone, none of that would have been necessary.

Perhaps both ideas miss the point. Perhaps what Jesus would reveal to us is that it is not a matter of few or all, but rather that another question ought to be asked. The issues is not, “how many”, but simply how, and that is how he responds. The fact of the matter is both “few” and “all” lead to trouble. Thinking that “few” will be saved leads to a kind of odd and unhealthy spirituality. This plenty of evidence for that case. Thinking that “everyone” will be saved leads to a very secularized existence that lacks any kind of real and deep spirituality. There is more than enough evidence to support that as well

The response of Jesus leads each of us to ask the right and only question: “How am I going to be saved?”

Now the “narrow” gate or “narrow” door does not mean you have to squeeze through a tiny opening. There was a gate into the city of Jerusalem that was very small. It was a way of protecting the city and keeping invadors on camel or horseback from riding on in with their weapons. The only way through that gate was to simply dismount and walk through. There was a way in, but it took some doing. It’s like any other thing great an noble we might want to accomplish. There is a way. It takes practice. You can’t just cruise your way along, do your own thing, or wait for someone to do something for you.

If you want to be a great musician, you practice, and that means you sacrifice a lot of free time, pleasure, and anything else that keeps you from practice. If you want to succeed at athlectics, you practice. You spend hours on the court, on the course, and you listen to the coach doing what he says. A lot of people these days have “coaches” or “trainers”, and nothing comes of it if you don’t follow the instructions.

So it is with us and the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a way to be included. Forming our lives into the life of Christ is our narrow door. It’s not a life of pleasure and self-serving interest. It takes practice: a life time of it. Engaging in that practice will keep us from getting caught up in the secularization of this age, and lead us into a deep and profound spirituality that this world lacks today as it chases after every shallow and silly idea that comes along. Only Christ and His way, His Life of Sacrifice and Love is the answer to the question.

Jeremiah 38, 4-6,  8-10 + Psalm 40 + Hebrews 12, 1-4 + Luke 12, 49-53

The other day I was in the car with my sister and her two grandchildren who are 7 and 5 years of age. They had been arguing, and the noise of their conflict was beginning to get on the nerves of those of us in the front seat. My sister declared a time of silence that was to last until we reached their home. We had to stop for her to pick up something along the way. I remained in the car with the boys, and as soon as she was in the store, the silence was broken. We laughed and talked, teased, and giggled until she reappeared at the car door, and silence resumed. As she buckled the seat belt, she said: “It’s a good thing you kept quiet.” A little voice from the back seat said: “We talked.” and I was in trouble. But “enforcer” has never been my strong suit no matter what anyone may choose to say. The little guy spoke the truth with a kind of innocence that betrayed two things: he was not really afraid, and telling the truth set him free from suspicion.

For more than forty-five years I’ve been praying with people in the Sacrament of Confession, and it has led me to conclude that there is not a person alive who doesn’t have a big problem with the Truth! We lie. We hide the truth, and we hide from the truth. We don’t like to hear it spoken. This denial of the truth is contributing in a very powerful way the polarization of this world and this nation. We prefer silence to the truth, and most of us live in a constant state of denial: denial of the truth. The trouble with this sort of thing is that it puts us at great distance from the One who is the Truth.

When poor old Pilate stood in front of Jesus and said: “What is Truth?” He could not face the fact that he was standing in front of the truth: the truth about himself, the truth about his life, his version of Justice, and the very truth of Jesus Christ. Because of the fact that we live in denial of the truth about who we are and for that matter about who God is, we live a little bit like Pilate who would not see the truth, feared it, and would rather wash his hands and blaim someone else than admit, accept, and embrace the truth.

The fire that Jesus came to ignite is the fire of truth, and the revelation of that Truth will cause divisions and strife. It always has, but it’s not because of Jesus. The goal of Jesus was not to create division, but to bring about acceptance of the truth. Those who tell the truth usually pay a great price. The prophets in the Old Testament were truth-tellers, and they all had trouble for it. Some paid with their lives. The truth tellers among us still are often outcasts avoided by those who would prefer to live a lie. Those who tell the truth are often embarrassed, frustrated, and angered by the challenges they face with the truth. Ask anyone who has been a “whistle-blower” at the work place, and you’ll get the picture. This age in which we live likes the lie, and when truth begins to be discovered, there is trouble.

The paradox of all this is that we are drawn to the truth. I think it’s why at our lowest level we are often suspicious and doubtful of things we hear and are told. We always want to know the truth. We are restless and something in us seeks the truth even though we often don’t want to hear it.

The truth always reveals what we most want to hide from ourselves and from others. We are sinners. The moment we start to hide, to run, to deny, to lie to ourselves about this, the further we will find ourselves from Jesus Christ. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of the Truth that breaks into this living lie which continues to suggest to us that there is really no such thing as sin, and if there is, we’re not involved to any great extent. Which of course, is the greatest of all lies. As I said once before, in this day and age, no one anymore has “sin”, we just have “issues”. When you smile at that thought, you are beginning to acknowledge the truth.

With the coming of Jesus Christ, the dividing line is revealed, not so much between the good and the bad, but rather between those who live in the truth and those who hide from the truth, deny the truth, and who might even insist that there is no truth. The remedy that leads to truth is proposed in the second reading today, that Letter to the Hebrews. It is worth reading again throughout this coming week.

When we stand before and within the truth, we shall discover that God’s love is in proportion to the forgiveness he gives. The greatest sinners who confess their sin and embrace the truth are the ones who always seem to know, really know, the love of God. They are like the little guy in the back seat who knows that if he tells the truth with someone who loves him, he will enjoy even more of that love, and live a very joyful life free of fear, free of doubt, and free from the darkness of sin, deceit, and lies. It is still and always will be so: The Truth shall set you free.

Wisdom 18, 6-9 + Psalm 33 + Hebrews 11, 1-2, 8-19 + Luke 12, 32-48

Often when people comment to me about a particular homily saying that they feel as though I was speaking directly to them, I think to myself (and have sometimes said aloud), “That’s because I’m really always speaking to myself.” With this Gospel today, it occurs to me that the same thing may be happening with Jesus. When Peter asks that question, “Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?” I wonder if Jesus was not thinking: “I’m talking about myself here. If you want to follow me, pay attention.”

Let’s remember that this parable in Luke’s Gospel is set during the Journey to Jerusalem during which Jesus has spoken of what is to come there. Very dramatic parables have been used like the Samaritan story, significant conversations have taken place with Martha and Mary, followed by an instruction on prayer making these far more than simply nice Bible Stories. When you think about what is shortly to happen in Jerusalem, these are the final instruction of Jesus to those who will remain. These are lessons left to us by a man walking to his death. These lessons are his treasure, and they ought to stir us up a bit on an August weekend. He is teaching us about care for our neighbors which might well include our enemies (wondering as I did here a few weeks ago why we would have any). He is teaching us about prayer and what really matters in this life. He is drawing us into himself, sharing with us what he must be thinking about as he makes his way to Jerusalem where he will forgive enemies, pray to his Father, and give up everything to possess the Father’s final and best gift, eternal life.

“Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” While he is speaking to us, I truly believe he is speaking to himself as well. No one has been entrusted with more by God than Jesus Christ, and much was demanded of him. He must have known and believed that. As he entrusted so much to us who remain, he reminds us that much will be demanded of us as well. This is not just a matter of wealth and possessions. It is also a matter of faith with the expectations that we bear witness to and share what is entrusted to us in faith. True discipleship requires a depth of faith beyond ordinary measure.

People of faith, like you and me are called to a higher level of responsibility. We are called to be models of hope and of courage that comes from deep faith and lives consistently lived after the pattern of Jesus Christ. That courage which rests upon hope is what we see in Abraham in the first reading today. Knowing the long and rich tradition of Abraham surely shaped the faith of Jesus as he grew in wisdom and grace at a home in Nazareth. Abraham’s faith fulfilled his deepest hopes, and that is exactly what we see again in Jesus Christ. His faith in His Father fulfilled his hopes, and so it must be for us as well.

We cannot live as if this is all there is on this earth. The faith with which we have been entrusted gives us hope, and constantly directs our attention and shapes our values in terms of what is yet to come. “Entrusted”, “Demanded”, “Required” are strong and emphatic verbs that leap off the page at us who sometimes are tempted to be more interested in what we can get rather than than what we can give; in what we can keep rather than what we can share. Thinking that God’s generosity stops with us, and that what we have been given is all for us marks a failure of discipleship and stewardship.

The one who has been given the most has shown us how to live with what has been entrusted to us. The one who has been given the most has shown us what is required by his life of hopeful service, of prayer, and courage. Learning from Him, following him, and remaining one with him should leave us fearless and without concern when the time comes for the demand.

Ecclesiastes 1,2 – 2.23-33 + Psalm 95 + Colossians 3, 1-5, 9-11 + Luke 12, 13-21

 Two questions raise a couple of troubling human issues in this scene from Luke’s Gospel:

  1. Who appointed me a judge or arbiter between you?”
  2. Who will get what you have prepared for yourself?

The man shouting out from the crowd pulls us into a very real human conflict that all of us have probably seen, and some may have actually experienced: the fighting over money and resources within a family when there is a lot to go around. “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” There is a little cultural issue here we ought to keep in mind: the first son got everything. So right away, it looks as though this is a younger brother. It is doubtful that the older brother had any obligation to divide the inheritance. In other words, someone is asking for something for which they have no actual right. This is what makes it easy for Jesus to brush off the request. But maybe he really isn’t brushing it off. Perhaps he is suggesting that the present system is not in accord with the values and way of God’s reign. And so, with that, Jesus moves toward the second question with what I think is a very sad story.

Two men here: one has nothing and asks for a share. The other has everything and he dies with it.

The second man is lonely, isolated, and in my judgment, a tragic figure. What I find “tragic” is that he talks to himself as though there is no one else to talk to or listen to. He is so busy talking to himself that, in a sense, he can’t hear his brother asking for a share. Listen to that dialogue. He talks to no one but himself. He is probably so paranoid and so anxious about keeping everything that he listens to no one and talks to no one.

The story wouldn’t be so sad if it were not that it continues to be lived. Families break apart, relationships are destroyed, and courts are filled with family squabbles and law suits over one inheritance after another.  Those who have are still talking to themselves scheming over ways to keep what they have. I am frequently struck by this when in the car I dial past “talk radio” on the way to finding some good music. These people are all talking to themselves. They only listen to those who say what they want to hear reinforcing and offering no challenge to their privilege and power. It’s like an echo chamber!

Let’s suppose for a moment that these two men are brothers, even though Luke never suggests so. If the parents of the older brother had left their estate in order, the younger one may never have been crying out for a share. As a pastor for so long, I can’t begin to tell you how often I have seen family relationships unravel because parents acted as though they were never going to die, failing to be good stewards, and waiting too long to provide for a just distribution of their estate. On the most practical level, this story is a wake-up call to everyone who has not yet prepared for their passing from this life. It makes me wonder, as a pastor, how well someone is prepared spiritually when the material things are sometimes left in such a mess. The second question of this Gospel might well be directed to them, and I wonder, why would you let the courts distribute what is left when you die?

In the end, we can stand outside of this Gospel as observers watching as people build bigger storage units, fill their attics until they sag, and stuff their garages full until the cars sit outside. We can also watch part of the human family that has not received a share of what the Father has provided cry out for justice. However a real disciple of Jesus is not really called to be an observer standing outside the Gospel. So, we may also stand inside this Gospel and answer for ourselves the second question that really asks what we are going to do with what we have. The second man in this story has no friends, but a lot of money. He might be better off with a few more friends and a little less money.

We have inherited a great deal from a provident and loving God who has lavishly bestowed a great deal upon us. Why in the world, how can it be possible that anyone would be left asking for a share?