All posts for the month February, 2014

Deuteronomy 11: 18-21, 26-28 + Psalm 31 + Romans 1, 16-17; 3:22-28 + Matthew 7, 21-29

The Gospel advice not to worry has always struck me as being a bit unrealistic. There is always plenty to worry about. Some of it we make up. Some of it we cause. Some of it is very real. A parent whose 16 year old child is not yet home at 11:30 pm has plenty to worry about. A single parent with two children and two jobs living hand to mouth month by month has plenty to worry about. Even the very people who heard these words for the first time from the mouth of Jesus Christ had plenty to worry about in a country occupied by a foreign power when most hours of every day were spent finding enough food to get them through the night. As I sat with this Gospel which seems at first to suggest that we should never worry about what we are to eat and what we are to wear, I began to wonder how I would preach this text to someone in refugee camp or in many parts of Africa. In reality, there is only a small part of this world where people can open the closet and find plenty to wear for the rest of their lives or a freezer to open and find enough to eat for the rest of the month. This is complicated, and consequently it is easy to brush off as idealistic and just a pious wish. We’re all worried about something, and this world is full of anxious people living at the brink of disaster. For far too many in this world, every day is that disaster.

It occurs to me that the secular culture in which we find ourselves today makes it all the more difficult to reach into this text and find the light of the Gospel to illumine the darkness of these anxious times. Too much of our behavior continues to suggest that we really do not understand nor trust the Providence of God. The message drummed into our ears and into our heads these days is: “You can lead a perfectly happy life if you just get enough money and buy enough stuff.” There is no mention, no thought or even a hint of God being involved. It’s all about me, my power, my comfort, my privilege, and my opportunities. Thinking all the time that there might not be enough to around, I have to be very guarded lest anyone come who might want the same thing. Then, having managed to get it all, I must now guard it all. To this think and in the face of this behavior, the Gospel is proclaimed today by you and me as God’s holy and prophetic church.

Nowhere does this Gospel suggest that we should not save and contribute to our 401K. Nowhere does this Gospel propose that we not care for and provide for our children; their health, their education, their food and clothing. We have a responsibility to care for our children. The reference to the birds of the air does not suggest that we throw ourselves upon others expecting them to keep the bird feeder full while we sit around all day singing in the tree tops! What this Gospel does suggest and strongly propose is that there is only one Master, and keeping that in mind as we go about our days may allow us to make more sense of who we are and what we are doing. Flowers wilt and the die. Some only bloom for a day, and most for only a season. Houses fall down and burn down. They blow away with the all the stuff in them, and happiness goes with it if that’s all you have. The only way to hang on to happiness and hope is to remember at all times that everything comes from the Creator including the people with whom you live and work; and that everything must lead us back to and keep us in a right relationship with that Creator. If it does not, we shall be empty no matter how much we have, and we shall be very, very alone.

When we step back from whatever does worry us and think about the worry itself, it is always about the future, a preoccupation with the future. Concern about what diseases, tragedies, pains, losses, or privations tomorrow may bring is debilitating, and it leaves us with no joy. As a result, the gift of today is completely lost, and so is the gift of tomorrow as it become today.

I think that Jesus is simply prompting us to remember the daily feedings of the manna in the wilderness. Or perhaps he is just reminding us of a line in the prayer he has just taught his followers a few verses earlier: “Give us this day our daily bread.” That petition is both a reminder of who provides, and that today is what matters. When lived rightly, today will become tomorrow which is the essence of Hope for us who choose to live in and remain in a right relationship with the God who cares for us enough to share our very flesh and blood, life and death, suffering, joy, pain, and love.

Leviticus 19, 1-2,17-18 + Psalm 103 + 1 Corinthians 3, 16-23 + Matthew 5, 38-48

Saint Ann Parish, Fairview, OK + Saint Anthony Parish, Okeene, OK + Saint Thomas Parish, Seiling, OK

One more Sunday with the Sermon on the Mount, and then Lent begins. We have been reading this Sermon since the beginning of February! That is a long sermon, so stop looking at your watches. No wonder the crowd got hungry and he had to feed them! But then, there wasn’t much else to do in those days without cable and satellite TV! Besides, what he saying to them was a challenge to change the way they thought and imagined God to be, and as a result, it might mean changing the way they lived. It got their attention.

What should become clear by this time is that he is telling us something about God and how God behaves more than he is telling us about what we should do. This is revelation. It is not a new system of ethics or morality. This is about God not us. What Jesus is hoping is that once we understand God as he does, we will then understand ourselves in a different way that will affect how we behave and what we do.

That suggestion about turning the other cheek or giving your entire house to a robber who takes your TV is a recipe for social chaos. Jesus is not telling us how build up a good society here on earth. An eye for an eye is simply proposing that there be a limit to what you do with someone who offends you. If someone steals your car, you don’t burn down their house with their wife and family inside. There are limits to be set so that retribution or “getting even” does not escalate into chaos. With that, he moves to heart of the matter. He begins to talk about, tells us about, and reveal something very important about God so that his mission among us might be fulfilled.

Jesus came to establish the Kingdom of God. He did not come to establish a smooth running and efficient human society. He came to form a body that lives in him and shares his relationship with the Father, not shape a civil society. His purpose was to divinize the human race: incarnation! Jesus wanted and came to draw people into his relationship with the Father. So this Sermon on the Mount is theology. It is not morality. The life of Jesus among us was an experience of God in human flesh and time. We he forgave people driving nails into his hand and feet, we were experiencing something Divine. What mere human could do such a thing? What we see and hear in Jesus is God. The challenge and invitation of this Sermon is for us to come through Jesus Christ into the Divine Life, and he begins to talk about Divine Life when he describes how the Father lets the sun shine on the bad and the good; the rain fall on the just and the unjust. He speaks about how God loves not just those who love God, but loves everything and everyone because that is what God is. It is God’s nature. It is God’s being. Love is not a reward that is given or withheld. If that were the case, God would not be God. Love is all God knows how to do or how to be. We call that “grace.” It is freely given not deserved, won or lost, and it makes us graceful and grateful which is why we are here this morning not because we have been good or bad, but because we are loved and living in a relationship with God that will be experienced in communion.

God is not like us! The mission of Jesus Christ was to awaken in us a desire to be like God. Yet we must be careful with this, because way too often we want to make God be like us rather than the other way around. So, we think that God punishes to justify that we punish. We think that God gets angry, because we get angry. We think that God gives and withholds love because we do; but Jesus will not allow us to forget that Love comes first. We do not earn it. We cannot destroy it or lose it. We do not make God love us or try to change God by our behavior. If that were so, we could change God. So, does God punish? I think the answer is yes, but the punishment is not angry resentment. It is what we call “tough love”. I think God allows us to experience the result or the consequences of our sins for one reason – to turn us back to God himself. Being miserable because we have done wrong makes us stop doing wrong and repent placing ourselves back in the right relationship with Love. Going a step further some might then wonder if there is really a “hell” since God is Love. I think there is, and I think it is the consequence of choosing to refuse love and all that love demands in terms of mercy, forgiveness, patience, understanding, and repentance. Does God love those who make those choices? Of course. God loved them first, but they refused, and love does not force, coerce, or demand. Look at the love in your own lives. It is always freely given and freely received or it is not real love.

When the prophet in the Book of Leviticus says: “Be holy”, and Jesus says in this Sermon, “be perfect” the Word of God proposes that we become divine for only God is holy and only God is perfect. This holiness and this perfection becomes us more and more as we grow to know and understand God and draw closer to God through his Son who has shown us in this life something of a Father who calls us all, heals us all, and loves us all, the good and the bad, the just and the unjust. There are no exceptions proposed here. Can we love our enemies? Why not? We made them, we ought to be able to unmake them. The first movement toward loving enemies is to pray for them – to pray that we might begin to love them. Can we think for a moment that God would refuse us if we asked to have a measure of God’s grace in order to Love as God loves? Impossible!

It seems to me that of all people you, here in western Oklahoma, would understand what happens when you put an iron in a fire. The longer it is there and the closer it is to the flame, the hotter it becomes with that fire to the point that it becomes on fire and can spread that fire. Jesus Christ would put us into the fire of God’s love so that we become that fire itself. Love is a participation in the Life of God just like that iron participates in the heat of the fire. This is the mission and the work of Jesus Christ to lead us through him, with him, and in him into the very life of God. This is what makes us perfected, because it restores us to what God has created and wills us to be.

Our Lady of Lebanon Catholic Church, Norman, Oklahoma

Hebrews 12, 18-24 + Matthew 25, 31-46

With these verses, the narrative portion of Matthew’s Gospel comes to an end. It began with chapter five. Jesus came from the desert, was baptized by John, and then went up on a mountain and began his instruction with the first of his great sermons that we call: “The Sermon on the Mount.” Through several great sermons, Jesus has put before us his instruction and vision of the Kingdom of God. The next verse after today’s passage begins the Passion. Scholars tell us that with all the Gospels, the Passion of Christ was written first, and then the earlier parts of the Gospel were written to set the scene and introduce the characters. That would suggest that we might imagine Matthew’s Gospel to be a great drama allowing us to view the Gospel this way:

There is a prelude before the curtain opens. That is the Story of the Birth and Infancy of Jesus. It is as though we are getting settled in our seats, the lights go down, the orchestra plays some of the themes that will be lead us through.

The genealogy, the annunciation to Joseph (which in Matthew gets more lines than Mary’s annunciation because of his connection to David’s lineage), a story of the visitors from the east, the reaction/introduction of Herod and his authorities. This Christmas story is all an introduction.

Then, the curtain goes up. John the Baptist walks on, baptizes Jesus, and act one begins with a trip to the desert. From then on a series of scenes unfolds one after another that some call “sermons” all leading to the final one given at the Temple in Jerusalem.

That is the scene we have just concluded, and it is now time in the Gospel for the finale – the final grand act that resolves the conflict which in Matthew’s Gospel has been a conflict of Justice and Mercy, Law and Love. Perfect timing for us in the Maronite Church as the Great Season of Lent is about to begin.

Our expectation and imagination of how everything shall be resolved at the end is shaken by this scene and the little drama within the big drama of the Gospel. The little drama is this story Jesus tells. It is a radical departure from the common idea of virtuous action or good behaving bringing a reward.

The usual understanding is that one is rewarded for good works done on earth. The idea that “Justice” will come because someone is keeping track of all things in a great “book of life” is shattered by this story. As Matthew sees it, there is no record that the righteous can point to when called before the King. Both the blessed and the condemned are unaware of what really matters. What does matters, it seems, is the stuff they never thought of. What determines their destiny and seals their fate are things to which they never assigned any significance. All that stuff they were doing to look good and win favor or get good point does not matter at all. In the end, it will be something else entirely.

This whole idea flies in the face of what we think Justice is all about. We want it to be something clear-cut. We like to be sure that we’re right. We want to be certain that we are orthodox; that we have all the answers, and possess the truth, and of course, then we can call the shots. That is why this scene is so surprising. Both sides are astonished that the Son of Man does not share their notion of “Justice” and their idea of balancing the books. In fact, the Son of Man does not make the final judgment. He confirms the depth of their actions. He ratifies their behavior. The King, not necessarily the same person, calls and sends one group one way and another group the other way. Matthew suggests here that inconsequential acts of human generosity and compassion that people do without thought of reward or of profit have profound significance for the future as well as for the present. It is not what we get out of it now or ever that matters. In fact, the things from which we get nothing seem to have the most potential. Spontaneous acts of reaching out to another human being make the most difference in this kind of justice, not those where the consequences are measured and chosen for the maximum benefit. In the world’s eyes, that kind of behavior is folly, but not so in this Gospel.

This is not a program of virtues that gains a reward. It suggests with some subtlety that the moment we decide what to do by what we get out of it, we’ve lost it. It suggests the spontaneous acts of human kindness which spring out of a great and noble heart tuned to the presence of Christ are the ones that matter. The message of this final scene is that whenever we give up our rights, our time, even our lives wasting ourselves for others, even for God, then we enter in the company of fools in the eyes of this world. Yet we know and discover perhaps only at the end that the leader of the fools is hidden among the unimportant ones of this world.

Sirach 15, 15-20 + Psalm 119 + 1 Corinthians 2, 6-10 + Matthew 5, 17-37

As always, I pay attention to verbs. There are two in this text that lead us deeply into what is revealed and to what is expected of us. This is still part of the great “Sermon on the Mount”. Jesus is speaking to all those who will be his followers, and the expectation is great. Persecution for the sake of Justice. Becoming salt, which as I said last week might mean making things go BOOM! Standing tall to reflect the Light of Christ, and now this reflection on how to stand in relationship to the Law.

Jesus could not make it clearer that the Law of Moses is not abolished. There is no excuse among followers of Jesus for not keeping the law. Once that is established, Matthew gives Jesus divine authority to fulfill the law. That verb: “fulfill” is a moment of transition and revelation not only about who Jesus is, but also about what is then expected of those who would claim this Jesus as their divine authority and Lord. There is a transformation of the law which until that moment has been a terrible burden on people’s lives. Jesus continues to talk saying “you have heard this, but I tell you that….” Followers of Jesus will do more than keep the old law. It is no longer enough just to keep the rules. Rule keepers are not followers of Jesus. It takes more than that.

All through the Gospels, the Pharisees stand before us the “rule keepers”. They do everything right. They know the law. They impose the law. They keep the law. They teach the law, but they do not know and embrace the divine one who fulfills the law. They are never transformed by the law. They justify themselves, and they claim their self-satisfaction because they have kept the rules. Jesus comes to say, that is not enough. It will not get you into the right relationship with God, because you have not been transformed by the law.

One transformed by the law knows the spirit of the law. They know that it is not just murder that is forbidden, but the anger that causes the murder. So, a person transformed by the law addresses the anger in their lives knowing that even though they have never killed anyone, the anger in their lives still keeps them from being truly “Blessed” to use the language of earlier verses in this sermon. No one is Blessed, no one is Happy who is angry. Fulfillment of the law means: no anger.

One transformed by the law knows the spirit of the law. They know that it is not just adultery that is forbidden, but the lust that causes adultery. So, a person transformed by the law addresses everything that lust leads them into: pornography, sexism, disrespect for the body, thoughts, actions, whatever ultimately leads to that infidelity is also forbidden for those who wish to be counted among the Blessed and the Happy. No one who sits in front of a computer screen watching pornography is Happy or Blessed, and they are not going to become Happy or Blessed sitting there. They will just be lonelier and more desperate than before.

The message here, and the consequence of understanding this message means that none of us can ever think for one minute that because we have not broken one of the Ten Commandments we’re OK. Not breaking one of the Commandments is no excuse for failing to confess, acknowledge, and repent of sinfulness.

Years ago when I was much younger and had not really listened to this gospel, I was starting to take the traditions of my faith more seriously, and because I had never stolen anything, murdered, committed adultery, or coveted anyone or anything, because I had made every effort to respect my parents even though we argued about going to Mass, I decided to go to confession. I’m not sure to this day why. I’m almost ashamed to admit that it might have been to impress the priest with a report on how good I was. When I said to him, “I haven’t broken any of the commandments.” He said: “So what? Is that all you have to say for yourself? You just told me what you have not done. Can you tell me what you have done.” I was stumped at the reversal, and even though the conversation ended up being very encouraging, I left there realizing that there must be more to this faith that keeping the rules. With that, transformation began and fulfillment.

Now as a confessor, I can’t tell you how troubling and sometimes disappointing it is to hear someone come for the Sacrament of Reconciliation and detect that their preparation has been focused on the Ten Commandments. There is more, way more to our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ than the Law of Moses. A far better preparation is a review of the Beatitudes. The question then is not whether or not you have stolen, committed adultery, or murdered anyone. The issue is: were you merciful? Were you just? Have you taken simplicity and poverty seriously, not only the poverty of others, but your own in terms of greed and hungering for more prestige and power rather than for the Kingdom of God? This is the life of people who have been transformed by the divine presence in Jesus Christ.

Jesus comes to fulfill the law so that it is no longer a set of rules or a list of “don’ts”, but a sign of our longing for and our movement toward fulfilling of the Will of God: and our sincere desire to live in a constant and intimate relationship with God. Whatever gets between us and God must go. Whatever gets between us, brothers and sisters, must go; because when we are at odds with each other, we are away from God. So today we celebrate the Law of God which for us is not a burden, but a gift, a guide, a map that once we are transformed by the grace of our faith turns the law from a burden that binds us to a gift that frees us. The law frees us to be all that we can be by God’s love, and all that doing the will of God allows us to become.

Isaiah 58, 7-10 + Psalm 112 + 1 Corinthians 2, 1-5 + Matthew 5, 13-16

When I was in college, I only took one semester of chemistry at the end of which Father Thomas suggested that I switch to botany. He held me responsible for several minor explosions in the lab, and I guess he thought I could do less damage with trees and leaves. I learned a lot that semester however, even though I was one of the few students who ever turned on the exhaust fan in that glass box in the corner of the lab where things would sometimes go “Boom!” In our lab, sodium stored in kerosene would go “boom” when mixed with water in air. I know this from experience, and then I took Botany. The other part of salt is chloride which doesn’t exactly go “boom” when you mess with it, but it does stink up the place. I thought you ought to know these things in order to get into these verses of Matthew’s Gospel. It isn’t that you need to know about my unrealized dreams of being a chemist; but in order to get to the bottom of what Jesus is talking about.

Light has something to do with electromagnetic stuff which I think they got into in the second semester of chemistry. By that time I was in Botany with Father Richard, and of course, the whole magic of photosynthesis unfolded. Without light there is no life. Those green plants that need light turn carbon dioxide into food. It awakens plants to life and growth. It lets us see and add color. At the time of Jesus spoke, salt was very essential and precious thing. Living in that climate where perspiration was constant, bodies depleted of salt were not healthy. Without salt no food could be preserved for any length of time. It was hot there. The only light came from oil lamps or crude candles which blew out easily, and was probably only available to the wealthiest. So most people were in the dark when the sun went down.

So, with this in mind, we hear these verses that come immediately after the verses we call, “The Beatitudes”. We would have heard the Beatitudes proclaimed last week had we not celebrated the Feast of the Presentation. There is a very sudden change that takes place here. Jesus has been speaking to the multitude, and he has been speaking in very general terms about “those”, about others who are Blest. Then suddenly he shifts and says: “Blest are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward in heaven is great. You are the salt of the earth….”

Now he speaks to us. He speaks to anyone who is willing to take him seriously and step up and step into his mission and his work. He tells us what we are to become as disciples. He takes us past superficial ideas we toy with in life like being a chemist or botanist to a deeper sense of what our first vocation in life truly is: salt and light. We are the ones the living Christ still speaks to in this church when the Living Word is proclaimed here.

When life in this world is dull and without flavor, without excitement and joy, it is because there is no salt, nothing to sustain its life, keep things is in balance, and maybe even a little “boom” now and then like fireworks celebrating a great event. The darkness of this world made all the gloomy by injustice and violence is due to one thing, a lack of light, the kind of light exposes evil, that adds color and nourishment reflecting the smile of God and the divine presence everywhere. Where is this to come from? The answer is here in these words of Jesus Christ.

For those who hunger for justice and peace, we make this world taste better. Yet when we lose our confidence in what we are called to be, we drain the resources of those who are trying to make a difference. As light in this world, we make it possible to see God at work in a world that is too blind by self-serving ambition and greed to see anything at all except the next opportunity to grab more stuff! That kind of world is gray and dull, full of depression and gloom, hopeless and shallow. Proclaiming this Gospel in February, a month of dark days and long nights, a month psychiatrists know is a month of danger for those living with depression is a very wise choice, for this Gospel contains a message of hope offered to this world by those who know who they are as disciples of Jesus Christ filled with passion and purpose.

Salt and light are powerful agents. With zest and beauty, in little ways and magnificent efforts,life comes to those in need because of us. At the very beginning of his mission and public life in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus lays out his plan for us who are called to be his followers. Making people hunger for a taste of God, bringing people to see the presence of God and wonder at God’s beauty is what and who we are. When this world begins to glorify God revealed by our goodness, gentleness, mercy, and love, when this world begins to reflect the creator and all humankind truly and unmistakably bears the image of God’s love, we will have realized our vocation within the mission of Christ.