All posts for the month April, 2014

Acts 2, 42-27 + Psalm 118 + 1 Peter 1, 3-9 + John 20, 19-31

A life-time of disappointments, failures, mistakes, betrayals, let-downs, and unfulfilled promises does eventually wear us down. Because these experiences accumulate quickly, and by the time many of us are young men and women the first bitter taste of distrust, disillusionment, and cynicism have set in. The consequences of this are often subtle, and they weave their way into our behavior and into our hearts. They make us suspicious and doubtful. They cause us to expect the worst and deny the best. Bad news travels fast, and there is a reason. Good news is unexpected and always too hard to believe. “Too good to be true” is not just an old saying, it is way of thinking.

These things are a greater obstacle than locked doors when it comes to believing that Jesus Christ has risen; and this good news is still greeted in every way possible except with immediate belief. Thomas was not the only one who did not believe. Even though the others in that room had seen, they did not believe or they never would have still been in that room a week later with doors locked. It was too good to be true.

Thomas and his friends are a perfect snapshot of their world and of ours. Their disappointment and their disillusionment left them distrustful even of what their eyes and ears told them. Cynicism and suspicion mark our days too. We don’t believe what we see and hear. If we do, we’re fools and we are going to be disappointed. The media captured by the stars and celebrities of our time continues to trick us into believing all kinds of things that eventually unravel and reveal lives of desperate loneliness and narcissism. Politicians and their would-be successors leave us cynical and frustrated often choosing between the lesser of two evils or voting against a candidate rather than voting for one, if we vote at all. Their ideologies continue to reveal a truth we would rather deny; no one is to be trusted.

To all of this and to all of us, a Gospel is proclaimed today. It is a Gospel that speaks directly to us and to all who have nodded in assent to what I have just said. It is a Gospel particularly challenging to young people who are lured into a way of thinking and living that is based only on empirical truth. “Prove it”, they say. “Show me”, they think over and over again. “Show me you love me” is their way of luring another into fleeting pleasure and destructive behavior. The search for proof that there is a God is never really God centered, but some intellectual ego trip for the sake of saying: “I did it” one way or the other.

When it comes to forgiveness, it’s the same thing. Hanging on to old hurts, memories, and grudges is the consequence often of not believing that forgiveness is possible: possible to give or possible to receive. Sometimes even when we have been forgiven by someone we have hurt, disappointed, or failed, we simply can’t move on as they would like for us to do, because lurking doubt and disbelief linger in our hearts. We wait for the other to prove what cannot be proven, so we wait for them to prove that they really did not forgive us because forgiving us means we will have to forgive ourselves.

Yet, to all of this and to all of us, a Gospel is proclaimed today. It is a Gospel of Truth, a Gospel of Hope, a Gospel of Forgiveness.

I think sometimes the apostles were slow to believe because they were slow to forgive themselves. I think sometimes that Jesus came to them again and again not to prove something, but to urge them to believe what they could not see: that they were loved and chosen, forgiven and cherished by the God who was abandoned when they could not see what had been given to them or prove what they hoped would be true.

The news here with this Gospel is that the best things can never been proven, they are simply accepted, believed, treasured and shared. The news here is that we are a people truly blessed because we have not seen but believed. Those who had seen Jesus and lived at the time of his earthly life had a very difficult and challenging time of it. They had to believe what they could not see. They had to believe that this carpenter’s son from Nazareth, of all places, was the “Son of God.” I don’t know about you, but I do not think I would like to face that challenge. Now in these times there is still a challenge similar to theirs. We must look at one another and believe that we see a child of God, someone different from us yet made in the image and likeness of God. We can’t see that, and no one can prove that, but we can believe it, and when we do everything changes and we do too.

Blessed are those who believe but cannot see. Blest with love, blest with forgiveness, blest with hope, and blest with a joy that no disappointment, no betrayal, no let-down, no mistake, failure, or sin can destroy. Cynicism, suspicion, and doubt about this good news has no place among these blessed. Happy are we who have heard this Good News and believed what we cannot see. Happy are we who gather again and again to hear the Word of God and be fed on that Word Made Flesh at this altar. Happy are we whose hope is renewed by the fellowship we share. Happy are we who have unlocked the doors of our hearts, unlocked the possibilities that come with the truth we share in Christ, and the life into which he leads.

Acts 10, 34, 37-42 + Psalm 118 + Colossians 3, 1-4 + Matthew 28, 1-10

A choice is presented for the Easter Sunday Gospels, and I have chosen Matthew because it is the Gospel of this year. A problem arises when faced with this choice because each of the four accounts of the Resurrection is very different, and after reading and hearing them over the years, they all blend together. This is a problem because the blending “waters down” the unique elements of each Gospel account leaving us with too many details and no way to identify what is significant. When put together, they are all significant, and it is simply TMI, too much information. For instance, in John’s account, Peter and “The Beloved Disciple” run to the tomb. Peter arrives last in that race, but the other disciple stands back to let Peter enter first, and Peter is then the first to conclude that the Lord has risen. Notice that there is no mention of that in Matthew’s account. It is quite different, quite simple, and almost without detail until you begin to take it apart.

In Matthew’s Gospel, unlike the others, there is an earthquake. There is an angel sitting on the stone that had been in the way. I like the image! There are no spices. The two women named Mary are simply going to visit the grave. There are guards only in Matthew’s Gospel, and they are “like dead men.”

When there is an earthquake, no matter what you are doing, it gets your attention. I’ve been through a couple in San Francisco, and we are beginning to become more accustomed to them in Oklahoma. None the less, we still know when they happen. Things shake. Some things fall down. We remember that we are vulnerable, and we look around and pay attention because something is going on out of our control. No matter how we might want to or try, an earthquake is not under our control. So today the Resurrection is announced by an earthquake. Wake up. Pay attention. Things are coming apart. What was closed is open. It’s an earthquake!

An angel came. Even though Matthew gives the angel no name, I like to imagine that it is Gabriel. Luke is the one who names angels, and Luke liked Gabriel. Besides, it’s the same message: “Do not be afraid.” So, why not the same angel? Every time that angel shows up, God is doing something no one could have ever imagined, and in doing so, God is being revealed. An angel says to an old childless couple, “You’re going to be parents.” Now there is something new, and it is something only God could have done. An angel says to Mary, “You will conceive a child by the Holy Spirit.” Something new again. That has never happened before, and only God could do it. An angel says: “He is risen as he said.” Again, something new and never imagined! This is God at work, God being revealed. Then there is an image I really enjoy: that image of an angel perched on a rock. A stone that had blocked the entrance to the tomb…. or was it blocking the exit from the tomb? It works both ways. That stone kept the women outside unable to see the emptiness, and that stone kept the Lord of Life in. It had to go, and there sits the angel right on top as though it were a throne. There is the angel sitting on the obstacle. It is a kind of victory pose that is a message in itself.

Finally, there are the guards, the brave, big, tough, fearless Roman Guards! They are afraid of nothing. They have conquered the world, but they fall down in the face of the one who conquers death. In contrast to life itself, they are like dead men. Suddenly the dead are alive and the living are dead suggests Matthew. That is earth shaking!

Then the women are sent to Galilee. That’s not home. The angel sends them to the outside world, away from home. They are sent out, and there they experience the risen one. Not in the Temple, not in the safety of their homes, not in the synagogue or any of the places where they are safe and comfortable.

My friends, on the cross we venerated two days ago, the world did all it could to Jesus. At Easter, God did all God could do to the world; and the earth shook! You do not explain that, you witness it. The risen Christ appeared first to his own; the ones who heard him teach, heal, and forgive. They witnessed his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. He went to them first because they would be the ones to recognize that this was the crucified Jesus. That crucifixion was not an unfortunate mistake in the Roman legal system. It was the inevitable and predictable result of saying the things Jesus said, and doing the things Jesus did. That is what the world does to people who threaten the way things are. Face the facts here!

On that first day of the week, God presented a new fact. The God who made light from darkness and a world from a void took the worst we could and turned it toward life. The earth shook, and a new world is offered to us. Jesus came back to forgive the disciples for abandoning him. The new world is about forgiveness, not vengeance, and the earth shook. When the stone was rolled away, and the earth shook, we got our first glimpse of a new world where death does not have the last word, where injustice is made right, and innocent suffering is vindicated by the hand of God.

Those two women came to a cemetery to grieve over the sad story of death and one more chapter in the sad story of how the good always get it in the end when cruel power, jealousy and fear have their way. But then the earth shook, the obstacle, the barrier between life and death is moved away. That angel plopped itself right down on that stone in one final act of impudent defiance of death and Roman soldiers. It is as though the angel says to the soldiers, “Boo! Be afraid! Your world and what it was built on is shaking apart.” To the others the message is simply: “Go out and away from the old familiar places where you feel safe and secure. You will find him elsewhere.”

So just as with another story that opened Matthew’s Gospel, there is a story here at the end in which no body went back the way they came. Once we experience the risen Lord, healing and forgiving, there is no going back.

Isaiah 50, 4-7 + Psalm 22 + Philippians 2, 6-11 + Matthew 26, 14 to 27, 66

As Matthew’s Passion unfolds for us, we see early church apologetics at work. Concerned to show that Jesus Christ was the Messiah and fulfillment of all that the First Testament Prophets had promised. The Passion we just heard is full of references to those earlier writings pointing to and converging at the death of Jesus. Isaiah, Zechariah, Jeremiah, the Psalms of David are all echoed in Matthew’s Passion with the entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the Temple, and the final meal all of which reach into the memories of the past and bring them to the present. We must not hear this Passion Gospel as though we are spectators! It is essential to our faith and to our experience of Holy Week now beginning to hear this Gospel as disciples who accept all of the implications and meaning of what is happening. We are not spectators. We are apostles. Just as much as Christ still lives, so also does Christ still suffer and still die. Just as Christ has risen, so too is he still betrayed, mocked, humiliated and unjustly judged. This means something to us. It means something for us. We cannot claim Christ or profess our faith in Christ and stand outside of this mystery.

The death of Jesus cannot be separated from our sinfulness. It is not someone else who cries out, “Crucify Him.” We have failed and refused to love. Sin is not a private personal matter. Sin is social, and its repercussions reverberate long after the choice is made. Even more so what we fail to do is just as harmful as what we do.

We watch the news the way we sometimes unfortunately listen to this Gospel, like spectators. Yet we cannot escape our complicity in the poverty of others because we have too much. We may not fool ourselves into thinking that if we buy something it keeps someone employed. The fact of the matter is, those employed are too often not given any just share in the profit of that purchase. It is simply turned back into the profits of those who already have enough. We cannot escape our participation in the violence fueled by the injustice and inequities of this world that we have helped create and insist on maintaining with our consumption and materialism. The Passion of Christ is the passion of this world and the suffering of Christ is the suffering of everyone judged unjustly and enslaved by the powerful who insist on preserving the status quo as did Herod, the Chief Priests, and the Pharisees. The promise of success and happiness through consuming and owning is made all the more powerful by the numbing misdirection of the media that puts us to sleep with games and desensitizes our children with sex and violence.

Riding into Jerusalem, Jesus chose humility and simplicity that challenged the illusion of power held by a few. He cleansed the temple challenging a complicity between commerce and organized religion. He broke bread at a Paschal meal initiating the importance of self-sacrifice for the good of all. He was hauled into court exposing the false assumptions of justice and the injustice that leaves the innocent condemned to death. He died on a cross for love laying down his life for his friends trusting that God would vindicate his cause. Then, he rose from the grave to proclaim that love is more powerful than death.

This day marks the beginning of a world transformed when the breath of life is blown again into the face of death as the Son of God breaths his last. This day is our invitation to step more deeply into the mystery of Christ whose presence in this world depends upon our presence, and whose power in the world is now vested in us through the Spirit he has breathed up on us.

Ezekiel 37, 12-14 + Psalm 130 + Romans 8, 8-11 + John 11, 1-45

G.K. Chesterton said: “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless or it is no virtue at all.” Martha and Mary are women of hope, and that hope springs from their faith which John’s Gospel sets before us today. Traditional Jewish belief at the time held that somehow the soul of a dead person remains with the body for three days. After that, it departs never to return and that is when corruption begins which is makes this situation hopeless. Understanding that belief ought to make clear why Jesus waited so long to get to Bethany. He wanted to be hope in the midst of hopelessness. For the early Christians to whom John writes and for whom he offers this story, the story of Lazarus is much more than a pointer to the resurrection of Jesus who was only in the tomb three days and never knew corruption. For them this miracle is a challenge to never give up hope even in the hopeless situations in which they found themselves as individuals, or as a church. It is never too late for God to revive and revitalize a person or a church. But first we must learn to cooperate with God.

There are three commands given by Jesus at Bethany.

The first is the command is directed to those standing around to roll away the stone. There is no reason to imagine that those people understood what they were being told to do. In fact, there is reason to suspect that some of them scoffed at the idea, and some must have complained. It would have been a big and heavy stone. There would have been a very foul smell. Contact with a grave and dead body was a serious matter risking their relationship with the synagogue community. It risked being “unclean.” They rolled away the stone. It looks to me like a response of obedience. They did what Jesus asked of them even though it made no sense at all, and carried with it some risk about what others would think of them. They cooperated with God’s plan instead of fighting or opposing it. If Jesus can command Lazarus to come out, Jesus could have commanded the stone to roll back, but he did not do so. He enlisted the obedient cooperation of those who were with him. God does that all the time, you know. God uses faithful people to do a lot of wonderful and miraculous things. So some people who were obedient even though they did not understand rolled away the stone. C.S. Lewis once said: “God seems to do nothing of himself that he cannot delegate to his creatures.” In short, God will not do by a miracle what we can do by faithful obedience.

The second command is directed to the dead man. “Come Out”. We have no idea, no clue about what happened in that tomb; but we do know that Lazarus came out. While sitting with this Gospel for several days this week, I wondered if he came out instantly, or if there might have been a little wait; maybe five minutes or so. I have wondered what everyone would have thought during that time, what Jesus might have thought, or how Mary and Martha responded and waited. If there had been a little pause, it would have been very suspenseful. They might have looked at one another, at Jesus, rolled their eyes a little bit or held their breath. Whatever, I think it is more fun to imagine a little pause there allowing the moment to sink in, allowing them to wonder about rolling back the stone and whether or not it was a good idea. I’ve wondered about Lazarus and what he thought or felt as he heard the command: “Come Out.” Again, there is obedience. He comes out. John tells us that he came out bound hand and foot with his face covered. Even a man tied up hand and foot and left for dead can help himself when commanded to do so.

The third command is directed to the people. “Unbind him and let him go free.” Even though God can call him out, even though he manages to get himself out bound hand and foot, he needs the community to unbind him. In fact, it would seem from the command of Jesus that this is something the community must do, unbind. Lazarus could certainly not do it himself. Jesus does what only God can do. In his own words, Jesus said: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Now we do what only we can do, help one another. Unbind each other from whatever holds us back from abundant life.

We roll away the stones by our obedient response to God’s will even when it makes no sense and seems improbable. We open up the possibility of God doing what seems impossible in the face of what is hopeless, because we can never be hopeless. Then we stand ready to complete the work of Jesus on this earth. We complete the work of God’s forgiveness and set each other free from the consequences of sinfulness restoring the unity and community that has been broken by sin by our willingness to forgive which unbinds.

So two women and a dead man speak to us today as powerfully as does Jesus about hope, about faith, and about obedience. The consequences of these virtues on that day must have resulted in one grand party, another one of Martha’s dinners no doubt so well known in that region. It is not different today. When there is faithful obedience to the will of God, hope and a willingness to wait, life will prevail; and we will be free of whatever holds from that life, a community in communion will be maintained, and the joyful celebration will have begun.

Matthew 12, 1-8

This incident in Matthew’s Gospel is very troubling, and it is the first of two stories unfolding and revealing an important part of the Gospel’s Good News. The second story which comes right after these verses tells of Jesus curing a man with a withered hand in the Synagogue on Sabbath. It is as though Matthew wants to drive home the point. The Pharisees are growing more and more furious and impatient with Jesus. The rhetoric is heating up and the hostility can no longer be disguised as curiosity or interest. This man and his teaching are a direct challenge to their very way of life; he poses a threat to law and order.


Now there is a big difference between external and internal realities. We know this to be true, and we feel it sometimes when they get out synch or do not match up. It causes a lot of dis-ease in us. We like things to be in balance. “What you see is what you get.” This is comfortable and we like it to be so. We do not feel right when the way we look is not the way we feel, unless we are hiding something or living in denial. We do not trust or like to be around others who look good, but somehow do not seem to be good. Most of us like order and the predictability that it provides. We like rules. We make them all the time. We pride ourselves on being a nation that finds consistent stability in the “rule of law.” That is, of course, until that law is inconvenient. Then we begin looking and hoping for loop-holes. The Pharisees were the rule keepers and sometimes the rule makers. They were “church police” who went around teaching the rules and enforcing them. They liked the rules. It was for them, and for that matter, for everyone, the way to be perfect, to be saved, to be holy and to be identified as a good person and a Son of Abraham. The problem was that there were so many rules that hardly anyone who had a real job could keep track of them all; but never mind, the Pharisees could do that for you. Breaking the laws meant you were out. Keeping the laws meant you were in. There were 39 laws or rules about the Sabbath! Moses only had Ten Commandments, but the Pharisees have 39 laws about just one of the ten! This is serious rule inflation, and it was a serious matter that led to a lot of fear and guilt, judgment and probably way too much condemnation. The Joy of the Covenant established by the Commandments of Moses, which revealed so much about God, was reduced to a great deal of anxiety on the part of the people, because of power and threat, fear and control on the part of the Pharisees. Into this steps Jesus of Nazareth.


What the law actually forbids was harvesting on Sabbath. Now you look at this scene and wonder if picking a grain of wheat and chewing on it constitutes the harvest. This is ridiculous, we can say from this distance, but we are not caught up in this system. The Pharisees use the law as a means of judging and condemning others which has become for the people a heavy burden. The Pharisees judge people. It puts a burden of guilt upon the guiltless. Jesus comes along and his judgment is on actions, not people. He is about setting people free, forgiving sins of people who do not keep the rules as the Pharisees see them. This begins to raise an important question: what are the rules for? For Jesus, the law is to be used to establish one’s vocation, to discover what one should do in a specific circumstance in order to fulfill God’s Will. The law, as God intended it, was to help us know who we are and know what God asks of us. From the behavior of Jesus, time after time, and episode after episode, we see that all God wants is mercy.


Here is where the conflict arises between external and internal realities. Jesus did not approve of keeping the law when doing so brought one into conflict with God’s Will and God’s desire for mercy. The scriptures are full of those stories: the man left on the side of the road by robbers, the woman taken in adultery, the next story of a man with a withered hand. During that incident Jesus brings up the example of an ox falling into a pit on the Sabbath. An ox was essential to one’s life and livelihood. By leaving it in the pit, he risks losing the ox. It could die. Without the ox, the man could not cultivate the field and feed his family. Leave it in the pit because the law says so, or get it out. There is the external and internal conflict.


Jesus comes proclaiming mercy. When mercy and keeping the rules collide, which one informs our decision? This is what Matthew is working through at this point of his Gospel. It is an essential issue for the privileged disciples of Jesus. Superficial external compliance to the law makes one pleasing to God is what the Pharisees say. They are always making judgments, and their error is that they judge people instead of actions. Judgments, my friends, must be about acts, never about people. Mercy takes us completely out of the business of judgments which is external. Mercy, on the other hand, is an internal reality requiring a new attitude of mind and heart. It looks to the person not to the rule. Eleos is the Greek word for mercy. It is the same word for “compassion.” Eleos means looking kindly on the sufferings of others. This is exactly what God is, Mercy. God looked upon the misery of our separation from God, saw our sin and its consequences, and sent His only son to become like us, to suffer with us (com-passion), and lift us up into his mercy.


The purpose of the Law was to restore the relationship between God and Man that had been broken by sin. What is revealed in these verses is that Jesus is the new Law. It is Jesus who restores the relationship between God and Man. This is what he means when he says: I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law. The Temple, until the time of Christ, was the place on earth where the human and the divine met to commune. Now they meet in Jesus Christ. “There is something greater than the Temple here,” he says to them. But they like it the old way. They do not want to think about mercy and compassion, they want the rules. It is a lot easier. It is a quick and easy way to self-justification. “I kept the rules” is all they need to say. Yet we all know deep down inside that just keeping the rules does not really accomplish anything. It’s like the child who says: “I didn’t do anything.” It is almost a self-condemning claim. “I did nothing” is the message!


Now with Jesus, the law is no longer the standard of perfection or the way to holiness. We all know how it is possible to be rule keepers and yet be cruel and selfish, self-justified sorry representatives of God’s mercy and love. Failure comes from what is not done while keeping the law. This is the risk of becoming nothing more than law-keepers. Those called to follow Christ have something more than the law motivating a moral life. They have a constant living awareness of the goodness and the mercy of God, desiring to live a worthy humble response to God’s presence and God’s call. A truly moral person is not someone who keeps the law, but someone who seeks to discover the will of God. “What would you have me do?” This is the question they ask in the face of every decision. These people no longer turn to the rules to determine what is right and what is good, what is just or what is best. They discern what it is that God wills and wishes for creation and for those who live in God’s presence.


We can go wrong by following the rules, but we can’t go wrong be discerning the will of God. The law is not enough. It is not that the law is wrong, it is simply not enough. Without a Spirit filled life that seeks to live in God’s presence and seeks to fulfill God’s will by the decisions of that life, one cannot be good and pleasing and perfect.


One can offer sacrifices all day long and never experience a change of heart, because external actions do not produce internal transformation even if that is their intended purpose. Our behavior must be a sign of an interior love of God and our desire to do God’s will. That brings a merciful heart.


We who live by the Spirit are being transformed. We are not conformed. Being conformed to this age leads us to avoid what is difficult and troublesome, to avoid service and sacrifice. Transformation leads us into Christ, into Christ’s way which was to do and follow the Will of the Father. It is the only way to holiness, asking what God desires. It is the only norm for morality, doing what the Father wills. It becomes then the only way to distinguish those who belong to this age, and those who belong to the age to come. When you do something just because you can that is a suspicious sign that you are conforming to this age, which never considers anything except what it wants to do because we can. However, when we do something because we consider it to be the will of God and what God desires for us, we have begun to discover what it means to be called by Christ.


So what is it to be for us? The easy way to nowhere: keeping the rules and not being troubled by mercy or the suffering of others? This is where Jesus steps in. He troubles the rule-keepers who question his judgment about Levi, a Tax collector, or about disciples picking grains of wheat. What he teaches and how he lives is a morality rooted in mercy, not in law, because the face of God which he reveals is the face of mercy.


This lesson bears frequent repetition until we get it right. In our retelling of these stories of mercy, we find ourselves reliving this behavior. We have no business hiding in the kind of superficial morality that is self-protecting and self-serving. As I just said, it is easier to keep the rules than look past them or look into the face of suffering. Easier to just go to church, get it over with, and go home rather than learn the meaning of mercy. It is easier to lock up drug offenders and single moms than figure out the cause of their misery and suffering that led them to the drugs in the first place. It is easier to say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys than make a significant change in one’s life, attitude, or thinking. It is easier to throw some pocket change or a couple of bucks in the collection than make a life changing, loving, grateful commitment to stewardship and tithing. It is easier to break up families and deport the so called “illegal” than to do something about the misery, fear, and danger they flee.


The Jesus we find in these Gospels is Mercy incarnate. “Go and learn the meaning of it,” he says to us. To Peter, Andrew, James, John, Levi, you and me, he says: “Follow Me.” It is not an invitation to take a walk. It is an opportunity to learn mercy. What we must learn is that mercy is not a single act. It is a way of life for privileged disciples of Jesus. It gives hope when it seems like there is none. Mercy is not something we ask for nearly as much as something we give and something we become.


We are Levi people, like the man in last night’s story, busy at our jobs, sitting at our desks, moving money around, taking all we can get however we can get it. I think Levi was just waiting for Jesus to come by. He gets up all too quickly, if you remember the story. I think he was ready and waiting for the call, and when invited to follow Jesus it was no invitation to go somewhere, but an invitation to learn the meaning of mercy, which is not an intellectual exercise or a rational argument. It is a matter of following along watching and listening to Jesus in action and then ever so slowly become mercy-filled ourselves. When that day comes, and this could be it, we will never be like those Pharisees standing around a woman, accusing and judging her. We will put down the rocks with which we might righteously stone others. We will stop the laughter that sometimes mocks mercy as “soft”, remembering that we all are in need of mercy and there is plenty to go around if we will just give what we expect and so desire to receive. The harvest we must reap in this vineyard, which we are so privileged to tend, is a harvest of mercy.


As we close tonight, I would ask you to pray with me repeating after me this prayer:


“Divine Savior, do not let me be conformed to this world, but transform me into yourself. May my hands be your hands. May my words be your words. Grant that everything I do may serve to glorify you. Above all, transform my soul and all its powers, that my memory, my will, my affections may be the memory, the will and the affections of you. Open my eyes to see your face beside me, open my home to be your dwelling place, come to my table and feed the hungry. Teach me mercy, and sustain my hope. Take from me all that is not of you. Grant that I may live only in you, by you and for you so that I may say in faith: “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”


MARK 2, 13-17

As last evening’s reflection concluded, I was speaking about “privilege” and the extraordinary gift we have in faith when we recognize and acknowledge who we are as laborers in God’s vineyard. We turn to Saint Mark tonight whose whole Gospel is, what I like to call, a short course in discipleship. It is somewhat like those yellow and black books you can find in book stores (if you can find a book store any more). You may know the series: “Accounting for Dummies”, “Cooking for Dummies”, “Windows 7 for Dummies”, and there is course, “Catholicism for Dummies” which isn’t half bad. When I read it, I thought, “I wish I had written that!”

It is only Chapter Two when we come upon Levi’s encounter with Jesus. Mark skips the business of the nativity. It is not important to him. What is important is the proclamation of the reign of God and that begins with the public ministry of Jesus. According to Mark, Jesus did most of his work in Galilee away from Jerusalem. That place was the center of Judaism, and since Mark was writing to Gentiles, he keeps Jesus out of Jerusalem until the Passion. In a very subtle way he is telling his early church that they do not need to look to the Jerusalem Christian Church as the only or best community.

As Mark’s Gospel unfolds, Jesus is baptized, goes into the desert of his retreat, then returns to call Peter, Andrew, James, and John, his privileged disciples, first. It is not a casual meeting that happens in passing. It is an example of the power Jesus possessed to create disciples. From the way Mark writes about it, you would think that they simply gave up their livelihood and abandoned their families. That silly and uninformed idea is a great excuse for not responding with your whole heart to your privileged call to discipleship. The point is that discipleship means a great change, a question of priorities. For disciples, the reign of God comes first. Then, there in Capernaum, there is quite a scene in the synagogue when an evil spirit is the first one to recognize Jesus as the “Holy One of God.” From the Synagogue Jesus goes directly to Peter’s home where he cures the mother-in-law. You see, in becoming a disciple, Peter does not abandon his family. On the contrary, he brings Jesus Christ into it! Even more interesting to me is that Jesus brings the other privileged ones into that home.

For Peter, before he followed Jesus, his job came first. After the death of Jesus, Peter significantly goes back to fishing. He goes back to putting his job first; he gives up his discipleship. Then when he believes in the Resurrection of Jesus, he once again puts his discipleship first. He becomes a “fisher of men.” Jesus isn’t opposed to fishing. If he were, he would have been hungry and stuck with that big hungry crowd when he worked with five barley loaves and two fish! He never suggested that discipleship and placing the reign of God first means leaving your family to take care of itself. But to be a disciple means we must put the reign of God first regardless of job or family. It means that the reign of God motivates, informs, and guides the decisions and choices one makes at work and at home. That episode also provides another dimension of discipleship: namely, service to others. When Jesus makes a disciple, that person immediately serves others, as did Peter’s mother-in-law.

This event in Capernaum causes quite a stir. The crowds are excited, and the thing is turning into a side-show so, in spite of the fact that Peter probably likes this growing popularity, Jesus splits and heads out early in the morning for a quiet place to pray. Already the crowds are seeing his power, but not the message. So he goes to pray about that, which is a good thing for any of us to do when we’re confused and being pulled in opposite directions. When his prayer time is over, he begins to call other disciples. This now gives us the story of Levi, which is as much about the ongoing conflict with the Pharisees as it is about a man named Levi. Those Pharisees are afraid of Jesus. He is a challenge to their thinking that the only way to avoid sin is to keep every one of the laws exactly. He embarrasses them by playing their own legal game and beats them with a reminder that even David violated the law when circumstances demanded. Law is not unimportant, but faith is more important. The Sabbath is not unimportant; but man is more important. With this, the opposition to Jesus reaches the inevitable outcome as they begin to plot his destruction.

The story of Levi belongs in parallel with the miracle in the synagogue at Capernaum. What is at stake is the presence of one who forgives sin and cures the sick who are, in the mind of the Pharisees, “sinners.” “Sinners” were those who had been expelled from synagogue. The fact that Jesus associates with sinners is a sign not only of the remission of sins but the presence of the one who can forgive sins. When Jesus refers to himself as a “physician” he is using an Old Testament description of God who is the “Healer.” Healing in the Old Testament is a sign of the Messianic Age, so this behavior and this choice of the word Physician is a very important message, one not lost on the Pharisees.

The symbolic sign of the Messianic age is the table fellowship, the banquet, so this description of what happens at Levi’s home is very important to us not only because again, Jesus comes into a home full of sinners,  but because others are invited by Levi to meet this man. I think we should not miss the point that even though each call is by name, the call is always an invitation to enter into a relationship with others.  There is no solo salvation. There is no individualist reign of God. In the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, we are not told whether these fishermen had previously enjoyed their work or detested it, whether they were prosperous or impoverished. We do not know how the two pairs of brothers got along with each other, nor how the sons of Zebedee related to their father. The sun may have been bright and the breeze off the lake fresh, but Mark does not say so. The only thing we know is that he called. They answered and came together. I always imagine that they felt the way we do when the phone rings. It just seems like we have to answer it, and you know what it’s like when you don’t. You begin to imagine what it was about, and before long you wish you had answered.

It must have been like that for Levi. There are no details about where he sat, what kind of taxes he collected, how much money he made or why he followed Jesus. We are told nothing of his identity or of his importance later. His name is never mentioned again in this Gospel. All we know is that he was a sinner and he became a disciple on the basis of an invitation: “Follow me.” So we can get the point: it is not about him as much as it is about Jesus and what happens when he is present. This is an act of forgiveness and a crossing of the boundary that separates a sinner from God. The consequence of this forgiveness, of this reconciliation of an outcast is the table. The one excluded is not only now included, he invites other outsiders to come to the table. That table fellowship is an unmistakable sign of an answered call and of forgiveness at work.

This story was treasured by the early church, those Christians who were violating the kosher laws with their indiscriminate association with those who were not clean, who were sinners, who did not keep the law. The answer of Jesus comes with that common sense proverb about who needs a doctor. The self-righteous are exactly that, self-justified; but the truth is only God can justify and only God can make one righteous. We can’t do it ourselves. When we look at ourselves in the light of this episode, we can hardly miss the fact that we cannot accept Christ as our Savior if we do not recognize our need to be saved.

Back in another age, hundreds of years ago when I was in the seminary, we had assigned seats at table in the refectory. Once every semester there was a new seating chart published, and it was a great moment of excitement gathering around the bulletin board. We had little else to be excited about except another paper to write! If we wanted to eat, we sat where we were assigned. I think that custom is the root cause of my unhealthy habit of eating very fast. It got us out of the place as quickly as possible. The only thing that made it possible and bearable was the fact that we followed the old Benedictine custom of eating in silence while someone read an article chosen by a faculty member. It kept peace. This memory is one that keeps me conscious of what is going on with this story. The most unlikely people are gathered around a table at Levi’s home. They are there because of Levi’s faith in Jesus. Not coming to the table because you do not like who is there does only one thing. It leaves you hungry and alone. It leaves you outside while everyone else is inside.

First Levi is invited to follow. When he does, Levi becomes the one who invites. This sequence is very revealing, and it speaks to us just as powerfully as it did to the early Christians. Everything about our culture and society suggests that we should be selective about who we eat with. It shames me to admit it, but sometimes when I am invited to dinner I wonder who is going to be there. If it is people I would rather not eat with, I don’t want to go. Jesus says to us through this story: “If you want to be with me, you have to learn to be with each other.” But look at how we live these days. Our culture and society is nowhere near becoming a sign of the reign of God. Segregated or gated neighborhoods are a counter sign of accepting the reign of God. They may keep us safe, but they don’t make us saved. They may make us look privileged, but they are not a privilege. The secular world in which we find ourselves struggling to live our faith and bear witness to our faith by bringing the value of our faith into our decisions insists that this is silly. The secular world keeps saying: “It’s mine. I earned it.” The secular world, when confronted with the Gospel and the presence of Jesus Christ says: “I would just as soon do it myself. Thank you very much”.  You see, the secular world wants to save itself. It is always self-justifying, which is why it might be true that there is no justice today for any of us. The system is broken. We downplay difference and we avoid conflict because we have not remembered what it means to be one.

In the center of this unlikely collection of privileged people, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Levi, a leper, and a paralytic stands Jesus Christ. He is the transforming unity for all of them. Levi invites his former “professional” colleagues as the story of the dinner illustrates. Levi’s call to discipleship somehow included the duty to invite others to new integrity and justice. This scene at Levi’s dinner part stands in marked contrast to the way we live way too often, and quite frankly, it frightens me to recognize that it is in contrast to the way we sometimes worship. It offers a totally opposite perspective, a perspective that demands the obliteration of barriers, all barriers: color, language, sexuality, job, and age. This episode compels Jesus’ followers to dialogue with and befriend those who do not share their theological outlook. To refuse to talk is to refuse to throw open the kingdom to less than beautiful people. Believers must recall that the community is always an aggregate of sinners who must reach out to other sinners.

The reason that the Lord mixed so freely with this stratum of society was because their need was so great, because they, unlike the religious, were conscious of their need and thus responsive to His message, and because He desired to change them. It was a constant complaint that the Lord was not particular enough in choosing His friends. “This man welcomes sinners and shares the meal-table with them.” Without a sense of need, there could be no healing for them for they were unwilling to come to him, the sole source of healing and forgiveness.

My friends, relationships are healed when people eat together. It takes nerve and courage, faith and a vision of the Kingdom to pattern our eating habits after those of Jesus, for any challenge to exclusivism still produces controversy as well as healing. There are no snobs among believers. No one looks down upon another. We all simply look up; up to Christ, up to the Kingdom of God. I don’t think that God knows anything about or cares anything about passports or green cards. God only cares about persons, and so must those privileged people entrusted with this vineyard and the mission of the Lord. We are so privileged, and living that privileged call to discipleship never implies that we leave home or family, but simply that we alter the way we live at home, at work and with our family. It means that with every decision we ask first what God would want us to do. It means that we invite God into our homes and that around the table in our homes we experience exactly what we find and experience around the table in this church. What an amazing privilege this is! It leaves me stunned to silence.

LUKE 20, 9-18

God is good! (All the time.) About two months ago, Father Pruett invited me to come for these nights of prayer and reflection, and I said: “Well tell me what you want me to talk about, or we are both in danger of being disappointed.” Then he began to talk to me for about ten minutes and my eyes glazed over. I am certain that he was saying something very important and deeply spiritual, but it was at the end of a long dinner, and I realized I should not have asked the question. Surely you have all been there: that moment when you ask a question and then suddenly realize you should have kept quiet! I think I interrupted him at some point when I realized I should have just said “Yes” or “No”. So when he took a breath I said: “Send a scripture passage for each night, and I’ll work on it.” This seemed to satisfy him, and I went home wondering what I had gotten myself into. A week later we were talking on the phone and I reminded him I was waiting for the scripture texts, and he said: “I’ll call you tomorrow.” He did not call. However, he did send me a text message with the three passages we are going to pray over and reflect upon now through Wednesday. When I looked at them, I began to wish I had said: “No, I’m too busy.” However that would have been a lie because I am retired, and I am not too busy – not too busy to do anything, because God is good!

The next day I called him and I asked why he had chosen the three parables that will form our reflection. That was another mistake. I know he told me a lot of things. I was hoping he would tell me what to say, leaving me nothing to do tonight except reap his wisdom; but I hung up the phone thinking again: “I should have said ‘No’.”

However, after beginning to explore these parables, I began to have a good time, learn something, and pray about what is said to us, and quite frankly expected of us all. This parable from Luke began to be very interesting to me. I had to do a lot of study and reading about it because as I realized early on, I have never preached or studied this parable before. Only the last part of the passage just proclaimed is found in our Sunday readings every third year. At this point, I perked up. Something new! Bring it on! God is good.

Now a few years ago, a family living in a home in West Palm Beach, Florida told a film crew that it was OK to use the front lawn as a set for filming of an episode of a TV series. They knew that cars would be crashing violently in front of the house. While the front yard was being destroyed, the owner of the home was tipped off and called from New York, demanding to know what was happening to his house. It seems that the people living in the house were only tenants who had no right to allow the property to be destroyed while the camera rolled. Some awful mistakes happen when those who are tenants act as if they are owners. The question being raised here is: Who owns the vineyard? If we think that we own the vineyard, there is going to be trouble.

When Luke tells this story, Jesus has entered Jerusalem. It is the first day of his last week. He has just cleansed the Temple, and the authorities are very angry about it. The chief priests and scribes have just had a confrontation with him about this matter and his authority, and they do not like this rabbi coming into the Temple and, in some sense, claiming the Temple for God.

As the parable goes, the situation was quite common. Palestine was a very troubled place. Absentee landlords were many, and it was not at all unusual for a man to leave out his ground and go stay in some place more comfortable and safe. When that was done, there were three ways to pay the rent. It could be either a fixed sum of money, or an agreed proportion of the crop, or a definite amount of produce that had nothing to do with the size of the harvest. There is nothing here to indicate that the landlord was unreasonable or unkind. In fact when Matthew and Mark tell the same story, the landlord has been very generous and careful with improvements which would have made life safer and easier for the tenants by putting a wall and digging a cistern. His patience with the tenants is remarkable, making three attempts to get what was rightly his. When this parable is first proposed, Palestine was a very explosive place, filled with unrest and labor troubles. The situation described could very easily have happened. Tenants did exactly what is suggested. In the absence of the owner, those who stayed and worked often became increasingly protective of the place, and it is not hard to imagine their thinking: “It’s mine. I earned it.” Killing off the only heir was not completely irrational since possession was determined by occupancy and the tenants may hope that the owner will give up after the death of his son.

We would misunderstand the parable if we thought of these tenant farmers as poor sharecroppers who were being abused by a demanding owner. Rather, they were greatly privileged to be able to work in the owner’s vineyard. They did not have to plant it; the owner did that. They simply entered into his vineyard, where they could work and make a sufficient living for themselves and their families. The owner was not a greedy tyrant, who stood over them with a whip, driving them mercilessly. He freely entrusted the vineyard to them and let them work it as they saw fit. But for these privileges, they owed him a certain amount of fruit. When we begin to think about this parable, it would make sense to wonder just who is this about? The traditional title for this parable is “The Wicked Tenants”. However, they are not really the center of attention here. While Jesus may have been speaking to the people, he was telling them about his Father. If you just look at the verbs, which is something I always like to do with the scriptures, the story is filled with verbs that describe the activity of the owner: he let out the vineyard, he sent, he sent, and finally sends his beloved son. Then he disappears and the attention shifts to the tenants. When the owner reappears in the parable his actions are described in the future tense. The action of the owner is what drives the parable. “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” That is the focus of this parable.

It is the owner who acts in a surprising way. Once the tenants beat up the first servant, we get it. It is the owner who holds this story in suspense, and it is the owner who is gradually revealed to the point that at the end of the parable, the question is a good one: “What will he do?” “What kind of person is this?” As the parable comes to a climax, there are two reflections thrown into contrast: the owner’s reflection “Surely they will respect my son” and the tenant’s reflection “the inheritance will be ours.” Suddenly we can get it: this reveals a God who really is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness as the Old Testament prophets and psalms describe.

Maybe this parable needs a new title: “The Patient Vineyard Owner.” This look at the parable engages us in answering the question of how we think of God rather than seeing this as an attack on those who rejected and killed Jesus. What we get here is an image of God longing for a response, waiting for the harvest from the tenants. Other tenants rejected God’s offer which is a self-judgment, and they are responsible for the consequences of their own behavior. Jesus speaks to the people in the presence of the Chief Priests and the Scribes: the “leaders of the people”. They reject him and forfeit what was a privileged place enjoyed by the Jewish people. Now do not misunderstand me. This is not a condemnation of the Jews. It is a condemnation of the leadership. By failing to accept the beloved Son and failing to produce fruits from the vineyard, the privilege passes on to others. Although not named in this passage, these others were Apostles who were also Jews, and in the words of Jesus they would rule the nations of Israel. Now we are the tenants who have been privileged to find a place in this wonderful, fruitful, vineyard confronted by a God who continually seeks us and waits for the produce of this vineyard.

The parable story for us is not over. One of the supreme tests of life is how we have used our privileges, and they are many. Oscar Wilde has a terrible kind of parable like this one. Jesus was walking through the streets of a city. In an open courtyard, Jesus saw a young man feasting gluttonously and growing drunk with wine. “You man,” said Jesus, “why do you live like that?” “I was a leper,” said the young man, “and you cleansed me. How else should I live?” Jesus went on, and he saw a young girl clad with many jewels, wearing a very revealing skirt and blouse with way too much make-up; and after her came a young man with the eyes of a hunter. “Young man,” said Jesus, “why do you look at that girl like that?” “I was blind,” said the young man, “and you opened my eyes. How else should I look?” “Daughter,” said Jesus to the girl, “why do you live like this?” “I was a sinner,” she said, “and you forgave me. How else should I live?” Here are three people who received priceless gifts from God and used them like this.

We live in an age that has every privilege, and more privilege and opportunity than any generation before us could have ever imagined. We live in an age that has discovered more of the secrets of power than any other age. We have more leisure time than any generation in history, and with it what do we pursue, games and entertainment, or spiritual things that last and have meaning beyond ourselves? How then are we to use these privileges, knowing that we are nothing more than tenants in this vineyard that has been planted by God?

The parable upon which we have reflected tonight is also a parable about freedom. It is significant, at least to me, that after the owner had planted the vineyard, he went away to another country. It is as if he says: “I have given you this job and this responsibility; now I am not going to interfere; run it your own way.” The argument regarding fate and free-will is an old one that continues on and on. It may be that on strictly logical grounds it cannot be solved. The fact remains however that our instinct is to be free. Every time we criticize someone we assume that they might have acted otherwise. Every time we feel regret or remorse it is because we feel that we might have taken some more honorable course of action. There can be no such thing as goodness if we are not free. Goodness lies in the choice between the higher and the lower thing. Some writer once laid down the difference between fate and destiny. Fate is what we are compelled to do; destiny is what we are meant to do.

We have a destiny, we are not fated. What we are meant to do is put ourselves on God’s side in this world and bring forth a harvest from this vineyard so extravagantly planted by a God who has thrown the seeds everywhere. The season in which we find ourselves right now is the season to begin the harvest and the time to remember whose vineyard this is. There is more to come on Tuesday and on Wednesday. God has more to reveal to us, and there is time to pray again, to listen, to wonder, and to grow in holiness and in faith.