All posts for the month August, 2014

Jeremiah 20, 7-9 + Psalm 63 + Romans 12, 1-2 + Matthew 16, 2127

Peter talks, but his words and ideas reflect the thinking of everyone of those disciples. Nothing in their history, in their religious tradition, or in their wildest dreams could have prepared them for what they were hearing from this one they have just acknowledged as the “Christ”, the “Messiah.” That anointed and long awaited one was going to wreck havoc, suffering, and death upon all enemies and all the evil-doers within Israel. Jesus has it all wrong thinks Peter who speaks up in protest to what he is hearing but not understanding. So it will take Matthew two more predictions of what is to come before the understanding sinks in. 

All Peter and his companion hear is the negative side, the suffering, the rejection, the death part of what Jesus is revealing to them. Too many of us are still in the same place. This whole idea of self-denial and taking up a cross is all we can hear, and it seems tough, dangerous, and very unpleasant. But this proclamation of Jesus is the very heart of the Good News. It does not come as Bad News; and this contradiction is the challenge before us today. 

Think of this way: suppose while we are here this morning, a semi goes out of control over there on the street and rolls over on your car. To make matters worse, the fact is, you forgot to renew your insurance last month. The grace period has passed, and tomorrow morning you were going to deal with this matter first thing! The truck company has gone into chapter eleven, so there is nothing get from them. Your car is gone, and you are left with nothing. Sounds like bad news. But, the driver of the truck is holding the winning Power Ball Ticket. He is a good, generous, responsible human being who looks at you once you have calmed down and says: “I will see to it that you have the car of your dream, and one to replace it every year hear-after.” Now in light of the whole picture with deeper understanding, is it bad news to hear that your car has been totaled? 

Now stay with that thought in the back of your mind, and think about this which is something you may not have known before. Jesus uses a very significant and precise word in this announcement that is easily missed in terms of what it really means. He says: “The Son of Man MUST be handed over and suffer. Jesus does not say “WILL”. That choice of words is very important to understand because it expresses that this is God’s will, God’s choice of plan. There is divine necessity here. We are not told why at this point. That will come after the third announcement of his death in chapter 20 when it is revealed that the Messiah’s death will have saving power. So, there is a Good News side to this that must figure into our thinking: salvation.

All through Matthew’s Gospel there is the constant theme and invitation to follow Jesus. When Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan” he wants Peter and all of us for that matter to stop getting in the way. Stop telling God how to do things. “Get back where you belong” he is saying. “You follow from behind.” When we get in the right spot and begin to follow Jesus rather than telling him what to do and where to go, things take on a different character. 

Denying ones self is not a call to some kind of asceticism or some kind of penitential life that is miserable, painful, and sad. That kind of thinking and behavior ends up leaving one more self-centered than before because it’s all about me. What is asked of us here is a re-ordering of our relationship with God. It simply means subordinating our will to God’s will, which is exactly what we pray for every time we use the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. This understanding leads us into the heart of it all, and embracing this kind of self denial is not hard, demanding, or unpleasant, because it is about love and about the one loved. Self denial does not make for misery. It is a response of love, and it leads to joy and expresses love in an undeniable way. Parents deny themselves all the time. They deny themselves of all sorts of things and pleasures for their children because they love them. Spouses do the same thing. They deny all kinds of things for themselves in order to care for and fulfill the wishes needs, and desires of the one they love. 

So the call of Jesus is not an invitation to be miserable and unhappy. It is a call to the joy found in love and loving service that puts the needs of another ahead of our own. At the same time, thinking that taking up one’s cross means putting up with the day to day inconveniences and family problems and that can so test our patience is to trivialize the strength and power of what Jesus asks of us. The “cross” means more than death. It means going all the way. It means accepting the ridicule and dismissal of those whose thinking reflects this world and not God’s. The last letter of the Hebrew alphabet is Tau which is written like a “T”. This letter/symbol was often used to indicate totality and completion much the way we sometimes talk about doing something from A to Z. The invitation to take up the Tau, the Cross, is a call to go all the way, to set aside half way efforts and feeble attempts and make ourselves obedient and subject to God’s will.

One who follows Christ is one who is obedient in a disobedient world. They seek God’s will in all things at all times rather than their own will, wishes, and desires. They are a person of love who embraces joyfully every opportunity to deny themselves not because it hurts but because when you are a person of love it does not hurt to make sacrifice for another. One who follows Christ has discovered that obedience to the plan of God is redemptive and ultimately lifts us out of sin and sadness, into a world of hope and joy. So a call to self denial and the command to take up the cross is really good news with the best promise of all.


Isaiah 22, 15, 19-23 + Psalm 138 + Romans 11, 33-36 + Matthew 16, 13-20

We have moved now further into Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is still at Capernaum, but in the verse following the end of today’s reading we get the first passion announcement. So the movement from Galilee to crucifixion in Jerusalem has begun. In this part of the Gospel now there is no public instruction, and only one healing story. The focus is now on the training of the Twelve, but we must not read or study these verses like spectators who are eavesdropping on this training session. We must count ourselves among the twelve and let the Word train us as well. The concern of Jesus is for the future of his “movement” between his death and the final resurrection of the dead.

The response of Peter does not come from hearsay or local speculation. Notice that it is the others who report what is being said among the people. When Peter speaks up it is his faith and his belief in Jesus that is proclaimed, and Jesus affirms that this faith is a gift from God. God has disclosed to Peter the identity of Jesus Christ the Messiah. Peter did not take a guess or a survey. That revelation or that gift of faith Peter has received sets him apart from others. It establishes him as the one who will lead and witness for the growing community of believers. When Peter and John arrive at the empty tomb, John steps aside to let Peter enter first. When the Spirit stirs their faith to life on Pentecost, it is Peter who speaks first to the people of Jerusalem. At the beginning of his faith, Paul goes only to Peter for instruction and formation. At the moment Peter speaks these words, Jesus knows the will of the Father for the future of his followers.

A commission is given to Peter first, and then a little later in Chapter 18 it will be shared with everyone in the community, but first it is given to Peter. We have no clear understanding about what the this new name meant in the original context and the mind of Jesus; but for Matthew it marks Peter not just as one stone among many, as though he were just one of the apostles, or one of the prophets who are collectively the foundation of the church, but it marks Peter as the church’s unique and unrepeatable foundation. It is to say, we will need no other.

The keys of the kingdom of heaven refers to the right to admit or exclude. In the Book of Revelation (3, 7) and Isaiah (22, 22) it is the Messiah who has this role, but in Matthew, the Messiah passes on the responsibility to Peter. Yet something about us always concentrates on the negative side of that responsibility as though there was something to protect from invaders, the hostile, or thieves. We are a “lock-up” people who seem to think that having keys means you use them to lock things. However, for Matthew and the followers of Jesus yet to come, these keys are for opening. It is the positive side that ought to receive as much thought and attention as the negative. The preaching of Peter will open the doors to life, open minds and hearts to the Good News. I suspect that Matthew is reminding conservative Jewish Christians that Peter had the right to admit Gentiles to the Messiah’s friendship and assembly. Given the times in which these words, “bind” and “loose” were used, sin and forgiveness was not the first thing that would have come to mind, in spite of the what we think of first. The terms actually come from the practice of exorcism in which Satan or a specific demon was “bound” and the victim was “loosed.” What is proposed to Peter and the church he leads is that we must be about the business of setting people free not binding them up. When you recall how Jesus felt about the Pharisees who bound up heavy loads and oppressed people with their laws, you can begin to get a sense of what he expects of us.

The mission of the Church commissioned with Peter is opening and loosening. Our mission is to open minds and hearts to Christ, to unlock closed minds and lift up the burdens that oppress and unbind those who are bowed down by sadness or poverty or ignorance. We must unlock and set free those who are locked into the ideologies of consumerism and individualism. We must open ways to draw them in, include those who feel marginalized, ignored, or shunned.

Caesarea Philippi sits on a high stone embankment where all this took place. At this time it is a Roman powerhouse of authority and probable corruption. The only people who would hang around there were those drawn to such business. It is not by chance that Jesus introduces this part of his formation in the shadows of that kind of power. He comes and commissions a new kind of power with this binding and loosing. In that rocky hill (get the word play about rock) there are caves to this day, and they were called “The Gates of Hades”. Many were buried in those caves – they meant “death” to those living around there. Gates, you know, lock and close sometimes to protect and sometimes to imprison. Gates separate people and make winners and losers; in groups and out groups. With these images before us today, we have plenty to think about. We have gates to open both in ourselves and in this world as a church. We have people locked down who need to be set free.

It has always seemed to me that what Jesus was passing on to Peter was not so much power to bind, as it was power to loose. At the same time he passes on to Peter the power to teach, and gave him the wisdom and the words with which to teach and heal and set free. It is still our mission and it is still God’s will for us as God’s Church.

Isaiah 56, 1, 6-7 + Psalm 67 + Romans 11, 13-15, 29-32 + Matthew 15, 21-28

Saint Francis of Assisi Parish in Castle Rock, Colorado 

 A unique miracle story today ties together what has been revealed in the three previous stories. It is unique because Jesus never sees, touches, or speaks to the one who is healed. In fact we know nothing of the daughter that is healed except that she is “troubled by a demon.” Because we know nothing of her and because there is no contact between her and Jesus, the miracle of her healing, which we can only presume because Matthew reports it is not the issue. There are two elements to this story: one about Jesus and one about the apostolic church.

Scholars are beginning to insist that Jesus focused his ministry on the Jews. He really believed that he was sent for the lost sheep of Israel, and that salvation and the ingathering of all people would be would begin when God’s people had purified and reconciled themselves to the Covenant. His attitude toward the Gentiles was one of disinterest. The prevailing thought was that they would eventually convert to Judaism. This is what gave Jesus such distress with the Scribes and the Pharisees. They resisted his calls to reform themselves and bring life back into Judaism. His journey in this story is not made for the sake of the Gentiles. He has gone into that district of Tyre and Sidon because there are Jews living there, and he wants them to rediscover their faith and get back to Jerusalem. He did not go there for the sake of the Gentiles. Only toward the end of his ministry, when the total rejection of his mission by the Pharisees and leaders of the people comes to the point of his murder does he begin to open wider the gates of mercy and grace.

The other element of this story is the apostles. While the woman easily takes center stage because of her persistence and clever lines, the apostles are very much a part of this story. Here they are again, just like they were out in the wilderness two weeks ago insisting that Jesus send the hungry people away. “Get rid of her” they insist. So narrow is their thinking, so limited is their vision of the reign of God, grace, and mercy that they want her silenced and sent away even though she is way ahead of them when it comes to faith as witnessed by the title with which she addresses Jesus. They never call him “Son of David”.

Matthew uses apostles to describe the church which was then predominantly Jewish struggling with the Gentile converts among them. I wonder if the conversation in the Gospel does not matching the conversation Matthew hears in the church: “Get rid of them”. “It is not right to take the food of sons and daughters and throw it to the dogs.” Is it possible that this is about Communion? This is the kind of reflection the Word of God prompts us to consider today. “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” might match the conversation in the church when it comes to charity. You know how the saying goes: “Charity begins at home. Why should we help them when we have such great needs right here?” I remember something like this 50 years ago when I was a new young associate at an inner city parish that had a grade school. There were barely 100 children in the school, and only one of them was a Catholic. The others were simply poor racially diverse inner-city street kids whose parents brought them to the Church for education, values, respect, and a better future. There were countless arguments within the parish and the diocese which subsidized that school about why we would keep that school open for those Non-Catholic kids (who happened to be black) when every other school was struggling. Monsignor with great courage would always respond with the same message: “Because we can, and because we should.”

When the two elements of this story are identified, there remains one constant truth being revealed. There is an ever expanding circle of grace and mercy found in God who asks the same of us. That woman believed that there was more than enough to go around when it comes to mercy and compassion, and she challenged Jesus with that truth which he confirmed by his praise of her faith. The demon of limited love and exclusivity is defeated at that hour by a nameless woman who crossed the boundaries of sexism and racism, confronting an ideology that insisted she was just a dog.

Today we have her to thank. She teaches us just like she taught Jesus a lesson. It is a lesson on God’s inclusive mercy and limitless grace. She teaches us to stand up against those who would say “Go away.” She shows us where to go when there is great need, and she shows us how to respond when someone says: “Help me.”

Revelations 11, 19: 12, 1-6, 10 + Psalm 45 + 1 Corinthians 15, 20-26 + Luke 1, 39-56

Saint Francis of Assisi Parish in Castle Rock, Colorado

The scriptures give her very few words. She is there one minute and gone the next. The first impression we get is that she was rather quiet and serene, just full of faith and trust. Yet, when you look more closely, this is a woman of action. She is on the move all the time, and in that time and place when most women people probably never moved more than ten miles away from the place of their birth, she is exceptional. Her whole life was a journey, and today we celebrate the end of that journey. She traveled to Judea to visit Elizabeth. She traveled to Bethlehem, and then she traveled to Egypt and back. She traveled to Jerusalem and then we follow her as she goes back to find her son. She traveled to find him again when he is on his mission wanting to bring him home perhaps to protect him from the growing number of enemies. Then she made the one most difficult of all, the journey of tears to Calvary and on to his tomb. Finally she made the journey we celebrate today. In all of this we see a restless woman of action who walks her way through every single human emotion from the wonder of conception to the joy of birth, to the fear of a lost child, to the anxious moment when she leaves him at school for the first time. There is the defensiveness of a mother for her misunderstood son, to the tragedy of mother who survives to witness his death and hold her dead child in her arms. She knows the emotions, the fear, the joy, and the pain that every mother can ever possibly experience. In a sense, she is a mother’s mother.

She is a missionary from her first journey to Elizabeth to her last. She carries Christ, her son, and his message of faith, hope, and love. This woman who spent most of her life traveling, searching, and fleeing is finally given her “special place prepared for her by God” as we hear in the first reading today. While she is no longer in this world, she is not away from us. Her life is wrapped in all of us who travel through this life to places we do not understand and to some we cannot see. She is with every refugee who flees their home in fear and every mother who loses a child in death. She is with anyone who knows heartbreak, unexpected tragedy, and a sudden change of plans. She is with and has gone before all of us through this life with its ups and downs sudden turns, surprises, and disappointments.

What we celebrate today is our hope that where she is now we shall one day be and see her face to face. This day celebrates our hope, not just Mary’s Assumption. It celebrates our expectation that if we can imitate her action, her trust, and her love, we too have a special place prepared for us by God. Elizabeth’s first word to Mary when she arrived in the hill country was: “Blessed.” Our prayer today is that we too shall be “blessed” as we too carry Christ with us and within us through every twist and turn of our life-journey. Inspired her life and faith, trust and love, may all of us be greeted as a blessing everywhere we go.

1 Kings 19, 9, 11-13 + Psalm 85 + Romans 9, 1-5 + Matthew 14, 22-33

 Saint Francis of Assisi Parish in Castle Rock, Colorado

 It’s a miracle story again, just like last week. Miracles in the Bible are incomprehensible, unexpected and shocking. They amaze and explode the ordinary to lift people out of indifference and cause them to turn to God. They are signs that happen where there is faith, and they can strengthen weak faith and attract others to believe. I said that last week when I spoke about the miracle of the loaves and fish. Both stories are a challenge to modern Christians who always want to explain away the miraculous. We like to think that those simple people two thousand years ago could easily be persuaded that the laws of nature could be suspended by supernatural intervention. They would probably not have asked: “Is it possible?”  They would have been more likely to wonder if it really happened in this case.

Our more skeptical age wants to find a rational explanation. Maybe it was an optical illusion. After all it was 3:00 a.m. That is the time for the fourth watch of the night. Perhaps it just looked as though Jesus was walking on the water when he was actually just walking along the surf at the northern end of the lake. While that might be so, it is then not likely that the experience would have been transformed into the story handed on to us by tradition. The disciples would have discovered their mistake, and the incident would never have been preserved for the ages. Maybe it was an experience from after the resurrection that was transferred to this earlier time. A Jesus who passes through locked doors could walk on water. If that’s the case, what would have been the purpose? There would have been no miracle there. It was becoming an ordinary event. He did it often. No surprise.

Another possibility is that the story was made up by the early church as part of their growing understanding of Christ as Divine making this a theophany like the Transfiguration story. It is then Jesus revealing himself as divine to the disciples in that boat. But all of this reads way more into the story than Matthew could have intended. He wrote this Gospel long before any conflicts had risen about the divinity and humanity of Jesus. For Matthew the figure walking on the waves is the Messiah, the one God has empowered with supernatural power. This power of Jesus does not come from Jesus himself, but it is conferred upon him by God. It is not evidence of divinity, but evidence of the divine empowerment of the one God has chosen and sent. This is demonstrated by the fact that Peter is empowered to do the same, and there is no claim that Peter is divine because he walks on the waves. However, Peter is empowered to do great things.

It is important to remember that the boat was far from land and being tossed about by the waves at the time Jesus walks toward it. The miracle suggests that this is not a scene by which Jesus shows off his power, but rather that Jesus will do anything and go anywhere to rescue and help his threatened disciples. There is no reason not to wonder if Jesus himself might have been a bit anxious when having no boat to use for the rescue of his friends, he just decided to walk out there and save them. In other words, this story is more about function than it is about nature. It is more about what Jesus does rather than who he is. It points to the truth that he is empowered by God to save, shepherd, and care for God’s people; and there was not nothing that would stop him, even if it meant wading out into a stormy sea or walking up Calvary’s hill.

We should notice that Matthew refers to “those in the boat” rather than “disciples” or “apostles.” What is revealed by this miracle is that all believers, not just apostles in the endangered ship depend on the savior. Those in the boat are you and I tossed about by the storms of life, the darkness of night, and fear.

I wonder sometimes with this story if Peter’s behavior is not more of a miracle than the behavior of Jesus. Peter’s obedience, and his willingness to get out of the boat is really amazing; perhaps more amazing than seeing the one who just fed five thousand on five loaves and two fish walking on the stormy sea. Here in Peter is the story of what it means to be a Christian caught as we all are midway between faith and doubt. Peter represents all who dare to believe that Jesus is Savior, taking the first steps in confidence that Jesus will sustain them, and then forgetting to keep their gaze fixed on him instead of the towering waves. Peter tells us about the risk taking of faith, about living with uncertainties.

These verses close with a lesson on faith and doubt. I have found it helpful to know that in John’s Gospel, believing is always a verb. It is never a noun. Faith is not a possession that can be measured or might run out. Faith is an activity. It is something you do, or perhaps it is how you do everything. It is like a song that disappears when we stop singing. The idea suggests that those of little faith must exercise that faith or lose it like an unused muscle. Peter, whose faith is not great at this point starts to believe and gets out of the boat. Had he chosen to stay aboard, he never would have known what it was like to reach out and have Christ take his hand. There is nothing safe about faith. It gets us into all kinds of trouble and leads us to do all sorts of things no one would think of doing. But so it is with those of us who want to believe, and so it shall be for those who keep their gaze on the one who comes on the water. To believe in the saving power of Jesus is certainly to take a risk.

Isaiah 55, 1-3 + Psalm 135 + Romans 8, 35, 37-39 + Matthew 14, 13-21

Saint France of Assisi Parish, Castle Rock, Colorado

This story is so important to followers of Jesus that it is found in every one of the four Gospels. It is a miracle story, and the experience and consequence of a miracle is lost by efforts to explain it away. The idea that this is really just a “spiritual” feeding or that everyone had hidden some food for themselves and suddenly decided to put all together to have enough trivializes the miracle. In the Bible, a miracle is something unusual, inexplicable, incomprehensible, disturbing, unexpected, and shocking. It is something that amazes and explodes the ordinary into something by which God lifts people out of their indifference and causes them to turn to God. Miracles are always signs. They happen where there is faith. They strengthen and affirm that faith, and they attract others to believe. We proclaim a miracle story in this assembly that ought to disturb us and lift us out of indifference.

As the story begins, the disciples want to dismiss the crowds, but Jesus will have none of that. The disciples have food, the crowd has nothing; and they know that these people are hungry. “Go home.” is the message the disciples have for these people who are away from home in a distant place and hungry. Those apostles think they have just enough for themselves, and trying to share it with that crowd is going to leave everyone hungry. The situation has a very strong parallel for us today with thousands of children far from home in a strange place. Telling them to “Go home” because we barely have enough for ourselves makes me think we need to take this Gospel more seriously and study it more deeply. Jesus says, “Sit down.” Asking the disciples what they have makes them grow a little uncomfortable about the way things are going. Then Jesus says, “Bring it here to me.”

What they have is the food poor people eat there. While there is a suggestion that a banquet might be coming with the request that the men recline, it is not the menu of a banquet. Serving fish and bread would be like serving peanut butter without jelly on stale bread. It’s not much of a feast. There is no wine! Then a miracle happens. It is a sign of God at work. It is a sign that explodes the ordinary, awakens us to how God works, what God expects of us lifting us out of indifference and turning us toward God. That is what happened to those people and the disciples.

The miracle happens when they obey Jesus, and bring to him all that they have in spite of their fears and self-centered concerns. The miracle happens when they obey Jesus and serve the crowd with what they have in spite of their anxiety that it isn’t enough. In Matthew’s Greek, the command “You, give” is extremely strong and emphatic. There is no stronger verb form. Suddenly out there in that deserted place, God is present and provides as God always does. God provides through Jesus and through the apostles, and God still does.

Jesus, the human presence of God’s compassion acts and shows us what compassion can do. Compassion you know, is not a fleeting emotion. It is an enduring attitude. It is not just a quick response to a bad situation. It is a consistent way of looking at and responding to distress all the time.

We will never be sent away to fend for ourselves says this Gospel. No one will. God continues even today to say to us, “Bring me everything you have.” When we do and then follow the next command: “Feed them yourselves.” No one will be sent away hungry. God never intervenes in the world by overriding human freedom and human independence. God made us free always preserving and respecting that freedom. So God does not override what humans ought to do. Miracles do not destroy the natural order of things, but bring them to fulfillment. A shocking and marvelous miracle happened out there in that deserted place because humans did what they ought to do in spite of their fears to the contrary. The compassion of God was revealed in the compassion of human beings to others.

The consequence was a little left over and a warning not to waste it. Don’t think that twelve full baskets was a lot. Given the report that five thousand not counting the women and children were fed, it suggests that there was just enough. The story suggests that God will provide with a little to spare, but there must be no greed or waste, because if there is, some will go hungry.