All posts for the month September, 2014

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

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

It is the day after the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem when he had gone straight to the Temple and disrupted the business there. Matthew tells us that he spent the night in Bethany and then returned the next morning to the Temple where he was teaching. The authorities storm up to him demanding to know by what authority and power he had behaved that way. They are angry and defensive. So they go on the offense in their confrontation with Jesus trying to make him defensive. It does not work. Calmly he responds with this parable. Outside of this setting and context we do not get the point, and we are likely to think it is all about the two sons, but parables are always about God.

In cleaning out the Temple, Jesus said something that gives a clue leading us deeper into the parable. He accused those he drove out of turning the place into a den of thieves. Saying that the place had become a den of thieves does not imply that those doing business there were thieves. In fact, they were there doing what needed to be done for the Temple to operate. It was a den of thieves because thieves came there again and again to buy their offerings and rid themselves of the impurity and the spiritual consequences that came from their wrongdoing, and then they went right back to their wrongdoing. What Jesus is angry about is not the Temple workers, but rather the system that allowed thieves to come to the Temple do their ritual things and then just continue on as thieves without making any change in their lives. No conversion. They came in as thieves and they went out as thieves. No conversion.

So just after exposing this useless system he tells this parable which is about conversion. It is a parable that describes how conversion pleases the father more than just nice polite talk. Which son is more pleasing to the father? Surprisingly it is the bad boy in this family because the bad boy does what is right while the good boy who so nice and polite who probably says “please” and “thank you” twenty-five times a day does nothing but look good. As Jesus drives home his point that this parable is about conversion, he refers to the prostitutes and tax gatherers, the bad guys, insisting that God is more pleased with them than he is with the pious and slick talking authorities who have just come up to confront him, because they have not yet shown any signs of conversion refusing even to recognize the signs in others and wonder how it might apply to them.

We must take this parable seriously, because it reveals God’s expectations about conversion. Just like the thieves who ran to the Temple to make themselves look good, we must look carefully at ourselves and how we continue the same pattern. Confession is our trip to the Temple. Again and again we say the same things over and over time after time because we do the same things. We leave the sacrament and go right back to the things that brought us there to begin with. We feel better for a day or two, but the whole thing is too often about feeling better for a day or two without ever really addressing the tough work of conversion and putting an end to the behavior that made us feel badly to being with.

I also often think that people who avoid Confession altogether are in the same boat, so to speak. They say and delude themselves with all sorts of pious sounding excuses that still avoid the reality that we all need to be living in a constant state of conversion. Too much of our lives are spent putting things off that really matter. Good intentions that never become good behavior are a tragic consequence of talking nicely and doing nothing that matters. God has asked us to work in the vineyard. He expects a harvest. This is not just idealistic symbolism. It is about doing something with the gifts in our lives that will bring others into the reign of God. Instead of harvesting the grapes, we spend way too much time making bank deposits and watching the price of grain or the stock exchange and we end up looking a lot like that other son who says “Yes”, but means “No.” It ends up being a refusal of God, of God’s call, and of life in the Kingdom.

MS Westerdam at Sea

 Isaiah 55, 6-9 + Psalm 145 + Philippians 1, 20-24, 27 + Matthew 20, 1-16

Today we open chapter 20. In the chapter before Matthew moves Jesus from Galilee back to Judea where great crowds are still following. With our Gospel today the location is the same, but a new topic comes up when Peter asks how God will reward our sacrifices. The apostles are promised a glorious role in the age to come. Then Jesus expands the idea of rewarding sacrifice by saying that all who sacrifice family relationships or property for the sake of Jesus will be rewarded extravagantly which levels the playing field in a sense by reminding the twelve that they are not to think they are special since everyone will receive a great reward. “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” Jesus says. Then comes this parable that challenges our sense of fairness and justice.

There is a little 5 year old in my family, my great nephew, who frequently puts on a stern face and announces: “It’s not fair!” about anything he doesn’t like. When I am nearby I always respond to his complaint by saying: “Who told you that life was fair? If someone did, stop listening to them.” He looks at me as though I was a ninja turtle or someone who had just arrived from Mars or Pluto. He is a credible witness to a great problem in our society: the idea that we are all “created equal.” This has been distorted into the idea that we are all identical. When we discover the truth that we cannot all do, experience, and enjoy the things that others do, experience and enjoy, we get angry or all upset because we think it isn’t fair or someone has done us wrong. Of course, this thinking is made all the more complicated by our constant competitive attitude. We are forever looking at one another judging what they have, how much they have, and wondering why we cannot have the same thing or more.

Something about this behavior and thinking makes the parable Jesus speaks today challenging to us. The best sign that we have been trapped into this competitive and the “It’s not fair” thinking comes when the complaint of the ones who worked all day seems reasonable; because this complaint by those who worked all day seems completely understandable. Some scholars think that this parable preserved by Matthew is intended for the early church which is beginning to push back against all those who have recently come into the company of the faithful and are assuming roles of leadership with no interest in seniority. We can understand those tensions and how easy it is to grumble when some people receive more recognition or importance than those who have worked hard and long.

This may well be true and understandable, but it is not the point of the parable as Jesus tells it. Other than the fact that some communities today push back against “foreigners” or think that young people should wait their turn, the focus here is not about the workers. The focus of this parable is God. All parables are about God. They reveal or confirm something important about God as way of suggesting that it is God who should guide our behavior and influence our attitudes. These workers are looking at one another instead of looking at God. What Jesus says through this parable is very simple. Quit looking around at what others have. It has nothing to do with who we are. Quit counting and measuring to see if someone else has more than we have. Pay attention to God and imitate and continue God’s extravagant generosity. This is not a story about workers. It is a story about a God who is generous to the point of seeming extravagant. It is a suggestion to the workers that they ought to be like God.

Those workers hired first in the morning got exactly what they agreed to work for. They were not short-changed or cheated. They agreed to work for the usual daily wage. There is not a hint of injustice here. When the master promises to give the others who work less “what is fair” the little trick of parable telling emerges, and we should be ready for a surprise. What is “fair” for us always seems to have limits and be very exclusive. What is “fair” for God is always much more than we can imagine and pushes at the boundaries we always seem to set up to justify our behavior.

Fix your gaze upon God is the message of this parable. Stop looking around at others. It is distracting, useless, and never calls us to greatness and nobility. It’s too bad that no one in this parable seems to get the point. If they had, at least those hired last who were paid as much as those who worked all day would have invited those who were probably worn out from their long full day’s labor to join them for a round of drinks and they might have picked up the tab!


Saint Joseph Old Cathedral & Saint Anthony Hospital

 Numbers 21, 4-9 + Psalm 78 + 2 Philippians  2, 6-11 + John 3, 13-17

Nicodemus is a man in the Gospel who has fascinated me for years. His conversations with Jesus are profound and deeply personal efforts to come to life and to faith. He takes risks and is willing to challenge his secure life style by asking important questions. He is open to something new when it is unexpected and comes out of nowhere challenging his old ways of thinking and acting. In many ways he is a model of seekers everywhere and especially those we now call “candidates” and “catechumens” in RCIA. One of the things about him and the way John presents him in the Gospel is that he comes to Jesus in the night, and then suddenly he show up in the day. John’s Gospel is full of contrasts that play light and darkness against one another for way more than a dramatic effect. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night, and then after the crucifixion, he comes in the daylight with “one hundred pounds of spices, a mixture of myrrh, and aloes” accompanying Joseph of Arimathea to anoint the body of Jesus. What happened we should wonder. What is the difference between his behavior by night and by day?

I think it is the Cross! Nicodemus, between the time he came in the night and that day when he shows up to help Joseph of Arimathea has seen the cross. He never tells us what the cross means to him, but we know what the cross does for him.

For more than four decades I have presided at the ancient Liturgy of Good Friday and watched prayerfully as countless men and women, boys and girls, have come to touch the cross with their lips or their hands. The expressions on faces and the careful way each one has looked upon the cross has left me with the feeling that an encounter with the cross is a deeply personal and unique experience. It means something different to every one of us. We all experience, understand, and look upon the cross in our own way with wonder, gratitude, confusion, doubt, fear, and faith because the cross is a mystery to us all. It is a mystery in the sense that it stirs up wonder and amazement, not in a sense that it is something we cannot understand.

At the center of everything we do as Christians there stands the cross. At the center of every church in which we worship, give thanks, and renew the covenant we have in the Eucharist there is the cross. We begin our prayers with the cross. The first gesture at Baptism is the signing of the cross. We step across the boundary of death anointed with the cross. We follow the cross in every procession because it is the center of our faith and the symbol of everything we believe and are as followers of Christ.

We may never forget that it was a horrible and cruel means of execution that caused suffering beyond our imagination. At the time of Christ the Romans used it exclusively for the worst of criminals and foreigners. With Christ however, this instrument of death and suffering becomes transformed into a symbol of life and the promise of glory, hope, and even joy. With Christ, because the cross was accepted out of love and obedience to the Father, this ugly symbol of suffering and shame becomes a symbol of hope and salvation. A dark and ugly thing becomes the source of light; as symbol of death becomes a symbol of life. Something happened to Nicodemus when he looked upon the cross. He is no longer a figure of the night troubled and puzzled, doubtful and fearful. We will never know what he thought or what he felt when he looked upon the cross; but we do know what the cross did for him.

It is with that same hope that we gather here under the cross. It has the power to take away fears and doubt. It has the power to lead us out of the darkness of sin, and away from the power of what others might think of us. It has the power to transform our own suffering, abandonment, pain, and sadness with hope and the promise of victory. When we stand or kneel before it, we understand the story of Nicodemus.The final image we have of him is that of a man who braved everything with courage to anoint with dignity and respect the body of Christ. For him the cross was no longer a sign of disgrace, but the symbol of victory. The Gospels do not tell us that he was there at Calvary; but then there is no reason to doubt that he was there in the darkness of that hour. Because of his experience before the cross, he is then drawn into the light of the resurrection.

The extravagant gift he brought to the grave reflects his respect and love for Christ revealing what happens when sacrifice and suffering humbly accepted leads one to life and the victory the cross proclaims. There is strength in the cross. Nicodemus found it. There is promise in the cross, and there is joy for those will embrace the cross with courage and faith.


Ezekiel 33, 7-9 + Psalm 95 + Romans 13, 8-10 + Matthew 18, 15-20

In a world that believes itself to be without sin, these are verses of the Bible to be passed over quickly or studied as a curious method that the early church used for keeping the peace and restoring harmony. In our times, sin is usually something others are guilty of. We see it with horror in the violence of the Middle East. At home we are quick to reduce sin to crimes that deserve justice through the court system which of course does not often mean justice nearly as much as it means punishment. If we take a personal look at our lives, relationships and attitudes, we brush them aside with the excuse that we have issues but stop short of calling them sins. So for many confession and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is just a hoop we jumped through to get communion.

Into this thinking slips Matthew 18, 15-20 today with a suggestion has several disturbing ideas. The first of which comes with the word: brother. In other words, this is not about enemies, this is about someone close, a brother. The fact of the matter is, the shallow lives lived by many have no time nor depth to really make an enemy. We may think of terrorists as enemies, but the truth is, we do not even know their names. In the end, that enemy is an ideology and a behavior. Enemies we keep at a distance these days. It is too easy to walk off and dismiss someone who annoys or offends us. Even lovers say to each other: Let’s just be friends. It’s easier that way, no bad feelings.”

The focus of this Gospel is someone close, and as we all know too well, It is those closest to us who hurt us the most and are most difficult to forgive. Forgiving an enemy we do not see day after day is easy stuff. I used to think it was really great of Jesus to forgive those who nailed him to a cross, crowned him with thorns and beat him on the way to Calvary. Late in life I have come to realize how extraordinary it was to forgive Peter, James, and John who betrayed, denied, and abandoned him when he had nothing else to offer them.

When Jesus directs our attention toward sin it is always for the sake of forgiveness and reconciliation; never for the sake of revenge or punishment. So this little piece of his instruction to us reminds us that sin is real and it is everyone’s responsibility because everyone is involved and shares responsibility for others. The suggestion is made here that doing nothing in the face of evil is just as wrong as the evil itself. The method is secondary to the insistence that we speak up. Silence in the face of wrong doing is even greater than the wrong itself and it makes the silent one complicit in the wrong-doing. This is the heart of this passage.

At the same time, what is proposed here is a way of staying honest and strong in witness to Christ. Time and tradition has evolved these verses into our Church’s sacramental experience of Confession in which the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and hidden places of the human heart. It brings sin into the light and the silliness of denial is exposed. When expressed and acknowledged, sin loses its power when it is owned as sin. It’s like the addict who re-gains control over their life first by admitting that they are powerless and addicted. In sin we are always alone and helpless. In Confession, we cast off the sin and hand it over to God with the presence and the prayer of another sinner.

Pope John Paul 1 told a story about author Jonathan Swift’s servant. After spending the night in an inn, Swift asked for his boots, which the servant brought to him covered win dust. When asked why they had not been cleaned, the servant replied, “After a few miles on the road, they’ll be dirty again, so why bother.” “Quite right,” said Swift. “Now get the horses and let us be on our way.” “Without breakfast?” cried the servant. “There’s no point,” said Swift. “After some miles on the road, you’ll be hungry again.”

So it is with us and our Confession sacrament. The only way to keep moving deeper and closer to God, the only way to develop an authentic and healthy spirituality is by seeking forgiveness in our spiritual journey. It cannot be a generic or private sort of arrangement that we imagine with God any more than professing one’s love for another is something we never say or express openly to and with others. As good Pope John Paul 1 said, not only does confession result in the forgiveness of sin, it give us the grace, the hope, and the courage to avoid sin in the future which of course is the goal that firms up our relationship with God.