All posts for the month August, 2017

The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time August 27, 2017

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

St. Peter and St William Churches, Naples, FL

Many of you may identify with this memory I still have. I recall very clearly the day my retirement arrived. I reached into my pocket and handed over the keys to the church of St Mark in Norman, Oklahoma. I remember handing them to the deacon not knowing what to say except, “Thank you.” The only key left in my pocket was my car key, and believe me, I used it immediately. When I eventually wound up here at St Peter and Father “G” gave me some keys, I was very reluctant to accept them. Something about those little pieces of metal carries a sense of duty and obligation far more than the privilege of having them. While “keys” may capture the imagination of artists who give us images of this Gospel passage, they are not the focus, and for that matter, neither is Peter. Jesus is. It is the place that tells us this fact.

This town called “Caesarea Philippi” is not really called that through its history. It is actually called: “Panion.” Civic leaders at that particular time renamed it after the two “top-dogs” of those days: The Roman Emperor and the local kinglet of Galilee, Philip the Tetrarch. It was a way of getting favors and possibly some money out of the rulers. It would be like calling Naples: “Trump-Scot”! The very name suggests ambition, power, and prestige. Built on top of a huge rock cliff it was an ancient sacred place set aside for the god, “Pan”. The name “pan” suggests everything. It is also worth thinking too about the fact that springs came out of that cliff, and they were the beginnings of the Jordan River. Having this incident take place there at the bottom of that big rock with the waters flowing out to form the Jordan says almost as much as the words. Picture it in your mind. Imagine it.

There is a confrontation going on here, and Peter is being asked to make a choice, a choice between Jesus and all this worldly power symbolized by Caesarea Philippi and any other god that might be tempting or alluring. We proclaim this Gospel today because Peter is not the only person who must make this choice. If Peter was the only one upon whom this church was being built, it would have died with him. Anyone who claims Jesus as their Messiah and the Son of the Living God becomes part of that rock upon which this church is built. It is built upon the faith of all the Apostles, the ancient Fathers of the Church who succeeded them, the martyrs of every age, the quiet little people who have passed on their faith to countless generations. People like Francis from Assisi, Ignatius, Elizabeth Seeton, countless missionaries, Mother Theresa, the men and women who brought the faith to this continent, and you and me. The church is still being built upon the rock of our faith. It’s not just about Peter. This Gospel and these powerful words of Jesus today are spoken to you and me. We have the keys. We have the power to bind and loose. With that power, we can set people free, restore what is broken, and bring the peace of forgiveness.

It’s only possible however after we make the choice that Peter is asked to make. Pan is not confined to that ancient shrine. Pan is still around this world in all manner of disguises with all sorts of names: Ambition, Power, Supremacy, Privilege, Wealth, Sex are just a few of the names that can describe this pagan god that still tempts and teases us. Jesus suggests that the time of the rock of Pan is over, and we must proclaim that today.

I always find it consoling that Jesus chose Peter from among the twelve for this moment. From this impulsive, unschooled, self-preserving fisherman, God raises up the rafters of a church that will see twenty centuries and more. It is not because Peter is great, but because God is. That is what this is about: what God can do with us. Not much can be built on flesh, as frail and uncertain as human beings are. But through the Holy Spirit, which gives the church its breath, the reign of God keeps on coming on earth as it is in heaven.

The Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time August 20, 2017

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

St Peter and St William Parishes in Naples, FL

This episode when taken in a shallow way could make us uncomfortable with a Jesus who is not compassionate toward this Gentile woman. At first, he ignores her, then he reacts in a way that seems harsh and insensitive. Some scholars suggest that this image of Jesus was made up by conservative Jewish Christians opposed to Gentile converts. So, to give their attitude of exceptionalism credibility, they made up these verses because they thought they were chosen and special. Another set of scholars believe that what is being proposed is a version of our old saying: “Charity begins at home”. A third group suggests that it is what it is; the historical Jesus is just the man of his days with a chauvinistic attitude toward women and all non-Jews. He is being corrected by this bold woman who convinces him that women and Gentiles are also to have share in God’s bounty. In the end, it probably doesn’t make any difference which of these ideas or any combination of them is close to the truth, because it seems to me that before we figure that out we ought to wonder what Jesus was doing there in that Gentile territory to begin with.

He has insisted that he has come to seek the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It is known that there was a large population of Jews found north of the Galilean territory in Tyre and Sidon. Remembering that Matthew is writing this Gospel for a church that is primarily Jewish-Christians, he may well be challenging or correcting an attitude among them that is reflected in the words of Jesus. It is likely that some remnants of their old way of separation and self-importance were at work disturbing the community excluding those who were different. We may never know which of those three proposals is right, but we do know that the attitude of exceptionalism and privilege he is addressing to that early church is not a thing of the past. It is alive and well among us still.

Events in the last week have unsettled us all with the realization that the message of Jesus Christ and his inclusive vision of the loving Reign of God has not taken root in the hearts of too many across this nation. The conversion of heart, conformity to Christ and obedience to God’s will has obviously not been accepted in many lives. What is being corrected by this episode of the Gospel is an attitude of exceptionalism that is incompatible with companions of Jesus Christ. There is no “them” in our live. There is no “them” in the Kingdom of God. If we think there is, it may well end up being us. If we have conformed ourselves to Christ, there is no race, no religion, no ethnic group, and no nation more favored by God than another. No one has an exclusive claim on God’s favor and the healing, loving, blessed work of Jesus Christ. To claim some superiority or some privilege position is a complete rejection of the Gospel that reveals to us the will of God. Angry and hateful blaming of others who are not like for any evil is a way of escaping responsibility for our own sin.

We live with conflicting opposites all the time. The message of Jesus Christ offers a way to bring two distinct realties together in a central, healing, and harmonious meeting place. We are called to live in the tensions of this world regardless of the cost and asked to love as God loves. It is not our task to get everyone on the same page, to create some uniform and consistent way of thinking. It is, however, our call to be open to God’s surprises, to be a source of healing, and to challenge by our action and speech ways of thinking and attitudes that are evil. Disciples of Jesus Christ will take risks. Their thoughts and actions must catch people’s attention and cause them to think. It means we forget about what people may think of us or stop being concerned about looking silly or radical. The Gospel is radical. It is inclusive. It is powerful, and it is alive. The primary task of disciples and of our Church is learning how to discern and cooperate with God’s life-giving, loving, and all unifying plan of salvation.

Those who march in the darkness with their torches are like those who came to the Garden of Olives in the night to silence the voice of Jesus. Our presence here gives witness that the truth of God’s love will not be silenced even by the death of Jesus Christ. Real life comes after death. Light comes after darkness. Love comes after the hatred. Peace comes after violence all because we believe and hold as true that in God’s eyes we are all the same, gifted with a place in the Kingdom, worthy of respect, and never forgetting our brothers and sisters who live in fear because of the hatred of others are God’s children too.

The Assumption of the Virgin Mary – August 15, 2017

Revelation 11, 19, 12, 1-6 + Psalm 45, + 1 Corinthians 15, 20-27 + Luke 1, 39-56

St Peter and St William Parishes in Naples, FL

This is a feast of Hope for those of us who would reach deeply into the meaning of the Assumption and draw from the Virgin we honor today one of the lessons she teaches us. One of the ancient symbols of hope for artists is the anchor; that saving instrument of ships tossed around by the wind and waves on a stormy sea. When sailors throw the anchor and it grabs the solid sea floor it promises safety to the endangered crew.

This contrast of images between the stable sea floor and the wind and waves above is a creative way of exploring the hope that we are invited to celebrate and enjoy today. As fragile human beings, we are always being tossed about and threatened by the events of this life from politics to economics, from personal emotional turmoil to international threats across the globe. One look at what we know of the Virgin Mary’s life would quickly lead us to recognize the strength of her hope. While often she is cast a woman of great humility, I’ve always believed that her hope was her greatest virtue. What else would sustain her through the experience of her son’s horrible death, and lead her to remain steadfast among those he had formed and prepared for his resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit?

Hope is the answer. Hope, a way of living in a state of expectation about the future while remaining in the present realizing that the present and the future are really one. Like the Virgin, we are creatures of the future already living in the Reign of God right here today. Our whole being is directed toward what is to come. We carry the future in our hearts because of our Faith, and that Faith calling us to gather on a weekday in mid-August inspires that Hope which is expressed in the Charity with which we live together. Three virtues we call, “Theological”: Faith, Hope, and Charity are Godly, revealing something of the Divine Life within us. Call it Grace!

People of Hope are people of Faith and they are a bit different from optimists. The optimist looks at this world only from below with no eye to the future because for worldly people the ultimate end in this world is death. There is no escaping it. It’s a dust to dust kind of existence. The optimist is always fighting against the inevitable pessimism that a life without God offers. So, the optimist comes along believing that this world can be made perfect here and now, and they alone can do it. There have been a lot of these kind of people in human history.  Karl Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Mao were all optimists believing that humans could make things perfect here below. When you think that way, you will do anything and go to any extreme to make it so. They did. They were men without hope. They had no thought, no dream, no desire for a future that crossed into the Divine. In the end, optimists are dangerous people who believe that science, money, psychology, and power can make all things well. Believers see this as naïve at best.

This is not to say that we ignore this world and its injustice and inequality. What it does say is that people of Faith know that it takes Hope to make a difference because hope brings God and the wisdom of Jesus Christ into the effort. Think about the people of hope who believed and had a vision shaped by Faith achieving real reform: Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, John Paul II, Thomas Merton, the Little Flower, and countless other courageous people of faith whose lives were marked by great pain, tragedies, and sadness, yet with a vision of God’s Reign, with courage from the Holy Spirit, they lived with purpose, with joy, and with great peace.

The Virgin we honor by our prayer today is the great Lady of Hope who without a word spoken teaches us about what we can expect for our future not just here, but in the days to come: a place at the right hand of God.

The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time August 13, 2017

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

St Peter and St William Parishes in Naples, FL

Last week we were told by a voice to “Listen”. In the transfiguration as told by Matthew, it is not enough for those apostles to “see” Jesus, they must also “listen.” In these verses today, Matthew reinforces that demand if you follow the details carefully. Notice that when they see Jesus, they are terrified. When they hear his voice, they calm down. They need to hear his voice. Then, as if we might not get the point, Matthew says it again with Peter. Until he hears the voice that commands him to get out of the boat, he stays where he is. Only when Jesus gives the order does he step out to do something he thought he could never do. He fulfills his vocation. Then, at the moment he acknowledges another power, the wind, there is trouble. He has a divided heart, or a divided faith. Two powers are there for him to choose between, and until he makes the right choice, the saving choice, he’s sunk, so to speak.

When Peter does make his choice affirming that Jesus is his Lord, when he reaches out to grasp the hand that is offered, he too walks on water. With that, we see that doing something that seems impossible is not a sign of divinity, (because Peter does it too) but rather a sign that Peter is empowered to do what Jesus does. The apostles are being empowered with their faith to do what Jesus does. Just a few verses earlier, we saw that happening when the multitude were fed. The apostles did what they thought impossible because Jesus told them to it. When Jesus walks on that troubled water toward a boat in distress, Matthew reveals not just what Jesus is, but why Jesus is. This miracle story is about the function of Jesus, not his nature.

So today, God speaks to us about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, a disciple caught between faith and doubt. Today God puts before us this man, Peter who, like all of us is torn between two powers, this world and the Kingdom of Heaven. Today God puts before us this man who takes a risk, but then looks around or looks back and gets into trouble. There can be no looking back for us, my friends. We learn from Matthew to live with uncertainties yet with the knowledge and faith that when we respond to the command and call of the Lord, an outstretched hand is there to pull us along.

I have always found it fascinating and empowering to know that in John’s Gospel, the word “Faith” is always a verb. It is never a “noun.” Remember that. Faith is not about something we have or possess. Faith is an activity, or a way of doing things. It is like a song that disappears when we stop singing. Sometimes I remind myself of that truth with a wonderful old hymn we sometimes sing here. “My life goes on in endless song above earth’s lamentations. I hear the real though far off hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear its music ringing, it sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing? While though the tempest loudly roars, I hear the truth, it liveth, and though the darkness round me close, songs in the night it giveth. No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging. Since love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Transfiguration August 6, 2017

Isaiah 55, 1-3 + Psalm 145 + Romans 8, 35, 37-39 + Matthew 14, 13-21

St Joseph Parish, Norman, OK

It would be a mistake causing us to miss the point to think that what Matthew is giving us in these verses is a manifestation of the divinity of Christ. The experience of those apostles on that high mountain was an experience of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus is presented as a transformed human, not as a human transformed into God. The description of this event is totally passive. Jesus says nothing and does nothing. If this was a revelation of Jesus as God, Jesus would have said something or done something godly. As it is, there is another voice speaking about him. If Jesus were being presented as God, the apostles would have been totally terrified. Instead, Peter starts talking to Jesus as he would in perfectly normal circumstances. His idea of building some booths for them suggests that he is in the presence of heavenly human beings. What we might need to remember here is that both Elijah and Moses according to Jewish tradition were carried into heaven before suffering human death. By associating Jesus with them, a connection is being made to the resurrection.

This event in Matthew’s Gospel follows the first prediction by Jesus regarding his passion and death. Peter and his companions want nothing to do with that. Matthew’s plan here is to correct that reaction by taking them to this high mountain where a voice speaking from the cloud affirms what Peter has declared him to be, the Messiah. The voice declares that God is well pleased with the obedience of Jesus in accepting his suffering role which further challenges the objection of Peter and his companions to the predicted suffering and death. How can they oppose what pleases God is the challenge? At the Baptism of Jesus in chapter three, a similar event takes place, but this time the voice adds the command: “Listen to him.”

The conflict between what Peter, James, and John see and what they had just heard from Jesus about his suffering and death comes to the surface as the voice says: “Listen.” In a sense, what the voice says is: “Do not think that what you see can happen without what you have heard.” The suffering and death, the obedience of Jesus to the will of the Father is what lifts Jesus up to this glory. Human life is transfigured to this glory by obedience to the Father, by service, suffering, and death. Matthew acknowledges the conflict or this lingering refusal to accept the suffering and death by placing these same three apostles in the garden with Jesus on the night of betrayal. It is Peter, James and John who are invited to witness the surrender and obedience of Jesus, and in one last act of denial, they sleep. Only after the death and resurrection of Jesus will they come out of their denial, and so he instructs them to keep quiet about what they had seen until then.

The favor of God comes not just from a violent death, but from obedience to the Father’s will whatever it may be. Our only hope of being transfigured into what God has called us to be is by obedience, which as word in English comes from a Latin word that means “give ear to” or “Listen.” On a high mountain, God reveals through Matthew what we are called to become and how we shall finally pass into or be transfigured into what God first intended before we stopped listening and became disobedient. Our transfiguration will happen when we begin again to listen to the words Jesus has spoken among us: words of forgiveness, words of mercy, words of healing, words of peace. Probably when we begin to embrace these words and live by them, we shall also experience some suffering, betrayal, and in some cases, even death because of them. None the less, when we do listen and ascend that final high mountain of life, we will hear the words: “This is my beloved with whom I am well pleased” spoken over us, and then we shall shine like the sun.