The Gospel for Sunday, August 20th, 2017

The Gospel for Sunday, August 20th, 2017: “The Caananite Woman’s Faith”

Matthew 15: 21-28

Reflection: Mercy Upon All

In today’s gospel Jesus heals a Gentile girl possessed by a demon at the request of her mother. This request is granted only after the woman persists in asking, even though Jesus seems to ignore her at first. As we seek guidance from this narrative, the lesson of persistence is clear and a common interpretation. The woman does not give up even though her first request does not bear fruit. Jesus rewards her patience, proclaiming, “O woman, great is your faith!” (28).

Even though I do not want to take for granted the usefulness of connecting faith and persistence, I think this story suggests there is more to be learned from the strange conversation between Jesus, the Caananite woman, and his disciples. My reading of scriptures right now is heavily influenced by the work new testament scholar N.T. Wright, who seeks to dispel limited notions of personal salvation in the scriptures in favor of a larger view that Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on Earth, where the power of sin and darkness are conquered and all people of faith—Jew and Gentile alike–are restored in the resurrection through Jesus Christ.

An interpretation of this gospel with this larger view in mind begins with the fact the woman is not a Jew. Despite her upbringing, she witnesses her belief by calling Jesus, “Lord, Son of David” (22). Whatever her understanding might have been of those words, the name acknowledges Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior. When Jesus does not respond, the reader, especially a first-century Jew, might jump to the conclusion that He is ignoring her because she is not Jewish. Indeed, that is probably what his disciples thought as they say to Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us” (23). I contend that Jesus waits to respond to draw out this discriminatory response from the disciples, rather than to merely test the woman’s perseverance in faith. If this episode is preparing the way for a Kingdom that includes Gentiles as well as Jews, Jesus needs to draw attention to the fact that his granting of her request will be based on faith alone, and that the new covenant will not be limited to the traditional understanding of Israel.

How does Jesus do that? The conversation that follows illustrates that disciples are characterized by faith, participation, and humility, as well as persistence, not by ethnic identification or religious law. Jesus describes His mission this way: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (24). On first glance this sounds exclusionary; He came to save Jews. However, Israel is the light to all nations who is characterized by their worship of God, instead of false idols. The woman’s answer shows she too is a sheep of Israel when she says with “homage,” “Lord, help me” (25). Her faith is marked by participation, by witness.

Jesus continues to use this conversation to draw out further how this Gentile is a worthy disciple by emphasizing her humility. He states a very conventional opinion about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles from the Jewish perspective. The Gentiles are “dogs,” not worthy of a place at the table of God’s chosen people; therefore, “It is not right to take the food of the children* and throw it to the dogs” (26). This is a setup so that woman may illustrate her faithfulness through humility. She responds, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” (27). Her answer is not demanding and prideful; she asks for no more than simple mercy from the Lord of all. Her words have served the purpose of illustrating Christian discipleship in the Kingdom of God. Once stated, Jesus praises her and heals her daughter.

This trial of the woman’s patience and faith is not just a personal test; it is a vehicle to reorient Jesus’ disciples to the new Kingdom that will include all of God’s people, not just Jews, and the conditions for discipleship. All have been marked by the power of sin so that all may be saved. This is what Paul means in the auxiliary reading when he says, “For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all” (Romans 11: 32).

I find this perspective challenging and exciting. I have often been inclined to see faith as being about my personal salvation and to read this episode as an exercise in persistence. However, it can be lonely and discouraging to focus on begging for one’s personal rescue. While God hears, he wants us to put ourselves third behind Him and others. By identifying with the awakening of the disciples in this gospel to the mission to reach all, both happiness and salvation will follow. It emphasizes the tremendous opportunity in this fallen world to participate in the Christ’s salvation mission. This gospel makes clear we are called to treat all people with love and mercy, especially those we don’t understand or who are difficult to love. In so doing we participate in the building of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth and live in hope of the day when loneliness and isolation no longer exist, only harmony in the love of God. It is radical notion that, once embraced, leads to happiness in this life and beyond.

 

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, August 13th, 2017

The Gospel for August 13th, 2017: “The Walking on the Water”

Matthew 14: 22-33

Reflection: What am I Afraid of?

Today’s gospel is one of my favorites. Jesus walks on water, further revealing His divinity, and Peter attempts to follow Jesus, only to need saving from sinking when he has a moment of doubt in faith. It is a magical story, miraculous and uplifting, and filled with unforgettable imagery. In particular, this version  of the scene by Australia artist, Rebecca Brogan, captures the frightening turmoil of the storm, which can be read symbolically as the danger and disorder of a life without Christ in a fallen world. All the disciples are afraid, first of the storm, and then of Jesus’ unprecedented walk across the waves. But it is Peter’s fear that interests me most at this point in my life.

Peter accepts Christ’s reassurance and invitation to join Him on the sea. He climbs out of the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus on the water. He is really doing it! I go through stretches like this where my faith is strong and am answering Christ’s call. However, they are often followed by episodes of doubt and fear like Peter. “[W]hen he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” (30). Of course Jesus answers that cry for help and saves him from sinking. He says to Peter, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (31).

A fair question. Unlike me, Peter has a reasonable excuse for doubting. The notion that Christ is there to save Him is still unfolding before his very eyes. Trusting that He is the Messiah would take some time. It might not be too much time, considering the others in the boat end this episode by saying to Jesus, “Truly, you are the Son of God” (33). Still it is a radical idea to accept. But in my case, I have known for a long time this fact. For most of my life, I have been aware Jesus is my savior, even though my ego sometimes has caused me to resist that truth. So why do I doubt? Why am I afraid of sinking into dangerous waters when I set out to follow Jesus?

The reasons are complicated; however, I think it is accurate to say that at the heart of most cases when I give into fear I am afraid of suffering and view it as a precursor to death. Granted, I am rarely, maybe never, in actual danger of physical harm. Nevertheless, a natural survival instinct takes over as I fear the suffering. In reality the suffering is usually from the emotional discomfort caused by frustrating, disappointing, or failing others. Still, the fear is real and can paralyze me.

Since this danger is in my head, the analogy of Peter’s situation is not precisely similar, but still very instructive. What is Peter afraid of when he starts to sink into the water? The worst case scenario is drowning—death. Let’s say his worst fears are realized, Jesus doesn’t save Him and he drowns. What does our faith tell us about his fate? He is fully in the hands of the Lord at that point, no longer in the grips of suffering. He is in a better place. Of course as this gospel illustrates, it doesn’t come to that. Jesus intervenes and saves him from his dilemma. In other words, there is no bad outcome for the faithful Peter. There is nothing to fear—which is Jesus’ message in this passage. Death and suffering only have power over us when we doubt our faith.

I try to remember this story when I am aware of fear setting in. Since I believe my ultimate goal  is to live with Jesus in the resurrection, there is no rational reason for me to fear death. If death brings me closer to this peaceful destiny, I should welcome death and any suffering that precedes it. If it is not my time, then Jesus will save me from suffering so I may find the peace and health to return to His mission for me in this life. In Christ, I cannot lose. I should fear not, for as Jesus tells us and the old hymn asks, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The answer is not a person or thing in creation. Every trial brings me closer to the God who created and loves me, as soon as I let go of the doubt. This is the true freedom of the Christian life.

The Gospel for Sunday August 6th, 2017

The Gospel for August 6th, 2017: “The Transfiguration of Jesus”

Matthew 17: 1-9

Reflection: A Glimpse of the Resurrection

Last week I cited theologian N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope from 2008 as an interpretive framework for reflecting on the gospel. Since am continuing to read Wright’s work with The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion from 2016, I would like to return to his basic claim today that our Christian lives are not an effort to achieve personal salvation that ends with a spiritual eternity in a far-away Heaven. Both books contend that this popular notion represents a misunderstanding of Christ’s death and resurrection. Wright argues instead that both the Old and New Testaments point to a joining of Heaven and Earth where all of God’s creation will be restored to its divine splendor physically as well as spiritually for eternity. This is the promise of the Kingdom of God, where humanity will live harmoniously in the presence of God as Adam and Eve did in Eden before the fall. Wright emphasizes this salvation framework is not only scripturally logical  and inspiringly hopeful, it also explains our role as builders of God’s kingdom in the present. Jesus ushered in the beginning of restoration of creation with His ministry, death, and resurrection, called us to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, and assured us He will return to finish its manifestation through a second resurrection of all His people. Our present joy comes not from securing an individual salvation through faith or works and then waiting for a death that leads to Heaven, but rather by accepting our vocation to praise and worship God, love our fellow men and women, and participate in the transformation of Earth into Christ’s kingdom.

In light of this understanding, today’s reading of the Transfiguration can be seen as glimpse of the Kingdom of God for the Apostles by Jesus to ground their work in the goal of bringing it to birth here on Earth. Preceding this event in Chapter 17, Matthew tells us important details in Chapter 16 of why this event happens at this moment. It’s timing precedes the nearing of Christ’s passion. First, Peter has recognized and acknowledged publicly that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16: 16). Next in lines 21-23, Jesus tells the disciples of His coming suffering, death, and resurrection. When Peter says God should forbid this from happening, Jesus calls him “Satan” and explains he is not thinking “as God does, but as humans do” (Matthew 16: 23). Finally, at the end of Chapter 16 Jesus lays out the conditions for discipleship as the willingness to take up one’s cross and follow Him (24). The language of this extended preview is peppered with notions of death, resurrection, and ushering in a new kingdom marked by “his Father’s glory” (Matthew 16: 27).

With the Transfiguration in Matthew 17, Jesus provides this glimpse of the Kingdom because Peter and the apostles must understand their mission of kingdom-building through the lens of the resurrection rather than through worldly understanding. Jews expected the Messiah to restore Israel to worldly power as a warrior-king like David. Jesus as God-Incarnate is preparing them for a kingdom that fully realizes His creative vision of love reflected in His creation itself.

What are some of the details of the Transfiguration event that help to create a more accurate expectation of Christ’s kingdom in His disciples?

  • The inauguration of the Kingdom through Christ’s death and resurrection has not happened yet, so Earth is not properly cleansed for a vision of divine splendor. Therefore, Christ takes the disciples up the mountain away from the worldly realm similar to how Jews worship rituals prepared them to encounter God in the temple in purity. Once there, the perfection of Jesus’s physical state is dazzling. “[H]is face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17: 2). Hence, the joining of Heaven and Earth will result in the restoration of physical perfection of Eden. All creation will be resurrected to bodily perfection on Earth.
  • The appearance of Moses and Elijah shows continuity with and fulfillment of Israel’s deliverance to “the promised land” and “Kingdom of Heaven” from Old Testament prophecy. A restoration of Eden has always been the plan.
  • Christ’s kingdom will be marked by unity, not division, since it is free from sin. Peter wants to erect three separate tents, but this divisive suggestion is quickly dismissed. The kingdom will be unified and it will be on Earth, unlike there remote location on the mountain.
  • God the Father will be present in the Kingdom as He was in Eden. Not only is He present in the person of Jesus, He speaks directly to the disciples.
  • Jesus tells the disciples, “[D]o not be afraid” (Matthew 17: 7). No harm that can come to us neither in an earthly life of kingdom-building nor in our destiny as eternal residents of Christ’s kingdom.

In this reflection I am trying to convey the hopefulness I feel in contemplation of Christ’s mission. I think the Transfiguration gives us a glimpse, like the disciples, of a future in Christ that is dazzling beyond our wildest dreams. It is all that is good and beautiful, untouched by sin, death, and decay. Paul speaks of this incomprehensible “wisdom” of the Kingdom 1 Corinthians 2  by calling it “mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (7-8). And yet by listening to Christ, as the disciples ultimately do in the Transfiguration, Paul tells us we can know “[w]hat eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart” through the spirit” (9-10). Our destiny is not a waiting game and not a rigged contest; it is a new life that we can know and confidently anticipate through the Holy Spirit.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, July 30th, 2017

The Gospel for July 30th, 2017: “Treasures New and Old”

Matthew 13:44-52

Reflection: Surprised by Hope

This week’s gospel continues in the vein of last Sunday with Jesus telling his disciples more parables about the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 13. Another similarity is the inclusion of a disconcerting line about the end of the age. Jesus tells them, “The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (49-50). I would like to reflect on this line in light of a book I’m currently reading by Anglican theologian N.T. Wright called Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

Wright’s book attempts to set straight what he considers are common misunderstandings among most Christians about the resurrection and its role in our hope for salvation. Wright argues we need to return to an understanding that is closer to the first century Christians. The misunderstanding he describes is recognizable. He claims when Christians talk about hope for resurrection, generally they equate that with going to Heaven as a disembodied spirit after they die. While this does offer some hope and comfort in times of bereavement, it also devalues God’s creation in this world both in our physical bodies and in the rich biosphere that surrounds us. However, Wright claims it is not what Jesus meant or how the first disciples understood what He meant about resurrection.

If I may summarize Surprised by Hope with broad strokes, Wright explains that the Jewish understanding of resurrection would be a new life in physical form after death, just as Jesus gave Lazarus and to which His own resurrection refers. This is what the Pharisees believed in that the Sadducees did not. It is not a purely spiritual state far away in a realm called Heaven. Jesus came to join Heaven and Earth—to unite the perfect with that which was marred by sin. Therefore, salvation is a restoration of God’s perfect creation, removing sin, death, and decay. So the “end of the age” Jesus refers to is not a rapture, as some argue, where Jesus will collect the worthy, transporting them to Heaven, and leave behind the sinners on Earth to languish in an eternal Hell. Instead, Wright argues the resurrection has two parts. The inaugural resurrection is Easter Sunday, Jesus’s resurrection, which proved He is God-made-man, the joiner of Heaven and Earth who came to save His lost sheep. With Easter, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, meaning the building of Christ’s Kingdom begins. The second resurrection will arrive with the second coming of Jesus to Earth, when all of God’s people who have died are resurrected, their bodies restored to the perfection of the intention of their creator, free from sin, death, and decay forever. So our hope is for being resurrected to walk in the Kingdom, not as spirits who have shed off defective earthly bodies, but as holy creatures born again into a physical perfection we cannot imagine in this life.

This raises some questions. What happens between death and this completion of the salvation story? I do not have the space to try summarize all of Wright’s claims on this. He acknowledges the view of purgatory, but his Protestant leanings show he is dubious of a spiritual purgatory. He posits the view that it is possible our suffering on Earth is what purges and that with death we truly rest in peace spiritually until the resurrection mission is complete. Frankly, I don’t think this question needs to be answered in detail as a condition for accepting his understanding of the resurrection.

The other question is why the resurrection occurs with this process starting on Easter and lasting into an unknown future? Again, let me caution I am trying to put together Wright’s argument with my own understanding, in my own words. However, I think it a reasonable approximation of Wright’s answer to state he believes the salvation plan involves all of humanity, God’s created stewards, participating in the victory over sin through the unselfish love of our Creator. We strive to live the gospel message of love of God and neighbor in every moment, as the first parable suggests by selling all we have to buy the treasure of Christ’s kingdom. Since we share this love of others through our relationships, Christ’s salvation, the purging of sin through selfless love, spreads through all creation. It may well be that the final resurrection occurs when all have been saved (or at least all who assent to be saved)  which only seems possible through faith in Christ.

Despite all the theological ends I may have just loosed, let me return to the gospel with this basic understanding of Wright’s book in mind. The notion of a “fiery furnace,” a Hell for sinners, sometimes does more harm than good in the sense that fear of eternal damnation is not an impetus to love freely through the Holy Spirit. So the result from scare tactics is too many Christians of all denominations act on that fear by trying to save themselves, instead of moving toward the people and parts of God’s creation most marred by sin and decay in the spirit of mission. So instead of bringing God’s love to poor, sick, and dying, they isolate themselves in comfortable “Christian” enclaves, waiting for life’s suffering to end, and for that prized trip to Heaven. They are not concerned about restoring Heaven on Earth through love in the forms of faith, hope, and charity, which Wright claims is Christ’s salvation plan. I can honestly say that like those waiting it out, I spend far more time worrying about my own salvation than about all of humanity, the scattered tribes of Israel if you will.

So why then does Christ bring up the “fiery furnace” and “weeping and grinding of teeth” if not to scare us away from sin? I think He is describing the purging of sin that will take place after His Easter resurrection, not as a damnation of sinners, since all of us are marred by sin, but as the holy perfecting of those very sinners. In the case of this parable, Jesus is not talking about the fish in the net as individual saints and sinners; rather he is comparing the net to the Kingdom of Heaven. Could it be that the bad, throw-away fish are not individual people, but sin itself? Could Jesus be giving a glimpse of pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth being burned away in a fiery furnace of God’s love so that what remains is a kingdom where all of God’s creation has been restored to its full glory? In such a scenario the wailing is not the cries of the eternally tormented, but instead the resistance we experience in letting go of our attachments to the world. It is not easy to give up our sins because we still must choose God’s love over them. But in the end, it is a tremendously hopeful idea that God’s love is irresistible and that all of humanity will surrender to the joy of the kingdom and let go of sin to allow the final resurrection and Jesus’s return.

In the end, I guess I believe in a universal salvation for all. I think our hopes our tied up together as God’s creatures. Just as sin is corporate, so too is salvation. We are given Christ’s mission of love so that in saving others we will participate—choosing freely—to save ourselves. Perhaps the second coming of Jesus to complete the restoration of the kingdom is a function of our willingness to take the mission to the ends of the earth. It will happen eventually, but it takes longer when we selfishly resist the call to love others as Christ loves us.

Why is this so hopeful to me? Because I know my sins. Every time I am confronted with the idea of sinners being cast away to Hell, I think I deserve such a fate. So my hope has to be in a mercy that is so divine that we can all be saved. If I can treat others with unselfish love—of which  the challenge often does make me wail and grind my teeth inside–maybe that merciful love spreads to further the ultimate resurrection. I choose to believe Jesus is a savior who cannot lose a single one of us. I believe that all the good and beauty in the world is not here on loan from Heaven, but rather to change hearts and stomp out sin. All the manifestations of God’s love are active agents in preparing the way for the final resurrection that will complete the joining of Heaven and Earth.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

The Gospel for July 23rd, 2017: “The Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat”

Matthew 13: 24-33

Reflection: Dare We Have Hope?

Like last Sunday, Jesus is teaching with parables in today’s gospel. The parable that dominates this passage, “Weeds among the Wheat,” describes a wheat field infested by weeds that were planted by the devil. He explains the weeds are analogous to “children of the evil one” (38-39). With the appearance of the weeds, the field owner’s servants ask if they should “go and pull them up” (28). The owner declines, citing the risk of pulling up the good wheat along with the weeds. Instead, they will wait until harvest, collecting the wheat into the barn and burning the weeds in bundles (30).

The fate of the weeds is terrifying. Jesus says the angels “will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (42); whereas, the wheat, “the children of the kingdom,” (38) “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (43). Framed this way, it is an easy choice. Any reasonable person will pursue Christ’s kingdom over obliteration in the fiery furnace, which sure sounds like Hell.

Still, such passages show a side of Jesus that is discomforting. He sounds like a doom-and-gloom prophet or a fire-and-brimstone preacher. This is not the Jesus of endless love for humanity. Or is it?

I think this is Jesus the truth-teller speaking. To choose the way of Jesus, we must accept the reality of sin, death, and our capacity to reject the offer of Christian salvation. He needs us to know that. This message was probably important to first century Jews because many, like the Pharisees, may have believed that their salvation was already secure from Judaic tradition and ritual, so they didn’t need Jesus and the monumental change to their lives His arrival brought. However, part of my discomfort with this talk of damnation is how some Christians use it to judge others. Their intent is not to save their fellow sinners, but to condemn them. This is dangerously prideful, if the message is not said with complete love and recognition we are all sinners.

The detail in this passage that reminds us to withhold judgment is the waiting until the harvest to destroy the weeds. Jesus says the harvest is “the end of the age” (39). I don’t feel comfortable explaining all the theological implications of that phrase, but I do think it means judgment will belong to the Lord in a time of His choosing, not to His followers here and now. What will happen at that time, I cannot say. Will the walls of Hell be filled with my friends and family? Will I be among them?

In Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved: With a Short Discourse on Hell, the Swiss theologian and Catholic priest, Hans Urs Von Balsar tackled the paradox of statements by Jesus that suggest Hell awaits the sinner and those by Him that promise salvation for all. For those like me who are troubled by a gloomy Christianity, it is a book that restores hope. Von Balsar gives no reckless certainty or assurances, but his scholarship does consider the fullness of the gospel message on this subject that culminates with the hope that comes from Jesus’ victory over death and sin. He sees hope in the gospels that Hell will not necessarily be crowded. The power of Jesus’ salvation plan is beyond our comprehension.

For me, the most attractive aspect of faith is hope for happiness. When we read passages that remind us we can reject the offer of salvation and die bound to sin, we must also never forget that Jesus came to save us out of love. Like the prodigal son, He will embrace us in astounding mercy if we just accept His offer, regardless of what we have done in the past. Dare we have hope that Jesus will include all with those who “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father?” I say, yes, we do. The love of Christ is irresistible and boundless.

The Gospel for Sunday, July 16th, 2017

The Gospel for July 16th, 2017: “The Parable of the Sower”

Matthew 13: 1-23

Reflection: Salvation is Gradual

The wonderful thing about today’s gospel, “The Parable of the Sower,” is Jesus tells us its meaning. However, it is interesting to note Jesus only tells the apostles and not the crowds of disciples who have been drawn to His presence and teaching.  It is worth considering the reason, which the apostles ask about, and I will return to it. But first, let’s review Jesus’s explanation of the parable.

Jesus says:

“Hear then the parable of the sower. The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.
But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word,
but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold” (18-23).

I like this parable because it creates an analogy for salvation that emphasizes its organic nature, thus avoiding a very legalistic view of faith. We are not simply following rules, but instead cultivating the “word of the kingdom” in our hearts. With this reading, “word” should be taken in its fullest sense as the logos. It is not just the words of the gospel and Jesus’s teaching, but Jesus himself, as is reasoned out in chapter one of John’s gospel. Recall, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John: 1, 14). So Jesus is the Word who like seeds into soil enters our hearts to yield a bountiful harvest.

Yet, as Jesus enumerates case by case, the soil of our hearts does not always bear fruit. He extends the analogy by citing the causes for this infertility. On the path, misunderstanding allows evil to steal away the seed. On the rocky ground, the seed sprouts but lacks the substrate to grow dense roots and persist. In amongst thorns of anxiety and temptation, the seeds are choked in the competition with the thorns. No, the soil must be fertile for the seed to bear fruit. It cannot be all mucked up with sin, from which the listed causes of infertility come.

Okay. So I have come around to sin. Regular readers know I am infatuated by the sinfulness of our natures because I am painfully aware of my own propensity to sin. I am not writing to scare anyone to Heaven like the classic Jonathan Edwards’ Puritan sermon, “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God.” Given how often Jesus says “fear not” in the gospels, I don’t think the path to salvation is some sort of “scared straight” lecture. What I am trying to understand with this gospel is how do we sinners fertilize the soil?

This question brings us back to Jesus’s decision to not explain the parable to the crowd. The apostles ask Him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” instead of teaching the path to salvation directly (Matthew 13: 10). If I may paraphrase Jesus’s answer, He says the disciples are not ready to understand. The divine genius of the Lord’s teaching in this gospel is salvation is a process of slow growth through stages and seasons.  It is a good starting point intellectually to simply accept understanding the “word of the kingdom” will take patience and time like every good harvest.

Part of what takes time is learning to accept who Jesus is and the implication of His mission. Jesus’s plan to save humanity is through love that is selfless—that wills the good of others. This is who He is as our creator and Father, and this is how he lived his time on Earth as the Son of God. When we love Jesus and His creation, we are united with Him in love. Because of our free will, however, we can choose to hold back something for just ourselves, an act of division and selfishness. This is a powerful force. We cannot contend with it individually on our own. But the love of Jesus comes to us through the love of others frequently and reclaims the soil of our hearts for love. We are never lost from His reach.

What takes so long to accept—what the crowds were not ready to accept that day because His resurrection was yet to come—is our hearts need to belong completely to Jesus in love. We can hold nothing back to join in His goodness for eternity. Even though we won’t die a death on a cross, His model indicates the level of sacrifice and surrender to love of God and others salvation takes. This calls to mind the Old Testament story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, which I read recently. Abraham’s was a trust in God’s plan I am not ready to fathom.  I think it takes a lifetime to reach the point where we can give ourselves completely to Him for the sake of not just our own happiness, but for that of humanity. That life might be long or short in human years, but in every case we must keep saying yes to Jesus right up until our last day, regardless of the ledger of our past successes and failures. The fertilizer to prepare the soil of our hearts for this surrender is the small acts of humble obedience to Jesus’s love. We pray; we worship; we love others. Over and over, one day at a time, through the grace of our Lord’s love and the Holy Spirit. I am not there yet. But I have faith and hope in Jesus. He has a plan of salvation for me, for all of us. It is gradual, like the sowing of seeds in the ground, which over time grow into mature plants and bear fruit.

The Gospel for Sunday, July 9th, 2017

 

The Gospel for July 9th, 2017: “The Praise of the Father” and “The Gentle Mystery of Christ”

Matthew 11: 25-30

Reflection: Gone Fishin’

Okay. I didn’t actually go fishing, but I did just get back from vacation and my mind is still there. I strive for honesty and depth in these reflection blogs, and I  can honestly say I don’t see much depth coming from my current state of mind.

I encourage readers to check out the video reflection for today’s gospel on the USCCB website. It features Franciscan friar, Father Greg Friedman, who I find always uplifting and helpful in his reflections. Today’s video is no exception.

God’s blessings to you all. I’ll be back next week with more than honest excuses.

The Gospel for Sunday, July 2nd, 2017

The Gospel for July 2nd, 2017: “The Conditions of Discipleship”

Matthew 10: 37-42

Reflection: Being Rightly Ordered

Jesus said to his apostles:
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his cross
and follow after me is not worthy of me
(37-38).

There was a time when lines like this from Jesus would have bothered me a lot. How can Jesus, who talks so much about love, criticize a person for loving family members? I might have given up quickly on understanding and assumed they were some part of the divine mystery not meant to be understood or are unclear because they come from a different time and place. However, today I think I do understand Jesus’s point.

I have received Bishop Robert Barron’s daily reflections (https://www.wordonfire.org)on the gospel through e-mail for at least a year. Many times he has written that the teaching of Jesus is showing us how to be rightly ordered to God, just as Mosaic law was given to Israel by God to teach them how to be rightly ordered in the Old Testament. What Bishop Barron means by ‘rightly ordered’ is proper worship, not for God’s sake—He doesn’t need our worship—but for our own positioning to receive God’s love. As every Christian knows, it can be difficult to be a disciple and at odds the world. I imagine for first century Jews it would be even more difficult to be at odds with family members who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. Does a Jew reject the Savior because his or her family does not believe?

Let me be clear. Jesus is telling His disciples He is God with the words “not worthy of me.” Imagine the shock of hearing that. Those listeners were confronted with a choice, do I follow this man who has revealed Himself as God-Incarnate or do I reject Him as an imposter? It is really the same choice we face today. To be rightly ordered, we must be disciples who follow His teaching to love Him above all else and others as He loves others. And the hard part is we must let go of the attachments that get in the way of giving ourselves fully to His will.

Jesus is not saying don’t love your family. He is saying don’t become attached to family above serving Him. If we love them unselfishly with Christ at the center, all will be well. However, if there is conflict in the family over living a Christian life, a Christian shouldn’t give up Church and worship to appease the family.  Disciples hold firm in the faith. Jesus comes first—always. The conflicts that arise in family over religious ideas and practices are crosses to bear. Jesus, who came to save all, will help heal those conflicts. It may take a lifetime, but we must not give up faith that we can play a  role in the salvation of others, especially family members, by simply continuing to try to live the gospel. We pray for those who are lost and keep peace with them, but we do not sacrifice Christian worship for them. By putting Jesus first, we are rightly ordered to receive His love and give it to others, including family. This is the only recipe for happiness, which the beatitudes promise.

The Gospel for Sunday, June 25th, 2017

The Gospel for June 25th, 2017: “Courage Under Persecution”

Matthew 10: 26-33

Reflection: Seeing Jesus in Our Enemies

Last night I saw a regional theater production of Sister Act: A Divine Musical Comedy. The production is inspired by the highly successful, Whoopi Goldberg movie from the nineties, and both tell the story of Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer who witnesses her gangster boyfriend commit murder and seeks witness protection by hiding among an order of nuns in a run-down, neighborhood parish. The show is noticeably different from the movie version in many ways. One is that the musical develops the internal conflicts of some of the nuns in greater psychological depth, including that of the Mother Superior (played by Maggie Smith in the movie version), who struggles to accept that the arrival of Deloris, which rejuvenates her sisters and their parish through her musical talents as the new choir director, is a blessing, not a curse. As the choir adopts a more ostentatious, less modest, look and sound, which draws new parishioners and financial support to the sagging church, Mother Superior questions whether the changes are really better for her order. The tension reaches a climax in the second act when she admits to the Lord in prayer she is afraid in the song “I Haven’t Got a Prayer.”

It is this poignant moment, the emotion of which musical theater often captures so well, that comes to mind as I read today’s gospel, which thematically focuses on fear. The reading begins with Jesus preparing the twelve apostles to go forth to preach and heal. In anticipation of them encountering those who will persecute them for their counter-cultural message, He tells them, “Fear no one…do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy
both soul and body in Gehenna” (26-28). Precisely speaking, Jesus is not referring to the kind of enemy Deloris Van Cartier represents to the Mother Superior in Sister Act. Instead, He was addressing the religious and political authorities who would object to their ministry and have the power to imprison or harm them. And while such enemies still exist to Christians in this day and age, for those of us who live in countries with freedom of religion and reasonably safe conditions, the enemy like Deloris, who threatens Mother Superior’s authority and faith with her secular ideas that are so appealing to the other nuns, is perhaps more likely the kind of enemy to be feared. She threatens the Mother Superior with loss of autonomy and ego-death, two of the five most common fears cited by Karl Albrecht, PhD, in “The (Only) Five Fears We All Share.” This is why Deloris strikes fear in Mother Superior and why she is just as formidable an enemy to the head nun as the men of the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate were to Jesus and the early Christians.

One of the remarkably refreshing aspects of the musical Sister Act is that it is rather explicit about the fact that God is at work in the character of Deloris. Mother Superior’s struggle is to see Jesus in this unlikely and unwelcome intrusion into her life. Indeed, the pastor, Monsignor Howard tells her as much when he says, ‘God has answered your prayers. You just don’t like the answer.’ It is so easy to forget that every perceived enemy has been created by God for a specific purpose and worthy of our love and attention. The fear they strike in us is a challenge for us to realign our lives with God’s plan and move away from our own willful understanding of how things should be. If we truly have faith, we will remove the mental label of enemy from over the head of all those people in our life who challenge us to be unselfish and faithful; instead, we will be grateful for their role in helping us grow in humility and to live without fear. To miss Jesus in our enemies, to miss the hand of God in their existence, is to deny Jesus, who said “love your enemies” (Matthew 5: 43-48). We must not give in to fear and go down this path. In faith, we must surrender our fears to God and trust He will provide for and care for us. Eventually His wisdom will make sense to us and show the foolishness of our fear. “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known” (Matthew 10: 26).

The Gospel for Sunday, March 12th, 2017

The Gospel for March 12th, 2017: The Transfiguration

Matthew 17: 1-9

Reflection: Rest on Faith and Listen

The Transfiguration gospel speaks to my need for control and familiar routines. I have spent years trying to strategically respond to and ultimately control the circumstances of my life with a highly self-centered focus. When the unfamiliar comes, do I see God’s gentle hands at work? No, I am terrified by that which I don’t understand and desperately try to first, wrap my mind around it, and second wrap my arms around it to hold and control.

I see Peter react similarly at first in his experience with Jesus, James, and John high on the mountain. In this rarified air, Jesus reveals more of His divine presence than Peter is ready to understand based on his previous experience. Jesus’ appearance is magnified by a brilliant light, and He manifests His fulfillment of Old Testament law and prophecy by appearing to converse with Moses and Elijah (2-3).

Peter, in his disorientation, grasps on to this glimmer of recognition and tries to react with a familiar plan. He suggests to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (4). There is nothing wrong with this plan from a logical standpoint. It is rooted in tradition. His intentions are honorable and respectful. And yet, it is not God’s will that he try to tame this moment within the limits of tradition. Peter, James, and John are in the midst of genuine encounter with their God in the person of a fully divine Jesus the Son. If they watch and listen, they will grow closer to their salvation.

So God the Father intervenes and tells them, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to [H]im” (5). Now if the transfiguration of Jesus was overwhelming, a direct encounter with God in heaven is terrifying.  They “fell prostrate and were very much afraid” (7). In this moment of distress, Jesus comforts them, and when they look up, “[T]hey saw no one else but Jesus alone” (8).

Just like the Transfiguration, our encounters with God may manifest themselves as disorienting, frightening experiences, ones we mistakenly try to avoid or end quickly. If we let go of the natural desire to control these experiences—“to listen—“we too may hear God and be comforted by Jesus in those moments. May the deprivation of comforts of Lenten fasting and almsgiving open our hearts to such experiences, instead of  trying to fear and control them. It may be that deliverance from sin and death lies in resting on faith and listening for the voice of Jesus.