Welcome to CatholicPreacher! I use this page as a type of archive of my thoughts for my Sunday homily.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will not lose his reward."---Jesus  The Gospel of Mark

Thirst Slakers,  Children, and Prophets

The gospel reading in Mark unites two completely different events and renders a fascinating connection.  The first excerpt, or pericope, is Jesus reproving John for preventing a man who is not Jesus' disciple from casting out demons by declaring "...whoever is not against us is for us."  The second pericope is taken from the context of warning his disciples not to scandalize children (the pais), or "little ones."  By linking these two passages together, Mark gives the moral force of punishment for those who lead astray the least and last (those in need of healing) with the "outsider" exorcist.  Remember last week when I told you that the word for child and servant was the same?  Today, we get an explicit linking between the two.

The Old Testament scripture is also about cautioning against limiting God's work to only "approved" sources.  Moses remonstrates Joshua of Nun for complaining that there were two outside of God's chosen seventy elders who were prophesying (Eldad and Medad).  Moses asks, "Are you jealous for my sake?  Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets.  Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!"

These readings suggest quite clearly that the true authority does not reside in human institutions as such, but in what is done in God's name.  Gospel authority is doing the will of God.  Period.

How does one, then, discern who is working in God's name?

Paul helps us with recognizing the "fruits of the Spirit" in " "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."(Gal.5:22-23).  In a sense, when you recognize goodness, there God's Spirit is at work.  The other element besides the work is time.  Are these works true and good over time.  The ruse never lasts; the wolf must eventually shed its sheep's clothing to breathe.

At the conclusion of all the Eucharistic prayers, the priest declares "...from whom all good things come." God is not only the source of all that is good, but God is also perfect goodness in essence.  Much of what is good is apparent, but finding the Resurrection looking at the Cross can be a bit more difficult.  Again, time reveals all.  Given enough time, the Cross becomes the Resurrection.  How long do we wait?  How deep is your faith?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

"Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me."

The Spirituality of Imperfection

We continue this week with the second of three passages where Jesus describes his fate of persecution and suffering that awaits him.  Last week we took a look at the cross from a different angle, the "Tao" of the cross emphasizing sticking it out until the end with Jesus as being the cross of discipleshipThis week we look at the cross of servanthood and humility.

Mark's gospel resonates with the Suffering Servant of Second Isiah where biblical scholar Reginald Fuller notes that in verse 13 (not included in the reading), God's suffering servant is called pais, a term used to denote both servant and child; both were at the very bottom of power in society.  So then Jesus uses children as an example of the types of people whom the disciples must embrace (Jesus embraces the child).  For us, who exalt children, this may not seem unusual, but in Jesus' time such an act of concern for the least and last was profound. 

After being told to get in line last week, Jesus address the rest of the herd as they vie to be " the first disciple".  Jesus tells them to become servants (pais).  In a sense, they should compete to become last and least.

In Matthew, this discourse about humility and greatness occurs in chapter 18 and more fully develops the concept of "receiving these pais".  Jesus declares that beyond "receiving", the disciples, one must become as pais to enter the Kingdom.  Clearly Jesus' words speak as much against the triumphalism rampant in the church today as it did for Jesus' disciples in the First Century C.E.

Simon Tugwell writes eloquently about the need to not count the success of the church with the world's standards of power and domination.  In his book Ways of Imperfection, Tugwell writes 

"There is a kind of unsatisfactoriness written into her [the church’s] very constitution, because she is only a transitional organization, keeping people and preparing them for a new creation . . . .Christianity has to be disappointing, precisely because it is not a mechanism for accomplishing all our human ambitions and aspirations, it is a mechanism for subjecting all things to the will of God"(1)

 Inevitably, our human ambitions always creep into our communities, and into the church as a whole, but today's gospel reminds us how Jesus regarded such attitudes of a triumphalist church.  We need to become like pais, servant/children, who, as Tugwell has written, are not valued by Jesus for their innocence, but for their vulnerability.  They receive everything as gift.

Imagine the transformation from a church of control and power to church as vulnerable as the wounded Christ; the vulnerability that grows gratitude becomes the mechanism for being Good News.  When people turn away from the church because they can't abide such a powerless institution unable to be an extension of their need for power and control, we shouldn't change to accommodate that sinful need.  The church's real gift is its witness of the Suffering Servant of Christ---vulnerable and committed to distributing God's grace to the least and last, and inviting transformation into that life of vulnerability, compassion and gratitude.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it."
The "Tao" of Christianity
A former Jesuit friend of mine recently drew my attention to the idea that when Jesus spoke about taking up one's cross, he probably wasn't referring to the cross of crucifixion, but about the more common cruciform image of the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, tao. He combined this with another observation: Jesus' reference to Peter being evil was better understood in the Hebrew understanding of "obstacle" rather than "source of malicious intent".  The result was a fascinating homily.
The significance of the the letter tao for the Jews of Jesus' time was its symbolic suggestion of the end, the completeness of something. Taking up one's cross, then, could broadly suggest following Jesus completely, from alef (the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet) to tao.
Jesus' rebuke of Peter as being an obstacle, rather than evil incarnate, gives us a clearer picture of what Jesus was trying to teach.  After Peter drew Jesus aside, Jesus looked back to see the disciples to notice Peter standing in front of him, an out of place position for a disciple, a "follower".  Jesus then rebukes Peter by saying, in essence, "Get out of my way and follow me.  To be a true disciple is the commitment to follow me completely and not presume to lead me."

Most Christians will not die for their faith, but in some parts of the world, such martyrdom is very real and not a remote possibility.  For us, blessed with the safety of our nation to worship God as we see fit, we "lose" our life in the daily sacrifices to love.  The journey to the cross is always love, sacrificial love.  The tao cross reminds us that the nature of our love is being a disciple completely, following where the Spirit takes us.  Ours, then, is a sacrifice of our time, our ego, our comfort, for another.  Shouldering the Cross, is taking our commitment to its logical extreme of offering ourselves for others.

Jesus begins the gospel with the question: "Who do people say that I am ?" and quickly asks "Who do you say that I am ?"  The second question is our question.  We answer, as James suggests today, more in what we do than what we say.  Our faith is not an intellectual proposition, but a living faith, a faith of sacrificial love. 
At our confirmation, we publicly proclaimed our  faith.  Today, Jesus calls us to see this through to its completion in our answer to his question by living the answer to his question: "Who do you say to the world that I am ?"

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

"Ephphatha!"-- "Be Opened"

In today's gospel, Jesus opens the ears and restores the speech of one who is deaf. It is common for those who are not able to hear to also have a speech impediment. This relationship between speaking and hearing is no coincidence; speech is perfected not through the tongue, but through the ear.  Speaking is all about self-expression.  We use to both for healing and wounding,   praising and condemning.  It is a powerful tool in the hands of one who is adept in the art of speaking. Listening is associated with receptivity, with vulnerability and openness.  It can manifest as profound hospitality and docility to a teacher, but it can also be a profound failure to act in the face of injustice.  In the right combination of motive and skill, it is God's gift of deep abiding wisdom and healing.  Speaking and listening is our agent of true communion.

We shouldn't confuse listening with hearing, though.  Hearing is simply the physical act of perception, but not of response; listening is much deeper.  Listening presupposes attention.  When we listen, we are in communion with the speaker, opening ourselves to her or his word, allowing ourselves to have our consciousness shaped by the word spoken.  When we attend to the proclamation of Scripture, we are open both to the word (text) and Word (God's voice heard in Jesus and the Spirit).  It isn't the book that saves; it’s the words and Word attended to that becomes healing and life.

Today, the Letter of James tells us to listen to this:

"Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
Did not God choose those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?"

We hear the poor, but do we really listen?  What would it mean to “be opened” to poverty?  Does it mean we must become poor ourselves? (That's the scary part!).  What if we did become poor?  We could then not help the poor because we would be poor, as the reasoning goes.  But what constitutes "helping the poor"?  The poverty of the poor is much more than the absence of financial means; it is a loss of participation in making choices.  To hear the poor is to participate in their poverty at this level.  To give the poor hearing and a voice, one must first enter into communion, and listen.  Too often those who seek to "help" begin by imposing a solution rather than by entering into communion through listening.  The "poor" is not a single entity, but something in us all.  Can we hear our poverty?  Can we experience the beggar in ourselves, and are we ready to enter into communion with the literal beggar and listen before we speak?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

"Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile."

Purity is a word that few would consider pejorative; it sits alongside other words we associate with virtue such as honesty, courage, etc.  It is even more effective as a marketing tool to entice the consumer that you are getting 100% of what you are expecting.  The other word associated with this one is perfection. In a sense, purity is a type of perfection, and when you begin an endeavor, it common to hope for perfection.

It is this struggle to be perfect before God that the Jews turned to Torah (the first five books of the Bible).  These books contain a little over six-hundred laws that were composed between 600 and 400 BCE.  These laws were extended to interpretive texts that were designed to help people apply these laws to everyday life to keep better the original six-hundred or so laws in Torah.  By Jesus' time, some of these laws became impediments to the spirit that informed them.  Like so many good ideas, when people who have lost sight of why the law exists simply follow the law "because it is the law", the spirit suffers the ignorance of the law-abiding.

In today's gospel, those whose job it was to interpret and admonish adherence to the Law (Pharisees and scribes) were incensed that Jesus seemed oblivious to the demands of the Law.  He did not seem to chastise those among his disciples that did not wash before meals in violation, not of the law, per se (Leviticus 15:11), but explicitly from the Talmud, a group of interpretive statements to apply the Law.  When questioned as to why Jesus seemed such a scoff-law we get a two part answer:  You are like the hypocrites of whom Isaiah speaks "They honor me with their lips; but their hearts are far from me", and the spiritual insight that "Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile."

Jesus' statement in the fifth chapter of Matthew intends not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and now he seems clear as to how the Law is fulfilled: intention.

The other day, I had a rather distressing conversation with a man who insisted that undocumented immigrants should not be allowed to receive any public services such as education and a driver's license. He said this about the poor entering our southern border.  He felt quite confident that his view wasn't obstructed by racism, but that "it was the law".  He insisted that being acting unlawfully was the fundamental transgression that could only be remedied by these people returning to their native country, and following the procedure for properly entering the United States. He was so focused on the violation of the law that the broader question of justice seemed to him as a distraction from the core issue of these folks breaking the law.

The law serves justice, but so many today have it reversed thinking that if it is law it presupposes being just.  Needless to say, in recent memory laws that kept blacks segregated from society, women from voting, and prohibiting consenting adults who are gay from marrying are examples of laws most would find difficult to reconcile with concepts of justice.

Jesus understood this insidious tendency to focus on law rather than justice.This focus provides a false sense of comfort to those who don't want to deal with the messiness of justice and opt for the simplistic purity of law. For many Christians, the Bible has become the modern equivalent to the religious law--studied to discover transgression rather than compassion in the false promise that by doing so one may become perfect.  But perfection does not lie in the observance of the law, but in its fulfillment as Christ fulfilled it: love of God and love of neighbor--the two most important commandments according to Jesus. 

The standard of civil justice for us as Americans is the Constitution, and the standard for Christian justice is love.  The Good News must be received and dispensed from the heart.  Reading the scripture to discover "what to do" is ignorant. We read scripture to become more like Christ.  It isn't so much searching the Scriptures to see "what would Jesus do" as much as it is searching scripture to see "what Jesus did".  Holy scripture doesn't interpret itself, but only comes to life in the circumcised heart of someone who loves aided by the Spirit.