Monday, July 28, 2014

Rotten Loincloths

So this might be a PG-13 post...

If you don't normally check out the daily lectionary readings, I highly recommend you read today's reading from Jeremiah, where God compares Israel to rotten and holey (not holy) underwear. It's not an image usually found in holy literature. The Old Testament prophets, the ones who delivered God's message to Israel, were often called to embody the message with their lives, and not just speak it with words. So Jeremiah today is told to let a loincloth rot in the desert and then show it to the people to show that they are as useless as a rotten loincloth. Jeremiah was a prophet who warned Israel what was coming if they did not repent of their ways, especially the worship of the false god Baal and the child sacrifice, by means of a burnt offering, that was a part of that worship (Jer 19:5). If they did not stop separating themselves from the Lord by these actions, then the Lord would separate himself from them.

My one thought on ancient Israel's problem: Let's not be scandalized that the ancient Jewish people would turn from the Lord and burn their children alive as an offering to false gods if we're not going to be equally scandalized that the most civilized country in the world would rip apart its children limb from fragile limb with a vacuum, as an offering at it's own altar of pleasure or convenience. Let's not condemn the atrocities of past civilizations if we're not going to fight the atrocities of our own society.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Things that Pass and Endure

Collect of the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time:

O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

In today's gospel, Jesus is still in parable mode. For the last several weeks we have gotten an uninterrupted discourse from Jesus. First it was the parable of the sower, and then it was the parable of the wheat and weeds, the mustard seed, and the leavened bread. Now we get three more parables to explain to use what the kingdom of heaven is like. Last week, with the parable of the wheat and weeds, we learned that when Jesus says the kingdom of heaven he is referring to the Church he will establish, and not the pearly gates and streets-paved-with-gold, because he says the kingdom of heaven is like wheat and weeds, good and bad, mixed together.

Some missals have beautiful art throughout
Today we hear about what it is worth doing to obtain this Church, this kingdom of heaven. Jesus gives us two examples of people who would sacrifice everything to have that one thing. According to Jesus, no price is too high to find this kingdom. And to understand this, I want to look at the Collect from this Mass. Now, what is the Collect? It's the prayer I say from the presider's chair near the beginning of mass, when I say "Let us pray." I open this mysterious red book (called the Missal) to a mysterious page, and then I say a short, concise prayer. This missal actually contains all the prayers for celebrating mass throughout the whole year, the Eucharistic prayers, the special seasons like Easter and Christmas, and most of what you need for Mass. Most of these Collects are ancient prayers, and what we are using here is a translation from the original Latin version.

[personal opinion follows; to avoid, skip to the next paragraph :)] As an aside, when we started using a new translation a couple years ago, for many of us it became more difficult to listen to these prayers because the language became loftier, more ornate and fancier. That is primarily because we want to offer to God the best of what we have. When we pray as a community with words, we want to offer our best and most beautiful of words. We want to offer our Shakespeare, not our research papers. The new prayers do that, they speak for us with words more beautiful than most of us could compose on our own. The flip side is that they require us to pay closer attention. Not that the prayers of a child aren't beautiful, or that our own bumbling private prayers aren't beautiful to God, but the prayer of the whole Church requires beauty of a different kind.

So I want to look closely at today's Collect and see how we can apply it to Jesus' parables about the kingdom of heaven. The first part of the Collect is a salutation like the opening of a letter, it says who the prayer is to, except it's expanded to also talk about what God is like. It would be like opening a letter with "O God, coolest guy I know," except this opens with "O God, protector of those who hope in you, without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy." That's far more beautiful than "O God, coolest guy I know" and it's beneficial to us, the ones praying it, because it helps us to call to mind that God is the source of all our protection, he is the only foundation on which we can base our lives, and he is the source of all holiness. Now, each of those is a homily in themselves, and we haven't even gotten to the actual request of this prayer yet, that's just the greeting.

The first of our requests in the prayer is what comes next. "Bestow in abundance your mercy upon us." We should always be asking for mercy, especially in Confession, because we know that we are sinners. But the part that I really want to talk about, the part that will help illuminate this gospel passage, is what comes next: "...[G]rant that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure." We want God to show us how to use the good things of this world that pass away so that we can hold fast to things that last forever. God has given us the world, and the world is fundamentally a good place because God made it, but the world is passing away. So we are to use the good things of this world to help us find God, and we need to rid ourselves of them inasmuch as they don't help us to find God.

The merchant seeking the pearls was quite happy with his money and his mediocre pearls, until he found that one pearl, that pearl of great price, and then his money, his belongings, his other mediocre pearls, all seemed worthless. He got rid of them all in order to have this one pearl. That pearl of great price represents the kingdom of heaven. This merchant figured out how to appropriately use the goods of this world. As our prayer says, he knew how to "use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure." And if you need another model, Mary is an excellent model and help in learning how to focus on something that endures.

My friends, this is what we learn from this gospel and from this Collect. The world is good and everything in it is fundamentally good, and God can be found in the world. But the devil is at work in the world too. There will come a point when we have to tear our eyes away from the beauty of creation to focus on the Creator. We have to sell all we own to buy that field, or that pearl of great price. There is danger if we don't. The danger is that if I value the passing things of this world more than those things that endure, I will pass away with them when they go.

So what passes away, and what endures? Love endures. And as long as this world endures, the Eucharist too will endure. Jobs, houses, cars, they're useful, even important, for a time, but they pass away. Blessedly, bills and deadlines pass away too. Most of the things we build our identity on pass away. Also, whenever we fight with the ones we love, most of the things we fight over, that seem so important now, will pass away too. But love endures. So build your life around the ones you love, around God, Church, family, and friends. Let go of the things that pass away, and hold fast to the things that ever endure.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Kingdom of Heaven

What do we hear in the gospel today? "The kingdom of heaven is like this, the kingdom of heaven is like that." Jesus tells us a lot about what the kingdom of heaven is like, without actually telling us what the kingdom of heaven is. But if he's going to talk about it so much, then it would be good for us to get a really good idea about what the kingdom of heaven is. And the kingdom of heaven is, to put it simply, the Church. When we hear the term "kingdom of heaven" we maybe think about heaven in the normal sense, the place we hope to go after we die. But in this first parable, Jesus explains that the kingdom of heaven is like wheat and weeds, the good and the bad, mixed into the same field. Now, the cloudy heaven won't be a mixture of good and bad, it will be all good. But the Church here on this earth is does indeed have the good and bad mixed together, and only at the end of time will it be sorted out.

If we look at the other two parables, then we can see even more how the kingdom of heaven that Jesus talks about is the Church. The mustard seed and the yeast each symbolize tiny beginnings that end with huge results. The seed grows into a huge bush and just a little yeast causes a whole batch of dough to rise. Similarly, the Church that Christ established in a backwater corner of the Roman Empire has now reached every corner of the globe. Tiny beginnings lead to huge endings.

And yet, just like last week, Jesus isn't giving the explanation to everyone, but rather just to his disciples. Last week we heard the parable of the sower and the seed, where Jesus gave the parable to the crowds, but then the explanation about what each piece of the parable meant he gave only to the disciples. And he does the same thing today: he gives the parable of the wheat and the weeds to everyone, and then he actually dismisses them, he sends them away, before giving the explanation of the parable to the disciple. Last week we learned that he does this because the crowds listen but do not understand, so instead of focusing too much on them he is giving specialized, one-on-one instruction to his disciples so that they will be equipped to keep preaching about the kingdom of heaven after he is gone. Jesus is laying the groundwork for the kingdom of heaven.

Center of the visible Church, on the bones of St. Peter
Now, there's a big picture lesson to learn from this, and there's a personal lesson to learn as well. The big picture lesson is that this Church, this one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, this kingdom of heaven, this thing that grew from a tiny seed, is the Church that Jesus himself established. He established just one Church on his apostles, and he wants all people to be a part of this Church. He didn't establish several churches and say "Hey, go shopping for the one that feels right for you." He established one Church and said "The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it."

Vatican II summarized this teaching well.  In the document titled Lumen Gentium, which is about the Church and what she is, we find: "This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd...constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure (Lumen Gentium 8)." Christ established the Church, and he wants all people to be in the Church, and yet, he can work outside it. So we have to profess that Christ wants all people in this Church, and we have to acknowledge where we see Christ working even outside of it.

So, this Church is a mixture of sinners and saints, of wheat and weeds, and I'm grateful for it. If it were a Church of just saints, then there wouldn't be room for me. But as long as the wheat and the weeds are allowed to grow together until the harvest, then this Church can accommodate even a sinner like me.

And this knowledge that Jesus wants all people to be a part of this Church is not a weapon that we use to go out and conquer the world, we don't beat people over the head with this. But rather, this Church that we are a part of is a gift that God has given to us that we must share with the world. The Catholic Church is a gift to be shared with the world, not a weapon to be used to conquer the world.

Even the Pope goes to Confession
So that's the big picture lesson of these parables, that Jesus himself established this Church and that he wants all people to be a part of it. The personal lesson of these parables, the other thing to notice, is how God accomplishes this all-inclusive goal. The personal lesson is that God likes to work quietly. Jesus uses these images of farming and slow growth to demonstrate that God is going to accomplish his goal of a universal, all-encompassing Church by quiet, almost imperceptible growth. Sometimes there's a growth spurt, sometimes there's a St. Augustine conversion, but more often than not, God works to convert a heart to himself by slow and quiet means. He likes to work through the regular stuff: through hard work and regular prayer and coming to church even when you don't feel like it. So in order for God to convert your heart, you have to be receptive. You have to let him do it. You have to bring him all your problems, especially in Confession and in the Eucharist, and you have to let him fix them. You can't try to fix yourself and then bring Jesus a heart that is already holy, only he can make you holy. That requires humility and receptivity.

And to slowly convert the nations, Jesus likes to work through each one of us. This is where we take what we receive from Jesus at this Eucharist and bring it to the world. The love that we experience from Jesus, he wants to give to the world through each one of us. So we have to love the world with the love of Christ. I don't love the world with my own love, because my own love is weak and prone to fail, but I let Christ love the world through me.

Slowly, almost noticeably, through humbly receiving the love of Christ and then actively taking it to the world, we can help the kingdom of heaven grow here in our world.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Hearing the Parables

I love this Gospel, because Jesus sort of takes away the homily by explaining himself what the whole parable means. On the one hand, Jesus took all the best preaching material already when he explained this parable, but on the other hand it's nice when you have it on Jesus' authority that this is what a parable means, and you don't have to take it on the authority of some preacher. So we need to look at two things today: Why use parables at all, and what can we learn from this parable.

Van Gogh's The Sower
Why did Jesus use parables at all? What was the point of them? They're not a simple way of making a point, we can see that from the fact that the disciples had to pull him aside and say "Hey, what's the deal with all the parables?" The disciples ask a fair question. If this story of a sower has hidden meanings that need explanation, then why not just tell the people straightforward what they need to know?

Parables are not an easy way of making a point. They can be interpreted and misinterpreted, and sometimes, like today Jesus himself has to set the record straight about what they mean. So far in Matthew's gospel, Jesus has been a bit more straightforward in his teaching style. With lessons like the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, there is no ambiguity about what Jesus means. The Beatitudes are a simple way of making a point. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek. That easy to understand. But the parables have hidden layers of meaning. So why use them? Speaking at length in parables is a new thing in the story, and the disciples picked up on this, so they asked him today why he was teaching in parables. When they asked him, he said "Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted." That sounds harsh, so we have to understand what has been happening so far in the story.

The chapters right before this show how the "old Israel," the Pharisees and the leadership of Israel, and even whole towns, had rejected Jesus. They didn't want what he offered. So parables are a form of judgment on the old Israel. He is declaring them spiritually bankrupt because they did not hear and accept his words. What Jesus is doing in these parables then, at least in Matthew's gospel and Matthew's view of the world, is creating a new Israel. Rather than dealing with the old Israel, Jesus is constituting a new Israel around his disciples, around those who hear the words of Jesus and understand them. This new Israel is going to be the Church he will establish. This will culminate in Peter's declaration that Jesus is the Christ, and Jesus' declaration that Peter will be the rock of his new church. We won't hear that until late August, so keep coming back.

So when we understand that Jesus is forming a new people here, a people who hear and understand his word, then his answer to the disciples seems less harsh. When the disciples ask him why he uses parables, and he says to them "Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted" we understand that because you hear and understand my words, you get to know about these deep mysteries, but they don't, because they don't hear me. The crowds at this point in Matthew's story represent those who do not hear Jesus, so by means of parables we see Jesus turning inward, shifting his focus from the wider world to just those who will accept his word. He is shifting from the whole world out there to focus on you and on me.

Knowing that the parables are Jesus' way of shifting the focus of his ministry to us, to his disciples, what do we do with a parable like this? Jesus gives us the answer, in the parable and then in the explanation. Our job is to make ourselves the fertile ground that can accept Jesus. We can't just accept his words, he is not just a moral teacher with some cool ideas. We have to accept his very self into our lives. When we look at the analogies that Jesus gave of the path, the rocky ground, the weedy ground, and the good ground, one of these already typifies your life.

So examine your life, does the Word of God bear fruit in your life? And I know what you're thinking: "I don't know." What should it look like if God's word is bearing fruit in my life? I think that means that your life is primarily characterized by the values of faith, hope and love. It doesn't mean that life is always happy or easy, we don't preach the gospel of the happy-go-lucky or the gospel of easy street, we preach the gospel of the Crucified Lord. So through the crosses of this life, can you identify yourself as a faithful person, as a hopeful person, as a loving person? When the sower sows the seed, if the ground it finds is receptive, not hard, not rocky, not thorny, then faith, hope, and love will grow there.

It's kind of a self-perpetuating process. If I have faith, hope, and love in my heart, then when I receive God's word I will increase in faith, hope and love. So how do I start? How do I make myself receptive to this word? How do I prepare my heart for this word to take root? Well, that's kind of a trick question because I can't. God has to get the ball rolling. The sower himself has to prepare my heart. So I have to ask Jesus to come into my heart and make it receptive to his word, and I have to pray for the humility to let him work in my heart. So examine your heart and ask the Lord to make it a receptive heart. Ask the Lord to make it a heart that bears fruit a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Lowly vs. the Learned

This was the first weekend at my new parish, Holy Name in Sheridan, Wyoming, and it was a cool gospel to get to preach on. What we see in today's gospel reading is a rare thing, because we are privileged to listen in on a private prayer between Jesus and his Father. This only happens two other times in Matthew's gospel: in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross. So when an event like this has such significant parallel events in the gospel, we need to pay attention. The first thing we need to understand is the context in which Jesus offers this beautiful prayer. Just before this, we read about the people and the various cities that have rejected Jesus, those who have said "We don't want what you have to offer." And it is in this context, immediately on the heels of this rejection, that Jesus offers this prayer to the Father.

And what he has to say in this prayer should bring great hope to us. In this prayer, we learn how the gospel that Jesus brings is not a gospel of reassurance for the big, the mighty, the powerful, but is rather a gospel of hope for the little, the lowly, and the humble. When Jesus says "these things" ("You have hidden these things from the wise and the learned," and "All things have been handed over to me by my Father"), he seems to be referring to the miracles he has already performed, which are signs of his authority, and to identity of Sonship, which speaks to his identity as God. These things, the authority and identity of Jesus, the wise cannot understand because God has given them to the lowly.

God has always had a special place for the humble. Abraham was a 75 year old man when God called him to travel to the Promised Land. Israel was an enslaved people in Egypt when God called them to be a great nation. Peter was a backcountry fisherman with a propensity for sticking his foot in his mouth when Jesus made him the rock of his new Church. What is it about the little ones that God finds so irresistible? I think it is that the little ones, lowly, the humble, recognize more readily their relation to God than the wise and the learned do. The little ones can look at what God has to offer and say "I do want what you have to offer. I need what you have to offer." But the wise and the learned often get confused about their relation with God. The little ones recognize more easily that God is everything and I am nothing. The wise and the learned often do not depend on God as readily. Not that wisdom and learning are a bad thing (kids, you still have to go to school), but they are not the source of our salvation. Dependence on God is.

But in case Jesus' prayer to the Father left any doubt about how they feel about the wise versus the little ones, in the second half of this gospel passage Jesus shifts from speaking to his Father to speaking to you and me, his disciples. "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart." If we get our wisdom from Jesus, rather than from the world, then he will teach us what it means and what it looks like to be meek and humble of heart. He says his yoke is easy, and his burden light. He doesn't say there won't be a yoke or a burden, but he says they will be manageable, if we go to him. If we try to do this Christian thing on our own, if we try to "love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves" without Christ, we will find that to be an impossibly heavy burden.

So the thing to keep in mind as we try to live the Christian life, as we try to be disciples of Christ, is that it fundamentally means relying on Christ. Often we try to live as Jesus taught, but we try to live it on our own, without relying on Jesus, and then the yoke is not easy, and the burden is not light. We think "If I work really hard, I can be a good Christian." But I can't get there on my own. On the other hand, if we take his teachings and his help to live those teachings, through constant prayer, through recourse to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and confession, then we find that that the yoke does start to be come easier, and the burden is lighter.

Relying on Christ doesn't make the difficulties of being a Christian or all the other difficulties of this life go away, it just means that Jesus is with us through them, and that is powerful indeed. So find that one situation in your life, whether it's at work or at home or wherever, that you've been trying to manage on your own, and when you go to the altar here, surrender it to him. Even if it's just for a little bit while you're at church, hand it to Jesus and let him make your burden a little bit lighter.