Sunday, September 28, 2014

Kenosis or Hell

The Context

This weekend I got to be the substitute priest in Kemmerer, Wyoming. Those poor people didn't know what was coming, as this weekend's homily involved a bit of Greek and a bit of talk about hell. Perhaps not the best way to ingratiate yourself with new people. I probably won't be invited back (kidding of course, they were very kind to me). Anyway, here's the homily (and here are the readings, if you need a reminder): I want to look at the context of the gospel reading, and then that will help us understand the gospel, and then the gospel will lead us into the second reading where there is a very important lesson for us. So first the gospel context. And I want to understand the context and what came just before this because there is a lot of tension here, but we might miss it if we don't have context. So the day before was Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem, where the people shouted "Hosanna to the Son of David," and they covered the road with their cloaks and palm branches as he rode in on a donkey. That made the chief priests quite uneasy.

Then, as soon as he got into Jerusalem, he went straight to the temple and drove out the money changers. Now, if you were a good Jew at this point, you knew that it was the duty of all Jews to go to the temple to offer animal sacrifice. But the authorities had decided that the only animals you could use for sacrifice were animals bought at the temple. And you could only buy those animals with special temple currency. So you had to exchange your own currency for temple currency, and then buy a temple animal, all just to perform your religious duty. A lot of people were getting very rich just so you could do your duty to God. Jesus destroyed all of this, and upset all the chief priests and elders in the process.

So Jesus is telling this parable the day after all that happened, and he addresses it specifically to the chief priests and elders. So we can't see this episode as just Jesus telling an interesting story, we have to see this short parable as Jesus going toe-to-toe with the people who will pay to have him executed in a matter of days.

Knowing all that, let's look at the gospel now. What Jesus is doing here is convicting those Jewish authorities who rejected him. They are like the second son who said they would work for the father and then didn't go. The Jewish authorities said yes to God initially, they became the top dogs of their religion, but they didn't do as God asked because they didn't accept Jesus, God's final and greatest Word to his people. On the other hand, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the dregs of Jewish society, they did say no to God in the beginning by their manner of life, but then they did the Father's will by accepting Jesus. This parable is a harsh judgment of the Jewish authorities because they had already rejected John the Baptist, and now they were rejecting Jesus. And now Jesus is basically telling the Pharisees that everyone you rejected is marching right into heaven before you, because in rejecting them, you rejected God.

Now Jesus knew what he was doing in going up against the authorities. He knew he was playing with fire, but he was completely in control the whole time. But why would he do this? Why would he pursue this course so persistently when he could see how it would end. He did it because this is how he would humble himself, and consequentially be exalted. This was how he would humble himself. And this issue of humbling himself is what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Philippians today.

I was very excited when I saw this second reading, because I think that the second half of this reading is one of the coolest things that Paul wrote. It's actually an ancient hymn, we've always called it the kenotic hymn, because the Greek word kenosis means emptying or self-emptying. This hymn is about how Christ emptied himself of everything, and thus was exalted above all of creation, so I want to look closely at this hymn and see what it means for us. The first line of the hymn is "Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped, rather he emptied himself." He emptied himself of his divinity, of the appearance of God, and he humbled himself. When we consider Jesus' original nature as the Second Person of the Trinity, coeternal with the Father, part of the Trinity that existed before all of creation, we should realize that humbling himself so as to become a human being, a body of flesh and blood that is subject to decay and death, is really hitting rock bottom. But then, he didn't just hit rock bottom, he started digging, because he allowed himself to actually be killed, and he died the humiliating death of a slave. Crucifixion wasn't intended as just an execution, it was intended also as a humiliation and a complete mockery of the one who was crucified. Jesus allowed this to happen to himself. Jesus hanging on the cross is literally the image of a man who has nothing left, he has completely emptied himself.

But then, Paul goes on to tell us what happened because Jesus allowed this to happen to himself: "Because of this, God greatly exalted him." Because of Jesus's obedience, humiliation, and death, he was exalted higher than the heavens. Because of Jesus' self-emptying, Paul tells us that the Father bestowed on him the name above every other name. What is this name? It's not the name "Jesus," he's had that name since birth. Name can also mean title, so what name did Father bestow on Jesus? Watch carefully how the hymn builds towards it: all knees should bend at this name, and not just on earth, but in heaven and hell as well. That encompasses all of creation, both the visible and the invisible world. There is nothing exempt from paying homage to this name. Every tongue most confess this name. And then Paul gives it to you: Jesus Christ is Lord. The title that Jesus has received is Lord. But not at the expense of God the Father's Lordship, Paul reassures us, but to his glory.

The ruins of Philippi today

Why does all this emptying and exaltation matter for us? Because Jesus is the perfect model of self-emptying. Like him, we have to empty ourselves so that we can be fill with Christ. Paul goes through this long explanation of emptying and exaltation because in the culture of Philippi, not totally unlike our own, social status, pecking order, personal accomplishment and contribution were of utmost importance, they were the source of your worth to the society. But Paul wants to suggest a different way. He wants to suggest that self-emptying, so as to raised up by God, are actually the source of your worth.

Now, this gets down to an important truth about our journey from here to Heaven. The only things that exist in Heaven are things that are of God, and so in order to enter heaven you have to empty yourself of everything that is not of God. All hatred, anger, deceit, grudges, jealousy, these sorts of things will not exist in Heaven, so we have to rid ourselves of them. I want to emphasize: this is not an option. In order to enter Heaven, you will be purified of these things, either in this life or in the next, in Purgatory. And if you choose to cling to these things at the expense of your relationship with God, then hell is a very real possibility. But the more we rid ourselves of these ungodly things in this life, the quicker we will enter Heaven after our death.

And Jesus wants to help you with this, that's why he gave us the beautiful sacrament of Confession. In Confession Jesus helps us get rid of these things that constantly drag us away from him. I know that many of us get frustrated with Confession because we feel like we're always bringing the same old sins. But it's a slow purification at work. In Confession, Jesus helps us to empty ourselves of everything that is not of him, of everything that has no place in Heaven, so that even now we are preparing to enter eternal life with him. So don't be afraid of Confession, don't be afraid of the self-emptying that's involved. Because the more we empty ourselves of sin and fill ourselves with God, the closer we grow to him in this life and prepare to be united to him in the next.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Very Un-Fun Parable

The parable of the workers

We have today one of those parables we've been hearing our whole life. The landowner goes out and hires laborers at dawn, 9 am, noon, 3 pm, and 5 pm, and then when the workday ends at 6 pm, the laborers come forward to receive their wages, and the landowner, being a good Jew, pays them daily because that's what the Book of Deuteronomy says to do (Deuteronomy 24:14-15 if you're interested). But the landowner pays all the of his laborers the same wage, regardless of how long they worked! This parable is usually seen as an analogy about who gets to heaven, and how those who follow God their whole life and those who appeal to his mercy at the end of life receive the same reward. So we need to examine the parable from both sides of the fence today. We need to look closely at the landowner, and we need to look closely at the laborers.

First let's look at the landowner, because we like to get caught up in the various laborers and how they were each paid and how that strikes us as unfair. And we will deal with those questions. But first we have to take the parable on its own terms. Because when we take the parable on our terms, we get preoccupied with how the laborers felt they were treated unfairly, but when we read the parable from the parable's perspective, we see that the landowner is the central character of the parable, not the laborers, and so if we're going to learn the primary lesson the parable wants to teach us, we have to look at him. And if the landowner is an analogy for God, then what emerges is a lesson on justice and mercy. It is justice that the twelve-hour laborers receive the usual daily wage, whereas it is pure mercy that the one-hour laborers also received the usual daily wage.

But we do need to focus on the workers, too. Now, I could beat around the bush and say that Jesus, in today's parable, is teaching us to not worry about what others have and to just be content with what you have. And that's true, that is part of what Jesus is teaching us.

But come on, if we're going to be really honest then one way to understand what Jesus is doing in this parable is handing us this big ball of obnoxiousness, at least what we think is obnoxiousness, and saying "Deal with it." He's telling us that this landowner, who seems to have no regard for justice as you and I understand it, is what the kingdom of heaven is like; this is what God is like. Jesus seems to tell us this, and then he offers no words of consolation but rather throws my injured sense of justice back in my face with this last line of "Are you envious because I am generous?" This is not a fun parable.

When we consider the laborers, why do we find this parable so obnoxious? I think we find this parable difficult to deal with because we often put ourselves in the position of the laborers who bore the day's burden and the heat. If this parable is about who gets to go to heaven, then we like to see ourselves as the hard-working laborers. After all, here we are in Church on a Sunday morning, we try to follow God's commandments, we try to treat others as we want to be treated, and we're trying to do this our whole life. And yet, if someone repents and turns to God at the very end of their life, they get the same reward we do. Where's the justice in that?

The problem with this perspective is precisely that I like to see myself as the worker who bore the day's burden and heat, when in fact I'm not even the worker who showed up at 5 pm. When it comes to my spiritual journey and my walk with God, I'm more like the worker who came screaming at five minutes to quitting time, trying to act like I'd been there all along. I suspect that many of you might be in the same position. So if we're looking at categories of justice or mercy, then I appeal to mercy every time, because there is no way that out of justice I deserve heaven.

When I start to recognize which laborer I really am, then I realize that the actions of the landowner are not unjust or unfair like we normally think of them, they just go beyond these categories into the realm of mercy. Hopefully we understand a little better now that this parable is much more about mercy than it is about fairness. The point of the parable is not whether God is fair to this person or that person, but that he treats each person with mercy.

And in this regard, St Paul's letter to the Philippians can help us. We heard from Paul today, "For to me, life is Christ, and death is gain." Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote this letter. He was starting to see that he probably wasn't going to get out of there alive, so he was wrote this letter to his friends in Philippi and he was reflecting on the big things of life. And the biggest thing to Paul was his relationship with Jesus Christ. He said "For to me life is Christ." Life to Paul is being connected to Jesus, and to take away that relationship would be worse than death for Paul. Consequently, he doesn't care much whether he lives or dies as an outcome of this prison sentence, he just knows it would be better for his friends if he were to go on living. But the most important thing to Paul, more important than life or death, is being connected with Jesus Christ.

So the takeaway from all this is simple: don't pretend to be the laborer who worked the full day, but rather assume that you're the one who showed up at five and only worked for an hour. Appeal to God's mercy, go to Confession. Make sure that being connected to Jesus is the most important thing in your life so that you can say with Paul "To me life is Christ, and death is gain."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Men and angels worship Christ on the Cross
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This is a major feast in the east and the west, and it's one of the feasts where we actually celebrate it on the same day. But why is this feast a big deal, and why do we get such strange readings on this feast day? For that we, need to understand exactly what the Cross has meant before and still means to us today. There are records of really ancient crucifixions, well before Jesus' time, but it was the Romans who used it a lot and became very efficient at it. Crucifixion was designed to exact the most pain and the most humiliation possible. It was almost never used for the citizens of the Roman empire. It was used for slaves, rebels, revolutionaries, and others who threatened the Empire, and it was always done publicly as a warning to others: "Don't do what this guy did." It was intended to frighten and to keep a conquered population in check.

So how do we go from fearing that horrendous form of torture and execution to celebrating it, to putting it up in our churches and homes and wearing it around our necks? What happened? Jesus Christ happened. Let's think about what Jesus did. Jesus came to a humiliated Jewish people in a land overrun by Roman conquerors, and he was tortured, and humiliated, and killed, because the authorities thought he was some sort of revolutionary. And he was a revolutionary, but not like they thought. Everyone thought he came to free the Jews from slavery, and he did, but not like they thought. Because to Jesus and to his Father, being in bondage to the Romans was a very small matter compared to the bondage of sin that had held humanity captive since Adam. Jesus transformed this symbol of oppression into a symbol of freedom, because he transformed death into life.

But how did Jesus transform death into life? Well, by his Resurrection, most obviously, but we need to look closer at our readings to understand Jesus' stunning actions. This first reading, where snakes attack the Israelites in the desert, is kind of a strange one, but helpful for us to understand how Jesus used the cross to bring good. This story takes place while the Israelites are wandering in the desert for forty years before they can enter the Promised Land, and the Israelites, despite having a sea parted for them, despite being fed every day with bread from heaven, they complained. They in fact cursed the heavenly food, calling it "wretched," and they wished to be back in Egypt. So God gave them what they wanted, he sent a bit of Egypt their way in the form of snakes. They quickly realized their mistake and repented, and then the thing that healed them was looking at the bronze serpent with faith. Here we need to carefully understand how God operates in order to understand the cross. Why a bronze serpent? Why not a bronze dove or something that doesn't have such a negative connotation in the Judaic tradition? The answer, I think, is that the cure needed to be similar to the disease, the remedy needed to be like the problem. Not identical, but similar. So when the problem was deadly serpents, the solution was not another deadly serpent, something identical, or a dove, something totally different, but something similar, a bronze serpent. That way, those who are painfully familiar with the disease, whether it be a snakebite or sin, can recognize the solution when it comes along, when they see it with the eyes of faith.

Moses and the bronze serpent
This understanding, that God wants the remedy to look like the problem, helps us to understand the mystery of the cross, and why we should exult in it. The problem for humanity since the first days was sin and death, and as a result of sin and death, our eyes were dimmed and we couldn't see the glory for which we were created. Because of disobedience, sin and death have held humanity in bondage since Adam and Eve. So Jesus is the solution, because he is human like us, but he is not identical to us, because he is sinless. He died like us, he even died the humiliating death of a slave and an outcast, but unlike us, death couldn't hold him. Now, if we look on his cross with faith, then we can share in the life he gave by his death and resurrection.

We have to understand that Jesus didn't just die on a cross, he offered himself as a sacrifice for sins. We say that Jesus was both priest and victim. He fulfilled the Old Testament priesthood by offering a sacrifice for sins, and he fulfilled the Old Testament sacrifices by being the perfect sacrifice for sins. What we do in this Mass continues this sacrifice throughout the world, when we offer bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of Jesus. And incense helps to prepare the gifts for sacrifice. Incense is an ancient symbol used to bless and venerate our offerings. It is a symbol of our prayers, and it used on gifts prepared for sacrifice. So we incense the bread and wine that we will offer, we incense me, the priest, who stands as Jesus as both priest and victim, and we incense you the congregation, because you should sacrifice yourselves to God in a very real way during the Mass. We use incense because incense prepares a gift for sacrifice.

But Jesus, through his cross, didn't conquer only sin and death, he conquered the whole world. Christianity broke upon the ancient world like a tidal wave. Because Jesus died the death of a slave and then overcame it, those who were lowly in the world recognized a kindred spirit, one in whom they could place their hope, trust, and faith. Those who were in power recognized in Jesus and his followers a threat to their way of life and sought to eradicate it, and so countless followers of Jesus in the Roman Empire and beyond followed him all the way into death.

And yet, the remedy to sin that Jesus provided was too powerful for his enemies to stop, it couldn't help but gain momentum. Within three hundred years the Roman Emperor was converted and Christianity was legalized, and within 400 years Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This thing couldn't be stopped. And then, almost as a proof of the power of Christ's Church, this Church took over the Latin language, the language of the conquering Empire, and continued to use it long after that Empire was dead and gone. Seven years ago today, a decree from Pope Benedict XVI went into effect which expanded permission to use the Latin Mass that was in use before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

We do these things, the Latin, the chanting, the incense, and so forth, to glory in the cross of Jesus, to claim as our own this instrument of slavery that brought freedom, this instrument of death that brought life, because we recognize the remedy is like the cure. But more importantly, we glory in the man that hung upon it, because Jesus was a man like us, but not just a man like us. He is also the God who loves us, the God who offered himself as victim for our sins, the God who conquered death so that we could share eternal life with him.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Correcting the Sinner

Ezekiel in the Sistine Chapel

These readings give us some basic rules for how to live the Christian life. Being a Christian is easy in theory, but very difficult in practice. Being a Christian is more than just being a nice guy, it requires us to have a deep and abiding care and concern for our brothers and sisters, especially those in sin. It's this concern for the sinner that we need to examine today. So we're going to look first at the first reading, then we're going to look at the gospel, then we'll look briefly at the second reading.

In our first reading, from the book of the prophet Ezekiel, God is laying out for Ezekiel his responsibilities to the community. Ezekiel was another of the Old Testament prophets sent to warn Israel away from their sins. He calls Ezekiel to be a sort of watchman for the community, to call people away from their sins when he sees it, because God says to Ezekiel, "You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me."

And God doesn't just put Ezekiel in this position of watchman, but he also attaches serious consequences to it, because he goes on to tell Ezekiel, "If I tell the wicked, 'O wicked one, you shall surely die,' and you do do not speak out dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death." We have to make sure not to misunderstand God here. When God tells the wicked "You shall surely die," he is not saying "I'm going to kill you." Rather, he is trying to warn them of the natural consequences of their actions. It's like if I tell you not to touch the stove because you'll get burned. I'm not saying "I'm going to burn you," but rather you're just warning them of the natural consequences of their actions. Similarly, when God tells us that the consequence of sin is death, he's warning us of natural consequences, not punitive ones.

Ezekiel is not allowed to be indifferent to the sins of his brother, and neither are we. If we turn our attention to the Gospel, Jesus too is trying to make us responsible for our brothers and sisters. In this section of Matthew's gospel, Jesus is giving some specialized instructions to his disciples on how they're supposed to operate as a Church before he goes into Jerusalem to suffer his Passion. So here, in the midst of giving important instructions about how we are to seek the lost sheep and how we are supposed to forgive without limit, he gives very pragmatic instructions on how to deal with erring members of our Church. First, you correct him in private, then you bring along some witnesses, then you bring it before the whole Church.

Now, Jesus is talking about big sins, not little annoyances. He's not instructing us along this path for when the person behind you is breathing too loud in church, but rather when you see that your fellow Christian is starting to turn away from God by his actions, when through their actions they are separating themselves from God and his Church. That's when we call to correction. But this sort of correction requires that we see each other at church as true brothers and sisters, and not just people I sit next to every Sunday and never talk to. We have to care about each other, we have to be invested in each other, and then we are in a position to call to correction if the need arises. Cain's infamous defense of "Am I my brother's keeper?" didn't cut it in the beginning, and it doesn't cut it now, because yes, you are your brother's keeper!

But what happens if, after being called to correction, our brother or sister still doesn't return to the right path? Jesus allows for this very unfortunate course of action, and he instructs us to "treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector." His initial meaning is clear: treat him as one outside of your intimate group, because by his actions he has separated himself from your group. That's plain enough, but let's look deeper. How does Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? A couple weeks ago we saw him heal the Gentile woman's son, and we know that Jesus had dinner and stayed with Zacchaeus the tax collector. So maybe there's a deeper meaning here.

If I'm supposed to treat my brothers and sisters who are obstinately sinning as Gentiles and tax collectors, what I think Jesus means is that I am still called to love them, but I don't trust myself to them the same way I trust myself to my friends and fellow Christians. Jesus had dinner with tons of folks, he would talk with anybody, he loved everybody, but only his trusted friends got to see the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden, only his trusted friends received the specialized instructions about the parables. Jesus loved everyone, even the Gentiles and tax collectors, but he didn't trust himself to everyone the same way.

Even the Pope goes to Confession!

St. Paul in our second reading gives us some more guidance in this area, in his letter to the Romans. He started by telling us that our job is simply to love one another. Whatever commandments you know, whatever commandments you can think of, they are all summarized in the commandment to love one another. Love is the thing we most fundamentally owe each other. Love does no evil to the neighbor. It is love that calls us to correct our brother or sister when they sin, but love is still our attitude towards them when they are obstinate in their sin.

But let's turn the tables for just a moment. What if I find myself on the receiving end of this correction, whether from a fellow Christian or from God speaking to me in my own prayer? If I find myself in sin, then that's why we have the beautiful sacrament of Confession. The reality is that I am always in need of Confession, I always have something in my life that is pulling me away from God's love, and I need to apologize and receive forgiveness for it.

So two things today: Don't be afraid to gently call your brother or sister in Christ to correction, when you see them going astray. Love demands it. And go to Confession, for the times when you yourself fall away from the path God has called you to.