Monday, February 29, 2016

Getting Relationships Right

Elisha the Prophet
The way Jesus used Old Testament stories (which we saw in today's readings) to try to reach the hearts of his audience has always fascinated me. I preached [HERE] on how his Jewish audience had a wrong idea of God in their minds, and if you approach any relationship with a misconception of the other person, you're going to experience headache and heartache. That's exactly what the Jews were experiencing.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Jesus Through My Failures

How my cheeks feel
After having all four wisdom teeth out on Monday my mouth was still a bit sore, so I preached an abbreviated homily [HERE] this weekend. The Gospel and Collect suggested to me this theme of the importance of being lifted up by God, rather than by any merits of my own. Here's the Collect:
O God, author of every mercy and of all goodness,
who in fasting, prayer and almsgiving
have shown us a remedy for sin,
look graciously on this confession of our lowliness,
that we, who are bowed down by our conscience,
may always be lifted up by your mercy.
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.
Persevere in your Lenten resolutions, but don't let your failures draw you away from Jesus!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Faith of Abraham

Every year in Lent, our readings for the first couple Sundays follow a pattern. On the first Sunday of Lent, we always hear about Jesus's temptation in the desert. And then, on the second Sunday, we always hear about the Transfiguration. This Transfiguration story is always coupled with a first reading about Abraham, demonstrating his faith. So together, the first couple Sundays of Lent always sum up what Lent is about: it's about going into the desert in order to increase our faith. It's about leaving the comfort of the world, entering into the desert, and coming out the other side with greater faith.

But faith is a tricky thing. How do we often treat faith? I fear we often treat faith as just ignoring the problem. You have cancer? Your kids are going off the rails? You're frightened about the direction of the world? Just have faith. That's what we so often tell people. And if this is faith, the danger is that it looks a whole lot like sticking your head in the sand. When confronted with that age old question, "Why does a good God allow suffering?", we often say, "Have faith," or, "It's a mystery," when we really mean, "Just ignore the problem."

But what Abraham learns and what Jesus's apostles learn in the sufferings that they are dealing with is that faith means dealing with this present reality head on. What's interesting about this Abraham story and this Transfiguration story is that they are moments of doubt or questioning, on the part of Abraham and on the part of the apostles. But God doesn't condemn them for their questions or reject their questions. He accepts the questions and doubles down on his promises.

Not a common scene in art, I had to resort to Legos
The first thing we notice when we turn to Abraham in our first reading, well, is that it's strange. With these animals split in two and fire pots and flaming torches, this is all just weird. So, context. At this point in Abraham's story, God has already called him out of his old land and he promised him countless descendants, a great land, and a great nation. Yet Abraham, still called Abram, doesn't even have a single child. So countless descendants, but still not a single child, and Abram is over 75 years old. Abram sees the obvious problem with this, so just a few verses before our reading today he gently tries to ask God about this. He didn't stick his head in the sand and ignore the obvious contradiction in God's promise, he tries to deal with it. So what does God do? He reaffirms his promise by comparing Abram's descendants to the number of the stars, but then he takes it one step further with this ceremony with the animals and the fire pot. It's a lot of ancient near east symbolism, but the basic meaning in this: God is saying, "May I be like these animals if I fail to keep my promise to you." And that's a big deal. God is entering into some sort of agreement with Abram where he treats Abram like an equal. Now obviously they're not equals, but God loves him enough to treat him that way.

And then in the gospel, just a few verses prior to today's Transfiguration, Jesus had prophesied about his coming suffering, death, and resurrection, and then he told them to take up their own crosses and follow him. And they weren't getting it. So Jesus takes a few of them up the mountain to witness this transfiguration as a way of bolstering their faith, to prepare them for the coming trials. Like with Abram, he doesn't condemn their weaknesses in the faith, but he doesn't excuse it either. He uses it as an opportunity to explain just how serious he is.

And what's interesting is that Jesus uses this Transfiguration as an incredible teaching moment. To the Jews, Moses represents the Law since God gave him the 10 Commandments, and Elijah represents the prophets. And that's basically the Old Testament: the law and the prophets. So Jesus is demonstrating that all of Jewish scripture points to him, that the Death he has prophesied will lead to a Resurrection, and that he is reliable in his promise. And Peter's response, "Let us build three tents," no, he didn't want to go camping. Peter was referencing the Jewish Feast of Booths, which was a feast where the people would go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and stay 7 days in tents to recall the flimsy dwellings they had during the desert wanderings. Peter was trying to give this Transfiguration a religious context.

What the apostles came to understand was that their faith wasn't so much in a thing or even a promise. It was in a person. Same thing with Abraham. We see is that Abraham's faith isn't in a thing, his faith is in a person. So Abraham can question what seems to be a contradiction in God's promises, not from a position of doubt, but from a position of curiosity that seeks understanding. There's a wonderful Latin phrase made popular by St. Anselm (bishop and scholar living in the late 1000's): Fides Quaerens Intellectum, Faith Seeking Understanding. That's what Abraham did, that's what Anselm did, and that's what we're called to do. This means that I first believe what God has revealed, and only then do I seek to understand it. This is how we approach any number of situations when we're seeking information. When you open up the newspaper, you have faith that the authors and editors have a message to convey, even if you don't believe they'll be honest, before you ever to seek to understand what their message is. With God we go a step further. We believe he has conveyed something, and we believe he is honest and good in that message, before we ever seek to understand it.

So, as opposed to some sort of pseudo faith that causes us to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the trials that surround us, Christian faith calls us to stare down the problem and believe anyway. When confronted with the sufferings of this world and of our own lives, we are not called to ignore the sufferings, but to deal with them head on. Whether it's poverty in the third world or our own private sin that continues to plague us, the world tells us that this is a sign that there is no loving God. But we also don't want to discount the role of the devil in this. The devil hates you, he hates the faith he sees in you, and he is more clever than you or I will ever be. He will twist things so that faith looks like the stupidest thing in the world, he'll make it look very reasonable and very attractive to abandon faith in God when the going gets tough.

But we know better, we know to deal with the trials of the world head on the way Abram dealt with his trials head on, and we just say, "How?" How, God, will your goodness shine through in this situation? How will your faithfulness shine through today? How will this Passion lead to a new Resurrection? If we end this Lent with a faith more ready to see the Resurrection present in every Passion, then it will be a successful Lent indeed.

Scalia Funeral

Yesterday, at the funeral for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, I thought that the Catholic Church really put her best foot forward. Whoever watched or attended that funeral got to see beautiful liturgy with the politics absolutely removed. Fr. Paul Scalia, Justice Scalia's son, delivered a moving, unapologetic, Christ-centered homily. I highly recommend you listen to the homily, it starts at about 1:32:30. It's pretty common to greet the ecclesiastical dignitaries by name, which Fr. Scalia did, but I loved that he summed up the entire Supreme Court, the Vice President, numerous Senators and Congressmen, and presidential candidates with, "distinguished guests." This funeral wasn't about them, it was about Jesus, and that was made evident with the real money quote from the sermon:
We are gathered here because of one man -- a man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more. A man loved by many, scorned by others. A man known for great controversy and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday

The way we approach Lent in the social media age is...weird. I appreciate the efforts of the #ashtag phenomenon to draw more people into basic Christian concepts and make it less scary, but I can't bring myself to participate because it's a pun (shudder). But the Instagram and Facebook pictures of smiling people with black smudges on their foreheads is...weird. Not good. Not bad. Just...weird. We are strange people. In the Old Testament, ashes would be accompanied by sackcloth and weeping. But we are a redeemed people, so smiling as we confess our sins and our need for a Redeemer can't be entirely inappropriate.

But I think what I fear is that we often approach Lent with a New Year's Resolution or Fad Diet sort of mentality, and it looks like this: "Give up chocolate for forty days, dust off your Bible, and all the problems in your life and your walk with God will just disappear." This comes with exceptions of course: only give up chocolate when you want to and don't worry about it if it get's really hard, and don't actually ready the Bible, just take it off the shelf, put it on the table, and dust it off. Somehow, this is is supposed to make us saints or fix what's wrong in our lives.

But the Collect for Ash Wednesday really helps to highlight what this season is all about:
Grant, O Lord,that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
This season is about doing battle against evil, and self-restraint is our weapon. So we want to start taking seriously the distance, the depth of the chasm, between us and God. We have to start taking very seriously the sins that divide us from God. I can almost guarantee that chocolate isn't what divides you from God. Sin is. And so sin is what you need to do something about.

Sin is a tricky beast. For myself, I have to admit that the reason I sin is because I love my sin more than I love God. Now, I repent of it afterwards and I go to confession, but in the moment, yeah, I love the sin that I commit more than the God who offers the grace to overcome it.

So we need to approach Lent with the Cross and Resurrection in view. We're trying to do something, however pitiful, to bridge the gap between ourselves and God. Ultimately, we cannot bridge the gap on our own, but God rejoices in the slightest effort on our part and rushes into our lives to do the rest. Keep the Cross and Resurrection as the real focus this Lent and every season of your life, make some meaningful effort to eradicate sin, and God will rejoice to draw you to himself.