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Mass on Saturdays - at 5:00pm (casual attire is our style)!
Rosary Prayer Group - at 6:00pm on the first Wednesday of the month!
Bible Study - at 6:30pm on Thursdays (the Life of Jesus - Serendipity Bible Study)!
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Saints Mary and Martha Church
at Bethany House
PO Box 502
Mount Sterling, KY
at Bethany House
PO Box 502
Mount Sterling, KY
Friday, March 29, 2013
“Moving Forward in Christ: Choosing the Way of Sacrifice and Suffering”
The Good Friday Liturgy
Genesis 22:1-18; Hebrews 10:1-25; St. John 19:1-37
All’s quiet in the Church tonight, all over the world. But if all’s quiet, does it necessarily follow that all is peaceful? We’re just finishing the forty days of Lent – of mourning, remembering, listening, and adjusting – and tonight we realize that those days are done. We gaze backwards and try to remember whether we’ve covered all the bases. We may wish that we had put a little more thought into this area or prayed more about that area. Even so, there’s a finality about tonight: Jesus is dead, his body lies in the tomb, and – as the first disciples probably did on that first Good Friday – we’ve gathered together to pray, to think, and to talk about it.
Unlike those first disciples – and this is very easy for us to forget – unlike them, we know the rest of the story. We know that the tomb didn’t contain his body for long. We know that he descended to the dead to preach the Good News to the captive souls in hades and to break the gates of death for ever. But they didn’t know that. We gather tonight in stunned silence, hearing a story that’s been handed down to us from two thousand years ago. They gathered in stunned silence, not knowing what would happen next – not knowing that hope would live, not even knowing whether they would live.
In some sense, their fearful reaction to the Passion and death of Jesus is understandable. Yes, had they been listening to his words, they wouldn’t have been surprised by his trial, or by the crown of thorns or by the cross. But let’s be careful not to throw too many stones. We know – sitting here tonight – what they didn’t know, and we still shrink from following Jesus. The battle waged in the heart of humanity ever since the fall of Adam and Eve has been – and will be until the end of time – the battle to follow God rather than self. And we know that self is really defined as self-preservation – self-preservation in the face of sacrifice and suffering.
Perhaps what really stuns us tonight is the fact that we witness Jesus giving up his right to self-preservation. Add to that the fact that we call his suffering and self-sacrifice the ultimate gift of love, and the question becomes: “Why aren’t we doing that for each other, for the world, and for him?” The Stone that the builders rejected really has become a stumbling block for us, hasn’t he? He tells us what needs to happen and he does it, then he tells us to join him in doing it – to join him in his sufferings, in his self-surrender.
So yes, the quiet in the Church tonight is very real, but it’s also very uneasy. In small ways and in large ways God is asking us to enter into his life of sacrifice and suffering. Whether or not we recognize it, the command given by God to Abraham is not unheard of in our own lives. He may not be asking us to offer up a child, but he may be asking us to offer up some other part of our lives – something, usually a gift from him, that we’ve come to think of as our own. Maybe he wants us – as we gaze at Jesus upon the cross – to take the next step in consecrating our lives to him. Maybe he’s asking us for deeper and more pronounced service in building his kingdom. Maybe he’s calling us to a deeper life of prayer, and therefore a surrender of some hobby or leisure activity.
Our union with Jesus, our communion with him in his suffering, death, and resurrection really does come at a price. The Blessed Virgin understood it, especially as she stood before the cross watching her Son die a criminal’s death. Saint John and Saint Mary Magdalene understood it as they risked being publicly associated with the King of the Jews. Saint Peter and the others who watched from afar understood it, especially in the grief they surely felt for moving away from him and denying him. Even Pilate understood something of what was happening, going back and forth as he did with the religious leaders, arguing that Jesus wasn’t guilty. Judas understood it…way too late.
The question for us tonight is difficult, but quite simple: Are we willing, for the sake of loving Jesus, to pay that price? Are we willing to so enter into his suffering and self-sacrifice that we feel even a small part of his pain? We’ve been told for most of our lives that Jesus did everything for us – which he certainly did – and that we don’t have to do anything more than accept the gift. It’s true that we have to accept the gift, but it’s an unscriptural lie that our involvement in his suffering ends there. He asks us to join him, he asks us to take up our cross daily and follow him, he reminds us that when we turn our lives over to him there will be two promises: That of trouble and that of his abiding Presence.
So there’s quiet among us tonight, as we await the rest of the story. But deep in our hearts there probably should be a nagging unease as we try to answer his invitation – an invitation that comes to us directly from his cross. May the answers come as the story unfolds.
In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Moving Forward in Christ: Holding onto the Golden Thread of the Lord’s Supper”
Exodus 12:1-14a; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; St. Luke 22:14-30
There are two great joys that I’ve experienced over the past four years. One is a daily commute that takes me through the Daniel Boone National Forest and the other is being in the car long enough – during that commute – to hear some very interesting conversations. There’s something that thrills me when I get to listen to a thought-provoking conversation – and last Saturday was certainly no exception. NPR host Bob Edwards talked with two veterans who’ve contributed to a collection of short stories, each of them written by members of the military who served in either Afghanistan or Iraq.
The stories they wrote were fictional, but they were based on the realities faced by members of the military while serving in those conflicts. What struck me was the emphasis they placed on their relationships with family and with non-military friends. I could almost see, running through their words, a golden thread that kept them connected to home and to “normal” life. It’s a thread that sounded – to my ears, at least – very fragile. It’s a thread that figures prominently in their stories precisely because it was the thread that connected the lives they had once lived to the lives they led in the midst of their duties. What they once knew and experienced stood in stark contrast to what they faced on the battlefield.
But the conversation became most poignant when the topic turned to coming home. This is where the distance between their two lives became apparent. This is where we see how close that golden thread had come to breaking. This is where we see the strain and stress of living two lives in two different worlds. One of the vets talked about his reactions to the problems of “ordinary” life. He talked about how his responses were often inappropriate, how they were calibrated to armed conflict rather than dealing with family and friends. The other vet talked about his sense that coming home was what he most desired, but that it was also what he was least prepared to receive, to rejoice in, to embrace. He said that it took him a great deal of time to get to the point where he could fully enter into the joy of coming home.
While we don’t face the nightmarish circumstances they faced on the battlefield, as Christians we do share something in common with them: We also live between two worlds, we also face the daily need to hold onto a golden thread that unites our present life with the life we long for in our home, the life we long for in heaven. Just like those returning vets, we sometimes encounter problems in navigating between the two worlds we inhabit.
We often find ourselves approaching the Master of our heavenly home in ways that are calibrated more to the coldness of doubt and fear than the warmth of trust and love. It’s also not an unknown phenomenon that we find ourselves ill-equipped to embrace the Master of our heavenly home. Just like those returning veterans, we often find ourselves in need of internal adjustments and sometimes we even need a translator to help us understand the difference between life in this world and life in God’s Presence.
What we celebrate tonight – the Mass of the Lord’s Supper – is our golden thread. It is what keeps us sane as we live in the already-but-not-yet of God’s salvation. We are no longer of this world, but we are still in it. We know that we are bound for heaven and that eternity has already entered our hearts, but we are still living in the fallen world of time and space. The Lord’s Supper – the Holy Eucharist – is the thread we hold onto, knowing that if follow it we will be led home to heaven, to life as it ought to be lived.
Yet, the ambiguity of living with one foot in eternity and the other in a fallen and messed up world can take its toll on us. That toll shows up in how we approach God, how we approach his desire for our beliefs and how we use the life that belongs to him. We hear the stories surrounding that first Passover in Egypt, and we wonder why God had to kill the first-born children of that land. Why couldn’t he have freed Israel by another means? For those of us who love animals, we wonder why an innocent lamb had to die in order to provide the sign of protection on the doorposts that night. Why couldn’t God have used some other sign to protect the first-born of his chosen people? Sometimes we even question why any sacrifice of anything is necessary for us to receive God’s protection and mercy.
We hear the words of Jesus at that Passover meal in the upper room – at the institution of the Lord’s Supper on the night before his crucifixion – and we ask ourselves, “Why didn’t Jesus say something like, ‘Take, eat this represents my Body, this represents my Blood’?” As we ask these questions – as we begin to listen to God’s answers with our minds focused on the world’s way of thinking – that golden thread begins to stretch and fray. In fact, the very fabric of what this night is about begins to rip apart.
At some point we have to stop and ask ourselves a very important question: “Where are my questions coming from?” Is the life I lead as someone still in this world directing my questions, or is the life I long to live with God in heaven directing my questions? When God calls me to believe something, to receive something, to act on something, am I calibrating my responses based on the battle I do daily in a world of falsehood or are my responses flowing from eternal truth?
So often our response to God’s call to believe and to trust is gradually eroded by the constant drumbeat of falsehood that surrounds us. So, for example, we may start out believing that Jesus meant what he said in the upper room – we may start out believing that he’s offering us his very Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist. Eventually – because we listen to the whispers of falsehood that surround us – we may come to say that the Holy Eucharist is just a way to remember his love for us, or that the bread and wine are just tokens.
But then someone will stand up in our midst and call us to re-calibrate ourselves that we might fully enter into the truth that God is offering us. They might remind us that underneath the appearance of bread and wine are the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus. They might remind us how so many people – including religious people – looked at Jesus during his earthly ministry and saw only a radical preacher because they never bothered to look at him with the eyes of faith.
Saint Paul is giving us such a word tonight. He’s saying, in no uncertain terms, that what we receive in the Lord’s Supper is his very Body and very Blood. He reminds us to re-calibrate our minds, our eyes, our ears to God’s way of thinking, seeing, and hearing. What’s more, he reminds us of the dangers involved in letting ourselves gradually slip into the world’s way of thinking about the Lord’s Supper. He says, “every time you eat this bread and drink from this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. It follows that if one of you eats the Lord’s bread or drinks from his cup in a way that dishonors him, you are guilty of sin against the Lord’s Body and Blood. So then, you should each examine yourself first, and then eat the bread and drink from the cup. For if you do not recognize the meaning of the Lord’s Body when you eat the bread and drink from the cup, you bring judgment on yourself as you eat and drink.”
When we receive our Lord Jesus in Holy Communion, we’re receiving much more than a mere memory. We’re receiving his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. We’re receiving a spiritual and physical reminder that what makes absolutely no sense to our finite minds is absolutely true even though we don’t understand it. We are receiving Jesus in such a way that we a pulled ever closer to our life in heaven and farther away from our life in this world. We are receiving Jesus in such a way that we become, more and more, him in this world. We are receiving Jesus in such a way that all the sacrifices make sense – both his and ours.
Talk about “moving forward in Christ”! In both a spiritual and physical way, he takes over our body, our soul, our spirit more and more each time we receive Holy Communion. And the closer we draw to him in that context, the more deeply we identify with him. How can we forget that he calls us to be in him as he is in the Father? How can we forget that we die with him and so are raised with him? How can we forget that he communed so deeply with us as to literally take our sins into himself and to place himself on the cross in our place?
So, yes, we need that golden thread. We need the reminder we’re given tonight to re-calibrate our thinking and believing, to widen and deepen our capacity to receive Jesus in his fullness. May you see tonight the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the One who saves you. And may you receive both him and the glimpse of heaven he’s offering you.
In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Monday, March 25, 2013
“Moving Forward in Christ: Stumbling in the Light, Instead of the Dark?”
He stood in front of us, speaking a whole lot of truth. He reminded us of the solemnity and the joy of our task. But, to be honest with you, his words utterly stunned me. I don’t know why I hadn’t understood it before, I just know that I hadn’t. He was offering us words of wisdom for ministering to the youth who would be attending the Ichthus Christian Music Festival that year in Wilmore. He was also offering us sound theology. “When they come to you,” he said, “their emotions will be overwhelming. It’s your job to help them move their emotions from their heart to their head and back again.”
He was right. The emotions on that last night of the festival were indeed running very high. We had just received Holy Communion with fifteen thousand other people. We had heard a message from God’s Word that stirred within our hearts. And something would’ve been very wrong had we not responded, had our feelings not been kindled in the reality of God’s love. Hundreds responded to the Altar call that night. Some came into the ministry tent crying. Others came in a stony silence, as if struck dumb. All of them came with emotions at full throttle and wanting Jesus to do something with them.
What surprised me most was that so many seemed disoriented – almost as though they had been knocked over and they were struggling to get back up on their feet. It put me in mind of someone who’s just been in a car crash – a collision. At first, there’s that stunned look on their face, then come the tears as the reality hits, then comes the thanksgiving for having been spared. In a similar way, those coming for prayer that night had just been through a spiritual, rather than a physical, collision.
Many of them looked as though their entire world had just collided with something beyond themselves. And that’s often what happens when we encounter the living God, isn’t it? We find ourselves stunned. We find ourselves disoriented. But we also find ourselves filled with joy and with thanksgiving. So, whatever the case may be, we must be careful to never allow the experience of our emotions to displace the work of Jesus within us. That work – his work – always involves a union of heart and mind – it’s never, ever just one or the other.
In the last part of last Sunday’s Gospel lesson – a part that I chose to not preach on last Sunday, Jesus says, “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” He’s talking about the fact that he will be rejected, but will nonetheless become the cornerstone of victory over sin and death. He’s telling the scribes and the chief priests (and all those who are listening – including us) that unless we pay attention to his words we will stumble over them and we will find ourselves in a world of hurt.
Now, we know that people like the scribes and the chief priests are not hearing his words because, well, they’ve shut him out. They refuse to listen to him. What you and I need to remember, though, is that there’s another way we can miss the words of Jesus. We who are bathed in the light of his Presence can find ourselves stumbling over his words if our faith is limited to our emotions. We need to engage in the work of integrating heart and mind, otherwise we’re going to miss the whole point of moving forward in Christ. Just as the disciples discovered during the events of Holy Week, we, too, will find that we’re not prepared for the twists and turns that will surely happen if we focus on our emotions alone. We’ll find ourselves stumbling over Jesus rather than standing with him.
Let’s think of it like this: We’ve all had the experience of sleeping in a strange place, waking up in the middle of the night, getting up, and stumbling over something and injuring – at the very least – our pride. That’s understandable, isn’t it? We’re in the dark. But what if we stumble over something in that same room in the daylight? That’s not quite so understandable, is it? We might say that the scribes and chief priests will stumble over the words of Jesus in the darkness because of their lack of faith. But how do we explain the fact that nearly all of Jesus’ disciples abandoned him? Though they were walking in the light of his Presence, but they couldn’t come near the cross. They, too, stumbled and fell away.
Saint Luke tells us, in verse forty-nine of today’s Gospel lesson, that “…all [of Jesus’] acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” Leaving aside the fickle crowds who shouted “hosanna” one day and “crucify him” just a few days later, how could the disciples – the very ones who had lifted him onto the colt, who had pledged loyalty to him, who sang his praises, who witnessed his miracles, who shared intimate moments of insight with him – how could they now leave him, one after another, and stand at a distance while he dies? The answer in their case is the same as it is in ours: They stumbled in the light; they missed his words because their emotions ruled them without their minds being engaged.
For some time, Jesus had been telling the disciples that he must suffer and die, that what was foretold in the Old Testament must be fulfilled. Time and again, though, they missed it. They went on living in their emotions, arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest and who was going to sit on his right hand and about other such “important” things. They walked in the light of his Presence, but their eyes and their ears were closed. So we shouldn’t be surprised that they stumbled over what they should’ve known. They stumble over the One whose words should’ve filled their hearts and minds.
Just like those teens responding to an Altar call, when the disciples see Jesus hanging on the cross, their only reaction was to be stunned. The question for us, as we enter Holy Week and beyond, is this: Will we be surprised, or have we been listening and watching? Will we stumble in the light, or will we know how to navigate because we’ve been giving thought to the very words of Jesus? May we walk and not stumble.
In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let us pray.
Holy Father, you have called us together on this day to remember, to have both our hearts and our minds awakened to the reality that took place. We find ourselves crying “hosanna” today, may we do so in the days to come. Father, help us to not stand at a distance when we see Jesus on the cross. Keep us close to him. We ask this in his holy and precious Name. Amen.
Monday, March 18, 2013
“Moving Forward in Christ: Adjusting to Life on a Different Scale”
When I was a little boy, I had two train sets. One was a Lionel and the other was a Tyco. They were each built to a different scale. The Tyco was much smaller than the Lionel, and that bothered me. In my world, Matchbox cars could not be mixed into adventures that included Tonka trucks, nor could houses built with Legos be allowed to inhabit the same neighborhood as those built with Lincoln Logs. I was willing, though, on occasion, to concede that my GI Joe could speak with Barbie – but only because he thought she was a babe!
When it came to trains, I liked each of them. But I knew that I could never allow myself to play with both of them together. Either one was too big or the other was too small. You see, they came from different worlds, from different scales of life, and I could never figure out how to make them mesh. That being the case, the smaller Tyco and the larger Lionel never mixed in my railroad adventures.
The funny thing about life – especially as we grow older – is that we often try to mesh things together that don’t belong together. When we find ourselves at transitional points in our lives we try to make our past fit into our future – or vice versa. We rack our brains to make it happen, only to find out that our past was built to a different scale than our future. It’s like trying to combine centimeters and inches, or work boots and dress shoes, or Led Zeppelin and Mozart. Sooner or later, you realize that you just can’t get there from here!
And probably each of us in this Chapel has been through something like this. It’s the kind of crisis point we talked about last Sunday, when we’re confronted with two mutually exclusive realities. We know that to live and to grow and to flourish we have to move forward. But we also know that the past was so very comfortable, so familiar, and oh so reliable. No, it may not have been the best, or even the happiest – in fact it may have been down-right miserable. But, “better the enemy we do know than the one we don’t.” And so, we try to figure out a way to cobble together a future that doesn’t require any risk or suffering or sacrifice – even if the reward for stepping out in faith is a fantastic promise.
I can’t help but think of the vision that the Lord is giving Israel in today’s Old Testament lesson. From the beginning of chapter forty-three, he’s telling Israel that there’s no price that he will not pay to see them brought home and restored in the Promised Land. This is one of my favorite chapters in all of sacred Scripture. So I’d like to read verses one through seven to you. Just listen to this and picture the immensity of what God is telling his people: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my Name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.’”
WOW!!! Do you see the grand scale of life that God is offering them? Can you see immensity of his promise, the breadth and depth of what he’s willing to do to regain his chosen people?! There’s nothing lacking in God’s power to make this happen. Nothing, indeed! The only thing that could gum up this promise is found in the hearts of his people: Are they willing to adjust to life on a different scale? Or, are they going to do that most human of all things: Are they going to proceed into God’s promises with unnecessary caution? In verses eighteen and nineteen of chapter forty-three, God says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
That really is the question, though, isn’t it? Do they – do we – perceive the different scale of life that God is offering us? And even more importantly, are we willing to hear the one request he’s making of us in the midst of all these promises? Can we – will we – forget the former things, the things of old? Well, I guess it depends on what those things are, doesn’t it? If it’s our trials and tribulations, our heartaches, our sorrows, then yes, I suppose we’d forget them right away. But it goes deeper than that. He wants us to forget the causes of so many of our trials and tribulations, heartaches and sorrows – he wants us to forget our sinfulness. But it’s really deeper than that, too. He wants us to be so focused on him, so busy in loving and fellowshipping with him, so filled with him, with his character that we actually forget how to sin! He wants our total – our TOTAL – devotion.
Why should he ask that of us? Why should he come to us and say, “I want you to forget all your old ways. I want you to undergo the kind of suffering that comes from detaching yourselves from the false realities you’ve created.” Why? Is it, perhaps, because the sacrifice he’s asking us to make pales in comparison with the sacrifice he actually made? Jesus tells us a parable today about some wicked tenants and their landlord. He tells how the landlord attempted, through messengers, to collect what was owed to him. The tenants brutalize the messengers – the three of them – and send them back to the landlord. Finally, the landlord sends his own son to them, to show them what is right. They kill him. The tenants are, of course, Israel. The messengers are the prophets, and the son of the landlord is Jesus himself. And the life of God is sacrificed for the sins and the stubborn memories of his people.
The future that God offers us in exchange for our measly past is of such a different scale that we often do what those tenants did: We insist on staying put, no matter the cost. I’ve seen it happen in my own life. You’ve seen it happen in yours. We see it happening all around us. There’s a deep-seated fear involved with letting go of the past in favor of an unknown future. Ironically, we in the Church seem to have a much more difficult time embracing the future than those who are not in the body of Christ. We know the One who holds the future in his hands. We should be the ones walking confidently into the unknown. But we’re not. We’re continually squabbling with him and each other about how much we prefer the old way.
The story’s told of a priest who went to his bishop, perplexed as to how to deal with a troublesome new person attending worship in his parish. The priest wasn’t sure how exactly to help the man understand that living as a Christian meant certain changes in his life. The bishop chuckled and offered some wisdom with which every pastor is familiar. He said, “If you really want to be rid of the problem, just baptize him and you’ll never see him again.” It’s sad, but all too true. In our lives as individual believers and in our common life as the Church, whenever we approach the portals of life on a different scale we tend to run away. It’s because we know intuitively that some level of suffering will be involved, but it’s also because we fail to balance that intuition with the promise of God’s blessing. It’s as simple as that.
Paul tells us this morning all about his own encounter with this very problem. What’s more important, he tells us how he resolved it! He says, “More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake” (listen closely to the words he uses here) “I have suffered the loss of all things,” (the past is gone in his life) “and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” Oh yes, he’s heard God’s call – on the Damascus Road and elsewhere – to mourn and to remember, to examine himself, to allow God to speak truth into his life, and when he came to his own crisis moment – in which he realized what the truth is – he was will to do whatever God asked. And now, he’s telling us that it all comes down to weighing the suffering of surrendering the past against the promise of “[gaining] Christ and [being] found in him.”
What’s more, he tells us that this shift in his life could not come about by pursuing God’s promises as he did in the past – remember, he was trying to keep the Old Testament law. He knew that a difficult, but necessary, surrender had to take place. This surrender of his former ways of pursuing God was so important because, as he says, “I [wanted] to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his” (yes, here’s that word again) “sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Once he had seen the power behind God’s promises, he wanted ALL of what God has for him – not just the easier parts.
As we stand near the threshold of holy week – and another portal to life on a different scale – a beloved phrase comes to my mind: “Totus tuus, Iesus Christus.” It’s Latin for “Totally yours, Jesus Christ.” Between now and next Sunday we need to ponder what Paul’s laying before us in his testimony of embracing God’s gift of life on a different scale. Listen, one last time, to what he says. He says: “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it” (the new scale of life being offered to him) “my own; but this one thing I do: Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” That’s his expression of “Totus tuus, Iesus Christus.” May it be ours as well as we continue to move forward in Christ.
In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let us pray.
Father, you have brought us, in this Lenten season, to the threshold of a bright promise. We don’t quite know how to step forward into that promise, but we declare our trust in you; that you will lead us, that you will help us, that you will guide us. We declare to you, “Totus tuus, Iesus Christus.” Amen.
Monday, March 11, 2013
“Moving Forward in Christ: Seizing the Moment of Solemn Crisis”
The story might’ve gone something like this: A Democrat, a Republican, and a Communist meet at the pearly gates. The Republican says, “When they told me I was dying, I went and asked the Democrats I vilified to forgive me. I destroyed reputations so I could win elections.” “That’s nothing,” says the Democrat. “When I found out I was dying, I wrote a letter to the Pope. I told him about all the good things I did and I asked him to pray for all the bad things I had done.” The Communist, who’s been listening, says, “I told them that I didn’t want to die. I was afraid. I didn’t want God to judge me. I had supported terrorists and I made the world a more dangerous place. I decided to repent. I called for a priest to hear my confession and I died in the bosom of the Church.”
These three men actually lived among us. Each of them was driven by his own vision of reality. And, like the rest of us, mixed in with their noble accomplishments were ungodly choices. Whether denigrating public servants and destroying lives (as in the case of Lee Atwater), or vocally and substantially supporting abortion on demand (as in the case of Edward Kennedy), or providing money for terrorists and cruel dictators (as in the case of Hugo Chavez), each of these men understood their vulnerability as they faced death. They each experienced a moment of personal crisis that prompted them to seek God’s forgiveness.
Each of them, before they died, sought to unburden their souls. But we need to ask the question, “Why?” Why would they suddenly want to make amends? Why would they want the assurance of a clean conscience? The answer’s really quite simple: The reality they created in their personal ambitions – a reality that didn’t always include God – began to disappear when they faced the reality (capital “R”) of death and judgment. They came to a moment of solemn crisis. They came to a crisis that made them think beyond themselves – and, if the reports are true, in their final days they chose the love of Jesus over the love of self.
Lest we point an accusing finger at any one of these men, we must remember that we live daily with the temptation to create our own realities. For several decades now, many educational institutions, thinkers and writers, journalists, theologians, Church leaders, and all sorts of people in the media have been telling us that we’re supposed to create our own realities. They want us to believe that freedom can only be found when we feed the inner monster of self. It’s an argument that all too easily persuades us. The only problem with this philosophy lies in the fact that the human person is created in such a way that we do know about the boundaries of reality – even if we don’t like them. We know instinctively that to move beyond those boundaries is to place ourselves in the realm of delusion and mental illness. There was a time when this fact held our behavior as a society in check. We knew where the boundaries were. We heeded the signs that read “Go no farther. Beyond this point is lunacy.”
In recent years, though, the push from these so-called “free thinkers” has urged us to question reality. If reality – such as it is – holds us back from doing whatever we want, they tell us that we have to create our own reality. They would have us bend the laws of nature and of God to accommodate ourselves – and indeed, many have done this. This explains the otherwise puzzling problem of sharing the Gospel in modern culture – a culture that lives and works and plays in a parallel universe of its own making. There’s no longer a common denominator between Church and society. There’s no bridge across which we or they can travel to meet each other – those common assumptions are gone. For, we have given ourselves over to Jesus Christ and they have given themselves over to themselves. It leads one to wonder whether the shadow of death will be a big enough crisis moment to make some of them think beyond themselves.
This brings us to today’s Gospel lesson – what we call the parable of the prodigal son (though that’s really a misnomer, it’s really about the waiting and watching father). We’re presented with three realities in that parable – one emanating from the heart of God and the other two from the smallness of human desire. The reality that’s represented by the words and actions of the father is clearly that of almighty God. His is the reality around which the other two revolve – even if they don’t wish to recognize it. We see this in the father’s forbearance when the younger son asks for his inheritance even before his father is dead. We see it in the father’s aggressive waiting and watching for the younger son to return home – something, by the way, that would’ve shamed him in the eyes of his family and friends. We see it in the father’s lavish welcome when the prodigal does return home, and we especially see it in the father’s attempt to help his older son comprehend the miracle that has taken place.
The reality of the waiting father – as he’s often been called – is the reality offered to us by our heavenly Father. The sin of humankind has caused us to seek our alternate realities and to leave the embrace of God. But God waits for us. He has sent messengers to us. He has sent a Savior to us. Because of that, we know that the clash of realities is nothing new. We know that “there’s nothing new under the sun”, to quote Scripture. So, we’re not surprised when Jesus tells us about these two brothers. We instantly see it. In some ways, we are them and they are us. As they rejected and ignored the reality of their father, so we still find ourselves capable of rejecting and ignoring the reality of our heavenly Father.
The surprising thing about human nature is that any commitment we make – whether to God or to another person – is as tenuous as our desire to keep it. We really are transitory beings. Because of what happened to us in the Fall in the Garden of Eden, because of the lies that we wanted to believe, we’ve been dealing with our own fickle nature ever since. Even though we’re new creatures in Christ, we still aren’t exempt from the battle that must take place daily to overcome our fallen nature. That’s probably why this parable both warms our hearts and unsettles us. The way in which Jesus told it reminds us of his great love and our all-too-real stubbornness in leaving behind our alternate realities.
Those of us who have fallen into the trap of thinking, like the prodigal son, that life is all about us will understand instantly that kind of attempt at making an alternate reality. We see and understand the selfishness and small-mindedness that motivated the younger son to shrink his world into a reality that could fit within his head. This is the story of every person who’s made pleasure and self-gratification, personal ambition and self-motivated causes the sum total of their existence.
But we also understand, if we’ve walked in his shoes, the story of how he came to himself. We might call it “hitting bottom” or “coming to the end of himself”. Whatever we call it, we know this much to be true: He came to a moment of solemn crisis in the false reality he created for himself. Just as with Lee Atwater, Edward Kennedy, and Hugo Chavez, the reality beyond himself crashed into his little world and caused him to do the one vital thing that God’s love begs us to do: He asked himself why he was settling for slop when his father’s love would’ve given him a feast.
This much is obvious about the parable that’s before us this morning. We know instinctively what Jesus is saying in this part of the story, and we bow down in gratitude that countless men and women have heard and followed the example of the prodigal son over the past two thousand years. Maybe we’re even personally grateful because this story is a part of our own testimony of God’s love. But there’s another son of the father who’s also created his own alternate reality. If the story of the younger son is sad, this one is sadder. If the crisis point of the younger son leads our hearts to be warmed, this one leaves our hearts cold and wondering.
We have a tendency, though, to miss both his alternate reality the crisis moment that faces him. Maybe it’s because his alternate reality and the way it comes crashing down are all too familiar. We chalk it up to simple jealousy and move on to marvel at the story of the younger brother. We put all the emphasis on how he was welcomed home. Yet, If we linger too long with the older brother, we’re going to be forced to answer the question he fails to answer. That question, of course, is two-fold: First, will we recognize that we’re no better than the prodigal sons and daughters that have returned to the Father’s love? To put it another way, will we understand that we, too, have created, in some fashion, our own false realities and have lived accordingly? Second, will we comprehend the crisis moment that the Father is laying before us, that we might lay aside whatever remains of our own alternate realities and move forward in Christ?
This point was hit uncomfortably home to me the other day. I was driving home and listening to Real Life Catholic Radio. They were talking about Hugo Chavez, the communist dictator of Venezuela who recently died. Reports have surfaced that not long before his death he reached out to the Church and sought reconciliation with God. Evidently, he offered his Confession and returned to Jesus after years of living for himself, his ideology, and his own little reality. The swiftness and bitterness of my reaction stunned even me. I realized, in that moment, that I was the older brother. I offered my immediate repentance to the Lord – had I not been on the Interstate, I would knelt down to do it.
This is when I realized – in connection with today’s sermon – that those of us who’ve never wandered away from the Church can be every bit as much the prodigal as those who have. Some wanderings take place in the physical realm, others take place in the mental and spiritual realm. What’s more, some crisis moments take place in a bar or a crack house or a jail cell or in a lonely hotel room. Others take place while Jesus is pointing out the coldness in our hearts. Some false realities are cloaked in holy living rather than destructive habits.
We have heard, during this Lenten season, God’s call to mourn, to remember, to examine ourselves, and to let him speak his truth into our lives. What we face this morning is a question rather than a call. Will we recognize, will we name and identify the false realities we’ve created in our lives? They might be tiny, they might be large. They might be intentional, they might have even crept up on us out of nowhere. They might be in response to a hurt, they might be based on false assumptions. Wherever they come from, however they’ve been created, today is the day to ask why. Today is the day, the moment of crisis. Jesus is offering the Father’s love – to put it another way, the Father’s Reality. The father in the parable never received an answer from his older son. Will our heavenly Father receive one from us?
In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let us pray.
Well, Father, it would seem that we stand before you, stripped bare of any argument or self-justification. We are naked. We have been exposed. You are patiently and lovingly asking us to answer a simple question: Will we surrender to you in those areas of our lives where we have not yet done so? Father, give us the grace, give us the power, give us the desire to do so and to do so quickly. We ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Monday, March 4, 2013
“Moving Forward in Christ:
When Self-Examination Leads to the Translation of Our Lives”
When Self-Examination Leads to the Translation of Our Lives”
The revelations about character and motive have been numerous this week. In the myriad articles about Pope Benedict’s reasons for retiring, much has been revealed about character and motives. Unfortunately, almost none of what’s been written pertains to the character or motives of the Holy Father. The revelations have been mainly about the character and motives of those writing the articles. Like the rest of us, they’ve fallen prey to that most human of tendencies: The desire to project onto others what motivates us.
Given the wide range of motives attributed to the former Pope, it would appear that we’re dealing with a group of journalists who should probably be in psychoanalysis. One group of reporters tells us about Benedict’s fear of scandal. Another group of reporters hammers down on the idea that his retirement was brought about because he’s isolated and can’t make friends. Yet another group of reporters trumpets the theory that the Holy Father is gay and wants to live with his lover. It’s interesting how the personal background of each reporter – almost none of them practicing Christians – seeps into their articles and substitutes their own issues for the truth.
But that’s the way of fallen human nature, isn’t it? We tend – especially if we don’t know Jesus, but sometimes even if we do – we tend to attribute motives to the actions and words of others. What we attribute depends largely on what we most fear. If we’re afraid – or secretly understand – that we’re petty and small-minded, that’s what we’ll attribute to the words and actions of others. If we’re threatened by what others say or do, then we’ll accuse them of being hypocritical versions of us. What’s really interesting is that we don’t limit this type of thinking to other humans. In our less-than-flattering moments, men and women throughout the ages have been known to sling this kind of stuff at God.
Let’s take a moment to look at this phenomenon. I want to deal gently with this issue, not least because most – if not all – of us have been guilty of it. I suspect that if we were able to lift the veil from the hearts of who have a tendency to project their feelings onto others, we might find a guilty conscience masquerading as moral indignation. We might find jealousy masquerading as a desire for justice. We might even find fear masquerading as assertiveness, pride masquerading as maturity, and condemnation masquerading as holiness.
For today’s purposes, it’s these last three that concern us most: Fear, pride, and condemnation. All three of these things are found in the pit of hell and have no place in the life of those who have been redeemed by God’s wondrous grace. Yet, they often show up in the hearts of believers. They’re often raised as objections to the furtherance of God’s will. In extreme cases, we’ve seen them falsely attributed to the servants of God and to God himself. Why is this?
The simple answer is that there can be parts of our lives that we haven’t turned over to God. Maybe we’ve claimed Jesus as our Savior, but not as our Lord. The more intricate answer lies in the fact that we may have bumped along in life without really understanding the value of talking with God, of asking him to show us how to be more authentically his. As we talked about last Sunday, maybe we’ve lived an unexamined life and, therefore, none of the words or feelings welling up within us have been translated by the love of God. Maybe the fear, the pride, the condemnation have been allowed to fester within us even as we’ve attempted to maintain a façade of religiosity.
If we’ve done the difficult work of examining ourselves in the Presence of the Lord, these kinds of issues will work their way to the surface. One way or another, he’ll bring them to the forefront of our lives and expose them to the daylight. We won’t be able to avoid them. But here’s the amazing difference between God’s ways and the ways of fallen humanity: God doesn’t bring up these kinds of issues so he can pound us over the head or even dangle them in front of us. He brings them up so they – so we – can be translated in his love. Like some dictionary of a foreign language, he takes his Word and speaks it into our hearts that fear might be translated into faith and love; that pride might be translated into humble servanthood; that condemnation might be translated into mercy, forgiveness, and redemption.
If the mourning, the remembering, and the self-examination of the past few weeks have done within us what God intended, then the possibility of divine translation should be ripening within us. Our hearts should be ready this morning to begin receiving truth for fiction. To some extent, we should be falling silent in the Presence of the Lord, for he’s about to speak. He’s about to remind us that we’re standing on holy ground and that all our assumptions about him, about ourselves, and about others need to be translated by his love and his grace. He’s about to show us the difference in perspective between the creatures and their Creator.
Look with me, if you would, at our Old Testament lesson. God has gotten the attention of Moses. He’s revealed himself in the burning bush, and Moses has done what each of us needs to do in our daily lives: He’s turned aside from his routine to investigate God. (This is, by the way, the very thing that is no longer encouraged by our culture.) Once Moses turns aside, the Lord begins speaking to him. He makes it clear that this will be no ordinary conversation. He knows that Moses will respond with some amount of fear, both in terms of encountering him and in terms what he’ll be asked to do. So the Lord identifies himself; he offers Moses his credentials, so to speak. He seeks to help Moses understand that what will be asked of him can and will be accomplished in his almightiness.
Let’s look at verse six and following. “[The Lord] said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.” Do you see what’s happening here? God is taking the fear of Moses and seeking to translate it into confidence, into a faithful response from his would-be servant. He’s trying to make Moses aware that he knows what’s happening, that he sees, and that he’s capable of responding. But Moses does what so many of us do, he allows his fear to be written into God’s DNA rather than God’s almightiness to be translated into our lives. He says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
Look at what God says in verse twelve: “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” And again in verse fourteen, after Moses raises the fear that the Israelites won’t believe him: “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.”’ Not only is the Lord attempting to translate Moses’ fear into faith and confidence, he’s giving him the words that will do the same for the Israelites!
So, what about translating our pride into humble servanthood? Let’s look at our lesson from the Epistles. Saint Paul has been speaking to the Corinthian Christians in chapters eight and nine about their pridefulness. He’s been encouraging them in a self-examination concerning their approach to eating meat offered to idols. And now, in chapter ten, he’s offering them a translation of their attitude. He’s reminding them that their relationship with God should create humility in their hearts rather than pride and arrogance. He recounts to them how their ancestors were strengthened and led by God’s miracles in the exodus. He recounts how they were fed in the wilderness and were given water from the rock. Then comes the translation.
Look at what he says in verses five and six: “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.” Did you catch that? “So that we might not desire evil as they did.” To help them see the point, Paul goes on to highlight all the ways in which Israel’s pride destroyed them. He takes the example of pride in the lives of their ancestors and translates it for them, hoping that they see the need for adjustment in their lives. He hits the point home in verses eleven and twelve: “These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
The same kind of translation is offered for our propensity toward condemnation – what so many people are calling “karma”. There’s no such Biblical doctrine, by the way. Our godless culture has taken the justice of God and turned it into retribution based on pettiness. I hear, over and over again, professing Christians talk about the retribution of God. I shake my head and wonder where sound doctrine and Biblical teaching have gone. After all, the justice of God demanded a spotless Lamb for the sins of the world, and the spotless Lamb was his own Son. Does that sound like retribution or love? In our human smallness we continue to thrive on condemnation, and it’s this issue that Jesus translates for us in our Gospel lesson.
He’s asked a question that sounds a lot like “karma”. The people are asking him, essentially, whether the sins of those Galileans caused their death. Can you imagine having that kind of condemning attitude, especially as sinners? Look at what Jesus says in verses two through five: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
What a translation! He moves us from living in our feelings of condemnation to understanding the issue of far greater importance: Our salvation. He gets us to understand that only those who are dead in their trespasses can have such a condemning attitude. He moves our understanding to a place in which we can receive the Good News that the price for our sins has been paid. He brings us to understand that, in his Person, is the translation for us. He gives life for death, love for hate, hope for despair.
Beloved, until we realize our need for God’s translation of our feelings, our words, our actions – our very lives – we can never move forward in Christ. Until then, we can never be free from our fears, our pride, or condemnation. Please take the remaining days in our Lenten journey and allow the Lord to translate what you’ve uncovered in your self-examinations.
In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.