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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Homily 4 Epiphany

Jeremiah 4:1-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
Psalm 71:1-6

Jeremiah was a reluctant prophet. The first reading may be helpful for us in our reluctance to be faithful in our vocation.
1. Jeremiah is called and consecrated. To be consecrated is to be set apart by God and made holy. It is what God did with the Sabbath at creation, what He did with Israel (first people, then priests). It is also what the Lord did with you at your baptism. We were called by Jesus and set apart from the world as disciples who follow and apostles who are sent out! Yet we feel ordinary, not up to the challenge. Do you trust God--believe He set you apart, sanctified you and made you holy?
2. Jeremiah's excuse was that he was too young. Perhaps we feel too unprepared? Moses said he couldn't talk well. We all have reasons why we are not up to the task. Some of us have lots of reasons! The problem with excuses, however, is it focuses in the wrong direction. It looks in the mirror at "Me." "I can't, " we say. God answers, "I am with you to deliver you, don't be afraid." We need to stop looking in the mirror and turn and look to the Lord. Your choice: will I trust God, or will I walk away and center on myself?

But trust is only part of the equation. Love is what matters most. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is not about marriage, its about church. These are prophetic words. Love, he says, must be at the center of our religious practice. Miracles and revelations, spiritual gifts and even self-sacrifice are empty without love. Paul has taken the Corinthians to task throughout the letter; now he reiterates those things (puffed up, combative, self centered, uncaring) as unloving. Like Jeremiah, Paul says, "It is time to grow up and become spiritual adults." Like Jeremiah Paul tears down and builds up.

The Jesus we encounter is an adult. He is welcomed home to His childhood synagogue. He reads from Isaiah and announces that the day of fulfillment is at hand! But the enthusiasm of the people quickly turns to hostility when they learn that God's Kingdom is intended to include outcasts and foreigners. Jesus too will tear down mistaken expectations and destroy selfish concerns. Yet He promises to build up the poor and needy. The Kingdom of God brings judgment. It rescues those who love and trust God, but it is harsh for those who reject His ways.

Our purpose is to be spiritual adults. Children sit around generating excuses based on limitations. Adults trust that God is with us. Our faith is active and obedient. It is also, at its core, filled with love. Real love, godly love, is a love which extends to those outside the borders of our petty politics and personal ambition. Real love, prophetic love, speaks the truth, boldly and honestly. Prophetic love tears down and destroys what is not of God, and it builds up and plants the Kingdom. Too long we have been satisfied with excuses which allow others to take care of the mission of the church. Today, God calls you. He calls you to be holy. He calls you to trust He is with you. He calls you to the ministry of Jesus. As a parish, each day we can Jesus and do the work He has authorized and empowered us to do: proclaim the Kingdom with heal, cast out demons, teach and reconcile. That is what grown ups do. That is the life we are called to live.

prior to preaching this morning I sort of had an image bubble up in my mind. I saw a picture of the responders (cops, fireman, warriors)--the people who go "in the wrong direction". When there is trouble and we flee, they go toward the trouble. I just feel that the "adult" apostolic ministry Jesus calls us to is like that. When evil is at its worst we are called to take a stand, to march into battle not run away. Jesus calls us to bring Gospel deliverance. I think it is the Life in the Spirit! 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Genesis 12, Exodus, Old Age

The preferred approach to Scripture for most people I know is "history as gossip." The idea of history as gossip is not my own, I read it in an article in college almost forty years ago. However, the concept is difficult to grasp. Gossip is interesting details about other people's lives. Some people are addicted to it. We like to get the inside scoop. It is apparently widespread and the practitioners include some of the sweetest people you know. Gossip is not always vicious. It is just based on curiosity and, like trivia, is not something which matters to our personal lives. Gossip is "the inside scoop" but it is not wisdom, it does not address the heart, and so it is not life-changing.

Reading the Bible in English means we are already locked out of much that the Hebrew text intends to convey. Reading it today means that we are at a distance of time and culture. God speaks to us through the word, but sometimes His speech is not heard because we have the wrong set of assumptions. We do not hear what He is saying, we hear what we decide to hear.

In class we looked at Genesis 12:1
YHWH said to Abram "Go, from your land, and from your birth place and from your father's house to the land that I will show you."

The ancient Jews who wrote this text (which had a long life in oral tradition prior) were probably in the courts of the King. It is such a setting where the materials for extensive writing was available. The audience of these words (or very soon there after) were those in exile following the fall of Jerusalem. we can surmise this because the book of Kings ends with the Exile! So if we think of that group, what would the stories of Abram (and God's promises to Abram) sound like?

They were people who had seen the destruction of the Temple and lost their land. They were bereft, so how would the words sound in their ears. I suggest one possibility. In exile, they were a people who taken to another place ("from your land"). They were far removed  from home ("from your birthplace") and the Temple ("from your Father's house"). The lost promise land was felt by them as the greatest tragedy ever. Americans move around. Not a single one of the 25 people in my class was born in this city. We are used to moving. Most of us cannot understand how "place" and "identity" are so strongly connected in the ancient mind and heart. Yet, how would they see and feel when they ponder this word to Abram, can it open new venues for understanding their experience? What was God's Word to people in exile who saw their own experience echoed in these words of promise? What did "a land that I will show you" mean to them then?

Another thing to keep in mind is the interpenetration of the Biblical narratives. Abraham is the father of Israel, therefore, like other patriarchs, his life is informative of the nation's life. The Hebrew slaves had been in Egypt for some time. It was the place of their birth, their fathers and their homes. They also were called by God (through Moses) to leave and go to an unknown place. However, they murmur and do not trust God. They perish. Abraham trusts God and obeys. Therein lies the difference. We see obedience is the better option. The ancient Jew has a model of obedience to contrast with the nation's covenant infidelity and the resultant exile. God's word speak of His promise fulfilled for those who keep in His ways. It opens a door of hope for the exiled Jew, that if Israel returns to the Lord (as Jeremiah and other prophets proclaimed) then God will bless His people. That then is the story of Ezra and Nehemiah, latter Isaiah and others.

The contemporary readers, aware of the original audience's experience, can then begin to integrate the text as a current day message to the church and to the individual. What then does God say to "me" in Abraham's story? Many in my church are at a point in life of loss. They have buried many family and friends. Robust bodies and sharp minds are losing strength, stamina and function. The person "I was" is more a distant memory and the person "I am" seems to be a foreigner, or an unwelcome prison of sorts. It is easy to see old age as exile. Cut off from family and homeland. Cut off. Cut off emotionally. Can the "bad news" of this existential "exile" be seen with a different lense? I think the words still ring true.

"Leave behind your young self, your power and energy and place. Leave behind your identity. Leave it behind and go to a place where I will show you." That place--God's Kingdom--is the promise. It is the eternal promised land. The place where abundance and blessing will be the daily fare. The place where God has promised to take us. But, like Abraham, we may find the journey long and arduous, filled with missteps and threats. Like Israel, we may find our infidelities and sins, our bad choices, cut us off from the Promise Maker and Promise Keeper. However, like Abraham and repentant Israel we can trust. We can say, "I believe in the unseen land, because I know God's word is true and God is faithful." We can hear this word, whatever our circumstance, as an ancient word and a word to our hearts. Not gossip, but Gospel!


Thursday, January 28, 2016


Had a retreat Tuesday led by a rabbi. She did a good job. She used Numbers and the desert as the model for the spiritual life. I loved the Hebrew... She said the root word for desert and word are the same (mebar and dabar). Only in Hebrew does this happen. SO the desert/wilderness in its emptiness is the place where Israel hears God speak and also where they learn to speak in response. Americans do not see language the way the ancient Jews do. Our Bible is a translation, devoid of the most important part of the communication! We are kept out of more deeply hearing revelation because we cannot hear it as spoken. I have shared before that commentaries constantly speak of the puns and connected roots of the Jewish Scriptures. The letters are sacred to them. The words are holy to them. The assumption that there is a deeper meaning in the words goes far beyond the idea of imagery or symbol or metaphor (we have that in English). Instead, because the Hebrew text is just a series of consonants, the words have (literally) more potential within them. Sadly, I cannot read Hebrew, I'm not good at language and at my age and with my schedule, such study is beyond me. So I must peer over the shoulders of others and listen in on their conversations to catch a glimpse of the wealth that is there. The Bible is more awesome to me, because the digging to find deeper meanings is not simply an act of creativity on the readers part. It is the power of Hebrew and no doubt connected to God's purpose in revelation.

So? What this means is the importance of the text is less about what happened than it is with what is being said. In other words, it is literature, and the message, in this case a message with many layers of meaning, is the point. Does "what happened" matter? Yes, but only a fool thinks the meaning of an event is found in data and facts. The meaning of any communication is always always always more than that!

So the stories of Abraham contain so many deeper meanings that we need the help of a Hebrew scholar to find. And a brief overview of the texts cannot supply such a thing. As much as the individual words and letters (micro level) are full to fullness with God's self revelation, we cannot go there here. However, at the macro level (story) there is still much to be gleaned. We notice that the chapters read more like a collection of stories about the same sorts of thing. The main theme is God's promises to Abram. In ancient literature, the people saw themselves in "the father" (Jacob is called 'Israel', Essau is 'Edom', other tribes/nations are derived from a single person) and it is common for the literature to reflect the children's experience in the father's story.

Abram is told to go to a place unknown, leaving all behind. This is a type of the Exodus. Abram goes and never complain, his faith/trust are secure. His nation is less inclined to trust and like to murmur! So Abram is a model of right response! He also goes to Egypt where Pharaoh causes him trouble, but God intervenes and Abram leaves a wealthy man. Mention of the plagues and Abram leaving with great wealth provide another foreshadowing of coming events. One foil of Abraham is his nephew Lot. In parallel stories about "hospitality" divine guests arrive to see both men. Abraham prepares a huge feast while Lot is less generous. In the first case Abraham argues to spare the city, while in the second case the gross behavior of the inhabitants brings down that judgment. Once again, there are bridge words and parallel images which imply the stories are meant to be read together (to compare and contrast). Abraham's intimacy with God is certainly offered as a model as well. Threats to the promise include the story of Isaac's near-sacrifice. The parallels in language to the Jesus story are an entire lesson in itself, and the location of the event is of surprise significance!

While Isaac is a patriarch, his truncated story is a reminder that the Biblical Author (Divine and human) are not providing us an in-depth history. The stories serve another purpose, so pay close attention. The quick transition to Jacob, the trickster, introduces an more involved and broader narrative which concludes with Joseph. Echoed in the text we hear an ancient voice which leads us to think that in some times and places Joseph was viewed much like David will come to be viewed.

As we read through Genesis in preparing to study Exodus, the reader is invited to ask, "What did this story mean to the ancient Jews who told it?" "What did it mean to those in exile, their temple in ruins, their king throne-less and their land far away in the hands of others?" "How do these words shine meaning on the Savior Jesus?" "What am I called to be, to do, how am I to pray and believe, in light of all this?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Myth vs. Mythic

We continue, more slowly than I'd like, to review Genesis in preparation for the Exodus study. It is slow going because Genesis is worthy of extensive study and is full of so many wonderful stories. This week we actually covered more chapters, but a few questions came up which generated much discussion.

The first thing I have seen, over and again, is the reluctance of Christians who take the Bible seriously, to take the Bible seriously. It's no surprise when those who think that the sacred text is simply the production of ancient men give it little credence. After all, their "progressive" agendas are set so if the Bible doesn't agree, too bad for the Bible. However, more conservative folks, especially those who are Literalists, are equally likely to ignore the word as written because of their preconceptions and theologies. Most of us are unable to read the Bible because we "already know what it says." As a catholic, I firmly believe that my personal interpretation must be informed by the  Church. However, I do think there is value in actually reading a story to see what it says.

The inspired word of God is a work of God in and through human authors. The Jews believed that  revelation was buried deep within the text, often times in the particular letters and roots of the Hebrew words. In addition, the audience heard these stories (orally) for many years before they were set to writing. The stories were told in that context. So creation stories were NOT heard or read with modern earth science or biology books in mind. They were read with the prevalent myths of neighboring cultures (Egypt, Persia, Canaanite, etc.). The ancient Jews were ancient. However, their stories are not the mythologies we find in other cultures. There is a reluctance in Genesis (with few exceptions) to speak of heavenly realities or provide grandiose stories of gods at war. Yet, the absence of myth does not mean that we have Modern science or Modern history. (In all honesty, the fact that we can say "Modern History" should make this a non-discussion.)

Cain and Abel, for example, is a well known story about fratricide (ahhhh, Biblical Family values). Adam and eve have two sons. Abel, the Shepherd, pleases God with his offering. Cain, the farmer, does not. Cain kills his brother. We have no explanation for anything that happens. Most of what we know about the story comes from interpretations. "Why?" is not found in the story, it is found in us. That is the nature of mythic writing, it is open ended and taps into universal themes of humanity. Rejection, jealousy, anger, murder--these are all part of every person's story so when we find them here we readily make sense of them. However, the story itself is where God reveals Himself. What is the revelation? I would be less than honest if I didn't say there is so much more to the text, but one thing is clear. Cain, the murderer, is not only spared by God but he is marked and protected by God. Marked. Protected. A murderer. The revelation of amazing grace (similar to His treatment of the first parents) is arguably the point. That is what God says. How do we respond? well, we ask, "where did the other people Cain fears come from?" Here, the scoffer and the believer share the same error. The scoffer mocks the faith while the believer seeks to protect it. In both cases the story is missed.

My take on it? The Cain and Abel story is about sin, exile and redemption. It isn't an explanation of the population of the earth. The other people in the story are not explained because they aren't the point. Elaborate explanations generated by (well meaning) believers are off the point. God is not telling us how we got here, He is revealing Who He is. So listen to what He is saying (first) and spend more time with the message than you do making up theories to counteract the findings of science.

In the Noah story we here the stunning claim that God repented/regretted making man. This is a wonderful story, but it is theologically problematic. Most of us believe God knows the future. God knows everything. How can the God who knows everything regret anything? Once again, it is a mythic story. The Jewish Bible Flood is remarkably different from the myths of floods told by their neighbors. The story is more mundane and the reason (sin and corruption) more moral than the irritation of the gods. The point of the story? Based on language and themes, it is a do over. Noah is a second Adam. The story is taken up in the New Testament (1 Peter) as a type of baptism. I will end with that. The interpretation of the ark as salvation through baptism illustrates the the literal meaning is not always the most important. It is the nature of a mythic story to be bigger than itself. It is more true, not less true, than history. The quicker we embrace the Bible in its ancient form and free ourselves of the limitations of "The Modern" to faster we will hear our God speaking to us.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Praying like a Jew: Second Sunday after Epiphany

(readings: Isaiah 62:1-5; Ps 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
Prayer is communication with God. Too often our prayer is ineffective. We pray as if we must "turn the heart of God" and convince Him to be nice to us. Or we see God as a a weary parent whom we batter and beat down with endless requesting. Or we see God as a trade partner--'if you give me this I'll give you that.' Worst of all, is the offer to take on the suffering of another as if Jesus has not already accomplished that.That is really a pagan prayer. It is a rejection of the True God. So don't pray like that!

How should we pray? Our first example is a Jewish woman, Mary. She goes straight to Jesus, identifies a problem and trusts Him with it. She had a close and loving relationship with Jesus. She knew Him well. She simply states the problem. "They have no wine." She doesn't even make a request, then she just says, "Do whatever He tells you." She has absolute trust in Jesus. She hands the problem to Him. True prayer begins with complete trust in the Lord--a belief that He is good. The next step is to give it to Him. She did not micro-manage the process. She knew Him and trusted Him. She was fine with leaving it in His hands. He took care of it too (in spite of the timing). Prayer is about a relationship with the Lord; a loving, intimate relationship!

Six centuries before Mary, the author of Isaiah 62 was proclaiming God's word to the returned exiles. Life was hard and the difficult situation did not match their expectations of better days. Many had lost faith in the God of Israel. Yet, "Isiah" speaks with absolute confidence. "For Zion's sake I will not be silent---until I see her vindication!" Such confident trust in God is not always easy. "We walk by faith, not by sight," and sometimes what we see shakes our faith. We are the Beloved Spouse of God, but are tempted to feel "desolate" and "forsaken." The promise of God can take a while to appear. But Isaiah 62:6-7 (not found in our reading) exhorts the watchmen to never stop crying out, to continually speak to the Lord because the Lord has promised salvation. There are many reasons for the delay; but we must be clear that God has already acted to save us. We just wait for the fullness to be revealed.

Psalms provides 150 Jewish prayers. If they were good enough for Jesus they are good enough for me! The Psalms are a model for prayer. The psalms regularly include marvelous descriptors of God. Lets see Psalm 36:5-10, assigned today. 

"Your love, Oh Lord, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds." Do we truly believe in so much love? The Hebrew word "hesed" (translated as: loving-kindness, mercy, favor, pity, goodness) means that He never forgets His covenant with us and always stands ready to save. His fidelity is firm and concrete and dependable. This is the basis of confident prayer (for Mary, Isaiah, you and I)
God’s righteousness and justice are why He saves both man and beast. Once again the Hebrew words are very important descriptors of God. Too often we equate God's judgment with condemnation. The word "innocent" or "forgiven" are words of judgment. In the Jewish Bible God's justice means that He acts in the right way and rescues His faithful people. God is saving all of us: man and beast!

Again, we hear of love, "How priceless is you hesed (covenant love)-- your people “take refuge” under the shadow of your wings." The Father God is compared to a Mother Bird frequently. (cf Ps 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7). (Psalm 34:8) "Blessed is the one who takes refuge in God" for (Psalm 46:1; 96:2) "The Lord is my refuge and strength. Jesus, however, heart broken by disbelief, can be frustrated by our refusal to come to Him (Luke 13:31ff “I desired to gather you under my wings as a mother hen”). Why then, do we pray so little and shuttle God to the periphery of our lives? What could possibly be more important than God?  Our house? These are temporary refuges indeed! Jobs, hobbies, or mindless distractions God wants us to come under the shadow of His wings (a nice definition of prayer). The sad truth is, we do not need to be murderers or drug dealers to break relationship with God. We can simply close the door, turn on the television and say, "I have no time for you." That is enough. No prayer life is all it takes to leave Jesus crying,  reaching out to us, His arms still empty.

We are called to trust, deep trust, in the love and goodness of God.
However we pray, a few words or many sentences, we must pray with faith and trust. The Lord's love reaches to heaven and He pours out blessings on His children---however you pray, pray believing that and trusting Him.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Prayer: A Few Thoughts on "the Right Way"

Do you ever get tired of reading books that tell you that you have it all wrong, that what you are doing cannot and will not work? The author lays out a plan for doing it the ‘right way’, but the thing is, this contradicts everything that you read in the previous book, which disagreed with the talk you heard, which was in complete discord with the advice of a trusted friend. The problem isn’t that the experts disagree on minor details. No, one expert says “Never, ever, do this” while the other says, “always, only do this.” It is true in the physical realm, but also true in the spiritual. Most of us get tired of constantly being given contradictory directions to our desired destination.
Books on prayer often baffle. This one says, “Hound God constantly until you get what you want.” That one says, “Stop begging, ask once, then trust.” Another advises, “Make your request very clear and specific so God knows what you need.” Counter advice says, “God knows your needs, just thank Him for providing!” This one has a daily prayer list, that one simply says “bless those in need.” ‘Pray the psalms’, ‘don’t pray in the old covenant like a Jew’, ‘ask and you shall receive’, ‘you have already received so stop asking’--and on and on and on it goes… Is God so hard to reach? Is God so demanding that unless you get your prayer technically just right He won’t answer? And if all these “experts” cannot find common ground, how is a prayer novice with limited time for study to proceed?
Well, my guess is there are, at bottom, some common elements to all the advice. If we do not have exact agreement on eggs or how many steps per day, we do know some principles of a healthy diet and the value of exercise! Likewise, we can all agree on somethings even if prayer styles differ. And based on creation’s diversity, God has made a world full of multiple ways to “get it right” (or at least right enough!)?
SO what about prayer. I offer a few guidelines, but I think that each must choose his/her own way. I guess the best advice is trust God more and worry less about getting prayer perfect. I promise, it won’t be perfect (and I have wasted too much time worrying!).
1.   Love God. Truly love God. Focus on who God is -- a loving Father, revealing Himself through Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer life is subservient to ‘love life’. Open your heart to the Triune God. If you do that, then your prayer will be awesome. If the life of the Lord fills you, my guess is things will be fine [Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and everything else will be given to you.” If the Father is your King and you give yourself to His righteous/faithful rule, all will be well!”].
2.   However you approach asking (specific, general, lists, personal, global), make sure you ask in faith. Ask with a trusting heart which is open to receive. If your approach is “repetitive, pounding on Heaven’s door;” then pray constantly with an awareness that God hears and graciously blesses. If you prefer “one and done” then repeat prayers of trust, praise and gratitude. Remember, this is not a technique to get God to do what you want. It is a discipline and practice to open yourself up to receive what He wants to give, has given, will give, and is giving. The barrier is never God, it is you (or the world, or the devil). However you personally approach Him, remember He always desires to bless!
3.   Obviously it is you praying, you, not someone else. Certainly it is good to interact with others and it really is important to hear other people. We are all sinners in the process of becoming who God made us to be, none of us is finished and none of us knows it all. However, there needs to be congruence between our spirituality and our spirit! Clearly there are wrong ways to pray (sinfully, aligned against God’s will). Just as clearly, God’s will is broad enough for numerous modes of prayer. I like psalms because they demonstrate all manner of approaches (some of them not edifying). Pray from your soul (mind, heart, will, desire) and your spirit. Pray in congruence with your tradition (assuming it is a Christian way), too. You are part of a family. Pray as you pray, in the way that fits you. But always be open to growth. We are also changing, so let your prayer change and grow as well.
I think prayer should regularly include periods of time long enough to experience intimacy with God. It should also happen frequently enough that He is ever part of your daily life. So a significantly long (for some ten minutes may be long, others need an hour) prayer time and then short (a few seconds or a minute) prayers throughout the day is probably best for most of us.  How you open yourself to that relationship (written prayers or your own, Bible verses or holy silence, saying His Name over and over or long monologues about everything) is your choice. He has already called you into fellowship. So just do it and trust He will lead you where that communing is deepest and most wonderful.