Memorial, St. Lucy

Scripture Readings for December 13, 2017

Isaiah 40:25-31, Psalm 103:1-4, 8, 10, Matthew 11:28-30

Today’s readings are an effort to raise our personal spirits, perfect for those down in the dumps, I’d rather just stay in bed days. Isaiah is very clear that God gives strength to those who faint and energy to those who are weak. Even though the young “stagger and fall … those that trust in the Lord … will run and not grow weary.” Written originally to encourage Israel to hold on to its faith while exiled in Babylon these words are just as important today in helping us remember we are not alone when our own sense of well-being collapses. It seems to me that is the key thing religious faith does: reassures us that we are not on our own, especially in our deepest selves. When feelings and attitudes seem to turn against us, when outside support doesn’t seem to help, then we need to hear that the God, who created the entire world, is on our side and will provide the support no one else can give.

It seems we repeatedly get the message wrong. Historically, Christianity has often doubled down on human sinfulness and guilt instead of emphasizing God’s mercy and forgiveness. We are subject to the broad general attitudes that see religion as a course for moral guidance and proper behavior. That makes it easy to see God as judge and score keeper. Matthew’s gospel for today is a good antidote for that approach, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” It is a theme reinforced in the Psalm, “Merciful and gracious is the LORD … He pardons all your iniquities, he heals all your ills.” That is what I think is meant by redemption, by salvation. God saves us from all we do wrong, from the ideas and attitudes that keep us from being open and loving to others as well as being frightened of a world intended for our happiness. We too often let people, situations and our own experiences drive us to defensive, negative attitudes and actions. Only honesty, perseverance and trust can dig us out. God’s loving presence supports that kind of behavior, that kind of thinking and the sense of well-being that underlies it.

The lesson is exactly what Jesus says in Matthew, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Jesus is meek and humble not strident and proud, not fighting for advantage in each situation but willing to take what comes as one who trusts that the world itself is good and if anything, tilted in our favor. Can we believe it is possible to be ourselves, work for what we value and actually enjoy a fulfilling life? Will we let the Word of God comfort us and support our hopes, desires and the real challenges we undertake? If we can, then the Gospel will surely be Good News for us.

Monday, Second Week of Advent

Scripture Readings for December 11, 2017

Isaiah 35: 1-10, Psalm 85:9-14 and Luke 5:17-26

Once again our first reading from Isaiah, indeed all of Advent, gives us an image of what will happen when God comes: the weak will be strong, deserts will run with water, the blind will see. It is probably best summed up in saying, God comes to save us.

The Gospel from Luke gives us a concrete example of that happening. A paralyzed man is brought to Jesus and Jesus forgives his sins and heals his paralysis and the man walks home. By any standard, this is God saving his people.

Luke is trying to say one thing. Jesus is God present among us. That’s the message. As Christians, of course, we all believe that.

So what’s the message for us, we already believe Jesus is God’s presence in the world. I think our issue is that Jesus, the person who lived in Nazareth, isn’t here anymore. That makes it harder to operate as if God were here saving us today. That, however, is exactly what being Christian is all about, living out of the belief that God is here saving us today just as Jesus demonstrated 2,000 years ago. That is the point of what we can the Incarnation. You know, what we popularly call Christmas. The outrageous notion that God would become one of us, live a human life and suffer the same way people do. Why would God do that? Christian doctrine says God did that to make it clear that God lives here with us as part of everything, including death, and not far away in some distant heaven.

If that’s true then life should be dramatically different. As Isaiah says, people who are afraid will lose their fear, the lame will walk, flowers will bloom in the desert. An interesting example is in today’s Gospel. Things are dramatically different here. A man, who in the story doesn’t say a word, has his sins forgiven, his paralysis cured and he gets to walk home.

The thing that has always struck me about this story is Jesus’ response to this man being dropped through the roof right in front of him. The first thing Luke describes is, “Jesus saw their faith.” The narration explains the group of men couldn’t bring the paralyzed man into Jesus because of the crowd in the building. So they have to go up on the roof and lower him through the tiles. In this very elaborate physical work Jesus sees their faith. We often think of faith as a spiritual exercise, saying yes to beliefs. But here faith is connected solely to the physical task these men did. Additionally, it isn’t even the faith of the man on the stretcher because when Jesus addresses the man on the stretcher, “as for you” he is separating the paralytic from his observation about “their faith.” This is important because it says the paralytic’s sins were forgiven because of the work, the action of faith, performed by the men, who got him into the room.

This is a rather amazing intertwining of spiritual and physical issues, as well as the connections between us all. It is, for me, an example of how God actually lives in the reality of the world. It says that what happens, or not, each day in our world is an expression of Spirit not just day by day mechanics. Why should we think that a physical explanation of a given situation excludes the spiritual reality of God’s presence? For example, we know very well that doing something nice for another person can help that person feel better. You could say it lifts his/her spirits.

Our lives should be dramatically different if we act on the faith, the trust that God is part of our present reality. In Luke, a group of men brought a paralyzed man to Jesus and he was healed body and soul. What person, what relationships, what attitudes, what else that needs healing should we be bringing to the Savior through how we live?

Solemnity, Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary

Scripture Readings for December 8, 2017

Genesis 3:9-15, 20, Psalm 98:1-4, Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12, Luke 1: 26-38

Today the readings from Genesis and Luke are foundational stories of faith: the sin of Adam and the announcement of Jesus’ virginal conception. The stories are here as a way to celebrate an article of faith about Mary, her Immaculate Conception. It is an example of how the body of belief develops over time. One thing we hold as central, Jesus is the son of God born because of God’s action and not human initiative, leads to the realization that something else makes sense as well, that Mary was conceived without original sin because she would be the mother of Jesus.

Faced with these long accepted items of faith, it is important for me to remember that these stories are how we convey meaning. We tell stories to hold ideas that are the most elemental and far reaching for our existence. These are often ideas we can’t fully grasp, we’re trying to capture what may be elemental instincts about who we are and what we’re about and a narrative illustrates rather than analyzes. A narrative can hold contradictory elements better than logical arguments and so the normative measure of our faith is a book of stories and poetry.

So to honor Mary’s Immaculate Conception is, for me, to talk about how God reaches out to all human beings from the very beginning of our lives to offer us the grace, support or presence that enables us to live happy, productive, holy lives. In simpler terms, Mary represents the perfect example of what is possible for all of us.

So that said, what do I see in today’s readings? It occurs to me that perhaps we don’t take the story of Mary seriously enough. What I mean is that it’s too easy to make Mary perfect. We assume her relationship with God was so special that it’s an unattainable single instance of graced existence. I suspect the story is meant to inspire the opposite. We should take the life of Mary as an example of what is named in both Genesis and Luke, “nothing will be impossible for God.” We all have a blessed existence.

There is strong support for this line of thinking in the Hebrews reading for today. It says God, “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens … to be holy and without blemish before him.” That’s pretty strong, to be holy and without blemish. It sounds like a description of Mary or, for that matter, Jesus. The point being that we too are beloved of God, each of us. Too often we don’t accept our own goodness. Life experiences and other people can run us down, raising questions about our abilities or intentions. Too often our confidence and positive self-image are fragile. We need the support of others, we need to recognize that from the beginning we have been good and at our deepest core it is goodness that supports who we want to become. That’s what we should take away from the stories about Mary and Jesus in the Bible. God made us, from the beginning, to be holy and good and happy. Believe it.

Memorial, St. Ambrose

Scripture Readings for December 7, 2017

Isaiah 26:1-6, Psalm 118:1, 8-9, 19-21, 25-27, Matthew 7:21, 24-27

There was a time when I really didn’t like Jesus’ statement in Matthew about heavenly reward as available to “only the one who does the will of my Father.” It felt a lot like lock-step obedience which didn’t sit well with me. Lock-step obedience still puts me off but I’ve come to realize that is not what is being presented here. This is about responding to an offer of love, insight and wisdom. Today’s readings assume you already understand that God has made the first move. God unconditionally offers love and care and the historical Jesus tried to convey that reality emotionally by the way he lived his life and intellectually by the rather striking and clever parables he told. So there’s an offer on the table. The question is, are we going to accept it? Accepting it means putting into practice what we know about how God operates. God asks that we try to do what God does, live a life that gives to others, open caring based on who we are, giving what is ours to give. If we do that then we will be on solid ground. If we don’t we’ll discover that there isn’t any other real solid ground to stand on. All the rest is illusion, sand that can be washed away by any of the storms in life. So this isn’t about lock-step obedience it’s about being willing to discover where truth and justice live.

As the reading from Isaiah says, it all begins with trust.  Do we, in fact, believe in a God that offers good things, care and protection? This is clearly not obvious to many people. It takes more than readings from the bible to provide the basis for this view of life. It takes the experience of love and care to foster this view. It’s also why living a life that is caring and loving has such a concrete effect on our little part of the world. It’s why paying it forward makes such a surprising difference for people. It’s what we celebrate when we talk about saints, whether it’s St. Ambrose, St. Francis or Mother Teresa. These people decided to devote their whole lives to paying it forward. They felt such a strong love from God that they wanted to share it with others, especially those who weren’t getting it from anyone else.

For us, if we believe we have been blessed by God, the question is will we respond to what we have been given? It probably doesn’t mean rebuilding the Church, going to foreign lands or feeding street people. It does mean paying it forward to others who may not expect or even deserve our generosity or love at that moment. Those moments occur all the time in families, with friends and colleagues. My own challenge is while driving. I think people should follow the rules of the road, when they don’t, I’m not very good at being generous. No doubt there are situations in which you are less likely to give way or turn pleasantly helpful. There are, of course bigger issues than facing our daily frustrations but there is no better place to start. It’s a way to begin to look at who we are in all that we do. Do we trust enough that God is with us to act justly, give generously and love unconditionally in real everyday situations? Not so much when some charitable organization needs a donation but when we are challenged, when there’s a risk, a cost to giving something of ourselves to others. Our first reading from Isaiah says that if we are willing to do that, then God will be with us and peace will be the result.

Wednesday, First Week of Advent

Scripture Readings for December 6, 2017

Isaiah 25:6-10a, Psalm 23:1-6, Matthew 15:29-37

Today’s readings are about God’s loving care for us. The Gospel from Matthew summarizes it best, “They all ate and were satisfied.” Isaiah has God not only feeding people rich food and choice wine but God destroys death and so wipes the tears from everyone’s face. These are the images of the messianic banquet where all our needs are met. It’s the time we wait for in Advent.

I am struck by the sheer, over the top, abundance described in these readings. Isaiah doesn’t just say that God will provide rich food and choice wine he has to repeat in more lavish terms that this is, “juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.” He reveals God’s empathy for the fear all people have of death and makes the removal of that fear a touching moment in which God wipes the “tears from all faces.” I think this is definitely the God “for whom we looked.” It is a God who protects us, takes away our fears and gives us more than we had expected.

Today’s Psalm reinforces this idea. It is the famously quoted Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” which describes God’s soothing presence, one who is a guardian in time of fear, a provider of rich and extravagant blessings so that “only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life.” Who could ask for more than that? This is the gratitude of one who lives “in the house of the Lord.”

Finally, we have Matthew’s story of Jesus on a mountain near the Sea of Galilee. This too is a story of gift and abundance. Jesus cures the sick and in so doing amazes the crowd. It is a description reminiscent of the healings that Isaiah uses to describe the time of God’s reign. Yet Jesus not only cures the lame and the blind but he sympathizes with their simple but essential need for a meal. Not only does he eliminate many of the severe and future killing major calamities of their lives with physical healings but then turns around and serves them a meal. Who acts like this? The message in these readings is clear, God does.

I think we have to take these readings seriously. If Advent is to mean anything then we have to consider that these readings tell us something about how God operates towards human beings. I want to set the challenge of evil in the world aside for the moment and just absorb the gift of these readings. Here is a message of love so clear, so strong, so plainly sincere that we need to be sure we don’t dismiss it. That we don’t write it off as irrelevant to our daily lives or a nice description of what heaven must be like. This might have been an idyllic messiah story for Isaiah or the Psalmist but when Jesus lived in this world the whole thing changed. A real human being, who was later killed, brought God’s generous, caring gifts into ordinary people lives and the world has not been the same since. Stuff changed. History was effected by Jesus, his disciples and all the myriad believers, heretics, thinkers and peasants who lived and struggled to live up to what they thought Jesus was all about. We need to embrace the love and active generosity of God. It is affecting to accept that God is trying to give us a life of happiness and joy. That is what Advent asks us to do, look ahead, see what is possible, and be willing to welcome the gifts.

Tuesday, First Week of Advent

Scripture Readings for December 5, 2017

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17 and Luke 10:21-24

Today’s first reading is all about the coming of the future king and his reign. Isaiah is the ultimate Advent reading. It is the basis of Advent, telling us what is to come and what to look for. If we have mistakenly romanticized Christmas into a season of gift giving and family get-togethers, Isaiah reminds us that we are waiting for a completely different world, a paradise of peace and joy.

In terms of Advent we are still waiting for something that we think has already taken place. We treat Advent as routine, part of getting ready for Christmas. However, Advent is asking us to wait for something much bigger; not bigger than Christmas properly understood but bigger than our usual operational understanding of Christmas. Advent and Isaiah want us to see a new world that looks like Eden, a paradise. It is a world where calves and lions walk together, where children play with once deadly snakes, where the poor are treated fairly and there is “no harm or ruin” on the earth. That is the world we are looking for.

Yet in Luke’s gospel Jesus is telling his disciples that they are already seeing what the prophets wanted to see. They have just returned from their mission to spread the Gospel and they have been wildly successful, even casting out spirits. They have participated in knowing God, they have taken part in revealing God’s kingdom. However, for us, two thousand years later, this anticipated heaven doesn’t appear to be present. God’s reign is not yet. So how is Isaiah’s prophesy and Luke’s gospel helpful for us today? What message can we take away?

It is an understanding that Jesus is both the media and the message. His existence is what we need to know about ourselves and our relationship with God. When Isaiah talks about all the gifts of the Spirit that will be given to the expected Messiah, to Jesus, he is revealing what is available to all of humanity. This is also what Jesus is thanking his Father for in Luke, when he says, “you have revealed these things to the childlike,” i.e. to ordinary people, to everyone. That’s what Jesus is also saying to his disciples, when he says they are blessed because they can actually see what Jesus, the Messiah, is doing and as a result they are in a position to do the same thing. Kings and prophets before Jesus only thought in terms of a future possibility, an imagined future in which they hoped to see God act in their world. However, that’s what the disciples actually have in front of them, the living expression of God in the world.

If we believe that’s true, that the person Jesus is God operating in the world, then we are also in a position to live that reality. To spread that way of living, to act out of that love and presence which is available to us in the Spirit. No, the world is not the idyllic paradise we might imagine. Yet when and where people have lived the life of love and care for others, their piece of the planet has been changed. You know the famous examples: Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, and the many official saints. You also probably know people you admire who have changed their part of the world, people who have made a difference. These are happy, enthusiastic, devoted people who recognize the gift they have and share it. That’s something we can all do and it can make a difference to this world’s day to day reality.

Monday, First Week of Advent

Scripture Readings for December 4, 2017

 Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122:1-9 and Matthew 8:5-11

We have just begun Advent so when I heard the last line from Isaiah, “let us walk in the light of the Lord,” I thought it said exactly what we need right now. The earlier part of Isaiah says what walking in the light of the Lord is all about: putting aside hostilities, getting along with everyone and doing what God says is the right thing. It is behavior attuned to the divine that yields the peace of the Lord and builds a City of God.

The most concrete example in today’s readings is the behavior of the centurion. This man is a Roman army officer, he’s in charge of 100 men. In this time and place he could have anything he wants. He has real power over not just his soldiers but could force his will on any of the locals he chose. Yet he comes to Jesus not only respectfully but humbly. He is also apparently aware of the fact that if a Jew entered a Gentile house they were considered ritually unclean.

The centurion asks as one without power or privilege. However, he asks confidently believing that Jesus doesn’t even have to enter his house to do what he wants. This is how the centurion walks in the light of the Lord. He asks out of his concern for his servant who is paralyzed and suffering at home. He asks with no other qualifications. I think that is often hard to do, to come before God, leaving status, privilege, and one’s attitude behind. To ask out of our concern alone trusting that God can accomplish what is needed.

Our Psalm today is all about having peace and prosperity. Living in God’s city. Jerusalem is meant to be the image of what we would call heaven. I want to suggest that heaven shouldn’t just be an image we have of our life after death. But rather we must consider that Jesus and Scripture are trying to tell us something about what God wants for us here and now. Especially if you consider that most of what makes up our peace and prosperity comes from within.

The Psalm is very explicit about this when it says, ‘Peace be within you.” I think that the image of Jerusalem may well be the ideal of how changing our attitudes could change who we are and how we deal with the world and all the everyday issues that aren’t very peaceful. What if we approached life as humbly as the centurion? What if we were willing to hear what God is saying to us and were willing to accept the paths God lays out before us?

This is one of the first days of Advent, a time in which we wait for the light of Christ to be born into the world. Perhaps it’s time to consider that the birth this year could well be within us. We too can walk in the light of God and experience a birth that comes about when we, like the centurion, humbly ask for healing from whatever suffering has harmed part of our lives. Maybe then it will be easier to see and hear what God is doing for us. “Let us walk in the Light of the Lord.”