Sunday, January 29, 2012

Who Is A Prophet?

(by James Tissot)

Massud Farzan (b. 1936), a contemporary Iranian poet, critic, short-story writer, and translator, relates a story about a man claiming to be God. He was taken to the Caliph who said, “Last year someone was claiming to be a prophet. He was executed.” “Serves him right,” the man replied, “I hadn’t sent him.
How many people have there been throughout the centuries who have claimed to be prophets? Generally, these are folks who, rightly or wrongly, challenge society’s institutions. Today’s first reading (Deuteronomy 18:15-20) speaks of the prophetic office in general. Contrary to common popular understanding, a biblical prophet isn’t first and foremost a future-teller, but rather a spokesperson, an intermediary for the Divine. There are some criteria, as the reading intimates, for distinguishing a true prophet from a false one. The true prophet speaks in the One God’s name, not in the name of other so-called deities. False prophets claim God’s inspiration even though they know that they don’t have it. Our Sunday TV stations are rife with examples of such claims. Many of these false prophets, perhaps, are sincere in their zeal, but nevertheless speak mistakenly. I believe that Joseph Smith, responsible for Mormonism, is a classic example. The author of Deuteronomy hints that one needs to wait and see, in order to evaluate the fruits of a person’s claim. St. Paul grappled throughout his missionary career with folks who considered themselves spokespersons for God regarding the structure, theology and practices of the churches  which he had established.
Paul carries the conversation on prophets further with the Corinthian community in the second reading (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). There are two kinds of “prophetic” knowledge, he says: 1) a knowledge which “puffs up”, the kind which a person, called or not by God, thinks s/he knows, but doesn’t; and 2) the knowledge which comes from sharing God’s love with others. Paul uses an example which doesn’t speak much to us today, perhaps: the use of meat offered in idol worship. Gnostic libertines in his time were using their “inside” knowledge to exalt themselves, while scandalizing their neighbor. Paul’s contention is that to sin against Christ by sinning against one another is a sure sign of one’s being a false prophet. No amount of “spiritual knowledge” justifies unloving regard of a sister or brother.
At the Eucharist which I attended this morning, the translation used for the second reading was taken from Eugene Peterson’s wonderful paraphrase, The Message, and I feel it’s useful to share it here because of the unique way it conveys what, I believe, Paul is trying to express:
The question keeps coming up regarding meat that has been offered up to an idol: Should you attend meals where such meat is served, or not? We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions—but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds. We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all.

Some people say, quite rightly, that idols have no actual existence, that there's nothing to them, that there is no God other than our one God, that no matter how many of these so-called gods are named and worshiped they still don't add up to anything but a tall story. They say—again, quite rightly—that there is only one God the Father, that everything comes from him, and that he wants us to live for him. Also, they say that there is only one Master—Jesus the Messiah—and that everything is for his sake, including us. Yes. It's true.

In strict logic, then, nothing happened to the meat when it was offered up to an idol. It's just like any other meat. I know that, and you know that. But knowing isn't everything. If it becomes everything, some people end up as know-it-alls who treat others as know-nothings. Real knowledge isn't that insensitive.
We need to be sensitive to the fact that we're not all at the same level of understanding in this. Some of you have spent your entire lives eating "idol meat," and are sure that there's something bad in the meat that then becomes something bad inside of you. An imagination and conscience shaped under those conditions isn't going to change overnight.
But fortunately God doesn't grade us on our diet. We're neither commended when we clean our plate nor reprimanded when we just can't stomach it. But God does care when you use your freedom carelessly in a way that leads a fellow believer still vulnerable to those old associations to be thrown off track.
For instance, say you flaunt your freedom by going to a banquet thrown in honor of idols, where the main course is meat sacrificed to idols. Isn't there great danger if someone still struggling over this issue, someone who looks up to you as knowledgeable and mature, sees you go into that banquet? The danger is that he will become terribly confused—maybe even to the point of getting mixed up himself in what his conscience tells him is wrong.
Christ gave up his life for that person. Wouldn't you at least be willing to give up going to dinner for him—because, as you say, it doesn't really make any difference? But it does make a difference if you hurt your friend terribly, risking his eternal ruin! When you hurt your friend, you hurt Christ. A free meal here and there isn't worth it at the cost of even one of these "weak ones." So, never go to these idol-tainted meals if there's any chance it will trip up one of your brothers or sisters.
The only authentic prophet, spokesperson for, or intermediary for God is Jesus whose relationship of love with God is so close as to constitute an identity with God. In the Gospel (Mark 1:21-28) Mark shows Jesus' authority by portraying him as a wonder-worker and healer, by putting the story within a framework which shows Jesus of Nazareth as teacher/prophet speaking with authority. The Greek word used for "authority", exousia, means something like “out of one’s own existence/self; mastery; taking charge; presence". The Latin equivalent, auctoritas, derives from the word for “to help increase/grow”. Jesus silences falsity and evil because he is the Holy One of God. Instead of “puffing up”, he builds up through love. He enables people to grow because he knows, and is known, by God, the source of love.
It’s possible even for you and me, at times, to mistakenly think of ourselves as, or to act like, a "prophet", to presume to speak for God. There are always people who feel compelled to speak out and to challenge society’s institutions, both civil and religious, and we’re seeing much of that currently. That’s actually good, for institutions need to be held accountable in order to truly serve the common good of humankind. History has repeatedly demonstrated how ecclesiastical and governmental systems get “puffed up” and fail to meet their responsibilities to society. Losing sight of the common good, institutional leaders, because they're human, are prone to become selfish and corrupt, to repress and oppress, through misused power and greed, the very people whom God intends for them to serve. In a way, they almost make necessary the appearance of outspoken, zealous, concerned, even angry, opponents who prick their consciences and put the spotlight on their shortcomings and sometimes willful maliciousness. 
The danger with prophets, with those who attempt to speak for God, is perspective. Only those who continuously and intentionally seek to know and are known by God are able to keep any kind of balance. Too often, self-proclaimed prophets are tempted to put their supposed expertise or spiritual knowledge above what is genuinely for the good of all. Pride has a way of leading one to become a law to oneself, so much so that one can sometimes judge legitimate civil or religious institutions themselves as unnecessary, something, curiously, which God hasn’t seem to have found necessary in all of human history! John Wesley gives some sobering advice to aspiring prophets: “Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose voices, dreams, impressions, visions or revelations to be from God. They may be from God. They may be from nature. They may be from the devil.
As followers of Jesus the Holy One, the only true measure of whether or not we speak authentically for the Gospel is Jesus himself. As members of the Church and as citizens of society we need to continually ask ourselves: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  We deserve no hearing unless we speak by his authority, by his presence.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

United In The Reign of Christ

"...whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ,* the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ* and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead." (Letter to the Philippians 3:7-11)

Day Eight: United in the Reign of Christ
To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne (Revalations. 3:21)

On this last day of our week of prayer for Christian Unity we celebrate the Reign of Christ. Christ's victory enables us to look into the future with hope. This victory overcomes all that keeps us from sharing fullness of life with him and with each other. Christians know that unity among us is above all a gift of God. It is a share in Christ's glorious victory over all that divides.

In what ways do false humility and a desire for earthly glory manifest themselves in our lives?

How do we express together our faith in the Reign of Christ?

How do we live out our hope in the coming Kingdom of God?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Good Shepherd: Source Of Strength

John's Gospel sets before us the great "I am" sayings which convey the message that Jesus is one with God.  In John 10 Jesus says: twiceI am the gate for the sheep....  And you, says the Good Shepherd, can be part of the “sheep-herd”,  the flock, the community of koinonia, of fellowship, only through “entering”, through becoming one with the One who is both the gate and the Shepherd. Who wouldn’t wish to be part of Jesus’ fellowship!? For He promises to each one who enters: salvation; open access to God, 24/7; nourishment beyond measure; and life, eternal life: and all of this abundantly”.
We probably wouldn’t have chosen sheep as the image for Jesus’ followers, possibly because you and I realize that we have more in common with sheep than we want to admit! Yet Jesus refers to Himself in terms very familiar to his hearers: "I am the good, the noble, Shepherd." Each time we gather in community around the Lord's Table we come ready to share the Lord’s abundance in our fellowship of hearing the Apostles’ teaching, of bread-breaking, and of prayer.  Our hearts listen for, often straining to hear, the voice of the Good Shepherd who patiently draws us to peace and reconciliation: to the koinonia, the fellowship of the Communion of Saints. Though the places in which we live and work will still require us to struggle with fear, anger, and violence, here, in Communion, we encounter the Risen Lord. Here you and I are abundantly fed for the journey ahead. And as we're fed, we’re invited to now be willing to go forth and feed others in the name of the Good Shepherd.

Day Seven: Changed by the Good Shepherd
Feed my sheep (John 21:19)

On this day the Bible texts show us the Lord strengthening His flock. Following the Good Shepherd, we are called to strengthen each other in the Lord, and to support and fortify the weak and the lost. There is one Shepherd, and we are his people.

How does the Good Shepherd inspire us to comfort, revive, and restore the confidence of those who are lost?

In what ways can Christians of various traditions strengthen each other in confessing and bearing witness to Jesus Christ?

For us today, what can be the meaning of St Paul's exhortation: "Be strong in the Lord.... put on the whole armour of God"?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Bishop Phillips Brooks: Greatest Preacher of the 19th Century

The Right Honorable, The 1st Viscount, James Bryce (1838-1922), who became the British Ambassador to the United States in 1907, a jurist, historian, and politician, knew the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) and had heard him preach. In comparing Brooks to some of the great preachers of the time: Wilberforce, Spurgeon, Henry Ward Beecher, etc., Bryce wrote: "All these famous men were, in a sense, more
brilliant, that is to say, more rhetorically effective, than Dr. Brooks, yet none of them seemed to speak so directly to the soul. With all of them it was impossible to forget the speaker in the words spoken, because the speaker did not seem to have quite forgotten himself, but to have studied the effect he sought to produce. With him it was otherwise. What amount of preparation he may have given to his discourses I do not know. But there was no sign of art about them, no touch of self-consciousness. He spoke to his audience as a man might speak to his friend, pouring forth with swift, yet quiet and seldom impassioned, earnestness the thoughts and feelings of a singularly pure and lofty spirit...Dr. Brooks was the best because the most edifying of others among the famous preachers of the generation that is now vanishing approached him...

Brooks' words on the Church and the sacraments are especially appropriate during this Week of Prayer for Christian and Interfaith Unity: "The Church is no exception and afterthought in the world, but is the survival and preservation of the world's first idea -- the anticipation and prophecy of the world's final perfectness. The Church of Christ is the ideal humanity. Say not that it leaves out the superhuman. I know no ideal humanity that is not filled and pervaded with the superhuman. God in man is not unnatural, but the absolutely natural. That is what the Incarnation makes us know..."

Regarding the sacraments Brooks says: "The unity of [Christ's] believers to the end of time is still to have the secret of its existence in the personal relation between each of them and him. To help this invisible relation to realize itself and not to be all lost in the unseen, the gracious kindness of the Master provides two symbols [Baptism and the Eucharist] which thenceforth become the pledges at once of the personal believer's belonging to the Lord and of the belonging of believers to each other. The sacraments are set like gems to hold the Church into its precious unity...

Steadfast Love: The Foundation of Unity

Day Six: Changed by God's Steadfast Love
This is the victory, our faith (cf. 1 John 5:4)
On this day we concentrate our attention on God's steadfast love. The Paschal Mystery reveals this steadfast love, and calls us to a new way of faith. This faith overcomes fear and opens our hearts to the power of the Spirit. Such faith calls us to friendship with Christ, and so to one another.
  1. How should we express Christian love in contexts of different religions and philosophies?
  2. What must we do to become more credible witnesses of God´s steadfast love in a divided world?
  3. How can Christ's followers more visibly support one another throughout the world?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Peace of the Risen Savior

Day Five: Changed by the peace of the Risen Lord
Jesus stood among them and said: Peace be with you! (John 20:19)

Today we celebrate the peace of the Risen Lord. The Risen One is the great Victor over death and the world of darkness. He unites His disciples, who were paralysed with fear. He opens up before us new prospects of life and of acting for His coming kingdom. The Risen Lord unites and strengthens all believers. Peace and unity are the hallmarks of our transformation in the resurrection.

What forms of violence in our community can we as Christians confront together?

How do we experience hidden hostilities that affect our relationship to each other as Christian communities?

How can we learn to welcome each other as Christ welcomes us?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"...evil may be not seeing well enough, so perhaps to become less evil we need only to see more, see what we didn't see before..." (Corita Kent, Footnotes And Headlines: a play-pray book)

Day Four: Changed by the Lord's Victory over Evil
Overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21)

This day takes us deeper into the struggles against evil. Victory in Christ is an overcoming of all that damages God's creation, and keeps us apart from one another. In Jesus we are called to share in this new life, struggling with him against what is wrong in our world, with renewed confidence and with a delight in what is good. In our divisions we cannot be strong enough to overcome evil in our times.

Where do we see evil in our own lives?

In what way can our faith in Christ help us to overcome evil and the Evil One?

What can we learn from situations in our community where division has given way to reconciliation?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Passion Without Honor

Some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's most eloquent theological commentary on suffering is found in his The Cost of Discipleship: "...The call to follow is closely connected with Jesus' prediction of the passion. Jesus Christ must suffer and be rejected. This 'must' is inherent in the promise of God -- the Scripture must be fulfilled. There is a distinction here between suffering and rejection. Had he only suffered, Jesus might still have been applauded as the Messiah. All the sympathy and admiration of the world might have been focused on his passion. It could have been viewed as a tragedy with its own intrinsic value, dignity and honor. But in the passion Jesus is a rejected Messiah. His rejection robs the passion of its halo of glory. It must be a passion without honor. Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus. To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity, and every attempt to prevent it is the work of the devil, especially when it comes from his own disciples; for it is in fact an attempt to prevent Christ from being Christ. It is Peter, the Rock of the Church, who commits that sin, immediately after he has confessed Jesus as the Messiah and has been appointed to the primacy. That shows how the very notion of a suffering Messiah was a scandal to the Church, even in its earliest days. That is not the kind of Lord it wants, and as the Church of Christ it does not like to have the law of suffering imposed upon it by its Lord. Peter's protest displays his own unwillingness to suffer, and that means that Satan has gained entry into the Church, and is trying to tear it away from the cross of its Lord.

Jesus must therefore make it clear beyond all doubt that the 'must' of suffering applies to his disciples no less than to himself. Just as Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord's suffering and rejection and crucifixion. Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross..."

Day Three: Changed by the Suffering Servant
Christ suffered for us (cf. 1 Peter 2:21)

This day calls us to reflect on the suffering of Christ. Following Christ the Suffering Servant, Christians are called to solidarity with all who suffer. The closer we come to the cross of Christ the closer we come to one another.

How can our faith help us in our response to long-lasting suffering?

What areas of human suffering are unnoticed and belittled today?

How can Christians bear witness together to the power of the cross?

Thursday, January 19, 2012


It would be interesting to be able to tally up the hours any of us have spent waiting in lines throughout the course of our years. Waiting takes on many aspects for each of us, depending on what or who it is that we await. Waiting in an emergency room for news of a loved one's condition differs from waiting in line to receive one's college diploma. Waiting for a train taking you off to a foreign country for military duty is quite different from waiting in line for an order of McNuggets. Then, there's the waiting for God: for the numinous and the Divine to make Itself known in our hearts and souls.

In his Four Quartets T. S. Eliot says: "...the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting..."The Psalmist advises: "Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage..."

Today the Week of Prayer for Christian and Interfaith Unity focusses on this theme of waiting:

Day Two: Changed through patient waiting for the Lord
Let it be so now, for it is proper to fulfil all righteousness (Matt. 3:15)

On this day we concentrate on patient waiting for the Lord. To achieve any change, perseverance and patience are needed. Prayer to God for any kind of transformation is also an act of faith and trust in his promises. Such waiting for the Lord is essential for all who pray for the visible unity of the church this week. All ecumenical activities require time, mutual attention and joint action. We are all called to co-operate with the work of the Spirit in uniting Christians.

In what situations in our life should we have a greater trust in God's promises?

What areas of church life are particularly at risk from the temptation to act hastily?

In what situations should Christians wait, and when should they act together?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Week of Prayer for Christian & Interfaith Unity

Though I realize that the emphasis of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is largely Christian in nature, personally I find it more and more difficult to think in such limited terms. For me the desire for unity and wholeness among believers needs to be all-inclusive and to embrace all people of religious faith. It's hard enough working for common tolerance and understanding among the Christian churches, some of whom appear to be "Christian" in name only, to judge by some of the social and political stances they're taking these days! The ecumenical picture and vision, I believe, is much larger.

The Graymoor Friars in New York have spearheaded the annual celebration and the ecumenical movement for a long time. Graymoor has continued to issue the annual materials for celebrating the Week of Prayer. Its introduction of the 2012 theme says this: "The material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2012 was prepared by a working group composed of representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and Old Catholic and Protestant Churches active in Poland. 

Following extensive discussions in which the representatives of various ecumenical circles in Poland took part, it was decided to focus on a theme that is concerned with the transformative power of faith in Christ, particularly in relation to our praying for the visible unity of the Church, the Body of Christ. This was based on St. Paul's words to the Corinthian Church which speaks of the temporary nature of our present lives (with all its apparent "victory" and "defeat") in comparison to what we receive through the victory of Christ through the Paschal mystery."

The first reading in Morning Prayer (Ezechiel 3:4-11) for this day's commemoration of the Confession of St. Peter certainly gives ancient testimony to the difficulty of fostering unity among followers of the one God and of his Son, Jesus the Christ: "He said to me: Mortal, go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them. For you are not sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel— not to many peoples of obscure speech and difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely, if I sent you to them, they would listen to you. But the house of Israel will not listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart. See, I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads. Like the hardest stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead; do not fear them or be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. He said to me: Mortal, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart and hear with your ears; then go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them. Say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’; whether they hear or refuse to hear." (Emphasis mine)

The Christian Church finds it no less difficult today to allow "[God's] very words to them" to be spoken, much less acted upon and lived. We followers of Jesus too often exhibit "a hard forehead and a stubborn heart", displaying ourselves to the world as "a rebellious house", rather than as determined bearers of the compassion, justice and peace of a loving God.

Perhaps we can take to heart, on this first day of the Week of Prayer for Christian & Interfaith Unity, the reflection suggested in the Graymoor material:

Day One: Changed by the Servant Christ
The Son of Man came to serve (cf. Mark 10:45)

On this day we encounter Jesus, on the road to victory through service. We see him as the "one who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life, a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Consequently, the Church of Jesus Christ is a serving community. The use of our diverse gifts in common service to humanity makes visible our unity in Christ.

What opportunities for service are most threatened by pride and arrogance?
What should be done to ensure that all Christian ministries are better experienced as service?
In our community, what can Christians of different traditions do better together than in isolation to reveal the Servant Christ?

Lord God, we thank you for sending your Son Jesus Christ to gather all peoples 
into the one communion of love and life through your Holy Spirit.
We thank you for reminding us in our day to extend every effort
to maintain the unity of the followers of Christ for which he so fervently prayed.
We ask today that this unity, this gift of the Holy Spirit, be so renewed
among our churches that they will overcome obstacles that hinder
a fuller expression of this gift and prevent a stronger witness to your love in Christ,
through the Spirit with whom You live and reign forever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Call To Vision

In those days the word of the Lord was rarely heard; there was no outpouring of vision.” (Revised English Version)
In thanksgiving for God answering Hannah’s prayer to give her a son, she dedicated Samuel as a child to minister to God under the supervision of the priest, Eli. (1 Samuel 1:24-28) Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phineas, were rogue priests who misused their position by becoming sexual predators on women who served at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, as well as by greedily grabbing, possibly along with their father, the choicest portions of the Israelites’ sacrificial offerings. Eli is pictured by the author of 1 Samuel as a weak, wimpy parent, at best.
Today’s first reading (1 Samuel 3:1-20) begins with the author’s notation that God’s word was “rare” in those days. God was silent; God’s ministers didn’t speak much about God. God’s people generally lacked vision. Eli is described in the passage as one “whose eyesight had begun to grow dim, so that he could not see...” It’s a visible sign of his interior state of being. Neither he nor his incorrigible, blasphemous sons are pleasing to God. Nevertheless, as the author continues, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” There is still hope.
It’s in this context that the boy, Samuel, lying down in God’s temple, hears someone calling, once, then twice: “Samuel, Samuel!” Notice how, at both times when this occurs, Samuel responds unhesitatingly: “Here I am!” Already, though unwittingly, he shows promise of becoming a true servant of God. Yet, it’s pointed out, Samuel “did not yet know the Lord,...the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” It’s always God who initiates the call to God’s servant. Each time Samuel hears the voice, thinking that it’s Eli summoning him, he runs to Eli, only to be told that he hadn’t called Samuel. Eli sends him back only to have the process repeated a third time. Finally, Eli “gets it”; it’s the Holy One calling out to Samuel. “Go lie down,” he tells Samuel, and if he calls you again, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’
Samuel obeys, a further sign of a genuine servant of God. God, then, “came and stood there”, calling out a fourth time, “Samuel, Samuel”. Samuel responds as Eli prompted him, but notice that he doesn’t speak the word “Lord” -- only “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Samuel is a faithful servant of God: even though he doesn’t know who’s addressing him, he nevertheless responds wholeheartedly.
God intimates that something extremely important is about to said: something that “will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle...” As Samuel stands there taking it all in, God reveals God’s intention to exclude Abiathar, Eli’s descendant, as well as his other descendants, from the priesthood, in favor of Zadok and his successors. That was a message which Eli, though he recognized that it was the Lord calling, dreaded hearing!
Samuel, even as young as he is, gets the message loud and clear. And he’s afraid. He “lay there until morning...afraid to tell the vision to Eli.” But Eli calls Samuel, to have verbalized what he was savvy enough to have already figured it out. Eli presses Samuel to tell him the hard truth, and not to hide anything from Eli. Samuel, a truthful servant of God, shares God’s revelation forthrightly. Eli confirms it: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” The author concludes simply: “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him...All Israel...knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
When you and I don’t “know” the Lord because of our chronic selfishness and weakness, God’s word can’t get through. Consequently we lack any kind of real spiritual vision and become incapable of genuinely serving God and others. The level of cultural, political, and spiritual intolerance which is apparent today, in the life of our country as well as within the Church, seems to be the fundamental root of our troubles. It’s hard not to recall God’s words in Genesis: “‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh’...The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually...” 
Humankind seems to be bent on war on many fronts. Christ’s words continue to fall on deaf ears: “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...” (Matthew 5:44) “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) “For though we live in the world we do not wage war as the world does...We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-6) How “rare” is the word of God in our own day? Where is the vision?
Particularly in this Week of Prayer for Christian and Interfaith Unity, the call for vision needs to go out to the world anew.  1) A call to be truly people of the Word, people of The Book. God’s Covenant of love applies to all humankind, for we’re all sisters and brothers. Our lives need guidelines, “commandments” if you will, to lead us away from darkness and towards truth. Our generation, at least as much as all other generations, need prophets, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., whose liturgical commemoration is tomorrow, to face us with the hard realities of the dangers of disunity and oppression. Our hearts need to resonate with the Psalms which help us to pray in every imaginable human situation. Most of all, we need the vision of Jesus of Nazareth, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” as the model to become women and men of love. 2) A call, as Christians, to live as a covenant community through Baptism, recognizing the inherent worth of every human being, and committing ourselves to equality and justice in every aspect of human life. 3) A call, as Christians, to become a faithful people, not just occasionally, but every single day: centered on Jesus the Christ, seeking continual renewal through the Holy Spirit.
Today’s story of Samuel reminds us of the importance of  listening at times when God seems to be calling us to something new. Samuel does this at a time of transition in both his own and Israel’s life. St. Paul hints at a similar situation in the Epistle (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), while John’s Gospel passage (John 1:43-51) provides another story of listening to a call. There Nathanael is invited to do more than just listen to Jesus the Holy One. He’s asked to "Come and see!". 
René Girard, French historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science, holds that all human culture prevents us from seeing and hearing the true God. It’s only when, by God’s utter gift of grace, Jesus is crucified and raised from the dead and appears to some of his followers, inviting them, calling them, that they and we are released from the power of human culture and begin to experience the the reign of God, i.e., God's culture. Imbued with the Spirit of Jesus, we can finally begin to see clearly how radically different are God's culture and all human cultures, touched as they are by the reality of sin and selfishness. 
That hope is grounded in the grace and love of God in Christ which forgives us our very being having been formed in the sin and death of human culture. God's forgiveness invites us to begin to live in God's culture, which, as it transforms and sanctifies each of our beings, can also begin to transform human culture.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ
is the light of the world:
Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments,
may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory,
that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed 
to the ends of the earth. Amen.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Baptism In Christ: What It Takes To Be The Beloved

We’ve just spent two weeks celebrating again the birth of Jesus of  Nazareth, the feast of his Holy Name, and his manifestation to all humankind, the Epiphany.  It’s a bit dangerous, however, to focus entirely on Jesus, the baby.  The remembrance of His birth should cause us to seriously reflect on the life and death of the person whom the baby grew to be.  Otherwise, it’s too easy too get caught up, emotionally, in the music, the art, the joy of the wonderful Christ Child and his mother.  What should be the beginning of a journey becomes the whole trip.  If our joy centers only on a remembrance, it’s likely that we’ve missed the Incarnation’s call and challenge.
Today’s Gospel passage (Mark 1:4-11) is the first event in Jesus’ life which Mark records. Some folks find this story troubling.  If the only purpose of John’s baptism was a cleansing from sin, how do we reconcile that with the belief that Jesus was without sin? In Matthew’s interpretation of the event, even John the Baptizer is troubled by Jesus’ request for baptism.  “I need to be baptized by you,” he says, “and do you come to me?”  Jesus reassures John, saying: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Both Mark and Matthew subtly allude to a passage found in Chapter 42 of Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him...”  Jesus would have been quite familiar with that text.  He accepts his calling to be God’s servant, to do justice, to set things right, something that can be accomplished only by his accepting and affirming his relationship with people who are aware that they need to be made right with God.
By being conceived and born of a human mother, Jesus became our brother. In his baptism he now affirms that he’s truly one with us as we are, not as we think we should be.  A lyric in the familiar Christmas carol, “O come, all ye faithful”, says “Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb.”  The more amazing truth is that Jesus abhors not the water of baptism and all that it implies of our need to be cleansed and healed and made right with God.
A Jesus who would have entered the human experience only when it was good and right couldn’t have touched us as we really are.  A Jesus who enters our lives without changing us is only “slumming”.  What we need and what God has given us in God’s Son, the Beloved, is One who constantly enters our lives at our worst, and yet renews and restores us.
In Jesus, God is revealed as one who is determined to get involved in the messy human enterprise.  It leads Jesus at once into temptation and into a ministry of teaching, with some people rejecting his message, and of healing, a ministry with people not always so appreciative of his effort.  Eventually it led Jesus to imprisonment and the Cross.  Jesus responds to the call of the God whom Isaiah knew.  Like the prophet himself, Jesus knows that God involves Godself with real human beings, and that he himself can respond in no other way.
What about us?? Think for a moment about what happens when a child is adopted into a family.  If the child is asked: “When were you adopted?” he/she can give a specific day and year.  But that isn’t really when adoption happens. Adoption happens when the child takes his or her place in the day-to-day living and relating among the other people in a family: at the point when the child says “I choose these particular people, in this particular context, regardless of their shortcomings and failings, to be my family: my father, mother, brothers and sisters.”  Becoming part of a family, in more than just name, is a long, slow, creative process.
Baptism is much like adoption.  It happens at a specific time and place on a specific day. Mine was on March 14, 1937, at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Dayton, OH.  My son, Andrew, just celebrated his 36th baptismal anniversary on Friday, the feast of the Epiphany.  One of my classmates from seminary did the honors of baptizing him in Alameda in 1975. But somehow, baptism doesn’t, from our viewpoint, “take” until the person baptized deliberately chooses the risk living it. That’s really what the sacrament of Confirmation is all about.  In Jesus, God calls each of us as God’s son or daughter.  Dare we deliberately risk responding to that call? And to what, exactly, does God call us?
In particular, God calls you and me to live and interact with others. As adopted children of God, we thereby become sisters and brothers of one another.  Sometimes that’s a source of immense joy. But if you’ve lived in a family with siblings, you probably know that it isn’t all sharing a plate of fresh cookies on the back porch in the sunshine! A little boy prayed fervently in Sunday school: “Dear God, please bless everybody except Tommy.”  The teacher assured the boy that God understood that his little brother was often difficult to live with, but that God loves Tommy very much.  “Then he’s a mighty funny kind of God,” said the little boy.
Isaiah, Paul, John the Baptizer, and Jesus all found that God who calls us in Baptism, invites us into relationships involving risk and cost, often with people we’d probably never choose as friends, much less as sisters and brothers! But, then, our God is a funny kind of God, funny enough to love and call each and all of us. 
The struggle which you and I experience in living out our baptism isn’t so much in the choosing between good and evil as in choosing between patterns which lead to greater love, acceptance, unity, goodness, and freedom; and patterns which lead us elsewhere.  Stealing, for example, is evil. Hardening one’s heart against the poor is evil. Murder is evil; letting people starve to death, wherever they are in the world, is evil.  And so is denying anyone the chance to grow; or playing to the worst in others.  
Most people can honestly say that they’ve never actually killed a human being. On a scale of virtue, that would be worth a 10.  But what about the times we “sink the knife” into someone with a cutting remark or a glare? What of the times we lock people into the prison of our own expectations; or the times we write people off, simply on the basis of some insignificant or selfish standard which we’ve devised?  “Dear God, please bless everyone except this person or that person.”  Each of us has a “Tommy”.
In calling us into relationship with the Father, Jesus calls us both to be made right ourselves and to become part of God’s desire to call all people, all of life, into right relationship.  If we pretend that we’re already in such a good and right relationship with God, that we don’t need healing, we’re really refusing God’s love. People who thought of themselves as holy enough refused John’s offer of baptism -- but not Jesus.
Keeping one’s relationship with God as a private matter, just between God and oneself, isn’t an option.  The God of Love can’t and won’t be so confined.  If you invite Jesus to dinner, you need to be prepared for him to show up with some of his other friends.  And you never know whom he’ll bring: perhaps someone you’ve never gotten to know, perhaps someone “interesting” or sophisticated, “our kind of people”.  But then again, he may just bring Tommy!
In baptism you and I are gathered into the Communion of Saints, given to one another, called to live in relationship, because that’s simply the way Jesus extends his love and compassion and grace in the world.  We’re each of us God’s “Beloved”, called to be a “light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind”, to release those bound up in darkness and hopelessness.  May God, as with Jesus, be “well pleased” with you and me.  

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Feast Of Seeking & Finding

"One of the names given to this 'The Feast of the Three Kings'. Untheological and unhistorical this cherished name for the feast may be, because the Wise Men at the crib neither constitute the subject matter of the feast, nor were they kings, nor were there, for sure, even three of them; yet the name 'Three Kings' points out a significant aspect of the feast's mystery: that the first people on earth searched everywhere for the child who would redeem them, roving like pilgrims, journeying from afar through every kind of danger. So this day is the feast day of all those who seek God through their life's pilgrimage, the journey of those who find God because they seek God...

...We know very well that God is the goal of our pilgrimage. God dwells in the remote distance. The way to God seems to us all too far and all too hard. And what we ourselves mean when we say 'God' is incomprehensible. The free spirit finds only what it looks for. But God has promised in his word that he lets himself be found by those who seek him. In grace he wills to be not merely the one who is always a little farther beyond every place that the creature on pilgrimage has reached, but rather to be that one who really can be found, eye to eye, heart to heart, by those small creatures with an eternal heart that we call human beings."
(Fr. Karl Rahner, The Eternal Year, 1964)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Holy Name

Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name 
of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation.
Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is
the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; 
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
in glory everlasting.  Amen.