Friday, November 30, 2012

Setting Aside Our Nets

I'd never heard of Mark Frank until coming across a portion of one of his sermons, on St. Andrew, in Celebrating the Saints, a collection of daily spiritual readings which follows the calendar of the Church of England.

Mark Frank or Franck (1613–1664) was an English churchman and academic, Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge. Baptized at Little Brickhill,  Buckinghamshire, he was admitted pensioner of Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1627, elected to a scholarship in 1630, and to a fellowship in 1634, having become M.A. the same year. In 1641 he became B.D., and was chosen junior treasurer of his college, and senior treasurer in 1642. He had attracted the favorable notice of Charles I by a sermon he preached at Paul's Cross before the lord mayor and aldermen in 1641, which the king commanded to be printed. In 1644 he was ejected as a malignant by the parliamentary visitors, because he refused to take the Solemn League and Covenant.

Frank was re-established in his fellowship in 1660 after the Restoration, and was rewarded by ecclesiastical promotions. In 1661 he was made D.D. by royal mandate, and was chosen master of his college in 1662, succeeding Benjamin Lany. Archbishop William Juxon appointed him one of his chaplains, and he held the office of domestic chaplain and ex-officio licenser of theological works to Juxon's successor, Archbishop Gilbert Sheldon, by whom he was presented to the archdeaconry of St. Alban's, and to the treasurership of St. Paul's Cathedral in 1660. He was also presented to the rectory of Barley in 1663 by Matthew Wren. He died at the age 51 in 1664, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. His Course of Sermons for all the Sundays and Festivals throughout the Year was published  in 1672, and was later republished in the library of Anglo-Catholic Theology.

Here is the portion of his sermon on St. Andrew which first attracted me: "And alas what have we, the best, the richest of us as highly as we think of ourselves and ours, more than Andrew and his brother: a few old broken nets? What are all our honors but old nets to catch the breath of the world? What are our estates but nets to entangle us? What are all our ways and devises of thriving but so many several nets to catch a little yellow sand and mud? What are all those fine catching ways of eloquence, knowledge, good parts of mind and body, but so many nets and snares to catch others with? The rational soul itself we too often make but a net to catch flies, petty, buzzing knowledges only; few solid sober thoughts. And our life itself, what is it but a few rotten threads knit together into veins and sinews, its construction so fragile that the least stick or stone can unloose it or break all to pieces. O blessed saint of this day, that we could but leave these nets as thou didst thine; that nothing might any longer entangle us or keep us from our Master's service! Follow we St. Andrew as he did Christ; follow him to Christ, cheerfully and without delay, and while it is today, begin our course...let Christ be your business, his life your pattern, his commands your law..." (Celebrating the Saints, compiled and introduced by Robert Atwell, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1998, p. 453)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"Never Call Me A Saint"

Dorothy Day spoke those words, I believe, out of her great humility and distaste for worldly honor. She was the first to admit some of her glaring human faults, even in the midst of those whom she helped, as her diaries [The Duty of Delight, Robert Ellsberg, ed., Marquette University Press, 2008] well attest. Somehow, I suspect that, in God's eyes, the magnitude of suffering she experienced during her life more than made up for them.

Dorothy died on November 29, 1980, and on a card found in her final journal St. Ephraim the Syrian's Prayer of Penance summed up her deep religious spirit: "O Lord and master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power and idle talk. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for Thou art blessed from all ages to ages. Amen."

Despite her strong feelings about not wanting to be considered a "saint", the U.S. Catholic bishops decided recently to push her cause for canonization. A long-time admirer of Dorothy Day since my college days, I'm with the bishops on this one. Her very human life and example can only give tremendous inspiration to many thousands of us ordinary folks who have known spiritual failure as well as abundant blessing. Join me in praying for the time when we can ask the intercession of "Saint" Dorothy Day.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Reign of God is NOW!

The liturgical lessons for today (Daniel 7:9-10; 13-14; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37) bring to a conclusion once again the cycle of the Church Year. As we now stand at the brink of a new year, with the start of the season of Advent, the coming of Jesus, next week, two images come to mind: today, that of the reigning Christ, the One who’s been given “dominion and glory and kingship”, the One “who is and who was and who is to come”; and beginning next Sunday, that of the infant Jesus about to be born. We celebrate Christ’s ongoing reign over the entire universe: “all peoples, nations, and languages”, and in our everyday lives in the world; and we anticipate Jesus’ being born in the flesh, an infant lying in a manger, to initiate that reign.  In either case, “the time has arrived; the reign of God is at hand.

You and I can’t know the glorified Christ without also knowing the Jesus of Bethlehem.  It would, however, be a mistake to let oneself be seduced by a “sweet-Jesus-in-the manger” image.  The Carmelite St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), martyred at Auschwitz in 1942, in her magnificent spiritual essay The Mystery of Christmas. which I’ve read annually for some 53 years, observes: “Darkness covered the earth, and He came as the Light that shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend Him...This is the bitterly serious truth which ought not to be obscured by the poetic charm of the Child in the manger. The mystery of the Incarnation is closely linked to the mystery of iniquity...The Child in the manger stretches out His small hands, and His smile seems to say even now the same as later the lips of the Man: ‘Come to me, all you that labour and are burdened’...These Child’s hands say ‘Follow me’ just as later the lips of the Man will say it...Ways part before the Child in the manger. He is the King of kings, the Lord of life and death. He speaks His ‘Follow me!’, and if [one] is not for Him, [one] is against Him. He speaks also to us, and asks us to choose between light and darkness...” ("The Mystery of Christmas", pp. 22-24, Writings of Edith Stein, Selected, translated and introduced by Hilda Graef, The Newman Press, 1956)

I once saw a cartoon depicting a little man with long hair and a  beard who’s carrying a placard with the words: “Repent: the end is near!” One passerby with a worried look on his face stops to inquire: “When?” The little man replies: “Oh, in a billion years or so!”  In today’s liturgy the Church is a little like the man with the placard, reminding us of the urgency to give serious thought to ultimate matters, even though we don’t know when “He is coming with the clouds...” Several Christian liturgies use the proclamation: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” (And, by the way, if I may interject a pet peeve, the emphasis in that last phrase is not on “will” ["Christ will come again"], as if we’re dictating what Christ should do, but on “again” ["Christ will come again"]!) It’s this reality that we’re bidden to contemplate today, even as we liturgically anticipate Christ’s coming in the Advent/Christmas mystery.

The whole question of “when” the Christ will finally appear has been the favorite focus of self-proclaimed prophets and doomsayers for centuries.  It happened as the year 1000 A.D. approached, throwing people into mass confusion and terror. People sold their possessions and fled to the hills to be safe. Our generation heard a little of that as the year 2000 approached, but, of course, the new year came and passed without incident. More recently the prophetic pundits are at it again. The 2012 prediction encompasses a range of beliefs about the end of the world, according to which cataclysmic or transformative events will occur next month, on December 21. Some regard this as the end-date of a 5125-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. 

A New Age interpretation claims that this date marks the start of time in which earth and its inhabitants may undergo a positive physical or spiritual transformation, marking the beginning of a new era. Others, mostly fundamentalists, suggest that the date marks the end of the world, or a similar catastrophe. Scenarios suggested for the end of the world include the arrival of the next solar maximum, an interaction between Earth and the black hole at the center of the galaxy, or Earth's collision with another planet.

Scholars from various disciplines have summarily dismissed the idea of such cataclysmic events. Professional Mayanist scholars tell us that predictions of impending doom aren’t, in fact, found in any existing classic Mayan accounts, and that the idea that the Long Count calendar "ends" in 2012 misrepresents Mayan history and culture. Astronomers and other scientists have outright rejected the proposals as pseudoscience which conflict with simple astronomical observations and amount to "a distraction from more important scientific concerns, such as global warming and loss of biological diversity". Such predicting is little bit like the Charlie Brown-trying-to-kick-the-football syndrome, with Lucy inevitably pulling the football away at the last minute. Jesus’ simple message to you and me is that “The reign of God is within you”. The “when” of Christ’s coming isn’t the central focus. Faith bids us to be busy about the real work of loving God and one another.

The other temptation during these next four weeks as the holidays approach, of course, is to lose ourselves in getting and spending. The surrounding society is already playing upon our national addictions and our inability to delay gratification, bombarding us with the glitter and tinsel and talk of the “bottom line”. This year Wal-Mart and other purveyors of mostly non-essential “things” didn’t even wait for Thanksgiving to be over, but enticed folks away from the dinner table with the turkey and trimmings fairly unswallowed in their mouths, much less digested! Buying into all this senseless foolishness, is a colossal distraction and diversion from the urgent, pressing reality of the needs of real people all around us: Palestinian people in Gaza and Jews in Israel dodging live rockets and real people dying; the approximately 12 million people who are jobless; those who are routinely ignored and shuttled aside in the health care system; our LGBT sisters and brothers who continue to be victimized by proposed legislation, such as that in Uganda; those who in just two states, New Jersey and New York, have lost homes and possessions, and live not only without power or clothing or food, but many times are alone and in despair. We can also be sidetracked even, from our own inner needs for genuine renewal, spiritual balance, and God’s healing grace.

Today’s liturgy and those during Advent bid us to enter into a deeper, more serious reflection on what’s truly ultimate in our relationships and in our living, both with others and with God. ”I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven... To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come...who loves us and freed us by his blood.” “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

You and I are called to promote and participate actively in the reign of Christ, to enter into it intentionally, and from today through the Advent season ahead is as good a time as any to begin doing that. The reign of Christ bids you and me to live each day as if it were our last, to realize that there is only the “day of the Lord‘, and that that day is every day.

The late Fr. Karl Rahner, great Jesuit theologian, says this in his book The Eternal Year (Helicon Press, 1964, pp. 15-16): “...Christ is in a mysterious way already present in the believer as his future. This future has already come into the believer in a hidden way; he is already, in a hidden way, what he will be when all that is now hidden is unveiled. What will one day be our complete perfection has already begun. And this reality begins precisely because we believe. It is by faith that we are the people of God and children of eternal life, in whom the strength of eternity has already become an operative reality. This one event that is ‘now‘ taking place in the world began with the incarnation of God’s Son...This event will be completed with Christ’s ‘Second Coming,‘ which is not so much a second arrival as a bringing to perfect completion God’s own life already established in the world by the Christ event [emphasis mine]. This event permeates the believer to the extent that he believes and loves. The believer already possesses his future because his future is Christ...”  

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Embracing & Holding Fast "the Blessed Hope of Everlasting Life"

Picture credit: Missionaries of the Precious Blood, Dayton, OH

In the Collect for Proper 28 we pray: “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ...” That’s the Church’s whole agenda behind having the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures proclaimed to you and me at every celebration of the Eucharist.
We’re to hear them, which implies opening our minds and hearts to be willingly receptive. We’re to read them, either quietly in personal prayer or aloud in the liturgy, distinctly and coherently, conveying our comprehension of the words in context to others. We’re to mark them. Perhaps you’re a reader like me who keeps a pencil or pen handy to literally mark words and passages, but more importantly is the marking of the Word indelibly on our hearts and on our daily actions. Through the hearing, reading, and marking we’re meant to learn something, not simply let the words pass through one ear and out the other.  And we’re to inwardly digest them, to ruminate on what’s read or spoken, exactly like a cow chewing its cud to promote good digestion of food. 
The Collect further notes the two-fold purpose of this very defined and thorough process: 1) that we may “embrace”, to wrap the arms of our being around “the blessed hope of everlasting life,...our Savior Jesus Christ”, and 2) to “ever hold fast” this blessed hope. In a way, that’s the very thing our Bishop’s Bible Challenge to us in the Diocese next year is all about. Isn’t it ironic, though, that you and I would have to be “challenged” to do something so basic and so taken for granted in one who claims to follow Jesus the Christ?
Hearing, reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture is by no means always easy. A perfect example is the first reading’s passage from Daniel with allusions unfamiliar and strange to us, which I’m certainly going to avoid here! Other passages are a bit more manageable, such as the last six verses of today’s Epistle, taken from the Letter to the Hebrews.
Modern scholarship pretty much agrees that God only knows who wrote the Letter to Hebrews. For sure, the author’s Greek and literary style is very sophisticated, perhaps the best in the Christian Scriptures. He was brilliant and knew the Hebrew Scriptures exceedingly well. Best guesstimates are that he wrote this document, not a typical letter, possibly a sermon, probably in the 80‘s or early 90‘s C.E. His audience was a particular, unnamed community, probably consisting of Christian Jews or “God-lovers”, most likely both.
Today’s passage from Chapter 10 deals with Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, which the writer neatly summarized previously in v. 10: “ is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” He goes on to tell us that our confidence, our “blessed hope of everlasting life”, is anchored “by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)” as our great high priest.     
For 13 years as a seminarian and four years as a Catholic priest, I was formed and nurtured by the theology of the Blood of Christ as a member of the Society of the Precious Blood. I have to confess that devotion to the Blood of Jesus wasn't always easy for me to understand clearly. Only progressively through the years, thanks to prayerful reflection and further insights by many gifted teachers, writers, interpreters and spiritual models, both within and outside of the Society, and through my later involvement in the Order of Julian of Norwich, did I learn to better appreciate and sometimes experience the depth and richness of this particular mystery of our faith.
One of those guides was John XXIII (1881-1963), who was Pope for only five short years during my time in seminary. His Apostolic Letter of June 30, 1960, On Promoting Devotion To The Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, quotes the words of a verse from St. Thomas Aquinas' famous hymn, Adoro Te devote = Devoutly I adore Thee. This hymn refers to:

 '...Blood whereof a single drop has power to win 
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.' 
(Translation by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.) 

"How truly precious is this Blood", Pope John says, "is voiced in the song the Church sings with the Angelic Doctor...Unlimited is the effectiveness of the God-Man's Blood -- just as unlimited as the love that impelled him to pour it out for us...Such surpassing love suggests, nay demands, that everyone reborn in the torrents of that Blood adore it with grateful love..."

During her grave illness, "in the year of our Lord, 1373, the 8th day of May", as she herself notes, Blessed Julian of Norwich experienced sixteen shewings or revelations from Our Lord. Since they concentrated on Jesus' suffering and death, mention of his Blood is no surprise. When I became an Oblate of the Order of Julian 15 years ago, naturally I was intrigued by Julian's references to the Blood of Christ, in view of my previous training. Early in Julian’s Revelations, she summarizes the purpose of the 1st Showing as " teach our soul wisely to cleave to the goodness of God." (Chapter 6) That reminded her of the current custom, when people prayed, to create, as she said, "many intermediaries". Julian fears that this can lead us to misunderstand the full reality of our relationship as human 
creatures with the God of goodness and love. We often pray, she says, "by His Holy Flesh and by His Precious Blood, His Holy Passion, His dear worthy Death and Wounds, by all His blessed Human Nature...we pray to Him by His sweet Mother's love who bore His Holy Cross that He died on...and in the same way, all the help that we have from special saints and all the blessed company of heaven..." Julian even affirms that God provides such intermediaries to help us, "of which”, she says, “the chief and principal intermediary is the blessed Human Nature that He took from the Maid..." (Chapter 6)

Nevertheless, she continues, "...if we create all these intermediaries, it is too little, and not complete honor to God", unless we acknowledge that "...all the whole of it is in His goodness, and there absolutely nothing fails." The grace of God is Godself, Goodness itself, in us and for us, always. The act of creating us, Julian says, is God loving us, enwrapping us in this goodness and love which God is. This is, according to Julian, an endless reality: God makes us, God keeps us, God loves us. As human creatures, we emerge in goodness and love from our beginning; we're sustained throughout our human lives in that goodness and love; and we return, at the moment of human death, to endless goodness and love. My friend, Dr. Fred Roden, in his Love's Trinity: A Companion To Julian of Norwich (Liturgical Press, 2009, p. 23), puts it thus: "Incarnation is the extension of goodness." Through Jesus the Christ, through his coming among us as a real human being as well as God's Son, God's grace, goodness, and love is held out to and embedded in our very human nature and being.

Julian goes on to elaborate in her Revelations how the humanity of Christ, specifically his Blood, is part of the ongoing process of being "oned" in God. As she contemplates the shedding of Jesus’ Blood in the 4th Showing (Chapter 12), Julian uses the metaphor of liquid, of water, in recalling how the Creator has provided humankind with "plentiful waters" to assist us and "for our bodily comfort because of the tender love He has for us". The reference to “pure water”, and to sprinkling and washing in v. 22 of  the Letter to the Hebrews today comes immediately to mind. We can also think of the oceans, lakes and rivers surrounding us, and their importance in the thriving of the ecosystem, the refreshment and delight they provide for our re-creation, as well as the inspiration and inner images which they fire up in our spirits. "...But", Julian says, "it still pleases Him better if we accept most beneficially His blessed blood to wash us from sin. There is no liquid that is made which it pleases Him so well to give us, for just as it is most plentiful, so it is most precious (and that by the virtue of His blessed Godhead). And the blood is of our own nature, and all beneficently flows over us by the virtue of His precious love. The dear worthy blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, as truly as it is most precious, so truly it is most plentiful..." (Chapter 12)

For Julian of Norwich human nature and God's grace are of one cloth. In God the Creator we have our being; in God, through the humanity of Jesus, flesh and blood, we have our growing; and in God the Holy Spirit we have our completing.  All that has been created shares being-in-God from God who shares being, goodness and love which is Godself. In creating us God knits us to Godself; in taking flesh, through Jesus, God is knit to humankind. Thus, in our human existence you and I are made in and "oned" with the Persons of the Trinity and with Jesus the Christ.

In talking about our human nature as created by the goodness and love which God is, Julian distinguishes a "higher part" and a "lower part": in our essence or nature, we're complete; in our fleshliness, we're insufficient. Made in the image of the God, One-in-Three, Julian says that she sees no difference between the triune God and our substance, though, she clarifies, "God is God, and our substance is a creation of God. (Chapter 54) In Julian's view, human beings are "two-fold in God's creation": essential and substantial, but also fleshly and sensual. It's how we exist in the world, body and soul. It includes our embodied, spiritual nature. This is precisely where you and I experience the mercy and grace of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit. Our fleshliness is God's dwelling place, the place where we're "oned" with God. Though complete in our essence, yet insufficient in our fleshliness, nevertheless Julian believes that God completes our insufficiency by mercy and grace. Though inadequate and incomplete, we're never separated from God's goodness, love and grace. Julian assures us that Christ, who knits in himself both our essence and our sensuality in a perfect balance, will restore us and make us complete by the working of God's goodness and love, embedded in our nature. And the way he effects this is through the instrumentality of his Precious Blood, the sign and symbol of life communicated. "Thus", says Julian, "when we by the mercy of God...come to harmony with both our human nature and grace, we shall see honestly that sin is truly more vile and more painful than hell, without comparison, for sin is opposite to our fair human nature!...But let us not be afraid of this...but humbly let us make our moan to our dear worthy Mother, and He shall all besprinkle us with His Precious Blood and make our souls very pliant and very gentle, and restore us to health...In the taking of our human nature He restored life to us, and in His blessed dying upon the cross, He birthed us into endless life." (Chapter 63)

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to “approach [God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith”, our hearts and bodies renewed in the living waters of Holy Baptism. He further urges us to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for [Jesus the Christ] who has promised is faithful.” But the writer also goes beyond simply one’s personal relationship to Christ. Appreciating that you and I, and indeed all who follow Jesus, are in this together, he challenges us to “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” You and I come here each Sunday and at other times to hear the Word of God proclaimed, to eat together the Body of Christ, to drink together the Blood of Christ. We then “go in peace, to love and serve the Lord” in our sisters and brothers. Ultimately, that’s what it means to “embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life...given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Widow's Mite: Giving All

(Picture credit: Liturgy)
The last strains of the sermon hymn died. I strode forcefully to the pulpit, plopped my manuscript down, looked hard at all those faces in front of me, and felt a power in me that could only have come from the Holy Spirit. As I gazed around the packed church, I knew how much they were spending on rent, mortgage payments, food, liquor, clothes they would only wear once, and trips they didn’t enjoy but made in order to impress the neighbors. I remembered the news last night, with the refugees from burned-out villages in [Central America], and the threats of worse famines in Africa. I thought about how little we give in our outreach budget and to [Episcopal Relief & Development], and about the struggle to pry another nickel from the vestry for the neighborhood feeding program.

So it all came at once to me, and I preached as I’ve never preached before or since. I preached my heart out, and even the ushers listened without yawning. I preached about how much God had given them, how badly they used it, and what good they could do in the church with their time and talents and money. Before I could even finish, people were throwing cash, checks, and pledge cards at me. They were weeping and cheering and signing up to pay the church budget for the next forty years. I’ve never needed to preach a stewardship sermon again.”...So reminisced the happy old rector, in the air-conditioned study of his busy and well-maintained old church.

This fantasy description was written many years ago by the late Rev. Pat Wilson-Kastner of the Diocese of California. It expresses every rector’s and church treasurer’s wildest dream of the ideal stewardship sermon. But during these late fall months when we’re thinking about gratitude, and stewardship of resources, and thanksgiving it’d be be tragic if all that conjured up only images of cash and checks and pledge cards. There are deeper issues about which we need to think all year round. The Hebrew Scripture reading and the Gospel today bluntly suggest that, both in fact and in faith, you and I often live beyond our means.

The appearance of the strange, mysterious figure of Elijah, in the 9th century B.C.E., in the reign of King Ahab, livens up the biblical narrative as the age of the great prophets is ushered in.  Ahab personifies Israel’s apostasy and infidelity: the nation’s turning from worship and service of the one, holy and living God to embrace the Phoenicians’ fertility gods, Baal and Melkart, and the fertility goddess, Ashtoreth/Ashtarte, along with the subsequent moral and social disintegration. Ahab was the 7th king of Israel after the monarchy split. His father, Omri, renewed political and business ties, begun by David and Solomon, with the affluent and skillful Phoenicians, particularly through Ahab’s marriage to the notorious Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal. Jezebel was strong-willed, domineering, and used her position in the court to promote Phoenician culture and religion which espoused the fertility cults. It seems that not only did Ahab tolerate her activities, but actively participated in them. The writer of 1 Kings notes that Ahab did “more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16:33)

Elijah appears on the scene at this time preaching a strong message to Israel: not a new one, but an old word which they’d nearly forgotten. It’s the theme of the sovereignty and grace, the command and judgment, the righteousness and redemption of God as the overseeing reality, both of national and individual life. For three centuries to come the prophets from Amos to Hosea, Isaiah and Micah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, down to and beyond the prophets of the Exile, will hammer away at this message: God is the source of life. God alone is sufficient and provident.

Today’s passage from 1 Kings (17:8-16) underscores that message even more emphatically because it pictures Elijah being sent outside the kingdom of Israel, to the area of Sidon on the northern coast. The writer wants us to know that this is the turf of the Phoenician god, Baal. The point is clear: even where Baal is worshipped and regarded as the provider and sustainer of life, it’s the Lord God who truly gives life and provides bread to sustain God’s people. All life comes from God and belongs to God as God’s possession. Life is given, carried, and preserved by the gracious providence of the Almighty alone. And the writer will show that, like Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, we all try to live beyond our means.

Mark’s story in Chapter 12 (38-44), the story of the “widow’s mite”, serves as a kind of link between Jesus’ public ministry and his passion and death. Jesus’ public ministry is drawing to a close. Mark relates several incidents focussing on the question of faith, incidents which define faith in terms of oversight and stewardship. 

Each of the incidents in Chapter 12 raises a question:
1st question: Who owns the earth? The parable of the vineyard (1-12) emphasizes that “the earth is the Lord’s.” When the vineyard stewards stop being stewards, when they presume to take control of what belongs to Another, when the vineyard’s produce is hoarded in careless disregard for the welfare of others whom the owner would feed, when our relationship with the earth isn’t one of stewardship, gratitude or humility, but one of selfishness, greed and pride, then the end result is destruction and ruin.

2nd question: To whom does the realm of human affairs, politics and economics belong? There’s that whole discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians (13-17). “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus, by the way, never really answers the question, but simply uses it as an opportunity to raise the more fundamental question: what happens to the sovereignty of Caesar in relation of the sovereignty of God before whom, Isaiah says, “the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and...the rulers of the earth as nothing”? 

You and I are still grappling with that today, even as our nation has just re-elected our President and have elected other new people to govern us. How do we come to terms with the subordination and accountability of Caesar and Caesar’s kingdom to the reign of the Lord God? As the Romans did, we continue to put Caesar’s image on our coins and currency. We add “In God We Trust”, perhaps with more emotion than with any real comprehension of what that might really mean for the undoing and redoing of our priorities as a nation under this, or the next, or any other administration.

3rd question: Who owns time? Who rules history? In vv. 18-27 the Sadducees’ question about the resurrection, and the giving and taking among brothers of the widow as wife betrays their assumption that time is defined in relation to our lives: in terms of the relationships which make up our particular history. Jesus says, in effect, that time belongs to God, along with life and relationship. It belongs to the same One who is eternal. Our lives and relationships and history are in God’s keeping.

4th question: To whom do I owe ultimate allegiance? Who commands my heart, soul, mind and strength? The question of the commandments raised by the teacher in vv. 28-34 isn’t really a question about which is the first or the greatest commandment. It’s a question about whose commandments they are, whose command we hear and obey. To whom does my life, and the lives I touch with my own, belong?

5th question: In that strange passage about the Messiah’s relationship to David, the question of ownership again arises: To whom does the Christ belong? Does he belong to some culture or nation or to some religious tradition? No, the Anointed One of God belongs to God, and therefore, to all the world across all boundaries of tradition, nationality, culture, and even religion.

Finally, we come, in Chapter 12, to today’s passage. Again, the issue is ownership and we’ve come full circle. To whom do you and I belong: not simply on the inside, not just with heart, soul, mind and strength, but to whom do you and I belong with all the things to which we cling and which cling to us: wealth, possessions, abilities, expectations, plans for the future, goals set, relationships which come and go? To whom do we belong with all that we have and all that we are? Here Mark pushes the question of faith, of oversight, of stewardship to its deepest level.

The humble widow provides a contrast to the Scribes who loved to be “somebodies”. They hardly thought about life and faith as beyond their means. They dressed up in long robes, signs of professional status. They loved salutations from others in the marketplace: “Manager Samuel”, “CEO Jacob”, “Director Joseph”, “Doctor Abraham”. A kind of lust for titles and rank lifted their egos above the crowd, above their colleagues. Not only did they seek out, but they expected the front seats, preferential VIP treatment in public and at private exclusive parties.

Even some of Jesus‘ Twelve, as we saw in the Gospel three weeks ago, were envious of places of honor. Jesus asks James and John if they think they’re really able to drink the same cup as he does, and without blinking they respond “We are able!” Again, there was no apparent awareness, even among the chosen, of living and believing beyond their means. Out of that circle of twelve eventually came betrayal and denial. In the end, they all “forsook him and fled.

The widow stands over against the multitude putting money into the treasury. Mark says, “Many rich people put in large sums.Please notice: Jesus doesn’t in any way denounce the gifts that were given. There’s no indication in Mark that the rich were anything but generous. If anything, he highlights their generosity. The point Jesus is trying to make is simply that true giving isn’t measured absolutely, by the size of the gift, but proportionately, relative to what’s left. Widows, in Jewish society, depended entirely on others’ generosity. They had no status before the Law, no right of inheritance. This widow’s gift was two small, thin coins (called lepta). The lepton was the smallest coin in circulation, about the size of a pencil eraser, worth about 1/8 of a penny today. Yet in Jesus’ eyes this was a lavish gift. She could’ve given one coin and kept the other: a 50/50 ratio of outreach to current expenses. Even by today’s standards, for an individual or a congregation, that’s way beyond a tithe! But as Paul Scherer notes: “Love is a spendthrift. Love leaves its arithmetic at home. Love is always ‘in the red’”. “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all...she [has given] out of her poverty all she had...

Soon after this, Jesus would offer and give his whole life, all that he had, for her, for you, for me. The Epistle to the Hebrews holds up for us the sacrificial giving of Jesus, “once for all”, the only gift in light of which all our giving, all our acts of gratitude and stewardship, all our thanksgiving make any sense at all. The Giver of life holds nothing back in his love for each one of us.

So, our reflection on today’s Scriptures takes us to the heart of faith, of priorities, of gratitude. They lead us to the heart of Jesus who “puts away sin by the sacrifice of himself”, who now appears “in the presence of God on our behalf”, and who “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who eagerly await this.

Isaac Watts, in the 17th century, expressed the heart of faith, gratitude, stewardship and thanksgiving in his beautiful hymn, #474 in our Hymnal:

When I survey the wondrous cross
Where the young Prince of Glory died, 
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all. 



Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Great Invitation To Love

To understand Mark’s passage in today’s Gospel (12:28-34), recall the closing verses of Chapter 11 just before this. There the chief priests, Scribes, and the elders challenge Jesus regarding his authority as a teacher. Refusing to answer Jesus’ question about the baptism of John, they find Jesus declining to answer their query about his authority. Add to this Jesus’ rather pointed parable of the vineyard, on which Mark comments: “When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd.

Jesus’ adversaries then send Pharisees and Herodians, all sycophants of the Roman emperor, in order to trap Jesus in a dispute over the lawfulness of paying tribute to Caesar or not. No sooner has Jesus sidestepped them, leaving their jaws gaping, when the Sadducees start bombarding him. These were priestly aristocrats, descendants of the priest, Zadok, of David’s time. They were exclusively focused on the Pentateuch, i.e. the first five books of Hebrew Scripture, refused to accept the oral Law, and were adamant in denying the resurrection of the body. They present Jesus with a tricky question about a family dilemma, hoping to embarrass him, but he dispatches them forthwith, noting that God is God of the living, not of the dead, and that they are “quite wrong”.

At this point a Scribe, probably a Pharisee, comes forward, obviously impressed with how Jesus has handled the Sadducees. He echoes his own, perhaps Pharisaic, beliefs, since there was no love lost between Sadducees and Scribes. As a Scribe this man would’ve been an expert in the Law, knowing it and applying it. Since Jesus was a rabi (later, rabbi), lit., “my teacher”, it’s understandable that the man would ask Jesus such a hot-topic question as he did. In later rabbinic schools which developed in the 1st century, there were frequent discussions of such topics. Since there were many Mosaic commands, naturally one would ask which one took precedence over all. 

The rabbis often tried to summarize the Law in a sentence or two.  For example, Simon the Righteous, a high priest who predated Jesus by several centuries, left this summary: “On three things stands the world: on the Law, on the worship, and on works of love.” Rabbi Hillel (110 BCE-10 CE), responding to someone who asked him to explain the whole Law while standing on one leg said: “What you hate for yourself, do not to your neighbor. This is the whole Law: the rest is commentary. Go and learn.” Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph (c. 40-137 CE) proclaimed:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself -- this is the greatest general principle of the Law.” 

The Law of Moses counted some 612 (give or take) precepts. The writer of Psalm 15 reduces these to eleven: “1 O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? 2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; 3 who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; 4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; 5 who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved.

The author of Isaiah 33 further reduced the precepts to six: “...‘Who among us can live with the devouring fire? Who among us can live with everlasting flames?’ 15 Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil, 16 they will live on the heights...

Not to be outdone, the prophet Micah (6:8) gets them down to three: “8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 

An even further reduction, to two precepts, is found in Isaiah 66, the work of the author whom we call “2nd Isaiah”: keeping judgment and doing justice.

Finally, perhaps the prize goes to the prophet Habbakuk (2:4) who puts it as simply as possible: “...the righteous live by their faith.

The Scribe’s question to Jesus. “Which commandment is the first of all?”, isn’t just academic. This was a very real issue for Jews of that day. As a native Jew himself, Jesus, without hesitation, quotes the “Great Shema” of Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “4 Hear, O Israel [Shema Yisrael]: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” He restates Deuteronomy’s precept that one must love this one Lord, sovereign and unique, the only God to whom all one’s loyalty belongs. The heart, soul, and “all your might” encompass the entirety of one’s being.

Jesus would naturally quote this passage since the Shema was and is the creed of Judaism. Every orthodox Jew begins and ends the day with the Shema. The synagogue service always begins with it. It’s the basic belief, the foundation of Jewish faith. In Deuteronomy God provides for this basic belief to be passed on to succeeding generations. God says that the faithful Jew is to think of these words always: sitting in the house, when traveling, lying down, and upon rising. They’re to be bound on one’s wrist and on the forehead while at prayer. They’re to be written on the doorposts of one’s home. All these instructions show that throughout one’s whole life one is to be absorbed in these words of God, for they sum up the Covenant of love which exists between God and this people. Judaism eventually interpreted the words of Deuteronomy quite literally, so that pious Jews wore phylacteries, small square leather boxes containing the Shema, on their left wrist and on their forehead. Jewish homes, even today, have a mezuzah, a small tube containing a scroll of the Shema, on the doorpost of homes and rooms.

An interesting side-note is that only here in Mark’s passage and in Luke 11, where Jesus charges the Pharisees with neglect of justice and the love of God, do the Christian Scriptures speak explicitly of the love of God. John’s Gospel speaks of love of the Son and only indirectly of the Father.

In the story Jesus then quotes Leviticus 19:18: “18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Originally, “neighbor” meant a fellow Jew. Jesus’ quote itself isn’t new: what is new is that Jesus combines the two commands and applies them without qualification or limits, thus making one commandment, something no rabbi had ever done. The Scribe responds by paraphrasing Jesus and reemphasizing how brotherly love is above ritual sacrifice, not on a par with it. The point of all this is really very simple: true religion means loving God and loving all fellow humans. The only genuine proof that one loves God is by showing love for all people.

Think of all the sermons you and I have heard on the subject of love. But when it comes down to it, what does love really mean? It’s very hard to summarize because it’s such an awesomely huge reality. Each of us can surely think of many individuals among our families and friends in whom we recognize genuine love embodied. We recognize love there because we see it in action, we experience it firsthand. 

In the end, only you and I can determine for ourselves what this great commandment of love means for our life. One thing is certain: you and I can’t be neutral about it. Love is the basis for being a follower of Jesus or not being a follower. How often have we said “Amen” to the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, and yet have, in essence, said “Go to hell!” to a member of Christ’s Body? Jesus told the Scribe that because he really came to terms with and grasped this basic belief, he wasn’t “far from the kingdom of God”. He wasn’t there yet, but he wasn’t far.

Someone has written: 
I sought my soul; my soul I could not see.
I sought my God; but my God eluded me.
I sought my brother/sister, and I found all three.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Remembering the Holy Souls: A Testimony of Faith

"Remembrance and prayers for the dead are signs of true affection when they are offered for the departed ones by the faithful most dear to them. There can be no doubt but that these prayers help after life those souls who while alive merited them. Should some emergency prevent the bodies of the dead being buried at all, should lack of facilities hinder them from resting in a holy place, prayers for the souls of these dead should not be neglected. The Church has taken upon herself an obligation, prayers for the dead; for all the dead who have died in the Christian and Catholic fellowship, mentioning them not by name but under a general commemoration. Those who lack parents, sons, kindred or friends have the benefits of these offices provided for them by the one holy mother, common to us all. But if these suffrages for the dead, offered with faith and piety were lacking, I doubt whether it would profit these souls one iota, no matter how holy might be the places where the lifeless bodies were laid. 

Since this is so, let us reflect that nothing we do for the dead we love matters to them, except what we solemnly supplicate for them through the Sacrifice of the altar, or through prayers and almsgiving...Thus these duties toward a body which, although dead, is destined to rise again and to live throughout eternity, are in a way a testimony of faith in that belief..." (St. Augustine, One the care of the dead, Chapters 4 & 18)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Communion of Holy Ones

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.