Sunday, August 31, 2014

3 Points & A Story

There’s a perennial saying that’s passed around by seminarian and clergy/preacher types, in a variety of forms, that a good sermon generally has three points and a concluding poem or story. In that spirit, I offer the following.

POINT 1: Last week the Gospel from Matthew challenged us to answer a question which Jesus posed to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”  Following up on that, this week’s reading from the Book of Exodus (3:1-15) poses two further questions:  
- Who am I?
- Who is God?
God pushes you and me continuously -- sometimes gently, sometimes with a shove -- to “turn aside”, as Moses did, and to see: to see who we really are ourselves; and to see who God is for us.  In every case, it is God who speaks to us.  God confronts us with God’s own mystery, and also with a call to some kind of service to others amid the mundane routine of our lives. God speaks to us a Name which defines Godself: who God is, and in the revealing of this you and I are called us to declare who we really are and what we’re committed to do.

As with Moses, it’s a sensitive, compassionate God who speaks to us, One who has seen, heard, and who knows what’s going on in our lives, but also a dynamic active Being who makes it very clear that God is ever with us, right in the thick of all the action.

Typically, like Moses, when you and I are called aside to face who we are and who God is in relation to us, we tend to react in two ways:
1) “Not me -- I can’t.
2) “Prove it.
God’s response, in simple terms, is also twofold:
1) “Yes, you can.”  and
2) “I AM WHO [I ]AM and I am with you.
God’s response is both an answer and an evasion to Moses’ and our questionings.  But God makes clear that it’s only through faithful living -- i.e., being what God wants us to be and doing what God wants us to do -- that the full meaning of God’s Name, which really stands for who God is, becomes known to us.  And this always has to do, in some way, with compassion towards others, with justice, liberation from oppression, and love.

POINT 2:  Neither you nor I really enjoy being confronted with questions like the one which Jesus asked last week and which the Scriptures raise for us this week.  What unnerves us even more, as followers of Jesus, are the nitty-gritty specifics of being and doing, such as those which St. Paul proposes to us in today’s Epistle (Romans 12:9-21).  While Paul wrote them down as a sort of catalog of compassionate, justice-making, liberating and loving acts to which the Living God in Jesus calls us, we, fully aware of our inadequacy and selfishness, may tend to view them more as a list of horrors: really love one another, outdoing each other with honesty and generosity; hate evil; act with focus and passion; bring to others the joy of hopefulness; accept suffering; keep praying even if you’re spiritually dry, or if it’s boring, or you see no results; let your first impulse be: “How can I help my sister/brother?”; welcome everyone.  Period.  No exceptions. Be gracious even to those who give you a hard time; be empathetic and sympathetic whatever the occasion; let unity always guide how you live with one another; be humble and realize that you don’t know everything; never take revenge or avenge yourself; to the best of your ability, be at peace with everyone; give food and drink to the hungry regardless of who they are; refuse to let evil direct your life, but embrace only what is good. Paul says that such a rule of life defines who you and I really are, or can become, in relation to the Living God: not by ourselves, but in the power of the God who assures us: “I will be with you.

POINT 3:    You and I don’t always “buy” this: whether out of fear, or laziness, or selfishness.  We’re much like Peter in the Gospel (Matthew 16:21-28) who, misunderstanding what God is really up to in our lives, is shocked and appalled, scandalized even, when Jesus acknowledges that his mission and ministry is taking him to Jerusalem, and to certain suffering and death.  We moderns don’t like the theology of the cross, and we seem to make every effort to shove suffering and dying into the background of our lives, and to “prettify” and dress it up so that it isn’t so...., you know,...such a “downer”.  But Jesus, knowing that God is calling him to the supreme act of compassion, justice, liberation and love -- giving his life for us on the cross -- literally puts Peter in his place: “Get behind me, Satan!... you’ve set your mind not on the things of God but on human things.”  

Then Jesus throws down a challenge:  “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  It comes down to this: when you and I answer God’s call to turn aside to “see”, how much do you and I really trust God and accept God’s word, especially if we can see no apparent human reason to do so.  Even here, God continues to call us to respond by being and by doing, and that will cost us as dearly as it cost Jesus.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis, in his beautiful book The Cost of Discipleship, wrote from prison about “cheap” grace and “costly” grace.  He describes cheap grace as “Grace without price; grace without cost!”  We assume that, because Jesus has “paid” our account in advance, we can live our spiritual lives without it costing us much.  Costly grace, Bonhoeffer says, “is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a [person] must knock...Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of [God’s] is grace because God did not reckon God’s Son too dear a price to pay for our life...

CONCLUSION:  Perhaps this simple story, called The Diamond Necklace, can help:
Jenny, the cheerful little girl with bouncy golden curls was almost five. Waiting with her mother at the checkout stand, she saw them: a circle of glistening white pearls in a foil box. ‘Oh mommy please, Mommy. Can I have them? Please, Mommy, please?’ Quickly the mother checked the back of the little foil box and then looked back into the pleading blue eyes of her little girl's upturned face.  ‘A dollar ninety-five.  That's almost $2.00. If you really want them, I'll think of some extra chores for you and in no time you can save enough money to buy them for yourself.  Your birthday's only a week away and you might get another crisp dollar bill from Grandma.

As soon as Jenny got home, she emptied her piggy bank and counted out her pennies.  After dinner, she did more than her share of chores, and she went to her neighbor, Mrs. McJames, and asked if she could pick dandelions for ten cents.  And sure enough, on her birthday, Grandma gave her another new dollar bill.  At last she had enough money to buy the necklace. 

Jenny loved her pearls. They made her feel dressed up and grown up.  She wore them everywhere: to Sunday school, to kindergarten, even to bed:  taking them off only when she went swimming or had a bubble bath.  Mother said that if they got wet, they might turn her neck green.  

Jenny had a very loving Daddy and every night when she was ready for bed, he would stop whatever he was doing and come upstairs to read her a story. One night as he finished the story, he asked, ‘Jenny, Do you love me?Oh yes, Daddy.  You know that I love you.’  ‘Then could I have your pearls?” ‘Oh, Daddy, not my pearls!  But you can have Princess, the white horse from my collection, the one with the pink tail. Remember, Daddy? The one you gave me. She's my very favorite.' ‘That's okay, Honey, Daddy loves you.  Good night.  And he brushed her cheek with a kiss. 

About a week later, after the story time, Jenny's Daddy asked again, ‘Do you love me?' ‘Daddy, you know I love you.’ ‘Then let me have your pearls.' ‘Oh Daddy, not my pearls. But you can have my baby doll. The brand new one I got for my birthday. She is beautiful and you can even have the yellow blanket that matches her sleeper.’ ‘That's okay.  Sleep well, little one, and God bless you. Daddy loves you.’  And as always, he brushed her cheek with a gentle kiss. 

A few nights later when her Daddy came in, Jenny was sitting on her bed with her legs crossed.  As he came close, he noticed that her chin was trembling and one silent tear rolled down her cheek.  ‘What is it, Jenny? What's the matter?’ Jenny didn't say anything as she lifted her little hand up to her Daddy.  And when she opened it, there was her little pearl necklace. Her voice quivering, she finally said, ‘Here, Daddy; this is for you.’ 

With tears gathering in his own eyes, Jenny's Daddy reached out with one hand to take the dime-store necklace, and with the other hand he reached into his pocket and pulled out a blue velvet case which contained a strand of genuine pearls, and gave them to 
Jenny.  He had had them all the time.  He was just waiting for her to give up the dime-store stuff so that he could give her the genuine treasure.” 


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Someone To Love Me

(Drawing by Sr. Therese, OJN)

Six years ago I took a two-week Spanish language immersion course. Our maestra, Lydia, was a charming 20-something woman from Mexico. One day another participant, a school teacher, and I were chatting with her. I believe Lydia was either about to be engaged or was already engaged to her boyfriend, who was from the U.S. She was expressing her misgivings and anxiety about taking Michael to visit and meet her family in Mexico. She spoke of the attitudes of some in Mexico being very opposed to the U.S., much of that originating in the perceived stress which many U.S. young people put on their partners to provide things: fancy cars, money, clothes, etc. In other words, promoting the myth of the "perfect" partner in the “American dream”. Then Lydia said: "These are not of interest to me. I don't believe there is any perfection. I want someone who will love me."

Whether or not you or I concur with other nations’ perceptions of our national culture, one thing we can say for sure about today’s Scriptures is that they speak of a God who loves you and me beyond measure. Isaiah (55:1-5) begins with an attention-getting invitation: "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price..." It looks like a joyful invitation, but embedded in it is a plaintive, even a slightlysarcastic, note, made obvious by the rhetorical question: "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" In an age of rampant consumerism, to which Lydia alluded, it's a question you and I need to seriously ask ourselves. God promises rich food; an unending covenant of love; and fulfillment of the promises made to David: God's steadfast love.

The psalm for today, Psalm 145, a sort of paean to God's compassion and all-encompassing love, not just of humankind, but of all of God's creatures, says: "The Lord is gracious...full of compassion... loving to everyone...upholds all who fall...lifts loving in all his near...fulfills the desire...preserves all..." There's a clear link between God's compassion and God's justice: God's love is what sets things right. There are even ecological implications, as theologian Carol Dempsey points out: "All forms of life -- and indeed the earth itself -- suffer today because of human injustice and irresponsibility. Many voices are crying out, some audible such as those of women and young children, [think of the 15.9 million U.S. children in food insecure households, California being one of the top 10 states in that regard; or think of senior citizens dependent on Social Security, the suffering and disabled on Medicare, and the veterans who have served their country -- all threatened because of the continuing obscene game-playing and stubbornness of our Congress, the corporate elite and the Tea Party types], some not understood, such as those of the salmon trapped by dams, and some inaudible, such as that of the land as it lies stripped of nutrients, parched in some places and polluted in others. The voices that call upon God represent the magnificence of a grand biodiversity." If God treats all with love, compassion and justice, what does this say about our own responsibility: as individuals, as local communities, as churches, as a nation?

The miracle story in Matthew (14:13-21) is the only one which appears in all four Gospel narratives. That probably gives us a hint that this message was really important in the early Church's life and memory. The context of the passage is that Jesus has just heard about the execution of his cousin, John the Baptizer. The crowd hears that Jesus has gone off to a deserted place and they follow on foot. They come with deep needs: for compassion, love and healing, and they're determined to get to the Master. Jesus reacts with characteristic empathy and open-armed concern, identical with that of God's. He heals the sick; he feeds them, dismaying the disciples by delegating to them the responsibility of providing the food. The feeding is set against the backdrop of two ancient traditions: 1) the Exodus desert feeding (Exodus 16) -- "In the morning you will see the glory of the Lord..."; and 2) the feeding of 100 men, with 20 loaves and fresh ears of grain, ordered by the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 4:42-44). 

The real miracle in Matthew’s Gospel isn't the multiplication of the loaves and fish, but rather the fact that Jesus himself embodies the compassionate, loving God of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that he begins to demonstrate what the reign of God looks like, namely, that people like you and me are raised above their oppression, their hurts, their suffering, and then  begin themselves to share, through love and compassion, what they have, much or little, without leaving anyone in need.

God's gifting of Godself -- in the feeding of the 5000 and in the Eucharist which we share -- happens among ordinary folks, with all their flaws and greatnesses, in the most unlikely of places, times and situations of everyday life...Even in a Spanish language classroom, with a retired priest and an educator, conversing with their young Mexican teacher who simply wants "someone to love [her]" we all wish.

The Word of God which you and I share together in Eucharist and which feeds us each time we come together here, assures us that despite the imperfectness of this world and of each of us human beings who inhabit it, there is One who loves us unconditionally, perfectly; One who heals us, who brings justice to us and to the earth, indeed, to all of creation: the Holy One of God, Jesus the Christ, who fulfills, as no other can, our innate yearning for "someone who will love [us]".