It is hard to see Him

For the readings, please see this link: 12th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF

Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

He does not ask us what we did or did not do, only to put a name on our relationship with him. For he knows that what we do or do not do for him flows from what we think of our relationship with him.

Some of the names that the people in the Gospel story gave were names of great prophets of the Lord of the Old Testament. Men like Elijah were known to be close to God and have great power that derived from that closeness. Some people recalled more recent great prophets, and John the Baptist came to their minds. Elijah and John the Baptist were great men of God, but they were just men. Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, gave Jesus the the title that illuminated him as more than a great man. Peter said, “The Christ of God.” The Christ means the anointed one. Peter saw that Jesus was not merely a man. He saw that Jesus was the Son of God.

The name we give to our relationships with others usually implies how we interact with them. I named one woman as my wife, and the relationship of husband and wife is different than the relationship I have with any other woman in my life. The man I name as my employer is a man for whom I have different obligations and expectations than other men in my life. The men I call my friends are men with whom I have a particular relationship that is different from the one I have with acquaintances.

Jesus tells his disciples what naming him as the Christ of God implies for our relationship. He says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

If I choose to call Jesus of Nazareth the Christ of God, I know what that relationship implies. He said it clearly. I am to deny myself. I am to take up my cross every day. I am to follow him.

It is easy to repeat the words from Scripture. We spend the balance of our lives unpacking those words to understand them fully and embrace them. What does it mean to deny ourselves? What does taking up our cross every day mean? How do we follow Jesus in the 21st century when he no longer walks upon the Earth?

To deny ourselves and to take up our cross daily both point to the idea of sacrifice. A sacrifice is a holy offering. When we deny ourselves some treat during the season of Lent, it is not a demonstration of our ability to go forty days without something yummy like chocolate but a holy offering to God. To deny ourselves is also to say no to the egoistic impulse we all have within. We are all familiar with wants that insist they are needs, with whims that assert they are strategic, and with urges that demand satisfaction. We deny ourselves when we say ‘no’ to these internal voices of selfishness. As we learn to say no to those internal voices of ego, we learn to say yes to the eternal voice of Love.

Whe we say yes to the eternal voice of Love, we are taking up our Cross and following Jesus. That is what an authentic ‘yes’ looks like. Having said no to ego, we say yes to God and open ourselves to give of ourselves to him through giving of ourselves to our neighbor. In our families, our cross might be that we remain patient when we are already tired. When our children do something foolish or dangerous, we deny the rush of anger and say yes to the child of God standing before us, even if he is acting like a dangerous fool. When our parents act like ornery old coots, we deny the rush of disrespect and say yes to the Fourth Commandment to honor our father and mother.

Jesus tells us that following him, taking up our cross and following him, is the natural action that flows from naming him Christ. St. Peter followed that route after naming Jesus the Christ. St. Peter sacrificed his life for Jesus, leading the flock in Rome right up until his own death on a cross. We are supposed to follow in the same way. Some of us might be asked to witness our faith to the point of death, but all of us are asked to witness our faith by dying to sin. We sacrifice the old ways for the new life. We sacrifice, that is make a holy offering, of our old priorities and our old habits to God as we take on new disciplines and develop new habits.

So, let us say, “Jesus is the Christ.” And let our words be reflected by our lives. Let us live, “Jesus is the Christ.”

Why We Weep

For the readings, please see this link: 11th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF

In the Gospel reading we hear the story of the sinful woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, and we hear Jesus rebuke the Pharisee who holds in his heart judgment of the woman. Connected to this story from the Gospel we hear the second half of the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah the Hittite. These stories together are a reminder to us of why we weep and what is truly important. Like the Pharisee, we do not always see what is important. Unlike the sinful woman, we do not always weep when we should or for the right things.

Why do we weep? We weep for the distance between the mire of the here and now and the glory for which we were eternally intended. We do not know much about this woman, other that she had a bad name about town. Already in your mind’s eye you see a couple of people when you hear the phrase “bad name about town.” I thought of a country club woman who slept around on her husband, and everybody knew it.

In truth, I do not know that country club woman. I never met her, I am not a member of her country club, and if she walked up to me today it would be the first time I ever laid eyes upon her face. I am just passing on gossip. But see how quickly I made hay with the gossip. I still remember it, long after the time when it was shared with me. If I ever did see her and make the connection, I am sure I would roll my eyes knowingly, just like the Pharisee did with the sinful woman. Yet, I have no idea of the truth of the gossip or the circumstances of the country club woman and her husband.

Perhaps the woman at the feet of our Lord wept because she was falsely accused of sin. Perhaps the gossip I just shared with you is false. Perhaps she wept because it really was true. If so, her tears were the tears of one who laments the distance between what she was made for and where she found herself. We should all weep that way, for all of us are far from where God wants us.

God wants us with Him! When we rejected Him in the Garden of Eden, He never gave up on us. He kept us safe and called us home many times over the centuries through the prophets from Moses to Ezra. He finally came himself in the flesh to redeem us and bridge the unbridgeable chasm that separated us from Him. We who have received him personally in our lives, in our hearts, and in our mouths through the Eucharist, remain stumbling like the sinful woman. And we should weep like her.

We do not weep tears of despair, however. We weep tears of delay. We know that at some point after we die, we will be like the creatures in Heaven. We will be eternally praising him. From the vision of Isaiah and the Revelation of John, we have the foreknowledge of the Heavenly praise fest: Seraphim and cherubim continually do cry, Hosanna in the highest.

But the mire of the here and now remains here and now. King David lived in the here and now, and the story from 2 Samuel is an important reminder of what God really wants from us. We read the second part of the three-part story. So let us take a moment to be reminded of the first part.

David was King of all Israel. Yet, he gave in to sin, just like any other man. He gave in to the sin of not respecting boundaries. When he saw from his rooftop a pretty woman taking a bath, he did not look away but was a Peeping Tom. When his eye was delighted by what he saw, he gave in to lust and took the woman to his bed. He knew she was somebody else’s wife, but he gave in to adultery anyway. He got her pregnant, and he gave in to deceit by trying to get her husband to come home from the war and have marital relations with her and cloud the issue of paternity. The husband remained continent for religious reasons, so David arranged to have him die in battle in the thickest part of the fighting. There is simply no way after hearing this story to describe David as anything but a sinful man.

Being king, David did not have a lot of guys who would tell him he had gone astray. The prophet Nathan was the only one who would tell him, which is where we pick up the story. David should weep for his sins, he should weep for the distance between himself and God, and he should weep because he created the distance.

And David does weep. His weeping is Psalm 51. Have mercy on me, O God. Wipe away my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart. You know this psalm.

David is important for the same reason the woman at Jesus’ feet is important. Both have a heart for God and a clear understanding of our current human condition. We are not worthy to stand before our God on our own merits. He makes us worthy, through the blood of the lamb. So the Cross should make us weep, as the price for our redemption was the slaughter of the Lamb.

After we weep, we should shout a victory cry. For the sins are forgiven. The Cross is also a victory song, as it was the means of our redemption. We are redeemed. David had a heart for God, and that matters more than the wicked, wicked deeds he committed. If we seek reconciliation with our Lord and our brethren, we return to right relationship and reclaim our salvation.

So, while we should weep, weeping is not all we should do.

Rules vs. Revelation

For the readings, please see this link: 10th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF

I found a new way to make my morning commute a bit easier, as the stoplights and people moving from parking decks to office buildings in Midtown Atlanta can make the last quarter mile an enervating finale to what otherwise is an easy commute. (I do like easy.) My new wrinkle is to turn left on a back street and approach my office parking deck from what is hardly more than an alley. My left turn is easy because the turn is from a one-way street to another one-way street/alley. Sometimes, however, I find a car facing me on my one-way street/alley. A fellow has decided to take his own shortcut out of his parking lot or office building, and he is facing me as I head to the office.

As the Apollo astronauts said, “Houston, we have a problem.” My shortcut and his shortcut conflict with each other. It is at points of conflict we turn to someone for justice. When we were little children, it was our parents. In civics we turn to the judges sitting on the benches of the various court systems. There we find rules, rules of behavior that our parents teach us and rules of law that our governments created for us. The rule that applies to my shortcut is that the street is clearly marked as a one-way street, and I am the party that is conforming to the rule. The other driver has violated the rule. This brings me to a dangerous place: I am right and I am in the right.

What should I do upon arriving at this position of moral and legal rectitude? If I apply the rules, then I could just wait for him to acknowledge his error and back up until he is safely off the road and I can proceed in the legal direction. I can bend the rules but add a dash of vinegar to the situation: wave my finger at him and begrudgingly give him just enough room to let me squeeze by verrrrry slooooowwwly while he hangs his head in shame. This is the moral rectitude trifecta, in which I was right, I was magnimous, and I taught that jerk a lesson.

God offers an entirely new way to approach the problem of misbehavior. It is an offer of supernatural justice, something that we cannot reach on our own but can accept and adopt in whole as a free gift from him and a gift we freely share with his other children. We innately turn to God for justice because for justice, as in all things, our hearts were made for him and are restless until they rest in him. Jesus made this offer plainly to his disciples when he said, “Abide in my love.” [Jn 15:9] This love and this justice are entirely beyond our comprehension but not beyond our sensing or our reception. While we cannot fully understand them, we can see them and believe them.

The widow of Zarephath knew where true justice was to be found when she challenged Elijah for bringing God’s judgment upon her house and causing the death of her son. She saw something in Elijah that spoke of God and justice. She saw in herself someone deserving judgment. So she asked, “Why have you done this to me, O man of God? Have you come to me to call attention to my guilt and to kill my son?” [1 Kings 17:17] She had been hosting Elijah and feeding them from a jar of flour and jug of oil that he promised would not run out until the end of the drought. During this period, her child became sick to the point of death. She was experiencing God’s love, yet she could not work herself logically to a point of acceptance of her child’s death. Her heart cried out for justice, which she at some interior level understood is synonymous with God’s love and mercy. She knew what she deserved – death – but she wanted more – life.

God hears our wants. He hears our prayers. He loves us. When Elijah prayed for the child, life returned to him. St. Luke tells a similar story of God hearing our prayers and loving us in chapter 7’s story of Jesus responding to the cry of a widow in the city called Naim. St. Luke tells us, “When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ He stepped forward and touched the coffin; at this the bearers halted, and he said, ‘Young man, I tell you, arise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”

Like the widow of Zarephath, the widow in the city of Naim saw and believed. These miracles are miraculous because they override the rules of physics and medicine. We, caught in the net of rationalistic approaches to everything, cannot see how such rules could be overridden and we discard miracles as foolish superstitions and self-delusions. But miracles are real, just as real as God’s love. Miracles are God demonstrating his love for us to the point of violating the order he established for the universe he created. Just as a painter can dab a bit of red in a place where blue “ought” to go, God can dab a bit of life in a place where death “ought” to go. Why did he do it? Because he willed that it be done. The artist chose red instead of blue, and it was so. God chose life over death for these two men, and it was so. The witnesses to these miracles know the truth more deeply than they can ever know any logical truth. They know it in their hearts, which find rest in this Truth, the Truth that is Jesus Christ.

St. Paul was visited by this Truth on the road to Damascus, which he recounts to the Galatians at the beginning of his letter to that church. He did not receive the Good News from a human; God “was please to reveal his Son to me” and through Paul reveal the Good News to the Gentiles. Subsequent to the revelation of Truth, Paul was able to see that much of what he believed to be true in his former life was in fact no longer true. He could not reason beyond the rules which he had learned from his youth. He had to receive the gift of revelation from God, and with that Truth he also received Mercy for his past persecution of the Christian Church and strength to be the Apostle to the Gentiles and endure his own persecution and martyrdom.

You and I are offered the same gift. Many of us have experienced miracles directly or we know people who received them directly. There is no sufficient explanation; it is just a gift. We see things as they really are, and we accept them. We are, like St. Paul, asked to share the gift. Where the rules might lead us is not necessarily where God wants us to go. Having seen the Truth, we are invited to respond to the Truth. Having received Love, we are asked to give Love. When a person does somthing deserving of judgment, we are invited to offer mercy and compassion. This applies to little things as well as big things. It applies to drivers going the wrong way on a one-way street. It applies to you. It applies to me