Fire Pits

gehennaHere on the 26th Sunday in ordinary time, the readings have a seriousness of tone that will continue through the first couple of weeks of Advent. In the reading from Saint James, and in the teaching from Jesus in the gospel, we are challenged to take seriously the reality of Gehenna.

So what is Gehenna? The answer to this question is like so many other answers to questions that believers raise, multifaceted. And that’s why I want us to focus on the reality of Gehenna rather than the many alternative explanations for Gehenna. But let’s start with some of those alternative explanations. One that you will hear is that Gehenna was a trash pit, and like many trash pits it was always burning. In this explanation, Jesus was referencing a local physical place to remind his listeners of the importance of being a good person. Other explanations are that Gehenna was the place where sacrifices to Moloch were made. Moloch was the local God of the Canaanites to whom live children were sacrificed by throwing them into a pit of fire.

Three times in the gospel story Jesus contrasts Gehenna with life. So it may be true that Gehenna was a trash pit, and it may be true that it was the place of sacrifice for the pagan god of Moloch, but Jesus uses this imagery as a contrast to life. And when Jesus speaks of life, he is speaking of eternal life. So Gehenna is eternal death. The church has come to describe that eternal death as Hell.

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No Middle Ground

The last line of the Gospel is quite challenging. “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” [Mk 7:23]

With these strong words, Jesus is reminding the Pharisees and scribes, and he is reminding us today, that the human person is an integral thing. We are not, as Fr. Neil explained a few weeks ago, a spirit trapped in and essentially separate from our material body. We are one thing: body and soul and mind united.

Jesus’s list shows us how mental sins are linked to physical sins. Greed, malice, deceit, envy, arrogance are all mental states; they are the evil thoughts that come from stony hearts. From those mental states come the evil actions: murder, theft, unchastity, blasphemy. Every kid has tried the “The Devil Made Me Do It” defense when caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but every parent knows that we used our minds to decide to put our hands in the cookie jar. As Jesus said, the evils come from within, and they defile.

Where the Greek pagans sought to separate the spirit from the body, the Jews and the Christians understood the two are integrated in one whole person. St. James reminds his readers that we must have an integrated relationship with our Lord, too. He says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” That part about self-delusion is so important. We cannot say we love Jesus on Sundays and that’s the last time he is part of our day until next Sunday. Jesus is particularly hard on the Pharisees because their words do not match their deeds. They honor him with their lips but their hearts are far from him, as Jesus rebukes the Pharisees with a quote from the prophet Isaiah.

God looks at our hearts as he considers our deeds. We cannot compartmentalize our relationship with Him. At the end of the day, either he is our Lord or he is not. That’s the point Moses is making in the reading from Deuteronomy. If he is my Lord and Master, then I should obey his instructions. If he is not, then I should stop pretending. He knows what’s going on in my heart. Even if I am able to deceive my neighbor, I cannot deceive God. That’s what the word omniscient means. It means He knows everything. So we should stop faking our faith if our hearts are not united to His.

Struggling with our faith is not the same thing as faking our faith. Jesus is hard on the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, but he is gentle with the father of the possessed boy in chapter 9 of Mark’s gospel when he cries out, “I believe, help my unbelief.” He shows the rich young man that despite his regular acts of religious devotion he still loves his money, and the young man walks away. But he responds to the nagging prayer of the Phoenecian woman when she tells him even the dogs get scraps from the table. Our God can hear any honest sentiment from us: it’s okay for us to complain about injustice, to wonder why God seems so far from us, to want a better life, to whine about our troubles and to pester him to give us good things. His willingness to listen is endless. He’s always there when we look for him. And he will always hear what we have to say. But He does not want to hear platitudes and insincere praise. He can see right through that.

That’s what Moses is driving at with his statement to the people. They can either do what God tells them to do and receive all the blessings he has in store for them, or they can go off on their own. That’s what St. James is driving at with his invitation: either humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls, or don’t. Maybe these Scriptures are what inspired the Yankees catcher Yogi Berra to say, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” 

There is no middle ground. If we believe God is who he says he is, then we receive his Word and our lives are transformed by that Word. We hear and we obey. We do what we are told. Our obedience is our path to docility and humility, and they pull us even closer to God, and we are no longer hearers only but also doers. Our thoughts and our actions are in greater harmony with God’s will and his plan for our lives. We are becoming the human persons he made us to be: integrated rather than separated between mind and body. We do the good things we do because our hearts are no longer stony but transformed into godly hearts that are close to God. Just as evil acts come from wicked minds, the merit of our good deeds comes from the state of our hearts. We are no longer disjointed as the Pharisees were, saying one thing but doing another. We are integrated in mind and body and soul, truly God’s children.

As we prepare to offer our sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise, let us put at the foot of the altar all the times we tried to manage our relationship with God and recommit ourselves to just being his children. When we come forward for Holy Communion, let us be praying that we truly do commune with Him, that our wills become one with his will, that our hearts and minds and bodies be fully integrated according to God’s plan for our lives.

Life and Death

Today’s readings are about life and death, from the musings of Solomon in the Book of Wisdom to the story of Jairus and his daughter from the Gospel of Mark. Solomon directs our gaze to the origins of death, and the Gospel story makes it clear that the God of Life has the ultimate power over death.

Connecting back to the Creation story in Genesis, Solomon remembers that we were not made for death but for life. He writes, “For  God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him.”

When we say that we were made for life and not for death, it’s useful to remind ourselves what those words mean when we use them in this context. For Christians, God is life. In response to a question from his disciples, Jesus says, “I am the truth, the way, and the life.” And in the Transfiguration, Jesus’s glory is revealed as being so white that no fuller — a person who cleans and bleaches clothes — that no fuller could ever duplicate. In the Transfiguration, the disciples get to see, for just a moment, what real life looks like. Thus we understand that when Solomon says we were made to be imperishable he is saying that we were made for life, that we were made for God. God made us to be close to him and to be with him in the fullness of life. Made in His image, we were made to enjoy a close relationship with him.

If that is life, then what is death? Death is the absence of life just as evil is the absence of God’s goodness. Evil is not a thing; evil is the lack of a thing or the absence of a thing. The thing that is missing is God himself. Sometimes theologians describe evil as a privation, which is a fancy word for the absence of something or the lack of something. Evil is the lack of God’s goodness, and death is the lack of his Life.

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Standing Up for Truth

Two weeks ago on the Baptism of the Lord, Father preached about how all of us through our own baptism are called to the three-fold ministry of Jesus Christ. In our own way, we are priests, prophets, and kings. The Priest offers sacrifices and prayers to God for others. And we can do that personally, offering our little sacrifices and prayers so that we and the whole world can grow in holiness. We go to the King for justice. And in our own lives, all of us can stand for justice; we can do little things to promote justice in our families and neighborhoods. And finally, the job of the Prophet is to speak what God has told him to say. Many times, the prophet doesn’t want to say what God tells him to say, and we certainly see that in the story of Jonah in the Old Testament today. But God makes His prophets speak; he makes them stand up for truth. He makes them stand up for truth even if they may encounter danger for doing so.

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Vainglory or the Shema

The theme of the Gospel readings over the past few weeks has been a long and sometimes sharp reminder that there will be a final judgment, and the Lord our God is the judge.

We had the two sons, one told his father he would do the work but did not and the other said he wouldn’t but he did. Jesus invited us to think about how words are cheap and how we live is how we will be measured.

We had the landowner whose tenants abused and killed his servants when they came to collect the rent. Jesus invited us to think about stewardship versus ownership and how easy it is for the steward to take what is not really his.

We had the wedding feast when the people invited spurned the invitation. Jesus asked us to think about being serious when we are invited to something truly important.

We had last week the Pharisees and Herodians getting together to trap Jesus with the question about the census tax. Jesus invited us to think less like scholars who think a snappy line will win the debate, and more about the fundamental purpose of our lives, why we were born and what we will die for. 

And today we have the Pharisees step up with a scholar of the law asking Jesus which of the commandments in the Law is the greatest. And today Jesus is inviting us to consider the sin of vanity, or as it is sometimes called, vainglory.

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Jesus, Tamar, and Grandma

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Sylvester

Psalm 25, says, “Make known to me, Oh Lord, your ways, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior.”

The Letter to the Philippians includes the great hymn of Christ, which says, “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave and coming in human likeness.”

This bit of Scripture speaks to the Incarnation, that God became Man and dwelt among us. The incarnation and the resurrection are critical to our faith, and they are the two greatest feast seasons on the Church calendar. It’s why we bow during the Creed. It’s why we are pro-life. God became Man. Today, I would like us to consider the great question of when did Jesus become human?

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Radical Trust

In last week’s gospel, we saw Peter blurt out the truth. When Jesus asked,  “Who do people say that I am?” he got logical and worldly responses, like “some say you are Isaiah and others a prophet.” He then asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter blurted out the truth: You are the Christ, the anointed one, the one that everyone’s been waiting for. And the next thing Jesus says to him is, “You are the Rock and upon this Rock I will build my church.”

In this week’s gospel, we see that Peter can’t maintain for very long. This is the second part of the story we began last week. Jesus tells his disciples what the rest of his Earthly ministry will look like. He will go to Jerusalem, and he will be killed, and on the third day he will rise from the dead. But Peter cannot handle that. He says “no such thing shall ever happen to you.” And Jesus rebukes Peter, because Peter has fallen into the trap of thinking as the world thinks. He says, “You are not thinking as God does, but as human beings do.”

In the first half of our story which we heard last week, we see what Peter says when he is open to supernatural truth. And in the second half of our story, which we hear today, we see what happens when we remain limited to natural, or human, truth. Last week, Peter blurted out the truth, and perhaps he felt what Jeremiah said in today’s Old Testament reading. That it becomes like a fire burning in our heart, imprisoned in our bones; we grow weary holding it in and we cannot endure it. A supernatural truth is something that is true but beyond our human, or natural, ability to comprehend. That doesn’t make it less true; rather, it opens us to deeper truths that we cannot work to by our own power. It’s a gift of truth. Peter was given the gift of recognizing that Jesus is the Messiah. That’s a radical truth.

But in the second half of the story, which we read today, Peter seems to have lost his grip on that radical truth, and he descends to the human realm which cannot accept that God must die on the Cross. The supernatural gift of radical truth comes to us from God, and our responsibility is to hold on to that truth and to hold on to that openness. We must have that openness if we are to hear and to follow the instructions that Jesus gives his disciples: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Since he just told his disciples where he was going – to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed – then those of us who choose to follow him must understand the cost of this radical truth and radical obedience.

Saint Paul urges the Romans in his letter today not to conform themselves to this age but to be transformed by the renewal of their minds so that they may discern what is the will of God. That was the call in the first century, and it is our call today in the 21st century.

Our age has turned its back on the truths of God. Our age says that we should seek pleasure and avoid pain. Our age says that this life is all there is. Our age says that will and power are the way to get ahead. Our age says win at all cost.

But as the readings today make clear, we must obey Jesus and stop thinking as the world thinks. In faith, we must see through the lies of the world and obey the truths of God. The truth is that this life is a brief moment in our eternal lives. One of the most powerful sentences given by Sister Dee Dee who spoke last week at the convention was that she was not just pro-life but pro eternal life. As Christians we are pro-life and pro eternal life. We know that spiritual death is much worse than physical death. That’s a radical truth that the world rejects. That’s a radical truth that we can’t hold in any more than Jeremiah could hold in his message. That’s a radical truth that means suffering for those who dare to express it in public.

The truth is that power and will are the opposite of what God wants. Just be reminded of the Beatitudes: the meek shall inherit the earth. Jesus describes himself as meek and humble of heart. Our Lady describes herself as the handmaid of the Lord. St. John the Baptist tells his disciples that he must decrease so that Jesus may increase. As Christians, we know that all power comes from God and must be used according to His justice. As Christians we know that the ends do not justify the means. As Christians we know that Justice will be done at the End of the Age when Jesus comes with his angels. That’s a radical truth that the world rejects.

But our lives should conform to the radical truth of God, not the rationalized and compromised truths of the present age. So what can we do? As Father mentioned in his stewardship talk last week, we can commit to prayer. It’s hard to read three pages of the gospels without finding that Jesus went off to pray by himself. We can follow that radical example in our own lives today.

We can spend time in spiritual reading. We have great models and teachers of the faith in the Saints and Doctors of the church.

We can spend time in community. Here we are fighting heat and rain to come to Mass in person. Fighting the fear of the Coronavirus, we might even dare shake hands or even give a hug. That is radical trust, which the world has temporarily lost.

We can share that faith that is bursting out of us. Do our spouses, children, our friends see how much we love our Lord? What can I do that’s radical to show them and everyone what the good news looks like?

Because we should be bold enough to blurt out the truth as Peter did. When God gives us the fullness of Truth, we should not try to manage it so that it conforms to the world, we should share it boldly like Peter.

When we are filled with the love and truth of Our Lord, it should be too strong for us, it was for the Prophet Jeremiah. It should be like a fire burning in our hearts. We should be unable to keep it in.

And we should do our part to cultivate that courage and that openness to what God wants to say to us and what he wants us to say. And we do that through our commitment to prayer, to spiritual reading, and to participation in the church’s liturgical life and our church family community.

Let us, in the words of Saint Paul, offer our bodies, our very selves, as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.

Seeking Pearls of Great Price

PearlIn last week’s Gospel reading we had the parable of the wheat and the weeds, with the message being that judgment comes at the time of harvest. And the judgment was between wheat and weeds, between the good and the bad. In today’s parables about the kingdom of heaven we get another example of the idea that all will be gathered up – in this case it is fish being caught up in a net – and then at the time of judgment, there will be a process of deciding that this is a good fish and that is a bad fish. And the good fish will be kept and the bad fish will be tossed aside.

Last week, it was fairly easy. A weed is clearly not a grain of wheat. So the process of distinguishing between the one and the other is a little bit like the fact that a coin is either heads or tails. It’s good or it’s bad. A simple, binary, evaluation or judgment.

Now a net full of fish is a little bit harder, but it still ultimately comes down to the judgment that it’s a good fish or it’s a bad fish. And so perhaps we can imagine there is a list. And if a fish is on the good fish list, it’s a keeper. And if it’s not, we throw it out. It seems fairly easy.

Today, one of the examples of the kingdom of heaven that is given to us is that it is like a pearl of great price. I would ask us to take a look at this because I think this parable on the kingdom of heaven has us looking more at the front end of things. Not just everybody’s in until judgment day, but there is a process that Jesus is calling us to while we’re still here. The pearl of great price is more challenging to us because it is no longer binary. It’s not just pearl or no pearl. It’s a pearl of great price.

And that brings up a few items I’d like to just touch on today.

The first is the nature of beauty. The pearl is a beautiful thing. The pearl of great price is a pearl of great beauty. And for most of us when we come to the idea of beauty we tend to seek cover in bromides like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” or that “there is no argument when it comes to matters of taste”.

And that is certainly true. I have a friend who really loves classical music, and he’s spent a great deal of time studying it. And when he’s talking about a piece by Rachmaninoff, he can speak at great length and with great passion about the beauty of that music. And I’m not as much a lover of classical music as he is. If we were to turn to some musical artist that is more my taste, I think I could make similar arguments about the crafting of the lyrics and the way that the melody moves around and then perhaps the way the other musicians bring in their instrumentals or harmonies to produce a rich and nuanced sound that is simply beautiful. Even if it’s a country music singer. If it’s done well.

And I think in both cases, each of us would say that this is really beautiful and I don’t see it quite the way you see it but both of us are open to and acknowledge that there is an objective definition of beauty. I can see the beauty in the classical music even if it’s not my preferred taste and he can see the beauty in the country music song even if it’s not his taste.

That objective reality about something like beauty is a concept that all of us as Christians need to embrace. As Christians, we know the source from which true beauty comes. It is the same place that the source of true truth comes from and where true goodness comes from. Like those, true beauty comes from God.

When we understand that true beauty is God’s beauty, then we can all seek with confidence to pursue and search for the pearl of great price because we know it is not just a matter of taste.

So we have to develop a greater sensitivity to what is truly good. That’s part of what we should do as Christians. It’s part of our call: to grow in our understanding and appreciation of what is truly beautiful, what is truly good, and what is truly true.

And we can grow in that as we grow closer to God’s definition of those things because he is in fact the author of all of those good things.

You’ll notice from the Old Testament reading that Solomon asks for wisdom so as to be a better king and judge. Solomon as king will have to figure out which of the two parties in front of him – both of which can make a good case – is actually closer to the objective source of truth and justice, which is God. So Solomon prays for the gift of wisdom. And the gift of wisdom is that received understanding of what is really in conformance with God’s plan. It’s not the same thing as being intellectual, or being clever, or being smart. And that is why wisdom is a gift that we all can grow in, because it’s that gut knowledge, not that head knowledge, that gut knowledge that this is what’s correct, this is what’s right.

And so we have to grow in our pursuit of wisdom, our appreciation of wisdom, and we need  to pray for an increase in wisdom so we can more quickly recognize what it is that God is calling us to do, to be better able to see the pearl of great price amid all the many good pearls.

And then finally, if you think about how we get pearls, and maybe this is just from a James Bond movie, but we have to be willing to go down into the dark water and bring up an oyster, and open it up, and find that there’s no pearl at all, not even a decent pearl, certainly not a pearl of great price but no pearl at all, and to not lose heart but to set it aside and dive back down and bring up another oyster and see what’s in it. Figure out whether that’s a pearl or maybe that’s a pearl of great price, and we have to be willing to repeat that process.

And that is the gift of patience and perseverance. To be willing to go through a repetitive action always seeking through wisdom to know what is truly good and to not lose heart. That patient and persevering pursuit of God’s wisdom should be at the heart of our prayer lives. It should be the central activity of our Christian lives.

And so as we prepare for the liturgy of the eucharist, let us thank God for the spiritual gifts he has already given us, and let us beg him for more wisdom, more patience, and more perseverance.

The cost of the Promised Land

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St. Junipero of Serra statue toppled

We’ve officially started summer, as the Summer Solstice was yesterday afternoon. When I was a child, summers always seemed to involve long car trips to whatever great destination lay at the end of the journey. I was one of five kids, so it was seven of us and sometimes the dog on 12-hour drive to a family lake house. With luggage for seven for a week or two, even the huge station wagons of the 1970s were crowded, and so the drive was basically an endurance test and a test of faith. We had to trust that the lake at the end of the trip would still be there, that it would be clean and clear and cool, and there would be no garden to weed, and no barn to clean, just water to swim in and canoes to paddle.

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Our common ordinary priesthood

p1000276Last Sunday we wrapped up the season of Christmas and Epiphany with the Baptism of the Lord, and now we have entered the Sundays in Ordinary Time. Father reminded us last Sunday that all of us participate in the common priesthood and the three-fold office of Priest, Prophet, and King by virtue of our Baptism.

In the season of Epiphany, we were shown the reality of Jesus as God when the angels sang from Heaven to the shepherds at Christmas, when the pagan men of learning from the east were shown the king by following the star, and when the nation of Israel was shown the Holy Spirit descending like a dove as Jesus came up from the waters of baptism.

Now, as we enter Ordinary Time, we have a role to play in the epiphany, the revelation or manifestation – for that is the meaning of the word epiphany – the epiphany of God active in the world. Ordinary time doesn’t have the sizzle of the other seasons of the Church year. Ordinary sounds not interesting, plain, just a lot of gray when we have been so used to the colors of Christmas. Even the weather seems to cooperate with this. In late January, the skies are rainy and cloudy, and the trees do not have leaves on them, so the bare limbs look kind of bleak against the washed out winter sky.

We are baptized into the common priesthood, but consecrated priests, Father Neil and Father Valery, have their particular priestly duties they must perform every day of the year. They offer the sacrifice of the Holy Mass for us, and they pray for us in the Divine Office. They bring God’s healing grace to us in the sacraments of spiritual and physical healing.

While we do not do precisely the same things our consecrated priest do, we should be doing those sorts of things. We, in our common priesthood, are to offer our own personal sacrifices, to pray, and to bring God’s grace to a world that really needs it. And we have to do it even when the skies are gray, and the days are still short, and the the Lights of Joy have been turned off.

The scriptures today all speak to this theme. Isaiah, the prophet in the Old Testament reading today, is told by God he was “formed as his servant in the womb that Jacob (or Israel) may be brought back to him, and he will be light to the nations that his salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” A prophet is one who must show the wayward people the true path of justice, and teach the people about the saving power of the one true God. All of us are called to manifest God’s justice and his mercy to an unbelieving world, which means we need to do it outside of the walls of this building. That is part of our mission, of what we are sent at the end of Mass to do.

St. Paul tells the church in Corinth why they were called out. (The greek word for church is ecclesia, which means “ones who are called.”) He identifies them as “you who have been called to be holy.” Our holy priests had nearly a decade of formation before they were ordained, but their holiness comes from the same place ours should. It comes from us saying “yes” to God’s invitation to live better lives. He loves us where he finds us, and he does not judge us. But he always offers us something better. That better life he invites us to is a life lived in an intimate relationship with him, and if we commit to being priest, prophet and king in our particular way, we will become more holy. Holiness is the outcome of a life of prayer, sacrifice, learning, and discernment. It is the outcome of the life of priest, prophet and king during the ordinary times of our lives.

John the Baptist explains that the reason he came baptising was that Jesus might be made known. God rarely visits his creation directly. He mostly uses intermediaries as he used John the Baptist. He sends prophets much more often than he rests upon a mountaintop as he did at the Transfiguration. He sent this community these consecrated men to serve us as priests, and he sends all of us out to the world to consecrate it through our priestly, prophetic, and kingly actions.

Ordinary Time gives us a chance to practice the virtues that lead to the Holiness we are called to, the Holiness for which we were made. As Dr. Paul Thigpen noted in his pulpit announcement two weeks ago, we have weekly times when we can learn about the scriptures on Sunday mornings and we can learn more about prayer on Wednesday evenings. We will be better prophets and teachers if we know more about our faith, and we will be better priests and prayers if we know more about how to pray. If we make a habit of regular confession, we may find we are better kings and judges in our families and workplaces because we are spiritually closer to the true King and the God of true justice.

Ordinary Time is a time for us to develop our common priesthood, to equip ourselves so we can be a light to the nations, so we can answer that call to be holy. Let us offer our sacrifices and prayers as Father offers the sacrifice of the Eucharist at the altar. Fortified by the grace of God we receive through the Mass, let us go out and make ordinary Time a holy time.