Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sin and Serpents

“Just as the serpent was taken, and—as the problem—was made into the antidote: the serpent was made the way to heal the snakebites, so Jesus, the sinless one, was made to be like sin. He enters the places of separation, sin, and suffering, darkness and death, so that he can undo and heal them.”

4th Sunday of Lent, Year B

Sin and Serpents

It’s Laetare Sunday.

That’s why I am up here in this beautiful rose vestment. You expect that twice a year.

Laetare, as you know, is a word that means “rejoice” in Latin. This is one of our two great “rejoicing Sundays”. We are over halfway through the season of Lent, and so we rejoice.

But what exactly do we rejoice in, in Lent?

It’s still…a sad season, right? It’s still a season of penance. It’s the season where we are with Jesus in the desert, and we are preparing for even sadder things yet to come in Holy Week.

So what do we rejoice in, in the season of Lent?

The answer is “mercy”. We are rejoicing in God’s mercy.

Because if we didn’t have God’s mercy, we wouldn’t have anything to celebrate in this season of Lent. We wouldn’t even be looking forward to something at the end of this period of penance.

Take out your missalettes.

All the readings today have a sense of rejoicing….in the Father’s mercy. Turn to page 73, to the start with our second reading, Paul to the Ephesians.

Look at very first line:

Brothers and sisters: God, who is rich in mercy,

<<the reason to rejoice is that He is rich in mercy>>

God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved —

We are rejoicing.

Why are we rejoicing?

Because of his mercy.

What about his mercy, specifically?

Because we were dead in our transgressions, but by grace we have been saved...
And he adds:
“raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus.”

So that’s the summary: there is joy in his mercy.

How does God’s love and mercy work?

Really it works on two levels: One, before we could sin, and another after we have sinned.

The first gift of God’s mercy is that he even lets us have free will.

Now, we probably all have thought before: Boy, that was a bad idea. Why did God give us that? That has only caused trouble. Free will always led to stupid stuff. If he just would’ve made us always love and worship Him things would be great.

Instead we have free will; we do dumb stuff; and then it hurts.

You probably think of that then you look at your toddlers too. Aww, they are just getting their own sprit…and now they are wrecking the house. And now you are going to have to curb their free will.

That then—the problems of free will—tie in with our other readings too.

Look at the first reading:

A longish one.

God gave the people free will.

And again and again with their free will they go the wrong way.

First paragraph:

“They added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’s temple.”

So God tries to change their direction, using their free will and better judgment.

“Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers,
send his messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.”

So God acted by another means: Less enjoyable; using less of their own free will.

“Their enemies burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set all its palaces afire, and destroyed all its precious objects.”

So, he loves them enough to let them make their own choices; they make bad choices, despite his attempts to turn them, but then we see God gives his mercy to them a second time.

Jump over to second column there:

(We’ve talked about this prophecy the first two weekends in Lent.)

They are in exile, but there is a promise of return in 70 years:

As was spoken to Jeremiah the prophet: “Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.”

So, seventy years of waiting, seventy years of healing, seventy years of being out of the holy land, but then God shows his mercy.

And he fulfills this through a pagan.

Final paragraph, second line: “in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom…”

The proclamation says that he will rebuild Jerusalem and its temple and they can all go home to Judah.

They had abused the free will God gave them, wasted his mercy when He gave them second chances, and yet God comes back with an even greater mercy.

Flip to the Gospel, page 74

We see mercy again, on the largest scale possible.

We all know John chapter 3 as the home of the famous line: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...”

We know that. We see it at football games, basketball games… It might be the one chapter and verse that Catholics can quote—John 3:16.

The context though is: there were bad things coming our way.

We had all sinned and gone stray like wayward sheep and God had to bring us back.

To help understand truth, look right before that, at the beginning of the passage:

Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus is making an allusion to a very particular act of rebellion by Israel, which would make any hearer of John 3:16 realize that the famous passage had to with the price of sin and disobedience.

Back in the Book of Numbers, during their 40 years of wandering in the desert, because the Israelites have free will—because they can sin—they do. 

They complain against the Lord: “Why has God abandoned us? Why has he brought us out to this terrible place?”

So God sends venomous serpents to bite and punish them.

The people are rebelling; they use their free will to oppose him.

God, in a sense, lets their biting, rebellious speech become—if you will—incarnate, in the form of these serpents that attack the people.

The people repent and come to Moses and beg his help, and he intercedes for them and God says: I will be merciful.

Take bronze, make a serpent, twist it around a staff, and lift that bronze serpent up in this desert and anyone who looks on the serpent on the pole will be healed.

So what did God do?

He took the problem: serpents. And out of that he fashions a remedy: this bronze serpent lifted up on a staff.

That is the image Jesus wants us to have in mind when we read “So must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

God has established a pattern of how he fixes things: Something is wrong; people have messed up. God is going to take the thing that is wrong itself and flip it and make it the remedy.

Think about how a vaccination or immunization works: You take the disease itself, the bacteria, and you use it to make the body defeat the disease.

To understand this better, flip back to page 59. This is the readings of Ash Wednesday. Often we are distracted by all the other stuff that day, but it contains a fascinating line in 2nd Corinthians.

5th line down: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

Repeat: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin.”

Jesus did not know sin, right? He alone is sinless. But God made him “to be sin.”

What does that mean?

God let him enter into the space where we have been. Sin is being cut off from God. What is Jesus like on the Cross?  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

He feels, he experiences the reality of sin.

He feels it by suffering for us.

He has all our sins dumped upon him as Isaiah 53 says. 

He feels that distance, that separation.

He is in the place of sin suffering and death—as human beings would be.

He has quote/unquote “become sin”

And what exactly is this “when he is lifted up from the earth”?

On the cross.

Just as the serpent was taken, and—as the problem—was made into the antidote: the serpent was made the way to heal the snakebites, so Jesus, the sinless one, was made to be like sin. He enters the places of separation, sin, and suffering, darkness and death, so that he can undo and heal them.

He goes into those. He becomes the way to heal us of sin, because he becomes it, as it were.

He becomes our safeguard from suffering and death by himself going through them.

So these are the mercies we sing on Laetare Sunday.

As the psalmist says in psalm 89: “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever.”

The mercy that lets us choose. And even if we choose poorly, the mercy that comes back to save us.

The mercy that says even though the people went astray I will bring you back to the promised land.

And which says to us: When you stray away even farther, when you as a human race are all lost in sin, he says “I so love the world that I will send my only begotten son that he will become sin in your place,” that what was once separated and dark and dead can now be alive and in the light with me.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Idolatry, Old and New

I wouldn't normally share just a single talk of homily that I gave on a retreat (like the one I led this weekend), but the Sunday homily ended up working out as both a stand-alone homily and as a cap to the weekend's themes.

It does move faster and cover more ground than a regular Sunday homily would, but that's because it's pulling together a lot of threads that had been laid down throughout the retreat. So, don't be surprised if you need to pause and catch a breath from time to time!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Kingdom Hopes

I think I accidentally wrote an Easter homily and dropped it in Lent, but the themes built so directly on top of what I said last week that it seemed crazy to break the thread.  

This is also the most I've ever carved off a homily before. I cut a minute off after Saturday night and another two minutes off after the first Sunday attempt. If 17+ minutes is still too long, here are three TL;DR quotes. (The audio and full text start below those.)

So [the Apostles'] hopes changed. They went about proclaiming, not merely that God had done a miracle, or even than Jesus was the Messiah even though he’d been killed; they went about declaring that God’s kingdom had come. God had rebuilt and restored Israel in the family of the Messiah, and the Apostles were inviting people to come rethink, reconsider, recalculate and believe in this Jesus and join his family through baptism. 

Why? Because they believed what Jesus had believed: that God’s kingdom had come, and yet that kingdom was also a project for us all to go about building. To put it in a single sentence: The kingdom was inaugurated by Jesus, but it was not fully implemented— since that is the work of every Christian.  

We might have to do some recalibration to get that right balance—in the world but not of the world; a worker in the vineyard but a citizen of heaven—but that’s the whole game plan within the six weeks of Lent. 

2nd Sunday of Lent, Year B

Kingdom Hopes

On Ash Wednesday, as you know, there was a school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Whenever one of these happens I am reminded of something I heard back in the 1990s. I don’t remember which shooting it was, but I was listening to Rush Limbaugh (cuz I was that weird kid that listened to talk radio back in junior high and high school) and Limbaugh was reflecting on these already-common shooting and what leads people to do this.

And this older man called—and this was 20 or 25 years ago—and he reflected that when he was growing up they were poor and had limited opportunities, the Depression, the wars, but what they had—what thy always had was hope. But he said that when he looks at the world today, he sees way more prosperity and opportunity, but it seems like there are many who have lost hope. He wondered aloud if some of the people doing these horrific things are doing them because they have no hope.

Again, I don’t know what year that was, I do know that about the same time, in Ocotber of 1995, John Paul II addressed the entire United Nations in New York City and he spoke of himself as coming to the nations as “a witness to hope”. That line was so compelling and programmatic of the Pope’s life that he chose it as the title for his 800-page, big blue biography of the John Paul, “A Witness to Hope”. Someone later said that he had come “as a witness to hope to a world on the verge of giving up hope.”

What’s weird is that when you look at his life:

Mother dies when he’s 9. Brother dies when he’s 12. Father dies at the end of his teens. When that happens they had already been invaded by the Nazis. And when the Nazis were driven out they got Soviet Communism after that. And finally, when Communism fell in 1991, into the vacuum came Western-style liberal democracy and greedy capitalism from Europe and America, turning it into a different kind of grind.

So having gone through all that, it would be quite reasonable if Karol Wojtyła, of all people, had lost hope. And yet he was full of hope. And he came as a witness to hope.

You might have guessed by now: this homily is about hope.

But what should people hope in?

What is our confidence?

We Christians like to put faith and hope together.

So we would probably say: “I have faith that Jesus rose from the dead, and therefore I have hope that he will raise me up too to be with him in heaven.”

We take this for granted, but clearly that wasn’t the mindset of the three apostles at the Transfiguration in today’s reading: “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what ‘raised from the dead’ meant.”

Last Easter, I pointed to this text as part of the evidence that his body wouldn’t have been stolen and that they weren’t making up the stories of his appearing, because no one thought resurrection was what would—or should—happen after the crucifixion.

No one, Jewish or Greek or Roman spoke about this idea: that one man would be walking around in the same space-time continuum after having been killed a few days before.

I pointed to this passage after the Transfiguration and to his words about rebuilding the temple in three days: in both cases we are told the disciples were confused—because nobody assumed this was remotely possible.

Now certain Jews at the time thought that maybe there would be a final, general resurrection at the end of time.

Martha says to Jesus after Lazarus dies, “Lord, I know he will rise, at the resurrection on the last day.”

And Jesus has to correct her: “No; I am the resurrection.”

But still, that was not clicking for them during Holy Week.

Besides, this wasn’t a necessary concern: They didn’t worry about what “raised from the dead meant” because they didn’t think the Messiah would get killed.

That’s part of being the Messiah: you’re not supposed to lose.

And they didn’t think he would be fighting with the contemporary religious leaders.

So, topics for today: Israel’s hope, the hope of the early Christians, and our hope.

First part: Israel’s Hope

I know the homily last week was long.

Tried to cut parts out, but the pieces didn’t fit together once I pulled some parts.

One question that arises from last week’s homily is: Were they really so political?

Were even the rank and file people of Jesus’ time so intense?

And, from sources of their day, the answer is yes.

And that had to do with their hopes.

The Jews of his time had an eschatological view of the world.

We hear eschatology and either think of the end of the world or of our own last four things: death, judgment, heaven, or hell.

But there is a greater sense too: The idea that history was coming to its climax. Israel’s great story was nearing its goal.

But, why would that idea wind these guys up so?

It has to do with two prophets, Jeremiah and Daniel.

Jeremiah had been prophet at the beginning of the Babylonian Exile. He had been told in prophecy that the exile would last 70 years. That gave the people hope as the hunkered down for 70 years knowing it would end.

But then Daniel, a prophet in the Exile was praying and lamenting their captivity and the angel Gabriel tells him that it won’t be 70 years, but “70 weeks of years”, i.e. 490 years.

Now the people did return to Jerusalem, but it didn’t feel like the Exile was over. They still had pagan overlords: Persians, then Greeks, then Romans. So they could feel like they were living out Daniel’s 70 weeks of years.

So, when were these 490 years supposed to be up?

That was the problem.

For comparison, think of all the times the Irish had a rebellion against the British, especially in the last 200 years.

They kept looking for the moment to fight for freedom.

Now for comparison sake, let’s imagine that back around 800 A.D. some Irish mystic, a monk maybe, had made a prophecy that in a thousand years, with the help of a great power, the Irish would throw off the English and British.

But the problem would be that nobody knew exactly when he lived and whether a thousand years was perfectly literally, and from when to count, etc.

Something like that would help make sense of all the Irish risings, and especially with their intensity in about a hundred-year range.

Back in 1789, the leaders of the French Revolution promised to land and army in Ireland and lead them to throw off the Brits. There it is: the help of a great power! Hundreds rose, and hundreds died because the French army never came.

Then in 1848, when revolutions broke out all across Europe, it must’ve seemed the moment—great powers were at work. And they rose. And the British killed them.

Later maybe they thought they were themselves the great power and started doing guerilla raid and assassinations. Which only led to British coercion crushing them down.

Even the much-celebrated Easter Rising of 1916, which many think of as beginning the Irish War for Independence, ended with defeat. The men who barricaded themselves in the General Post Office were taken and executed.

It was a another three years before the actual war for independence began.

So this then is how Israel felt.

For about 150 years they were on edge.

From about 20 B.C. to 130 A.D.

Always thinking, “Maybe the 490 years was fulfilled and liberation was here!”

They weren’t constantly trying to fight, but they had this promise that the climatic moment was coming.

So they were always trying to discern: Is this the moment? Is this the time we were told?

So that’s why the skeptics kept asking questions like “Are you the one?” “Are you the messiah? Or should we look for another?” “What sign can you show us?” “Could anyone have done the things this man is doing if he wasn’t sent from God?”

They don’t want to miss out if this is the moment and this is the guy, but they don’t want to die in another failed revolt either.

Because of our post-resurrection, modern, thoroughly de-Judaized view of the NT, we assume the skeptics were asking “are you the guy that can save us from our sins and lead us go to heaven when we die?”

But they were thinking, as the two disciples said on the road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday night, “We were thinking that he would be the one to free Israel and make us independent.”

They had hope, and their hopes were scriptural, and they made perfect sense from the OT scriptures.

If anything, it was Jesus who was fiddling with the knobs on the stereo and tweaking how the music was sounding to the crowd.

But, as I talked last week, while they and Jesus were reading the same scripture—they were reading it according to their political agendas—and Jesus was reading it differently and critiquing their takes.

But everybody had one hope in common, and Jesus had it too: That God’s kingdom was just about to come, and that justice would be done on earth as it is in heaven.

To reiterate from last week, the largest segment of the people assumed that “God’s Kingdom Coming” meant: a new messianic king, a reestablished kingdom of Israel, a cleansed and renewed temple, and a renewal of the ancient covenant.

This would require some war perhaps, but it was meant to lead to peace.

Jesus shows up saying the same thing, kind of.

Last week he announced: “the kingdom of God is at hand, now is the time of fulfillment.”

He says the kingdom is at hand. And he’ll even say “The hour is coming and is now here.”

But he’s reading the scriptures differently.

He sees the kingdom coming as a moment of grace for Israel to be a witness to all.

He sees it that Israel has been called to be different.

To be a light to the nations.

To be an example of justice.

To be humble and patient stewards, as Genesis and Exodus had appointed them.

To answer the nations’ pride and cruelty, with humility and forbearance.

To live such that the nations will want to know what Yahweh has done for Israel.

The prophets all agreed that Israel is different from the nations, but the Zealots and Pharisees saw this as a reason to overcome them, and Jesus saw it as a call to be a witness.

These kingdom-visions were incompatible.

Jesus had called out the agendas of all of his contemporaries.

And this incompatibility would lead them to use the very Romans they hated to get rid of him.

The people had hoped God would give them a kingdom just like all the other kingdoms (cp. 1 Sam 8).

Jesus was announcing what God was really going to do, and that was that he would establish his kingdom as quite different from all the other kingdoms.

Second part: Early Christians

So let’s jump then to the hope of the earliest Christians.

They had thought like their fellow Jews.

They had said on the road to Emmaus “we thought this Jesus would be the one to rescue and restore Israel.”

Even after the Resurrection—just minutes before the Ascension—one asked “Lord, are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus’ answer to that question was: “You will receive power from the Holy Spirit and go be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, and to then to the ends of the earth.”

That was not what they expected. But that had been a theme for the last 40+ days.

On Good Friday night and the next day, they couldn’t believe he was dead. Couldn’t have imagined he could be raised. And they never would’ve dreamt that a person could be the Messiah without defeating the pagan armies.

On Good Friday night, everything they had hoped in was over.

But, also, everything they had built their hopes around was wrong.

From the moment Peter and John came back from the tomb, backing up the strange stories from the women earlier that morning, they began to realize that the world was a very strange place.

And after they saw Jesus that night, they realized they had been reading it all backwards.

God had vindicated his Messiah, by raising him from the dead, overturning the verdict against him.

The path to victory had ironically come through surrender.

The way to defeat death hadn’t been to run away from it. It had been to plunge headfirst into death and come out the other side.

Jesus had met Roman pride and cruelty—not with his own power and pride—but with creative and sacrificial love.

And he had won.

So their hopes changed.

They went about proclaiming, not merely that God had done a miracle, or even than Jesus was the Messiah even though he’d been killed…

They went about declaring that God’s kingdom had come.

God had rebuilt and restored Israel in the family of the Messiah, and the Apostles were inviting people to come rethink, reconsider, recalculate and believe in this Jesus and join his family through baptism.

And because they had seen that love is greater than cruelty and power, and self-surrender had proved stronger than even death, they were not afraid to go and tell this good news to everyone, whether it be angry Jewish leaders of the Sanhedrin or bewildered and annoyed Greeks and Romans.

Now notice:

Last week we talked about 2 dangers:

To focus just on his death and resurrection, and therefore just on getting to heaven

Or to focus just on his preaching and parables, and therefore just on changing people’s social interactions.

It’s worth noting that the first Christians avoided that trap.

Their hope was in his resurrection, but they worked massively on earth.

They believed these were inseparable.

They didn’t turn to escapism, where they just wanted everyone to sit and wait for the chance to go heaven.

But the also didn’t imagine that there was going to be some perfect human kingdom.

Why? Because they believed what Jesus had believed: that God’s kingdom had come, and yet that kingdom was also a project for us all to go about building.

They were certain the kingdom had come—surely the vindication of Jesus in the resurrection had proved that.

And yet they heard in all of Jesus’ commands, in his parables, and in the commission to his disciples the charter of “work to be done”.

To put it in a single sentence: The kingdom was inaugurated by Jesus, but it was not fully implemented— since that is the work of every Christian. 

Third Part:  Today.

So what about us. What do we take as our hope?

And for that matter, what do we think of the kingdom?

Again, I think most Christians have chosen an “either/or” about the kingdom, and so they have placed their hopes in one of those two buckets.

Some have decided this world is the kingdom to worry about and have thus built all their hopes around it.

Some have decided the only thing to worry about is heaven, because it alone is deserving of our hopes.

And of course the earliest Christians would insist that Jesus and heaven and the hope of them both was their great motivator, but oddly enough, that didn’t make them sit around; that made them very, very busy.

They took his message, his saving death, his social plan to the ends of the earth because they knew a new day had dawned in the rising of the Messiah.

Lent is a time to repent—which as I explained last weekend is an act of rethinking, reconsidering upon new information, and recalculating—and so this is great chance for us not merely to forgo our own old agendas, but also to retune our hopes and re-center them.

We might have to do some recalibration to get that right balance—in the world but not of the world; a worker in the vineyard but a citizen of heaven—but that’s the whole game plan within the six weeks of Lent.

I want to go back to that speech of John Paul II in 1995 because I think you’ll see that it pulls together all the points I’ve made both about our double-duty in the kingdom and about how that’s the goal of our hope.

And it might give us some thoughts for dealing with the despair we have in our world too.

As a Christian, my hope and trust are centered on Jesus Christ. [...] We Christians believe that in his Death and Resurrection were fully revealed God's love and his care for all creation. [...] 

Because of the radiant humanity of Christ, nothing genuinely human fails to touch the hearts of Christians. Faith in Christ does not impel us to intolerance. On the contrary, it obliges us to engage others in a respectful dialogue. Love of Christ does not distract us from interest in others, but rather invites us to responsibility for them, to the exclusion of no one and indeed, if anything, with a special concern for the weakest and the suffering. [...]  

Ladies and Gentlemen! [...]  I come before you as a witness: a witness to human dignity, a witness to hope, a witness to the conviction that the destiny of all nations lies in the hands of a merciful Providence.