Beams of Heaven As I Go – A Meditation on the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent

What is it that gives hope, shalom peace and serene joy to the Christian life? Briefly put, it is the vision of glory, a glimpse into the Promised Land of heaven which the Lord can and does give to his people. Today’s Gospel shows forth a kind of process wherein the Lord lays the foundations of hope, peace and joy for his disciples and for us. Lets look at four aspects of how the Lord lays this foundation.

I. The Paradoxical Prelude – The Text says Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. Note how the Lord, in order to get them to a place where they can see glory must first lead them “up a high mountain.”

Now we often pass over this fact, that they had to climb that mountain. And the climb was no easy task. Any one who has been to the sight of Tabor knows what high mountain it is. The climb was almost 2000 feet, high and steep. It may have taken the better part of a day and probably had its dangers. Once at the top it is like looking from an airplane window out on the Jezreel Valley (a.k.a. Megiddo or Armageddon). So here is a symbol of the cross and of struggle. A climb was up the rough side of the mountain: exhausting, difficult, testing their strength.

I have it on the best of authority that as they climbed they were singing gospel songs: I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain, and I’m doin’ my best to carry on! Another songs says, My soul looks back and wonders how I got over! Yet another says, We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, every round goes higher, higher.

Now, this climb reminds us of our life. For often we have had to climb, to endure and have our strength tested. Perhaps it was the climb of getting a college degree. Perhaps it was the climb of raising children, or building a career. What do you have that you really value that did not come at the price of a climb…. of effort and struggle? And most of us know that, though the climb is difficult, there is glory at  the top, but we have to endure and push through. Life’s difficulties are often the prelude to success and greater strength.

And herein lies the paradox, that peace and joy and hope are often the product of struggles, of climbs, of difficulties. These things are often the prelude, the paradoxical prelude to seeing and experiencing glory. Scripture says

  1. We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us—they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character in us and helps us trust God more each time we use it until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady (Romans 5:3-4)
  2. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it—and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the test tube of fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return (1 Peter 1:6).

Yes, there is a paradoxical prelude to glory and it can only come through God’s wisdom, for human being just don’t think this way. An old hymn says:

Trials dark on every hand. And we cannot understand, all the ways that God will lead us to that blessed promised land. But he guides us with his Eye and we follow till we die and we’ll understand it better by and by.

II. The Practices Portrayed – The text lays out various aspects of how they come to experience a joyful peace in the presence of the Lord’s glory. The text says: And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  In effect we can see three ways that they come to this joyful peace:

1. They are those who See – The text speaks first of the event itself that they see. It uses a word that says the Lord was μετεμορφώθη (metemorphothe), that he was “transfigured,” that his appearance was gloriously altered. In many ways this word, while common in the Christian vocabulary is mysterious and difficult to understand. The text supplies some data, telling us of a brightness that shown through the Lord, a kind of dazzling light.

But we ought not get lost in speculation and miss the point. And point is that Peter, James and John are given a glorious vision! Beams of heaven! Yes, this is Jesus. This is who he really is. And the magnificence of his glory so astounds them that they fall down in reverence.

Have you ever seen or experience glory? Maybe it was at the birth of a child, or upon hearing wonderful news. Perhaps it was a profound experience of relief, or a deep vision in prayer or at the liturgy. Yes, look for glory and rejoice when it comes!

We have got to learn to see things as they really are. What ever trials and struggles we must endure on the way, if we are faithful, our end is glory.

So look for glory and expect to find it. The Lord can and does give us glimpses of glory in our life, beams of heaven as we go! Do not minimize glories when they are revealed and cultivate a spirit of wonder and awe and what God has done and continues to do in creation, and in your life. Glory is all around us. And learning to see this glory is one of the ways God produces peace in us.

2. They are those who are Scriptural – Do you notice how the text says that Moses and Elijah appeared with him. Why them? Because Moses and Elijah represent the the Law and the Prophets, which is a Jewish way of speaking of the Bible. And thus, another way of having peace produced in us is to search the Scriptures. The other day I “cheated” and looked at the last page of the Bible. I know, we are not there yet, but looked anyway, and guess what it says? It says Jesus wins and so does everyone who is with him. We have got to stay rooted in our story, and the end of our story, if we stay with Jesus is glory. Know your scriptures, and thereby know your story, a story which ends with glory.

3. They are those who Savor – Peter wants to stay on the mountaintop, to pitch tents and stay put. Some preachers give him a hard time for this, but I see it as a good thing in itself, even if excessive. The point is to savor glory;  to store our good memories and experiences of joy and glory deep in our soul; to cultivate a deep gratitude for the good things the Lord has done for us; yes, to savor deeply our experiences of glory.

III. The Prescription Proclaimed – The text then says, Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.

The prescription couldn’t be simpler and yet how poorly we often follow it: Listen to Jesus! In other words, carefully ponder every word of his teaching and begin to base your life on what he says.

How much pain, anxiety and strife come into this world and our lives simply because we do not listen to the Lord and obey his teachings. Our stubbornness, our lack of forgiveness, our unchastity, our greed, our lack of concern for the poor, our idolatry, our lack of spirituality and the fact that we are often just plain mean, bring enormous suffering to us and to others.

If we would but give our life to the Lord and ask him to conform us to his word, so much suffering would vanish. We would have so much more peace and experience greater joy and hope.

Listen to Jesus and by his grace actually conform your life to what you hear him say. There is not greater source for joy, peace and hope.

IV. The Persevering Purpose – The text says, As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

There is a fairly universal agreement that the purpose of this mountaintop experience of glory was to prepare the apostles for the difficult days ahead. And thus, while Jesus tells them to keep it to themselves, they were to keep it, they were to remember it! Having seen and savored glory, having “seen what the end shall be,” having been bathed in beams of heaven, they need to keep this memory alive and remember who Jesus is as the passion sets in. If they do this, they will be able to endure the folly and suffering of the Cross.

Did they successfully persevere in keeping the memory alive? Well, only John made it to the foot of the cross but, frankly, one out of three isn’t so bad. Having experienced peace, joy and seen the Lord’s glory, John made it to the cross, enduring its shame and remembering the glory he had seen.

What of us? Have you seen the glory of the Lord? Have you experienced his love and glory deeply enough that, when difficulties come they cannot overwhelm you? Have you come to experience and possess a peace and joy that the world did not give and the world cannot take away? Have you allowed the Lord to lay in a foundation of hope in your life? Have you let him take you up the mountain and show you you glory? Have you seen into the promised land and have you seen what the end shall be? This is what this gospel describes and promises.

There is an old hymn by Charles Tindley that says, Beams of heaven, as I go, / Through this wilderness below / Guide my feet in peaceful ways / Turn my midnights into days / When in the darkness I would grope / Faith always sees a star of hope / And soon from all life’s grief and danger / I shall be free some day.

Notice what it is that gets us through: “Beams of heaven!” Yes, it was those same beams of heaven that Peter James and John saw on the mountaintop. And those beams, having been experienced and remembered, shine on every darkness and show the way. Those beams of heaven give us hope and turn our midnights into day.

Let the Lord show you his glory, savor every moment and never forget what the Lord has done for you. And the light of his Glory will lighten every way. The hymn goes on to say: Burdens now may crush me down / Disappointments all around / Troubles speak in mournful sigh / Sorrow through a tear stained eye / There is a world where pleasure reigns / No mourning soul shall roam its plains / And to that land of peace and glory / I want to go some day.

It looked Like the Sun Wasn’t gon’ Shine no More, But God Put A Rainbow In the Sky – A Reflection on the Readings for the First Sunday of Lent

On the first Sunday of Lent the readings turn to a very baptismal theme. It makes sense, for it is common on this Sunday in many places that the catechumens report to the Bishop for the Rite of Election wherein he recognizes them as elect (chosen) of God in these final weeks before their baptism.

In today’s readings there are many themes that form the kind of “spokes” of a wagon wheel, and baptism is the central hub around which they turn. And arching over it all is the great image of the rainbow in the sky, the great sign of God’s love and mercy upon us all. Even in Lent as we take heed of our sins, we can never forget that though we have been unrighteous, unholy, unkind, undisciplined and even at time unreachable, we have never been unloved. Yes, God put a rainbow in the sky.

More of this in a moment. But for now lets look at the baptismal theme of these readings from two perspectives.

I. The PORTRAIT of Baptism -It will be noted that both the first and second readings make mention of Noah and the Ark in which they were delivered from the flood. The second reading says, God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark,  in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. This prefigured baptism, which saves you now (1 Peter 3:19-20).

Note however, while we quickly think of water as a symbol for baptism, the image is really a double image of WOOD and WATER. For if it were not for the wood of the ark, the waters would have overwhelmed Noah’s family. And thus for us too, the waters of our baptism are rendered effective by Jesus on the wood of the cross.

Indeed, by God’s plan we might be so bold as to say: “Wood and Water Work Wonders!” And note, there are numerous places in the Scriptures where where wood and water, not just water alone, manifest God’s saving love. Note five incidents:

  1. Cleansing Flood– We begin with today’s image and one of the most terrifying stories of the ancient world, the flood. The world had grown so wicked and sin so multiplied that God concluded he must literally wash it clean. And you think its bad now! God went to a man named Noah and told him that He was going to trouble the waters and that Noah had to be ready. Build an Ark of Gopher wood  Noah! Now this was not a small project. The Ark was the length of one and a half football fields (150 yards), it was 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall. Now you have to really trust God to do all that work. And then gather the animals two pairs of unclean animals, 7 pairs of clean animals. More trust more time and lots of wood. But then God troubled the waters and the waters of the flood made an end of wickedness and a new beginning of goodness. From troubled waters came a blessing. But first Noah had to wade on in. Through the wood of the ark and water God worked wonders!  (cf Gen 6-9)
  2. Trouble at the Red Sea– Many Centuries later, Pharaoh had relented and the people were leaving Egypt after 400 years of slavery. But fickle Pharaoh has once again changed  his mind and pursues them. With the Red Sea before them and Pharaoh behind them the people were struck with fear. But God would win through for them. How? By troubling the waters: God told Moses to take up the wooden staff and to trouble the waters with these words: And you lift up your staff and with hand outstretched over the sea, split the sea in two… So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. (Ex 14:16, 21) Now you and I know the end of the story but the people that day did not. With water like two walls on either side they had to go forth, they had to wade, if you will, in the waters. They had to trust God that the waters would hold. And God brought them through and they went out of slavery and into freedom. Are you noticing a pattern?  With God, Wood and water work wonders. The wooden staff and troubled waters bring forth freedom.
  3. Trouble in the Desert – It is a fine thing to be free but thirst has a way of making itself known. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet (Ex 15:23) So once again, with God, wood and water work wonders. The wood of the tree and the troubled waters of that spring brought the blessing of survival.
  4. More Trouble in the Desert! But yet again as they journeyed further, more thirst. And God said to Moses: Go over in front of the people holding in your hand as you go the staff with which you struck the sea, …Strike the rock and the water will flow from it for the people to drink. (Ex 17:5-6).  From troubled waters came forth blessing. With God, wood and water work wonders. The wood of the staff troubled those waters and they came forth with the blessing that  preserved life in the desert.
  5. At the River Jordan– After forty years of wandering in the desert the Israelites are finally ready to enter the promised land. But the Jordan is in flood stage, impossible to cross. But once again God had a plan and was going to trouble those waters. He instructed Joshua to have the priests place the ark on their shoulders  and wade in the water. Now the Ark was a box made of Acacia wood and covered in gold. In it were the tables of the Law, the staff of Aaron and a ciborium of the manna. They also knew and believed that the very presence of God was carried in that ancient wooden box, even as in our tabernacles today. And the text says: And when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap far off people passed over opposite Jericho (Joshua 3:15) So again, with God, Wood and water work wonders! The wooden box of the ark troubled the waters and they parted bringing the blessing of the promised land.

And these Old Testament prefigurements bring us to the wood of the true cross. And on that wooden cross, the waters of our baptism come forth from the side of Christ. With Jesus our Lord and God, wood and water work the wonder of eternal salvation. We’re not just being freed from an army, or from thirst or a flood, we’re being freed from sin and offered eternal salvation. The waters of our baptism are given the power to save by our Lord Jesus and what he did on the wood of the cross. You might as well say it, With God Wood and Water Work Wonders!

II. The POWER of Baptism – Here we encounter more of the spokes of the wagon wheel radiating out from the hub which is baptism. And we largely collect these spokes of teaching form the second reading (1 Peter 3:17-22). The spokes speak of the power and gifts that radiate from baptism. Let’s look at them.

A. Salvation – the text says, baptism…saves you now. The Greek word translated here as “saves” is σώζει (sozei) and means to be delivered from present danger. Yes we have been snatched from the raging flood waters of this sin-soaked world and from Satan who seeks to devour us.

The Book of Psalms says, If the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us, when their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive; the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away. Praise be to the Lord, who has not let us be torn by their teeth. We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped (Psalm 124).

St. Paul says, of Jesus, he rescued us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Gal 1:4).

And old Gospel hymn says, I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea heard my despairing cry, and from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, love lifted me!

Yes, through baptism, and the faith it confers, we have been saved by the outstretched arm of our God.  And if we hold to God’s unchanging hand, heaven will be ours.

B. Sonship – The text says, Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.  Yes, Jesus has opened the way to the Father. He has reconciled us to God the Father by his precious blood.

In baptism we become the children of God. Isaiah says, For we like sheep had gone astray, every one to his own way (Is 53:6).

And we were angry and fearful of God, unable to endure his presence and his love. But Jesus, as a Good Shepherd has gathered us and restored us to grace.

One of the great gifts baptism gives us is the grace to experience a tender affection for God the Father and experience him as Abba (cf Gal 4:6, Rom 8).  And as we grow in the grace of our baptism, so does our tender love and affection for the Father.

Jesus, through baptism and the indwelling Holy Spirit, causes us to experience increasing trust of the Father and to obey him out of deep love rather than servile fear.

C. Serenity – The text says baptism….is not a removal of dirt from the body  but an appeal to God for a clear conscience. Baptism, while it touches the body, has for its current goal the soul, the inner man or woman. In effect this text speaks to us of the new mind and heart that Jesus, through baptism, confers on us.

In the Gospel today, Jesus refers to this new mind when he says “Repent!” The Greek word translated as “repent” is μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite) which means more literally “to come to a change of mind.”

Yes, the Lord offers us a new mind and heart. A whole new way of thinking; new priorities, new visions, new understandings, goals and vision.

So much of the battle we face involves our mind. “Mind” here does not mean “brain” per se, but rather, that deepest inner part of us where we “live,” where we deliberate and are alone with our self and our God. And through baptism the Lord begins a process that renews this inner self, day by day.

And as our mind gets clearer and our heart grows purer, our whole life is gradually transformed. This leads to inner peace, to a serene conscience, confident and loving before God.

D. Spirit! – The text says of Jesus, Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit. As God, Jesus did not need or acquire the Holy Spirit, He was always one with the Holy Spirit. But as man he does acquire the Holy Spirit for us.

And who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the very life of God, the love of God, the joy of God, the holiness of God! To receive the Holy Spirit is to come to a totally new and transformed life.

When Jesus rose, it was not merely that his corpse was resuscitated. It was truly his body that rose, but he took up a wholly transformed human life and offers this to us.

In baptism we die with him and rise to this new life. If we are faithful to our baptismal commitments, we become ever more fully alive; sins are put to death, and innumerable graces come forth. Yes, new life, Life in the Spirit comes to those who are baptized and remain faithful to their baptismal  life.

Do you see what God has Done? He has put a rainbow in the sky! When we were spiritually dead in our sins, hostile to God, God would never forsake us. He remembered the rainbow he promised Noah. With you I can say that I have been, unworthy, unrighteous, unmerciful and unreachable. I have been unteachable, unwilling, undesirable, unwise, undone, and unsure. But I can say, because of you O Lord, I have never been unloved.  I’ve been unamended, uneasy, unapproachable, unemotional, unexceptional, undecided, unqualified, unaware, unfair and unfit. But even I can see, the sacrifice God made for me, to show that I have never been unloved.

Yes, when it looked like the sun wasn’t gonna shine no more, God put a rainbow in the sky.

And do you know what a rainbow is? It is a combination of fire and water. Yes, there it is: the water of our baptism, and the fire of God’s loving Spirit shining through that very water: the rainbow in the sky. The sign of God’s fiery love and the water of our salvation.

God put a rainbow in the sky!

Four Mileposts on the Highway to Heaven – A Meditation on the Gospel of the 7th Sunday of the Year

Today’s Gospel speaks to us of what we should expect on our Christian journey, a journey sometimes referred to in Gospel music as a walk up the King’s Highway, or a walk on the highway to heaven. And along the way we come to certain mileposts that we should expect to see and experience in the normal Christian life. Let’s look at four of these mileposts.

(The picture at right will be explained a little further down).

I. Hunger – The text says, When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home. Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and he preached the word to them. Thus note that there is a great hunger, and an enthusiasm for the presence and the preaching of Jesus. The crowds enthusiastically gather and crowd in close to hear and see Jesus.

So, here is an important milepost on the Highway to heaven. In fact we might call it the “entrance ramp.” It is hunger or desire for the Lord and his Word, Jesus.

Are you hungry for the Word of God? Scripture says,

  1. The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver pieces (Ps 119:72)
  2. I rejoice at thy word like one who finds great spoil (Ps 119:162).
  3. I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12).

In speaking of hunger as a kind of on-ramp of the Highway to Heaven it is important to consider that the people who gathered to hear Jesus were drawn there by their hunger. They were not self-satisfied. They were in touch with their need, aware of their desire, sober about their thirst. It was these very things that drew them to Jesus, for he healed and gave meaning to their life.

And we too, must come to accept and experience our hunger and ask questions:

  1. Why am I hungry?
  2. Why am I Dissatisfied?
  3. Why is my life here difficult?
  4. Why do I face sorrows and challenges?
  5. What do these things teach me?
  6. How can I satisfy them?

The most common danger in experiencing hunger, thirst and desire is that we seek to anesthetize ourselves from it (perhaps by drinking, drugs, sex, or material possessions), rather than to get in touch with it and allow it to teach us, and draw us to God. For only God, who is infinite, can ultimately satisfy our infinite hunger and longing.

Jesus goes so far as to pronounce a blessing on those who are hungry: Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied (Luke 6:21). And indeed these hungry people were satisfied. For not only did Jesus bring healing, He also gave them a word that inspired and transformed. Yes, what a blessing it must have been to hear Jesus preach. Scripture says of Jesus’ preaching

  1. And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Mat 7:28).
  2. And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth (Luke 4:22).
  3. And the common people heard him gladly (Mark 12:37).
  4. Sent to arrest him the temple guard returned: No one ever spoke like that man (Jn 7:46)

Thus the first milestone on the Highway to heaven, the on-ramp if you will, is hunger. Allow the Lord to draw you to him. Your hunger is saying to you, seek the face of the Lord!

II. Help – The text goes on to say – They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.

The second Milestone on the Highway to heaven is that we all need help. You didn’t hear about Jesus all by your self. Somebody told you about Him. Faith comes by hearing, and that means we need someone to tell us and teach us about Christ.

As I write this today, I am powerfully aware that I am the result of prayer. I am aware that the healing, and the gifts the Lord has given me, have come from him, but through others. Yes, we are not believers today just because we’re so good, or so right. We’re believers because somebody has been praying for us, witnessing to us. Someone brought us to Jesus, some one ministered the sacraments and preached to us. Maybe it was a parent, who told and priests who brought the sacraments and preached. Maybe it was a catechist, or friend who witnessed to us and helped teach us. But SOMEONE helped us to come to Jesus.

And, frankly. we have all been paralyzed by something: ignorance, fear, sin, laziness. Through it all, somebody took the time to carry us to Jesus! They carried us in prayer, and some them (especially parents) had to drag us to him.

In the photo above, there are some women from my parish. And they are praying right over the spot in Capernaum were this gospel event took place. For the text tells us that Jesus was “home.” And “home” for him Capernaum was Peter’s house. The Church in which they are praying is built right over the house of Peter. And as you come to the rail in that Church you can look right down into the ruins of the House of Peter, the very house where this event took place. And the women in the photo are just at the point where the roof would have once been, praying, looking down. Yes, you might say, spiritually they are opening that roof once again as they pray for members of their family, their friends and others. And they, by their prayers are laying their friends and family members right before Jesus. Lowering them once again through that roof. Yes, even to this day the roof of Peter’s house is still being opened to let down the needy, the poor and that paralyzed. You can see it right in the photo.

And so it is that our faith has been given to us by others, who carried us to Christ and preached the word. Scripture says, So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God…How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! (Rom 10:17ff)

And old Gospel song says, Somebody prayed for me. Had me on their mind, took the time and prayed for me. I’m so glad they prayed, I’m so glad they prayed for me.

III. Healing – The text says, When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,”Child, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth” –he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone.

A third milepost on the highway to heaven is to experience our need for healing, and also the power of Jesus to give this healing to us. The fact is, while we will always have some sins and struggles on this side of the veil, we also ought to look for increasing healing in our journey. This is especially true of our spiritual and moral healing. The experience of being increasingly free of the paralyzing effects of sin and sorrow, and other spiritual struggles is an essential part of the normal Christian life as we journey up the King’s Highway.  We are to experience, and live victorious lives.

In terms of the healing Jesus brings about, note three aspects of what he says to the man:

  1. Rise – that is to say, “Receive new life, new capacities; no longer be weighed down with weakness; be set free; Rise to new life!”
  2. Take up your mat – That is to say, “Take authority over that on which you once depended. What ever crutch you once leaned on, now be strong enough to carry it. No longer lean on it, have authority over it. If you once depended on sin for happiness, now, take authority over it. If you once needed booze to calm your nerves, lean no longer on it, take authority over it. If you once depended on gossip and detraction to feel important, now take authority over it. No longer be dependent on any creature or sin, but, by being healed, have the power to carry it off like a trophy of victory.”
  3. Walk – That is to say, “Engage in new behavior, make new strides, experience and use new power, new strength.”

IV Hope – The text says, They were all astounded and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.

Here again we see a description of the normal Christian life, a life which is marked with profound hope and joy. Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal life. It is to be a hallmark, and a fourth and essential milepost on the highway to heaven.

As we make our journey up the King’s highway, and experience God’s help (so often through others) and his healing, there comes to us a joy and a confidence that becomes increasingly unshakable. We grow astounded at what God can and does do in our life. We marvel at how he sets us free and heals our sinful drives. And thus, like the crowds in today’s Gospel, we become increasingly astounded, we glorify God and can say with conviction “I have never seen anything like this!”

Can you do and say this? Do you experience this? This is the normal Christian life and the fourth milestone on the highway to heaven.

Four mileposts on the Highway to heaven.

Here’s the old Gospel classic: “Highway to Heaven”

Losing our Leprosy (In Four Easy Steps) – A Meditation on the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday of the Year

In today’s Gospel we see the healing of a leper (this means you and me). Leprosy in Scripture is more than just a physical illness, it is also a euphemism for sin. Leprosy itself is not sin, but it resembles sin and what sin does to us spiritually. For sin, like leprosy, disfigures us; it deteriorates us, it distances us (for Lepers had to live apart from the community), and it brings death if it is not checked. Yes, sin is a lot like leprosy.

Psalm 38 is a biblical example of how sin is compared to leprosy:

There is no soundness in my flesh because of thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning… there is no soundness in my flesh…My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand afar off.

Perhaps a brief description of physical leprosy might be in order, just so we can further appreciate both the physical illness and also, by analogy, how sin devastates us in stages. I have compiled this description from several sources; among them, William Barclay’s Commentary on Mark. I reading this, you will see how Psalm 38 above quite vividly compares sin to leprosy:

Leprosy begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discolored patches with pink and brown nodules and the skin becomes thickened. Gradually the symptoms move to the face and the nodules gather especially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed till a person loses his human appearance and looks more like a lion. The nodules grow larger and larger and they begin to ulcerate, and from them comes a foul discharge of puss. The eyebrows fall out and the eyes become staring. The voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal cords. Eventually the whole body becomes involved. Discolored patches and blisters appear everywhere. The muscles waste away, the tendons contract until the hands look more like claws. Next comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes until a whole hand or foot may drop off. It is a kind of a terrible and slow, progressive death of the body.

The disease may last from ten to thirty years and ends in mental decay, coma, then finally death.

Yet this was not all. The lepers had not only to bear the physical torment of the disease, they also had to bear the mental anguish and heartache of being completely banished from society and totally shunned. They were forced to live outside of town in leper areas. Everyone they knew and loved was lost to them and could only be seen from a distance.

In the middle ages when a person was diagnosed with leprosy, they were brought to the Church and the priest read the burial service over them for in effect they were already dead, though still alive.

This description of leprosy shows how the illness develops, disfigures deteriorates and distances the leper, and ultimately there is death. As we shall see, not every diagnosis of Leprosy was accurate, since many skin aliments, (such as psoriasis) can resemble the early stages of leprosy. Later, if the skin cleared up or remained stable, the supposed leper could be readmitted to the community.

But what of us, spiritual lepers? How are we to lose our leprosy and find healing? The Gospel suggests four steps to find healing from our spiritual leprosy of sin.

I. Step One – Admit the Reality – The text says simply, A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down, begged him and said, “If you wish you can make me clean. But see, he knows he is a Leper, he knows he needs healing. He humbles himself, kneeling and pleads for cleansing.

And what of us? Do we know our sin? Do we know we need healing? Are we willing to ask? We live in times where sin is often made light of and confessional lines are short. Too easily, we excuse our faults by blaming others (It’s not my fault, my mother dropped me on my head when I was two). Or perhaps we point to some other sinner, apparently worse and think, “Well at least I’m not like him.”

But the fact is we are loaded with sin. Too easily we are thinned-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, vengeful, angry, aggressive, unspiritual, unprayerful, stingy, and just plain mean. And if all the things on the list don’t apply to you, many do and, frankly the list is incomplete. We are sinners with a capital “S” and we need serious help.

Like the leper in the Gospel, step one is to admit the reality of our sin and humbly ask the Lord for help.

II. Step Two – Accept the Relationship – Notice two things. First the Leper calls on the Lord Jesus. In effect he seeks a relationship with Jesus, knowing that it can heal him.

Note secondly how the Lord responds. The text says Jesus is moved with pity and touches him. The Greek word translated here as pity is σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splagchnistheis) and is from from splanxna, meaning  ‘the inward parts,’ especially the nobler organs – the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. These gradually came to denote the seat of the affections.

Hence the Lord is moved with a tender love for this man. The English word “pity,” though often considered a condescending word today, is rooted in the Latin pietas, referring to family love. So Jesus sees this man as a brother and reaches out to him. The touch of Jesus was an unthinkable action at that time. No one would touch a leper, or even come close to one. Lepers were required to live out of town in the nearby caves. But Jesus is God, and loves this man. And in his humanity, Christ sees this leper as a brother. Scripture says,

For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why HE IS NOT ASHAMED TO CALL THEM BRETHREN, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee. (Heb 2:11)

As for us, it is in our saving relationship to the Lord, a relationship established by faith, that we are justified, transformed, healed and ultimately saved. If we would be free of the leprosy of our sin we must accept the saving relationship with Jesus and let him touch us.

III. Step Three – Apply the Remedy – Having healed him, note that Jesus instructs him to follow through in this manner: Jesus said to him, See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.

Among the ancient Jews it was the priests who were trained and empowered to recognize leprosy and its healing. For, as already stated, leprosy in its early stages can resemble other skin aliments. Perhaps it is leprosy, or perhaps it is just dermatitis, or psoriasis, or eczema. Priests were trained to make observations and either banish someone, or readmit them to the community. For sometimes, out of an abundance of caution, a person was dismissed on suspicion of leprosy, but the condition cleared up or remained stable. It was the priest who made the decisions for the community.

And, of course we have here a metaphor for sacramental confession. For what does the priest do in confession? He assesses a person’s spiritual condition, and having seen God’s healing mercy at work in a person’s repentance, reconciles, or, in the case of serious sinners, readmits them into the full communion of the Church. It is God who forgives, just like the leper in this story, but the Lord ministers through the priest.

And thus for us, spiritual lepers, the Lord gives the same instruction. “Go show yourself to the priest.” That is,  “Go to confession!” And the Lord adds, “Offer for your cleansing what is prescribed.” That is, say,  “Offer your penance.”

But someone might say, Why should he bother? The Lord has already healed him. To which we can only answer, “Just do what Jesus says: Show yourself to the Priest, offer your penance.” It is true, God can forgive directly, but it is clear enough from a passage like this, that confession is to be a part of the believer’s life, especially in the case of serious sin. To those who balk, the simple answer must be, “Just DO what Jesus says.”

So, having admitted the reality, accepting the relationship and applying the remedy, there remains a fourth step.

IV. Step Four – Announce the Result – When God heals you, you have to tell somebody. There’s just something about joy. It can’t hid. And people know when you’ve been changed.

That said, there are perplexities about this part of the Gospel. For, as the text says, Jesus “sternly warns him” NOT to tell a soul, other than the priest. The Greek text is even stronger, for it says Jesus warned him ἐμβριμησάμενος (embrimēsamenos); which means to snort with anger, to exert someone with the notion of coercion, springing out of displeasure, anger, indignation, or antagonism. It means to express indignant displeasure with some one; and to thus charge them sternly. So we see a very strong and negative command of Jesus. There is nothing ambiguous about the fact that he angrily warns this man to remain silent.

That this, and other places where the Lord issues similar commands, is puzzling, is an understatement. And yet, the reason is supplied; namely that Jesus did not want his mission turned into a circus act where people gathered to watch miracles and merely to see “signs and wonders.” Clearly this man’s inability to remain silent means that Jesus can no longer enter a place quietly, and that many sought him for secondary reasons.

That said, commands to remain silent cannot remain true for us who are under standing order # 1: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt 28:19)

Hence it is clear we NEED to shout what the Lord has done for us and give him all the glory. And, honestly, when God acts in your life there is joy, and joy cannot be hid or suppressed. If our healing is real, we can’t stay silent. To quote Jesus at a later stage, and when the Temple leaders told him to silence his disciples, I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very rocks will cry out (Lk 19:40).

At the heart of evangelization is announcing what the Lord has done for us. An Old Gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify…but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me!

Yes, tell somebody what the Lord has done. If the healing is real, you can’t keep silent.

Loosing our Leprosy in Four Easy Steps.

As I wrote this homily I was so sad to hear of the Death of Whitney Houston. I know how she struggled with addiction, like others I have known. And now she is gone. May she rest in peace. I was so moved by this song of “looking to God” that she did in the aftermath of a difficult period and when she found peace after treatment. In a way this song beautifully exemplifies this homily. For a struggling soul admits her need for God and looks to him. And, having experienced his healing love she sings of it for us. May Whitney Houston rest in peace. And may the Lord wipe every tear from her eyes. Enjoy this beautiful song of witness by Whitney.

Directions for Disciples when Dealing with Difficulties – A Meditation on the Readings for the 5th Sunday of the Year

In life we face many difficulties, and these difficulties challenge not only us, but our faith. Deep struggle can lead us to question God, or his love, or even his existence. The readings today speak to us of these sorts of difficulties and prophetically interpret them for us. Let’s take a look at these readings in three stages.

This homily is recorded here: Recorded Sermon mp3

I. The Disillusionment of Deep Despair – The reading from the book of Job articulates clearly the feeling we have all experienced at one time or another: Job spoke, saying: Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?… I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me… then the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn. My days…come to an end without hope… I shall not see happiness again.

Job is weary and worried, angry and anxious, depressed and discouraged. We have all been there, and pray not, but life sometimes cycles back to difficulties, even if these are good now.

Notice Job’s disillusionment. He says, “I shall not see happiness again.” Suffering has a way of drawing us into the illusion that things will never be good again, that we will never again be happy or content. In effect, “My life is over.” Yet Scripture says, trouble don’t last always, that weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come with the morning light (Psalm 30:5). And even for those of us who are soon to die, if we are faithful, even death opens to a new and lasting joy.

But Job is caught in the illusion that his life is over, will never be good again. Those of us who know the story of Job realize that this is not the case and that Job will once again be blessed, blessed with an even greater abundance than he once had.

And we too, can often be lost in illusion when suffering sets in. A thousand questions, usually starting with “why” will beset us. And while the mystery of suffering cannot be fully explained we ought to remember that God permits some trouble in our life. For by it certain purposes can be accomplished if we are faithful. God permits trouble to:

  1. DIRECT us.  – Sometimes God must light a fire under us to get us moving. Problems often point us in a new directions and motivate us to change. “Sometimes it takes a painful situation to make us change our ways,” Proverbs 20:30 says …blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inner most being. when our way gets a little too easy, you know we tend to stray from God.
  2. INSPECT us.  – Our problems have a way of helping to see what we’re really made of. I have discovered many strengths I never knew I had through trials and testings. There is a test in every testimony and trials have a way of purifying and strengthening our faith as well as inspecting our faith to see whether it is really genuine. 1 Peter 1:6 says,  Trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure.
  3. CORRECT us. Some lessons we learn only through pain and failure. Sometimes we only learn the value of something … health, money, a relationship by losing it. Scripture says in Psalm 119:71-72 says It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. Psalm 119:67 Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I keep you word.
  4. PROTECT us. A problem can be a blessing in disguise if it prevents you from being harmed by something more serious. It might be as simple as being caught in traffic but thereby avoiding a terrible accident had you been in the intersection at your usual time. It might be something more serious like loosing health but also, thereby losing my ability to sin so seriously. In Genesis 50:20 as Joseph said to his brothers who had sold him into slavery…You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
  5. PERFECT us. Problems, when responded to correctly, are character builders. God is far more interested in your character than your comfort. Romans 5:3 says We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character. And 1 Peter 1:7 says You are being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it.

So Job’s disillusionment needs a little correction. God hasn’t given up on Job. There is no doubt Job is in trouble. But trouble doesn’t last always and God is permitting it for a reason, and a season. But seasons change.

II. The Destination of Distressed Disciples – Simply put, when troubles come, run to the Lord in prayer. In today’s Gospel we are told: Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her.… We are next told, When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons.

Note the instinct of the people to turn to the Lord “immediately.” A couple of old songs come to mind:

  1. I love the Lord, he heard my cry and pitied every groan. Long as I live and troubles rise, I’ll hasten to his throne.
  2. What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! Oh what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.
  3. King Jesus is a listening all day long to hear some sinner pray.

Indeed, while God may have reasons for permitting us to experience difficulties, that does not mean he does not want us to ask for grace and strength and healing. The Book of James says simply, “Ye have not because ye ask not” (4:2).

In our seeking of the Lord we ought to remember that perseverance is also an important aspect of prayer.

  1. Luke 18:1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
  2. Luke 11:8 I tell you, though [the grouchy neighbor]  will not get up and give [his neighbor] bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.
  3. James 5:16 The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.

Here too another song comes to mind: If I hold my peace my Jesus will be coming for me one day, King Jesus is a listening when you pray. Thus in times of distress and difficulty the instinct of a true disciple is to hasten to the Lord in prayer; to seek comfort, consolation, healing and peace.

III. The Doctrine of Divine Decision – We have reviewed two truths that are in some tension: That God sometimes permits trouble for a season and a reason, and that we ought to run to the Lord in prayer when trouble comes seeking help and relief. One teaching (understandably) seeks immediate relief, and the other teaches that weeping may endure for a night, or for a season, but always for a reason, deemed by God to be both necessary and productive.

In the end, the “Doctrine of Divine Decision” accepts with trust that God knows what is best. We run to him for relief and permit him to say now or later in answer to our prayers.

In the gospel today we see both teachings illustrated and held in tension. First, as we saw above, many came to Him for healing and He healed them all. But then we read further:

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.” He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.

Therefore note that some remained back in the town seeking immediate healing, but Jesus chooses to move on. For he is not here simply to be a medical miracle worker but, as he says, to preach the Kingdom, and ultimately to die for our real problem, which is our sin. It may be difficult for us to hear Jesus say no to this town and move on. In fact, Peter indicated some frustration at Jesus’ having moved out of the town to pray and ultimately to move on. Nevertheless, to those back in Capernaum, Jesus said to some, now, and to others, wait. This is his decision and he knows what is best.

But consider this, either way we are blessed. Either we experience healing now and we have a testimony to give. Or, we receive the Good News that Jesus has come to preach that everything is going to be alright and our faith is strengthened. Consider that Scripture says,

Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love the Lord, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

In other words, even the difficult things in your life, by God’s grace work unto good, bring some benefit, a benefit that God knows and thus he permits the struggle for now. Scripture also says,

1 Peter 1:6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Thus our sufferings have a place to strengthen us and purify us as we saw above.

The Doctrine of Divine Decision leaves things up to God. Whether now, or later, everything is going to be alright if we trust in God. If there is a delay, he has his reasons. And even if these reasons are mysterious and irksome for us, the decision is God’s.

Here then are some Directions for Disciples when dealing with difficulties. Briefly put, Reject Disillusionment, Run to Jesus, Respect his decision.

This song says, You don’t have to worry, And don’t you be afraid, Joy comes in the morning, Troubles they don’t last always, For there’s a friend in Jesus Who will wipe your tears away. And if your heart is broken, Just lift your hands and say, Oh I know that I can make it; I know that I can stand; No matter what may come my way; My life is in your hands.

Mad to Sad to Glad: A Portrait of Powerful Preaching and its Effects, Based on the Gospel for the 4th Sunday

There are four aspects of powerful preaching displayed by Jesus in this passage. As such, Jesus is not just a powerful preacher himself, but also models what it means to be a powerful and effective preacher.

In using the word “preacher” here we ought to be careful not to reduce preaching merely to what takes place in a church. For surely the clergy have churches in which to preach. But every Catholic parent ought also to learn from Jesus here, for they have the church of their home in which to preach, and the pulpit of the dining room table, the living room, or even the family car. Therefore we must all learn from Jesus’ model of being a powerful preacher and teacher. Note then, three basic qualities of Jesus as a preacher and teacher:

I. PERSONAL  – The text says, Then they came to Capernaum, and on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.

(The picture at the upper right is a picture of me and fellow parishioners standing of the ruins of the synagogue mentioned here. It is a very moving thing to stand atop the foundational ruins of the synagogue where Jesus preached both this sermon and the Bread of Life Discourse. Some of the ruins are later than Jesus’ time but the foundations are clearly from that time. Amazing).

Note that the text says that Jesus spoke “with authority.” The Greek word translated here as “authority” is ἐξουσίαν (exousian) meaning, at its root, “to (speak) out of one’s being or substance.” In other words, one speaks of what he experientially knows. He is not simply quoting what others say, neither is he merely quoting slogans and common sayings.

Jesus is distinguished from the Scribes who were famous for quoting each other and reputable and safe sources only. Of itself, this is good. But if it merely stops there, what makes preaching different from staying home a reading a book?

Too many Christians, including Catholic preachers, are content to live and preach by inference rather than experience. Too many are content to repeat what others have said, rather than to speak out of what they personally know, have seen and experienced.

To preach with authority (exousia) means to be able to proclaim the Word of God with personal knowledge and experience. It means to say, “What the Lord and the Church have always proclaimed, I know personally. For I have tested and experienced the Word of God in the laboratory of my own life, and found it to be true. And now I speak to you, not merely of what others have said, but what I know and experience to be true. Out of substance of my own being (exousia) I announce this truth to you.”

This is what it means to preach personally and with authority (exousia).  Jesus did not simply speak or quote what others said. He said what he personally knew.

What of you and me? Are you able to speak with authority? Well, do you know what the Lord is doing in your life? Have you personally experienced the truth of what the Scriptures and the Church have always announced? Or are you just quoting slogans, passages and what others have said? Of course the Scriptures and the authoritative teachings of the Church are the essential beginning and foundation of what we know. But do you know personally? Do you personally know it is true? How? Do you speak to your children of what you know, or merely say “the Church says…”?  Clearly you are to say what the Church says, but to teach with authority means you know and have experienced that what the Church says is true, and can personally attest to it. This is the basis of preaching and teaching with authority.

II. PROVOCATIVE – To say that something is “provocative” is to say that it calls forth a response. When Jesus preached, his words did not leave his listeners unmoved. It called forth a response: whether mad, sad or glad.

The text has already pointed out that many were glad. But there is one man who is mad. The text describes his reaction: In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are –– the Holy One of God!

Every experienced and authentic preacher knows that, if he preaches effectively, a response will be forth-coming. And while it is natural to want a positive response, every preacher must also be willing to accept that his word may also bring forth anger or ridicule. The Church announces good news but is also a sign of contradiction to a sinful world. Thus every preacher, faithful to the Gospel, must expect some degree of negativity, and even persecution, ridicule and anger.

Jesus’ world angers a demon-possessed man in the congregation and he confronts Jesus, blaming him, in effect, with being hateful, and causing hurt and saying Jesus wants to destroy him. So too, many today react with anger and call the Church hateful, bigoted, intolerant and hurtful even unto destroying lives. But, as we shall see, Jesus does not back down.

The problem in the synagogue is not the word that Jesus proclaims, it is the man’s inner condition. And thus, when the authentic Gospel is proclaimed, the wrath that sometimes follows does not bespeak a problem with God’s Word, but with the listener’s inner condition. Note that the man is demon possessed. That is, his heart and mind are under the influence of Satan, and the sin he inspires. The greatest obstacle to us being able to appreciate and understand the Word of God, is our sin. And the greatest help to appreciating and understanding God’s Word is a docile and humble spirit granted by the grace of God.

A powerful preacher, whether a priest or parent, preaches to provoke a response, whether of joy and consolation, or of repentance and godly sorrow. And to be sure, while no authentic preacher intends or desires a fight or hostile reaction, the fact is, he must be willing to accept such a reaction. For, when someone is accustomed to the darkness, he finds the light harsh, and calls it such. Anyone who preaches the Gospel authentically will both comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable; he will both console and confront (where necessary); he will reassure, but also awaken the need for healing. He will speak the truth in love.

Good preaching provokes a response, and one who hears the Gospel preached with authority cannot come away unchanged.

III.  PRODUCING – Powerful and effective preaching brings results. As Jesus preaches, a man is set free. The text says, Jesus rebuked him and said, ““Quiet! Come out of him!”” The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.

The aim or point of the Word of God is not merely to inform but to transform. It’s not enough for the Word of God to be attractive, informative or entertaining. It’s full purpose is to, in power, drive out demons, and to bring God’s grace. Good preaching works to drive out demons of ignorance, sorrow, rebellion and sin. It works to give godly sorrow, joy, hope, confidence, knowledge, courage and conviction. Good preaching changes people’s lives.

IV. PERSEVERING – Note that Jesus did not immediately back down in the face of opposition. He persevered with the opposing man and, by his word drove out the demons afflicting the man. We see the man go through three stages.

  1. He is mad – for he confronts Jesus
  2. He is sad – for he struggles and convulses as Jesus works to free him by his word.
  3. He is glad – for he is set free and able to rejoice with the others.

And thus, every preacher and every parent, every prophet must not easily give up. For it is often the case that people must go through these stages.

In my own life, I can say that there was a time when, afflicted by demons of ignorance, youthful rebellion, and so forth, I would cross my arms and listen angrily to the priest. I was mad. I would often scoff at the “silly priest” who was “trying to tell me what to do.” But after some years of hearing the preaching of the Church, I gradually understood that I had to change. And change does not come easily,  and thus came the stage of sad and the time of struggle, learning new virtues, forsaking old vices. And now I can say I am glad, for the Lord has brought me a mighty long way. His preached word is powerful, and when effectively preached, it has the power to transform. And I have experienced transformation.

I am glad that the Church has persevered, that my parents persevered, and that good priests and religious persevered in preaching to me and teaching me. I am glad that my parishioners continue to persevere in witnessing to me and preaching by their lives.

A preached and lived word is powerful indeed. Jesus shows the way, and it is for us to follow his example.

Here is a video that shows how a preached and sung word  reaches sinners and draws them to conversion. “Shug” is a preacher’s daughter who in anger (mad) left the Church. Now she weeps for her sins (so does her father weep for his) (Sad),  and she gets glad. She looks like the woman at the well leading the Samaritans to Christ. There are five conversion stories going on in this scene all at once, if you know the movie. This song says, God is Tying to Tell You Something!

Here is Jesus preaching in the Synagogue in Capernaum on another occasion.

I Keep So Busy Workin’ for the Kingdom, I Ain’t Got Time to Die. A Meditation on the Readings for the Third Sunday of The Year

The readings of “Ordinary Time” (the Latin is Tempus per annum) focus a lot on the call to discipleship and the living of the Christian Faith. The readings for today’s Mass are no exception as they present us with a number of disciplines for disciples. These disciplines free us to serve Christ and his Kingdom joyfully, energetically and whole-heartedly. Broadly we can group these disciplines into three areas, such that discipleship is: Undefiant, Unfettered, and Untiring. Within these three categories are some other reflections as well. Let’s consider each area of discipline as reflected in the readings.

I.  Undefiant – The first reading today covers the ministry of the reluctant prophet, Jonah. In today’s reading we get only the end of the story. But as most of us know, Jonah was not merely reluctant in accepting his mission as a prophet, he was downright defiant. Recall his story:

  1. His Refusal The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it…” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. (1:1-3). Thus, Jonah defiantly runs from God, he refuses the mission.
  2. His Running – Now, Nineveh was 550 miles east of Israel. Tarshish was 2,500 miles west of Israel. Do you get the picture? Jonah was doing some serious running. Rather than go 550 miles to do God’s will, he was ready to travel 2,500 miles out of God’s will. It’s always a longer trip when you defy God. God wants to spare us the extra mileage!
  3. His Resistance – As Jonah runs, great storms arise at sea on his journey away from God. The storms of defiance rage but Jonah slept. And the storms affect not only him, but those who sail with him. Yes, our moral decisions DO affect others around us, despite our individualistic notion that what we do is no one else’s business. And thus for some of us, great storms can come into our lives. Has it ever occurred to you that some of the storms in our lives may be related to a decision where God said, “This way” but we defied him and said, “No, that way!” ? Maybe we need to wake up and say what does this storm mean?
  4. His Return – Swallowed by the great fish, Jonah is brought back to the very place where he sailed away from God (Joppa). And, in effect God says, lets try this all over again. So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh, according to the LORD’s bidding. Yes, Jonah was smart this time.

So the point is that disciples (us) must learn to be undefiant. In effect, God wants to save us some mileage, and obedience to his will is always easier that disobedience.

Consider too the remarkable fact of how Undefiant the Ninevites are as they hear and heed Jonah’s message. And notice how this lack of defiance saves them from destruction and a world of hurt.

It’s always easier to follow God. I did not say it’s easy; just that it’s easier to follow God. Someone may think sin is more pleasurable and easier in the moment. And frankly it may be. But sin unleashes a world of difficulties and complications in its wake. If you do not think this is so, just buy a newspaper and consider how many of our difficulties are directly tied to our sinful attitudes and choices. Frankly, the vast majority of this world’s sufferings and difficulties are directly attributable to a rebellious sinfulness by humanity.

The first discipline of Discipleship is that we be undefiant. And by this discipline was are spared many difficulties and remain teachable and open to God’s wisdom.

II. Unfettered – To be unfettered means literally to be unchained, unshackled and free to move about. The second reading today presents a vivid and sober portrait of what be unfettered and detached looks like:

I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world, as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away. (1 Cor 7:29ff)

Now this text does not mean that we have to recourse to these things and people at all, but rather that we live “as” not having them. In other words, we must seek the gift to realize that nothing in this passing world remains, and nothing here, even marriage, is the sole reason for our existence, or the sole source of meaning for us. God and God alone is the source of meaning and the lasting goal of our life. All else will pass.

For most of us, detachment form this world is THE battle, the central struggle we face. On account of our attachment to this world we are strongly hindered from freely following Christ. A couple of passages come to mind.

  1. Mk 10:22ff Jesus, said [to the rich young man], “If you would be perfect, go and sell all that you have, (and you will have treasure in heaven) and then come and follow me. At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
  2. Mat 6:24 No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money… So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

But the world so easily has a thousand hooks in us, we are chained, fettered, and our freedom to follow Christ is severely compromised.

The fact is, the battle to be free and unfettered, is a process. And God can give us this freedom but it takes time and obedience from us. Little by little God breaks the shackles of this world and all its treasures come to seem as of little concern. Slowly we come to what St. Paul came to say,

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:7-8).

III. Untiring – Consider that among Jesus’ first followers were several fishermen. The text of the Gospel today says, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

But we may ask, is there some meaning in the fact that fishermen were among his first and most prominent disciples? Perhaps so.

Consider that fishermen have some important qualities that are helpful for discipleship:

  1. Patient – Fishermen often need to wait for many hours, even days for a catch. Disciples need great patience, as do evangelizers.
  2. Professional – Fishermen need to spend time learning about the behavior of fish, learning to observe the water and navigate, leaning the right time of day and season to fish. They need to know the right bait, the proper use of the net. They need to understand the different of types and behaviors of fish, and so forth. All of these traits are good for disciples and especially for evangelization, which is job 1 for the disciple.Through growing in practical knowledge we come to know our faith and learn effective ways to be fishers of men.
  3. Purposeful – When fishermen are out fishing, it is a focused endeavor. That’s all they do, and everything is centered on the main task. They are single minded. Disciples surely need more of this attitude. The Book of James says, The double-minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). St. Paul says, But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14). Every disciple needs to be more single minded.
  4. Pursuing – Note simply that they go to the fish. Too many Catholic parishes merely open the doors and hope people come to them. This is not evangelization. The key word for disciples and evangelizers is “Go.”
  5. Partnered – Fishermen work in teams. Thus Jesus sends disciples out, two by two.
  6. Persistent – If fishermen don’t make a catch today, they’re back out tomorrow. Disciples surely need to persist, both in their own journey and in making disciples of others.

Thus, in today’s readings are a number of disciplines of discipleship. The green vestments of Ordinary Time remind us of growth, both our own personal growth and that of the Church. Ultimately a free heart is a joyful heart and a heart that is not easily tired, because it is not divided and not serving two masters. It is a heart that ungrudgingly serves the Kingdom.

Here’s a song that speaks of the patient, purposeful, and persistent action on behalf of God’s kingdom. It is a song that can only come from heart that is undefiant, unfettered, and untiring. A heart that says, I keep so busy workin’ for the Kingdom, I ain’t got time to die!

What Makes A Great Prophet? A Reflection on the First Reading of the Second Sunday of the Year

The First Reading today speaks to us of the Call of Samuel. In examining we can see what it is that makes a great prophet. Put more theologically we can see the ways in which God’s graces form a great prophet. Samuel was surely one of the most significant prophets of the Old Testament and lived at a critical time as Israel  shifted from the time of the Judges to the time of the Monarchy. Ultimately it was he who would see Israel through he difficult time of Saul’s reign and prepare and anoint them for David’s Kingship to follow.

What then are some of the ways that God prepares Samuel and every prophet (this means you) for mission? Consider these five.

1. The CLOSENESS of a great Prophet – In the first reading we find the young Samuel sleeping in the temple of the Lord. In those days the temple was not yet in Jerusalem and was not yet a permanent building. It was a tent structure in Hebron and Samuel, as one in training for temple duties, is sleeping near the Ark of the Covenant which carried the presence of God.  Thus we see that a great prophet begins and remains so by staying close to the Lord.

We who would also be prophets must do the same if we wish to be great prophets to our family members and friends. Who will a priest preach with authority and power if he does not stay close to the Lord. How will a parent give prophetic witness to their children if the Lord is a distant God to them?

How do we draw close to the Lord? Daily Prayer, daily and devout reading of scripture, frequent confession, weekly reception of Holy Communion, and a spirit of wonder of and awe. Ask for these virtues. Stay close to the Lord. Great prophets stay close to the Lord.

2. The CONSTERNATION of a great Prophet  – The first reading depicts Samuel as struggling with some confusion as to what and who he is hearing. God is calling, but he doesn’t get it. He struggles to figure out what is happening to him. A look at the call of most of the great prophets reveals that most of them struggled with their call. Moses felt old, inarticulate and inadequate. Jeremiah felt too young, Isaiah too sinful. Amos would have been content to remain a dresser of sycamores. Most prophets feel overwhelmed and experience consternation.

Samuel as we see, eventually figures it out who is calling him and begins his journey. He had to listen for a awhile to to do however.

How about you? Many of us too would want to run if God made it clear he had something for us to do. In a way, it is a proper response, for pride is a bad trait for a prophet. To experience a bit of trouble, consternation and anxiety helps to keep us humble and leaning on the Lord.

What is the Lord asking of you? Perhaps like Samuel you struggle to understand at first. But stay close to God. Things will eventually become clear.

The great prophets struggled. But that is the point, they struggled with God for an answer and for a vision.

3. The CONNECTEDNESS of a great Prophet –  Notice that Samuel does not discern alone. He seeks counsel from a wiser man to help him. Though Eli is not a perfect teacher, God does make use of him to help Samuel.

So too for us, who ought to seek good, strong spiritual friends and clergy to help us discern. Scripture says, Seek counsel from every wise man (Tobit 4:18). It is a bad idea to discern alone. Hence we should cultivate relationships with wise and spiritual men and women in our journey.

Great prophets are connected to spiritual leaders and teachers. Prophets read and consulted other prophets. God does not just call us to a vertical private relationship with him. He also connects us to a horizontal relationship with others. Seek wise counsel, great prophets do.

4. The CORE  of a great Prophet  – Samuel is advised by Eli to say to God: Speak Lord, for your servant is listening. A great prophet listens to God. And God does not always say easy things. He often challenges in what he says, and wants to send them. But great prophets listen, they listen very carefully to God. They do not try and bury his word or become forgetful of what he says. They take seriously what they hear and do not compromise God’s Word.

And what of us? It is too easy to avoid listening to God, or to compromise on what we have heard. But great prophets listen carefully to God by: reading and studying his word, looking at how he speaks in creation and in the events of their day, studying the teachings of the Church and carefully, prayerfully listening to the still small voice within.

To you want to be a great prophet? Listen.

5. The CONVERSION of a great Prophet. We see in Samuel’s life how be became gradually transformed into a great prophet of God who never compromised God’s word. The text says: Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him,
not permitting any word of his to be without effect
. Because Samuel was close to the Lord, faced his consternation, was connected to the wise, and had that core virtue of listening, he became a great prophet. The text says in Hebrew (more literally) that not a word of his fell to the ground.

Being a great prophet is a work of God. But we, who would and should be great prophets ourselves, ought to heed the way God works to make great prophets. Learn from Samuel, study all the prophets, and you will see what God can do.

And while most of us wish our words had greater effect, it is less clear we want to undertake the process to get there. Ask for the gift. Ask for the gift to stay close to God, to struggle and accept some of the consternation that comes with being a prophet. Seek to be connected to wise counsel, learn the core value of listening. And thus will God bring about in us a conversion such that none of your words will ever fall to the ground.

This song says, The Lord gave the Word, Great was the company of the preachers.