Sunday, September 27, 2020

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 21 A - September 27, 2020

 Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC



In today’s passage, Jesus doesn’t make any more friends amongst the chief priests and elders of the temple. The passage ends up with an explicit insult to make sure they get it. 

If he were here today, would he address us differently? Would he tell us monks and priests, “Truly I tell you, the payday lenders and the drug dealers are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you?” This gives us a sense of how stinging was the rebuke he addressed to those who were deemed to live virtuous lives.

What Jesus wants them and us to hear and consider is a simple message. Our actions show our real intent. They speak more eloquently of our faithfulness than our statements, no matter how well worded and sincere they may be.

Our virtue and authority may be favorably assessed by ourselves and others. But are our actions expressing that virtue? Our perceived virtue and authority are irrelevant to how well we love God and neighbor. People’s and our own assessments of our virtue and authority do not put us above those most vilified by the self-righteous.

*****

Shortly before the encounter we heard about in today’s gospel, Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph. Later, he proceeded to cleanse the temple. Those are two recent things the chief priests and the elders of the people object to. 

Under what authority does Jesus allow himself to do these things, they want to know? More to the point, they are quite sure he does not have the authority to do these things and they want to expose him.

The authorities ask Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  They are hoping that Jesus will incriminate himself by his answer.  

They expect him to either say “Under my own authority” or “Under God’s authority.” Either of those answers would be deemed sacrilegious (though actually correct as we know from our point of view).

But Jesus sees through their machinations and knows better than to answer directly. Instead he meets the authorities’ challenge with a riposte. 

He asks the chief priests and the elders a question that he knows they will find very difficult to answer in front of the crowd of onlookers. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

After discussions, the authorities find it impossible to answer the question without losing face. And as it is, they lose face anyway in admitting that they can’t even answer a straightforward question. 

Jesus’ question has established that He has more authority than the chief priests and the elders. He has also established that John the Baptist was a mighty prophet whose authority the religious elite rebuffed.

It is an amazing demonstration of Jesus’ insight into people’s intents and motivations, his capacity to subvert the establishment, not to mention his rhetorical virtuosity.

*****

But Jesus is not done with his demonstration of the religious authorities’ illegitimacy. Next he tells a parable that illustrates where they stand in relationship to God.

It is the parable of two sons who respond to their father and how their words and acts differ.

The first son sounds bad but does the right thing in the end. The second son sounds good at first but doesn’t do what he says. The first son ultimately did the will of his father. The second son sounded faithful but then did not act in accordance with his words. Which son did actually do the will of his father Jesus asks? The first one.

The first son ends up being more faithful to his father than the second one. This parable imparts that in the end, turning back to God, repenting, and doing God’s will is more important than sounding faithful without showing the fruits of faith.

The parable is an indictment of the religious authorities who say the right things but then don’t act according to what they say.

******

Jesus concludes by saying that the tax collectors and the prostitutes who repented and did what John the Baptist preached will precede the chief priests and the elders in the Kingdom of God. 

But even after they witnessed the repentance of sinners, the authorities did not believe in John. And even after seeing all the signs that Jesus has done, neither do they believe in Him.

It is a shocking statement, tax collectors and prostitutes were deemed to be among the worst possible sinners there were. The religious authorities are utterly shamed by the end of this parable. No wonder they then conspire to get rid of this inconvenient Galilean prophet.

******

So where does this gospel passage leave us? Do we profess to live the Golden Rule and the Beatitudes in our lives? Do we talk a good talk about our religious obligations?

What about our actions? Are they aligned with our profession of faith? Do we try to dilute the strength of Jesus’ teachings or do we let their radicality shake us into radical living? Do we turn to Christ with our acts more than our words? What parts of our lives remain to be converted into Christ-following actions?

And how is all that playing out in our personal, communal and national lives? Who are the converted tax collectors and prostitutes we should emulate in today’s society? Let us think of those we look down on. Let us wonder how they may witness to God’s will more actually than we currently do.

Let’s be doers of Jesus’ teachings more than loudspeakers. As a saying attributed to St Francis goes: “Preach Jesus, and if necessary use words.”

Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 19 A - September 13, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Josép Martinez-Cubero, OHC

Exaltation of the Holy Cross (anticipated) - Proper for Holy Cross day - September 13,.2020

Isaiah 45:21-25
Philippians 2:5-11
John 12:31-36a


Back in July, I led an associate’s retreat (a Zoom retreat, as we have been doing during this time of pandemic), during which one of the topics was Christianity as a religion of paradox. Christianity is not a set formula of holy propositions. We cannot live a healthy Christian life without embracing paradox, ambiguity and mystery. 

God is One and Three. Jesus is human and divine. The Scriptures are God’s Word and written by flawed humans. God’s Creation is good and broken. To give is to receive. To gain your life you must lose it. To reign is to serve. We are saved by grace, and faith without works is dead. We are in the world, but we are not of the world. The Reign of God is coming, and the Reign of God is here within us. 

Without these counterintuitive and irreconcilable truths Christianity cannot be true to the world we live in. Our world is complex, messy and full of contradiction. God will lead us to more truth and more wisdom if we have the courage to look at uncertainty without avoidance and to embrace mystery, which is that which cannot be apprehended by reason, but once apprehended, is not contrary to reason.

So today we celebrate the paradox of the Holy Cross, the instrument of a cruel, violent execution, and the symbol of our salvation, in other words, “mundi medicina”, the medicine of the world. 

Mortality is part of what it means to be human. God does not rule creation by capricious suspensions of the laws of nature. Natural death is part of created reality. Most cultures in the ancient world, including Israel, accepted this reality. But the violent and premature death of the righteous presented a challenge to Israel’s faith in a just and loving God. How could this just and loving God be reconciled to cases in which the virtuous died violently while the violent lived in prosperity?  The Book of Wisdom serves as a transition to the New Testament’s confrontation with the quandary of unjust death. The author’s distinction between natural death and evil death is crucial for the understanding of Jesus’ struggle against the “death that should not be”.
Do not invite death by the error of your life,
or bring on destruction by the works of your hands;
because God did not make death,
and God does not delight in the death of the living.
For God created all things so that they might exist;
the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them,
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
For righteousness is immortal. 
But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death;
considering it a friend, they pined away
and made a covenant with it,
because they deserve to be in its possession.
(Wisdom 1:12-16)
According to the writer of Wisdom, God did not create evil. God created all things good. There are two intertwined realities in human experience, God’s originally intended world of love and justice, and a world of evil whose primary result and manifestation is violent death and is made operative in the world through human choices. Physical death, in other words, is not truly evil, no matter how painful, because it is neither ultimate nor final. So the death the writer of Wisdom is referring to is the death seen as being brought into the world by “the envy of the evil one”.
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace…their hope is full of immortality.
(Wisdom 3:1-4)
The righteous, whether living in this world or deceased, are alive in the hand of God and the wicked, whether before or after natural death, are dead because they belong to the devil. In John’s Gospel, Jesus confronts this final and definitive death that God did not create. By his crucifixion, Jesus enters the death brought about by the perversion of the persons, systems, and structures of the world, that is, the first century political structures of imperialism and institutional religion, in other words, law and order allied with religion. He was executed because by his teaching and saving acts of power, he announced and communicated eternal life. This was a threat to a domination system that used the violence of crucifixion to terrify, repress and strip its victims of all dignity. In John’s Gospel, God sent Jesus into the world because God loved the world and willed that humans not die the final death but have eternal life (John 3:16). This divine life, lived personally and communally, is what the Synoptic Gospels refer to as the Reign of God. By his direct confrontation with death as evil, Jesus addresses the realm of what in the Gospel of John is referred to as the Prince of this world and brings it to an end.

In her book, “Buying the Field”, Sandra Schneiders writes, “The central struggle in John’s Gospel is not defined primarily as a struggle between good and evil (although it is certainly that) but specifically as the struggle between life and death. Jesus did not come primarily to defeat evil in order to restore some kind of cosmic or ontological order to a damaged Creation. Rather, Jesus came primarily to give life, God’s own life, in all its fullness (cf. 10:10), by giving the power to become the children of God to all who believe in him (cf. 1:12-13). The life Jesus comes to give, which will cost him his own natural human life, is not immortality either as indefinite survival in this world or as a disembodied soul-life in some vague world outside of time. It is the indestructible and super-abundant life of the Trinity lived in our own bodily human mortality. Jesus, expiring on the cross, is glorified in the presence of God by the divine life that is revealed in his death.” 

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw everything to myself (John 12:32).” The Greek word is “pantas” – everything, not just people, but the whole of all that is. That Love that draws everything to oneness is the body of Christ. That Love that draws everything to oneness is what we commemorate every time we stand around the altar, when past, present and yet to come become the here and now. That Love that draws everything to oneness is what we receive at communion. Its symbol is the cross and as our Father Founder wrote in his Rule, it is not “the symbol of an event which has its place in the distant past, while only the memory of that event belongs to the present. Rather it is the witness of a fact of the eternal order…” The cross is the symbol of that Love that invites us to abundant and eternal life with a kind of consciousness that illuminates our experience of God, ourselves, the world, and human history with an entirely new understanding. May we glory in the mystery. ¡Que así sea en el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo! ~Amen+  
 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 18 A - September 6, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Bob Pierson, OHC
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 18 A - September 6,.2020


If we go to the Bible for practical advice, sometimes we can be disappointed.  Not this Sunday. Jesus lays out a step-by-step process for seeking forgiveness and reconcilation in the church (and I would say any other Christian community.)  If someone injures us, we should first of all go to them directly and try to work it out.  If that doesn't work, then try it with one or two others as witnesses.  And if that doesn't work, then bring it before the whole community.  It sounds very straight-forward and simple, doesn't it?

Well, it sounds simple, but is it really that simple?  Most of the time when someone injures us, we go to someone we can trust, and tell them what happened, trying to get an ally for ourselves in our pain.  If we tell enough people, eventually the person who hurt us starts getting a reputation for being a nasty person, and may not even know that what they did was hurtful.

Why don't we go to the person themselves to start with?  Well, if we really have been hurt, we may be afraid of getting hurt again, and out of self-defense, we seek an ally.  That might be OK if we stop with one person who we trust, and who has the wisdom to encourage us to deal directly with the person involved.  Otherwise we run the risk of creating division in the community, and once that has started it's very hard to undo the damage that it causes.
Jesus is talking about relationships within the Christian community, and I think that's an important thing to keep in mind.  In the community, we can hope that everyone has the intention of “loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.”  In Christian community we would hope that no one sets out deliberately to harm another by their selfishness or lack of regard for others.  That might be unrealistic, but if I really want to live by Jesus' great commandment of love, then I need to be willing to give others a chance to know when they've hurt me, and give them a chance to apologize so that I can forgive them, and we can both move ahead in our relationship.

Paul makes this point so clearly in the section we heard from the letter to the Romans today:  “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”  He says all the commandments are summed up in the great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  That's what it means to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”  We need to go beyond what might seem reasonable in our relationships with others to give them a chance to fulfill that same commandment of love.  

And we can trust that God will be with us in the process.  Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  We are gathered in his name, and we can trust that God IS with us, here as we worship, and as we work to create the Beloved Community that God desires for us.  Forgiveness and reconciliation may not be the “normal” or “expected” thing to do.  But it IS the Christian thing to do.