Psalm 115:1 & Matthew 25
The first reading may seem kinda weird,,,and gross, so let me explain what it’s about and maybe it’ll make some sense. God is making a covenant with Abraham – the father of our faith. You’ll remember a covenant is more than a contract – a covenant is a family bond… kinda like adoption - or marriage. Once you’re adopted, you can’t be un-adopted. God wants that kind of relationship with Abraham, and Abraham asks for a sign – so God gives it to him in a way that would have been perfectly normal to him, but it sounds very weird to us… and probably gross too. It’s a ceremony involving a lot of cut up animals…You’ll see what I mean when we listen. Just remember this is sort-of like God making a vow to Abraham like, ‘cross-my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye’. Do kids still say that?
How about this: God is basically saying, I would DIE before I break this covenant with you. I’ll repeat that for you to think about, because that’s a loaded statement: God is saying I would DIE before I break this covenant with you.
See what I mean about the first reading being kind of gross or weird? What’s up with them cutting those animals in half anyway?
Like I said before Mass, God is making a covenant with Abraham, and in those days, that’s how you sealed a covenant: You’d take and animal, cut it in two, and then both parties would walk through the middle of the parts – basically saying ‘if I do not keep my promises, let me be cut in two like these animals’. The only way out of a Covenant is death.
In fact, the word for covenant in Hebrew is ‘berit’ – which actually means ‘to cut’… which is a reference to this ceremony of cutting all of these animals. It’s a serious matter to enter into a covenant, and this bloody ceremony would make it VERY memorable to you. But notice – normally BOTH parties must walk through the middle… but in this case, Abraham is sitting over here in a trance. Only God passed through the parts – symbolized by the torch and the fire pot – So God is saying, ‘if I’m ever unfaithful to this covenant, let ME be cut in two’… which is absurd, because God can’t be cut in two. But there’s a deeper meaning here: The fact that only God walked down the middle meant He was taking on ALL of the responsibility in this covenant - in other words, God was saying “if either one of us is unfaithful, I will take the punishment upon myself!!” In that light, this suddenly could be seen as a prediction of the future crucifixion.
That’s how much we can trust God… Regardless of what WE do, HE will always fulfill his promise to us. The Israelites, on the other hand, would not fulfill their side of the covenant. God KNEW this and had already accounted for it. However, He continued to invite them into a more personal relationship… Inviting Each person to personally enter into the covenant… which means they need to ‘berit’… cut something. God decided things needed to become a bit more personal… ok, a LOT more personal. That’s where circumcision came in… they had to cut off part of themselves in order to personally enter into that covenant. That became THE sign of the covenant people!
Today we don’t physically cut anything off – but we still make sacrifices. We definitely see this during Lent, when most of us give up something: we ‘cut’ ourselves off from something we like. Like we don’t eat meat on Fridays in Lent… Before the 60’s that was the rule for EVERY Friday. And it was kinda cool, because the whole culture recognized that Catholics were different… that we had 'cut' ourselves off from meat on Fridays. In a way, it set us apart. You’d drive down the street and see Friday specials everywhere: catfish - or seafood buffet or whatever. It was a visible symbol to the world that WE are a Covenant people. But in the 60’s, the Church relaxed that rule to allow us to eat meat on Fridays except during Lent, but in the same breath they said that if we’re not abstaining from meat, we should choose something ELSE to do or give up. In short – every one of us is supposed to ‘berit’ – be cut off from something at least once a week… not as a stupid rule we have to follow – but as a sign that WE are in a covenant relationship with God!!
It may seem like this ancient practice and vocabulary of covenants is foreign to us – but some of it has stuck in our language. Have you ever heard the phrase, “let’s cut a deal”? There's that word 'Cut', or ‘berit’. And here's a phrase I'm sure you've heard: ‘Until death do us PART’? Right there in the vows of matrimony, we recognize that in a true covenantal relationship, we can only be separated by death.
Finally, Jesus started a new covenant and what happened…. HE was cut… crucified and his heart was pierced. That cutting was the sign of the new covenant…but it was more than that...I think it also relates to the old covenant. Since the Israelites were consistently unfaithful. And remember God had promised that if EITHER of us is unfaithful, I'LL take the punishment. Maybe that's why He chose to take on a body in order to die to fulfill the old covenant vows… and then He expanded the covenant by ushering in the New and Everlasting covenant open to all people for the forgiveness of sins.
In this new covenant.. in this new WAY of living, you and I are like Jesus.
Just like He climbed the mountain, we are all struggling through life - trying to get closer to God. Just like He had to suffer - We all have to make sacrifices – we have to berit / cut ourselves somehow – and just like he was glorified, we all will be glorified. Yes - All of us can experience that same transfigured, glorified body revealed by Jesus. But – is that something we only experience in the next life? No – the Kingdom of God is among us! We can be transfigured and experience glorification right here and now. How?
Notice what Jesus was doing when He was transfigured… why did He go up the mountain? Anybody catch that? He went up to pray. It says:
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
In other words, when Jesus prayed, several things happened:
- he was physically changed – being lit up like a lightbulb.
- He connected with the saints in heaven.
- He received His marching orders for how He was to fulfill God's mission in His life… and finally
– prayer is where he found His truest, deepest identity when the Father said, “This is my Chosen son”. All that from prayer!
You and I can tap into that same power!!
When you and I pray, we can be physically changed… the Spirit can light us up so that others are attracted to us. In fact, prayer that DOESN’T change us isn’t really prayer… if we’re just checking the boxes, we’re not really allowing our relationship with God to grow.
Second, we can connect with the angels and saints. Notice that Jesus wasn’t talking to two dead guys… but they weren't DEAD!! Moses and Elijah were ALIVE… this is evidence of eternal life! So we can confidently connect with the saints in prayer.
Third, We also can get our marching orders for how WE are to bring about the mission of OUR lives.
Finally, did you notice that the whole Trinity was there that day? Obviously Jesus, the son was there - then there was the cloud which overshadowed them, which was the Holy Spirit - and then we had the Father speaking to Jesus. You and I can also enter into that same realm of the Trinity – as we talk with Jesus, the Chosen Son, the Spirit will overshadow us with the glory cloud – and we’ll hear the voice of the Father reminding us of our truest, deepest identity: You are my beloved Son or Daughter. YOU are a beloved son or daughter! Why?
Because, we are adopted. We are a covenant people.
Important backstory to the first reading – You may remember that the first king of Israel was Saul and the second king was David. What you might not remember is that for 15 years, Saul was actively trying to kill David – hunting him down – because he thought David would steal his crown. David had vowed his life to serve Saul and had led Israel to military victory many times, yet Saul couldn’t see past his fear and pride. So David went into hiding… no home… scrounging for food… always on the run. That’s where our story picks up today. Pay close attention to what David does when he has the chance to kill Saul.
Our Gospel is loaded with great one-liners from Jesus – each sentence packed with moral genius. Divine genius. The two lines I want to zero-in on are about Loving your enemies and turning the other cheek. I want to invite you to personally HEAR Jesus’ teaching today… we might have heard it a thousand times, but let it touch your heart today anew.
To prepare, let’s all pray a one minute – let’s think about who our enemy is: who is it that we want to lash out at? Maybe it’s a politician, a co-worker, a family-member, maybe even your spouse. So close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so – and pray this prayer to yourself – Holy Spirit, reveal to me now who my enemy is.
Demonstration: Two kids come up – what would you do if He hit you? You’d hit him back, right? (to other kid) And what would you do if he hit you? You’d hit him back, of course! So I want you to demonstrate something – every time you get hit, I want you to hit back - now don’t hit too hard… just a little punch in the arm. Go ahead – every time you get hit, I want you to hit back. Go. Faster…
OK stop. Let me ask you – if I didn’t say stop, how long would you keep hitting each other if you followed the rules I gave you? Forever! So – let’s try this one more time… you stick with the same rules. If you get hit – you hit back – but only if you get hit. (to other kid) YOU, however, if you get hit, turn your other arm instead of hitting back. OK you go first…
Well, this is kind of boring… Why aren’t you hitting him? Aaahhh… because you are a follower of Jesus who said to turn the other cheek rather than striking back. OK – great demonstration – have a seat.
Keep that demonstration in mind as we go on with the homily.
Imagine you witnessed constant injustice all around you – so bad that you felt like you HAD to speak out against it. Imagine you’re in a country where speaking out will likely get you killed…seriously… killed. Now imagine you actually HAD the courage to stand up for your moral beliefs and you DO speak out… and in a mock trial, you narrowly escape the death sentence and instead you are locked in a cell … tortured… mistreated… for years….and years… and while you’re in prison the injustice and violence in your country continues to grow and grow and those in charge are not held responsible. Your name is banned from being spoken.. your image wiped from the memory of everyone… well – not everyone – because your moral convictions stuck in the mind of every person who ever heard you speak, and the world called for your release….but nothing changed.
What would you do if you got released from prison… pardoned after 27 years. That’s 27 years of your life wasted in a dark cell or doing hard labor. 27 years of torture and mistreatment. 27 years missed of your kids growing up… of never seeing your wife… How would you react?! By every right, you should lash out at those who so unjustly took your life away from you.
30 years ago this month, the world waited as Nelson Mandela stepped to the microphone in front of a crowd of 50,000 – anxious to hear what he would say – what he would do.
The country was on the edge of civil war. Violence had taken on a life of its own and seemed to be a never-ending spiral – a cyclone of pain and death and destruction. It seemed impossible that the violence could be stopped…
But then something happened… He chose to forgive. This stopped the cycle of violence. He went on to become president of South Africa and led the reconciliation process. He even went so far as to invite his jailers to the inauguration and dinner!!! The first step in loving your enemy is to forgive them… to forego your right to retaliation.
I want to read part of an interview that Bill Clinton did with Nelson which I think explains it well:
Bill said to Nelson: “That was pretty smart of you to have your jailers come to the Inauguration and all of that, but let me ask you something.” “Didn’t you really hate them for what they did?”
He said, “Oh, yeah, I hated them for a long time.”
He said, “I stayed alive on hate for 12 years. I broke rocks every day, and I stayed alive on hate.”
Then he reflected further, “They took a lot away from me. They took me away from my wife, and it subsequently destroyed my marriage. They took me away from seeing my children grow up. They abused me mentally and physically. And one day,” he said, “I realized they could take it all except my mind and my heart.”
He said, “Those things I would have to give to them, and I simply decided not to give them away.”
And so – so Bill asked, “Well, what about when you were getting out of prison?” “The day you got out of prison in 1990, it was Sunday morning, and I got my daughter up early in the morning, and I took her down to the kitchen, and I turned on the television, and she was just a little girl then, and I sat her up on the kitchen counter.
And I said, ‘Chelsea, I want you to watch this. This is one of the most important things you’ll ever see in your life.’ ”
Bill said, “I watched you walk down that dirt road to freedom.” And he asked Nelson, “Now, when you were walking down there, and you realized how long you had been in their prison, didn’t you hate them then? Didn’t you feel some hatred?”
Nelson said, “Yes, I did a little bit.” He said, “I felt that.”
But he said, “As I felt the anger rising up, I thought to myself, ‘They have already had you for 27 years. And if you keep hating them, they’ll have you again.’ And I said, ‘I want to be free. And so I let it go. I let it go.” (Nelson Mandela Story of Forgiveness)
Every one of us has been hurt. By those we love, by those who attack us or anger us, or even by strangers. We all have that in common.
But we each write our own story. We can choose to be another cog in the wheel of retaliation that continues the cycle of violence. Or we can be bold and actually LIVE the teaching of that radical revolutionary, Jesus Christ when he said to LOVE YOUR ENEMY. As long as we live under the rules of retaliation, Love cannot take root. WE must break that cycle… each of us must make the intentional decision to LOVE our fellow man and fellow woman as a child of God…to forgive rather than retaliate.
Imagine if we lived that way… like David who refused to kill Saul. Like Mandella who refused to retaliate.
Imagine how we would change the world if we turned the other cheek rather than striking back.
Today we hear about the greatest preacher who ever lived… and chances are, you’ve never heard of him… at least that you remember. We’ll hear about him in the first reading – his name was Ezra. How do we know he was a great preacher? Because it says he read from the book of the law for 6 hours and the people were crying and shouting amen with their hands in the air….
Obviously, that wasn’t a Catholic congregation… 😉
I thought I’d try that today – I’ve got a copy of one book of Canon Law which I’m going to read to you for 6 hours. Sound like fun? Not.
As you listen to that first reading, see if you can figure out why the people were crying – why they were raising their hands and shouting ‘Amen’ – what on earth could Ezra have been saying to them? I can tell you, it’s not obvious. So, I’ll give you a clue – it has to do with their Identity…. Which is also the thread that pulls together the second reading and Gospel, so listen for Identity.
Next – apply it to yourself…. What is your identity? Who are you? Why are you here?
Why are you here? Maybe you never figured that out yet – maybe you’ve never even thought about it – or maybe you and I have forgotten why we are here because we’ve forgotten who we are.
The Israelites had just returned from exile in Babylon. They had all but forgotten who they were… Everything that had made them unique as a people was taken from them in the exile – their land, their temple, their ways of worship. But God wanted to remind them who they are… their TRUEST IDENTITY…they are HIS people....HIS CHOSEN them. So, He inspired the king of Persia to allow them to return to Jerusalem to re-build the temple. He even went so far as to appoint Ezra the priest to be IN CHARGE of re-establishing Jewish Law in Israel.
So when Ezra and a rag-tag group returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, they were distraught…dismayed… everything was destroyed… the amount of work ahead of them was insurmountable and they didn’t know where to start! They had to rebuild their own homes, rebuild the temple, rebuild the walls of the city, rebuild farms and vineyards – all the while defending themselves from the people who had occupied that land while they were gone. They might have given up – they probably were ready to give up – but Ezra called the people together to read the Law of God to them – to remind them why they were there.
He must have been very eloquent, because they were crying and raising their hands shouting Amen! (Can I get an Amen?!) Somehow, they were cut to the heart – but wait - how do you get cut to the heart by reading laws? I can think of a couple of reasons – first – the ‘law of God’ is more than laws… it’s the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, the writings of Moses…. where all the stories of salvation were written down. In hearing the stories, I think they recognized WHY they had been exiled… how their forefathers had not followed God's law and so they suffered the inevitable consequences.
Second – and more to the point for today – it says that Ezra interpreted the scripture as he read – that’s kinda like a homily – where we read the word of God and then explain how it applies to us. Ezra must have explained that all along in those stories, God has been reaching out to His chosen people inviting them into a deep, intimate relationship, but they kept turning away. Don’t miss that – God – THE God – the Great El-Shadai – the Alpha and Omega – the Lord of Lords wanted a personal relationship with them, but they had rejected him time and again. Ezra must have been a great homilist who touched their hearts… they realized that this relationship is not just PART of who they are – it IS who they are. They were the Chosen people.
Surely you know, This is not ancient history... it’s really about you and me.
Every one of us is Chosen by God. He wants that intimate relationship with YOU and Me. Every one of us has turned away from God at some point. Every one of us has been exiled in one way or another – walking away from our heritage and forgetting who we are. Our culture tries its best to strip us of our identity as a Child of God. I mean, just walking out the door of our church into our culture, we are bombarded with things that go against the life that God has planned for us. That’s part of why we come here every week: we listen to the Word of God and we enjoy THE most intimate union with God we can have this side of heaven as we participate in the Eucharist. THIS is the relationship that God holds out to us. THIS is who we are!
The Israelites recognized from the Law that this is who they were supposed to be… this was their heritage… Maybe that was it – the reading of the Word of God made them realize they were finally home. Imagine you had been away from the Church for decades and then you walked into some place like St. Joe’s… you’d be in awe – you’d immediately feel the Presence of God - and thinking – this is mine – this is my heritage - this is part of who I am – this feels like home….and that’s when you and I might even start to cry.
How’s that fit with the second reading? Wow – I could talk for 6 hours about just that one reading! But instead, I’ll give you just a one-line summary. Basically, Paul tells us that every person who makes up the body of Christ (that’s you and me)… every one of us has a purpose - given to you us by God himself.
In fact – each of us is appointed and anointed by God to do something to build His kingdom. It’s part of our identity as Christians. God has appointed us to a specific purpose – and what’s really cool is that He has also anointed us – given the strength, equipped with the tools, divinely sent us to fulfill that purpose. The technical term is charism - a gift or talent given to each individual for the sake of the Church. This purpose is so integrated with our Identity, that without a purpose, we forget who we are.
God had Chosen the Jews, not because they were the smartest or holiest or best at anything… just read the Bible and you’ll get that message that loud and clear. God Chose them because THROUGH them He wanted to bless the world. The Israelites were supposed to set themselves apart from the world so that they could introduce the rest of the world to God. But when they turned away from God, they forgot who they were...they forgot their purpose.
You and I, as children of God, are supposed to set ourselves apart from the world. We’re supposed to LOOK DIFFERENT… think about that – am I any different than my neighbor? Each of us is supposed to set ourselves apart so that through US, God can bless the world. When we KNOW our Identity and LIVE it, we are different from the world – and the rest of the world should see that we live in Shalom – peace – because of our intimate relationship with God. Being Catholic – Being Christian – doesn’t make us better than the world. We are not here to JUDGE the world, but to invite the world into relationship.
A lot of people see Christianity as just a set of rules to follow – but you and I know that it’s not about rules – it’s about Relationship. It’s not about LAW, it’s about LOVE. Here’s the key point: It doesn’t matter who we are, but WHOSE we are. We are children of the Father. He is our Abba - our Daddy. Once we know whose we are – and we’re confident that we have a place in God’s heart, then it just overflows from our hearts to want to reach out to others to let EVERYONE know that God wants that same relationship with THEM. THAT is our purpose! WE have been appointed and anointed:
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
We might think – wait - that was why JESUS came – but that’s not my purpose! And we’d be wrong. We are Christians. Literally that means we are ‘little Christs’… ‘little anointed ones’!! We are appointed and anointed to speak love to everyone in the world. We might be the only Bible that many people read… and the scripture should be fulfilled every time interact with anyone.
It’s who we are.
It’s why we’re here.
Today we actually have the convergence of THREE feasts at one…. First, obviously, it’s Christmas – it’s one of those holy days that’s so big, we actually celebrate it for 8 days.. it’s call the octave of Christmas. Second, it’s Dec 26th - the Feast of St. Stephen – he was one of the first deacons of the Church and he was officially the first martyr. You can read about him in the book of Acts in the Bible. It’s actually because of Stephen that I can do some of the things I do… deacons were ordained to serve at the table… so that’s why I’m up here in the sanctuary and I am considered to be ‘minister of the cup’. Also, Stephen was inspired to preach the Gospel – and that’s why Deacons are ordained to read the Gospel and preach the homily. In Stephen’s case, that’s also what got him stoned to death… something I don’t really want to repeat, by the way.
However, today’s major emphasis is on the Feast of the Holy Family… and that’s what we’ll talk about in the homily. What makes a Holy family 'HOLY'? I want to give you a nugget before we read the readings so you can listen with a different perspective.
To be HOLY is to be ‘set apart’. Remember that: to be Holy is to be set apart. Each of the readings give us some insight for how PEOPLE are set apart for God…. So listen for that today.
This week I was getting out a plate to make a salad and as I turned I misjudged the height of the counter and accidentally chipped a piece off of this plate. While I was sorry I did it – luckily for me, this plate already had three chips in it, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. It wasn’t like the plates on the bottom of our stack which we hardly ever use… they’ve been set apart for use when we have company – I guess so our company doesn’t see that the man of the house is a clutz and chips the dishes.
Most of us probably have a similar set of plates – those special Christmas plates which only get used for one Christmas dinner each year – and even then the kids don’t dare touch them… they use the paper plates.
One family was digging through their great grandmother’s things after she passed away and they stumbled across a box of unopened china – matching the set that was in the china cabinet...which never got used.... The box said it was packed in 1894…. Yet it was never opened. Those plates were set apart because they were too priceless… too fragile… so they never got used for the purpose for which they were intended…for three generations.
Contrast that with another family I know who use the good china at EVERY meal… they recognize that EVERY time the family gets together is a special occasion. They learned that the hard way: See – one of the young boys of the family had died several years back – and the Mom realized that her son had NEVER used the special plates. Her son had never felt like any occasion was special enough – that HE wasn’t special enough to get out the fine china.
Mom unpacked those boxes immediately and put the dishes into the kitchen cupboard where, to the bewilderment of everyone else in the family, they used it for EVERY meal… even for a bowl of ice cream! At first they were all really nervous – and the first time one of them broke – everyone stared at it in horror, wondering what Mom would say. She simply grabbed a broom and started cleaning it up and said – that’s what they’re for – to be used. Just get you another one.
Here’s my theory: I think God sees US as like fine china. Every one of us is priceless and fragile, so He has set us apart. However, whereas normally WE set things apart and almost never use them, God is more like the Mom in my story…. He has set us apart to be used every day. Not because we aren’t special… we are infinitely special to him… but because he wants us to fulfill the purpose for which we were made… to show everyone else how special they are. You and I have been set apart.
Like I said before Mass, to be Holy literally means to be ‘set apart’. You and I ARE Holy, because God has made us so. Listen again to the line in the second reading – ‘See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. And so we are.’ I love how he said that...'and so we are'. It's like, God said it - so it is.
Did you catch that? We are children of God… how did we get that title? Baptism… just like Samuel was taken to the temple and dedicated to the Lord and Jesus was taken to the temple on the 8th day for dedication, you and I were likely brought to the Church as infants and baptized… dedicated to the Lord. Baptism is basically an adoption ceremony where you and I are adopted as a son or daughter of God. In baptism, we are made HOLY… we are set apart… not because of anything WE did or anything we deserved – but because of God’s action. That partly explains why we baptize infants. While it might seem to make sense that we should wait and be baptized when we’re old enough to make the decision for ourselves, in reality, that's bad theology. This is an act of GOD and not OUR actions.
Yet – as we grow up – we do decide whether we want to LIVE our lives as a child of God. We decide our actions and what we believe. How do we fulfill the purpose for which we were made? How do we continue to set ourselves apart for God? Let’s look back at THE Holy Family.
Besides the fact that THE Holy Family is made up of the son of God and two saints… what made them ‘holy’?
What really sets Jesus, Mary and Joseph apart is each of their of deliberate decisions. They each willingly decided to live out the purpose for which God had created them. Joseph chose to accept Mary and her unborn Son as his own and dedicate his life to protecting them. Mary chose to bear the Christ and put her life at the service of Him. And the Son of God chose to become flesh, to become a member of a human family. In short, their family’s holiness is reflected in the fact that they didn’t put their own desires first. They counted others as more important than themselves.
That’s different. That’s not like normal humans… at least not like our culture teaches us. Like them, Your family and mine are also called to be set apart. The family unit is the place where each of us is trained to put others first. As you know, infants are completely selfish when they’re born… they have no way to think of others – but as they grow up, we teach our kids to think of others rather than themselves. In short, we teach them to ACT holy.
As members of the family of God, you and I are all set apart to look out for others. John reminded us in the second reading, we are called to love one another. THAT is how the family of God is recognizable to the world… because we love one another. That includes our immediate family – our parish family – but much more even.
This past Monday, several dozen folks from our area headed to Kentucky to assist with the disaster clean-up. As you would expect, the devastation was jaw-dropping. We were in what WAS a wooded subdivision in Bremen Kentucky… but some houses were completely gone… others were off their foundation, and some were half-torn-away. The trees were gone or down by the hundreds. The homeowners were shell-shocked – which was understandable considering their entire life had been turned upside down literally in just a few minutes.
We stood in one yard looking at the immensity of the job and just didn’t know where to start. By lunchtime we had at least 60 people working in two yards – and by the end of the day, we had most of that mess cleaned up. Feeling like we had made a dent, all we had to do was turn around and see dozens more yards in this neighborhood needing just as much work… and then you think about the fact that this stretched for over 200 miles. It’s unfathomable. We’ve seen tornados in our area, so we have personal experience of the devastation… but the scale in Kentucky is unbelievable.
I bring that up because of the people. It felt like family. People were so appreciative that we’d come from so far to help. At lunchtime, two ladies drove up in a four-wheeler ‘Hey you want lunch’? They unloaded enough food to feed an army….and left to get more. Then another 4-wheeler came by asking if we needed any food… then an hour later another lady came by INSISTING we take some hot food… and who can resist smoked pork?!
Like I said – it felt like family. Everyone was ready to tell their story and hear your story. Thankfulness was in every conversation. Every person there was like this chipped plate… every one was special, but every one was being used by God to fulfill the purpose for which we were made… to love one another....to show everyone else how special they are.
So we ate - and shared stories - and worked hard together.
It felt like family. A Holy Family.
Gaudete! Rejoice! Humbug…What’s there to rejoice about anyway? That’s how the Israelites would have responded when this prophecy was first proclaimed by Zephaniah. The whole world was going crazy and the country was in deep trouble….
Things were going from bad to worse – the leaders of the country had abandoned morality and instead they honored the gods of money, power, sex, and personal freedom. Child sacrifice to false gods was becoming normal. Most people had abandoned the faith handed down to them from their parents. People who still followed religion were looked down upon and ridiculed. Zephaniah could read the writing on the wall….It was obvious that God was not going to let this continue – that bad things were going to happen… not as punishment, but as a consequence… and as a way for God to bring the country back to himself.
That’s what the prophecy from Zephaniah is about… in most of the book, he is warning of the impending doom – begging them to change their ways. You see – he is prophesying BEFORE the exile… before the darkness has closed in. But in the snippet we hear in today’s first reading, he’s looking BEYOND the upcoming darkness to the time when the Messiah would come. He’s looking BEYOND the upcoming exile to the time when God the Father would rescue His people. Rather than let His people sit in complete despair, God offers this ray of hope – like a flashlight – or a candle– so that when the darkness comes, they have this hope to hold-on to. The darkness will not last forever… the sun will rise again. The Lord is Near – our God is in our midst. THIS is good news.
Obviously, this message was meant for Israel… not us, right?... We can’t imagine living in a country that has abandoned morality… that sacrifices its children to the gods of money, power, sex, and personal freedom. We can’t imagine living in a country where people have walked away from the Faith – walked away from the TRUTH - and those who do follow religion are ridiculed.
If you’ve watched any news in the last couple of years, you know that Zephaniah’s prophecy applies to every age – including ours – where the darkness is creeping in. It is a message of hope. It reminds us to Stand fast – even rejoice in our sufferings because the darkness does not win. The Lord is Near – our God is in our midst. Do you think God gets all anxious watching the nightly news? God’s GOT this! The light will return… He already has a plan to rescue us even before the darkness closes in.
31 years ago this week, an earthquake devastated the northwestern section of Armenia, killing an estimated 25,000 persons. In one small town, immediately after the earthquake, a father’s first thought was ‘MY SON!’. He rushed to the local elementary school, only to find that the school had been flattened and there was no sign of life.
But without hesitation, he started digging… it never occurred to him NOT to dig. This father concentrated his efforts on the spot where he believed his son's classroom had been. He kept repeating what he had often told his son, "No matter what, I'll always be there for you when you need me!"
Many other parents flocked to the area. Many didn’t even bother digging… it was hopeless… there’s no way anyone survived that collapse. Some did help – but after an hour or two, gave up.
So, he proceeded alone – through the day and into the night… for 8 hours... for 12 hours... 24 hours... 36 hours. Then in the 38th hour, as he heaved away a heavy piece of rubble, he heard voices. He screamed his son’s name, "Armand!" "Dad! It's me”! Then, he heard his son turn to the other kids in the hole saying – “See- I told you he would come!”
Moments later, the dad was helping his son Armand and 13 other frightened, hungry, thirsty boys and girls climb out of the debris. Out of the darkness and into the light! They were as good as dead, but he had brought them back to life! The father embraced his son and said – ‘sorry it took so long, son…were you scared? Armand said – ‘it was so dark and scary – many of the kids were crying… but I told them – ‘My Father promised no matter what, he’d always be there if I needed him. – so he WILL save me...and if he can save me he can save you too.’
God - OUR Heavenly Father, is in the rescue business. THAT is the Good News. You and I were trapped in darkness of our sin until Jesus came to save us. What’s more, that promise from the father continues for us today even as the darkness closes in around us… The Lord is Near. That’s where the Peace beyond all Understanding comes from that Paul mentioned in the second reading.
What’s that look like anyway, this ‘peace beyond all understanding’?
It means that when the world is falling in around us, when it makes no sense at all to still have hope – we can trust that Our God IS IN OUR MIDST! God has a plan to rescue us from the darkness even before it gets dark!!
We don’t usually get a name…. In the Gospels, we usually hear about the "crippled man" or "the woman with a hemorrhage"… but today we get a name – Bartimaeus. This is significant because it says this guy MUST be a real person – not just a story. He could have still been alive when these stories started circulating and he could easily have stepped forward saying “that’s not how it happened”.
So, this is a real event – but the masterful way Mark tells the story reveals spiritual insights as well, which means this story is also about you and me.
First - The blind man is a beggar. He has no power. He has no control. He is at the mercy of the people around him even to be able to eat. And he is at the mercy of God to inspire people to have compassion.
You and I are that beggar…. We have no control. We are at the mercy of God and the people around us to help us through life. We may ‘think’ we’re in control, but events happen which prove to us time and time again that we have no control. Every good thing people have done for us was because God inspired them to compassion.
Second - The beggar is blind. His entire world is limited to what he can hear and feel. He knows there is more to life beyond the reach of his fingers, because he can hear it – he can sense it – but he can’t see it.
You and I are the blind man. Experience tells us there must be more to life than what we can hear and feel – Science CAN’T explain everything. Something in us KNOWS there is a God – but the culture tells us to only believe what we can see. Yet, some people have such a good sense of the divine that it’s as if they CAN see God… we want that sense too! So we call out – Lord, I want to see!
Third - Bartimaeus doesn’t know Jesus – but he’s heard the crowds talk about him… how he healed that deaf man and that woman with a hemmorhage – and for the first time he could remember, a strange feeling called hope arose inside of him. Jesus is the source of his Hope, so he wants to meet Jesus.
You and I are Bartimaeus – at some point in our life, we realize that we don’t have a relationship with Jesus. We hear other people around us who seem to have that relationship – who have a joy or peace about them that can only be on account of Him – and it raises a feeling inside of us – even when all hope is gone, our hope lies in meeting Jesus.
It’s like we KNOW that God is out there – we KNOW that Jesus is real – we’ve heard stories about Him. We KNOW he works miracles, but we’ve not SEEN it for ourselves. Yet, just the fact that others HAVE seen miracles creates that feeling of hope in us – so we cry out – Son of David, have pity on me!
Jesus asked him, “what do you want me to do for you?” – and without hesitation, Bartimaeus answered – Lord, I want to see! Notice, there was no hesitation…
How much are we like him? Do we KNOW what we want from Jesus? Is it on the tip of your tongue? Would you be able to answer that question if Jesus asked you? What do you want from me?
Also notice that when Jesus called him, the man dropped everything and ran to him. Let that sink in – if a blind man drops something, it’s GONE…forEVER. He’ll never 'see' it again. He’s ready to risk everything he has – everything he has put his faith in – everything he has acquired in his meager existence to create ‘some’ level of comfort – or at least to survive the cold nights. He was ready to leave it all behind because his greatest desire was to be able to SEE.
What do YOU want to see? Do your actions support your ideal? Are you doing the things necessary to attain your greatest desire? Would you drop everything to attain it? Would you leave your life behind for a chance to meet Jesus? For example -
Jerry always said he wanted to see mountains, but
every vacation was at the beach.
Sara wanted to see northern lights but couldn’t stand the cold, so she never went north.
Alex says he wants to meet Jesus, but he never made it a priority to go on a weekend retreat.
Too often, what we SAY is our deepest desire isn’t really true – and our actions prove it.
Here’s a short story to hopefully make my point
When he was still in high school, Jerry and his buddy Joe would go to dances – Jerry loved it – he was out there busting a move – break dancing – and he especially liked dancing the slow songs with the girls.
Joe hated it. He thought he was too cool to get out there and act like a fool… he thought the girls would think he was a dweeb, so he sat against the wall. In his mind, Jerry was a dweeb – acting like a fool out there on the floor. He didn’t notice that Jerry was the one slow dancing with the girls… Joe hated it so much he didn’t really even want to go to dances anymore.
But then…, Elizabeth showed up – and Joe was smitten – she was the girl of his dreams – and he overcame his fear of looking stupid and asked her to dance. They danced a slow dance and he wished the music would never end… but then a fast dance started and he stood there kinda awkwardly for a moment, but Elizabeth just said – c’mon let’s keep dancing – and she started dancing – and Joe – still awkward – tried to mimic what he’d seen Jerry do – dancing around a bit – but looking over his shoulder in case somebody was laughing at him. Notice that- his beloved was dancing in front of him, but he was so self-conscious that his attention was not on her.
Slowly, he got more comfortable and his attention gradually re-focused on Elizabeth. Her smile made him feel less self-conscious and he relaxed and danced and looked her in the eyes.
And wouldn’t you know it – by the end of the night, Joe LOVED dancing. After that night, HE was the one who would be coaxing Jerry to go with him to the next dance, hoping that Elizabeth would be there.
The moral of the story, is that we all need SOMEthing, some desire, to pull us out of our comfort zones. Our normal tendency as humans is to be SELF-conscious – to think only of ourselves. It would be a lonely existence except that God planted a desire in us to connect with others. In theological speak, it’s called EROS – it’s that passionate desire that has the power to overwhelm our inhibitions and change the way we act. In short – EROS pushed Joe away from being a wall-flower and onto the dance floor, where he discovered the love of his life. (They’ve been married now for over 30 years now, by the way)
Without EROS, we’d all be stuck in our own world. Without eros, boy would never meet girl. We would only look at our SELVES and never look at our beloved face to face.
What’s your EROS? What is your deepest desire? What desire has God placed on YOUR heart?
Several years ago, I was out of town at a Catholic conference and went to Mass – and somehow I was convicted that I was not in a state of Grace, so when it came time for communion, I simply crossed my arms to receive a blessing. I still recall the exact words this Priest used to bless me: “May God grant you your deepest desire”.
At first, I thought – is that a good prayer? Because if you asked me what I desired, - well, you can probably guess what I desired – because I’m a red-blooded man. But I knew there had to be more to this blessing than those kind of surface desires…. This blessing was that God would fulfill my DEEPEST desire.
What IS my deepest desire? Ask yourself that… what is YOUR deepest desire? I propose to you that whatever our deepest desire is was put there by God… and that deepest desire IS to be united with God. It’s like a homing signal placed inside of us which draws us ever back to our Father. Until we RECOGNIZE our deepest desire, we won’t live our life in a way to achieve that desire. We’ll always find reasons why we shouldn’t drop everything and go after that desire.
If we learn nothing else from Bartimaeus, let it be this: Jesus IS our deepest desire. Drop everything and run to him… and when you can see, - look your beloved in the eye and see God face to face.