Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Faith That Saves

13 Sun OT - Yr B - 2015

          Why are you terrified?  Do you not yet have faith?
          This was Jesus’ question last week when the storm scared His friends so much they thought they might die.  Sometimes God seems like a big ole bully in the storms of our lives; what He seems to be saying or doing (or seems not to be saying or doing) can seem like accusation, challenge, or rebuke to us.  But often God is reminding us that we can trust in His love; since He is the one that commands the winds and the rains, we need not fear the storms of life – with faith in His love and care for us, we need not fear the storms.
          Last week Jesus asked, ‘Why are you terrified?  Do you not yet have faith?’  This week, Jesus says something very different because the woman cured of her illness had the faith His disciples were apparently only beginning to develop.  ‘Daughter – your faith has saved you…Go in peace and be cured…!’  What can we learn from this woman that might help us live in and through the storms of our lives with a faith that will save and cure us?
          First, she came to believe what she’d heard about Jesus.  Unlike what sometimes passes for faith in our lives today, this woman believed in the concrete reality that Jesus was someone who could and would cure her – not in some theoretical or analogous way, but in a real, tangible, actual way.  She encountered the news that there was a man who could actually heal those who sought His healing, and she believed that enough that she put herself in a position to physically and tangibly reach out to Him for healing.
          Friends – how’s your faith?  Do we yet have this kind of faith?  Or do our pithy and cliché sayings about faith lack the concrete substance of this woman’s faith?  Deep in your heart, do you believe that Jesus can heal your wounds; do you believe that Jesus will calm the storms of your life; do you really believe that Jesus can and will heal those we care for?  This woman’s faith was simple and clear – she truly believed Jesus could and would heal her, and she did something about it!
          She reached out in a tangible, physical, obvious way to receive His healing.  Are we engaging our need for Christ and our belief that He can heal us in real, tangible, concrete ways?  I’m talking about something more here that prattling off a prayer as we’re drifting off to sleep at night.  Are we actually getting down on our knees, for example?  Are we rearranging our schedules to reach out to Jesus in any concrete way?  Actually driving to the Church to encounter Jesus in the tabernacle?  Fasting?  Getting up in the middle of the night to light a candle and pray for healing?  Are we taking any real, tangible, concrete steps in our lives to actually encounter Jesus the Healer? 
This woman’s faith was strong but simple – she believed Jesus could and would heal her, so she reached out in a real way to receive His healing:  Friends – I think we’ve tried to turn all of this into something that happens as a coincidental part of life, fitting into our schedules a quick prayer here or there when its convenient to us, without making any real commitment or effort to seek the healing we need.  And that’s a faith problem.  If I told you someone in Seattle had actually discovered a cure whatever ails you or your loved ones – fear, anxiety, illness, addiction, relationships – whatever – if you actually believed it, wouldn’t you move heaven and earth to get to Seattle as soon as possible?  You’d do something more than talking about it, think about it…
Well friends – we don’t have to go to Seattle!  This Jesus we worship is the Healer!  Whatever healing you need in your life, He really can provide – He really will provide – if we can have the faith of this woman, who really believed what she heard about Jesus so completely that she reached out in a tangible, physical, obvious way to receive His healing.
She believed what she heard about Jesus, she went out of her way to actually reach out to Him, and when He turned toward her she “fell down before Jesus and told Him the whole truth.”  Friends – what are we hiding from Jesus about those areas we most need His healing – what are we hiding from ourselves?  What are we not giving Him in the confessional? 
I have a theory – test it out with me.  If there is an area of your life that needs healing that doesn’t seem to be coming …then I believe either you don’t truly believe that He can and will heal you, or you haven’t gone out of your way to seek His healing in any tangible way, or there’s some part of the whole story that you’ve not yet given over to Him.  Is there some story you keep telling yourself about the situation that leaves out your own contribution to whatever needs the healing?  Have you been routinely to confession to ‘fall down before Jesus to tell Him the whole truth’?  I’m not talking about once every ten years or even once a year – I’m talking about routinely, regularly, intentionally coming face to face in the Sacrament of Reconciliation which is the Sacrament Jesus gave us to fall down before Him and tell Him the whole truth

Raise your hand this morning if you need to hear Jesus say to you, ‘Son – Daughter – your faith has saved you – go in peace and be cured…’  Don’t be shy – forget what others might say or think – this is a matter of your healing.  Raise your hand if there is healing you need to see in your life or in the life of someone you love.  Great – that’s the first step!  Now…right now…begin to consider how you can do what this woman – an unnamed giant of faith – consider how you can really do what she did over the next 30 days, and see where that takes you.  She believed what she heard about Jesus – she believed that He could and would provide the healing – she believed it so perfectly and so simply that she reached out in a tangible, physical, obvious way to receive His healing – and when He turned toward her she ‘fell down before Jesus and told Him the whole truth.’

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Is God a Bully?

12th Sunday OT - Year B - 2015

          God seems like a big old bully sometimes, don’t you think? 
          Here’s Job – literally his whole world had fallen apart.  Everything, everyone, taken away.  Even the friends he had left who came to comfort him were so incompetent in empathy and compassion that he sends them away.  And when God finally does show up, it seems like He’s working really hard to ‘put Job in his place’.  ‘Who are you to question me – the Creator – the most powerful – who are you to dare to question me?  I’m the one who calls forth the storm itself – I decide where the sea goes; I’m the one who decides where there will be light and darkness.  Who are you to question me?’  God seems like a big old bully…
          …so its not surprising that Jesus seems to follow suit in today’s Gospel. 
          There’s Jesus’ friends – following Him all over the place – working hard to keep up, and do whatever He tells them.  And this particular night he tells them to get in a boat to get to the other side through the night.  OK – once again, the follow Him wherever He points.  Lo and behold a storm blows up in the night – and this is a terrible storm.  We’re not talking about huge cruise ships with stabilizers and plenty of reason to believe it won’t sink – no, we’re talking about little john boats that would make most of boats docked at the lake look like sea-faring vessels.  So of course they’re scared when the storm gets so crazy that they start taking on water.  Of course they woke Jesus up – they didn’t want Him to get killed in the raging storm, and they probably needed some help bailing the water so they wouldn’t sink.  Sure Jesus calms the storm – but then it seems like He turns into a big ole’ bully, criticizing them:  ‘Why were you afraid – I can’t believe you’re such babies!  Don’t you have any faith yet?  Get with the program y’all – you seem to have been missing it all this time – get some faith already and leave me alone.’
          There doesn’t seem to be a lot of compassion or comfort there – it just seems like Jesus is being a big ole bully – rubbing their weakness and fear in their faces – making fun of it even. 
          We’re no strangers to storms in this life, are we?  Around here, a storm can turn up nearly out of the blue and in minutes bring an entire community to its knees.  How long ago was the storm that hit West Liberty?  The destruction there was so terrible that they are still rebuilding. 
But those aren’t the only storms we’re familiar with, are they?  I found a lump…the doctor found something in my blood test…I can’t walk, I can’t breathe, I can’t see.  I lost my job…the mortgage is due and I can’t pay it…my car died and the repairs are more than I can afford.  I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation with my husband or wife that wasn’t a fight…there is no intimacy, trust, or teamwork in our marriage.  The hitting and yelling in my home won’t stop.  My son or daughter, brother/sister, niece, nephew, aunt, uncle, or cousin is lost in drug addiction or crime – and there’s nothing I can do.  This new priest the diocese sent us just doesn’t get us, and seems to be changing everything that matters most to me…
We’re no strangers to storms…and so I bet that sometimes whatever it is we see God doing or hear God saying in response might seem to us, too, like he’s a big ole meanie. 
Was God rebuking Job – correcting him and putting him in his place?  Was Jesus scolding the disciples in the boat?  Was he accusing them, punishing them, making them seem small for the purpose of humiliating them in the face of their heartache and fear?  Well…that’s one way to see it.  And there are times when most of us feel like that’s what God is doing or saying to us…
…but there’s something else really going on, isn’t there? 
I was once caught in a violent storm in a fairly public place where we all had to seek shelter in a basement.  There was this dad among us with two small children – all the noise and commotion had really scared his little ones.  Truth be told, they were terrified – almost out of control with fear.  As I watched, this dad did the most natural thing in the world, I suppose – and it had a profound impact on me.
He scooped his little ones up in his arms and began to talk to them.  “Why are you scared,” he asked.  “See these big, thick concrete walls,” he said, as he pushed against them.  “Daddy’s pretty strong, but I can’t even knock them over.  They’ll protect us.”  One of the little one’s started to squirm, and Dad held him even tighter, somehow getting those little arms nestled safely in his chest.  “See how tightly I’m holding you?  The storm can’t hurt you while I’ve got you – nothing on this earth is strong enough to hurt you when I’m protecting you…Don’t you believe that Daddy can protect you?”  It only took a few minutes of this reassurance to calm the little ones down.  Soon enough they were laughing and pointing out to Daddy the funny painting on the basement wall, and calmly and curiously asking questions about wind and thunder & lightning. 
That Dad was pointing to his strength and wisdom to calm his little ones while the storm raged around them.  His questions – ‘why are you scared’ and ‘don’t you believe Daddy can protect you?’ – these were questions of accusation, they weren’t intended to demean or diminish the little ones.  Those were questions of a loving Dad trying to calm, and reassure, and comfort.  That tight embrace wasn’t to harm or hurt – but to give a real tangible sense of security in the middle of the storm.
Whatever storms we’re facing today – and whatever we see or hear God saying and doing – He’s not bullying, belittling, or badgering us in our weakness.  No – whatever God is doing (or not doing) – it’s all His way of being our Daddy.  Reminding us that in His tender and loving embrace, nothing will truly harm us. 
“Why are you terrified?  Do you not yet have faith?
“Why are you scared?  Don’t you believe that Daddy can protect you?”
The storms of life will rage all around us – but because Jesus loves us, we’re held in the tender embrace of the One who can protect us because all of it is subject to Him.  Even when we can’t understand, even when we wonder why the storm around us isn’t silenced – nothing can remove us from God’s love and care. 

“Why are you scared?  Don’t you believe that Daddy can protect you?  See how tightly I’m holding you?  The storm can’t hurt you while I’ve got you – nothing on this earth is strong enough to hurt you when I’m protecting you.”  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The One with the Bat Signal

Feast of St. Barnabas
Matthew 5:20-26

         He must have some sort of bat signal; a red light that goes off somewhere; some sort of new app for his iPhone that buzzes whenever I’m having a really crappy day. 

Can you say crappy in the Sacred Liturgy – I hope so.  It is, after all, a technical term.  A crappy day is one when nothing seems to go right, when everything in the parish that can go wrong does go wrong – it’s a day when prayer seems empty, the ministry seems futile, the resources seem scarce, and the only thing that seems appealing is plopping down on the couch and binge watching old Friends reruns on Netflix.  If you look up crappy day in the priest’s desk reference, the encyclopedic entry describes a day when it’s a good thing you leave the big key ring with all the keys to everything on it in the console in the car, because if they were too close at hand you’d be tempted to toss them in an envelope with no return address and mail them directly to the Bishop.

Maybe you never have days like that – but I do.  More of them than I’m proud of.  And somehow Fr. Charles seems to randomly call, out of the blue, right in the middle of every single one of those days.  He’s not in my deanery; he’s not in my priest support group – I’ve never served a parish assignment with him. In fact, other than being a priest that I look up to and respect, one whose life and ministry are often an inspiration to me from afar – apart from that, and getting along well when we happen to be in the same place, Fr. Charles and I don’t have any particular kind of relationship.  Which is why it amazes me that every single time I’m having one of those days, somehow he seems to know about it, and pick up the phone.

‘Alan – Charles here – didn’t need anything in particular – you were just on my mind and I wanted to call and say I appreciate you and your ministry.  I’m here for you brother – is there anything you need – anything I can do to support you?’

I found myself sitting next to him at our deacon ordinations last Saturday – as we were singing a hymn, I leaned over and said to him, ‘Charles – I’m so grateful for all your encouragement – you’re a real gift to me in my priesthood – a real gift to our diocese.’  Fr. Charles is an encourager.


While we know a little more about St. Barnabas than some of the apostles, we don’t really know all that much about him.  He was an apostle; he traveled and worked with St. Paul in bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles.  That’s about all we know about him – but we do know this:  Barnabas was an encourager.  ‘When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all…’  This apostle was born Joseph, but being an encourager was such a part of who he was – even in his own new and developing discipleship well before he was called to join in apostolic ministry – the apostles changed his name to Barnabas – which means son of encouragement.


As I was leaving the Cathedral this past Saturday, I drove right past Charles, and reflected to myself how many days those random phone calls from him had saved the day, changed the crappy into the joyful.  He didn’t sell a field and lay the money at my feet – he made a simple phone call – he lived as a brother to brothers in the priesthood – he shared a moment of himself with another.

Driving the hour and a half back to Grayson I reflected that a real part of being a priest is joining St. Barnabas in the holy ministry of encouragement.  Maybe we’re not all as spiritually in tune as Charles is with the ups and downs of our others; maybe we don’t all have that God-given ‘knack’ to sense when our brothers need an encouraging word – not all of us can have a bat signal that lets us know when to pick up the phone.  But we can all be encouragers – for our brother priests, for our parishioners, for the clerk at the grocery store, and the random people we meet on the street.  It doesn’t take much to encourage someone – a smile, a kind word, asking ‘how are you´ and meaning it…

          Being an encourager can be encouraging; when we get out of our own funk and find a way to say an encouraging word to someone else, even the crappiest of days gets just a little bit better.
          Today on the feast of St. Barnabas, I wonder if we can follow his example, and become sons and daughters of encouragement, too.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The One Where I Get Grounded

Wednesday, 10th Week OT
Matthew 5:17-19


          Back in my day grounded meant no phone, no TV, no after school involvements, and worst of all – no friends.  Straight to school, straight home…it was a teenager’s solitary confinement, and truth be told, I would have rather spent a week at Riker’s Island than to be grounded for a week.  At least inmates get to use the phone every once in a while.  Gosh Mom!!!  (She’ll be reading this on the blog later…)  Gosh Mom – why’d you have to be such a meanie?  Kids today would call the ACLU I they ever got grounded the way I got grounded – and courts today would probably rule in their favor!

          I was a pretty good kid, truth be told – but a little too crafty for my own good.  Mom and Dad stayed a step ahead of me, though.  And the only times I can ever remember really being in trouble was when I was trying to outsmart them to get around a pretty clear and fair rule of the house.  Getting grounded for me might have gone something like this:

          ‘Alan Vaughn!  Why is your mid-term full of C’s and D’s?’  I never really got bad final grades…but it usually took a conversation like this to get me focused enough to remember being in school was primarily about learning.  ‘How is this possible – you’ve been telling me every single day that you finished all the homework you brought home before you went to hang out with Matt!’ 

          ‘But Mom…I did always finish all the homework I brought home before I went to hang out with Matt.’ In short – I complied with the law.  Right?  Some of you are smiling because you know where this is headed.  ‘Honey – how is that possible?  Mrs. Norman…’ (Mrs. Norman was my math teacher all the way through High School…Calculus, Geometry, Trig…she was excellent.  Only problem was, I always thought of Math homework as sort of stupid – I’d already learned all the stuff in class that day, what was the use of doing it over and over again 30 times for homework?)  ‘Mrs. Norman says you’ve turned in less than half of your homework so far this semester!  Are you lying to me about your homework?’

          ‘No, Mom.  I’m not lying, honest!  I always finish all the homework I bring home before I go hang out with my friends…but Math homework is stupid – sometimes I don’t bring it home.’

          Boom.  Grounded.  No phone.  No friends.  Even worse – I had to explain myself why I was grounded when my friends called or came by and then hang up or ask them to leave.  I’m still convinced I could win a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ case for such horrible treatment. 


          I thought I was being crafty with the ‘law of the house’ – but I get it honest.  People have acted this way toward the law since Mt. Sinai.  I can hear Aaron saying to Moses now… ‘But there’s no law that says we can’t dump all our gold in the fire and see what jumps out at us!’  How do you think we went from the ten commandments of Exodus to the chapters upon chapters of legal code that we find in Leviticus? 


Jesus represents a change in perspective toward the law.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.”  You see – true to my human heritage, my perspective toward the homework law was one of strict compliance.  And that got me trouble.  Why?  Because I was failing to embrace the purpose of the law – to engender in me the virtue of responsibility, to teach me to value learning, so form me into a person who wanted to do what was necessary to improve myself.  To get me there, we had to add ‘bring all the homework you are assigned home’ to ‘finish all the homework you bring home’.  Just like God had to add rules and regulations about what could and could not be done on the Sabbath to the 3rd Commandment. 

When it comes to ‘the law’, Jesus comes to fulfill it by changing our fundamental perspective toward the law from compliance to obedience.  “Whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Obedience – getting completely on board with the law and the law-giver and the ultimate transformative purpose of the law – that’s how we fulfill the law.


For next couple of days our Gospel readings will help us see (and hopefully respond to) this groundbreaking idea in the particular examples Jesus will give us using the ‘you have heard that it was said – But I say to you’ formula.  That could easily be translated into ‘the insufficient notion of compliance means x – but obedience looks like y’.  You see – Jesus comes to bring us into a relationship with God and God’s law that will change our hearts and minds to be more in tune with God’s love, God’s plan, and the fulfillment of all our true desires in perfect relationship with Him.  Compliance is about me – finding a way to do what I want, how I want to do it, when I want to do it; compliance is a self-centered and selfish bobbing and weaving through the loopholes in the law.  Obedience is about God – coming into harmony with Divine Love.  Oboedire .  Ob – to turn toward, to orient oneself completely in the direction of…audirehearing.  A completely receptive posture toward God.


Whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  I wonder – what’s our posture toward God’s law, toward the Church’s authentic and divinely inspired teaching of that law?  In the confessional – as a penitent or even as a confessor – are we living in the loopholes, or striving to orient ourselves toward the transformation of heart that Jesus’ fulfillment of the law hopes to bring about.  (Don’t get me wrong – we can’t ever let go of the letter of the law, that’s at least where it starts – and ‘not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law – Jesus didn’t come to permit non-compliance – ‘whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teachers other to do so will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven’.  He just wants our compliance to become obedience.)  As teachers of the law in relationship with The Master Teacher, do we zero in on dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s so much that we fail to teach, model, encourage, and empower obedience?


“Whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Monday, June 8, 2015

The One About Mashed Potatoes

Tuesday, 10th Week OT
Matthew 5:13-16

     You might not be able to tell by looking – but I like me some mashed potatoes!  (Who am I kidding?  Anybody who has ever laid eyes on my waistline knows I have an affinity for mashed potatoes.)  I like the old fashioned, lumpy hand mashed potato like Grammaw used to make and the institutional creamy smooth ‘whipped potatoes’ that come from powdery flakes in a box.  I can tell by looking that some of you like mashed potatoes too!

     But – you know – the thing is…no one really likes mashed potatoes per se – mashed potatoes are really just a convenient delivery vehicle for that savory, buttery, salty goodness that is making my mouth water just thinking about it.  I mean – really – have you ever tried to eat mashed potatoes without salt – or at least salty butter – or at the very least some sort of salty salt substitute?  It doesn’t have to be much – in fact, a just a pinch is usually just right for mashed potatoes – sprinkled right on top of that perfect mound you put on your plate – with that extra little dollop from the serving spoon you just have to get on there.

     It doesn’t really matter how much you like mashed potatoes – if there isn’t any salt around, you don’t even bother putting them on your plate.  Mashed potatoes without salt might as well be left in the bowl.  What’s the point?


     That’s sort of like what Jesus is reminding us of today: because no matter how well mashed the potatoes, Grammaw’s lumpy kind or the institutional whipped kind – if all you’ve got to go along with them is salt that has lost its taste, they’re useless.  You want a visual image of the Christian who has lost his ability to flavor and season the world with the love and mercy of God, bring me a big ole’ plate of mashed potatoes and some salt that has lost its saltiness.  Quick as you know it, I’ll throw them and the salt right out the door!  Salt that isn’t salty is WORTHLESS!!!


     Being a Christian is about bringing the salty to the world’s big old bowl of mashed potatoes.

     Salt changes the way food tastes – it doesn’t take on the flavor of the food – what would be the point of that?  But all too often these days Christians find themselves taking on the flavor of the world – the world that says ‘live and let live’ and that is willing to accept the ridiculous notion that what is true, and good, and right can be ‘voted upon’.  But if we walk in the footsteps of Christ, we speak out for injustice when we see it – we stand up for the truth when tolerance is trying to kick it out the door – and we season the world!

     Salt reveals the subtle, deeper, truest flavors of the food it seasons – flavors that would go unnoticed without it.  You know – they say a pinch of salt in the coffee grounds is the trick to brewing the perfect pot of coffee and, if you have many different roasts and types of beans, the ‘salt-brewed’ method is the key to picking out the subtle, authentic beauty of each one.  Our Christian witness in the world is kind of like that too, isn’t it?  Speaking truth – claiming the inherent dignity of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God and striving to live life according to the moral demands of that dignity and calling others to do the same – all of that follows in the footsteps of Christ who came to show us our truest selves, our ultimate good, our only happiness...


     You know – there’s something I think we miss in this very organic image Jesus paints in today’s Gospel.  You and I – if we want salt – we go to the cupboard, and we’ve got more than we know what to do with.  And if – God forbid – there’s a big bowl of mashed potatoes sitting on the table and we’re out of salt, no problem: we just hop in the car and in 10 minutes we’re back with a big ole box of it to put on the table.

     But…back in the day…back in Jesus’ time…you didn’t just run down the street and come back with as much salt as you wanted.  You had to mine salt from the earth with a pick axe and nothing else.  You had to mine it – or dig pits in the sand by the seashore to fill with seawater and tend to them through the long process of evaporating the water and collecting the salt that’s left behind.  Salt could only be obtained through great effort and what you had was precious.

     Are we working hard – exerting serious effort – laboring for our saltiness …or do we expect it to be handed to us cheaply like so many round blue boxes on a supermarket shelf?  Are we helping our flocks cultivate their saltiness, mining the depths of the truths of the faith in the hard work of discipleship…or passing off some sort of insufficient, bland ‘salt substitute’ in place of an authentic Christianity?  Do we hold as precious the salty seasoning we offer to the blandness of the world’s ‘go along to get along’ nicety – or do we hide it, disregard it, act embarrassed by it?

     Do we embrace our saltiness and season the world with it…or are we trying our best to lose our saltiness so that we look, and think, and smell, and taste like the bland, immoral, half-asleep, unaware mashed-potato-world we live in?


     “You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?  It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

     I hope they have mashed potatoes for lunch...but only if there's plenty of salt.