Archive for September, 2014

Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A 2014

September 28, 2014

Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A 2014

We live in wine country and there are a great number of vineyards very near to us. Similarly in Jesus’ time and in Isaiah’s time, one of the common sights would be a vineyard. I don’t imagine that drinking wine is any less popular today than it was centuries ago, So both Jesus and Isaiah and David use the image of the vineyard as a way to let the chosen Jewish people know and understand just what has happened to them and will happen to them. Because they were very familiar with the workings of a vineyard, the story made much more sense to them and they could understand the warning inherent in each story.

The section of Psalm 80 today has a refrain which certainly simplifies things if anyone hadn’t gotten this message: “The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel”. What David is doing in the Psalm, unlike the other readings today, is simply letting the Hebrews meditate on how well they have been prepared, planted, and nurtured. It is a prayer for this nurturing to continue so they they might produce fruit, since they have come on to difficult times. The wall of this vineyard has broken down and animals eat the fruit as well as passersby. It is a plea to God to continue his good work with Israel.

On the other hand, Isaiah, being a prophet, has often had a harsh message to bring from God to the Hebrews. Prophets were either consoling or full of warning, and in this message Isaiah starts off letting the Hebrews know the wonderful things God has done for them and what the result of that has been. In the parable, the owner of the vineyard did everything he could possibly do to ensure that his vineyard was fruitful and that the grapes that were produced were of finest quality. He made sure that the soil was overturned and all the debris of rocks were removed from it.  He planted only the best seedling vines, and in the center of this garden he built a watchtower. Now a watchtower was traditionally used in war, and was built so that one could see an approaching enemy. Here, the owner of the vineyard wanted to make sure that his vineyard was protected and secure and that no one would break into it and damage the vines or steal the grapes.  yet, despite all this preparation of soil, careful planting and watching over the garden, the only thing that was produced was wild, sour grapes.

So Isaiah asks “what more could the owner of the vineyard do? He did everything possible to see to it that the grapes were the best from which to make the wine. In his frustration with the wild grapes, he decided that he would either have to start over again, abandon the land, or lay it to waste. He decides to do the latter. He will tear down the protecting hedges, leave it to be overcome with weeds, trample it down and not allow it to be be watered so that it becomes a wasteland.

This should have been very frightening to the Hebrews, and indeed it was exactly what happened to them, because they had become the sour grapes, God stopped protecting them, abandoning them to enemies and weather, and soon the Hebrews were conquered and became captives.

But God always keeps his promises, and though we don’t read it here, we do find out that God remains faithful to the Hebrew people and eventually they are released from their bondage and start again. God keeps his covenant even though the people did not!

Jesus, too, is acting the prophet today. Unlike many of the parables that begin “The kingdom of heaven is like…”, this one does not. Instead Jesus tells a story about a landowner much like the one in Isaiah who planted a vineyard, fenced it in to protect it, also built a watch tower and a wine press, but who did not tend it himself, but left the country and leased the land to tenant farmers. In this parable, the grape harvest is not Israel, but the tenant farmers are Israel. We don’t know why the tenant farmers decided not to give the rightful owner the fruits of the harvest, except maybe the harvest was so special that they wanted it all for themselves. In any case, they treated the owner’s slaves very badly, even killing one of them. In desperation the owner sent his own son to collect the produce thinking that they would respect a free man, and rightful heir to the property. But no, the tenants decided they not only wanted the produce but they wanted the property as well, and killed the landlord’s only son so there would be no one the landlord could leave the land to.

Then Jesus asks the question: what is the landlord going to do about all of this? He lets the chief priests and elders come up with the end of the story themselves, for there is only one probable ending – the landowner will come himself and put the tenants to death, and lease the land to more suitable tenants who will give him the produce he deserves at harvest time. Jesus lets the chief priests and elders mull over the story and then draws the conclusion that he wants them to get. Israel is like the landowners who kill the messengers of the landlord, God. God therefore will punish the Israelite leaders and he will give leadership to someone else, who will do what the Father wills and harvest good fruit. There is also a veiled prophecy about Christ’s own death here – the only Son who is killed by the chief priests and elders.

Although the warnings today were specifically for Israel, we can adapt and apply them to ourselves as well.We must never forget who is the landowner and try to take that inheritance for ourselves through pride. Oftentimes we have control issues and think that we are – or at least should be – in control of our lives. It is only when adversity hits that we truly realize we have no control and we turn to God to get help. That is basically one good definition of prayer, isn’t it? And that is what Paul talks about today in the Epistle. Let God know what you want. Pray to him, thank him, and stop worrying, Paul says. Once we know and recognize who the landowner of the vineyard is, we place ourselves in God’s hands, letting him know what we want, but only expecting that he will do the very best for us and knows what is the very best for us. It is hard to give up that kind of control of our lives – the tenants of the vineyard sure couldn’t do it! But we must offer the fruits of our lives to God and trust that all will work out well in the end. Hard to do, but well worth the effort.

And that is the Good News of the vineyard and of prayer that we are told about by God today.

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A of Bishop Ron’s homilies, 75 of them, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A 2014

September 21, 2014

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A 2014

Today’s reading is about changing one’s mind, or to use a more Biblical phrase, repenting. It is also about justice and mercy, two qualities of God that are in balance and can co-exist.

The parable today is one of the few that doesn’t start with the words: The kingdom of heaven is like….”, but it is still about the operation, if you will, of the kingdom of heaven. It is a parable about a man with two sons. The first son seems rather rebellious and outspoken and when asked to do some work, he states exactly what is on his mind. No, I am not going to do that. The second son apparently had no intention of going either, but for fear of his father, or whatever reason, he would not be so blunt with his father, and told his father that he would go, knowing full well that he had better things to do that day with his time.

As it turns out, the blunt, rather rebellions son changed his mind. We are not told why. perhaps he had time to think about it and felt bad about his refusal, but in any case, he went out and did some work in the vineyard.

Jesus simply asks which one actually did what the father wanted. Obviously, as the Pharisees note, the first son did. Now, getting the answer he wanted, Jesus proceeds to tell the chief priests and elders that they were like the second son. They say they believe in a Messiah, and say that they follow all the rules and regulations of the Hebrew Torah, but their hearts are stubborn and they refuse to recognize who Jesus is and what he brings them. They will not change their minds like the first son, but continue to do what they want and will not even weigh the evidence.

Jesus does not say that they are bad people, but that they will not be the first to enter the kingdom of heaven. No, the people who believed in him, even the much hated tax collectors, and the sinful prostitutes will get there first because they were able to change their ways and follow Christ.

This then, may put the first reading from Ezekiel today into some perspective as to why it was chosen. It, too, is about changing one’s mind and repenting. It is also about justice more than it is about mercy. It is also a little scary. The righteous person, the person who has been faithful to the commandments commits a sin, and they will be punished for it, God says. They might even die because of it. But the wicked person changes their mind, repents, and begins to act in righteous ways, in lawful ways, and is not punished for past transgressions but allowed to live. This reminds me of the parable we just read of the landowner who pays everyone the same wage whether they worked eight hours or one hour. In our minds there is not a lot of justice =e here. Someone lives their whole life righteously and then screws up in the end and dies for it. Because this is a Hebrew Testament reading, what is missing is the fact that Jesus has come to redeem us, and that he has brought forgiveness of sins, so that we all can repent and turn away from sin. The beautiful hymn-like reading of Paul today praises Jesus for that very reason. Because of Jesus, justice can be and is tempered with mercy. And that is why Jesus is the name above every other name, why at the name of Jesus every knee should bend. Jesus is the one who brought mercy for us all into the world. We all get a second chance, and a third chance, and more. We know we fall, we sin, we do not always follow the Gospel, but as long as we don’t despair, don’t give up our faith in Christ, we will be able to turn around, and repent, and have life. This is the way that Jesus has fulfilled or completed the Hebrew Testament. And how lucky we are.

Besides the idea of repenting, I would like to end today with the concise advise of Paul to the Philippians on how to stay true to Christ and the Gospel: “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” That means that we need to listen to one another, respect the opinions of one another and learn to love everyone here. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Look for the good in others, look for the talent in others, look for the uniqueness of others, respecting them and expecting the best from them. And finally, look not just to your own “interests but to the interests of others.” Put your needs aside and look to the needs of those you love. If we can do these things, we will have a happy, prosperous community where we truly show the world how these Christians can love one another, having the same mind as Christ Jesus.

And this is the Good News offered to us in the Scriptures today.

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A of Bishop Ron’s homilies, 75 of them, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A 2014

September 14, 2014

Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A 2014

When we talk about God, we often talk about two rather opposing terms, both of which we ascribe to God – immanence and transcendence. Immanence refers to the fact that God is with us, present to us, all around us, while transcendence treats God as outside, vast and supreme – in other words, beyond us. Many religions in the past have chosen to see God as one or the other of these ways, but as Christians we talk about God being both of those things. God is awesome, all-powerful, so we fear God with high respect and adoration. He transcends our petty little lives. And some of the psalms talk about God like that: “I will extol you, my God and my King!” says Psalm 145. “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.” Even in the reading of Isaiah today we hear God say: My ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.”

The first reading from Isaiah today and the Psalm today, however, also show us the immanent God, the God who is near us, with us. “Seek the Lord,” Isaiah says, “while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. And the Psalm, including the refrain says: The Lord is near to all who call upon him, to all who call on him in truth.”

Many of us brought up as Catholics, I think, saw God the Father as this transcendent Being, and Christ as the immanent, easy to talk to God, and we have carried that into our adult life, but for the hebrew, there seemed to be no contradiction in having a God who both near and transcendent.

In Jesus’ parable today, we see both of these qualities mixed, I think.  God is metaphorically a landowner, someone transcendent, in charge, powerful, rich. Like God, the landowner sees hints differently than the simple workers. The immanence of God, too, is seen in the landowner’s kindness to those who were not chosen to work at the beginning. The landowner felt sorry for the fact that they wouldn’t get a full day’s wages, so he decided to pay them all the same daily wage. It was a generous gift, especially to those who only had worked one hour. The fact that the landowner could empathize with the workers who needed a wage to survive, to feed their families, and so on, shows his care. The fact that it doesn’t seem fair to the workers who worked all day doesn’t enter into his thoughts because it is his generosity which is at work here, not his justice. Mercy often overrides justice for God.

The fact that we all sin, does that not mean we should all be punished – but God shows mercy. God forgives both the minor or venial sinner, and the mortal one, to use the vocabulary of the catechism. We have a God who keeps us guessing, but who has shown over and over his willingness to forgive us, over and over, to work with us, to even die for us.

And that is why St. Paul today can look forward to death, even though he knows that his life means something for his congregations. He wants to be with Christ, he wants his God near him, and so while he is alive he will treat his body as a temple of Christ, exalting Christ, and living in a way that is Gospel based in honor of Jesus.

This week I would like you to think about whether you see God as nearby or transcendent and how that influences your prayer life. re you able to talk to God as a close friend, or do you talk to him as you would a superior being, using great respect and being careful of your words so as not to offend. Today’s reading stress the nearness of God and how we can relate to him and talk to him (or her) in a confident friend like manner. One of my favorite plays is the musical “Fiddler on the Roof, and I often recall how the main character Tevye talked to God, respectfully, but like you might talk to a friend, criticizing and joking even. At one point he says: “ It may sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not. After all, with Your help, I’m starving to death. Oh, dear Lord. You made many many poor people. I realize, of course, it’s no shame to be poor… but it’s no great honor either. So what would be so terrible… if I had a small fortune?” Can we capture in our prayer life this wonderful balance between the Supreme God who made us, and the loving caring Papa that Christ preached. In any case, it is important that we take the time to converse with God, both talking and listening, and that is what i hope you can take home with you this week. It is wonderful Good News, and now we too, like Paul, just need to live our lives in a manner worthy of it.

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A of Bishop Ron’s homilies, 75 of them, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A 2014

September 12, 2014

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A 2014

The prophets had a rough job. Some tried to escape the job, like Jonah. But in the Hebrew Testament God was insistent, once he chose a spokesperson, that they do the job. God makes it quite clear to Ezekiel this morning just what his job is and the consequences of not listening to God and spreading the words God gave him. God says that prophets are watchmen, and that their main purpose is to warn. If God tells a prophet that someone is doing something wrong and they will die if they don’t turn from their ways, yet the prophet does not tell them this warning, then God holds the prophet responsible for the death of that person. So being a prophet, a watchman was quite a responsibility.

The psalm today also talks about the responsibility of listening to God, but this time from the point of view of the one being warned. “…listen to the voice of the Lord. Do not harden your hearts!” reads the refrain, and then God references the Jews in the wilderness who refused to listen to the Lord and were thereby made to wander the desert for 40 years.

In quite a different way, the Gospel of the New Covenant speaks about people who are sinning and also need to be warned. The admonition this time is to the Apostles themselves and they are being given the ability to speak for God, an awesome responsibility. Instead of God speaking directly to the prophet, the Apostles are given the ability to decide that someone has hurt them in some way, they are given the way to censure them, Jesus providing the way that it should be done. First, he says, the person should be talked to one on one, then if that doesn’t work, a committee should speak to the person and evidence of the sin or fault given, and finally if that doesn’t work, the community as a whole should meet with the person. And if even that doesn’t work, the person should be shunned. If you follow this process, Jesus says, then God will be in agreement with your decisions. It is the community of disciples that can make such decisions, and Jesus will be with them when they do.  We often take this last statement “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” out of context and apply it to community worship and prayer, but in context, it was really referring to decision-making by the apostles regarding how the Christian life should be lived.

It does present a model, however for our church structures. We often today make the comment, as did Pope Francis – who am I to judge? We are told Biblically that we should not judge lest we be judged, so that today we make a big thing about not judging people, leaving it up to God. Does this passage change that view or conflict with it? Jesus does seems to indicate in our reading today that there are sometimes clear wrongs being done to a person, and that disciples have an obligation to try to change the heart of the one doing wrong, first by discussing it with the other person, then taking it to the court with witnesses, then to the congregation. The judgment of the congregation, translated as Church here, will be treated as if Jesus were making the decision, for he gives them the power to decide. How can we bring together these seemingly opposite ideas about judging people? And to complicate it more,  we have, since the time of third century with Tertullian seen this as the power to forgive sins, but in its original Jewish context it was all about making legal judgments in a dispute between two people.

I think we can state that Jesus was talking here about giving the disciples the authority to act in his name in regulating the communal life of the Christian disciples. How should a Christian live out the teachings of Christ? So when an issue comes up and someone is living in a way that is questionable, the disciple meets one on one, then if the problem is not resolved, it is brought to a tribunal, and if still not resolved, the community or congregation itself should vote on it, with the authority of Jesus behind them. We are not really talking here about judging morality, but judging communal behavior and theological interpretations.

All of which brings us to the second reading today from Paul to the Romans where Paul gives us the overview necessary regarding our relationships with others. We simply (yet not so simple!) have to love them. From the beginning of the Hebrew Covenant when the Laws were given, both Paul and Jesus have told us that the commandments are divided between two great commands. They either refer to loving God or to loving our neighbor. They are explanations of how we can do that. If you show true love and concern for the other, you will do what the commandments say without thinking about it. You will fulfill the law. When we are tempted to judge, we have to find ways to love. When we feel wronged, we have to find ways to love. When we disagree with what is going on in our community, we have to find ways to love. It is not simple. It is not always easy. But if we are going to be Christians we have to find the best ways of learning how to show love with Jesus as our model.

I think that is what i enjoy most about the small congregations of our Apostolic Catholic churches. The smallness provides the opportunities to love and allows us to work on our interpersonal relationships. Because we are small, we can get annoyed by small quirks of our neighbor as well. But all the better to build up ways to find love’s acceptance. This week I call on you to try to strengthen a relationship that you have with someone in the parish, perhaps someone you do not know well yet, or someone whose personality may not be all that attracted to, and find the lovable thing about that person. Our love needs to start here if it is ever to spread out and be a light to the world. The old hymn “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” only works when there is true love for each other in the community. Too often in the media they have known we are Christians by our hate or our judgments. We can change that, starting right here. Practice it. Live it.

And that is how the Good News of today can shine out and be a beacon for the surrounding community, state, nation and world!

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A of Bishop Ron’s homilies, 75 of them, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Year A 2014

September 7, 2014

Homily for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Year A 2014

Today is the Sunday that we talk about vocations, in particular to the religious life of priests and deacons, but remembering that we all have vocations with our own particular gifts of the Spirit that can make the functioning of our parish church run more smoothly, and allow us to share our gifts with others.

It is appropriate that today I am ordaining a deacon to the service of God, and that I am celebrating my first anniversary of my Episcopal ordination as well. Service, then, is a main theme of today.

It is also appropriate that the Reading from Paul, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is all about service. God became a servant, a slave – Paul says, totally humbling himself, but through that act, that humbling act, was glorified. If there is a lesson to be learned from Christ’s emptying of himself is that we too need to be like Christ, humble ourselves and be a servant to our community of believers.

Paul’s writing today is full of irony. Our expectations of a God have been turned around, and as I so often remind you, God’s ways are not our ways. It is in service that we are glorified and exalted, not in show of power or wealth or influence. The more we can serve, the greater our glorification will be in the eyes of God.

As you know, in the spirit of St. Charles, our founder, our priests and deacons have to be self-sufficient in terms of supporting themselves. What we offer is service, not tied to earning potential or having to court the rich. We have the same financial problems as do most of our parishioners, and so it can be easier to identify with people and help them in their need. What we do as deacons and priests is to offer our service to the community, mostly in spiritual ways, but hopefully in other ways of support as well. The new deacon to be has been called to service and will become part of a community of like men and women who have been called to this vocation of service.

Our role model is Christ and our goal is to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Not an easy task because the bar is set so high, and while this is no different for any Christian, we feel called in a special way to serve this community in confessing Jesus Christ the Lord.

All of you Christians have callings – vocations – as well. Next week there will be a sign-up sheet of services to our community that I will ask you to consider. In the spirit of service that you see shown through this ordination today, I ask you to consider your calling, your talents, and to share them with this community , just as our new deacon is preparing to share his to serve you.

And now a quick look at the other two readings.The first reading and the Gospel today work together today because John saw a connection between the Hebrew and Christian Testaments with the story of Moses serving God by creating a serpent on a pole which was held high and saved all the people who looked at it.

Similarly, John says, the cross – a symbol of execution, a hated thing – became something that saved when Christ was lifted up on it for all to see. If the serpent on the stick gave life, how much more will Christ, like Moses with the hated stick, his tree, his cross, save all who look at it.

The cross, a symbol of torture, of execution, of criminality, becomes used by God to bring salvation to all the world. The ‘sign of the cross’ becomes the Catholic symbol of the Trinity and the victory over sin – glorifying the Savior that died on it for us. The sign of the cross can be something easily taken for granted because we do it so often. Take the time this week to think about it while you are doing it, remind yourself of the power of it, and what it has meant in your own life. As we continue with the ordination ceremony I ask you to reflect on service – what our new deacon  is doing with his life – and what you can do with yours. If any of you feel called to a ministerial service of priest or deacon, don’t be afraid of it, and please feel free to talk to me about it any time. God could be calling you, too. And think about the way you, too, can be of service to the community and sign our list next week.

And this is the Good News of the Cross that we are given today!

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A of Bishop Ron’s homilies, 75 of them, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]