Archive for October, 2015

Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Nov. 8)

October 31, 2015

Homily for the Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Nov. 8)

It is pretty easy today to come up with the connection between the first and Gospel readings. Both concern the charity of widows who had very little for themselves but were willing to share what they had with those even less fortunate. I love the story in 1st Kings that we began with today because I actually find it a little humorous. Imagine the scene. This woman was a widow who was left with a child when her husband died. She was in dire straits because she had to take care of her boy and there was no way that she could earn any money. When Elijah sees her, she is out gathering twigs in order that she might have a fire to cook the very little she had left. She hoped to make a little bread with the food remaining in the house.

Now it seems pretty forward of Elijah to call out to her – first of all, she is a woman and most male strangers would not put themselves int he position of talking to a strange woman to begin with. But Elijah does and is even quite demanding by our standards. He doesn’t  introduce himself; he just asks for a little of her water, and when he sees that she is amiable to give him some, goes further and asks for a piece of bread.

Now we have talked before how important it was in this time period for travelers to ask for the help of people in villages when they were passing through, and how Jewish custom asked people to be kind to these strangers who were traveling because it was so difficult.

So the woman who would probably like to give him a piece of bread tries to explain to him that she hadn’t baked any yet, and in fact, she was just gathering wood to do so. Unfortunately, though she didn’t have much grain or much oil left. I find it almost humorous the way she adds that she was just going to bake the last of it and then sit down and die. But she probably meant it.

Elijah asks her to bake the bread with what she has left, but to trust in God that a miracle would happen and she would never empty the vessels of grain and oil till the next rainfall. If someone told you that, would you think he was crazy? The woman must have been very trusting or had a great faith in God because she went and did what he said – giving up what was to be the little she had left. But the miracle occurred!

The other story of the widow in the Gospel does not contain a miracle at all, but shows a picture of someone whose faith in God is so strong that she was willing to sacrifice the little she had because it was what God had asked her to do. Tithing was specified in the Bible. If she gave that away, how would she live. She didn’t know, but she did what she felt was the right thing and left the rest to God. Jesus admires her great faith.

What he doesn’t admire so much is the great show that people were making of the large amounts that they gave. The offering of rich people was more to inflate their own egos or make them look great in the sight of others. Their motive was not pure like the poor widow’s.

The story of this widow began with an admonition to watch out for the scribes who loved to put on a show and fought to be respected and given the best place. Scribes were a later addition to Hebrew life and were men who were educated scholars whose job it was to interpret the Old Testament. Their actions show what they are really like. Jesus says that they devour widow’s houses. As if the widows of this period don’t have it bad enough, the scribes were finding ways to take their property from them for non-payment – all very legal, but leaving the widows destitute. We see examples of this all the time today when people call senior citizens on the phone and try to dupe them out of money, or when  tele-evangelists make pleas for them to give up their money for ‘better” causes or by intimidating them with guilt or fear. The Scribes apparently had the same thing down pat. Jesus remarks only that “they will receive the greater condemnation.”

It might be good to note that I don’t think Jesus was indicating that we should give more than we have to the point of suffering. He was using the woman as an example of someone who had been duped into that way of thinking by the scribes. Immediately after these verses Jesus indicates that the very thing she has been giving her money to was going to be destroyed. And the Temple was destroyed not long after.

The real sacrifice that was greater than either widow is the one talked about by Paul to the Hebrews today. Jesus didn’t just give up his livelihood, but he gave up his godhead, becoming human like us, and then gave up the very human life he had taken on in order to remove sin and bring forgiveness. What do we do that could compare with that kind of love? The widows showed love and faith in God, but Jesus went the whole way for us, Paul says.

There has been a lot of talk over the last month of the message that Pope Francis has brought to America, and I find it interesting to read what our “scribes” today have been saying about it, as they try to justify their economic way of life. But the Pope’s message was clear, Jesus’ message today is clear, and the Psalm is a wonderful summary today of the message: the Lord executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoners free, upholds the widow and orphan and brings to ruin the way of the wicked. We need to be as aware as possible of our Christian obligation to the oppressed in our society, and each of us needs to try to find our own way to help – in money, in time, in friendship, in prayer – in love!

My prayer for you this week is that we use today’s widows as examples of faith and concern for others and that we be very wary of becoming scribe-like ourselves, all too easy to do in our capitalistic society that can brainwash us with the wrong motives.

And this is the Good News of Jesus, Mark, the widows and Francis I remind you of today!

Bishop Ron Stephens

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

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[Prepare for next year! Volume 3 (Luke) of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, is available from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

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Homily for All Saints Day (replacing the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time), Year B 2015 (Nov. 1)

October 24, 2015

Homily for All Saints Day, Year B 2015 (Nov. 1)

At a recent New Testament Study group, someone asked the question “Did the idea of praying to saints come about as to appease  those converts who had come from religions with many gods and many holidays for them?” A good question. While I imagine that praying to the saints might have been appealing to new non-Jewish converts because they were used to praying to different gods, the Christian use of ‘saints’ in our prayer life and in the life of the church really more stems from the idea of the Mystical Body of Christ, a term for the idea of the Church being the body of Christ with Christ as the head. Those who have died in the state of grace and have achieved that perfect union with Christ are the body of Christ who have achieved the state of heaven with God. These are the martyrs, the miracle workers, the pious, the men and women of simple faith who have gone before us into eternal life with God. Some of these we have recognized ourselves, but the wonderful things they have done while on earth, their complete faithfulness to the Gospel, and our surety that they are with God, is why we give them the name of ‘saint’, acknowledging their virtuous lives and our belief in their closeness to God and Christ. We do not worship these people – they are people, just like we are, not gods, but they have fought the good fight, to quote Paul, and because they are so close to God, we pray to them to intercede for us if they are so able.

There are, of course, many saints who are not acknowledged by us or whom known about. That is why we celebrate this feast today. It is a to publicly acknowledge all those who have lived and died in Christ through the centuries, known and unknown, but who are close to God now.

So, in preparing the liturgy for today, the Church has chosen readings which reflect these teachings. In our first reading from the book of Revelation, John has had a vision of heaven. Now when we try to describe something which is totally unknown to us, we have to use a metaphor, because we have no actual words for that description. A person from the past who was able to visit us today and saw a television or a cell phone would have no words to describe those things, and so they would have to say it was like something else that people might be familiar with. So here with John, we get a metaphorical description of what he saw in heaven. In this vision, he saw a great number of people who wore seals on their foreheads- one hundred and forty-four thousand – who wore what looked like a seal that a king or important person might put on a letter, etched into their heads. This number is not an exact number; it just means a lot of people, as though we might say we went to a park and there were thousands of people there that day. The seals meant that they were of God – “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…robed in white” who bowed down and worshiped the Lamb, symbolic, of course, of Christ. When John asked who all these people were, the answer he is given is that “they have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”, and interesting paradox in itself, and who had come out of the great ordeal – which may have meant persecution, but which I think is just life itself. The wonderful thing about this from my point of view is that although there are people there from the tribes of Israel in heaven, there are others too – from every country and language. We can all hope to be saints one day!

In the second reading, John also gives us hope in that we have become, through our baptism, children of God, and at the time of our deaths or at the end of time as we know it, we will finally understand, and we will see God as God is. We will become saints, too. It is our hope in God that purifies us, says St. John, and that purification is the same as the white robes that the saints wore in Revelation.

So how do we get to become saints? Well, the Gospel states this very clearly in Matthew’s description of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus gives his strongest teaching on what it takes to be a Christian, and it is not a list of “Do not’s” like Moses received with the Ten Commandments, but more a list of “Do’s”. We know these as the Beatitudes, and we are very familiar with them because we read them many times during the church year and we sing them in our hymns.

So Jesus tells us what to do to be blessed, to be a saint: be poor in spirit, mourn for the dead, be meek in our actions, be passionate about righteousness and justice for all, be merciful, have pure minds, strive for peace, and if you are persecuted, know that God will be with you. That’s what it takes to be a saint, and that’s what we celebrate in the many men and women over the centuries who have lived their lives in such a way that they exemplify those beatitudes. We honor these men and women, we pray to them to make a case for us, we strive to become like them. Their reward is great in heaven right now and we trust it is ours is to come.  It should give us all great hope that we too will wear the white robes, washed in Christ’s blood. We need to go out today, remembering what we have to do. And being a saint  is possible – we have the saints today who have proved it to be so in great number.

And that is the really Good News that our honoring the saints reminds us of today. Work on those white robes!

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Oct 25)

October 17, 2015

Homily for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Oct 25)

     Our Psalm response today is “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” That seems to pick up on the dominant theme of the readings today. So many times these days we turn to the Lord when we are in trouble or when we have something to ask for. With today’s readings, we reflect not on our needs but on the gifts that have been given us. When we have bad days as all of us do occasionally, we can wallow in the sadness or fear or anger, or we can choose to look at the one good thing about the day – the one positive in an otherwise awful day.

     This seems to be what God is reminding Jeremiah and his people about today. The Jewish people had been scattered, they no longer had a place to worship in which God dwelled. They were separated from their families, they were in a foreign land and they lost much of their freedom. It could be pretty gloomy. A few weeks ago we heard the psalm that said: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”

But instead of this depression, God points out a few good things and wants them instead to “sing aloud” and “raise shouts”. Despite the fact hat they sinned and were punished by being sent away, the good news was that God never gave up on them, that God still loved them, that God still saw himself as their father, and he will save them. This, despite all the wrongs they had done against God!

     So God makes a few promises here in Jeremiah: he will “lead them back” home again, no matter how far away they are. And not just the healthy and strong ones, but the blind, the lame, the pregnant. He will take care of them all. So think about that when you get depressed!

     The Psalm then shows us how God did carry out that promise to them. It says: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion… then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy”.  The promise is still there for us as well. In the last verse we hear: “Those who go out weeping…shall come home with shouts of joy.” All we need do is to look at the positives God will do for us and has done instead of being negative and filling our lives with worry.

     Similarly in the Gospel today we read of Bartimaeus, a blind man, who had every reason to be depressed and miserable. But Bartimaeus had heard word of Jesus and the healings and he believed Jesus to be the Messiah. We know that because he uses the term Son of David which was a code for Messiah. The others around him who went to see Jesus did not seem to have such a belief. They may have been there for the celebrity – to see what this Jesus was all about. They even tried to get Bartimaeus to shut up. But they didn’t succeed. Bartimaeus knew what he wanted and he knew who could give it to him, so he shouted all the louder. We might take note of this ourselves when we want something very badly and are not getting it from God.  Maybe we have to not give up and, indeed, shout even louder!

     When Jesus heard Bartimaeus he stopped walking and asked for Bartimaeus to be brought to him. I love the directness of both Jesus and the blind man. They don’t waste any time or any words. Both know what they want. Jesus doesn’t make small talk; he comes right to the point. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asks. Bartimaeus is just as direct: I want to see again. And Jesus cures him. Just like that! Jesus also says that what has made him well is his great faith. Earlier he had told the disciples that faith can move mountains. Well, blindness is certainly a mountain to move!

We also notice that when Bartimaeus could see, he didn’t run off, but that his faith and his belief in the Jesus as Messiah caused him to become a follower of Jesus. He “followed Jesus on the way.” The “way” was one of the first names given to Jesus’ teachings. Bartimaeus didn’t spend his time depressed because he was blind, but he took action and concentrated on the positive that there was a healer.

     The Epistle today focuses on Christ as the high priest – the one person who could go into he Holy of Holies and speak to God on our behalf, offer gifts and make sin sacrifices. In our attempts to focus on what God has done for us, we must call to mind what it means that God sent his only Son as a human like us, and so he knows what we are up against in our daily lives. He was up against it, too. So we need to focus on how wonderful God has been to us, how caring, how forgiving, to give us this gift of himself!

     Let us take the time this week to focus on the good things in our life that God has provided, not on the bad things going on. There will always be negatives in our lives – that’s what it means to be human, to grow older, to be tempted. Instead, let us look at the good things God has done for us, the good things that present themselves to us each day – the smile from a neighbor, the help from a store clerk, the play of a child, the sun in our face. They are there if we concentrate on them, and just maybe, it will carry over into our lives and the lives of others, making this world even closer to that kingdom of God that Jesus preached about.

     And this is the joyful Good News I want you to think about this week!.

Bishop Ron Stephens

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

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[Prepare for next year! Volume 3 (Luke) of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, is available from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Oct 18)

October 11, 2015

Homily for the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Oct 18)

The thing that joins the two integrated readings today, the Old Testament reading and the Gospel, is the very early theology of Jesus as a servant taking on the sins of us all and offering himself in sacrifice in our place. Isaiah talks about the righteous one, who is God’s servant, making many right with God by bearing their iniquities, carrying their wickedness. Isaiah says that this servant’s life is an offering for sin, not his own, but others’ sin. Not only that he will be in pain – he will be a suffering servant.

Very early on these prophecies of Isaiah were seen by the early church to be referenced to Jesus, and that the prophecies had come true. It helped them especially to make some sense of the senseless death of their friend and teacher. By looking backward to the prophecies of Isaiah they were able to piece together a theology of redemption – where one divine person was to suffer and die to compensate for the sins of the world.

I am sure that the initial death of Jesus had to throw the followers into more than panic that their leader had been killed. More, what was going to happen to them, what would happen to his teachings, what disappointment over the expectant messiah, what craziness to kill such a gentle, miracle man!

I am sure it took time and the influence of the Holy Spirit for the group to sort it out. The fact that they stayed together and still believed in what Jesus said was a real tribute to his followers. Often when a leader is killed, the others run off in all directions.

Writing the first Gospel, Mark has had the time, twenty years or more, to reflect on this situation, to go back to the Word of God in the Old Testament and notice the prophecies which seem to have been written with Jesus in mind. He then incorporates this throughout his Gospel so that that others can see that the story of God is a progression that moves toward and away from Jesus till he comes again.

We see this in the Isaiah reading today which seems to a Christian to be an apt description of exactly what Jesus life had accomplished. “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities,” Isaiah foretold.

In today’s reading Mark shows Isaiah’s ‘servant’ comment with the little power struggle going on with the Apostles. We have seen again and again in Mark that the apostles were rather clueless and often just didn’t get the paradigm shift that Jesus was preaching. James and John ask, metaphorically perhaps, to sit at Jesus’ table in heaven. This is basically a power grab. The people who sit at the right and left of the host are the most honored guests, and of course, James and John knew that.

Then Jesus asks if they are up to letting what happens to Jesus happen to them. At this point, they don’t know he will be crucified, of course. They reply that they can take it, whatever.  Jesus explains that though he would do what he could for them, it was not his decision to pick the most honored guests – it was God’s. But they would share in his drink and his baptism. Little did they know that this meant his death and his suffering. Well, they got half their wish, anyway!

When the other Apostles heard what they had asked, they got pretty upset – they saw it for what it is was – a grab for power and favoritism in the group. They were pretty rough and tough men, and I am sure they made their feelings clear to James and John.

Time for an object lesson, saw Jesus! He called the group together and explained for the first time his theory of power and greatness. It must have made very little sense to the apostles when they first heard it because it was revolutionary – totally against the thinking of the time.

The powerful men that they knew – the Roman rulers and the Jewish leaders all lorded it over each other, doing what they wanted and thought best, and maintained a tight control over everyone.

But Jesus turns it around as he will once again at the Last Supper.

If you want to be great, Jesus said, you must lower yourself to be the servant of everyone – in fact, not just a servant, but a slave. The concerns of others must be your concern. Pleasing others must be your concern. Doing the wishes of others must be your concern.

Not the usual way of looking at power and greatness, even today, though it seems to me democracy should come close to it if the leader really does listen to his electorate and try to act on their needs and wishes. That’s the theory, isn’t it?

What does this mean for us this week? How can we be better servants to others, particularly those we have some control over. Many parents are able to balance this need to be a parent with knowing and understanding the needs of the children as well. But, if you are in charge of anyone – in an office, or as head of a committee, or as a Board member – how can you increase serving the needs of others and thinking of your own needs less. When I came in as the new principal of a large high school, I knew that the person I replaced had been a bit of a dictatorial leader. At my first staff meeting, instead of talking at everyone, I asked them to break into groups and discuss what were their greatest priorities for the school year. No one even moved. Finally, one of them got up and said, “We don’t do things like discuss here! Just tell us what to do, and we’ll do it.” It took me bout three years to get them to see that I really was interested in what they had to say and would move in the directions that the group needed and wanted. I think they actually ended up liking it – though I lost a few in that paradigm change.

I also want you to consider being a servant to other church members here. At base, what this means is that you don’t come to church for yourself – you are here because it is important to the others here. Without you, there is a gap…something is missing. Just coming as regularly as you can is being a servant to the others in the congregation.

Look around this week and see if there are ways to put Christ’s servant-leadership into practice in your life. You might be amazed at what happens, and how freeing it actually becomes for you as well.

This is some Good News that we can all work at and I wish you well in trying it.

Bishop Ron Stephens

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

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[Prepare for next year! Volume 3 (Luke) of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, is available from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Oct. 11)

October 3, 2015

Homily for the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Oct 11)

We meet a rather melancholy Jesus in the Gospel today, perhaps because of his disappointment in this good man who walked away from him because the man couldn’t give up all he had and give it to the poor. This is the Jesus who makes central his mission to the poor and the spreading of the good news. In Mark’s Gospel, it is the central, core mission. It is also something which goes quite against the capitalist society that we live in in America. I often wonder how the billionaires who claim to be Christian, listen to the reading today and what they must be thinking?  How do they justify the huge amount of money they make, while poor are starving all around them in the world. I guess if we put our minds to it, we can justify anything.

Look at this man who comes to Jesus in all sincerity and asks how he can have some of this eternal life that Jesus has been preaching about. He is a good man, not a sinner, who does everything required of him by the Law of Moses, and does it willingly and with a good heart. He was an honest seeker and was respectful of Jesus when they met, even kneeling before him to show his humility and deference in the face of Jesus, the teacher. We are even told that Jesus loved the man. That could be any of us here today.

The man probably expected Jesus to praise what he had been doing and to tell him to keep on doing it if he wanted eternal life. But Jesus doesn’t say that. Jesus gets down deeper. Jesus looks into his heart and sees what is really stopping him from going all the way – his love for his material things and the money he has saved up or put aside. This was not a new idea in Jesus’ teaching, of course. Jesus basically said the same thing to his own Apostles.

When Jesus tells the man that the added thing he can do to assure eternal life for himself was to divest himself of all his material possessions by giving it all away to the poor, to trust in God that there will still be treasure for doing so, and follow Jesus as a disciple, the man was unable to make that commitment. He goes away “grieving”, dejected because he could not make that big a commitment to ensure his eternal life. Would we be any different?

If I told you right now that all you had to do to get eternal life was to sell your house, cash in your 401K, drain your bank account and give it all to the charity of your choice, to be my disciple, trusting that God will make sure you have enough to survive – could you do it? Would you even want to do it?

Jesus’ melancholy shows in his statement: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” The reason why it will be hard is because their wealth, their love of possessions and money puts a wall up which does not allow them to fully carry out the Gospel message – they want to be the ones accountable for what they have and ensure it will be there when they need, not leave it to God to do so.

Now, in fairness Jesus was saying that this was what a disciple of his needed to do. I guess if you are not a disciple, you have to learn to balance having some wealth with following the teachings of Jesus, by being charitable and sharing some of what you have. But, because most of us in this country have so much, it will still be hard.

In our first reading today, the Book of Wisdom tells of a man who calls on God, in much the same way the man called on Jesus. He is given Wisdom – often a feminine virtue in Scripture – and comes to understand what is important to God. In his new wisdom, the man realizes that following God and following God’s ways are more important than acquiring wealth, having good health, or keeping one’s youth and beauty.

That is so anti-American, it seems to me. Everywhere I look in magazines, on TV, in the other media, all that seems important is up-to-date fashion, cosmetic surgery and steps to keeping one beautiful, playing the stock market to make more money, deifying some Kardashian or rich star. That is what is important to the culture today. So anti-Gospel!  So difficult to reconcile with Jesus’ words!

The Epistle to the Hebrews today is unusual in that it deals with the same topic. Most often it is just a random reading. Paul says that in the end we all have to render an account of how we lived, what our priorities were, and how we acted. Even if we have justified all these actions, in the end God can “judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. No creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare.” And how hard it will be for those who have put their love into fleeting things, inappropriate things, material things.

One of the reasons I joined the Catholic Apostolic Church was because I was tired of hearing guilt-inducing sermons that made me feel worse when I left church then when I came in. But when we have readings like these there is a certain amount of guilt it provokes in us, I am sure. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t really do that. He doesn’t make the man feel guilty. He just tells the man what he has to do if wants eternal life. When the man decides he can’t do it, Jesus doesn’t say “Shame on you! You better change or you’ll never get to heaven!” He simply watches him go and then makes a comment to his disciples at how sad a thing it is that the man couldn’t do it.

So that is how I would like to end with you today. You haven’t come asking to be disciples or priests. Yet, you hear Jesus talk about how difficult it is to balance material things with a spirituality. And that leaves us with a decision as well. Can we balance our lives so that money, material goods, fame, power, sex – all those American dreams – become less important than your relationship with God, and what can you do to make that balance a little more top heavy on the spiritual side each day, so that maybe at the end of life, we won’t have to justify why we haven’t done enough for the poor or the sick or the troubled around us. No guilt – just a path that I suggest might lighten the burden at the end. And this is the continuing Good News I bring you today.

Bishop Ron Stephens

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

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[Prepare for next year! Volume 3 (Luke) of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, is now available from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]