Archive for February, 2016

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent Year C (March 6)

February 27, 2016

Note: Bishop Ron is ill and this will be a repeat of a past homily.

Homily for the 4th Sunday in Lent, Year C

All of the readings today are so rich that it would take hours to comment on everything so I will limit my remarks today totally to the Gospel.  I wouldn’t hesitate to say that today’s story of the Prodigal Son is one of the best known of Jesus’ parables and one of the most loved. I think part of this is due to the archetypal familiarity that all of us have with the family – family problems, family rivalries, family strife. In my own family, I can remember my grandmother who had a special love for her absent son – a bit of a black sheep and a scoundrel, in some ways – but who always seemed to come first in my grandmother’s thoughts – while the son nearby (my father), who took care of her on a daily basis and did everything for her, seemed to be ignored. The way my father handled it was very different from the brother in the Prodigal Son story, however. But that might best be left for a different homily.

The context of this parable was the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus was welcoming sinners and eating with them. If you remember, the Pharisees were the ones who were fundamentalist Jews – who preached close attention to the Torah and Law. Obviously then, if Jesus used this story in this context, it must have something to do with God and the Hebrews and God’s law. This story is Jesus’ justification for doing what he is doing – eating with sinners.

Besides the context of why Jesus was telling the story, I also want to put the story into the context of the times in which Jesus told the story, the cultural context. It was unusual but not unheard of that a father would give his property, his inheritance, before he had died. But, this father did. Note that he divided the property between the two brothers. It was to be expected that the father would still be able to live off the profits of the land. But, both brothers received property. The older son did not object or try to change his brother’s mind, but apparently goes along with this arrangement.

The people of Jesus’ time would have known that the first son acted badly, almost wishing his father dead.  This would have been shocking to the people of Jesus’ time, as was the fact that the father even agreed to it. Even more, in this culture family was all important for survival, so to leave the family would be a huge break in the social values of the time. Why did the father agree? As well, In Mediterranean eyes, this would mean a relinquishing of the father’s power and status. Perhaps the father wanted to avoid a conflict between the two sons after his death.

Then the younger son compounds the problem, first by selling off the land, and then by losing it through gambling perhaps, or through other such sinful pleasures. Property was all important to Hebrews of this period.  God’s covenant was all about land – the promise of a land of milk and honey.  There were Biblical rules about it even.  If someone was forced to sell land through poverty, Leviticus says a relative should buy it and keep it until it can be bought back again. Land was all important. How awful and shameful then was the younger son’s selling off the land!

When the famine comes and he is starving, the younger son tries to find a wealthy Gentile patron, and when he does he is assigned the most menial of jobs, especially for a Jew – the care and feeding of pigs. He can only dream of eating the scraps of the pigs and even though he might have been entitled to eat the slaughtered pigs, Jews could not do that.

Hunger can be a strong motivator, and so it was for the younger son. He sees more clearly what he has done. When he says “I have sinned against heaven and against you”, that is, his father, he means that he has brought dishonor to the family and would now be unable to support his father in his old age.

But he is clever and comes up with a solution, albeit a solution which will make him almost an outcast in the eyes of his neighbors. He will come back and become a “hired servant” and in this way be able to pay back his father by taking care of him in his old age. But was he repentant, or was this the hunger talking? Nowhere in his words do we sense that he was truly sorry for what he did to his father; he was only sorry because he was starving.

Then there is an amazing twist to the story. In the time this was written, a father who had a son who did this would have torn his garments and disowned his son for what he had done.  But not this father!  He wanted his son back.  He loved him, was looking for him and was the first to see him. He throws away his dignity and runs to greet the son, kisses him and throws his arms around him, thus protecting him from the insults of the neighbors and family. Then the father dismisses the idea that he be a common worker or slave and he gives him gifts that symbolize setting a person apart and giving him authority. The father gives a feast, not just for the son, but to reconcile the son with the family and neighbors, who by coming to the feast would be saying that they have accepted him back into the community of family and neighbors.

The reconciliation that takes place here, I want you to note, is not the result of the son, although the son, at least, came home.  It is through the impetus of the father that real reconciliation takes place. Reconciliation, Jesus says, does not come about because a sinner comes back and tries to make reparation, but it is the sinner’s willingness to accept the gifts and love of the Father which is given freely and spares no cost.

Such a happy ending to the story.  Except it does not end here.

When the father gives the party for the son to reconcile him to the family and community, the older son does not come. He becomes very angry and even refuses to come into the house.  Note what the father does again.  The father leaves the party and seeks out the older son who should have been with his father and helping host the celebration.  The older son is very jealous, but like the younger brother he has seen himself as more of a slave to the father. His jealousy and anger are shown with words like “this son of yours” instead of ‘my brother’, and accusations like “devoured up your property with prostitutes”.  He too cannot accept the generosity of his father.

As he did with his younger son, the father goes out to the older son and tries to help him in his lost state. Unlike the typical father of the period who rules with an iron fist and would not dream of ordering a son to do something that he was obliged to do, this father pleads with his son. He starts by calling him “Son”, which contrasts with the feeling the son has that he has always been a slave to the father. In the father’s words “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”, he shows that the boy has always had the offer of love and sonship.  It is the son who has structured his world in such a way as to see things differently, perhaps through jealousy and anger.

And here the story ends.  Did the older brother reconcile himself to the father? Did he reconcile himself with his brother? Did he become part of the community again?  Jesus leaves that to us to figure out as we apply the story to our own lives.

On the level of context, Jesus was telling this story as a parable or metaphor to explain that the Pharisees needed to be more like the father. They needed to be more forgiving in order to bring about repentance. The people at table with Jesus were the sinners, the Pharisees were the older brother. Jesus, like the father in the parable, was welcoming back the sinner and reconciling them to the community.

In our own lives, however, I would like to suggest that we are like the older brother.  We come to church faithfully each week, do what is expected of us, and are maybe a bit jealous of those who get away with things, don’t come to church and seem to get by all right. We have tried to be good all our lives, and does it seem fair that someone who has partied all his or her life, but then comes back to the church, gets the same love and affection from God.  We have to be aware that the father loves us, and that like the father, he is here with us always and all he has is ours.  Keep those words in mind. Do we recognize or acknowledge that? If we don’t, then we too need to reconcile ourselves with God and the community.

Lastly, we need to stop judging people. The father’s acceptance of the prodigal son left no room for judgment.  When we ostracize people because in some way we don’t feel they are as good as we are or don’t deserve it – our attitudes to race, to sexual orientation, to poverty, to those whose jobs are unacceptable to us – we are not being like the father that Jesus talks about – who simply rejoices in the return and the fact that his child is back again.

Lent is the time for that reconciliation, the church is saying. This is the time that we need to pray and think about our relationship with God and not put blocks in the way of that relationship. This is the time to think about our relationships in general and to get relationships that may have deteriorated back into line. The restoration of a relationship does not depend on them coming back to you, but on you being accepting and reaching out to them – running to greet them as the father did. This week think about both your relationship with God and your relationships with others. And if there is a weakness there, try to reach out and do something about it.

And this is the Good News of the Parable Jesus taught today!

Fr. Ron Stephens, St. Andrew’s Parish, Warrenton VA

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Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year C (Feb 28)

February 20, 2016

Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C  (Feb 28)

You may have noticed a pattern this Lent in the readings. Last week we had the preparatory story of Abram’s first encounter with God and today we have Moses’.  Next week we will jump to the prophet Joshua. It is as though we are taking a short memory tour through the Old Testament to better understand the Passion of Jesus in the context of Hebrew history. Similarly, this ties in with the Gospel reading today because Jesus is warning the Jewish people that unless they remember and repent, they will not enter the kingdom.

The Hebrew people were chosen by God to be the root from which would come the Savior of the world. And that root image is very appropriate today because Jesus talks about a fig tree that is not doing very well, using a similar imagery. The Hebrew people, as we saw last week, were, through the covenant of God with Abram, promised a new land, a new kingdom. Abram becomes Abraham, the father of this chosen people and through him, they number as the stars of heaven.  But the progeny of Abraham often forgot God. Indeed, the story of the Old Testament is the struggle to have the people remember who they were, what their heritage was, and what they owe to God. They often failed, and had to start again.

In today’s reading from Exodus, we get what might be called the second great chapter in the Hebrew story. Moses is chosen by God to be sent to the people of Israel. God comes in a most dramatic way – we saw shining faces last week as a result of God’s light. Today we see the same great light in the form of a burning bush. God has seen the sufferings of his people and wants to help. He also wants to complete his promise to them – the covenant which involves a Promised Land. We wonder why God chose men like Abram and Moses? Did he see the remarkableness of them even though they were just poor farmers? Or was it that they had a strong faith and belief in the one true in God. I think the latter.

When Moses was speaking to God he asked God’s name. Some of us may think that odd, but to name a thing is to know that person and in some way to have power over that person. Isn’t that one of the first things we do when we meet someone- introduce ourselves. And if a person doesn’t introduce themselves, we usually ask their name. I once read that Confucius said that the beginning of wisdom was to call things by their proper name. And Moses was looking for that wisdom.

But God doesn’t really give him a name, but more a state of being. There can be so much taken from the words God uses to name himself: “I am who I am.”  It can also be translated as it is in English translation Hebrew Scripture “I will be who I will be”.  While it is almost a riddle, there is a certain sense of it – for God is “existence”. Nothing exists without him.  At the same time, it is not a name that can give power to anyone, for God wields all the power.

God’s other names in the Old Testament are never spoken by the Hebrews, and they are usually some form of Lord. The Hebrews often speak of God’s name without naming.  In the psalm today, for example, we hear: “All that is within me, bless his holy name.”

In the second reading and the Gospel today both Paul and Jesus want us to remember. Without remembrance, without tradition, we will move away from the important things promised us and be too influenced by the world around us. For Paul, “Those things happened to [the Hebrews] to serve as an example” to us, and that is why we must remember the promises, the failures and the steadfast love that God had for us despite those failures.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells us a parable of a fig tree. This section of St. Luke only appears in his Gospel, so we know that it is very thematic and explains why Luke wrote his Gospel. More than the other writers Luke feels that his Gospel is a story of repentance and forgiveness of sin.  Even though Luke has just told us that God will judge us, he shows how God is patient and offers amp opportunity for us to change our ways and repent. If we do, we will be forgiven.

Just before he tells the parable we learn of two events or tragedies that happened. One was an act of human malevolence, the other an act of nature – both leading to the deaths of many people. The question posed is why does such tragedy happen to apparently good people, an ageless question which may never be adequately answered for us on earth. The crowd listening to Jesus asked if these people had sinned and brought about heir own tragedy as punishment. We should understand that this is not the case since Jesus always blessed the poor, the sick, the maimed, the prisoner. So Jesus does not impute sinfulness to these people. Jesus here does not get involved in this question with a direct answer. He states that the real point is that all people must learn to be penitent and trust in God’s saving grace, but that tragedy or happiness cannot be linked to this.

The parable of the fig tree follows. On the surface, it is an attempt to show how the Hebrew people were like that fig tree. They had stopped producing. The owner of the fig tree wanted to cut it down, but the gardener asked for patience. Here perhaps we can see the gardener as one of God’s prophets pleading for time for his people to repent. God relents and gives the time. So once again, God is judge, but God shows patience ad mercy. The point, however, is still that we must repent.

And so, that is what Lent is about each year.  It jogs our memory. It forces us to look at our own lives, to see if we have been true to the covenant God has made with us, to see if we have been grateful for the redemptive grace we are given, and if not, to repent. So here we are in the third week of Lent, remembering the Hebrew story, remembering the Christ story and looking at our own lives. There is still time. God is patient with us. Let us change our ways and be ready to rise with Jesus again on that glorious Easter which is just a few weeks away.

And this is the Good News I offer you today in patience and hope. God bless.

Ronald Stephens

Bishop of Holy Trinity Diocese and St. Andrew’s Cathedral Parish

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

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

Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year C (Feb 21)

February 13, 2016

Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year C  (Feb 21)

It may seem surprising to some that the story of the Transfiguration comes during Lent. The reason why is that this story in Luke comes right after the first prediction of the suffering and death of Jesus. Luke has juxtaposed those two moments because the death of Jesus will not negate the glorification of Jesus. They will work in tandem for our salvation. And those are the two themes we draw together during our Lenten journey.

The story of the Transfiguration is told in other Gospels as well, so I would like to concentrate on what Luke brings to this story. First of all, Luke is very aware of some parallels in the Old Testament between Jesus and Moses going up to the mountain and what happens to them there. Moses is, in fact, present at both events. When Moses on Sinai first talked to God, his face shone, and similarly we have a shining of Jesus’ face at the beginning of Luke’s rendition.

Luke also positions it much like he positioned Jesus’ baptism. After he was baptized, but before he went off into the desert, God’s voice declared who Jesus was. Here, after he speaks about his passion to come, but before he starts on the journey to Jerusalem, God again speaks and reiterates that Jesus is His Son. Luke’s transfiguration is a sign to the three apostles that Jesus, who just told them he would have to go to Jerusalem to die, must be obeyed, and it would be to his eventual glory.

What else does Luke add to this familiar story? First of all, Jesus goes up to the mountain to pray. Mountains have always been symbolic of a place closer to God. It is when Jesus is praying that the transfiguration takes place, and in Luke, there are many mentions of Jesus having such a prayer life. We saw it at his baptism and a number of times while he was teaching and he had to get away from the crowds to pray.

Secondly, only in Luke do we find out what Jesus and the two prophets were talking about. Our translation says: [they] were speaking of his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Jesus is discussing this with Moses who represents the law and Elijah who represents the prophets, symbolically showing that the Law and the Prophets both predict the Messiah and his suffering. The term that is used to tell us what they are talking about is “exodus” and we know from our Bible history what a loaded term that is for Jews. An exodus is a leaving, literally, and Jesus will be leaving by dying, but in doing so will accomplish what the Biblical exodus did, which is to save God’s people.

When we get back to the Apostles, we note that they were very sleepy. It seems they tended to fall asleep a lot when Jesus is praying, doesn’t it?  This time, though,  they stayed awake to see the transfiguration taking place. Peter’s reaction in which he wanted to mark the spot with some sort of memorial is interrupted by a cloud and a voice of God. Clouding is a Biblical way of saying that God was approaching because no one could withstand the brightness of God. What God says: This is my Son, my chosen. Listen to him,” is a confirmation for Jesus that he is following the will of God, that what he will do has the backing of the Law and the Prophets, and that his disciples must obey him on the way to Jerusalem, even if they felt he was doing something wrong. Jesus was to be heard because he was the culmination of the Law and the Prophets; everything which had gone before would now be revealed.

In Luke’s account, Jesus and the Apostles hear the same words but they have different meanings for each. For Jesus, it is a confirmation that God wants him to take the way of the cross. For the Apostles, it was a mystic experience, but as we will see in the next few weeks, they have not yet put all the pieces together, and while they know they must “listen to” Jesus, on direct order from God, they are not yet clear about what they are listening for. It will not be till after “Lent”, till they experience the resurrection, that they will be able to piece it together and understand it.

The first reading does not seem to have a clear connection to the Transfiguration but is another example of God talking to a human. Abram’s clear recognition of God, his ability to really “hear” God, justifies him, and God is able to promise that his descendants will be the chosen people and they will inherit the land. It is out of this initial covenant or contract that we can look at the completion of that contract with Jesus himself.

St. Paul to the Philippians today looks back with new understanding now of all that has happened with the Cross of Christ. He has put all the puzzle pieces together and realizes what the death of Christ has meant in salvation history. We are lesser beings but because of the Savior, Jesus Christ, we can be “conformed to the body of his glory.” It is through the cross that we have achieved a part in Jesus’ glory, which is God’s glory.

So it is fitting then that the Transfiguration be read to us during what is usually a penitential period of the church year. We get a glimpse of the final Easter glory while we know that to get there we have to go through the passion and the cross.

And that is often true in our lives as well. We can align our sufferings, our fears, our disappointments with those that Christ knew were coming to him, but if we remain faithful, we, too, can convert those into something glorious. That may not be until we have died and are with God, but often we get glimpses of it when our sufferings and things we don’t understand bring us to something better in this life as well.

This Lent, let us try to realize the great mystery and sadness of the Passion and the greater glory and joy of the Resurrection, and may we experience a few transfigurations of our own as we make the journey to our final rewards. All we need to do is listen to him!

And this is the Good News I pray for you each day. God bless.

Ronald Stephens

Bishop of Holy Trinity Diocese and St. Andrew’s Cathedral Parish

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

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

Homily for the 1st Sunday in Lent, Year C (Feb. 14)

February 7, 2016

Homily for the First Sunday in Lent, Year C  (Feb 14)

What is it about human beings that they tend to forget what has been done for them and go back to their old ways so easily. How hard it is to keep alive the memory of horrific events like the Holocaust so that we won’t repeat them. How easy it is to forget the good someone has done us with the least offense that occurs or when provoked.

The Hebrews kept forgetting God. They kept forgetting how God had called them together as a nation, favored them and saved them. Within 40 years of the event of the Exodus the people had forgotten what God had done, were busy grumbling over the poor conditions they faced, even forgetting the promises God had made to them if they remained faithful.

So it is not unreasonable that Moses over and over again tries to bring his people back to God. In today’s reading the people are being prepared for entrance into the land they had been promised but many of them did not know the stories of their past, especially the way God chose them and rescued them. So Moses in his role as teacher and prophet once again goes through the story of their salvation, and tells them that they must repeat this story each time they make sacrifice or bring gifts to the altar so that they never forget again.

In stark contrast to this story of the Hebrew’s forgetfulness of God and his laws, Jesus never forgets even in the direst of circumstances, when he is half starving and and deprived. The devil tempts him to forget, tempts him to sins of pride and power and arrogance, but Jesus does not succumb.

The devil tempts Jesus to use his divinity for personal gain. Knowing that he was starving after fasting 40 days, he tempts him to turn stones into bread.  Then he attempted to get Jesus to turn away from God in order to achieve personal power. Satan asks Jesus to worship him. Finally, he asks Jesus to prove his divinity by jumping off a building and allowing angels to catch and protect him, thus showing everyone he was a god himself.

But Jesus will have none of it. He quotes Scripture back at the devil showing the devil how each of these things was wrong. He does not forget the Law as his people had so many times before him.

This humility on Jesus part, this taking on the form of humanity and living it fully is why St. Paul can say in Romans that we too cannot forget. We cannot forget what Jesus has done and who Jesus is. We confess to others what he has done and we believe it in our hearts, and the result of that is “justification.” We are saved by believing and confessing that Jesus is Lord.

How many of us forget in our daily lives the very thing that has given us the community called Christian and the saving grace that has allowed or sins and transgressions to be forgiven. Just as the Jews did nothing special to merit God choosing them, so we have not done anything to merit our salvation from God. So we must never forget.

Our psalm today which the devil quoted to Jesus is about God’s promise to save the one who believes: “The one who loves me, I will deliver”, God says; I will protect the one who knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble, I will rescue him and honor him.” How wonderful to know that if can constantly recall our being chosen by God, and believe in Jesus that we will merit such reward.

Of course, this is not always easy to do. Just as the Jews grumbled when they got into trouble or got hungry or tired, we tend to do the same things. We need to look at the larger picture, stay faithful, stay strong in our belief and we will be rewarded, our prayers will be answered, we will be protected.

This is the first Sunday in Lent, a time when we start to examine our past year in terms of how we have remembered our God and how we have professed what we believe. Lent is a time of reflection as we start with the awareness of our limits, the fact that will die and have to make a reckoning, and a chance to again get our spiritual houses in order. We do this yearly in order that we don’t forget, and this is the exact thing that Moses set up to help his own people not to forget as well.

And this is the Good News of our yearly recollection and remembrance.

Ronald Stephens

Bishop of Holy Trinity Diocese and St. Andrew’s Cathedral Parish

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

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