Archive for the ‘love’ Category

Homily for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (June 14)

June 6, 2015

Homily for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (June 14)

I planted a garden this year. I have a little more time now, and wanted to get outdoors more, so I put in two raised gardens and planted tomatoes, cucumbers, brussel sprouts, onions, lettuce, melons and a few other things. I know nothing about gardening so I am counting on luck and a little reading to help me along. But God in designing the world also planted a garden and, since God was God, he didn’t need much help. I presume God knows exactly what to do to make a garden thrive.

Ezekiel begins our readings today with a few words from God who talks about planting, but, because God is God, and because this is prophecy, it is probably about something else as well.

God says he is going to take a sprig from on top of a very high cedar tree and plant that sprig on the top of a very high mountain. When it grows big and tall and noble, it will be so big as to be home in the mountains for all kinds of birds. And I can do this, because I can do anything, says God.

I wish I had that kind of confidence in my own garden! But, of course, while God can do anything, this is also a metaphor or a parable. God is telling his people that he took one group of people out of all his creation and he planted them as a special people. He planted them high up so that all can see. For those who don’t know the geography of the Promised Land, Jerusalem is at the top of a mountain, up from the Mediterranean. God placed his people there so that they would grow and bear fruit – in other words, to grow in population and to be a beacon to others through their good deeds and love of God and neighbor. And then God says that through this people he ‘planted’, all nations will be able to live in the shade of Israel. In essence, through Ezekiel’s prophecy, God is foretelling that the Jews as a chosen people will be open to everyone else after they have blossomed themselves. God chose a people, yes, but chose them to eventually open up his grace to the whole world.

That same imagery is picked up in Psalm 92 today with a different kind of tree as metaphor: The righteous flourish like a palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit, they are always green and full of sap.”  It is the same image that God wants Israel to be a beacon to the rest of the world, and that it the reason God chose one nation above the others.

So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we hear Jesus also talking today about planting and trees, even though he uses a bit of exaggeration to make his point.

Jesus uses a short series of parables today about the kingdom of heaven which he preaches about so consistently in the Gospel of Mark. His first parable is about a clueless gardener like me, who throws some seeds around and then kind of waits for them to do their thing! He doesn’t do much to the garden, but only seems to get up and go to bed each day without paying much attention to it.

And he doesn’t have to, because God, in his wisdom, gave the earth the wherewithal to know how to make the seeds grow, and they do. At some point, the gardener only has to realize that it is time for harvest – the seeds have grown, borne fruit and done their thing. So the gardener goes in with a sickle and reaps what God has set to grow and produce. So is Jesus telling us not to weed or gardens or get rid of the bugs and pests with spray – just leave everything alone and up to him? No, of course not. This is a parable and not really about gardening at all.

To increase the kingdom of God, we have to plant the seed, we have to talk to others, to preach the Word.  If we do this, we can then leave it to God’s grace which has been given to everyone, to allow it to grow, flourish and produce fruit in another. This may also have been a warning to Judean’s that they weren’t to fight Rome to get the kingdom of God established or to use arms, or it also may have been a way to tell his apostles that they should not get too discouraged if it took time for the preaching they were doing to bear fruit. It would all come in God’s good time.

The second parable is about the mustard seed which is very tiny. You plant this very tiny seed, and surprise! – it grows into a large bush, large enough for birds to build nests in and shade themselves. And the kingdom of God is just like that, Jesus says.

So what does this tell us about the kingdom of heaven? Well, the kingdom is a place for living, for shade, for rest. And to get there, all we have to do is plant just a little seed in people’s minds. And again, we can let God’s grace do the rest. Jesus’ preaching is so often directed at what he calls the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God. So once again, let me remind you that this kingdom is a process whereby we gradually begin to see God taking back control of everything and the world changing to a place of peace, serenity and love of God and each other.

We will be hearing a lot more about this kingdom, but please remember that we aren’t just talking about an after-life here, but the process which began when Jesus ascended to glory and which is happening right now. Are we on or off of that train which has left the station?

What can we do this week to plant a seed and to join in that process of making the kingdom of heaven a reality more and more. What in our lives has to change to make that happen? Can we find the strength to be verbal about our faith and not fear to express our faith in both word and action – to love God and our neighbor visibly, every day, and so plant that seed which will eventually create the harvest of God’s kingdom. That is the Good News that we need to preach and act out in our own lives each day, and it is very Good News for the future of our world if we heed 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 and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

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Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015 (May 3)

April 25, 2015

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015 (May 3)

In John’s Gospel Jesus often speaks with “I” messages – I am such and such, usually as a metaphor.  We saw last week that he metaphorically described himself as the Good Shepherd, a metaphor that would be part of the every day life of the people he was dealing with. They would have run across shepherds all the time, but in our culture we have probably not run across too many shepherds of late,  although most of us know who they were and what they did.

Today, Jesus gives another “I” message, and also uses something very familiar to the Galileans of that time, and even two centuries later, which might be more applicable to you and me since we are very much in a wine cultivating county here. Jesus says he is the true vine, an interesting metaphor.

But if Jesus is the true vine, what is an untrue vine? If a person were an untrue vine, it would seem to me that they would lead lives that looked righteous and good, but were really not good. If Israel was the untrue vine because it gave all the outward signs of following God and believing in the Scripture, but in the end would not acknowledge Jesus or see Jesus as the Messiah, this might be what Jesus was talking about here. Or not.

Let’s look at the extended metaphor a little more closely. Jesus first says that he is a vine, a true vine. He also states that the grower of the vine, the cultivator of the vineyard is God. The vine grows and has to be pruned. God prunes away branches that bear no fruit. What immediately this suggests to me is that if I am bearing no fruit, God will hack away at me to remove those things that are stopping me from bearing fruit.  This is a really positive message of love and care. It is God tenderly taking care of us and lifting us up and helping us realize what we need to do to get rid of the distractions in our life that cause us not to bear fruit.  Even if we are bearing fruit, we will still have to be pruned in order to make us bear more fruit. We cannot reach perfection in this life, though we can and must try.

What does all this pruning and cutting away mean in our lives? How does God prune us? In order to interpret this we need to make sure that we do this in the context of Jesus’ entire message of unconditional love and faithfulness, and knowing his mercy and grace.

Jesus says that “Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Does this mean he helps us to see the sins in our life, or God forces us to repent for the sins in our life, or just feel more sorry for what we have done? The word “pruning” in Greek is also the same word as for “cleansing”. And if you notice in the very next line, Jesus told us that “You have already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you.”  Was Jesus contradicting himself?

I am going to prune you, clean you, but then he says, you are already pruned or clean!

Perhaps this is because it is a steady process – we have been made clean by our baptism. We are clean, innocent, sinless, but as life goes on, we do commit transgressions, things that are unworthy of God or Jesus, things that stop us from growing, and so we have to be pruned, made clean again and forgiven. And we know that Jesus is a model of forgiveness, so it should give us great comfort and hope.

The extended metaphor continues and we need to see ourselves as part of the vine of Jesus, getting sustenance from the vine in order to bear fruit. Those who become dead to the vine, who turn away from Jesus and his words will be cut away from the vine and left to wither and be burned. This is not literal, but indicates that apart from Jesus, their lives will not be fruitful and they will be on their own and godless.

I want to say a few words now about “fruit”. What does it mean to bear fruit? Does it mean the eternal goal of being with God after we die? Is being with God the grape, which is rich and ready to be picked? Perhaps. Does it mean learning and applying the Word of God in our lives. Possibly. Does it mean living the kingdom on earth right now – with the two great commandments of loving God and neighbor. Probably.

However, to make it simpler and to be able to apply it to our own lives today St. Paul offers us a definition of fruits of the Spirit in Galatians. He says: …the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness [and] self control. (5:22-23) That list is the list of fruits that we should be developing, growing, producing in our own lives, and Jesus says he is there to help us do just that, pruning away what isn’t that, always with the realization that if we are part of the vine of Jesus, if we are in Jesus, that we are already cleansed and have been pruned, helping us to succeed and bear even more fruit.

And I started today with the word “true” when Jesus said “I am the true vine. John’s letter today picks up on the word truth. We can be great fruit and can accomplish what John begins his Epistle with today: …let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. We can’t just talk about love… we really have to take action and show it. If we do this we will truly abide in Christ through the Spirit that continually prunes and cleanses us, just as the early apostles in Acts today built up peace by living in awe of God and being comforted by the Holy Spirit.

Let us pray today that we can accept the pruning of God in our lives, recognize that we are already cleansed by God and on our way to bearing the fruits that Paul names, thus bringing about the kingdom of God right here and now.

And this is the God News of the allegory of Jesus as the vine!

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 and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015 (April 26)

April 18, 2015

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015

After Pentecost, when the Spirit was directing the Apostles, and giving them the courage and spark they needed to continue to preach Jesus’ teachings and ‘good news’, they were not very welcomed by the establishment. It seems understandable to me, looking at it from the other side of the fence, that the Jewish leaders did not want to hear about anything that would adapt their beliefs or stir up the people to believe in another God – for that was what the followers of Jesus seemed to them to be doing.

So Peter and John were apparently arrested on religious grounds and brought before the men in charge, along with the elders and the scribes. What had them upset was a healing that had taken place, apparently performed by Peter. Their question to Peter is very direct – they want to know what God gave him the power to do this miraculous cure.

Peter is quite straightforward in his reply to them. He said that his cure was merely a good deed done to help someone, and it was not his power that achieved the cure, but it was the name of Jesus of Nazareth. But he also used the word Christ to define Jesus – stating boldly that Jesus was the Messiah.  Then he quotes Jewish Scripture so that they can see the relationship of Jesus to them and how this was all described in Scripture. He quotes the Psalm that we have been singing the last few weeks – describing Jesus as the cornerstone that had been rejected by the builders – the Messiah that the Jewish leaders had rejected. He then states that Jesus, being the cornerstone of salvation is the one that all Hebrews need to recognize if they want to be saved. This last statement would really upset the Jewish establishment for they felt that because they had a covenant with God, there was nothing else needed. But that covenant, though it promised lots of things, did not promise salvation from sin.

The second reading from John’s letter unites us with Jesus because it says that we, too, are children of God, and our inheritance hasn’t yet been revealed to us. It is interesting to note that John expects that we will be like God, seeing God as he is. Some commentators think that John came to this conclusion because in the Old Testament we are told that no one can look at God and live. So, they reason, if we do look at God and live, we have to have been changed in some major way – and that way may be in our resurrected bodies. Just as Jesus had a different type of body after resurrection, so will we, too.

The Gospel today is pre-Easter and is once again about the metaphor of Jesus being the good shepherd.  We have to remember that shepherding was not considered a great job in Jesus’ day, and that many felt that shepherd’s were low and scum. Perhaps that is why Jesus is not just the shepherd, but the good shepherd. Good shepherds, ones who really takes their jobs seriously, will make sure that nothing happens to their flock, even if they put their own lives in danger. He will be the one that will fight the wolf who is attacking the flock, even if it puts his own life at risk.

Jesus calls himself the good shepherd in John. He is willing to die for his flock, his followers. And not just this flock, but he says there are other sheep out there, and he must gather them, and bring them into he protectiveness of his flock, until there is only one shepherd and one flock. The other sheep he is referring to are the Gentiles, and his present flock are the Jews.

Then Jesus makes it clear that he is fulfilling a plan of God’s, and that he is doing it willingly.  There is no plot going on, and he is not being victimized, but is doing this of his own accord and free will, because the Father has asked it of him. In John, Jesus also knows that something awaits after he gives up his life. He doesn’t yet term it resurrection, though he will, but he says: I lay down my life in order to take it up again. And that taking up, seems to refer here to the mission of bringing in the other sheep into the fold of Israel. And this, of course brings us back the first reading because that was what the Apostles were doing throughout the Acts of the Apostles as they opened up Jesus to the non-Jews, the Gentiles.

What can we apply to our own lives today? If we are truly following the wishes of Jesus, at least in regards to what we read today, we will continue to try to be examples through the Spirit of what it means to be a good Christian, and allow others to see our light. Not many of us are ready to go door to door or to proclaim on street corners today, but i truly believe in the phrase – They’ll know we are Christians by our love. If in all our dealings, we can be a reflection of Christ, people will see it and be attracted by it. And if the Spirit gives you the courage to invite others to join us, to celebrate with us, all the better. If it is through the name of Jesus that we can be saved, then we need to believe that with our whole heart and soul and act on it.

And this is the Good News that we need to reflect on and preach in our daily actions and lives.

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 and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for Easter Sunday, The Resurrection of the Lord, 2015

March 29, 2015

Homily for Easter Sunday, The Resurrection of the Lord, 2015

St Paul in 1st Corinthians tells us, though not in the readings today: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Those are pretty strong words and certainly in Paul’s eyes make the Resurrection of Jesus one of, if not ‘the’ most important event in church history, and indeed in the history of the world. The resurrection is also the one thing that many people find difficult if not impossible to believe – it is a terrible stumbling block especially in this scientific age where we need to have proof before belief.

In reality, I am not sure that Paul is totally correct. I have a feeling that there are many people out there who take the resurrection with a  grain of salt and yet still have great faith in Jesus. The reason that Paul thinks it is so important is because his whole theology hinges on the Jewish idea of sacrifice for atonement of sin and that only in God’s own death can enough atonement be made. The resurrection shows that indeed Jesus was up to the task because he was truly the Son of God. In today’s reading Paul concludes: “For our Paschal lamb has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival…”

Paul also uses the image of yeast but we have to understand that yeast was not really a good thing for Jews. Yeast was a fungus, and for bread to be pure, it needed to be unleavened. That is why in the Passover feast the bread was unleavened by order of God, and even why we use unleavened bread at Mass (though often what we use looks more like a potato chip that what we are used to as ‘bread’. So in the image Paul uses today, we are to throw out the old bread that has the yeast fungus which in Paul’s metaphor means wickedness and bad intentions, and celebrate with pure, unleavened bread, Paul’s metaphor for sincerity and truth.

The facts of the Resurrection as we know them are contained in Paul’s letters and in some of the Gospels, and particularly in the Acs of the Apostles by Luke. Our first reading today is a news report of sorts, with the eye witnesses telling us that God raised Jesus from the dead and that he was seen by a chosen few after the Resurrection event and that they even ate and drank with him. The eye witness reports were obviously important in pleading their case for this very unnatural event.

When we get to John’s Gospel today, we read a description that was written some forty to fifty years after the event, and has been influenced by the original witnesses surely, but also the stories that built up around Jesus in those fifty years. In that period of time and with communities in different locations it is no wonder that a few of the ‘facts’ differ int he Resurrection accounts, but they are still remarkably similar. In John’s account it was Mary Magdalene that got up very early, before light even, and went to the tomb. She saw that the stone blocking the entrance had been removed. She must have peeked in because she ran immediately to Peter and another disciple and told him the tomb was empty and the body had likely been moved or stolen. The two men she told ran to the tomb, the younger getting there first, but in deference to Peter he did not go in, but merely looked inside from the door.

What he saw were the white linens in which Jesus’ body had been wrapped still lying there.

When Peter came and they both went in, the also found that someone had taken the time to fold the linen that had been on Jesus’ head.

Apparently, however, they still never thought about Jesus being resurrected, even though they had been told by Jesus that he would rise again, and that Scriptures had foretold this as well. The two men went home but Mary Magdalene, upset that she didn’t know where the body was so that she could mourn, stayed at the tomb and cried. Someone came to her – it may still have been dark even – and asked why she was crying. She turned to the man and told him why but didn’t recognize Jesus. She thought he might be the gardener and would know where they took the body. When the stranger called out her name, she immediately recognized Jesus, and apparently fell on her knees and wrapped herself around Jesus legs. Jesus asks her not to hold on to him. It seems that the resurrected body is somewhat different from the ordinary body, and we will explore this fact over the next few weeks as we see that people sometimes do not recognize him, that he can come and go at will, even through walls, and can move great distances. Yet, at the same time he can be touched, he can eat and drink, and he has still the wounds from his crucifixion. It is also interesting to me that the person he first shows himself to is a woman, and that she is the messenger to bring the Good News to the apostles, just as Mary, Jesus’ mother, is the first to answer Gabriel’s message and feel the child in her womb, and brought the Good News into the world. It is clear to me that women are the bookends that hold the story of Jesus together.

This day is the day we have been preparing for for 40 days. After a fast, food tastes especially good.  If you have done things to prepare yourself, this day should especially feel good for you as well. It is our yearly reminder of one of the most important events in the life of Jesus and the church, and foreshadows our own resurrections from the dead.

The Sequence today summarizes what should be our feelings beautifully: Share the Good News, sing joyfully: His death is victory… Christ the Lamb has saved the sheep!

This is the Good News that we all share in today! Rejoice and be glad!

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 and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for Holy Thursday, Year B 2015

March 29, 2015

Homily for Holy Thursday- The Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Year B 2105

Today’s feast is the THE feast for the corporate Church. I use corporate in the original meaning of the word “corpus” in Latin, meaning body. THE feast for the creating of the Body of the Church with all its many parts. The Mass, such as we celebrate this evening,  has always been important, of course, in the Church, stemming from Jesus’ own words – “Do this in memory of me.” The THIS is what we celebrate this evening, and indeed each time we say Mass – re-enacting the supreme sacrifice of Jesus to redeem us, remembering it, but also participating in it. When we take communion we become part of the corporate body in a very special and unique way – a mysterious way – And this is the anniversary of that first Eucharist when the mandate to remember was given us.

I want to begin tonight with a quotation from William Willimon that I think might get me into my message of this evening. Many Americans run around today thinking they are religious because they are “spiritual”. Willimon suggests that “spirituality has made religion successful and safe, enabling 90 percent of all Americans to say they believe in God.” And then he really hits hard: “If you crank God down low enough, make the term vague enough, and empty it of any intellectual content, everybody is a believer. Spirituality enables us to be the first generation of Christians in history who cannot get hurt by following Jesus.” 1

I want to support this but want to take it a step further. I don’t think we can call ourselves Christians and not be part of a Christian community. Yes, Jesus went off to pray. But the majority of his time was spent in community – a community of twelve men and many male and female disciples. A lot of that time was spent eating and drinking and celebrating. And the tough messages that Jesus gave us always came in community.

The Last Supper was one of many suppers we read about in the Gospels, although in some ways it should be called the First Supper because it defined what the community would be doing for the next 2000 and more years.We hear from Paul and the 2 earliest Gospel writers about the Supper itself and the command to do the meal in Christ’s memory, but in John we also learn what it means to be a community and we are to treat each other in community.

We have often spoken about the washing of the feet as symbolic of how there is to be no distinction in class, wealth, sex or even religion in how we treat one another. We have often spoken as does John about the commandment of Love, one of the most difficult of all the commandments. It should not be easy to be a Christian – we have to give what we have worked for to others in need, we have to devote time in our schedule filled lives to be part of a community and to find ways to be of service in that community. We are, even when we are not feeling up to it, to think of others first. This is not a namby-pamby spirituality where we sit in our comfortable rocking chairs and meditate or read a holy book though we need some of that as well to recharge our batteries. Just being spiritual makes us an onlooker and not involved. Nothing is at risk. it is too comfortable, and if there is anything about Jesus that we know – he didn’t allow the comfortable to remain that way.

The community that we experience here tonight is probably a little closer to the original meal that Jesus had with the Apostles on that Thursday long ago. We have more food than just bread and wine, though those symbols still stand out as the important ones. We have companionship, common goals, interest in one another, genuine caring for each other, hospitality, and each of us brings something to the table in the way of food, conversation, faith and common belief in Jesus as God whom we will all receive and be in communion with. Thus, “We are all one body”, as we sing. Whenever we in the church are able to love one another, then we experience what it means to be Christian, what it means to be one with Christ and what it means to have eternal life.

This is what Holy Thursday is about. This is what being a Christian means. And don’t let anyone who withdraws from community or who says they don’t need community to be a Christian,  that they can be spiritual, allow you to believe that. If we miss community, we miss most of what Christ is all about. And this is best illustrated to us today on this feast when we celebrate the Supper that will re-enact what will happen to Jesus in the next three days.

This is both the hard-hitting news of the Last Supper and the Good News of our Savior today.

1.Willimon, William H. Thank God It’s Thursday: Encountering Jesus at the Lord’s Table. Abington Press, Nashville in Chapter Love With the Basin and Towel

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 and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year B 2015

February 22, 2015

Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B 2015

The word “transfiguration” is not often part of our vocabulary today. I can’t image a mother coming to the table with a beautifully done casserole proclaiming that she had “transformed” the macaroni into this exotic dish. We might use it if someone goes to the beauty shop and gets a daring haircut. Look how transformed she is! we might say. Or we might use it in telling fairy tales to our children – someone was transformed into a princess-like Cinderella or a frog was transformed into a Prince. But despite the fact that it isn’t a common word to use, what the word signifies does happen pretty often. Something is changed into something more beautiful or altered in some way, making it more “awesome” to use today’s cliché.

Lent is a transformational season in the Church. This is, of course, why we hear the story of the Transfiguration read to us today. In Mark’s version the Apostles are witnesses to the event, but really didn’t understand it. Nor did they understand the reference to Jesus rising from the dead – the ultimate transformation that was to come. It would be a transformation that would transform the world.

How can we transform ourselves during Lent? What do we have to do to turn ourselves from sin, the part of ourselves that pulls away from God? I directed the play “Godspell” a number of years ago, and the character who was supposed to be Mary Magdalene goes out into the audience and sings a seductive song, coming on to all the men in the audience. But the words of the song belie what she is doing in that she had already been transformed by Jesus. Her words were “Turn back, o man; forswear thy foolish ways.” The seduction which she had used as a prostitute was now a seduction of souls to turn back, repent and come to God. Her movement from prostitute to disciple of Jesus transformed her into an evangelizer in the play.

There are some hints for us in all the readings today about our own transformations during Lent and what we must do. In the first reading Abraham had to turn his back on everything he held sacred. We know how important it was to have a son and heir for the Hebrew people. Abraham had only one son who was a gift from God. But now God wanted to take that away from him, and by Abraham’s own hand. It is a very repulsive thought even, but Abraham had such faith in God that he did not waiver. Perhaps Abraham’s faith allowed him to know that this was a test or that God would somehow make anything that happened right, but he turned his back on everything he wanted and had worked for in order to follow God’s command.

How willing are we to have complete faith in God? You know how many times i have stressed to you the fact that God’s ways are not our ways. Knowing this, are we willing to suffer, to offer up everything we hold dear and put it in God’s hands? Abraham’s reward was a great one for his faithfulness. This “handing over” our lives to God, this ability to trust that God will make all things right in the end, that there is a divine purpose behind everything that happens is one of the things that we need to cultivate in our repentance this Lent.

The Psalm today says “I kept my faith, even when I said “I am greatly afflicted”. Do we keep our faith when we suffer, when our family suffers, when there is death even? That is the kind of faith we are being asked to develop in Lent. Nobody said this was going to be easy!  If we are able to put that faith in God, Jesus Christ and the Spirit, then we can proclaim with Paul to the Romans today that nothing “will separate us from the love of Christ.” No hardship, no distress, no persecution, no hunger, no poverty, no peril or no weapon will be able to get us down or take God’s love away. Faith can move mountains!

So how do we develop this faith in ourselves this Lent? It can seem an insurmountable thing to do, but I would suggest we do it by practice, starting small.  We take something that is worrying us and we place it in God’s hands. We literally say to God: Lord, I give you this, it is out of my control and influence, do what you think best with it. Begin to make this a practice. The immediate reward will be a transformation in itself. You will feel the anxiety or depression lifting because you know you are not alone. “If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul says today. This ability to transform those fears and anxieties won’t come quickly or even easily, but it will come with practice.

At Communion today we will sing a hymn that summarizes this transformational attitude – listen to the words. “Transfigure us, O Lord. Break the chains that bind us; speak your healing word, and where you lead, we’ll follow. Transfigure us, O Lord.”  We ask God to break the chains that are not allowing us to give ourselves completely to God and his will. We ask God to heal that in us so that we can follow wherever God may lead us. Just as Jesus had complete faith in the Father and was led even to death, God’s plan was to use that death in the greatest event known to mankind – our return to God’s grace and kingdom. The last line of the verses for the hymn “Transfigure Us” asks the question: “Shall we journey with you and share your paschal road?” And that is the question I leave with you today as well. Shall you journey this Lent with God, letting God lead the way, giving the direction to God, giving our will to God, even to sharing the sacrificial road that God had taken in Jesus? It takes a great faith, but one that can be developed, practiced and lived.

And this is the Good News I leave you to ponder and maybe even find an answer to 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 and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord Year B 2015

January 4, 2015

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord Year B 2015

{using Isaiah 42.1-4,6-7; Acts 10:34 and Mark 1.7-11)

Christmas is now quite over and once again we begin the story of the public life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ as we continue in what we call Ordinary Time. I am oftentimes frightened by how many times we have to preach each year on elements of this same introductory story. We get it in Advent, we get it on this feast, we get it on other John the Baptist’s feasts, and it comes up each year in whatever Gospel we are concentrating on. I always wonder whether I can find anything new or relevant for you in the story. But simply because the story is read to us so many times in its different versions in the four Gospel, I realize the import of it, and always manage to find something to say about it.

The opening reading today from Isaiah is not about John the Baptist as we saw in the Christmas readings of Isaiah.  This is not about the man who announces the servant of the Lord, but is about the servant himself, so the focus of today’s feast is not on John but on Jesus himself.

There are four “servant” songs in Isaiah, and today we hear one of them. We often think of Christ’s sayings about being a servant to others, his washing of the feet of his apostles, his dying on the cross to serve as a sacrifice to redeem us. Isaiah talked about a servant who was to come – a chosen one of God, one in whom God puts his Spirit. Those first two qualities Isaiah foretells are picked up by Mark today in his telling of Jesus’ baptism. Being chosen, and being filled with the Spirit are the same two themes Mark uses. God chooses Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”, and in the baptism the Spirit of God descends on Jesus like a dove. So it is clear, then, right from the beginning that for Mark, Jesus is the servant of God that Isaiah foretold.

It will follow then that the rest of the prophecy will also be carried out by Jesus, so if we look at the list of things that Isaiah proclaims about this servant, we should see exactly the same things played out in the life of Jesus. Isaiah says that “he will bring forth justice to the nations.” He will do what he has to do quietly, not like some preachers who cry out and rant and scream. Both of the these qualities we see in Jesus.

The image of the bruised reed and dimly burning wick probably refer to our own weakness and proclivity to sin. Or it may be an image of the poor or derelict in society who delicate and bruised. Isaiah says that the servant will not break the reed or quench the fire that still burns on the wick. It is an image of gentleness, of care for those who are suffering or in pain.

The servant will faithfully bring forth justice. Certainly that is an image of the Christ. Social justice issues are all through the New Testament, in the sermons of Jesus and in his actions.

Lastly, the servant will carry through his job till the end: “he will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”

All of these prophecies of the servant fit Jesus so perfectly, and give us much to meditate on in our own dealings with people and problems.

Lastly, the Isaiah passage talks about what the servant will mean to us. Most important is the idea of our having with a God New Covenant. God says: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.

If you haven’t noticed the dominant imagery of “light” over the Christmas season, you really haven’t been listening or singing our hymns.  It has been a major theme during our Christmas celebrations. Christ is our light, just as God says his servant will be a light to all the nations, again opening up the covenant, creating a new covenant that enlarges the scope of the older one.

In the final few lines we hear the lines that Jesus himself so often uses as a description of his mission on earth – his purpose, his goal: “to open the eyes off the blind, to bring prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” And these are both actual and metaphoric . Actual, as we see in the second reading from Acts when we are told that Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” and metaphoric since we are often blind to the spiritual realities of life, often held prisoner by our habits and our misunderstandings.

Jesus is the servant of God foretold by Isaiah, and at his Baptism, Mark sees the beginning of the servant’s role announced and played out. If we are to follow Jesus as he asks us to, we must also be servants to others, develop a social justice awareness and act on it, and realize that we too have God’s Spirit within us to help us achieve that state of perfection. It won’t be easy – we will all have crosses to carry – but that is what the readings today suggest to me that the Good News is all about.

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 and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Two Homilies for Christmas 2015 (Midnight and During Day)

December 21, 2014

1. Homily for the Feast of Christmas: The Nativity of the Lord  (At night) 2014-15

“The Angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.” I read somewhere that the phrase “Do not be afraid” occurs around over 100 times in the Bible. There is a lot of fearfulness going round, and you might think it strange that I would choose the theme of fear to talk about this evening. But I think it is a really important concept with regard to Christmas.

Ancient people, more so than today, were afraid of the dark. Today we protect ourselves from the dark and so we may not be quite as fearful, but darkness was always something to be frightened about throughout history.

So when Isaiah calls us a people of darkness in the first reading, one of the images that connotes is that we are a fearful people. And though now we have night lights to protect us from the dark, we are today still a very fearful people. Our world has become very complex in its global boundaries. We find ourselves being drawn in by the exaggerations and fear mongering of the media, for example. Ebola was one such issue this year.

And if we don’t worry about dying from some horrible disease or catching it when we travel, we may worry about the state of the economy, the loss of our jobs, the fear of a penniless retirement, constant anxiety about our health and the high cost of maintaining it. God knows there are so many things to be fearful of today.

The world was smaller for Mary and Joseph, yet they had their worries in the Gospel stories: what would Joseph do when he discovered Mary was pregnant, how would they get all the way to Bethlehem to be registered, and where would they stay, what if she delivered the baby wile they traveled, and even after tonight’s section, would the child be murdered by Herod, how could they leave everything and flee into Egypt?

Fear can occupy our minds and the media preys on that. But what message are we constantly hearing from God’s word? “Do not be afraid”. “Do not be afraid!”

Listen again to some of the beautiful reminders of this in Scripture:

In Genesis we hear: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Genesis 15:1)

Moses answered the people in Exodus: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance…” (Exodus 14:13)

Again in Deuteronomy we are told: “Do not be afraid; for the Lord God goes with you.” (Deuteronomy 31.6)

“Then the Lord said to Joshua, in the Book of Joshua: “Do not be afraid of them. I have given them into your hand.” (Joshua 10:18)

And in Chronicles we are admonished: “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you” (1 Chronicles 28.20)

The Psalms use it many times. “Even though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Ps 23)

“The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom should I fear? (Psalm 27.1)

“The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. (Psalm 118.6)

Especially in the Prophets like Isaiah we hear: “So do not fear, for I am with you.” Isaiah (41:10)

“For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you (Isaiah 41:13)

Moving into the New Testament Paul tells us: “You did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear… (Romans 8:15)

And Peter says: “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” (1 Peter 3:14)

And finally John summarizes: “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” 1 John 4:18

I could go on and on, and still haven’t gotten to the many times in the Gospels that Jesus himself tells us not to be afraid and offers us his peace.

So, all through Bible history, this recurring theme has been one of casting aside our fears because we walk with God, and that is why on this Christmas Eve we celebrate the actuality of the promise and the request made of us by our God: Do not be afraid.

Why? Why do we no longer need to be afraid? Because to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. God has provided because he is now incarnate, God is with us in the person of Jesus. This little child, this wholly dependent person, this God who has chosen to become one of us because he loves us. And one of the purposes of this is to take away our fear.

And that is one reason that Christmas is for me such a joyous season. If we recognize the immensity of the incarnation, of God becoming a human, we can cast aside our fears, and trust that a ‘history’ of promises has been fulfilled, that Christ is Emmanuel – God with us – and we no longer need to be fearful of anything.

Whenever you look at the image of the Christ child this week, think about how giving yourself up to trust in God’s Son can free s from the many fears that surround us today, and to help us live as Paul has said to Titus today: self-controlled, upright and godly… a people who are zealous for good deeds. If we can do that, we will have no fear for we will know that our reward will continue in the world to come.

A blessed Christmas to all of you, and help spread the Good News, not to be afraid.

2.

Homily for the Feast of Christmas: The Nativity of the Lord  (During the Day) 2014-15

There are four Masses composed for Christmas Day, which really shows how important this feast is to the Church. The first three, the Vigil, Midnight Mass and Mass at Dawn all use the Nativity story that we are so familiar with regarding the birth of Christ. The fourth, the one we are celebrating during the day today, does not tell that story.  Instead, it draws from the Gospel of St. John, written a decade or so after the other three Gospels, and which takes for granted the birth narrative. What this Gospel does, is raises the story of Christ’s birth to the level of symbol and archetype, and looks at the theological meaning behind the Incarnation, the becoming human, of Jesus.

It is the beginning of his Gospel and is exceptionally poetic in its language. In this prologue John sets out to establish the natural and supernatural, the human and the divine origin of Jesus.

John symbolically says that Jesus is the Word of God. If you remember, the very opening of Genesis in the Bible starts the same way with the words “In the beginning…” and the first thing God does is “says” something. Jesus is then equated with that act of saying, that “word”. He is God, he has always existed with God – Jesus existed before God created, and he was involved in the creation.

It was through the Word, Jesus, that life came to be, including human life. Then immediately, John moves into one of the great themes of his Gospel, the theme of light. In Jesus “was life and the life was the light of the human race .The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

So now what John has done is establish the divine origin of Jesus and so, he moves into the human origin of Jesus. But again, he does not tell a story as do Matthew and Luke, but he talks about Jesus coming into the world as light, a theme which was often in Isaiah when Isaiah talked about a Messiah.

John treats John the Baptist very quickly, only saying that his purpose was to let people know that the light was soon coming. And this light comes into the world as a human being: “and the Word became flesh and lived among us”. God becomes human in order to enlighten the world. Before Jesus they only had the law, but now, John says, with the light they will be able to see that they also have grace and truth, and the way we come to know God, because no one has ever seen God, he says, is to see Jesus – God made visible.

Paul in the letter to the Hebrews says the same theological teaching even before John did: Jesus “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word”. So the Incarnation for both Paul and John is a cosmic event, an event like no other. That is why for them the celebration of Christ’s birth would be so important a feast.

I was never really very good at science but I thought to look up in a lighting book I had, what were the physical qualities of light according to Physics. There were five listed: Intensity, Form, Color, Direction and Movement.

If ‘intensity’ refers to the strength of a light source, we can see that this metaphor in John says that the strength of Jesus’ light is very great for it shines over the whole universe. Isaiah today and our Psalm response says: all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. It is that intensity of light which allows for all people to see and recognize Jesus.

The second quality of light was ‘form’ which allows us to see things in depth and in dimension because it has variances in shades. It is why the whole world can see Jesus but don’t all accept him. They didn’t allow themselves to see his form clearly but allowed interference and shadow, so that John can say: yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him.

The third quality is “color”, and light is made up of all the colors, just as Jesus is everything to all people. We used to speak years ago of “glorious” Technicolor. This is the “glory” of which John and Paul speak: “and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only begotten son…”

The fourth quality is ‘direction’, so for example, if you walk around a candle, it sheds light in all directions. John is very clear in terms of direction that Jesus was “the true light, which enlightens everyone.”

And finally, light has ‘movement’ which means it can change. Perhaps it is that metaphoric quality of light which allowed God to change – to become a human child, helpless and insignificant. For John, this becomes the fact that no-one has ever seen God, but the reflection of this child will make known the heart of God the Father.

So it is significant that this fourth Mass of Christmas raises the birth event to new theological heights and puts a perspective on it that has made this prologue to John’s Gospel one of the most stirring and beautiful documents in the Bible.  It may not have the sentimentality and story line of the other two Evangelists, but it can make us better understand why Jesus is the true light and why his coming into the world today is such an important event and always be.

I wish you all a wonderful Christmas celebration and hope that the light of Christ can enlighten your hearts and your homes today. And this is the very Good News of the Incarnation that or Gospel writer gives us 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 and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B, 2014-15

December 7, 2014

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B 2014-15

“REJOICE!”,  the reading from Paul to the Thessalonians begins today! – one of the reasons we wear rose vestments today and light the rose candle, and this seems an odd word in a season of repentance. But Advent is not Lent and the kind of turning back we do in Advent is much different that the sojourn we take with our single lives in Lent. We turn back to prepare ourselves in order that we can welcome the Messiah and welcome the “day of the Lord” that he brings with him. In that world we can, as Paul says, rejoice, not just today but always, pray unceasingly and give thanks for everything. That is the life of a Christian after the coming of Christ. The advise of Paul to day today to us is wonderful advice: let us not quench the Spirit inside us, let us not throw away the Hebrew Testament but take what is good from it, and try our best to stay away from every type of evil. We will have Jesus’ help in doing this. Very hopeful words.

And Jesus will help us with this. One of the verses of Isaiah that Jesus quotes is the opening verse today is: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me” and “he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives…to release the prisoners and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The spirit of God was in Jesus and it is in us as well, his gift to us to help us as we struggle through our lives, trying to ready for the day of the Lord which has begun but isn’t totally here yet. Some days we feel getting to that day has a long way to go, don’t we!

In place of the Psalm today the liturgy gives us the beautiful prayer of Mary who was facing a whole lot of trouble, a birth when she was unmarried, fear of what would happen. But she doesn’t get down. In fact, she trusts God’s plan for her, and her Magnificat is reminiscent of the person that Isaiah has described, and that Jesus becomes. “The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” I wish the translators could use a different word than fear, which in English has all sorts of negative connotations that it doesn’t really mean. Better would be: his mercy is for those in awe of him from generation to generation.We might fear that we are not good enough, but we are in awe of the Creator of all things.

The Gospel today is John’s version of the story that we read from Mark’s earlier Gospel last week, and staying true to John’s very metaphoric and symbolic Gospel, he presents Jesus as ‘light’. Later on he even has Jesus say that he is the light of the world. John the Baptist’s job is to give testimony that Jesus is the light, the Messiah. The gospel writer presents John the Baptist using the words we read last week in Isaiah, and John describes himself as the one crying in the wilderness begging people to make straight the path for God. He again states that his baptism is just a symbol of the washing away of sin, but there is someone coming who will actually wash away sin, and who is so great that John is almost a nothing in comparison. The two versions, though written many years apart, are very complimentary.

So how can we apply this to our own lives this week. I would ask you this week to concentrate on being in awe of God. Think of creation, nature, beauty, art, and face the realization that God is over all these things. He really is, to use the phrase of many today, “awesome”! In appreciating the things of God, the wonders of God, the enormity of God and his universe, we might seem very tiny and insignificant. But, then realize that God really cares for each and every one of us – he goes after the one lamb who has strayed. We just need to repent, turn around and he will be there. So rejoice always, as Paul says, and keep in mind the really wonderful season we are almost through, as we await and awaken to that light that we remember each Christmas day, and that we await to lighten our lives again when Jesus comes in glory.

And that is the Advent Good News the Biblical writers suggest to us 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 and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B 2014-15

November 30, 2014

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B 2014-15

(Bishop Ron’s second volume of “Teaching the Church Year- Cycle B” is now available on amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OSRJST0# )

The beautiful Advent readings today are all about anticipation of the coming of God prophesied by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, in one of the most imagery laden and colorful passages in the Scriptures, and again by the New Testament prophet, John the Baptist. Even the second reading from 2nd Peter anticipates with patience the second coming of the Messiah waiting for the “day of the Lord”. So much anticipation, so much hope, so much excitement for what is to come. That is the true spirit of Advent and what should happen in the season of expectation.

We begin our church year devoted to the reading of the Gospel of Mark with the very first chapter of Mark today. As I have mentioned before, Mark’s Gospel is my favorite, perhaps because I was an English Lit teacher and I am impressed with how he has written his story – both the deceptive simplicity of it and the rapid movement of it leading to his climax. In the original language it moves very quickly as every sentence seems to be “Then this happened, and then this happened, and immediately that happened, and then….” It is also a bit of a detective story or mystery story, except that we are in on the mystery and we watch everyone else trying to solve it. And trust me, the apostles in mark are not very good at it!

Right from the first line of the Gospel, though, we are let in on the secret of who Jesus is: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”! Mark pulls no punches but tells us straight on that Jesus is the Son of God. Then he proceeds with the rest of this identity story which builds when Jesus asks: but who do you say that I am? and is answered by the Gentile centurion at the foot of the cross who realizes “Truly, this man was God’s own son.”

So for Mark, the anticipation is the wonderful discovery of who Jesus is Mark does not go into any genealogy of Jesus or give us any birth narratives, but jumps right into the beginning of the public life of Jesus. First we meet the prophet John the Baptist, himself prophesied by Isaiah as the messenger of God sent to announce the Messiah and prepare the people for his coming. Right away Mark ties the Gospel story to the Hebrew Scriptures, letting us see that this is the culmination of the Scriptural anticipation.

And what was John supposed to be doing? According to Mark he was first of all, proclaiming the message and vision of Isaiah: getting people ready and fixing up the road so that God had a straight path to us. Secondly, John was asking us to turn ourselves around, the meaning of “repent” and look at our lives and ask for forgiveness, so that we too will be on this straight path to receive the Lord. In the first verses of Mark, John the Baptist did not know who the Messiah would be, but that he would be someone much more powerful than he, and who would baptize not only with water but with the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God would be in him, part of him.

So this first few pages of Mark sets up the movement of the whole Gospel of Mark and even though we now know who Jesus is, we anticipate what will happen when the others find out and look forward to seeing how they do find out.

I do have to say a few more words about the Isaiah reading today, as well, because it is such a moving piece of prophetic literature. God, seen here, is a God of comfort who wants only to speak tenderly to us, to forgive our sins. Isaiah wants the messenger of God to stand on a high mountain and announce the coming. And although he notes that God is a mighty God, and a strong God, we are not to fear God because he is more like a shepherd than a warrior, and he will gather us in his arms and carry us next to his breast, and gently lead us where we need to go. These are the images of God that I hold dear, that give me hope, that allow me to anticipate the second coming and am not afraid of the world being “dissolved” by fire, as Peter describes today. Instead I am filled with peace, which is what Peter asks us to be, because the coming of the Lord then and to come is ‘good news’ and we will be comforted and held in the arms of our God. And that is the anticipation we should be thinking about as Christmas approaches. The Christ child is that image of peace, and so, in the next few weeks of hectic readying-ness, we need to put aside some time to center ourselves, breathe a little, repent for anything getting in the way of that peacefulness and feel God’s arms around us, comforting us and helping us on our journey. That is the peace I wish you this week as we all anticipate God’s first and second coming and the Good News that this implies. God bless.

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 and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]