“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy”

In this reading from Luke 21: 34-36, as we end one liturgical year and prepare for Advent, we are traditionally warned to be ready to for the end times. Be vigilant. Do not be caught asleep. But there is another message, too.

Speaking to his disciples, Jesus said:
Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Some of us become drowsy from thinking we are too well prepared. That we live righteously and are without sin and will enter heaven without blemish and without harm. Or we are so anxious over the tribulations of daily life that we forget our humanity, the humanity that Jesus commands us to recall. Or we assume that as Catholics or Protestants that we will be immune to the tribulations to come and so we poke and tease others as though they will suffer alone.

“That day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth,” says Jesus. “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”

If you have observed the letter of the law yet have not served others as Jesus has taught us, you are not ready to stand before the Son of Man. If you have cared more for your own concerns than for the needs of others, how can you say you have loved your neighbor as yourself? If you have judged your own sins differently than you have judged those of others, even though they are the same, how can you look yourself in the mirror and expect to enter God’s kingdom?

If you have not loved your fellow human, then you have not loved your God, in whose image he and she was created. You have been drowsy and drunken and you are unprepared.

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“Where are the other nine?”

“I built this myself.” Remember the fight over that a few years ago? The hubris of human creativity. You see a lot posted these days about gratitude. On this Thanksgiving Day in the United States, let’s give some thought to what we give thanks for and to whom we give thanks. We can be guided by today’s reading from Luke 17: 11-19.

Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem through Samaria and Galilee. He enters a village, when ten persons with leprosy met him.

They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying,
“Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”
And when he saw them, he said,
“Go show yourselves to the priests.”
As they were going they were cleansed.
And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply,
“Ten were cleansed, were they not?
Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Then he said to him, “Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you.”

Jesus healed ten but only one stayed behind to thank Him, and he not even a Jew but a Samaritan. This reading can be focused on the last line, “Your faith has saved you,” which indeed is important. But no reading is without its other important messages.

We should remember to recognize God’s gifts to us, including when he inspires us to be creative or successful. In fact, Jesus tells us that the most important commandment is to love God with all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our soul. And Jesus tells us that the second most important commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves. And wouldn’t that include remembering to thank them when they help us to be successful, even when we would love to take all the credit ourselves?

Most of us have something to be thankful for at Thanksgiving. Some families take turns at the Thanksgiving table to share what they are thankful for from the past year. Jesus might appreciate us recalling the story of the Samaritan who returned to Jesus to glorify him for healing him and remember the gifts that God has given us this year.

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving, and what part did God play in making it happen? What part did others play? Are you willing to share the glory with others?

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. God bless you with many things to be thankful for.

 

“She, from her poverty, has contributed all she had”

As we lead into Thanksgiving in America, it’s worth spending some time reflecting on the nature of gratitude and the relativity of sacrifice.

Mark 12: 41-44 tells of Jesus and his disciples observing people donating money to the temple treasury. The same story appears in Luke.

Many rich people put in large sums.
A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents.
Calling his disciples to himself, Jesus said to them,
“Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more
than all the other contributors to the treasury.
For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth,
but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had,
her whole livelihood.”

Some people make a big show of contributing large sums of money at church or to the community. It almost appears like a competition to see who can be seen as the biggest contributor. Yet here, Jesus doesn’t care who gives the most money but who has sacrificed the most in giving.

This isn’t dissimilar to the debate over taxation. Some say a flat tax is fairer than a progressive tax, that everyone should pay the same rate. Yet Jesus would ask: Who is making the greater sacrifice, who is giving up more from their livelihood by paying the same rate? Everyone isn’t equal in resources.

As Jesus shows in this reading, true giving isn’t about who donates the most currency but who sacrifices the most in giving from what they have. Who is the true believer?

In the same way, those who are the most grateful are often those who have the least. Their hearts are not in their possessions for they have so few. Instead, their hearts are in their relationships and their hopes and dreams, their successes and their survivals. In poverty, even a little success is a like a triumph.

We can’t know why the widow gave all that she had at the temple. Jesus doesn’t tell us. But it’s very likely she was grateful for what little she had and was inspired to give back to God in thanksgiving. The rich, Jesus says, give of their surplus. They don’t know of desperation nor of neglect nor of want. They give table scraps after the dinner is over.

As you prepare for the upcoming holiday, remember that Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, not about gluttony. Most will have huge family feasts, but some will have little but their usual meal. Be joyful, but also be mindful:  As Jesus has said often in the Gospels, those who are first shall come last, and those who are last shall come first. Are you grateful like the widow or are you grateful like the rich?

“They devour the houses of widows”

Beware of the scribes, Jesus warns us in Mark 12: 38-40.

In the course of his teaching Jesus said to the crowds,
“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes
and accept greetings in the marketplaces,
seats of honor in synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext
recite lengthy prayers.
They will receive a very severe condemnation.”

In another similar but still slightly different version, the Bible says:

“Be on guard against the scribes, who like to parade around in their robes
and accept marks of respect in public,
front seats in the synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
These men devour the savings of widows and
recite long prayers for appearance sake.
It is they who will receive the severest sentence.”

In Jesus’ time, the scribes were often priests or educated men who kept track of Jewish law and temple proceedings, a part of the Pharisees. Today, they might be the priests and laity of the Catholic or Protestant churches who maintain Church canon and dogma. They might also be TV preachers.

What pops out at me is the pretense that Jesus calls these men out for: Parading around in their robes. Accepting greetings or marks of respect in the marketplaces or pubic, plus taking seats of honor and in synagogues, places of honor at banquets. Devouring the houses or the savings of widows. Reciting lengthy or long prayers for appearance sake.

While there are many humble priests and preachers, ministers and pastors today, who has seen a televangelist who wears a thread-bare suit, drives an inexpensive car, lives in a modest home, or forgets to command viewers to give donations – even from widows, the poor, and the elderly – every one of them preaching lengthy prayers as a pretense?  When appearing in a group, they make a fine show of comradely support with great marks of public respect. It’s a fine show.

Not to pick on televangelists. You can see it in other church leaders, too. The higher up the chain of church command the more like modern-day Pharisees as Jesus describes these priests and bishops seem to be. They like their seats and places of honor at banquets. They accept their special collections that devour the savings of widows. Some bishops have been known to spend amazing amounts of money to “upgrade” their lavish vacation villas, and some preachers have been known to ask their congregations for multi-million-dollar jets. And, of course, they repay their donors with lavish prayers.

Beware the scribes indeed. Beware the overly pious, the overly righteous, the overly observant of the law who have one hand in The Good Book and the other in your pocket. For the scribes can be not only priests and preachers and bishops but also any who judge and condemn others without ever knowing a thing about those they condemn. They, too, parade around in their fine robes of piety and self-righteousness. They, too, accept greetings or marks of respect in the modern public square, plus take seats of honor in churches and at feasts. Many devour the houses or the savings of widows. Most recite lengthy prayers or short scripture passages for appearance sake. Beware these “religious” whom Jesus called vipers.

 

 

“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”

Who do you listen to? Here’s a little guidance from Jesus from John 18: 33-37.

This is the part of the Passion of Jesus in which Jesus is brought before Pilate. He says to Jesus,
“Are you the King of the Jews?” And Jesus answers, “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?” Pilate says, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answers, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.” And Pilate says, “Then you are a king?” To which Jesus answers, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

Pilate has been listening to the Jews, who want to get rid of this meddlesome radical. All along, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes have tried to trip Him up, and it has led to this moment. These Jews themselves haven’t been listening to Jesus. Jesus indicts them for their hypocrisy, for their setting up difficult rules and laws for everyone else to live up to while not living up to the those rules and laws themselves, more showing lives of piety and self-righteousness for appearance sake only. Today there are plenty of Christian “Pharisees” doing the same.

But who do you listen to? When it comes down to guidance, do you actually read what Jesus said from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Or do you listen to everything else and everyone else, who just tell you what to think about what Jesus said? Do you listen to sound bites – a simple line or two of scripture meant to substantiate a point or back up an agenda – or do you read the whole chapter from which the scripture comes, so you can get the whole meaning?

All too often, people read what they want to read, quote what they want to quote, to fit the narrative they’re trying to build and support. Many fall back primarily on Old Testament thinking, when Jesus represents primarily New Testament thinking. If you’re a Christian – Catholic or Protestant – shouldn’t you first listen to what Jesus said? What He told Pilate and by extension us is, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” To His voice.

“But of that day or hour, no one knows”

We send our prayers to the people of Paris and France after Friday’s horrific terrorist attacks.

One might be tempted to associate them with today’s reading. Mark 13: 24-32 relates to times of tribulation. The whole of chapter 13 is taken by many Bible experts as Jesus’ treatise on the end times. I’m not quite so sure it is entirely; he could have been forewarning his disciples of the difficult road that lay before them during his persecution, crucifixion, death, rising again, and his second coming. Jesus talks about “this generation” and “those in Judea.” He could be talking metaphorically about the sun, the moon, and the stars. But let’s see what the reading is before we go too far.

Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem and one of them marvels at the great buildings surrounding them. Jesus foretells of their coming destruction and after a longer discourse on coming difficult times (read this whole chapter), says:

“In those days after that tribulation
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from the sky,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

“And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’
with great power and glory,
and then he will send out the angels
and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.

“Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.
Amen, I say to you,
this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.

But of that day or hour, no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

What strikes me is that very often in the Gospels, Jesus warns us that many false prophets will warn us that the end times are nearly upon us. Sometimes they pick a specific date. Just recently someone said the world would end in October, a “refinement” of an earlier prediction that also proved to be false. But if you read all of chapter 13, you will see that Jesus says there are always times of tribulation — wars and famine and difficult times will often happen. But that does not mean they foretell the end times. And no matter what our popular prophets of today tell us on mass media, they have no better idea of when the end times are imminent than any of us do. As that last line of today’s Gospel says, even Jesus himself does not know.

If you are tempted to think that ISIS’s attack on Paris and their war on the West is a sign of the end times, remember Jesus’ words above. Only the Father knows the day or hour. And as Jesus says in the rest of the chapter, and indeed has said elsewhere in the Gospels, be constantly ready for the second coming. Love God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself, which Jesus said are the most important commandments. Be not afraid, be loved and be prepared in your heart. God loves you.

So far I haven’t heard any of today’s clergy claim that the attacks on Paris are part of the great tribulation to come. But it’s early on a Sunday as I prepare this, and the prophets of doom have yet to speak. If they do, take heart in God’s love. And be part of his movement of love rather than in the false prophets’ movement of fear. Pray for the people of Paris and France. Pray for the people of the world. Pray for all who are under attack, whether they are in the West or in the East, Christians or Muslims or anyone else. Spread God’s love. Jesus was compassionate with those who were not his own kind and we should follow in his example.

And remember that those who attacked Paris do not represent the vast majority of Muslims. Please reserve room in your heart for the multitude of Muslims who are as repulsed as you are at the barbarism of these attacks. ISIS is no more representative of Islam than the Klu Klux Klan is of Christianity.

“How many times I yearned to gather your children together”

Imagine God with so many children, and so many of them at each others’ throats. He yearns for all of them to be one family, but they are not. In Luke 13: 34-35, Jesus is approached by some Pharisees who warn him that Herod wants to kill him. He rebukes them, saying in part:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,
how many times I yearned to gather your children together
as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
but you were unwilling!
Behold, your house will be abandoned.
But I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say,
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

We who call ourselves Christians are God’s many children. Yet we divide ourselves by our rigid dogmas and our rules. We yell at each other and call each other names and, yes, sometimes we kill each other. We become those who “kill the prophets” and “stone those sent to you.” When will you see it?

If we believe in Christ as our savior, whether we be Catholic or Protestant, whether we be Baptist or Presbyterian or Quaker – whatever denomination we declare ourselves – are we not Christians? If we embrace the Gospel, are we not Christians? Yet we fight as if “the others” were enemies. We are all one family in Christ.

Jesus’ message was to the Pharisees but it is also to us. You will not see him until you embrace all his children as your brothers and sisters, when you literally say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Mark his words.