Twenty-five Years of Faith
August 21, 2005
A pastor of a west coast parish became frustrated by the number of people in his community who were not coming to church on Sunday, so he formed a committee to look into it. They eventually sent out this letter.
You are registered here in the parish, but we have noticed that you do not come to mass on Sunday. So we have designated next Sunday as There Is No Excuse Not To Come To Church Sunday. We have worked diligently to eliminate any excuse for not joining us for worship.
“Next Sunday cots will be provided for all who feel that Sunday is their only day to sleep in. Coffee and eye drops will be available for those who insist on staying out late on Saturday night. Steel helmets will be provided for those who claim that if they ever walk into a church the roof will fall. Sweaters will be provided for those who feel the church is too cold; fans for those who feel the church is too hot. There will be scorecards available for all who wish to keep track of the hypocrites who come to church on Sunday. We will have gift certificates for area restaurants for those who feel that they must stay home and cook. Finally, we are decorating the sanctuary with Christmas poinsettias and Easter lilies for those who have never seen the church without them.”
The letter caused a good deal of discussion. But ultimately very few people decided to come back to church on a regular basis. This should not be surprising because you cannot argue, shame, or force people into accepting the value of church community.
Seeing the importance of a faith community is a gift, a gift that is connected to faith in Jesus Christ. This is clear in today’s gospel. Peter makes a strong profession of faith in Christ. He says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” The very first thing that Jesus reminds Peter is that his faith does not come from flesh and blood, but from the revelation of our Heavenly Father. Peter did not believe in Christ because he was smarter or more observant than other people. He believed because he had been gifted with faith that comes from a God who loved him. The same is true for us. We have faith in Jesus Christ not because we are particularly intelligent or good. We believe because God has loved us and gifted us with faith. There is a mystery here. Why do we believe in Christ and there still are so many good and intelligent people in the world who do not share in that faith. Why is it that people we love and we would deeply desire to believe, sometimes cannot do so. The only explanation is that we have been given a faith and others have not. We should respond to such a gift in humility and in thankfulness.
Faith is a gift. It is a gift is connected to community. This is also clear in today’s gospel. After Peter professes his faith, Jesus establishes the church. He proclaims that it is upon the rock of Peter’s faith and faith similar to Peter’s, that his church will stand. Faith and church community go together. People who say they believe in Christ and yet to not associate themselves with a believing community have an incomplete faith, because the entire witness of Israel and of the scriptures testify that believing and church go together. In choosing Christ we do more than make an individual decision to believe, we also commit ourselves to brothers and sisters who believe the same thing with us. Faith in Christ requires a place where we worship God with others and serve one another in Jesus’ name.
Today we celebrate twenty-five years of life for our community of St. Noel. We celebrate that the original members of this community, many of whom are still with us, had the gift of faith in Jesus Christ and had the gift to value the importance of church. They valued it enough to build this church building and to begin many of the ministries which still continue to this day. We celebrate our participation in that tradition of faith community. We celebrate that whether we have belonged here twenty-five years or a few months, we can grow deeper in our faith in Christ together. The committee that has been working on the anniversary celebration has asked us to wear nametags this weekend. This is a reminder that our faith in Christ is connected with our relationship to one another. I encourage you today during the sign of peace to use the nametag as a way to personalize your greeting to one another and to celebrate our connection in Christ.
Faith is a gift. Church community is a gift. We celebrate twenty-five years of such giftedness today. Let us celebrate with humility because we have been chosen to believe. Let us celebrate with thankfulness because we have been given one another. Let us celebrate with the commitment to pass on both our faith and our community to others in the years ahead.
Water for Life
August 24, 2008
We are knowledgeable people, educated people. We know how to negotiate our lives and our world. But despite all the knowledge that is ours, our knowledge is tiny compared to the knowledge of God. Paul grapples with this truth in today’s second reading, for he extols the riches of the depths and wisdom and knowledge of God. It is a knowledge so vast that all things come from it and through it and to it. And when we understand the breadth of God’s power and knowledge, it becomes the responsibility of every believer to try to know more, to expand our thinking and our understanding. We will never know what God knows. But the more that we know, the closer we will come to understanding the will of God.
Now we have an opportunity today to expand our thinking, for Jane Dinda is here from Water for Life to ask our support for this project in Tanzania. The project is not a huge one; it will impact a few hundred people. But the need is so fundamental that it demands our attention. This project strives to provide safe drinking water. We take that for granted. We take for granted the fact that so many people in our world cannot drink without putting their health at risk. And that simple fact alone should expand our thinking, to help us realize that our experience is so different than most other people in our world.
If someone were to ask us to describe the typical Christian in our world today, most of us would describe someone similar to ourselves. But we would be wrong. The typical Christian in the world today is a woman, living in Latin America or Africa, where now over 70% of Christians live in our world. This woman has little money. Her husband farms and tries to find extra jobs whenever he can. She pulls together whatever she is able to sell in the marketplace. Her children do not have vaccinations, so they are often sick. She tries to keep them in school, but there are no textbooks. The political situation in the country she lives in is fragile. The national government does hardly anything, and the local government only functions if she is able to come up with a bribe.
This is the typical Christian in our world today, and her experience is very different from our own. And yet she believes in the same Christ that we do. Perhaps she believes more deeply, because her experience allows her to see how Jesus reveals the God who cares for the poor.
Now I bring these reflections before us today not to make us feel guilty. There is little value in guilt. But when we recognize the difference between ourselves and most people in the world, it should motivate us to action, to search for ways to see that more and more people have the essentials of life. If we can do that, if we can listen and understand, our appreciation of the gospel will deepen. So listen to what Jane has to say today after communion, and do your best to respond to her appeal. But most of all, allow the witness that she gives to enlarge your thinking, so that you might better understand the struggles of so many of our brothers and sisters throughout the world. In that understanding, we may better appreciate the God who loves us all.
The Power to Touch the Moon
Matthew 16: 13-20
There’s a story that is popular in the Dominican Republic about a king who wanted to touch the moon. Now, the story never tells us why he wanted to touch the moon, it simply has the king state, “I want to touch the moon. I am the king and I get what I want.” So the king called the royal carpenter and said, “Build me a tower that is high enough to touch the moon.” The carpenter said, “Your majesty, this can’t be done.” “It will be done,” said the king, “or I’ll find myself another royal carpenter.” So, the carpenter came up with an idea, “If we could collect enough wooden boxes, they could be stacked on top of one another and perhaps make a tower that was high enough to touch the moon.” “Let it be done,” said the king, and he sent out his soldiers to collect all the wooden boxes in the kingdom—boxes that were used to store books, boxes which were used for food or clothing, even boxes in which people had been buried. All were collected and built into a high tower. It was high indeed. But of course, it was not high enough to touch the moon.
“We need more boxes,” said the king. “Cut down all the trees in my kingdom and use the lumber to make more boxes to add to the tower.” And it was done. Now the tower was immensely high, and the king began to climb it. He climbed up higher than the birds, higher than the clouds to the very top of the tower. But, he could not touch the moon. “We need more boxes,” cried the king to the carpenter below. “There are no more boxes,” said the carpenter, “you’ll have to come down.” “Never!” said the king, “I am the king and I want to touch the moon. If there are no more boxes, then I command you to start bringing up the boxes that are at the bottom of this tower.” It was done. And, of course, everything then collapsed in utter ruin.
Now, the story is an absurd one, but it resonates with the sad experience of many people throughout the world, people whose countries are ruled by a dictators or despots who are only concerned about their own power. Look at Libya, or Syria or Bahrain or many other countries where political leaders are willing to expend the country’s resources and do violence against their own people in order to stay in power. They want to touch the moon, and they are willing to go higher and higher regardless of the cost.
In today’s gospel, Jesus presents to us another vision of power, another kind of authority. He gives Peter authority in the church. But, Peter’s authority is not to be the highest of all, but rather the lowest of all. Peter’s role is to be the rock—the rock on which the church will be built. So, instead of climbing higher and higher over the resources and the lives of others, Peter’s role is to be the solid foundation upon which the lives of others can be built. In Jesus’ vision, true authority is not the authority of importance. It is the ability to ground and enhance the lives of others.
This teaching of Jesus should lead us to thankfulness and commitment. Let us begin with thankfulness. Who are the people in your life who gave you the foundation to be who you are? Who are the people who thought not of their own importance and status but rather gave themselves for your benefit. Who are the people who showed you what wisdom is, what responsibility is, what integrity is, what love is. Are they parents? Grandparents? Friends? Teachers? Mentors? None of us can stand without a foundation provided by someone else. This truth should always make us thankful. If these people in your life are still alive, why not take some time this week to thank them for what they have done for you. If they are already with the Lord, then say a prayer that the Lord might hold them close. Our first step is thankfulness.
But, that leads to commitment. For, if others have given a foundation to our lives, we must be people who are committed to provide a foundation for others. As parents, as friends, as spouses, as teachers, we should see that true authority is not seeing how high we can get, but rather the willingness to lay down our lives as a foundation of generosity, responsibility, and care for others, so that their lives can grow.
True authority is not the power to touch the moon. It is the sacrifice and love of laying down one’s life for the sake of another. Even as we are thankful for those who have given this gift to us, let us also commit ourselves to live our lives in such a way that others will see in our witness, a foundation on which their lives can stand.
The Promise of the New Name
August 24, 2014
You may not have noticed it in today’s gospel, but Simon, son of Jonah, receives a new name. From now on, he will be called Peter, a name that means rock. Upon the rock of Peter, Jesus will build his church. Now, this new name for Peter is not some legalistic switch or clerical adjustment. The name is a sign of a new identity. The change of names in the Bible is an indication that someone is becoming a new person. Because the new name comes from Jesus, it is clear that Peter’s new identity will come from Jesus as well. His new name is a sign of Jesus’ intention to transform Peter into someone who is wonderful, useful, and good.
Now, this new name sets up a pattern within today’s gospel that tells us what true faith really is. True faith begins with a profession of belief. Peter says to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” But although faith begins with this profession, it does not end there. True faith does not remain a concept or a statement. The profession of faith initiates a process of transformation in our lives, a transformation that Jesus will bring about. Peter first names Jesus, “You are the Christ,” and then Jesus names Peter, “You are rock.” His new name marks Jesus’ intention to make Peter a new man. This transformation in Peter does not happen at once. In fact, it takes a good deal of time. Even after Peter receives his new name, he still is rebuked because he misunderstands the cross; he fumbles at the Last Supper, refusing to let Jesus wash his feet; and he denies Jesus three times during the passion. But Peter’s new name is a promise of Jesus’ commitment to him. Jesus is determined to make that name stick. So, in time, Peter does become the rock on which the Church is built.
You and I profess Jesus as our Lord, but that profession is not the fullness of our faith. Once we name Jesus, then he names us. And, if we allow it, our new name is his promise to change us. Jesus can remove the anger and the depression that we feel because of a failed marriage or a loss of someone we love in death. Jesus can instill in us a passion for justice that shakes our convictions, privileges, and self-interest. Jesus can grant us a tenderness that allows us to replace judgment with patience, and pettiness with generosity. Jesus can give us the freedom to leave all that enslaves us behind.
What name does Jesus give you? Compassion? Courage? Service? Acceptance? Forgiveness? I know that these are not the person that you are today and perhaps they are not the person that you ever thought you could be. But if you name Jesus, he will name you. If you profess him as your Lord, he will give you a new identity and he is determined to make your new name stick. So we must trust him. If Jesus could change Peter into the rock on which the Church is built, he can change us to be the disciples we need to be. Let us open our hearts, then, and let him in.
Humility and Truth
August 27, 2017
Matthew 16: 13-20
During Jesus’ ministry, there was an ongoing debate over his true identity. You can hear it in today’s gospel, as people suggest that maybe Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets come back to life again. Who Jesus was, was not clear. But also in today’s gospel, Peter figures it out. He proclaims Jesus as the Christ, the son of the living God. So how was Peter able to see what everyone else was not able to see? Was he smarter than the others? Was he more holy or attentive than the rest of the disciples? I think not. I think Peter was able to discern Jesus’ true identity because he was weaker than the others, and he knew it. A couple of weeks ago, I preached on Peter’s weakness and how many times he messed things up—trying to walk on the water and sinking, setting up tents on Mount Tabor, and denying Jesus during the Passion. But what saves Peter is that when he falls, he recognizes his weakness and learns from his mistakes. This modesty, this humility on Peter’s part, is what allows him to see Jesus as the son of the living God.
There is a particular connection between modesty and truth. People who know their weakness, people who can own their failures, understand that they do not posses all the truth. They are open to listen, more able to compromise, inclined to dialogue. Precisely because they are not puffed up by their own superiority, they understand that what they know is incomplete. They realize that the ideas in their head can be revised, and that revising them is not diluting the truth but coming closer to it.
If you want to be a good parent, modesty is important. Yes, its valuable for you to set standards and expectations for your children. But when they fail, when they disappoint you, it is valuable to remember your own failings, how you fell short as a teenager. This will allow you to be more patient and understanding. And such understanding brings you closer to what true parenting is about. If we want to be good citizens, owning our weakness is essential. As long as we imagine that our thoughts and opinions are perfect and those of others are not, political discourse devolves into hurling accusations from one side of the partisan divide to the other. But if we can admit that some of the things we think do not work, that some of our ideas can hurt as well as help, then we can take a step back and dialogue can begin. If we desire to come closer to God, humility is fundamental. As long as we approach God with all of our virtues and accomplishments, there is too much of ourselves present to see God’s face. But if we begin with our failures and our need for God’s mercy, then God can cover us with his grace and bind us closer in his love.
Peter was not afraid to admit his failings and his weakness and that allowed him to see what others could not. If we follow Peter’s example and humbly admit our limits and our mistakes, we can become more patient, more compassionate, more open. There is no shame in admitting our weakness. It can show us the truth. It can allow us to recognize Jesus as the Christ.