Sermon – Be Perfect

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When we think of commandments of God, we always think of the top ten: I am the Lord thy God, Thou shalt have no other gods, Thou shalt not kill, steal, covet, etc.  The Jews considered these to be the first ten of 613 commandments – laws – that can be found in the Old Testament.  To break any of them was a sin and required that some sort of offering be made for atonement, anything from sacrificing a bull to waving a sheaf of grain.

Jesus, in his teachings, summed up the law for us when he said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  These are also commandments, and for us, just as important as that Top Ten list found in the Old Testament.

In our Gospel reading today, we have another commandment.  It was the last sentence, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Jesus has commanded us to be perfect.  Can I get a show of hands from those who have reached perfection?  Anybody?  Here is the kicker, if it is commanded – it is possible.  Be perfect – it is commanded by God, therefore it is possible.  To say that it is not is to be disobedient to the command.  So, what’s it going to be?

Would you believe me if I said that you are perfect? The truth is: You are.  St. Paul writes in his letter to the Hebrews, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”  For by one sacrifice – that is Christ death upon the Cross – he has made perfect forever those – that would be you – who are being made holy.

Through Christ, you have been made perfect, but note what Paul also said, “who are being made holy.”  You are perfect and you are being made holy.  St. Francis de Sale summed this up when he said that we are “Perfection seeking perfection.”  We are made perfect in Christ and each day, we seek to be made more perfect.

You may not believe this and believe me, you wouldn’t be the first, but be encouraged.  Think of it this way, expressed by St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, “Cast away that despair produced by the realization of your weakness. It’s true: financially you are a zero, and socially another zero, and another in virtues, and another in talent… But to the left of those zeros is Christ… And what an immeasurable figure it turns out to be!”

You may not believe that being perfect is possible, but you are perfect.  You are made perfect because Christ died for you and is in you.  You are perfect.  Your job as a follower of Christ is to seek to be made more perfect.  How do we do this?  My good friend Thomas a Kempis said, “If we were to uproot only one vice each year, we should soon become perfect.”  Perhaps today, though, we’ll stick with the words of Jesus, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  Most hear that verse and think of the cross they must bear and they are correct, but don’t miss that one important word “daily.”  To seek to me made more perfect in Christ is not something we practice only on Sunday.  It is a daily exercise.

You are perfect.  Seek to be made more perfect.

Sermon: Matthew 5:21-37

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Foxes’ Book of Martyrs tells us the story of Telemachus, a Christian monk who, in 391 AD, went on a pilgrimage to Rome. While there he noticed crowds flocking to the Coliseum to see gladiators do battle. He followed them in, only to witness a sight that repulsed him.

Emperor Honorius was celebrating his triumph over the Goths. Gladiators armed with spears and swords reenacted the battle.  After their reenactment the bodies of the dead were dragged from the arena and its bloodied surface covered with a fresh layer of sand.

In came a new series of gladiators. Some were armed with swords and spears, others with nets. The crowd watched with excitement as they sought to outdo each other. When a gladiator was wounded, his opponent would loom over him, waiting for the crowds verdict on whether to slay him or let him live. So great was the bloodlust that at times wealthier spectators would climb down to get a better view of the execution.

Telemachus watched with horror as people died, battles raged and the crowds cheered. Prompted into action this bald headed, robed figure found his way onto the arena floor. He ran toward two gladiators locked in battle, grabbed one of them and pulled him away. He exhorted the two gladiators to abandon their murderous sport. He appealed to the crowd to not break God’s law by murdering.

The response was anything but favorable. Angry voices drowned out Telemachus’, demanding that the spectacle continue. The gladiators prepared to do battle again, but Telemachus stood between them, holding them apart, urging them to reconsider. Driven by the anger of the crowd and their rage at Telemachus’ interference, the gladiators cut Telemachus to the ground, as the crowd threw missiles at him. Telemachus was killed.

Legend holds that when the crowd saw the little monk lying dead in a pool of blood, they fell silent and then began leaving the stadium, one by one.  Because of Telemachus’ death, three days later, the Emperor by decree ended the Games.

In this brief history we can see the work of a saint, but what struck me today was the crowd.  Most, I would hope, were opposed to the violence of war and murder.  However, having entered into the arena they were swept up in the event.  They cheered on the violence and encouraged the murder of the innocent monk.  They voluntarily subjected themselves to witness these horrors, they engaged a temptation, and in the process became complicit in then sin.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus makes several statements where he ups the standard, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”  He speaks in a similar manner with regard to adultery, lust, swearing and more.  Like the crowd in the arena, these are offenses that we voluntarily subject ourselves to.  We walk into them knowing full well what we are doing.  Someone might anger us, but they don’t cause that anger to swell into a rage.  I may see a pretty girl walking down the street, but she is not the cause of lust rising up in me.  However, like those in the crowd, when we engage with a temptation instead of immediately walking away, then we may fall into sin.

St. Josemaria Escriva put it this way, “Do not enter into dialogue with temptation.  Allow me to repeat: have the courage to run away and the moral strength not to dally with your weakness or wonder how far you can go.  Break off, with no concession!”

When temptations arise in your life, do not entertain them.  Do not consider the “what ifs.”  Immediately set the temptation aside, not giving it the slightest edge.  In this way we can all live holier lives.

Sermon: Presentation of Our Lord RCL A – “Killing Hornets”

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In nature there are some epic battles that take place every day.  One such battle goes on between the Japanese honeybee and the Giant Japanese Hornet.  The Japanese Hornet is five times larger than the bee and is the world’s strongest predatory hornet.

When a Giant Japanese Hornet finds a honeybee nest it will kill a few honeybees and take them back to its nest to feed on it’s larvae. But then it returns, this time marking the honeybee hive with a scent. The scent attracts other hornets, and when two or three have arrived they begin to slaughter the honeybees at an extraordinary rate.  One such event records that 30,000 honeybees were killed by just 30 hornets in about three hours.

But the honeybees have developed a defense, and a defense that puzzled scientists for quite some time. You see, the honeybees can kill the hornets, but not in the way you might think – they don’t sting them to death. Instead, they do the opposite of what might be expected. They begin by doing all they can to annoy the hornet trying to mark its scent on their nest. Over 100 worker honeybees gather near the entrance to the nest, and then, when the hornet comes near, they lift and shake their abdomens in a peculiar dance. And the hornet finds this really aggravating. The bees then dive into their nest, and the steamed up hornet follows, intent to do some damage!

Unbeknown to the hornet 1000 worker bees are waiting for him just inside the entrance. When he gets close enough, around 500 of the honeybees jump on him, enclosing him in a ball of honeybees about the size of a clenched fist. They gather as close as they can to the hornet and start vibrating their muscles.  What happens? The vibrations cause the temperature to rise and rise and rise. In ten minutes or so the temperature’s up to 117 degrees.  Guess what temperature is too hot for a hornet to survive – 113 degrees; whereas the honeybees can function up to 120 degrees.  When the temperature of the ball of vibrating honeybees goes above 113 degrees the hornet dies and the honeybees survive.

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That is a rather remarkable act of God’s creation, and it is a rather profound lesson for the church.  We as individual members of a church can go it alone, doing things our own way and in all likelihood, not only will we fail as individuals, but we may also fail corporately.  St. Josemaria Escriva put it a bit more bluntly, “Convince yourself, my child, that lack of unity within the Church is death.” (The Forge, #631)  However, if we choose to work as a body – recognizing that we are in fact “in this thing together” – then, although there may be difficult times, we will manage to overcome.  Please note, I’m not eluding to a Giant Japanese Hornet buzzing around at our front door.  I’m not referring to some observed problem existing within the church, but it is good for us all to remember that we are called to stand together in the mission of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Consider the words of the Psalmist today:

For one day in your courts 

     is better than a thousand in my own room,

and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God 

     than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.

“… to stand at the threshold of the house” – that passage can take several meanings: it can mean to be the doorman, or one of the masses just hoping to get a peek inside, or even a beggar, but each implies the same message, “I would rather be a nobody in the house of God, than a somebody outside of it.”  For us: “I would rather be a small and insignificant part of the Body of Christ, than not to be a part at all.”  And not only are we all a part of the Body of Christ, we need one another.

Paul teaches us in his first letter to the Corinthians, “just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.”  He goes on to say, “If all were a single member, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many members, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”  We are the Body and we need one another.  To say, “I have no need of you,” to separate yourself from the body, from the church, is in a very real way excommunication, not as in an action that has been imposed on you, but as an action you have imposed on yourself.  In the end, not only does the individual suffer, but the body suffers as well.  We are the body of Christ, the church, and he is the head of the body.  “Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior,” says Paul to the Ephesians; and the loss of any of its members brings harm to the church.

I’ll remind you again of those wonderful words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, “The Church is not the society of those labeled virtuous.  It is the mixed community of sinners called to be saints.”  The church is anything but perfect; but it is far better within its embrace than it is outside.  Outside, the hornets can take us one by one, but together, within the spiritual walls of this place, we can defend one another and conquer our greatest enemies.

Today, following the Confession of Sin we will offer the Sacrament of Unction – of healing.  If you need healing in body, mind or soul, then I invite you to come forward to receive an anointing and the laying on of hands.  I also invite you to come forward to receive the same for the healing of any infirmity within the church, so that we might not only bring healing to our individual bodies, but to this Body of Christ as well.

Entering the Walls

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There was once when it actually worked…

On the seventh day, they got up at daybreak and marched around the city seven times in the same manner, except that on that day they circled the city seven times.  The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the army, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city! … When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. (Joshua 6:16-17, 20)

The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament, but it is in His revealing in the New Testament that we find another way:

When Jesus entered Jerusalem… – Matthew 12:10

Jesus entered a house… – Mark 3:20

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. – Luke 19:1

I came from the Father and entered the world… – John 16:28

What I find curious is that we, as a Christian people, often try the way of the Israelites rather than the way of Jesus.  We wrongly believe that we can stand outside the wall, shout at the tops of our lungs, and the walls of the city will come tumbling down.

“You are sinning by _____!  (Book Chapter : verse – verse)”

“God said, ‘_____.’  (Book Chapter : verse)”  [Swing baseball bat.]

Yes, Jesus gave them a tongue lashing, flipped over some tables, and ran off a few opportunist, but mostly Jesus “entered.”  The world.  The city.  The house.  The Temple.  LIVES.  Jesus entered lives.  He sat down and ate a meal, had a conversation, touched, healed…  He revealed the Father – not by yelling and beating them with a baseball bat of Holy Scripture – but by entering in and revealing the Father that was within Himself. (John 14:9)  Instead of standing outside and yelling at the city walls, enter in and reveal Christ to it’s inhabitants.  It won’t mean that you are consorting with the enemy, compromising the faith, soiling your unblemished soul, apostatizing, etc.; it will mean that you are following Jesus and entering in.

Forge #968

fire handsOne thought leads to another…

Let this be your prayer, apostolic soul: Lord, may I know how to lean on people and get them all to burn like fires of Love, which will then become the driving force of all our undertakings.  – St. Josemaria Escriva, The Forge #968

Which reminds me of…

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’

How quietly we can sit and watch the clock tick.  How easy is it to say, “There is nothing to do.”  How casually the words, “I’m bored,” cross our lips.  Shame.  Erase these inactions and fruitless words from your soul.  There is a Gospel to proclaim through word and deed.  Get off your butt, step out the door, and set the world on fire!

Sermon: New Year’s Day

CHThe following quote was the inspiration behind this sermon, but – in the end – the quote did not make it into the sermon: “Pray that I may never be satisfied with what is easy,” you say.  I’ve already prayed.  Now it is up to you to carry out that fine resolution.   St. Josemaria Esciva, The Way #39

I’m also going to get a bit of mileage out of this one as it will appear as an article in the Billings Gazette on January 11th.

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Legend has it that one day Socrates and Plato were walking down the beach, deep in conversation and Plato had expressed to Socrates his desire to gain the wisdom and knowledge that Socrates had.  Socrates didn’t answer him, but instead said, “Walk with me into the ocean.”  So, they turned and walked into the sea together.

Now, in your imagination, picture that happening: Student and teacher, two of the greatest philosophers of history, striding into the surf side by side.

The water started out around their ankles, then rose up to their knees. As the water got higher Plato wondered to himself, “What is the lesson my master is trying to teach me?”

When the water was shoulder height, Socrates asked Plato, “What is it exactly you want from me?” “Knowledge,” Plato answered, at which point Socrates abruptly grabbed Plato’s head and pushed him down under the water. After a half a minute or so Socrates let Plato up and asked him again, “What is it you want?” “Knowledge,” was again Plato’s answer, at which point Socrates shoved him back down under the water.

After a time, when Plato ran out of air, he began to struggle to get his head above the surface. He punched and kicked and grabbed to get free, but Socrates was a strong man and held him down. At the last moment before Plato blacked out, Socrates let him up and asked that same simple question, “What is it you want?” Plato coughed and spluttered finally responding, “Air! I need air!” Socrates calmly stated, “When you desire knowledge as much as you desired a breath of air, then you shall have it.”

Each year, we make our New Year’s resolutions, but really, how seriously are we about fulfilling them? I suppose that Plato could have made a resolution, “Be it resolved that I will gain true knowledge this year,” but as Socrates so politely pointed out to him, resolving to do something is quite a bit more than simply saying you want it. Truthfully, it’s really not a matter of wanting, who doesn’t want to lose weight or be a better a person? Perhaps the question should be, “What are you willing to sacrifice?” In the case of Plato, in order to truly have knowledge, Socrates said that he had to want it as much as he wanted air to breathe, as much as he wanted life itself. So what are you willing to sacrifice in order to fulfill your resolutions?

And I wonder, if you make a resolution to live healthier, regularly balance the checkbook, quit swearing and all that, have you ever made a resolution to God?  “Be it resolved that I will love the Lord my God more deeply.”  “Be it resolved that my life will be a witness to His love.”  “Be it resolved that I will work to fulfill my Baptismal Covenant.”  “Be it resolved that I will accept His forgiveness.” And if you make these resolutions to God, then how badly do you want them? What are you willing to sacrifice of yourself in order to fulfill them?

I resolve to love God as long as it’s convenient?  As long as it doesn’t really cost me anything?  I resolve to forgive others as I have been forgiven, except… except you know who!  I will seek to serve Christ in all persons, as long as they are like me.  I resolve to faithfully continue in the fellowship and the breaking of bread, as long as it fits in with my schedule. Or do you want these things as much as you want air to breathe? As much as you desire your very life?

You’ve made your resolutions to lose weight and all that, now make your resolutions to God and desire to fulfill them as much as you desire air to breathe? As much as Jesus desires you.