Scripture Reflections – Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; 1Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:35-48

One of the key themes of the Sermon on the Mount from which this week’s gospel is taken is Jesus’ exhortation (which he also lived out) to follow the spirit of the law and not just the letter. In fact, in some cases following the letter of the law too strictly could actually violate its’ spirit.

A quick primer: The “letter of the law” is what the law says. The “spirit of the law” is the value that the law is protecting or promoting. The classic scriptural example of the difference are the several miracle stories in which Jesus cures someone who is lame or blind on the Sabbath. Inevitably, this action causes tension between Jesus and some of the Pharisees. The reason: The third commandment (Keep Holy the Sabbath) strictly forbids the performing of any unnecessary work on the Sabbath day. On the seventh day of Creation, God rested from all of God’s labors. As it logically follows that we are not busier than God, so should we. The Sabbath day is reserved for worship of God and taking time to enjoy the company of others – especially those whom we love – and to enjoy the wonders of creation.

Nothing wrong with that. The problem arose, however, because the Pharisees were so focused on the letter – “unnecessary work” – that when they witnessed Jesus’ healing miracles this was the only thing they could see. Their logic ran something like this: “If the man is blind on the Sabbath, he’ll still be blind tomorrow. Cure him then.” Jesus, and all those who read the gospel accounts, see the absurdity of the argument. How could restoring one of God’s beloved to health NOT be an act of worship?

Where the Spirit vs. Letter gets more demanding for us is the way that Jesus applies it to the second part of the Great Commandment: “You shall love God with all of your heart and all of your mind and all of your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” When Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” what he is really saying is that to love your neighbor as yourself is only the Letter of the law. The spirit – the experience through which we encounter the heart of the Great Commandment – is when we love that person who does not love us.

Christianity is so much easier when we stick to the letter of the law. The problem is, it has little to do with Jesus. And can a faith that clings only to the surface of discipleship be considered a faith at all?

So, this week, let’s dig in deeper. Plunge below the surface and allow the Holy Spirit to carry you into the depths of Love. Resist the temptation to come up for air, for this is an ocean filled with the waters of life.

Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)
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To locate book-length versions of my writings, click here: http://store.pastoralplanning.com/maroforsciin.html

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Scripture Reflections – Sunday, February 16th, 2014

Sirach15:15-20; 1Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday’s readings feature Jesus, the boot camp sergeant:”Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” At first glance, such a statement seems downright unreasonable. The scribes and Pharisees were the recognized religious leaders and authorities among the common people who made up Jesus’ audience. The Pharisees (despite the bad press they often receive in the gospels) in particular had a reputation for devout study of the Torah and deep piety. For Jesus to demand that his followers surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees is something like saying that, unless you can play baseball better than Babe Ruth, or possess more scientific brilliance than Albert Einstein, don’t even bother trying.

St. Paul, as he reflects upon this mystery we call the kingdom of heaven, offers an insight that casts Jesus’ words in a different light: “What eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has ready for those who love him.” The kingdom of heaven – the reality of what life is like outside of time and space when we are fully and completely experiencing God’s presence – is like nothing we will experience during our earthly journeys. “Righteousness” is not so much about figuring out through much study and prayer the right path to follow – that simply isn’t possible for us to do. Righteousness is much more about how open we are to being led by the Holy Spirit down a path we can at best only catch glimpses of. And our willingness to be open to the Spirit is in direct proportion to our openness to love. In fact, it is the same thing.

Jesus’ criticism of the scribes and Pharisees is not that their efforts to learn the Torah and pray the Torah are without merit. In fact, Jesus takes his Jeish faith quite seriously as well. What gets Jesus so upset is their terribly misguided belief that it is their knowledge and prayer, and not God, which will bring them to the kingdom. Righteousness is not about what we do. It’s about what we let God do through us.

This week, let your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Stop leading the band. Listen to the music and play the notes, however imperfectly, with great joy.

Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)

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Scripture Reflections – Sunday, February 9th, 2014

Isaiah 58:7-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

All week long I have been railing at the weather forecasters here in the Northeastern United States. Twice in two weeks I went to bed hearing of the coming snow flurries and woke up to a foot of snow. Then there was the “snowpocalypse” – three big storms forecast (or so I thought – turns out one was a fraud) within a week that would leave us buried so far under the white stuff we wouldn’t see the light of day until the second coming. How can one profession be wrong so often and so badly and continue to collect paychecks?

It took awhile for me to emerge from my ego-created bubble of self-pity and self-righteousness. (Were I to begin to list the number of times I’ve missed the boat, by the way, on the levels of pain and suffering my students carry around with them on a daily basis I would need much more space than this blog to do so.) This week’s passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I’m happy to say, has helped move that process along. Paul exhorts us to let our faith depend “not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

The ugly truth is, no matter how educated we are or how skilled we might be in our given professions or how much people look to us for advice (more accurately, how much we THINK they should look to us for advice) when you compare the circle encompassing what we do know with the vast sphere encompassing what we don’t know, that first circle shrinks by comparison into an almost infintesimal nothingness. True human wisdom is grounded much more in recognizing how much we don’t know than in taking pride in what we do know.

The really good news, however, is that this doesn’t really matter. The faith that guides us and enables us to experience the love of God which sustains us has little to do with what is in our heads but a whole lot to do with what is in our hearts. Whatever wisdom we are able to achieve is really a small glimpse into the unfathomable wisdom of God.

Please accept my apology, you weather forecasters of America. Thank you for offering what guidance you can – which, if I’m honest, hits the mark more than it misses. Let our prayer this week be a share in the humility our forecasting sisters and brothers must have experienced during this past week when they realized that, not only can’t you fool mother nature, you sometimes can’t figure out what she’s up to.

Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)
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To locate book-length versions of my writings, click here: http://store.pastoralplanning.com/maroforsciin.html

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Scripture Reflections – Sunday, Feb. 2nd, 2014

Mal 3:1-4; Heb 2:14-18; Lk 2:22-40
Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

It took me awhile this morning to figure out the reference the prophet Malachi makes to the “fuller’s lye.” Once I did – with a little help from a friend who teaches science- the power of the passage came through loud and clear. A fuller, in Biblical times, worked with cloth. His/her job was not to create it, but to restore it to it’ former quality. Often the job involved the use of lye – an ancient version of Chlorox bleach – in order to brighten white garments.

When you couple this image with that of the “refiner’s fire” (I remembered enough chemistry to know that heating certain metals such as gold, silver or iron was a way of removing impurities from them) a rather sobering picture of the Messiah emerges. Yes, it’s true that God makes a promise through Micah that Israel will be liberated – but the process is not going to be much fun. The purification will involve lots of cleaning and pressing and burning – all aimed at scrapping away the crud, and none of it too pleasant.

We are still a long way from Lent and I’m in no mood to start thinking about all that Repentence. (I haven’t even used all of the gift certificates I received over the Christmas holidays yet.) What Malachi reminds us about, however, is that even during these quiet, calm days of Ordinary Time God is very much at work. What appear to be merely the annoyances and struggles of daily living might also be the means that God is using to clean, press and purify us.

It’s not that God wants us to suffer, or that God sends us suffering – we do enough of that to each other. But it is true, I think, that within the challenges and trials we face- or,more accurately, in the way we face them – Christ offers us a most urgent invitation: Will you love just a little more? Will you believe just a bit more deeply that the fires which seem to be devastating the landscape of your life might actually hold within them the seeds of your rebirth?

Jim Philipps
(3rd millennium pilgrim)

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Scripture Reflections – Sunday, January 26th, 2013

Isaiah 8:23 – 9:3; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13,17; Matthew 4:12 -23
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” Paul’s two questions addressed to the church at Corinth were prompted by reports he was getting that the community was in danger of being divided into factions – those who were led to the faith by St. Paul versus those who were influenced by Cephas (St. Peter) versus those who were brought into the Church by Apollos (another early Church leader). Paul reminds the community directly and forcefully that such divisions make no sense. There is only one Body of Christ. The Church came into being through the life, death and resurrection of Christ and lives within him, animated by the Holy Spirit. We are all in this adventure together.

One of the most important transformations in the Church to come out of the Vatican II Council was a renewed commitment to Ecumenism – the commitment of the Catholic Church to engage in dialogue and fellowship with other Christian denominations so as to fulfill Jesus’s desire that “all may be one.” Much good work has been done since then, yet something deep within our human nature continues to drag us back to our tribal origins. It is so much easier for us to notice our differences than to celebrate what we have in common. This week, as you listen to the words of St. Paul proclaimed during Mass, call to mind all of our sisters and brothers belonging to other Christian denominations who are celebrating their membership in the Body of Christ in their worship services. Say a prayer for them, and offer a prayer for all Christians, that in the ways that really matter we may fulfill Jesus’ desire.

Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)
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To locate book-length versions of my writings, click here: http://store.pastoralplanning.com/maroforsciin.html

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Scripture Reflections – Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Is 49:3,5-6; 1 Cor 1:1-3; Jn 1:29-34
Did you know that you have a vocation? I don’t mean that each one of us is called to the priesthood or the diaconate or to religious life. I mean that each one of us has a calling (“vocare” is a Latin word that means “to call”). And while the particular ways we live as disciples of Jesus will vary, the fundamental call beneath all of our individual gifts and choices is the same. St. Paul tells us in the second reading: We are all called to holiness.

If you read the document on the Church drawn up at the Vatican II Council (“Lumen Gentium”) you’ll find that one of the chapters in entitled, “The Universal Call to Holiness”. The idea that every member of the faithful has a calling struck many Catholics who read that document or heard about it at Sunday mass as something new. St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, however, shows us that the idea was always there right from the beginning. Even before the sacrament of Holy Orders and the ordering of religious life began to take the forms that we are familiar with.

What exactly is the call to holiness? It can be understood and described in many ways, but here’s the one that has the most meaning for me. “Holiness”, I once read, “is seeing life through the eyes of Jesus.” A holy person sees him/herself and every person she/he meets in the same way that Jesus does. Imagine how wondrous life must look through those eyes. Imagine how ugly even the slightest disfigurement must look when it mars even the smallest part of that beauty. If I accidently cut through a page of today’s newspaper with a knife I wouldn’t think twice about it – but if I did it to a precious painting by Van Gogh or Rembrandt, I would be horrified.

If the task sounds daunting, consider this. You ARE already living out this vocation. Those moments in your life when you experience love or wonder or joy or peace are all expriences of holiness. What St. Paul reminds us, and what I’ll be thinking about this week, is that those moments are not accidents. They are sacramental reminders that we are truly standing on holy ground. And we have a divinely given right to be here.

Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)

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To locate book-length versions of my writings, click here: http://store.pastoralplanning.com/maroforsciin.html

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Scripture Reflections – Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Is 42:-1-4, 6-7; Acts 10: 34-38; Mt 3:13-17

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

I once saw a poster that posed a question which has given me food for thought ever since. The question was: “If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” I think this question gets right to the heart of the vague feeling many of us in the Church carry about inside of us. It’s the feeling that we are in some way participants in a culture which is at least unconsiously trying to water down the gospel message at almost every turn.

What exactly IS the gospel message that is at the heart of Christian discipleship? What would be the evidence necessary to “convict” us? The first reading gives us the answer: According to the prophet Isaiah, God has called the people of Israel – the people of both the Old and the New Testaments – to “open the eyes of the blind, to bring out persons from confinement, and form the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to recognize -on the heart level, not just the intellectual level – that human beings long to find love but do not believe they are worthy of it and do not have even the slightest idea at times on where to find it. As the old country western song proclaims, being human means “looking for love in all the wrong places” and finding ourselves imprisoned in the darkness of loneliness or regret. Too often, we end up grieving the loss of what was good in our lives.

Those of us who follow Christ – who have allowed Christ to transform their hearts through the Holy Spirit – have the same aching need for love and the same confusion about how to find it as the rest of the human family. But we also possess – or, more accurately, are possessed by – a more conscious, more palapable, more present relationship with the Spirit of Love. It is this Spirit – given to us through Christ – that enables us to walk in the darkness bathed in light. And in doing so, we gradually are freed from our own imprisonment and become more and more able to free others whom we meet along the way.

Is your life marked by a movement towards freedom and light? Are you a source of hope and empowerment in the rich and complex mix of relationships in your life? If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)

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