Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.

Welcome on this Back To Church Sunday.

For those who are new here or newer, we keep this national day of welcome each year to provide an opportunity for those who may be exploring church for the first time or the first time in a long time.

For others of us, church is a regular thing. We are here almost all-the-time. Yet sometimes even among us who are frequent church goers – well we need a chance to reconnect, to re-establish in our lives those things that make church so very special.

The National Back To Church team surveys participating congregations each year to arrive at the next year’s theme. There have been some really great themes, but this one – well it is extra special. This year’s Back To Church theme is CELEBRATION!

You see, whether we are here for the first time, the first time in a long time, or for the millionth time we need to find in this experience of Jesus reason to celebrate.

Now, I must plainly admit, in my life getting up and going to church always seemed like a chore. I can hear my mom now, Get ready! Let’s go! We’re going to be late. Sometimes we face weather or just common driving challenges in getting to church. Then there’s the parking and walking. It could be a turn-off. Sometimes we don’t quite understand the pastor (I hope that’s not true…). It can be many things.

If our focus is on those things, perhaps we have lost touch with with the many things we have to celebrate in Jesus?

Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness: how often must I forgive?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

That is not an answer that relies on counting things, for we rely too much on keeping account of. Jesus’ answer means an uncountable number of times, an entire life filled with and marked by forgiveness, the forgiveness of a good and loving God.

That, brothers and sisters, is what we celebrate, that as Christians we have been forgiven everything, every time, an uncountable number of times. We are reconciled to God and saved forever. We celebrate because God gave Himself totally to save us. Because we can look at ourselves and each other differently, as freed people. Because Jesus instituted this – church – where regardless of former relationships we are family and care for each other – living Jesus’ way forever.

“You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Thank you for joining today as we continue our Ordinary Time journey focused on listening to, obeying, and witnessing to Jesus.

We’ve seen quite a bit over August. In our gospels we experience the Transfiguration, Jesus revealed to Peter, James, and John as the Son of God. Moses and Eli’jah give witness to Him. 

The power of Jesus was further revealed as He walks on the sea, teaches Peter a lesson in faith, and calms the sea. He heals the Canaanite woman’s child after her faith is tested and she perseveres in that faith.

As we discussed last Sunday, the disciples, who would become the Apostles, debated and discussed all this. That discussion was brought to a head in a conclusionary statement by Peter: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

An amazing revelation in the Transfiguration, amazing power at work – power over nature and illness, and then affirmation. Yet today we hear Peter advising Jesus on the future: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”

I remember back in my school and early workdays hearing a very wise saying – ‘a little knowledge is dangerous.’ That was often heard when I would venture an opinion that did not take everything into account. I needed to know more before venturing an opinion. Peter fell into that trap.

What should Peter have done? Firstly, Peter should have trusted Jesus, he should have let God be God. Second, he should have realized he did not know it all, gone to humility rather than advice.

Last week Peter followed what Jeremiah spoke about – the need to confess God’s revelation – when He declared Jesus’ identity. He could not keep it shut up within himself – so it shouted out of him.

Certainly, Peter’s statement today was not God revealed, was not worthy of trust nor necessary to say. It was whispered out of him in almost secret – Then Peter took Jesus aside.

Thinking as God does requires that thing Peter fell short of; that is the faith to trust and listen. We must attune ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s call, His revelation. All it takes is that we listen, and when we hear Him it will burn in us. Then we will have a hard time holding it in. Then we must speak and act.

Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and He asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Thank you for joining today as we continue our Ordinary Time journey focused on listening to, obeying, and witnessing to Jesus.

As we know, the disciples, who would later be Apostles, gave various answers to Jesus’ question of identity. They recounted what they heard and likely discussed among themselves. If there can be one thing said for the Jewish culture it is that it has a propensity for deep study and debate. Questions are asked to make one think. Thoughts and opinions are pondered over. 

We have that heritage within our own pristine Catholic faith. We continue in modeling the early Church. We have debate as part of our democratic decision-making process. It happens at every level within the Church from the parish annual meeting to our quadrennial Holy Synods.

Having just returned from our annual Central Diocese clergy retreat, I can report that this process of debate, discussion, and decision making is alive and active – and we are edified by it. Thinking builds one up.

We can see that Peter’s statement of faith was not a sudden one-off. He is recounting what the disciples have been discussing throughout their journey with Jesus. They thought over and considered what John the Baptist had said. They knew Jesus’ words, that He is the Son of Man, taken from the prophesies of David.

In Daniel 7:13–14 the “Ancient of Days” (God) gives dominion over the earth to “one like a son of man.” In some Jewish thought the “son of man” is interpreted as the Messiah.

What set Peter apart was this admission of faith, taking a discussion and debate to a resolution.

My dear brothers and sisters, that is what we are called to do, to reach a conclusion and resolution about Jesus. If we have resolved, within ourselves, that He is our Savior and Redeemer, that He is God among and alongside us, then we have done well.

The next step for each of us, in different ways, is to permeate our lives with Jesus. Jesus’ call to us is not a Sunday one-and-done faith, but a faith lived in real ways, prayer in each moment, confidence in public witness, and fully living the gospel.

for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Thank you for joining today as we continue our Ordinary Time journey focused on listening to, obeying, and witnessing to Jesus.

You may recall St. Paul’s famous line in his letter to the Church at Rome, If God is for us, who is against us? (Romans 8:31). It is a comforting and reassuring statement founded upon deep faith.

If we read the fuller context in Romans 8 we see an excellent description of what it means to live in Jesus. Faith frees us from condemnation, from the law of sin and death. Faith has us alive in the Spirit, no longer in the flesh. We are no longer bound or held down. We have life and peace. We are sons and daughters. Eternal life is ours. Glory awaits us.

There is so much more, I urge you to read Romans 8 this week and to read it slowly. Savor what we have and what awaits us.

The question comes down to – who is us? If God is for us, who is against us?

Our first reading from Isaiah sets forth a vision and a promise concerning The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD.

We all were strangers once, outsiders, dwelling in the realm of the world, but once we set that old way aside and step on that first rung of the ladder to heaven, when we come into the Church, we are set apart in a new life based on faith. As we enter through waters of baptism we rise to new life, Kingdom life. This is what Paul is speaking about in our Epistle from Romans 11. We have all been given an opportunity to enter. Remembering that helps us in being open to all who might enter as well.

We must be very careful, brothers and sisters, about this entering thing, about this us thing. The care we need to exercise and the inclusion we practice must be that of Jesus who includes based on faith alone.

The story of the Canaanite woman is a faith test story. Jesus’ initial rejection of her teaches a lesson about us and who is part of us. We are to welcome all into us based only on faith experienced in togetherness and fellowship. 

Our faith and likeness to Jesus is constantly tested, especially when we encounter unexpected people. The woman’s example – and the provision of Jesus’ grace depend on our having open hearts and willingness to work with all as they approach God in faith.

He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When it was evening He was there alone. 

Thank you for joining today as we continue our Ordinary Time journey focused on listening to, obeying, and witnessing to Jesus.

You may recall, the last time we were in Year B Sunday readings, which we will be again starting this December in Advent, we read from the Gospel according to St. Mark. The Gospel according to St. Mark is sparse. There is no infancy narrative. Right in the first chapter, verse 35, after performing many great works, Jesus went out to a lonely place to pray.

We see this action several times throughout the Gospels. That time in private prayer culminates with Jesus’ prayer in the garden before His arrest.

What do you think Jesus prayed about?

The only account we have of His private prayer is that in the Garden – His agony foreseeing what would occur and His commitment to the Father’s will. All the other prayers are unaccounted.

We might take a clue about His prayer from the experiences surrounding Jesus’ prayer. He had just fed the thousands and saw them as sheep without a shepherd. Mathew’s gospel notes that [He] saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them. Jesus’ heart hurt for all humanity faced. His heart hurt for the blindness of the people as He wept over Jerusalem (see Luke 19:41-44). He rejoiced when He found mutual love and acceptance of the Kingdom.

Jesus, God of creation, the breath of God Who moved over the waters knew what was intended for us: our eternal happiness; fellowship in God; peace and comfort; endless joy. He experienced all that we must face in our brokenness, in the hurt and sin that pervades in the world and blocks our way to God’s desire for us.

As we pray when faced with difficult situations, as we plead in our frustrations, as we give thanks in times of joy so did Jesus. His humanity gave thanks and cried out, but with a unique perspective – God’s perspective. He prayed in His compassion for us.

As Jesus approached the disciples in the boat, they feared. As Peter sank, he cried out. In both cases Jesus responded to take away fear and to save. So, He does with us. What Jesus prayed for was us – that we accept Him, follow His way, and have  faithful courage in all things.

Listen, Obey, Witness

And you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind; and you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins.

Thank you for joining today as we continue our Ordinary Time journey focused on listening to, obeying, and witnessing to Jesus.

We are in God’s field, once again with Jesus, as He teaches through another farming parable – this time the farmer and the enemy.

The farmer and his workers sow good, top-quality seed. They go to sleep, tired after a long day of work. The enemy comes and sows in weeds in an attempt at destroying the crop.

Last week we spoke about preparing ourselves to be the good soil, ready to receive Jesus. There are things we need to fix in our personal garden of life. There are thorns to be removed and rocks and sones to be taken away. Preparing ourselves takes focus, dedication, humility, and hard work. We are required to place Jesus above all in our daily work on ourselves.

If we do this, we are prepared to truly receive God’s good seed and become His Kingdom children. Jesus tells us: “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil.”

Jesus is reiterating the fact that in the world there are those willing to be good ground for His Gospel. The willing, those who have given their lives to Christ, receive Him readily and with joy. Guess what, that’s everyone here and those viewing from afar. We are people who want to live the Kingdom life, to be changed inwardly and outwardly.

He also tells us that there are those unwilling. They are those that will pursue anything and everything, or even those in the body of Christ who will not soften their hearts. The children of the evil one prefer to hate others, to fill their lives with whatever will block out the Holy Spirit’s constant knocking at their door.

But, Wisdom advises us of God’s leniency, clemency, and most particularly patience in permitting repentance. If we are falling short in the Kingdom life, let us repent and get back to work.

There are two key phrases in all this I would ask we all reflect on.

…those who are just must be kind and While everyone was asleep his enemy came

God requires us to be kind – to reflect Him most particularly in our leniency, clemency, and patience. That is what Kingdom people are – a reflection of Jesus, the likeness and light of God in the world.

Similarly, we must be careful in not falling asleep. Of course, this does not mean physical sleep, but rather spiritual sleep and drowsiness. The state where we just let it all go and roll off the side of the Kingdom train. We are called to be the living and kind crop that produces good fruit in the kingdom.

Listen, Obey, Witness

“But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

Thank you for joining today as we continue our Ordinary Time journey focused on listening to, obeying, and witnessing to Jesus.

This is a perfect time of year for the parable Jesus offers us today, the parable of the sower and the seed.

Top level, this is a growth parable. The sower represents God, and the seed is His message. Just as a planted seed starts to grow, the word of God starts to deepen and grow within a person who is open to it, that is the person who is made up of good soil.

Considering growth, let’s think of our own gardens. Some of us have significant fruit and vegetable gardens, others smaller ones. Some have beautiful flower gardens, others a few evergreen bushes put in years ago which haven’t really been addressed since. Maybe we grow a tomato plant or two in a pot on our deck.

Regardless of situation we know the things we face. Maybe, like me, we have very rocky soil – shale about an inch or two under the soil. Maybe we have a proliferation of thorn bushes, thorny weeds, and brambles. Maybe we drop some seed on the driveway or walkway. 

Nearly every person faces situations. It is rare to find a person who meets God with readied good soil. His word is sprinkled over us as we listen and learn in church. We may even pick up scripture references in TV shows and movies. Yet, that word will have no effect, will bring about no bounty, unless we set to work preparing our soil.

Everyone can listen, or at least hear the word, but we must work to gain understanding by reading and studying the word as well as praying it. Almost anyone can receive the word with joy – be ecstatic about it – but we must keep our focus and concentration on it by placing it into action, living Jesus’ gospel. All of us have rocks and thorns and no, our soil will not be good and ready and productive without hard work.

To be the good soil God needs us to be we must first trust in Him and readily accept His grace. We cannot prepare ourselves in a vacuum. We cannot ask God to wait outside while we tidy up. We need His help and the humility of asking is a necessary step.

Then there is the work we must set to. We cannot just cut back the thorns and brambles that choke God out, we must dig down and pull them out by the root, so they never get in the way – that is repentance from our sins. We cannot just shovel topsoil over the rocks and stones in us, because their exitance will block God’s word from taking full root. We need to get rid of obstacles to God by placing Him first, above all other things and events – really.

God’s word is the seed that contains all life and goodness, peace and joy, comfort, gentleness, and love. We are called to diligence in preparing our good soil to receive life and produce good fruit in the kingdom.

Listen, Obey, Witness

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy, and My burden light.”

Thank you for joining today as we continue our Ordinary Time journey focused on listening to, obeying, and witnessing to Jesus.

This statement of Jesus, concerning taking up of a yoke – a weight, an obligation, a means of being controlled – seems odd. Why would Jesus ask us to do that? Didn’t He come to free us and take the weight of sin off our shoulders? And anyway, I’m not going to allow myself to be obligated to anyone.

First, let’s be honest about Jesus’ statement. Yes, He means we are to submit to His will. We are to turn over control of our lives to Him. We are to allow Him to direct us and take us where He will, not where we will. We are to let Him do this through His Word and His Holy Church.

I can hear people say, well forget that. Who does God and His Church think they are. I can make my own decisions.

Yes, we can make our own decisions, and this decision is a key one because unless we accept the yoke of Jesus, we have no hope of entering His rest.

Is this decision easy? No. It is bad enough when we have to allow someone else to drive us around, much less to have completely surrendered control over our lives to another.

What may help us in reaching the right decision is the metaphor Jesus uses, the yoke itself. The yoke is used throughout scripture as a symbol, but unless we liked Westerns (Wagon Train?) or lived near Amish farmers, we have little practical knowledge of what a yoke is.

A yoke is a binding devise for two animals who walk side-by-side. Oxford Dictionary defines yoke as: ‘a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to the plow or cart that they are to pull.’

You see, Jesus is not asking us to pick up His yoke and put it on our necks and do it all ourselves, for His yoke is Him on one side and us on the other. We are bound together when we accept Jesus and decide to walk in His footsteps, side by side doing His work.

We never go it alone with Jesus. He stands with us, sets to work with us, plows God’s field with us. He tells us that His yoke is easy, and light because He is carrying almost all the weight for us.

If we bind ourselves to Jesus, accepting His yoke, we accomplish great things. Lives are saved, sinfulness is ended, the good news is proclaimed, people accept Jesus and they are made new. The joy we encounter in doing Jesus’ work, at His side, makes even the slightest burden lighter.

Let us then listen to Jesus’ call to the yoke, obey Him by taking it up, and walking with Him witnessing the kingdom, and drawing in those who do not know Him to also take up the yoke.

Listen, Obey, Witness

“Whoever receives you receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives the One who sent me.”

Thank you for joining today as we continue our Ordinary Time journey focused on listening to, obeying, and witnessing to Jesus.

Why does Jesus say such difficult things? It is a common question and a very popular question in our day and age. People pick up the tough sayings of Jesus and say: ‘Look at this – how stupid. He doesn’t’ want me or us to be free. God is not worth believing in because He is mean and controlling.’

Indeed, Jesus does ask much of us. He wants us all-in, completely dedicated to listening to His commands and His way (not my way), to obedience (not going my own way), and to witness to His tough call (do I really have to?). He tells us that this priority is first, even before family. 

We cringe, don’t we, when we hear words like obligation, obedience, duty, sacrifice, submission, requirement, restraint, perseverance, follow, and commandment. I am sure you could think of others. But those are the all-in things Jesus asks of us, to put Him and the Kingdom first.

Jesus asks us to put our old selfish selves and self-interest away and allow ourselves to listen to, obey, and witness to Him above all things.

What does it mean to carry out Jesus’ work, to fulfill our obligation for His having saved and reconciled us and for forever ending death so we might have eternal life? It means that we must level-up our faith. We must work hard to overcome the things that are broken in us and the obstacles and enemies in our way with the help of His grace. We must endeavor to be not just different, but different and ever better.

If we were to draw a map from where we were just a few years earlier, and for older folks perhaps decades earlier, would we be on the same level or have we leveled up?

You may remember the picture of Jesus standing outside a door. If you observe closely, He is knocking but cannot enter on His own. The door on the outside has no doorknob. We must open the door for Jesus. That is where we start leveling up, by letting Jesus in. Unfortunately, too many think they are being progressive, by not only refusing to open the door, but by locking it and barring it. Don’t let Jesus in. I’ll stay where I am. It looks like I am moving, but I’m just falling. Waaaaaaaa…

As we set forth into the days and decades ahead let us resolve to level up. Let us level up our faith, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and our love. Let us let Jesus in and accept His grace and His tough sayings which will make us better than we are today.

To those who say: ‘Look at this – how stupid. Jesus doesn’t’ want me or us to be free. God is not worth believing in because He is mean and controlling,’ we can say: ‘God wants me to succeed, to level up, to listen, obey, and witness and to obtain all His glory.’

Listen, Obey, Witness

“Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”

Thank you for joining today as we begin our Ordinary Time journey and place our focus on listening to, obeying, and witnessing to Jesus.

Today we begin in Jeremiah. When we hear the phrase ‘the Lamentations of Jeremiah’ we are reminded of the difficult message he had to bring to a people who would not listen, and the cost he faced for bringing that message.

Let’s set this up a little bit. Just before the opening verse “I hear the whisperings of many: ‘Terror on every side! Denounce! let us denounce him!’Jeremiah had been in the public stocks outside the Temple. The Chief of the Temple police, Pashhur (whose name means freedom and peacefulness) had arrested him, whipped him with thirty-nine lashes, and put him in the stocks. He then let Jeremiah out early. Jeremiah immediately called Pashhur a name: Magor-Missabib, literally ‘Terror on Every Side.’  Jeremiah had no intention of moderating or covering over God’s message. He boldly told the priest and chief of police that destruction was sure to come, and they would be at the center of it. They would be ‘terror on every side.’

Now we hear Jeremiah quoting the people. In mockery they call him Magor-Missabib, ‘Terror on Every Side.’ They try to use God’s words against him. They will watch for any misstep and use it as pretext for destroying Jeremiah and as an excuse for ignoring God. Knowing this Jeremiah again proclaims his faithfulness to God’s message and work.

Jesus tells his disciples that their listening to Him, obeying and carrying out the work of witness He has given them will, just like Jeremiah, not be easy. He also reassures them of God’s attention to and protection of their work. They are valued by God for listening, obeying, and witnessing. To drive the point home, he repeats “do not be afraid” three times.

Brothers and sisters, we are called to an incredible and glorious task. We are asked to listen to, obey, and witness to Jesus and His gospel teaching. We are called to the discipline of the Holy Church and her teachings which are the Holy Spirit’s proclamation to us of all He heard the Son teach (cf. John 14:26, 16:13).

We have choices. Listen, obey, and witness are three components in which we must choose to follow God’s way or go our own way. Choosing God in everyday life and daily encounters has consequences and sometimes they are unpleasant. However, choosing our comfort, convenience, our own way has consequences as well. Jesus – God Himself told us: be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. The evil one leads us in our own ways, in a mirage of freedom which is not freedom at all. Let us choose rightly so Jesus acknowledges us before the Father and does not see us as ‘terror on every side.’