Sunday, November 18, 2007

Proper 28 Year C - November 18, 2007

We all know people who probably would score very well on standard IQ tests, but when it comes to dealing with other people, they are as dumb as rocks. “Just goes to show,” we mutter to ourselves smugly, “That there’s more to life than how fast you can solve a math equation.”

In fact, several years ago, researchers began to identify a new factor in our psychological make-up that can determine how well we do in life. They called this factor Emotional Intelligence and created a new measure called the Emotional Intelligence Quotient or EQ to measure this intelligence. This intelligence involves the ability to perceive, assess or manage the emotions of oneself, others or groups of people. Unlike IQ, EQ can be increased by learning how to deal with your own emotions or those of others. Dale Carnegie, with his popular book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and his series of courses based on it probably made a mint off of this concept.

Today I’d like to identify a new factor in our psychological make-up that can determine how well we do in the next life. Let’s call it “Spiritual Intelligence.” Spiritual Intelligence is the ability to discern “spiritual value” over “material value”. We could easily make up a test that would measure your Spiritual Intelligence Quotient, or SQ, because Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament were mostly about this discernment of spiritual over material.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is giving the disciples a teaching that combines this discernment with a prophecy about the end times. The disciples are admiring the temple, which from all reports of the time was an incredibly opulent building. Josephus, a Jewish historian at the time of Christ, describes it this way:

The whole of the outer works of the temple was in the highest degree worthy of admiration; for it was completely covered with gold plates, which when the sun was shining on them, glittered so dazzlingly that they blinded the eyes of the beholders not less than when one gazed at the sun’s rays themselves. And on the other sides, where there was no gold, the blocks of marble were of such a pure white that to strangers who had never previously seen them (from a distance they looked like a mountain of snow’” (v, 14), p. 534.

This temple was the 3rd temple built by the Jewish people and was, during the times of Jesus, still under construction. It was being built by Herod the Great and would be finished in 60 AD. Herod, by all we learn of him in the Bible, was not a particularly pious king. But he was filled with pride and arrogance. This temple was more a monument to HIS power and glory than God’s.

The disciples were from the very rural province of Galilee, you might say they were “country bumpkins.” They were very impressed by the sight of this gorgeous building. Maybe they were even planning which offices would be theirs when Jesus came into his kingdom. After all, wouldn’t he be making the Temple his headquarters? To fishermen from Galilee, it must have looked like a building that dropped right down from heaven. Obviously, they had made it to the Big Time. It was time to pick out that corner office and live in style.

However, just before the passages in today’s lesson, Jesus points out the contribution of the widow, who gave her few coins in offering, compared to the more showy donations of richer people. Because she gave from her heart, not holding back for fear of what the lack of her small savings might bring her, hunger or sickness with no money to pay the doctor, she demonstrated trust and faith in God. She showed a very high SQ.

So when the disciples start exclaiming over the opulence of the temple, Jesus warns them that the whole temple will be destroyed. “Not one stone will be left upon another,” he said. Jesus’ prediction came to pass in 70 AD, when the Roman army sacked the temple, literally pulling all the stones down to remove their gold plating and ornaments. Not one stone remained on another. As startling as this prediction was, the real message was far more startling. The disciples were not to put their faith in something that man had made for God, something with more material value than spiritual value. The kingdom that was coming was not one that would need a temple like this. The kingdom was to deal with the spiritual changes of the heart, not physical locations like buildings, cities or even countries. And, as usual, the disciples missed the whole point.

We see the same struggle going on in our day, our eternal tendency to choose style (or material) over substance (or spirit). One only need drive around the Metro Detroit area and look at the showy churches, the big crosses erected over them, the amount of glamour and style these churches put into their worship spaces and the amount of people who staff the worship team. Churches do this to attract members, because members give money and money pays for more renovations and more things to “attract” more members, which give more money and it goes on and on. Some churches have a coffee bar in the lobby so that worshippers can get that cappuccino before the service. Others have ATM machines in the lobby so that cash may be available to all who want to toss some money in the plate.

But if there is no substance, the substance being the true love of God and devotion to the mission of spreading the gospel, the mission that will bring persecution and danger into the lives of those who choose discipleship, these churches are no more holy places than the mall down the street. A church can be falling down, but if the love of God lives in the members and they continually seek to serve Him through spreading the gospel and showing God’s love through caring for the poor, both those who are poor in spirit and those who are poor in material things, then that church has a high SQ indeed.

Like EQ, we can change our SQ. We don’t need to study a lot of books or take a course titled, “How to Win Souls and Reject the Material.” All we need to do is listen for that still small voice of the Holy Spirit, the one who will give us the words to say when we are defending our faith, the one who can help us find the spiritual value of the choices we have available to us. St. Anthony of Padua wrote the following prayer for the help of the Holy Spirit, which I invite you to pray with me now:

O God, send forth your Holy Spirit into my heart that I may perceive, into my mind that I may remember, and into my soul that I may meditate. Inspire me to speak with piety, holiness, tenderness and mercy. Teach, guide and direct my thoughts and senses from beginning to end. May your grace ever help and correct me, and may I be strengthened now with wisdom from on high, for the sake of your infinite mercy. Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

All Saints Day - November 4, 2007

What does it mean to be a saint in 21st century America?

Most of us, when we hear the word saint, think of martyrs; people who died rather grisly deaths to witness to the world the love of Jesus Christ. And most of us, if we are truthful, don’t really want to be a saint if that is what is required. Who would want to die like Saint Sebastian, shot with arrows? Or like Saint Stephen, stoned to death? We shy away from the thought of being a saint if that is what is required.

The other connotation of the word saint is someone inhumanly good, so good that we cannot ever measure up to them, someone like Mother Teresa. Who can be that good? What use is it even to try?

But we are wrong. Mostly because we do not understand the term “saint” and what it really means to be one. Almost every denomination defines saint differently, but to Protestant Christians it generally means anyone who makes it to heaven. And since we have made the decision to accept Jesus as our savior and we are on our way to heaven day by day, then technically, we are saints as well.

So what are we doing about it? What do saints do and how can we tell if we are living up to the word “saint”? Jesus gives us a laundry list, commonly known as the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12 that can probably tell us more about what a saint is like than any other source. What is that he says?

Jesus says that we should be meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, righteous, and willing to endure persecution in his name. If we do all these things our reward will be great in heaven. It doesn’t mean that if we don’t do all these things that we will not get to heaven, just that our reward will be great. So how do we do them? Let’s go over them one at a time:

Meek: Most of us think of meek as being someone who is afraid to speak up for themselves, someone that other people walk on, if the truth be told. Originally, however, as used in the Bible, it meant gentle and kind. We certainly can choose to be more gentle, more kind with our fellow man.

Hungering & Thirsting for Righteousness: we are supposed to DESIRE righteousness. I think we all desire to be righteous, the problem is in achieving it. But as long as we desire to be righteous, we have fulfilled this requirement…but we need to desire it so much that we cannot rest until we get it. We need to hunger and thirst after it so much that choosing anything else will make us feel terrible, much as making a bad food choice at dinner will make us queasy.

Merciful: this one is easy to understand, we need to choose to be compassionate to other people, as well as to ourselves.

Pure in heart: To me this speaks of single-mindedness, the “gladness and singleness of heart” spoken in the General Thanksgiving. It means not allowing our love for God to be watered down or tainted with other desires.

Peacemaking: Choosing harmony over discord, when discord will not accomplish God’s will. Not making peace at any cost, as is sometimes thought. Sometimes pursuing mercy and righteousness means not choosing a peaceful course.

Willing to endure persecution: not necessarily choosing to suffer physical degradation, for us in 21st century America it usually means choosing to risk losing friends because God comes first or because you will not keep your beliefs “under wraps” so as not to offend others. For other people around the world, though, persecution is a very real danger in professing the faith that in America we follow fairly risk-free.

For us, though, all of these qualities, as enumerated by Jesus, involve, not intentionally seeking out opportunities to practice them, but simple choices that every day living entails. We can choose to be compassionate. We can choose to be kind, gentle, pure in heart, loving peace, and willing to endure the social losses that come from speaking out and sharing our faith. We can choose to cultivate the desire to follow God more closely and reject the values that our culture teaches are acceptable. We have opportunities every day to embrace the qualities Jesus lists in the Beatitudes, to show God’s love in the world we live in today, to be saints in every sense of the word.

The hymn we sang just a few minutes ago really says it all. This is the third verse, which is a more Americanized version than we sing:

They lived not only in ages past; 
there are hundreds of thousands still. 
The world is bright with the joyous saints 
who love to do Jesus' will. 
You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, 
in church, by the sea, in the house next door; 
they are saints of God, whether rich or poor, 
and I mean to be one too.

May we all be saints, every day of our lives. Amen.