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Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (2)
Object: A thorn, perhaps off of a rose bush
Boys and girls, I clipped this branch off of a rose bush. If I had waited until late Spring, this branch might have produced a rose. Right now it’s just covered with what? That’s right–thorns.
A man was traveling on the island of Jamaica and he noticed a curious shrub growing near the roadside. His companion informed him that the island people called it the “wait a bit” bush. When he inspected it closely, his clothes touched it, and he found himself snared by thorns that were much more fierce than the thorns on this rose branch. These thorns resembled fish hooks. The more he tried to free himself, the more he became entangled by the bush’s barbs. Finally he had to rely on his friend to release him from his hopeless situation. (From Our Daily Bread)
I don’t think I would want to get tangled up in a “wait a bit” bush, would you? That might be painful.
There are things in life that can snare us like that bush. Some young people get snared by drugs. It doesn’t seem to be very important at first, but soon it has captured their life and it has done them much harm. I hope you never run into the drug thorn. But there are all kinds of thorns–in fact, anything that hurts people can be a “wait a bit” thorn. Sometimes people get themselves in messes they can’t get out of. That’s when many people pray to God. They need a friend to help them out of the thorns. Jesus is the kind of friend who is always willing to help when we get caught on something that might trap us and hurt us. All we have to do is ask.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, just in case any of you men need something to panic about. Just a friendly reminder for any procrastinators who might be in the house. Tomorrow’s big day reminds me of an article that came out last year about candy hearts. You know those candy hearts that are bright pink and orange and yellow, and they have sappy sayings stamped onto them—“Kiss Me,” “Hot Stuff,” “Be Mine,” etc.
The original candy hearts with sayings—their official name is “conversation hearts”—were the Sweethearts candies from the Necco Co. They were created in the 1860s. By 2019, about 8 billion Sweethearts candy hearts were sold each year, with most of those sold in the six weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day. (1)
In 2021, a research scientist named Janelle Shane attempted to create new conversation heart sayings using a network of computers that were set up to mimic the workings of the human brain. It’s called a neural network. And Shane wondered if a neural network could be trained to create romantic or flirty sayings that sounded like something humans would say. Then she proceeded to enter these sayings from popular conversation hearts into the neural network’s programs. Then she tried to get the network on computers to create its own sayings based on the information she provided.
How do you think the machines did on this task? Well, let me give you a sample of some of her results: “LOVE 2000 HOGS YEA.” Here’s another: “HOT STUFF MY BODY IS.” Well, that may be a little closer to a normal Valentine’s message.
Some, though, were totally off the wall. For instance, see if this one puts you in a romantic mood: “AMERICAN OCEAN CABBAGE DELIGHT?”
What do you think? Would you be flattered if your significant other declared their love with the words AMERICAN OCEAN CABBAGE DELIGHT? I didn’t think so. (2) Maybe there are some tasks for which machines won’t replace the human brain.
I believe most people fall into three camps when it comes to Valentine’s Day. There are the folks who love it, plan for it, spend lots of money for it. Then there are the folks who shrug it off. Just another day of the year. And finally, there are those who roll their eyes at it. They hate the idea of a made-up holiday that promotes romance and shopping.
However, it’s a shame that we don’t celebrate love every day of the year. It’s too easy to take our loved ones for granted. No matter which of the three camps you fall into, I hope you take some time every day to notice and appreciate the people who love you. Don’t let a day go by without letting someone know that you love them and appreciate them.
I read another article that I thought was especially appropriate for Valentine’s Day. One of the most famous landmarks in the world is the statue of Jesus with outstretched arms that overlooks the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It’s called “Christ the Redeemer,” and it stands 125 feet tall. It has inspired many visitors to that city. But there is an organization in the tiny town of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, that is funding an even bigger Jesus statue in their town. The “Christ the Protector” statue will stand 141 feet tall—16 feet taller than the statue in the capitol city.
One unique feature of the “Christ the Protector” statue is that there will be a lookout room with wide windows installed at about the height of the Jesus statue’s heart. Did you catch that? Wide windows installed at about the height of the Jesus statue’s heart. An elevator will transport tourists up to this spot so they can see views of the city below . . . from Jesus’ heart. (3)
Can you imagine what the view would be like from Jesus’ heart? That’s the goal of the Christian life, isn’t it? To continually grow in our ability to view life through Jesus’ heart. It changes our perspective entirely when we realize that the purpose of our life is not our own fulfillment and happiness. The purpose of our life is to live as Jesus lived. That means sharing God’s love with others. The purpose of our life is to do the good works God created us to do. The purpose of our life is to represent Jesus’ character, mission and message to the world. And you thought buying the right Valentine’s present was difficult!
And that’s why today’s Bible passage is appropriate for Valentine’s Day. Because Jesus’ teachings come from a place of grace—pure, unmerited, unearned love. Even his toughest teachings, the ones that make us squirm, the ones that offend us, the ones that challenge our worldview—come from a place of love. Jesus’ words might seem challenging, even harsh, in this passage. But what if we were to view these words through Jesus’ heart? Would that change how we respond to them?
Before we understand this passage, we need to look at who Jesus was speaking to. Jesus had been teaching out in the countryside and healing people. A great crowd of people had come from all over Judea, and even from the Gentile towns of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus was popular! His ministry would be the envy of any pastor in our day . . . right up until the time they crucified him. And in the midst of all this excitement, Jesus turns and directs these words quite surprisingly to his disciples:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”
Why did Jesus direct these words specifically toward his disciples? What did he want them—and us—to know? Let me suggest that the first thing Jesus was telling them was don’t judge your life by your current circumstances. Write that down. It’s important. Don’t judge your life by your current circumstances.
Don’t set your heart on the things of this world. That’s not what you were made for. You’re healthy, wealthy, popular and powerful now? Good for you. But don’t base your happiness, self-worth or security on these things. Or, perhaps you are poor, grieving, unpopular or persecuted right now? God be with you. But don’t base your attitude or your self-worth on these things. Your circumstances don’t define you. Whether your circumstances drive you closer to God or further from God is what’s important.
Remember, this is a moment when Jesus’ star is rising. Crowds of people follow him wherever he goes. They hang on his every word. They go home and tell their friends and family about him. But Jesus didn’t let his popularity go to his head. And he didn’t want his disciples to think that following him was a great way to reap earthly rewards. In fact, the opposite was true.
It’s so easy to let the good things in life—good health, happy relationships, social acceptance, status symbols—become the foundation for our attitude, our worldview, even our identity. But these pleasures, rather than drawing us closer to God, often drive us further from God.
In April of last year, the chairman of a New York-based hedge fund with billions of dollars in assets under his management, committed suicide. Charles de Vaulx founded the hedge fund International Value Advisers in 2007. He was the chief investment officer for the fund. At its peak, IVA had more than $20 billion in assets under management. But in 2020, some of his major investments lost money. According to one of Charles de Vaulx’s friends, “It was never about the money. [The IVA fund] was an embodiment of de Vaulx’s personality and when it began to unwind, he took it personally.”
A few weeks after the IVA board voted to close the fund and liquidate its assets, Charles de Vaulx, a married father of two, jumped to his death from a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. (4)
How tragic. I feel for this man. He defined his self-worth, his happiness, his purpose by the value he returned for his investors. Don’t set your heart on the things of this world. Circumstances change; God’s character and promises are the same yesterday, today and forever. Jesus knew his disciples would experience times of great power and great persecution in their ministries. And so the first thing he wanted to teach them is, don’t judge your life by your current circumstances.
The second thing Jesus was telling them was God is working in your most painful circumstances. That’s the perspective we gain if we view our painful circumstances through Jesus’ heart. If we search for what God is teaching us in our circumstances, if we rely on God’s power to sustain us in our circumstances, if we open ourselves up to receiving God’s mercy in our most painful times as a beggar holds out his hands to receive bread, then we will eventually see God at work in our most painful circumstances.
As some of you may know I am a widower. My wife Kathy, suffered from more physical problems that I can enumerate. She had MS, she had three strokes which one took part of her eye sight, One her left side and the third from her waist down. She had Parkinsons and dementia. So as she was physically deteriorating and mentally as well. We kept her at home when her family told me to put her in a nursing home for 14 years, the state ordered me under the threat of elder abuse to put her in a nursing home where she spent 8 years and we talked every day and finally in a hospital vent unit for two years where she died. At this point her dementia was in charge. The whole family was there for her throughout it all. We took care of her right up to the end. It was painful to watch this vibrant young woman become a shell of her former self. Yet she made us all better people. Her faith was strong to the end. She taught us all about God’s love be our caring for her. God did not rescue her from her circumstances. God taught us hw to love those whose life is not their own but totally dependent on others. AND how never to pray for patience because when you do God gives you more problems to teach us to give up control which is patience, but rather to pray for strength.
John Irving, the best-selling author and screenwriter, begins every new novel by writing the last line of the book first. Once he has captured the last line of the book, he is ready to begin telling the story. Because he already knows the ending, he is fully in control of the rest of the story. (6)
That’s the secret Jesus tried to teach his disciples too. He already knows the ending to the story. He already knows that he will die to reconcile us to God and give us eternal life. He already knows that God has a kingdom prepared for those who love Him. And he already knows that every painful circumstance we face in this life can be used to draw us closer to God’s heart and God’s will and God’s purposes, if we will only let it. That’s the second thing Jesus was telling us in this passage.
And the final thing Jesus was telling them was to find their fulfillment in living for him. There are many places in this world you can seek fulfillment. But there is only one place you can truly find it. As the old gospel song says, “This world is not my home.” This world is not your home. You were made for eternal life with God, living in a world ruled by God’s values, God’s priorities.
But what happens when worlds collide? What happens when you live the values and priorities of God’s world in this world? You won’t fit in. Your habits and your lifestyle will look different to your family, your colleagues, your neighbors. People will question you. Perhaps talk about you. Reject you.
The disciples didn’t know it yet, but Jesus was calling them to make the ultimate sacrifice, to eventually die for the sake of following him. And he is calling us to do the same. Even if we never lay down our lives for Jesus, we are called to sacrifice our own priorities and values and will and replace them with the priorities and values and will of God.
Sophie Scholl was born in Germany in 1921. Her parents were Christians who raised their six children to follow Jesus. But when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Sophie and her brother, Hans, joined youth organizations that supported Hitler. Their father was horrified and tried to change their minds.
As the reality of Hitler’s brutal policies came to light, Sophie and Hans abandoned their support of the Third Reich. They, along with four friends, created a resistance movement known as the White Rose. Members of the White Rose passed out leaflets detailing Hitler’s atrocities and encouraging German citizens to resist the Nazi movement. One of the leaflets read, “We won’t be silenced, we are your . . . conscience, the White Rose won’t leave you in peace.” They were risking their lives by resisting the Nazis. Their faith would not let them live comfortably, safely in a society that had abandoned the values of God.
In February 1943, Hans and Sophie were arrested by the Gestapo, the secret police, for handing out leaflets. Six days after their arrest, they were executed by the Nazis. As Sophie walked to the guillotine on the morning of her execution, she said, “Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go . . . What does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
Hans’ last words before his execution were, “Long live freedom!” He was 24 years old; Sophie was 21. The story of their faith and sacrifice has been re-told in books and movies in Germany. (7)
We can find happiness in chasing success, health, wealth, status, comfort, security. But we will never find our fulfillment or our God-given purpose in those things. God made us to find our fulfillment, our purpose, our life in living for Him. It’s not going to be easy. Jesus was very clear about that. So don’t set your heart on the things of this world. Set your heart on knowing God and living in God’s will, and you will discover the life that God made you for, a life that is both abundant and eternal in its blessings.
- “American’s most popular Valentine’s candy isn’t on store shelves this year” by Mike Murphy February modified14, 2019 MarketWatch,https://www.marketwatch.com/story/sorry-sweethearts-americas-most-popular-valentines-day-candy-wont-be-on-shelves-this-year-2019-01-23.
- “AI Attempts To Design Candy Love Hearts And We’re Not Sure They’d Win Your Sweetheart” by Rachael Funnell, February 26, 2021, IFL Science, https://www.iflscience.com/technology/fart-booby-and-other-unusual-candy-love-hearts-designed-by-artificial-intelligence/.
- “Brazil is building a new statue of Jesus—and it’s going to be bigger than Rio’s” by Jack Guy, Vasco Cotovio and Rodrigo Pedroso, CNN, April 12, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/brazil-christ-statue-encantado-scli-intl/index.html?utm_source=join1440&utm_medium=email&utm_placement=newsletter.
- “‘Complex’ father-of-two financier, 59, jumps to his death from 10th floor of NYC skyscraper office after his assets firm was liquidated when it shrank from $20bn to $863m and investors ‘lost trust in him’” by Adam Schrader, DailyMail.com and Reuters April 28, 2021,https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9519477/Manhattan-financer-59-jumps-death-skyscraper-weeks-firm-liquidated.html.
- St. Paul’s Letters to the Philippiansby The Reverend Eric S. Ritz.
- “Write Your Ending,” by George Raveling and Michael Lombardi,https://thedaily.coach/February 2, 2021, © 2021, The Daily Coach.
- “Sophie Scholl: Student who resisted Hitler and inspires Germany” by Jenny Hill, BBC Berlin correspondent, May 9, 2021, BBC.com https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-57008360.
ChristianGlobe Network, Inc., Dynamic Preaching First Issue Sermons 2022, by King Duncan MODIFIED
Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)
Someone will say, “We’ve had a good winter; not much snow.” Shut up, someone else says. You’re jinxing us. “Wow, I can’t believe how well I’ve played today” and then will mess up the next 3 holes in golf. Jinxed. “Traffic is moving so well, we’ll be in Philly before we know it.” And then comes the accident that ties up the Delaware Bridge. We were jinxed.
It’s a funny idea, but it shows how much we feel language and thinking can be tied up with the way things turn out. It’s as if our words and thoughts correspond with some deeper level of reality; good vibes, we say, when things are working out well. Bad vibes, when things do not go our way. Some people even imagine others with voodoo dolls sticking pins into it as they try to explain why things are not going well.
Our scriptural themes today give us the opposing ideas of blessings and curses. In the first reading, we hear these words attached to the idea of our relationship with God. When we follow that relationship, when we are faithful to the covenant, then we will be blessed. When we violate that relationship, then only curses come to us.
What are blessings and curses? Blessings are words spoken that speak to our health or good. Curses are word spoken that speak to our illness or evil. People bless us when they wish us good; people curse us when they wish us bad. But blessing arises from our living in accord with the design of God, when our actions correspond to the way God is and the goodness God shows. Curses arise from our refusal to live in accord with the way God is, when we violate God’s path.
Jesus applies this insight when he talks about blessings and curses. Here Jesus is speaking about the blessings that come to us when we understand our relationship to God and to others. The blessed are those who know they have to rely on God for everything; those who know that they are poor, needy, and dependent on God. They re blessed because they acknowledge both their reliance on God and God’s fundamental care for them. Isn’t it true that some of the people who most readily acknowledge and thank God are the poor, those for whom every meal seems like a miracle?
It sounds strange to hear Jesus pronouncing curses, but he’s really saying that those people who think they can rely on themselves, who feel they have no need of God or others, are jinxing themselves. They are not living in accord with reality because, no matter how rich or powerful we are, we cannot guarantee one second of our lives. Every one of us is destined to die. This is why St. Paul insists that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is decisive. Of ourselves, we are doomed and powerless. Only with Jesus do we have the hope of defeating death.
God doesn’t curse us; we curse ourselves by the illusions according to which we live. We jinx ourselves by the ways we live as if God didn’t matter, as if we controlled our lives. When we do this, we live in discord with reality, and we suffer the inevitable consequences. “Everything is fine; I’m in control,” and, boom, our lives start falling apart. We jinx ourselves when we think we can live apart from dependence on God.