THE TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – August 31, 2014

 

 

From the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 20:7-9

From the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans 12:1-2

From the holy Gospel according to Matthew 16:21-27

 

The tone of voice used determines the shade of meaning. You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped. The dictionary defines a dupe as one who is easily deceived or cheated; in other words, a fool. So, to be duped is to be made a fool of. Was Jeremiah raging with fist raised to the heavens when he spoke these words? Was he broken hearted, with tears streaming down his face, as he whispered them? Was there a wry smile, accompanied by a wagging head that left Jeremiah telling God that God had really pulled a clever one on the lad when God chose him to be a prophet? It’s all in how you hear the words as they are proclaimed. Regardless of how you hear them, the truth remains that for Jeremiah the dice has been cast. Even if prophesying costs him his life, he must do what God called him to do. Jeremiah is in love with God and God’s people, come what may. And he can’t be quiet about it.

Jeremiah’s feelings may mirror Peter’s in the Gospel. Remember last week’s reading? Peter proclaimed for the other disciples that they all are convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. That means that, for them, Jesus is the Messiah of God, the anointed one God has sent into the world. Remember the praise that Jesus lavished on Peter for his insight? Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. It is difficult to reconcile such generous praise with the dressing down that the Rock receives a few short verses later: Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me!

What has happened? Quite simply, it seems Peter has a lot to learn about what the term, Messiah, means. He must be disabused of some of the assumptions he has made. To this point, for Peter the word Messiah had rich meaning that included with it power and prestige in the here and now. Peter assumed that Jesus, as Messiah, would set up a mighty kingdom, a rich kingdom. Peter assumed that Jesus would drive out the oppressors who made life miserable for the Jews. And Peter could hardly wait, because when all that happened, the rewards would start pouring in. Who would be there in a position of favor to bask in the newfound luxury? You guessed it. That one would be Peter.

But those dreams are dashed in today’s Gospel when Jesus begins to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly… and be killed and on the third day be raised. What about the might and the glory? What about the throne? Where is the position of power in which Peter sees himself sharing? After all, Jesus had just said that Peter was foundational to the kingdom that Jesus was bringing.

There is a word in the text whose force we might miss. Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. To rebuke is to give a complete dressing down to. The word is harsh and severe in meaning. Maybe Peter shook his fist in Jesus’ face. The words might have hissed from Peter’s lips in his panic. The panic is born of Peter’s fear that Jesus has duped him. Peter has not forgotten the first words Jesus addressed to him and his brothers. Come after me and I will make you fishers of humankind. That’s a position of power, isn’t it?

When Jesus tells Peter to get behind me, Satan, he is not banishing Peter, excommunicating him, as it were. Rather, Jesus calls Peter a tempter in the same way Satan argued with God in the Book of Job. The order to get behind me tells Peter to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and learn from what he observes over Jesus’ shoulder. Jesus will not be a warrior Messiah. Jesus is a servant Messiah. This Messiah will associate with all the wrong people – the poor, the blind, the lepers – all those whose condition gives evidence to many that they are sinners and out of favor with God. That was the commonly accepted assumption of the times. How will Peter reconcile that assumption with the views of this Messiah who sees suffering and death to be at the very core of his mission? Rejection. Crucifixion. Death. There is nothing worse that can be imagined. And Peter probably missed the part about being raised on the Third Day.

What tone of voice do you imagine that Jesus used in the final discourse of this pericope? We probably would like to hear the gentle Jesus reassuring Peter and the other disciples. But could it be that Jesus used a stern voice with a hint of anger in it to shock the audience into hearing the new basic condition for discipleship? Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow me. In other words, if one seeks discipleship for the good things that will follow, the prosperity, power, and position that will follow, that one is following the wrong Christ. The trappings of glory do not belong here. This is a servant church whose foundation is Rock (Peter).

You duped me, O lord, and I let myself be duped! Jeremiah’s words are now on Peter’s lips. What was true for Jeremiah is also true for Peter. Peter may have been duped, but there is no turning back. Life without Jesus would be no life at all. He may still have a lot to learn, even the basic meaning of discipleship, but the truth emerging is that for Peter to live is Christ and to die is gain, as Paul will say when he faces his own death.

People can come to Christ from various motives as they begin to walk with him on The Way. That walking takes time for the walking to be formational. Inevitably that walking necessitates denying self and giving up presuppositions. That walking must be in Jesus’ footsteps in order to learn lessons from watching over his shoulder and doing what Jesus does. Those who aspire to discipleship must accept being vulnerable. Jesus’ values are not the world’s values. This call to discipleship is not about power, but service, about serving the poorest of the poor and giving them primacy of place.

Pope Francis, from the first moments of his papacy, has been echoing this call as he urges reform in the church. Make no mistake about it. It is reform Francis is preaching when he yearns for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. How else do you interpret his pleading with the hierarchy to get out and walk among the people and even smell like them? Let their shoes get muddy in the walking. Francis has put aside the splendid trappings of popes past. He has said that he is not over anyone, but stands beside. He wants the bishops to do the same, as they become those who stand in the midst as ones who serve.

Discipleship entails welcoming all and gathering with them at the Table to give thanks to God – the word Eucharist means thanksgiving. There, dying and rising happen as the Assembly breaks Bread and shares the Cup and is transformed into the Body of Christ in order to be sent to be broken and distributed until all the poor have been fed and lifted up. Being vulnerable servants might entail dying, too. It did for Jesus. It will for Peter. It does for all those who follow Jesus.

Don’t miss the promise. For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to their conduct. I think of St. Ignatius of Antioch who, as bishop, urged his people not to try to dissuade him from the Martyrdom, the lion’s jaws that awaited him. His plea was for them to let him be ground like wheat in the lions’ jaws, an allusion to the flour from which the Eucharistic Bread would be kneaded. For Ignatius, the death of martyrdom was not defeat but victory in Christ. So must it be for all who follow Christ. We may not be cast to the lions, but we may be abased in our service.

Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t how it is supposed to be. Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t the lesson to be learned and taken to heart by all those who let themselves be duped by the message.

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

THE TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – August 24, 2014

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 22:19-23

A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans 11:33-36

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 16:13-20

 

 

Over the past few weeks we have noted two groups represented in the Gospels – one the crowds and the other the disciples. We have come to see that what differentiates the two groups is that the crowds watch what Jesus does and listen to what he says and wonder about him. The disciples, on the other hand, have made the decision to follow Jesus. In this week’s Gospel, Jesus presses for a clarification about the decision disciples have made.

At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ reputation has spread throughout the land, even through the region of Caesarea Philippi. We can take from the name of the region that there must have been a strong Roman influence in this place that was some distance from Galilee. Think about what we have witnessed in the proclamations of the last several Sundays. Jesus fed the 5000 with a few loaves and a couple of fish and had 12 baskets of fragments left over. Jesus came to the disciples walking on the water through a violent storm. Jesus had the mission-altering conversation with the Canaanite woman. In light of all this now hear the question Jesus asks his disciples: Who do people say that the Son of Man is?

Each year we, as Church, make a journey through Ordinary Time via the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, or Luke. We also hear from John’s Gospel from time to time. Some of us have been making this faith-journey for many years; from the moment we died with Jesus in the Waters of the Font and rose to live Christ’s life. Some of us found faith as adults and have been making the journey for some years now. And others of us are making this journey for the first time in a decision making process called the Catechumenate. For all of us the journey through Ordinary Time affords us the opportunity to deepen and strengthen our faith; or rather, to be influenced by the Spirit and so be strengthened.

Who do people say that the Son of man is? The Son of Man simply means I. Jesus is asking: Who do people say that I am? What have you heard? Taking in all that the people are saying, what is there decision? That is what Jesus asks the disciples. There is no question that people recognize Jesus’ greatness. Look at the company into which they have placed him – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. That is another way of saying that the people, the crowds, recognize that God worked through these giants in the tradition and they suspect that God is working through Jesus now. Remember what the Canaanite woman called Jesus last week. She had observed. She had listened. She had decided. She called him Lord.

Notice that that litany of conclusions the crowds has come to about Jesus are like facets of a wondrous gem. And notice that Jesus does not deny any one of them. But it is not enough to know what others think. Who do you who have been with me for this time, you who have witnessed the miracles and heard me preach and teach, who do you say that I am? How have the signs spoken to you? Would you believe that that is the question each of us must answer each time the Gospel is proclaimed, each time we assemble, and each time we celebrate Eucharist. That decision makes all the difference in the world.

Peter speaks for the disciples: You are the Christ (the Messiah) the Son of the Living God. Peter’s conclusion is that Jesus is the one God has sent, the one anointed by God as David was, the one Isaiah promised in the first reading as the one who will establish God’s reign. In other words, Peter declares that Jesus is the embodiment of all of Israel’s dreams and aspirations, especially as they apply to deliverance from foreign rule. Through Jesus the people will be free again. The disciples will share in the splendor. Well, perhaps.

It is important to note that the decision made is beyond the powers of our own ability to make. The Spirit inspires. Grace empowers. Every day Paul marveled at the experience of that reality in his own life, from the initial encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus until the day he died. He knew, as he said, that no one can say Jesus is Lord except in the Holy Spirit.

Jesus marvels at Peter’s statement. What he has said is beyond mere human powers to discern. Jesus’ heavenly Father revealed the truth to Peter. And it will be that witness that will be the foundation for the Church Jesus establishes. By the way, don’t miss the important name change in this passage. Simon becomes Petrus and the name means rock. You are Peter and upon this rock (Petrus) I will build my church. And look how strong it will be and how long it will last.

Now why do you suppose Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone that he was the Christ? Most likely it is because Peter and the rest had to come to a deeper understanding of what kind of Messiah, what kind of Christ, Jesus would prove to be. There might not be the splendor that they hoped for. There might not be the kind of earthly kingdom they wanted to see established. There would be the rejection, the condemnation, and the crucifixion. How cam these things happen to the Messiah? To the Christ?

They won’t understand until the Resurrection.

As the Baptized we gather in the mystery that is Jesus. Our actions translate our understanding of that Mystery. Each of us must profess that faith through what we say and do. As church we must profess that faith through what we say and do in response to the proclaimed Word. We celebrate Eucharist. We give thanks to the heavenly Father through the renewing of Jesus’ dying and rising. By invoking the Spirit the transformation goes on, the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, the Assembly into that same Body and Blood. And strengthened in the decision we have made about Jesus through the meal we share, we are sent to be sign so that others may come to know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

But as we will see next week, sometimes saying it is just the beginning. We may have a long way to go before we understand what kind of Messiah (Christ) Jesus is and what that will mean for believers.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – August 17, 2014

 

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 56:1, 6-7

A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans 11:13-15, 29-32

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 14:21-28

 

Some people, even some Catholics among them are not comfortable with the word catholic. They are much more comfortable with protestant or sectarian, at least in practice. You might have heard the grumbling when Pope Francis said that even atheists could get into heaven. God’s love is all embracing. To be catholic is to be universal. Like it or not, God is catholic. Granted, that might not seem clear in the early books of Hebrew Scripture when God is busy about calling and forming the Jews as a people set apart as God’s own. Many are the mandates of separatism that can quickly translate into elitism. Ritual impurity could be incurred through mere contact with Gentiles. Living in fidelity to God’s Law results in a relationship between the Jews and God that will make all the other nations marvel.

Then come proclamations of the catholic call such as that found in today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah. That is especially true if you read the skipped verses of the text that include even the formally and formerly excluded eunuchs with the foreigners.   Through Isaiah, the Lord invites all of them to enter into this relationship of love celebrated in formal worship and through lives lived in fidelity to the Covenant. The burnt offerings and sacrifices of these once unclean will be acceptable on God’s altar. My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Jesus had to change his mind; or rather, he had to grow in the understanding of what the Father had sent him to do. There is no shortage of quotes in the early stages of Jesus’ ministry that state clearly that he knew that he was sent for the lost sheep of the House of Israel. In proclaiming the Good News, his initial intent is to restore fervor to the faith life of the Jews. At the start, Jesus would have been careful about incurring ritual impurity, that is, rendering himself unable to enter into temple worship. That impurity could happen through mere contact with foreigners or any other class of people declared unclean. Hear tax collectors, lepers, and sinners.

Then comes the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel. Translate Canaanite foreigner, and foreigner, unclean and you will see the power in their exchange. The woman comes to Jesus in the midst of a crowd and in desperation. Her daughter is tormented by a demon. It doesn’t matter whether this refers to the daughter’s being possessed by the devil or her being ravished by some other disease. In the mother’s eyes the situation is catastrophic.

The woman is not self-conscious, much less is she concerned by what her neighbors will think of her when she cries out to get Jesus’ attention as she informs him of her plight. It should be painful to hear that Jesus pays her no heed even as she persists. She irritates the disciples who seem to feel no inclination to respond to her concerns. They want Jesus to get rid of her, putting it crassly, to get her to shut up. That’s how we would say it today. Remember the situation the disciples discerned prior to the feeding of the 5000? They were confronted by a great need then and again their request was that Jesus send the crowd away so their needs could be met elsewhere and by themselves. This time, however, Jesus doesn’t tell them to do something themselves. Ignoring the woman, Jesus states that his call is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But the woman persists and calls him Lord. Then she adds: please help me!

What follows is the most hurtful reply Jesus makes in all of the Gospels. It is cruel. And again, were we not so familiar with the text, we would wince. It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs. Hear what he is calling her. But the woman is undismayed and turns the insult to her own advantage, reminding Jesus that even if she is a dog, dogs get the leftovers from their masters’ tables. Wow! And, in effect, that is what Jesus says, too. He recognizes that in this foreigner he has found the faith response that he has been searching for from the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And Jesus assures this giant of faith that she is not a dog but a woman and the crumb she seeks has been given to her. Her daughter is healed.

This becomes a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry. From here on out his preaching becomes catholic. From this point on he will speak to tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans and Canaanites. He will even share meals with them, welcoming sinners and eating with them. Jesus begins to reflect the catholicity of God’s love. That should be a comfort to most of us who are Gentiles. If his vision had remained unchanged despite the Canaanite woman’s plea, we would be outside the pale of those called to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

Dare I ask you to reflect on how catholic you are? Before you answer, think a moment. Whom do you think should be called to the table? Or, who should be excluded? A great scandal on the Church’s part in various ages including our own is the willingness to exclude. It is not the prerogative of any minister of Eucharist to refuse Communion to anyone who presents him/herself in the Communion Procession. I hope we cringe when we remember how recently in our history Catholic churches were segregated and not just in the south. Harlem had that experience too. Move beyond racism to any other classifications into which people are sorted. Would you stand in Communion with gays, lesbians and transsexuals? With conservatives or liberals, depending on which side of the aisle you see yourself?

Here’s something you might not think about. How accessible is the worship space to the disabled? Could a wheelchair user proclaim from the Ambo? Could a deaf person hear the proclamation of the word? Is there a signer to ensure that the deaf hear? Could someone with cerebral palsy usher or be a greeter?

Why do you think that Pope Francis is calling for a poorer church to serve the poor? Why is he living in a simple space and inviting street people to breakfast with him? The feet he washed on Holy Thursday scandalized some. Why do you think Francis is urging the clergy to minister among the people and even smell like them? He said it well when he told the people that he is not over them, but along side them, equal with them as they are with him.

The challenge today remains the same as it has been from the beginning. Love. Love one another as I have loved you. Love with a love that expresses itself in service. Love with a love that is universal. It is that love that brings the Kingdom Jesus promised, the kingdom for whose coming we pray each time we say: Our Father.

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

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