TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – October 15, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 25:6-10a
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 22:1-14

Dear Reader.

Always remember that we experience The Living Word of God each Sunday as the Liturgy of the Word washes over us.  The historical context of each reading has a bearing on our interpretation.  But, too, the readings impact us in the here and now, as each of us hears them in his/her lived situation.

Isaiah prophesied to a people broken and in exile, a people burdened with the memory of their beloved Jerusalem in ruins, a people enslaved with heavy judgments on their heads.  Hear the Prophet in that context and imagine the elation if you believed the promise that God would act in that way in your life, not only that God would treat you to a lush banquet, but also would wash away your shame and restore your dignity.  Hear of rich food and choice wines.  If you were half starved and such a menu the stuff of distant memory, wouldn’t those words ring in your consciousness?  You might even find yourself salivating.  On the other hand, if you have never been tempted to despair in a situation that seemed hopeless, never been hungry, if you have never been the object of reproach, or never wept the tears of the pariah, Isaiah’s words might strike you as lush poetry, the vision fanciful, but your heart might not be touched.

If you dare to admit to the vulnerable you, or to call up painful memories of rejection or betrayal, or of anything you fear, you will find also a longing for deliverance and the end of the tyranny of those things you remember or fear, even if the only thing you fear is death.  At the same time, your compassionate heart may be touched by the images of a war-torn people crying out in anguish as they pull their children from the rubble and as they bury their dead.  You might be brought to tears as you see images of children, covered with flies, too weak to flick them away because the little ones are starving to death.  Again, you might have watched recent footage of people whose homes were blown away in the might of hurricanes Harvey, Jose, or Maria.  Holding these broken ones up in prayer will make Isaiah’s words resonate as you are reminded of the faithful God who delivers and saves.

Paul, grateful to the Philippians whose generosity has been poured out to help meet his needs, reminds his benefactors that he has seen both sides.  He knows what it is like to be poor.  He remembers times when he lived with abundance.  He knows what it is like to be starving, even as he relishes memories of having been well fed.  God graces the good times and is the source of all blessings, just as God is his strength in times of desperation.  In all of these memories, Paul gives thanks for the constancy of the Philippians and their generosity there for him in the good times and the bad.   He tells them that God remembers, too, and will reward their generosity in God’s great gift that is Christ Jesus.  To our God and Father, glory forever and ever.  Amen.

We come to Matthew’s Gospel and listen to Jesus as he tells the parable that begins: The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son.  In its historical context the parable may well speak of the generosity of God’s grace in calling a people to be God’s own.  The parable may also speak of that people’s infidelity and their cruelty to the Prophets who delivered God’s message to the people.  This is tantamount to the chosen rejecting the invitation to the banquet.  In the face of their rejecting the invitation and the violence done to the servants, the Prophets, who tried to deliver the invitation to the banquet, the king becomes enraged with the people and destroys their city.  The parable may well have been written with the Fall of Jerusalem in mind and taken as a sign that God has rejected the Jews who had thrown Jesus’ followers out of the synagogue, just as they had rejected Jesus.  The Gentiles who have accepted Jesus are now the recipients of the invitation.

That may well be the historical context and the sufferings of those first believers may explain the theme of rejection in the parable; but the idea that God has rejected the Jews must be banished from our thoughts, even as we banish thoughts of a vengeful God in the person of the king.

If we stand in awe of the gift of faith that is ours, of that grace that enables us to recognize Jesus as Lord, and the universality of God’s love, of that invitation to come to the Table where we celebrate Eucharist, then we hear the message that can assist our ongoing transformation in Christ.

If we have any sense of our own unworthiness, any sense of being loved by God far beyond our worth, then we begin to get the point.

I urge you to think of that moment when you first came to faith, when you first could say: I believe.  The difference between all that followed that moment from what preceded it is the proverbial difference between day and night.  Do you remember your joy when you knew that God meant all of this for you and that Jesus had called you by name and said: Come follow me?  You responded with a fearful but firm, yes.  Again, proverbially speaking, that has made all the difference in the world.

But what about the poor wretch who came into the banquet without a wedding garment and then was thrown out into the exterior darkness as a result?  Is the offense the same as that committed by a gentleman’s showing up at a fine restaurant without a jacket and tie?  On one level, perhaps.  It is quite possible that something far more important and significant is involved here.

As you come through the main entrance of the church into the worship space, your first encounter ought to be with the Baptismal Font that is strategically placed on the axis line between the entrance and the Altar.  The symbolism ought to be obvious.  There is only one way to the Table and that is through the Font.  What happens in the Font?  The person being baptized enters what can be called both a tomb and a womb.  The one responding to the invitation enters the abundant waters to die to selfishness and whatever is of sin, to be reborn into a new life that is union with Christ.  Coming out of the water, as a sign of having put on Christ, that one is clothed in a white robe – in the parable, a wedding garment.  The decision to accept the invitation to come to the Table has to be major and life altering.  Through the Font is the only way to be initiated into this communion of believers.  To enter into Eucharist otherwise makes no sense and is a contradiction.

We don’t have to dwell on the final words of rejection of the one without the wedding garment.  He also stands for those who refuse to change their lives, refuse to repent.  They should make the decision themselves before they approach the Table.  In our tradition, that decision is theirs.  No minister should presume to make the decision for them, that is, refuse them access to Communion.

For our part, we rejoice in the call that is ours, and each day say yes to the grace of ongoing conversion that is offered us in the Eucharist.  We have been clothed in the wedding garment.  The challenge is to live the reality signified by the robe.  We have put on Christ.  In him we have been baptized.  Our every action should begin in him and proceed through him, as an expression of God’s love that comes to us through Christ.

So, never forget that in Baptism you are identified with Christ.  God loves you with the same love that God has for Christ.  I heard one preacher say that God can’t tell the difference between the baptized and Christ.  Be that as it may.  All the more important that we strive to correspond to that grace and live the life that is ours in the One in whom we have been baptized.  That means that we have to be willing to love as Christ loves.  Every one.  Every day.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

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TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – October 08, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 5:1-7
A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians 4:6-9
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 21:33-43

What links the first read from the Prophet Isaiah and the reading from Matthew’s Gospel should be clear.  The presenting image in both is The Vineyard.  As obvious as is the connection, we must be careful about the conclusions we draw.  We must place ourselves in the readings, hear them addressed to us, and then see how we interpret them.  I’ll bet the judgment implied in each softens immediately.

Isaiah’s song about his friend’s vineyard sings of disappointment.  All precautions had been taken.  The friend (God) built the protective surrounding wall around the choicest vines he had planted in the richest soil.  Guards watched to fend off marauders.  The winepress awaited the expected lush crop.  The friend had done everything right.  The result” Wild grapes, sour and worthless.  The heartbroken friend intends to abandon the vineyard, tear down the wall and let the boars graze there.

The Prophet sings to a weakened, unobservant people.  This same people, the chosen ones, the vineyard, God lead out of slavery and gave them the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.  God entrusted his name to them.  All the people had to do was be God’s people and let God be their God.  That meant to live in relationship with God, to observe the law that would spell out a lifestyle that would make all other people marvel.  No other people had a relationship with their gods as Israel had with YHWH.  Certainly Israel would have nothing to do with pagan ways.  Shouldn’t that have been obvious?

Ah, but now Israel is compromised, the result, a weakened people.  If the people heard the Prophet, they could have an opportunity for clear hindsight.  When they had been faithful they were strong.  Their infidelity weakened them and left them vulnerable, able to be conquered and enslaved.  The Babylonian Captivity could be God’s judgment on their faithlessness.  They had become wild grapes.

It would be easy to conclude from the prophecy that God would abandon Israel and give up on this people once called Chosen.   There are those who would endorse that interpretation.  But YHWH is a faithful God.  Even if the people wander away, God’s love remains.  When the Babylonian Captivity ended and Israel returned home to Jerusalem, they rejoiced.   They heard the Prophet, recognized their shortcomings and repented.

The Jews will always be the Chosen People of God.  St. John Paul II’s prayer of apology and atonement for abuses inflicted by the Church on the Jewish people attested to that conviction.  Pope Francis condemns anti-Semitism and reaches out to the Jewish people, openly boasting of close friendships with a Rabbi.

What we need to heed in Isaiah’s Song is the call to repentance.

There is a bit of a different slant to the Vineyard parable that Jesus tells in this week’s Gospel.  This time, it isn’t the grapes that go bad.  This time the tenants forget that they are tenants.  The landowner entrusts the vineyard to them, expecting that they yield will be turned over to him when harvest time comes.  With mounting hostility, the tenants reject the successive servants who come to collect the produce – one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned.  Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way.  We see in the rich imagery Israel’s history.  The landowner’s servants are the prophets sent to proclaim God’s word to the people.  What should have been the result of each prophecy?  Change of heart.  A welcoming of the word.  Repentance.  The fate of the prophets often times was to be beaten, stoned, and killed.

The landowner, as a last resort, and with confidence that the emissary will be received with reverence and respect, sends his son.  But they beat him, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him.  We see Jesus, beaten, crowned with thorns, led outside the walls of Jerusalem, and crucified.  The parable is Jesus’ prediction of his impending suffering and death.

Perhaps the Gospel writer composed this parable following the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD.  People could look on that event and interpret it as God’s judgment.  The relationship between Jewish Christians and their ancestors in faith had become increasingly strained.  They were considered to be a heretical sect and were being thrown out of the synagogues.  Some were being arrested and punished for following the New Way.  The growing numbers of Christians witnessing the Fall of Jerusalem could interpret that vent as sign that God had rejected the Jews and put those wretched men to a wretched death.  Again, there is no shortage of people who would endorse that interpretation.

It is authentic Church teaching that Israel and the Jewish people are God’s chosen people for all time and eternity.  The Church did not supplant Israel to become the new chosen people.  Ours is a favor by adoption.  Jesus fulfilled Israel’s vocation of fidelity to God’s will.  We share in that fulfillment through our Baptism into Christ.  We are the adopted children of God through our identity with Jesus Christ.  Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, himself a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, condemned the idea of God’s rejection of the Jews.  And so must we.

Then what are we to take from the parable?  Most obviously, we ought to be sure that we do not act like the tenants in Matthew’s parable, much less become the wild grapes in Isaiah’s prophetic proclamation.  There is no acceptable excuse for not being what we are called to be.  There is no acceptable excuse for living other than as God’s children, holy and beloved.  That is why we are a Eucharistic people who renew the Lord’s dying and rising, giving thanks to God for the favor that is ours in Christ.  Paul sums it up for us in his directive in the second reading.  Forgive me if I quote it here in its entirety.

Brothers and sisters,

Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, / By prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, / Make your requests known to God. / Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding/ Will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, / Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, / Whatever is just, whatever is pure, / Whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, / If there is any excellence/ If there is anything worthy of praise, / Think about these things. / Keep on doing what you have learned and received/ And heard and seen in me. / Then the God of peace will be with you.

Sincerely,

Didymus

TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – October 1, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 18:25-28
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2:1-11
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 21:28-32

Dear Reader,

If Jesus walked the land today, who would be numbered among his friends?  What types would they be?  From what class?  Certainly some of them would be the ordinary decent and hard-working types similar to those he invited to leave their nets, follow him and become fishers of people.  They weren’t extraordinary in many cases, but they had good hearts and proved to be fascinated by the tales he told.

There would be others with whom he would be seen, with whom he would practice table fellowship and break bread.  These associations would inspire scandal among the elite and those who felt no need for forgiveness.

The challenge, as we sit under the readings for this Sunday, is to determine where we would place ourselves.  On which side would we be?

To be moved by Ezekiel’s prophecy in the first reading, and by the questions Jesus poses in the Gospel, one has to have a sense of being a sinner, or at least a compassion for those who are sinners.  The judgmental will be left cold, just as were the chief priests and elders who confronted Jesus about his authority.  They were scandalized because prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners were known to have dined with Jesus.

The first reading and the Gospel hold up to us the possibility of conversion.  Ezekiel points out that conversion can go in opposite directions.  The sinner can see the light, as they say, and begin to follow virtue’s path.  One can grow weary of virtue and take up the ways of the sinner.  There are consequences for both – favor with God for the virtuous one and death for the one who embraces evil.  Hebrew Scripture is very clear about the link between sin, suffering and death, and between virtue and life and prosperity.  Be careful what conclusions you take from this.

As I write, Harvey is pummeling Houston and a major swath of Texas with hurricane-force winds and a deluge of rain causing widespread destruction and thousands having to evacuate.  Will a televangelist see this disaster as God’s punishment on Texans, the way they did when a similar disaster hit Haiti?  Is this the God Jesus announces and in whom we believe?

In the Gospel it is supposedly the righteous, the chief priests and the elders, those who have no felt need for repentance, much less for mercy, who are judgmental regarding those they deem to be sinners.  They want to trap Jesus and find faults with which to charge him.  They do not understand his mission.  They are scandalized, not only by the company he keeps, but by his seeming disregard for prescripts of the Law.  He and some of his disciples had been seen eating without first washing their hands.  To the scandalized, Jesus said: A man had two sons.  Each is asked by his father to work in the vineyard.  One refuses but later regrets his refusal and goes into the vineyard to work.  The second pleases his father with an affirmative response but in turn does not do the work.  Which of the two did the father’s will?  The hook is baited and dangles.  They bite.  Their answer?  The one who at first said No but later did the work.

Things are seldom what they seem.  Skimmed mild masquerades as cream.  Gilbert and Sullivan are the source of that observation.  It is apt here.  Jesus looks for the genuine article evidenced by the acceptance of the graced invitation to change one’s life and live the law of love.

Paul, the Apostle, in the reading from the Letter to the Philippians is one of those who once persecuted the infant church, but having encountered Christ and heard him, changed his life.  If there is any encouragement in Christ (for me writing to you from prison) any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.  In order for that to happen, each person must do what Paul did in imitation of Jesus.  People must empty themselves as Jesus did taking the form of a slave…becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Conversion is that kind of emptying.  The annals of the saints are filled with stories of conversions.  Augustine stands in the forefront of those who could say: Late have I loved you.  Ignatius of Loyola, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, and countless others all had moments of encounter with Jesus and their lives were never the same again.  They, like the tax collectors and prostitutes Jesus had in mind, had said no to the Father’s directive to work in the vineyard, but later said, yes.  It would be easy to judge them in their original mien and consign them to perdition, as the chief priests and elders were wont to do.  But Jesus uses them as judgment against their accusers, those who had said yes but then refused to do the work.

Think of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, saints, I believe, of the last century.  Each knew what it meant to be a sinner with sins quite unacceptable to most.  Each came to profess faith and die in the Waters of Baptism and rise to lives of compassion and service of the poor.  Some judge them to be unworthy of ever being considered for sainthood.

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them, is the accusation made against Jesus.  This became the charge that justified his crucifixion.  Would that today that same charge could be leveled against the Church, the body of Christ.  This is not to say, come and stay in your sin, much less to deny the reality of sin.  Rather, it is to say, come and find your way out of the darkness of sin into the light that is the imitation of Christ.

We, who are sinners and know what it means to be forgiven, gather around the Table of the Word.  There we are nourished and challenged to deeper conversion in a process that ends only with the end of this life.

We gather around the Table of the Eucharist to give thanks to God in the renewing of Jesus’ dying and rising that continues his pouring out of self in love for all who would recognize their own emptiness.  Take and eat.  Take and drink.  There is transformation in the celebration of the Mystery that is Eucharist.  Bread and wine become Christ’s Body and Blood.  The people gathered are transformed into Christ’s presence, too.  The Church is the Body of Christ, to quote Vatican Council II.

Who are the chief priests and elders among us today?  I don’t know that that question is as important as my examination of my own conscience to ensure that their attitudes are not mine.  Those who would be judgmental have the Lord to answer to.  If they are numbered among the baptized, they are asked to go into the vineyard to be ambassadors of love and forgiveness, to build up God’s Kingdom symbolized by the vineyard.  None was called to reign.  All were called to serve, not to lord it over, but to abase themselves in imitation of Christ who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself.  And so should we that Christ might become all and all in us.

Sincerely,

Didymus