Archive for September, 2006|Monthly archive page

The Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – B: October 1, 2006

Numbers 11:25-29
James 5:1-6
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

Dear Jesus,

Sometimes, I sit and stare at the blank page before me wondering what I should write to you. My thoughts flicker like glints from crushed foil in the setting sun. Your word echoes in the caverns of my mind, ricocheting about, seeking a target. The target? My heart to be changed and conformed to your word. But how? Is it something that I am reluctant to see or admit? Is it a change called for that I might be unwilling to make? Or is it simply a lack of understanding on my part, a failure to grasp what you are saying? This gospel pericope causes that kind of confusion.

I don’t identify with the problem John puts before you, any more than I understand Joshua’s irritation at Eldad and Medad’s prophesying giving evidence that the spirit found them even though they were not in the official gathering when the outpouring occurred. What kind of jealousy is this? Of what are they afraid? You have said so often that we cannot understand how abundantly God’s mercy flows over us, how lavishly God loves us. Yet it seems that some recipients of that love and mercy want to contain it, to be masters of it, limiting its flow and controlling those over whom they wash. Joshua was concerned about Moses’ reputation and John, about yours. At least that what it seems.

Has every age had those who want to restrict your word, those who insist that there is only one way to follow you, one narrow path that leads to God? Aren’t you saying that neither your word nor God’s will can be confined? It is mystery beyond our capacity to comprehend. Whenever and wherever there is evidence of the fruit of your word or the following of God’s will, we ought to rejoice and give thanks. Witch hunts and burnings at the stake are the results of that kind of jealousy that seeks to stop the prophesying of those outside the fold, the unofficial driving out of demons in your name. And in earlier times, stonings. But you know that from the times the officials threatened to stone you.

Are you challenging me to make sure that I don’t think there is only one way to do things, one way to proclaim the message, one way to put the Good News into practice? Grace cannot be leashed nor doled out stingily. God’s Spirit blows where it will, achieving its manifold effects, drawing all to God’s love.

At first, I thought it was difficult to bring the two parts of this gospel together. The language turns grim now. You put down ultimatums. I cringe hearing you demand the cutting off of hands, the gouging out of eyes, the cutting off of feet. I read a sad story about a young man who took these words literally and because of some experience of personal sin or temptation that seemed overwhelming did cut off his hand. Fundamentalists would say if that’s what the word says then that’s what the word means. But I wonder if you do not use the harsh language to shock and so make me understand that I can never be content with my response to the gospel, I can never say that the work is finished.

Scandal is a terrible thing. To act in such a way that would lead another into sin is reprehensible. Please Lord, you know that I would never want to do anything like that. So, then, are you challenging me to examine my own conscience and find what there is in my life that keeps me from a total conversion, a total response to your word? What am I attached to that keeps me from following you? Why am I envious? What will I have to give up if I reach out to someone who is in need? How vulnerable will I be if I follow your command to shelter the homeless and clothe the naked and do all of those other corporal works of mercy that manifest the coming of your reign. Can’t I be content to love the lovable and minister to those who are safe and sane?

The scandal will come if I refuse to love as you love regardless of the consequences. But if I do I might have to accept the same consequences that you did. What if no one understands? What if I wind up on the cross? Is that the risk I must run and the extent that you expect me to go if I would be your disciple? I can’t do that without you. I know my weaknesses and limitations. But then if I give myself over completely to you, what isn’t possible – even for me and even if you are the only one who understands?

Sincerely,

Didymus

The Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time B: Sept. 24, 2006

Wisdom 2:12, 17-20
James 3:16-4:3
Mark 9:30-37

Dear Jesus,

Sometimes, when things get too heavy, I find myself wanting to hide, to get away from what feels so oppressive. When painful implications that seem to demand more than I can give, strength beyond my capacity, emerge before me I crave distraction – music, noise, laughter, a game – anything that will keep me from having to face what is looming before me.

Was that what was going on with the disciples on that journey when you were trying to teach about your impending betrayal, death and resurrection? Weren’t they just beginning to understand that you are the Messiah, the long awaited one who would deliver Israel? Peter, James and John had been with you on the mountaintop and seen your glory. And the rest had heard the father of the boy possessed by the mute spirit tell you that he believed even as he asked for help for his lack of trust. Then they saw your power over the evil spirit that had possessed the lad.

I can imagine their excitement as they experienced the elation that came with what seemed to them the very real prospect of an end to foreign rule and their oppression. Your reign would accomplish that. And yet you talk about suffering. You talk about being handed over. You talk about death. That’s too much to grapple with. No wonder they wanted to think about something else, even something as mundane as the rewards that would come to them as inside favorites of the one seated on the throne.

Is that the part of the Good News that is most often and in every age misunderstood and even ignored? It is comforting to think of you enthroned in glory with symbols of authority, the royal crown, the scepter, all these adorning you enrobed in raiment of gold. It is tempting to think that if I follow you, the gold will be mine. It is tempting to imagine ruling in your name. It is tantalizing to dream of the increase that might come my way because I give my life over to you. Those are tantalizing thoughts, but are they also temptations to avoid the implications of your central call, your challenge to imitate you?

The powerful do not imitate you, do they? Those who lord it over others and at the same time call themselves Christian have missed the lesson you were trying to teach that day on the way. I have thought about the history of the Church. Am I correct in concluding that, in every age that the Church was powerful, corruption followed? I think of St. Francis making his way to Rome to rebuild your Church. The Church wasn’t in ruins then. Nor was the Church poor. This was the era of the Holy Roman Empire, the Papal States. The pope wore a triple crown, the tiara from which beauty queens’ crowns take their name. Then what was Francis rebuilding? You asked him to call the Church back to this basic lesson of simplicity, poverty, and service. The exemplar that you used was a little child’s trust. Those who wish to rank first must remain the last ones of all and the servants of all. Even the pope is to be called the servant of the servants of God.

But in what are we to trust if we follow you? Does it have something to do with recognizing the futility of trusting in visible powers? In the Book of Wisdom, the wicked said, Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for according to his own words, God will take care of him. That’s what you embody, that kind of trust that defies trust in worldly power and might, in the power that comes from wealth or might. You invite us to taste powerlessness as you did when you hung on the cross. Those who scoffed saw you beaten and broken, overwhelmed by Death. But God raised you up. God delivered you. Are you challenging us to be so vulnerable, to so stoop in service before all others, that the world will judge us failures like you so that like you we will experience the vindication of our God and like you be lifted up?

Help me please. There is so little evidence of this kind of living in the church. So many are about power, clinging to the trappings of power. But I see the beggars, the children living with AIDS, the women and young girls being enslaved for others’ pleasure, those crying out in the streets for relief from the scourges of war. How can I go there? I shudder to think that they are the ones who live your dying with nothing else to hope in but your rising and the God who raised you up. They trust like the child you embraced. I want to trust in the same way and so serve them. But I know that I cannot do that unless you strengthen my trust.

Sincerely,

Didymus

The Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – B: September 17, 2006

Isaiah 50:4C-9A
James 2:14-18
Mark 8:27-35

Dear Jesus,

My hand trembles as I write to you this evening. A candle burns before the open Scriptures on a table near me, the flame sending shadows dancing on the walls of my room. I find myself staring at the candle as the wax melts and is consumed to provide the flickering light. How long did I sit with the text? I don’t even remember what I was thinking about when in a moment I became aware of a chill encircling me jarring me to consciousness. Was it your voice I heard asking me if I dared to take this reading to heart and not make accommodations to make it more palatable and less demanding in its implications? And before I could censor my thoughts to make them more acceptable to you, I wondered should I take these words at face value, what would there be left for me? What will I get out of being with you on the way?

That sounds crass, doesn’t it? I am ashamed that those were my thoughts. And, after all, what is this cross that you say I must pick up every day if I am to follow you? What is the self that I must deny?

You know that I live by a fairly decent moral code. I’m not guilty of the major sins that so many others commit with little sense of guilt. I admit I am a sinner. Who isn’t? But my sins aren’t all that serious. What are my ambitions? They’re not too lofty. I don’t want to lord authority over anyone. But I would like reasonable wealth so that my future is reasonably secure. Would you fault me about any of this? Then, why am I so uneasy in this candle’s glow?

Did I think about benefits that would come to me if I followed you? Surely I wasn’t crass enough to calculate that with you would come health, wealth, and security besides. I think in my naïveté all I could think about was you. I was young then and possibilities were limitless.

You ask, who do you say that I am? I can say yes with Peter that you are the Christ. But now in these shadows I wonder what kind of Christ? The question that I am afraid to ask you is, with Peter what do I have to learn about you as I watch over your shoulder? And even as I ask, I am afraid that I received the beginning of the answer in that chilling moment of waking. Because whatever I learn I must do. To know you with love, I am compelled to imitate you.

When you spoke of going to Jerusalem to suffer and die Peter reacted in horror, in part for you, and in part for the threat to the aspirations he thought would be realized through you when you revealed to the world your Messiahship, worldly as his understanding of Messiah was. You raged against him with a power that goes beyond what our word rebuke connotes. I would not ever want to feel that rage directed toward me. So I am asking you to help me understand what I must do and what I must aspire to become if I am to be your faithful disciple, if I am to be a Christian. Dare I ask you to help me to do it? Will I be able to embrace what I fear you are saying leaving no wiggle room for equivocation or compromise?

Perhaps, I have been listening even if I fear the lessons’ implications. There is no escaping suffering on the Christian walk, no escaping the Cross. What does it mean to embrace the cross each day? I wonder if in the beginning the embracing means to accept my human limitations and unrealized dreams, to accept the limits of my talents and strengths, to accept that I am finite and will die. But that line of thinking can become very self-centered and maudlin. When you take up the Cross, it is humankind’s sufferings you take up to destroy their power through your dying and rising. Is that what I must learn to do? Is that all to which I can aspire? Do I have to embrace others’ sufferings as my own and only then find you?

Then, I am vulnerable as you were. My stomach retched that day as I sat at the bedside of my friend watching the drool drip from his lips while the smells emanating from his cancer-riddled esophagus and jaw wafted about me, stifling me. I wanted to run from the room and find fresh air to breathe. His eyes welled with tears and he asked me to hold him because he was afraid. Please hold me. Instead of running I sat on his bed and put my arms around him. He leaned into me and his head rested on my chest. I felt the drool on my hand as I kissed his forehead and told him I loved him.

From what deep recesses did that memory emerge? Did you inspire it to remind me that embracing the Cross means to declare no suffering is forever, no death, eternal; not my friend’s and not my own? To follow you is about dying. Yes. But is also about knowing we will rise with you and share your glory. Thank you for reminding me. Help me not to be afraid and know that you share the burden even as you promise the reward.

Sincerely,

Didymus