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THE THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C: July 1, 2007

1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21
Galatians 5:1, 13-18
Luke 9:51-62

Dear Jesus,

This whole question of vocation is troubling. That’s the basic theme in this Sunday’s readings, isn’t it? The call, the invitation to follow you, to be a disciple is daunting. I begin to see that there is no other vocation like it. I mean, a person can sense an inclination to be a doctor, or a lawyer, a teacher or a rock star. A number of motives can support that inclination. And one can set out on the path to the realization of the imagined goal, try it, and depending on the sense of satisfaction derived from the doing, continue in the discipline or change and do something else. But that is not the way it is with you. Those you call aren’t given options. Oh, they can say yes or no. It is an invitation, after all. But if they, or rather, if I say yes, that yes has to be absolute without reservation, nothing held back, because this invitation isn’t about doing something or even about going somewhere. This yes alters my very being.

What is curious, at least as the vocation stories are presented in the Gospel, is what is not said. There is no indication about how well those summoned know you. Obviously, these would not be first encounters. But how much do they know? How much of the story have they heard? Have they seen miracles? Or, have they been loved for the first time in their lives by your followers striving to love others as they have been loved?

Certainly they have no idea what following you will mean practically in their lives. What would the command to take up your cross every day possibly mean to them? Have you told them that if they follow you they will have to sell what they have, give to the poor, and only then follow you? What is clear is that with you there is no such thing as a partial acceptance, much less is an acceptable response one that is yes-and-no. A lyric from an old song comes to mind: With (you) it’s all or nothing. It’s all or nothing at all. And certainly you don’t seem to be open to the invited’s asking, what’s in it for me?

The other day, I walked the path of a prayer garden with a stranger. In retrospect, I wonder if you hadn’t arranged for our meeting. He started the conversation by asking what I thought of the place. My response was noncommittal. It was my first visit. Everything was new. I don’t think he was interested in what I thought of the garden as much as he wanted conversation, or rather, a sounding board. And so began his telling of an odyssey, of periods in his life when he thought about you and wondered about being a Christian and of periods when he was Buddhist, Hindu, and even atheist. Now he was back to thinking he liked the Christian message and its optimism. I wondered if perchance you weren’t knocking on the door, so to speak, issuing that invitation again to follow me. And I wonder, too, if the stranger’s quest will continue as long as he is sampling rather than committing, as long as he ponders from a distance rather than yields, emptying himself so that you can become all in all in him. What if the good times he expects to follow for those called Christian don’t happen?

Emptiness is hard to live with. Nature abhors a vacuum, the adage goes. But isn’t that what encountering you challenges the person to live with and so find God? The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said: The earth is charged with the grandeur of God. But that doesn’t speak of another and separate Being. Rather, isn’t Hopkins’ a recognition of an absence that all of nature, the world, and the universe reveals. The dynamic that is God is espied through the eyes of faith gazing on a reality that every creature encounters but not every creature perceives. What makes the difference? That’s what I wonder as I think about this question of vocation. Why is it that only some see what the same poet describes as the wondrous glint darting out from crushed foil shook?

I come to see that with vocation comes restlessness and longing. From the moment of invitation, you expect the response to be total and unqualified. Traditional demands that would be recognized by most everybody else serious and therefore mitigating, you do not accept as legitimate excuses making demurral understandable on the part of those you call. Yes is what you seek. An unqualified yes is what you demand. Anything less is tantamount to a refusal. Those who say, I’ll give this a try for a while, have not said yes at all. But to say yes is to enter into that absence that is a presence that only you can be.

What is the use of this musing? What is the merit of my questions? Even as I write this letter to you, I know what the outcome for me will be. Long years ago, I naively said my yes. I died with you in the waters and rose out of them with my new identity that is you. You know that I have been surprised, have even felt broadsided by the implications flowing from that response. On occasion during dark days of disappointment, I have wondered if, had I to do it over again, would I? And each time I have let my thoughts wander there, I conclude that I could never take back that yes. My heart is grateful for the call and even more so for that mysterious strengthening that empowered my yes.

When I falter, I continue to do what I have done weekly through these years. I’ll gather around your table with my brothers and sisters, fellow journeyers. Together we will be nourished by your word. Together we will enter into mystery and there break bread and share the cup. And, strengthened by the meal, we will be sent by you to continue the work until you come again.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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NATIVITY OF SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST

Isaiah 49:1-6
Acts 13:22-26
Luke 1:57-66, 80

Dear Jesus,

Aren’t there only three natal days that we celebrate in the Liturgical Calendar? Your birthday. Your mother’s. And this feast of John the Baptist’s birth. Otherwise we observe the day saints enter into glory, the day of martyrdom or death. We rejoice in fulfillment more often than we do in promise.

This feast is about promise and fulfillment and promise again. The angel, who dialoged with Zechariah and announced that John would be conceived in a womb thought to be barren, would engage your maiden mother-to-be in conversation and invite her to be open to conception by the Holy Spirit. Her aged cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy would be the sign to convince Mary of God’s will for her. Nothing is impossible for God, the angel said.

A faith walk is about believing in the promise, isn’t it? And sometimes that promise is given in dire circumstances. In the wasteland of exile and slavery, God promised a broken Israel, bereft and feeling forsaken: I will make you a light to the nations. But being a light is not only for Israel’s benefit, but also to give hope to the nations that wander in darkness. God acts to reveal God’s love for all people. Narrow thinking must give way to universality. It is humankind that God redeems through your birth. And when the time is right you will tell send your disciples to be your witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Samaria and the ends of the earth! Are you saying that your faithful must witness even to those thought to be inimical to them? Even to Samarians? Is no one outside the pale of God’s compassion and concern? Is that the Good News you proclaim?

The wonder is that the sign to convince the Maiden is the one thought barren made fertile. And poor Zechariah. Does he stand for ordinary and limited human vision, for those who can’t think outside the box, in modern parlance? How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years. Does he represent those who think God can only act within the limitations of human experience and capabilities? And isn’t it that kind of thinking that curtails growth and limits the wonders God’s grace can accomplish. I wince when I see the direction my thoughts take me. I can be so quick to accept defeat and see situations as hopeless. I doubt my own faith. I wonder about the possibility of conversion in my own life and in the lives of friends. And what about reconciliation with those from whom I have been estranged for ages and s/he/they from me? Do I believe that nothing is impossible with God? I begin to see that that is what this feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist is about.

Please continue to be patient with me. Images bombard my consciousness. Clay. Potter. The lover peering through the trellis at the beloved. God is the actor. God is the seeker. Even if I am in wretched condition, I am beloved of One who loves unconditionally and eternally. God acts. No situation or condition is hopeless – not with God who seeks and saves.

He will be called John. Not Zechariah, the Second? Not some other ancestral name? Not called as infants usually are? God is doing something new. John. Yohanan in Hebrew means: Yahweh has shown favor. And those who see that favor, we who see that favor are invited to believe that Yahweh, God continues to show favor and will not abandon us. John is the one who will prepare the way for your coming into the world to announce Good News. He is the forerunner. His vocation is to point you out to others, to witness to you to those who are seeking meaning for their lives and a reason to hope. Behold the Lamb of God!

I wonder what you want me to take from this feast. Certainly my faith and hope are strengthened when I am reminded about how God acts definitively in human history. And I remember that it was through others’ witness that I came to recognize you and hear your invitation to walk with you. But is the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist also a challenge to be what he was and continue to do what he did? What I am asking is, is this feast a reminder that mission is not yet accomplished? There is still work to be done. There are people who have not yet been touched. Does this feast challenge me to be a witness and by my life proclaim that Yahweh has shown favor and that favor is you? If I conform my life to yours, if I walk in your footsteps, if I love others the way I am loved, will my life point you out to others?

Of course, that might mean that I could lose my head the way that Yohanan did. But will that really matter?

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE ELEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C

2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13
Galatians 2:16, 19-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

Dear Jesus,

A long time ago, you challenged me to place myself in the gospel story. I try to do that: sometimes with success and other times with failure. When I succeed, the result is liberating and my heart soars. Readily I admit that when I fail it is because I do not want to admit something about myself. Or, I am not ready go where the pericope would take me. There is something about myself that I do not want to see.

Where would you put me in this Sunday’s gospel? In Simon’s persona? One of the other guests looking on? Surely not the sinful woman! I try to imagine and I tremble. It would be easiest to be a guest looking on. Then I could make a decision about what occurs. I could chastise, in my mind, of course, Simon. How dare he judge you, much less judge the woman at your feet? I would assume that since she is in his house, he knows her. How well? If I were a guest looking on, I could sympathize with the woman and be moved by your compassion – unless, perhaps, I knew her as well as Simon. Then what would I do?

How would I handle identifying with Simon? What would I have to recognize in myself to make the identification penetrating, a moment of conversion? I wouldn’t ever be rude to you the way Simon was. My regard for you is too great. I say that and then I see you turn and look at me with that quizzical expression that says, Why don’t you open your eyes and see? Whose feet have I refused to wash? Whom did I refuse to greet with a kiss? Whom did I take for granted and even ignore? It doesn’t have to be you directly that I abase. If I believe in the Incarnation, to treat anyone, even a least one, with contempt, is to do that to you. What if I treated a friend that way? Your followers do not shun.

But isn’t Simon caught between the proverbial rock and hard place? If he acknowledges the woman before you and his other guests, what would he have to reveal about himself? And if he had invited them so that his knowing you would impress them, should he have to bear that public humiliation? He would lose all the esteem he had hoped to garner. Can anyone live so nakedly before others, with that honesty and integrity, and not fear what others would discover about him/her/me? Or are you daring me to admit that you have called me to be a part of a community of sinners, forgiven, yes, but sinners nonetheless? That’s the only way for me to become a saint, isn’t it? Dare I say this? It is only when I admit to my identity with sinners and so enter into their suffering because of the humanity that we share, it is only then that I will find you.

Should I identify with the woman? Everybody present knows she is a sinner. The narrative isn’t specific about the type of sinner she is. But doesn’t everybody assume? How dare I? What do I know about anyone, the core of any person, beyond what mere surface reveals? You don’t reveal what preceded this encounter between you and her. Had she already been a guest at your table since you have the reputation for welcoming sinners and eating with them? Had you and she engaged in conversation and even laughed together about life and its vagaries? Had she, as so often happens with others, compared herself as she was with what she might become through you? Of what angers would she have had to let go, of what resentments for the way she had been used, abused, belittled and ignored?

Are you daring me to identify with that woman, to feel her pain? Strange, as I think about it, why shouldn’t I? I know my sins. But there are virtues, too. My faults may be known and there may be judgments about me, but if I stop there, how can I grow? It’s true, isn’t it, that people judge most harshly the faults of others that are their own? It is one thing to admit being a sinner. It is another to dream of the possibilities forgiveness will bring. Wouldn’t I weep at your feet, then? Even with others looking on in judgment, wouldn’t I weep and find forgiveness and freedom?

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. You do that to this very day. You call all, even, or rather, especially sinners to your table to eat, to drink, to find the strength in community that expresses itself in acceptance of the sinner, not the sin, to drink in forgiveness and be sent to love others as they are loved. Oh my! Dare I identify with the woman?

I want to ask you about one final idea. You are the full revelation of God. What I see you do is what God does. Is that correct? Where is the judgmental God? The God before whom all should tremble? Are you revealing how God loves even the least among us? Even me? And are you saying that this is what our assemblies should extend to each other even as they are the recipients of this love and so are drawn deep into mystery?

Sincerely,

Didymus