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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Wisdom 3:1-9
Romans 6:3-9
Luke 24: 13-35

Has anyone you love died? How are you dealing with the death? Today, the church comes together to celebrate the memory of all those who have gone before us. On this Sunday, the day that is always the liturgical renewal of Easter, we depart from Ordinary Time and celebrate the Feast of All the Faithful Departed, all those who are our ancestors in the Faith. Whether you are newly bereaved or have been dealing with the loss for some time, let the feast and these readings remind you.

Remind you? Of what? Let these readings wash over you and remind you of what you believe as voiced in the last phrases of the Creed you recite every Sunday following the Liturgy of the Word. We believe in the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.

I have no idea at how many funerals it was my privilege to preside in my 43 years of priestly ministry. I say privilege conscious of the fact that that was without exception what I felt each time I began the funeral liturgy and greeted mourners bearing the body of their loved one to the church. We met at the font and these were the first words uttered as I sprinkled the body with baptismal water: I bless N.’s body with the holy water that recalls his/her baptism of which the apostle Paul writes: All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. By baptism into his death we were buried together with him, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life. For if we have been united with him by likeness to his death, so shall we be united with Christ by likeness to his resurrection.

The mourners would be in varying degrees of composure depending on whether the death had been sudden and out of due time or expected, whether the deceased was a youth or of advanced years. No matter. Death is the greatest challenge to faith. Each person has to ask: What do I believe has happened here? Each time I would hand the white pall to the family and would assist them in dressing the coffin with this reminder of the garment that the deceased was clothed in that day when s/he came out of the waters that are our tomb and our mother. And so, following the Easter Candle being borne aloft, we would process through the assembly to the area of tables of the Word and the Eucharist. Most often we would sing Amazing Grace as we processed. Amazing grace, indeed. If the signs are believed, it is all amazing. One of the survivors would place a crucifix on the coffin and there we would have it. The sign of contradiction is in place. There is no denial of the reality of death but it is always death in union with Christ’s. The Easter Candle burns near the coffin. The Easter Candle is the first light that comes into the church shrouded in the night that is Holy Saturday and becomes the great sign of Christ’s resurrection. Standing there the Candle now attests to the faith-fact that those who die with Christ will rise with Christ in glory.

The truths we cling to during individual funerals are the truths we proclaim regarding all the faithful departed whose feast we celebrate today. We need to be reminded. Remembering is at the heart of our faith experience. It is what Eucharist is about. Remembering.

Two disciples that same day, the first day of the week, were making their way to a village named Emmaus…. So begins one of the gospels that might be read today. The two are going away from Jerusalem, downcast and broken in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion. The fact that they are called disciples means that they had made the decision that Jesus was the Messiah, in their words, the one who would set Israel free. Apparently their vision of Messiah was that of a triumphant warrior who would drive out foreign rule and set up a mighty kingdom that would last. That kind of messiah would not die on a cross. As they trudge along deep in their discussion, a Stranger approaches them and asks them what they are preoccupied with? It is the resurrected Jesus but the disciples do not recognize him. The two speak to him about defeat. The Risen One invites them to see the crucifixion, indeed all that Jesus suffered, from a different perspective, their faith tradition as contained in the Scriptures. Did not the Messiah, the Christ, have to suffer these things and so enter into glory?

What Jesus invited the two disciples to do, he invites us to do each time we are confronted with the reality of death. Remember our tradition as it is contained in Word and Sacrament. The reading from Wisdom says: They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. Remember! But they are at peace.

Remember the horrors of September 11. Unbelievable horror and destruction. Lives were lost. The word tragedy was used to describe the events of that day. I remember angering some when I said I would not use that word in that context because tragedy implies defeat and brings with it hopelessness. Horrendous? Of course. Terrible? Indeed. But tragic? Only if we forget that we believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. In the immediate aftermath, almost before the dust settled, tales of heroism began to emerge. People caught in those collapsing buildings laid down their lives for their friends. People on one those careening airplanes became the valiant who sent that potential missile of destruction crashing into an open field and prevented it from exploding into a major building that would have caused many more deaths. Many died in the towers and in the Pentagon. Many died in that plane crash. But were they defeated? Not ultimately. If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. Having made the ultimate sacrifice we believe they receive the ultimate reward. Christ defeated death, his own and ours. Do you believe that?

After their daylong discussion, the three in the evening sunset came to a fork in the road. It seemed that the Stranger would go in one direction and they in another. They could not bear a parting. Stay with us. It is nearly evening – the day is practically over. And so they sit at table together. It is then that the Stranger takes bread, says the blessing, breaks the bread and begins to distribute it to them. And we, looking on, recognize those words as Eucharistic. With that, the gospel says, their eyes were opened and they recognized him. But he vanished from their sight.

The pericope captures our Sunday experience. With retrospect, the two disciples said: Were not our hearts burning within us as he talked to us on the way and explained the scriptures to us. That’s the work of the Liturgy of the Word, to break open the Scriptures and help us to see life’s events and even death in that context. The hearts of believers burn in recognition of the truth and their hope is renewed. Just think of it. Because of that explanation given on the road to Emmaus, suffering was no longer a punishment for sin. An instrument of excruciating suffering became a sign of hope. We glory in the Christ’s cross.

And so it is that we always proceed from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of Eucharist. We take bread, bless it and break it. We take a cup and bless and distribute it. We hear Jesus command us: Do this in my memory. And we recognize him in the breaking of the bread.

Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? Faith makes the difference. We weep when someone we love dies. But as Paul admonished us, we are not to yield to grief, as those do who have no hope. Our commemoration today is of all those who have died in Christ. Our sure and certain hope is that they, in Christ, will rise again. And so one day, as God wills in Christ, will we who walk with Christ on The Way.




Exodus 22:20-26
1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10
Matthew 22:34-40

Nothing inspires God’s wrath so much as does the exploitation and abuse of the vulnerable. The Law expressed in the Exodus reading for this week calls for death by the sword for anyone who molests or oppresses an alien or wrongs any widow or orphan. And God will wield the sword. God forbids extorting the poor by demanding interest on a loan. Even a cloak offered by the poor man as a pledge of repayment must be returned to him by sundown lest he have to face the chill of the night with nothing to protect him from the cold. Beware! God protects the widow, the orphan and the poor. The obvious point is that God’s protection of these little ones ought to be manifested in the attitude of the abler Jews toward them. God admonishes the people with a motive for caring – remembering their own vulnerability when they were aliens in the land of Egypt.

We are in very treacherous territory as we sit beneath the readings for this Sunday. Watch how easy it is to think of just whom these readings must be warning even as we are confident that they do not address us – unless, of course, we are numbered among the orphaned, the widowed, the poor, or the aliens. Then the readings are our safety net, our guarantee that there will be those in the faith community we call church who will respond to our needs.

Jesus is still in the hot seat in this week’s gospel. The Pharisees continue to try to find something with which to charge him, even ignorance of the Law. What tone, do you suppose, the scholar used when he asked his question? Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? It should be noted that the question is not unusual and that Pharisees spent hours in such discussions and theoretical arguments about the Law. Jesus answers without a pause as he quotes Deuteronomy and Leviticus’ mandates with which his accusers should be well familiar. You shall love the lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

We’ve heard Jesus’ answer many times and probably can quote it verbatim from memory. The question now before us is the same as the implied one Jesus put before the scholar. What are you going to do with these commandments? How are you going to live them? And, I think, how can you fulfill the first one without fulfilling the second? Aye, there’s the rub, to quote the Bard. Very religious people can think they are fulfilling the law through lives of faithful mass attendance and prayer along with a little fasting for good measure. Jesus might say: I beg to differ.

The operative word in both commandments is the verb to love. One can argue whether love can be commanded. Still, it seems that, regarding the first commandment Jesus cites, God does want his people to love God with their entire beings. Perhaps if they remember all that God did for them and continues to do, that love will be their response. The fact of the matter is that’s the way God loves them, with God’s entire being. We don’t often squirm when we are admonished to love God. Even if the preacher harangues a bit, we don’t mind. After all, you can’t love God too much.

We must not miss an important note here. In his response to the scholar, Jesus links the two commandments, in effect making them one. In other words, Jesus is saying you cannot fulfill the first without striving to carry out the second. Love again. But dare we hear the standard that is applied in the commandment? You shall love your neighbor as yourself. How much do you love yourself? How much do I? How is this expressed practically? That practicality is the measure or standard for the practical love Jesus commands us to have for our neighbor. And this is where our stares are apt to become glazed.

Somehow, whenever I consider this text I hear Eliza Doolittle’s song to Freddie: Don’t talk of love. Show me! Jesus might be saying something like that to us. Don’t talk about loving God. Don’t talk about loving our neighbor. Show me in imitation of the way I love. Jesus loves through service. Jesus loves by pouring out himself. Jesus loves by giving his body and blood as food and drink. Remembering that may help us see why celebrating Eucharist defines us and is at the heart of our faith response. Doing Eucharist should translate into living Eucharist.

John Paul II admonished the Church to exercise a fundamental option for the poor. Do you hear today’s Exodus reading in the pope’s words? Before him, Paul VI shocked people by questioning anyone’s right to excess wealth while the poor lacked essential wealth. John XXIII, in reminded us that all people are created by God and are brothers and sisters in the human family. The popes probably had the two great commandments in mind in their proclamations.

We can be very good at throwing up barriers of self-defense that shield us from the word’s full impact. You know as well as I do, that classes of people consort with others of the same class. There aren’t many of the elite that hobnob with the poor. Among their own, they can be deluded into thinking that everyone lives in their kind of comfort and wealth. Parishes can be as monochromatic, especially those situated in finer neighborhoods. I’m reminded of a book of several years ago: The Church of the Padded Pew. It is difficult for a parish whose membership is almost exclusively of one race and an upper middle financial bracket to reflect the Body of Christ. Where are the poor? Where are the disabled? The Widows? The orphans? The aliens?

We sit at the Table of the Word to be nourished. We must be hungry for the Word in order to be fed by it. That might mean lowering the barriers and making ourselves vulnerable to the Word. Dare we ask: What would you have me do? What altering of my value system are you looking for? Saints in our family tree have asked those questions and were never the same afterwards. Think of Ignatius. Think of Camillus. Think of Elizabeth Anne Seaton and Theresa of Avila and Mother Teresa of Calcutta and countless others. Then there is Vincent de Paul. And don’t forget Damien of Molokai. The list goes on and on. All of them are canonized or about to be because to a wonderful degree their love for God expressed itself in a love for the poor, expressed itself in service of the poor. Damien rejoiced the day he could address his flock as my fellow lepers.

In a few short weeks, we will be celebrating the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year. The Gospel is Matthew’s Day of the Lord, the day of final Judgment. I won’t comment on it here. But spending some time with that text as you hear Jesus voice the two great commandments might enrich you. It always does that for me.

So we proceed to the Table of the Eucharist to enter into the Lord’s dying and rising. We don’t do that alone. We can’t do that alone. It is never my Eucharist. It is always our Eucharist. We gather with the poor, the orphans, the widows as vulnerable as they are, if we are aware, to be formed and transformed. Then we recognize the family we are in Christ and will know the measure of the love we ought to live.




Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Matthew 22:15-21

We should be stunned when we hear the opening passage of Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading. Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp… The Hebrew word for anointed is the origin of the word messiah that becomes through the Greek, Christ. A powerful and significant word to the Jews, Cyrus is the only Gentile to whom the title is applied in the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. The fact that a Jew would call any Gentile the anointed of God is stunning.

Who was Cyrus? He was a Persian king whose armies routed the Babylonians, the ones who had held the Israelites in captivity, enslaving them as their ancestors had been in Egypt. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel my chosen one, I have called you (Cyrus) by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. God knew Cyrus intimately and chose him, the prophet said, and through him brought about the deliverance of Judah that would result in their being able to return to Jerusalem. Whether Cyrus ever knew of his favorable standing with Israel’s God is not important. The lesson is that God is in charge and can choose even a Gentile to accomplish God’s will.

To what can we liken this case and so understand its impact? The situation that comes to mind is the horror of the Holocaust. In large measure the Jewish people among others were enslaved in the prison camps having been taken from their homes and way of life to be shipped off in boxcars to the holding camps of torture and death. The skies darkened with the smoke from the crematoria’s chimneys. Millions were gassed and other hundreds of thousands slowly starved to death. I don’t know who would be Cyrus’ counterpart. But the eyes of faith will recognize God working through the allied forces to bring about Judah’s deliverance, freeing the survivors and allowing them to return home.

Faith is a gift, the result of God’s grace working. We say we believe, but that is not as a result of anything we have done other than to cooperate with grace. Paul said it in practically every salutation he wrote to the various churches as he does in this greeting to the Thessalonians. God chose the Thessalonians – and the Galatians and the Romans and Corinthians – through Paul’s preaching and to varying degrees the churches responded with the work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ. What occasioned this letter to the Thessalonians was a crisis of faith that rose from their understanding from Paul’s preaching that they would live to see the Day of the Lord, the day of the Christ’s return. But some of their members were dying before the realization of that day. Paul reminds them of their faith and urges them to live in hope. Hope has been defined as the confident (with faith) assurance that nothing will separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus. To live in faith is to remember that God loves them. The challenge is to live in that love day by day in their various labors believing the Good News Paul announced. Hope in the Lord Jesus who will not disappoint. Paul preached to them in earnest, inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will empower them to be faithful to the end.

You believe with that same faith of the Thessalonians. Live with their hope, too, that hope that Paul is trying to encourage. You are loved by God and chosen by God, empowered by the Holy Spirit to believe that Jesus is Lord. Your labors, believe it or not, contribute to the building up of the Kingdom and hasten the day of the Lord’s return in glory. It is about love, loving as Jesus loves. It is about serving, serving as Jesus serves. If you are willing to love and to serve the other, the poor and the disenfranchised, the off scouring of society, you will see Jesus there and know where hope resides.

Recently, I heard former President Bill Clinton with Bill and Melinda Gates in an interview discussing their hands-on charitable work with AIDS patients in Africa. Their involvement in the work sounds genuine. Their hope is to find a cure and alleviate suffering. Whether they are believers or not, believers can recognize God working through them just as they might see Christ in those little ones they minister to.

Recently, I saw a woman working rehabilitation with her husband who had suffered a severe and debilitating stroke. She rejoiced with each step, faltering though it might be, that her husband made. The love they share is palpable. So, it would seem, is their faith. Their hope will not be disappointed.

You cannot hear about the wonderful work of President Clinton and the Gateses in Africa without being touched. You must be moved by the heroics of the couple above. You will be touched and unable to be indifferent. But what if their actions would prompt you in a direction you would rather not go? Jesus can do that and you will have to make a decision.

In the gospel, the Pharisees are plotting to entrap Jesus because they do not want to accept his message. He would have them change their lives in ways that they would rather not. You know that no one can be indifferent to Jesus. One has to decide one way or the other. The fawning ambassadors of the Pharisees along with Herodians, those who accept King Herod, want to gather information that will contribute to Jesus’ execution. They want to be rid of the prick to their consciences that he is. Matthew’s linking of the two groups indicates compromise on the part of the Pharisees already that will play out in the verbal trap they try to set for Jesus.

Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? Either way Jesus answers, they figure, will result in entrapment that will set him either against the Romans leading to his crucifixion or against the Jews leading to his being stoned. Either way will work. Jesus names their hypocrisy and reverses the snare on them. Show me the coin. They must have wondered how he knew they would have the coin since it bore the image of Caesar, something they should not handle or have part of. Looking at the coin proffered in their hands and then into their eyes he asks them: Whose image is this and whose inscription?

When they acknowledge that the image and inscription are Caesar’s, Jesus impales them on the horns of a dilemma. Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. These, supposedly, are men of faith, followers of the Law. From that perspective what can possibly belong to Caesar and therefore be repaid when everything belongs to God?

It’s easy to say gotcha! But I don’t think that is the point that Jesus is making. Rather, the challenge is to be what they profess to be. Faith is not a life lived apart from the world. Jesus challenges us to look at the world through the eyes of faith and to endorse God’s omnipotence and love for all, even the untouchables. Jesus would be condemned for eating with tax collectors and prostitutes and other categories of sinners. That’s almost as bad as handling a coin with the image of Caesar upon it.

If we hear the Gospel we cannot be indifferent. We will have to decide one way or the other, to love or not to love. To walk with Jesus on the way is to decide and to realize that that faith life is lived in a complex world peopled by those who believe and those who do not. It is to live in a world of political régimes. And for the believer the constant question is determining what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God and acting accordingly.

What’s love got to do with it?