Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

 

 

Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25

2 Corinthians 1:18-22

Mark 2:1-12

Stand-up comedians have a great time poking fun at Jews and Catholics for their tendency to wallow in guilt.  Judging by the response the sketches elicit from the audience, the jokesters must be right on the mark.  Maybe there isn’t much that can be done about that given all the years of practice members of each denomination have had with that response to the sense of sin in their lives.  What a shame that we have been unable to hear the message.  Maybe it has something to do with the responsibilities that follow should we take the good news to heart.

I remember sitting at the bedside of a dying man.  He lay flat on his back, his eyes staring fixedly at the ceiling, his fingers clutching the bedclothes close to his chin.  His family had asked that I pay him a visit without letting him know that they had done so.  He gave a quick glance as I entered the room and introduced myself.  Just as quickly, he resumed his stare.  I could see his facial muscles clenching.  “You’re wasting your time,” he said.  “There’s nothing you can do for me.  It’s too late.”

It’s interesting how the mind works when there is so much you don’t know.  I didn’t know the man’s story.  I knew a little about the disease that was ending his life.  I didn’t even know his family enough to place him in a context.  So I started talking, voicing platitudes that I have used over the years in similar situations.  Was it grace that inspired me to ask the question?  “Do you know that God loves you?”

I didn’t miss the quick glance in my direction and the momentary rush of color to his cheeks.  And so I talked about that unfathomable love that God has for each one of us, a love beyond all telling.  “Do you know that God loves you as if you were the only person in the world?  And there is nothing God wants to do more than to forgive you if there is anything that you have done that is wrong.  God wants to forgive you even before you find the way to say you are sorry.  Did you know that?”

His lips trembled and tears ran down onto his pillow.  After a silence that seemed enormous in duration, he turned to me and asked, “Is that really so?  Does it apply even to someone like me?”

“Yes,” I said, “even to someone like you.”

There is much that is important for us to hear in this week’s Liturgy of the Word, especially when we remember that this coming Wednesday will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of another Lent.  If we get the message, we just might have the best Lent of our lives so far.

Take the key from the Lord’s words in the first reading: I am doing something new!  The context?  Israel is in slavery, convinced that their condition is perpetual and that, because of their infidelities, God has forgotten them.  Don’t miss the point that Israel is not crying out for mercy and forgiveness.  It is love that moves the Lord, the love for this people the Lord has formed.  It is for the sake of that love that the Lord says: It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.

It is we who imagine a white-maned God with arms folded across his chest just waiting to hurl lightning bolts of punishment upon us who have sinned.  That is our conception and not a reflection of the God who has called us into existence and sustains us in existence with love.  God sealed that love with the gift that is Christ, the Word who took on our flesh, removing forever the chasm that separated the human and the divine.  Humanity has been divinized, if you will, because God dwells in humans in whose image they are made.

We gather as Church on Sundays to celebrate Eucharist.  The word means thanksgiving.  Every Eucharist gives thanks to God in the renewal of the Christ’s dying and rising.  In each heart ought to be the elation that comes from the knowledge of having been forgiven.  Of course that knowledge but be preceded by the awareness of having sinned.  That is why each Liturgy begins with our invitation to pause and call to mind our sins.  The purpose is not to rub our noses in guilt or to convince us that we are the worst creatures ever created.  The purpose is to remind us of the forgiveness that enables something new to begin.  God is doing this in, with, and through Christ, doing it in us.

Forgiveness forms the bond that unites the assembly even as will the celebration and the sharing in the meal.  One Bread, one Body, one Lord of all/ One cup of blessing which we share.  The hymn sings of that unity that is ours in Christ who died for us and whose blood washes away our sins.  It is gift.  A stranger coming into the midst of the assembly for the first time ought to be awestruck by the palpable joy that is there and sense immediately that the assembly welcomes all and wants to share the joy.  That is the infallible sign of a community that is alive in the Spirit and in Christ.

For the past several weeks the gospel narrative has been about Jesus driving out evil spirits and curing people of their diseases.  Both actions are signs of the new something that is coming.  Each time that sign occurs, crowds come for the same experience.  Then Jesus moves on to continue announcing the Good News to new people and continue the healing.  What we can’t miss, however, is that even though there are many who are cured, there are many who are not.  The miracles are signs, not ends in themselves, something seen that points to something unseen.  Those who are cured are changed in a far deeper way than the mere restoration of sight or hearing or the power to speak or walk.  They become believers and immediately begin to tell others of the wonder that is Jesus. Encouraging them to believe even if they have not seen.

Don’t miss the setting for this week’s gospel.  Jesus has returned to Capernaum where the first preaching occurred and the first miracles.  The word has gotten out that he is back home and so many come to be with him that there is hardly room to breath the crowd is so dense.  Then they bring a paralytic carried by four men.  Who are the they?  The ones in the midst of whom he is sitting.  The four carrying the paralytic are part of the community bring to Jesus someone in need.  They carry the man to the roof, remove the tiles and lower him to where Jesus is sitting.

Don’t miss the key element in what follows.  Notice that Jesus acts because he sees their faith, not the faith of the paralytic, but their faith.  The man on the stretcher may or may not know who Jesus is.  He may have heard something about Jesus.  But this will be the first encounter with the one some are calling Lord.  Then comes the proclamation that interprets that to which all the miracles or signs have been pointing.  Child, your sins are forgiven.  He may or may not be aware of his sins.  It seems certain he has not asked for forgiveness if he is aware.  The faith in the community brings about the transformation in the man.  Their faith becomes his and so does the forgiveness that they have received.  How do we know that?  Because, when Jesus says: Rise, pick up your mat and walk, he does.

Had we time and space, we could talk about the scribes who scoff at Jesus’ words proclaiming forgiveness of sin.  Suffice it to say that their attitude ought not be ours.  How so, you ask?  Their attitude becomes ours when we deny the possibility of forgiveness or classify someone as being beyond forgiveness.  Strange, isn’t it that our own sins are the most understandable?  The least understandable are those we have never been tempted to commit. On the other hand, if we marvel at the abundance of God’s grace that resulted in our knowing we are forgiven then so will we rejoice when we see another come to that same knowledge and peace.

So we come to the Table where all are welcome, where all join in celebrating Eucharist, giving thanks for the forgiveness that is ours in Jesus.  (If all are not welcome there, it is not the Lord’s Table, and those who gather there do not practice the Lord’s Table fellowship.)  And remember, it never stops there.  The Eucharist transforms and then sends us to be ambassadors of what we have received.  If we have understood and taken to heart our transformation, we must be willing to be the next stretcher-bearers regardless of who is the paralytic or what s/he has done.

Now, are you ready for the Ashes?

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

Advertisements

THE SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

 

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46

1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1

Mark 1:40-45

I doubt anyone will find consolation in the proclamation of the first reading from Leviticus.  It is the Lord who speaks to Moses and Aaron telling them how a person with leprosy must be brought to the priest and there be declared unclean.  S/he is not welcome in the camp and must cry out: Unclean, unclean!  Then everyone who might be unaware and come near the leper will hear the warning and avoid contact with the poor wretch.  Of course the reason for the regulation is the fear of contamination.  It was thought that leprosy was highly contagious and simply touching a leprous person could spread the disease.  Still, the law is painful to hear.  We’ll be consoled by today’s gospel.  Wait and see.

We might be tempted to heave a huge sigh of relief that lepers are no longer treated in this fashion.  These are far more civilized times, aren’t they?  Perhaps.  Unless we take our blinders off.  Lepers may not be shunned for fear of contagion, but we are far from a classless society in which all people are treated equally.  Racism is far from extinct.  The other day I read the story of two white men who purposefully drove over and killed another person they thought was black.  How many times have you heard people voice concern for our president, fearing assassination because of his race?  Sexism may be on the wane, but it is far from extinct.  Remember the young man who was beaten to death because he was gay and was left hanging on a fence post in Wyoming?  How many wars are waged in the name of religion?  We have to ask ourselves whom would we exclude?  Whom would we feel justified in shunning?  And answer with naked honesty.

Many years ago, I was visiting a lad in the hospital who had been badly burned in a flaming car accident that killed his father and uncle and left his brother burned as well.  The boy was horribly disfigured.  We sat in a darkened room, the windows to the hall covered lest someone passing by might look inside.  The door behind me opened and a little girl wandered in.  She gasped as she caught sight of him, screamed and fled the room.  I saw tears well in his eyes.  Does God think I am ugly, too, he asked?

I remember holding in my arms a man dying with AIDS.  His mother had asked me to visit him.  She was concerned that her son was not baptized.  So she and the man’s partner and I had gathered around his bed and talked about God’s love and that Jesus died for us all as a sign of that love.  There were some long and awkward pauses as the patient little by little let go of his fears of being condemned by the church and rejected and with the sound of great trepidation in his voice he asked if Baptism could be for him.  We filled the bathtub.  I carried him to the tub, and lowered him into the waters.  And as I said the words he raised his arms like one praying.  Then the jerk of his are was like the motion made by one sinking a lengthy put.  Yes, he said.  All of us wept at his joy.  The next day he died.

Hear the confidence of the leper who kneels before Jesus.  Either he had heard Jesus teach or others had told him about Jesus and what he was rumored to be accomplishing among the poor and the desperate.  What made him conclude that what Jesus had done for others could be done for him.  Something about Jesus made the leper comfortable in approaching him.  If you wish you can make me clean.  And hear Jesus speak in his own name: I do will it.  Be made clean.  Jesus is the compassionate one, the one who willingly enters into other’s suffering and makes it his own.  Love compels him, God’s love that Jesus brings to the world.

As you hear this gospel proclaimed, the more burdened you are the more will the message console you and challenge you.  If you can imagine yourself kneeling in the leper’s place and looking into the face of Jesus, would you be able to speak with that same confidence?  You can do that if your conviction is not that your sin, whatever it is, is the most important thing.  Certainly not to trivialize it or to ignore the reality of sin, the fact is it is not nearly as important as the forgiveness that God wishes to bestow.  That is the significance of the healing of the leper.  The result will be his restoration to the community.  Your forgiveness is your restoration.  But what is the resulting challenge?

One of the wonderful proclamations of the Second Vatican Council is that all the Church’s Sacraments are public celebrations.  Even the Sacrament of Penance.  In every sacrament it is the whole Church as the Body of Christ acting.  And just as there is no such thing as a private sin, that is a sin that affects only the sinner, so too, there is no such thing as a private Sacrament of Reconciliation.  The whole Church acts.  The whole Church proclaims God’s forgiveness.  The sinner is reconciled to the whole Church.  And the whole Church rejoices.

That ought to be the proclamation of every parish and your own – that all are welcome here.  No one is shunned.  Each person who enters ought to sense immediately that this is a loving community of forgiven sinners that welcomes all who come among them to join them in Eucharist.  There are no strangers here.  All are welcome.  All are part of the one family of God, recipients of the universal and unconditional love for which we give thanks in the celebration of Eucharist.  Why else is there One Bread that we break, One Cup that we share?  See how powerful the symbols are?

There is no greater joy than that experienced in the healing of a broken relationship.  There is no greater joy than that of reconciliation.  One who is forgiven and reconciled will much more readily accept the possibility that s/he is loved by God than will the one who is shunned.  As a representative of your parish community, one who knows what it means to be forgiven, one who has stood at the table in the midst of the assembly gathered there, remember that you are sent from that Eucharist to live it in the world.  Be an ambassador of healing.  Be a sign of God’s acceptance and love where ever you go and to whomever you meet.  Bring peace.

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

 

Job 7:1-4, 6-7

1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23

Mark 1:29-39

How we listen determines how we hear.  What I mean by that seeming strange statement has much to do with how we hear the Liturgy of the Word.  If we listen as we would to a dramatic reading of a classical literary work by Shakespeare or Dante we may luxuriate in the lush language and imagery as an audience would at a great play.  Essentially we are passive spectators.  Ah, but if we listen to the proclamation of the Word as if it were living and addressed to us now how different would our hearing of that Word be?

Hear the reading from the Book of Job.  The language is poetic. The plight is of one who has lost everything and there are no answers to explain why.  Job deals with the problem of evil seen by his ancestors and contemporaries as God’s punishment for sin.  But Job is a just and good man, faithful before God, and a follower of the Law.  The wonder of the story is that in the midst of his misery, with dogs licking the sores on his body, with his wealth gone and his family destroyed in the storm, Job remains faithful and God gives no answer except to say Job’s miseries are not punishment for sins, his or his parents’.  And God’s love remains.  Read the whole book and you will be relieved to find out that at the end all that was lost, at least as far as his wealth is concerned, is restored to Job.  In fact, he has more wealth and possessions than he did before the trouble.  Friends return to feast at his table.  He marries again and lives to see his children, his grand children and even his great-grandchildren.  Then Job died, old and full of years.  And God is pleased with Job’s fidelity.

If everything in your life is going swimmingly and you have never known suffering or experienced doubt or depression, it is not likely that you will resonate with Job’s story.  If, on the other hand, you have known personal suffering, if you agonize over other people’s suffering, over war and abject poverty, over famine and rampant disease, Job’s cry may pierce you to the core.  And if you identify with Job, his cry may become your own.  How we listen determines how we hear.

There may still be the tendency to conclude that bad things happen as a punishment for sin.  Do people not cry out in response to personal suffering, what did I do to deserve this?  Or, upon hearing of a tragedy in another’s life, what did s/he do to deserve that?  People think that everything in life is a quid pro quo.  That is on a par with thinking that we earn heaven by doing good, that we earn God’s love.  See how slow we are to believe the Good News?

It is into our world, sin touched and suffering laden, that Jesus comes.  You were there in that synagogue last week when Jesus began his public ministry and drove out the demons from the possessed man.  As an observer, to what conclusion did you come?  Were you amazed?  Or did the impact of that moment go deeper and change you, too?

Now you witness Jesus’ compassionate response to suffering as, following that synagogue experience he enters Peter and Andrew’s house with James and John and immediately takes the hand of Peter’s ill mother-in-law and heals her.  Don’t miss something very important that comes after.  The fever leaves the woman and she immediately responds in service.  In other words, her encounter with the Servant-healer results in her doing what Jesus does.  That is what Jesus looks for in those who hear him; that is his call.

There is no shortage of those who seek Jesus out because he is a wonderworker.  By the time the woman has been cured, the whole town was gathered at the door.  Obvious hyperbole, perhaps.  But certainly there was a crowd of those wondering if what he had done for the possessed man, what he had done for Peter’s mother-in-law, he could do for them.  Drive out their demons.  Cure their ills.  And that is what he does for many of them.  But remember last week when he forbade the driven out evil spirits to speak about him?  So does he not permit the new crop of ousted demons to speak this week.  The reason given is the same: because they knew him.  The reality is that it is too soon, too early in the ministry.  Crowds are one thing.  People being amazed at his teaching are another.  But understanding who Jesus is, what kind of Messiah he is, should that be their conclusion, needs more testing.  It would be easy to conclude that Jesus is a wonder working Messiah, a political marvel who would set up a powerful kingdom that would drive out foreign rule.  But that is not who Jesus is.  That does not represent the God Jesus proclaims.

We are on a faith walk with Jesus, learning as we go.  Notice now what Jesus does after all these intense encounters.  Along the way we are going to have to let go of assumptions, even cherished dreams if we are to understand the message and be transformed by the word.  Jesus leaves the rest and finds a solitary place for prayer.  This will be a pattern in the course of Jesus’ public life.  Work.  Prayer for the restoration of his strength and clarification of his mission and purpose.  And then work again.  What Jesus does, so must those do who follow him.  And like him, believers must become vulnerable servants.

There is a spiritual dimension to our faith walk.  Shouldn’t that be obvious?  Maybe yes.  Maybe no.  Obvious or not, I’m convinced we will never find the meaning of all of this, we will never find the Jesus who has taken on our humanity, we will never know the God within unless prayer is an integral part of our lives.  Prayer creates a hunger and an eager longing.  It stirs an insatiable appetite for more.  And that is why our prayer makes us long for the celebration of Eucharist, making it the heart of our faith life.   It is then that we gather to be renewed in the Word and to give thanks to God in the dying and rising of Jesus.  It is then that we recognize our common union with our brothers and sisters in the meal that we share.  It is then that our hope is renewed.  And?

After Jesus concludes his night of prayer he goes on to other villages and towns to continue the proclamation and continue the healing ministry.  That is what we must do at the conclusion of each Liturgy we celebrate.  We must allow ourselves to be sent to continue the work, to continue the proclamation of the Good News, and to allow ourselves to be broken and poured out until all have heard, all have been fed, and all know that they, as we, are the beloved of God and will live with God forever.

Sincerely,

Didymus