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THE TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C


Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29

Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Word got out that Archbishop Hunthausen, while he was Archbishop of Seattle, had spent a day cleaning the apartment of an eccentric who was being threatened with eviction because of the squalid condition of his rooms.  Apparently someone asked the Archbishop why would he, such an important personage, stoop to be a char person for some ne’er-do-well?  It is said that his response was: Why wouldn’t I?

It might not leap out at you as you read the first reading and the gospel for this Sunday that we are being instructed about an important quality that a disciple of Jesus should have.  If we are to be Jesus’ followers and witness to him to others, we must do so with humility.  Few vices will make that witness ring more hollowly than pride.  There is an ancient axiom worth committing to memory: Pride cometh before the fall. Adam and Eve discovered that in the Garden and so has every generation after them.  Once pride has become rooted in our hearts it is terribly difficult to remove.  Unfortunately, sometimes that is where major humiliations come in, the falls in the axiom.

The writer of Sirach urges the reader to be humble through keeping a proper perspective.  We might say, remember who you are.  Have the self-awareness to know the limitations of your gifts and talents.  Remember that God is your creator and that you know what it means to sin.  Believing that all God’s people are brothers and sisters and that God has a special love for the poor, the desolate, and the disenfranchised will help us recognize that giving of ourselves and of our wealth – we call that almsgiving – are ways to make up for our sins.

The practice of table fellowship was a core value with Jesus.  Accepting all kinds and classes of people as guests at his table became the source of major accusations and denunciations against him.  This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. It might be hard to imagine, but apparently any kind of low-life was welcome to break bread and share a cup with him.  And he waited on them with love.  Remember that Jesus is the full revelation of God.  That means that what you hear and see Jesus saying and doing are what God says and does.  Jesus loves the poor and the sinner; so does God.  The table fellowship we practice as Church, in imitation of Jesus’, must proclaim that as well.  When people walk through the doors of the church for the first time, the first thing they should sense is, all are welcome here.  And the conviction that every liturgical minister must have is that s/he is functioning in that capacity to serve the needs of the rest.

Jesus was a guest at the table of a Pharisee.  It was observing the way the host and the other guests conducted themselves that caused Jesus to voice that parable in today’s gospel.  It is hard for some people to imagine that there might be someone more important than they are present among guests at a banquet.  As Jesus tells it, such egotists presume that the most important place at table is for them.  He tells that kind to be careful.  Imagine how embarrassing it will be if the host, or the waiter, comes to such a one and says: I am sorry to tell you that the place you have taken was set for someone more important than you.  Move down, please. And with all the other places taken, that one will wind up at the bottom of the table.  How is that for a painful lesson?

At first reading, it might seem that Jesus is promoting hypocrisy when he tells people to feign humility and take a lower place at table so that when the host sees where that one is seated and comes to take him to a higher place, all the other guests will be impressed.  The challenge is to have a proper sense of perspective vis-à-vis of self and others.  All people who exist are the result of God’s creative love.  It is that same love that holds people in existence.  That pretty well determines equality among us.  In fact, from the practice in the early Christian community it would seem that calls to greater roles in the assembly are calls to greater service.  One of the pope’s titles is: servant of the servants of God. The greatest example of this all-important attitude of service comes to us in John’s account of the Last Supper.  Jesus comes among the disciples reclining at table.  He is clad as a servant.  He kneels and washes their feet, a service that slaves ordinarily carried out.  He said then: What I have done for you so must you do for one another. There is no institution of Eucharist narrative in John’s Gospel’s account of the Last Supper, only the prime example of the fruit of participation in the Eucharist.  Those who partake in the breaking of the Bread and the sharing of the cup are called to be bread broken and cup poured out for the poor, the homeless and the least of God’s people.

That is why, after Jesus has instructed the guests about the attitude that should be theirs, he turns to the host.  Perhaps he was honing in on his host’s motivation in inviting Jesus to dine with him.  If at this point in his ministry Jesus had a solid reputation, if the word was getting out that the wonders he performed might be an indication that he is the long-awaited Messiah, then imagine how the host would be able to boast to his fellows about who had been a guest at his table.  You probably have seen reports on society pages in newspapers about banquets held for the rich and the famous.  Who’s who guest lists are very carefully printed.  If an important personage’s name is inadvertently left out, the next edition will have a printed apology.  There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess.  Egos always need to be stroked.  If the stroking stopped, so also might the donations.

That is not what the church should be about.  There should be no evidence of ego stroking at Eucharistic assemblies.  When someone important is your guest, chances are there will be urgency on that one’s part to repay you for your kindness.  You may well be that one’s guest the next time.  Again, there is nothing wrong with that.  But the lesson Jesus is imparting is that disciples ought to host those who are powerless, those who lack the resources to even consider being able to pay back in kind.  I have been impressed with the statistics published regarding the work of the local St. Vincent de Paul Society.  Thousands of meals are prepared and served each day.  As many boxes of food are distributed.  All of it is dependent upon donations and carried out by volunteers.

Discipleship is not about lording it over another.  The call to discipleship is a call to serve.  Our tradition is replete with stellar examples of heroic servants.  Francis went out of Assisi to fight in the Crusades.  He never got to the war.  He came back to Assisi humbled and spent a long period in prayerful retreat.  He emerged as one living a call to poverty and invited others to be friars with him in imitation of Jesus’ poverty.

Damien of Molokai rejoiced the day he recognized the signs of leprosy in his own body because he knew that the last barrier that set him apart and above those he was serving had been removed.  Now he was one of them.

Archbishop Romero experienced the grace of conversion when he celebrated the funeral of a Jesuit-priest friend who had been gunned down by the military powerful because he had been an outspoken advocate for the oppressed.  He left the grandeur of the bishop’s mansion and walked among the little ones, speaking out tirelessly against the injustices that stifled them.  He was gunned down like his friend while he was celebrating Eucharist.

In more recent times, Dorothy Day thought she had found the ideal form of communal living in Communism.  Then she was seized by grace, and finding Jesus, she challenged Catholics to live lives of poverty and service.

Thanks be to God, there are many other luminaries, living examples of the humility Jesus expects to find among hosts and guests and in his disciples.  The kinds of service exemplified in those mentioned above may not result in popular accolades – at least until after death, but Jesus offers as motivation for lived humility the fact that such pouring out of self will find favor with God. And if one is conscious of the fact that all that is, even the faith by which one lives, that all is grace, for what more could anyone ask than God’s favor?

Lots to think about this Sunday as we sit under the Word.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT: On Love of Enemies

On Love of Enemies

Matthew 5: 43-48

Do you realize what is happening as you sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his sermon?  You are being stretched.  By now, surely, several times you have asked yourself, “Who can do this?”  You may even have concluded a time or two that what Jesus is commanding is beyond you.  If you have not had those feelings so far, you may well come to that conclusion now.  So, what is happening?  First, know that Jesus is not hiding anything from you in terms of the implications for those who choose to be his disciples.  He is not like contemporary recruiters who, in order to draw in new members, paint glowing pictures of all the benefits that come to you should you join their ranks.  They use words like “finest” and “bravest” in settings so noble that for some the attraction will be almost irresistible.  There is no mention of the downside, the risks, or areas prone to disappointment.  And the listener is told to dare to join this elite group.  You owe it to yourself.

Jesus, on the other hand, without compromise, puts the demands squarely before you so that you know from square one, the implications of discipleship.  The command is to be satisfied with nothing less than perfection.  The standard?  Your heavenly Father.  You will hear it stated with absolute clarity in the present context: “You must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Jesus is the full revelation of God.  He will say elsewhere, “Those who see me see the Father.”  What ought to be coming clear to you is that the disciple is meant to be able to say, “Those who see me see Jesus, and if they see Jesus, they see the Father.”  That sounds bold, but it does seem to be what Jesus is calling disciples to do and to be.

“Love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.”  Who was the first to come to your mind as you read that phrase?  Who was the last person who hurt you?  Usually, when we think about enemies, we think about those powers that oppose our country, those with whom we are engaged in warfare.  They should not be excluded here.  But don’t stop there.  Go deeper.  Or rather stay closer to home.  Enemies can be those who do violence to you or to someone you love.  The enemy can be the one who destroys your name and reputation.  Put a face on any one of those whose recollection surfaces a painful situation with which you resonate and then hear Jesus say, “Love your enemies.”  How easy will that be?

Every once in awhile there are reports of people taking heroic strides in the face of horrendous happenings to put the Lord’s command into practice.  A mother went to the trial and conviction of her daughter’s rapist and killer.  Before his sentencing the mother made a statement in court in which she said the killer had to know that she forgave him for what he had done and she would hold him up in prayer every day.  Two parents went to South Africa when their daughter, a social worker there, was murdered by three from the very group she ministered to.  They were tried and convicted.  The parents, who happened to be of considerable means, decided that they wanted to do something that would be a monument to their daughter.  During the trial they were moved to pity the killers.  So they built a bakery that would serve as a training facility that would assist the workers in finding employment.  Then they went to the courts and worked for the early release of the three black men and brought them to the facility, trained them, and helped them to become managers of the operation.  In both of these cases, it was Christian faith that motivated the parents to action, to forgiveness, and to love.

Instinctively, when you are wronged you pray for vengeance.  At least it is true that many do.  When your name is destroyed, you want vindication.  That is not the course of action that Jesus puts before disciples.  In another place, when it comes to injury, Jesus will say, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other.”  Don’t react in kind.  The teaching is for the wounded to love the ones who did the wrong.  There is no alternative.

“Pray for your persecutors.”  The martyrs were notorious for following this course of action.  Perhaps they learned from Jesus on the cross when he prayed, “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.”  Prayer does something to the one who prays.  It changes the heart.  Try praying for someone you dislike and you will find your attitude toward that person begins to change.  The same thing will happen when you pray for the one who did evil toward you.  Pray and you will find that you begin to think of forgiveness.  You may even begin to think of reconciliation.  Certainly you will find the grace to let go.  You will begin to see possibilities for the other, or at least come to understandings about human weakness or disorder that give rise to the bad things that people do to each other.  And once understanding becomes part of your consciousness, it is not far from being able to forgive.  Of course you have no control over whether or not your forgiveness will be received.  That requires the reception of grace’s working in the other’s heart.  But you have made the offer.  And you are free.

Jesus is telling us that there is no room for hatred in the heart of a disciple.  Why?  Because God does not hate.  God hates sin, of course, but never the sinner.  Every person born is created in the image and likeness of God.  God loves every person and wants every person to live with God for eternity.  A definition of Hell is that place where there is no love – no love for God; no love for the other; no love for self.  Horrible to contemplate as it is, Hell begins when one refuses to love forever.

Some religious people think that God loves only members of their religion and they have a corner on the way into heaven.  Some used to quote with satisfaction that “outside the Church there is no salvation.”  The assumption was that all others were destined for a place where God was not.  Vatican Council II spoke of different paths to heaven.  God wills the salvation of all people, the Scriptures said.  And God’s will is realized more often than it is not.  “The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.”  That’s what God does.  Jesus came to understand that his mission went beyond the Jewish community and was meant to embrace even Gentiles.  His proclamation was the universality of God’s love.  And that must be the significance of our actions done in union with Christ.

The love that is commanded by Christ is not romantic love; it is the love that expresses itself in service.  In the Eucharist, Christ gives his body and blood inviting the assembly to eat and drink.  If we do that, if we take and eat, if we take and drink, then we are responsible to put the Eucharist into action by loving – even the unlovable.  That is not easy to do.  But it is what we must strive to do if we are to be with Jesus on the Way.  That’s what it means to be a disciple.

If there are those who have injured you, start with prayer.  Pray for the grace to let go of the injury and pray for the injurer.  Pray for the grace.  Some things can only be done with God’s help.  Pray.  Let yourself be stretched.  The grace will be granted and you will find your way to love.

THE TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C


Isaiah 66:18-21

Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13

Luke 13:22-30

My children, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every child he acknowledges. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews quotes the Book of Proverbs as an encouragement to Christians who have become discouraged by the sufferings that have come along with their becoming Jesus’ disciples.  While today’s readers might have problems with the text, upon reflection you will find wisdom to be taken to heart, a wisdom recognized in retrospect but seldom appreciated while in the struggle.

Surely St. Theresa of Avila was not the first or the only disciple who cried out in frustration as the cross grew heavier and heavier in her life.  She is supposed to have wondered why believers have to suffer so much.  God’s reply to her was: I always chastise those whom I love. You probably remember the saint’s retort: No wonder you have so few friends. While there is humor in her words there is also truth.  If you have ever been locked in a period of suffering, haven’t you wondered why this was happening to you?  What did you do to deserve it?

There is a difference between the way that the Hebrews look at suffering, and the way Christians should consider it.  The Jews saw suffering as punishment for sin.  They thought leprosy was tantamount to wearing a sign purporting the bearer to be a sinner.  The same thing could be said about the beggar and the wounded.  To come into physical contact with such a one would result in the Jew’s incurring ritual impurity and therefore being unfit to enter into temple worship.  If suffering is a punishment for sin, then God is the source of the suffering.  That is the problem argued in the Book of Job.  And at the end of Job there is no resolution, only the need for acceptance of the mystery of it all.

Jesus changed the meaning of suffering by his preaching and by his cross.  The man born blind became one through whom others might see the glory of God when the blind man’s sight was miraculously bestowed.  The Sinless One carried the cross, suffered and died and so caught us all up in the wonder of redemption.  The Father did not crucify the Son, but rejoiced that the Son endured the suffering all the while remaining confident in the Father who sent him into the world.  Father! Into your hands I commend my spirit. And so the cross is transformed from a symbol of violence and torture to a sign in which we hope.  If we die with him, we shall rise with him.

I do not believe that God sends suffering.  If we believed that God did act like that, then we would have to see God as the source of famine, disease, and every other evil humankind endure.  How can that be reconciled with our belief that God loves those created in God’s image and likeness?  Didn’t Jesus say that we were worth more than many sparrows?

Many years ago, a college professor of mine who had a series of health crises was told by an attending nurse in an attempt to be consoling that God must really love him, given the sufferings the priest was enduring.  His reply?  If he does, he has a strange way of showing it. I liked what he said the first time I heard it.  My appreciation for his wisdom has not waned a bit to the present.

I believe there is grace in suffering, that God rushes in to be present to and supportive of the suffering one with love.  I first came to this conclusion as a result of the heroism and profound insights of children in their sufferings.  It was my privilege to minister to some youngsters as they were in the process of dying from leukemia.  Everyone who loved them asked why little ones should have to suffer so.  What did they do to deserve this?  Time after time I witnessed amazing insights from these little ones, a profundity of wisdom and depth of faith that had no other explanation than grace.  They knew that death was not the end.  They wanted their grieving parents to know that too.  And they knew they were going to God.

When a period of suffering is over, it is important to reflect and remember.  If you have struggled to cling to faith and prayed for the grace to endure, when you emerge on the other side and look back you will realize how you have changed.  If the dark night was prolonged, you may have cried out: God, where are you?  Why are you silent now? In the light of the new dawn you realize that your faith has changed.  It is not as simple or naïve as it used to be.  Saccharin religiosity no longer satisfies.  If you have been stripped of all else, you know God’s love endures.  And the strange thing is, you may never be able to explain to anyone what you now know.

So we come to today’s gospel.  Strive to enter through the narrow gate, Jesus says.  That is his response to the questioner asking if only a few people will be saved.  Fortunately we have the words from Isaiah still echoing in our minds that promise multitudes coming from near and far finding faith and salvation in God.  Otherwise we might hear a negative message rather than the encouraging one Jesus intends for his disciples.

For the past several weeks we have been reading that portion of Luke’s Gospel that speaks of the challenge of being a disciple.  It is quite clear by now that this way is not for the feint of heart nor for the uncommitted and undecided.  It is for those who accept Jesus’ invitation to learn from him and follow in his footsteps.  It is for those who can be single minded in purpose, who are willing to forego everything for the sake of the kingdom.  Discipleship is for those who wish with every fiber of their being to serve and so proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom.  It is for those who want to be with Jesus.

What is the narrow gate through which Jesus urges his disciples to enter?  We do not know the makeup of the group out of which came the question and who now hear the parable that is his response.  It would seem that there is a wide spectrum of commitment in those assembled.  Some might be newcomers elated with initial and untried enthusiasm for what they have found.  Others might be more seasoned, already beginning to appreciate the hazards of discipleship.  Still others may just be going along with the crowd, wanting to be seen as one of Jesus’ followers.

The call to discipleship is an invitation to relationship with Jesus.  At another time when Jesus rebuked Peter for trying to discourage Jesus from accepting the inevitability of his impending rejection, crucifixion and death, Jesus told Peter to get behind him and learn from him.  That only can happen for Peter and us if we spend time with Jesus and get to know him.  It’s not enough to eat and drink with Jesus or to listen to his preaching.  To those now barred from admittance into the kingdom, Jesus says: I do not know where you are from. Being a disciple is about commitment and about striving to live the baptismal priesthood, striving (the right word, by the way) to be Jesus’ other self.

At the end of this pericope Jesus ties us back to the theme in the reading from Isaiah about the universality of the call.  Jesus expresses God’s love that is universal for Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, and every other category of humankind that one can come up with.  These various ones, some of whom one might be tempted to look down upon, heard the invitation and followed, entering by the narrow gate.  Those locked outside beyond a door that will not open despite the knocking, are those who took discipleship and the corresponding salvation for granted.  Alas.  Today’s call to discipleship is Jesus’ urgent plea for us to hear the call, to be amazed at the magnitude of God’s love, and to seek to respond with our entire being.

Does all this still seem overwhelming?  Well might it except for one basic tenet of our faith.  When we speak about the faith-response to discipleship we are talking about something that God’s grace makes possible.  We are talking about something that is animated by the Holy Spirit.  That is why prayer and mediation are essential parts of a disciple’s life.  That is why disciples gather Sunday after Sunday to hear the Word and renew Eucharist.  Both are transforming actions in God’s grace.  Remember that the word Eucharist means thanksgiving. We give thanks to God for the faith that is ours, for the call to discipleship that is ours, through the renewing of Christ’s dying and rising in the Eucharist.  The Word transforms.  The Eucharist transforms.  And when we say Let it be, disciples are sent to live the Word and live the Eucharist in the world, proclaiming Jesus to all we meet through acts of humble service until Jesus comes again.

Amazing, isn’t it?

Sincerely,

Didymus