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THE THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C


Wisdom 11:22-12:2

2 Thessalonians 1:11-22

Luke19 1-10

We sat in the dimly lit hospital room, the curtains drawn over the windows that looked out onto the hallway, preventing visual access to people passing by.  The young boy, 11 or twelve years of age, had just received Holy Communion.  He sat in his wheelchair making his thanksgiving.  A few weeks before he and his younger brother had survived a fiery car crash that had killed his father and an uncle.  He was burned over the majority of his body including his head and now his features were terribly disfigured.

We were startled by the shriek emanating from a young girl who had wandered into the room.  In a moment she turned on her heels and in panic fled the room.  I went to the door and watched her running helter-skelter down the corridor.  Turning back to my young friend, I saw tears streaming down his cheeks.  His eyes were closed and his lips trembled.

“Does God think I am ugly, too?”  The question was uttered in a voice barely above a whisper.

“Oh, no,” I said, “God loves you as a beloved child, just the way God loves Jesus.”

There are so many of the world’s population who must ask similar questions.  They may not ask it of their priest, minister, or rabbi: they might ask God directly.  They may not be physically scarred and have to wonder whether or not God thinks they are ugly.  But discarded by society, abandoned to ash-heaps or the sidewalks of slums, or living in impoverished conditions in tent-cities, they certainly might ask whether or not God loves them.  If God does love them, shouldn’t there be some evidence?

We need to listen to this Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom.  We need to let the words wash over us and penetrate any aridity in our souls, especially those among us who are suffering physically, emotionally, or psychologically.  In times of extreme trial, we need to be reminded of a basic truth of our faith.  And once we have been convinced, as individuals, as parish, as Church, we must do all in our power to proclaim the truth, both in words and in actions.  Words alone may not be enough.  Some truths must be translated into deeds.

The God of the Hebrews is an amazing god.  Genesis says that God willed into being everything that is.  God holds the whole universe in existence.  God’s love called every person into being.  You (God) love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made. The very fact that people and things continue in being is the sign of the abiding love.  God would not allow something despised to remain.  Don’t miss the fact that God does not rush to judgment against the sinner.  Love is the motivation, again, for God’s desire to see evildoers repent and return to God.  So, God is patient and gives the sinner reminders to help them change their lives.  God inspires the prophets to announce to the people what God wants them to hear.  The scriptures are the inspired word of God through which God can continually speak to those who are open to the written word.  Through the prophets and the scriptures God admonishes the sinners little by little that their lives are not in conformity with God’s desire for them.  If they listen they will find the way to abandon their wickedness and believe in (God). God is love.

For our transition to the gospel for this Sunday we can borrow from John’s Gospel: God so loved the world that God sent the only begotten Son. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love.  The meaning of Jesus’ ministry and message is that the Lord of the Universe loves all people and desires that people turn to God so that God can bring them safely to the heavenly kingdom.  Repentance is a positive thing.  To preach repentance is to preach hope.  Perhaps those most in need of a reason to hope will be the best hearers of the message.

By now in Luke’s Gospel we are well along in Jesus’ public ministry.  We should be getting used to the idea that Jesus is preaching to the Jews, for who he came, and also to the Gentiles, some of whom have made heroic responses to Jesus.  Jesus has exhibited a special fondness for those others designate as sinners.  In fact he doesn’t seem to have much time for those who don’t recognize themselves to be sinners but at the same time are quick to categorize and condemn others as sinners – and so to shun them.  God’s love is universal, i.e., for all people.

We meet Zacchaeus.  He is a curious figure.  A man of short stature, he is one of the hated tax collectors and as such those among whom he lives despise him and would certainly classify him as a sinner.  Beyond that, we don’t know anything more about the man.  We don’t know if he considered himself to be a sinner.  He would know that he was hated.  As a person of wealth, he could live apart from the rest.  If he lived in our time, he would live in a gated community, safe and apart from the riffraff.  There is something more that is apparent about him, and that is he is curious about Jesus.  We don’t know what he has heard.  Perhaps he has gotten word of a miracle or two.  Perhaps someone has told him about Jesus’ preaching.  Maybe he has heard that controversy is growing about Jesus.  It might be that he has heard that some are thinking Jesus is the Messiah.

We are told that Jesus intends to pass through Jericho and not to stop there.  Crowds of the curious line the way Jesus is traveling.  This will be their only glimpse of him.  Perhaps you know what it is like to be in a crowd and to hope to see a famous celebrity as s/he rides by in the caravan.  Zacchaeus, short man that he is, cannot see over those lining the street in front of him.  Frustrated, he climbs a tree to sit on a branch and so hope to see Jesus as he passes by.  Apparently he is not afraid of being embarrassed should someone see a man of his position and wealth perched in a tree.  Nothing seems to matter more to him than seeing Jesus.

Imagine the consternation and the grumbling when Jesus stops and looks up into the tree and calls Zacchaeus by name, asks him to come down quickly, and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house in order to stay there.  As they watched Jesus go off with the elated Zacchaeus, the crowd murmured: He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner. The incident will become fodder for a principal charge that will be brought against Jesus during his trial.  This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

There are two things to notice in this account.  There were a lot of people clamoring to get a look at Jesus.  They would fit the definition of the word crowd as opposed to the word disciple. Disciples are those who have made a decision to follow Jesus.  Crowds are curious about him and often nothing more than that.  But Zacchaeus’ desperation speaks of a deeper need, a hunger that longs for satisfaction.  Is Zacchaeus searching for meaning?  Does he need someone to convince him that God doesn’t think he is ugly?  Does he yearn to know that God loves him?  From all the crowd, Jesus singles out Zacchaeus and calls him by name.  Doesn’t this remind you of the parable of the Good Shepherd that will be told later in Luke’s Gospel about the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep and goes out to search for and find the one that is lost?

Second, notice Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus’ invitation.  He hears the grumbling against him and is well aware of the opinion people have about him.  Maybe they were right in what they thought about him.  As a tax collector, he may have gouged funds from his neighbors by adding to their tax bill.  Nothing is said about how observant he was as a Jew, how often he went to temple.  In an instant, none of that matters.  We witness a conversion as complete as Saul’s on the Road to Damascus.  Because he has encountered Jesus, Zacchaeus announces that he will change his life.  He will give to the poor half of his wealth.  He will return four times anything he has gained by fraud.  That is remarkable, to say the least.

How do we know that this is a real conversion and not just a momentary burst of enthusiasm?  It is in what Jesus says in affirming Zacchaeus’ proclamation that helps us to see the significance in what is happening.  Today salvation has come to this house. That means Zacchaeus and his family are destined for heaven.  Zacchaeus is a descendant of Abraham.  He may have wandered and lost his way in terms of living according to The Law.  He is the very type for whom Jesus is searching.  He has come to seek and to save what was lost.

Do you identify with Zacchaeus?  For you to do so, there has to be some realization of what it means to be a sinner.  There might also need to be a brush with hopelessness, or a sense of being judged by others and even of being an outcast.  Because, now comes the declaration that you are loved.  Your sin is forgiven.  And heaven waits.

The word gospel means good news. What better news can there be than forgiveness and redemption?  As one of the baptized, acting in union with Christ, and putting the Eucharist we have celebrated into practice, we ought to be about welcoming and proclaiming the hope that is in forgiveness, a hope that inspires repentance, no matter who is the sinner or how grave the sin.  We stand in the Communion Procession until all have been fed.  We go out to tell the Good news until all have heard.  And our actions toward them will speak louder than the words.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT: THE POWER OF PRAYER


(Matthew 7:7-11)  This section of the Sermon on the Mount is among the most problematic.  Taken literally, it would seem that Jesus is telling his disciples that whatever they ask for from God they will receive it.  The problem is the contrary experience of so many believing people.  They prayed fervently.  Their prayers were not answered, at least as they had hoped they would be.

Think of parents who prayed over their gravely ill child, prayed for a miracle that would restore the child to health, only to enter into grief as their child died.  Think of the person praying for the mending of a troubled relationship only to see the other abandon the relationship to take up another with someone else.  Think of those terrorized during the genocide between the Hutus and the Tutsis.  In 1994, the Hutus slaughtered some 800,000 Tutsis, even though thousands of Tutsis prayed for deliverance as they crowded into churches where they should have experienced sanctuary.  The Belgians who should have defended them abandoned them.  Both sides were predominantly Catholic.  Then there are those who pray fervently that this will be the time for them to win the mega lottery.  Seems trivial in comparison, doesn’t it?  Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.  Knock and it will be opened to you.”

It angers me when I have heard some say with smug and judgmental attitudes that people’s prayers aren’t answered because their faith is weak or they don’t pray hard enough.  Having journeyed with people through their desperate times and prayed with them, I can attest that never did I see evidence of weak faith or a lack of fervor.  What does seem clear is that their experience proved to be a furnace that purified and refined them as they emerged paragons of belief.  They knew God far more intimately then than they had when the crises first entered their lives.

I remember sitting by the bedside of a lad who was in the last stages of leukemia.  He had prayed and so had his parents and brother and sister that somehow the leukemia would be conquered and he would be cured.  The doctors said it wouldn’t be so.  Death was not far away.  His breathing was labored.  His fingers fidgeted with the blanket that covered him.  Earlier in the evening I had anointed him and he received Holy Communion.  His parents had gone home by the time I returned.  He took a sip of water from the glass I held and then he lay back on the pillow.  “Can I tell you something?” he asked.

“Whatever you want,” I said.

“It might have been a dream, but I don’t think so.  They were standing at the foot of my bed.  Some of them I had not seen for a long, long time.  Some I had actually forgotten.  They nodded and smiled and said they were waiting for me.

“I hope my folks know where I am going.  I hope someday they will be happy for me.  Tell them that I’ll come back for them when it is their time.”

On another occasion I had gone to the hospital to anoint a parishioner.  I asked at the nurses’ station for the patient’s room.  When I walked into a stranger’s room and was about to excuse myself for intruding, the patient looked up with a start.  “Oh,” he said, “I didn’t think you would come for me.”

So, I shifted gears, so to speak, didn’t tell him that I was looking for someone else, and said that I was happy to visit with him.  I pulled up a chair and listened as he told me that it had been 35 years since he had received Communion.  He went to mass almost every weekend but never dared to approach the altar.  “You see my wife left me all those years ago.  We divorced and she moved to the other side of the world.  I raised my kids in the faith.  That’s for sure.  But because I was divorced I knew I could never take Communion again.  You know what I prayed for all along?  That a priest would come and take care of me before I died.  I’m awfully glad to see you.”

We chatted on and he told me that he had never married again.  Somehow he had always felt married to the wife who left.  It hurt when his pastor at the time told him he could not go to Communion because of the divorce.  But he accepted the discipline and made spiritual communions instead.

I can still see the tears rolling down his cheeks as I anointed him.  He smiled and nodded as I held the host up before him.  When he had taken the host, he smiled again.  Then he said, “Thank you.  I think I would like to sleep now.”  I never saw him again.

I believe in the power of prayer.  I believe Jesus when he says, “Ask and you will receive.”  And I also believe that prayers are answered far in excess of what we pray for.  If it were simply a matter of praying for some thing and our knowing that we would receive that thing like a child who asks Santa for this or that only to find it under the tree on Christmas morning, prayer would be trivialized.  Remember Jesus praying in the garden the night before he died?  He prayed with such intensity that his sweat became like drops of blood, Luke’s Gospel tells us.  What did he pray for?  That he would be spared the horrors that tomorrow would bring.  Wouldn’t the Father answer the Son’s prayer?  Oh, yes, but in ways beyond one’s wildest imaginings.

The blind man asked Jesus, “Lord, that I might see.”  Through this encounter and the mud made from Jesus’ spittle and smeared on the man’s eyes, the blind one had his sight restored.  And he recognized Jesus as Lord and knew that God’s reign was beginning for him.

What Jesus is promising as the fruit of prayer is that all people, Jew and Gentile, that all who seek God will find God.  All those that yearn for the Kingdom of God will enter it.  Ask.  Seek. Knock.  Be earnest in the quest and you will receive, find, and have the door opened for you.  It seems obvious when we hear Jesus say it.  He puts it in terms that we can all appreciate.  We are brought back to the parent-child relationship in the Lord’s Prayer.  Even the basest know how to give their children things that are good and good for them.  Push that to the nth degree with God as the heavenly parent and you as the child in need and how can you doubt that God will draw you into that loving relationship and bring you safely home to the heavenly kingdom?

Many of the saints who were also mystics wrote about their difficulties with prayer.  In the beginning of their faith lives, God seemed very near and their lives were flooded with joy and peace.  But then came what they variously described as the Dark Night.  The comforts of prayer vanished.  God seemed distant.  Doubt entered their faith lives.  Some of them cried out for consolation.  Silence.  Then the fog lifted and consolation returned.  Their prayers remained silent.  There was no need for words, no need to tell God what they needed.  They entered into what is called the Unitive Way.  God opened the door and they gazed at each other with love.

In the gospels we hear accounts of Jesus, the miracle worker.  The blind see.  The lepers are cleansed.  The poor hear the Good News.  Even the dead are raised to life again.  But that does not mean that all the blind saw.  Many of the lepers were not cleansed.  And many of the dead did not see life in this world again.  There were miracles.  There are miracles today.  Their purpose is the same now as it was then, to give hope.  Miracles are signs of God’s bounty and love.  They encourage those of us in need or difficulty to believe and live in hope.  Love will survive even as we learn to accept that we do not have here a lasting city.

We honor crosses and wear them around our necks and hang them over our beds.  Odd isn’t it?  The cross is a means of torture and execution.  Jesus died on the cross after all his prayers that the cross would be taken from him.  But that was not the end of the story.  Jesus was the victor on the cross.  He kept his trust in the Father even when the darkness seemed to envelope him.  He cried out with the words of the psalm: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  But that psalm ends with God vindicating the one who felt abandoned.  Jesus was raised up.  The cross became for us a sign of victory only because of the Resurrection.  If we ever doubt, the cross tells us that God is faithful and will deliver us.  Darkness will never extinguish the Light.  God will always bring us into the dawn and the life that is in store for us when that last door opens to us.  All we have to do is knock.

THE THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C


Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:9-14

It is part of being Jesus’ disciple to pray and to persist in prayer.  That is how the readings challenged us last week.  This week we will be confronted with how we are supposed to pray, the attitude we should bring to prayer.  We will see that it is a matter of maintaining a proper perspective on who we are as we come before God.

The reading from the Book of Sirach puts the starting point squarely before us.  Our God is a just God who does not have favorites.  Everyone is on an equal footing before God.  That might be hard to imagine in this celebrity adoring age in which we live.  The fans that line the red carpets as their idols enter the theater swoon should one of the adored nod to, smile at, or, heaven be praised, pause to sign an autograph for one of the throng.  Surely God holds the stars in the same light wouldn’t you think?  Then there are the sports stars, the politicians, and even some in the hierarchy of the church that convey the attitude that they are better than everyone else.

Sirach tells us that God will indeed deal with all these from the loftiest to the lowest with equal justice.  Ah, but make no mistake, he does hear the cries of those society deems to be on its lowest rungs.  God hears the cries of the orphans and the widows, (remember the widow that nagged the unjust judge in last week’s gospel?) the little ones that have no one to intercede for them.  Am I reading into the text, or does it say that the prayers of the lowliest have an expressway to God?  If that is so, is there also the implication that something blocks the prayers of the loftiest among us?  And might that blockade be pride?  Remember that antiphon that we have sung?  The Lord hears the cry of the poor.  Blessed be the Lord!

Equality ought to be evident when the Assembly gathers to pray.  Some worship spaces help us to visualize that equality.  We come together as the Body of Christ and gather around the Table of the Word and the Table of the Eucharist.  The Altar, the principal sign of the presence of Christ, is in the center, or at least thrust out so that the faithful may gather about, rather than simply before the Table.  The Presider’s Chair is among the people, not above them.  And special effort is made so that the disabled in the community will have equal access to the sacred space.  Perhaps now we can see why, in John’s Gospel, during the Last Supper, Jesus admonishes the disciples to wash one another’s feet the way he had washed theirs.  Disciples, or rather, parishioners are called to be feet-washers.  And it is the work of the parishioners to make sure that anyone coming through the doors recognizes immediately that all are welcome here.

No one has the right to look down on another.  All of us ought to be comforted to know that prayers of the lowly pierce the clouds and do not rest till they reach their goal, i.e., until they reach God.

In the second reading we hear the conclusion of Paul’s second letter to his protégé Timothy.  It is a masterpiece from one who is beaten but not broken.  Paul is writing from prison, remember, and is convinced that he will soon be executed.  He puts that impending transformative moment in the context of sacrifice.  I am already being poured out like a libation and my departure is at hand. He tells Timothy and us that he has done the very best that he could and sees all of his endeavors for the Gospel as an athletic contest.  He is the winner.  And the Lord who is a just judge will give him the crown he has merited.

It places mundane and human emotions into this epistle, but it must have been gut wrenching for Timothy to read how abject Paul became before his persecutors.  Everyone abandoned him.  Why? Were they embarrassed by what his arrest had made of him?  Were they afraid that were they to stand by him, his fate would be theirs?  The image Paul paints of himself standing before his judge is reminiscent of Jesus standing before Pilate.  Each one stood alone.  But Paul is convinced of what no one else could see, that the Lord stood by him, supported him, and would rescue him from whatever evil befell him until Paul would be brought safely to heaven.  The humbled one knows he will see glory with the Christ he has preached and for whom he will die.

Notice to whom Jesus addresses the parable in the gospel: to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. Jesus is speaking to those who believe they have no need for God or God’s mercy.  If there is a heaven, they are getting there on their own.  To despise everyone else means that they looked down on everyone else, saw everyone else as being beneath them.  While most of us would be able to deny that those attitudes are ours, we shouldn’t ignore the parable.  Something of pride may persist in us.

It will be hard for the parable to have the impact on us that it had on the first audience.  First, we have heard it before.  Second, Pharisees and tax collectors have no particular significance for us.  Well, maybe tax collectors do, but not the significance they had for the Jews in our Lord’s time.  The Pharisees were the experts in the Law and highly regarded scholars in the temple precincts.  The tax collectors were hated, seen as collaborators with the Romans.  They added to their neighbors’ tax bills to earn their own living.

For today’s hearers, it might be important to imagine two others going into the temple to pray.  If we were in Northern Ireland, one going in would be a Catholic, the other a Protestant.  Were we in a place populated with the very prejudiced, one going in would be a Black or a Hispanic, the other would be a Caucasian.  For the sexist, one would be a man, the other a woman, or one would be gay and the other straight.  The point is, the hearer is helped to get the message if s/he is able to identify with and admire one and have low regard for the other and at the same time be able to be surprised where grace is found.

Don’t be too harsh on the Pharisee.  As Jesus paints him, he is probably all those things he boasts about in his prayer.  He praises God from a prominent place in the sanctuary and thanks God that he is the extraordinary person that he is.  His virtues abound.  He fasts more often than the Law requires.  He tithes on more than he has to.  He doesn’t lie and he keeps the Sixth Commandment.  All that is fine, as far as it goes.  The problem is in what comes next in his ode to himself.  The man is judgmental and sees himself as better than the rest of the human race, even better than the man with whom he shares Temple space.  He makes assumptions about the other that he has no right to make, making them without any evidence to support them.  He judges him to be a sinner.

Contrast the above with the attitude exhibited in the tax collector.  He knows what people think about him.  He may well be aware of the extortions he has practiced on his neighbors through their tax bills and see them as sinful.  He might feel trapped in his situation and be unable to see anyway out for himself.  He stands against the back wall, doesn’t dare to look up, and beats his breast in misery.  O God, be merciful to me a sinner. This one goes home justified.  That means his relationship with God is made right.  Mercy and grace have embraced him.  The same cannot be said for the Pharisee.

If this gospel is to have its impact on us, we have to stand under it and be vulnerable.  If the Lord hears the cries of the poor, we have to be among those poor.  The Pharisee in the parable could have been among them if he had had the humility to recognize that everything he had achieved and all his religious practices were the result of grace working in his life.  It also would have helped had he the grace to see that there was sin in his life, that there were times when he could have done better, especially in his attitudes toward others.  If he could have acknowledged the other person with him in the temple and perceived his misery and had a moment of compassion that inspired him to pray for the tax collector, his whole experience would have been different.  If only he had known in his heart that he was in no position to judge, he could have come to understand what it means to pray and to have a need for God.  In C. S. Lewis’s words, he could have been surprised by grace.

I remember bringing Holy Communion to a man who lived alone and was dying with cancer.  I remember walking into his room and being overwhelmed by the stench.  My stomach churned and I wanted to flee.  The man told me how grateful he was that I would visit him.  Then he said that he was embarrassed because he had a dressing that needed changing.  Could I help him?  I don’t know how long the pause was before I swallowed my pride and said I would be happy to help.  I helped him remove the old dressing, and washed and dried the wound before helping him to apply the new one.  At some point the experience stopped being repulsive and I felt graced to be able to assist my friend and leave his dignity in tact.

Then we prayed with the Host held up before him: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Happy are those called to the supper. He received and afterwards while he paused in silent prayer, I thanked God for the witness I had been given, the grace of this moment that helped me to recognize in my brother the Lord who will rescue us from every evil threat and bring us safe to his heavenly kingdom.  I knew that I would never be the same even as I knew I needed mercy and forgiveness for my pride.  O God, be merciful to me a sinner.

To Christ be glory forever and ever.  Amen.

Sincerely,

Didymus