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THE SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – February 20, 2011

Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18

1 Corinthians 3:16-23

Matthew 5:38-48

If you think it is easy to be a Christian and want to continue thinking in that vein, then perhaps you should not read any farther here.  And stop your ears when the Gospel is proclaimed this Sunday.  If the majority of us do not wonder if anyone can live this new law, then we are hearing a filtered version of the text.  Living the Christian Way is not for the faint of heart.  Look at the Lord during his passion and you will see what it means to live the letter of this Law.

Several years ago I visited a young man in hospital.  He was recently made paraplegic as a result of an accident caused by a speedster running a red light and broad siding the car in which my friend was riding.  A senior in high school, he was a gifted athlete who had received an athletic scholarship to a prestigious university.  Obviously he would never play sports again.  The scholarship would be rescinded.  His dreams of attending the school would never be realized.

We sat and talked and I expected to have to search for words to comfort him in his terrible ordeal.  I was stunned as he spoke of the horror of the accident and how suddenly his life was altered.  There were no tears forming in his eyes as he spoke.  He reached out and put his hand on mine and told me how sorry he felt for the poor guy who caused the accident.  I don’t know if I could live with that on my conscience if the situation were reversed, he said.  Where was the bitterness I expected to find?  Where was the anger?  He was responding with love.  I remember thinking that I could not imagine myself accepting such a disaster in my own life without wanting to cry out for vengeance, an eye for an eye. From where did he get his strength and courage?

Remember we are on the Mountain listening to the new Moses as he gives us the new Law that will govern those who will be his disciples.  The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus speaking about the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law.  Fulfillment goes much farther than mere obedience to the letter of the Law.  For the Jewish people the Law was the sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people.  Obeying God’s Law meant that they had to live a certain way, do certain things, and avoid certain others.  Their way of life would be an eloquent sign to all the Gentiles of the intimate relationship between God and God’s chosen people.  If we live the New Law our lives will speak eloquently to the world of what it means to live in Christ and have Christ live us.

It can be argued that much of the Mosaic Law is meant to direct life in the community, how the Jewish people are expected to treat each other.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself. With Jesus, the Law becomes universal in application and goes beyond the community of believers.  Certainly this is how Christians should treat each other.  But Christians should react to and treat all people this way – even their enemies.

I don’t know if those plastic bracelets with WWJD embossed on them are still popular.  What would Jesus do? The question is not a bad one to ask in difficult situations.  We don’t have to wonder what Jesus would do in the most trying times in his life.  All we have to do is look at him during his passion.  He was silent before his accusers.  He was struck on the face and scourged and offered no resistance.  He bore the cross and was crucified.  During none of those moments did he curse the ones who abused him.  He turned the other cheek, offered his beard to those who would pluck it and his back to those who would beat him.  He was like a lamb led to the slaughter.  Imitating Jesus in similar moments is the ultimate test for living the New Way.  That is why martyrs were the first to be called saints.

There is no easy way to hear this text.  Jesus does tell us to offer no resistance to one who is evil.  When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. We are supposed to yield to, even go beyond unreasonable demands.  In other words, it seems there is to be something intrinsically vulnerable about Christians.  The 23 Ugandan Martyrs stand out as prime examples here.  Try to imagine being tied to a stake, wrapped in reeds, and enduring having those reeds lit at your feet.  Each of the young Ugandans was slowly burned to death in this excruciatingly painful manner.  Not one of them cried out or cursed those executing him.  Instead, to a person, they sang hymns and rejoiced that they were on their way to see Jesus.  How many Ugandans in later years sought Baptism because of the martyrs’ example?  To this day millions gather every year at the site of their martyrdoms to celebrate their feast.

Jesus says that his disciples, that we are to go beyond loving our neighbors to loving our enemies.  Love, as Jesus commands it, becomes the all-consuming demand of the new Law.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. As you hear these words, it is one thing to think about their application in the abstract.  Think about someone who has done violence to you, or wronged you, and then think about loving that person.  The young man at the start of this piece thought about the one who caused the accident with compassion.  By the way, they met not long after our visit.  They reconciled and remain fast-friends to this day.  How many of Bernie Madoff’s clients, do you suppose love him today?  It wouldn’t make sense, would it?  Precisely!

The Law by which Jesus commands us to live makes demands upon us regarding the just and the unjust, regarding our neighbors and aliens alike, and regarding our friends and our enemies, and the rich and the poor.  Remember that Jesus is the full revelation of the Father.  What we are supposed to recognize in this commandment is the universality of God’s love.  God loves the Chosen People.  God loves the Gentiles.  God loves believers and unbelievers.  God loves saints and sinners.  God loves all people regardless of race, color, creed, ethnicity, gender, or any other classification by which people are categorized.  So does Jesus.  And so must his disciples, that is, so must we.

The message that must continuously be proclaimed by the Church is one of universal love and redemption.  No one is beyond the pale of God’s love.  At another time, Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will refresh you.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. We are supposed to share the load of the burdened the way a team of oxen does.  Why are we tempted to think that that applies only to ourselves, only to those on the inner circle?  There is nothing demanding about loving only the lovable.  Even the pagans do that. That is not imitative of God’s love.  As disciples we are to love the unlovable and pray for those who would do harm to us because God loves them.

I believe there is only one way we can do this and that is by yielding to the transforming power of the Eucharist.  Remember that it is not solely Christ who is present in the Eucharist, but so is the whole Church drawn into unity with Christ.  We must be vulnerable to the implications of receiving Eucharist.  We call it Holy Communion.  When we receive we enter into Common Union with Christ and all others who are really or potentially, part of his Body.  I have to love all those with whom I so intimately unite in Christ or I cannot be part of the union.  It doesn’t mean that I have perfected that art because I receive.  But it does mean that each time I receive I am willing to die more and more to myself and to my limitations so that Christ might become more and more in me.  Then I believe that I will be able to do all things in him who strengthens me, even love my enemies.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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FOR THE KINGDOM, THE POWER, AND THE GLORY ARE YOURS

Dear Jesus,

I met with a woman who told me that she wanted to believe in you but try as she might, she couldn’t make the leap.  She loves to read your story and spends hours imagining herself present at scenes in which your great encounters with the dark powers occur.  Not only did I listen to this woman, but I also watched her face and the emotions that registered there as she spoke with increasing intensity and longing.  Her eyes would well with unshed tears and a moment later glisten with delight in the presence of imagined encounters with you.

When the fugue had run its course, she shuddered as her body sagged as if someone had cut the puppet from its supportive strings.  Breathing heavily as one might after finishing a jog, she rested a moment, oblivious to my presence.  Then she blinked her eyes and focused on me, startled, as it were, by the realization that we had been in conversation together.

They’re wonderful stories,” she said.  “I so wish that I could believe in them.  If I had been there I would have shouted as Jesus passed by and begged him to touch me and let me believe.”

“Are you sure that you don’t?” I said.  If the truth were told, I envied the vivid realization that she seemed to experience.  My own faith has never had those peaks of intensity that brought her to the verge of ecstasy.  I’m a plodder.

“Yes.  The evils I encounter every day convince me that the Kingdom hasn’t come, regardless of what Jesus said.  How can the time since Jesus rose be called the Messianic Age?  Look at all the suffering.  The poor are just as powerless today as they were in Jesus’ day.  Have you seen the pictures of the Haitian survivors of that horrible storm?  In the beginning help poured in for them.  Then it seems people got tired of the story, or it was too painful to watch, and the help dried up.  Haitians are still living in a tent city and now cholera assails them.”

Why is it that at the most important times I find myself at a loss for words?  What should I have said to her?  I feel that I left her dangling so close to believing, but in the end, so far from that state, too.

Sometimes I think I am afraid to go where her thoughts take her.  Imagined hellish scenes of human suffering interrupt my sleep, too.  Believers still kill people in your name.  Children starve and some die at the hands of the very ones who brought them into life.  Others are sold into a hideous slavery that reduces them to commodities for sexual trafficking.  In Africa, 23 million people are dying with AIDS.  Two generations are dying at the same time leaving thousands of children orphans.

I think of my own brother, felled by a stroke, living day to day without sensation in half of his body.  I prayed to you to restore him to his former athlete’s strength.  So far you haven’t answered.  You know that I always loved my brother.  Why did it take the stroke and the threat to his life for me to be able to tell him that I loved him?  After his stroke, it seemed important that I tell him, important for me.

Is my lack of faith my problem?

Wait.  I have to stop my own fugue onset.  I’ve told you before that I do not know why I believe, only that I do.  I have always thanked you for that, even as I have always known that your command is the source of my faith.  You knew that I wanted to see and you made it happen.

Would you help me to see clearly God’s reign that you brought?  It’s true, isn’t it, that in every age God works through people?  And God’s power is felt when people respond to your suffering in the poor, the blind, and those otherwise afflicted.  Compassion is the great proof of God’s reign in this age, when people respond to people and in the process both are lifted up.

Please don’t be impatient with me.  I think I am coming to see that the bonds of love that are forged when people share each other’s burdens are the experience of God’s reign.  And that has happened in every age following your resurrection.  Compassion helps us to see things differently, to see purpose where once chaos reigned, to find hope in the most hopeless of situations.  That’s what I see when I look at you on the cross and that is what I recognize when I look into the eyes of those who suffer, when I touch them and pray with them.  Believing makes that possible.

I heard a woman speak about her son who ages 10 years for each year of his life.  She knows he will be dead before he reaches the age of 13.  She said that of course she grieves that he will die so young.  But she knows that everybody’s life is ultimately short in this world.  Her faith in you tells her that after death theirs will be a splendid reunion.  And in the mean time, there are all those her son touches, all those sick that are encouraged by his joy and obvious affection for them.

Was that the block to my friend’s being able to believe?  She wanted you to do it all.  But you never said that you would do that.  The responsibility is ours if we believe in you.  We are to do what you did, what the little boy, rapidly aging, does so naturally and with awesome serenity.  We can’t keep the poor at a distance.  We must embrace them in love.  We have to clothe the naked, visit the sick, and comfort those who mourn.  In that process we experience the reign of God that you bring to bear in every age.

Would you remind me of this when my energy flags?  I’m weak.  But if I can see you clearly, I think I can go the distance.  No wonder you invite us to gather with you at your table to renew Eucharist each Sunday.  That’s where we see you most clearly, in the Bread and Wine, and in the whole Church assembled.  The hymn we sing during the Communion Procession says it so well.

In the breaking of the Bread we have known (you), we have been fed.

Jesus the stranger, Jesus the Lord

Be our companion, Be our hope.

There is another prayer I need to keep praying: I do believe, Lord.  Help my unbelief.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – FEBRUARY 13, 2011

Sirach 15:15-20

1 Corinthians 2:6-10

Matthew 5:17-37

For three weeks now, we have been seated at Jesus’ feet listening to the his first major preaching to the first group of those who had decided to follow him, and to a large group that hadn’t yet made up their minds.  The Sermon will continue over the next several weeks.  Whereas the first audience had little previous exposure to what was entailed in discipleship.  We, on the other hand, either have seen ourselves as disciples for some time, we call ourselves Christians, or we are new to the faith, having been baptized in the recent past.  One thing is fairly safe to say, the bulk of the Sermon is familiar to us.

I sometimes wish there were a way to wipe the slate clean, so to speak, so that we could again have the experience of hearing these teachings for the first time so that they could stun us the way the first hearers were.  The Christian walk is not easy.  If our defenses are down and we are vulnerable to Jesus’ words, we should find ourselves wondering, who can do this.  For all the discussion about the Law that the scribes and Pharisees engaged in, the end result was to know that just about every possibility for violation was covered in the over 630 commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Laws tell us the least we can or cannot do.

Jesus takes us on a whole new track and removes the safeguard of the minimum.  Jesus urges us toward the fulfilling of the Law’s intent, not removing us from the need to observe it.  After all, the Decalogue is the sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people.  And obeying the commandments would be an eloquent sign to all the other nations of what it means to be God’s chosen people.  Now a new covenant is being formed through Jesus.  And love is the new law that disciples must live.

The scribes and the Pharisees could be characterized as being scrupulous about the Law and probably could quote them verbatim in their entirety.  Hear what Jesus says: I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Fulfilling the minutiae of the law is not enough for God to reign in our lives.  It has to do with love.  God said to the people, through Moses, when you keep the commandments others will know that I am your God and you are my people.  Jesus is saying: By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. Love becomes the Law in the new Way.  Love of God.  Love of neighbor.  Loving One necessitates loving the other.  And vice versa.  As soon as love becomes the norm we find the all-consuming demands of the new Law.

The Law says: You shall not kill, and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. We know what murder is, the taking of another’s life.  Some would immediately put qualifications on the commandment and say: you shall not commit murder, except under these circumstances or conditions. Those circumstances or conditions usually have to do with provocation.  It’s murder only when the victim has done nothing to merit the killer’s blow.

Jesus gives us an outline of how life is to be lived in the Kingdom that he is initiating.  As the promulgator of the New Way, there is much more that he expects of disciples than not committing murder.  He does not do away with the commandment, but he does speak in the first person and expand on what should be included under that law.  What I say to you is that far more than murder is unacceptable in this faith community.  Jesus is reordering creation and clarifying the implications of living as children of God, brothers and sisters in the Lord.

More than murder is forbidden here.  So are anger and abusive language.  Of course there is such a thing as just anger.  That is not forbidden by the new commandment.  Jesus’ own actions attest to this.  He was angry when he made a whip out of his belt and drove the moneychangers from the temple.  The justification for his rage?  My Father’s house is a house of prayer; you have made it a den of thieves. Anger is an appropriate response to injustice and the exploitation of the vulnerable.  Anger compelled Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  They responded to the horrors they witnessed as non-violent reformers.  Apartheid angered Archbishop Desmond Tutu and compelled him to work for reconciliation.  There are situations and conditions that warrant anger.  A license to kill does not follow.

Jesus words are addressed to his disciples.  The Messiah tells them how they are to conduct themselves in his emerging community in which all are brothers and sisters.  Killing a brother or sister is reprehensible, but so is hating a brother or sister and merits the same consequence, damnation.  The one who hates deems the object of his hatred to be loathsome, abominable, and detestable.  One cannot have such an attitude toward a brother or sister, a fellow member of the community.

So then, whom can one hate?  It becomes clear that Jesus bans hatred?  In the abstract you might think that it is not all that challenging to banish hatred from your life.  But put a face on the enemy and see him as the one who has done something despicable to you, ruined your life, or absconded with your spouse or your life’s savings.  Could you wash that person’s feet?  Jesus would.  He exchanged a kiss with Judas, after all.

It was jealousy between brothers that caused the first murder.  Cain killed Abel because God seemed to favor Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s.  We are called to be members of a new society where brothers and sisters live in unity and peace because that has been God’s desire for the human family from the beginning.

So it seems clear that Jesus is saying to his disciples that they can never be content with dissention in the community.  These are people who process together to the Table to partake of the One Bread and the One Cup, to be one in the Christ who lives in them.  Disciples can never accept fractured relationships.  Because someone offends does not mean that he or she can be shunned or exiled from the community.  The grace of repentance is always available.  And so Jesus admonishes the offender, the one who caused the breakdown to have as his or her first priority to make amends and seek reconciliation.  This obligation comes before the obligation to worship God.  If the person is on his way to temple with the elements of sacrifice in hand, Jesus says to tend to first things first.  Reconcile and then offer the sacrifice.

It is not by accident that our Liturgy begins with the Penitential Rite. Herein we call to mind our sins and, recognizing that there is no such thing as a private sin that does not weaken the whole assembly, we ask pardon of God and of our neighbor before we enter into the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Then do not miss the significance of the greeting of peace that precedes the Communion Procession.  What we are celebrating is the reconciliation that is necessary to heal the breaches in our society.  We enter into the Mystery of the Community that is our God.  It is the grace of that transformation that we must put into practice loving others as we are loved in Christ.

The operative word is Love!

Sincerely,

Didymus