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THE EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – July 31, 2011

Isaiah 55:1-3

Romans 8:35, 37-39

Matthew 14:13-21

In Hebrew Scripture and in New Testament texts, at times of great sorrow and near despair come odes urging hope and pointing to fulfillment.  Today’s scriptures are cases in point.  In the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord says: All you who are thirsty, come to the water.  You, who have no money, come, receive grain and eat.  Come without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!  We hear a universal invitation with a promise of fulfillment going out to a broken people in time of desolation late in the Babylonian Captivity.  There is a hint of an invitation to repentance.  That should not be surprising.  After all, infidelity to the call may have occasioned their present state of collapse.  Israel’s strength rose and fell like a tide to the moon of their fidelity to God.

In the Letter to the Romans, Paul writes to Jews and Gentiles of their common reason for hope to be found in their Baptism and faith in Christ.  There can be all sorts of things physical and spiritual to fear, but (w)hat will separate us from the love of Christ?  At the end of the long list of possibilities, Paul’s conclusion is that nothing can separate us.  In other words, those who are faithful have nothing to fear – not even death.  The love of God in Christ Jesus is stronger than death.  The Letter to the Romans was written to a people whose faith in Christ was becoming illegal as an age of persecution dawned.  We won’t even comment on how often in history periods of persecution gave evidence of fervor in faith.  Strange, too, isn’t it, that during those same times of persecution, the number of new believers soared?

In the gospel, Jesus is in mourning, mourning the death of John the Baptist.  Longing to be alone with his sorrow he gets into a boat and sets off for a deserted place only upon his arrival to be met by crowds of people suffering and desperate and searching for him.  Jesus’ response is a model for all who would minister.  His heart is moved with pity.  Pity is a weak word unless we understand it to mean the better word in translation: compassion.  Compassion means to enter into another’s suffering, to suffer with.  That is what Jesus does.  That is what all who minister in Jesus’ name are called to do – suffer with even as they are charged with bringing comfort and relief.  You can’t be aloof in ministry, at least Jesus couldn’t be.  You can’t be repulsed because your hands get dirty and your shirt, bloodstained.  Jesus wasn’t.  That’s how close you have to get to those you serve.  And then there might be tears.

Whenever there is mention of Jesus getting into a boat with his disciples we have an image of the Church.  So it is here.  Remember that.  Sometimes the task of meeting others’ needs seems overwhelming.  There are too many to feed, too many demands being made, too much grief.  Here, the disciples get weary and want to send the crowds away because they feel they cannot meet all these needs.  Jesus asks for an assessment of the problem.  Sure that he will be sympathetic to the disciples’ plight they tell him in a nutshell, there are too many hungry people.  There is not enough for all of them to eat just a little bit.  Please send them away so that they can shop for food for themselves.  But Jesus doesn’t let them off the hook.  You give them some food yourselves.

5000 men, not counting the women and children!  Would adding the women and children into the total raise the number in the throng to ten or twelve thousand?  All the disciples have to offer are five loaves and a couple of fish.  Hear Jesus as he says: Bring them here to me.  The point to recognize is that even when all the resources available seem inadequate before the mammoth task, as Paul said in the second reading, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.  But it must be a joint effort.  The disciples offer the little they have.  Jesus takes it and suddenly there is more than enough.  So it must always be with the Church.  The Church as the Body of Christ must be universal in her love for and unqualified in welcoming the poor and the hungry, the naked and the imprisoned, and all those whose dignity and worth are compromised by the plight in which they find themselves.  The task and those needing to be served are overwhelming.  The resources seem so limited in comparison to the gargantuan challenge.  And yet Jesus will always say: You give them some food yourselves!

The feeding of the 5000 is a Eucharistic moment that foreshadows the Eucharist that will begin at the Last Supper.  Don’t miss the language: Taking the few loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples who in turn gave them to the crowd.  Blessed the bread.  Broke the bread.  Gave the bread.  (Notice that there is no mention of the fish here.)  These are key words in every Eucharist and we have the significant actions here.  Every Eucharist convokes an assembly burdened with various needs, carrying various crosses, aware of being sinners needing conversion.  They gather with Jesus at the Table of the Word, yearning to nosh on every word that comes from his mouth.  They gather with Jesus at the Table of the Eucharist to give thanks to God for the blessing that comes to them in, with, and through Jesus.  The come to share in the meal.  They come also as the Baptized, marvelously united with Jesus, one with him and with the Father in the Holy Spirit.  The transformation begins when Jesus again takes bread, says the blessing, breaks the bread and gives it to them saying: Take and eat.  This is my body which is given for you.  Now, you do this in my memory.  A lot is connoted by that word memory.  The word means more than calling to mind.  To remember in the mind of the Hebrews is to make present what is remembered.

Jesus says that when the Assembly does this action Jesus is present.  Transformed by that action and strengthened by the shared meal, there are more than enough resources to meet the task as long as the Assembly, the Body of Christ, is willing to go forth blessed to be broken and distributed as long as anyone hungers.

As I write this, our nation continues to reel with the staggering statistics from the recent tornados and floods.  Then there is the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the earthquake in Haiti and in Iceland, the people still struggling to recover from Katrina and the aftereffects of the oil spill in the gulf.  And of course the wars continue, as do the numbers of those dying in those conflicts.  We may pray and wring our hands in anguish and weep at the plight of the many even as we are aware that the need far exceeds the resources at hand.  We are sure to wince when we hear Jesus say: Give them something to eat yourselves.

Upon whose strength and transforming power will we rely to get the job done?

I was touched by an interview with a mother and son in the early days after the tornado in Joplin, Missouri.  They were taking part in the cleanup effort there.  They were from Chicago and had brought some equipment with them, not knowing what to expect when they got there.  The mother said that her son, a high-school junior, saw the first reports of the disaster and immediately told her they had to go to Joplin and help.  So, there they were.  That is the compassionate response that Jesus looks for in his disciples.

As a postscript: the other day I heard that there is a new syndrome afflicting our people: Disaster Fatigue.  We are weary of other people’s suffering.  Not to be cynical about it, but I wonder how sympathetic Jesus will be when we bring that complaint to him.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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BEFORE THE CROSS

When I was a child, I used to have nightmares about Judgment Day.  My problem from the beginning of my life has been a vivid imagination.  I can see clearly things that people describe.  Even now it is hard for me to believe that in the days before television, I only listened to Inner Sanctum on the radio and didn’t watch the series on a screen.  So when I heard stories about the Last Day and what it would be like to have to give an accounting to God for one’s life, it was easy for me to see myself standing before a huge throne and trembling.  The funny thing is, I never saw who was sitting on the throne.  All I could ever see was the base of it – heavy and black and forbidding.  I never had the courage to look up.  And I saw myself alone and defenseless.

My perspective has changed.  Obviously I am not a child anymore.  But I still tremble when I think about giving the final accounting.  The throne is still massive.  Now I wonder about the judgment process.  I wonder if there will be someone accusing and someone defending as we are used to in our civil court proceedings.  Or will there be only Jesus and the cross leaving the compulsion to compare my life with Christ’s, the one with whom I am supposed to be identified?  That’s what we believe happens in Baptism, isn’t it.  We rise from the waters identified with Christ.

Again, when I was a child and I first began to believe, I thought it was enough to be acquainted with the Jesus proclaimed in Gospel stories and try to remain focused on him alone.  Maintaining that kind of relationship was the important thing.  From early on it was veritable hero-worshiping.  That it didn’t have anything to do with anyone else didn’t bother me.  All I had to do was be good and not sin.  That would please the Lord and I would be safe on Judgment Day.

With the passage of time and a degree of maturing I began to understand that Jesus has entrusted the church to his followers, his friends called Christians.  Slowly it began to enter my consciousness that Christ expects those who choose to believe in and to walk with him to have a sense of responsibility for each other and to live different kinds of lives so that Christ’s Good News shines through them, through us and lifts up the lowly.

That is not an easy task today.  These are not the best of times.  The vineyard is being ravaged again – from within and without – but more subtly than the hands-on throttling and slaughtering Jesus described in the Vineyard parable.  Remember that the owner of the vineyard expected a rich harvest of lush grapes that would yield to becoming fine wine.  Is it possible to do the work the vineyard owner expects in order to bring about those results when contrary values are so commonly accepted in this day and age?

We live in a part of the world that doesn’t care that much about church.  Read the world-wide statistics and one could conclude that a powerful virus is spreading through believers and faith, at least faith in organized religion, is dying.  I still wince when I read that the second largest “denomination” in the United States is ex-Catholics.  Disillusioned Catholics apparently are leaving the church in droves, some to become part of other faith traditions, others to simply go it on their own.  Some friends who used to walk with me in this Catholic faith tradition pride themselves now on being secularists whose ideas of salvation have everything to do with the acquisition of power and the amassing of this world’s fortunes.  Wealth and success are signs of God’s favor.  Some now go so far as to call themselves atheists.

If there were a crisis of faith, some would say the collapse of our economy is the culprit.  Others blame the Second Vatican Council and the empowering of the laity that resulted.  Seeing the Church as the People of God some would equate with secularism.  What they think is necessary is a return to former ways, the Tridentine Liturgy, Latin, and a renewing of focus on the transcendence of God, not God’s imminence.  Will people really pray with greater fervor if the language in which they pray is stilted and not reflective of the vernacular of their everyday speech?

Fervent patriotism is the new secular religion.  Being part of this land of plenty is a sign of God’s special favor.  The realization of the American Dream is about as close to salvation as many of our contemporaries want to get.  Some hedge their bets by singing “God Bless America.”  But if we have heard the Gospel’s proclamation of the universality of God’s love for humankind, isn’t there something wrong with singing “God Bless America” without invoking that same benediction on every other land on the globe and its people?

I’m weary.  How is it possible to think there is such a thing as a holy war today?  How can we be true to the Good News and work for the abundant harvest the Owner of the vineyard looks for if we support the idea of killing anyone in Christ’s name?  Fervor was at such a high pitch in those days immediately following 9/11 and the wrecking of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon.  Vengeance is a natural and instinctive desire.  While it has been historically verifiable that war has always been very good for a sagging economy, these latest episodes in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be disproving that assumption.

And so I begin to think about my standing before the throne of judgment on my last day.  I won’t be attempting to dodge accusations of failed attempts hurled at me by an angry prosecutor.  Instead, I will stand in the shadow of the cross, surrounded by all the wonderful things this life has to offer.  Somewhere, perhaps hidden in the midst of all that lavish wealth, will tremble the little ones, the poor and the disenfranchised.  It was the Second Vatican Council that defined the Church as the people of God always exercising a fundamental option for the poor.  The question I will hear the Voice ask then will be, “Which choices did you make?”  The reality I will have to deal with will be how closely those choices mirrored the ones Jesus made.  Will it be clear that I chose to take up my cross every day and follow him?  Will it be obvious that I recognized Jesus in the poor and poured myself out in service of him in them?  And did all this dictate how I gathered with my brothers and sisters in Christ to celebrate Eucharist?  Was it clear by attitude and demeanor that all were welcome at the Table?

That is a lot to ponder and pray about.

In the meantime I want to be faithful to Christ’s call and to do my part to bring in an abundant crop from this portion of the vineyard where I believe I have been called to serve.  The greatest blow to my courage is the murmurings that would declare all this to be irrelevant.  Could it be that taking Christ and the call of the Gospel seriously makes one irrelevant?

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – July 24, 2011

1 Kings 3:5, 7-12

Romans 8:28-30

Matthew 13:44-52

 

When the first words of the gospel wash over you this Sunday you might wonder for a moment if the proclaimer isn’t on the wrong page.  You might be inclined to nudge the person next to you and whisper, “Didn’t we hear this one last week?”  After all, for the third Sunday in a row, the phrase the kingdom of heaven is like occurs several times in the pericope.  And having heard the phrase so many times you might be tempted to tune out.  After all, how many things can the kingdom of heaven be like?  What we are actually experiencing in these gospels is akin to gazing at a splendid jewel.  We would make a mistake were we to think that one glance could take in the whole gem.  Fine diamonds have many facets.  Light glints differently from each one.

We might be tempted to think that when Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like, each simile sums up the entire reality.  But listen more closely and you will see that facet is apt.  Jesus is talking about different aspects of one reality.  He is tying into human experience and inviting us to make a leap into Mystery, the wonder of God working in our lives and of our response.

Do you remember the first moment you began to believe?  Do you remember the first time you took the Good News to heart and decided it was meant for you?  That was the first moment you accepted the wondrous fact of God’s love for you, the first moment you believed that you were purchased at a great price, and that your destiny was eternally and inextricably caught up in Jesus Christ.  That was the moment you met Jesus and heard his invitation to follow him.  What difference did that make?  Where does the truth rank in terms of importance in your life?

The first two parables today tell of people, in one case happening upon, and in the other, as a result of careful searching for and finding, something of great value that is worth selling everything else in order to buy the trove.  Sometimes I think that were we to hear God reigns when each time we hear the kingdom of heaven is like, we would zone in on Jesus’ intent and meaning.  These parables are all about God’s desire to be in intimate relationship with the ones God has created, that is, with you and with me.  If one is searching for that relationship as one is who struggles to find meaning in life, that is one thing.  If one has a sudden awakening out of the blue, so to speak, that is another.  The end result is the same.  Each one’s life will never be the same again.  And everything that formerly was held in importance then can seem like so much dross.  What we might miss, however, is that that reaction, that conversion is exactly what God longs to see occur in the human heart.  That is what Jesus expects from those he invites to be his disciples.  Think of the encounter between Jesus and the rich person who asked: What must I do to inherit everlasting life?  If you remember their dialogue you remember that Jesus is amazed at the goodness of the person who has striven all his life to keep all the commandments.  Jesus looks on him with love, which is another way of saying that the man spoke truth.  Jesus invites the man to take the next step and enter into the perfection of his ways.  Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and come and follow me!  And remember what happens next.  The person goes away sad.  Why?  Because he had much wealth and couldn’t imagine himself without it.  In other words he found the treasure, he found the pearl of great price, but couldn’t empty himself in order to posses it.

President Obama recently pardoned a man for crimes perpetrated 40 years ago.  The man is 63 now.  His crimes and misdemeanors began when he was twelve.  One day in prison, he noticed another inmate pouring over a well-thumbed bible.  He asked the other if he could read his book.  The man opened the book and began to read and Jesus entered his life.  That wasn’t what he was looking for and certainly not what he expected.  That doesn’t matter.  His life changed that day and soon after he began to share faith with the other inmates.  He never went back to the life of crime.  He continues to visit prisoners with his bible in hand and to preach to them to this day, inviting them to find the peace that he found that changed his life forever.

Saint Francis of Assisi had a similar experience the day he set out to fight in the Crusades.  He never made it to the Crusades as a warrior.  Instead, he returned to Assisi and spent six weeks in solitary retreat.  In his mediations he concluded that poverty must be part of his response to Jesus’ invitation to walk with him on the way.  He emerged with the knowledge that the wealth in which he had been raised didn’t matter in comparison with Jesus.  He renounced it all and invited his band of brothers to do the same in service of the Gospel.

Add to the idea of poverty the challenge Jesus issues to those who would be his disciples to take up their crosses everyday and follow him, and you begin to see how demanding Jesus’ call is.  And how little sense it makes – in worldly terms.  That may also explain why so often people who heard Jesus went away shaking their heads and muttering: Who can do this?  Jesus’ response?  With humans it is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

That brings us to another facet of the kingdom of heaven is like gem.  God’s coming reign is like that net thrown into the sea.  All kinds of fish are caught in it and hauled to shore.  Something to ponder.  What is said about the kingdom of heaven can describe the action of the Church.  The more evidence the Church gives for being selective in terms of who is welcome at the table, the clearer this facet of the parable is denied.  Jesus said: Come to me all you who are weary and I will refresh you.  Notice that he said all.  None of the categories into which we cast people, making them unacceptable applies.  All.  As soon as we say surely Jesus doesn’t mean him, her, or them, we aver that we haven’t learned the lesson and therefore probably place ourselves outside the pale.  Come to me all of you is that net cast out into the sea again.  All kinds will be caught up in the wonder of the telling.  It’s up to God to make the determinations of who are the wicked and who are the righteous.  And I suspect that we might gasp at the recognition of some in either camp.

It amazes me that when Jesus asks: Do you understand all these things, the response is such a ready, “Yes.”  Perhaps that is why Jesus then says, in effect, maybe not.  Not yet, at least.  The hearers have to ponder and pray over these parables in order to decipher their meaning and their application in their lives.  They have to determine their responses.  Each hearer has to put the parables into the context of God’s actions from the beginning and ask: How shall I respond?  The more daunting the response seems, the more you might be tempted to wonder who can do this, the closer you are to standing in amazement at the call and recognizing the wonder of God’s grace that empowers what on your own you could not have dreamed or imagined.  After all, you are the beloved of God.

That’s why we move to the table of the Eucharist to give thanks and experience the transformation.  It is not just the bread and wine that are transformed into the Body of Christ.  The Assembly presents and offers itself and so is transformed into the Body of Christ.  The Eucharistic Bread will be broken and distributed in order to be taken and eaten.  The Cup will be shared to be taken and drunk.  A caution.  Those who do take and eat, and those who take and drink must then go forth from the feast and allow the same things to happen to them.  They must be bread broken.  They must be cup poured out.  Who can do this?  Don’t forget.  All things are possible with God.  That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Sincerely,

Didymus