Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

THEN THERE IS HOPE

tragedy: a serious drama describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a sad end that excites pity or terror.  E.g., the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex; Shakespeare’s “Anthony and Cleopatra” and “King Lear” among others.

The possibility of tragedy does exist for people of faith, but, thanks be to God, it does not happen nearly as often as the attachment of the word tragic to people and events that touch their lives might seem to indicate.
The word tragedy has a specific meaning. For a tragedy to occur, a heroic person engaged in a morally significant struggle must end in ruin and utter disappointment. In Christ that horrendous end just doesn’t happen that often. Judas was a tragic figure. Ananias and Sapphira were tragic figures. Their common tragic flaw was their love of money.
To attach the word tragic to minor or major catastrophes is to trivialize the word and convey a wrong meaning. Plane crashes and car wrecks can be disastrous, even horrific events. To call them tragic is to imply that victims of such events have been brought to utter ruin simply because they lost their lives. In Christ, with belief in the power of Christ’s dying and rising, that simply is not possible.
During the observance of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 many commentators spoke of the horrific events of that day and of the thousands of people that lost their lives in the collapsing towers and in the plane that crashed in the Philadelphia farmland. Don’t misunderstand me. The acts of terror were abominable. Those who lost their lives are mourned to the present day. If you listen to the heroic deeds of many of those caught up in the terror and chaos of those early morning hours in New York City, you cannot but be inspired and are likely to be moved to tears. Evidence of self-sacrifice for the common good is obvious, especially in the courageous actions of those who overthrew the hijackers and crashed the plane in that field rather than letting them hurl destruction on the White House. Greater love than this no one has than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Those on the plane did that and so did countless others in the towers who chose to stay back and assist others incapacitated and unable to negotiate the stairs. Then there were the fire fighters and their Franciscan chaplain. Love drove them to enter that horror in search of anyone they might rescue or with whom they might pray. The nation lost the presence of those great people. But the victims did not suffer defeat and utter ruin. Instead they were caught up in glory to live in that presence forever.
Habakkuk (Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4) raged in the face of violence and ruin inflicted on the people. His assumption: God is absent when people suffer. But God challenged Habakkuk to see with the eyes of faith and remember God’s promise. God is the ultimate deliverer and life is God’s promise in spite of the havoc Habakkuk sees.
Bewildered disciples assess their failures, assess perhaps their perceived weakness in the face of the enormity of the demands Jesus expects his disciples to meet. At those low times, the common prayer is: Lord, increase our faith. Do they in fact wonder if they even qualify as believers? The answer depends on how you think a life of faith is lived, and what you think a life of faith will bring.
This probably sounds cynical, but you’ve heard me say before that I cringe when I hear people describe the wonderful things that came to them when they turned their lives over to Christ. They speak in terms of increased wealth, a more prestigious position in society, and power. So far, though, I haven’t heard a testimony that says becoming a Christian turned the clock back and the new believer reclaimed youth. (Read The Picture of Dorian Grey for Oscar Wilde’s take on perpetual youth.)
I remember listening to a businessman witnessing to the dramatic turn-around in his company that followed his conversion to Christ. The impression I got was that his accepting Christ made the cash registers that been silent suddenly begin to ring with the increase in customers and sales. Profits become an affirmation of the sensed predilection God has for the converted believer and a foretaste of the heaven to come. For such a one the downturn in the stock market could have tragic consequences.
Recently I heard a politician of the fundamentalist persuasion say that all this wretched weather we have experienced in this country, the floods and hurricanes in some areas and the draught and forest fires in others, and don’t forget the earthquake on the east coast that preceded Irene are signs of God’s displeasure with the American people. The tragic events should wake up the people. (And I suppose inspire them to vote for that politician. I won’t give away here the gender of the witness.) Really?
Again, the stories of the last moments of many of the people whose lives ended in the 9/11 events were not tragic. I pray no one interpreted what happened to them as a sign of God’s displeasure. Noble responses in the midst of terror and unfolding evil spoke of the triumph of the human spirit and in many cases of the profound faith evidenced in their meeting the ultimate challenge of evil. The courage that inspired survivors to clear the rubble, celebrate the dead and commit themselves to rebuilding and to the survival of a people is not the stuff of tragedy and defeat but of victory.
Disciples are people who are sent by Jesus as his other self to bear light in the face of threatening darkness. “If you would be my disciple, take up your cross every day and follow me.” That is what Jesus asks of disciples. When the forces of darkness, of hatred, of evil succeed in nailing the disciple to the cross, and when the disciple dies there, have we witnessed tragedy or the triumph of the Cross? It’s a matter of perspective. Might the fact that relics of martyrs are in the altar stones of the Eucharistic table tell us something in that regard?
And we haven’t said anything about the Lord’s command to love one’s enemies and do good to those who hate. Of course loving makes one vulnerable just like Jesus was. That might just be the point Jesus continues to try to make with those who wonder about discipleship.
Lord, increase our faith.

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TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – SEPTEMBER 18, 2011

Isaiah 55:6-9

Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a

Matthew 20:1-16a

God, as encountered in Hebrew Scriptures, is often characterized as an angry, vengeful God.  Granted, there are some passages that might support that interpretation.  God does punish the Israelites for their infidelities.  God certainly rains down havoc on the pursuing Egyptians, smiting them to the last one.  Until Moses intervenes, God wants to be rid of the troublesome people God has lead out of slavery and into the desert of freedom.  Harsh, yes, but that is only part of the picture.

Isaiah reveals the other side of God, the God who is generous and forgiving.  Seek the Lord while he may be found.  Call on him while he is near.  Isaiah proclaims the message to the wicked and the scoundrel, in other words, to those most might judge to be outside the pale of God’s mercy.  By no means, Isaiah says.  God does not think or judge the way people do.  God is about forgiveness and mercy, a God who wants to be the people’s God and wants to be in relationship with the people.  I will be your God and you will be my people, God says.  All the scoundrel and the wicked have to do is change their ways and turn back to God.  Isaiah says that the people shouldn’t try to understand how and why God acts the way God does.  People don’t ordinarily think in this way.  But God does.  And we might be able to say that it is all about grace, an outpouring of God’s love.

The operative word in Isaiah’s passage is seek.  The scoundrel and the wicked still have time to seek God.  Isaiah urges them to act without delay because time can run out, after all.  Today’s gospel puts a bit of a different slant on the issue.  Jesus tells us a familiar parable about a landowner hiring field workers at various times of the day, from early morning to late afternoon, promising the first hired the usual daily wage.  He promises to pay those hired later the uncertain and indefinite what is just.  This promise is extended to those hired at 5 o’clock for the last hour of the workday.

You remember how the parable goes.  Those hired last are paid first and are given a full day’s wage.  So are those who were hired at the various other hours during the workday.  Each is paid a full day’s wage.  Those that were hired first watch all this and conclude that when their turn comes they will be paid even more than the wage to which they had agreed.  Who can blame them?  After all, it had been a long day of labor in the intense heat of the summer day.  They are outraged when they are paid the wage to which they had agreed.

This parable ought not be used as a model for fair practice in the marketplace.  That is not what it is about.  The key words are in the landowner’s redress to the resentful laborers: I am generous.

Did you ever ask yourself how you would have felt had you been one of those first hired?  What assumptions would you have made as you watched those others hired late in the day being paid the full day’s wage?  Would you have concluded the same, as did those daylong workers in the parable?  Of course, it’s only human after all.

How do your thoughts change if here we are considering salvation?  Do some still think that faithful service earns salvation?  The landowner’s directive denies that.  Salvation is not earned, but the gift of the God who calls us into being.  It is impossible to earn it.  Let’s pursue some other implications we can dredge from the parable.

Isaiah said in the first reading: Seek the Lord while he may be found.  That is not what happens in the gospel parable.  The landowner is the seeker.  The people are idling in the marketplace.  They are not seeking work but resenting that no one has hired us.  God calls at the beginning of the day and continues to the last hour of the day.

There is a marvelous moment near the end of the Evelyn Waugh masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited.  Lord Marchmain lies on is deathbed surrounded by family and friends including the parish priest who is urging repentance for Marchmain’s less than virtuous past.  It has been years since he has received the sacraments.  His motives for having been baptized are vague.  There has been little evidence of faith.  He left his wife and has been living with his mistress for quite some time.  Charles Ryder stands and scoffs at the attitudes of his Catholic friends as they kneel and pray for the dying patriarch.  The priest whispers God’s love in Marchmain’s hearing.  And it happens that just as despair is setting into the witnesses’ hearts, a faltering hand makes the sign of the cross, Marchmain’s final profession of faith.

What do you think of deathbed conversions?  What will be their reward as those late to faith stand before God’s judgment seat?  Surely it will be different for them than for those of us who were baptized in infancy and were faithful through all our lives.  That would only be just, wouldn’t it?  Perhaps, if we are talking about justice.  And who am I to say that there won’t be a difference?  But don’t miss an important point in the parable.  The Landowner seeks the laborers all through the day and invites them to go into the vineyard to be paid whatever is just.  And they are paid the full day’s wage, the same as those who labored through the long day.

Surely God’s ways are not the ways of humankind.  A terrible mistake is made when God is imagined as a tyrannical avenger.  You have heard, as have I, those who are quick to interpret everything from natural disasters to physical illness to be God’s judgment upon sinners.  Those who voice such messages would stand among those who asked Jesus about the man born blind.  Whose sin was it, this man’s or his parents’ that he was born blind?  And the answer remains: neither.

Most of the Jesus’ parables shock if we hear them correctly.  They are meant to make the hearers wonder if they could possibly be hearing what seem to be the implications of the story.  All of the parables speak of the wonder of God’s love, lavish in its outpouring for us.  That’s what grace is, unmerited and freely given.  What matters it the response.  Even those hired late in the day had to accept the invitation and go into the vineyard.  Jesus is the model.  His is the perpetual yes to the Father’s will finally accepting even death, death on the cross.

The Apostle Paul images what our response should be in all things, in good time and in harsh times, in health and in sickness, in life and in death: For to me life is Christ and death is gain.  He is writing from prison.  The beheader’s blade is imminent.  I am being poured out like a libation and my death is at hand, he said elsewhere.  Notice that in his suffering Paul keeps the promised wage in mind.  I long to depart this life and be with Christ.  Paul is ever the Apostle.  He was hired to the position late in the day unlike the other Apostles who walked with the Lord and bore the day’s heat.  Jesus in glory confronted Saul on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute the new order.  From the moment of that blinding encounter on he lived to tell others about Christ and to form them in Christ’s likeness. He saw death as far better, a release from and an end to his sufferings.  Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.

What do we take from these readings?  Joy that we have been called.  Gratitude for the gift of faith to which we responded with a yes no matter at what stage in our life we perceived that grace.  Hope for the promised wage that will be ours if we are faithful, a wage that begins even now.  For us to live is Christ and to die is gain.  With Christ we will live in the community of love that is God for all eternity.  Imagine our rejoicing with all those similarly blessed, even those who said yes to God from their deathbeds.

Sincerely,

Didymus

A NOTE REVISITED


Dear Jesus,

I was in the process of cleaning out some files when I came upon a copy of a letter I wrote to you almost ten years ago.  Strange, isn’t it, how little changes in that length of time.  Rereading what I wrote then surfaced the same emotions.  The images seem as fresh and vivid, too.  I hope I do not try your patience if I send you a copy of that note with an after-word attached.  Here is what I wrote to you in October of 2001:

Dear Jesus,

It’s hard for me to write to you when I am angry.  Oh, it’s not that I am angry with you, but I guess I am angry because of you.  You see, if it weren’t for you there are a lot of things weighing on me that wouldn’t bother me at all.  If I weren’t trying to be your disciple and taking your Gospel call seriously, I would be freer, wouldn’t I?  But instead I can’t ignore what I would rather leave at my doorpost.  All of it is choking me.

When I read the newspapers of watch the evening news, terrible images assault me.  People are starving to death and living in abject misery while they wait for the expected machines of war to cross their borders and pierce their skies.

I saw the picture of a woman in Rwanda.  As she stood in front of skulls neatly stacked on a long earthen shelf, she stared out at me with what I thought was reproach in her eyes.  Among the piles of skulls might be those of her husband and daughter, both killed in the attempted genocide that had raged in her land a few years ago.  She seeks justice.  Am I supposed to share in the guilt of the killers or in the pain of her loss?

A gaunt father shoulders his emaciated child.  Their eyes are glazed.  They have names so that now I can more readily identify with them as people and not dismiss them as mere symbols.

Now the unthinkable has happened in our land.  New icons of the ravages of war assault me.  How many times must I see planes slamming into towers and erupting in fireballs, or see stately buildings crumble into shards of mangled steel and rubble?

Body bags on stretchers.  Men and women, spent, exhausted, weeping into their hands or onto shoulders of their comrades.  Funerals and funerals and funerals.  And flags, once a symbol of invincibility and supposed divine favor wave from just about every conceivable appendage.  “I feel their pain,” has become a trite cliché.  But I think I do and am supposed to in empathy and compassion.

But what am I to do with the emptiness in my gut?  In a moment assumptions have been shattered.  In the wreckage lie the traces of what used to be security.  People are losing their jobs.  Retirement funds have evaporated.  The newly rich have become the newly impoverished.  Overnight.  In a moment.  Without warning their wealth is gone.

You have challenged me to recognize your face in those who suffer.  Their pain continues your passion.  And if I hear you, I cannot keep them at a distance or leave them at my doorpost.

What do you want me to do?  How am I supposed to bear all this and go on?  Yesterday I recognized in a moment of insight that I was wandering aimlessly through my day.  I was with people but not present to them.  Words passed between us but without meaning.  Afterward I couldn’t remember what we had been talking about.

Then I realized I resented the intrusions on my time, the interruptions to my musings.  In exasperation I prayed to be left alone so that I could taste my own misery and savor it.

I found myself unable to be still.  Sitting at my desk I could see the piles of paper but could not think how to organize them.  I stared at my calendar, aching because I could not think how I would make it from one hour to the next.  Food bored me.  All I wanted to do was sleep.  But I was afraid to sleep.  Sleep wouldn’t come without terrible images assaulting me and jarring me awake.

Last night I sat in the darkness and listened to the chiming of the quarter hours and the ticking of the clock.  I could see in the dim light from the full moon the pendulum swinging back and forth, back and forth, relentlessly.  I put my hands to my cheeks and felt them wet with my tears.  And all I could pray was, “Oh God.  Oh God.  Oh God.”

Will there be an answer?

I wrote that letter to you nearly 10 years ago as I said.  From this perspective I realize that part of what I was dealing with at that time was exhaustion.  I was precariously near collapse.  There is no need to go into all of the “stuff” that was weighing me down, nor more own foolishness in working nearly sixteen-hour days six and a half days of the week.  As you know, I have let go of a lot of the stuff, grieved the losses and retired from all the responsibilities.  Healing has happened, thank God.  And I have found the grace to forgive.

So, I come back to some of the images in that old letter.  Rwanda has moved on from the days of the genocide attempt that ended over 800,000 lives as the Hutus lay siege to the Tutsis.  Both tribes are predominantly Catholic.  That fact gave added horror to the slaughters that took place when sanctuary was violated and those Tutsis hiding inside church and on parish grounds were mowed down.  That war has subsided.  But the political struggles still go on all over Africa.  The images that are particularly haunting today are of the thousands in northern Kenya emigrated from Somalia now seek relief for their starving children and for themselves.  Again those haunted eyes stare out at the viewer.

The plight of the Tutsis was ignored as their Belgian protectors abandoned them.  You must be pleased by the worldwide response to the Somalis.  Not only are food and funds pouring into their cause, but also medical personnel work in the primitive camps seeking to bring healing and relief.  That gives evidence that many people do recognize that we are one family and bear responsibility for one another.  Some are motivated when they hear you saying, “I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me.”  The Spirit is moving.

As we commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 disasters, there are some who warn of the potential for further acts of terror.  But others will gather as the shrine to the thousands whose lives were taken is dedicated.  The stories of those heroes whose names are etched around the memorial will be told to inspire generations to come.  They will stand in testimony to the power of the human spirit and the strength that comes from loving.  The horrific images of planes crashing into the Twin Towers and into the Pentagon, and the story of those heroes wresting control of the plane from the hijackers and crashing the plane in an open field to save countless other lives are indelible in the collective consciousness.  And hope is rekindled.

Then years ago, I wrote you and asked, “Will there be an answer?”  While questions remain, there have been answers, too.  I believe that as time continues and we ponder and pray over world events, more answers will emerge and we will respond in faith, in hope, and with love.  Please, continue to pour forth your Spirit and renew the face of the earth.

Sincerely,

Didymus