Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page

PALM SUNDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION – April 1, 2012

 

(Gospel at the Procession)

Mark 11:1-10

 

(Lectionary for the Sunday Liturgy of the Word)

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah 50:4-7

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

The Passion according to Mark: 14:1-15:47

 

I wonder if many people approach this day as they would a Passion Play, albeit one in which the common people are given a cameo role as palm bearers, should they take part in the procession of the palms.  That attitude is abetted by the reading of the Passion of the Lord as though it were a one-act play with various people reading the lines of dialogue.  What kind of religious experience will the Assembly derive from shouting: Crucifying him!  Crucify him!  And that with such great gusto.  There can be a mindset assumes that whenever we hear the Word we are hearing a past event.  On this Sunday we can imagine we are looking back to something that happened 2000 years ago.  I have even heard sermons in which the catchphrase was: Look what your sins have done!  No wonder a favorite hymn during Passiontide is: Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?  There is something about guilt.  It gets us every time.

There is a line in the Institution Narrative of the Eucharist.  Just after the presider shows the Cup to the assembly, he says, using Christ’s words from the Scriptures: Now, you do this in my memory.  That is a directive which, properly understood, means when the Eucharist is celebrated the whole Christ mystery is present.  The action is now.  Christ is acting now.  All the Sacraments are like that.  Each one is a sign experienced that points to a greater and unseen reality.  God, in Christ, is entering the human experience in the here and now.  That can also be said of the Liturgy of the Word.  It is the Living Word that is proclaimed and, empowered by the Holy Spirit the assembly consumes it to be transformed by it, just as it is being united and transformed by the celebration of the Eucharist and the sharing in Holy Communion – our common union in Christ.

If you are not already doing so, I challenge you as you come to the celebration of the Lord’s Passion to think of the experience as an opportunity to enter into something that is happening now.  Where do you find Christ?  Is he only in the Tabernacle in the reserved Eucharist?  Is he only present in the bread consecrated in the course of the Liturgy?  If that is the case then it will be difficult to see anything but the proclamation of a past event, the Passion that happened so long ago.  But if it is the Risen Christ you encounter who is with you always, even to the end of the world, then Jesus enters triumphantly into the Jerusalem that is your parish, your city, and state, your world now.  Yes, Christ is sacramentally present in the reserved sacrament in the tabernacle.  But never forget that Christ lives in you and in all who believe.  It is that living Christ who carries his to Calvary to offer himself in our behalf.

I will never forget the chill that coursed through me the first time I heard keening.  I was in Kenya.  It was the last day of my stay there.  I was walking with a doctor and we were reflecting on our experience in the poor village that had hosted us.  A young family approached us.  A mother.  A father.  A clearly deformed child carried in his mother’s arms.  They approached us, or rather, the doctor, and begged him for help.  Could the doctor repair the child’s cleft pallet that made it so difficult for the child to suckle?  There was nothing that could be done because there were no surgical instruments, no surgical theatre, and no way to carry you what back in the states would be a pedestrian procedure.  And the mother keened.

I remember sitting at the bedside of a man in the late stages of cancer that had begun in his jaw.  I remember my stomach churning at the sickeningly acrid smell of the disease.  I wondered how shallowly I could breathe through my mouth and not my nose so that I wouldn’t faint because the odor was so appalling.  I remember his asking if I could hold him because he was afraid.  I pray he didn’t see the terror in my eyes in that long moment before I rose and sat on his bed and he leaned into my chest to be embraced.  And I remember tears coursing down my cheeks as he sighed and pulled my arms tighter around him.

If you think about it, there is no shortage of images that will serve as icons of the Passion.  Many people have stopped watching the news on television.  They’re not reading the newspapers.  Why?  Because there isn’t any good news.  That may be, but to protect one’s self from the horror is to deprive one’s self of the opportunity to recognize Jesus, the Cross he carries, and above all, our reason for not yielding to despair.  Do you recognize the Passion of Christ in the abominations that are the wars in Afghanistan and everywhere else where terror reigns?  Do you see the Passion in Zambia where filthy water and lack of food are killing so many?  The Passion goes on in Haiti where so many survivors still live in tent cities with inadequate food and sanitation.  Christ is in all the unemployed and those suffering foreclosures and those living in cars or on the streets.  Did you see him in the young man who was driven to suicide by his roommate’s exposing him as being homosexual to the college campus via the Internet?  And was that the crucifixion being reported when we heard the story of the family, a wife and five young children shot to death by the husband and father before he turned the gun on himself?  Why? Some said it had to do with poverty and fear for what would happen to his children were they all put out on the streets.  What seemed to be hopelessness enveloped him.

The Liturgy of the Word for Passion Sunday puts the horror before us and ask us to remember, but not with the purpose of leaving us on the brink of despair.  To be sure, listen to Paul as he writes to the church at Philippi.  Jesus, embracing the full implications of the humanity he had assumed in his incarnation and emptying himself of divine powers, humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Because of this God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.  Jesus is Lord.

In the Passion we see the ultimate in terms of the affliction of suffering and its culmination in death.  But the Passion Narrative is part of the Good News.  It is Gospel.  Why?  The Passion is Death’s defeat.  Christ conquers sin.  Christ conquers suffering.  Christ conquers death.  The Passion ends forever the possibility of tragedy, that is, final defeat.  Because of the Resurrection that follows the Passion, we can say with confidence that no death is forever.

Sincerely,

Didymus

LAZARUS AND DIVES

Dear Jesus,

As many times as I have pondered the parable you told about Dives, the Rich Man, and Lazarus, I still find it haunting and difficult to comprehend.  Doesn’t the story need some more details rather than leaving it to the hearer to flesh out the evils in the Rich Man’s life?

What do we know about Dives other than that he is rich, he dresses well, and eats like a gourmand every day?  Oh, late in the story he tells us he has five brothers who are also wealthy and could wind up where Dives is, in Hades.  Don’t we need to know more about him?  Surely he must have been doing terrible and lascivious things to end up in the place of torment.  Health-conscious people today would have concerns about someone who ate sumptuous meals every day, concerns about his cholesterol count and heart health.  But what else was at work in his life?

The villain in your story, most people today would recognize as a hero, somebody to idolize, a man who had everything they wish they could acquire for themselves or have been born into.  (Out of concern for his health, some probably would have urged him to read Dean Ornish or consult Dr. Oz and also to join a health club.)  Dives had the fruits that many strive for.  In this time and place most would say he had achieved the American Dream.

Do you understand that we live in an age in which bigger is good and more is better?  The rich have huge homes.  I just read about a young multi-millionaire who just bought a mansion with 67 rooms and every kind of amenity that one could imagine.  Those who can afford to still drive huge cars that get very few miles to the gallon of supreme.  As I said, bigger does seem to be better.  There are games and leisure activities galore – for those who can take time from work to enjoy them.

How are you going to win disciples from this age if you do not support this age’s dreams and aspirations?

And the hero of your parable?  He’s pretty hard to sell.  Maybe if we knew that he had tried to succeed, that he had worked hard and failed, some would find him a sympathetic figure.  But it is also possible that he wasn’t meant to make it.  Not everybody can, you know.  And there is no shortage of people who would say that his poverty is God’s judgment upon him, perhaps for his sins, or his parents’.  Those are the same ones who see wealth as a sign of God’s favor.  Obviously they are predestined for Heaven.  The assumption is that competition is part of life.  God blesses those who succeed and curses those who fail.  It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.

If you insist on telling this story there just might be some unfortunate repercussions.  People may listen.  But many of the elite are going to shake their heads and think you are naïve, a dreamer.  Those with an abundance of goods like Dives may form tighter and tighter enclaves with others like themselves to ensure their conviction that everybody lives the way they do.  They are comforted by the fact that there are agencies to take care of the poor.  One doesn’t have to have direct contact with the Lazaruses of this world, they would say.

I should warn you, too, that some of the issues just beneath the surface of your parable are the sources of sore spots for many people who resent the clamors of those calling for economic reform.

Remember the riots of a few years ago that disrupted ordinary life as the demonstrators tried to get the attention of the World Trade Organization?  That was about the same time that Pope John Paul II called for us to see others – the Lazaruses of the world, developing nations, all on the lower economic stratum – as our brothers and sisters to be made sharers on a par with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.

The rub will come when there is an impact on the wealth people have acquired.  You seem to be implying that people have to change and not only stop accepting distinctions between people – the rich and the poor, racial and religious differences – but work toward obliterating the distinctions.  Do you think people are going to want everybody seated at the same banquet table?  That’s going to require that a lot of hearts change.  How will that happen without another tremendous outpouring of grace like the one that happened on the first Pentecost when the Church was born?

Still, there is something else that I need to know.  In the parable of Lazarus and Dives, surely there were sins in Dives’ life you didn’t talk about, horrid deeds that the average hearer would find reprehensible, sins that would make us blush.  There had to be more than his not responding to Lazarus.  That must be so, mustn’t it?  After all, he wound up in hell.  You wouldn’t let something like that fate happen to a person just for being selfish.  Would You?  Is that the area about which Dives wanted his brothers to be warned?

As I send this note off to you, I think I will go back and listen to the parable again.  There are some things in it that I am resisting, some things I am not getting.  Could you send your Spirit to enlighten me?  Already I can see that the parable is going to affect how I see myself in relation to the rest of the Assembly and certainly how I approach the Table.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT – March 25, 2012

 

The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 31:31-34

The Letter to the Hebrews 5:7-9

The Holy Gospel according to John 12:20-23

 

Don’t be weary.  We’re almost there.  Next Sunday will be Passion Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, and the following Sunday will be Easter.  The Season of Lent that began so long ago with the tracing of the ashes on your forehead will finally be over.  Has it worn out its welcome with you?  Remember how full the church was on Ash Wednesday and on the First Sunday of Lent?  It will be that way again on Easter Sunday – only more so.  Get there early if you want your usual pew space.

Do you remember your motives for submitting to the ashes as you heard the minister say: Turn away from sin and believe the Good News?  At least I hope that is what you heard.  I like that invocation better than the one we used to hear and I guess some still do: Remember Man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.  Besides the sexist language, it does seem more than a little negative.  Where is the inspiration for hope that the penitent should hear?  No wonder the Season wears thin if the only message heard is negative.  Is that all there is?  Turn away from sin and believe the Good News (Gospel) should fill us with hope, the hope that began with our Baptism, That time we died never to die again, forever.

Listen to Jeremiah this week.  Often characterized as a Prophet of doom and gloom, Jeremiah’s prophecy this week is amazing and positive as he announces the coming of a new Covenant God will make with the people.  The old one, the one that began when God led Israel out of the slavery in Egypt, the one made with Moses through the stone tablets of the Law has been broken.  The result is the collapse of the people, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the people returned to slavery.  Slavery will not be their permanent condition.  After their exile is over a new Covenant will begin when God’s law will be placed in the human heart.  No one will have to teach the law because the people will know God as God forgives their sins and remembers the sins no more.

We believe in the mystery of the Incarnation.  We believe, in John’s Gospel, that the Word became flesh, that Jesus was born, the Christmas mystery.  What the Incarnation mystery actually proclaims is that God indeed took on human flesh when Jesus was born, but it also proclaims that God took on the human condition.  The chasm that separated the divine and the human has been bridged, healed in a way no mortal could have imagined.  God dwells in the heart of human kind, those beings Genesis proclaims to have been made in God’s image and likeness.

When we are baptized we die to sin in the waters of the font, and to all that would separate us from God.  We rise out of the waters and are clothed in Christ, united to Christ, loved by God with the same love God has for Christ.  In the course of the Baptism, the Church anoints with oil and seals us in the Spirit.  And Jeremiah’s prophecy comes to pass in the baptized.  I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts.

Our life’s journey is a faith walk accomplished in union with Jesus doing what Jesus does.  When Jesus calls people to discipleship the invitation is always hedged with the command to take up the Cross daily and follow in his Way.  Jesus is the example as we hear in this Sunday’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews.

I am unnerved sometimes when I hear Fundamentalist Evangelists invite people to come to Jesus, turn their lives over to Jesus, and so find prosperity.  I have never found that to be the Gospel message.  That is not the Good News.  Jesus pled with God to save him from death.  Remember the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane?  The reading tells us that son though he was, he learned obedience through suffering and was made perfect.  The word perfect might not mean what you first think.  It is the word in the original language used when a person became a priest in the temple.  When Jesus became Priest he offered the sacrifice and was the sacrifice and so became our salvation.  Remember the phrase: By his stripes we were healed?  That is the reality that we will celebrate in the second part of the Triduum on Good Friday.

Prosperity may come to some believers, but that is not a Gospel promise.  We have been with Jesus in the desert these past several weeks contemplating him and making comparisons between our lives as we live them and our lives as Jesus challenges us to live them.  The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Did you know that that glorification happens on the cross when Jesus accepts death on the cross, confident of God’s love for him?  Life is not something to be clung to for its own sake.  Were that so, it would end in itself.  The promise is that if we pour ourselves out the way Jesus did, accepting death, even death on a cross, eternal life will follow and our share in Jesus’ glory.

I remember sitting at my mother’s bedside in her final hours on this earth.  I watched the struggle, the shortening breaths, and heard the sighs that occasionally escaped.  I prayed the Why prayer.  Why did she have to suffer like this?  Why did the struggle have to go on so long?  Then words failed and my prayer was silent except for a please now and then.  In a moment she opened her eyes and her right hand lifted from the bed.  I thought she wanted something and so I stood, leaned over her and asked what I could do for her.  But she wasn’t seeing me.  It was something beyond me that she was gazing at.  And then I heard her last word.  Yes.  Her arm came to rest at her side and within the hour she drew her final breath.  The life she had lived suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

We do not spend our Lent learning how to die.  These forty days are to be spent learning how to live as disciples.  The questions we ask ourselves ought to be about how we can better imitate Jesus in loving – loving God, loving our sisters and brothers in the human family, and loving ourselves.  The challenge is to let the Spirit that was poured out on us in Baptism take the lead in our lives taking us where otherwise we would not go.

Someone asked me recently what my response is to all the misery of our times.  How do I cope?  What am I doing about it?  I thought for a moment and then replied: I pray.  I write.  I try to serve where I am needed.  After my friend had left, I continued to think about the questions and wondered if it hadn’t been Jesus doing the asking as I realized I haven’t done nearly enough.  There is a soup kitchen not far from here serving meals to the poor.  I have thought about it.  Maybe one of these days you’ll find me serving there.

This continues to be a Lent of letting go and moving on.  It is a great time to let go of past hurts and betrayals and to find grace to move ahead with life in this new day.  It is a good season for forgiving and for praying that the offenders will change and move ahead in their faith journeys, too.  I pray it is a time of letting go of bitterness and instead, growing in grace.  There will be renewed peace in that.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to gather with the Assembly and give thanks to God as we continue to renew Christ’s dying and rising, as we continue to experience transformation, as we continue to be sent to be Bread broken and Cup poured out, as we remember there is work to be done until Jesus comes again to catch us up in glory.

Sincerely,

Didymus