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THE THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – July 1, 2012

 

The Book of Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24

Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians 8:7,9,13-15

The Holy Gospel according to Mark: 21-43

Do you remember the first time a death confronted you?  For me, it was as a ten-year-old when the infant son of our next-door neighbors died of SIDS.  I can see still the coroner leaving the neighbors’ house with the infant’s body wrapped in a pink blanket as my mother and eye watched from our dining room window.  I cried out and sank to the floor weeping and wondering how this could be happening.

Do you remember the first time the possibility of your own death confronted you?  Again, for me, it was as a child when I nearly died from an asthma attack – the last attack of that kind I ever suffered.  Still, from that moment I have lived aware of the fact that one day I shall die.  The idea still doesn’t thrill me, but as I age I hope I become more comfortable with my mortality and my conviction regarding what will follow.

Death is a reality that we must deal with from first awareness.  Some seem to live in denial.  Look at the fortunes some spend undergoing plastic surgeries to remove every wrinkle and tuck up all sagging skin.  Then there are those who pay megabucks to have their bodies kept in a flash-frozen state to be thawed when science finally learns death’s antidote.  Some aver that humans are the only species on the face of the earth who carry the burden of knowing we are going to die.  And while some might live a madcap existence of denial, the fact remains, everyone born of woman one day will die.

The reading from the Book of Wisdom tells us that that wasn’t the way God wanted it.  No wonder the human heart cries out against death’s inevitability.  Wisdom says that God formed humans to be imperishable; the image of God’s own nature were humans made.  So, what went wrong?  Genesis spelled it out for us.  Sin entered the world, and with sin, death.  Humans became mortal.  And the rest of the Hebrew Bible is the account of God’s desire to make that right again, to remove the dominance of Death.  But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who belong to his company experience it.

Jesus comes into the World to accomplish God’s desire.  He said, I must do the will of the One who sent me!  That is why Jesus’ message is called Gospel, translated, Good News.  Oh Death, where is your victory?  Death, where is your sting?  Of course we can ask those questions only after Jesus dies – and rises, leaving Death vanquished.

This week’s gospel is amazing.  Of course, you say, which Sunday’s gospel isn’t amazing?  True, if we listen with Spirit-inspired faith.  But the wonder of this week’s proclamation is spellbinding.  It’s too bad the text is as long as it is.  Some will tune out before the proclamation is over, wondering where they will be going for breakfast.  As they sit they will say, Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ! But they say that every Sunday at the conclusion of the gospel reading.  Will their hearts have been touched?

Today’s pericope is the account of one miracle sandwiching another miracle.  Each happens in response to faith.  Jesus works constantly, preaching, teaching, and healing.  Prior to the start of this text Jesus got into the boat to go to the other side of the lake and in the course of the crossing exerted command over the wind and the waves.  Those witnessing the storm’s subsiding at the sound of Jesus’ voice ask, Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?  Then Jesus drives out the legion of demons from the possessed man just before today’s gospel begins.  Those encounters with a storm and a legion of demons must have been exhausting.  Now Jesus gets back into the boat and crosses the lake once more.  As soon as he steps on shore the crowds envelop Jesus again.  Ours isn’t the first age to become frenzied over idols walking the red carpet.  But out of this frenzy has come a question; might Jesus be the answer to their prayers, the one who will make a difference in their lives.  Wondering isn’t enough.  That’s the attitude of the crowdsDisciples have made that decision to believe.

The grief-stricken synagogue official, Jairus, a person of position, abases himself at Jesus’ feet and pleads for Jesus to come to Jairus’s home and save his 12-year-old daughter who is near death.  Immediately Jesus agrees to do as Jairus asks.  And the crowds follow and press upon him.

The focus shifts.  A woman who has been suffering a hemorrhage for 12 years, as long as Jairus’ daughter has been alive, a woman who has exhausted her savings with abusive doctors, this woman approaches Jesus convinced that if she just touches the hem of his clothes she will be cured.  Nothing in the text would suggest that she has any doubts this.  The woman would know what it means to be shunned.  Because she is hemorrhaging she is considered unclean and anyone who came in contact with her would incur ritual impurity.  The woman has been living a miserable existence all these years and no one pays heed to her.  She has heard Jesus or has heard about him.  In any event, she believes.  Hoping against hope that no one will notice her now and stop her, she stoops down, reaches out and touches Jesus’ cloak.  In an instant her pain leaves her as her hemorrhage dries up.  She is alive again.

Now see what Jesus does.  The translation we hear softens his reaction.  Closer to the meaning would be that Jesus whirled about as he asked, Who touched me?  The question does not rise out of a fear of contamination.  After all, he has touched lepers and dined with prostitutes and sinners.  The question seems silly to those nearest him.  Who touched you with all these people jostling you?  They all had touched him.  But someone touched Jesus with faith and he felt power go out of him.

The woman, fearing the worst, afraid that she would be excoriated for her effrontery, approaches Jesus admitting what she has done.  He calls her, Daughter and acknowledges her faith that has been rewarded.  Now we see clearly the difference between crowds that flock around Jesus out of curiosity and the disciple that believes.  The woman’s response is what Jesus longs for from the rest.  She goes home in peace.

There is no greater challenge to faith than death.  Immediately upon the heels of the woman’s healing comes news that Jairus’s daughter has died.  How long did Jairus’s and Jesus’ eyes lock in Jairus’s shocked silence?  How long was the moment Jairus had during which to decide and hope against hope.  Jesus challenges Jairus to hold on to faith and the promise.  Do not be afraid; just have faith.  We know that what follows is a significant moment – similar to the Transfiguration – because only Peter, James, and John are allowed to continue on with Jesus and witness what happens after Jesus dismisses the professional mourners and quiets the din.  Only the three along with the girl’s mother and father are in the room when Jesus touchier the body, takes the girl by the hand and says: Talitha koum!  Little girl, arise!

Don’t miss that it is Jesus who commands and Death departs, obeying just as had the wind and the waves, and the legion of demons.  Again, notice the response of the witnesses – utter astonishment.  That’s fine, as far as it goes.  But it is not the same thing as faith, which is why Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen.  This is exactly the order Jesus gave to Peter, James, and John on the way down the mountain after the Transfiguration.  Don’t tell anyone about this until you understand the meaning.  You won’t understand the meaning until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.  Jesus told them to give the little girl something to eat.  That will prove that she is alive.  Remember what Jesus asked in an early post-Resurrection appearance?  Have you anything to eat?

Two miracles.  The curing of the woman who suffered for 12 years but believed in Jesus’ power.  The 12-year-old gifl whose parents’ faith elicited from Jesus, Talitha koum.

Take in the Word, broken for us, and dare to believe.  With that faith, incipient as it might be, proceed from the Table of the Word to the Table of Eucharist to enter into Mystery and be transformed by the act of Thanksgiving.  And, having eaten and drunk, dare to be sent to announce the Good News in these seemingly death mired times.  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  And those who hear and are touched by Christ’s presence through you will know and with you believe that Death’s power is no more – forever.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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WHERE IS LOVE?

It happens in Catholic schools, too.  In grade schools and high schools and colleges.  Students are bullied and broken for being different from the accepted norm, that is, what is acceptable to the heads of the packs.  It isn’t only boys who bully.  Girls are quite adept at it as well.  Bullying seems almost endemic to education today.  Like it or not, it has become acceptable, going with the territory until some unfortunate outcome like a suicide puts the issue before the public and there is outrage.

Some years ago, a high school sophomore sat in my office and wept inconsolably.  When finally his tears dried he raised his head and looked at me.  He swallowed hard and then asked me what was wrong with him.  Why wasn’t he acceptable to his classmates?  I knew him to be bright and talented.  A straight-A student, he was gifted also in music and drama.  As an 8th grader he had had a part in a musical staged by a community theater.  His ambition was for a career in the arts.  He wasn’t gifted athletically.

I remember telling him that I thought the problem was that he was different from the rest.  He stood out.  His talents irked those not as gifted.  The time will  come, I said, when you have achieved your goals, that you will be able to look back on this time and laugh.  You might even be grateful for these days because of the strength of character that you are developing dealing with these torments.  It wasn’t a week later that his parents called to let me know that he had taken an overdose of pills in a suicide attempt.  Fortunately, they rescued him in time.

Often situations like this do not have happy-ever-afters.  My young friend is a psychologist today.  Many who were hazed as he was become broken and desolate and succeed in ending their lives.

It is preaching to the choir, I suppose, to raise this issue here.  But I wonder if good results might happen if more band together and say that bullying and hazing are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.  Those who engage in these practices must be held accountable.  At the same time, we can examine our consciences to see if attitudes we indulge in might contribute to the problem.

How readily do we accept diversity?  That’s what the word catholic implies, in every way, universal.  But some among us are the antithesis of catholic.  Not many would admit it, but they have the expectation that all will march to the beat of the same drummer.  All will be at least good, if not above average academically.  All will play sports.  All will be heterosexual.  Walk alike, be alike, think alike, and you will be okay.  Vary in anyway and the one who varies can become the object of scorn to be bullied and excluded from the rest.

It seems we have stopped teaching youngsters to appreciate diversity.  It’s no wonder, I suppose.  The church seems less tolerant of diversity with the passing of each day.  Conservatives form camps.  Liberals do the same.  Dialog between them is practically non-existent.  You’re either with us or you’re against us seems to be the mantra.  And if you are against us you’ll be turned away from the Table.  Just ask any of the politicians who were denied Holy Communion because of their support for pro-choice.

A recent article in American magazine reminded me of a movement begun several years ago by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.  He formed a committee of lay people and clerics and together they discussed how communication among diverse groups within the church might be fostered.  As a result of their meetings the Catholic Common Ground Initiative began in 1996.  Housed first in New York, it has resided at the Bernardin Center of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago since 2009.  A diversity of Catholic leaders in the church, in academia, and in society are invited “to engage in prayerful dialogue for the sake of building up the communion of the church.”  The mission of Catholic Common Ground Initiative is to promote communication that can heal a church “torn by dissension.”  A wide variety of topics have been considered, everything from religion and politics, to immigration policies.  They are looking at the divisions forming separating generations in the church.

Would that communication among diverse groups could be promoted in parishes.  Get people to sit down together and discuss differences.  Get to know people with differing views and values.  The goal would not be to homogenize the group, to get everyone to agree on everything.  The goal would be to get people to appreciate differences as well as to identify commonalities.  It is interesting what happens when people get to know people they have thought of as irreconcilably different.   Racists can be amazed at the humanity and depth of personality of someone of the once despised race.  Sexists can have their perspectives broadened.  Conservatives can come to understand liberals and vice-versa.  And there can be healing as it becomes increasingly clear that all, regardless of differences, are brothers and sisters in Christ in this community we call church.

The above is a bit of a diversion, but not without a point.  Perhaps students could be encouraged to be part of such discussions and come to appreciate students different from themselves.  As important would be parents newly appreciative of diversity, teaching their children by word and example.  I remember a time as a child making a derogatory racial remark in my father’s hearing.  I was brought up short and asked to explain what I had said.  Of course I couldn’t.  I was humiliated by what I had done.  And my father made it perfectly clear to me that such language and thinking would not be tolerated in our home.  I learned my lesson and took it to heart.  Of course the lesson was supported by my parents’ constant example in practice.

Remember the song in South PacificYou’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made…You’ve got to be carefully taught.  The song is right.  There is nothing congenital about racism or sexism or any of the other prejudices that are the excuses for bullying and hazing.  They are taught.  But caught early enough, budding prejudices can be corrected and eliminated.  At home they can be corrected by example.  At school they can be corrected by getting students with differences to sit down together and discuss the differences.  Artists and athletes can meet and get to know each other and appreciate each other’s gifts.  A gay student and a straight student can have a conversation and come to accept each other’s point of view and appreciate each other’s humanity.  Caucasians, Blacks, and Hispanics can have round-table discussions and come to value the ethnic differences and gifts each has.  I do believe that once a heart-felt conversation and honest dialog is had between differing ones, healing can happen and walls be torn down.

Perhaps I am being naïve.  But as I am writing this, Rodney King was found dead in his swimming pool yesterday.  The news reminded me of the horrible beating he suffered at the hands of some of the LAPD.  When the court acquitted the men that nearly killed King, the message seemed to go out that it was acceptable to treat Blacks that way.  Looting and rioting broke out.  People died during the siege.  It was horrible.  But because of those days, attitudes changed.

Wouldn’t it be better if we could change attitudes by sitting down together and sharing ideas?  We would function better as a church if it became clear that diverse elements are welcome here.  There can be unity in diversity.  We can be united in our differences.  We can still be one in Christ.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE NATIVITY OF SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST – June 24, 2012

 

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah 49:1-6

The Acts of the Apostles 13:22-26

The holy Gospel according to Luke 1:57-66, 80

I have been thinking about John the Baptist lately, not only because we are celebrating the feast of his birth, circumcision and naming, but also because I wonder how he would he heard in these times.  Would he be successful today?  Probably his preaching would create the same division that it did as he prepared the way for the coming of Jesus.  Some, especially the poor and the oppressed would flock to hear him.  The elite and powerful would want him silenced and killed – much like many of the prophets have experienced in recent history.

John was not a very physically attractive character.  He fasted much of the time, feasting on grasshoppers and wild honey.  His clothing didn’t come from fashionable boutiques.  He wore camel skin with a leather belt around his waist.  There wasn’t much about him that would encourage imitation, not that that would bother him.  It was his message that he wanted people to hear because he knew he was a prophet chosen by God from the womb, sent by God as a sharp-edged sword and through him God’s glory would be revealed.

What was it about him, then, that made the difference, that made people want to listen to the “man sent by God?”  Something about him touched people and made them hang on his every word – some of the people, that is.  His message was confrontational; people still listened in rapt attention.  Would that happen today?  Would crowds come in droves, seeking his Baptism of repentance?  He’s out of sequence today.  We have Jesus’ Baptism.  John’s message today might be the challenge to the Baptized to live their baptisms.  That makes sense to me.

Dare I suggest that we could sure use another John the Baptist today?  Jesus entered the world scene near the end of John’s preaching ministry having protested that John was not the Christ.  This time around John could remind people about Christ and what Christ brings to the world from God.  People would still have to change their lives.  His call would be that the people of God should live their baptismal priesthood, should live the Eucharist they celebrate, and should be for the poor, bread broken and cup poured out.  That is a message that needs to be heard today by those within the Church.  There is application for those outside the church as well.

It is difficult to see much about these days and what is happening in the Church and in society in general that exhibits the Kingdom Christ proclaimed.  All people are God’s beloved and meant to be members of one family.  We’re all in this together, if we hear Christ clearly.  John might tell us that we’re living far from that mark.  It is not my role to speak politics here.  It is discouraging to hear any sense of responsibility for the poor disparaged.  It is said that the poor have only themselves to blame for their situation.  The wealthy should not have to give from their abundance so that the poor can have the essentials necessary to live life with dignity.  The chasm between the wealthy 1% and the rest of society increases.  Diseases ravage the poor and powerful pharmaceutical companies refuse to send medications able to cure sleeping sickness because there is no profit for them in doing that.  Some see poverty as God’s judgment on people just as they see wealth as a sign of God’s favor.  Not much different from the Baptist’s times.

Again, what is happening to our sense of responsibility for each other, that we are in this together?  So much of popular entertainment has survival of the fittest as its motivational force.  One by one contestants are eliminated until the last one stands in solitary victory.  A huge hit at the movies is a story about sending young people out in the wilds to kill until only one survives to bring in food for the family.  This movie is made from books written for youngsters.  What is it teaching them about values and human dignity?  Are we, as a society concluding that Darwin had it right, that Ayn Rand’s Objectivism ought to be today’s philosophy?  It would seem so.  Surely John the Baptist would have something to say about this.

We need another Baptist to wake us up.  Each day we hear stories more terrible than those heard the day before.  Each day there are predictions of coming days more dire than those already experienced.  Many are reeling from the death of Treyvon Martin and some are marching in protest against this seemingly racist motivated killing.  How do we cope with stories of parents killing their children?  Who can imagine a father hitting his sons with a hatchet and then setting the house on fire to kill them and himself?  Such stories are not rare today.  But you know all this as well as I do.

So, do you see why I think another John the Baptist might help?  His witness and message just might reawaken lost values in society and in us.  We might be re-convinced that we are all meant to live in community as Children of God.  His message might stand in counterpoint to the survival of the fittest mentality that dominates and seems to be commonly accepted.

Now that I think about it, the Baptist might have returned and we didn’t recognize him.  Think of the impact of Mahatma Gandhi.  Years have gone by since his time.  A lot of folks today probably have never heard of him, but in his day he made many people rethink their complicity in the exploitation of others.  He was not a Christian, although he said that he admired Christ.  He also said that he didn’t think that much of Christ’s followers.  The sad fact is that he held many Christians accountable for the injustices he exposed.  Committed to non-violence, he offended the powerful in his land that saw him as a threat that could incite riots.  And like the Baptist before him, Gandhi was murdered witnessing to the cause he preached.  That shedding of blood proved his sincerity.

Remember Archbishop Oscar Romero.  The Spirit in a blazing Pentecost came upon him and transformed him from a library priest to a shepherding bishop who stood in the midst of his people and dared the military powers to respect them and let them be free of the oppression that enslaved them.  It is a sad fact that the Church tried to silence him and accused him of being a Marxist.  People of questionable repute have been rushed to canonization while the Martyr Oscar Romero has been ignored by the Church, not by the poor of San Salvador who acclaim him as a saint.  It was the powerful who had him shot to death while he was celebrating Eucharist in a hospital chapel.  His spilled blood didn’t silence his voice.  Some still hear him loudly and clearly calling for the freedom of the people he shepherded.

As we celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist, we should wonder if he hasn’t returned to us over and over again in several ages and guises.  Each time the results have been the same.  The most abject hear the voice and respond to the witness and are encouraged.  Hope is sparked in their hearts.  When the voice of those calling for reform get too loud and their witness too powerful, when their dreams seem to align with Christ’s heralding of the promised Messianic Age, they have to die the way the first Baptist did.  I think of the amazing oration Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the night before he died.  Like Moses, he said, he had been to the mountaintop and looked across the chasm into the promised land of racial equality.  And he saw a kingdom of justice, equality, and peace.

Perhaps we should pray that the Lord will send out the Spirit on the Church and inspire her to be that herald in this present desert time.  Would the clarion be heard more brilliantly if we were more obviously a servant church, if there were less evidence of elitism and hierarchical power among us?  The Spirit might re-inspire those glory days that followed the Second Vatican Council, when the Church, the people of God, proclaimed that all are welcome here, that Christ’s blood was shed for all, and the baptized were invited to live and practice their baptismal priesthood.  Then John the Baptist’s voice would be heard again.

While some might think that John had his day just as did Elijah before him and prefer now to return the Church to a former age, the rest of us pray that the Spirit that inspired the Baptist will inspire us and awaken us to our responsibility.  The Church, after all, is the Body of Christ.  The faith resides in the people of God.  So, it just might be our time and our responsibility.  We just might choose to live in the freedom of the Children of God and give our selves to the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom that is coming until all have heard and love is rekindled.  It could happen if we believe.

Sincerely,

Didymus