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AMAZING GRACE

If there is a word that seems to dominate contemporary speak, it is vitriolic.  The word means caustic, corrosive, biting.  Now that I think about it, that seems to cover only part of the negative attitudes that seems to dominate verbal exchanges.  The rest would come under the umbrella of judgmental and self-righteous.  Add, maybe, a dash of smug.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes as I watch the evening news I wince and wonder if there is no limit beyond which self-styled pundits and political wannabes will not go in their verbal attacks.  But then, I’ve never been comfortable around self-righteousness.  Somerset Maugham’s Rain inoculated me against that virus the first time I read the short story in high school.

The judgments of the self-righteous are often couched in their seeming gratitude that they are not like the rest of people, especially those they revile and condemn.  Worse, they seem to think that God is in lock-step agreement with them and impatiently waiting to cast the ones they deplore into hell’s unquenchable flames.

The cause doesn’t matter.  Those opposing are so invested that there is no room for dialog.  Anyone who holds the position they are against is reprehensible.  Look at the political scene.  Conservatives spew acidic comments on the liberals.  Liberals do the same regarding the conservatives.  Both sides ought to be embarrassed by the vile things spilling from the talking heads on FOX network.  The pictures of President Obama bearing Hitler’s mustache should outrage everyone, as should the picture of the t-shirt bearing the president’s image that was used for target practice.  With those icons of hatred where can be the room for conversation that might lead to understanding?

Pro-lifers rage against abortion advocates.  The din is so loud who can hear a response?  You may thing that the days of race riots have passed.  I’m not so sure.  Crosses are still burned in the front yards of black homeowners.  Who will be able to forget the story of the young, gay man who was beaten, hung on a fence in Wisconsin farmland, and left to die.  Those who perpetrated the despicable deed felt justified because of the infamous Leviticus text.  Anti-Semitism flourishes.  Neo-Nazis from time to time emerge from the shadows to make their statements including the denial by some that the Holocaust ever happened.  And some of those Neo-Nazis that do admit the Holocaust see it as God’s judgment against the Jews.  Many are outraged to hear that Muslims and Jews worship the same God that Christians do.  And the list goes on.

Some of you may remember the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy.  Remember also the venom that was spewed out against these men before they were gunned down.  Religious bigotry and racial prejudice were the antecedents to those murders.

Jesus condemned attitudes like those above that were embodied in the Pharisees that, Jesus said, strained over the speck in the other’s eye while ignoring the beam in their own.  It is the judgmental attitude that condemns another’s sin while “understanding” and “accepting” one’s own.

Some, if not all, are called to give their lives in service of the Gospel that proclaims God’s love for all people.  They do that by striving for right relationships, right relationship with God and right relationships with our sisters and brothers in Christ.  If they give themselves to that their motivation is a longing for union with God and for justice and peace in the world.  There is an intensity about them that creates a desire and a willingness to suffer in order to attain what is longed for.  Important for these blessed pursuers is the unitive way, the way that leads to living in the presence of God, embraced by God’s love.  More important than the lavish banquet and fine wines is the desire to see the oppressed liberated, sexism banished, and the impoverished sharing in the goods of the world necessary for their survival.

There is a hymn that achieved secular popularity in the late 1960s and ‘70s.  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.  The hymn is about conversion, about suddenly seeing in a totally new and wholesome light an abominable behavior that a moment before was acceptable.  In this instance the acceptable behavior was the transporting of enslaved women and men destined for the auction block.  Once grace entered the author’s consciousness, he was never the same and could no longer accept the institution of slavery.  It is not enough to find an evil unacceptable.  What must follow is the willingness to do whatever can be done to eliminate the evil.  The former ship’s captain worked tirelessly until the day he died to bring about the end of the horror.

Dorothy Day was a woman steeped in that same Amazing Grace.  There was restlessness in her from her youth.  She saw oppression and inequality in society, the downtrodden poor enslaved in their poverty while others lived lavishly.  (There are not a few who would argue that that separation of classes in society in a widening chasm persists to the present day.)  The way of Communism seemed for a time the answer and she joined the party.  She became pregnant out of wedlock and had an abortion.  Then she met a man who told her about the Gospel and especially the Sermon on the Mount.  That’s when that grace entered her life, created a longing for God and empowered her to live the rest of her days in poverty as she witnessed to the dignity of the workers and their worth before God.  She fasted.  She spent a portion of each day in contemplative prayer.  She went to Eucharist every morning.  And she marched for civil rights.  A favorite image of mine is that of the then senior Dorothy Day seated next to Cesar Chavez and peering over glasses at the baton-bearing policemen that would arrest them for defending the rights of migrant workers.  (Again, a present day issue needing to be addressed and resolved with justice and love.)  Saint Dorothy Day?  Not yet.  Some say never.  After all, she was a sinner in her youth, a communist who had an abortion.  Surely she wouldn’t get to heaven.  Or would she?  What do you think?

The self-righteous might say, “Surely not!” to Dorothy Day’s entering glory.  But those who are conscious of their own sinfulness and forgiveness, and who long for justice would have no problem with Dorothy’s salvation because they recognize that it is all grace.

God’s love is all embracing and God’s desire to forgive and reconcile is universal.  St. Augustine knew he was a sinner in his youth who also had a child out of wedlock.  Late had he loved God long after God had first loved him.  Righteousness is God’s gift, God’s grace working in the human consciousness and enables the so gifted to see the possibilities for peace and justice once they recognize each other as equals before God, created in God’s image and likeness.  When they see through that prism, they then come to understand that when the stone is thrown or the bomb dropped, it is Christ who is crucified again in those that are wounded and slaughtered.

So, as you sit at Christ’s feet and learn from him about the call of discipleship, what evils inflicted on others fill you with outrage?  What is it you long to see transpire?  What transformation do you pray will one day come about as a precursor to the coming of the Kingdom of God?

What I suggest here might not work for everyone.  The bigoted are often blind to the humanity of those they hate.  We tend to think of those enduring evils that limit and even take their lives in terms of statistics.  23 million people are dying from HIV/AIDS in Africa.  Thousands were left homeless and others were killed following the tsunami in Japan.  Thousands suffered the same fate following hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti.  The numbers mount and can move us to some extent.  But put names and faces on those statistics and we can find ourselves moved to the core.  Look at the effect the diary of a young girl in the Netherlands had on untold millions of readers regarding the evils of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

My suggestion is to allow yourself to think of the suffering people as members of your family.  Why do you think it is that when we celebrate Eucharist the central symbols are one bread and one cup?  We gather around one table to share the one meal.  It is one family gathered at the family table.  As another hymn has it, we are one body inthis one Lord.”  It is to that kind of sensitivity that the Gospel calls us.  Once awakened we long for the day when our sisters and brothers no longer endure that suffering, the day when the cure for the disease has been found and there is a vaccine to prevent it.  We thirst for the day when war will end and peace will reign.  We hope for the time when humanity is enough to guarantee the shared and recognized dignity that God has in mind for us.  And I believe you will realize then how close God is as in Christ you begin to feel secure in God’s embrace.

The SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – July 29, 2012


The Second Book of Kings 4:42-44

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 4:1-6

The holy Gospel according to John 6:1-15

Notice the difference in the size of the crowd in the first reading and that in the gospel and the difference in the quantity of food to be placed before them.  Elisha invites the man to place the twenty barley loaves from his first harvest before 100 people.  When Jesus asks the disciples where they can find enough food for to feed the 5000 plus people waiting for Jesus, the opine that two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.  It takes naiveté, don’t you think, for a boy to offer five barley loaves, the food of the poor, and a couple of fish to feed the multitude?  As the disciples question, What good are these among so many?  That’s the same question the man in the first reading had of Elisha.  In both cases the little bit becomes a superabundant feast with leftovers to be gathered up lest they go to waste.

It has always seemed strange to me that when the miracles of the multiplication of loaves are proclaimed, there aren’t stronger reactions from the assembly.  That may be attributed to the fact that few if any are hearing the story for the first time.  I’ve never seen someone poke a person near by and ask what he thought of the amazing story.  We’re so busy dismissing the tale as impossible that we miss the message we are supposed to hear.  God sustains us with abundant mercy that reflects God’s love for the human family.  Then again, how we hear the miracle stories might depend on the character in the narrative with whom we identify.  We ought always to do that, you know.  We ought to place ourselves in the reading and become part of it.  Hearing the gospel that way will make all the difference in the world.  Are you one of the disciples being challenged by Jesus to provide for the multitude?  Are you the lad with the few barley loaves?  Are you one of the hungry ones in the crowd?  See how differently you hear the reading now.

Last night on the evening news there was a story regarding the growing epidemic of obesity in our society in every age group.  “Supersize me!” apparently responds to a wide felt craving for huge, rich, fatty and calorie-laden meals.  Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, strokes and heart attacks among younger people are occurring with increasing frequency.  Apparently, we don’t like to say “No” to ourselves.  As I listened, I thought about the millions of people in various countries of Africa, Asia, and elsewhere who are living in squalor and starving to death.  During a visit to Kenya and Uganda, more than once I felt panic surge through me as poverty of the masses became evident before me and I saw the pain in parents’ eyes as they wondered from where would come the basics to nourish their children.  And shortly after my return to these shores I found myself standing in awe in a supermarket amazed at the excesses bulging on the shelves.  That experience of excess was numbing for a while until I got used to it and it became normal again.

There is a basic tenet of our faith contained in this Sunday’s readings.  God, in the Hebrew Bible promises to provide for his people.  Elisha challenges the man with the barley loaves to believe that and to trust that God can do wonders with his meager offering.  Jesus, in the gospel does not let the disciples be passive spectators of a hungry people in need.  He poses the question: Where can we buy food enough for them to eat?  In an instant they did the math and knew the need far exceeded their ability to respond.  Or so they thought and would continue to think until they understood the One whose disciples they were.

This reading from John’s Gospel begins the sixth chapter that is an exposition of Jesus as the Bread of Life.  In the course of the chapter Jesus will teach us that he is the Bread of Life and that we cannot have life within us unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood.  He is the fulfillment of all those promises in the Hebrew Bible.  We will stay with this chapter for the next several Sundays.  I hope you will be stunned and amazed at its conclusion that will leave us no wiggle room.  That’s the way with Jesus, after all.

The Multiplication of the Loaves is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels.  Matthew and Mark have two tellings of it.  In the three synoptic Gospels, the Multiplication of the Loaves point to the central action of the Last Supper.  But in John’s Gospel there is no institution narrative, on the implications of taking part in the Eucharist.  Jesus washes feet and challenges those washed to do the same for each other.

John’s account of the Multiplication story is filled with Eucharistic language.  When the disciples get the people to recline, (just as the disciples will recline at table with Jesus on the night before he is to die) Jesus takes the loaves of bread, gives thanks to God, breaks the bread and distributes it to the crowd.  The people eat and are satisfied.  And there are enough fragments left over to fill twelve baskets.  The Israelites ate the miraculous bread, Manna, in the desert during the Exodus.  The belief was that that feeding would happen again when the Messiah would come.  Then the hungry will be fed and the poor will have the Good News preached to them.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the fulfillment.

Jesus is the Daily Bread we plead for in the Lord’s Prayer.

We are a Eucharistic people.  Celebrating Eucharist is at the heart of our faith lives.  How we celebrate Eucharist ought to reflect the Sunday’s gospel.  Now, the Risen One is in our midst and is in us as we gather, according the Vatican Council II, as the Body of Christ.  We gather individually and as community believing that all are welcome at this Table.  We come mindful of the hunger in our life, a hunger that only Jesus can fill.  We come, not as passive spectators, but as active participants, as co-celebrants, according to Council language, to take the Bread and bless it as we hear Jesus invite us all to take it and eat it because this is Christ’s body.  He hear Jesus invite us to take the cup and drink from that Blood that is she for us and for all for the forgiveness of sins.  As we respond to Christ’s invitation we realize that as often as we do this we do it in Christ’s memory and Christ is present to us as our strength to go and live this meal that we have shared.

It is from the action that the Eucharist comes.  The faithful share in the Bread and Wine, the Body and Blood, from the celebration in which they have taken part.  They should not have to receive from the reserved Sacrament from previous Liturgies.  The faithful experience Christ present in the Word that is proclaimed, in the Presider, and in the people assembled.  If they do they will be able to recognize Christ’s sacramental presence in the Bread and Wine.  And when they have eaten and drunk, they will live the implications of what they have done by being sent out from the assembled to be Christ’s presence to the poorest of the poor and to every other class of society as well.

The challenge for us as Church is to live the Eucharist.  In spite of characteristics that seem to stand in conflict with this in the Universal Church, the local church can remain committed to being a servant church where all are welcome and the dignity of each is affirmed.  Gathering as two or three, or one or two hundred, wherever the Eucharist is celebrated Christ is present and so is the whole Church.  There is only One Bread, One Body, One Cup of Blessing which we share.  In reaching out to the poor, the alienated, the off scouring of society, it is Christ who welcomes and heals and reminds us that there is one God and Father of us all, and that we have been redeemed and forgiven by the Lord’s dying and rising.

We are a Eucharistic people and Alleluia is our song!

Sincerely,

Didymus

A HOLY YEARNING

I was brand new to this in 1965, naïve and full of enthusiasm for this role of presbyter.  In my naiveté, I have to confess, I was also glib in preaching the hard realities of the Good News.  It was the Easter Season and I preached about how the feast made mourning impossible.  Jesus knew that when he told the crowds that those who mourned were blessed.  He spoke in anticipation of his death and resurrection.  I remember saying that.  Mid-week after delivering that homily a woman came to visit me in the rectory.  She sat across the desk from me, thanked me for seeing her, and told me she had great difficulties with what I had said.  She was deep in mourning following the death of her husband and their daughter in a horrific car crash.  She said that she couldn’t find the blessing in mourning.

She told me the story of what had happened and how at times she found it difficult to believe that her two loved ones were dead.  She said even though she visited the graves at least weekly, often she would wake in the night and listen, expecting to hear the sounds of their voices or to feel her husband in the bed beside her.  It had been two years since the accident and her psychological wounds were still raw.

I remember looking at her and watching as the tears coursed down her cheeks.  I felt the knot in my stomach as I wondered what I could possibly say to ease her pain.  What words could comfort her?  I began by apologizing if my words had added to her misery and promised that from that time forward I would do a better job of thinking before I spoke and listen to what I said through the ears of the assembly.  I would learn to be empathetic and enter into the sufferings of those before me.  That is what I said.  I’ve tried to practice what I opined that day every day since then.  That conversation was the first of many.  Over the course of several months we came to understand each other and she helped me shape a whole new appreciation for the demands a faith response to Jesus’ invitation to be his disciples make on those who accept the call.

Just as I was naïve in that early preaching, so can we be in the assumptions we make as believers.  Before faith is tested, believers can assume that following on the Way will be easy.  Of course there are blessings, but each major step we take on the Way challenges us to let go and let grace help us to see our life and our times through a new filter.  In reality, everything is turned upside down or inside out and we come to realize that the conversion begun at our baptism is a life-long process of dying and rising, of letting go and being caught up in wonder and mystery.  Each day is the first day of the rest of our lives.

At the center of this reality will be the cross.  Each crisis will deepen our understanding of what Jesus meant when he told us that if we were to follow him we would have to take up the cross each day and follow him.

Mourning is a reality in every person’s life who has lost a loved one.  Mourning was part of the lives of our ancestors in the faith in the Hebrew Bible.  The prophets mourned over Israel’s infidelity as they turned from following the Law and the One God and went after Baal and the other gods of the gentiles among whom they lived.  The prophets sorrowed over the exploitation of the poor, the orphans and the widows, by the rich and the powerful.  The people mourned as they watched the destruction of the Holy City, Jerusalem.  They cried out as they were led into captivity.  “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered you, O Zion.  On the aspens of that land we hung up our harps.”  Jesus will weep over the restored city because the people would not heed his call: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who stone the prophets and kill those who are sent to you, how often I would have gathered you to myself, as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not.”  And he would grieve at the death of his friend Lazarus.  Or, did he weep as he realized the implications that would befall him as he raised Lazarus to new life?

Sorrowing, mourning, and grieving are parts of the human condition.  No one who cares for another can live long before experiencing a situation that causes these reactions.  A loved one dies.  A relationship ends.  Betrayal happens.  Then you will know what it means to be plunged into a long, dark night in the midst of which you will wonder if you will ever see the dawn of hope again in your life.  A kin to depression, it is in reality the long, dark night of the soul that gives rise to a terrible longing that only God can fill, a holy yearning.

Remember when it was forbidden for photographers to take pictures of the flag-draped coffins of the war-dead as they were returned from Iraq to these shores for burial.  The thought was that if we did not see the reality we would be numb to the horror and we would not have to share in mourning for the fallen that their families suffered.  Being shielded from the toll it would seem all the more possible to enter into the illusion that soon we would be the victors – divinely appointed as we were in the bloody exchange.  We need to see those coffins.  We need to see the broken-hearted parents and spouses and children.  To join in their mourning is salutary and can help change perspective.

There is one way to make sure that you will not have to mourn and that is to choose not to love.  If, however, you choose to love another, that one becomes one for whom one day you could mourn.  Husbands or wives may have to mourn and survive their spouses.  Often children mourn the death of their parents, albeit often in due time when full lives have been lived.  Sometimes a parent dies suddenly, far from a fullness of years, and grief intensifies.  There is the terrible sorrow that comes when parents have to bury their children.  Death of friends, the end of relationships, the failing health of those once strong bring us up short and challenge our core beliefs.

Recently we have been confronted with the phenomenon of natural disaster.  The memory of the Tsunami caused by the earthquake in Japan is not that remote as we consider the havoc caused in the Midwest by the storm that left over a million people without electricity in the midst of a record breaking heat wave.  The forest fires in Colorado and else where in the west ravaged land and reduced the homes of hundreds to ashes.  We grieve individually and as a people.  Sometimes we respond.  Sometimes we forget.

Why does Jesus say that there is blessing in mourning?  Precisely because of the emptiness that mourning brings.  But mourning is not an end in itself.  Life doesn’t stop there.  Those who mourn can be happy only when mourning leads the mourners beyond their sorrowing state.  Rather, only when the Spirit inspires faith and renews hope.

The Rite of Christian Burial acknowledges the reality of death and the sorrow death brings to the survivors.  Those who come together as church to celebrate the ritual are embraced by the signs and symbols that speak much more of life than they do of death.  The Rite begins even before Death has claimed the loved one.  Family and friends, indeed the whole church, gather around to pray over and anoint with Holy Oil the one who is dying.  Why would we do this unless there is a belief in something more than what can be seen, a conviction that death is not an end to anything more than a life as it was lived in this world?

The casket is draped with a funeral pall.  The faithful recognize the baptismal garment in which the deceased was clad when s/he came out of the waters, having died there to sin and everything that separates one from God, came out of the waters identified with Christ and destined to live in God’s love forever.  The burning Easter Candle stands by the coffin, the candle that was carried into the dark church in the course of the Easter Vigil to proclaim Christ, alive in the Resurrection.  Those gathered celebrate Eucharist, giving thanks and renewing the Lord’s dying and rising.  They are reminded that those who eat this Bread and drink this Cup will live forever “and I will raise them up on the Last Day.”  Death, where is your sting?

Some may think that there is something therapeutic in telling a mourner to “get over it and get on with your life.”  I don’t agree.  Certainly I would not encourage weeping and wailing and wallowing in self pity.  That may be self-indulgent behavior that can paralyze.  But neither would I be the glib speaker I was as that young priest 43 years ago and come across as minimizing the reality of grief and mourning.  It is necessary to weep as a natural response to the loss.  Wailing can help to let out the terrible pain.  But then the Spirit reminds us that when the mourner experiences the darkness, the emptiness resulting from the loss of someone who was an integral part of our life and accepts the fact that no one else can fill the void the mourned leaves, there is still hope.  Joy comes from grace’s reminding us that God will wipe away every tear, embrace us who have mourned, and help us to live in hope that one day we will see the one we mourn in the Resurrection on the Last Day.

A challenge for believers is to be signs that inspire that hope.  It is not enough to look on with pity and even weep for those who suffer loss.  Believers must respond like the Eucharist they celebrate by allowing themselves to be broken and poured out in loving service of those who grieve.  They must weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn and support with love.  Bringing meals in the initial days of sorrow is one thing.  Sitting and listening weeks later and resisting the temptation to say, “I know just how you feel” is another.  No two people mourn in the same way.  There is no time limit on the mourning process.  But the love and support of fellow believers will assist as the bereaved experience the grace that will empower them to go on.

St. James said, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day, and you say to them, ‘Good-bye and good luck!  Keep warm and well fed,’ but do not meet their bodily needs, what good is that?”  It is not enough to mourn for those who suffer loss as a result of natural disasters.  We have the collective and individual responsibility to support them with more than our prayers and good wishes.  Faith demands that we recognize those suffering to be our brothers and sisters.  (An aside: could the Holocaust have happened had the German people recognized the Jews to be their brothers and sisters?  They had to deny the Jews’ humanity in order to carry out the Nazi atrocities.  Would the Ku Klux Klan have been able to burn crosses in the yards of those they recognized to be their black brothers and sisters, or to hang them from the nearest gibbet?  We are what we are, sons and daughters of our God, brothers and sisters in the Lord.)

A final consideration.  Many of the saints prayed for the gift of tears.  They prayed for the grace to see and understand their sins so that they could truly repent.  Again, this is not a prayer for the grace to wallow in self-pity, much less to see one’s sins as unforgiven.  (If the truth be known, most people find their own sins understandable.  It is the sins of others, those sins they would never be tempted to commit, that are unforgivable.)  The gift of tears enables us to see the horror of our sins and to know that they are forgiven.  Repentance means to turn away from sin, to believe in the Good news, and to live the Gospel practically as one who is forgiven.

So, when we mourn, we do not yield to grief, as those do who have not hope.  Our joy comes from our believing that the sorrowing will be consoled by the God who loves unconditionally and forever those who allow God to be the light in the darkness and to fill the emptiness with which threatens to break them.  Our acclamation is: Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  Amen!  Alleluia!

Sincerely,

Didymus