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TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – September 02, 2012

 

The Book of Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8

The Letter of James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27

The holy Gospel according to Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

If you survey Israel’s history in Hebrew Scripture you will find that the strength and security of the people rose and fell depending on their fidelity to the Law.  When they were faithful to living out the statutes and decrees given by God and handed on to them by Moses, the Israelites were invincible.  But when they forgot the Law and became fascinated by alien gods they crumbled finally to the point of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple; and they were led off into slavery and the Babylonian captivity.

Moses promised something remarkable that would flow from the observance of the Law.  The nations would marvel at the Israelites’ strength as a people, their wisdom and intelligence.  It would be immediately apparent that no other nation has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him.  Through the observance of the Law it will be obvious that God is at the center of the people’s lives.  How can that be?  What is there about the Law that makes this come about?  The Decalogue is right-ordered living.  Put simply, the commandments call for the primacy of place of the only God among the people that is expressed by reverence for God’s name and the keeping holy of the Lord’s Day.  Second, keeping the commandments imposes a right ordering of relationships among the people that result in their strength as a people.  In the end it is all about love.  Love God with your entire being and love your neighbor as you love yourself, an unbeatable combination.  Jesus will say that the whole Law and the Prophets are based on the summing up of those two laws of love.

Notice the final sentence from todays reading from James.  Don’t we then to think of religion as being primarily about the expression of the people’s faith in and relationship with God?  James says: Religion that is pure and undefiled before our God and Father is this – to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.  Being a disciple of Christ must have an effect on our attitudes toward and relationships with our neighbors.  A discussion about who is our neighbor is for another time.  Suffice it to say that James warns us that it is not enough to know the texts of Scriptures, that is, to know the Law.  There is no virtue in mere erudition.  That knowledge must spill over into action.  Be doers of the word and not hearers only.  From one of the great parables it will become clear that I didn’t notice him/her will get us nowhere as an excuse.  Just ask Dives.  He might be an excellent example of giving one’s self over to the world’s values and becoming stained by them.  That is precisely what James warns us against.

So we come to the gospel and find Jesus embroiled in controversy.  It seems scandal is rising from the fact that some of his disciples are not observing the minutiae of the Law.  A bit of an aside come in here.  Over the centuries students of the Law became fixated on the Law and sought to spell out as part of the law governance of every possible human thought, word, or deed.  By Jesus’ time there were well over 600 laws that had made their way into the Scriptures.  According to the Pharisees, the good and faithful Jew was bound to observe all of them.  The scandalous behavior the Pharisees had observed was that some of Jesus’ disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed hands.  There is no arguing that sanitation is a good precaution to safeguard one’s health.  But what has happened is that multiple purifications only beginning with the washing of hands have become matters of law and therefore signs of fidelity to God.  The lavations purify one who may have come into contact with someone unclean, a leper or a Gentile, for example.  They continue to the purification of everything imaginable and all with equal importance and weight.

All that is behind the confrontation by the Pharisees.  Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?  Notice that Jesus’ response doesn’t touch upon the washing issue.  He goes deeper and returns the ball to the Pharisees court, so to speak.  First, he says, not all laws are of equal importance.  There are the great commandments that make up God’s Law.  Many of the other laws are merely human tradition, the result of students of the law arguing over the law.  Focusing on the Law and its observance says nothing about the human heart.  Scrupulosity is not an indication of a depth of faith.  Just the opposite may be true.  If God is a concern at all, the implication might be that if one obeys all these minutiae of the Law that one will find God.

The question of concern for Jesus is, where is your heart?  In other words, is preoccupation with the law actually an expression of the desire to know, love, and serve God?  Does that quest result in the need to know, love, and serve the neighbor?  It is, after all, Jesus who identifies one with the other.  One can’t love God without loving the neighbor.

A famous exchange was recorded between Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge.  At the time, Muggeridge was filming a documentary about Mother Teresa and her work, this in the days before she had become an international phenomenon.  Muggeridge had begun to move from atheism to agnosticism and was trying to find his way back to faith.  Mother Teresa fascinated him.  He had been observing her charitable work.  Watching in silence for as long as he could, he finally asked Mother, “Why do you do what you do?”

Her simple answer was faith, to which Muggeridge responded that there were many people of faith but they don’t do what she does.  There must be something more.  Then Mother Teresa, holding the hand of a dying, penniless man said to Muggeridge, “Look at this man in his misery.  When I am ministering to him I am ministering to Christ in his Passion.”

There you have it.  Simple, isn’t it?  It is, when seen through the eyes of faith.  Jesus came to do something entirely new.  Taking on human flesh he forever united the human and the divine.  In the words of Genesis, God said, Let us make the human in our image and likeness.  Through Jesus, God becomes identified with the human and the image and likeness emerge.  How one treats a human being is how one treats God.  That is Mother Teresa’s insight.  And that is what Jesus is trying to get the Pharisees and his disciples to see.  This is the attitude that will motivate people in the Kingdom Jesus is bringing when God reigns.  And in that kingdom, when it come to law, there will be none more demanding than the law of love.

It is said that when the first Christians were being put to death for their faith in the Coliseum and elsewhere, those who looked on were stunned by the care the condemned had for each other, but their desire to support and encourage each other.  See how these Christians love one another!  Perhaps that is why the Church began to flourish in that time of persecution.  Many of those who first witnessed that Christian love hungered for that source of strength and purpose for themselves.

We come together every Sunday for Liturgy.  Certainly there is a commandment for us to do so.  But I would pray that that is not the primary reason why we assemble; that rather we feel the need to come together to be united in the love of Christ that we celebrate in Word and Sacrament.  It is safe to say that the health of the parish rests on the strength of the love that binds the members together with each other and with Christ.  If the stranger, entering the assembly for the first time, is struck by how these Christians love one another and all who enter there, s/he will want to stay and be part of that love fest.  And if that celebration results in the transformation of that people into the Body of Christ, that is, if they are empowered to recognize the Christ within them whose Body and Blood they share, and in that recognition go out to bring Christ to the orphan and the widow and to the other poor with whom they come in contact, if it is clear that they are about love and their desire is to serve, others will marvel at the health of the Church and desire to be part of it.  We doneven have to talk about the other side of that coin.

Suffice it to say, love is much more demanding than law and much more freeing, especially if you die in the process.

Sincerely,

Didymus

UBI CARITAS ET AMOR

“How long’s it going to take?” his son asked. “Jason, I don’t know, but probably most of the morning.”

“But Dad, I have plans.”  Jason crossed his arms over his chest and scowled.  “It’s Saturday!”

“I’m afraid you are going to have to change your plans or postpone them.  I need your help with a project.  Please don’t argue with me.  This has to be done.  Sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

Then the father explained that through a service organization to which he belonged, he had volunteered to bring a meal to a women’s shelter.  It was unfortunate that it was on Saturday, but that was the luck of the draw.  “If we don’t do this, some women will go hungry.  It’s as simple as that.”  He did not say anything more and let his son ruminate on what his dad had said.  Jason shrugged and continued to sulk.

The father smiled covertly as Jason helped him load the containers of beef stew, salad, rolls, and deep-dish cherry cobbler into the trunk of the car.  He took as a positive sign that Jason had stopped objecting as soon as, together, they had picked up the preparations from the kitchen counter.  He turned the key in the ignition and started to back out of the driveway.  Jason stared out the side window.  Conversation wouldn’t be easy, the father thought.  But when is chatting easy between a father and a teenaged son just beginning to evidence a desire to be his own person?

During the ride to the shelter they listened to a football game and Jason cheered when the right team scored.  They both groaned when their team suffered a setback.  Suddenly it felt like a normal bonding moment between a father and a son.

They carried the boxes into the shelter kitchen.  Part of their responsibility was to assist in getting the food to the buffet table and so facilitate the women as they came by with their trays filled their plates with what had been prepared.  Now they waited as the stew heated and watched the hands of the clock move to the dinner hour.

The father stirred the stew and watched through the pass-through, as Jason seemed to engage in conversation with one of the homeless women.  He wondered how that would go.  He had met the woman before and found her difficult, not the kind of woman that he found it easy to talk to.  He couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other.  He felt a bit anxious for Jason because his previous experience with the woman had convinced him that she was, to give it the kindest interpretation, eccentric.  He wasn’t worried for Jason’s safety.  His concern was more about her hygiene and those odors that arose when it has been too long between showers.  He thought about rescuing Jason; but since the conversation between the two seemed to be flowing easily he went back to tending the stew.

When the time was right and the stew piping hot, he called to Jason and told him they should start serving.  They watched as one by one the women took silverware and a napkin and a full serving of stew before returning to their places at table.  Jason helped a woman in a power-chair, carrying her tray for her.  After a time father and son brought around dessert bowls filled with generous portions of cobbler topped with whipped cream.  They removed the empty stew bowls.  Each said, “You’re welcome,” as the women thanked them for the service.  They filled coffee cups and asked if anybody needed anything more.  All the women seemed satisfied.

Back in the kitchen, the father said, “So, I think we can go now.  The dishwasher is loaded and our job is finished.”  He patted Jason on the back.  “You can have the rest of the day off.”

“Thanks a lot,” Jason said with a bit of a shrug.

“Jason, you’ve been a great help.  I’m proud of you, Son.”

Jason said that he wanted to do one more thing that should not take too long.  The father watched as his son went back to the woman who was still seated at her place at the community table.  It touched him to see Jason crouch down and speak to the woman.  It amazed him that they seemed to him to be acting like two people with a long-standing friendship.  She reached out and patted him on the cheek as Jason stood up.  He started to extend his hand and then on impulse he put his arms around her shoulders and gave her a hug.  Then he turned and walked toward his waiting father.

“We can go now,” Jason said.

They had been riding side by side for a few blocks when the father asked, “What were you two talking about back there?”

“Not much,” Jason said.  “She just told me some things about herself and her life.  She lost her husband and two young sons in a terrible car accident when someone who had been drinking ran a red light.  That was a long time ago.  She said it is still as fresh in her mind as if it had happened yesterday.  She said she gets lonely now.  Sometimes when she doesn’t know where she will sleep at night, especially if it is cold or rainy outside, she gets anxious.  She said she doesn’t have anybody that cares about her, no family and very few friends.

“She carries on imaginary conversations with people that would happen if she had anybody to talk to.  Sometimes she talks to her husband and to her sons.  She’s not really talking to herself the way some people think.

“I gave her a picture that I had drawn.  It was just an ordinary picture of a bird that I drew in pen and ink.  She loved it and said it made her feel just like she did when she was a little girl on Christmas morning.

“Did you know that one of her sons liked to draw?”

The father had to swallow hard and cough a bit so that his welling tears would have an excuse for falling.

They drove on through the Saturday traffic.  The father continued to digest what his son had shared.  As they waited for a traffic light to change from red to green Jason said, “Dad, you know what I think?”

“What?”

“You promise not to laugh at me?”

“I promise,” he said, knowing that laughing was the farthest thing from the emotion he felt.

“I think that woman was Jesus.”

The father reached over and rustled Jason’s hair.  Then he pulled him over and hugged him, kissing the top of his head.

They drove the rest of the way home in silence.

TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – August 26, 2012


The Book of Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5:21-32

The holy Gospel according to John 6:60-69

“Why does it have to take so long?  Why can’t I just be baptized now and get on with it?  Phillip baptized the Ethiopian after only a day of catechesis.  Why can’t that happen to me?”

The earnestness is sincere and so is the impatience.  The readings this Sunday give insight to the Church’s recommendation that a Catechumen, one journeying toward Baptism, should go through a full liturgical cycle before, as an Elect, making the Lenten journey to the font.  The intent is that the Catechumen will make the full journey through the Gospel readings, experience a full year of worshiping with the parish community, and thereby come to be in a position to make the commitment that begins with Baptism, to die with Christ so as to live with Christ.

It is clear in both the first reading and in the gospel that beginning the journey of faith is one thing.  Committing to fidelity for the long haul is another.  That seems rather like marriage that is praised in the second reading as the sacrament that is a sign of the union between Christ and the Church.  How many couples eagerly promise to live in faithfulness with their spouses until death do them part?  How many of those marriages end before five years are out?  And how many of the formerly married say in one way or another, “I had no idea what marriage would be like, or how much work it would be to live out a marriage commitment.  I don’t think I am capable of that.”  Christ’s love for the Church is the model.  We must never forget that Christ’s love proved itself to the shedding of the last drop of blood and water that flowed from his pierced side.  No one ever said it would be easy.  Christ certainly didn’t say that.

In this context, the Church is the bride of Christ.  In the community that is the Church, the question is not about subservience, but of loving service to each other in imitation of Christ loving service to the Church.

Joshua in the first reading, near the end of his life and having brought the Israelites to the Promised Land of Canaan, challenges the people to renew their commitment to follow the Lord and not, as some of their ancestors had done, turn away from the Lord and follow Baal.  Joshua puts the choice before them.  What will they do?  It is clear that they must make a decision.  Then Joshua testifies to his faith and that of his family.  “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  That means a determination to be faithful to the covenant, faithful to the Mosaic Lass and faithful to Yahweh.  The people remember what God did for them through all those years of their formation in the desert.  “He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey…Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for the Lord is our God.”

For the past few weeks we have been listening to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel that puts before us the discourse on the Bread of Life that Jesus claims to be.  We have heard how central to our lives the Bread must be.  Some may have been uncomfortable with the graphic and uncompromising language that Jesus used in the proclamation to the crowds and to his disciples.  “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”  That is a pretty clear “either/or” statement.  There is no room for compromise.

This Sunday’s gospel, (remember the word gospel means Good News) opens with the disciples reeling from what Jesus has said.  “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”  Notice that Jesus offers no sympathy to them in their stunned state.  Without compromise, he presses further the point he is making.  To speak of the Son of Man ascending to where he was before is to bring in the whole question of the cross and how that event will be interpreted.  Wheat is ground in the mill to be transformed into flour.  Jesus will be crushed by the way and weight of the Cross.  In other words, to be with Jesus on the Way will never be an easy walk.  Easy to begin, perhaps, it will never be easy to complete, not without grace.

Every time we hear the Gospel proclaimed we have to make a decision to believe or not to believe, to respond and so be strengthened in our conversion, or to say, “Who can believe this/”  At this crossroads point of the Gospel, to accept that Jesus is the Bread of Life or to turn away, Jesus reminds us that it all depends on grace.  Jesus knew that some to whom he preached did not believe.  And more difficult still, he knew that a disciple would betray him.  But he also knew that acceptance of his word depended on the acceptance of the gift of faith from the Father, the gift of the Spirit.  None have it within themselves to do this on their own.

Here I think it is important to reflect on your own experience, to ponder the moment you first believed.  Many can recall that moment with vivid clarity.  That aha moment is tantamount to the light that breaks on the horizon to put an end to night.  What is as amazing is the awareness that often time faith comes unbidden.  For some faith began after a long run from it.  St. Augustine’s experience is not unique in the history of the Church.  He marveled when he realized he was a believer having told his mother that he would never follow her ways.  “Late have I loved you,” he came to pray.  “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  That’s hindsight speaking and amazing awareness.  Reflect on your own experience.

It is also true that some can go through the traces and never make that commitment, never have the sense of faith living in their lives.  They can be like the crowds who followed Jesus, the ones that never made the decision to be a disciple.  Even some of those in the pews on Sunday morning can be there out of habit or to kepp peace in the family.  But do they believe?  Is Jesus the center of their being”  Having never been in crisis they have never had to confront the question.  They simply continue on.

They, we all need to hear Jesus ask, “Do you belive this?”  Taking the question to heart, we need to make the response.  And if we wonder how, remember that grace is there for us in this venture that no one can successfully negotiate on his/her own.  This Sunday’s gospel gives us an ample opportunity to decide.

Notice that many who heard Jesus, many who were designated as disciples, i.e., many who had made the decision about him, at this point returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.  The demands made by faith in Jesus were too much for them.  Alas.  Recognizing that fact, Jesus asks us today: Do you also want to leave?  Have you ever thought about that, thought about life without Christ?  I know that I have and the thought chilled me.  Part of that realization comes from the importance that the community we call Church plays in my life.  I cannot imagine life without the Church, no matter how difficult that life within the Church becomes.

There is an understanding that is important for us to take to heart.  The faith journey is not one we make alone.  Remember when we spoke of Catechumens earlier?  Part of the necessity for their making the journey through the full cycle stems from the importance of learning what it means to be part of this faith community.  They learn by experiencing that community in worship and come to stand in awe of the wonder of being able to say, “We believe.”  The faith community prays for them, blesses them, and encourages them to continue to the font and beyond.

It is in that process, too, that we come to understand the centrality of Eucharist, why it is that every Sunday we come back to the Table, to gather around the Table, to give thanks at the Table in the sacrifice that is Eucharist, and there to eat his body and drink his blood.  IT is that food that is our strength for the journey.  It is in the sharing of that meal that we come to understand the truth that we are one in Christ.  It is in eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood that we realize we have come to believe and are convinced that Jesus is the Holy One of God, and in believing, know that we have life in his name.

Sincerely,

Didymus