Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

THE TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – October 21, 2012

 

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah 53:10-11

The Letter to the Hebrews 4:14-16

The holy Gospel according to Mark 10:35-45

We must be careful how we use the opening words of today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah.  The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.  Taken literally one could hear that God is sadistic and delights in the suffering of people.  It is true that there have been periods in the church’s history that would seem to indicate that this was so.  How else explain the wearing of hair shirts or prickly wire tightly wound around the waist?  Why else would there be merit seen in extreme fasting?  Do we believe in a God who looks on people inflicting pain on themselves and delights?

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant songs are taken as prophetic texts that are fulfilled in Jesus.  We will hear the present text proclaimed on Good Friday.  And it is true that some commentators see Jesus’ passion and death on the cross in that light.  But what we ought to hear in this proclamation is God’s delight in the Innocent One who takes on himself the sufferings of others merited by their sinfulness.  He is the one faithful to God when the others stray and give themselves to Baal and take up pagan ways.  He is the prophet challenging the Israelites to return to the Lord God and be faithful again.  In so doing, the prophet is rejected and scourged.  Think of the Prophet Jeremiah who found himself hurled into the cistern where he sank into the mud.  Why?  Because he warned the king and those in power that if they did not repent Jerusalem would fall.  It is the prophet’s fidelity that pleases God.  And God promises reward.  The Suffering Servant shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, (God’s) servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.  The Suffering Servant becomes the source blessings for those many others among whom he moves and announces what God wants the people to hear.  That is the charism of the prophet, to give voice to the divine message that calls people to reform their lives.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of those prophets.  Remember the marches he led in Alabama and his preaching from the Lincoln Memorial?  God was not delighted when King was shot, but by the changes in attitude that followed from his death, changes the he saw from the mountain top the night before he died.

Oscar Romero was another of those prophets, one who stood in the midst of the poor ones and challenged to powerful to restore dignity to them.  The changes in El Salvador continue to emerge even as in death the voice of the archbishop continues to be heard in the land through recordings of his preaching.  Romero was shot during a celebration of Eucharist.  The power of the sign resonates to this day.  And the faithful believe that God lifted him up fulfilling the promise of Eucharist.

The second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews invites us to consider Jesus, the Son of God, the great high priest who has passed through the heavens.  Priests were part of the tradition of the Hebrews, just as they are part of our own.  The priest stands as a mediator between God and the people.  In need of mediation and forgiveness themselves because they are sinners, their ministry is flawed.  The challenge for the priest is to minister in such a way that it is clear he acknowledges his sinfulness, a sinner among sinners invoking God’s mercy on himself and on the people with whom he gathers at the table in a shared ministry.

The model for priestly ministry is our great high priest, the one who does not make us cower in dread but one who sympathizes with our weaknesses, because he has been tested in every way we have.  Tempted might be a better translation than tested.  Temptation speaks more clearly of inner struggle.  It is important for us to hear in the three synoptic Gospels that Jesus’ public ministry begins with the struggle in the desert.  The implication is clear.  Jesus knew temptations to vary from the Father’s will all through his time of preaching, healing, and forgiving.  The difference also is clear.  Where as we know what it means to succumb to temptation, our great high priest did not sin.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wants us to know that Christ is sympathetic to our needs and us and is always a source of strengthening grace and forgiveness.  Through Christ comes mercy.

It is an embarrassing moment for James and John, the sons of Zebedee, that opens the Gospel reading for today.  It becomes clear that the brothers do not understand the kind of Messiah Jesus is.  They have witnessed the miracles, the feeding of the five thousand among those miracles, as well as the healing of the blind, the deaf, the mute, the lepers and the crippled.  Pondering these happenings and seeing the crowds gathering around Jesus, they have concluded that Jesus is a mighty Messiah about to establish an earthly kingdom and they want to be in prominent and powerful positions when the kingdom comes.  Remember, they had left everything to follow Jesus.  This was their time to claim the reward they thought should be coming to them.  Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and one at your left.

Jesus does not reprimand them for their boldness and misunderstanding – dare we say pride?  Rather, this becomes a teaching moment.  You do not know what you are asking.  Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?  What did the brothers know about either?  All they knew was that they could see themselves playing prominent roles in everything they had seen Jesus do so far.  Without a moments hesitation they said: We can.  They do not realize that when Jesus affirms their response he is telling them that his cross will be a part of their lives.  Their being apostles will mean they will be martyrs for the cause.  But as for the reward coming?  The Father will determine that.

The other ten are angry with James and John for what they have asked of Jesus.  Part of their anger may well have stemmed from their desire for exactly what James and John had wanted, prominent positions in the coming kingdom.  So it is time for the 12 to learn what the kingdom will be like.  They know how Gentiles exert power by making others subservient.  That is not what it will be like in Jesus’ realm.  There, those who want in today’s parlance to be top dogs, will be the servants of everyone else, the exact opposite of what the apostles desired.  By the way, that is why the pope is called the servant of the servants of God.  In Jesus’ words, the pope should see himself as the slave of all, because that is how Jesus sees himself.  The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  See how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Suffering Servant in the first reading?  And we who are the disciples of this age must hear the lesson and take it to heart.  If we embrace discipleship we rejoice in being feet-washers and will not be surprised if the cross becomes increasingly evident in our lives.  We might have to give our lives in union with Jesus as part of the ransom for the many.

When we come together for Eucharist it is community that ought to be immediately apparent.  These people gather in Christ to imitate Christ in loving service, to be one in Christ and one with each other.  We gather for the proclamation of the Word, the prophetic voice forming us, calling us to ongoing conversion and the experience of the forgiveness that is ours in Christ.  The Priesthood of the Baptized gathers with the Ordained Priesthood to co-celebrate and give thanks to God in the renewal of Christ’s dying and rising.  Various ministries, greeters, ushers, lectors, altar servers, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, remind us that each of us is called to be the servant or slave of all.  We lord it over no one.  We are not passive spectators, but full, active, and conscious participants in the Liturgy.  Together we are church.

I remember sitting with a friend and listening to him as he poured out his soul in anguish over the news that he had just received that he had Alzheimer’s disease.  He had known success and had acquired considerable wealth.  He had also been a faithful parishioner and had given himself to service of others in the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  I’ll never forget his words even as tears welled in his eyes.  This (Alzheimer’s disease) was the last thing that I thought I would have to face.  Cancer would have been preferable.  I wonder how long I will be aware that my faculties are slipping away.  How long will I recognize my wife and daughters?  When will I stop recognizing you?  But I want you to know this now.  If this is the way I am supposed to pour myself out in imitation of Christ, I accept it.  I just hope that when I am completely dependent on others, they will be patient with me.  I pray I’ll be able to remember that heaven is coming.

Sincerely,

Didymus

NOT DIFFERENT, JUST FORGIVEN

You might have heard of David Berkowitz.  If not by that name, then surely you have heard of Son of Sam.  Berkowitz is a serial killer who terrorized a New York City neighborhood for a year, July of 1976 to August of 1977, and during that time, with a 44-caliber gun, killed 6 people and wounded 7 others.  When he was finally arrested, he claimed a demon directed him to do the killing.  He was sentenced to several consecutive sentences of 25-years to life.

I was intrigued recently when, following the mass killings in Colorado and Wisconsin, I read an article quoting Berkowitz as saying, “Society has to take the glory out of guns.”  My initial reaction was, “Who is he to talk about this, being one who wielded a handgun in the night and wrought such havoc and pain?”  Then I read on and my cynicism came to embarrass and bite me.  As Christians, we are supposed to believe in the graces of conversion and forgiveness.  Those are messages at the heart of the Gospel.  Those of us who acknowledge ourselves to be sinners know the meaning of both experiences.  Strange how many of our faith community then go on to be highly suspicious when others talk about their own being “born again.”  That phrase, born again, describes one’s reality when he comes to know that Christ has come into his life and has washed his sins away.  The Church teaches that is what happens in Baptism where we die to sin and are reborn in Christ.

Could that happen to someone like Berkowitz, I wondered?  Apparently it can; at least that is the conclusion I drew from what I went on to read.  David Berkowitz “found Christ” two years into his prison term.  It seems his life after his conversion is nothing like it was before.  He lives now to minister to others.  He teaches the developmentally disabled.  He assists those who are physically impaired and cannot care for themselves.  He writes letters in which he shares his faith with others who are searching for meaning in their lives.  He speaks at religious services and has written a book about his life and how he lives it now.

The cynics will say he is putting on a front, a masquerade to get benefits for himself.  You might think that until you learn that nothing comes to him from the sale of his book or anything else associated with his name.  All those funds go to benefit those victims of his crimes.  Is he doing all this so that he can influence the thinking of those who determine whether or not he should be paroled?  He has said he is not interested in being paroled and would refuse it.  He thinks he deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison.  “I continue to pray for the victims of my crimes.  I do wish them the best in life.  But I’m sure the pain will never end for them.  I regret that.”

Apparently Berkowitz has had a positive influence on many, many people – other prisoners and people outside the walls.

The two recent mass killings in the theater in Colorado and the temple in Wisconsin moved him to opine, “Society had to take the glory out of guns.”   “My hope is just that young people would understand just how terrible this violence is.  When they use a gun against someone else, they ruin their lives.  It’s not worth it.”

Forgive me an aside here.  I’m horrified by the violence that imbues so many films directed toward a young audience, and so many of their games.  I’ve only seen the previews and have never played the games.  But it seems to me that with all that slaughtering going on, the viewer or the player just might become desensitized to the horror and to the value of human life.  On the opposite side of that coin, the public was shielded from seeing the flag-draped caskets of those killed in the war in Iraq.

“Society has to take the glory out of guns.”

So, what do we make of David Berkowitz’s conversion?  What do we think about his being forgiven?  Surely those directly affected by his crimes are in a position far different from ours for whom Berkowitz is a name on a page of recent history.  As he said, “I’m sure the pain will never end for them.”  The father of a young woman killed in the Columbine slaughter has become a friend of Berkowitz and somehow found a healing through their exchange of letters and face-to-face visits.

We must not forget that we are a community of sinners as well as of saints.  There is a prayer we ought to pray every day that speaks to our accepting the power of the grace of forgiveness and the condition placed on our being forgiven.  Did you ever hear those words and struggle with their implication?  In the Lord’s Prayer we pray: “Forgive us our trespasses (sins, debts) as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  It was a child in a grade–school religion class who asked me if I really placed that condition on God’s forgiving me?  I thanked him for the question and told him I would have to think about my response for a while.  I’ve concluded that I am able to forgive slights that are understandable, especially when the offender asks for forgiveness.  I struggle with betrayals, especially when the betrayer does not ask for pardon.  It takes a conscious effort on my part to forgive even then.  But I have to if I want God to forgive me my offenses.  That’s what the prayer pleads.  If I were to refuse to forgive, I doubt I would be able to come to the table or there to share the Bread and the Cup.

The Church directs that the assembly stands during the Communion Procession until the last person has received.  The posture is to declare our support for each other on that journey.  We receive Holy Communion.  Translated, that means our “Common Union” with Christ and each other consummated when we eat the Bread and share the Cup.  “We are one body in this one Lord.”

In this troubled times, would that the message could go out loudly and clearly that all are welcome here in the Church.  Christians aren’t different from other people, the sign once read, their just forgiven.  That’s the difference.  Our vocation as recipients of that forgiveness is to imitate Christ who invited all who are thirsty to come and drink, all who are hungry to come and eat.  “Come to me all of you who are weary, and I will refresh you.”  All.  Everyone.  Even those who have done terrible things.  The Lord is showing us that God’s love is universal and unconditional.

Do we believe that?  As a faith community, is that the message that goes out from us?

Let’s pray that it might be so.  That won’t deny the horror; it will just restore hope.

Sincerely,

Didymus

TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – October 14, 2012

 

The Book of Wisdom 7:7-11

The Letter to the Hebrews 4:12-13

The holy Gospel according to Mark 10:17-30

Warning: At your own peril enter into this week’s readings and ponder the concepts they open before you.  Take them to heart and you will never see things the same way nor make decisions as you did before.  And most demanding of all, what you used to take as signs of blessing and God’s favor may not appear that way ever again.

The I of the Book of Wisdom is taken to be Solomon even though the Book of Wisdom was written centuries after his death.  Solomon has always been seen as the epitome of what it means to be wise.  In this Sunday’s reading, Solomon tells us that he prayed and prudence and wisdom were given to him.  In other words, neither is a natural talent; both are gifts from God.  When Solomon receives the gifts, he sees things the way that God does.  Nothing is as Solomon saw it before prudence and wisdom became reality’s filters for him.

Go down the list of items in the reading and you will find just about everything that society values today.  Wealth and its trappings.  Youth and beauty.  Power.  Even health.  None of them seen through Wisdom’s inspiration is as important as Wisdom herself.  The reading ends with these words: Yet all good things together came to me in (Wisdom’s) company, and countless riches at her hands.  Follow that line of thinking and you can see how it was that the rich were thought to be those blessed by God and would, therefore, be first in the kingdom of heaven.  We’ll see what Jesus has to say about this.  You will appreciate the shock registered by those who heard what he said.  Maybe you’ll be shocked, too, even angered.  That’s all right.  That’s where prayer will come in, prayer to see things the way Jesus does – if you dare.

We sometimes fail to remember that the Word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword.  And remembering that, we will not be surprised, at least in retrospect, that from time to time, while sitting under the Word, that is, the Scriptures, we were unsettled as we wondered, How can this be?  What we might have forgotten is that conversion is a life-long process beginning when we first come to believe and concluding only when our lives have run their course.  Every step along the way, if we allow it, begins with grace and is supported by grace as we are called into deeper union with Christ.  Put another way, it is God’s love that draws us.

So, we come to the gospel reading for this week.  A man, probably a stand-in for you or me, runs up to Jesus and pays him homage.  Can’t you identify with his question, at least when you are praying?  Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?  What do I have to do to get to heaven?  In a nutshell, Jesus tells the man to keep the commandments.  Do what God requires.  Notice the man’s answer: Teacher, all of (the commandments) I have observed from my youth.  That is a jaw-dropping avowal.  All of the commandments.  From my youth.  Not many people can make that claim.  It is clear that his is not idle boasting.  How do we know?  We know because of Jesus’ reaction.  Jesus looked at the man with love.  Jesus knows the heart and knows that the man has from his youth been single-minded in his desire to do God’s will.

The man asked Jesus how to get to heaven.  Jesus answered.  But now comes the offer of vocation, the invitation to move to a deeper realm and follow the new way.  You are lacking in one thing.  Go sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.  Jesus challenges the man to have Solomon’s experience and dares him to see things differently.  Can the man stop seeing his wealth as the confirmation of God’s love for him?  Can he wrest himself from these things in which he finds his security and that may well blind him to the needs of others, or at least, cause him to see the poor in ill light?  Remember, in Jesus’ time and perhaps in our own also, poverty was seen to be a punishment for sin, either this man’s or his parents.  It is that perception that Jesus wants to change.  It is clear that the poor have a prominent place in his concerns and they must occupy that place in the concerns of those who follow Jesus.  Could the rich man become a minister to the poor?

Clearly the man had come to Jesus awed by what he had seen Jesus do and heard him say.  Or, perhaps the witness of others drew him.  Something made him conclude that Jesus had the words of everlasting life.  The crowds and the disciples following Jesus attested to that.  But hearing Jesus say that the man had to go and sell what he had and give to the poor and then come and follow Jesus, the man’s face fell and he went away sad.  Don’t take from this that the man would no longer inherit eternal life.  Jesus had assured him of that already.  That doesn’t change.  What now is lost is the opportunity to rid himself of everything that is in the way of making Jesus the center of his life, of experiencing the emptiness that only Jesus and the love of God that Jesus brings can fill.  What Jesus had wanted the man to become was Jesus’ other self.  He wanted him to do what Jesus does and to speak as he speaks, to enter the reign of God and so help others, especially the poor, the sick, and the disenfranchised, to know God’s love.

Now we come to another of Jesus’ declarations that turns perceived reality upside down.  Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. We can discuss what the term needle means.  Was Jesus speaking literally of a needle for sewing?  Or, as is often thought, was Jesus speaking of the narrow-gated entry into Jerusalem that was so low and so narrow that a camel could only go through it were its entire load removed before hand.  In the end, it doesn’t matter.  What we need to hear is that it is no simple endeavor to enter God’s kingdom.  It is not a matter of doing what comes naturally, as an old song had it.  If that were the came, from where would come the need for grace?  Where would be the difficulty?

As nakedly as Jesus has put the demands for entry into God’s kingdom elicits consternation from the disciples.  Then who can be saved?  In other words, they are asking who can meet Jesus’ demands.  The answer is simple and straightforward.  No one can do this on his or her own.  But all can with God’s grace empowering them.

This brings us back to a sidebar, if you will, and the question of vocation.  The word vocation, as you know, means calling.  To consider vocation is to ask what it is that God is calling you to do or to be.  Most obviously, your state in life is your vocation.  If you are married, your marriage is your vocation and you serve the community in that vocation.  If you have chosen to be single, as a single person you serve the community in fidelity to that vocation.  If you are a priest, a deacon, or a vowed religious, through that vocation you serve the body that is the church.  What we might miss is that in each of the vocations, in order to follow Jesus, it is self that must be emptied if one is to serve in imitation of Christ.  And, of course, in each of those vocations, recognizing the totality that is Jesus’ call, each one can be overwhelmed by the demands and do what the rich man did.  Go away sad because it seems too much is being asked.  Who can do this?

It is presumptuous of me, I know, but I would challenge you at this point to take a moment to stop and pray, perhaps for the prudence and wisdom that Solomon prayed for.  That will result in your being able to view your situation, your gifts and blessings, as God does.  In that moment of prayer, ask Jesus what he would have you do.  What is Jesus calling you to do and to be in the community we call church?  The first thing you will notice is that if there is a vocation, it will be attractive.  You will be able to imagine yourself doing it.  Is Jesus inviting you to be a lector?  An extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion?  A greeter or an usher?  Is Jesus inviting you to be a minister to the homebound?  Is there the possibility that you are being asked to go on mission to a developing country?  Could you minister to someone dying with HIV/AIDS, or to those in advanced years?  Could you minister to someone in dementia?  That’s not an exhaustive list.  Those are just some suggestions that might prompt you to wonder and wondering, to dare to say yes if God will support that decision with grace.  Remember there are primary vocations and avocations.  Marriage is a primary vocation.  Being an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion is an avocation or secondary vocation.  The balance between the two needs to be kept.

One more question to ask while you are praying about vocation.  What will you have to give up in order to respond to the Lord’s invitation?  It is not without significance that we approach the Table to receive Eucharist empty handed.  What gets in the way of your taking up ministry?  It is interesting to wonder how the story would have worked out, who the man would have become, had he gone and done as the Lord invited and then followed Jesus.  And you can only wonder the same thing.  When you serve, what will be the impact on your faith community, the broader community, the world?  How will others experience Christ through you?

A final note that you ought not miss.  When it comes to the question of reward for having given up everything to follow Jesus, don’t miss that Jesus promises the restoration of everything given up and persecutions besides.  There may well be a share in the cross that you can’t anticipate.  You may be rejected or even denounced by those who do not accept your ministry or misunderstand it and find it threatening.  When you think about it, that shouldn’t be a surprise.  You are imitating Jesus.  It is possible you will wind up the way he did.  But then comes resurrection and God’s eternal embrace.

Sincerely,

Didymus