Archive for July, 2013|Monthly archive page

BY HIS STRIPES YOU ARE HEALED

As far as I know and remember from my earliest days in Catechism classes, there has been only one person, besides the Lord Jesus, who was born sinless.  The rest of us inherited Adam’s sin and most of us in the course of our lives came to know what it means to be a sinner.  Forgive me if that sounds negative and pessimistic, much less judgmental.  It is not meant to, because a cause for our rejoicing is another basic tenet of our faith.  The blood of Christ redeems us.  In him, we are forgiven.

Are you comfortable with this teaching?  Do you accept it; or are you in denial.  In acceptance there is joy.  Denial is the stuff of despair.  Acceptance does not equate with complacency.  Rather, it opens the door to repentance, to contrition, and Christ’s healing touch.  There was a bumper sticker a generation or so ago that was popular and proclaimed that Good News.  Christians are different; they’re just forgiven.  Dare I say Amen to that?  And if I do and therefore rejoice in having been forgiven, then it is an incumbent responsibility to be forgiving regardless of the sinner or the sin.

When we pray with, or hear the proclamation of a Gospel pericope, it is important to be present to it and be part of it.  That occurred to me the other day as I read the scripture passage about the woman who made her way among the banqueters and knelt at Jesus’ feet, weeping, washing his feet with her tears, and drying them with her hair.  Many of the other guests were indignant, even outraged that Jesus would allow such a woman, a notorious sinner, to touch him.  They expected him to be as judgmental and condemning as they were, to shun her as they thought the Law dictated lest he incur ritual impurity through the contamination of her touch.  Where would I be in that mix?

The host, a Pharisee, and therefore an expert in the Law, had treated Jesus shabbily upon his arrival, omitting all the traditional offerings of hospitality.  There was no offer of water for the washing of feet, no oil to remove the dust from his hair, and no kiss of welcome.  In other words, The Pharisee was more interested in having his other guests recognize that the one so many were talking about was a guest at the Pharisee’s table than he was in being hospitable.  From Luke’s telling, it seems obvious that the host is much more adept at judging and condemning others than he is at wondering if there is anything of the sinner in him.  He may well be among those who thank God that they are not sinners like the rest of men.  Jesus asks a simple question of his host.  He tells about two people in debt, both significant debts, but one far greater than the other.  Which one would be more grateful if the debts were forgiven?  Obviously, the one with the greater debt would be more grateful.  And so is the woman grateful because she knows now what it means to be forgiven.  The woman’s dignity is restored as Jesus encourages her not to sin any more.

Think of the elation the woman experienced as she looked around at the stunned men at the table and could go out of their company redeemed and restored.  Jesus is the sign that tells us that God is about forgiving, healing, and restoring – loving, in fact, much more than God is about condemning.  Jesus is God’s love incarnate.  The Pharisee and the other guests may have been disgusted by the encounter and therefore closed off from the grace of that moment, but that should not be our response.  It won’t be if we can identify with the woman and know what it means to be a sinner and what it means to be forgiven.

There is a reason why our Sunday gatherings are called Eucharistic.  The word Eucharist means thanksgiving.  We gather as sinners, forgiven and restored, to give thanks to God through the renewing of the dying and rising of Jesus in Bread and Wine.  The Eucharist is a communal action co-celebrated by people who know what it means to be sinners and know what it means to be forgiven.  The thanksgiving is for the difference the Risen One makes in our lives.  The great debt has been forgiven and we are once again made whole.

That may not be the message that the populace here’s emanating from the Church and the hierarchy today.  Unfortunately, the judging is more apparent and the condemning, that is, the denying of access to the table to those deemed to be sinners.  Classes and categories are condemned.  Are all welcome here?  Judging by those departing for other communities, it would seem not.

Jesus said that all people would know his disciples by the love that governs their lives and reigns in their communities.  Jesus’ disciples do not lord it over each other.  There should be no subservient.  All disciples journey with Christ on the Way, encouraging each other every step of the way.  If there are stumbles the others are there to help up, dust off, and empower to continue on.  The fact is that even some of the forgiven from time to time may sin again.  Jesus proclaims that God loves universally and unconditionally.  God never tires of forgiving.  God is there to raise up even in the darkest of situations.  The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus did not defeat him.  What seemed like ultimate defeat became absolute victory.  The Father caught him up in loving embrace and welcomed him home.

Vengeance should have no place in the Christian community, the church as we call it.  Certainly atonement is part of repentance, but out of atonement comes the possibility of a renewed life.  So much about the penal system in our country is about vengeance and not about rehabilitation.  We are the only country in the Western World that still practices capital punishment.  Putting someone to death would seem to state that there is no hope for betterment of the condemned one.

Is it too much to hope for that the prison system could be more about rehabilitating criminals than about merely being places of punishment?  The crimes may be despicable, but there is always hope that the criminal can change his life and become healthy again.  All things are possible with God.  That is a revolutionary message worthy of being proclaimed in this day and age.  It might not be popular among some hearers, but it does qualify as Gospel.

Jesus commands his disciples to love in all they say and do.  If we acknowledge our own sinfulness and rejoice in the forgiveness that is ours, we might find the key to unlocking that force within us.  The fact is that there is no sin someone else has committed that given similar circumstances and conditions, we would be incapable of committing.  St. Augustine said it well: There but for the grace of God go I.  Individually and collectively, reaching out in love to the unlovable may make all the difference in the world.  At least we could die trying the way Jesus did.

Sincerely,

Didymus

Advertisements

THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – July 28, 2013

 

The Book of Genesis 18:20-32

St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 2:12-14

The holy Gospel according to Luke 11:1-13

 

He asked me if I prayed.  What an odd question, I thought; I’m a seminarian, aren’t I, preparing to be a priest?  My response was, “Of course I pray.”  But my confessor persisted and asked, “How?”

I have never forgotten that evening of Spiritual Direction.  The how question stunned me.  I stammered and finally came up with the rosary and some other prayers that I had memorized, prayers I used frequently then.  It became clear that my answer was not satisfactory.

“That would make your prayer experience something akin to sitting down with a friend and having the only conversation be a reading from someone else’s text.

“Would you do that?”

I realized then that I didn’t know the first thing about prayer as he thought of it.  I had always been content to pray using someone else’s words.  That was true even of the “Hail Mary,” or “The Lord’s Prayer.” 

“Try something new.  Try speaking from your heart!”

It is many years later as I write to you now.  And over those years I have struggled with the art of praying, if you will, and have come to the conclusion that praying is much more about being silent than it is about saying words.  Isn’t it true that when you are in the presence of someone you love, someone who has been a part of your life for some time, a test of the solidity of the relationship is whether or not the two of you are comfortable in the silence?  Does one of you have to be talking all the time?  Or, can you both just be in each other’s presence knowing that you are with someone you love and someone who loves you in return?

Do you pray?  If the answer is, “Yes,” then my next question is the same one that was asked of me: ”How do you pray?”  The answer is for you only.  So think about that for a few moments before you continue reading this.  Then, think about that as you listen to this Sunday’s First Reading and the Gospel.

Could you imagine yourself in a conversation with God similar to the one Abraham has with God in the First Reading?  Don’t miss the gravity contained in the first sentence.  Something terrible has been going on in Sodom.  The sin cries to God in outrage.  Sodom’s sin is serious.  We would use the term mortal sin to classify what was going on there.  God is moved by the cries and comes down from heaven to review the situation.  Don’t lose sight of that as you read or hear what follows.

Obviously Abraham is comfortable talking with God when he asks if it is God’s intention to annihilate Sodom and all its inhabitants, guilty and innocent alike.  He dares to wonder if God did that, wouldn’t people change their opinion about God and see God as vengeful and forbidding?

Abraham puts it before God that surely God would spare the city for the sake of fifty innocent people.  God agrees that the city would be spared for the sake of the fifty, if there were fifty innocent ones.  Abraham lowers the number, time after time, and each time God agrees that the city would be spared for that number, too.  Finally, Abraham asks if God would spare the city if there were only ten innocent people there.  And once again, God says that the city would be spared even for the sake of the ten.

Abraham has persisted in prayer.  That’s what the conversation with God was, after all, intercessory prayer.  God responded favorably to Abraham’s pleas for Sodom. 

Jesus is a man of prayer.  Especially in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus goes off by himself to spend long periods of time in prayer.  On occasion he spends the whole night in prayer.  You will notice that prayer precedes major turning points in Jesus’ public ministry.  Remember, he spent forty days and forty nights in the desert, fasting and praying in preparation for the work the Father had sent him to do.  There must have been something fascinating about the sight of Jesus caught up in the prayer moment because, after watching him, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray.

Jesus responds by teaching them the themes that should be parts of their prayer, what they should have in mind whenever they pray.  What we hear in Luke’s Gospel emerges as a modified Lord’s Prayer.  In reality, Jesus is telling the disciples what should be part of every prayer they pray.  It is clear that Jesus wants the disciples to remember to whom it is that they are praying.  “When you pray, say: Father.”  Jesus wants the disciples to remember that they have that relationship with God.  Father speaks volumes about God’s attitude toward the one who prays.

I’ll share another moment of Amazing Grace.  A stranger and I happened to be standing near the Baptismal Font.  For a moment, as the evening light came through the stained glass windows above us, we were transfixed by the sound of the water cascading into the pool.  Neither of us wanted to break the spell.  After a few minutes had passed, he said to me, “Beautiful, isn’t it?  Imagine the centuries the font has been a symbol of hope and new beginning for our church; it is both a tomb and a womb. 

“Do you know what I believe?  When the newly baptized emerge from the font where they have died to sin and have entered a new life in Christ, God loves them with the same love God has for Christ.  In fact, I wonder if God can see them in any other light but in their likeness to Christ.”

Every time I am near a font, each time I pause to bless myself with the water, I remember what that man said.  Being one of the baptized, I want to remember what he said.  And that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “When you pray, say, Father.”  We should go before God with the confidence that a child has in his father. 

Our conversation at the Font that long-ago evening concluded with these words.  “Can you really believe that God loves you that much?  And if you can, why are you afraid?”  When I am afraid, I still wonder why.

Jesus came as the full revelation of God and so bring God’s love and mercy to all.  His desire is that all people hear him and believe, and, in hearing and believing, accept their relationship with God.  We ought to stand in awe before god.  God is a god of majesty, wonder, and power, the creator of the universe, God who created human kind in God’s image and likeness.  Jesus wants all who hear him to accept the reign of God in their lives.  That’s what we mean when we pray, “Your kingdom come.”  May all people come to know God, God’s love and desire to forgive, and live as God’s people.  That is God’s Kingdom, God’s reign begun here on Earth.

“Give us each day our daily bread.”  That means that each day we are supposed to pray for what we need to survive.  There is nothing here about excess.  There is nothing here about praying to win the Lotto, or a football game, for that matter.  God is the one from whom all blessings flow.  When we sit to table and prepare to break bread, as we gaze at the bounty before us, we should see evidence of God’s bountiful love for us.  It’s not a bad idea to pray before the meal begins and to give thanks, not only for the meal, but also for the grace that brought you together with those with whom you are eating, making them family and friends. 

All is blessing.  Our prayer ought to include all those who live in poverty and lack even the essentials.  Pray that our awareness of God’s bountiful love will inspire those with plenty to share with those with those without.  (This has been Pope Francis’s constant theme.)  There is no reason why anyone should die of famine.  The sad thing is, it is the lust for profit that gets in the way.

“Forgive us our sins for we forgive everyone in debt to us.”  It amazes me that people do not struggle with this theme of prayer.  There are times when I hope that God will be more generous in forgiving me than I am in coming to forgiveness.  I think of people who have exhibited extraordinary grace in forgiving.  Parents forgive those who have killed their children.  People forgive those who defrauded them of their savings.  Survivors forgive those who held them in captivity in prison camps and killed their families and friends in the gas chambers.  I ask myself, “Could I do that?”  Then how can it be a struggle for me to forgive those who have offended or betrayed me?  Then I struggle to find the way to forgive and pray that the Lord sees my struggle and grants me the grace to do it – someday.  I also believe that some things God expects of us can only happen with the help of grace.  That’s why Jesus bathed us in the Spirit.

“And do not subject us to the final test.”  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus, during the final moments of his agony on the cross becomes our supreme example of the application of this theme of prayer.  Hanging on that gibbet, his life’s blood draining from him, and threatened by the darkness enveloping him, Jesus cries out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Jesus leaps into the chasm that is that darkness confident that the Father will rescue him and raise him up.  He triumphs in the final test.  Each one of us will have a final moment.  We will be suspended between time and eternity.  If only our final breath can be like Jesus’ and, confidant that we are God’s beloveds, in our dying moment, may we take that final leap of faith.

The little parable that Jesus tells following his outline of prayer doesn’t need much comment.  It is pretty obvious that Jesus wants us to understand that if a friend can beseech a friend for a favor at an inconvenient hour and, persevering, have that favor granted for friendship’s sake, how much more will God, who loves us as God loves Christ, out-do even our best friends in generosity if we persevere in prayer. 

But wait a minute.  Again, it is clear that this generosity is not about things.  “How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask God?”  This is about praying for the gift of faith; the grace to believe what our prayer should be about.  Jesus is telling us that whether we are experiencing times of powerful temptation to go against God’s will for us, or whether we are in that final moment we spoke of above, God’s love will embrace us, strengthen us, and, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit’s influence. We will be strengthened to be faithful.  We will trust in God’s mercy to the very end – if we pray for it.

A final note: We could come to the wrong conclusion on the basis of the final paragraph of this pericope.  Jesus says that everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks, finds.  The same is true for those who knock.  This is true when we are praying for those things that should be constant themes of our prayer.  Our challenge is to trust that God, who knows our needs better than we do, will provide what is necessary for our salvation.  And God knows that even before we ask for it.

Maybe that is why silence becomes such an important part of prayer.

Sincerely,

Didymus   

MY SOUL IS THIRSTING

The memorial card fell out of my Morning Prayer book yesterday.  I can’t remember the last time I had seen it.  In fact I had forgotten it was even there inside the back cover.  It landed face up and I noticed his smile.

Strange how the mind can move back through time and resurface long-ago moments even as you feel again the emotions and pains you felt then.  As I picked up the card, I saw him sitting in the chair on the other side of my desk.  I saw the tears in his eyes and heard the catch in his voice as he told me that would probably be the last time we would meet.

He had been stopping by to chat from time to time since he was a 4th grader.  Sometimes he talked about what was happening in school.  Sometimes it was about music or poetry or something or someone he cared about.  Mostly I listened.  As he spoke he would look at me for any sign of non-acceptance or negative judgment.  And we talked about faith and how God loved him as he was.

That’s what we talked about the last time, about love and his growing conviction that in spite of what many were saying, God was the only one who did love him.  He thought the rest of the relationships in his life had to end or had already ended.  If he couldn’t love the one he wanted to love he didn’t see what purpose life could hold for him.  He planned to spend time alone with God.  The tears came when he said that this would be “goodbye” at least for a while.  He assured me that I would hear from him again somehow, someday.

That day my assurances didn’t matter.  Neither did my affirmations of his gifts and talents.  He said he had to make this journey his way.  He turned and waved at me as he reached the bottom stair and started up the sidewalk and away.

Could it be nearly 20 years ago?  The date on the back of the card would indicate that.  Times and mores were different then.  What had broken him and sent him on his quest was the lack of acceptance of him as a gay person.  He was angered to hear the judgment that he was essentially degenerate or disordered or whatever other “dis” was applied to his orientation.  The scorn he felt from society in general he felt from many in the Church.  The message he heard was that the only way he could be a good Catholic and receive Holy Communion and have any hope of getting to heaven was to live alone and celibate.  Otherwise, hell waited for him.  Thinking back, I marvel that he was able to cling to the conviction that God accepted and loved him.

I’m reminded of the young and horribly disfigured burn victim I sat with in his hospital room.  A little girl wandered into the room and when her eyes adjusted to the dim light she saw his face.  She screamed and ran from the room.  He looked at me and asked, “Does God think I am ugly, too?”

As a Church, as a society we can be judgmental and condemning.  Some are acceptable; some are not.  We are far from a classless society.  The elite are on the top rung of worthiness and success.  The poor are at the bottom.  Then there are the questions of racism and sexism and fundamental rights demanded by the dignity of the human person.  There is little evidence that we believe we are one family of individuals made in the image and likeness of God, loved by God, unconditionally and forever.

Pick whatever category you like from the above classifications.  Pick the one you are most tempted to hold in distain.  Then dare to imagine yourself as one of them.  Hear the judgments and condemnations, the racial or sexual or homophobic slurs – if you dare.  If you do, you just might begin to see things differently.

We have to see things differently if we are to be true disciples.  Jesus set the bar very high and commanded that we reach it.  He didn’t suggest this or that way.  He commanded doing it if we would be his disciples.  He commanded our living love.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  By this will all people know you are my disciples, if you love one another.  Love one another as I have loved you.  If we see ourselves as servants rather than dominators of any class or any one, we might come closer to the mark.  And if the message that goes out from us is, God loves you and so do we, a change that allows reconciliation just might begin.  What a wonderful day it will be when the church is criticized the way Jesus was, when tsk tsks are voiced against us for welcoming sinners and celebrating Eucharist with them.  I nearly forgot.  We’re all sinners aren’t we?  Sinners loved by God and forgiven through the Blood of the Cross.

My young friend walked out that day smiling through his tears.  He went into the wild of the Cascade Mountains alone.  Some weeks later foresters found him in a makeshift tent.  A notebook lay beside him.  He had written quotes from several sources.  One I read stands out: “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord.”

Another: “Judge not least you be judged.”

Another: “Be kind to one another.”

And: “Until we meet again, know that I love you.”

Sincerely,

Didymus