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THE SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C- July 21, 2013

The Book of Genesis 18:1-10

Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 1:24-28

The holy Gospel according to Luke 10:38-42

A dear friend wrote the icon that hangs near the front door of my home.  Each time I open the door to welcome a guest I have a moment to contemplate the transcription of Rublev’s The Holy Trinity.  Inspired by this Sunday’s first reading, the icon shows the three heavenly visitors seated around the table Abraham had prepared for them.  The magic and mystery of icons, as you know, derive from their ability to draw the viewer into the colorful imagery and read there what written texts, here Scripture, proclaim in words.

Many people meditate before icons and experience through their wonder a communion with God.  You might think that after all these years and the many, many times I have gazed at the icon, I would have grown used to it and exhausted and digested whatever meaning it could possibly contain.  The strange fact is, for me each viewing holds the wonder that fascinated me the first time I saw it.  Of course I pray that I am continuing to absorb and put into practice what the icon inspires.

Don’t miss the opening words of the first reading.  The Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre.  It isn’t clear whether upon reflection Abraham realized who his visitors were, or if something about them revealed the Divine Presence when he first saw them.  The reading can also be confusing because as the text goes on, sometimes it speaks of the Three Visitors and sometimes it speaks of one.  That oughtn’t trouble us from our faith tradition.  We believe in the Triune God, after all.

Hospitality was a prime virtue for Abraham and his fellows.  That may have risen out of an appreciation of the difficulties and dangers involved in travel in those days.  It may have risen out of a faith conviction.  In any case, as soon as Abraham catches sight of the three he rushes to them, runs to them as the text says.  Abraham is not a young man by this time in his story.  Neither is his wife, Sarah.  Abraham addresses them as a servant would and invites them to pause in their journey and rest; let him minister to them with water to wash their feet and a sumptuous meal to nourish them.  The Three accept his offer.

Notice how lavish is Abraham’s hospitality.  He asks Sarah to knead three measures of flour into dough and make rolls for them.  Three measures is a lot of flour – the equivalent of that from a bushel of wheat.  There would be quite a few bread-rolls resulting were three measures of flour kneaded into dough.  Then Abraham has a young, choice steer slaughtered and roasted for the meal.  The curds and milk he puts on the table might have been what we call yogurt today.  Yogurt began in the desert country and was prepared in goatskins.  It is safe to say that it was a splendid table that Abraham put before his guests, an expression of appreciation for the abundance of God’s love and bounty.  There is no way that three men, no matter how hungry they were, could have consumed a dinner of those proportions.

Now, to get the impact of what follows, it is important to remember that Abraham and Sarah are in their advanced years.  God had made a promise to, a covenant with Abraham many decades ago, that his descendants would number as the stars in the heavens or the sands on the shore.  Yet he and Sarah at this point had no children.  Abraham remained faithful, clinging to the promise, even though his wife was past her childbearing years.  Sarah had despaired of being a mother and so had convinced Abraham to have a child with her servant, Hagar.  Ishmael was born of that union.

But the promise had been made to Abraham and his wife, Sarah.

Abraham waited on table and tended to his guests’ needs.  He hadn’t presumed to recline at table with them.  At the conclusion of their dinner, the Guests asked where Sarah was.  Abraham said that she was in the tent nearby their table.  If Abraham kept himself in a subservient position, even more so was his wife.  She wasn’t even in view.  Now come the amazing declaration and the point of this reading.  One of the guests promised to return next year at about the same time.  By then Sarah would have given birth to a son!  The reading ends here – probably for good reason.  What follows in the Scripture text is a little too earthy for public proclamation.  The hearers might blush.  Still, the composers of the lectionary could at least have added one short line.  Listening at the doorway of the tent and overhearing what the visitors had said to her husband, the text says: Sarah laughed.

You can read the text for yourself and find out what prompted her mirth, but the fact is, Sarah’s laughter indicated that she thought some things were beyond the realm of possibility, even when God had been the one who made the promise.  What she had to learn, and so do we, was what is said early in Luke’s Gospel: Nothing is impossible with God.  And another truth: God is faithful to God’s promises.  A year after the visitation, Sarah nursed Isaac.

Inscribed at the tope of the icon by my front door are these words: Be not forgetful to entertain strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.  That’s a lesson we need to remember, too.

This hospitality theme continues in the Gospel.  Jesus visits Martha and her sister, Mary.  Notice that whenever these two are mentioned in Luke’s Gospel, Martha is always named first.  That might be because she was the older of the two.  Or, she might have been the more prominent, the better known.  She welcomes Jesus to the home.  Immediately she sets about taking care of all the preparations necessary if there is going to be a meal to put before the guest.  Unlike in the first reading, here the menu isn’t shared with the reader, only that all Martha had to do was a burden for her.  Meanwhile, her sister, Mary, seated herself at Jesus’ feet, like a disciple, and listened to him.  That position, taken by a woman in those times is odd.  Here is a hint of Jesus’ deference to women that was contrary to the mores of his contemporaries. (Girls and young women weren’t educated in the temple in Jesus’ time; only the boys and young men. To have Mary sit at Jesus’ feet as his student was not normal in his time.)

Martha’s frustrations mount.  It is not difficult to see why.  Put yourself in her shoes.  If you are preparing for guests and the tasks are many, wouldn’t you expect and appreciate help from your spouse or housemate?  What if Martha had taken Mary’s posture, too?  From where would have come their supper?  And so Martha complains to Jesus and asks him to tell Mary to help with the preparations.

Martha, Martha, you are busy about many things.  There is need of one thing only.  Mary has chosen the better part.  It will not be taken from her.  Now be careful what you read into Jesus’ words to Martha.  First, there is obvious affection for her.  The repetition of her name was probably voiced with a smile, even a laugh.  He is not denying the worth and importance of what Martha is doing, to say nothing of his gratitude to her.  What he is saying is that hosts ought not to get so busy that they fail to pay attention to the guest.

Have you even been the guest in someone’s home?  While you wait for dinner to begin, you sit alone in the parlor or on the living-room sofa.  You sip from the cocktail you were served and watch or hear the flurry of activity.  The host/ess is fraught with anxiety as s/he rages around the kitchen.  You’re on pins and needles and are anxious yourself by the time of the announcement that it is time to sit to table.  The whole evening can become an exhausting experience, no matter how fine the vintage.

That is what Jesus is chastising Martha about.  Chastising Martha about.  Chastising is too strong a word.  More likely, Jesus told Martha to relax a little and remember what time together should really be about.  It is a sharing time.  Amid all of the labors, there ought to be conversation and the sense of tangible joy the host has from the pleasure of the guest’s company.  You’ve had that experience, too, haven’t you?  That is what makes some evenings so memorable that they linger in the memory long after you have forgotten what was served.  That is the genius of hospitality well executed.

Here are some questions that occur to me as we break open this text and apply it to our faith walk.  What does the first-time visitor experience as s/he enters the Assembly for Sunday Mass where you gather for Eucharist?  For that matter, what do longstanding members feel?  There is a hymn from an earlier time that has this refrain: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.  Would you say that they are?  We are talking about hospitality and the table fellowship that ought to be imitative of Jesus’ own.  Does the stranger feel welcome immediately?  Does the longtime member hear expressions of joy that s/he has come to be part of this celebration?  And here is a thought to ponder.  Would a sinner dare to enter through the doors and not be made to feel like a pariah?  Would a sinner feel welcome?  Do the people in the neighborhood talk about the church among themselves and say with amazement and/or distain: this parish welcomes sinners and eats with them?  That’s what God Jesus into trouble, remember, and became one of the accusations that led to his crucifixion.

As an aside, as I write this I wonder about the furor voiced in some parishes over the Cub and Boy Scouts admitting gays to their membership.  Personally, I find it hard to imagine that that is what Jesus would do.  Observing that noise, onlookers would certainly not conclude that all are welcome in this parish.

A final note: the inscription over the icon by my front door advises to entertain strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.  Change one word in that line and we would be advised to remember that we might entertain Jesus unawares.  That is not as far-fetched as it might seem.  After all, we do believe in the implications of the Incarnation, don’t we?  We do believe that our brothers and sisters are created in the image and likeness of God.  The Baptized are Baptized into Christ and Christ lives in them.

Are there implications here that we need to consider when we talk about the aliens at our door?

Sincerely,

Didymus

FROM THE DEPTHS

Often times, when I finish a conversation, I reflect on what has been shared and wonder if how I responded helped.  Obviously, those reflections follow difficult conversations with people speaking from the depths, from near despair.

Most have accepted that these are difficult times for many whose fortunes have reversed, for people who have lost their jobs after years of employment, or whose savings were plundered when the financial markets turned south.  Those depths are experienced often when relationships end or when one tastes the bitterness of betrayal.  In those dark times it is easy to conclude that God has abandoned us, or that faith has failed.  There is no reason to hope.

My friend toyed with the pasta on his plate as he related how his home had gone into foreclosure and his wife had left him after 20 years of marriage, left him for someone he had thought of as one of his closest friends.  With their only child away in military service, he felt alone and abandoned and like a complete failure.

Over the years I have learned to avoid saying that I understand, or that I know just what he is feeling.  Now I settle for declaring my empathy, even compassion, and a willingness to share the emotional burden.  I also urge perseverance in faith.  God has not abandoned us in the dark times.  God’s love is eternal and unconditional.

I like to think that the Holy Spirit guides our conversations in those moments, if we are open to that inspiration.  For some reason that evening, maybe to fill the silence that had become awkward, I reflected on some of our heroes in the faith who also were tempted to despair and imagine they had been abandoned by God.  Abraham knew those moments, especially as the years beyond the promise of his being a progenitor dragged on without Sarah’s bearing him a son.  Then when his first-born son was of a certain age, God challenged Abraham, as a sign of his love for God, to offer Isaac in sacrifice.  Of course the angel stopped the knife’s descent and Isaac’s life was spared, but Abraham’s obedience to God severed his relationship with his son and with his wife, Sarah.  Abraham is our Father in Faith.

Jeremiah did not want to be a prophet.  He considered himself too young and without talent for the calling.  God persisted with the invitation and Jeremiah was faithful in proclaiming to the people what God wanted the people to hear.  His message offended the powerful in the community and they cast Jeremiah into the cistern where he sank in the mud.  He had known the heights of exaltation in his relationship with the Lord and now he knew the depths of despair as he cried out to God in anguish.  Jeremiah survived the cistern and went on to continue as a powerful prophet, even as he continued to know suffering along the way.

Elijah, the most powerful of the prophets, knew success and felt the admiration of the multitudes that listened to his words.  He knew rejection when the people did not want to hear his message and they wanted to stone him.  The memories of his successes were of little consolation as he sat beneath the tree and longed for death.  But God sent an angel to give him food to strengthen his so that he could continue his mission in a different territory and know success again before turning the prophetic mantle over to his successor, Elisha.

We forget that Jesus came to know the desperate moments, too.  The temptations in the desert wouldn’t qualify as temptations unless there was a struggle involved resisting them.  Remember he was exhausted at the end of his ordeal in the wasteland.  The agony in the garden was so intense that Jesus’ sweated blood.  And hear his cry from the cross about feeling abandoned.  Jesus remained faithful to his calling.  He leapt into the darkness of death with confidence in his Father.  And the Father raised him up.

Granted, sometimes I ramble as I did that evening.  What amazes me is that sometimes there is a point and resolution happens as it did that evening with my friend.  Granted, too, at one point I could see a rather glazed look on his face as he wondered where all this was going.  So, I paused, took a forkful of pasta primavera, and slowly chewed before swallowing.  Then a sip of water-with-lemon followed before I resumed the monologue.

Here’s where the Holy Spirit comes in.  As I had blathered on, an underlying idea began to emerge, a conclusion that has comforted me in times of trial, one that I hoped would strengthen my friend.

Out of the depths, I cried to you, O Lord.  In every age, Jeremiah’s plea has been voiced by many people of faith in their darkest hours.  The Lord hears and delivers, the evidence of God’s eternal and unconditional love.  That has been true in the past.  It is true today.  If you know a time of defeat or failure, it will be true for you.  Believe that.  The result may not be what you wanted or expected, but you will find yourself emerging from the darkness into the light.  You may feel abandoned and betrayed, but you will also know the Lord’s fidelity and God will raise you up and urge you to continue on the Way.

I told my friend not to listen to those who would abuse him, or to yield to the temptation to think himself a failure or unworthy as he tastes the bitterness of betrayal and a failed relationship.  It may take a time.  There may be a long winter of discontent, as Hamlet said.  But there will be a glorious spring as a new purpose emerges and you realize new and important contributions you are to make.  God listens to your anguished prayers.  God answers, blesses, and inspires.  New, different, and unexpected paths will open for you.  They have for my friend.  They have for me.  They will for you.

Henry Alford took his lead from St. Paul in the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians.  Hear, and believe.

We walk by faith, and hot by sight,

No gracious words we hear

From Him who spoke as non ne’er spoke; 

But we believe Him near.

We may not touch His hands and side,

Nor follow where He trod;

But in His promise we rejoice,

And cry, “My Lord and God!”

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – July 14, 2013

 

The Book of Deuteronomy 30:10-14

The Letter of Saint Paul to the Colossians 1:15-20

The holy Gospel according to Luke 10:25-37

 

Sometimes I find the editing decisions in the Sunday Lectionary puzzling.  Take today’s first reading for example.  Why are Moses’s opening words omitted from the text?  I would take only a second or two longer to read: The Lord will delight in you and your descendants, rather than beginning mid-sentence with if only you would heed the voice of the Lord….  What Moses is telling the Israelites and us is that God is delighted with us when we act according to the law God has imprinted on our hearts.

What is the law?  The law of love.  That is spelled out a few verses after the end of the reading when we are urged always to choose life over death.  To choose life is to choose love.  That seems to be the instinct that God placed within us, in our hearts.

That would have occurred to us when we pondered the Creation Narrative in Genesis.  God said: Let us make the earthling in our own image, after our likeness.  Our understanding of the Triune God is that God’s essence is to be a community of love.  Everything that God does is an expression of that love.  Every creative act flows out of that love.  If we are created in God’s image and likeness and so are loved by God because our being reflects God’s, that would seem to indicate that we are created to love as God loves.  That is another way of saying that we should be about love.  That is what will bring us the greatest sense of fulfillment of our purpose.

Of course sin entered our narrative early on and warped our consciousness, tending to make us more self-centered; but that calling to love remains in us.  It just doesn’t come as naturally.

Sometimes I wish the slate of our memories could be wiped clean so that we could hear familiar Gospel passages again for the first time.  Don’t misunderstand me.  It is not that I wish everyone could suffer an amnesia attack.  Rather I wish the Scriptures could impact us as they did when our ancestors in the faith heard them for the first time, when they heard Jesus tell the parables.  If only we could be stunned by the implications of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Lives would be changed for the better if we chose to respond to and live out the implications of the parable.

The lawyer who occasioned the parable is an interesting character.  It is possible to interpret him variously; but not to be harsh, as I read him, he is not a voice from the crowd of those seeking to be Jesus’ disciples.  Most of the time those questions voiced in order to test Jesus were attempts to build up a case against Jesus so that there would be something to accuse him of and so bring him down.  The man’s calling Jesus teacher might have the smarmy about it.  The question is lofty: What must I do to inherit eternal life?  Apparently it was quite ordinary for scribes and Pharisees and others interested in the Law to sit around and discuss which laws were most important and most necessary to be followed if one hoped to see God at life’s end.

If there is an intended snare in the question, Jesus eludes it and turns the table on the inquisitor by asking for the lawyers’ own opinion.  It is immediately apparent that the man knows the Law and is able to summarize it by quoting the Scriptures, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as he states that the Law is about loving God with our entire being and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

What makes me wonder about the lawyer’s sincerity is what follows.  In another encounter when Jesus hears one give a similar answer about loving God and neighbor, the text says that Jesus looked at the responder with love.  That is missing here.  Perhaps that is because Jesus knows that there is no correspondence between the man’s knowledge of the law and the way he lives it.  So Jesus gives a curt replay that affirms the lawyer’s grasp of the Law and yet challenges him to change his ways and live by that understanding.  Perhaps the man saw the others in the crowd smirk as they heard Jesus admonish him not to be one who only knows the law but to be one who lives by the law.  That is why to justify himself, in other words, to save face before the crowd, the Lawyer wants Jesus to define the term neighbor.

It is never a bad idea to put yourself in a Gospel text.  As you hear the parable Jesus tells, imagine yourself as the one who fell victim to the robbers as you made your way down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Doesn’t that add weight to all that happens in the story?  See yourself stripped, beaten, robbed by assailants and left half dead by the side of the road.  That’s not so difficult.  We are not unfamiliar with road-rage stories.  It shouldn’t be that hard to identify with the poor soul in the parable.

What is not so easy for us to understand is what results from the man’s beaten and bloody condition.  We have no experience of unclean.  Any observant Jew would incur ritual impurity were s/he to come into contact with the man and his blood.  Being ritually impure that one would not be able to enter into temple worship without first being purified.  That is why the priest and the Levite, on their way to Temple, when they see the man, are careful to pass by on the other side of the road.  To come any closer might result in the hem of their garments brushing against the man’s bleeding body.  Religious people would understand their concern.  It was that important for them to keep God’s Law.  Do you think the injured man would understand?

Along comes a Samaritan.  Again, the choice of character probably doesn’t jar.  We’re used to Good Samaritan hospitals, aren’t we?  But Jews despised Samaritans.  Vice Versa also seems to have been the case.  Remember that not that many verses ago the Samaritans had turned Jesus away.  This Samaritan is not concerned about incurring ritual impurity.  He probably is not on his way to Temple.  Jesus says that when he sees the wounded man, the Samaritan is moved with compassion.  That is a carefully chosen word that indicates that the Samaritan entered into the man’s suffering and felt it as his own.  He ministers to the victim’s needs, dresses his wounds, takes him to an inn for shelter, and pays for his stay and whatever care might be involved.  What is more, the Samaritan promises to pay for anything that exceeds what given the innkeeper on his way back.  This will not be a case of out of sight, out of mind.  The Samaritan cares.

Wow!  Isn’t that an amazing response from a stranger, especially from a stranger who knew that the one he was helping probably held him and his kind in contempt?  Wouldn’t you think that the expert in the law found the Samaritan’s actions incredible?  He might not have been able to imagine his own responding to such a beaten and abandoned stranger by the side of the road, even if he were a Jew, a brother.

Remember that the question that occasioned the parable was: And who is my neighbor?  Jesus did not respond with a definition of neighbor that would have allowed the expert in the law to maintain his lines of demarcation.  Who is my neighbor?  Who is not my neighbor?  Instead, at the end of the parable Jesus asks a question: Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?  It is interesting that the man cannot even bring himself to utter the word Samaritan.  In stead he has to fess up and admit that the neighbor was The One who took pity on the victim and responded to his needs.  By then he probably wished that he hadn’t asked the question that started all of this, especially when he heard Jesus say to him: Go and do likewise.  Did his friends snicker then?  From the text it doesn’t seem that the lawyer protested.  Maybe he went home and stewed over the matter.

What should our response be?  The proclamation of the Good News is never meant to induce a guilt trip on the part of the hearer.  The Word is meant to challenge us, help us to change, and to respond more fully to the call to discipleship.  By all means, if we harbor prejudices in our hearts, we must root them out.  The one we have the strongest feelings against must be more than a neighbor to us because of our faith.  That one is our brother or sister in the Lord.  How could racial prejudices survive were we able to get beyond the color of one’s skin and so recognize our commonality?  Religious prejudices would yield were we able to be convinced that what the Second Vatican Council proclaimed is so, that there are many paths to God; that the Jewish people remain the chosen race, God’s beloved ones.  In no way does that diminish our standing before God, Baptized and identified with the Son as we are, washed clean in and redeemed by the Blood of Christ.  Are we able to love even those who vilify us?  Even if they act tin that way against us, their relationship with us remains the same.  They are included among those we are commanded to love as we love ourselves.

So there we have it.  In the end it is about love, love of God and love of neighbor.  We are invited to love God with our entire being.  I say invited even though we are talking about a commandment here.  Can love be commanded?  We are invited to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Perhaps that is what we should bring with us the next time we celebrate Eucharist.  In our giving thanks to God (that’s what the word Eucharist means – thanksgiving) what if we dared to pray that we might be transformed completely as is the bread and wine over which we pray?  How differently would we conduct ourselves were we convinced that we are the Body of Christ?  Would we find the courage to love our neighbor the way Christ does?

Sincerely,

Didymus