Archive for August, 2013|Monthly archive page

TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME –C – September 1, 2013

Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24A
Luke 14:1, 7-14

My father was a mild mannered man, well able to control his emotions.  It took a great deal to provoke an angry response from him.  Most of the time, a glance from his was sufficient to convey his displeasure with something said or done.  That being said, when he did erupt, it was memorable.

How old was I that day?  As I recall, I wasn’t more than a third grader in elementary school.  Dad and I were walking down an avenue not far from home.  I held his hand.  Then it happened.  I saw the man sitting, leaning his back against the Woolworth store.  A scruff of beard showed on his face.  His clothes were well worn and in much need of repair.  He had a cup in his hand, there to accept the offerings of people passing by.  What struck me as funny?  Why did I laugh?  Believe me, from this vantage point, I cannot remember.  What I do recall is that my father paused in front of the man, inquired about his health, shook his hand, and dropped something into the proffered cup.  Then Dad and I continued passed for a few paces.  Then he stopped and took me by the shoulders, demanding my full attention.

“Listen to me, Young Man.  And I hope I never have to repeat this.  I am very disappointed by what you just did.  What gives you the right to hold another person up to scorn?  (I don’t think I knew what scorn meant then.)  You laughed at that man.  Does that mean you think you are better than he is?  What do you know about the troubles he has dealt with in his life or the sorrows that have befallen him?  Please do not forget that God loves that man the way God loves you.  That man is family.

“You think about what you did just now.  When we get home, I expect to hear from you what you are going to do to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.  Do you understand me?”

He did not have to raise his voice.  He did not have to spank me.  The displeasure that registered in his eyes was more painful than a shout or a slap.  Even as I write this these many decades later, I can hear his voice and feel the pressure of his hand holding mine.  The lesson etched itself indelibly in my consciousness and formed my conscience.

I think of that childhood memory in the context of this Sunday’s Good News.  The Word is primarily about humility.  We must not miss the point Jesus is making in the parable about taking the lower place at the banquet.  The purpose is not to evoke from the host an invitation to a higher place and so impress the other guests with his importance in comparison to the others.  That would be a temptation to vanity.  Of course there is the equal possibility that the host will leave the guest in the place he has chosen.  Imagine the chagrin that could elicit!

The parable’s lesson is meant to take us deeper; to challenge us to be different from what our natural inclinations might incline us to do.  The intent is for the hearer to confront the natural perceptions regarding self in relation to others.  That child that I was laughed at the beggar because instinctively I thought I was better than he.  My father apprised me of the truth.

It is not easy to be a Christian.  Jesus never said it would be easy to be a disciple.  Think of the narrow gate, or the eye of the needle through which the heavily laden camel can enter only with great difficulty.  The Gospel of Luke commands disciples to see people through a different lens.  Among the disciples, the poor, the disabled, the lame, and the blind, the lepers and all those easily ignored or overlooked by the societal elite, these are to have primacy of place.  The higher seats at the banquet should be theirs.  Hosting this class of people along with the publicly denounced sinners opened Jesus to ridicule and became the source of charges against him that led to his rejection and ultimately to his crucifixion.  This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!  Does your parish give evidence of hosting that kind of banquet and having places at the Table for these kinds of people?

I struggled with a community where I worshipped.  As I looked around the assembly, I saw only the comfortable, the white, in short, the elite.  Other races and ethnic groups were not in evidence.  I should have taken my lead from the parking lot.  Luxury cars occupied most of the slots.  Inside the worship space, everything was too pristine, the padded pews, too soft.  I lasted a few Sundays before I left in search for a place that told me> All are welcome here!

I knew I was home when I saw the severely disabled woman struggle with dignity as she approached the ambo to exercise the ministry of Lector.  One of the catechists used a motorized chair to lead the Catechumens out for their reflections on the Liturgy of the Word.  Same-sex couples were welcome to receive the Body and share the Cup.  The first time I entered the community some of the disabled and some from the various castes welcomed me to their Assembly and said they hoped I would be a regular with them.  All are welcome here!

Recently, a 78-year-old Jesuit priest chose to de-frock himself and leaving the ordained priesthood, to live the Baptismal Priesthood he has in common with all of the faithful.  He could have been referencing today’s Gospel when he wrote as reason for his decision: (W)e need to end the world view that structures reality into higher and lower, superior and inferior, dominant and subordinate…men over women, the ordained over the laity.  As Jesus commanded so succinctly, “Don’t Lord it over anyone…serve one another in love.”  As an institution, the Church is not even close to that idea; its leadership works through domination, control, and punishment…. I am (de-frocking myself) primarily out of the necessity and consequence of my new call, but, secondarily, as a protest against the social injustices and sinful exclusions perpetrated by a patriarchal church that refuses to consider ordination for women and marriage for same-sex couples.

Sometimes, I have wondered about the numbers who are obviously excluded, refused access to the Table.  There are reasons why so many are leaving the Catholic Church and going to other communities to celebrate their faith in Jesus.  In the main, though, it has to do with no longer feeling welcome in the Assembly, and with being unable to accept some of the pronouncements that seem to deny that all are welcome here.

A collection for the St. Vincent de Paul society is not enough to counter act those padded pews.  God help us if we should look about and dare to think that we belong among the elite and therefore are more loved by God.  When recognizing the poor and the disabled we should not yield to the temptation to think: Thank God I am not like the rest of men or even like these.

We don’t have to sit in the lowest place.  (Catholics are notorious for choosing the back pews, anyway.)  We should not want places of honor either.  Our desire and goal should be to be in the midst, available and willing to wash feet.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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ONCE A BELIEVER

This was the final appointment on his calendar.  Father Stephens glanced at the clock on the wall and thought that it wouldn’t be that long until he could pour his double martini with two olives and watch the evening news.  The patient reclining in the hospital bed was talking about something that didn’t interest him.  He thought about the traffic that could slow his drive back to the rectory if he didn’t get on his way soon.  He took advantage of the pause in her soliloquy and interjected with his assurance that the Lord was with her and that her faith would be her support during this difficult time.  “When all is said and done,” he said, “the Lord loves you.”

Then he took the pix from his pocket, opened it, and took out the Host.  He held the sacrament before her and said, “This is the Body of Christ.”

She responded with her “Amen” before holding up her hand to receive Communion.  He watched as she placed he host in her mouth, closed her eyes, and paused to pray.  He thought a minute was long enough to wait before he said, “Now Margaret, I’m going to give you a blessing and leave you to your reflection time.”  He placed his hand on her forehead and invoked the healing of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and signed her with the Sign of the Cross.  Then he assured her that if her stay in the hospital were prolonged, he would be sure to visit her again.  Otherwise, he said, as he near the door, he would stop by to visit her at home.  He gave a bit of a wave and exited the room.

At last he heard the ring that signaled the arrival of the elevator.  The door slid open and he entered, relieved that he was the only passenger.  His solitary occupancy lasted for the descent to the next floor when the car stopped and the door opened again to admit the next rider.

In the briefest of moments a number of judgments were made.  Father Stephens nodded and looked up to the indicator over the door, wanting to push the button to hasten its closing.  The intruder was of average height, probably in his early twenties, and of average visage, except for the rings piercing his lower lip and right eyebrow.  Round discs occupied the large holes in his earlobes and sleeve art covered both arms.  His arms look like the stripes on a zebra, he thought.  What a mess that will be by the time he is fifty.

Father Stephens forced a smile as he noticed the young man’s hesitation to get on board.  He had seen the collar.

“Are you bearing good news?” he asked.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Are you bearing good news?”

“I think so,” Stephens replied.  “Yes, I am bearing Good News.”

The man entered and the door closed.  The elevator resumed its drop to the first floor when at last it would be time to exit.

“I used to believe.”

“Used to?”

“Yeah.  Used to, for a time, when I was a kid, before….”

Stephens thought, “I don’t have time for this.  I’m tired and want to call it a day.”  The elevator door opened for another person to enter and join them in the descent.  The young man said nothing more and the three passengers stared straight ahead.  Stephens coughed to clear his throat and looked at his watch to check the time.  He wondered how long it would take for them to get to the ground floor.

Finally the door opened.  The latest on was the first off.  The tattooed one waited for the priest to exit.  Steppes left the car and took a few steps away.  Then, as much out of curiosity as for missionary instinct, he turned back.  “Would you like to talk about whatever is on your mind?  I’m curious.  What was it that caused the rupture in you faith?”

They made their way to the cushioned chairs and sat beneath the hanging baskets of ferns and philodendrons.  The palm tree seemed out of place.  They exchanged names and Jacob told his tale of a boy whose beginnings were rooted in a faith tradition.  He had been baptized in infancy.  In due time he made his first confession and received his first Holy Communion.  “I loved Jesus.  It amazed me that he was on the cross because he loved me.”

Betrayal changed his world.  When he was 10-years-old, his parents divorced.  Neither parent wanted him, he said, and his grandparents were either too frail or too busy to take him in.  Foster care was the only alternative.  Then the horror began at the hands of a woman who took him into her home.

“She smothered me with love signs and gave me long hugs.  She told me how much she loved me.  I was supposed to call her “Mother,” because she was in fact the only mother I would have for some time to come.  That gave me comfort and I began to think that I had found a new refuge where I could belong.”

The first time it happened he thought it was an accident as her cigarette came into contact with the nape of his neck, just below the collar line.  She said she was sorry as she kissed the wound the ember had left.  After that, with regularity, her declarations of love were punctuated with burns on his back.  Over and over again it happened.  And each time she would say, “Oops.  Oh sorry.  Let me kiss the mark to make it better.”

“I could show you the scars.

“I prayed that it would stop.  But nobody listened.  At least, nobody rescued me.  I felt like a prisoner in a dungeon.  Whenever my caseworker would visit “Mother” would sit next to me and listen as the worker asked how everything was going.  “Mother” always said that everything was going just wonderfully.  I would nod in agreement without daring to look up.

“Finally the night came.  I waited until I was sure “Mother” would be sleeping and I climbed out the window and ran away.  I don’t know how long I lived on the streets.  I had to eat, so people paid for my favors.  I think back on those days and I want to vomit.  I don’t turn tricks anymore.  I hate it when anyone tells me she loves me.  I don’t want to hear it because I know pain will follow.

“I am a survivor.  I live my life the best I can.  I help people on the street worse off than I am.  Sometimes I get a group together and tell them we’re going to make it.  We’re all in this together and sticking together, we just might be able to survive.”

Jacob paused.  Stephens sat with his arms resting on the stuffed chair.  He gazed across the lobby at nothing in particular struggling to find something to say.  The words that came to his mind sounded inane.  Then he realized that there was nothing awkward about the silence.  He felt no urgency to break it.  He wasn’t even thinking about the traffic or the martini.

Jacob said, “Sometimes I think about the cross.”  He reached inside his shirt and took out the one that hung from the chain around his neck.  “I remember how I used to sit in the church in those early days after my parents split and look at the dead Jesus hanging there.  You know what I thought?  At least his agony is over.  I was so naïve then.  I believed it when people told me that Jesus loved me.  That was before love and cigarette burns merged.  I wish I could believe in that love again; but I am afraid of love.  I don’t want to be hurt again.”

Jacob stood and reached his hand out to Father Stephens.  “Thanks for listening.  Be good, Padre.  Blessings on you.”

Stephens watched as Jacob walked away. “Jacob, “ he called out.  When he turned back toward the priest, Father said, “I think Jesus still loves you and is waiting for you when you are able to accept and rest in that love.”

The look Jacob gave the priest and the half-smile would be etched in Stephens’s memory as he nodded and said, “Maybe that day will come.  Someday.  In the meantime….”

When he was a few steps away, without looking back, Jacob raised his right hand and gave a brief wave.

THE TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – August 25, 2013

 

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah 66:18-21

The Letter to the Hebrews 12:5-7.11-13

The holy Gospel according to Luke 13:22-30

 

Instinctively we soften the harsh words Jesus utters.  Either that or we shield ourselves with sighs of relief concluding that what he is saying is not meant for us.  Wouldn’t we wither if the Master of the House in today’s parable hurled the dismissive statement in today’s parable at us?  I do not know where you are from.  Depart from me, all you evildoers.  That judgment is especially severe when we hear the response of those being cast out.  They declare themselves to have eaten and drunk in the Master’s company and listened to his word.  That sounds like an outline for the Eucharistic Liturgy.  A people come together as the Assembly to listen to the Word and be formed by it and to eat and drink at the Table to be transformed by the Bread and the Wine.  What was missing?  What didn’t happen?  I do not know where you are from!

Could it be that the Lord is talking about formation and transformation that didn’t happen.  In other words, Jesus is saying that mere attendance at the meal is not enough.  To have eaten and drunk with the Master, to have listened to the instruction implies the possibility of a degree of intimacy.  That is what table fellowship is all about.  But intimacy with the Lord demands an openness that allows the Lord to enter, take possession of the heart and dwell there.  It is not enough to toast or even to take the morsel from a shared plate.  Even to embrace and kiss falls short unless the possible communion expresses itself through imitation of the works emanating from the one with whom we have reclined at table.  There will be a sending forth to be the Lord’s other self in the market place.  By their fruits you shall know them.  That is what seems to be missing in the response of those guests in the parable.  That may be why to those who knock at the door in the exterior darkness, the Master of the House declares: I do not know where you are from.

The question that elicits Jesus’ telling the parable is one that always strikes me as odd, even when I hear versions of it today.  Lord, will only a few people be saved?  Those who ask that question seem to assume their own being included in the number and to think of salvation as a static thing, something of a moment that is an end in itself.  Have you been saved, Brother?  The temptation is to shout, Yes.  I’ve been baptized.  But to do that without further explanation gives evidence of the error to which Jesus alludes when he says, Depart from me all you evil doers.  Isn’t he saying, where is the evidence of your conversion, of my primacy of place in your life?  Salvation is not a static moment.  The Faith Walk is an ongoing process of transformation and growth, of being configured more and more to the One in whom we are supposed to live and move and have our being.

What is the satisfaction that comes from musing on the possibility of only a few being saved?  Even 144,000 aren’t that many.  I wince when I hear people denounced and numbered among those who will not go to heaven.  You know the various categories into which people can be sorted.  People can be judged outside the pale of salvation because of their race, their color, their creed, their sex, their sexual orientation, and any other classification that does not conform to the judgers’.  For what purpose?  Does their smugness arise from their assumption that they belong to the elite group?  Do some think that with salvation comes the privilege of being able to look down long noses at those outside the pale?  How do such judgers deal with the universality of God’s love, with God’s desire that all people be saved?

Recently, Pope Francis rankled some when he voiced the opinion that even atheists could find their way to heaven if during their lives they tried to do good.  Imagine that!

What are the evil deeds of those in the parable that results in their being left in the exterior darkness?  Of course there is the reality of sin.  Most of us can name the seven deadly ones.  But is it possible that those who feel powerless in their sinfulness are the objects of the Lord’s special love?  That does put before us a major facet of what salvation means, after all.  Remember that Jesus was rejected by some for the company he kept, for welcoming sinners and sharing table fellowship with them.

Isn’t it curious that the sins judged to be the worst are those the judger has no temptation to commit?  Gluttony is heinous in the minds of those who have moderate appetites.  Intemperance is a horror to those who have no strong attraction to alcohol.  Those who cry out, guilty of any or all of the seven deadly sins, can be forgiven.  Some people forget that there is nothing God loves to do more than to forgive.  That is the heart of the Good News, the heart of the Gospel.  Could begrudging forgiveness be the telltale sign of the unforgiven?  Are they the ones who stand in the exterior darkness and knock?

What is the Lord looking for that enables him to recognize those who knock?  Most likely it is going out from their encounters with Jesus and then doing what he does.  If they are disciples there must be evidence of that fact in their good works.  It must be that they have become about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, sheltering the homeless, and burying the dead.  Those who have eaten and drunk with the Lord now strive to replace the deadly sins with the corporal works of mercy.  It is no longer about being self-centered.  It is about loving others as God loves them.

It will be a salutary moment if, as the Gospel washes over you this Sunday that you wonder if the Lord will recognize your knock at the door.  You may tremble as you pray over the issue.  Remember, the Lord isn’t finished with you yet.  That will be a moment of grace if you feel compelled to open yourself to the Lord and pray to be able to enter by the narrow gate.  And that will happen if you allow the Lord’s Spirit to strengthen you, if you let the Lord show you the way.

How else could Paul have come to be able to say that he could do all things in the Lord who strengthened him?  After all, at one point in his life he had persecuted the church.

The Good News proclaimed this Sunday as we assemble is that you are loved.  Go now, and live that love.

Sincerely,

Didymus