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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