Archive for October, 2013|Monthly archive page

A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York!  Shakespeare said that in one of his history plays.  More than once the words seemed particularly apt to me this week.  Where I live it is not so much a question of the longing for sun to break through gray clouds after a seemingly endless period of gloom.  The sun shines regularly here.  But there are times when that can’t counter the sadness I feel as I watch the evening news or listen to the complaints of others chatting in line as they wait for the grocery checker.  There seems to be no end to the unfortunate stories.

War seems to be a regular and natural part of life and so are the stories about insurrection and terrorism and suicide bombings that take the lives of civilians and children.  The once suppressed pictures of flag-draped coffins being carried off cargo planes remind of us the price some pay for freedom and peace.  We weren’t supposed to see those pictures lest we wonder about the morality of our involvement in such conflicts.  Then we could talk about the disgrace of national politics where it seems evident that racism thrives even as does self-serving rather than the consideration of what is best for the people.  It again seems clear that some of the Catholic members of Congress are ignorant of or choose to ignore the Social Gospel of the church.  Granted, in our country there is a separation of church and state, but the moral issues the church’s Social Gospel raise vis-à-vis, the primacy of place of the poor, ought to have some impact on the political decisions made.  A friend remarked the other day that he thought most of the problems that caused the recent shutdown resulted from the fact that the poor class was the one that would benefit from the direction things seemed to be going.  If those benefits were for the upper 1% the outcome would have been different.  That may sound cynical, but not far from the mark.

What is valued most by many today?  Youth.  Power.  Wealth.  Physical beauty.  Judging by the age of some of the wealthiest CEOs and others in that coveted financial bracket, the numbers of those achieving those marks are growing.  I’m not sure about the relationship to this emerging statistic, but that could explain why the number of those young married or otherwise choosing not to be parents so they can live the good life is growing significantly.

The Pew surveys tell us that huge numbers are leaving the Catholic Church either to join other faith communities or not.  The number of former Catholics continues to grow as the numbers of practicing Catholics decline.  The Church is speaking to fewer and fewer.  Some of that decline can be blamed on the abuse scandals; some on the seeming irrelevance of the Church to life lived today.  (Pope Francis’s calling for a poorer church to serve the needs of the poor reverberates with some of those currently lapsed and some are returning.)

Of course some of the ultra-conservatives in the church are decrying Pope Francis as a Non-Pope, a term coined to voice displeasure with the image of a pope who serves rather than allowing himself to be served, a pope who identifies with the poor and choose to be among them, serving their needs, rather than living in and adorning himself with the splendor of previous popes.  He lives in common quarters and drives an old car.  He seems comfortable with the common folk and chooses to speak their language.  Imagine that.  The result is that he adds fodder for those who see him advancing those ideas called for by Vatican Council II that they judge to be among the worst things that happened to the Church.  They seek the restoration of more and more of the church that followed the Council of Trent.  They want the clericalism and the apartness of the church to be preserved even as they want the focus in the liturgical life of the church to be on the transcendence of God rather than God’s imminence.  They seek to return worship spaces (churches) to places for adoration of the Reserved Sacrament in the tabernacle, rather than places where the faithful gather to celebrate Eucharist to experience the transformation of the Bread and Wine and the transformation of the Assembly into the living Body of Christ.  They would seem to want to ignore the definitions of Church that emerged from Vatican II, that the Church is the Body of Christ, the people of God.

There is a lot to pray about these days, isn’t there?  It was in prayer this morning that an idea came to me that sparked this reflection.  The gospels tell us that crowds came out to hear Jesus.  Not all of them were converted by his preaching.  Confronted by the demands of his Good News, many went away shaking their heads, sad because for a moment they had thought he had something of relevance for them, especially the talk about a kingdom.  That translated to wealth and security to many.  When Jesus spoke definitively about embracing poverty, taking up crosses, serving each other rather than being served.  That is not what they wanted.

Then I remembered that Jesus spoke of the impact of the few, about faith the size of a mustard seed, about the bit of yeast causing the mass of dough to rise and I had an aha moment.  We ought to be concerned about the numbers, yes, but we must remember also that it is the power of the few that will make the difference.  Underground churches helped the faith of some survive in difficult times, as did small faith-groups.  The strong sense of community experienced there seemed to give flesh and blood to the Good News and make it practical and real.

As the Liturgy concluded this Sunday the hymn chosen to send us forth spoke volumes on these issues.  Go, make a difference/ you can make a difference in the world.  The power of the individual living the Gospel announced by Jesus continues to transform the world and inspire others to experience God’s love for them and therein find hope.  You can make a difference in the world!

Wouldn’t you know it?  I watched a news program Sunday and there was an amazing story of love transforming, changing the world.  A developmentally disabled lad attends a normal high school.  His disabilities are obvious and could have marked him as an object of ridicule, someone to be teased and bullied.  One of the members of the football team saw things differently.  He encouraged the coach to make the disabled boy a part of the team.  An important game for the team’s standing came up and the score was tied.  One of the team ran the ball to within a yard or two of the goal but before crossing into the end zone, went down on his knee.  The crowd was aghast and hissed and booed.  The players went into formation, this time with the disabled member on the field.  He was the one who received the ball, and shielded by his teammates, ran the ball into the end zone for the score.  The crowd roared their approvals as they experienced something they would never forget.

One of the team was interviewed and asked about his reaction to what the team had done.  Tears coursed down his cheeks as he spoke about the transformation he experienced in that moment.  Before, he said, he thought primarily about himself and his own success.  He saw himself as being above the rest.  But after that play he began to see the importance of the little guy and the disabled.  And, he said, he will never be that person he was before the game, never again.

So, in these dark times, when there is so much that seems to deny the Social Gospel of the Church and the worth of the poor, it is important to catch a glimpse of the light in that darkness.  Be strengthened by the faith community that announces that Gospel and calls you to be transformed, renewed, and sent to be Christ’s presence in the market place.  Pope Francis denies that the true church will be a small chapel where the elite practitioners of the faith will worship.  He says the church is an open space where all are called and all are welcome, invited to know that they are the beloved of God.  He thinks that even atheists who seek to do good can go to heaven.  Some groaned.  But more said, “Wow!  Imagine that!  I could believe that.”

In these dark times, there are reasons to hope and to believe.  So, go, make a difference.  You can make a difference in the world.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – October 27, 2013

 

The Book of Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18

St. Paul’s second Letter to Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

The holy Gospel according to Luke 18:9-14

 

Part of the call to discipleship is the injunction to pray and to persist in prayer.  This Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word compels us to take up that practice and teaches us how we are to pray, shows us the attitude we should bring to prayer.  It should become clear that we are being prompted to maintain a proper perspective on who we are as we come before God.

Listen to the reading from the Book of Sirach and you will hear what that starting point is.  Our God is a just God who does not have favorites.  I can’t help but think of what Pope Francis said recently to a group of teenagers, that he is not above them but is an equal with them.  Imagine that!  It is hard to visualize that in this celebrity-adoring age in which we live.  Fans line the red carpets as their idols enter the theater.  They swoon should one of the adored nod to, smile at, or, God be praised, pause to sign an autograph for one of the throng.  (An aside.  It is sad to read about those who were idolized at a young age and who now in their early adult years appear to be wrecks about to happen.  It is hard to keep a proper perspective on self when one is adored in pre-teen years.)  Idolized is the right word.  Fans worship and adore the celebrities be they movie stars, or rap singers, sports stars, and politicians.  Even some of the hierarchy of the church convey the attitude that they are better than everyone else.  They give the impression that kissing the hem of their garments wouldn’t be inappropriate.

Sirach tells us that God will deal with all those who come before God from the loftiest to the lowest with equal justice.  Ah, but make no mistake, God does hear the cries of those society deems to be on its lowest rungs.  God hears the cries of the orphans and the widows.  Think of the widow that nagged the unjust judge in last week’s gospel.  God hears the little ones that have no one to intercede for them.

Am I reading into the text, or does it say that the prayers of the lowliest have an expressway to God?  If that is so, is there also the implication that something blocks the prayers of some of the loftiest among us?  Might that blockade be pride?  Remember that antiphon that we have sung.  The Lord hears the cry of the poor.  Blessed be the Lord!

Equality ought to be evident when the Assembly gathers to pray and celebrate Eucharist.  Some worship spaces help us to visualize that equality.  We come together as the Body of Christ as we gather around the Table of the Word and the Table of the Eucharist.  Each Table should have equal prominence in the space.  The Altar, the principal sign of the presence of Christ, is in the center, or at least thrust out so that the faithful may gather about, rather than solely before the Table.  The Presider’s Chair is among the people, not above them.  Special effort is made to ensure that the disabled in the Assembly have equal access to the sacred space.

Perhaps now we can see why, in John’s Gospel, during the Last Supper, Jesus admonishes the disciples to wash one another’s feet the way he has washed theirs.  Disciples, or rather, parishioners are called to be feet-washers of each other as a sign of their equality and their call to be servants of each other.  And it is the work of the parishioners to make sure that anyone coming through the doors recognizes immediately that all are welcome here.

No one has the right to look down on another.  All of us ought to be comforted to know that the prayers of the lowly pierce the clouds and do not rest till they reach their goal, i.e., until they reach God.

In the second reading we hear the conclusion of Paul’s second letter to his protégé Timothy.  The letter is a masterpiece from one who is beaten but not broken.  Paul writes from prison, remember, and is convinced that he will be executed soon.  He puts that impending transformative moment in the context of sacrifice.  I am already being poured out like a libation and my departure is at hand.  (I like the earlier translation better.  My death is imminent.)  Paul tells Timothy and us that he has done the very best that he can and sees all of his endeavors for the Gospel as an athletic contest.  He is the victor.  And the Lord who is a just judge will give him the crown he has merited.

Paul places mundane and human emotions into this letter.  It must have been gut-wrenching for Timothy to read how abject Paul became before his persecutors.  Everyone abandoned him.  Why?  Were they embarrassed by what Paul’s arrest had made of him?  Were they afraid that were they to stand by him, his fate would be theirs?  The image Paul paints of himself standing before his judge is reminiscent of Jesus standing before Pilate.  Each one stood alone.  But Paul is convinced of what no one else could see, that the Lord stands by him and will rescue him from whatever evil befalls him until Paul is brought safely to heaven.  The humbled one knows he will see glory with the Christ he has preached and for whom he will die.

Notice to whom Jesus addresses the parable in the Gospel: he spoke to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.  Jesus is speaking to those who believe they have no need for God or God’s mercy.  If there is a heaven, they are getting there on their own.  To despise everyone else means to look down on everyone else, to see everyone else as inferior and beneath them.  While most of us might be able to deny that that attitude is ours, we shouldn’t ignore the parable.  Something of pride may persist in us.

It will be hard for the parable to have the impact on us that it had on the first audience.  First, we have heard it before.  Second, Pharisees and tax collectors have no particular significance for us.  Well, maybe tax collectors do; but not the significance they had for the Jews in our Lord’s time.  The Pharisees were the experts in the Law and were highly regarded scholars in the temple precincts.  The tax collectors were hated, seen as collaborators with the Romans.  They added to their neighbors’ tax bills in order to earn their own living.

For today’s hearers, it might be important to imagine two others going into the temple at the same time to pray.  If we were in Northern Ireland, one going in would be a Catholic, the other a Protestant.  Were we in a place populated with the very prejudiced, one going in would be a Black or a Hispanic, the other would be a Caucasian.  For the sexist, one would be a man, the other a woman, or one would be gay and the other straight.  The point is, the hearer is helped to get the message if s/he is able to identify with one and have low regard for the other and at the same time be able to be surprised by which one that finds grace.

Don’t be too harsh on the Pharisee.  As Jesus paints him, he is probably all those things he boasts about in his prayer.  He praises God from a prominent place in the sanctuary as one who assumes prominence, and thanks God that he is the extraordinary person that he is.  His virtues abound.  He fasts more often than the Law requires.  He tithes on more than he has to.  He doesn’t lie and he keeps the Sixth Commandment.  All that is fine, as far as it goes.  The problem is in what comes next in the Pharisee’s ode to himself.  The man is judgmental and sees himself as better than the rest of the human race, and especially better than the man with whom he shares Temple space.  He makes assumptions about the other that he has neither basis for nor right to make, making them without any evidence to support them.  The Pharisee judges the man to be a sinner.

Contrast the Pharisee’s attitude with that of the tax collector.  The collector knows what people think about him.  He may well be aware of the extortions he has practiced on his neighbors through their tax bills and sees that as sinful.  He might feel trapped in his situation and be unable to see any way out for himself, if he is to survive.  He stands against the back wall, doesn’t presume to look up, and beats his breast in his misery.  O God, be merciful to me a sinner.  The tax collector goes home justified.  That means his relationship with God is made right.  Mercy and grace embraced him.  The same cannot be said for the Pharisee.

If this Gospel is to have its impact on us, we have to stand under it and be vulnerable before it.  If the Lord hears the cries of the poor, we have to be among the poor.  The Pharisee in the parable could have been among them if he had had the humility to recognize that everything he had achieved and all his religious practices were the result of grace working in his life.  It also would have helped had he accepted the grace to recognize that everything he had achieved and all his religious practices were the result of grace working in his life.  Also, it would have helped had he opened himself to see that there was sin in his life, that there were times when he could have done better, especially, that he could have improved his attitude towards others.  If he could have acknowledged the other person with him in the temple and perceived his misery and had a moment of compassion that inspired him to pray for the tax collector, the Pharisees whole experience would have been different.  If only he had acknowledged in his heart that he was in no position to judge, he could have come to understand what it means to pray and to have a need for God.  In C. S. Lewis’s words, he could have been surprised by grace.

I remember bringing Holy Communion to a man who lived alone and was dying with cancer.  I remember walking into his room and being overwhelmed by the sickeningly sweet stench.  My stomach churned and I wanted to flee.  The man told me how grateful he was that I would visit him.  Then he said that he was embarrassed because he had a dressing that needed changing.  Could I help him?  I don’t know how long the pause was before I swallowed my pride and said I would be happy to help.  I assisted him in removing the old dressing, and washing and drying the wound, before I helped him apply the new one.  At some point the experience stopped being repulsive and I felt graced to be able to serve my friend and leave his dignity intact.

Then we prayed with the Host held up before him: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Happy are those called to the supper.  He received and afterwards while he paused in silent prayer, I thanked God for the witness I had been given, the grace of this moment that helped me to recognize in my brother the Lord who will rescue us from every evil threat and bring us safe to his heavenly kingdom.  I knew that I would never be the same even as I knew I needed mercy and forgiveness for my pride.  O God, be merciful to me a sinner.

To Christ be glory forever and ever.  Amen.

Sincerely,

Didymus

COME TO ME ALL OF YOU

It happened again this week.  This time a twelve-year-old girl climbed a tower and jumped to her death.  Why?  Because she could not take the bullying any longer, bullying that included the suggestion that she end her bothersome life by suicide.  After the girl’s body had been found, one of her taunters, on line, rejoiced.  There was no hint of pity for the girl or remorse for the cruel actions that broke her.

Each time a sad story like this comes to the public’s attention there are outcries of outrage and demands for supervision of texting children and an end of bullying.  Sad to say, nothing seems to change, bullying continues.  There will be another suicide and more outrage.  But it is a basic attitude that needs to change, an attitude many adults have that gives bad example to the children helping them to conclude that excluding and judging is okay just as it is to form cliques to which only the deemed elite can belong.

Some adults feel justified in their judgmental attitudes, justified in their shunning ways; after all, they learned them in church.  The list of those unacceptable, those to be denied access to the table, grows daily.  It is not hard for me to imagine that moment in the gospel recurring when Jesus climbed to a hilltop and looked down on Jerusalem and wept.  This time he weeps over the church.

The floodgates have opened and the outflow of those scandalized fleeing to other havens of welcoming communities of faith or abandoning faith all together is out to be astounding.  Instead there are those who have said that when all those deemed unworthy have left, the few remaining will be the real church of God.  Alas.

There is an ancient adage about things being darkest just before the dawn.  Perhaps these are not the darkest days for the church.  There have been other periods far worse.  Think of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, for example, or some of the excesses of the Crusades when horrendous cruelties were unleashed on accused heretics and burning at the stake was acceptable.  As St. Thomas More said in effect, it was better for people to suffer in this world than to die in their heresy and go to hell.  Again, alas.

In our times we are not burning at the stake any more.  We just banish.  In a moment of reflection you can probably come up with a list of those so judged.  They don’t need to be listed here.  The gospel fact is, any are too many.  Was anybody listening when Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are thirsting and I will refresh you.”  They are not a few who have not learned the significance of those Jesus preferred as guests for table fellowship – those judged by his community to be sinners.  “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!”

Recently, Pope Francis, whose election to the papacy is seen by a multitude within and without the church, is seen as a dawn of hope, said: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.  It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars.  You have to heal his wounds.  Then we can talk about everything else.”

The pope also said, “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.  We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”  Make no mistake about it.  Some groaned in disgust and wonder if Francis is a valid pope, so far is his thinking from theirs.

When Pope Francis was asked what he thought of homosexuals, he mused for a moment and then asked the question how he thought God looked on the homosexual.  God loves all.  So should we.  And there, it seems to me, is our starting point.

Each one of us has an obligation to change our prejudiced attitudes about others be they about many or a few.  We have to stop seeing groups or classes and see individuals.  That one we would oust as hateful and unacceptable is an individual, one who is loved by God.  That is true even of one we conclude is an enemy.  Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook of discipleship even when enemies are concerned.  “Love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.”  And if you are tempted to ask, “Who can do that,” you begin to see the cost of discipleship.  You begin to see what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.  You will find rest, for my yoke is easy, my burden, light.”  And you wonder how that can be.  There’s only one way it can be and that is when love rules.

I have a friend that talks about being a former Catholic.  She left the church when her pastor responded to her situation in what she perceived to be a cruel and unsympathetic manner.  She told me that she couldn’t imagine Jesus doing something like that.  I thought of those elastic bracelets there were popular for a time that read: “What would Jesus do?”  Not a bad question to pray over each time we face a difficult decision regarding another person.  Her pastor might have had a different response to her had he wondered if his own actions mirrored what Jesus would have done.

When love rules again in the church, when it becomes obvious through actions and attitude that this church is no longer protecting our mediocrity but is the home of all, the tide will reverse and those feeling in exile will come home to roost.

It may be only the outcasts and rejected who will be consoled by such thoughts.  But remember, they are the ones that the Good Shepherd leaves the secure flock to go out into the desert to search for.  When he finds them he will return rejoicing.  And if you feel numbered among those “lost,” great will be your rejoicing, too.

Sincerely,

Didymus