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THE TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – September 28, 2014


From the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 18:25-28

From the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians 2:1-11

From the holy Gospel according to Matthew 21:28-32

 

Not to be irreverent about it, but the truth is that little got Jesus into more trouble than the company he kept. This man welcomes sinners and eats with them! Behind the statement was the assumption that what they did, he did likewise. If Jesus walked the land today, who would be his friends? What types would they be? From what class? Certainly some of them would be the ordinary, decent and hard working types similar to those he invited to leave their nets, follow him and become fishers of people. Those called weren’t extraordinary in many cases, but they had good hearts and were fascinated by the hope found in the tales he spun. There were others with whom he was seen, with whom he would dine and break bread. These associations would inspire scandal among the elite and those who had no need for forgiveness.

The challenge as we listen to the readings for this Sunday is to determine where we would number ourselves. On which side would we be? And another question might be, is the church as welcoming, even of those others determine to be sinners?

To be moved by Ezekiel’s prophecy in the first reading and the questions Jesus poses in the Gospel, one has to have a sense of being a sinner, or at least a compassion for those who are sinners. The judgmental will be left cold, just as were the chief priests and elders confronting Jesus about his authority and who were scandalized because prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners were known to have dined with him. In fact, more than likely, some of those were present during this exchange.

The first reading and the Gospel hold up the possibility of conversion to us. Conversion can go in either direction, as Ezekiel points out. Someone can grow weary of virtue and take up the ways of the sinner. The sinner can see the light, as they say, and seek out virtue’s path. There are consequences for both – favor with God for the virtuous one and death for the one who embraces evil. Hebrew Scripture is very clear about the link between sin, suffering, and death, and between virtue and life and prosperity.

In today’s Gospel, it is the supposedly righteous, the chief priests and the elders, those who have no felt need for repentance, much less for mercy, that are judgmental about those they deem to be sinners. Their intent is to trap Jesus and to find faults with which to charge him. They do not understand his mission and are scandalized not only by the company he keeps, but his seeming disregard for prescripts of the Law. Jesus and some of his disciples had been seen eating without first washing their hands. To them Jesus said: A man had two sons. Each son is asked by the father to work in the vineyard. One son refuses but later regrets his refusal and goes into the vineyard to work. The second pleases his father with an affirmative response but in turn does not do the work. Which of the two did his father’s will? The hook is baited and dangling and they bite. Their answer? The one who at first said no but later did the work.

Things are seldom what they seem. Skimmed milk masquerades as cream. Gilbert and Sullivan are the source of that observation and it is apt here. Jesus is looking for the genuine article evidenced by the graced invitation to change one’s life and live the law of love. Paul, the Apostle, in the reading from the Letter to the Philippians is one of those who, having encountered Christ and heard him, changed his life. If there is any encouragement in Christ (for me writing to you from prison) any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. In order for that to happen, each person must do what Paul did in imitation of Jesus. People must empty themselves as Jesus did, taking the form of a slave…becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Conversion is that kind of emptying. The annals of the saints are filled with stories of conversions. Certainly Augustine stands in the forefront of those who could say; Late have I loved you. Ignatius, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, and countless others all had moments of encounter with Jesus and their lives were never the same again. They like the tax collectors and prostitutes Jesus had in mind, had said no to the father’s directive to work in the vineyard, but later, said yes.

It would be easy to judge them in their original mien and sign them to perdition as the chief priests and elders were wont to do. But Jesus uses them as judgment against their accusers, themselves the ones who had said yes but then refused to do the work. I think of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, saints, I believe, of the last century. Each new what it meant to be a sinner and had committed sins quite unacceptable to most. They came to profess their newfound faith. They died in the waters of Baptism and rose to lives of compassion and service of the poor. There are some who judge them to be unworthy of every being considered for sainthood because of the sins in their past. What would they do with Paul who had persecuted the church?

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them, they said about Jesus. This became the charge that justified his crucifixion. Would that today that same charge could be leveled against the church, the Body of Christ. This is not to say that the invitation should be, come and stay in your sin. Neither is it to deny the reality of sin. Rather, the invitation should be to come and find your way out of the darkness of sin into the light that is the imitation of Christ.

We who are sinners and know what it means to be forgiven, gather around the Table of the Eucharist to give thanks to God in the renewing of Jesus’ dying and rising, that continuing of his pouring out of himself in love for all who would recognize their own emptiness and take and eat, and take and drink. There is transformation in the celebration of the Mystery that is Eucharist. Bread and wine become Christ’s Body and Blood. The people gathered are transformed into Christ’s presence, too. The church is the Body of Christ, to quote Vatican Council II.

Who are the chief priests and elders among us today? I don’t know that that question is as important as any examination of my own conscience to ensure that those attitudes are not mine. Those who would be judgmental have the Lord to answer to. If they are numbered among the baptized they were sent into the vineyard to be ambassadors of love and forgiveness, to build up God’s kingdom symbolized by the vineyard. None was called to reign, but all were called to serve. None were called to lord it over others, but to abase themselves in imitation Christ who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself. And so ought we that Christ might become all and all in us.

All are welcome? For that to be true, the church must listen to Pope Francis’s invitation to be a poor church serving the needs of the poor. The church must wash the feet that Francis does. The message must be about love, mercy and forgiveness. When that is so, the most desperate will hear and answer, change their ways, and follow.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – September 21, 2014

 

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 55:6-9

A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 20:1-16a

 

In Hebrew Scripture, often God is characterized as angry and vengeful. Granted, there are passages that could support that characterization. God does punish the Israelites for their infidelities. God rains down havoc on the pursuing Egyptians. Until Moses intervenes, God wants to be rid of the troublesome people God has freed from slavery only to become unfaithful as they wander in their freedom in the desert. But that is only part of the picture.

In this Sunday’s first reading, the Prophet Isaiah reveals the other side of God as a God who lavishes love and is generous in forgiving. Seek the Lord while he may be found. Call him while he is near. Isaiah proclaims this message to the wicked and the scoundrel, that is, to those most might judge to be outside the pale of God’s mercy. By no means, Isaiah tells us. God does not think or judge the way people do. God is about mercy and forgiveness. God wants to be the people’s God and wants to be in relationship with the people. I will be your God and you will be my people, God says. All the scoundrel and the wicked have to do is change their ways and turn back to God. Isaiah says that the people shouldn’t try to understand how and why God acts the way God does. People may not think and act in this way, but God does. It is all about grace, the outpouring of God’s love.

The operative word in Isaiah’s passage is seek. The scoundrel and the wicked still have time to seek God. Isaiah urges them to act without delay because time can run out.

Today’s Gospel puts a bit of a different slant on the time issue. Jesus tells us a familiar parable about a landowner hiring field-workers at various times of the day, beginning early in the morning, continuing to late afternoon, having promised the first hired the usual daily wage. The later hires he promises an indefinite what is just. This promise of the just wage is extended to those hired at 5 o’clock for the last hour of the workday.

You remember how the parable goes. When the workday is over, those hired last are paid first and are given a full day’s wage. So also are the others hired at various hours during the workday. Each is paid a full day’s wage. Those hired first watch all this and conclude that when their time comes they will be paid even more than the wage to which they had agreed. Who can blame them? After all, it had been a long day of toil in the intense heat of the summer day. They are outraged when they are paid the usual daily wage.

This parable ought not be used as a model for practices in the marketplace. That is not what it is about. The key words we should hear are in the landowner’s redress to the resentful laborers: I am generous.

Have you ever asked yourself how you would have felt had you been one of those first hired? What assumptions would you have made as you watched those others hired late in the day being paid the full day’s wage? Would you have concluded the same, as did those daylong workers in the parable? Of course. It’s only human, after all.

Isaiah said in the first reading: Seek the Lord while he may be found. That is not what happens in the Gospel parable. The landowner is the seeker. The workers are idling in the marketplace. They are not seeking work so much as resenting that no one has hired us. The Good News for us is that God seeks and invites even into the last hour of the day.

There is a marvelous moment near the end of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited. Lord Marchmain lies on his deathbed surrounded by family and friends. The parish priest urges Marchmain to repent for his less than virtuous past. It has been years since he received the sacraments. His motives for having been baptized as an adult are vague. He has been unfaithful to his marriage and there has been little evidence of faith. The narrator, the cynical Charles Ryder, stands on the fringe of the group and scoffs at the attitudes of his Catholic friends. The priest whispers God’s love in Marchmain’s ear. And it happens that just as despair sets into the witnesses’ hearts, Marchmain’s faltering hand makes the sign of the cross, a final profession of faith.

What do you think of deathbed conversions? What will be their reward as they stand before God’s judgment seat? Surely they won’t receive the same as we who were baptized in infancy and remained faithful through all our lives. That would hardly be just, would it? Who am I to say that there won’t be a difference? But don’t miss an important point in the parable. The landowner seeks the laborers all through the day and invites them to go into the vineyard to be paid whatever is just.   They are paid the full day’s wage, regardless of the hour in the day they were hired.

Clearly God’s ways are not the ways of humankind. A terrible mistake is made when God is imagined as a tyrannical avenger. Those who cling to such an image are not a few. You have heard, as have I, those who are quick to interpret everything from natural disasters to physical illness to be God’s judgment on sinners. Racism and sexism are reflections of that mindset. Those who voice such opinions stand among those who asked Jesus about the man born blind. Whose sin was it, this man’s or his parents’ that he was born blind? The answer remains to today: neither!

Most of the parables Jesus told shock if we hear them correctly. They are meant to make us wonder if we could possibly be hearing correctly. All of them speak to the wonder of God’s love, lavish in its outpouring upon us. That’s what grace is, unmerited and freely given. What matters in the response. Even those hired late in the day had to accept the invitation and go into the vineyard. Jesus is the model. His is the perpetual yes to the Father’s will even as he accepted death, death on the cross.

The Apostle Paul shows us what our response should be in all things, in good times and in harsh times, in health and in sickness, in life and in death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. Paul writes from prison. The beheader’s blade is imminent. I am being poured out like a libation and my death is at hand, he said in another passage. Notice that in his suffering Paul keeps the promised wage in mind. I long to depart this life and be with Christ. Paul is ever the Apostle. He was hired to the position late in the day, unlike the other Apostles who walked with the Lord and bore the burden of the day’s heat. Jesus in glory called Saul while he was on the road to Damascus. From that time on he lived to tell others about Christ and to form them in Christ’s likeness. He saw death as far better, a release from and an end to his sufferings. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.

What do we take from these readings? Joy that we have been called. Gratitude for the gift of faith to which we responded, no matter at what stage in our life we perceived that grace. Hope for the promised wage that will be ours if we are faithful, a wage that begins even now. For us to live is Christ and to die is gain. Imagine our rejoicing with all those similarly rewarded, even those who said yes to God from their deathbeds.

Sincerely,

Didymus

P.S. The parable might also call us as church to exhibit God’s generosity in forgiving and reconciling. If it is all about love, as Pope Francis reminds us, then evidence of judging and forbidding access to the Table ought to be banished from our practice. Anyone coming into the presence of the Assembly should immediately perceive that All are welcome here!

 

THE EXALTATION OF THE HOLY CROSS – September 14, 2014

A reading from the Book of Numbers 21:4b-9

A reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2:6-11

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 3:13-17

 

When I was a child, I used to have nightmares about Judgment Day. From the beginning of my life, my problem has been a vivid imagination. I can see clearly things that people describe. Even now it is hard for me to believe that in the days before television, I only listened to Inner Sanctum on the radio and didn’t watch the series on a screen. So, when I heard stories about the Last Day and what it would be like to have to give an accounting to God for one’s life, it was easy for me to see myself standing before a huge throne, all the while trembling. The funny thing is, I never saw who was sitting on the throne. All I could ever see was the base of it – heavy and black and forbidding. I lacked the courage to look up. And I saw myself alone and defenseless.

My perspective has changed. Obviously I am not a child anymore. But I still tremble when I think about giving the final accounting. The throne is still massive. Now I wonder about the judgment process. Will there be someone accusing and someone defending as we are used to in our civil court proceedings. Or will there be only Jesus and the cross leaving the compulsion to compare my life with Christ’s, the One with whom I am supposed to be identified. That’s what we believe happens in Baptism, isn’t it? We rise from the waters identified with Christ.

As bleak as might be our thoughts about Judgment Day, today’s feast should change our perspective. With the Exaltation of The Holy Cross, we celebrate our reason to hope. By his stripes we are healed, as we sing in the hymn. Jesus’ dying on the cross changed that grizzly instrument of torture and death into one of life and redemption. Why else would be wear crosses on chains around our necks, or hang them on our walls? Why do people clutch them as they struggle to draw their last breaths? Christ’s triumph over death through his resurrection changed the meaning of the cross forever.

There is a foretaste of this mystery in the first reading. The Israelites, wandering in the desert are wandering also from God’s ways when poisonous serpents invade the community. To be bitten is to die. The Israelites cry out to Moses to intercede with God for them as they repent also from their sinful ways. Moses makes a bronze replica of the dreaded snake and tells the people that if a snake bites them, if they look on the serpent mounted on the pole they will be delivered and live. The hated snake becomes a symbol of hope. See the connection between the snake and the cross? In both cases, the instrument of death becomes a means to life.

Paul speaks to us about the cross’s transformation. In the magnificent second reading we hear a summation of the theology of Christ as the one who was with God from the beginning, who in his humbly becoming human accepted all the consequences of sin we humans experience while he remained sinless. Paul says Jesus embraced the Cross that led to our salvation and to God’s exalting him in his resurrection and made him eternal Lord. The Cross is the means. So it is exalted.

But there is more for us to ponder today. Remember the Liturgy of the Word is always a means of our transformation. What should be clear to us today is that for us Christians our path to salvation mirrors Christ’s. We must embrace the Cross. Translated, that means we must live what we believe, confessing with our tongues that Jesus is Lord and living lives that translate that belief into action.

In the Gospel, Nicodemus has to struggle with that reality. Of course he could not possibly have known what Jesus meant when he said that the Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. God sent his son, not to judge the word and condemn it, but the world might be saved through him. That is why we die with Christ in Baptism and rise with him to live his life, to imitate him in pouring out our lives in service that all might live.

With the passage of time and a degree of maturity I began to understand that Jesus has entrusted the Church to his followers, to his friends called Christians. It began to enter my consciousness that Christ expects those who choose to believe in and to walk with him to have a deep sense of responsibility for each other. We are to live different kinds of lives so that Christ’s Good News shines through us and lifts up the lowly.

That is not an easy task today, nor has it ever been. These are not the best of times. We live in a world that doesn’t seem to care that much about Gospel. In our country the church is in decline. Read the worldwide statistics and one could conclude that a powerful virus is spreading though believers and as a result faith, at least faith in organized religion, is dying. Do you wince when you read that the second largest “denomination” in the United States is Ex-Catholics? Disillusioned Catholics apparently are leaving the church in droves, some to become part of other faith traditions, others to simply go it on their own. Some friends who used to walk with me in this Catholic faith pride themselves now in being secularists whose ideas of salvation have everything to do with the acquisition of power and the amassing of this world’s fortunes. For them, wealth and success are signs of God’s favor and a foretaste of the heaven to come. Then there are those who call themselves atheists.

Again I am saddened when I read the ranting of those who blame the Second Vatican Council and the empowering of the laity that resulted for the collapse of faith. For some, seeing the Church as the People of God equates with secularism. They would have the church return to the pre-Council days of the Tridentine Liturgy, Latin, and a renewing of focus on the transcendence of God, not on God’s imminence.   The Eucharist is to be adored, not celebrated. There are not a few who revile Pope Francis for what they see him doing to the church. They do not want a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. They want a return of the church of splendor and power.

Will God’s people really pray with greater fervor if the language in which they pray is stilted, no longer reflective of the vernacular of their everyday speech?

Fervent patriotism is the new secular religion. Being part of this land of plenty is a sign of God’s special favor. The realization of the American Dream is about as close to salvation as many of our contemporaries want to get. Some hedge their bets by singing “God Bless America.” But if we heard the Gospel’s proclamation of the universality of God’s love for humankind, isn’t their something wrong with singing “God Bless America” without invoking the same benediction on every other land on the globe and its people? Aren’t there implications here for the attitude we should exhibit toward those undocumented little ones coming across our borders, fleeing the violence of their homeland and dreaming of living in the land of the free?

So I begin to think abut my standing before the throne of judgment on my last day. I won’t be attempting to dodge accusations of failed attempts hurled at me by an angry prosecutor. Rather, I will stand in the shadow of the cross, surrounded by all the wonderful things this life has to offer. Somewhere, perhaps hidden in the midst of all that lavish wealth, will tremble the little ones, the poor and the disenfranchised. There will be those shunned because of their race or color or sexual orientation. It was the Second Vatican Council that defined the Church as the People of God always exercising a fundamental option for the poor. Do you hear an echo of that in what Francis says and does?

The question I will hear the Voice ask then will be, “Which choices did you make?” The reality I will have to deal with will be how closely those choices mirrored the ones Jesus made. Will it be clear that I chose to take up my cross every day and follow him? Will it be obvious that I recognized Jesus in the poor and poured myself out in service of him in them? Did all this dictate how I gathered with my sisters and brothers in Christ to celebrate Eucharist? Was it clear by attitude and demeanor that all were welcome at the Table?

That is a lot to ponder and pray about.

In the meantime we must strive to be faithful to Christ’s call and to do our part to bring the Good News to the poor. By our lives we must convince them that it is all about love – again quoting Pope Francis. The hymn urges lifting high the Cross. That is our hope and our life.

Does taking Christ and the call of the Gospel seriously make one irrelevant in these times? That just might be another aspect of the Cross. Christ died on it. So might we.

Sincerely,

Didymus