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THE SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – July 19, 2015

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 23:1-6

A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians 2:13-18

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 6:30-34

No wonder Jeremiah was unpopular with the establishment.  It is not hard to understand how he fell into disfavor and was thrown into the cistern where he sank into the mud and cried out to God for vengeance.  If you were one of the religious leaders of his time and were being publicly excoriated for the miserable job you were doing with devastating results for the people, wouldn’t you be furious?

On the other hand, if you had an ounce of humility and could hear in Jeremiah’s prophecy the grace of God challenging you to recognize the errors of your ways, the call to repent and do a better job at putting the needs of the sheep ahead of the shepherd’s, you might have found yourself secretly thanking the Prophet for his courage to speak an unpopular truth.

The fact is that in every age, including our own, those who most need the message become the most deaf to it.  They are the ones in authority and divinely appointed to be so.  Or so it would seem.  Yet even as the Prophets are vilified, there are those who listen and, as a result, change their lives.

Regardless of who or what we are, we must hear Jeremiah.  If we do, the result will not only be to point the accusatory finger at those presently on the various thrones of authority.  There can always be the prayer that they will listen, recognize the errors of their ways and put the lesson learned into practice.  There is also a challenge in the prophecy for each of singly and as church, and the present shepherds, too.

Inept shepherding can lead to disaster for the flock.  God, speaking through Jeremiah, says that the time has come for God to take back the staff and do the shepherding because those called to the task have proven to be disasters.  The people have suffered and become enchanted with other gods.  There is only a remnant left.  Once God has rescued the survivors, God will appoint a new type of shepherd, a successor to David who will reign and govern wisely.  He shall do what is just and right in the land.  He shall do what is just and right in the land.  Then Israel will be safe and secure.

That successor to David we believe to be Jesus.  What Jeremiah described as resulting from the reign of the successor we would call the Messianic Age.  That is why Jesus is called the Christ.  Whether or not that age has been realized is beside the point.  It is God’s will that it come about through Christ.  But it must be lived by the united body that now goes beyond the once and still chosen people of Israel.

In the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds us of God’s first covenant with the Jewish people, sealed in Circumcision and evidenced through adherence to the Law.  The Gentiles were excluded.  But through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the barriers came down and the Blood of Christ made all people, Jews and the separated Gentiles alike, one people reconciled to each other and to God in Christ.  Isn’t that another way of describing the Messianic Age?  Forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace, available to all, are lived in Christ.  It is Jesus who through his teaching, preaching, and acting, exemplified how we are to work to realize the Age.

Take the lead from last week.  Remember that Jesus sent out the Twelve to be his extensions, acting with his authority, and bringing about healing and forgiveness for those upon whom the disciples laid their hands.  Even the demons obeyed them.

Now they come back rejoicing in their success, rejoicing, yes, but exhausted.  Jesus tells them to find a quiet place and take a rest.  Just where could that be?  How will they do that because of what has been unleashed?  The Twelve were effective because they met the people where they were and responded to their needs.  That ministry has awakened a hunger for more.  Crowds come wherever the disciples are.  They yearn for deliverance and understanding.  There is no escaping the crowds, even when Jesus suggests that the disciples get into the boat and set off for a deserted place.  The crowds know where Jesus and the disciples are going.  They beat them there.  The crowds are waiting as the Twelve disembark and step on shore.

First thing to note is that it is not unreasonable for the disciples to ask for rest and time to recuperate.  Exhaustion is a field hazard of ministry.  Even Jesus was known to go off by himself and spend nights in prayer in a deserted place.  Invariable someone would come to him there to remind him of the need should he have forgotten.  Everyone is looking for you.  And Jesus would return to the ministry.  The crowds and their needs always come first.  Jesus always serves.

There is an amazing image at the close of this week’s Gospel.  When Jesus steps out of the boat, the frantic crowds and their number and their needs strike him.  His heart was moved with pity for them for they were like sheep without a shepherd.  This is Jeremiah’s image in his prophecy.  No one is shepherding the people.  Jesus’ response is to shepherd them himself.  He begins to teach them many things.  This is not to chastise the legitimately exhausted disciples.  But it is to show them who must always come first.  If they are to share in Jesus ministry, if they are to be Jesus’ other selves, then they must do what Jesus does.

This brings us back to what might well be the message for us to take to heart from this week’s readings.  There is nothing in the readings that promises the hearers position, power, or profit.  The call is to imitate the Good Shepherd.  This is not a ministry that results in being set above or apart.  It is a ministry of service among.  This has been a constant theme of Pope Francis in the two years of his papacy.

The Good Shepherd, the consolation in this week’s psalm response, we learn elsewhere is a Shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him.  He calls them by name.  He lays down his life for his sheep.  That ought to be the most to which his disciples aspire.  Elsewhere, Jesus challenges those who want to be his disciples to be sure they can take up the cross every day and be sure that their only strength is Jesus.  He will castigate Peter and demand that Peter learn from him by walking in his footsteps.  Get behind me you Satan!  Peter must pay attention to what Jesus does and how he does it. What was Peter’s mistake?  He simply had protested that suffering and dying did not fit Peter’s image of the Messiah he thought Jesus was.  Peter had thought that with Messiahship would come position and power – not crucifixion and death.  How could he possibly know what Resurrection on the Third Day could mean?

We live in a new age in the Church.  We call it the Church of Vatican Council II.  The Council proclaimed that the Church is the People of God, called to live their Baptismal Priesthood.  Every Baptized person is called to ministry and to shepherd.  It also means that every baptized person is also called to be ministered to and to be shepherded in the community we call Church.

The Church is a people constantly assembly to be formed in the Word and transformed by the Eucharist celebrated.  The Church is a people constantly growing in the understanding of what it means to be the Body of Christ.  It is a people constantly learning the implications of the Bread broken and the Cup poured out, of the meal shared through the procession to Holy Communion.  Never is this action something in which to rest.  Rather it is always something from which the people are sent – themselves to be broken and poured out in imitation of the One who called them to the Table, the One who was broken and poured out for them.

As I write this, Pope Francis is beginning his tour through South America.  It will be interesting to hear the substance of his preaching there and to watch what he does.  It would not surprise me if both were formed by the message contained in this Sunday’s readings.  And there will be some who are outraged at his preaching; those who do not want to hear the Prophet’s message.

So, in the end we are left with a dichotomy.  There is such a thing as exhaustion and the danger of being burned out by ministry.  Jesus invites the disciples to rest.  But the demands of the poor ones, wandering about like sheep without a shepherd must always come first for them, even before their legitimate need for rest.  Those who would be disciples must always seek to do what Jesus does, to imitate him in everything.  Who can do that?

Only those whose strength is Jesus.

Sincerely,

Didymus    

THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT: BLESSED ARE THEY WHO SHOW MERCY, MERCY SHALL BE THEIRS

Mercy was no more a cardinal virtue in Jesus’ time than it is in our own.  Perhaps that is why, when a merciful person acts today, the result is so newsworthy.  So, too, was it then.

Place yourself in that crowd gathered around Jesus. Listen to these incredible statements that seem to challenge and contradict every commonly accepted value.  You have heard four stunning statements already.  Each one has built on the one before.  Who can find it easy to accept that the poor in spirit are blessed or happy?  Where is the joy in mourning?  If you are meek, won’t you be trampled upon?  How can those who are hungry and thirsty be happy?

Coming as they do in rapid succession, there is hardly a moment to digest what you hear before you are confronted again with a more demanding attitude that, if accepted, will push power, prestige, and economic success farther from your grasp.  Surely some in the crowd are becoming restive and want to say, enough of this and want to move on.  But others give clear evidence of hanging on every word, especially those who have declared themselves to be disciples of Jesus and want to be part of the Kingdom they believe he is bringing.

“Blessed are they who show mercy, for mercy shall be theirs.”  If you use a different word you will come close to what Jesus is suggesting as a core value for those who will walk with him on The Way.  Blessed are the compassionate.  The word means, to enter into the sufferings of another, or to suffer with another.  That’s what God does.  And those of Jesus’ disciples who are compassionate will help others believe this.

What was the common experience of those in Jesus’ time?  Frequently in the Gospels we read of people who cry out to Jesus for pity, even as those around them try to silence the poor.  Lepers were shunned and relegated to the outskirts of the towns.  Widows and orphans were in constant peril and their survival in danger.  It was commonly accepted that those in wretched conditions were there because of their sinfulness, theirs, or their ancestors’ sinfulness.

Jesus rails against the Pharisees for their lack of compassionate response even as they rage in return against Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them.

Do you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan?  A man is beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road, nearly dead.  Religious figures on their way to temple skirt around the man and continue on their way.  They had to do that, after all, because if they had come into contact with the man, touched his blood, they would have incurred ritual impurity and not have been able to enter into worship.  Then comes along a Samaritan.  Had the religious ones come into contact with him, they might have met the same results, ritual impurity.

The Samaritan, since he is not a Jew, does not have their dread.  He ministers to the poor wretch, binds up his wounds, puts him on the Samaritan’s beast of burden, and takes the man to an inn.  There he pays for the man’s stay and his time of healing there.  What’s more, he promises to pay any overage on his way back.  Jesus told the parable as an example to be imitated and followed by those scribes and Pharisees who heard him.  It goes without saying that he meant the parable to lodge in the hearts of his disciples and to motivate them to the same kind of response to others’ sufferings.

Again, remember the mindset of the times.  All of the social and physical ills endured by people were seen by those not suffering them to be the God-sent punishment for sins.  That was taken to give the crowds permission to ignore the cries of the poor, much less to have to respond to their needs.  The blind, the lame, and the lepers – all these are in their desperate condition because of sin, just as all those who are secure and wealthy are in their good fortunes because of their virtue.  God favors them.

Jesus challenges those assumptions when he touches and anoints blind eyes with mud made with his spittle; when he touches the deaf ears, putting his fingers into them; when he takes the lame man by the hand and invites him to rise.  And in every case Jesus extols the cured for the faith that has enabled their healing.

This new community that Jesus is forming will be made up of a different kind of people.  Remember, the Sermon on the Mount has been called the Magna Carta of the New Way.  Compassion will be expected of those who accept the invitation to be disciples.  Be compassionate.  Enter into and take upon yourself the sufferings of your brothers and sisters.  (Do you suppose this is what Pope Francis is using as the source material for so much of his preaching?  Is this why the pope is experiencing the same split in responses?  Those rejoicing and those cursing?)

Compassionate responses may be applauded in the media in our times, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that compassionate response is the common experience.  How can it be when so many in our society accept that “it’s all about ME?”  Children are taught to be competitive from an early age.  Winning is the most important thing.  A moral theologian once said that he believe teaching competition is the source of most of the moral evils of every age.  In a competition someone wins and someone loses, just like in wars.

Teaching children to participate in war games, or to play them electronically desensitizes them to the horrors of war.  The same results rise out of the violent video games that have as their goal the killing of who or whatever is “out there.”  Again, the survivor takes all.  Compassion can play no part.  It’s kill or be killed.  Somehow it is hard to see that as a Gospel value.  There is a danger in saying those games are only pretend.  Humans, albeit digitalized, are the targets of the bullets and bombs.

The late Ayn Rand and her philosophy of “Objectivism” dominated economic philosophy of recent decades.  Rand makes the only ethics applicable the one that ensures you come out on top.  Alan Greenspan, the recent and long time Chairman of the Federal Reserve is a dedicated disciple of Ms. Rand.  He admitted that he got a few things wrong during his tenure.  The shambles of the economy that followed his term attested to that.

When the Nazis set their sights on the Jews as the source of all of Germany’s woes, the first thing that they had to do was to convince the masses of the Jews’ lack of humanity.  How else could people look the other way during that horrific attempt to exterminate the Jews?  Outsiders could look on and decry what came to be termed an example of “man’s inhumanity to man,” a concept the Nazis could not grasp.  The enemy wasn’t human and therefore did not have basic human rights.  Rather, they were a scourge on the coming Third Reich.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful.”  The first instinct might be to say, “Thank God.  Now maybe someone will take pity on me.”  That is not what Jesus is saying.  Rather he is placing the onus squarely on the disciples’ shoulders.  Each one is called to be merciful, to be compassionate, to give of self so that others might simply live.

The Eucharist is at the heart of our faith life.  We gather as brothers and sisters, as one people, to give thanks and to renew the dying and rising of Jesus in Bread and Wine.  Jesus promises that when we do this, he is present to us.  That’s what “Do this in my memory” means.  As important is what happens at the conclusion of the celebration.  Those who have been fed by the Word and by the Eucharist are transformed into the Body of Christ by what they have done.  Now they are sent.  “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord and one another.”  In other words, “God and be Christ’s compassionate presence where ever you are through whatever you do.”  To act in that manner is to exercise the Priesthood of the Baptized.

Mercy.  Compassion.  Add to those, forgiveness.  Think of the recent slayings in the AME church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The horror shocked the country and provoked outrage.  Then, our country was in awe as, during the booking of Dylann Roof, one by one bereaved survivors of the slain came forward and declared they forgave the killer.  Later it was learned that Roof had thought about not going through with the killing because the people in the church, during the Bible Study, had been so kind to him.  The grace of that came out of that moment of horror brought people from all across the country together to join the faith community to pray and to swear unity and fraternity.  The country was united in grief.

Jesus nowhere says that being his disciple will be easy.  Why else would he say, “if you would be my disciple, take up your cross every day and be my disciple?”  In other words, know what is involved and what is expected before you begin this venture.  Jesus expects disciples to live the Eucharist they celebrate, to allow themselves to be bread broken and cup poured out in compassionate response to all who feel alone and abandoned, wounded and broken.  They are family, all.  Even the ones you are tempted to despise.

Sister Helen Prejean responds to this beatitude in her ministry to prisoners on death row.  Blessed Mother Teresa responded through her ministry to the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta.  Hospice workers do the same as they assist the dying in such a way that their dignity is revered through their last moments on this earth.

Those who serve in shelters for the homeless and treat their guests with kindness and respect have taken the invitation to heart.  The same can be said for those who minister to the developmentally disabled and those locked in insanity.  It really doesn’t matter to which poverty the compassionate respond.  Jesus looks for those who are willing to enter into others’ sufferings and take them on as their own.  In the process they will recognize Jesus there and experience his mercy and compassion in return.

Pope Francis challenges the church that down through the ages has not always been the exemplar of mercy.  He lives and teaches the belief that the compassionate response of believers to those who suffer reflects God’s attitude toward us all.  God comes to us as the Samaritan did to the beaten and abandoned one on the road.  God comes to lift us up and share the burden of our lives.  God comes to forgive our sins and support us in our repentance.  God comes to bring us safely hone at the end to be with God forever.

That’s the promise Jesus gives, isn’t it?  Blessed are those who show mercy, for mercy shall be theirs.

If only we dare to take Jesus at his word.

FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – July 12, 2015

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Amos 7:12-15

A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians 1:3-14

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 6:7-13

 

The woman, shabbily clad, stood at the corner waiting for the light to change so that she could cross the busy street.  Cars sped on their way in both directions before her.  When the Walk sign shone across the street she hesitated as other pedestrians edged around her and made their way into the crosswalk.  She took a step from the curb then quickly glanced to her left and right, she flinched and retreated to her starting point.  You could see the embarrassed expressions on the faces of on-lookers as they pretended not to notice her confusion as the cycle happened a second time without the woman’s making the crossing.  She wrapped her arms around herself and shuddered.

In a moment a little girl ran up to the woman and tugged on her coat.  At first the woman did not react.  The little girl pulled again on the sleeve of the woman’s coat.  Finally the woman turned and looked down at the child.  The girl held up her hand and asked, “Could you help me cross the street?”  There was a hesitation and another search of both directions.  Then the woman made a brushing motion to the sides of her coat.  She licked her lips and a smile emerged.  She extended her hand to the child and together they proceeded to make their way to the other side.  Members of the crowd poked each other and nodded wordlessly.  One man laughed.  It was almost until the two had made their way to the other side of the street before others, including the child’s mother, scurried across.

There the mother took her daughter’s hand and tried to disengage her from the woman’s clutch.  But the girl pulled her hand from the mother’s grasp and said, “No, Mommy.  This is my friend.  She helped to cross the street.  Would you help her now?”

The mother took firm hold of her daughter and pulled her away.  “How many times have I told you not to talk to strangers?  What is the matter with you?”

Tears started down the girl’s face as she turned and looked back at the woman whose eyes were still fixed on her.  She waved at the tyke and blew a kiss as a couple of others asked the woman if they could help her.

Who are the prophets?  From where do they come?  Given their importance in our tradition as spokespersons for God, you might assume they come from the upper class, the gentrified.  But that is not the case.  There was a clan of professional prophets at the time of today’s first reading.  They prophesied for pay.  Their messages pleased their audiences.  They told the people what the people wanted to hear. 

Then there were Prophets like Amos who was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.  Neither of his occupations was considered lofty or to be respected.  Peon might apply.  But God told Amos that he would be a shepherd no more.  From now on he would speak for God to the people of God, to Israel, a people now wandering from God’s ways.  When Amos obeyed and spoke, his prophecy stung so much so that Amaziah wanted to banish him from Bethel, telling his to preach elsewhere where his message might be appreciated.

What is important to recognize is, there is no other explanation for the effective Prophet other than grace, other than the Prophet’s having been seized by the Spirit.

In the Gospel we witness the sending forth of the Twelve.  Their tasks will be to preach the Good News of repentance and, with Jesus’ authority, to drive out unclean spirits.  Jesus is sharing his ministry, challenging them to do what he does for the reason that he does it.  That is why the instruction for how they are to conduct themselves is so important.  Listen to the instruction and see if you don’t marvel that it is far from practical.  Rather than admonishing them to be well prepared for their journey, Jesus tells them the opposite.  Be vulnerable, ill equipped, and without extras.  Take no funds for fancy lodgings.  Take no store of food to sustain them along the way.  Wear sandals and use a walking stick.  That’s it.  Stay where people welcome the message and share the food of their table. Be prepared for rejection, too.  When they are rejected, move on until they find those who will welcome the prophecy.

What is the lesson for us?  The ones Jesus sends out will have nothing about them of power or wealth.  They will have nothing that will allow them to lord it over others. They will proclaim in the midst of the people.  Why is that important?  There must be no other explanation for the effectiveness of what they say and do than Jesus and God’s love that he brings.  Those sent come not to conquer but to serve.  They come to minister to the sick, help those who are lost find the way back, and to announce to all the Good News.

There was nothing impressive about the little girl that assisted the woman on the street corner – nothing, that is, but her vulnerability and her courage that compelled her to reach out.  When others who should have acted saw what the little girl did, in their embarrassment, they followed the girl’s prophetic stance and stepped up to help.

As a people we have witnessed powerful prophetic moments recently in the aftermath of the massacre in South Carolina.  President Obama called them moments of grace, as grief-stricken mourners one by one said they forgave the man who killed their mother, or father, or spouse.  It was a prophetic moment when, rather than rage, people came together to proclaim unity and fraternity.  It was a prophetic moment when the president intoned, Amazing Gracehow sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  It seemed clear that he meant me, too.

We, as Church, are meant to be a prophetic people.  We are meant to witness to the Gospel’s call to justice, to the dignity and worth of all people, and to serve out of love.  You have heard Pope Francis say it.  In effect, nothing gets in the way of the prophetic message more than preaching it from a position of power.  A poorer church, serving the needs of the poor.  Shepherds, serving in the midst of the sheep.  It is said that when the Romans witnessed the love among the Christians on their way to a martyr’s death, they marveled: See how these Christians love one another.  It was witnessing the love that opened the pagan hearts to the message and compelled them to seek the truth themselves.

Francis of Assisi lived in an era when the Church was prosperous and powerful.  The Holy Roman Empire was vast.  Francis came from a wealthy family and was in line to inherit the wealth.  In stead, he dispossessed himself, wed Lady Poverty, and preached effectively, responding to the Lord’s challenge to him to rebuild my Church.

Damien left Belgium and lived among the lepers of Molokai.  He rejoiced the morning he could speak to his community as a fellow leper.  They heard his message.  

Dorothy Day left Communism for communism that is Church.  In her poverty, she supported the dignity of the workers of the world.  And many of them followed her way.

Blessed Oscar Romero left the splendors of being an archbishop and stood among the poor to decry the brutality of those in power.  He called for justice for the poor.  The powerful killed him during Eucharist, but the people heard the message and believed.

It is not without significance that we come to the Table empty handed.  We gather there in our poverty to give thanks to the God who is in our midst, who gifts us with faith that works in our lives.  We gather there to break Bread and share a Cup that is food for our faith journey.  We gather to be sent to feed, to clothe, to minister to the sick and the dying, to visit the imprisoned, to work for the dignity of all people, even the lowliest, and so to drive out demons.

And if we are as vulnerable as those to whom we minister, then Christ is the only explanation for our success as the Kingdom is built up.  Not all will hear, of course.  But those who do will rejoice and know that they are loved.  And that is reason for hope.

Sincerely,

Didymus