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TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – September 27, 2015

A reading from the Book of Numbers 11:25-29

A reading from the Letter of James 5:1-6

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

This Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Numbers and the Gospel reading from Mark are closely related in theme.  In each reading, underlings think their master, Moses in the first reading and Jesus in the Gospel is being threatened by unauthorized people exercising charismatic gifts.  Eldad and Medad were not present when God showered the spirit, first on Moses and then on the seventy elders.  Empowered by that spirit, the elders prophesied; that is, they uttered messages God wanted the people to hear.

Joshua is scandalized when Eldad and Medad exhibit the same gift of prophecy.  He wants Moses to silence them.  Joshua seems to think that Moses will be slighted if the people think there is another source for the gifts other than Moses.  Joshua wants the trickle down theory to be obvious.  He wants it to be clear that God gifted Moses, and through Moses, the seventy elders received the gift of prophecy.  And it stopped there.  But Moses sees things differently.  He thinks it would be wonderful if all the people gave that evidence of God’s influence in their lives and thus became prophets.

In the Gospel, John is upset.  Disciples have been out on a mission.  While they were away from Jesus they saw someone who was not part of their group casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  John tried to stop him.  He thought the man’s actions were scandalous because he was not known to be a disciple.  But Jesus corrects John.  He tells him that if someone performs good deeds in Jesus’ name, that one cannot be against Jesus and his disciples.  That one has to be for Jesus.

The fact is that if someone acts kindly toward another because that one belongs to Christ, the benefactor will be rewarded.  Jesus might be telling John something similar to what Moses told Joshua.  John, wouldn’t it be great if everyone started doing heroic deeds in my name?  Could the Kingdom then be far away?

There always seem to be those who want to control God’s gifts and so make it clear that those acting have the blessing of the one in authority.  The actions of those from another group or sect are to be seen as suspect and not to be encouraged.  By whose authority do you do what you are doing?  Then follows the effort to silence the outsider.  The lesson of Pentecost hasn’t been grasped.  That violent wind and those tongues of fire could not be controlled.  All those caught up in the storm, those licked by the fire, all went out and announced Jesus.

The Spirit blows where the Spirit wills.  The result is that those affected change and bring God’s blessings to people in need.  When starving children are fed and children are rescued from sex trafficking, when medicines and sera stem the tides of HIV/AIDS and sleeping sickness, when these good things happen, there ought to be rejoicing regardless of the source.  Good deeds are signs of God’s working through people, lifting up the lowly and embracing all with God’s love.

The Gospel text shifts suddenly.  The theme is no longer about those who act righteously.  Now we hear a warning about those who give scandal and lead others into sin.  It would be better for one to die than scandalize the vulnerable.  It is not clear to whom Jesus is speaking.  He could be talking to the Apostles.  He could be speaking to those in authority among the disciples.  He could be speaking to the whole community of believers.  Certainly the message applies to anyone who wields authority over others, be they parents or teachers, pastors or political leaders, or anyone else who can say to someone, do this and he does it.  All should take their authority seriously and take whatever means necessary to avoid giving scandal.

Jesus’ teaching is plied with grim images that should cause the hearer to wince.  Cut off your hand, or, cut off your foot, or, gouge out your eye if it will cause you to sin.  Those words are not meant to be taken literally.  The point Jesus is making is, be willing to take drastic measures to avoid giving scandal.  Remove from your life anything that gets in the way of your being an effective witness to Christ.  Hell awaits those who do not.  That’s harsh, to be sure, but that seems to be what the Lord Jesus is saying.

Pope Francis is developing the reputation of one who takes this admonishment seriously.  He has stripped away the outer splendor of his office.  He lives simply.  He serves among and not over others.  His focus is on the little ones, the outcasts, and the vulnerable.  And he supports anyone, even those outside the church, who seeks to do God’s will and works for justice and peace.  As I write this, the world waits to hear what he will say before the United Nations and to both Houses of Congress when he visits the United States.  There is likely to be no shortage of those who will think, surely he is not speaking to me!

The second reading from the Letter of James does not directly relate to the first reading of the Gospel.  We have been listening to James for several weeks now.  This will be the last we will hear from him until we return to these B Cycle Sundays three years from now.  What we hear this Sunday seems particularly apt given the state of the world’s economy and the increasing evidence of the growing chasm separating the 1% wealthy ones from the 99% less endowed, and the growing number of impoverished people.  It seems clear what James would say about the so-called American Dream.

Do not misunderstand.  James is not saying that wealth and finery of themselves are evils.  He would rejoice with those who have if what they have has not become their god, blinding them to the needs of others.  The so-called entitled can ride roughshod over others and create havoc along the way.

The wealthy James denounces have gotten where they are by exploiting those beneath them.  They have not paid just wages to the workers or done anything to ease their sufferings.  The elite live in luxury and pleasure while others languish in abject poverty.  Read the finance pages and the scandals covered there and you will be able to put contemporary faces on those James excoriates.  This country will not soon forget Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and all those broken by his greed and duplicity.  All the victims cry out.  James says that the Lord hears.

Those who believe in Jesus need to hear his message and heed the Church’s Social Gospel.  The wealthy have a responsibility to the poor.  Workers have a right to a just wage.  The vulnerable should be shielded and protected.  First World countries have a responsibility to aid developing countries, or Third World Countries, as they tend to be called.  Pope Paul VI said people do not have a right to excess wealth when there are those who live in dire poverty.  From faith’s perspective, this is so because we belong to one family.  The poor are God’s beloved ones, too.  They are our sisters and brothers in this human family.

There is a lot to ponder here, a lot to pray about.

What is the answer?  What are we supposed to do?  As Catholic Christians practicing our faith, we come together to celebrate Eucharist.  All about us are signs of our unity with each other in Christ.  Our on-going transformation as the Body of Christ calls us to live the Mystery and so imitate Christ whose Body and Blood we share in the Eucharistic Meal.  When we take the Cup and drink from it, that is a sign of our willingness to be poured out in service for others the way Christ pours himself out for our salvation.  Again, heeding Pope Francis, we must become more obviously a servant church and dare to let the implications of our Baptism and our reception of Holy Communion compel us.

Who knows where the Spirit will lead us?  Who knows what changes the Spirit will inspire us to make?  In these days we must pause and pray.  We must plead with God to show us the way.  Fear of hell may be a motivator.  But I believe that the love of Christ is stronger.  Don’t you?

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

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TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – September 20, 2015

 

A reading from the Book of Wisdom 2:12, 17-20

A reading from the Letter of Saint James 3:16-43

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 9:30-37

Jesus was counter-cultural, and so was his call to discipleship. That is even more so in this day and age. The readings for this Sunday confront us and give us an opportunity to examine our consciences, as it were, to see just how authentic our response to that call has been. The readings will give those on their journey toward Baptism and their commitment to discipleship the chance to ask themselves if what Jesus holds up, as the model of discipleship is a life that they want to embrace.

What is so counter-cultural about Jesus’ call to discipleship? Think for a moment about what values are put before children as an incentive to pursue excellence in their studies. They are challenged to strive to be the best in their class so that they will be able to go to the best schools and upon graduation secure the best jobs in firms so that they can climb the corporate ladder and, arriving at the top, be Number One again. Of course there will also be ample financial remunerations that will then allow them to live in splendid mansions, to drive the finest cars, to have servants to tend to their every need, and on and on – to have the best that this world has to offer. Why they could even be president of the United States if they want it badly enough. It is all part of realizing the American Dream.

Bring those goals to Jesus. Dare to ask what he would say about them. You might be startled at what you find – especially if position, power, and pelf are motivating factors in your life. Are those the carrots dangling before you as the incentives in life? It’s clear in this weeks readings that those are not what Jesus promises those who would be his disciples. None of them was a goal he pursued. Only the will of the Father urged him on.

The first reading from the Book of Wisdom is used in conjunction with the Passion Narrative during Holy Week. It is easy for us to hear the reading and know that the Just One rejected by the wicked is Jesus. He is rejected precisely because his values and what he preaches are a reproach to the evildoers. Translate that to be a confrontation of those who are in power. They have heard that the Just One relies on God who is his vindicator. The powerful want to take the Just One at his word and see whether or not that vindication will come about. Will God take care of him even if they impose a terrible death on him?

It is reference to that terrible death that opens the Gospel. The Son of Man is to be handed over to people and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise. This is Jesus’ second prediction of his destruction. Last week, Peter protested the Master’s impending doom. You remember Jesus’ response to Peter. This week, the disciples hear the dire news that shocks them into silence. They were afraid to question him about what they did not understand.

Keep in mind that there have been some rather extraordinary events to which the disciples have been witness. It wasn’t that long ago that they marveled that even the wind and the waves obey him. Remember the feeding of the five thousand? That was impressive, too, and seemed to confirm for the disciples that the long-awaited Messiah was here. They had a clear and vivid picture of what the Messiah would be like, what he would accomplish and, more importantly, where they would figure in his reign.

Have you ever had the experience of not wanting to know something and so you avoid access to the information? We joke about putting our heads in the sand, imitating the ostrich. That is what we do when we flee from the truth. The disciples were afraid to question Jesus, not because he would be harsh in answering their question, but because they did not want to know the veracity of what they suspected in their minds. They did not want their dreams dashed on the shoals like the waves in a storm.

What follows is curious. It seems that while the disciples did not dare question Jesus about his being killed, they were not reluctant to discuss his successor. When Jesus is killed, who will be the next to be in command? That is the argument that occupies them on their way back home. Good teacher that he is, when they arrive at the house in Capernaum, Jesus confronts the issue. What were you arguing about on the way? This time they are not so much afraid as they are ashamed to answer. Even they seem to be aware of how far such an argument takes them from the Master’s teaching.

Are you prepared to hear what Jesus says to the Twelve and through them to us? Those who wish to be first shall be the last of all and the servant of all. That is why the pope is called the servant of the servants of God. So, the higher one climbs in the hierarchy of the church, the more obligations of service that one incurs. And nothing is said about rewards. This has been a constant them of Pope Francis. He has said I do not serve over you, but among you. The reform of the church he urges is a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. You know well that not everyone welcomes that message.

Who has primacy in terms of importance in the community? The child. After all, if you receive one child such as this in my name, you receive me; and if you receive me, you receive not me but the One who sent me. Be careful who dazzles you. Be careful over whom you fawn. That may be the biggest indicator of how far you are from being the disciple Jesus has in mind – or how close you are. The same can be said for what you aspire to and why.

All of this says a lot about what our parishes should be like and what people, especially the least significant people, should experience as they enter the church. The parishioners’ experience ought to be one of having their Priesthood of the Baptized empowered. Each of the baptized, from the youngest to the eldest, from the strongest to the most infirm, from the wealthiest to the poorest has a capacity for ministry. That does not mean all have the same ministry. It means each has a ministry in keeping with the God-given gifts and talents that one has for a ministry. Not all should be lectors. Not all should be singers. Not all should be greeters, or ushers, or extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. But in every parish there are enough with those various talents to fill those various ministries so that all who come among them can be ministered to.

In the midst of the Assembly there ought to be space to accommodate the specific needs of the disabled so that they can be in the midst of the Assembly, in the midst of their families and friends. None ought to be made to feel embarrassed by his/her disability. Even someone with Tourette’s syndrome or any other embarrassing disability ought to feel loved and welcomed in the Assembly. And there ought to be a ministry for him or her to carry out. Praying for the needs of the Assembly is a ministry.

Years ago, Jean Vanier commented that until our parishes evidenced all these types of people, the able and the disabled, the young and the old, and the multi-ethnic groups that make up society, until all were represented the parish would not be reflective of the Body of Christ. Our parishes ought to welcome that diversity and recognize it as the blessing that it is.

Pope Francis will be in our country as we celebrate this Sunday. It will be interesting to see how his messages to the United Nations and to the Congress of the United States are received. The pope is urging people to take in a refugee family. The Vatican is taking in two families. How does that resonate with some of the stands taken in this country regarding the immigration question? As I write this, it has been announced that Francis has ordered a simplification of the annulment process and a reduction of the costs attached. He has already said that the divorced-and-remarried should not be treated as excommunicated.   Not a few still grumble when Pope Francis’s statement regarding gays is quoted. The hymn sang: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place. Are they? By you? By me? We must our response in the context of Jesus’ call to discipleship.

What practical impact will Francis’s Year of Mercy have in the church in the United States? We all should be praying about and for this.

That is a lot to digest, isn’t it? If you ask, who can do this, who can aspire to be nothing more than a foot-washer, the servant of all, I pray you realize that on one’s own, no one can. But remember that this is a graced calling, something that begins with God and is empowered by the Spirit. As you make your way in the Communion Procession on your way to the Table, keep reminding yourself that you can do all things in Christ who strengthens you. And eating his Body and drinking his Blood will be all the food you need to strengthen you for the rest of the journey.

Sincerely,

Didymus

TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – September 13, 2015

 

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 5:4c-9a

A reading from the Letter of James 2:14-18

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 8:27-35

 

Do you remember when you last heard the opening verses of today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah? Every year this is the first reading proclaimed on Palm Sunday. The reason is obvious. The Church sees Jesus, in his passion, as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the Suffering Servant. It is Jesus whose back is beaten and whose beard is plucked. Jesus does not shield his face from buffets and spitting because he knows the Lord God’s faithfulness to him.

There is something in Isaiah’s prophecy that we need to hear and take to heart, something that will become all the clearer when we hear the Gospel. Could it be that the prophecy won’t be comprehended until that time when you find yourself in the dire situation similar to the Suffering Servant’s. What do I mean by that? We are familiar with this reading, just as we are with the accounts of the Lord’s Passion. Because of that, we are able to distance ourselves and objectify the readings and so fail to see their application for us. Pray that such a situation never envelops you, that you are never brought that low. But should that happen, then remember the reading and take it to heart.

When you are powerless to defend yourself, when you are publicly vilified, when your dignity is taken from you and you cannot reclaim it, then you are in the situation of the Suffering Servant. When you have nothing but the Lord, then you will understand the confidence of the Servant and why he remains silent and does not shield his face from abuse. His confidence is that the Lord will exonerate him. That will become your confidence, too, but only when all else has been stripped away.

Think of the Ugandan Martyrs in this context. An irate king put 23 young men to death because they refused his sexual advances on them. Some of the men were baptized. Some were Catechumens on their way to Baptism. All believed in Jesus. The means of execution was horrific. Not a swift and sudden death, such as by beheading or a firing squad, these men were wrapped in reeds and stretched out on a spit. The reeds at their feet were lit. The fire burned slowly up their bodies. As torturous as this must have been, to a man there was no crying out in anguish or protest. Each on sang hymns of rejoicing because he knew he was going to see the Lord. The Lord God is my help; therefore I am not disgraced…He is near who upholds my right.

We are at a turning point in the Gospel. It has been a remarkable time of late. Jesus is riding the crest of the wave of celebrity in today’s terms. Remember the closing comment from last week’s Gospel? He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak. The crowd looked on in amazement.

Jesus is looking for faith in those who follow him, a particular kind of faith. That is why he asks the disciples and Peter what people are saying about him. Who do people say that I am?

This is a people living under foreign rule. Romans, Gentiles, dominate them rendering them in effect slaves in their homeland. They long for a deliverer, one who will drive out Caesar and restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus has been moving through the territory preaching about the coming Kingdom of God and the deliverance of the poor. Not only does he preach, but also he works miracles. Even lepers are cleansed, making it possible for them to enter into temple worship again. Still, there are those that grumble against him because he associates not only with unclean lepers, but also, he practices table fellowship with prostitutes, tax collectors and others known to be sinners. Now, who do people say that I am?

Jesus is not the first to come among the Jews and say and do wonderful things. Taking all that into account, the disciples tell Jesus that people are drawing remarkable conclusions about him, placing him in league with their heroes historic and current, from Elijah to John the Baptist. The common folk believed that Elijah would return to die before the Messiah would come. Some had thought John the Baptist was that incarnation. John was beheaded. Could Jesus mark Elijah’s return? That is what the people were speculating about.

But who do you say that I am? Remember, what others think is not enough. What do you think? Even if they, too, had hoped that Jesus would agree to being either Elijah, John the Baptist, or one of the prophets, Jesus is looking for something more, a deeper understanding that we call faith. It would be easy to wrap one’s mind around one of those concepts. After a pause, Peter speaks up and makes a bold statement for the rest of the disciples to hear. You are the Christ. The word Christ means anointed one, the one sent by God. The more common term at that time was Messiah. Not only would the Messiah, the Christ, drive out the Romans from Jerusalem, but also it was thought he would set up a powerful kingdom and rule it.

Peter could well imagine himself occupying a prominent place in the kingdom, even second in command. After all, he had left everything to follow Jesus. Surely there would be a reward. That is when Jesus warned Peter and the others who may have nodded their heads in agreement with Peter, not to tell anyone about him. Notice that Jesus does not deny what Peter proclaimed. He simply tells Peter and the others to keep their understanding to themselves. Why?

The problem is their understanding of Messiah. The disciples must be led to a new meaning of the term. Imagine the stunned reaction as Jesus puts a new concept of Messiah before them. This Messiah, the Son of Man, Jesus must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. We would find these words stunning, too, had we not heard them so often and been familiar with the Passion, Death, and Resurrection. On the other hand, it might be that we think that faith in Jesus will bring wealth, or power, or some other contemporary fixation taken by some to be signs of God’s favor. With that one sentence, Jesus strips away everything that Peter had been convinced Jesus was about to accomplish. Suffer greatly. Be rejected by all the important people. Be killed. They probably didn’t even hear the part about rising after three days. What could that have meant, anyway?

Notice the word rebuke. Peter is livid and sharply reprimands (rebukes) Jesus for the scandalous remark he has made in the disciples hearing. But there is an immediate turnabout as Jesus rebukes Peter. Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do! What Jesus announces is not going to be about power or position, about worldly wealth or lording it over others. If people follow Jesus they should expect the same things that Jesus endured, and that means even death.

Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow me. For those who wish to save their lives will lose them; but those who lose their lives for my sake and that of the Gospel will save them. That is what the Ugandan Martyrs believed. That is why they could sing on their way to their executions.

What are we meant to hear in this Sunday’s proclamation? It becomes clearer to me that being a disciple of the Lord necessarily involves the Cross of the Lord. We will hear many more times the directive from Jesus to take up the cross every day if we are going to follow him. That is not likely to happen literally in our day and age. What is likely, though, is the opportunity to pour out ourselves for others the way Jesus shed his blood for us. If we wish anything other than being feet-washers, servants of the poor and the outcasts of society, unless we number ourselves among them, we have not heard Jesus.

Those who are robed in majesty block the image of Christ that is meant to emanate from them. We have the extraordinary example of Damien of Molokai who rejoiced when he could identify completely as a leper with those for whom he spent his life in ministry. There are countless others ministering in other fields and giving their lives in witness to Jesus and the Gospel continuing to the present. Even if the church does not canonize them, those among whom they ministered do. That is how saints were named from the earliest days of our faith history.

What about us? How are we supposed to respond? Certainly there continue to be those responding to that impetus of grace by giving themselves in imitation of Christ among suffering masses in Africa, Asia, India, Haiti, and South America and in this country too. In the process, even if they are murdered, as was Archbishop Oscar Romero, they save their lives. That is what Jesus promised.

James, in the second reading, throws us a lifeline. Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. On the other hand, he is saying that works of faith, acts of compassion and caring, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, welcoming the outcast, those who do these things give evidence of faith. If these acts are done in imitation of Christ, The Cross is being taken up and Jesus is being followed.

The challenges Pope Francis continues to issue to the church seem to reverberate throughout our readings this Sunday. A poorer church serving the needs of the poor, shepherds shepherding among the sheep rather than over them, the call to welcome all without judging, and the implications of the Year of Mercy that begins in December give hope to the little ones, the outcasts, those deemed unclean and unfit by the elitists in the Catholic populist. Francis wants the church to get back to the basics of the Gospel Jesus announced. It can happen if we get behind Jesus and learn from him.

That is why we are a Eucharistic people, a people who gather to celebrate as the Body of Christ, in imitation of Christ. We gather to renew Jesus’ dying and rising in Bread and Wine. We take and eat. We take and drink – all in memory of Jesus who is in our midst. And we are strengthened to be sent out to continue the ministry until all have eaten and all have drunk and all know the love of God that comes to them in Christ Jesus.

The Kingdom announced dawns.

Sincerely, Didymus