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THE TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – September 6, 2015

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 35:4-7a

A reading from the Letter of James 2:1-5

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 7:31-37

How can one hear the readings for this Sunday and not be left in awe?  The operative word here is hear.  That was my experience as I sat under them and then wondered how I should respond.  How would they change my life?  What should I say in this space in response to them?

How can you listen to the reading from the Prophet Isaiah and not be moved by the lushness of the poetry, the vivid imagery, and not go on to pray that the promise might be fulfilled now?  It so happened that the evening news just carried two stories that, juxtaposed to the readings, had even more impact.  Thousands of people, adults and children, caught in war-ravaged areas, seek to cross boarders into another land hoping for relief and refuge.  Turn them back? To what?  Their villages have been leveled.  Graphic pictures made certain the viewer understood their plight.

Then there was a report on the demonstrations in several cities urging people to recognize that Black Lives Matter.  It is not an exaggeration to say that similar stores are told every evening either about the demonstrations or acts of violence that spark them.

Isaiah prophesied to a people traumatized after having witness the destruction of the holy city Jerusalem and the Temple.  In the reading it is the Lord who speaks: Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!  Here is your God; he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.  The fact is the prophecy is about something that will happen at a future time.  The fearful, believing people must live in hope the way the fleeing Syrians and the people on violence torn cities must live today.

These words are meant also for any of us who are afraid.  The parents standing in watch at the bedside of their 8-year-old son in the last stages of lymphoma.  The woman newly diagnosed with breast cancer.  The man in early middle years told he is in the initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  Isaiah’s God is a faithful God who will come with vindication for the lowly, the God who will transform even the arid desert into land flowing with water to bring about a lush and verdant springtime.  With Isaiah’s God, blindness, deafness, and paralysis are not permanent states.  There is no such thing as hopeless.

Do you believe that?

The reading from James does not directly relate to the first reading or the Gospel.  What James has to say is no less important for us to hear.  What we shouldn’t hear is that honorable people should not be treated with respect.  What we must hear is that the way those bedecked in finery are treated should not be different from the way the poor are treated.  The poor should be treated with the same respect.  James seems to be telling us that the Christian community is a classless society.  All are of the same worth, each one reborn in Christ as the beloved of God.  The Second Vatican Council challenged the church to do what Jesus does, and that is to exercise a fundamental option for the poor, putting them in primacy of place.

The host of a reality show on television introduced a segment by saying that he wondered if people in a metropolitan area would respond equally to anyone caught in misfortune.  As the cameras recorded, a finely clothed, beautiful young woman, an actor, tripped and fell onto the sidewalk.  Immediately people stepped forward and stooped to help her to her feet.  They asked if she needed any further aid.  When a poorly clad man, also an actor, resembling a street-person, fell to the sidewalk and lay there seemingly unable to rise, people walked around him and even stepped over him as if he were not there.  No one offered assistance.

It is increasingly obvious that our society is one of haves and have-nots.  A widening chasm separates the wealthy elite from the rest.  What is alarming to some, what should be alarming to all Christ’s followers, is the declaration that the upper class does not have responsibility for the poor.  The Objectivism of Ayn Rand has taken hold.  The poor are poor because they haven’t worked hard enough.  As bad is the fundamentalist judgment that poverty is God’s judgment on sinners, just as wealth is a sign of God’s favor for those predestined to go to heaven.

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.  Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?  If that is so, and we believe that it is, ought not the poor be reverenced in this world, too, especially in the community we call church?

And so to the Gospel.  In light of the reading from Isaiah, it should be clear that the incarnate God is the fulfillment of the prophecy.  Jesus moves among the people, even among Gentiles, as the vindicator of the poor, the Great healer and reconciler.

People bring a deaf man with a speech impediment to Jesus and beg Jesus to heal him.  Imagine the impact had Jesus worked the miracle in the midst of the crowd.  But Jesus takes the man off by himself away from the crowd.  Some of the details of the encounter are not for the squeamish.  At least I wince at the thought of Jesus spitting and touching the man’s tongue and putting his finger into the deaf man’s ears.  This is intimate, human contact, physical in essence and common.  In his own name, Jesus cries out, Ephphatha!  The word means, be opened.  And the man is able to hear and to speak.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus commands them to tell no one about what has happened?  Maybe that is the problem.  Jesus does not want people to follow him because he is a wonder-worker.  That is not the kind of Messiah that he is.  Peter and the other apostles had to learn that lesson.  Belief in a powerful, worldly Messiah would never hold up in the face of rejection, crucifixion and death.  Jesus is a servant Messiah, bringing about the reign of God.  Note that the people announce the miracle far and wide.  But that does not mean they become disciples.  They are simply amazed that he has done all things well.  He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.  With time, perhaps, faith will follow, once they see that the important thing is the reaching out and touching.

These readings challenge us and many will respond.  There are those working constantly to raise funds for, and work among the poor.  The plight of the Syrians is horrific, but there are those pressuring to stop the carnage.  The same can be said about relief workers wherever people suffer, in Africa, Asia, and South America.

Pope Francis challenges us as he reminds us that he does not lord it over, but serves beside and among the people.  He reaches out to and embraces the poor and the disabled.  The sign should be obvious that he is imitating Jesus and the way Jesus ministered.  It is a time worn phrase by now, but why else would Francis be calling for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor?

Local faith communities witness to Christ’s announcing the Good News.  Shelters provide street people safe places to sleep.  Soup kitchens like those of St. Vincent de Paul feed the countless hungry ones.  People work to rescue young girls sold into prostitution.  Name the cause and there are those believing people responding out of love for Christ and for their neighbors.  Think of any category that segregates people, race, creed, gender, gender orientation, and there are those challenging the rest to tear down the walls and welcome all as members of God’s family.

Finally, we must remember that we are a Eucharistic people, a people called to gather in our various needs around the Table of the Lord, sisters and brothers all.  If our churches are Catholic, this universality of acceptance must be immediately tangible.  The poor and the wealthy, those who can see and those who can’t, those who can hear and those who can’t, those who can walk and those who can’t, arm in arm as one family all process to the Table to be transformed by the meal celebrated and shared there.  And in the sharing, we are strengthened in the hope of being heirs of the kingdom that the Lord promised to those who love him.

It begins now.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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