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FEAST OF ALL SAINTS – November 01, 2015

A reading from the Book of Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14

A reading from the first Letter of Saint John 3:1-3

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 5:1-12a

We depart from the Sundays of Ordinary Time this week to celebrate the Feast of All Saints, the Feast of the faithful who have completed the journey of faith and entered into glory.  Celebrating their lives and memories inspires those of us on the journey to remain faithful, to continue, keeping our eyes fixed on the Cross and believing in its power to transform those who embrace it.

Without even talking about the wars, civil and otherwise, I feel confident in saying that this age becomes increasingly violent.  Some still react with shock at the announcement of the latest mass shooting.  Others, as incredible as this seems, find the stuff for standup comedy and humorous tweets in the midst of the horror.  Almost every evening’s news tells of a drive-by shooting or home invasions that results in innocent people being murdered.  White supremacy beliefs apparently compelled the young man in Charleston to kill people he had been praying with and studying Scriptures, people who had been kind and welcoming to him, because they were Black.  He is alleged to have said that he had been moved by their kindness and thought about changing his mind, but then knew he had to kill them.

Bullying in grade and high schools continues to increase.  Violence against gays and lesbians and transgenders goes on.  There are suicides of young people who can’t deal with their perceived rejection that makes them doubt their own worth, or makes them wonder if there is something innately evil about them.  Fundamentalist judgmentalism stokes the fires and breaks the spirits of the objects of those judgments as they conclude that even God abhors them.  Only hell’s fires await them.

I spoke with a young man whose suicide attempt failed.  He had taken pills that should have ended his life, but a friend peered into the car window, knew something was wrong and grace and friendship compelled him to call for help.  The rescued one told me that he couldn’t handle the taunts and cutting remarks anymore.  What sent him over the edge was when someone he had thought of as a “best” friend told him that because he had heard he was gay they couldn’t be friends any longer.

We celebrate the Feast of All Saints.  What does being a saint entail?  Pope Francis consistently urges a reform that flows out of the Second Vatican Council.  He urges a poorer church that serves the needs of the spoor.  He calls for shepherds to shepherd in the midst of the flock, not in splendor over the flock.  Faith communities, hear parishes, ought to proclaim the universal and unconditional love that God has for all people.  Their places of assembly and worship ought to proclaim that all are welcome here.  It’s okay if they announce that all are sinners as long as with the next breath they avow that all are forgiven.  That’s what the Blood of Jesus accomplished.

We must not forget that the “fault” that propelled Jesus toward Calvary was his practice of table fellowship.  He was reviled for welcoming sinners and eating with them.  Imagine yourself present for one of those meals.  Do you think that the table conversation would have been taken up primarily with attempts by Jesus to convict his guests of their sinfulness?  On the contrary I would wager that Jesus did everything he could to convince his guests that they were lovable, loved by him and loved by God.  Being overwhelmed by love might have resulted in changes in some of their lives, making them more acceptable, but all them left the meal with love etched indelibly on their hearts.

I would wager that you have felt as helpless as I when confronted by the mounting evidence of people’s inhumanity to people.  What can we do about it?  We can’t change the world; but we can change our own attitudes and try thereby to influence the attitudes of the communities we frequent and the parishes to which we belong.  So can readers who do not belong to parishes or faith communities.  We all can influence the people among whom we live.

Many years ago, in a moment of prayer I wondered how others perceived me.  What would they say I am all about?  I knew I did not want to be known as a power monger.  Lording it over others never appealed to me.  Reading the Gospels convinced me that Jesus wants his disciples to believe that they are sisters and brothers in him and that they are called to serve one another.  All will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.  Love is the universal command.  Love one another as I have loved you.  This love is not confined to fellow members of the community.  We are not called to love Christians only.  One of Jesus’ most compelling parables exemplifying the command to love is the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The example Jesus puts forward is a foreigner, a non-Jew, one judged to be unclean.  He is the one who sets the standard for compassionate response.

In john’s Gospel, on the night before Jesus died, during the course of his last meal with his disciples, Jesus, who was called Lord and Master, knelt before his disciples as a servant and washed their feet.  As I have done for you, so also must you do for each other.  Presiding in this faith community of ours means being a foot washer.  It is about serving and not at all about being served, unless you are humble enough to let your feet be washed.

Snob appeal sells.  “Where the elite meet to eat,” fills posh restaurants.  That should not be what our gatherings are about.  There is no room for our “looking down” on others deemed to be inferior.  Many years ago, in a community where I served, there was a woman of considerable means.  She did not hesitate to take opportunities to impress others less blessed.  She used to spend time in the church after daily mass, wrapped in prayer.  One day a little boy’s crying interrupted her prayer.  She felt exasperated and was about to leave the place of worship when, instead, she asked the boy what was wrong.  His answer was simple.  “I’m hungry.”  He came from an impoverished family.  Many times he came to school without breakfast.  There was an instant bonding.  The woman walked with the boy to the principal’s office and got permission to take him to breakfast.  After that, she commissioned a breakfast program in the school and funded it.  The boy didn’t have to start school on an empty stomach any longer.  And she paid his tuition for the rest of the school year.  On many a morning she served breakfast for the children.

If we tear down the walls that divide us and level the tiers, attitudes can change.  If the wealthy elite associate only with their own class they can be deluded into thinking that everyone lives as they do behind gated splendor.  If they come down from their splendid towers and walk among others of lower classes and dare to learn their names, they might find the way to bond and to work to elevate the dignity of those once thought to be inferior.  Attitude determines how we treat each other.  If we have an attitude of superiority and treat others condescendingly the others will detect the condescension and feel the wound.

Have you ever noticed that the sins you think are unforgivable are the ones you have never been tempted to commit.  Judgments and condemnations regarding gays and lesbians arise from the inability to comprehend an orientation different from our own.  Stereotypes are just that and apply only to some.  Get to know someone different from yourself; get to know the other’s humanity.  The stereotyping will crumble.  If you are secure in who and what you are, others different from you will not threaten you.  It might be insecurity regarding self that causes some to lash out in violence against others more similar to themselves than they dare to admit.

The feast we celebrate this Sunday challenges us to constantly exhibit a loving attitude.  That is what the Lord commands, and those we celebrate today dared to live.  Loving someone who is gay or lesbian or transsexual, or white if you are black, or black if you are white, or Asian or Native American.  St Francis changed his attitude toward lepers when he recognized Christ in a leper.  That change in basic attitude will alter how you treat others.  It is the attitude that rises out of the recognition that we are all one in the one Christ and the One God that sustains us in existence.

A powerful Liturgical Symbol was compromised when multiple cups or chalices were placed on the altar.  It is hard to see the One Bread and the One Cup with all those vessels no matter how neatly arranged on the Table.  Be that as it may, we must work at proclaiming that unity that belongs to us all through the One Christ we celebrate in the Eucharist. That recognition urges us to support each other in that proclamation.  “All are welcome here” must not only be an anthem; it must be a way of life experienced by anyone who comes through the doors.

Eliza Doolittle sang, “Don’t talk of love; show me!”  Jesus said it this way: By this will all people know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.  He did not just talk about it; he showed us how to do it.  He set the standard.  We must support each other in imitating what Jesus lived.  Then, please God, some of the violence might subside and hatred turn to love.

Rejoice this Sunday in remembering those who went before us, those who in glory continue to be one with us and urge us to be faithful and loving to the end.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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A GOD PRODIGAL WITH GRACE

 

Dear Jesus,

There is little in the parable of the Prodigal Son that is not familiar.  Having read it at least weekly for many, many years, I can almost recite it by heart.  If I close my eyes, I can imagine the sound of your voice.  There is a harsh edge as you challenge that first audience to soften their hearts and recognize their own need for mercy as they hear how generous God has been in pouring out love on them.  How did that resonate with those who had an insatiable appetite for vengeance?  They wanted to see the sinner punished, and some even banished from their numbers.  Were they angered to hear you talk about the shepherd that leaves the 99 sheltered sheep to go in search of the on lost lamb who then comes home rejoicing more over the lost one found than over the 99 that did not need him?

What are they supposed to think when you talk about the woman who scours her house in search of a lost coin, and when she finds it, she throws a lavish party for her neighbors and friends?  They must have sneered at the woman’s excesses just as they had at the shepherd’s.  It must have been akin to rubbing salt in wounds for them to hear you say that the shepherd’s attitude and the woman’s mirrored God’s attitude when a sinner repents and returns to God.  How were they supposed to respond when they heard that God rejoices more over one repentant sinner than over 99 righteous ones that have no need to repent?

In Luke’s Gospel, those two short stories set the stage for the telling of the tale of the Prodigal Son.  The stories are meant to render the hearers vulnerable to the amazing tale of a father’s love and of one son’s awakening.  I’ve often wondered why you didn’t ask your original audience which character they identified with.  The Prodigal Son?  The Older Brother?  The Father?  You want every hearer of the parable to stop being resentful, don’t you?  It is difficult to understand those who are angered by conversions.  The more notorious the sinner, the stronger is the outrage over his conversion.  Were you trying to lure them to reflect in their lives the Father’s prodigality?

It’s odd, isn’t it?  Often as I finish reading the story, the last lines are read through tears.  You would think I would be used to its impact by now.  Can you tell me why I continue to be moved to weep?  Why, after so many readings does the parable touch me so?  Is it because of the one with whom I identify in the tale?

The truth is, each of the three fascinates me.  Most obviously the wayward son becomes the clear embodiment of anyone – dare I admit, even myself? – who has taken faith and God’s love for granted. The son isn’t the worst of sinners.  He’s just foolish and naïve, a wastrel and a bon vivant.  Thoughtless? Yes.  He is the epitome of the child who takes parental love for granted as he squanders his gifts.

Many of the details of the son’s story remind me of you.  You came to us from god.  You squandered the gifts of the Kingdom on anyone who would listen and be moved to respond.  You feasted with sinners you welcome to your table.  You risked Ritual Uncleanness when you touched lepers and Gentiles and tax collectors.  When you suffered bitter rejection, in thirst and brokenness you cried out, “Father! Into your hands I commend my spirit,” and leapt into God’s waiting arms that embraced you and took you safely home again.

I think of the Prodigal Father, too.  In the story, he is prodigal with the family fortune.  Most people listening to the story would deem him foolish and generous to a fault.  In the description of the father there is almost a lunacy as he runs with abandon, mindless of his own dignity, to embrace the returning son to let him resume his place on the estate.  The Father calls for a bath for the Son and new clothes, rings for his fingers and shoes for his feet.  Then, dressed as a prince, the dearly beloved son is ready to sit at the feast prepared to celebrate his return home.

In former readings I most readily identified with the younger son.  I thought that was what you wanted me to do.  With the passage of time I have begun to wonder if you don’t want me to be challenged to imitate the Father because I am a father, too, not in the flesh sense of the word, of course, but in the spirit.

A man who suffered painful things in childhood asked if I would be his substitute “dad.”  Strange the joy his request gave me.  As he told me his story, where before he had experienced pain and rejection, my newfound son began to find healing and a renewed conviction about his own giftedness and worth.  Love and acceptance was what it took.  God’s love for him began to seem possible again.

He lives across the country from me.  As you know, our conversations are mostly via the written word.  I share many of my letters to you with him.  It is still hard for him to forgive what happened in the past and to let go of all of that.  As do so many of us, he places the burden of repentance on his own shoulders and thinks he has to prove his sorrow to God in order to gain God’s forgiveness.

If I understand you and the purpose of the parable, it all begins with God.  God is still the prodigal father or mother, the prodigal, all-loving God who still runs to us in our need and doesn’t have time to listen to our rehearsed contritions.  God re-dresses us in royal garments of our Baptismal Priesthood as the found are welcomed back to the table.  God rejoices always in finding what was lost and in witnessing the transition from death to life.

That is what I want this new son of mine to experience through our exchanges.  He is God’s beloved son, now and always.  He must be able to rest in that love and so find the strength and the courage to hear you call and continue on his journey of faith.

Isn’t that the challenge for our church?  Shouldn’t everything about us, shouldn’t every gathering result in an experience of how lavish God is in forgiving and welcoming home?  If God is so lavish, so prodigal with grace, oughtn’t we, the recipients of that grace, always rejoice when others experience that in our midst?

I didn’t take time to talk to you about the older son.  Maybe next time I’ll write you about him.  I’ve always wondered whether he joined the revelers in the banquet hall.  Please tell me that he didn’t just gaze in with resentment and refuse to enter.  Didn’t he understand that the Father’s love for him was constant?  “Everything I have is yours.”  Did he find the way to accept that his father’s son is also his brother?  He could rejoice then if he could only accept the relationship.

That is what we are all supposed to do each time we gather with those others who have been baptized and so are identified with you as your Body.  We are all brothers and sisters in you.  We should have no part in shunning.

When I think about it, it seems clear that the message going out from us must be: “Come to the table.  All are welcome here.”  At least that seems to be what the Prodigal Father’s attitude is.  Shouldn’t it be ours as well?  Is that what you are saying?  Is that your challenge?  Could you get back to me about this?

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – October 25, 2015

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 31:7-9

A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews 5:1-6

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 10:46-52

The last Sunday of October alerts us to the fact that another Church Year will soon draw to a close.  The current Year began with the First Sunday of Advent on November 30, 2014.  On that Sunday the first words we heard from Mark’s Gospel were: Be watchful!  Be alert!  You do not know when the time will come.  So began the journey we have been on Sunday after Sunday, intensified each time we gathered for the Liturgy of the Word and heard the Good News According to Mark proclaimed, and each time we had it broken open for us in the homily.  Each Sunday we had the opportunity to stand naked and vulnerable before the Word and let it penetrate our hearts to draw us deeper into relationship with Jesus with whom we journeyed as he transformed us and drew us toward new life.  Our faith was challenged and so was our hope.  We were challenged to live in love the way Jesus does.  There is something about faith that assures us that promises given will be fulfilled.

Along the way this year, were you watchful?  Were you alert?  What insights crystallized?  How did you have to change?  How different are you today from the person you were last December?

Place yourself in that assembly before Jeremiah in today’s first reading.  There needs to be a context, of course, for the Prophet’s words to have their impact.  Judah, i.e., Israel, has been in exile and subjected to many trials during the captivity.  Many of their number wandered away from the Law and followed the ways of the pagan gods of Babylon.  Some were faithful.  At long last they were released and allowed to return to Jerusalem to reclaim and reconstruct their holy city.  The task before them is huge.  Jeremiah does his part to encourage them.  It is the Lord who has restored them just as the Lord had promised.  They departed in tears, but I will console them and guide them; I will lead them to brooks of water, on a level road, so that none shall stumble.  I am a father to Israel; Ephraim (a tribe of Israel) is my first-born.  With God no situation is hopeless.  God, whose love is constant and unconditional, will not disappoint.

Do you believe that?  It takes time to come to that conclusion.  Don’t despair if you are not there yet.  That is what this journey of formation with Jesus is about for us.

In the Gospel, we meet Bartimaeus, a blind man.  Mark tells us Bartimaeus is the son of Timaeus.  That kind of specificity usually means that the one cited is a believer.  Bartimaeus is the son of a disciple, but not yet a believer himself.  He is in desperate straits, begging by the roadside, when he hears the ruckus as Jesus and his disciples and a sizable crowd pass by on their way out of Jericho.  Notice that it is Jesus with disciples, i.e., those who have made a faith-decision about Jesus, and a sizable crowd, i.e., numbers who have not yet made up their minds about him.

Bartimaeus makes an embarrassing scene as he tries in desperation to get Jesus’ attention.  Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.  Some try to quiet Bartimaeus, but Jesus, hearing the plaintive cries, says to those near him, Call him.

This is a very important detail not to be missed.  Bartimaeus does not come to Jesus alone.  He is brought to Jesus by those who can see and can urge him not to be afraid.  After all, it is Jesus who calls.  (What does that say about our faith communities?  Do you see the implications for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults’ process?)  Another important detail might be missed if we do not listen attentively.  (Bartimaeus) threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.  He is willing to give up everything to come to Jesus.  It is much more than a garment that Bartimaeus gave up.  The cloak provides shade from the intense sun, and shelter from the rain.  It is his tent under which he sleeps through the night.  More than likely, the cloak is all he has.

Have you ever wondered how you would deal with it were you to find that magic jug, rub it, and have the emerging Genie tell you, you have three wishes that the Genie will grant you?  What would you ask for?  Last week Jesus asked James and John what they wanted.  They asked for the most prominent positions in Jesus’ kingdom.  They withered when Jesus revealed the implications of their request.  They would have to drink of the cup from which Jesus will drink and be baptized in his Baptism.  In other words, Following Jesus will not be about power and position, comfort and wealth.  It will be about the pouring out of self in service, and about imitating Jesus in his dying.  Following Jesus will entail a cross.  (Some would say that the Church needs to hear and proclaim that message today.)

This week Jesus asks Bartimaeus: What do you want me to do for you?  Bartimaeus’s answer is simple and straightforward as he uses a second title for Jesus.  Master, I want to see.  It would be easy to conclude that Bartimaeus is simply asking for the restoration of his sight.  But that would not necessarily result in his being able to see.  Something deeper is happening here.  It is all summed up in the terse conclusion to this passage. Immediately (Bartimaeus) received his sight and followed him on the way.  Bartimaeus is changed to the core.  Whatever had kept him from sharing the faith of his father, whatever hurdle he could not get over, whatever it was, that blindness falls away and he sees Jesus as Lord.  To follow Jesus on the way means he is willing to go where the way leads.  He will drink from the cup from which Jesus will drink.  He will be baptized in Jesus’ Baptism.  Jesus will be his all-in-all.

Notice, nothing is said about Bartimaeus going back to pick up his cloak again.

It is important to ask yourself where you are in this Gospel.  With which character do you most closely identify?  Jesus?  A member of the crowd?  A disciple?  Bartimaeus?  If the truth be known and we are honest with ourselves, most of us will have to admit that we can identify with each character.  There is something of each one in each of us.  The hardest to admit might be our identity with Jesus.  Our pride gets in the way.  Not humility, but pride.  We will talk about that later.

Remember that as long as we are on the way, we are in the process of conversion.  That is why we asked at the start, where were you in your faith life last November when we began this journey with Mark’s Gospel.  That is why some days we can wonder if we believe yet.  Does the way we live our lives say Jesus is Lord of our lives?  Still, on other days, something wells within us, we call it grace and the life of the Spirit, and we know we believe.  We know we are disciples willing to follow and try to imitate Jesus.

What about Bartimaeus?  For that we have to journey back to the day we first knew we believed.  For many of us, a struggle preceded that awareness.  We had to work through work through issues.  We had to make life decisions.  We had to admit emptiness.  We had to toss cloaks aside.  The day we recognized that we could not do this alone, that we needed others to support us and encourage us along the way, the day we knew something prevented us from being able to see, that is to believe, that was the day we were Bartimaeus.  So also were we the day we had to let go of everything and let Jesus be Lord of our lives.

A couple of final points in conclusion.  The Church wisely sees our faith journey to be communal.  That distinguishes the Catholic (communal) Way from the Protestant (individual) Way.  We believe that the Church is the People of God.  We are united in the process of ongoing conversion along the Way.  We assemble around the tables of the Word and of the Eucharist to be nourished and transformed, just as the bread and wine are, into the Body of Christ.  The Assembly is the Body of Christ, just as is the Eucharist.  We are sent, as the Body of Christ, to continue Christ’s work until he comes again.

The RCIA process is a glorious expression of these convictions.  The one seeking faith comes to the community.  In the midst of the community s/he experiences what it means to worship and know the love of God.  It is through the experience of the community that s/he comes to know what it means to be a servant church, serving the needs of the poor.  Through the community s/he experiences forgiveness and reconciliation, a new faith and the renewal of hope.

The community supports the seekers through prayer and example.  The seekers come to know that the church is always there for them, even as they come to know that all are welcome here.  Please God that will be their experience.

It is important that seekers make the full journey, i.e., journey along the Way through an entire Church Year.  Then, in that most holy of nights, when all the old has been consumed in the fire and from that fire comes the light of the Easter Candle that proclaims Christ risen and glorious, surrounded by the faithful, Bartimaeus enters the waters to die there and to rise from there, identified with Christ, to live as Christ until he enters Christ’s glory forever.

Sincerely,

Didymus