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THE EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – July 31, 2016

A reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23

A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 12:13-21

 

Dear Jesus,

Qoheleth’s words ring in my ears.  They echo and reverberate in my consciousness at the strangest times.  What is the occasion?  What spurs these pricks to my conscience?  It is hard to say.  Sometimes I wonder if it is your voice chastising me and the values that I live by.  But how can that be?  I am not wealthy.  There certainly is no temptation to tear down a bulging barn and build a larger one to accommodate the abundance of a harvest – much less the need for several savings accounts to distribute my wealth for safekeeping and interest-induced increase.  Why am I disturbed by the parable you tell in this Sunday’s Gospel?  Do you confront me with the tale?  Do I horde?  Does my way of life proclaim a value system that is contrary to the Gospel and gives primacy of place to wealth?

I wince and feel a twinge of sorrow when I hear stories of the escapades of the young wealthy who seem to exhaust themselves in pursuits of ways to indulge themselves.  They haven’t seen La Dolce Vita with its haunting final image of the dissipated revelers pouring out into morning’s first light, spent and exhausted and still in search of something to give meaning to their lives.  Do they understand the meaning of Citizen Kane’s plaintive final word: Rosebud?  But now I date myself.  Those works are from ages past, well out of the purview of the young, which, I suppose, would mean anyone under fifty.

Is it a matter of perspective?  Can anyone born to wealth and under the age of thirty imagine being aged, much less, poor?  Won’t they always be young, strong, and with all the resources at their disposal to make their lives comfortable and secure?  Who can blame them, living in their conclaves and surrounded by the similarly endowed, for thinking that everyone lives as they do?  What about the poor?  Poverty befalls those who refuse to work hard enough.  Scrooge had to have three visitors from the grave before he got the picture.

Do you remember the trip we took to Kenya and Uganda?  I say we because I knew that you were with me in so many encounters I had there, encounters that shook me to the core.  I remember being numbed by the statistics; a twelve percent employment rate; an average monthly wage of $20; practically every family touched by someone dead or dying from HIV/AIDS.

Do you remember Sister’s rejoicing that the girls in her boarding school, because of the large flock of chickens she had nurtured in the school’s coop, could now have eggs weekly and meat maybe once a month?

Do you remember how shaken I was on the streets of Nairobi when that young boy ran from those bullying him and flung himself at my feet, threw his arms around my legs and cried out, Uncle, help me.  Uncle, please!  There was nothing I could do.  If I gave him a few coins, the others would beat him and take the coins from him.  And we were told that for the first time in modern history there were Street Children in Uganda.  The words helpless and powerless took on new meaning for m.

Do you remember the night that some of the parishioners in the Kenyan parish hosted a dinner for us?  Remember the table laden with chicken, beef, lamb and an array of vegetables and plantain and flatbread fresh from the hearth oven?  There were beer and red wine and the constant urging to eat, drink, and enjoy?  Having some knowledge of the poverty from which this bounty came, I was embarrassed by the excess and protested.  But our hosts wanted us to know that we were welcome.  I thought of the table Abraham prepared for the Three Strangers at the Oak of Mamre, and wondered if we were being counted among the angels some have entertained unawares.

When we celebrated Eucharist, do you remember that procession of parishioners coming toward the Table to make their offerings?  A few eggs wrapped in cheesecloth.  A bunch of vegetables, their greens still attached.  A few potatoes.  A live chicken, its legs fettered, placed in the pile of gifts.  There was an offering box.  As the members of the Assembly approached they would shield from view their clenched hand as they dropped their coins through the opening.  I thought of the widow you pointed out near the Temple treasury.  I’ll never forget how those parishioners danced in the procession, praising God through their bodies’ motions as they raised their voices in Song.  Their joy was palpable.  No one complained that Mass went on for two-and-a-half hours.  That Assembly’s joy was palpable.

All that seems long ago now, the stuff of distant memories.  After I left Africa and returned home, do you remember how stunned I was that first time I went into a supermarket and saw all the stuff that surrounded me, luring me, urging me to indulge.  There was more dog and cat food on the shelves than the essentials on the shelves in the Ugandan markets.

Why did I take this track in writing to you today?  That was not my intention at the outset.  I meant to thank you for keeping me from greed.  I felt like rejoicing that things have never meant that much to me.  To my knowledge, I don’t hoard.  I’m not envious of others’ wealth.  Well, to be honest, there are times when I wish I had a bit more for security’s sake.  But then I wonder if there would ever be enough – even if I were on that list of one hundred entertainers who made the most money last year – even if I were number 100.  I do thank God that I have a roof over my heed.  It is a choice whenever I miss a meal.

So, I am tempted to think that this Sunday’s parable is meant for others and I can relax and breathe easy during its proclamation.  In the midst of that temptation I see your eyes that penetrate to my heart.  There might be the hint of a twinkle there, but I see caution as well.  This Gospel passage, like every other, is meant for everyone.  It confronts us all and calls us to conversion.  I know I am not there yet.  What would you have me learn?  What area of my conscience do you probe this time?  Where do I still need conversion?

In the evening of life you will be judged concerning Love.  It would be easy for me to look at wealthy people and chastise them for their selfishness and self-indulgence.  But I think I hear you asking me, What about your own?  Am I selfish?  Am I self-indulgent?  Please, Lord, say it isn’t so!  There will be time soon, maybe even tomorrow, for me to serve the needs of some other people.  Sometime soon, I’ll find the time to contact my friend from whom I haven’t heard for how long?  And maybe in a short while I’ll let go of the resentments I still tote about with me and I’ll find the way to forgive the wrongs I perceive have been done to me.

If I find the way to do all that, will I then find the grace to be happy living in the now?  Is it then that I will thank God for this day, this bread, this friend?

Do I hear your answer correctly?  Are you telling me that you are looking for something more?  You want there to be some evidence in my actions that I believe in my mortality, that what is here is transitory.  That is what you wanted the barn builder to hear.  That is what Paul wants me to hear.  Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.  For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.

Please help me to hear the message and not be afraid to respond with my whole heart.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – July 24, 2016

A reading from the Book of Genesis 18:20-32

A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 2:12-14

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 11:1-13

 

Dear Jesus,

You have heard me pray about this before.  I am in that mindset now.  You are a revolutionary whose radical ideas have been tempered and moderated by frequent exposure.  Otherwise your words would shock those of us who think we are living according to your way.  You have been painted in pastels.  The message has been softened.  It shouldn’t be so comfortable being your disciple now.  When you first challenged potential disciples to come and follow you, many of them were afraid and wondered how they could do it even as they knew they wanted to be with you.

When this Sunday’s Gospel is proclaimed, will anyone stand with mouth agape and wonder if s/he is hearing you correctly.  Will the Assembly understand the implications of what you say should be the attitudes that dominate our prayer?  Your disciples watched you pray.  Whatever they observed made them long for a similar experience for themselves.  One said: Teach us to pray.  In response, you didn’t teach them how to pray.  You taught them what should be the content of their prayer.  In the few short sentences that outlined that content you encapsulated the whole revolution you have in mind.

The revolution begins with the attitude you want us to have toward God.  Some verbal portraits of God are daunting, and some preachers ramp up that message of a seeming judging and condemning God.  Granted they misread the text.  Still they would have humankind quiver before a God who is formidable, distant, judging and condemning.  (Would God really have been happy had more of the LGBT community been slaughtered in the Orlando massacre, as some preached?)  How can they reconcile that with the image of God that emerges in this week’s reading from the Book of Genesis?  Here we experience the God who looks for a reason to withhold the fury that could sweep away the innocent with the guilty.  This is the God who promised when the waters receded that there would never be another flood that would destroy the world.  This is the God who anticipates repentance and is lavish with forgiveness.  This is the God who pleads, abases himself and pleads: Let me be your God and you will be my people.  You say that when we pray, we should call God Abba, Father.

We forget that not every child’s sire was an Abba.  We forget that not every child was treasured in a safe and secure home, with doting parents to respond to every need and to protect them from every danger.  Children, in your time, were property that could be bought and sold and then live their lives as slaves.  In directing us to call God Abba, you give us an insight into your relationship with God, your Abba.  You challenge the then accepted power structures in families.  That persists to today.  No one is to lord it over another.  Children are not to be chattel.  The family is to imitate and live the community that is God, each one pouring out self in loving service of each other, just as you do.  We stand in awe of God’s holiness that now is approachable, even as we are held in God’s embrace and long to experience God’s reign in our lives and in our world.  Tyranny is banished forever.

Abba is the source of every blessing.  You invite us to use intercessory prayer, but not to pray for excess goods.  Give us each day our daily bread.  Doesn’t that mean that we are to pray for the essentials that are necessary for our survival?  That seems to imply a certain poverty of lifestyle.  The wealthy don’t have to worry about their next mouthful.  People who are young and strong and of comfortable means might forget, with their stomachs perpetually sated, that Abba is the one who called them into existence and sustains them in existence.  In their mind’s eye, they might find it hard to imagine themselves aging, being in want, and experiencing vulnerability.  What would daily bread mean in that context?

Attitude.  It’s true, isn’t it?  “The attitudes of prayer you want to inculcate in us demand that we change our perspective.  The pronouns are plural.  You envision a community praying, a community that is in truth and reality familial.  God is our Abba, not my Abba.  That is included, of course, but you want us to recognize each other as sisters and brothers whose common Abba desires that we live as family, in loving service that is imitative of Abba’s attitude towards us.  Abba loves us communally.

There is something that frightens me in your next directive that has to do with forgiveness.  I pray for forgiveness daily and celebrate Reconciliation regularly.  Are you saying that that is fine as far as it goes, but you expect more?  There is a condition you want us to place on our plea for forgiveness.  That condition is fine if I am a forgiver.  But what if I am not?  Am I praying that Abba watches me as a forgiver and assess the quality of that forgiveness, and then forgives me in the way I forgive?  What if I bear grudges?  What if I forgive but never forget?  What if I cannot forgive?  How can I ask God to treat me in the same way?  (I will never forget the extraordinary faith manifested in those survivors of the victims in the church shooting in South Carolina.  Immediately the proclaimed forgiveness for the shooter, because they wanted God’s forgiveness to work in their lives.)

Ah, but now I think I see that there is a constant challenge here.  You are directing that forgiveness be at the heart of every Christian community.  Yours is not a community that is primarily judgmental, much less condemnatory.  Neither should it be quick to proclaim who is not welcome here.  That is correct isn’t it?  You said it in another place.  Come to me all you who labor and are heavily burdened and I will refresh you.  Is that what you expect of communities that gather in your name?  We are to be sinners forgiving sinners, gathering around the common table, rejoicing that all are welcome here.  There must be more to this Year of Mercy that Pope Francis has declared, than the hanging of banners that proclaim it.  Alas, I wonder.

How long have I been praying your prayer?  As I write this, I wonder if I have ever understood.  And if I understood, would I have dared to utter your prayer?  I am confident that it is not too late.  Please open my heart and help me to live what I pray, just as I ask you to help me live the Eucharist we celebrate.  I believe that if my heart changes, then strengthened by the Eucharist, I will not be afraid on my last day.  I will understand then that strengthened by your love and the love of the community in whose midst I have prayed and served, I will recognize in those final moments that it is Abba coming to take me home where I will experience the fullness of Abba’s reign.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – July 17, 2016

Reading from the Book of Genesis 18: 1-10

Reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Colossians 1:24-28

Reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 10: 38-42

Dear Jesus,

Hospitality.  Table fellowship.  These are primary responsibilities for you, aren’t they?  You want them to be the hallmarks of experience for those who gather in your name at your table.  Forgive me, but that is why I struggle with this Gospel relating your visit to Martha and Mary’s home.  It seems incomplete to me, in need of one more line of dialog in which you praise Martha, too.

Martha, after all, welcomes you.  The text makes that quite clear.  She is the hospitable one as she assumes the implications of hospitality.  She prepares the table for you.  She acts like Abraham in the first reading.  Abraham welcomes the mysterious trio of visitors with reverence.  He is lavish in his ministrations and calls for preparations far in excess of what the three could possibly consume.  

Did Abraham act this way because he recognized the Lord’s presence in the visitors?  Or did he act this way because he knew the demands of hospitality dictated he do so?  The impact of the piece would be lessened if Abraham had a premonition of the rewards that would come to him following the meal.  In stead, he did what he did because he knew it was the right thing to do.  Only after the meal did he find out that God cannot be outdone in generosity.  Abraham had entertained angels unawares.

In Abraham and Sarah’s old age, they would be parents.  A son will be born to them about this time next year.

Perhaps the problem is that Martha feels burdened by her chores.  Should there not be joy in the service?  Is that what elicits your response?  Or are you rejecting the subservient and servant role that had fallen to women?  Were you subtly prompting her to aspire to more than traditional feminine roles as was evidenced in Mary’s taking her place at your feet, as the males would who were your audience?

What is Mary’s chosen better part?  It’s true, isn’t it?  She has rejected the servant role and refused to be segregated from the men.  She will not be consigned to the scullery.  You say she chose the better part.  This is not something that she passively fell into.  Much less is it a sign of laziness or blindness to the demands of hosting.  Mary has chosen to be a disciple.  In choosing to sit at your feet and listen she affirms she is a disciple.  Disciples are with you.  They listen to you and drink in your words and are transformed by them, so becoming your other selves.

Mary, prompted by grace and the Holy Spirit, (I say that because St. Paul says that is the only way responses like these can happen) chooses discipleship, chooses to listen, and chooses to be with you.  What would follow, should she not have been fully aware of the implications of what she was doing?  She will find herself among the first of those to proclaim your Resurrection.

So, I come back to Martha.  I notice that she calls you Lord.  Doesn’t that mean that she has made her decision about you?  If she chooses to be your disciple, doesn’t that mean that she, too, as does her sister, wants to be with you?  Are you chiding her for not putting discipleship first?  Or is the chiding because in her anxiety about many things, she did not take the opportunity to listen to the word?

I place myself in the scene.  What am I supposed to do?  How am I supposed to act?  You have chosen me to be a disciple.  My response is the desire to be with you, to sit at your feet and listen to you.  I believe you want me to choose the better part.  But even that is not enough, is it?

I am having one of those moments.  If I do listen and if I do absorb the message, something should flow for that.  Besides doing what Mary did, don’t I have to do Martha’s business, too?  Obviously I do not have the limitations imposed by sexism.  Still, I wonder what you would say to me were you to see me in action.

And I wonder about the Church.  Sometimes it seems power and position take prominent roles over those who have been called.  The faithful have been baptized into the Priesthood of the Baptized.  They should be empowered to exercise that Priesthood.  The chief Shepherds, as Pope Francis has said, should not exercise their shepherding over the sheep, but among the sheep, even going so far as to smell like the sheep.  All of us are called to sit at your feet and listen to the Word and, together, be transformed by the Word.  All of us are to exemplify hospitality and table fellowship when we gather.  What should resonate fro us is the proclamation that all are welcome here.  

We have to absorb the transformative lessons of celebrating Eucharist.  If there is anything of arrogance about us, we’ve missed the point.  If we lord power over anyone, we are not exercising the discipleship you modeled for us.  We must be willing to be broken and poured out in service.  We have all been called to be servants whose faith empowers us to recognize you in the poorest of the poor.  The poor are not inferiors, but in being given primacy of place, they are our peers.

Will you be patient with me as I struggle to embrace discipleship?  Will you encourage me to cast of contrary values of power, wealth, and primacy of place that can be very alluring and so let me find joy in entertaining angles unawares?

Sincerely, 

Didymus