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TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – October 02, 2016

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Habakkuk 12-3, 2:2-4

A reading from the second Letter of St Paul to Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 17:5-10

 

Will anyone who listens to the reading from the Prophet Habakkuk this Sunday find it difficult to identify with what the prophet proclaims?  The reading will resonate with anyone presently enduring personal suffering, be it from a health crisis, a financial crisis, or the devastation from betrayal.  Those in pain will feel the urge to echo the prophet’s opening words: How long, O Lord!  I cry for help but you do not listen!  The lector will be challenged to register the anguish that tormented Habakkuk as he gave voice to his pain.  But we must feel it.

If you are not experiencing a time of suffering, if you have followed current events and have a compassionate response, (the word compassion means, to suffer with) to those who have suffered so much in the face of war, or from natural disasters like floods or forest fires, then Habakkuk’s words will seem apt.  The innocents in Iraq or in Pakistan or in any other place where conflict drags on seemingly interminably must cry out: How long, O Lord!  Who can erase from memory the haunting face of the 5-year-old boy in Aleppo sitting stunned, bloodied and covered in ash sitting in the back of an ambulance having been pulled from the rubble that killed other members of his family?

Habakkuk lived in what he would describe as the worst of times.  As a person of faith, he was heartsick to see how many of his brothers and sisters had given up their faith and now followed the ways of the pagans.  In that time of corruption and infidelity, the southern kingdom of Judah weakened and the Babylonian captivity loomed.  Jerusalem would be destroyed and the people, led off in slavery.  It may sound like hubris, but the prophet questions the way God is running things.  With all the suffering and the impending misery, why doesn’t God do something to bring the situation back under control?  Why won’t God rescue the people and take charge again?

Many people lose their faith in times of widespread suffering.  Some of those who suffered through the Holocaust could no longer profess a belief in a God who permitted such horrible suffering to be unleashed on the Chosen People.

God responds to Habakkuk’s plea.  It may not have been what Habakkuk had hoped for, that is, immediate relief, but God tells the prophet to write down this moment of vision and relate it to the people.  God will not abandon the Jews.  No matter how desperate their situation might become, God’s promise will not disappoint.  No matter how long it takes, persevere in faith and know that deliverance will happen.  The just one, because of faith, shall live.

Occasionally in the Sunday Lectionary all three readings interrelate.  That is true this week.  Paul writes to Timothy and urges him to keep the faith even in difficult times.  The fact that Paul, his mentor in the faith and the one who imposed hands on him in ordination, is now disgraced and in prison should not cause Timothy to weaken.

Paul suffers.  Timothy may well have to suffer for the faith.  It is important that Timothy bears his share of hardship for the Gospel and witness to it with his life.  Remember, Jesus said that the disciple must take up the cross every day and follow Jesus.  Timothy’s witness will strengthen the people’s faith.  If Timothy wonders whether or not he can endure all this and be faithful to his vocation, Paul reminds him that his strength will come from God.  The Holy Spirit that is Christ’s gift to us will be the source of Timothy’s and the people’s strength.

From the earliest days of the Christian era, believers honored those who died for the faith.  When the church was in the catacombs celebrating Eucharist in danger and secrecy there, the Table was the tomb of a martyr.  That is why relics of martyrs are in most altars today.  The blood of the martyrs urged those still on the way not to give up their faith.  Christ’s death on the cross was not a defeat.  The resurrection vindicated Christ.  Even should believers die for the faith, they are defeated only in the world’s eyes.  The eyes of faith recognize that they now share in Christ’s resurrection.

Except in an applied sense, it is difficult to use the word tragedy to describe even horrendous events that touch Christians.  The word tragedy means defeat as when the hero suffers ultimate defeat at the hands of whatever is his foe.  For Christians, that cannot happen.  There is no ultimate defeat.  Martyrs do not suffer defeat.  They are victors.  All those who keep the faith even as they lose their lives enter into Christ’s victory.

We come now to the Gospel and hear the apostles ask the Lord to increase their faith.  Is there anyone who cannot identify with their plea?  What gives rise to their prayer?  They have been walking with Jesus for some time now and have witnessed his preaching, teaching, and miracles.  They come also to realize the courage and strength required to do what Jesus does.  Will they be able to do what is expected of them?  Whatever faith is, they know that they will need to be strong in it if they are to do what Jesus expects of them.

The response they receive might seem strange.  To hear that if one has faith the size of a mustard seed, that is, any faith at all, wonderful things will follow, might leave the listener puzzled.  Do not make the mistake of being too literal here and so become discouraged because you have never seen a mulberry uprooted and transported to the depths of the sea in response to your command.  At the same time, do not miss the wonderful things that result from acts of faith.  After all, faith is contagious.  Others come to believe when they experience faith in the lives of those around them, especially when there is no other explanation than faith for the heroic deeds done.  It is a fact that the number of believers increases most rapidly during times when the faith is persecuted.

Jesus gets to what is most important for us to consider when we talk about faith.  The parable he tells concerns the master and the servant.  The servant has responsibilities, and some of them are heavy.  When the tasks are accomplished, the servant has done only what was expected of him.  At the end of the day, he should expect no special rewards.  He continues to be the servant and still is responsible to meet the master’s needs.  That is his job.

What the Lord is telling the apostles and us is that faith is its own reward.  There are those who preach in the so-called mega churches about the rewards that will come to believers.  Prosperity is just around the corner, and so are all the other treasures about which one dreams.  I have never been able to find a basis for such preaching in the Christian Scriptures.  It is not that I would be disappointed if abundance followed as a result of my believing.  It is just that I would rather grow in my union with the Lord and have that as the reward for believing.  Besides if one sees the venture in faith as a system of rewards and punishments, then there is something dangerous and theologically untenable that follows.  Poverty and any of the other hardships that can afflict a person become punishments for lack of faith and the presence of sin in the victims’ lives.  How many natural disasters have you heard interpreted in that way?

The Lord urges us to live lives of faith and to do all that faith demands of us.  Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote haunts me in this consideration.  He is supposed to have said in effect that he loved Christ.  It was Christians that he hated.  The point is, if there is nothing about a person, nothing in the decisions that s/he makes, nothing in his/her actions that can be explained only by faith, chances are there is not much of faith in that person.

You have heard the phrase culturally Catholic, haven’t you?  That describes people who were baptized and raised in the Catholic faith, but now carry out none of its practices or disciplines.  They don’t go to mass on Sundays.  There are Jewish people of a similar ilk.  They do not go to temple or synagogue.  For all intents and purposes, faith is dead in them, but they are culturally Jewish.

As we listen to the gospel this Sunday, it is a good time to reflect on the state of our faith and to wonder if we are letting our faith animate us and prompt our decision-making.  We sit under the Word each Sunday to be challenged by it and so be transformed.  To conclude that we may be wanting in what the Gospel calls us to do and to be should not result in a feeling of defeat or discouragement.  Rather, grace might prompt us to open ourselves to faith, to let faith lead and guide us.  We might find the way to start evidencing Christ living in us through the deeds of loving service to which we commit ourselves.  Faith might help us to recognize Christ in the ones we serve.

I remember the story of a remarkable 12-year-old boy.  At his tender age he seems to have been the epitome of compassion.  He lives in Florida.  When he was 8, a hurricane devastated his hometown.  He actively reached out to those who suffered loss.  He did what he, as an 8-year-old could do.  He got bottled water from stores what would donate it to him and carted it around to those who needed it.  A large number of volunteers were inspired by his efforts and found ways to do similar deeds.

Four years later, moved by the plight of street kids, he completed a cross-country hike to raise awareness of and funds for those distressed young people.  His mother drove along in a pacing car so that he would not be alone.  He walked every step of the way.  I don’t know if he is Christian or not.  That wasn’t mentioned in the story.  But I would conclude with certainty that his actions are Christ-like.  The youngster has raised a lot of money and practically reached out to some of the street kids.  He hoped that others would aid in his efforts.  His hopes seemed to be realized.

With faith strong or weak, we go from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  We go as individuals and as part of an assembly whose faith we share and with whom we are the Body of Christ.  The Eucharist is about renewing Christ’s dying and rising.  Our action is one of giving thanks to God for the faith that is ours.  We must not forget that to share in that Eucharistic meal, the bread must be broken and the one Cup poured out.  Then we can take and eat, and take and drink.  But it doe not stop there.  In reality, that is the beginning.  We are sent out from the Eucharist ourselves to be bread broken and cup poured out through our lives lived in service.

Who can do that?  Can you?  Can I?  We can with faith the size of a mustard seed.  The Lord said that we could.  Do we believe him?

Lord, increase our faith!

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – September 25. 2016

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Amos 6:1a, 4-7

A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to Timothy 6:11-16

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 16:19-31

 

Dear Jesus,

It surprises me that people do not get upset, even angry, when they hear some of your parables.  This Sunday’s Gospel is a case in point.  Do we instinctively protect ourselves by adapting the text so that it is not nearly as confrontational as the naked text would seem to be?  Please tell me that is not what I do.  Chances are the first audience that heard you tell this parable, the Pharisees, heard it the way you meant it.  They didn’t have those defense mechanisms in place.  The story was like a punch in the gut.  No wonder they became so angry with you that they wanted to see you put to death.

Do I breathe a sigh of relief because someone else is the focus of the telling?  Again, please let that not be so.  What challenges the Pharisees you mean to challenge all of us who are listening, be we of the crowds or the disciples.  It occurs to me that anger at hearing your parable could well be a grace prompting me to change so that I will conform more closely to people whose lives are rooted in the Gospel, people who seriously want to imitate you as we walk with you on the Way.

The Prophet Amos, in the first reading castigates the complacent in Zion.  My dictionary defines complacency as self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.  Amos addresses those among God’s chosen people who have made it, as we would say today, the elite of society.  They are the successful ones who are able to partake of the best that life can offer – the finest meats and wines and the best furnishings that money can by.  They are arty and pretentious.  There is nothing particularly sinful about what they are doing.  They might even have been thanking God with every bite or sip for the good fortune with which God blessed them.  Those of us hearing Amos today might miss that some of what they feast upon ought to be given to God in temple sacrifice.  Aside from that dereliction there is nothing blatantly sinful in what they are doing.  To what is Amos trying to awaken the complacent in Zion?  I can almost hear you telling me to listen carefully, too.

Your proclamation of the two great commandments in the Law suddenly comes to mind.  Love God with your entire being.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  You linked the two commandments and made them one.  You make it impossible to fulfill the one without fulfilling the other.

Is that what Amos is getting at here?  This people with all their indulgence in lavishness are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!  Here, Joseph means all of the people, especially the poor, the widows and the orphans who are supposed to be the objects of their special care.  The rich, in effect, separate the love of God from the love of neighbor.  Is Amos saying that the self-indulgence by the rich will bring about the collapse of the nation?  He warns that the rich will be the first to be led off in exile when the nation collapses.  If they are the first, that means they will be enslaved even before their poor counterparts are led away.

Do you want us, listening today, to remember that historically Israel was strongest when the people were most zealous about living the Law as God’s people?  The nation weakened when the people became fascinated by the gods of the Gentiles and no longer followed the Law.  Complacency made them unaware of actual dangers and deficiencies.

Amos prepares me to hear you tell the story about a rich man who feasted sumptuously every day.  The man probably was blind to the physical hazards from that kind of habitual diet.  While some people today would cringe, those were the days when full figures and masculine girth were signs of material success.  What you are telling us is that the man was also blind to the moral deficiencies of his lifestyle.

Why is it that when people hear this parable most often they assume all kinds of evils in the man’s life?  You don’t mention any of those.  You don’t say anything about licentiousness.  We are tempted to think that he must be thoroughly corrupt.  Why else would he end up where he does after death?  The only evil you voice in the man’s life is the fact that he was blind to Lazarus, the beggar at this rich man’s doorpost.

Now you take us to the netherworld – Hades, Sheol, or hell in our parlance.  What a difference in perspective comes to us.  Lazarus has died and now is embraced by Abraham (the God-figure).  The rich man also has died.  From his place of torment he can see the transformed Lazarus.  Abraham informs him that he is where he is as a consequence of the life of luxury he lived while Lazarus lived in want.  While that may be so, does the rich man maintain his attitude of superiority over Lazarus?  Is that why he asks Father Abraham to have Lazarus tend to his needs?  He wants Lazarus to do his bidding and bring him a sip of water to slake his thirst.  You in your parable say that is not possible.  It is clear that the rich man does not realize how deep and wide is the chasm that separates the two worlds or how permanent is his present situation.

Do you intend us to hear a moment of awakening for the rich man in what he asks next?  Perhaps he is aware of someone else in his universe.  He asks that Lazarus be sent to the man’s brothers to warn them to change their lives lest they suffer the fate.  Father Abraham reminds Dives, as the rich man is often called, that they have Moses’ and the prophets’ teachings that should serve as warnings.  Let them listen to Moses and the prophets and respond accordingly.  Dives says the brothers may be ignoring all the teachings up to this point in their lives as he did in his, but they will listen if Lazarus from among the dead goes to them.

If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.  So ends your parable.  Luke wrote his Gospel in light of your resurrection.  Is the parable’s conclusion saying that Dives’ request of Father Abraham is granted when you triumph over death and rise to new life?  You returned to call us to live a new and different kind of life, a life of justice, love, and peace.  Did Dives’ brothers listen?  Did they respond?  Have people in every age listened and responded?  Will we?

How long will you be patient with us, with me?  Sunday after Sunday your followers come together to listen to Moses and the prophets and to the Gospel in our Liturgy of the Word.  You mean the readings to confront us, even unsettle us.  You mean them to warn us.  Our starving spirits are nourished at the Table of the Word.  As uncomfortable as I might be made by what I hear, I am meant to take the Word to heart and be transformed by it.  My sisters and brothers and I are shown time after time that we are to love God with our entire beings and our neighbors as ourselves.  I think I can hear you saying that there must be more than a notional response.  If Dives had been asked about Amos, or Moses, or any of the prophets, he probably would have been able to quote them and say that he accepted their teachings.  But the teachings did not change Dives’ heart.  He could love God with all sincerity and ignore the beggar at his doorpost.  We listen to you who have come back from the grave.  You command us to love God and to love one another as I have loved you.    I have to listen as you tell me that love must be practical or it is not love at all.

I just read a statement by a fairly well known Catholic writer announcing that she is giving up being a Christian.  She gave as her reasons what we would call the sins of the Church, the way the Church is perceived in these times.  Judgmental.  Condemning.  Divisive.  Clerical.  Sexist.  Her words.  It is true that what the woman says is simplistic and un-nuanced.  But it is also apparent that she is not turning her back on you, but on the Church as she hears the Churches message to be today.

I wonder if she will be comforted by Pope Francis’s preaching and teaching about the reforms he longs to see in the Church.  Loudly and clearly he is challenging your people to see Lazarus at our doorposts.  That is what he must mean by a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  Decisions that are made must work toward justice for the poor and seek a more equitable distribution of the world’s goods.  The chasm that separates the wealthy from the poor, the wealthy nations from the developing nations must be narrowed.  You do not want the differences that separate to be the primary theme of ecclesial declarations, but rather what unites us in God ought to be the proclamation.  Why did some shudder when the pope declared that there are many ways to heaven and that even the atheist can go there?  And Muslims, too.  And Blacks and Whites and Asians.  Males and females and members of the LGBT community.  When strangers come among us, your desire is that the first thing they experience is God’s love that embraces all, that wills the salvation of all.

So, once again we will go from your Table of the Word to your Table of the Eucharist.  We will give thanks to God as we renew your dying and rising in the Bread that is broken and the Cup that is poured out.  Once again you will encourage us to take your promise to heart that whenever we do this you are present.  Then we will be transformed just as are the bread and wine.  If we believe you who have come back to us from among the dead, we will understand that we are sent to live that reality until you come again in glory.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – September 18, 2016

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Amos 8:4-7

A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to Timothy 2:1-8

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 16:1-13

 

Dear Jesus,

It is important for me to pay attention to whom you are speaking when you tell a parable.  You intend the stories to unsettle your audience as you teach about discipleship or the coming Kingdom.  Sometimes you speak to the crowds, those gathered around you who have not yet decided whether to follow you, and put squarely before them the cost of discipleship.  Sometimes, as in this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word, your parable is addressed to the disciples. To spell out clearly for them what you expect as disciples live out their vocation.

If you are speaking to disciples, I have to accept that you are speaking to me.  The instinct might be to be guarded or defensive because I know from experience that your parables can be problematic and that instinct might be for me to think that surely your are not talking to me.  Perhaps, but on the other hand.  So I accept that you want me to be open to the implications of this story in which you praise craftiness and even dishonesty.  There is something for me to learn and take to heart.  I am still on the Way after all.

What do you want me to do with this?  The master reprimands the steward, the one in charge of the estate, for squandering his property.  That is an interesting choice of words.  Last week that was what the Prodigal Son was accused of doing, squandering his inheritance.  The word means to spend wastefully and foolishly.  In both cases, the foolish spending involved what was entrusted to them.  There was reconciliation for the son last week.  This week there are praises for the dishonest steward when he acts prudently.

Once the master confronts the steward and demands an accounting, he concludes that his station in life is about to be drastically reduced.  One day he lives as one of the entitled.  The next day may well find him living the life of a pauper.  A prince one day, he will be a commoner the next.  Recognizing his own limitations, that is, that he can neither accept being a common laborer nor someone who sits and begs, he determines to ingratiate himself with those who are indebted to the master.  He calls them in, one by one, and slashes their bills, making it easier for them to repay and get out of debt.  Some commentators say that he simply removed from their tab what he had added that would come to him upon payment.  That is what tax collectors did to tax bills.  They added to the tax assessment in order to make their living.

Other commentators say he recognized which side his bread was buttered on, as we would say today, and reduced what the master could expect to retrieve from his debtors.  It is possible that the master did not know what was owed.  You want me to hear that the steward would do anything to make friends to receive him in his desperation.

What am I to take from this as I hear the master commend the steward for his prudence?  You are not praising dishonesty.  You praise the steward, recognizing the precarious situation he is now in, for doing what he has to have friends once he is thrown out of his position.

You want your disciples to be prudent with what has been entrusted to us.  You entrust the Kingdom to disciples.  We are supposed to understand that our living the Good News and imitating you is meant to prepare the way for the Kingdom’s entry into the lives of those we meet.  We disciples should be as determined in our ministry as the steward was in his endeavors.  Of course the obvious difference is that the steward was self-serving.  Disciples are to pour out their very selves in service of others.  Some could see that as squandering, couldn’t they?  But you do not want disciples to serve so that we will be received into earthly mansions, (alas, some might fit that characteristic); rather you want us to keep our eyes fixed on the goal.  At the end of our ministries we will be welcomed by the poor we have served into the heavenly mansion prepared for us.

I am grateful that you spelled out the implications of the parable for the disciples.  Those implications have to do with the response to worldly wealth.  Some are mistaken in thinking that you condemn wealth.  Paul did not tell Timothy that money is the root of all evil; rather, he said that the love of money is.  For the wealthy, what is important is what they do with their wealth.  The negative implications of squandering would apply.  But do you laugh at those who stand outside in long lines through the darkest and dreariest of nights just so that they can be among the first to buy the latest electronic gadget?  I think I will be able to go to my grace in peace even if I never play Pokémon.  Encouraging are the stories of the billionaires bequeathing the bulk of their fortunes to charitable causes.

You do expect us to give of our wealth, great or meager as it might be, to tithe of our wealth to ease the needs of the poor.

I read a story about the late actor, Tony Randall.  He had a successful acting career and fortune followed.  He gave an interview in which he said that he never wanted to take his wealth for granted, nor did he think that his success gave him importance.  On those occasions when he thought he was getting a swelled head and taking himself too seriously, he would journey to some impoverished are like Calcutta and walk among the poorest of the poor.  There he would come face to face with his powerlessness to do anything to alleviate the situation.  He knew that if he gave something to a beggar, the rest would throttle the recipient and wrest the pittance from him.  I wish the interview had gone a step farther to say what portion of Randall’s wealth he did give to charity.

I have to pray for poor Bernie Madoff, a man whose name will live in infamy.  While he is not the only one to plot and become ruthless in the pursuit of worldly wealth, he can stand as the epitome of what you warn about regarding succumbing to the love of money.  There is always the possibility that Madoff thought his Ponzi scheme would work.  But it seems more likely that his lust for money stifled his conscience as he bilked wealth from friends, charities, and strangers alike, promising that they would see amazing returns from entrusting their fortunes to him.  Turned out in disgrace as he was when the scheme collapsed, and were he not in prison, who would have received him and offered him shelter in his impoverished state?   What consolation can there be for him knowing that one son committed suicide because of the scandal, and the other died of cancer.  Do you weep for him and others like him?

Your herald, Pope Francis, reminds us that it is the poor we serve and to whose needs we contribute who will be the ones to pray in our behalf when they reach the heavenly kingdom before us.  They are the ones who will receive us into glory.  We don’t have to go to the other side of that coin.  You want us to stay with the positive challenge and its reward.

You have anointed Francis as today’s Prophet Amos in this Sunday’s first reading.  Like Amos, the pope rages against hypocrisy and blindness to the needs of the poor.  Both are searing in the condemnation of a religious people whose observances and practices are hollow.  The call is to give praise and honor to God and to work for justice for the poor.  Francis calls for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.

From the emphasis that you place on the embracing of poverty as part of the call to discipleship, I have to hear that worldly wealth poses a danger for us.  I have to ask what is most important in my life.  You cannot serve both God and mammon.  My dictionary says that mammon is material wealth having a debasing influence.  There are people who seem unable to talk about anything else but money and their desire for more.  Were one to wonder what is most important in their lives, the conclusion could well be that money, mammon, is.  Where does God come in? Second place?  You have taught us that we cannot be slaves to wealth and faithful servants.

Following the Liturgy of the Word, the Assembly continues on to Eucharist.  We gather around the table, the primary symbol of your presence, united as your Body to again give thanks to God as we renew your dying and rising in bread and wine.  Your dying is self-emptying.  You give your body to be eaten and your blood to be drunk by those who stand in need.

In the Communion Procession, we approach open and empty handed to receive the Bread and drink from the Cup.  We come in our hunger and poverty to be filled and strengthened so that we can continue to be your faithful stewards in service of your Good News.  We come to be transformed by what we take and eat so that we can be sent to continue to meet the needs of the poor in whom we recognize you in your passion.

Lord, you are the master who has gone on a journey and entrusted us as stewards of the kingdom.  We pray that when you return in glory, you will find us your faithful and trustworthy stewards, your servants and followers of the Good News you announce.

Sincerely,

Didymus