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FOURTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – July o9, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Zechariah 9:9-10
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:9, 11-13
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 11:25-30

Dear Reader,

As I write to you, my mind reels from accounts of the sufferings multitudes endure both from natural disasters and from human conflicts.  Tornado after tornado has ripped through the southeast quadrant of our country.  Forest fires raged in Florida, to say nothing of floods.  In other parts of our world thousands of people are dead in Syria and other countries in the east attempting to stop ISIS.  Thousands more are refugees seeking shelter and freedom to live normal lives.  News cameras capture image after image of human suffering for us to ponder during the evening news.  The horror we see is beyond the powers of the human mind to comprehend unless we happen to be standing in the midst of the rubble, hearing the cries of the suffering.

Chances are that Zechariah stood in the midst of destruction and suffering in Jerusalem once occupied by foreign rule, as he urged daughter Zion no delivered from captivity and exile, to rejoice heartily.  Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!  The prophet, remember, proclaims the message God wants the people to hear.  That message is always about finding hope and clinging to it in spite of everything seen to the contrary.  Daughter Jerusalem speaks to the intimacy she has with God, a relationship that endures in spite of the suffering and the fact that the restoration as promised has not taken place.  The Temple remains destroyed.

It might be easier to comprehend the challenge to believe if we imagined Zechariah’s prophecy being proclaimed in the midst of the horror of the Holocaust of the last century.  Where would be the reason to hope?  What would support faith in that setting?

In practically every age, true believers have believed in spite of all they perceived to the contrary.  Perhaps that is why, as it was for Israel, that periods of suffering are also the periods of strongest faith.  It may be why for Christians our hope is in the Cross.  Is there anything stronger than death?  Christ, raised by the Spirit, conquered death, remember.  Perhaps that is why Paul always insisted that even to believe is dependent on God’s grace.  The Spirit lives in those who believe.  No one can say Jesus is Lord except in the Holy Spirit.

Zechariah promises that God will be faithful.  Just as God led Israel out of the slavery of Egypt into the desert toward the Promised Land, so God will banish the chariots and the warrior’s bow from the land (Israel) as peace is proclaimed to the nations (Gentiles).  Of course peace will reign in Jerusalem because the dominion of the king God is sending shall be from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.  Just you wait and see.

Dare I be so bold as to say that if someone finds it easy to believe chances are s/he has the wrong message?  Security and wealth can make those who live with such luxuries delusional, concluding that such favors are signs of God’s special love, even concluding that belief in Jesus results in temporal wealth that foreshadows eternal bliss.  Such believers might easily translate natural disasters and other misfortunes as signs of God’s judgment and displeasure.  That is what Job heard in the midst of his sufferings from those sages who commented on his torments.  Job’s response? God was with him, sustaining him even in his darkest times.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.

What class of people do you suppose made up the number of those listening to Jesus in today’s Gospel?  Who are the little ones?  They were widows and children, the poor and the desperate, the lowest strata of society.  You could put lepers among them, too.  And prostitutes.  Maybe tax collectors.  In short, anyone who stands on the brink of despair.  I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to little ones.  Do not take from Jesus’ words that God hates the wise and the learned, the wealthy and any others of the upper class.  But there may not be too strong a sense of complete and utter dependence upon God among them.  It’s easy to be distracted by wealth, especially in this age that idolizes youth, power, position and wealth.  Those distractions hide the truths revealed to the little ones.

As we go on, here is something to ponder.  Do you number yourself among those little ones?  This is the Living Word, remember.  Jesus proclaims now to this audience.

To the Little Ones gathered to hear him, to drink in his every word, to trust him, Jesus reveals the wonder of relationship.  Jesus knows the Father as no one else does because of their unique relationship.  The word Father says it all.  In the great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his hearers how to pray.  When you pray, say Our Father.  Those who believe in Jesus share the relationship that Jesus has with the Father.  Jesus is the source.  Be careful to note that the relationship is not just between Jesus and me, the Father and me.  The relationship is mutual and shared by all who are so graced.  God is our Father.  Jesus is our brother.  United by the Spirit, we are sisters and brothers in the Lord.

What makes the burden light for all who labor and are burdened?  The relationship with Jesus Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.  Jesus tells us that he shares the labor and the burden.  We are in this together.  Remember Paul’s words: I can do all things in (Christ) who strengthens me.  The relationship lightens the burden and eases the labor.  We rest in love, Jesus’ love for us, God’s love for us.  Grace gives us strength.

Such language can translate into lush romanticism if we re not careful.  As we ponder those words we must ponder the heroes in our faith.  Pope Francis urges us to wake up and take the call to discipleship seriously.  That response entails poverty.  That is why he speaks of a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  That is why he shuns the finery associated with his office, why he washes the feet of the poor and shares table fellowship with street people.

Thomas More must have remembered Jesus’ fidelity when he stretched his neck over the block and cleared his beard for the blade of the axe.  It is said the Jeanne d’Arc kissed the crucifix as the flames enveloped her.  Stephen, the first martyr, looked heavenward and was blessed by the vision as the first stones pounded into him.  The canon of saints is replete with those who embraced the cross in desperate straits and died believing.

We may be soothed by the message, but we had better not miss its force.  Jesus does say, Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.  In another place he will say, Take up your cross every day and follow me.  We will only hear those words and take them to heart to the extent that we number ourselves among and identify with little ones.  Think of Archbishop Oscar Romero, now Blessed, and Dorothy Day.  They challenge us to identify with and be among the poor.  The archbishop was martyred because of his proclamation of the dignity and worth of little ones.  Dorothy Day embraced poverty and identified with the poor and the disenfranchised.  Each of them is an epitome of what the Church should be in our time.  If we hear this Gospel this Sunday, it won’t be enough to remember icons.  We have to change our lives.

Those people in the rubble of war-torn countries are our brothers and sisters.  The same is true of those in the tornados’ and floods’ aftermath.  So are those trying to put their lives back together after fire and floods took everything they owned away.  And so are those desperately trying to respond with aid and care packages and presence, those seeking to welcome the refugees; they are examples of what it means in action if we take Jesus’ yoke upon us and learn from him.

See why there is one Bread and one Cup?  See why we gather around one Table?  There are no divisions and classes in the Body of Christ.  We are one in him.  And that is why if we share in the meal, we will never be the same again.  Nor will the work ever be finished until we see the Lord’s dominion stretch from sea to sea and hear peace proclaimed to the nations.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – July 02, 2017

A reading from the second Book of Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a
A reading from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans 6:3-4, 8-11
A reading from the holly Gospel according to Matthew 10:37-42

Dear Reader,

The Liturgy of the Word this weekend proclaims both the call to and the rewards of discipleship.  And in the Gospel Jesus makes clear that the response to the call must be absolute and unconditional.  One of the blessings about being a disciple is the challenge to live in this tension between promise and fulfillment.  Have you ever noticed that a familiar passage of Scripture will be proclaimed and you can be stunned because the impact makes it seem you have never heard the passage before?  It is not so much that you are not familiar with the text as that you hear new implications and those in a whole new context.  When that happens the Holy Spirit enlightens you.

Jesus has been very clear with us.  There are hazards in responding to and carrying out discipleship.  Disciples must never forget that the Lord sustains, as we heard last Sunday, and is constant in loving even to counting the hairs on your head.  This Sunday we are told that the Lord wants primacy of place in the disciple’s heart, even as the disciple is identified with Jesus.  Those who receive you receive me.

We need to hear those words and the images that emerge now as we experience the challenges of discipleship standing in the wreckage and mire of these times.  We are wounded.  The hurled mud clings to the hems of our garments.  It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were in the glory days following the closing of Vatican Council II.  Some will remember the hope and confidence felt in those days of renewal and how boldly the Good News was proclaimed then.  Walls came tumbling down as East and West were reunited and divisions among people seemed to be healing.  A new awareness of our oneness came into focus.  In the process there were terrible days of fire hoses and snarling dogs.  Nightsticks and Billy clubs pummeled marchers and demonstrators.  Some were numbered among the disappeared never to be seen again.  Out of the ashes rose a phoenix of fraternal possibilities as we began to recognize and accept the dignity of each person, regardless of race, or creed, or gender, or orientation.  Today we seem to be losing ground in many of those concerns.

In those post-Conciliar days in the Church, the invitation to exercise Baptismal Priesthood helped many to respond to the call to ministry.  It was as if, in a moment, the People of God took to heart Paul’s reminder that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death…Consequently, you must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.  The people of God took to heart also the declaration that if the many and diverse gifts given to God’s people were put into service, there would be the building up of something new, the Body of Christ.  Women and men, young and not so young, the able and the disabled, all were represented among those who presented themselves and said, “With the help of the Spirit we can do this.  We can respond to the call.”

Writing this, I feel discouraged.  The wreckage of these last few years is staggering.  It is as if the lights have gone out.  The enthusiasm has waned.  Possibilities have succumbed to the cants of prophets of doom.

Pope Francis proclaims the absolutes in the vision of Vatican Council II.  The call to be a poorer church serving the needs of the poor is in reality the challenge to recognize each person’s dignity and worth, and to recognize Christ in the vulnerable ones.  This pope lives simply and shuns the bling of vestments and miters.  He resides in modest quarters and frequently breakfasts with poor people on the street.  He drives himself in a modest car.  He serves beside, not over the people.  He challenges the other shepherds to do the same.  Not all want to hear this message.

Many have exited the pews and turned their backs to walk away.  Discouraged by scandal, they do not hear a proclamation of the promise of the Good News.  They know that some in positions of authority reject the teachings of Vatican Council II and Pope Francis’s call.  With concerted effort they seek to return the church to pre-Conciliar days.  The language of Liturgy is becoming stilted and archaic in an attempt to transliterate the Latin texts instead of translating texts into the people’s vernacular.  Rather than experiencing a call to full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy, divisions emerge and Mass is said for rather than celebrated with the Assembly.

Some worship spaces have been remodeled to accommodate the Tridentine Liturgy with altars against the wall, tabernacles resting at the center of the altar, and Mass said with the priest’s back to the people.  The communion railing that separates the ordinary people from the sanctuary where the ordained may enter, is being restored.

Reservation chapels for the Eucharist are falling out of use as tabernacles return to the main worship area.  Or, ignoring the canon directing that there be one place of reservation in the parish, some churches have both the tabernacle in the worship space and a reservation chapel for perpetual adoration lest Jesus be lonely in the tabernacle.  (Pardon my sarcasm.  Someone actually chastised me for making that a possibility through a Liturgical design I promoted.)

The people are not to gather to celebrate Eucharist and experience the sacramental transforming presence of Christ in the Word, in the Assembly, and in Bread and Wine.  They are told to come, not so much as a people, but as individuals to worship the Presence in the tabernacle.  Often the people do not receive from the Bread and Wine consecrated at the Eucharist they are part of, but from the reserved Eucharistic Bread from the tabernacle.  So much for full, active and conscious participation.  Access to the Cup is being curtailed in many places, too.

As we assemble this Sunday in these conflicted and divisive times we must listen to familiar texts and, through the influence of the Holy Spirit, hear them as if for the first time.  Schooled in the Church’s Social Gospel, I believe in the responsibility we have for each other, especially for the poor, the disabled, the aged, and the disenfranchised.  Some declare the poor are poor because they didn’t work as hard as the wealthy.  The wealthiest shouldn’t be taxed to help meet the needs of the poor.  We live in a land where the separation of church and state is established.  But for some time I had rejoiced in thinking that the Church’s social Gospel was having an impact on the conscience of the people at large. Alas.  Now listen to the call to discipleship.  Now consider the implications and demands the lord voices and the place he wants in disciples’ hearts.

Perhaps it is true in every age, but it seems especially true that disciples swim against the tide of contrary values.  Being older is not valued today.  Only the young, the beautiful, the strong and the wealthy matter in this land of increasing disparity between those who have and those who do not.  Granted, some among the Evangelical Fundamentalists see wealth as a sign of God’s favor, or heaven as the predestination of the wealthy, and poverty, the punishment for sin.  That is not part of our Catholic tradition.  If the forsaken and the desolate are to experience the Lord’s embrace and be lifted out of squalor it will be through those who minister motivated by that vision of restoration.

Jesus tells us that his disciples are called to take up the cross and follow him.  Those who do, even if they lose their lives in the process, will find life.  Disciples are identified with Jesus and whoever receives (a disciple) receives me and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.  That one is the Father.

The Lord is calling us to something new.  We are not to sit and wait for the Lord to do something about the troubles we are in.  The Lord expects us to be Church, to be the Body of Christ, to be instruments of peace, change, and renewal.  Our hearts have to change.  Our responsibility is to live, vulnerable as we are, and offer our giftedness, limited though that might be, and trust that the Spirit will unleash powers to transform the world.

That is pretty heady, isn’t it?  We might be inclined to pray about this for a while longer and then get back to the matter at a later date.  But does that sound like what Jesus is saying in the Gospel?  Think about it as we celebrate Eucharist and let ourselves be transformed by what we take and eat and take and drink.

Sincerely,

Didymus