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TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – October 1, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 18:25-28
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2:1-11
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 21:28-32

Dear Reader,

If Jesus walked the land today, who would be numbered among his friends?  What types would they be?  From what class?  Certainly some of them would be the ordinary decent and hard-working types similar to those he invited to leave their nets, follow him and become fishers of people.  They weren’t extraordinary in many cases, but they had good hearts and proved to be fascinated by the tales he told.

There would be others with whom he would be seen, with whom he would practice table fellowship and break bread.  These associations would inspire scandal among the elite and those who felt no need for forgiveness.

The challenge, as we sit under the readings for this Sunday, is to determine where we would place ourselves.  On which side would we be?

To be moved by Ezekiel’s prophecy in the first reading, and by the questions Jesus poses in the Gospel, one has to have a sense of being a sinner, or at least a compassion for those who are sinners.  The judgmental will be left cold, just as were the chief priests and elders who confronted Jesus about his authority.  They were scandalized because prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners were known to have dined with Jesus.

The first reading and the Gospel hold up to us the possibility of conversion.  Ezekiel points out that conversion can go in opposite directions.  The sinner can see the light, as they say, and begin to follow virtue’s path.  One can grow weary of virtue and take up the ways of the sinner.  There are consequences for both – favor with God for the virtuous one and death for the one who embraces evil.  Hebrew Scripture is very clear about the link between sin, suffering and death, and between virtue and life and prosperity.  Be careful what conclusions you take from this.

As I write, Harvey is pummeling Houston and a major swath of Texas with hurricane-force winds and a deluge of rain causing widespread destruction and thousands having to evacuate.  Will a televangelist see this disaster as God’s punishment on Texans, the way they did when a similar disaster hit Haiti?  Is this the God Jesus announces and in whom we believe?

In the Gospel it is supposedly the righteous, the chief priests and the elders, those who have no felt need for repentance, much less for mercy, who are judgmental regarding those they deem to be sinners.  They want to trap Jesus and find faults with which to charge him.  They do not understand his mission.  They are scandalized, not only by the company he keeps, but by his seeming disregard for prescripts of the Law.  He and some of his disciples had been seen eating without first washing their hands.  To the scandalized, Jesus said: A man had two sons.  Each is asked by his father to work in the vineyard.  One refuses but later regrets his refusal and goes into the vineyard to work.  The second pleases his father with an affirmative response but in turn does not do the work.  Which of the two did the father’s will?  The hook is baited and dangles.  They bite.  Their answer?  The one who at first said No but later did the work.

Things are seldom what they seem.  Skimmed mild masquerades as cream.  Gilbert and Sullivan are the source of that observation.  It is apt here.  Jesus looks for the genuine article evidenced by the acceptance of the graced invitation to change one’s life and live the law of love.

Paul, the Apostle, in the reading from the Letter to the Philippians is one of those who once persecuted the infant church, but having encountered Christ and heard him, changed his life.  If there is any encouragement in Christ (for me writing to you from prison) any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.  In order for that to happen, each person must do what Paul did in imitation of Jesus.  People must empty themselves as Jesus did taking the form of a slave…becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Conversion is that kind of emptying.  The annals of the saints are filled with stories of conversions.  Augustine stands in the forefront of those who could say: Late have I loved you.  Ignatius of Loyola, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, and countless others all had moments of encounter with Jesus and their lives were never the same again.  They, like the tax collectors and prostitutes Jesus had in mind, had said no to the Father’s directive to work in the vineyard, but later said, yes.  It would be easy to judge them in their original mien and consign them to perdition, as the chief priests and elders were wont to do.  But Jesus uses them as judgment against their accusers, those who had said yes but then refused to do the work.

Think of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, saints, I believe, of the last century.  Each knew what it meant to be a sinner with sins quite unacceptable to most.  Each came to profess faith and die in the Waters of Baptism and rise to lives of compassion and service of the poor.  Some judge them to be unworthy of ever being considered for sainthood.

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them, is the accusation made against Jesus.  This became the charge that justified his crucifixion.  Would that today that same charge could be leveled against the Church, the body of Christ.  This is not to say, come and stay in your sin, much less to deny the reality of sin.  Rather, it is to say, come and find your way out of the darkness of sin into the light that is the imitation of Christ.

We, who are sinners and know what it means to be forgiven, gather around the Table of the Word.  There we are nourished and challenged to deeper conversion in a process that ends only with the end of this life.

We gather around the Table of the Eucharist to give thanks to God in the renewing of Jesus’ dying and rising that continues his pouring out of self in love for all who would recognize their own emptiness.  Take and eat.  Take and drink.  There is transformation in the celebration of the Mystery that is Eucharist.  Bread and wine become Christ’s Body and Blood.  The people gathered are transformed into Christ’s presence, too.  The Church is the Body of Christ, to quote Vatican Council II.

Who are the chief priests and elders among us today?  I don’t know that that question is as important as my examination of my own conscience to ensure that their attitudes are not mine.  Those who would be judgmental have the Lord to answer to.  If they are numbered among the baptized, they are asked to go into the vineyard to be ambassadors of love and forgiveness, to build up God’s Kingdom symbolized by the vineyard.  None was called to reign.  All were called to serve, not to lord it over, but to abase themselves in imitation of Christ who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself.  And so should we that Christ might become all and all in us.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – September 24, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 55:6-9
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 20:1-16a

Dear Reader,

God, in Hebrew Scripture, is often characterized as an angry, vengeful God.  Granted, there are passages that might support that characterization.  God does punish the Israelites for their infidelities.  God certainly rains down havoc on the pursuing Egyptians.  Before Moses intervenes, God wants to be rid of the troublesome people who have been lead from slavery into the desert freedom only to grumble and complain about the difficulties of life in the desert.  But that is only part of the picture.

Isaiah reveals another characteristic of God, one often forgotten or ignored.  God is generous and forgiving.  Seek the Lord while he may be found.  Call him while he is near.  Isaiah proclaims this message to the wicked and the scoundrel, in other words, to those most might conclude to be outside the pale of God’s mercy.  By no means, Isaiah declares.  God does not think or judge the way people do.  God is about forgiveness and mercy.  God wants to be the people’s god and wants to be in relationship with the people.  I will be your God and you will be my people, God says.  All the scoundrel and the wicked have to do is change their ways and turn back to God.

Isaiah declares that the people should not try to understand how and why God acts the way God does.  People do not ordinarily think or judge this way.  God does.  If we are listening, we might conclude that it is all about grace, an outpouring of God’s love.

The operative word in Isaiah’s passage is seek.  For the scoundrel and the wicked there is still time to seek God.  Isaiah urges them to act without delay because time can run out.  The days are limited.

This Sunday’s Gospel puts a bit of a different slant on the issue.  Jesus tells us a parable about a landowner who hires field workers at various times of the day, from early morning to late afternoon.  The first hired are promised the usual daily wage.  Those hired later are promised the uncertain and indefinite what is just.  And that promise is extended to those hired at 5 o’clock for the last hour of the workday.

Having heard the parable before, you know how the story goes.  Those hired last are paid first and are given a full day’s wage.  So are those who were hired at the various other hours during the workday.  Each is paid a full day’s wage.  Those who had been hired first watch all this and conclude that when their time comes, they will be paid even more than the wage to which they had agreed.  Would you blame them?  After all, it had been a long day of labor in the intense heat of the summer day.  But they are outraged when they are paid only the wage to which they had agreed.

This parable should not be used as a model for fair practice in the marketplace.  That is not what the story is about.  Hear the key words in the landowner’s redress to the resentful laborers: I am generous. Here is something that I have meditated on.  I challenge you to try it, too.  How would I have felt, had I been one of those first hired?  How would you feel?  What assumptions would we have made as we watched those others hired late in the day as they were paid the full day’s wage?  I’m afraid I would have concluded the same, as did those daylong workers in the parable.  Would You?  Of course.  It is only human after all.

Isaiah proclaimed in the first reading: Seek the Lord while he may be found.  That is not what happens in the Gospel parable.  The landowner, who here is a representation of God, is the seeker.  The people are idling in the marketplace.  They do not seek work.  They resent that no one has hired us.  God calls them through the day and even into the last hour of the day.

A marvelous moment occurs near the end of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited.  Lord Marchmain lies on his deathbed surrounded by family and friends, including the parish priest who is urging repentance from Marchmain for his less than virtuous past.  It has been decades since he received the sacraments.  Even his motives for having been baptized are vague.  He has exhibited little evidence of faith.  Charles Ryder, a non-believer, stands in the group and scoffs at the attitudes of his Catholic friends.  The priest whispers God’s love in Marchmain’s hearing.  It happens that, just as despair sets into the witnesses’ hearts, a faltering hand makes the sign of the cross and Marchmain makes his final profession of faith.  And later we will read that Ryder’s faith began in that moment.

What do you think of deathbed conversions?  What will be their reward as they stand before God’s judgment seat?  Surely it will be different for them than for us who were baptized in infancy and were faithful through all our lives.  That would only be just, wouldn’t it?  Perhaps.  Who am I to say that there will not be a difference?  But do not miss an important point in the parable.  The Landowner seeks the laborers all through the day and invites them to go into the vineyard knowing they will be paid whatever is just.  The last hired and the first are paid a full day’s wage.  Again, ponder that.

Surely God’s ways are not the ways of humankind.  A terrible mistake is made when God is imagined as a tyrannical avenger.  You have heard, as have I, those televangelists who are quick to interpret everything from natural disasters to physical illness to be God’s judgment upon sinners.  No wonder an instinctive response is to wonder what they did to deserve that.  Those who preach such messages would stand among those who asked Jesus about the man born blind.  Whose sin was it, this man’s or his parents’ that he was born blind?  The answer remains: neither.

All the parables Jesus told shock if we hear them correctly.  They are meant to make us wonder if we could possibly be hearing correctly.  All of the parables speak to the wonder of God’s love that is lavish in its outpouring for us.  That is what grace is, unmerited and freely given.  What matters is the response.  Even those hired late in the day had to accept the invitation and go into the vineyard.

Jesus is the model.  His is the perpetual yes to the Father’s will, finally accepting even death, death on the cross.

The Apostle Paul images what our response should be in all things, in good times and in harsh times, in health and in sickness, in life and in death: For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.  Paul writes from prison.  The beheader’s blade is imminent.  I am being poured out like a libation and my death is at had, he said elsewhere.  Notice that in his suffering, Paul keeps the promised wage in mind.  I long to depart this life and be with Christ.  Paul is ever the apostle.  He was hired to the position late in the day, unlike the other Apostles who walked with the Lord and bore the day’s heat.  Jesus, in glory, called Saul on the road to Damascus.  From that time on, Paul live to tell others about Christ and to form them in Christ’s likeness.  He saw death as far better, a release from and an end to his sufferings.  Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.

What do we take from these readings?  Joy that we have been called.  Gratitude for the gift of faith to which we responded, no matter at what stage in our life we perceived that grace.  Hope for the promised wage that will be ours if we are faithful, a wage that begins even now.  For us to live is Christ and to die is gain.  Imagine our rejoicing with all those similarly rewarded, even with those who said yes to God from their deathbeds.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE 24TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – SEPTEMBER 17, 2017

A reading from the Book of Sirach 27:30-28:7
A reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans 14:7-9
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 18:21-35

 

Dear Reader,

Before you read this reflection, I would encourage you take in this Sunday’s readings, sit under them, if you will, and consider how they impact you.  Emotions may well surface, even feelings of resentment.  This will be especially true if you are burdened with unresolved issues of hurt, broken relationships, or betrayal.  Take ten or fifteen minutes to process your emotions rather than simply denying them.

Now, may I ask how you felt as you pondered.  What emotions surged as you heard Sirach denounce the vengeful spirit, and heard him say that wrath and anger are hateful things?  Did you resent the Gospel’s proclamation that we need to forgive even huge debts if we are to expect forgiveness from the Lord for our debts?

As I write this, our nation is staggering in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville.  Once again White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and the KKK demonstrated, under the umbrella of retaining a statue of Robert E. Lee, for values that others saw as being against the core Constitutional belief that all people are created equal.  An angry young man drove a car into the counter-demonstrators and killed a young woman and injured several others.  The young man is alleged to hold Hitler as a hero and what he did in the death camps as right thing.  Now put forgiveness into the mix.

Certainly justice needs to be brought to bear against those who perpetrated the terror.  The call to forgive is not a call to ignore evil.  But if we hear the readings, we must recognize that there is no wiggle room for us to escape the implications put down before us by Sirach and Jesus.  Those who believe in this God and who claim to be disciples of the Lord Jesus must be about mercy and forgiveness.  To be otherwise is to court disaster, the disaster that is God’s final displeasure, the horror of final separation from Christ.

We celebrate our faith in worship as we assemble with those who believe as we do and with us are baptized into the same Christ.  But we live that faith in the world.  Our decisions and actions there are to be affected by faith.  This Sunday’s first reading and the Gospel speak to us about forgiveness.  It is quite possible to hear the readings and nod and not realize the implications for us in our daily lives.

To move in the direction that will awaken in us the sense of challenge that might prompt us to ask, “ Who can do this?” we have to think of someone who has offended us.  You have to think of someone who has offended you.  That comes way before you start thinking about seeking your own forgiveness.  The readings seem to say that you will not appreciate the latter until you have forgiven someone who has offended you.  The bigger the offense you forgive, the more you will be grateful for the forgiveness that comes to you.

It must be 20 years ago that I read the story in People magazine.  Strange where you can find a challenge to grow in your faith response and to be reminded that conversion is a life-long process.  A man was convicted and sent to prison for murdering a young woman.  The woman’s parents were committed Christians who tried to live their faith each day.  One Sunday they heard a sermon about forgiveness.  Their pastor told them that Jesus commands his disciples to forgive those who sin against them.  After church that Sunday, they went home.  As they sat at their kitchen table, the wife asked her husband if he thought what they had heard that morning had implications for them.  He suggested that they pray about it.

Not long afterwards, they concluded that if they were going to continue being Christians they had to forgive the man who had killed their daughter.  Their first step was to journey to the prison and meet with the killer.  Over a period of time they came to know the man and his story.  They told him that it was a matter of faith for them to forgive him for what he had done.  The day came when they could tell him that they had indeed forgiven him and come to love him, even as he had, by that time, told them how sorry he was for what he had done and that he loved them, too.

When the time came for the man to be paroled, the parents invited him to come and live with them until he felt secure enough to live on his own and go forward with his life.  That is what happened.  The article in the magazine told of the man’s successes, his marriage, his children, his work, and his on-going relationship with the couple that have become like parents to him.

There is another important aspect to the challenge in these readings that is not in evidence in the story.  Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.  Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?  It takes a degree of courage, but for these readings to have their full impact, we have to dare to be vulnerable to them.  By that I mean we have to face the reality of sin in our won lives.  What sin have I committed?  Of what are you guilty that has offended your neighbor?  Have you ever done anything that had major negative consequences for another?  Was your conscience pricked to the point that you wondered if you could ever be forgiven?  There is no need for specifics here.  Each one has to look into the secrets and sorrows that burden the heart.

Peter’s question to Jesus about how many times he had to forgive his neighbor, even seven times, brought him a stunning answer.  Peter thought forgiving seven times would be magnanimous on his part.  Who could expect more?  He heard Jesus tell him that when Peter had forgiven seven times, he had only just begun on the path of forgiving.  There is no end to the demands to forgive because God never stops forgiving.

The parable Jesus told begins with the Lord’s forgiving in the tale of the king whose servant owed him a huge amount and who had no way to clear the debt.  Putting him in debtor’s prison was an option.  But when the servant pled for mercy and patience, the king forgave the debt.  If we put ourselves in the position of the servant, that is, if we allow ourselves to know our own sinfulness and to ask forgiveness, it is a comfort to know that it is always forthcoming.  Apparently there is nothing that God loves to do more than to forgive.  God is not like the person who might say, “I’ll forgive, but I will never forget what you have done.”  Nor is he like the other one who would say, “I’ll forgive, but God help you the next time it happens.”  God’s forgiveness wipes the slate clean.  That’s what God’s love compels God to do.

The sad part of the parable comes when the servant of whom much was forgiven throttles and puts into prison a fellow servant who owed him a very small amount, a servant who also had no means at hand to clear the debt.  The forgiven servant had lost all perspective as will we if, when we brood over someone who has offended us, we forget that we have been forgiven and refuse to extend that forgiveness to another.  But have you ever noticed how our own sins never have the magnitude of those of others that offend us.  Our own sins are much easier to understand than those that are committed by another.

There is an implied caution in the Gospel parable.  A case can be made that unless we forgive we will not be forgiven.  Look where the first servant winds up – handed over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.  Many years ago, there was a popular bumper sticker that read: Christians aren’t different; they’re just forgiven.  We are challenged by these readings to always remember that we are forgiven and therefore we must love much.

We come together to celebrate Eucharist.  We come as a forgiven people who extend forgiveness.  Sometimes that forgiveness is extended even to someone who has not sought it, someone who is not even aware of the pain s/he has caused you and doesn’t care.  Jesus said from the cross, Father, forgive them.  They do not know what they are doing.  Forgive and you will know the freedom that forgiving brings.

As Christians, we ought to be known as a people who rejoice in forgiveness.  That does not mean that we take sin and its significance lightly; but we refuse to dwell there.  We would rather be prompted to deeds of love because we have been forgiven.  There was a time when the Third Form of the Rite of Reconciliation could be celebrated.  We have individual confession and absolution.  We have group preparation followed by individual confession and absolution.  The Third Form has communal penance and absolution.  The people of God come together mindful of their sinfulness, avow their sorrow for their sins, and experience absolution as a community of faith.  The use of that form has been greatly restricted and can be used only in times of great emergency, as in a time of disaster.

Any time I was privileged to be part of such a celebration the emotional impact was incredible.  I never saw anyone take the matter lightly.  Tears frequently washed down the faces of the penitents.  Unfortunately some thought that made confession and absolution too easy.  Perhaps.  But I think I witnessed many hearts being changed by the abundance of God’s love experienced in those celebrations.

Do we need to be convinced again that God rejoice in forgiving?  When we believe that we then can be Eucharistic People.  Remember, the word Eucharist means Thanksgiving.  And Alleluia will be our song.

Sincerely,

Didymus