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THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – July 1, 2018

A reading from the Book of Wisdom – 1:13-15; 2:23-24
A reading from the second letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-15
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 5:21-43

 

Dear Reader,

Death is a reality that humanity deals with from first awareness.  While some may live a madcap existence of denial, the fact is that we are going to die one day.  We are the only species on the face of the earth who live with that awareness.  So far, at least, there is nothing that we can do about it.  Everyone born of woman one day will die.

The first reading from the Book of Wisdom tells us that that was not the way God wanted it.  No wonder the human heart cries out against death’s inevitability. Wisdom says, God formed humans to be imperishable; the image of God’s own nature God made humans.  So, what went wrong?  The devil’s envy came into the picture.  Sin entered the world, and with sin, death.  Humans became mortal.  Genesis spelled it out for us; and the rest of Hebrew Bible is the account of God’s desire to make that right again, to remove the dominance of Death.

Jesus comes into the world to accomplish God’s will.  I must do the will of the One who sent me!  That is why Jesus’ message is called the Good News, the Gospel.  Oh Death, where is your victory?  Death, where is your sting?  Of course we can only sing that proclamation after Jesus dies – and rises, and leaves Death vanquished.

This Sunday’s gospel is amazing.  Of course, you say, which Sunday’s gospel isn’t amazing if we hear it?  True.  But the wonder of this proclamation is spellbinding.  It is too bad the text is as long as it is.  Some will tune out before it is over.  We are so used to short clips that result in short attention spans.  As they sit at the gospel’s conclusion, they will say, Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!  But they say that every Sunday.  Will their hearts have been touched?

We hear the account of one miracle sandwiching another miracle.  Each happens in response to faith.  Jesus works constantly, preaching, teaching, and healing.  Just before this episode, Jesus spent an exhausting day.  He got into the boat to go to the other side of the lake and in the course of the crossing exerted command over the wind and the waves causing those who witnessed the calming to ask, Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?  Then Jesus drives out the legion of demons from the possessed man in the verses that lead into today’s gospel.

Today’s gospel begins as Jesus gets back into the boat and crosses the lake once more.  As soon as he steps on shore the crowds envelop him again.  His reputation grows and so do the numbers of those who want to witness him for themselves.  This crowd wonders if Jesus might be the answer to their prayers, the one who will make a difference in their lives and give them purpose and meaning.

The grief-stricken synagogue official, Jairus, a person of position, humbles himself at Jesus’ feet and pleads for Jesus to come to his home and save his 12-year-old daughter who is near death.  Immediately Jesus sets out for Jairus’s home.  The crowds follow and press upon him

Suddenly the focus shifts.  A woman who has been suffering a hemorrhage for 12 years, as long as Jairus’s daughter has been alive, a woman who has exhausted her savings with abusive doctors, this woman approaches Jesus convinced that if she just touches the hem of his clothes she will be cured.  The poor woman would know what it means to be shunned.  Because she is hemorrhaging, anyone who came in contact with her would incur ritual impurity and not be able to enter into temple worship.  She has been living a miserable existence all these years.  No one pays heed to her.  She has heard Jesus, or she has heard about him.  In any event, she believes.  She hopes no one will notice her now and stop her before she can stoop down, reach out and touch Jesus’ cloak.  Shedoes, and in an instant her pain leaves her as her hemorrhage dries up.  She is alive again.

Now notice what Jesus does.  The translation we hear softens his reaction.  Closer to the meaning would be that Jesus whirled about as he asked, Who touched me?  His question does not rise out of fear of contamination.  After all, Jesus has touched lepers, also sources of ritual impurity.  The question seems odd to those nearest him.  Who touched you with all these people jostling you?  They all had touched him.  But Jesus wants to know who touched him with faith as power went out of him.

The woman fears the worst, that she will be excoriated for her effrontery, and approaches Jesus to admit what she has done.  He calls her Daughter and proclaims that her faith has been rewarded.  Here is the marked contrast between crowds that flock around Jesus out of curiosity, and the disciple who believes.  This woman’s response is what Jesus longs for from the rest.  She can go home in peace.

There is no greater challenge to faith than death of a loved one.  Immediately upon the woman’s departure comes news that Jairus’s daughter has died.  How long did Jairus’s and Jesus’ eyes lock in Jairus’s shocked silence?  How long was the moment Jairus had to decide to hope against hope?  Jesus challenges Jairus to hold on to faith and the promise.  Do not be afraid; just have faith.  

We know that what follows is a significant gospel moment – similar to the Transfiguration – because only Peter, James, and John are allowed to witness what happens after Jesus dismisses the professional mourners and quiets the din.  Only the three, along with the girl’s mother and father, are in the room when Jesus touches the body, takes the girl by the hand and says: Talitha koum!  Little girl, arise!  Don’t miss that Jesus commands and death departs, obeying just as the wind and waves had done.  Again, notice the response of the witnesses – utter astonishment.  That is fine as far as it goes.  But it is not the same thing as faith.  That may be why Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen.  Exactly the orders he gave to Peter, James, and John as they came down the mountain after the Transfiguration.  Don’t tell anyone about this until you understand the meaning.  You will not understand the meaning until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.  

Jesus tells them to give the little girl something to eat.  That will prove that she is alive.  Remember what Jesus will ask in an early post-Resurrection appearance?  Have you anything to eat?

Two miracles.  The woman who suffered for 12 years but believed in Jesus’ power.  The 12-year-old girl whose parents’ faith elicited Talitha koum from Jesus.

Take in the Word, broken for us, and dare to believe.  With that faith, incipient as it might be, as tried as it might be by personal or public issues, and proceed to the Table to enter into Mystery and be transformed by the act of Thanksgiving, the Eucharist, and having eaten and drunk, dare to be sent to announce the Good news.  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  Those who hear you and are touched by you will know, as you believe, that Death’s power is no more.  No death will be forever.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

 

Didymus

 

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NATIVITY OF SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST – June 24, 2018

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 49:1-6
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 13:22-26
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 1:57-66, 80

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I have been thinking about John the Baptist lately, not only because we celebrate the feast of his birth, circumcision, and naming, but also because I wonder how he would be heard in these times.  How successful would he be today?  There is reason to think his preaching would create the same division that it did as he prepared the way for Jesus’ coming.  Some, especially the poor and the oppressed, would flock to hear him and find comfort.  The elite and powerful would want him silenced in the same way that they decry the prophetic voices today.

John was not a very attractive character.  He fasted much of the time and feasted on grasshoppers and wild honey.  His clothing did not come from fashionable boutiques.  He wore camel skin with a leather belt around his waist.  Not much about him would encourage imitation.  But then, that was not what he was about.  He wanted people to hear his message.  He knew that from the womb, God had appointed him to be a sharp-edged sword.  He knew that through him, God’s glory would be revealed.

What was it about John, then, that made the difference, that made people want to listen to the “man sent by God?”  Something about him touched people and made them hang on his every word – some people, that is.  His message was confrontational.  Still, people listened in rapt attention.  Would that happen today?  Would crowds come in droves and seek his Baptism of repentance?  He is out of sequence today.  We have Jesus’ Baptism.  Perhaps John’s message today would be the challenge to the baptized to live their Baptisms.  That makes sense, doesn’t it?

We could use another John the Baptist today.  Jesus entered the world scene near the end of John’s preaching ministry.  Because of the power of his preaching, some wondered if he were the Messiah, the Christ. John protested to the contrary.  This time around John could remind people about Jesus Christ and what Christ brings to the world from God.  People would still have to change their lives.  His call would be that the People of God should live their Baptismal Priesthood, should live the Eucharist they celebrate, and should be for the poor, bread broken and cup poured out.  

Is not that what we have been hearing from Pope Francis since he became the Bishop of Rome?  And as was the case with John, many are encouraged by what they see and hear coming from Francis.  But it is also true that some curse him as the worst thing that has happened to the Church since the Second Vatican Council.

It is difficult to see much about these days and what is happening in parts of the Church and society in general that exhibits the Kingdom Christ proclaimed.  Jesus said that all people are God’s beloved and meant to be members of one family.  Love was to be the rule of life.  By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another…Love one another.  Do good to those who hate you.  We are all in this together, if we hear Christ clearly.  

John might tell us that some are living far from that mark.  For some of us it is discouraging to hear no sense of responsibility for the poor or for the aliens.  You have heard the message.  The poor have only themselves to blame for their situation.  The aliens brought here as infants and knowing no other country, should be deported.  The wealthy should not have to give from their abundance so that the poor might have the essentials necessary to live life with dignity.  So, the chasm between the wealthy 1% and the rest of society increases.  Diseases ravage the poor.  Powerful pharmaceutical companies refuse to send to Africa medications able to cure sleeping sickness because there is no profit for them in doing that.  

Some see poverty as God’s judgment on people, just as they see wealth as a sign of God’s favor.  Not much different from the Baptist’s times.  Is it really meant to be a matter of survival of the fittest?  Should Ayn Rand’s Objectivism be accepted as today’s philosophy?  It would seem so.  Surely John the Baptist would have something contrary to say about this.

We need another Baptist to wake us up.  Each day we hear stories more terrible than those heard the day before.  Each day there are predictions of coming days more dire than those already experienced.  In the Middle East wars rage on and on.  Cities are bombed and gassed, killing the innocent, many of them children.

In our own land, this year there have been over twenty shootings in high schools.  Eloquent young people, survivors of the Florida shooting, marched against the gun violence.  Some were ridiculed because they spoke to the heart of the matter and demanded changes that the powerful do not want considered.  I write this two days after the mass killings in the Texas high school.  There may well have been others by the time you read this.

How do we cope with stories of parents killing their children?  Two mothers with their children in the car, drove the vehicle off a cliff and killed them all.  Two parents were arrested for beating and starving their children.

Then there are the stories of sexual harassment and abuse.  Women are finding their voices and marching.  They must be heard.  Young victims of sexual trafficking are being rescued.  Survivors of sexual abuse by clergy and others are being heard and their abusers curtailed.

Another John the Baptist would help.  His witness and message might reawaken lost values in society and in us.  We might be re-convinced that we are all meant to live in community as Children of God.  

It occurs to me that John the Baptist might have returned and we didn’t recognize him.  Think of the impact of Mahatma Gandhi.  Years have gone by since his time.  Many people today may not have heard of him, but in his day he made many people rethink their complicity in the exploitation of others.  He was not a Christian, although he said that he admired Christ.  He also said that he didn’t think that much of Christ’s followers.  He held many Christians accountable for the injustices he exposed.  Committed to non-violence, he offended the powerful in his land who saw him as a threat and one who could incite riots.  Like the Baptist before him, Gandhi was murdered, witnessing to the cause he preached.  That shedding of blood proved his sincerity.

Remember Archbishop Oscar Romero.  The Spirit, in a blazing Pentecost, came upon him and transformed him from a library priest to a shepherding bishop who stood in the midst of his people and dared the military powers to respect them and let them be free of the oppression that enslaved them.  It is a sad fact that the Church tried to silence him and accused him of being a Marxist.  People of questionable repute had been rushed to canonization while the Church had ignored the Martyr Oscar Romero –, not by the poor of San Salvador who acclaim him as a saint.  The powerful had him shot to death while he celebrated Eucharist in a hospital chapel.  His spilled blood didn’t silence his voice.  Some still hear his voice loudly at noon each day clearly calling for the freedom of the people he shepherded.  Pope Francis has proclaimed him Blessed because he is a martyr.  At last.

As we celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist, we should wonder if he hasn’t returned to us over and over again in several ages and guises.  Each time the results have been the same.  The most abject hear the voice and respond to the witness and are encouraged.  Hope is sparked in their hearts.  When the voice of those calling for reform get too loud and their witness too powerful, when their dreams seem to align with Christ’s heralding of the promised Messianic Age, they have to die the way the first Baptist did.  Think of the amazing oration Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the night before he died.  Like Moses, he said, he had been to the mountaintop and had looked across the chasm into the promised land of racial equality.  He saw a kingdom of justice, equality, and peace.

Pray that the Lord will send out the Spirit on the Church and inspire her to be that herald in this present desert time.  Would the clarion be heard more brilliantly if we were more obviously a servant church, if there were less evidence of elitism, clericalism and hierarchical power among us?  Pope Francis clearly thinks so.  If we dare to take his message and example to heart, the Spirit might re-inspire those glory days that followed the Second Vatican Council, when the Church, the People of God, proclaimed that all are welcome here, that Christ’s blood was shed for all, and the baptized were invited to live and practice their Baptismal Priesthood.  Then John the Baptist’s voice would be heard again.

While some might think that John had his day just as did Elijah before him, and prefer not to return the Church to a former age, the rest of us pray that the Spirit that inspired the Baptist will continue to inspire Pope Francis and us and awaken us to our responsibility.  The Church, after all, is the Body of Christ.  The faith resides in the people of God.  So, it just might be our time and our responsibility.  We just might choose to live in the freedom of the Children of God and give ourselves to the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom that is coming until all have heard and love is rekindled.  It could happen if we believe.  Do you agree?

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

 

    

ELEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – June 17, 2018

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 17:22-24
A reading from the second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 5:6-10
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 4:26-34

Dear Reader,

It is only natural that when we hear similes regarding the reign of God, or the Kingdom of God, we translate them into terms of our human experiences.  We have no other frame of reference.  Imagine God Reigning, or God’s kingdom.  Naturally, we think in terms of earthly monarchs and see kings or queens sitting on the royal throne and commanding whatever kings or queens command.  Why wouldn’t we see the Father and the Risen Son in royal splendor, with golden crowns and purple robes, and holding the scepter of authority?  You have seen glorious icons to substantiate that.  Is it any wonder that some are eager to cast those in authority in the church in similar light?  Alas.

In these times it is so important for us to hear that our God is a God who serves.  Jesus, the Risen Lord, urges us to love one another the way that I have loved you.  Pope Francis continually pleads for us to change our hearts.  The shepherds must shepherd in the midst of the sheep.  The focus of the church is to recognize Christ in the poorest of the poor.  We cannot be about wealth and power.  And we must recognize our responsibility and take care of the planet.  Some welcome Francis’s words and are inspired by them.  Others curse.

Recently, I was in conversation with a friend who told me about the difficulties she is having to remain a believer, not only in the church of which she has been a part since her infant Baptism, but also in God and the Lord Jesus.  Very little is going right in her life.  An abusive husband abandoned her.  She lost the job she had held for over a decade and that had paid well.  Add to the mix a period of poor health that resulted in a struggle with depression.  Where is God in all of this?  If God is omnipotent, she asked, why doesn’t God do something about my situation and come to my rescue?

She feels distanced by the church that previously had been the source of comfort and support in her faith struggles.  She is bothered by not feeling equal to her male counterparts and is put off by the increasing clericalism in the church.  The scandals disclosed in recent years have shaken her, but so too has the silence about so many social evils of this age.  She asked, “Where is the church of Vatican Council II?  Pope John XXIII opened the windows to let in fresh air.  Now there seem to be forces that want to shut those windows and regress to a pre-Council church.  No wonder Pope Francis struggles to be heard.  Where is the Holy Spirit now?”

I listened and empathized.  I told her that I did not have easy answers to her questions.  I told her that I believe that in spite of all the contrary signs, God continues to work in her life and to embrace her with love.  God continues to work in the world to bring about the salvation of all and to establish what is termed the kingdom of God.

Some of the most hopeful prophetic utterances in Hebrew Scripture were voiced in dire times for Israel, especially during the Babylonian Captivity.  The enslaved Israelites thought God had abandoned them because of their infidelities.  Ezekiel tells us in today’s first reading that God promises to plant on a high and lofty mountain, a tender shoot from the cedar tree that will become a refuge for birds of every kind.  And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the Lord, bring low the high trees, lift high the lowly tree…and make the withered tree bloom.  As I, the Lord, have spoken, so will I do.

Their present situation may look dark and seem hopeless, but God will oust oppressors and will restore Israel.  There will be wonders again that manifest God’s presence in the midst of the Chosen People.  These may seem like dark days in the church, but the Spirit of the Council will prevail and God will bring the church into the new age of grace.  For some of us, Pope Francis is the sign that it will happen.

Paul challenges us in today’s reading from the second Letter to the Corinthians.  Many of the Corinthians did not admire Paul.  They were embarrassed by his diminutive stature and unimpressed by his weak voice and his many woes that they took to be signs that God did not favor him.  Paul proclaimed that God seized him in that amazing encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus.  The Spirit sent him to proclaim Christ, crucified and raised.  Paul challenges the Corinthians and us to live the faith that he taught and to walk in that faith until we come before the judgment seat of Christ.

We must listen to Paul and take his words to heart.  We live in the midst of a culture that is obsessed with temporal things.  What matters most are youth and beauty, wealth and power.  There are not a few who see God’s favor resting on the wealthy, the young and the beautiful – the entitled ones in society.  The judgment of the opposite is seen to be evidenced by the plight of the poor, the aged, and the disabled.  Such states are God’s punishments for their sins, or the sins of their ancestors.

Hear Paul remind us that God does not judge according to human standards.  What is the scandal of the cross to some, in the reality of faith, proclaims that God is present to the vulnerable, the weak, the suffering, and lifts them up to new life, just as he raises the dead to the fullness of life in Christ.  Therefore, we aspire to please (the Lord)…For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what s/he did in the body, whether good or evil.

Jesus teaches with parables.  Deceptively simple in language and construction, parables open the doors to the mysterious ways of God.  Because their language is ordinary and the images recognizable, they reveal God’s working in the here and now.  

It is also true that many of the parables are problematic and cannot be easily resolved.  Perhaps it is grappling with those problematic elements that will lead us deeper into the realm of Mystery and the wondrous God who seeks and saves us – even in the dark times.

Farmers might smile as they hear the first parable in today’s gospel.  They can appreciate the wonder that happens following he sowing of the seed up to the day of harvest.  The sower has no control over the grain’s development.  Time must pass before it is ripe and ready for reaping.  That is the way faith works, too.  Some may feel helpless as they watch events in the church and the world and may blame themselves for not being effective witnesses to the coming reign of God.  But the seeds of faith sown in every age take root in people’s lives and mature eventually to full stature.  We have to live in faith and trust that the promise will be fulfilled.

The second parable is one long and complicated sentence and for the original audience very problematic.  Most of us do not know that much about the mustard plant.  We know about mustard, but not much about the plant that produces it.  Those first ones listening to Jesus knew that the mustard plant is a weed that invades fields and wrecks havoc with crops that are planted there.  It is not the smallest of seeds.  It does not grow to become the largest of shrubs.  But it is true that the birds can rest on its branches in its shade.

Might Jesus intend to teach in this parable about the infant faith community we call the church.  The first disciples were few in number and were considered by many to be heretics.  Saul set out on the road to Damascus to round up those scandalous members of a new sect so that he could put them in prison and even kill them.  Then Paul met Christ.  The first disciples preached Christ.  The community flourished and rapidly grew in numbers, becoming a threat to the establishment.  But seekers found refuge and meaning among the Christians and a reason to go on.  At least that is one way of hearing this parable about the mustard seed.

So we go back to the near despair that occasioned these reflections.  As we sit under these proclamations and let the words wash over us, we have the opportunity to be reminded that ultimately God is in charge.  The Spirit has empowered us to believe.  Baptism has identified us with Christ.  As such, we are the beloveds of God as Jesus is.  Believe that and trust that what God has begun, God will bring to full harvest.

Regarding the Vatican Council II Church, know that it will come to full stature in due time.  There may be periods of denial and regression, but the Church is a living organism and can only evolve.  Divisions of the Church that try to turn the clock back to pre Vatican II days will not succeed.  The current Roman Missal that so many find problematic will have a successor and new edition.  Believe it.  It will happen.  The lowly will be lifted up.  The people of God will continue to emerge as the Body of Christ, the Church.  The Kingdom is dawning.  

And the harvest will be great.  Believe it.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus