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THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – July 29, 2018

A reading from the second Book of Kings 4:42-44
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 4:1-6
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 6:1-15

 

My dear Friends in Christ,

Notice the difference in the size of the crowd in the first reading from that in the gospel.  Notice the difference in the quantity of food to be placed before each assembly.  Elisha invites the man from Baal-shalishah to place twenty barley loaves from his first harvest before 100 people.  When Jesus asks the disciples where they can find enough food for them to feed the 5000 people waiting for Jesus, they declare that two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.  Is it courage or naiveté that compels a boy to offer five barley loaves and two fish to feed the multitude?  The disciples seem to be correct in their observation.  (W)hat good are these for so many?  That is the same question the man in the first reading had for Elisha.  In both cases, the little bit will become a superabundant feast with leftovers to be gathered up lest they go to waste.

Isn’t it strange when the miracles of the multiplication of loaves are proclaimed, that there are not stronger reactions from the Assembly.  That may be because few if any are hearing the story for the first time.  Have you ever seen someone poke a person near by and ask what he thought of the amazing story?  We are so busy dismissing the story as impossible that we miss the message we are supposed to hear.

God sustains us with abundant mercy that reflects God’s love for the human family.

Then again, how we hear the miracle stories might depend on which character in the narrative with whom we identify.  We should always do that.  We should place ourselves in the reading and so become part of it.  Hearing the gospel that way will make all the difference.  Are you one of the disciples being challenged by Jesus to provide for the multitude?  Are you the boy with the few barley loaves?  Are you one of the hungry ones in the crowd?  Identify with one and see how differently you hear the reading then.

Last night on the evening news there was a story regarding the growing epidemic of morbid obesity in our society – this in every age group.  “Supersize me!” apparently expresses a wide felt craving for huge, rich, fatty and calorie-laden meals.  Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, strokes and heart attacks among younger people are occurring with increasing frequency.  Apparently, we do not like to say “No” to ourselves.  

As I listened, I thought about the millions of people in various countries of Africa, Asia, and elsewhere who are living in squalor and starving to death.  During a visit to Kenya and Uganda, panic surged through me as the poverty of the masses became evident before me.  I saw the pain in parents’ eyes as they wondered from where would come the basics to nourish their children.  Shortly after my return to these shores, I found myself standing in awe in a supermarket, amazed at the excesses bulging on the shelves. That experience of excess numbed for a while until I got used to the abundance and it became normal again.

There is a basic tenet of our faith contained in this Sunday’s readings.  God, in Hebrew Bible, promises to provide for the people.  Elisha challenges the man with the barley loaves to believe that and to trust that God can do wonders with his meager offering.  Jesus, in the gospel, does not let the disciples be passive spectators of a hungry people in need.  He poses the question: Where can we buy food enough for them to eat?  The question was meant to test them, because he knew what he intended to do.  In an instant they did the math and knew the need far exceeded their ability to respond.  Or so they thought and would continue to think until they understood the One whose disciples they were.

This reading from John’s Gospel opens the sixth chapter that is an exposition on Jesus as the Bread of Life.  In the course of the chapter, Jesus will teach us that he is the Bread of Life and that we cannot have life within us unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood.  Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises in Hebrew Bible.  We will stay with this chapter for the next several Sundays. When we get there, I hope you will be stunned and amazed at the conclusion that will leave us no wiggle room.  But, then, that is the way with Jesus, after all.

The Multiplication of the Loaves is told in all four Gospels.  Matthew and Mark have two tellings of it.  In the three synoptic Gospels, the Multiplication of the Loaves points to the central action of the last Supper.  In john’s Gospel there is no institution narrative at the Last Supper, only the implications of taking part in the Eucharist.  Jesus washes feet and challenges those washed to do the same for each other.

John’s account of the Multiplication story is filled with Eucharistic language.  When the disciples get the people to recline, just as the disciples will recline at table with Jesus on the night before he is to die, Jesus takes the loaves of bread, gives thanks to God, breaks the bread and distributes it to the crowd.  The people eat and are satisfied.  There are enough fragments left over to fill twelve baskets.  The Israelites ate the miraculous bread, Manna, in the desert during the Exodus.  The belief was that that feeding would happen again when the Messiah would come.  At that time, the hungry will be fed and the poor will have the Good News preached to them.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the fulfillment.

Jesus is the Daily Bread we plead for in the Lord’s Prayer.

We are a Eucharistic people.  Celebrating Eucharist is at the heart of our faith lives.  How we celebrate Eucharist ought to reflect this Sunday’s gospel.  Now the Risen One is in our midst and is in us as we gather, according to Vatican Council II, as the Body of Christ.  We gather individually and as community believing that all are welcome at this Table.  We come mindful of the hunger in our lives, a hunger that only Jesus can satisfy.  We come, not as passive spectators, but as active participants, as co-celebrants, fully, actively, and consciously participating, again, according to Council language, to take the Bread and bless it as we hear Jesus invite us all to take it and eat it because this is Christ’s body.  We hear Jesus invite us to take the cup and drink from the Blood that is shed for us and for all for the forgiveness of sins.  As we respond to Christ’s invitation we realize that as often as we do this we do it in Christ’s memory and Christ is present to us as our strength as we go and live this meal that we have shared.

It is from the action that the Eucharist comes.  The faithful share in the bread and Wine, the Body and Blood, from the celebration in which they are taking part.  They should not have to receive from the reserved Sacrament from previous Liturgies.  The faithful experience Christ present in the Word that is proclaimed, in the Presider, and in the people with whom they assembled.  If they do they will be able to recognize Christ’s sacramental presence in the Bread and Wine.  When they have eaten and drunk, they will live the implications of what they have done by being sent out from the assembled to be Christ’s presence to the poorest of the poor and to every other class of society as well.

The challenge for us as Church is to live the Eucharist.  Pope Francis challenges the Church to recognize the present conflict attitude that is present in the Universal Church.  He challenges the local churches to remain committed to being a servant church where all are welcome.  To be a poor church serving the needs of the poor.  He challenges the shepherds to shepherd in the midst of the sheep and not in a power posture over them.  It is Jesus asking us to do this in his memory.  

Gathering as two or three, or one or two hundred, wherever the Eucharist is celebrated, Christ is present and so is the whole Church.  There is only One Bread, One Body, One Cup of Blessing, which we share.  In reaching out to the poor, the alienated, the off scouring of society, it is Christ who welcomes and heals.  It is Christ to whom we minister.  We are reminded that there is one God and Father of us all.  We have all been redeemed and forgiven by the Lord’s dying and rising.

We are a Eucharistic People and Alleluia is our song!

Sincerely yours in Christ,

 

Didymus  

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SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – July 22, 2018

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 23:1-6
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 2:13-18
A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Mark 6:30-34

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

No wonder Jeremiah was unpopular with the establishment.  It is not hard to imagine how he fell into disfavor and was thrown into the cistern where he sank into the mud and cried out to God for vengeance.  If you were one of the religious leaders of his time and were being publicly excoriated for the miserable job you were doing, with devastating results for the people, wouldn’t you be furious?  On the other hand, if you had an ounce of humility and could hear in Jeremiah’s prophecy the grace of God challenging you to recognize the errors of your ways, challenging you to repent and do a better job of putting the needs of the sheep ahead of the shepherd’s, you might have found yourself secretly thanking him for his courage to speak an unpopular truth.

The fact is that in every age, those who most need the message become most deaf to it because they are the ones in authority, divinely appointed to be so.  Or so it would seem.  Yet even as the prophets are vilified, there are those who listen and change.  

We must hear Jeremiah.  If we do, the result will not be to point the accusatory finger at those presently on the various thrones of authority.  Although, there can always be the prayer that they too will listen, recognize the errors of their ways, and put the lesson learned into practice.  There is a challenge in the prophecy for each and all of us, and not just for the current shepherds.

Inept shepherding can lead to disaster for the flock.  God speaks through Jeremiah and says that the time has come for God to take back the staff and do the shepherding because those called to the task have failed miserably.  The people have suffered.  There is only a remnant left.  Once God has rescued the survivors, God will appoint a new type of shepherd.  A successor to David will reign and govern wisely; he shall do what is just and right in the land.  Then Israel will be safe and secure.

We believe that successor to David is Jesus.  What Jeremiah described as resulting from the reign of the successor we would call the Messianic Age.  That is why Jesus is called the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah.  Whether or not that age has been realized is beside the point.  It is God’s will that it will come about through Christ.  It must be lived by the united body that now goes beyond the once and still chosen people of Israel.

In today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds us of God’s first covenant with the Jewish people, sealed in Circumcision and evidenced through adherence to the Law.  The Gentiles were excluded.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the barriers have come down.  The blood of Christ has made all people, Jews and the separated Gentiles alike, one people, reconciled to each other and to God in Christ.  Isn’t that another way to describe the Messianic Age?  Forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace available to all are lived in Christ.  It is Jesus through his teaching, preaching, and acting who exemplified how we are to work to realize the Age.

Take the lead from last week’s Gospel.  Remember that Jesus sent out the twelve to be extensions of him, acting with his authority, bringing about healing and forgiveness for those upon whom the disciples laid their hands in Jesus’ name.  Even the demons obeyed them.  Now they come back rejoicing in their success, rejoicing and exhausted.  Jesus tells them to find quiet and take a rest.  Just where could that be?  How will they do that, given what has been unleashed.  The twelve were effective because they met the people where they were and responded to their needs.  Their ministry has awakened a hunger for more.  Crowds come wherever the disciples are, yearning for deliverance, understanding and acceptance.  There is no escaping the crowds even when Jesus suggests that the disciples get into the boat and set off for a deserted place.  The crowds know where Jesus and the disciples are going and get there first.  The crowds wait as the twelve disembark and step on shore.

It is not unreasonable for the twelve to ask for rest and recuperation.  Exhaustion is a field hazard of ministry.  Even Jesus was known to go off by himself and spend nights in prayer in deserted places.  Invariably someone came to him there to remind him of the need, as if he might have forgotten.  Everyone is looking for you.  Jesus would return to the ministry.  The crowds and their needs always come first.  Jesus serves always.

Do not miss the amazing image at the close of this gospel.  When Jesus steps out of the boat, the frantic crowds, their number and their needs strike him.  His heart was moved with pity for them for they were like sheep without a shepherd.  This is Jeremiah’s image in his prophecy.  No one is shepherding the people.  Jesus’ response is to shepherd them himself.  He begins to teach them many things.  This is not to chastise the legitimately exhausted disciples.  But it is to show them who must always come first.  If they are to share in Jesus’ ministry, if they are to be Jesus’ other selves, then they must do what Jesus does.

This brings us back to what might well be the message for us to take to heart from this week’s readings.  Nothing in the readings promises the hearers position, power, or profit.  The call is to imitate the Good Shepherd.  This is not a ministry that results in being set above and apart.  This is a ministry of service among.  The Good Shepherd, the consolation in this week’s psalm response, we learn elsewhere is a shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him.  He calls them by name.  He lays down his life for his sheep.  That ought to be the most to which Jesus’ disciples aspire.  That is also why elsewhere Jesus challenges those who want to be his disciples to be sure they can take up the cross every day, to be sure that their strength is Jesus.  This is why he will castigate Peter and demand that Peter learn from Jesus by walking in his footsteps and paying attention to what Jesus does.  Get behind me, you Satan!  What had Peter done?  He simply protested that suffering and dying did not fit his image of who Jesus was as Messiah.  Peter thought with Messiahship would come position and power, not crucifixion and death.  Who could have known what Resurrection on the Third Day could possibly mean?

We live in a new age in the church.  This is the Church of Vatican Council II.  The Council proclaimed that the Church is the People of God, called to live their Baptismal Priesthood.  That means every baptized person is called to ministry and to shepherd.  Of course it means also that every baptized person is called to be ministered to and to be shepherded in the community we call Church.

The Church is a people constantly assembling to be formed in the Word and transformed by the Eucharist.  It is a people constantly growing in the understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ.  It is a people constantly learning the implications of the Bread broken and the Cup poured out, of the meal shared through the procession to Holy Communion.  Never is this action something in which to rest.  Rather, it is always something from which the people are sent, themselves to be broken and poured out in imitation of the One who called them to the Table and who was broken and poured out for them.

Do you hear Pope Francis’s urgings to the shepherds in these readings?  Do you hear his pleas to the Church?  Shepherd in the midst.  Welcome all.  Hold the poor in primacy of place and support them.  And you know that there are those who do not want to hear his prophesying.

So, in the end, we are left with a dichotomy.  There is such a thing as exhaustion and the danger of being burned out by ministering.  Jesus invites the disciples to rest.  But the demands of the poor ones wandering about like sheep without a shepherd must always come first for them, even before their legitimate need for rest.  Those who would be his disciples must always seek to do what Jesus does, to imitate him in everything.  Who can do that?

Only those whose strength is Jesus.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus 

 

 

FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – July 15, 2018

A reading from the Book of Amos 7:12-15
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 1:3-14
A reading from the holy gospel according to Mark 6:7-13

Dear Friends in Christ,

The elderly woman, poorly dressed, stood at the corner waiting for the light to change so that she could cross the avenue.  The intersection was busy and cars sped on their way in both directions before her.  When the Walk sign shone across the street she hesitated and other pedestrians edged around her and made their way into the crosswalk.  She took a step from the curb, quickly glanced to her left and right, and then retreated back to her starting point.  The embarrassed expression on the face of on-lookers was apparent as they pretended not to notice the woman’s confusion.  The cycle happened a second time without the woman’s making the crossing.  She wrapped her arms around herself and shuddered.

In a moment a little girl ran up to the woman and tugged on her coat.  At first the woman did not react.  The little girl pulled again on the sleeve of coat.  The woman turned and looked down at the child.  The girl held up her hand and asked, “Could you help me cross the street?”  There was a hesitation and another search of both directions.  Then the woman made a brushing motion to the sides of her coat.  She licked her lips as a smile emerged.  Then she extended her hand to the child.  Together they proceeded to make their way to the other side.  Members of the crowd poked each other and nodded wordlessly.  One man laughed.  One flicked a tear from his eye.  It was almost until the two had made it to the other side of the street before others, including the child’s mother scurried across.

The mother took her child’s hand and tried to disengage her from the woman’s clutch.  But the girl pulled her hand from her mother’s grasp and said, “No, Mother.  This is my friend and she helped to cross the street.  Would you help her now?”

The mother took firm hold of her daughter and pulled her away from the woman.  “How many times have I told you not to talk to strangers?  What is the matter with you?”

The young girl began to cry.  She turned and looked back at the woman whose eyes were still fixed on her.  She waved at the tyke and blew a kiss as others asked the woman if they could help her.

Who are the prophets?  From where do they come?  Given their importance as spokespersons for God in our tradition, you might assume they came from the upper class, the gentrified.  But often that is not the case.  There was a clan of professional prophets at the time of today’s first reading.  They prophesied for pay.  Their messages pleased their audiences.  They told the people what they wanted to hear.  

Then there were those like Amos who was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores, neither a lofty nor respected profession.  A peon might be a closer description.  God told Amos that he was a shepherd no more.  From now on he would speak for God to the people of God, to Israel now wandering from God’s ways.  But when Amos obeyed and preached, his prophecy stung, so much so that Amaziah, the authority over the Bethel sanctuary, wanted to banish him from Bethel.  He told Amos to preach elsewhere where his message might be appreciated.  

What is important to recognize is that there is no other explanation for the effective prophet other than grace, other than having been seized by the Spirit.

Last week we witnessed Jesus’ failure in his hometown.  They knew his origins and would not hear his message.  Because of their lack of faith he could not work his miracles there.  He was amazed at them and their response to him.  But rather than wallow in defeat, Jesus forges ahead.  This week we witness him send out the twelve.  Their task is to preach the Good News of repentance.  With Jesus’ authority they are to drive out unclean spirits.  Jesus shares his ministry and challenges them to do what he does for the reason that he does it.  That is why the instruction for how they are to conduct themselves is so important.  If you hear it you will marvel that it is so far from practical.  Rather than admonishing them to be well prepared for their journey, Jesus tells them the opposite.  Be vulnerable, ill equipped, and with no extras.  No funds for fancy lodgings.  No store of food to sustain them along the way.  They are to wear sandals and use a walking stick.  That is it.  Stay where people welcome the message and share food of their table.  Be ready for rejection, too.  When that happens, move on until they find those who will welcome the prophecy.

What is the lesson for us?  The people Jesus sends out will have nothing about them of power or wealth.  They will have nothing that will allow them to lord it over others.  Why is that important?  There must be no other explanation for what they say and do than Jesus and God’s love that he brings.  Those who come do not approach to conquer, but to serve.  They come to minister to the sick, help those who are lost find the way back, and to announce to all the Good News.

There was nothing pretentious about the little girl I watched assist the woman on the street corner – nothing impressive but her vulnerability and the courage that compelled her to reach out.  When others who should have acted saw what the little girl did, in their embarrassment, they followed the girl’s prophetic stance and stepped up to help.

We, as Church, are meant to be a prophetic people.  We are meant to witness to the Gospel’s call to justice, to uphold the dignity and worth of all people, and to serve out of love.  Nothing gets in the way of the effectiveness of the message more than preaching from a position of power.  That may well be why the most effective times for the Church are those of suffering.  It is said that when the Romans witnessed the love among the Christians on their way to a martyr’s death, they marveled: See how these Christians love one another.  It was witnessing the love that opened the pagan hearts to the message and compelled them to seek the truth themselves.

Francis of Assisi lived in an era when the Church was prosperous.  Francis dispossessed himself, wed Lady Poverty, and preached effectively, responding to the Lord’s challenge to him to rebuild my Church.  Damien left Belgium and lived among the lepers of Molokai.  He rejoiced the morning he spoke to his community as fellow lepers.  They heard the message.  Dorothy Day left Communism for communism that is Church and in her poverty she supported the dignity of the workers of the world.  And many of them followed.

We must not miss the prophesying of the first pope to take Francis’s name.  This Bishop of Rome urges us to be a poorer church, serving the needs of the poor.  Her urges the hierarchy to put aside the splendors of garb the way he did that of the Pontiff’s and shepherd in the midst of the sheep, smelling like them.  Imitate Christ.  Love as he loves.  Make it obvious that all are welcome where we gather.  And all are loved.

It is not without significance that we come to the Table empty handed.  We gather there in our poverty to give thanks to God for the gift that is faith at work in our lives.  We gather there to break Bread and share a Cup that is food and drink for our journey.  We gather to be sent to feed, to clothe, to minister to the sick and the dying, to visit the imprisoned, to work for the dignity of all people, even the lowliest, and so drive out demons.  If we are as vulnerable as those to whom we minister, then Christ is the only explanation for our success as the Kingdom is built up.  Not all will hear, of course.  But those who do will rejoice and know that they are loved.  That is reason for hope.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus