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SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – February 24, 2019

 

A reading from the first Book of Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23
A reading from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians 15:45-49
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 6:27-38

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

If ever the Liturgy of the Word is to agitate the hearers, this Sunday’s should do that.  It is hard to imagine readings more at odds with the times than these.  Wars rage in many countries.  In our own, the evening news is filled with stories of racism, sexism, domestic violence, violence in the streets, and on and on.  It is hard to remember a time when we have been more divided politically.  

The desire for revenge is natural, or so they say.  If someone betrays you, it is normal to want to get even.  Only a wimp would stand there after being slapped and wait for the blow on the other cheek according to today’s values.  To be honest, it is hard for me to understand that one.  How about you?  But I believe that Jesus knew that when he taught his disciples what is commonly termed The Sermon on the Plain.  Its counterpart is Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.   In both cases, the listeners are neophyte disciples.  

Some among us in the Assembly are Catechumens, making this Liturgical journey for the first time on their way to the Font of Baptism.  All of us are early in the Church Year.  Right from the start the Teacher wants all to know that following him on the Way is difficult.  All should know this from the start.  How better to do that than put this seemingly impossible Gospel ethic before us.

Remember, these readings are the Living Word of God.  As participants in the Liturgy of the Word, we are not listening to a recounting of something that happened a long time ago.  The Word is alive.  Jesus teaches us now.  We sit under the Word, just as those neophyte disciples did.  Jesus speaks to these times and to our situations to challenge us and transform us.

Try to imagine Jesus’ voice, the style of his delivery.  I like to hear his voice in warm and dulcet tones with a soft chorus of violins lilting in the background and perhaps a choir of angelic arpeggios.  That would ease the severity of the statements.  But sweetness is not the concern.  These teachings are harsh and demanding.  The Teacher is stern in the delivery of demands that those who hear the first requirements of a disciple will understand that following Jesus, walking in his footsteps and peering over his shoulder are not for the faint hearted.  Do not be too quick to say that you can do this, at least not on your own.  With God’s help and grace, the strengthening of the Spirit?  That is another question.

May I suggest that you pause here and read this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word, especially the gospel, before you continue this reflection?

Now, how do you think this message will go down in these days of machismo?  How long would a television series run with a hero or heroine that turned the other cheek?  The thrill and excitement mount as the audience waits to see who will be the last person standing, to say nothing about the enjoyment experienced at the debasing of a contestant.  Wars are fought with retaliation at their base.  And what about those seekers, those mothers and fathers and children fleeing violence and hoping for the peace and security in our country?  What should our attitude as disciples be toward them?

Jesus uses the word love.  This is not romantic love.  This love expresses itself in the pouring out of self in service.  Who can do that to those who have hurt or betrayed them?  It is hard enough to do that for those whom you love.  The natural tendency is to distance oneself from the hated one and to ignore him/her.  But then to ignore is to pretend the other does not exist.  Somehow I do not think that that is part of Jesus’ teaching.

From the time he became pope, Francis has been urging reform on the Church, calling us to be a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  There is deep division in the Church in light of his teaching.  Some curse Pope Francis and say he is the worst thing to happen to the Church since Vatican Council II.   Some bishops are not interested in shepherding in the midst of the sheep, much less smelling like them.  Some are quite content to be seen as princes of the church, living in splendor.  Clericalism is another question.  Not all priests think of the Assembly as co-celebrants of the Liturgy.  Rather, Father says Mass for the people who should kneel and observe.  That is not the attitude called for by the Second Vatican Council.  As I write this, the Pope’s meeting with the Bishops regarding the sexual abuse scandal is pending.  This is an age ripe for reform.  We need a new Pentecost.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the epitome of those taking this gospel to heart and practicing the teaching.  In the days post apartheid, Archbishop Tutu set about the task of reconciling the opposite sides of that bitter and horrific struggle.  He got them to sit down at a table and dialog.  Grieving people spoke about members of their families having been whisked away in the night and never to be seen again.  The grievers were not even afforded the courtesy of being informed where their loved ones were buried.  From the other side came the admissions, not always with apologies, and the disclosure of the burial sites.  The Spirit moved and somehow in this grueling process, healing happened and a new era began in South Africa.

This gospel is not saying that there should not be consequences for criminal behavior.  People who do violence to others need to be curtailed.  Innocents should be protected from those who rape and pillage.  But Jesus is saying that we should not treat them as they have treated others.  Having killed does not justify society’s killing the killers.  It is time for incarceration to be rehabilitation and not just punitive.

It is okay to wonder, as we listen to Jesus’ words, if we have the ability to live them.  I pray I am not a vengeful person.  But I wonder if I can turn the other cheek.  I do not know if I hate those who would be considered my enemies.  Can I love them?  Can I pour out myself in service before them, even as I long for vindication?  Must I, must we take Jesus teaching to heart as we struggle to be disciples?

Farther along the Way, Jesus will say to us: If you would be my disciple, take up your cross every day and follow me.  I don’t know about you, but my first response is to say I hear the command, but I can’t do it alone.  The point is, Jesus will be our strength and support.  He never asks us to do it alone.

Heaven is soon enough for vindication.

So once again we will transition to the Liturgy of Eucharist.  Vatican Council II teaches that the Eucharist is the source and summit of all we do as Church.  Just as the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, so are we transformed further into the Body of Christ by the meal that we share.  Then we are sent out into that world to be Bread broken and Cup poured out.  We are to love as we are loved, to lift up the poor and the disenfranchised, to love the enemies, and to be ambassadors of healing and reconciliation, just as Jesus taught us to be.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus  

 

 

  

 

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SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – February 17, 2019

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 17:5-8
A reading from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians 15:12, 16-26
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 6:17, 20-26

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

Jesus fascinated people right from the start.  We are early in Luke’s Gospel, just after the call of the Twelve.  Already crowds surround him.  Actually, there are two distinct groups.  We have a large number of his disciples and the crowds.  Disciples are those who have made the decision to follow Jesus on the Way.  The crowds are curious about him.  They have heard about his preaching and teaching and even about some amazing works he has done.  But they have not made up their minds about him.  They will address him as teacher and rabbi and ask him questions in attempts to better understand him.  But as yet they have not made a decision about him or the role he should play in their lives.

The disciples follow Jesus.  They call him Messiah and have made the decision to walk with him and make him the center of their lives.  Think of last week’s gospel.  Peter, James, and John, fishermen by trade, saw the huge number of fish that filled Peter’s net and then their two boats.  They came to shore and left everything with which they were familiar, their boats, their nets, and followed Jesus who said to them: From now on you will be catching people.

Jesus addresses the disciples in this week’s gospel.  His message will not get through to the crowds.  It seems clear that Jesus wants the disciples, including us, early on the Way, to understand clearly the demands of discipleship.  The message is important for the Catechumens among us as they journey and make their decision about their Baptism.  Jesus is not like today’s recruiters who tend to paint rosy pictures of the life lived by those who join their causes.  They speak of the wonderful benefits that will come to them from becoming part of the movement.

Jesus takes the opposite approach as he warns those who would follow him to be sure they know what they are getting into and what it will cost.  His is not an easy path to tread.  Wealth and worldly riches are not likely to follow.  The different kind of life that they will live because of Jesus may well make them enemies of those who do not believe in Jesus or his ways.

As we hear these readings, do you hear Pope Francis challenging the church, calling the Church to reform and be a poorer church serving the needs of the poor?  He urges the shepherds to shepherd in the midst of the sheep and not over them.  There is great significance to his being the first pope to take St. Francis’s name.

In light of the gospel, hear the Prophet Jeremiah.  He talks about the folly of trusting in people as opposed to trusting in the Lord.  It should be understood that Jeremiah preaches to people who are struggling with the faith in which they were born but now are dazzled by what others’ gods seem to promise.  The Prophet sees the downfall that will follow unless the Jews firm themselves in their faith and come back to the Lord and his ways.  If they are unfaithful and trust in mere mortals, when the hard times come they will be desolate and learn what ruin means.  But those who are faithful and follow the Lord’s ways, even in the worst of times, will know an inner strength that the Lord gives.  They will be strong even if the worst happens – even if Jerusalem does fall and the Babylonians lead the people off in slavery.

What most see as woes, Jesus sees as blessings because these afflictions will help to keep disciples focused on what is important and on their relationship with Jesus.  Blessed are you who are poor.  Blessed are you who are hungry.  Blessed are you who are weeping.  Blessed are you when people hate you.  I don’t know about you, but I have never been able to see a blessing in any of those negative conditions if I stop there.  Where is the blessing in being poor when all around me are those telling me about the importance of wealth?  There are those who preach a gospel of affluence, telling their audience that Jesus wants them to be wealthy as a sign of his favor resting on them.  That doesn’t resonate with me.  I can’t find that line of thinking in the Gospel.  I can’t say that I have too much experience with hunger.  At the first twinge I am able to go to the pantry and find something that will satisfy.  Then I see a picture of a child, malnourished, starving to death.  That is where Jesus is.  Weeping over the loss of someone or something dear expresses pain and longing.  How is that a blessing?  If I were the object of hatred, how could I go on, even if I am hated for imitating Jesus?

So what is it that Jesus is saying to his neophyte and untried disciples?  God must be brought into the equation.  Poverty brings emptiness and vulnerability, what others have described as a holy longing.  Riches will not fill the void.  But God can reign there in the emptiness; and where God reigns is the Kingdom of God.  God will not fail the one in whom God reigns.  In Jeremiah’s words, that one will be like a tree planted beside waters that stretches out its roots to the stream; it fears not the heat when it comes; its leaves stay green.

How many of those disciples listening to Jesus were poor?  Chances are, not a few.  Those who flocked to Jesus and were most open to his message tended to be the lower class of society and those that the elite would rather ignore.  Those the religious designated to be sinners were there, too.  Jesus welcomed these and practiced table fellowship with them.  He told them that they were the beloveds of God.  Jesus brought them God’s love.  And God’s love is eternal.

The challenge for us, as we hear Jesus speak these beatitudes, is to be open before them, to understand that these axioms are meant to inspire and challenge us, just as they did those first disciples.  After all, we are in the early weeks of this Church Year, just beginning our journey with Jesus through Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus is asking us who have been baptized for some time and those who are new to the faith, or still considering becoming disciples, what place does he hold in our lives?  There is a song from an old musical that sings: With me it’s all or nothing.  It’s all or nothing at all.  That is what Jesus is saying.  Or, rather, that is what Jesus asks us to consider before we go any farther on this journey.  He must be all in all in our lives.  None of those things the world values can come before Jesus.  The most important desire in the disciple’s life must be faithfulness to God in imitation of Jesus who always seeks to do the will of the One who sent him.

Jesus is not condemning wealth, anymore than he is condemning food or friendship.  But none of these is an end in itself.  The disciple must be right ordered and place God first, above all of the things the world desires.  In other words, avarice, gluttony, and any of those vices that warp and exploit relationships can have no place in the disciple’s heart.  Disciples imitate Jesus, walk behind him and watch what he does.  Then disciples strive to do the same.

This is the call of the individual disciple.  This is the call of the Church, the Body of Christ, to which the baptized belong.  I remember being stunned when a wise and venerable teacher said to me: Do you realize that you are the only Jesus some will ever meet or experience?  I never forgot his words.  I reflect on them at least weekly.  I realize also that the same thing can be said of the Church universal and the parish in particular – the only Jesus some people will experience.

Here is a challenge I offer in all humility.  Dare to ask yourself, to whom have you been Jesus recently?  How has your discipleship expressed Jesus to those you encountered?  The questions are not meant to depress you, much less, to fill you with anxiety.  But it is true that there are those in your life for whom you can make all the difference in the world.  Without you, they might never realize that they are loved by you or by God.  One of the evening news programs has a segment called, Making a Difference.  The ones I have seen tell the stories of ordinary people who saw a need in their neighborhood and dared to ask what they could do to meet the need and relieve the burden.  Of course the results never look ordinary.  Often times they seem to be miraculous.

We are disciples who come together to celebrate Eucharist.  Having listened to the Word and been nourished by it, we move to the Table of the Eucharist to give thanks and to renew the Lord’s dying and rising in Bread and Wine.  The Bread is broken and the Cup is poured out so that we and all those gathered with us can eat and drink and be satisfied.  But you know well that the meal is meant to be an expression of who and what we are as a parish.  To gather at the table expresses Jesus’ table fellowship and declares that all are welcome here.  To eat and drink means to be sent to be broken and poured out. 

Good questions to ask in light of these beatitudes are, what place do the poor occupy in the Assembly?  Are they supported, fed, and sheltered?  Will those who are mourning feel the comfort and support of the Assembly?  Will those with disabilities be allowed to exercise a ministry in the Assembly?  Will sinners feel welcome?  Does the parish work for justice and peace?

If we hear this gospel, we have to understand that we, individually and collectively, are on a journey.  It is about faith in Jesus and the One who sent him that empowers us to do what Jesus does.  What keeps us going, whether we experience success or failure, is what Jesus said.  Rejoice and leap for joy on that day (if persecution and rejection result from your ministry).  Behold your reward will be great in heaven.

We do believe in heaven, don’t we?  Shouldn’t that be evident from the way we live?

Sincerely yours in Christ,

 

Didymus

FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – February 10, 2019

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8
A reading from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians 15:1-11
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 5:1-11

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

No one can look on the face of God and live.  Isaiah was well schooled in Hebrew Scripture and believed that proclamation the same way that Moses did when he approached the Burning Bush at YHWH’s invitation.  The awesomeness of God is beyond imagining.  Yet humankind is made in the image and likeness of God, as Genesis teaches.  God is the reason why we are created and our destiny.  We are called to see God.  Perhaps we do but are unaware.

The majesty of the transcendent God whose glory fills the whole earth strikes terror in Isaiah’s heart at the start of his vision in this Sunday’s first reading.  The contrast is obvious and apparent:  the holiness of God versus the sinfulness of Isaiah.  Woe is I!  But if God’s glory fills the whole earth, then Isaiah has been looking into the face of God all along.  That glimpse into the transcendent strikes terror and enables him to see as he has never before. The otherness of God and God’s distance from humans causes terror in the midst of awe.  Then comes the seraphim, an angel of God, and touches Isaiah’s lips with the burning ember to purify him: See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.

This is Isaiah’s call to be a prophet.  At the outset he is convinced that he is unworthy.  After the purification rite, he hears the Lord ask, Whom shall I send?  Isaiah’s response?  Here I am, send me.  

It is in the nature of vocation that the one called feels unworthy of the calling.  From where will come the strength to carry out the calling?  From where will come the wisdom?  What will it take to make the one called feel worthy of the vocation?  Here we are, on this Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, at the beginning of our call to faith and conversion, about to begin our journey on the Way with Jesus.  Beware that once we begin it, we will never be the same again.  But don’t be afraid.  The Spirit will strengthen us along the Way.  And don’t miss St. Paul’s reminding us of the main tenets of our faith, that we are saved by the dying and rising of the Lord Jesus.  In other words, it has been done for us.  All we have to do is hear and believe.  And then live in the Word.

There must have been some association between those fishermen washing their nets, among them Simon, and Jesus.  Why else would Jesus climb into their boat and order Simon to push off shore.   The crowd presses in on Jesus, starved for his message.  It had been a long time since the voice of God had been heard in the land when Jesus spoke.  His reputation is growing and numbers want to see and hear for themselves.  Some in the crowd were on the verge of discipleship.   They lapped up his message as pups might the scraps left from a meal.

It would seem that Simon, James, and John had heard Jesus preach and been fascinated.  But hearing Jesus and the wonder of his preaching did not make them uncomfortable in his presence.  Simon grumbled when, once off shore, Jesus directed him to lower the nets.  After all, they had fished all night and caught nothing.  Nonetheless, Peter did as he was asked.  That is the beginning of trust.  Then came the fish.  Night-long-empty nets became engorged.  This is not the first time that Simon had caught fish.  What brought him to his knees before Jesus and made him call Jesus Lord?  Did Jesus’ face change as it would on the mountain during the Transfiguration?  Did the heavens part as they had over the Jordan when the Dove descended? 

That moment of connection became for Simon and the others a glimpse of the glory Isaiah had seen the year Uzziah died.  All of that they saw blazing out from Jesus.  Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.  Who can look on the face of God and live?  What sinner can come into such proximity with the All Holy?

Jesus came to bridge the chasm and to unite the Divine and human.  It was not Jesus’ intention to keep people on their knees, striking their breasts as they gazed heavenward.  Jesus came to bring the human and Divine together, to heal the wounds, forgive the sins, and transform the relationship with the Divine forever and to awaken us to the God within.  Simon and the others may not have grasped all that as they towed the fish to shore.  But in an instant fish were not enough anymore.  

Astonishment is not the response Jesus looks for.  That would mean that someone stands with gaping mouth before some spectacular moment.  That is when people ask: How did he do that?  It is one thing to be caught up in wonder.  It is another to become a disciple.

Depart from me Lord began the transformation Jesus sought, the transformation from being a member of the crowds, to becoming a disciple, one who accepts Jesus invitation to accompany him on the way.  When they brought their boats to shore they left everything and followed him.

I remember a moment many years ago now.  I held a baby over the waters of the Font.  Children pressed in on every side and jostled for the clearest view, not wanting to miss a moment.  The infant gazed down on the moving waters and seemed transfixed as I began to lower him into the waters that are at once your tomb and your mother.  I felt no tension in the baby, nothing akin to fear, no bracing against the waters as I plunged him into the deep.  As I raised him out of the water after the third dipping, he look up and, beaming, laughed.

I saw the glory and the wonder brought to me so many years ago, and then to the child in my arms.  But in no way did I want Jesus to depart, not because I was unaware of my being a sinner, but because I believe that through Jesus, the transcendent God, the omnipotent and all holy One has chosen to live in me and in that child in my arms.  Through Jesus all the baptized put on Christ and become God’s beloved, never to be separated from God forever.

And most wonderful of all, the sinner is forgiven.

So, following the Liturgy of the Word, transformed by it, we transition to the Liturgy of the Eucharist to celebrate our faith as we renew the dying and rising of Jesus in the Bread broken and the Cup poured out.  All of us gathered share in the Meal.  And having eaten and drunk, transformed we are sent to continue announcing the Good News to the poor who long to know that they are loved and destined to live in that love forever.

In the end it is all about love.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus