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SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – July 28, 2019

A reading from the Book of Genesis 18:20-32
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 2:12-14
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 11:1-13

Dear Friends in Christ,

He asked me if I prayed.  What an odd question, I thought.  I am a seminarian, aren’t I, preparing to be a priest?  So I said, Of course I pray.  But my confessor persisted and asked: How?

I never forgot that evening of spiritual direction.  The how question threw me.  I stammered and finally came up with the rosary and some other prayers that I had memorized and said frequently.  It became clear that my answer was not satisfactory.  That sounds like sitting down with a friend and the only conversation you have is from someone’s prepared text.  Would you do that?  I realized then that I didn’t know the first thing about prayer; that when I prayed, I always used someone else’s words, even the Hail, Mary, but never spoke from the heart.  That is what my confessor told me I ought to try.  Speak from your heart!

It is many years later that I write this to you.  Over those years I have struggled with the art of praying, if you will.  I have come to the conclusion that praying is much more about being silent than it is about saying words.  When you are in the presence of someone you love, someone who has been a part of your life for some time, a test of the solidity of the relationship is whether or not you are comfortable with silence.  Does one of you have to be talking all the time?  Or, can you just be in each other’s company, knowing that you are with someone you love and someone who loves you in return?

Do you pray?  If the answer is yes, then my next question is the same one that was asked me those many years ago: How?  Think about that for a few moments before you continue with this.  Think about that as you listen to this Sunday’s first reading and the gospel.

Can you imagine yourself in a conversation with God similar to the one Abraham has with God in the first reading?  Do not miss the gravity contained in the first sentence.  Something terrible has been happening in Sodom, a sin that results in cries to God of outrage.  Sodom’s sin is serious.  We probably would use the term mortal sin for what was happening there.  God is moved by the cries and comes down from heaven to see what is happening there.  You must not lose sight of that as you read or hear what follows.

This scene takes up right after the dinner that Abraham had prepared for the three visitors.  Two of the three are walking toward Sodom when God stays behind to engage in conversation with Abraham.  Obviously Abraham is comfortable talking with God.  He asks God if it is God’s intention to annihilate Sodom and all its inhabitants, guilty and innocent alike.  If God did that, wouldn’t people change their opinion about God, seeing God then as vengeful and forbidding?  Abraham puts it before God that surely God would spare the city for the sake of fifty innocent people.  God agrees that the city would be spared for the sake of the fifty, if there were fifty innocent.  Abraham lowers the number time after time.  Each time God agrees that the city would be spared for that number.  Finally, Abraham asks if God would spare the city if there were only ten innocent people there.  Once again, God says that the city would be spared even for the sake of the ten.

Abraham persisted in prayer.  That is what the conversation with God was, after all, intercessory prayer.  God responded favorably to Abraham’s pleas for Sodom.  That is where the reading ends.  If you go to Genesis and read what follows, you will find out that there must not have been even 10 innocent ones, because Sodom is destroyed.  Knowing that does not seem necessary for the theme of perseverance in prayer we are going to hear again in the gospel.

Jesus is a man of prayer.  Often he went off by himself to spend long periods of time in prayer.  On occasion he spent the whole night in prayer.  Prayer usually preceded major turning points in his public ministry.  There must have been something fascinating about the sight of Jesus caught up in prayer because, after watching him, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray.

Jesus responds by teaching them the themes that should be a part of their prayer, what they should have in mind whenever they pray.  In Luke’s Gospel, the themes emerge as a modified Lord’s Prayer.  In reality, Jesus tells the disciples what should be part of every prayer they pray.  It is clear that Jesus wants the disciples to remember to whom it is that they are praying.  When you pray, say: Father.  This is the relationship that Jesus wants the disciples to remember that they have with God.  Father speaks volumes about God’s attitude toward the one who prays.

I remember a holy man telling me once about Baptism.  We were standing near a Baptismal Font.  For a moment we were mesmerized by the sound of the water cascading into the pool.  Neither of us wanted to break the spell.  After a few minutes had passed, he said to me: Beautiful, isn’t it?  Imagine the centuries the font has been a symbol of hope and new beginning for our church, both a womb and a tomb.  Do you know what I believe?  When the newly baptized emerges from the font where s/he has died to sin and put on the new life in Christ, God loves that one with the same love God has for Christ.  In fact, I wonder if God can tell them apart.  Every time I am near a font I remember that conversation.  Being one of the baptized, I try to believe what he said.  That is what Jesus meant when he said: When you pray, say, Father.  We should go before God with the confidence that a child has in her/his father.  Can you really believe that God loves you that much?  If you can, why are you afraid?  That is how our conversation at the font ended.  When I am afraid, I still wonder why.

Jesus came as the full revelation of God, to bring God’s love and mercy to all.  His desire was that all people would hear him and believe, and in hearing and believing, accept the relationship with God.  We ought to stand in awe before God.  God is a god of majesty, wonder, and power, the creator of the universe, the God who created humankind in God’s image and likeness.  And God is the one who asked us to let God be our God.  Hallowed be (God’s) name.  Jesus wants all who hear him to accept the reign of God in their lives.  That is what we pray for when we say: Your kingdom come.  May all people come to know God and live as God’s people.  That is God’s Kingdom, God’s reign begun here on Earth.

Give us each day our daily bread.  That means that we are supposed to pray for what we need each day to survive.  There is nothing here about excess.  There is nothing here about praying to win the Lotto, or a football game, for that matter.  God is the one from whom all blessings flow.  When we sit to table and prepare to break bread, as we gaze at the bounty before us, we should see evidence of God’s bountiful love for us.  It is not a bad idea to pray before the meal begins and give thanks, not only for the meal, but for the grace that brought together those with whom you are eating, making them family and friends.  All is blessing.  Our prayer ought to include all those who live in poverty and lack even the essentials.  We ought to pray that our awareness of God’s bountiful love will inspire those with plenty to share with those without.  There is no reason why anyone should die of famine.  The sad thing is, it is the desire for profit that gets in the way.

Forgive us our sins for we forgive everyone in debt to us.  It amazes me that people do not struggle with this theme of prayer.  There are times when I hope that God will be more generous in forgiving me than I am in coming to forgiveness.  I think of people who have exhibited extraordinary grace in forgiving.  Parents have forgiven their children’s killers.  People have forgiven those who have defrauded them of their savings.  Survivors forgave those who held them in captivity in prison camps and killed their families and friends in the gas chambers.  Each time I read a story like that I wonder, could I have done that?  When I struggle to find the way to forgive, I pray that the Lord sees my struggle and grants me the grace to be able to do it – someday.  I also believe that some things God expects of us can only happen with grace.  That is why Jesus bathed us in the Spirit.

And do not subject us to the final test.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus, during the final moments of his agony on the cross, will be our supreme example of the application of this theme of prayer.  Hanging on that gibbet, his life’s blood draining from him, and threatened by the darkness enveloping him, Jesus cries out: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.  Jesus leaps into the chasm that is that darkness, confident that the Father will rescue him and raise him up.  He triumphed in the final test.  Each one of us will have a final moment.  We will be suspended between time and eternity.  If only our final breath can be like Jesus’, and, confident that we are God’s beloved, in our dying moment, take that final leap of faith.

It occurs to me that the attitudes in this reflection on how we are to pray, are the attitudes that we should bring to our celebrations of Eucharist.  We come together as family mindful that God is our Father.  We come united to give thanks through the renewing of Jesus’ dying and rising.We come needing to forgive and be forgiven.  We come to be increasingly transformed into the Body of Christ and to be sent from our celebration to be Christ’s presence in service to the poor.  Through our imitation of Jesus in his pouring out of self, may we do the same that God’s Kingdom may come.

The little parable that Jesus tells following his outline of prayer doesn’t need much comment.  It is obvious that Jesus wants us to understand that if a friend can beseech a friend for a favor at an inconvenient hour and, persevering, have that favor granted for friendship’s sake, how much more will God, who loves us as God loves Christ, outdo even our best friends in generosity if we persevere in prayer.  But wait a minute.  Again, it is clear that this generosity is not about things.  How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask God?  This is about praying for the gift of faith, the grace to believe what our prayer should be about.  Jesus is telling us that whether we are experiencing times of powerful temptation to go against God’s will for us, or whether we are in that final moment we spoke of above, God’s love will embrace us, strengthen us, and, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit’s influence, we will be strengthened to be faithful and trust in God’s mercy to the very end – if we pray for it.

Our challenge is to trust that God, who knows our needs better than we do, will provide what is necessary for our salvation.  And God knows that even before we ask for it.

Maybe that is why silence becomes such an important part of prayer.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – July 21, 2019

A reading from the Book of Genesis 18:1-10a
A reading form St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 1:24-28
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 10:38-41

Dear Friends in Christ,

Hospitality.  Table fellowship.  It is obvious in the Gospels that these are primary values for Jesus.  One of the charges against Jesus that leads to his crucifixion is that he welcomed sinners and ate with them.  If these are primary values for Jesus, shouldn’t they be hallmarks of treatment by those who gather in the Lord’s name at his Table?  With that in mind you might find this Sunday’s gospel perplexing as we witness Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary’s home.  You might wish there could be one more line of dialog at the end in which Martha is praised.

The gospel says quite clearly that it is Martha who welcomes Jesus.  She is being the hospitable one, even as she takes on the implications of hospitality.  She prepares the table.  She acts like Abraham in the first reading, Abraham who welcomes the mysterious trio of visitors with reverence and is lavish in his ministrations as a banquet far in excess  of what the three could possibly consume is prepared.  

Did Abraham act this way because he recognized the Lord’s presence in the visitors?  Or did he act this way because the demands of hospitality dictated he do so?  The wonder and impact of this episode would be lessened if it became clear that Abraham washed their feet and placed the banquet before the three because he knew that thereby he would secure the promise that ends the piece.  Abraham did what he did because he knew it was the right thing to do, only to find out that God cannot be outdone in generosity.  Abraham had entertained angels unawares.

Martha is burdened with her chores.  Stress overcomes her.  There should be joy in the service.  Martha felt herself put upon.  She was keenly aware of what the moment demanded of her.  Was she also chafing under the subservient and servant role that had fallen to women?  Jesus may have been the only guest.  It is possible Martha had a houseful of guests with Jesus as the guest of honor.  There is a lesson here for all of us if we are to understand Jesus’ chiding remark.

Mary has chosen the better part.  Has she rejected the servant role and refused to be segregated from the men and consigned to the scullery?  She chose the better part.  This is not something that she passively fell into.  Much less is it a sign of laziness, or blindness to the demands of hosting.  Here is something to ponder.  Has Mary chosen to be a disciple?  Is that what her sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to him signify?  That is what disciples do.  Disciples are  with Jesus.  We listen to Jesus and drink in his words.  We are transformed by them, so becoming the Lord’s other selves.  Mary is prompted by grace and the Holy Spirit.  I say that because Paul teaches that that is the only way responses to discipleship can happen.  She chooses discipleship, chooses to listen, and chooses to be with Jesus.  Because she chose discipleship she would be among the first to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection.

So, we come back to Martha.  Notice that she calls Jesus, Lord.  That means she has made her decision about Jesus.  She chooses to be a disciple, which means that she, too, wants to be with Jesus.  Is Martha being chided for not putting discipleship first?  Had she done that, joy form her service would have followed.

Now place yourself in the scene.  What are you supposed to do?  How are you supposed to act?  You have been chosen by grace and the Holy Spirit to be a disciple.  Your response is the desire to be with Jesus, to sit at his feet and listen to him.  Choose the better part.  What flows from that?  If we listen and absorb the message, then besides doing what Mary did, do we not have to do Martha’s business too.  It is a question of both and.  If, as disciples, we  go out to serve and meet the needs of the poor and the disenfranchised, we cannot forget that it is the Lord we minister to in them.  Remember that bracelet that Christians used to wear?  WWJD.  What would Jesus do?  That is what Jesus should see as he observes us, the church, the Body of Christ, in action.  As disciples we must be reconcilers and healers in these divisive times.  Sexism.  Racism.  Antisemitism.  Anti- muslims.  As disciples we must be ambassadors of peace and respect, recognizing that in God there is one human family.  We are all sisters and brothers in the Lord.

And I put one more issue before you for consideration.  What is the atmosphere in your parish?  Is the Assembly multi racial?  Are the disabled able to function in the worship space?  Are the poor comfortable worshiping in your midst.  Is it immediately apparent that All are welcome here?  Would some criticize you because undesirables gather with you?  Putting it bluntly, would members of the LGBTQ community feel welcome?

All of us are to exemplify hospitality and table fellowship when we gather.  All are welcome.  If there is anything of arrogance about us, we have missed the point.  If we lord power over anyone, we are not exercising discipleship.  We have all, clergy and lay and bishops, too, been called to be servants whose faith empowers us to recognize Jesus in the poorest of the poor, and to recognize them not as inferiors but as peers.

As we move from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, may we be transformed by what we have heard and what we do.  May we be transformed more completely by the meal we share to cast off contrary values of power, wealth and primacy of place that can be alluring, so that we find joy in entertaining angles unawares.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – July 14, 2019

A reading from the Book of Deuteronomy 30:10-14
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 1:15-20
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 10:25-37

Dear Friends in Christ,

Sometimes the editing decisions in the Sunday Lectionary puzzle me.  In today’s first reading, for example, why are Moses’ opening words omitted from the text?  It would take only a second or two longer to read: The Lord will delight in you and your descendants, rather than beginning mid sentence with if only you would heed the voice of the Lord.  What Moses tells the Israelites and us is that God is delighted with us when we act according to the Law God imprinted on our hearts.  What is that law?  The Law of Love.  That is spelled out a few verses after the end of the reading when we are urged to always choose life over death.  To choose life is to choose love.  That seems to be the instinct that God placed within us.

That should have become clear to us when we pondered the creation narrative in Genesis.  Did not God say there: Let us make the earthling in our own image, after our likeness?  Our understanding of the Triune God is that God’s essence is to be a community of love.  Everything that God does is an expression of that love.  Every creative act is an expression of that love.  If we are created in God’s image and likeness and are therefore loved by God because our being reflects God, that would seem to indicate that we are created to love as God loves.  Love is what we should be about.  Love is what will bring us the greatest sense of fulfillment of our purpose.  Of course sin entered our narrative early one and warped our consciousness, tending to make us more self-centered.  But that calling remains in us.  It just takes a little more effort to respond.

Sometimes I wish the slate of our memories could be wiped clean and we could hear familiar gospel passages for the first time again.  Don’t misunderstand me.  It is not that I wish everyone could suffer an amnesia attack.  Rather, I wish the scriptures could impact us as they did our ancestors in the faith when they heard Jesus tell the parables.  If only we could be stunned by the implications of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Lives could be changed for the better if we chose to live out the implications of this parable.

The lawyer who occasioned the parable is an interesting character.  It is possible to interpret him variously, but, not to be harsh, as I read him, he is not a voice from the crowd of those seeking to be Jesus disciples.  Luke says quite clearly that the expert in the Mosaic Law stood up to test Jesus.  Most of the time, those tests were attempts to build up a case against Jesus, to have something with which to accuse him, and so bring him down.  The lawyer’s calling Jesus teacher might have the smarmy about it.  His question is lofty: What must I do to inherit eternal life?  It was quite ordinary for scribes and Pharisees and others interested in the Law to sit around and discuss which laws were the most important, and most necessary, to be carried out if one hoped to see God at life’s end.

If there is a snare in the question, Jesus clouds it, and turns the table on the inquisitor and asks for his own opinion.  Immediately it is apparent that the man knows the law and is able to summarize it by quoting the Scriptures, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  He states that the Law is about loving God with our entire being, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

What makes me wonder about the man’s sincerity is what follows.  In another encounter, when Jesus hears one give a similar answer, the text says that Jesus looked at the respondent with love.  It doesn’t say that here.  Perhaps that is because Jesus knew that there was no correspondence between the lawyer’s knowledge of the Law, and the way he lived it.  So, Jesus gives a curt reply that affirms the lawyer’s grasp of the Law, but challenges him to change his ways and live by that understanding.  Did the lawyer see the others in the crowd smirk at him when they heard Jesus’ admonition not to be one who only knows the Law, but to be one who lives the Law.  To justify himself, in other words, to save face before the crowd, he now wants Jesus to define the term neighbor.

It is never a bad idea to put yourself in a gospel text.  Suppose you were the one who fell victim to the robbers on your way down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Wouldn’t that add weight to all that happens in the story?  Imagine yourself stripped, beaten, robbed and left half dead by the side of the road.  We are not that unfamiliar with road-rage stories in these times.  It should not be that hard to identify with the poor soul.

What may not be clear to us is what results from the man’s beaten and bloody condition.  He becomes unclean.  Any observant Jew would incur ritual impurity were s/he to come into contact with him and his blood.  Being ritually impure, that one would not be able to enter into temple worship without first being purified.  That is why the priest and the Levite, when they see the man, are careful to pass by on the other side of the road. – lest even the hem of their garments should brush against the man’s bleeding body.  Religious people would understand their concern.  That is how  important it is for them to keep God’s law.  Do you think the injured one would understand?

Along comes a Samaritan.  Again, the choice of character may not be jarring.  We are used to Good Samaritan hospitals, aren’t we?  But Jews despised Samaritans.  And vice versa also seems to have been the case.  Remember when, not that many verses ago, the Samaritans turned Jesus away?

This Samaritan is not concerned about incurring ritual impurity.  Jesus says that when he sees the wounded man, the Samaritan is moved with compassion.  The word compassion means to suffer with.  The Samaritan felt the man’s dreadful situation as if it were his own.  He ministers to his needs, dresses his wounds, takes him to shelter, pays for his care, and promises to pay for anything in excess of the amount he has paid upon his return.  Wow!  Isn’t that an amazing response from a stranger, especially from a stranger who knew that the one he was helping probably held him and his kind in contempt?  Would you not think that the expert in the Law found the Samaritan’s actions incredible?  If you were the beaten one, would it still bother you that the one who came to your aid was a Samaritan?

Remember that the question that occasioned the parable was: And who is my neighbor?  Jesus did not respond with a definition of neighbor that would have allowed the expert in the Law to maintain lines of demarcation.  Who is my neighbor?  Who is not my neighbor?  Instead, at the end of the parable Jesus asks another question: Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?  It is interesting that the man cannot even bring himself to utter the word Samaritan.  In stead he has to fess up and admit that the neighbor was The One who took pity on the victim and responded to his needs.  He probably wished that he had not asked the question that started all of this when he heard Jesus say to him: Go and do likewise.  Did his friends snicker then?  From the text it does not seem that he protested.  Maybe he went home and stewed over the matter.

What should be our response?  The proclamation of the Good News is never meant to induce a guilt trip on the part of the listener.  It is meant to challenge us, help us to change, and respond more fully to the Living Word.  Certainly, if we harbor prejudices in our heart, we must root them out.  The one we have the strongest feelings against is, because of our faith, more than a neighbor to us.  That one is our brother or sister in the Lord.  How could racial prejudices survive were we able to get beyond the color of one’s skin and recognize our commonality?  Religious prejudices would yield were we able to be convinced that what the Second Vatican Council proclaimed is so, that there are many paths to God; that the Jewish people remain the Chosen Race, God’s beloved ones.  That in no way diminishes our standing before God, baptized and identified with the Son as we are, washed clean in, and redeemed by his blood.  Are we able to love even those who vilify us?  Even if they act in that way against us, their relationship to us remains the same.  They are included among those we are commanded to love, as we love ourselves.

So there we have it.  In the end, it is about love, love of God and love of neighbor.  We are invited to love God with our entire being.  I say invited even though we are talking about a commandment here.  I don’t know if love can be commanded.  We are invited to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Perhaps that  is what we should bring with us the next time we celebrate Eucharist.  In our giving thanks to God (Eucharist means thanksgiving) what if we dared to pray that we might be transformed completely, as is the bread and wine over which we pray.  How differently would we conduct ourselves were we convinced that we are the Body of Christ?  Would we find the courage to love our neighbor the way Christ does?

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus