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TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – September 01, 2019

A reading from the Book of Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 14:1, 7-14

My father was a mild mannered man who was well able to control his emotions.  It took a major faux pas to provoke an angry response from him.  The rest of the time a glance from him was sufficient to register his displeasure with something said or done.  That being said, when he did erupt, so to speak, it was memorable.

How old was I that day?  It seems to me that I was not more than in the second grade of elementary school.  We were walking north on California Avenue after getting hair cuts heading for home and lunch.  I held his hand.  What possessed me?  I saw a black man sitting on the pavement, leaning his back against the Woolworth store.  A scruff of beard showed on his face.  His clothes were well worn and in need of repair.  He had a cup in his hand to accept the offerings of people passing by.  What struck me as funny?  Why did I laugh?  From this vantage point, I cannot recall.  I do remember that my father paused in front of the man and inquired about his health.  He shook the man’s hand and dropped something into the cup.  Father and I continued on up the street for a bit.  Then he stopped and turned toward me, demanding my full attention.

”Listen to me, young man.  And I hope I never have to repeat this.  I am very disappointed in what you just did.  What gives you the right to hold another person up to scorn?  (I don’t think I knew what scorn meant then.)  You laughed at that man, making fun of him.  Do you think you are better than he is?  Do you know the troubles he has dealt with in his life, or the sorrows that have befallen him?  Never forget that God loves that man the way God loves you.  That man is family.

“You think about what you did just now.  When we get home, I want you to tell me what you are going to do to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.  Do you understand me?”

My father did not have to raise his voice.  He did not have to spank me.  The hurt that registered in his eyes was more painful than a shout or a slap.  Even as I write this these many decades later, I can hear his voice and feel the pressure of his hand holding mine.  The lesson etched itself indelibly in my consciousness.

I think of that childhood memory in the context of the Liturgy of the Word for this Sunday.  The reading from Sirach and the Gospel teach us about humility.  Do not miss the point by concentrating on the instruction Jesus gives us to take the lower place at a banquet table.  The possibility of being shown to a higher place by the host and being the recipient of the adulation of the other guests who get the point of just how important the one being reseated is in comparison to the rest of them just might translate into a temptation to vanity.  Of course there is also the possibility that the host, noticing the person in the lower seat, might think the person chose appropriately.  Then imagine the chagrin.

The gospel parable is meant to take us deeper and challenge us to be different from what our natural inclinations might tempt us to do.  As we sit under the Word we should confront our natural perceptions regarding self in relation to others.  That child that I was laughed at the beggar because instinctively I thought I was better than him.  My father apprised me of the truth.

It is not easy to be a Christian.  Jesus never told the crowd considering discipleship that it would be easy to walk with him on The Way.  With this gospel, we are back to the narrow gate,  and the eye of the needle through which the heavily laden camel can only pass with great difficulty.  Through Luke, Jesus challenges his disciples to see people through a different lens.  Te be disciples we are to reverence the poor, the disabled, the lame, and the blind, all those looked down upon by segments of society, those ignored or overlooked by the societal elite.  These are to have primacy of place in our society.  They are all to have a place at the Table.  Jesus practiced table fellowship with this class of people and those publicly denounced as sinners.  Hosting them opened Jesus to ridicule and became the source of charges leveled against him, charges that led to his rejection and crucifixion.  If I am going to be a disciple, I must be the host of that kind of banquet and number these kinds of people among my friends.

I struggled with the community where I once worshipped.  Looking around the Assembly, I saw only the comfortable, the white.  Other races and ethnic groups were not in evidence.  I should have taken my lead from the parking lot.  Luxury cars occupied most of the slots.  Inside the church, everything was too pristine and the padded pews, too soft.  I lasted a few Sundays before I went on a search for a place that told me: All are welcome here!

I knew I was home when I saw a severely disabled woman make her way with difficulty up the stairs to the altar area, there to receive the Body and Blood, and then with difficulty to make her way down the steps to begin her Eucharistic Ministry.  Of course her fellow ministers assisted her but in no way compromised her dignity.  I saw a person in a motorized chair struggling with Cerebral Palsy.  His Amen came a little later than those of the rest of the Assembly.  I saw Hispanics and Blacks and Asians.  And it had all started for me on my way into the Worship Space when three people at different times welcomed me and told me how happy they were to see me.  All are welcome here!

Sometimes I wonder about the padded pews.  I wonder about the elitism that seems evident in some Assemblies.  I hear Pope Francis urging us to be a poorer church that serves the needs of the poor.  Clericalism must come to an end.  The hierarchy must shepherd in the midst of the sheep.  Or so Francis says.  And there are growing numbers who denounce him for such utterances.  A collection for the St. Vincent de Paul Society is not enough to counter the elitism.  God help me if I should look about me and dare to think that I belong among the elite.  God forbid that in recognizing the poor and the disabled that I thank God I am not like the rest of men or even like these.

I don’t think I have to sit in the lowest place.  I certainly do not want the place of honor.  I just want to make myself available to wash feet.  How about you? 

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus 

TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – August 25, 2019

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 66:18-21
A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 13:22-30

Dear Friends in Christ,

My children, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every child he acknowledges.  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews quotes the Book of Proverbs to encourage Christians who have become discouraged by the sufferings that came along with their becoming disciples of Jesus.  While you, dear reader, might have problems with the text, upon reflection you will find wisdom to be taken to heart, a wisdom recognized in retrospect but seldom appreciated while you were in the struggle.

St. Theresa of Avila must not have been the first or the only disciple who cried out in frustration as the cross became heavier and heavier in her life.  It is said that she wondered why believers had to suffer so much.  In her mystical experience, God’s reply to her was: I always chastise those whom I love.  You may have heard the saint’s response: No wonder you have so few friends.  There is humor in her words.  There is also truth.  If you have ever been locked in a period of suffering, physical, mental, or emotional, didn’t you wonder why this was happening to you?  What did you do to deserve it?

The way that Hebrews look at suffering is different from the way Christians should consider it.  The Jews saw suffering as punishment for sin.  They thought leprosy was tantamount to wearing a sign proclaiming the bearer to be a sinner.  The same thing could be said about the beggar and the wounded.  To come into physical contact with such a one resulted in the Jew’s incurring ritual impurity.  S/he became unfit to enter into temple worship and had to submit to purification or cleansing before returning to temple worship.  That is why, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite cross to the other side of the road to pass the beaten and wounded man so they would not come into contact with his blood.  They were on their way to temple.

Jesus changed the meaning of suffering by his preaching and by the cross.  The Sinless One carried the cross, suffered and died and so caught us all up in the wonder of redemption.  The Father did not crucify the Son, but rejoiced that the Son endured the suffering and all the while remained confident in the Father who sent him into the world.  Father!  Into your hands I commend my spirit.  And the cross is transformed from a symbol of violence and torture to a sign in which we hope.  If we die with him, we shall rise with him.

I do not believe that God sends suffering.  If we believed that God sends suffering, we would have to see God as the source of famine, disease, and every other evil humankind endure.  How can that be reconciled with our conviction that God loves all those created in God’s image and likeness?  Jesus said that we were worth more than many sparrows.

There is grace in suffering.  God rushes to be present to, and support with love, the suffering one.  I first came to this conclusion as a result of the heroism and profound insights of children in their sufferings.  Many years ago it was my privilege to minister to some children as they were in the process of dying from leukemia.  In those days there was no cure for the disease.  So often I was asked by those who loved them why little ones should have to suffer so?  What did they do to deserve this?  I did not have an answer.  Time after time the answer came from the amazing insights voiced by those little ones.  There was a profundity of wisdom and depth of faith that had no other explanation than grace.  They knew that death was not the end.  They wanted their grieving parents to know that, too.  They knew they were going to God.

When a period of suffering is over, it is important to reflect and remember.  If you have struggled to cling to faith and have prayed for the grace to endure, when you emerge on the other side and look back, you will realize how you have changed.  If the dark night was prolonged, you may have cried out: My God, where are you?  Why are you silent now?  In the light of the new dawn, you realize that your faith has changed.  It is not as simple or naive as it used to be.  Saccharine religiosity no longer satisfies.  If you have been stripped of all else, you know God’s love endures.  The strange thing is, you may never be able to explain to anyone what now you know.

We come to today’s gospel.  Strive to enter through the narrow gate, Jesus says.  That is his response to the questioner who asks if only a few people will be saved.  Fortunately we have the words from Isaiah echoing in our minds that promise multitudes coming from near and far, finding faith and salvation in God.  Otherwise we might hear a negative message rather than the encouraging one Jesus intends for his disciples.

For the past several weeks we have been hearing that portion of Luke’s Gospel that speaks of the challenge of discipleship.  It is quite clear by now that this way is not for the fainthearted.  It is not for the uncommitted, nor the undecided.  Discipleship is for those who accept Jesus’ invitation to learn from him and follow in his footsteps.  Discipleship is for those who can be singleminded in purpose, and who are willing to forego everything for the sake of the Kingdom.  Discipleship is for those who wish with every fiber of their being to serve, and so proclaim the coming of God’s Kingdom.  It is for those who want to be with Jesus and do what Jesus does.

What is the narrow gate through which Jesus urges disciples to enter?  We do not know the makeup of the group out of which the question came and who heard the parable that is his response.  It would seem that there is a wide spectrum of commitment in those assembled.  Some might be newcomers elated with initial and untried enthusiasm for what they have found.  Others might be more seasoned, already beginning to appreciate the hazards of discipleship.  Still others may be going along with the crowd of those who have not yet decided to be his disciples.

The call to discipleship is an invitation to relationship with Jesus.  At another time in the Gospel, when Jesus rebuked Peter for trying to discourage Jesus from accepting the inevitability of his impending rejection, crucifixion, and death, Jesus told Peter to get behind him and learn from him.  That can happen only for Peter and us if we spend time with Jesus and get to know him.  It is not enough to eat and drink with Jesus, or to listen to his preaching.  To those now barred from admittance into the kingdom, Jesus says: I do not know where you are from.  Being a disciple is about walking in Jesus’ footsteps and learning from his practices.  It is about commitment and about striving to live the Baptismal Priesthood, striving (the right word, by the way) to be Jesus’ other self.  Or, if you prefer, letting the Jesus within shine forth through word and deed.

At the conclusion of the gospel, Jesus ties us back to the theme in the first reading from Isaiah about the universality of the call.  Jesus expresses God’s love that is universal for Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, and every other category of humankind that one can come up with.  These various ones, some of whom one might be tempted to look down upon, heard the invitation and followed, entering by the narrow gate.  Those locked outside beyond a door that will not open despite the knocking, are those who took discipleship for granted but did nothing with it.  Alas.  Today’s call is Jesus’ urgent plea for us to hear the call, to be amazed at the magnitude of God’s love, and to seek to respond with our entire being, loving others the way we are loved.  Loving the poor.  Loving the alien.  Loving the disenfranchised and those considered to be the offscouring of society.  If we are disciples, all these are our sisters and brothers in the Lord.  That may be why the picture of the father and his young daughter, drowned on the side of the river, defeated in their seeking of asylum should haunt us.

Does all this seem overwhelming?  Well might it except for one basic tenet of our faith.  When we speak about the faith response to discipleship, we are talking about something that God’s grace makes possible.  We are talking about something that is animated by the Holy Spirit.  That is why prayer and meditation are essential parts of a disciple’s life.  That is why disciples gather Sunday after Sunday to hear the Word and renew Eucharist.  Both are transforming actions in God’s grace.  Remember that the word Eucharist means thanksgiving.  We give thanks to God for the faith that is ours, for the call to discipleship that is ours, through the renewing of Christ’s dying and rising in the Eucharist.  The Word transforms.  The Eucharist transforms.  And when we say, Let it be, as disciples, we are sent to live the Word and live the Eucharist in the world, proclaiming Jesus to all we meet through acts of humble service until Jesus comes again.

Amazing, isn’t it?

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – August 18, 2019

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews 12:1-4
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 12:49-53

Dear Friends in Christ,

You might want to prepare yourself for the proclamation of the gospel for this Sunday.  We are used to thinking of Jesus as the soothing, calming influence and the bringer of peace.  That is why the Lord’s words this Sunday could be jarring for those of us who have been following on the Way for some time.  And they might give pause to those among us who are preparing for Baptism.  Let us be clear.  It is not that Jesus threatens to call down fire from heaven upon those in his hearing who fail to respond to his preaching.  Jesus rejected that kind of vindication on another occasion when James and John wanted to invoke that outpouring on the Samaritans for their perceived insult and rejection of Jesus.  The present text invites both the disciples and those considering becoming disciples to have no illusions about what is entailed should they opt to accompany Jesus on The Way.  A disciple is one who journeys with the Lord.

It is difficult for us from our perception to imagine, much less appreciate the difficulties incurred by converts in the early church.  We seldom see the radical shift in a convert’s life that followed for the neophytes in the infant church.  We see life going on pretty much the same after as before Baptism.  What is important is the new relationship with Jesus and faith put into practice.  How can this generation comprehend the totality of the death died in the Font those early days following the Resurrection?  

The shedding of the old clothes and being stripped naked as one stood at the edge of the Font in preparation for being plunged into the depths is an important symbol for what is about to transpire.  The convert enters the water and is plunged into the depths three times, there to die to all that was as s/he rises to newness of life in Christ.  As s/he came out of the Font, the neophyte was clothed in a white garment.  S/he had put on Christ.  But it is more than being clothed.  The reality is that the Baptized is identified with Christ and loved by God with the same love God has for Christ.  What could be more wonderful?

That is only the beginning.  That is why Jesus voices the cautions and challenges would-be followers to consider should they make the decision to follow.  Consider the consequences of that decision.  Just as they would be stripped of their old clothes before entering the Font, so, in many cases, they would be stripped of former occupations that become incompatible with their new life.  Jewish converts would be thrown out of the synagogue.  If they were the only members of their families to take up the New Way, they would have to be willing to endure being rejected by their families in order to follow Christ. 

Jesus warns that those who take up the Way could suddenly find themselves at odds with everything they held familiar.  That is important for them to know so that when they put their hands to the plow they will not look back and regret their decision once they experience the implications of that decision.

I talked with a friend recently about the process of preparation for Baptism.  My friend asked me why the process had to be so lengthy and complicated.  Why should someone have to spend a whole Liturgical Year in the RCIA (The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults)?  Isn’t that asking too much?  Shouldn’t it be sufficient that the person wants to be baptized?  Why should s/he have to spend the time in process, pondering the Scriptures and journeying through a full Liturgical Year, journeying with a sponsor in the midst of a faith community, discerning before they are able to take the plunge, so to speak?  My friend was considering making the journey.

I prayed for wisdom before I answered.  In effect I came back to this Sunday’s readings for inspiration.  Look at Jeremiah in the first reading.  Jeremiah was the reluctant prophet who, when God called him, thought he was too young for the prophetic role.  To initiate the relationship and summon Jeremiah to a faith walk, God touched his lips and gave him the words to speak.  Jeremiah’s faithfulness to his calling and the consequent announcing of an unpopular message resulted in his being cast into a cistern.  Would he have taken up the role of prophet had he known what he would have to endure because of his fidelity to God and to the calling?  Or was it better not to have known?

In the gospel, while not revealing the future to the would-be disciples, Jesus wants them to be aware of the implications of accepting his invitation.  He wants them to know what it means to respond to the gift of faith the Spirit places in their hearts.  Jesus does not want people to leap into the font only to regret and retract their decision when troubles ensue.  Jesus woos for a time, as do lovers in their period of engagement, that time when two people get to know each other and deepen and intensify the bonds of friendship in order to know that this other is the one and only, the one with whom s/he will stand before God and pledge love and fidelity as they live out the rest of their lives together.  It is that kind of relationship that Jesus invites.

I told my friend that the RCIA is like that period of engagement.  The one feeling the call to Baptism spends time getting to know Jesus and the experience of Christ through his Body, the Church.  Engagement can be a time of emotional highs when reason is muted and the couple feels indomitable.  That maybe why some marriages begun in haste unravel in short order.  The commitment evaporates.  The thing of beauty that is meant to mirror the community that is God is no more.

With the Lord it is a matter of commitment, a commitment to Christ and to the people formed in faith called the Body of Christ.  The person coming to faith and Baptism makes that commitment meant to be kept for all eternity.  Jesus is the example of the commitment and fidelity described by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews: For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.  If the faithful are faltering, the reading goes on: Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.  The neophytes and the rest of the faithful should know that they, that we might have to resist to that same point – and beyond.

My friend and I paused over our second cup of coffee.  I realized that I had been caught up in the emotion of the telling.  As I stirred the fresh cup, I looked at my friend and wondered what difference all this would make.  Would this discourage him from joining in the pursuit?  I said, “Don’t be afraid.  You won’t be alone on this trek.  The Lord has given you this desire.  The Lord will support you all along the way.  So will the people with whom you now gather to hear the proclamation of the Good News.  With them you will have the Word broken open for you.  They will pray for you.  You will continue in the formation process until the Night of the Great Vigil.  Then the whole Church, your new family, will attend as the heavens open over you and God calls you Beloved.

Then, in that booth, as silence enveloped us, I remembered the Font.  I remembered standing by it, watching the waters in motion.  I thought of that day when the waters parted for me.  I looked up from the font and saw the Table where the people, having passed through the waters, gather to break the Bread and share the Meal, then to be sent to be Christ’s presence in the world.  Had I known then what would happen along the Way and where following the Lord would take me, would I have entered the waters that became my tomb and my mother?

If that is what it would take to be one with Christ and with the people, his Body, the Church, what do you think my answer would have been?

And you, dear Reader, what would yours have been?

Sincerely,

Didymus