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THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – October 27, 2019

A reading from the Book of Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
A reading from the second Letter of St. Paul to Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 18:9-24

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

Part of our being Jesus’ disciples is to pray and to persist in prayer.  That is how the readings challenged us last Sunday.  Hold that thought as the readings in this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word wash over you.  This time we will be challenged with how we are supposed to pray, and the attitude we should bring to prayer.  We will see that it is a matter of maintaining a proper perspective on who we are as we come before God.

The first reading from the Book of Sirach puts the starting point clearly before us.  Our God is a just God who does not have favorites.  Everyone is on an equal footing before God.  That might be hard to imagine in this celebrity adoring age in which we live.  The fans that line the red carpets as their idols enter the theater swoon should one of the adored nod to, smile at, or, heaven be praised, pause to sign an autograph for or take a selfie with one of the throng.  Surely God holds these stars in the same light, wouldn’t you think?  Then there are the sports stars, the politicians, and even some in the hierarchy and among the clergy of the church that convey the attitude that they are better than everyone else.

With that in mind, what possible sense could Pope Francis’ call for a poorer church with humbler shepherds serving the needs of the poor make to those who think of themselves as almost royalty in the church?  What an embarrassment to have a pope who drives himself about in a humble car.  Not only that, but he is known to have invited street people to join him for breakfast!

Sirach tells us that indeed God will deal with all, from the loftiest to the lowliest with equal justice.  But make no mistake about this.  God hears the cries of those society deems to be on its lowest rungs.  God hears the cries of the orphans and the widows, (remember the widow that nagged the unjust judge in last week’s gospel?) the little ones that have no one to intercede for them.  I could be wrong, but the reading seems to say that the prayers of the lowliest have an expressway to God.  If that is so, is there also the implication that something blocks the prayers of the loftiest among us?  Might that blockade be pride?  Think of that antiphon that we sing: The Lord hears the cry of the poor.  Blessed be the Lord!

Equality ought to be evident when the Assembly gathers to pray.  Some worship spaces help us to visualize that equality.  We come together as the Body of Christ.  We gather around the Table of the Word, and the Table of the Eucharist.  The Altar, the principal symbol of Christ, is in the center, or at least thrust out so that the faithful may gather about, rather than solely before the Table.  The Presider’s Chair may be among the people rather than above them.  Special effort is made so that the disabled in the Assembly have equal access to and in the sacred space.  

Perhaps now we can see why, in John’s Gospel, during the Last Supper, Jesus admonishes the disciples to wash one another’s feet the way he had washed them.  Disciples, parishioners are called to be feet-washers.  It is the work of the parishioners to make sure that anyone coming through the doors immediately senses that all are welcome here.

No one has the right to look down on another.  Each of us ought to be comforted to know that prayers of the lowly pierce the clouds and do not rest till they reach their goal, i.e., until they reach God.  Does this speak to you?

In the second reading we hear the conclusion of Paul’s second Letter to his protege, Timothy.  It is a masterpiece from one who is beaten but not broken.  Paul writes from prison, remember, and is convinced that he will soon be executed.  He puts that impending transformative moment in the context of sacrifice.  I am already being poured out like a libation and my departure is at hand.  He tells Timothy and us that he has done the very best that he could.  He see all of his endeavors for the Gospel as an athletic contest.  He is the winner.  The Lord, who is a just judge will give him the crown he has merited.

Paul places mundane and human emotions into this Epistle; but it must have been gut wrenching for Timothy to read how abject Paul became before his persecutors.  Everyone abandoned him.  Why?  Were they embarrassed by what his arrest had made of him?  Were they afraid that, were they to stand by him, his fate would be theirs?  The image Paul paints of himself standing before his judge is reminiscent of Jesus standing before Pilate.  Each one stood alone.  But Paul is convinced of what no one else could see, that the Lord stood by him, supported him, and would rescue him from whatever evil befell him, until Paul would be brought safely to heaven.  The humbled one knows he will see glory with the Christ he has preached and for whom he will die.

Notice to whom Jesus addresses the parable in the gospel: to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.  (Despise: to look down on with contempt.)  Jesus is speaking to those who believe they have no need for God or God’s mercy.  If there is a heaven, they are getting there on their own.  They are better than everyone else.  Everyone else is beneath them.  While most of us would deny that those attitudes are ours, we should not ignore the parable.  Something of pride may persist in us.

It will be hard for the parable to have the impact on us that it had on the first audience.  First, we have heard it before.  Second, Pharisees and tax collectors have no particular significance for us.  Well, maybe tax collectors do; but not the significance they had for the Jews in our Lord’s time.  The Pharisees were the experts in the Law and were highly regarded scholars in the temple precincts.  The tax collectors were hated and seen as collaborators with the Romans.  They added to their neighbors’ tax bills to earn their own living.

For today’s hearers, it might be important to imagine two others going into the temple to pray.  If we were in Northern Ireland, one going in would be a Catholic, the other a Protestant.  Were we in a place populated with the very prejudiced, one going in would be a Black, or a Hispanic, the other a Caucasian.  For the sexist, one would be a man, the other a woman; or one would be gay and the other straight.  The point is, the hearer is helped to get the message if s/he is able to identify with and admire one and have low regard for the other.  Then s/he will be able to be surprised where grace is found.

Do not be too harsh on the Pharisee.  As Jesus paints him, he is probably all those things he boasts about in his prayer.  He praises God from a prominent place in the sanctuary.  He thanks God that he is the extraordinary person that he is.  His virtues abound.  He fasts more often than the Law requires.  He tithes on more than he has to.  He does not lie.  He keeps the Sixth Commandment.  All that is fine, as far as it goes.  The problem is in what comes next in his ode to himself.  The man is judgmental and sees himself as better than the rest of the human race, even better than the man with whom he shares Temple space.  He makes assumptions about the other that he has no right to make.  He has no evidence to support his assumptions.  He judges the other to be a sinner.

Contrast the Pharisee’s attitude with that of the tax collector who knows what people think of him.  He may well be aware of the extortions he has practiced on his neighbors through their tax bills.  He sees his actions as sinful.  He may well feel trapped in his situation and be unable to see any way out for himself.  He stands against the back wall and does not dare to look up as he beats his breast in misery.  O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.  This one goes home justified.  That means his relationship with God is made right.  Mercy and grace have embraced him.  

The same cannot be said for the Pharisee.

If this gospel is to have its impact on us, we must stand under it and be vulnerable.  If the Lord hears the cries of the poor, we have to be among those poor.  The Pharisee in the parable could have been among them if he had had the humility to recognize that everything he had achieved and all his religious practices were the result of grace working in his life.  It also would have helped had he the grace to see that there was sin in his life; that there were times when he could have done better, especially in his attitudes toward others.  If he could have acknowledged the other person with him in the Temple and perceived his misery and had a moment of compassion that inspired him to pray for the tax collector, his whole experience would have been different.  If only he had known in his heart that he was in no position to judge, he could have come to understand what it means to pray and to have a need for God.  In C. S. Lewis’s words, he could have been surprised by grace.

I brought Holy Communion to a man who lived alone and was dying with cancer.  As I walked into his room I was overwhelmed by the sickeningly sweet stench of the cancer.  My stomach churned.  I wanted to flee.  The man told me how grateful he was that I would visit him.  Then he said that he was embarrassed because he had a dressing that needed changing.  Could I help him?  I don’t remember how long the pause was before I swallowed my pride and said I would be happy to assist.  I helped him remove the old dressing, and washed and dried the wound.  I helped him apply the new one.  At some point the experience stopped being repulsive.  I felt graced to be able to assist my friend and leave his dignity intact.

Then we prayed with the Host held up before him: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Happy are those called to the supper.  He received.  Afterwards, as we paused in silent prayer, I thanked God for the witness I had been given, the grace of this moment that helped me to recognize in my brother the Lord who will rescue us from every evil threat and bring us safe to his heavenly kingdom.  I knew that I would never be the same, even as I knew I needed mercy and forgiveness for my pride.  O God, be merciful to me a sinner.

To Christ be glory forever and ever.  Amen.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus  

TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – October 20, 2019

A reading from the Book of Exodus 17:8-13
A reading from the second Letter of St. Paul to Timothy 3:14-4:2
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 18:1-8

Dear Friends in Christ,

We are admonished to pray always.  Why?  What is the lesson we are supposed to learn?  This Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word puts before us a few ways to interpret the lesson.  In the main, however, I believe we are supposed to pray always so that we remember that God is always with us.  We are never alone, no matter how bleak the moment or desperate the outlook.  Sometimes we forget and we need to be reminded.

I remember gathering with a mother and father around the bed of their dying child.  The adage is not an exaggeration: Out of the mouths of babes oft times come gems.  The doctors said that it would not be long.  It is hard to accept dying when it is happening to a 12-year-old.  We prayed.  I anointed him with the Holy Oil.  He did not take his eyes from me except to follow my hand as it moved from anointing his forehead to anointing the palms of his hands.  The Amen that he repeated was strong and assured.  His father knelt on one side, his mother on the other.  Each had a hand on the boy’s shoulders.  The soft light glinted on the tears that streamed on  the parents’ faces.  I felt the tears well in my own eyes and a lump that a cough could not dislodge formed in my throat.  He said: Don’t cry, Father.  It’s going to be all right.  You said that Jesus would be with us.  He’s going to take me home.

We are called to live lives of faith.  Our Baptisms conferred on us a Priesthood that we are meant to exercise every day of our lives.  Our confidence, the word means, with faith, should come from our conviction that our Baptism identifies us with Christ.  Do you remember the words?  You have put on Christ.  In him you have been baptized.  Christ lives in us.  We are identified with Christ.  As Christ is, so are we the Father’s beloved – even if everyone else in the world should abandon us.

In the first reading in today’s Liturgy of the Word, Israel is at war.  Just before our reading begins, the people have been struggling because of their circumstances.  There is no water.  The people, in their thirst, grumble against Moses and taunt him as they ask if he brought them out into the desert to die?  Moses pleads with God to help him.  He is afraid the people will stone him to death if something doesn’t happen soon.  God tells Moses to stand before the rock of Horeb and strike the rock with the staff.  Moses does.  Water gushes forth for all the people to drink.  The place was called Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled there and tested the Lord, saying: Is the Lord in our midst or not?  That question is asked just before our reading begins.

Amalek is a fierce foe.  Moses assures the people that God will be with them in the battle.  As the soldiers go off, Moses, with Aaron, his brother, and Hur, goes up a hill overlooking the valley where the war will be waged.  He raises his arms to God and prays.  The wonder is that as long as Moses sustains the posture and focuses on prayer, the Israelites do well against Amalek.  But when Moses grows weary and cannot continue to hold his arms up, the tide of the battle turns against them.  So Aaron and Hur get Moses to sit on a rock.  They support his arms and Moses prays until the battle is over and Israel is the victor.  The question had been asked about God’s being in the midst of the people.  Moses’ prayer and the good fortune that follows support the assurance that indeed they are God’s chosen people and God is with them.  Israel must remember, and so must we, that God’s love abides.

Do you remember that we believe that God is present in the Word, i.e., in the Scriptures.  In the second reading, Paul continues to instruct Timothy about his responsibilities as the head of the community.  He is the leader who must keep the people focused on Christ, and on the kind of life they are to live in union with Christ.  Paul urges Timothy to ponder the Scriptures and there find the wisdom that he needs to make right decisions.  God inspires all Scripture.  In other words, God speaks to us through the Scriptures.  That was true in Timothy’s time.  It is true in ours as well.  That is why we believe that the Scriptures are the living word of God.  Something in the Word applies in every age and circumstance.

There was a time in our Church’s history, and not all that long ago, that the importance of Scripture was not apparent.  Catholics had the reputation for not being Bible readers.  The fact of the matter is that the Church thought the Scriptures were the provenance of the ordained.  The people had their rosaries which many prayed during Mass.  It seems curious now, but the fact of the matter was, the people’s obligation to hear Mass, as we used to say, betokening an essentially passive presence, could be fulfilled as long as they were present from the time the priest removed the veil from the chalice until it was replaced after Communion.  If they missed the readings, not a problem.  Few realized that if they left Mass early, they missed being sent to live the implications of the Eucharist that had just been celebrated.

In the renewed Liturgy following from Vatican Council II, the Liturgy of the Word is on a par with the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  You will notice in many churches that the Ambo is on an axis with the Altar.  The terms Table of the Word and Table of the Eucharist are used.  The doctrinal truth is, both have equal importance and both nourish us.  Both form and transform us.  When the preaching is properly rooted in the readings, the Assembly’s faith is strengthened, errors are corrected, and we are encouraged to live what we are about to do in the renewal of Christ’s dying and rising in Bread and Wine.  The homily should transition us from one Liturgy to the other.

The Israelites asked if God was in their midst or not?  The challenge in faith for the Assembly today is to recognize that presence – in the Word, in the Eucharist, and in each other as the Body of Christ.  The Assembly gathers in the Priesthood of the Baptized to co-celebrate with the priest-presider.  The Council defined the Church as the People of God.  This People need to be rooted in the Scriptures and to pray them.

Perhaps the link between the first reading and the gospel is the image of Moses on the hilltop with Aaron and Hur supporting his arms as he prays.  The parable Jesus tells urges us to persevere in our prayers.  A widow, one of the vulnerable in the community, goes before a judge and pleads for justice in her behalf.  The  judge does not fear God or people.  He does not have a reputation for being just, and is not particularly inclined to do as the woman requests.  The woman is determined and relentlessly nags at the judge, wearing him down, until finally he relents and does as the woman asks.  There is humor in what finally pushes the judge over the edge.  If he doesn’t do what she asks, she might finally come and strike (him).  From where would come her power to do that?

The lesson for us?  Jesus says that if the relentless petition of the widow can bring about justice from the unjust judge, will not God do the same for the people who cry out to God?  After all, God is far from an unjust judge.  God is the One who loved us into being and now loves us with the same love God has for Christ.  Think of our identity with Christ that comes through Baptism.  If we believe that Christ lives in us and God is in our midst, then we ought to persevere in prayer and be a people of prayer who are convinced that ultimately God will deliver us through Christ and bring us into eternal peace.

That thought ought to console us, especially during the present time.  As I write this millions are suffering through Hurricane Dorian.  There have been three mass shootings.  Racism, sexism, and elitism are rampant in our country.  Wars rage.  Children starve as helpless parents watch.  Many emigrate hoping to find a safe environment for their families and work to provide for their needs.  The parable ends with a question that we must not miss nor fear to consider.  Affirming that God will not be slow in answering our prayers, Jesus asks if, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?  In other words, will our faith persevere?  What do you think?

Perhaps that is reason why we need to center our lives on the Liturgy of the Word and the renewing of the Eucharist.  Sure, there is the Sunday obligation to fully, actively, and consciously participate in the celebration of the Eucharist.  But the strongest source of that obligation may come from within us.  We gather together as survivors of the week that was.  We may bear battle-scars from the hassles we have endured.  We may mourn broken relationships or the deaths of loved ones.  We bring all that, along with any wrongs we may have done, with us to the Sunday Liturgy.  Then we ponder it all in the context of the Liturgy of the Word and so get our bearings to face the week ahead.  It will be the Eucharist that will strengthen us, transform us, and remind us that in, with, and through Christ, we can persevere in faith and proclaim it in all we say and do until he comes in glory.  Especially can we do that if we pray always.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – October 13, 3019

A reading from the second Book of Kings 5:14-17
A reading fromSt. Paul’s second Letter to Timothy 2:8-13
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 17:11-19

Dear Friends in Christ,

Leprosy plays a major role in the first reading and in the gospel for this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word.  Whether or not this disease was the same as what is called Hansen’s Disease today is debated.  What is known is that lepers had running sores that would not heal.  It was feared that the disease was contagious. Lepers were shunned and declared to be unclean.  Lepers lived on the outskirts of the city.  If they came into the city they had to give warning of their presence by shouting, Unclean!  That way passers-by could give the leper wide margin.  One who came into contact with a leper incurred that same label of uncleanness that stayed with the person until the temple priest declared him/her clean again.  Only after that declaration could the formerly unclean one move about in society and again enter into temple worship.

It is a pity that today’s first reading begins where it does.  What precedes these verses is interesting and adds to the impact of what is proclaimed in the reading.  Naaman is a Syrian.  That means he is not a Jew nor part of the Jewish tradition.  He has leprosy that will not heal.  A Jewish servant girl tells him that he ought to travel to Judea and seek out Elisha, the Prophet.  She is convinced that Elisha will be able to heal Naaman.  Naaman does as she suggests.  Naaman is a man of considerable importance, an army commander of the king of Aram who holds him in high regard because of the victories he has brought to Aram.   Naaman expects to be venerated wherever he goes.  He becomes indignant when Elisha, hearing what Naaman wants, sends out a messenger to tell him to go and wash seven times in the Jordan.  The Jordan?  There are far greater rivers than the Jordan in Syria.  Irate because Elisha has not come out to him personally and incanted over him, and because of the directive to wash in the Jordan, Naaman storms off.

One of his servants reasons with Naaman.  If Elisha had told him to wash in the Abana or the Pharphar, great rivers in Damascus, he would have done it.  What will be lost if he follows Elisha’s directions and washes in the Jordan?  Today’s reading begins at the point with Naaman plunging seven times into the Jordan.  He emerges healed.

What is remarkable in the narration is not the miracle of Naaman’s deliverance from leprosy.  Wonderful as that is, more wonderful is the conversion that follows.  Because it was Elisha, the Prophet of Israel’s God YHWH, who told him what to do, Naaman comes to faith in YHWH.  It is interesting to note that Elisha refused the fortune that Naaman wanted to give him in gratitude for what was done to him.  Elisha refused payment because he was doing only what he was supposed to do as a prophet.  (That should remind us of a theme in last Sunday’s gospel.)  Naaman is all the more convinced of the reality of the One God.  In a stroke he denies all the gods in his homeland and promises to worship the One God, YHWH.  Believing that one cannot worship YHWH in a foreign land, Naaman, as it were, asks to take Israel back to Syria with him.  That is why he asks for the two mule-loads of soil.  Then, when he gets home, he can empty out the soil, build an altar and, standing on the soil, worship Israel’s God.

Naaman’s plunging into the Jordan can prefigure Baptism for us.  Naaman washed and was delivered from the life-threatening disease.  In the process he found God.  In Baptism, we die to sin and come out of the waters born to a new life in Christ.  In the second reading Paul continues this message to Timothy and urges him to be steadfast in faith, faithful to his Baptism.  Paul says that he suffers the humiliation of imprisonment gladly for the sake of the Gospel and as a witness to those to whom his preaching has brought faith.  Even if he should die at the hands of those who imprison him, Paul will inherit the life that Christ’s resurrection won for him.  That is the hope that sustains Paul and that should sustain Timothy – and us.

It seems clear that Paul is reminding Timothy of his Baptism because he is using baptismal language.  If we have died with him (in Baptism) we shall reign with him.  Baptism initiates an intimate union with Christ that lasts for Eternity.  Paul is realistic.  Sometimes faith dies and the relationship with Christ is severed.  But unlike those who are unfaithful, Christ is always faithful to God and to the Good News he proclaimed and sealed with his Resurrection.

Pardon this aside.  It is always a good idea as we come into the worship space to pause for a moment at the Baptismal Font.  Take a moment to remember what happened there.  Remember your rebirth in the waters and what you have become as a result.  Then dip your hand into the waters and renew your Baptism as you bless yourself in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Then, as you did that first time, proceed from the Font to the Table.  That is why the Font should always be on the way to the Altar.  Baptism opens the way for us to what we celebrate there with others who like us have come through the waters.

Do not miss the setting for the gospel put before us in what can be a throwaway opening line.  As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem reminds us not only of his destination but that he is going there to suffer and die – and on the third day to rise again.  There is determination and even preoccupation in his demeanor.  He is traveling through Samaria and Galilee.  Non-believers, those hostile to the Jews, live in Samaria.  Galileans are observers of The Law.  Ten lepers approach Jesus and shout to him from a distance and beg for his mercy.  They stay their distance to keep from physical contact.  The narration is bare bones.  There is no evidence that Jesus pauses, or has any words of comfort for the ten to prepare them for what is coming.  Instead, Jesus says simply: Go.  Show yourselves to the priests.

Unlike Naaman who protested because Elisha’s directives seemed beneath his dignity, the ten, revealing their confidence and trust in Jesus, immediately head off for the temple.  Luke does not tell us how far they had traveled before they noticed that the miracle of their cleansing had happened.  Nine continue on to the temple.  One, the Samaritan, turns around and returns to Jesus.  Before you think harshly of the nine, remember this.  They were probably observant Jews.  As believers, they knew they had to fulfill The Law and show themselves to the priests to be declared clean so that they could be restored to their families and to temple worship.  The Samaritan who returned had no such obligations.

It is clear from what the Samaritan does that something more profound than a physical healing has happened to him.  He has found faith.  He praises God.  His faith in Jesus is confirmed.  He falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him.  He acknowledges Jesus as the miracle worker and as one through whom God works.  Jesus seems disappointed.  Only ten percent of those cured got the message – not one of the Jewish lepers, but the Samaritan one.  Stand up and go.  Your faith has saved you!  Not only has the man been cured, he has found redemption.  That means he will be with God forever.

Remember that earlier in the Gospel, Jesus had said that he had come for the lost sheep of the House of Israel.  More and more will his ministry be directed to the Gentiles as his own reject him.

Stand up and go.  Jesus says those same words to us each time we gather around the Table for Eucharist.  We are told to stand as a sign of our participation in the resurrected life of the Lord.  We stand when we pray in testimony to the Resurrection.  That is the way that it has been from the earliest days in the Church.  Then, after we have shared the Eucharistic Meal, we are sent.  Go, the mass is ended.  We are sent to do what the Samaritan must have done.  Praise God for the wonders done in, with, and through Christ.  Continue to announce the Good News to others that they might come to believe and know Christ’s love.  Live in that love until Christ comes again in Glory.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus