FEAST OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST THE KING – A – November 26, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
A reading from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians 15:20-26,28
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 25:31-46

Dear Reader,

The celebration of the Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King marks the conclusion of another Liturgical Year.  We have completed the journey begun nearly 12 months ago on the First Sunday of Advent.  We journeyed with Matthew’s Gospel and were formed by the proclamations.  Now we might pause and reflect and ask how we did.  How were we transformed?  What did the Lord accomplish in us along the Way as we listened to the Word?

On this feast one might expect readings that evoke a regal Christ.  To some extent there is evidence of regal in the One who judges the sheep and the goats.  But the Gospel will tell us that in royalty, that is in the powerful, is not where we will recognize the Christ.  In fact the recognition of Christ is not what is rewarded.  Neither the righteous nor the condemned recognized him in those to whom they did or did not minister.

Our Messiah is not a Superman like so many contemporary cartoon heroes that leap tall buildings in a single bound.  Although I must say some Evangelicals seem to preach that kind of Messiah, the kind that doles out temporal wealth and power to those who acknowledge and give their lives over to him.  Sorry. I can’t identify with that, not when I have to deal with the readings proclaimed on this feast.

JHWH says in today’s reading from the Prophet Ezekiel: I myself will look after and tend my sheep.  As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep.  Depending upon your condition and situation in life, either you will find comfort in this prophecy, or reason to tremble.  Why is JHWH doing the shepherding?  How did the sheep become scattered?  The sheep are the House of Israel, JHWH’s beloved ones, defeated and brought to servitude in exile.  They are scattered because those who had the primary responsibility for shepherding were not diligent in their task.  The princes, the powerful, and the elite in Israel looked after their own needs, cared for themselves, and watched out for their own profits.  All the while they ignored the desperate and the needy.  In that preoccupation they failed to notice their own corruption as they took up with the pagan ways of those among whom they lived.  They became weak along the way.  They fell to Babylon and were taken captive and led off into exile.  Jerusalem was destroyed.  JHWH’s judgment is harsh.  The sleek and the strong will be destroyed.  The vulnerable JHWH will gather and shepherd safely home.

Hear Ezekiel’s prophecy.  Dare to ask where you are in it.  We make a mistake if we think that Ezekiel’s prophecy speaks only to those long-ago times and to those specific leaders during the Babylonian Captivity.  We must dare to hear the living word of JHWH.  Ezekiel prophecies to us now in this Assembly of God’s people gathered at this Table of the Word.  What do we hear?  What penetrates to our hearts?  That depends on how we have been exercising our Baptismal Priesthood.  Could the essence of Ezekiel’s prophecy be what Pope Francis pleads with the Church to hear?

Living our Baptismal Priesthood is the question Paul raises with the Corinthians (and us) in the second reading.  All of us have been baptized into Christ’s death that we might live in Christ’s resurrection.  Christ’s dying and rising is timeless, a process of reordering creation affected by sin.  Baptism reorders us, if you will, by destroying sin’s power over us and we are subjected to God’s rule in our lives.  Christ was first to subject himself to that order and is therefore the first fruits of the new creation.  When Christ comes in judgment, it will be to gather all those who belong to Christ, that is, the baptized, those who are identified with Christ in Baptism.  They do in their daily lives what Christ would do.  All these Christ will present to the Father in the final restoration of the order JHWH had in mind at creations beginning.

This brings us to one of the most challenging and difficult readings in all of Scripture, the judgment scene in Matthew’s Gospel.  This parable immediately precedes the beginning of Matthew’s Passion Narrative.  I have never been able to hear this reading without wondering on which side will I be standing in that judgment scene.  It is clear from the reactions of those in attendance on both sides that they wonder how they landed on the side they did.  That should alert us and serve as a warning to the smug that think they are doing all the right things.  Sheep.  Goats. In which group will I find myself?  That is the question we must dare to ask if this Gospel is to have its intended impact on us.

What does the judgment turn about?  Not what you might at first expect.  There is nothing about religious observance in what the Son of Man says to the assembled.  There is nothing about going to temple and keeping the Sabbath; nothing about going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days; and nothing about keeping the laws of fast and abstinence.  Instead, the judgment turns about recognizing the needs of others and responding to them simply because they are in need.  It is only in the judgment that those in the parable find out whether or not they ministered to The Son of Man.

Listen to the parable.  I was hungry.  I was thirsty.  I was naked, sick, and in prison and you responded to my needs.  We are confronted again with the primacy of place the poor and the needy have in God’s sight, the primacy of place that should go to the vulnerable among us.  Notice in the parable that no other quality other than their need is spelled out for us.  Nothing is said about their being deserving in every other aspect of their lives.  Nothing is said about their being Jews (or being among the Baptized).  Nothing is said about their moral character.  All we hear is that they are desperate.  The Sheep fed, clothed, sheltered and visited them in jail or in hospital.  The Sheep are stunned when they hear the Son of Man make all of those desperate conditions his own.  They are amazed when they are praised for having ministered to the Son of Man.  It is in stupefaction that they ask when they cared for him.  It is clear that they did not recognize him.  That would seem to imply that service of the Son of man, of Christ, wasn’t the primary motivation – at least at first glance.  Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of mine, you did for me!  Imagine.

Think of Francis of Assisi who was repulsed by leprosy.  He came to his senses in the presence of a leper pleading for Francis’s help. Francis bathed the leper and dressed his wounds.  In the process he recognized Christ.  He embraced the leper and kissed him.

Think of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta as she tried to help Malcolm Muggeridge understand why she was so committed to the service of Calcutta’s poorest of the poor.  In effect, she told him that when she ministered to those poor wretches, she ministered to Christ in his passion.  Muggeridge listened to Mother Teresa and afterwards pondered what she had told him.  He pondered the message and in the process found faith.

If there is a characteristic that dominates the Goats in the parable, it is their religious orthodoxy.  They thought they knew the Law.  They had done all the right things.  They did not respond to the needs of those in the streets as they cried out for alms because the Goats did not recognize the Son of Man there.  Much less did they recognize the dignity and worth of the needy.  When did we see you in these deplorable conditions and not respond to your needs?  He will answer them, Amen I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.

Remember when Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment in the Law?  He said loving God with one’s whole being and one’s neighbor as one’s self is the greatest commandment and sums up all that the Law and the Prophets proclaim. What we have in Matthew’s judgment scene parable is the application of that commandment and its implications.

There is no other way for Christ to reign in our lives than by our keeping the Great Commandment.

We are a Eucharistic people called to move from the Table of the Word to the Table of the Eucharist.  We are to celebrate Eucharist and so enter into the Lord’s dying and rising.  We attest to the mystery when we take and eat: This is my body.  We attest to that when we take and drink: This is my blood.  But we must hear and take to heart the challenge contained in the next phrase, sometimes missed if the Presider proclaims it as an aside.  Do this in memory of me.

What we will be judged about will center on how we put Eucharist into action; how we live the Christ whose flesh we eat and whose blood we drink.  We are always sent from the Table to be bread broken and cup poured out until all have eaten and all have drunk – all – not just hose assembled in the pew with us.

I begin to think that the challenge for us is to think that the challenge for us is to think of those we might be tempted to despise and make sure they become the primary objects of our ministry, even if we are wounded in the process.  Otherwise we just might miss Christ now and when he comes again.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

Advertisements

THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – November 19, 2017

A reading from the Book of Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians 5:1-6
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 25:14-30

Dear Reader,

Would you believe it?  We are nearing the conclusion of another Church Year.  Next Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, each Liturgical year’s final Sunday.  We have journeyed with Jesus all along the Way primarily through Matthew’s Gospel.  With that in mind, you will not be surprised that the readings for this Sunday focus our attention on important things, on how we should live and so be ready for the end times.

I remember sitting at the bedside of a man who was near death.  He lay flat on his back.  His fingers clutched the edge of the blanket covering him.  He held it tight under his chin.  His eyes seldom blinked as he stared at the ceiling.  Terrified of his impending death, he kept murmuring, “What will I have to show God?  What good have I done?”  From what I knew of his history, I believed he had nothing to fear.  I kept whispering to him, “Remember, God loves you.  God loves you forever.”

What is life all about?  Through the eyes of faith, that is, what is life all about?

One thing seems clear from our readings, one thing that we can use as our starting point.  Life should not be frittered away like idlers with nothing to do.  We should not wish we could be among the upper crust of society’s elite, not if we are people of faith.  There is work to be done, even if one is rich, as we prepare for the coming of the Kingdom.  Take the first reading for example.  The translation of the opening line is a bit unfortunate.  When one finds a worthy wife could better be translated, when one finds a powerful, diligent woman.  In other words, her value does not depend on her being a spouse.  It is her industry, her hard work, and the constancy of her care for the poor and the needy that cause her neighbors to marvel and her fame to grow.  Saint Teresa of Calcutta may come to mind.  So, too, might Augustine’s mother, Monica, among many, many others.  Then there is Mary Magdalene, a woman of considerable means who put her fortune at the service of the Gospel.

Of course gender is an issue in the first reading, given the husband’s delight in the industrious woman, but gender is not the primary significance.  The industry is.  Women and men both are to have her attitude.  If the husband in the reading does nothing more than spend his days rejoicing in his unfailing prize, there is nothing to be admired in him.  Let us hope he shares in the labors.

Every once in awhile it happens.  A leader of a fundamentalist sect convinces the followers that the end is near.  Judgment Day is at hand.  The membership drops everything and head for a designated place where the Messiah’s return will occur.  The leader has interpreted the Book of Revelation.  Or, he has read the configuration of the planets and the stars.  Sometimes the followers drink poison in order to get there.  Sometimes they sit and wait.  When the appointed time passes by, the purpose of their being together also passes.  They go back to whatever had lost attraction for them in the world.  Such actions do not seem to fit with Paul’s admonitions in the second reading.  In fact, the opposite seems to hold sway.

Stay alert.  Stay sober.  Of course the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  Some people can focus on that notion and become paralyzed by it.  Notice, Paul speaks to children of the light and children of the day.  Paul speaks to the Church, to the baptized living now in the priesthood of the baptized, living now in this intimate relationship with God in Christ that begins in Baptism.  For Paul, the difference is faith’s effects that contrast so markedly with those who are without faith.  The latter are the ones who are surprised by disaster, the ones victimized by thieves in the night.  They live in fear and dread.  The faithful know that the Lord will return on the final day.  They keep watch and are ready.  They work toward that day.

It seems clear that in the early days of Paul’s preaching he was convinced that the Lord Jesus would return and wrap everything up in Paul’s lifetime.  As a consequence people stopped working, stopped planning for the future, and stopped striving to hand on the truth to the succeeding generation.  People sat and waited and sponged off the faith community.  That is why Paul, once he saw that the end might not be tomorrow, issued the edict that if the people do not work, do not feed them.  We do not know the day or the hour.  As believers in the Lord’s return in glory, we work for that day and at the same time earn our daily bread.  We must do our part to hasten the Day.  Watch.  Be ready.  Work.

Once again we have a difficult parable in the Gospel this week.  Nothing seems fair about it, especially in the lines: For to those who have, more will be given and they will grow rich; but from those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.  How is that fair?

Who is the man going on a journey?  From the placement of the parable in Matthew’s Gospel, it would seem the man is Jesus.  The parable can be heard in context of a last word to the disciples before the coming crucifixion and death.  The journey will be the time between those events and Jesus’ return on judgment day.  Jesus is entrusting the Gospel to them, entrusting himself to them to whatever degree of capacity they are capable of.  The questions are: how will they live with the gift?  What will they do with it?  By the way, in strictly monetary terms, one talent was a considerable amount.  Although the parable plays out as a lesson in economics, even to the Master’s asking why the one talent wasn’t at least put in the bank where it could have earned interest, money is not what the parable is about, but the wealth of the Gospel and how belief in that Good News is to be lived out.

Now go back and reread the first reading and praise of the woman of industry.  What she did with her position and power is what Jesus expects the disciples to do with what has been given to them until the day of his return.  Work hard.  Care for the family.  Be mindful of and respond to others’ needs, especially the needs of the orphans and widows, all the while exercising a fundamental option for the poor, recognizing them as sisters and brothers in the Lord.

Legend has it that during the time of Nero’s persecution of the Christians, the Romans looking on the slaughter marveled at how these Christians love one another.  Perhaps that is why times of persecution often become times of great grown for the Church.  The Gospel makes sense in the context and becomes what it’s all about.  Those looking on and marveling at love in action want to share in it.

Then who is the poor wretch with the one talent?  We will get a vivid picture of that one next week in Matthew’s judgment scene.  For now, suffice it to say that the man with the one talent stands for those who are given faith but do nothing with it.  They do not live the Gospel.  The Gospel is not translated into works of charity in their lives.  Remember the question popular in the 1970s?  If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  The Lord expects that there would be.

For your prayerful consideration, what attitude do you bring to Eucharist?  Certainly there are those who come out of obligation.  They gather around the Table and watch the celebration.  They share in the meal.  But what happens afterwards?  If everything stops there for them, they may be the ones with the one talent.  In Peggy Lee’s song, Is that all there is?

Alfie was asked, What’s it all about?  The Eucharist is, for the Baptized, an exercise of the Priesthood of the Baptized.  They gather with the Presider to celebrate and give thanks to God in the renewing of the dying and rising of Jesus.  They gather to take and eat for this is my body.  They gather to take and drink for this is my blood.  But they do not stop there.  They come also to be sent to do this in my memory.  They are sent to be bread broken and cup poured out in the World’s market place, until all the hungry have eaten, and all the thirsty have drunk and come to know the love of God for them.  What is as important is the understanding of memory.  Do this and I am present.  That is what memory means.  Those Baptized who have eaten and drunk are the continuing presence of Jesus, just as they are enabled by faith to recognize Jesus in those poor who are served.

What will I have to show God?  What good have I done?  In the end it is about love.  Love as Jesus loves you.  Make it practical.  Do all in Jesus’ memory and you will have nothing to fear when the Lord comes again.  You will have done your part to build up the Kingdom.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

THE THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – November 12, 2017

A reading from the Book of Wisdom 6:12-16
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians 4:13-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 25:1-13

Dear Reader,

We are celebrating the final weeks of Ordinary Time for this Liturgical Year.  It might seem odd this late in the cycle that this week’s Liturgy of the Word puts the basics before us.  We are invited to grasp what is essential if we are to be successful in reaching our faith-journey’s goal.  If we look back we might conclude that the truths were taught us in the first weeks of the year.  But just in case we missed those basics, they are put squarely before us again, reminding us, as it were, of what should have sustained us along the Way now that we might be a little road-weary from the trek.

Conversion stories always move me, be they stories from the lives of saints or the stories of ordinary people like you and me.  Some stories are dramatic, like Paul’s encounter on the Road to Damascus.  Other stories are quietly mystical like that of a friend of mine who woke one morning and knew her life would never be the same.  In every case what begins is not the result of anything the believer has done and for each one is impossible to explain.  Dorothy Day was an atheist one day and through a chance encounter became a seeker after Baptism the next.  Peter and his cohorts were fishermen until that day Jesus asked them to leave everything with which they were familiar and follow him into the unknown.  Each one made the transition.  The secret that empowered the transformation can be found in today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom.  Wisdom is the answer.

The reading speaks of the wonder that Wisdom is.  Notice that wisdom is feminine, a woman who makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her and graciously appears to them in ways and meets them with all solicitude.  Sit with the reading.  Let the words wash over you.  See if you do not start thinking that the one called Wisdom doesn’t soon begin to sound like the one we call Holy Spirit, that One that rushed down and enveloped that timid gathering in the upper room on Pentecost and transformed them into announcers of the Good News.  You might not know it from the English translation for Spiritus, but the gender is feminine.  Just as Wisdom is eternal, so too is the Holy Spirit of God, resplendent and unfading.

Reflect on your own experience of coming to believe.  Most of us will conclude that the journey of faith has been filled with the unexpected.  If you were adult when you began to believe, or if you were Baptized in infancy, what may be common to both is that in the initial days of believing we thought that once we had said we believed there would be no more stumbling blocks along the way.  We would see everything through the eyes of faith.  Everything would make sense.  We may have thought that, but many of us then faced challenges along the way that made us cry out and wonder if we could still be believers, so hard to bear or understand was the onus we felt.  We could identify with what the person said when faced with a difficult decision as Jesus confronted him: I do believe, Lord; help my unbelief.

When we consider faith, we are talking about something that is gift.  Put more actively, the believer begins as one sought out by grace, or the Spirit.  The believer is the recipient of that grace and is given the opportunity to respond.  As is true with everything that ultimately comes from God, the outpouring is lavish and even excessive.  Think of the language of Pentecost.  There was the sound as of a violent wind blowing where they had gathered.  Tongues as of fire danced over their heads.  Sounds like a hurricane coupled with a firestorm to me.  And in another place, there were twelve baskets of food left over after the 5000 had eaten of the few loaves and couple of fish Jesus had blessed, broken, and had distributed.

The reading tells us that Wisdom is available to those who love her.  The point for us to remember is that the Spirit who empowers faith is available to all who call upon the Spirit, to all who love the Spirit.  The Spirit (Wisdom) will respond and embrace those who seek her.  Sometimes I wonder if only those who have been brought very low will understand the power of what is being proclaimed here.  Only those who have been thrust into the darkest night of near despair will know what the transforming power of the Spirit means.  Some call those periods the dark night of the soul.  One this is certain: the Spirit supports the dawn of deeper faith that follows for those who watch and wait.  It is said that St. Teresa of Calcutta sat and prayed in that darkness for 50 years, all the while hoping for consolation.

Half of the young women in the parable in today’s Gospel teach us what our faith journey is really about.  It is a time of watching and waiting, of being ready when the Lord comes.  Those five with the oil in their lamps were prepared when the bridegroom finally came.  They entered the wedding feast with him.  The Lord expects us to be ready, too.

As is true of most of the parables Jesus told, there can be many interpretations of their elements.  In the context of today’s parable, it can be that the oil in the lamp stands for faith.  The five maidens acquired their supply from the merchants near by.  The five foolish ones’ didn’t bother.  None of us should think that we are on a solitary journey in this faith trek.  We are part of the Body of Christ.  We journey as a community and as Church.  We do not celebrate Eucharist alone.  We gather around the Table as a believing community and united, we give thanks to God in bread and Wine as we renew Christ’s dying and rising.

Two things happen.  The oil merchants support the individual’s faith.  The faith-witness of the believing community supports the individual’s faith.  We believe in God.  We believe in Jesus.  We believe n the Spirit.  We believe in Church.  Gathering with others and experiencing their witness of faith strengthens our own.  There were merchants who could have supplied the five foolish ones with oil.  The foolish didn’t bother until it was too late.

The second thing that happens in our shared-faith experience is that we come to know Jesus.  The Bridegroom’s words at the end of the parable are chilling, words we pray we will never hear from the Lord: Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.  To ensure that we do not hear those words, we must do two things.  First we must come to recognize Jesus where he is.  We will hear more about this in the Liturgy of the Word for the Feast of Christ the King in a couple of weeks.  Here it is sufficient to remember that we are called to be a servant church, called to serve Christ in the poor and all those who suffer.  That is why we must be about working for their dignity and supporting their rights to the basic human needs.  Those on one side of a border are just as much brothers and sisters as are those on the other side.  Gender and sexual orientation do not determine who are our brothers and sisters, and neither does race.  We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and with Christ and through Christ we strive for justice and peace.  See what the Breaking of the Bread is about?

Then, and finally, to ensure we do not hear those dreaded words, we must spend time getting to know Christ personally.  We must spend time in prayer and reflection.  Relationship with the Lord is built gradually and over time.  Granted it is all the result of grace working in us.  Still, we must have the industry to respond and let grace transform.  Take time to pray.  Take time to reflect.  Take time to listen.  It is the Lord who speaks in that silence to tell you of the Lord’s love for you.

May your lamp burn brightly and shine out particularly to those feeling most threatened by the darkness.  Sometimes people need a reason to go on believing.  That reason might be you.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus