On the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 2nd) we will hear about hunger. In our first reading (from Ex 16) the Israelites wish that:
“.. we had died at the LORD’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!”
Manna from heaven relieved their hunger. Jesus relates this story in the gospel (Jn 6:24-35) and reminds the crowd:
“…it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
The crowd responds:
“…give us this bread always.”
and Jesus answers:
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
We may ask why this promise is hard to grasp when it will give us hope in hard times. We get an answer from our second reading when St. Paul advises the Ephesians that:
“…you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth. (Eph 4:22-24)
In the lectionary for Sundays the first reading is from the Old Testament. It is selected to match the Gospel reading .
On the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time the first reading tells how the prophet Elisha fed a multitude from twenty barley loaves and the gospel how Jesus fed a multitude with five barley loaves and two fish. When Elisha tells a man from Ball-shalishah to give them to the people he hears an objection: "how can I set this before a hundred people?" When Jesus asks for food for the crowd, Andrew says "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. but what good are these for so many?"
Most of us, I suggest, react the same way. The multitudes are starving, violence is rampant and my gifts are so small. How can I do anything. We need to offer what we have where we can. We can leave it to the Lord to multiply our gifts. But this will happen only if we offer them, small though they may be.
(Since we are blessed with a visit from family members, I am recycling a slightly edited version from July 2012).
“13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” NIV
Subject to our human weaknesses, we tend to build walls of division, drawing together with others who share our heritage, loyalties, political prejudices, or other human failings. We then hide behind the walls so that no one can see the failings that we share inside the wall. If we are there long enough, we come to hate, or at least resent, those people on the other side of the wall. The results were evident in the murders in Charleston, South Carolina.
In his letter Paul tells the Ephesians, that the dividing wall has been broken down and that Christ, though the cross, has created one humanity out of two. Paul was urging Christians to put into practice what he saw in Christ. Emmanuel Church in Charleston has just given us a shining example of how to do this.
In contrast, Robert Frost, in his poem Mending Wall, set forth the proverb that “good fences make good neighbors.” He challenges this proverb and then end accepts it. However, he doesn’t see why good fences are necessary. The answer, I suggest is at least two-fold. First, there are things that are sacred and therefore set apart. Loving conversations and actions between spouses, family jokes, and embarrassing moments are examples. Second, as humans subject to weaknesses, we instinctively hide that which can be used against us by a hostile world. Sometimes we even hide our weaknesses from ourselves by putting up what Thomas Keating calls a false self. When people breach, or even threaten that barrier, we react out of anger and fear.
Good neighbors respect fences. They will cross them when invited or when love of neighbor requires it. They do not regard a fence as a wall of division but a boundary which protects them and helps establish peace between imperfect people. As Christians, we should replace dividing walls with good fences.
…Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave. Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.” …( Mk 6:7-13)
The action is a powerful symbol of rejection and warning. It says “I think so little of your town that I won’t even cary your dust away with me.” This Sunday the gospel reading follows Am 7:12-15. The priest of Bethel does not want to hear Amos’ prophesy and sends him away. Jesus is saying that some people will not hear. How should the disciples respond? We get a clue from the parallel passage in Luke 10. That story is preceded by this one in Luke 9:51-56 in which Jesus entered a Samaritan village and was not welcomed. The disciples asked if they could respond like this:
“Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”
And their answer?
But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.
Maybe the “testimony against them” is warning, as it is in Acts 13:50-52. I would rather interpret it as a call for someone other Christian to come to the town and continue to witness and heal. In either case we need to recognize that there are situations and people who do not understand or accept our witness. We can act like Christians. We can give reasons and motives for our behavior. Some people just don’t “get” religion. When that happens, what should we do? Just go on to the next day, the next situation or the next town. We are metaphorically shaking the dust from or feet. We are not carrying resentment, regrets or spending time figuring out what we could have said or done. Maybe someone else will come along and be more effective.
Go to the next town but pray for the one you just left.
In the first reading Ezekiel (Ez 2:2-5) learns that he will go speak to the Israelites in words that they do not want to hear. Psalm 123 urges us to keep our eyes on the Lord “till he have pity on us.” In the second reading Paul writes to the Corinthians (2 Cor 12:7-10) that he must accept his frailties and weakness “for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” In the gospel Jesus came into his hometown and found that people did not accept his authority.
“So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there,
apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.
He was amazed at their lack of faith.”
Ezekiel, Paul and Jesus were faced with a task that would be hard, or impossible to do. All they had to do was accept that fact and move ahead. Simple, but not easy for any of them.
Remember that when we pray the Serenity Prayer, the key word is the second one:
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can and
The wisdom to know the difference,
Tremendous freedom follows acceptance of the fact that we cannot change something, someone else, or even ourselves. Once we accept this we can, like St. Paul, begin to turn that something, someone, or aspect of ourselves, over to the power of Christ. We gain the freedom to act on those things that we can change and freedom from worry and resentment over the ones that we cannot change. While the action is simple and even easy to understand, it is not easy to do. It usually takes a long time and many attempts before we accept the reality that some things are beyond our control. Even that acceptance is a gift from God. That is why we ask that God grant us serenity.
Note: the Serenity prayer is attributed to Reinhold Niehbur and comes in a complete version”
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can and
The wisdom to know the difference,
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
I like the complete version. As far as I know there is no definitive scholarship documenting either the attribution or the complete version.
The scripture readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time turn on the healing power of touch. The importance of Jesus' touch is clear from considering the opposite: to be untouchable. In today’s culture the word “untouchable” has several meanings. We had a TV series about the Untouchables, law enforcement officers of high ethical standards who could not be “touched” or bribed. In other parts of the world “untouchable” referred to the lowest class of people. The religious attitude in Jesus’ time held that the sacred should be separated from the world. Ritual laws held that certain things should not be touched. If one touched a ritually unclean object a purification would be necessary before approaching the temple. Sometimes this was necessary. Burying a body was necessary - and a religious duty. However, ritual cleansing would be necessary.
There are two opposing spiritual traps here. The first is that, as a result of trying to live good lives, we begin to think of ourselves as “untouchable” - i.e we are incorruptible. Our view of self is that we are good persons and contact with bad persons will somehow render us unclean. The second, is that our self esteem is so low that we don’t believe anyone wants to touch us.
Mark’s gospel (5:21-43) gives us a different perspective: Two linked cases in which Jesus is touched by a woman suffering from hemorrhages and in which he goes to touch a girl who has died. In both cases his touch is a healing one. Fully human, Jesus is aware of the sufferings of the woman, the girl and her parents. His touch is more than healing. It is transforming.
There is a transforming lesson for all of us in this. We are all “touchable.” First, we are touchable in the sense that we can be induced to make ethical compromises. Second, with the aid of grace, we can become aware of our own weaknesses and shortcomings. As we do, we can recognize that these are capable of healing.
There is a way out of this. When he wrote Amazing Grace, John Newton got it right:
“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved….”
Once we are aware of our own weakness can begin to accept the weakness in others and to extend to them a healing touch.
On the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 21, 2015) the readings for Mass will include a selection from Job and Mark’s account of the disciples frightened by a sudden, squall breaking over their boat. In the first reading (Job 38:1, 8-11) the Lord answers Job, speaking from a storm. Here is Job, who has spent his life doing the right things and doing them right. In spite of this he loses everything and suffers. Refusing to admit that he has done anything wrong he demands an answer. His answer comes in verses omitted from the lectionary reading for the day.
3 Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers!
4 Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it?
It is not for Job to know. God has plans for him and Job must learn trust and acceptance.
In the gospel reading (Mk 4:35-41) the disciples are again doing the right thing and doing it right. They are experienced sailors, traveling with the Lord. Yet they find themselves in the midst of a life threatening storm. Even their sailor’s skill will not save them. Even worse, their suffering continues just as Job’s did, until they are mortally afraid. Then:
They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
They are filled with awe, when He wakes, rebukes the wind and orders the sea to “Be Still.”
So it is for many of us. We are going through life doing what we think we are supposed to do and doing it well. Life is good and were are happy. Then a storm comes and we say to the Lord: Where are you? I’m doing my job. Why don’t you help? Don’t you care? The answer is that, of course the Lord cares - but we should not be so sure that we are doing the right thing and doing it well. Sometimes it takes a storm for us to finally learn that we are not in charge of our own lives.
The first reading for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 7, 2015) is taken from Ez 17 and describes how Jerusalem will be taken as a tender shoot of cedar and become a majestic tree sheltering birds of every kind. This is a comforting and hopeful image. The picture of “birds of every kind” tells us that all nations - foreign and pagan - will be sheltered and at peace.
If we look at the preceding texts in Ezekiel 16 and 17 we get a much more dramatic picture. Ez 16:1-14 portrays Jerusalem as an newborn infant whose parents exposed her in the wilderness so that she would die. The Lord however protected her and she grew into a desirable young woman. The Lord covered her with his garment - taking her as a bride - and made her into a beautiful queen. Ez 16:1-14 is IMO, the most vivid, explicit and passionate image of God's love:
16 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, confront Jerusalem with her detestable practices 3 and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says to Jerusalem: Your ancestry and birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. 4 On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. 5 No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you. Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised.
6 “‘Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, “Live!”7 I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew and developed and entered puberty. Your breasts had formed and your hair had grown, yet you were stark naked.
8 “‘Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine.
9 “‘I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. 10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13 So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was honey, olive oil and the finest flour. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. 14 And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign Lord.
Jerusalem, however, deserted the Lord by worshiping the gods of alien nations. The Lord, as a hurt lover, compares this betrayal as prostitution. Jerusalem becomes a city of shame.
Yet all is not lost. Then in Ex. 16:60 we read that:
“But I will remember the covenant I made with you when you were young; I will set up an everlasting covenant* with you.”
Ezekiel’s vision promises that eventually Jerusalem’s disgrace will be removed. In our first reading (Ez 17:22-24) Jerusalem is compared to a tender shoot of cedar, planted on a high mountain:
“It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar.
Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it, every winged thing in the shade of its boughs….”
The gospel reading (Mk. 4:26-34) will take up a similar image. The smallest of seeds - a mustard seed - becomes a short of shelter so that birds of the sky can be sheltered in its shade.
This is, IMO, the bible’s most dramatic story of rescue and redemption. God’s love for Jerusalem is portrayed in intimate, passionate sexual imagery. Even as lover scorned and betrayed, God remembers his covenant, Jerusalem is not just restored to her former glory. She becomes a city in which all can live in peace and be restored to intimate relationships with the Lord.
The scripture readings for the day emphasize the Covenant made with Moses and sealed with the blood sacrifice of bulls. (Ex 24:3-8). In the gospel (Mk 14:12-16, 22-26) Jesus recalls this sealing and tells the apostles that his blood will seal the covenant for the multitude.
What is the impact of this on our personal lives? lIt is in the second reading (Heb 9:11-15) that we can find the impact:
“how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.”
These works are past deeds that remain on our consciences, dragging us down and preventing us from making changes in our lives. The author of Hebrews tells us that our consciences are cleansed. Once we accept this we will reach a point where we do not regret the past but can leave the door open to any lessons it may have to teach us.
“Son,'he said,' ye cannot in your present state understand eternity...That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, "No future bliss can make up for it," not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say "Let me have but this and I'll take the consequences": little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man's past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man's past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why...the Blessed will say "We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven, : and the Lost, "We were always in Hell." And both will speak truly.”
Yogi said that “it ain’t over till it’s over.” For some people the past is never over. It is a continuing source of regret and resentment. My reading of Hebrew tells me with a cleansed conscience the past is really over. Actually it is more than that: with a new conscience we can see the past as a starting point on the path to heaven.
Trinity Sunday (May 31st) is always a challenge for homilists. Some in the congregation may sit and wonder about this year’s attempt to treat the scriptures for the day with the profound teachings of the Council of Nicea in AD 325. Just as many of the preachers will do, I’m going to dodge the challenge. Instead, here are some quotes from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for May 12, 2015.
He quotes physicist Niel’s Bohr: the universe is
"not only stranger than we think, but stranger than we can think."
A major part of the challenge is that the Western Church has striven to think with great precision about a mystery that is “stranger than we can think.” The Eastern Church, particularly the Cappadocian Fathers were much more fluid in their approach. Western mystics also tended to evade precise definitions in favor of a fluid description of the Trinity as an ongoing dynamic relationship. (In defense of the Western approach, it does set boundaries. For example if we are Orthodox Christians we will maintain that God is One, no matter how we explain the Trinity.) Western mystics are much closer to the Eastern Church in their descriptions. Rohr quotes Richard of St. Victor (d 1173):
“…for God to be truth, God had to be one; for God to be love, God had to be two; and for God to be joy, God had to be three!”
Rohr comments: Any true Trinitarian theology will always offer the soul endless creativity, an utterly open horizon, and delicious food for the soul. Trinitarian thinkers do not seem to have much interest in things like hell, punishment, or any notion of earning or losing. They are only overwhelmed by infinite abundance and flow.
Our former Pastor, Fr. Bill La Fratta used to say that “Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.” As we live out our lives in relationships we open ourselves to the Trinity.