The scriptures for the 22 Sunday in Ordinary Time (Aug. 30th, 2015) focus on faithfulness to the law (First reading - Dt. 4:1-8) with our hearts, not just our lips (third reading - Mk 7: 1-23). The second reading (Jas 1:17-18, 21B-22, 27) omits some lines that I find instructive. The second reading urges us:
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.”
Lines 23-26 are omitted, leaving us to wonder what James meant my “deluding yourselves.”
“23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror.
24 He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like.
25 But the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does.
26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain.”
When we hear the word we can see who we really are just as we might in a mirror. Sometimes we see parts of ourselves that we might easily excuse or ignore. When we go into the world acting on what we have seen, those things that we would ignore are reflected back again.
If we hear the word and do not act on it, we can easily use our tongues to criticize and blame others for their shortcomings, having forgotten our own. When we are self-deluded we will be seen by the world as one whose “religion is in vain.”
We all know Christians like this. The media is quick to make spectacles and stereotypes out of them.
The reading from James concludes:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Today we add refugees, and all other defenseless and oppressed, to orphans and widows.
“If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
And the people answered:
Far be it from us to forsake the LORD for the service of other gods. For it was the LORD, our God, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery.
We will hear the same choice in the gospel (Jn 6:60-69). Some disciples are unable to resolve the conflict between Jesus’s sayings and their understanding their faith. When they return to their former way of life, Jesus asks the twelve if they want to leave. Peter answers:
“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
The people of Israel knew that the Lord had delivered them from slavery. This was only after they had served other gods and tried to find peace and prosperity without the Lord. Since they knew that the Lord had rescued and protected him, they were willing to serve the Lord. Many of the disciples - still Israelites and living under Roman occupation - had their own ideas of how God should act. They found Jesus teaching hard to accept and “returned to their former way of life. The twelve came to believe that Jesus had “the words of eternal life”. They chose to turn their lives and wills over to him.
So may it be for all of us - and, having decided, may we continue in our actions.
The connection is a bit unusual, but bear with me. In the first reading (Prv 9:16) Wisdom calls to us:
“Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live;”
In the second reading (Eph 5:15-20) Paul warns us:
“not to get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery”
To make the connection, we need to look at the ancient meaning of debauchery. While today it has the connotation of sexual excess, the history of the word is different. According to dictionary.com:
1590s, from M.Fr. debaucher "entice from work or duty," from O.Fr. desbaucher "to lead astray," supposedly lit. "to trim (wood) to make a beam" (from bauch "beam," from Frankish balk; from the same Gmc. source that yielded English balk, q.v.). A sense of "shaving" something away, perhaps, but the root is also said to be a word meaning "workshop," which gets toward the notion of "to lure someone off the job;" either way the sense evolution is unclear.
So, if debauchery means getting lured away from one’s original purpose it can also mean getting lost. If we get seriously lost, we are in this situation evoked by the haunting lyric from the song
"I had a gal and she had me
And the sun was always shinin'
But then one day I left my gal
But then one day I left my gal
I left her far behind me
And now I'm lost so gol darn lost
Not even God can find me."
It is a hunting thought. I can remember being touched by that line all the way back into my High School days.
The good news comes from the Bread of Life sequence in John’s gospel for Sunday (6:51-58):
"Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him."
If Jesus remains in us, we can never get that lost. We may think that we are so lost that not even God can find us, but all we need to do is look within. God is there.
We will be entering the Elijah story part way through. In the preceding chapter (1 Kings 18) Elijah has emerged victorious in his life-and-death contest with the prophets of Baal and earned the rage of Ahab who promises to kill Elijah. Protected by the had of the Lord, Elijah flees. On this Sunday we hear in chapter 19 that he gave up and laid down to die. Instead, an angel awakens him, provides bread and water, and insists that he nourish himself for the forty days journey ahead. At the end of the journey he will experience the presence of God in a “light, silent sound.”
The Gospel compares this kind of bread with the bread of life:
“…I am the bread of life.
Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died;
this is the bread that comes down from heaven
so that one may eat it and not die.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
May we all be nourished for the journey by word and sacrament.
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.