Jul 19, 2012

16th Sunday: Scattered and Gathered

"He taught them many things"
Jer 23: 1-6
Eph 2: 13-18
Mrk 6: 30-34

The names of Alexander VI, Julius II, and Leo X will forever be etched in Papal history as among the most notorious men to sit on the chair of St. Peter as Pope.  The 15th and 16th century Renaissance family names, from whom some of these characters came, of Borgia and Medici may be synonymous with nepotism, intrigue, sexual scandal, simony, financial squander, and personal immorality. Alexander VI, who kept both several mistresses and his illegitimate children in the Papal apartments stands high among the most corrupt.  Not to be outdone by Leo X who surrounded himself with admirers and once famously stated, “God has given us the Papacy now let us enjoy it!”  And indeed he did to the detriment of the Church, especially its resources.  Such corruption gave restless reformers such as Martin Luther credible fuel for their fire.   

Yes, these are among the Papal bad boys – the “shepherds who mislead and scatter . . .” as we hear in our first reading from Jeremiah this Sunday.  Their lives are colorful to say the least but all was not lost for the Church even under their leadership.  These are the men who supported the construction of great monuments of Catholic faith and promoted brilliant artists and sculptures such as Rafael and Michelangelo.  The building of the present day St. Peter Basilica at the Vatican was the brainchild of Pope Julius II as was the painting of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel by the inspired Michelangelo with whom he definitely had a love/hate relationship. Subsequent Church Councils such as Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II continued the much needed reform of the Church.

Yet, upon the Papal throne, our supreme Shepherds have also seen good men and among them brilliant theologians and leaders of the Church with heroic holiness.  It was once said that all the Popes of the twentieth century should probably be canonized.  Among them are St. Pius X, Blessed John XXIII and of course, Blessed John Paul II.

In the end, God has sustained his Church in spite of our human sin.  With all the corruption of the 15th and 16th century, which make our contemporary Church “scandals” pale by comparison, the faith was preserved and continued to be passed on, clarified, and strengthened for generations.  What may have been scattered through scandal and human sin has in the end been gathered by Christ himself repeatedly over the centuries. The holiness of Christ gives holiness to the Church.  

Our Gospel scene from Mark this Sunday has the apostles returning to Jesus after the missionary journey we have heard about the last two Sunday’s.  “Two by two” they went and now return clearly elated but also tired.  Jesus compassionately invites them to, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” Yet, the assembled crowd, “like sheep without a shepherd” seeks out Jesus and the exhausted apostles.  Not giving them much opportunity for rest, Jesus steps forward as the quintessential good shepherd, the benevolent wise teacher who gathers this vast crowd together, to “teach them many things.” I think we may see a method and purpose here. A kind of strategy on the part of Jesus.

Divide and conquer is a favorite phrase of military strategy.  It might also be useful in sports such as football, soccer, or basketball.  The opposing team must be on their guard and not allow themselves to be scattered and thereby weakened.  Good leadership and a united plan go a long way to achieve success as the wise leader gathers his troops or his team together.

In the case of our biblical perspective this Sunday, we hear the scandal caused by the bad Kings of ancient Israel. Jeremiah’s haunting words of, “Woe to the shepherds . . .” are those which move down through every age.  Minus the great King David of course who, despite his own human weakness, becomes the human family line of Jesus himself.

Jeremiah warns about sheep that are scattered but promises a king who will do “what is just and right.” This king will gather the scattered sheep.

St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians this Sunday likewise reminds us that, “you who once were far off (scattered) have been become near (gathered) by the blood of Christ.”

In our Gospel the word and presence of Christ gathers the apostles together once again after they have scattered away on mission.  He gathers together a lost and rudderless crowd who pursue him like sheep who seek the voice of a shepherd they can trust and follow.  His heart was “moved with pity for them . . .” and he gathered them together, to feed them with his word. 

For us, we may notice not only an interesting geographical location in the desert or by the Sea of Galilee, but more what is Jesus’ own intent?  What can we see that assures us this reliable, trustful Shepherd is a voice we must all hear? He speaks to us in personal prayer, when we find an out of the way place.  He speaks to us in our Church through leadership that remains faithful to its call.  He speaks to us in our liturgical gathering when we arrive with lives that may feel scattered or fragmented.  We hear him through the events of our lives that, perhaps by hindsight, become powerful teachable moments.

It is in gathering moments when the Church comes together to be fed around the table of the Word and Eucharist that we most see the Church gathered in visible form.  This weekend we hear about the word which Jesus spoke.  We see he feeds the vast crowd by teaching them “many things.”

Next Sunday, he feeds them both physically and spiritually with the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish but also makes himself the source of that food which is clearly an illusion of his own body and blood in the Eucharist. 

Now that we hear from the priest at each Mass that, “my sacrifice and yours . . .” is offered along with the bread and wine, we know that we can bring our scattered and sometimes broken lives to the most perfect source who can gather us in with himself. 

Show favor, O Lord, to your servants
and mercifully increase the gifts of your grace,
that made fervent in hope, faith and charity,
they may be ever watchful in keeping your commands.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. 

(Collect of Mass)