Sep 18, 2021

25th Sunday - “Whoever receives me . . . receives the One who sent me”

 


Mark 9: 30 - 37

The Word: https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/091921.cfm

Humility is not often a virtue easily applied. It does not necessarily come naturally. The last thing a little baby, the center of all attention, is humble.  It is acquired over time and experience.

I often wonder how a movie star, popular sports figure, famous world leader or influential politician, a Pope or popular Bishop or even a priest can maintain a sense of humility. I speak from this personally which in itself sounds a bit pompous! Who is the greatest? Who has the competitive edge? Is that really one Jesus teaches us to ask? These were questions even asked between the Apostles as we hear today in the Gospel

So, what does it mean to be a leader in the way of Christ?  "To know one's place in the world" is a well-supported definition.  To be simple and to reach out to the small and the great.  To respect the dignity of every person.  To sit in the lowest place among the "common" people is likely our picture of humility. To serve the needs of others despite a position of authority you may have creates of picture of humility. It conjures up a picture of St. Teresa of Calcutta or our own Pope Francis. By their example they embody an image of humility.  And we know others in our families or friends or parishioners who do the same.

This Sunday our Gospel is a continuation of Jesus teaching his disciples about the full meaning of his ministry and its ultimate purpose: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise." Often such contradictory statements were spoken by Jesus.  To be killed and to rise?

The “Son of Man” was an ancient name for the long awaited Messiah.  And the Messiah would be one to overcome any force against him or the nation.  He would not be a man of weakness or vulnerability.  So to say that he will be arrested and killed is simply out of the question.  As we heard last Sunday from Peter who dared to admonish Jesus (paraphrase): “NO!” Peter exclaims.  May you be spared such a fate.  This doesn't fit with our agenda! That dying and rising line won’t work; you need to speak with power and force! Recall how forcefully Jesus returned Peter’s misconception about his ultimate fate and purpose – “Get behind me Satan!”

Our second reading from Wisdom foretells the suffering of the “prophet.”  With an almost sarcastic tone we read: “For if the just one be the son of God, God will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes . . . Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him. (Wis 2: 17ff). Let’s call his bluff and challenge his claim!

In a self-sacrificing act of divine humility, Jesus submitted to earthly authority, despite its own corruption, in order to carry out God’s greater plan. That theme is made even plainer as he embraces a child to illustrate not only the true meaning of humility but to show that of discipleship, e.g. servanthood and dependency on trust. This in the midst of his own disciples arguing with each other over who will be the greatest in his Kingdom. In my Kingdom, Jesus would remind them, you must be dependent and trusting like a child.  That was a powerful, counter-cultural illustration shocking in its starkness, frankly.

So, here he chooses a child. Yet, in ancient times, children had no protections and were akin to slaves.  Child mortality was epidemic and sixty percent of children died before the age of sixteen.  In time of famine, children were fed last before adults.  Disease and poor hygiene were the primary culprits.  Children were the primary care of women; loved yes but also treated severely at times.  For a band which Jesus formed to be compared to children was near insulting so what was his point? In light of our present day deep concerns about the safety and respect of children, this Gospel provides a timely image of God's concern for the vulnerable and innocent.

That Kingdom has a deep spiritual dimension. As Jesus often did, he choose an example in the child so shocking that one could not possibly miss the point of his teaching. Think of the parable of the prodigal son whose Jewish father behaved far more like a mother in compassion for his son. The parable of the lost sheep – who would leave the flock unguarded in favor of one?  No shepherd would put his entire flock at risk but the Good Shepherd values each individually.

His point is to drive home the model of true discipleship.  It isn’t a complicated one: love for others is lived out in service not domination.  True humility means to know one’s place and the greatest pursuit of any of us who profess faith in Christ is to illustrate more by our lives than our words.

The disciples were likely shocked, embarrassed, confused by Jesus statement about his impending death and rising and to link that with this child left them, as the Gospel tells us: “They did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.” (Mk 9: 32).  To bring honor to oneself is measured by my care for others; and not just to serve them but to do so out of love.  Jesus himself is the ultimate model of what that means.

So, the ever present character of a Christian is once again illustrated in stark example for us. Our gathering for Eucharist is the true encounter with Christ whose ultimate example of service with love was offered on the cross.  The giving of himself for our sake and his real and constant presence in the Eucharist is a testimony not only of his love for us but generates the energy we need to love one another.

The good that we do in the name of Christ comes back to us one hundred fold.  It’s just the way it works. Only then are we truly a humble people. Fr. James Martin, SJ puts it well: "Humility is one of the gateways to the spiritual life.  It is also one of the most necessary attributes for any kind of life in prayer."


Sep 10, 2021

24th Sunday - "Clenched fists or open hands?"


 "You are thinking not as God does but as human beings do"

Mark 8: 27 - 35

The Word: https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/091221.cfm

There is no doubt that our American culture places a great emphasis on the importance of work.  The evaluation of the economy is often made based upon how many jobs are available and what the unemployment rate is for that month.  We hear it all the time. In this time of the ongoing pandemic, we see “help wanted” signs everywhere.

Working hard is a value that is respected but we know that sometimes working too much can cause both health and personal problems. If one classifies as a “work-a-holic” they may potentially be headed for problems.  Yet, we often will place value upon another based upon the job they have and the amount of work they do.  One of the first questions we may ask of someone we have just met is, “So, what do you do for a living?” Yet, we are much more than our “work” or occupations.

Our second reading this Sunday from the very practical letter of James reminds us that: “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (Jas 2: 18).   Is James referring to manual labor or one’s occupation?  The work that James refers to is not something that we are hired to perform.  We should not be motivated solely by our paycheck or the promise of advancement in a job. James speaks of Christian discipleship as the “works” of faith by which our belief is seen in identifiable actions.

To offer a suffering person “the necessities of the body” is not just a nice thought; it is a sign of our faith.  As we say, talk is cheap, James implies. If our Christian faith is true, then it is lived out in actions of self-sacrificing charity towards others, especially the suffering and poor. Just to say, “I believe in Jesus” is not enough if we go on living a life of luxury and greed.  Christian discipleship demands a certain conversion and a particular sense of the real value of things and the potential for their use to do good for others. In fact, it is the real motivator by which we do what we do. 

For example if we find ourselves as tight fisted, if we offer another a closed fist rather than an open hand we find that the only real value in life is myself!

In the Gospel, Jesus strongly reminds Peter that he must reconsider what his concept of the Messiah will be. Jesus told Peter: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly . . .” (Mk 8).  Although Peter identified the truth about Jesus’ identity, “You are the Christ!” but his thought was measured by the expectations of this world; by an earthly understanding of power, prestige and wealth. Thus, the thought of a suffering Messiah has no place in such things.

I find it very compelling that Peter rebuked Jesus for his implication that he will “suffer greatly.” It was as if he was saying to Jesus: “Look, you’ve got to get over this suffering and rejection line. You’ll never be successful with that story so you need to speak more of power and domination as the one who will save our people.  That’s what we hope the Messiah will be for us.” In other words, he tried to give Jesus a real reality check; a dressing down as it were. “Rebuke” is a harsh word implying a sharp disapproval of another’s opinion, likely said with force.   

The result of that thinking is clear as Jesus turns the tables quite shockingly in response to Peter’s correction.  In turn he rebukes Peter even more pointedly by referring to him as “Satan” and demanded that he get out of his way so that his true mission would be fulfilled.  Remember Jesus’ temptations in the desert by Satan.  One was clearly an invitation to abandon his mission as the devil showed him “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence.”  He pledged that he would give Jesus all the power and glory he could see if only he would worship the evil one.  A futile attempt at the least.

So, Peter’s rebuke, his bold correction or stumbling block as it were, was another temptation of the same, through Peter this time.  There is no doubt that Satan watched Jesus very carefully throughout his public ministry and continued to make efforts at blocking his mission for the world. Once again, Jesus rebukes the devil with another wasted attempt. Poor Peter may have stood there a bit red faced for his rebuke and buying in to popular opinion so strongly.

But Jesus invited Peter and his other disciples and us of course, to think about heavenly things.  To see his mission, and our own, our good works in his name, as God intends. And because Jesus is the Christ (the anointed One), and we are his followers, faith in Jesus makes certain demands on us.  That “whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  (Mk 8:34).

And there’s the rub.  We can imagine Peter’s perplexed face as Jesus spoke those words, apparently quite forcefully.  In no uncertain terms, he wanted to strongly clarify his mission and purpose in coming to humanity: to die and to rise. To be the model of the suffering servant.

That the values we hold and assume as good – power, prestige, fame, fortune – are not always compatible with the Christian message and mission. Where is the cross in the life for those who pursue power for its own sake, or to lord it over others? For what the cross implies is self-sacrifice, obedience, humility, forgiveness, mercy, generosity and to think of the other before self. We must be people of open hands with God and not clenched fists.

So the works we do are an essential part of our faith. Yet, on the other side, it is more than just being nice to others.  Doing good for humanity, while a great value, for a Christian is only half complete.  The motivating force for doing works of mercy and compassion; of self-sacrifice must be our faith in Jesus Christ.  Jesus speaks of his suffering and death; his submission to a force in which he lost his life.  The ultimate victory was of course the resurrection for it broke the dark power of death.

So it is the sense of Jesus turning the values of this world upside down and inside out.  Yet, if power if used wisely for the common good, and motivated by one’s Christian faith, then we are on the right track.

If prestige and position is used in order to make changes for the good and to relieve the suffering of others out of love for Christ, then we get it!

If wealth can be used to make things happen, to feed, clothe, educate, and heal out of imitation of Jesus’ own healing ministry, then the face of Christ is shown to the world.

Yet, we are all called by our faith to live lives that are not passive but active – as we are able according to our talent, resources, and situations.  James articulates this truth in the second reading about putting our faith into action.  We walk the talk as it were in actions first followed by works.

In this celebration of the holy Eucharist, we know that God is not passive and uninvolved in our lives.  The stories and lessons of the Scriptures constantly reveal a God deeply involved in his creation and in particular inserted, through Jesus’ own coming, into human history. God works very hard on behalf of his creation and in particular for our salvation in Christ.

As we break bread, we share in his very presence and life so that we may be intimately connected with him and energized by the Spirit to carry on his work.

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Look upon us, O God,

Creator and ruler of all things, 

and, that we may feel the working of your mercy,

grant that we may serve you with all our heart.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 

who lives and reigns with you

in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 

God for ever and ever. 

(Collect of Mass)


 

 

 

 

 


Sep 4, 2021

23rd Sunday: The Lord sets captives free

 


Mark 7:31-37

Word: https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/090521.cfm


Have you ever found yourself in a conversation where the other person so wanted to drive their point home, that no matter how hard you tried they would be constantly talking over you? You might even say to yourself: "You haven't heard a word I said!"

I think the climate of these days is rich with these examples between politicians, news broadcasters, and some medical experts especially on social media platforms. Today what makes the most immediate impressions are what is called optics.  So, it’s not only what we hear but maybe more what we see that forms our opinions and choices.  Yet, only through careful listening can we discern the best direction and the best choice.

We are not the best listeners at times. We might be deaf to the obvious or maybe so caught up in other distractions that we miss the basic point.  To listen carefully and to hear the right voice is both an art and an important spiritual skill to develop. If we don’t listen, we won’t understand. How important it is for us all to become better listeners so that we can follow in the way the Lord is leading us. Today's readings all point to the power of God in Christ as the Divine physician.

Our tender Gospel story in which Jesus restores the sense of hearing to a man who was deaf is a further example of his compassion for all.  The scene is not within Jewish territory.  Rather he is on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, among the Gentile villages. So, most likely this man was not a Jew. It appeared to be his second visit among this population, having worked an exorcism in their region in the past (Lk 8: 26-39).

As always, Jesus responds to the suffering of this man and restores joy to him.  Likewise, the man now can speak clearly.  No talking over.  No confusion.  No misunderstanding about who Jesus is and what he did for the man.  As always, our Lord is a “man of his word.” He utters the divine command and what he says happens. God's word always brings about a result most especially in Christ. His Aramaic word, the language of Jesus, “Ephphatha” (Be opened) as preserved in the Gospel text is spoken and the man’s hearing is restored.

Mark notes how our Lord takes command of the situation. Again, not being able to hear Jesus’ emphasis or tone of voice, I think it safe to say he spoke that word with force and conviction.  Mark states that Jesus “groaned.”  From the depth of his gut as it were, he commanded the power of the physical disability to release itself.  It is no wonder that people were astonished. Often such a disability was acquainted with a sinful life and a sign of demon possession.  Jesus commands the “demon” to leave and so it does.

Although Jesus ordered him to keep this quiet, filled with joy the man was unable to contain himself and proclaimed what God had done for him. The story fulfills what Isaiah the prophet writes in our first reading about the signs of the Messiah: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; . . .” (Is 35 4-7).  Jesus reputation as a wonder worker spread like wild fire. So what can we learn from this about our own deafness? We are invited to see ourselves in the miracle stories of Jesus and make important applications to our lives. Imagine that you are the deaf man.

There is more to hear.  We could be lost in the details, as often the crowds did, and be deaf to the central purpose of what Jesus did for this man and for many others.  He brought them to faith.  A miracle is not an end in itself.  As wonderful as his healings were, the lives of those Jesus touched were forever changed. They could not contain their gratitude, they became Jesus’ followers, or they changed their life to a better path. But, we are always given the choice.

Haven’t we too been touched by God? Our faith did not come to us in a vacuum but was passed on by others. Think of the many today who simply are unaware of the power of the scriptures to change our lives.  Those who never attend Mass, receive the grace of the sacraments or experience their connection with a faith community, yet were raised in the life of the Church.  Rather than cast blame for the reasons why, it might be time for us to check our own example to them and to share the joy and beauty of our Catholic faith. Aren’t we too invited to “hear” his Word both in the scriptures and in the events around us? Yet, how deaf we can be at times.

We hear a great deal these days about the changing culture of America and the millions of immigrants and refugees in this country. No doubt, this problem poses many other challenges to the economy, to housing, jobs, safety, health and all the other neuralgic issues touted in our present government and political discussions.

But in the end, what do we hear?  St. James in our second reading reminds us that the lives of Christians cannot have two standards: one for the rich and another for the poor. James reminds us to have no “partiality” and to not make “distinctions among yourselves” that create a separation and that would isolate one community from another.  It’s tough to live this way but we cannot forget that when we deal with such human issues, it is human beings which are at stake.  As Jesus reached across the social lines of his time, and responded with the higher value of human compassion, we too have to constantly remind ourselves that God is not partial to people and neither can we be such.

Are we able to hear and be conscious of the many needs around us?  To feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked is not an optional choice or something we do because it soothes a guilty conscience or makes me feel good.  Our purpose as Christians, rooted in our baptism, is to carry on the same mission which Jesus brought.  We have to constantly fight against our tendency to judge based merely on outward appearances.  James makes that clear in our second reading when he speaks of behavior which responds to another person’s clothing and social status, to merely external appearance.  

The moral value which drives everything is love for our neighbor. So it’s always our task to create a society and a community of faith where this equality can be clearly seen.  Among the many values of parish life is that of welcome and hospitality.  Do we hear the cry of those who may feel estranged, lonely, judged, hungry or in any human need?  What sort of programs and priorities do we see in our parish bulletins?  Do we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, invite others and welcome those are on the margins of life?  Is this a gathering where people feel they can be fed both spiritually and find comfort and support from a loving community which truly cares about their neighbor.  And the best place to begin is right at home where we can find Christ where we are at and to serve him there.

There is no more diverse gathering than our weekend liturgies.  Jesus commanded the disability to release its’ hold on the man when he stated: “Be opened.”  We must open ourselves to hear God’s Word proclaimed, take the time to let it touch us in our need for conversion, and then open ourselves to Jesus presence in his Body and Blood.  The social justice and moral implications we are presented with in every Eucharistic gathering are many. We are sent forth to hear, to speak and to see the signs of God’s presence in our world and in the needs of others calling for our attention.

 

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Grant that your faithful, O Lord,

whom you nourish and endow with life

through the food of your Word and heavenly Sacrament,

may so benefit from your beloved Son's great gifts

that we may merit an eternal share in his life.

Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

 

(Prayer after Communion)

 


Aug 27, 2021

22nd Sunday - The law of love

 


"You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition"

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Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The Word: https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/082921.cfm

If you’ve ever had the experience of visiting a Monastic community such as we are blessed with here in Oregon at Mt. Angel Abbey, you might find the opportunity to pray with the Monks is both inspiring and somewhat off putting. The ringing of bells begins the “call to prayer,” the harmonious singing of chant, the recitation of the ancient psalms, the bowing and coordinated sitting and standing, the proper entrance of the monastic community based on seniority beginning with the Abbot, and all else lends a beauty to the rhythm of prayer. The sound of music and the words of the psalms themselves may be a bit off putting at first along with the flow of the prayer time.  It may at first seem confusing or a bit rigid.

All the daily prayer hours beginning with the Office of readings and ending with night prayer take place at the same time every day, regardless of season of the year. If one joins a monastery, then, they should be a person who is comfortable with routine, with a law that is rather unchangeable for the rest of their lives.  It may be prayer at 5:30 a.m., 12 noon, 5:15 p.m, and 8 p.m. every day for the rest of their lives. No matter what may come in order to remain faithful, a monk must pray evening prayer at 5:15 p.m. each and every day.  Thus is the general routine of monastic living. Our exercise of the law can find some similarity. It provides order, balance, and freedom. 

The point of all this is what we see in the Gospel this Sunday. Jesus once again finds himself at odds with the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his time among the Jews.  Their slavish demand for obedience to every “jot and tittle” of the law brings us to see how unrealistic, oppressive, and controlling this law had become.  The point is to discern between what is necessary and what is incidental. 

This was one principals of the reform of liturgy during the Second Vatican Council.  Had the Mass and other liturgical rites become too cumbersome, too rigid, too weighed down by external emphasis on rubrics and appearances that it was hiding the true purity of the Mass? Was the Mass more of a show and focus on externals than on an experience of Christ and a clear call to personal and communal conversion of heart?

Now let’s not be too hasty to look negatively on the value of law.  Certainly a society without any protections, parameters and rules of safety would be chaos or extreme anarchy. These days we hear so much about abuse of power, how civic leaders are misusing their authority, and oversees we see lands ruled by thugs whose whole existence is to cause chaos.  So we need the law to govern us.

For ancient Israel there is nothing more sacred than the Law of God.  It is their gift to the world.  The purpose of the law was about creating some sense of order to our lives.  To know when we are in right balance with each other and with God.  To avoid impurity, to know what is unclean in order to embrace what is clean and to find a proper place for things which would include human behavior.  This was the concern of the Pharisees as they confronted Jesus.  That he was challenging the right order of things and encouraging his own disciples to push the envelope and to have no regard for the proper order of things.  Their behavior would have seemed dangerous and scandalous to the average Jew.  But the question which Jesus tackled was the legalistic and rigid view and application of laws that had been created and now smothered the true purpose of divine law by the weight of human traditions.

To see our pursuit of God’s law, for example, as given not to restrict and restrain us from freedom but rather to lead us to a more peaceful and joyful life.  We Americans seem to have both a love and hate relationship with law.  On the one had we resist it and push against it if we feel it restricts our freedom. And on the other we see it as a great value that can keep order and respect in society.  Law can be seen as opposing my inherent freedom to choose how I want to live my life or it can be seen as teaching me to appreciate the greater good we find in one another such as the legal protection of the vulnerable and poor among us.

Their emphasis on dietary and cleanliness as an indication of inner purity is deeply challenged by Jesus.  He doesn’t speak to the hygienic property of washing ones hands.  That’s not the point here.  All of these washing rituals which dominated the culture of Jesus time had become equated with religious purity before God and the “keeping of traditions” created a heavy legalistic culture that placed human law on a par with divine law or in some cases an indispensable element of obedience. 

Jesus quotes Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me . . .” and then continues in his own words: “You disregard God’s commandments but cling to human tradition.”

God’s law is given to us in simplicity with two demands: “To love God with all your heart, mind, and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves.”  The love of God and neighbor which summarizes and, when lived out faithfully in all parts of our life, help to guard the integrity of the moral and spiritual life. A life of mutual sharing of love between us and God. This demands that I look within, as Jesus comments in the Gospel about the source of “evil” or sin and recognize my need for conversion.  I could follow all the laws but still miss the point. It is not external obedience that will justify a man before God, it is the right order before God we live out from our heart of love. Jesus desired to replace the unnecessary ritual of human prescriptions with purity brought about by a living encounter with him.  Hence, in the sacramental life of the Church, particularly in the Eucharist, the living Christ is present to us and by our humble reception of grace, we are purified by Christ present to us. 

Our nature is good for God has created all things to be good. Yet, we are flawed and in need of a way out.  Christ has shown us that way through his death and resurrection.  He didn’t die and rise for our sanitation, as important as that is for the general health of all of course.  But, redemption is about our spirit; our call to conversion of heart and mind so that we may be examples of Christ to others.

Jesus hits this by reminding the “holier than thou” leaders that their obsessive rituals will not bring them closer to God.  They need to look within and not on the outside.  My behavior, my values, my passions and desires, my lack of care for others unselfishly, my thoughts, my desire for wealth, power, and attention from others, and all those things related to such is what makes me impure. To see the sin within us and know that God’s Law, which comes from without us, is there to lead us to a higher level of moral and spiritual growth.  The service we offer through humility and compassion to others, motivated by our true religious principles, will indeed bring us closer to our loving God. For Christ is present in those we serve and when we encounter others in love, we find Christ himself. 

As Jesus so eloquently reflected in the Beatitudes from his sermon on the mount (Mt 5), the “pure of heart, the merciful, the lowly, the poor in spirit” are the indication of true goodness and holiness.

May our Eucharist be the food we become in the daily practice of God’s law of love who is Christ himself.

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God of might, giver of every good gift,

put into our hearts the love of your name, 

so that, by deepening our sense of reverence,

you may nurture in us what is good

and, by your watchful care,

keep safe what you have nurtured.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 

who lives and reigns with you

in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 

God for ever and ever. 

(Collect of Mass)