Friday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I came across a book promoting the Catholic Church, published at the end of the Obama era. The blurb promises readers that this book will open a way to become "the best version of yourself" and "all that you can be." 
I haven't put it down yet, neither have I opened it up. But I don't like that kind of promise. It reminded me of a sexually suggestive poster that wants to raise awareness of sexually transmitted diseases. The strategy is first to appeal to the consumer's lower nature and then address something serious. 
Saint Paul tried that strategy in Athens when he gathered an audience with his speculations about "the unknown god." Saint Luke says the Athenians were always curious for some new nonsense: 
Now all the Athenians as well as the foreigners residing there used their time for nothing else but telling or hearing something new.  
As soon as they heard the Good News that an executed criminal had been raised from the dead, they laughed and walked away. The apostle took the experience to heart and, arriving in Corinth, spoke more simply and from the heart:
When I came to you, brothers, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
The book blurb appeals to the narcissism of the American consumer who believes that he can be saved, satisfied or made happy by buying the right product; in this case, the Catholic Church.
In fairness, the blurb also speaks of holiness and appeals to the traditional belief that Christians should strive for holiness. If they have got past the title, "Rediscovering Catholicism" and as far as the blurb, they might be interested in holiness. And I might yet read the introduction. 
But I think we should practice honesty in advertising. The Lord will not promise anyone an easy way of life, though it is easier than our own foolish ways; nor any satisfaction except that of finding hope in the face of catastrophe. 
The way of the cross is the way of failure by most standards. It is not domineering, commanding or overwhelming. If it persuades it does so by reason rather than coercion. Even its threats are reasonable; they point to the consequences of one's free choices. It allows the enemy to mock, scorn and deride; even to assault and destroy. 
The way of the cross grieves with victims, even those who invited what they now regret. The message of the cross will not say, "I warned you about this!" 
In pursuit of the right thing we often run into conflict; and when the dust has settled we discover nothing has changed. The Civil War did not end slavery or racism; the World Wars did not make the world safe for democracy; abortion has not ended child abuse; nor divorce, spousal abuse.   
The cross waits upon the Holy Spirit to open ears, eyes and hearts to the message of the truth. Everything must happen in its own time. 
George Herbert has a wonderful poem to that effect, called The Pulley
When God at first made man, 
Having a glass of blessings standing by, 
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can. 
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie, 
Contract into a span.” 

So strength first made a way; 
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure. 
When almost all was out, God made a stay, 
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure, 
Rest in the bottom lay. 

“For if I should,” said he, 
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature, 
He would adore my gifts instead of me, 
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature; 
So both should losers be. 

“Yet let him keep the rest, 
But keep them with repining restlessness; 
Let him be rich and weary, that at least, 
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness 
May toss him to my breast.”

Thursday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary #428:

I give thanks to my God always on your account
for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus,
that in him you were enriched in every way,
with all discourse and all knowledge,

Both testaments of the Bible express the gratitude we feel for God's calling and gathering us. Saint Paul is especially grateful as he brings that Jewish tradition to his gentile converts in Corinth.
He thanks God for them. Perhaps there are two ways to read that sentence:
  1. He thanks God that, by his preaching, they have come to know the Lord. Corinth was a city of sinners if there ever was one. Flooded each day by a tide of sailors, it had a huge investment in taverns and brothels. The laws may have applied in daylight, they meant little at night. The saints were not those who took shelter within the walls of a "gated community;"  these new Christians protected and guided one another through the ugly streets of wretchedness and despair. They clung to the elders who, familiar with Jewish customs, taught them the new ways of holiness. They learned stories of Abraham, Moses and David; they learned ancient psalms and canticles; they pondered Jewish proverbs and sayings even as they worshiped the Lord Jesus with the Eucharist. Saint Paul was grateful that the Spirit had called them out of the darkness into the light of grace.
  2. Perhaps his giving thanks to God always on your account means he also thanked God just in case they were not grateful enough, like a parent who sends thank you notes to other adults who attended the child's birthday party. Young children can't and some teens don't have sense enough to send a note of gratitude; and so their parents speak for them.

I like that second idea because this is precisely what Jesus does for us. Which of us can thank God fully for the blessings we have received? Even to name them takes more time than we have! I'd have to start with each breath and proceed to each bite of food. So the Lord Jesus, as our brother, speaks for us; thanking his God and Father for the grace of God bestowed on us, who were "enriched in every way, with all discourse and knowledge."
As he thanks God "always on your account" Saint Paul shows that we are indeed our sisters' and brothers' keepers, responsible for one another, concerned and dedicated to one another. If our sins divide us into individuals, our prayers unite us in the Person of Jesus: 
For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it. Ephesians 2:14-16

Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist

The king said to the girl,
"Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you."

John the Baptist died when a child delighted an intoxicated ruler, a puppet of the Roman emperor. He was beheaded because the ruler's wife resented his questioning her position in the government. Although he was resolutely faithful to the Spirit that moved him, and he spoke the truth which tradition and the Spirit had revealed to him, he was martyred by the whim of a child, the caprice of her mother, the intoxication of a king, and for the entertainment of drunken men. His execution was peremptory; most of the dinner guests might not have remembered it in the harsh light of morning. Only his disciples -- with Herod's servants among them -- would have noticed his absence.
The gospels describe Jesus' death with more ceremony. There is his last supper with his cryptic remarks about bread and wine, flesh and blood; his midnight arrest and sentencing by a kangaroo court; his audience before Pilate and Herod and their unexpected alliance, the procession outside the city to Calvary, and his very public death. None of that drama accompanied John's death.
I think we should expect the same lack of drama around our own Christian witness. We act in the Spirit of God daily with courage and integrity and no one notices, even when it involves great sacrifice and considerable risk.
The Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins describes our mysterious way of life with his poem,
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Every person "deals out" the self; we act as we are. The Christian deals out that being -- the Holy Spirit -- who dwells indoors; that is, within our hearts.  We do "one thing and the same" which is Christ.
We justice -- or "do justice" -- in season and out of season, when people are watching and when they're not. This is not something we can turn off and on. We don't become Christian when we enter the Church, and shed it at the door. The Spirit of God and the Word of God penetrate our indoors daily, step by step, prayer by prayer, act by act, until our good deeds appear natural and habitual. Some might call them instinctual but they are not "second nature;" they are our true nature.
During a crisis our true nature appears. We remember with distress and shame that first crisis: the disciples fled the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter denied knowing the Lord and Judas betrayed him. Despite their bravado and good intentions, they were not half so courageous as they thought they might be. In fact they had not yet received the Spirit which Jesus would breathe into them on the third day, that Easter Sunday. Nothing but cowardice can be expected of uninspired disciples.
None of us can measure the depths of the Spirit within us; but most of us are pretty sure we don't have much. We remember too many moments when we fled the Garden of Truth to take shelter in conformity.
But we can celebrate the courage of Saint John the Baptist who spoke the truth at a most inconvenient time to a most unfriendly power -- and paid the price. And we can pray that our courageous prayers, inspired by a courageous spirit, penetrating indoors and appearing outdoors, might become natural, habitual and instinctive.

Memorial of Saint Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

To this end he has also called you through our Gospel to possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brothers and sisters, stand firm
and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.

After the culture wars of the 1960's, when the word traditional aroused strong feelings and stronger discussion, I think most people, secular and religious, appreciate the worth of tradition. It's not a bad thing. If I lose my memory I lose my identity. Even my name is a relic of the past, connecting me with those who named me and knew me by that name. 
Likewise, a church, city or nation that loses its history cannot imagine or prepare for its future in any realistic fashion. They might say, "Here's where we need to go!" but without the collective experience of their strengths and weaknesses, possibilities and limitations, their planning is unfounded pipe dreams.  
Unfortunately, ideological thinking begins with an idea and then uses that idea to sift through memories, repressing some and celebrating others. Differing ideologies may share the same past but have radically different histories, and find little agreement. 
The Pharisees, apparently, were ideologues. Their thinking began with the Roman occupiers, whom they feared more than God. Jesus found their teaching oppressive. He railed at them, "You have nullified the word of God for the sake of your tradition."
Saint Paul, in the second oldest Christian document, urged his congregation to stand firm and hold fast to the traditions you were taught. Even at that early date, when the Christian church was barely twenty years old, he was concerned about their traditions. 
Scholars believe Paul's Thessalonian church was predominantly gentile though their leadership was Jewish. United by their faith in Christ, the leaders would help the church understand and connect to their "Old Testament" roots. The knew that no one can know Jesus without a basic understanding of his Jewish tradition and ancestry. Without that he is only a "Lone Ranger;" they might ask, "Who was that masked man?" and receive no answer.
The Church continually calls us to remember our past, and not just the thirty-plus years of Jesus life. We should remember the saints. Many of their feast days fall on the anniversary of their death. No Franciscan can approach October 4 without remembering the life of the joyful saint and the sadness of his disciples when he surrendered his soul to God. We cherish his writings and teaching and stories; and reflect on them as if they were "The Gospel according to Saint Francis." Benedictines, Dominicans, Carmelites, Jesuits and many other communities celebrate their traditions with equal fervor. 
When I was appointed as pastor of a parish I called for a story-telling session. I asked the members to "Tell me about your church." Only then did I begin to appreciate their suffering under my predecessor, and the affection they had for this parish and community. Their healing began with telling stories, but it became "our healing" as I became a member of that church. 
As we study the scriptures we also learn to appreciate our sinful past. The Bible does not hesitate to remember the infidelities of God's people. We can do that too, in our parishes, and homes and personal lives. These sinful traditions --like violence, racism, sexism, alcoholism -- must be honored with appropriate acts of atonement. 
I like to think of the promise that Julian of Norwich heard, "All will be well; and all will be well; and all manner of things will be well." There will come a day when even the bitterest, most dreadful and distasteful memories will be remembered with gratitude. Our slavery in Egypt, the fall of Jerusalem, the crucifixion of Jesus, the enslavement of Africans, the Shoah. These and every other crime will be remembered with gratitude through the experience of God's mercy. 
With these traditional memories of triumph and defeat, of sin and reconciliation, of desolation and consolation  we can begin to comprehend the breadth, length, height, and depth of God's wisdom.
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 

Memorial of Saint Monica

This is evidence of the just judgment of God,
so that you may be considered worthy of the Kingdom of God
for which you are suffering.

I hope my readers will bear with me if I sometimes take issue with the editors of our lectionary. The excised passage that we did not hear in today's first reading would complement today's gospel and Jesus' indictment of the Pharisees:
For it is surely just on God’s part to repay with afflictions those who are afflicting you, and to grant rest along with us to you who are undergoing afflictions, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his mighty angels, in blazing fire, inflicting punishment on those who do not acknowledge God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
These will pay the penalty of eternal ruin, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power, when he comes to be glorified among his holy ones and to be marveled at on that day among all who have believed, for our testimony to you was believed.

As I read the signs of the times, I see plagues in the United States as severe as anything the Egyptians suffered during the Exodus. We don't know what kind of afflictions Saint Paul is referring to in 2 Thessalonians; it might have been drought, famine or disease. But we should recognize as punishment the ten plagues of suicide, gun violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, abortion, divorce, bankruptcy, racism, polarization of wealth, polarization of opinion, Trump. That our churches are locked day and night increases our pain as we cannot flee to the tabernacle for consolation.
If we see these afflictions as punishment we might recognize the truth of Saint Paul's statement: This is evidence of the just judgment of God, so that you may be considered worthy of the Kingdom of God for which you are suffering. 
The Letter to the Hebrews assures us discipline is a proof of God's love:
My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord
or lose heart when reproved by him;
for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines;
he scourges every son he acknowledges.
Americans often think of the United States as an especially blessed nation. We enjoy an "American exception." But we forget that God's favor is proven first by his discipline; and, second, by our willingness to be disciplined. The plagues are horrible; they may break us. They should drive us to prayer as dogs drive sheep into their shepherd's corral. As Pope Francis has written:
154. Prayer of supplication is an expression of a heart that trusts in God and realizes that of itself it can do nothing. The life of God’s faithful people is marked by constant supplication born of faith-filled love and great confidence. Let us not downplay prayer of petition, which so often calms our hearts and helps us persevere in hope. Prayer of intercession has particular value, for it is an act of trust in God and, at the same time, an expression of love for our neighbor. There are those who think, based on a one-sided spirituality, that prayer should be unalloyed contemplation of God, free of all distraction, as if the names and faces of others were somehow an intrusion to be avoided.
Yet in reality, our prayer will be all the more pleasing to God and more effective for our growth in holiness if, through intercession, we attempt to practice the twofold commandment that Jesus left us. Intercessory prayer is an expression of our fraternal concern for others, since we are able to embrace their lives, their deepest troubles and their loftiest dreams. Of those who commit themselves generously to intercessory prayer we can apply the words of Scripture: “This is a man who loves the brethren and prays much for the people” (2 Mac 15:14).

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 122

Simon Peter answered him, "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."

In his APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION GAUDETE ET EXSULTATE, Pope Francis says of the Holy Eucharist:
157. Meeting Jesus in the Scriptures leads us to the Eucharist, where the written word attains its greatest efficacy, for there the living Word is truly present. In the Eucharist, the one true God receives the greatest worship the world can give him, for it is Christ himself who is offered. When we receive him in Holy Communion, we renew our covenant with him and allow him to carry out ever more fully his work of transforming our lives.

Our Catholic spirituality is especially Eucharistic. Simply put, we meet our God face to face during the Mass. There are innumerable and wonderful images of the face of Christ in pictures, sculpture and cinema; but none of these are as immediate as the Blessed Sacrament. We cultivate this awareness of the "Real Presence" with many devotions, especially in reading the scriptures; and all lead us back to Holy Communion. As Saint Peter said, " whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!"
I have met Catholics who described a mystical experience as they attended Mass. They "saw" him in the appearances of bread and wine, sometimes during the Elevation, sometimes as they received the wafer. Those passing experiences are precious to them and to those who have heard the story, but they only verify what we know by faith. The Lord is truly present here.
The word presence has several dimensions in our English language.
  1. The Lord is present here. The scriptures insist upon God's presence in our lives and our presence to him. This intimacy appears by its absence when the Lord came to visit in the Garden of Eden and had to call out, "Adam, where are you?" Sadly, the man and his wife had withdrawn from God's presence.
    Presence fills Abraham's immediate response to God's call, "Here I am!" We hear this expression often in the Old and New Testaments, on the lips of Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus and Saint Paul. That Hebrew word, h'neneh means "I am here, eager, ready, available, open, aware, at your service!"
    When Moses realized his inability to lead a headstrong people in the wilderness, the Lord God assured him, "I will go along to give you rest."
    Throughout the history the anointed judges, kings and prophets signify God's constant presence with this people. (And that is why the Church still anoints with chrism the newly baptized, the priests and bishops.)
    Finally, we have the majestic words of Jesus at the end of Saint Matthew's Gospel, And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
  2. The word present is one of three tenses: past, present and future. The Eucharist is a continual assurance of God-with-us in this moment; it is a constant invitation to us. At one time, before the plagues of drug addiction, Catholics often stopped by their churches to visit with the Blessed Sacrament at any time day or night.
    We are present to this moment. We are aware of the past and the future, but not spellbound by either. Relationships can fade into the past; they might not occur or carry into the future; they must happen in the present moment. Now is the acceptable hour; now is the day of salvation.
    The Christian cultivates an awareness of God's immediate presence. "What would you have me do now?" we ask of God. We make our plans, of course, and ordinarily we expect to complete them. But at any moment the sky may fall and our lives must be reconfigured to a new, unexpected reality. And we always know that, no matter "What just happened?" the Lord is with us, guiding and directing us.
  3. Finally, the word present signifies a gift. The Eucharist is a most sacred gift for us. We cannot imagine a Christian life without God's generous, sacrificial presence to us. The Eucharist is an oblation, a gift received and given back and received again in a continual Sacred Exchange. Like the ball which passes back and forth between two boys practicing their baseball skills, the Eucharist belongs to God and to us. That is to say, Jesus is the Son of God and Son of Man. He is the Gate which opens to heaven. As he says, "no one comes to the Father except through me.
    I think it is no accident that the word present means both presence and gift. This is why we hate to surrender a gift from someone dear to us. It may be as worthless as a child's crayon drawing, but to the grandparent it is priceless. The gift is the presence of the beloved.

When Jesus asked his disciples in today's gospel, "Will you also leave?" Peter was dumbfounded. "Master, to whom shall we go? There is absolutely nowhere to go! He might have recited Psalm 139 at that moment:
Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Hell, there you are.
If I take the wings of dawn
and dwell beyond the sea,
Even there your hand guides me,
your right hand holds me fast.
If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light”*
Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day.
Darkness and light are but one.

The Blessed Sacrament is our greatest pleasure, privilege, joy and delight. If it must be replaced by something more grand and more wonderful in the Bliss of Eternity, that is far beyond our imagination.

Saturday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.

The Protestant Reformation has reminded Roman Catholicism that every Christian must stand alone in judgment before the throne of God. Our plea for mercy should not be, "I was only doing like the priests and ministers." In today's gospel Jesus urges us to "do and observe" the sacred word of "scribes and Pharisees", but don't expect to hide from God's wrath behind a lame excuse.
The Word of God and the Spirit of God remain with us in every age. They are recognized by their vitality and purity; and by their continual challenge of the world and its ever-changing cultures.
Some people might point to the ubiquitous presence of recreational drugs as their culture. "Because this is our culture," they say, "it is not immoral to do this." Not long ago, every gathering of family, church or neighborhood included alcohol and cigarettes. If leaders participated in these activities they were pardoned for it, regardless of the consequences.
Others will defend racist and sexist attitudes as cultural. Catholics might want to canonize some influential leaders despite their antisemitic remarks. "It was the culture of that time, and we cannot judge them for it!" they say. True, we should not judge. But neither do we admire such attitudes.
We hear the Lord say to us, "Do not follow their example."
The Holy Spirit invites us to pay attention to what we're doing. We cannot know all the information we should have for every decision; nor can we know all the consequences for every action; but we are nonetheless responsible for what we say and do. I know of one woman who has never forgiven me for an expression on my face; but, I might plead, I was only reflecting my upbringing and cultural heritage.
And so we practice awareness, first of God's Spirit in our lives, and then of where we are and what we're doing. If I am tearing up the highway at 70 mph during the morning commute I'd better pay attention. A split second of inattention can be fatal. "I didn't mean to hurt anyone!" didn't wash when I was a kid; it still doesn't.
"I always do it this way." may explain most of my behavior but it won't excuse a single, stupid act. Culture may describe my narrow mindedness but it can't explain the reason I treated a fellow human being with contempt.
When the culture is changing continually, when behavior that was once "taken for granted" is now unacceptable we must ask the Spirit of Jesus to guide us in all our affairs. We should be ready and willing always to listen to wise persons around us, reconsider our attitudes, apologize and learn new ways of thinking and acting. 

Feast of Saint Bartholomew

It had a massive, high wall, with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed
and on which names were inscribed, the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel.

We know little about the Apostle Bartholomew. Traditionally we have supposed this twelfth apostle might have had a Greek name Nathaniel; and, under that name, he makes a brief appearance in the Gospel of Saint John. Many people have different names among different groups of people, so it's a plausible explanation. 
But they might not have been the same person and we might know nothing about today's honoree.
We can reflect on that. 
Victims of torture tell us that the experience of shame, helplessness and abandonment are as painful as the physical suffering. Their tormentors' verbal abuse intensifies their suffering. That their agony is hidden to an uncaring, indifferent world makes it all the worse. It seems utterly meaningless. 
Holocaust deniers, in particular, for reasons of their own, intensify the suffering of survivors and their families. What could be more cruel to a victim than to say, "It never happened?" 
In the past year we have heard the cry of millions of women. The me-too movement has permitted many women and some men to speak up and identify both their suffering and their tormentors. They insist that their stories must be told. To deny this story with its pain, humiliation, shame and grief is to deny the woman's right to breathe and be. The dignity of every person includes her history; an unwillingness to hear the story threatens her existence. 
Bartholomew's apparent anonymity resembles the final cry of Jesus, "Why have you abandoned me?" It recalls the grotesque manner of the Baptist's death, in the pitch darkness of a dungeon. Americans in particular, who value their personal freedom above every other prize, often die in solitude. This apostle reminds us that many people -- Veterans in particular -- die with no one to notice or grieve their passing. 
As I consider that dimension of martyrdom, I am struck by the fact that Jesus "saw" Nathaniel under the fig tree, and that the young man was overwhelmed. He cried, "You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!" Although Bartholomew remains practically unknown to us he was known by the Lord. And that makes all the difference.

Thursday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

The Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who gave a wedding feast for his son.
He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast,
but they refused to come.

The most sacred rite of any family is the meal. Children should not remember their first meal; they should remember it was always there. They always had a place at the table; there was always food for everyone. There was always someone who taught them how to use a spoon, fork and knife; how to say please and thank you; how to pass the food around the table; how to listen to and contribute to the conversation; and what topics were not discussed at the table. Everyone had enough food; no one was permitted to take too much. They will remember that we begin our meal with a blessing and finish the meal by bussing the table and washing the dishes. Without the family meal civility and civilization collapse.
Jesus invites his disciples to learn, share and celebrate our faith at the table. Long before his crucifixion and resurrection he was presiding over their repasts, sometimes miraculously providing food and drink where none could be found in the wilderness. When critics complained of his disciples gathering grain on the sabbath he defended their right to eat. No sooner was he raised from the dead than he was eating with them.
We have never missed celebrating the Mass since the Sunday on which he was raised from the dead. We cannot imagine a Christian religion without this Sacred Banquet. Although the holy rite would evolve in many different ways as the Church spread east and west, north and south, and sadly split into Eastern and Western factions, no church was willing to surrender their place at the Lord's Table. We insistently obey his twin commands to "Take and eat! Take and drink!" We could not know the Lord without this rite. Although we like to portray his image in paintings, statuary and film, we meet him face to face during the Mass.
Given that tradition of the Holy Eucharist we hear with great sadness today's gospel and the words, "...they refused to come."
I recently finished a book about a Jewish woman who became a Christian and raised her children in her new belief. Given my respect and affection for the Jewish religion, I felt such sadness about this woman's disappointment in her Jewish family. Her father, a rabbi, was a cruel, crafty, racist and ultimately stupid man. He betrayed his religion and nation and violated his wife and children. As I read of her disenchantment with that great religion, I realized that many Christian children suffer a similar experience. We certainly cannot blame them for despising the very word gospel.  Stories of Jesus, Mary, the saints and the Bible arouse only nausea. Their experience of the family meal is tainted with trauma. The table was never a safe, hospitable place; they were never welcome to bring their hunger and thirst, much less their innocence and ignorance. They wanted only to escape and survive.
Fortunately, we share that experience also. We remember the exodus from Egypt and the astonishing experience of freedom and security in the wilderness. Ordinarily the desert is no place to seek refuge, but it was better than slavery. We remember too that the Lord called us and brought us out of Egypt; he fed us in the wilderness. We cannot live without him.
Whether "Egypt" is that prehistoric place in northeast Africa, or the American south, or twenty-first century substance abuse, sexual violence and racial discrimination, we still gather as refugees to the Sacred Banquet. No one should forget the beautiful customs of their ethnic origins; we can learn prayers and songs of praise in many languages. We can celebrate the kingdom of heaven which will accommodate people from east and west, north and south. We will enjoy that glorious banquet when every tear will be wiped away, and there will be no more sorrow, no more grief. We have greeted the Lord's kingdom from afar and we're on our way.

Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary

...because my shepherds did not look after my sheep,
but pastured themselves and did not pasture my sheep;
because of this, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I swear I am coming against these shepherds.
I will claim my sheep from them
and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep
so that they may no longer pasture themselves.
I will save my sheep,
that they may no longer be food for their mouths.

Rulers of ancient Israel and Judah were not elected; their power base was village and clan leaders and hired mercenaries, preferably Jewish warriors. "The business of kings is war" and the Israelite rulers promised to protect their "sheep" from foreign aggression. In return they exacted heavy taxes and lived luxuriously. Kings ran a protection racket and, ordinarily, everyone agreed it is better to be ruled by one of your own. Upward mobility, if there was any, was empowered not by what you know but by who you know.
The Hebrew prophets had no quarrel with that system of governance. They didn't dream of democracy or technocracy. Had they thought of it they might have liked meritocracy, provided the worthy individuals were selected by God. But they had a serious quarrel with the "shepherds" who used and abused the sheep. That was clearly wrong.
The problem with this paradigm of "shepherds and sheep" is that sheep are notoriously stupid. They cannot imagine life without a shepherd and they trust whichever shepherd they're given, regardless of ability or virtue. They do not suppose they should fire the shepherd and hire someone else; they do not imagine the shepherd should be governed by a higher authority, much less operate within a "balance of powers." It would take the Enlightenment and Thomas Jefferson to develop those ideas.
The Hebrew prophets believed that The Lord is our shepherd. Every human authority civil or religious is a hired hand in God's world. And subject to dismissal. With that vision prophets could pronounce judgement on the unworthy men who misled, exploited or abused God's people.
Several thousand years later sophisticated societies like to think they have evolved past their pastoral origins. Perhaps our rural genes receded while our civilized genes took charge. Darwin was right after all!
Unfortunately, recent controversies show that human beings can still behave like wicked shepherds and witless sheep. One doesn't have to be a dictator, president or pope with "absolute power;" the least significant bully can be notoriously wicked given the opportunity to exploit vulnerable persons. Any private encounter between two persons of unequal rank seems to invite trouble. If only "attractive" people were victims we might not be surprised at this rapaciousness; but these crimes occur in nursing homes and kindergartens. Their physical beauty didn't invite the assault; their weakness did. Nor are their assailants the ugly, misshapen monsters we expect. They're often Caspar Milquetoasts​​​ to all appearances; quiet, harmless, and largely unnoticeable. Very often they thing they're the actual victims!
Psalm 49 finishes with a promise to those who are actually oppressed and a pronouncement of doom on those who violate others:
Do not fear when a man becomes rich, 
when the wealth of his house grows great. 
At his death he will not take along anything, 
his glory will not go down after him. 
During his life his soul uttered blessings; 
“They will praise you, for you do well for yourself.” 
But he will join the company of his fathers, 
never again to see the light. 
In his prime, man does not understand. 
He is like the beasts—they perish.

Memorial of Saint Pius X, Pope

"Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich
to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Again I say to you,
it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God."

Yesterday we heard the story of the wealthy young man who was invited to follow the Lord and "went away sad for he had many possessions." Watching him leave Jesus made the doleful observation about the wealthy. Some interpreters have said that "the needle's eye" was a gate through the wall of Jerusalem and some camels might be able to creep through it. Meaning, some wealthy persons can be saved.
I don't doubt that everyone should hope for salvation but I think Jesus meant what he said about camels and needle's eyes. Wealth is a terminal sickness; it possesses the heart, mind and soul of its victims, blinding them to everything but itself, filling them with dread of poverty, failure and loss. They are caught in a fatal vortex of their own volition; there is no hope in that.
The disciples apparently agreed with the common consensus: that the wealthy are preferred by God in this world and the next.
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said,
"Who then can be saved?"
However, Jesus did not make a final judgement on the lot of the wealthy. He left a loophole wider than a needle's eye:
Jesus looked at them and said,
"For men this is impossible,
but for God all things are possible."
If the Son in his human nature, seeing and suffering the terrible consequences of wealth, could not imagine their salvation, perhaps the Father could.
Sensing a coming, hopeful pronouncement, Peter asked,
"We have given up everything and followed you.
What will there be for us?"
A reasonable request, if asked rather too bluntly. What's in it for us?
Jesus promises us an eternal life of communion with others, far more satisfying than a life of leisure.
I met a fellow in Louisiana who had inherited much wealth. He had studied in good schools but had never actually worked for a living. He had two large houses on his family's property where he lived alone. Both homes were infested with cats. He had not entered the second in many years; he could not say how many cats might be in there. But he was rich.
Jesus promises "a hundred times" more houses, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, children and lands. You cannot imagine how wealthy you will be for there is nothing in this world like it.

Memorial of Saint Bernard, Abbot and Doctor of the Church

A young man approached Jesus and said,
"Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?
...All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?"

We often consider Jesus' response to the young man. Let's take a minute to consider his questions.
He obviously came from a God-fearing, pious community, comprised of family, synagogue and neighbors. Accustomed to a disciplined life he recited his prayers several times a day, ate by kosher standards, rested on the Sabbath, associated with Jewish people, avoided contact with gentiles, and studied the Law and the Prophets with the rabbis in the synagogue. His imagination, contacts and world were contained within the Jewish culture of his time.
There was a time when, broadly speaking, many American Catholics lived in a similar fashion. Raised in large households with many siblings, they attended Catholic schools in predominantly Catholic neighborhoods, attended Mass every Sunday, abstained from meat on Friday, fasted during Lent and Advent, and took great pride in their American citizenship. Their churches and parochial schools were segregated by ethnicity -- Poles with Poles and Irish with Irish, etc. Their most salacious reading was the list of banned movies posted by the Legion of Decency. Many remained within that religious climate throughout their Catholic secondary schools; some, into their colleges and universities. Like Saint Matthew's young man, their imagination, contacts and world were contained by strict cultural norms.
There was, to be sure, mischief in both cultures, that of our Jewish student and of the American Catholic. We can suppose many American young "scholars" experimented with alcohol, cigarettes and "premarital" sex.
But there was also the question, "What must I do to gain eternal life?" The goal of Catholic education was to create saints; or, more simply, to go to heaven. Many older Catholic still believe that is the purpose of our religion. They can recite the catechism, "God made me to know, love and serve him in this world and to be with him in the next." When the young man asked Jesus, the Rabbi recited the standard answer, "You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery...."
But these two cultures, similar in so many ways, leave room for the same unrest; and some students will reply to Jesus, All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?"
The Catholic youth of our tradition, in the 1950's and the 2010's, is often encouraged to consider a religious vocation as a priest, deacon, sister or brother. They might also hear the invitation to chaste heterosexual marriage or chaste single life.
But there are more choices in our complex world that must be considered. Do they pursue an education and formation in business, military, government, academia, the arts, sports or sciences? How does the disciple of Jesus contribute to a culture that is sometimes hostile to religion and resolutely secular?
As we ponder these questions we realize the importance of a religious/spiritual infrastructure. No one lives alone; no one makes life style choices in isolation. The disciple of Jesus will always be an active member of a living Church.
And that brings us to Jesus' reply,
If you wish to be perfect, go,
sell what you have and give to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come, follow me."
The community follows the Lord by renouncing a materialistic lifestyle and giving to the poor. When we build a church it should honor the Lord and not its rich benefactors. We invite the disenfranchised to join us in worship.
At one time, our responsibility to the poor was defined more simply -- we give to them and expect nothing of them. That one-sided generosity imitated our understanding of God who gives unconditionally and with superabundant, infinite resourcefulness. God is like the fruit tree which feeds the farmer who cultivates the tree, the bugs and worms which infest it, and the hungry earth which devours its fallen fruit. So long as we have plenty we can give plenty.
But there are problems with that paradigm. Donors, aware of the needs of the poor, overlook their own. If we would give to the poor, we do well to learn from the poor. Especially, they want a say in what kind of assistance is offered. Too often the wealthy give something useless out of their surplus. They don't ask,"What do you need?" or "How can I help you." They say, "Here is what you need; here is what I am willing to give you. Take it or leave it. I want no further contact with you." And, just as often, the poor want no further contact with that condescension.
The wealthy young man was seriously disappointed when he heard the Lord's invitation. He only wanted to touch base with the Rabbi and continue his spiritual quest with little actual change. Mostly he wanted Jesus' approval for the religious life he was already leading. Real sacrifice was not in the cards. Real trust in God for his material, emotional, and spiritual needs was not an option.
The Lord invited him to step out of his religious, safe and prosperous culture. He should meet the uncertainty of poverty. He could bring only his willingness. He would find a community defined not by status but by faith.
But he went away sad for he had many possessions.