God’s Great Gamble

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time; August 27, 2017

Is 22:19-23; Ps 138; Rom 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison

 

         St. Paul reminds us, in case we should ever forget, that “How inscrutable are (God’s) judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11: 33b) And, he underscores that truth with an exclamation point. This assessment is illustrated perfectly when Jesus confers religious leadership, involving sacred trust, to Simon called Peter. Peter, the impetuous one! Peter, the one given to braggadaccio! Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times! Peter, who was so afraid, that he took a pass on Jesus’ crucifixion! Of all the people Jesus could have selected to be the foundation of his Church, why did he choose the most unlikely person?

Such “inscrutable judgments” certainly have a long pedigree, beginning in the Old Testament as God made Israel his Chosen People, though it was the smallest and weakest of nations. He chose David to be his king par excellence, though David was the youngest of Jesse’s brood. God relates to us in this way so that there can be no doubt that the One Who is bringing about fruitful outcomes is God not us. God is the Doer; we’re the instruments.

            So, the Lord gives incredible trust and authority to Peter (and his successors) as a person. Put simply, Jesus believes in the person of Peter. Peter does not “deserve” this sacred trust; but, the personal dynamic of Jesus believing in Peter (and us) draws the very best out of Peter. Jesus believes in those whom He calls. He is calling you, which is why you are participating in Catholic services this Sunday, and He trusts in you. He is giving to you His very Being: His soul and His divinity. He trusts that you will receive His life, which is eternal and that you will share it with others. As images of the triune, relational God, we are challenged to give and receive life.   As you come to know Jesus at a deeper level of friendship and loving commitment, you will live your life rooted in Him. And, as you do that you will give to others what you have received in abundance.

As flawed as Peter was, he never stopped being in relationship with the Lord. Recognizing that Peter and his successors would bring to governance their frailty and sinfulness, Jesus reassures us that “the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it” (Mt 16: 18c). Jesus will not allow His Church to die! We make mistakes, but we will not turn ourselves over to death; though we sin, we will never totally go against the Gospel. The People of God, despite our flaws, will believe in Life and will proclaim the Gospel of the Lord. We may not always be faithful to the Lord but we believe that the Lord will always be faithful to the Church. And, through our baptism, we are a members of the Church, the Body of Christ.   That’s why He will never give up on us.

Having given that reassurance, Jesus then states that “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (v. 19), which is God’s great gamble. God trusts the human gathering, called Church, to such a degree that he places it in our hands; he believes we will treasure it. He unconditionally gives us the “keys to the Kingdom!” All He asks us to do is to proclaim the Good News and share the Kingdom with others.

Why would God take this great gamble? While his “ways are inscrutable,” His trust in Peter and the Church should give us the faith to do the same with others: to entrust ourselves to feeble flesh, to broken people; to make ourselves accountable to brothers and sisters. If Jesus, the Son of the living God, can put himself in relationship to human flesh and entrust himself to broken humanity, then why can’t we?   We can’t wait for perfect situations before we commit. Our pride contrasts sharply with Jesus who identifies with imperfect, often maddening humanity. Jesus gives Himself to an imperfect Church. As Bishop Quinn (emeritus) once said, “The Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital of sinners.” Unfortunately, in the history of Christianity, we have resisted this truth as we tend to move away from imperfect groups. We want others to get their act together before we commit.

Jesus, on the other hand, gives remarkable trust and power to unworthy men and women. We tend to think that imperfect persons aren’t loveable; so, we use that as excuse never to love them. We never surrender ourselves to imperfect beings because the only One who is perfect is God. But, Church, love is a dynamic reality and at the human level, it only applies to imperfect beings. That’s why God does not adore us (adoration only applies to a perfect Being), but he loves us unconditionally. So, he calls us to do the same love/trust relationship with one another, with the Church, with the People of God. Look around this assembly: this is whom you’ve got; there is no Plan B. Go love and trust your brothers in Faith!

 

 

 

           

 

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Doing What It Takes

20th Sunday in O.T. (A); August 20, 2017

Is 56:1,6-7   Ps 67   Rom 11:13-15,29-32   Mt 15:21-28

Deacon Jim McFadden; SJB

 

            Today’s Gospel maybe one of the most problematic in the entire New Testament as on the surface it seems to portray Jesus as a chauvinist. Jesus leaves God’s own holy land and enters pagan territory where he encounters a Syro-Phoenician (in Mark’s Gospel) or a Canaanite (in Matthew’s account) woman. She comes to Jesus and tells him of her daughter who is troubled by a demon. Jesus not only ignores her, but also puts her down in a very blunt way that we find offensive.

In his attitude toward the woman, we see the human Jesus as a product of his culture. He sees the woman as a member of Canaan, a nation that Israel hates the most. She is also a threat to Jesus’ respectability, because she is an unattended woman who publicly accosts Jesus and speaks to him directly by shouting “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon” (Mt 15:21).

She may be both assertive and noisy, but she’s insightful. She knows who Jesus is. She calls him “Lord, Son of David,” which are two comprehensive titles: Jesus is Lord, intimately connected to God (the Father) and therefore meant for all mankind. But, he is also the Son of David, who is the fulfillment of the Messianic hope that originated in the Jewish tradition. So, Jesus is both the universal and the particular savior—the woman understands that.

Since she knows who Jesus is, she knows what Jesus can give: She asks for mercy. That’s why she persists. She will do whatever it takes for her daughter to be healed. If her daughter is going to be healed by Jesus, she has got to advocate on her behalf; so, Jesus’ mercy will flow through her into her daughter. In other words she will be a conduit for God’s mercy.

But, in the short term “… he did not answer her at all” (Mt 15:23). So why doesn’t he talk with her?   She is only asking the Messiah to fulfill his calling and expel the demons who torment God’s children. But, Jesus refuses to acknowledge her presence, let alone honor her request.

Believing that the pushy Canaanite woman is the problem, the disciples come to his rescue and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24). The woman, however, is not the problem. To be blunt, it lies in Jesus’ mind. He has construed his identity and mission within the boundaries of Israel, and the Canaanite woman is an outsider. He belongs to Israel, who like David will gather all the tribes into one Kingdom again. The woman is outside David’s house. Jesus is basically saying, “I am Jew, you’re not; so your problem is no concern of mine.” Undaunted, she lays prostrate and says again, “Lord, help me” (v. 25).

Notice in this plea that there is a subtle omission. When she addressed Jesus the first time, she called him, “Lord, Son of David,” which acknowledge both his particular origins as a Jew and his universal outreach as Lord. She knows that Jesus is stressing his Jewishness at the expense of the wider humanity. The result is that she is outside him and her pleas go unheard, which means her daughter will not be healed. So, this resourceful woman, who will do whatever it takes for her daughter to be healed, drops the ‘Son of David’ and simply says, “Lord, help me.” To which Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26).

Oh, my goodness!—this is where the dialogue becomes very

troublesome: Jesus just called a human being a ‘dog.’ Really?

By using the word “dogs”, Jesus shows that he has absorbed the biases of his Jewish culture to see non-Jews as inferior. To deny that Jesus was not influenced by cultural biases of his time is to make Jesus less than human. But as the story unfolds, Jesus will break out of the limitation of his Jewish identity and come to see his mission as the universal savior.

At this point the woman gives off one of the best one-liners in all of Scripture: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” (v. 27). By coming back with that zinger, she again is emphasizing Jesus’ universal outreach by calling him ‘Lord,’ the one who is meant for everyone. She may not be a daughter of Israel, but she is eager for any food that Jesus has to offer.

Jesus is won over as he answered her, “ O Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (v.28a).   The title ‘woman’ that Jesus uses is not simply a description of her gender. And it is certainly a far cry from dog. The ‘O’ suggests a shock of recognition; today, we’d say ‘Wow!—you’ve given me a sudden revelation. The pestering one, whom the disciples wanted to get rid of, is the bearer of a deeper truth. This is her great faith. Through persistence and cleverness she reminded Jesus of his true identity. He is a Jew. But, more importantly, he is Lord of the universe.

As a consequence of this woman’s act of faith, Jesus does something remarkable for her. Jesus is not usually swayed by the wishes of others, whether it be Pharisees, disciples, or individual seekers. He is driven only by the will of the Father. Therefore, it is remarkable for Jesus say to this woman, “Let it be done to you as you wish” (Mt 15:28b). Could it be that when Jesus was listening to this woman, he was hearing the voice of his Father? His Father’s voice may come from the sky as we heard at Jesus’ baptism or a cloud at his Transfiguration, but it also speaks from the earth, through people who search for mercy in a demon-filled world. Whenever and wherever Jesus hears his Father’s voice, he is alert, ready, in touch, flowing. And that is what happened.

“And her daughter was healed instantly” (v. 28c).

Once the block is removed, mercy flows freely.

            Brothers and sister, this gospel is a cautionary tale to all of us. We too can absorb our culture’s attitudes without consciously realizing it. Time and time again, we need to remind ourselves and each other that that first and foremost we are God’s beloved. When we live out of that love, mercy flows from Jesus’ Sacred Heart into us; and from us into situations where it is deeply needed. Amen.

 

 

Come to the Quiet

19th Sunday in O.T. (A); Aug. 13, 2017

1 Kgs 19:9-13a;   Ps 85   Rom 9:1-5   Mt 14:22-33

Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison

 

            It’s difficult for most of us to be still. We’re surrounded by a wall of endless chatter, small talk, off-the-cuff remarks that have no beginning and no end. Then, there’s the talk of intrigue, plots, what-if scenarios that suck us into a mind-numbing vortex. It’s not only external distractions that we have to deal with: the white noise that dwells within our own mind—that incessant flow of one distracting thought after another makes us feel that we’re like a monkey bouncing off one side of the cage to another. The need for constant “communication” can be suffocating, which creates these barriers between ourselves and God and each other. Today’s readings invite us to enter into spaces of silence, where it is easier to hear the One who is constantly communicating his divine love to us.

In the first reading, Elijah is on the lam and afraid for his life. After he slaughtered 500 of the Queen Jezebel’s prophets, she was out for blood. During his flight he got so discouraged that he plopped himself down by a broom tree and asked God to let him die. Life was just too hard to go any further. Haven’t we all had that feeling at one time in our life?   But, God has other plans for Elijah, just as he has for you and I. First, an angel sent by God fortifies him with food and drink. Thus strengthen, he begins a 40 day trek to Mount Horeb, the same mountain that Moses received the Ten Commandments.

Elijah climbs the mountain. He goes to that place that connects him with the God of Moses; he goes to his roots where the covenant bonds between God and his Chosen People were forged. Elijah was seeking intimate contract with God. He needed to feel connected with the Lord if he was to continue his arduous journey. He wanted God to show himself. There then appeared a devouring fire just like the flames that engulfed the Burning Bush but did not consume it. God was not there. Nor, did Elijah encounter God in the fierce, roaring wind or an earthquake. God would not come to him via spectacular special effects. Instead, God came as “a tiny whispering sound” or, in another translation, as “a sound of sheer silence.”

 

            What’s going on here? In order to come into God’s presence, we have to be still. We have ask ourselves whether our thoughts, choices, actions are leading us to fulfill our deepest desire to be in communion with God and to do God’s purposes or are they driving us away into the wilderness of distraction. Elijah was still and in that encounter with God he was strengthened for the remainder of his prophetic mission.

In the Gospel, we see Jesus likewise retreat to a mountain by himself to pray, following the noisiness and clamor of feeding 5,000 people and learning of the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. But, the crowds find him and he breaks out of his solitude to respond compassionately to their needs.

As the Gospel story unfolds, Jesus retreats again. Even at night the people’s need for him doesn’t ease. Moreover, his disciples are in distress on their boat, which is being buffeted by strong winds. This scene is so rich with meaning. The early Fathers of the Church saw the sea as being representative of life and the instability of the visible world. Imagine the sea of Folsom Prison. The storm points to every kind of trial and difficulty that oppress human beings. Striving to live a life of integrity behind these walls is a challenge as you are being tested every day. But, you are not alone because the boat represents the Church, built by Christ and steered by the Apostles and their successors. By virtue of your baptism, you are an integral member of the Church family.

The disciples are in distress, but Jesus does not go to them until the fourth and final watch of the night, roughly about three hours before dawn. We can surmise that Jesus was aware of the strong winds that were tossing them about. But, he remained in solitude, in that necessary inner stillness, where he experienced oneness with God. Strengthened by that intimacy with the Father, he then compassionately ministers to his disciples.

Coming to them at last, he challenges them not to be afraid and invites them to share his fearlessness. This gospel was written thirty or so years after Jesus was executed and although life can be very hard, the Church returns to our still Center, which is the heart of Jesus. As we dwell within Him, he can do through us that which seems impossible. As Peter, the first Pope of the Church, was floundering in the sea, Jesus stretched out his hand to him just as he does to you. Peter grasped his hand to come closer to Jesus and, as he did, he found his true Center, where Jesus’ contagious courage dispels all fear. He did it with Peter and he can do it for you if you let Him.