Sunday, October 27, 2013

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

In our first reading we hear,
“Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet [God] hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.”
In the Hebrew scriptures, those who are weak and oppressed
are referred to as the anawim or “little ones,”
and they, as our scripture says,
are the special object of God’s concern.
It is from scriptural passages such as this
that the Church today draws her teachings concerning
the need for what Pope John Paul II called
a “preferential but not exclusive love for the poor”;
we, both as individuals and as a Church,
are called to give the poor,
the oppressed,
and the marginalized
a privileged place in our hearts and our concerns.
Concern for the poor is not, for Christians,
simply one concern among others;
concern for God’s little ones is integral
to our identity as God’s people.

This is not a matter of romanticizing the poor,
imagining that every poor person is good and noble;
indeed, poverty is very unromantic,
and often makes those who are poor
less good, less noble, than they might otherwise be.
The Peruvian theologian Gustavo GutiƩrrez
writes, “the poor are human beings;
they include very good people,
but there are also some among them who are not good.
We should prefer them not because they are good…
but because first of all God is good
and prefers the forgotten, the oppressed,
the poor, the abandoned.”
Our concern for the poor is not simply a matter of philanthropy
but grows from our convictions concerning who God is
and how God has acted in human history.
Indeed, we believe that when God came to dwell among us in Jesus
he took his stand with the poor and the powerless,
to the point of saying that
what we do for one of God’s little ones, we do for him.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it,
“Jesus identifies himself with the poor of every kind
and makes active love toward them
the condition for entering his kingdom” (CCC 544).

This is all relevant as we reflect this weekend
on our relationship with
our sister parish in Sepalau Guatemala,
an isolated village, high in the mountains.
Guatemala is an extremely poor country,
with a GDP that is roughly one-half
of the average for Latin America.
Among the indigenous people,
who make up most of the villagers in Sepalau,
73% live below Guatemala’s poverty line –
which, as you might imagine,
is considerably lower than ours.
Guatemala has one of the highest rates
of malnutrition in the world,
with almost half of the children
under the age of five
being malnourished.
Truly, the people of Sepalau
are among the “little ones” of God.

If our relationship with our sister parish
is to be an authentic one
we need to recognize the realities of the poverty
in which the people of Sepalau live.
But I’m not here to give a sociology or economics lecture,
but to preach the word of God.
And today the word of God tells us
that God hears the cries of the poor,
and will answer them
and establish for them justice on earth;
the little ones of this world will be lifted up
and the powerful will be cast down.

This is surely good news to the poor,
but what about the rest of us?
Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that
“whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Our love for the poor must manifest itself
in a kind of humbling of ourselves,
so that the concerns of the poor become our concerns,
so that their cause becomes our cause,
not because they are good, but because God is good,
because God has heard their cries and will answer them;
God has made their cause his cause
by emptying himself and accepting
the death of a slave,
death on a cross.
You cannot be on the side of God
if you are not on the side of the poor –
this is not politics; it’s simply the gospel.

And this is really what our sister parish relationship is about;
it is about coming to know and entering into friendship
with the people of Sepalau
so that their concerns can become our concerns,
so that is some small way
their struggles can become our struggles.
And we do this because by entering more deeply
into relationship with them
we enter more deeply into relationship with Christ,
who for our sake became poor,
so that we might have spiritual riches.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Habakuk 1:2-3 2:2-4;  2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Luke 17:5-10

I don’t know about you,
but there is something about our Gospel reading
that has always bothered me.
After all that we have heard from Jesus in the past few weeks
about those who exalt themselves being humbled,
there seems something a bit off when we hear in today’s Gospel
about the master who expects his servants,
who have been humbling themselves all day long,
to serve him his dinner and only eat later,
and then proclaim themselves to be “unprofitable servants.”
While servants abasing themselves before their masters
and the masters hardly giving it a thought
might conform to the expectations of Jesus’s time and place,
we have come to expect something different from Jesus:
a radical overturning of those sorts of expectations.
It all seems a bit too conventional, a bit too Downton Abbey,
to be coming from the lips of the radical Jesus.

But perhaps Jesus is getting at something here
that is even more radical.
Though Jesus draws an analogy between service to God
and service to a human master,
perhaps we ought to focus on how service to God
is different from service to a human master.
Part of what makes a TV show like Downton Abbey fascinating,
even for us Americans,
is the way in which the “masters” of the manor
are so thoroughly dependent upon the servants:
Lord and Lady Grantham seem to be incapable
of even dressing and feeding themselves.
Their servants are hardly “unprofitable”;
indeed, it is the labor of the servants that makes possible
the manor’s elegant dinners
and hunting expeditions
and garden parties
and it would be simply a polite fiction
for them to declare themselves unprofitable,
when in fact their work is highly profitable
for the lord and lady of the manor.
The servants themselves, however, profit little,
except occasionally to bask in the reflected glory
of the glittering, though fragile, splendor of life in the manor.

This seems often, maybe always, to be the case
in the relationship between human masters and servants.
Things are different, however, with the servants of God.
Whatever service we offer to God truly is unprofitable,
inasmuch as we do not gain for God any benefit
that God does not already possess.
Indeed, our service of God does not produce anything
that God has not already bestowed on us;
everything we have that we might give to God in service
is itself already God’s gift to us,
and in giving it back to God
we truly are only doing what we are obligated by justice to do.
Unlike Lord and Lady Grantham,
God doesn’t need our – or anybody’s – service.

Of course, we want our service to matter to God.
And it does matter to God, because we matter to God.
It does not matter because God needs our service,
but because we need to serve God in order to be happy,
and God’s deepest desire is for us to be happy.
If we look around the world today,
whether the squabbling in Washington,
or the murderous violence in Syria,
or even the turmoil within our own hearts,
it can be pretty hard to believe that true happiness is possible;
it certainly seems to be something
that is beyond our power to achieve.
And this is why it is in fact good news
that we are unprofitable servants.
The vision of our world and ourselves transformed
is not something that depends on our unprofitable efforts,
but upon the promise of the God
who desires our eternal happiness.
As our first reading exhorts us,
if fulfillment of this vision is delayed,
we should wait for it,
because our salvation is not
something we earn by our service
but simply a gift from the God whom we serve.

To have faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed,
is to believe that the world of strife and clamorous discord
will be transformed into a world of love and harmonious peace.
To have faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed,
is to believe that this vision of a world transformed,
of ourselves transformed,
is a vision that still has its time,
a vision that presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint.
To have faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed,
is to believe that we, unprofitable servants, will one day shine,
not with the fragile and passing glory
of the earthly city of human lords and ladies,
but with the eternal glory of the heavenly city
of the Lord our God.
It will come as a gift, and it will not be late.
If it delays, wait for it,
for it will surely come.