Sunday, October 9, 2016
Readings: 2 Kings 5:14-17; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19
At the outset of his ministry,
Jesus announces in the synagogue in Nazareth
that he has come to proclaim liberty to captives.
Our scriptures today invite us to reflect
on different forms of captivity
as we are presented with examples
of people held bound
who find freedom in Christ.
The first, and maybe more obvious, case
is Paul in our second reading.
Writing from prison,
where he is in chains for preaching
the good news of Jesus Christ,
Paul says that he is willing
to suffer for the sake of the Gospel
because he knows that,
while he may be in chains,
“the word of God is not chained.”
He knows that even as he suffers in prison
he continues to bear witness to Jesus;
indeed, his suffering itself
is by God’s grace an image or icon
of the crucified Christ for us and for our salvation.
He knows that even if his captivity
should end in his death—
as indeed it did—
he does not need to fear,
for, “If we have died with him
we shall also live with him.”
The unchained word of God
has the power to free us
even from the prison of death.
Perhaps less obvious is the captivity
of the ten lepers in our Gospel reading.
Certainly their illness had chained them
to extreme physical suffering.
But it had also imprisoned them in a social isolation
no less extreme than Paul’s isolation in prison.
The Gospel tells us that,
as they called out to Jesus
to have pity on them,
“they stood at a distance from him.”
The do this because of the belief
that those with skin diseases
were ritually impure,
and therefore excluded from participation
in the religious life of Israel.
The book of Leviticus in the Old Testament
prescribes not only that they must tear their clothing
and call out “unclean! unclean!” to warn people away,
but also that, “being unclean,
[they] shall dwell apart,
taking up residence outside the camp.”
So the lepers stand at a distance from Jesus,
not simply because of fear of infection
but because, in their ritual impurity,
they were condemned to live isolated
from all that is holy,
as if chained by the Law and by their own fear.
But the unchained word of God
present in the healing power of Jesus
overcomes that distance.
Jesus’s healing of the lepers
not only frees them from their physical pain,
but releases them from the social isolation
in which they were imprisoned.
And the one who returns to give thanks
draws near to Jesus, falling at his feet,
bearing witness to the healing power of God.
Our modern world tends be dismissive
of concepts like “ritual purity,”
seeing them as primitive and superstitious;
but we too impose our own forms of social isolation
upon the sick and the aged.
Indeed, given the way in which our culture
worships youth and health
and a certain ideal of physical perfection,
I am not convinced that we are all that different
from the Jews of Jesus’ day
in our desire to place at a distance
those whose age or illness
would defile our dream of physical perfection
and perpetual youth.
In addition to their physical suffering,
the sick in our society often suffer
being ignored by a culture
that does not want to be reminded
of the fragility of the robust youthfulness
that we worship.
Part of the power
of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick,
and the reason we celebrate it publicly in this parish,
is that it brings those who are ill
into the center of our worshipping community;
it proclaims their inclusion in God’s love and in our love.
Not only are those who suffer illness not excluded,
not made to stand at a distance,
but by this sacrament
their illness is consecrated to God,
it is made something holy
by being put at the service of the Gospel,
so that they, like Paul bound in his chains,
become images or icons
of the redemptive suffering of Jesus.
Whether or not it leads to physical healing,
the sacrament of anointing
helps those who are sick
to bear with grace their illness,
just as Jesus bore their suffering
out of love for us all;
it makes them signs of Christ’s grace among us,
proclaiming to us to and our world
the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
This sacrament makes visible
the truth of the words of St. Paul:
“If we have died with him
we shall also live with him;
if we persevere
we shall also reign with him.”
Let our celebration of this sacrament
inspire all of us
to enter into solidarity
with the sick and suffering of the world
and to draw close to Jesus,
like the Samaritan in today’s Gospel,
to give him thanks
for the healing and freedom
that he so richly bestows
on us and our world.
Saturday, October 8, 2016
Readings: Genesis 2: 18-24; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8a; John 17:20-26
Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s Moby Dick,
after commenting on the dizzying effects
of trying to write about a creature like the whale, says:
“Such, and so magnifying,
is the virtue of a large and liberal theme!
We expand to its bulk.
To produce a mighty book,
you must choose a mighty theme.
No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea,
though many there be who have tried it.” (Moby Dick Ch. 104).
What Ishmael says of books might also be said of marriages:
no less than a book, a marriage must have a theme,
something that gives it a direction and a meaning;
and a great and enduring marriage,
no less than a great and enduring volume,
must have a mighty theme,
Because marriage involves the most private, intimate love
of a man and a woman,
it is tempting to think that this should be its theme.
To quote the immortal Sonny Bono:
“They say we’re young and we don’t know,
We won’t find out until we grow.
Well I don't know if all that’s true,
‘Cause you got me, and baby I got you.
I got you babe.”
But as important as the intimate love of a man and a woman is
(and who am I to doubt Sonny Bono?),
I would suggest that for Christians
this is an insufficiently mighty theme
upon which to base a great and enduring marriage,
though many there be who have tried it.
In our first reading, from the book of Genesis,
marriage is given a cosmic significance:
God created human beings for companionship
and the mutual love of the man and the woman
are part of the perfection of God’s creation.
When Adam says, “This one, at last,
is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”
we can feel his joy, not simply in finding a companion,
but of discovering a possibility newly born within the cosmos,
the possibility opened up by one with whom he can enter
into a free and equal exchange of love:
in which love is given to another
and then received back, transformed, increased,
ready to be given and received
again and again, day by day,
growing and overflowing into love for all that God has made,
reflecting God’s own free love for the world God has made.
But for Christians this cosmic dimension of marriage
is perhaps not yet a mighty enough theme.
In our reading from John’s Gospel
Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples,
that, “the love with which you loved me
may be in them and I in them.”
This is a love that goes beyond human love,
because it is the love with which the Father loved Christ
“before the foundation of the world.”
But it is also a love that Jesus desires to share with his disciples
so that “they may be brought to perfection as one,”
and so become for the world a sign of the God who is love.
In the Catholic tradition, we teach that marriage is a sacrament,
which means that it is a human reality
by which God shares his love with us.
If marriage is taken up as a form of discipleship,
if it takes as its theme
the love revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus,
then the joining together of husband and wife is not simply
a part of the perfection of creation,
but becomes a means of grace,
a way in which divine love comes to dwell in our world,
to heal and to save and to bring joy.
Compared to the immensity of this theme,
this event of divine love invading our world,
the theme of “I got you babe”
seems small and flea-like,
unworthy of the great and enduring love
that we pray will pervade and sustain
the marriage of Trent and Sammy.
Trent and Sammy, I am uncharacteristically hopeful
that you will not rest content
with a small and flea-like theme for your marriage.
Face it: you have a tendency to go overboard.
Knowing as I do your tendencies to excess—
excessive books and wine,
excessive theological and literary conversations,
excessive scholarly conscientiousness,
excessive worrying over wedding preparations—
I feel confident that you will settle for nothing less
as the theme for your marriage
than that “still more excellent way”
of which St. Paul writes
in his letter to the Corinthians,
the mighty love that “bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.”
And I feel confident that God’s grace
will be there to expand your love for each other
to fill the bulk of this great and whale-like theme,
to help you endure together
through the daily crosses of suffering you will face,
to help you rejoice together
in the daily resurrections of joy that God will give you,
until that day when the perfect comes
and the partial passes away,
that day when we will see no longer dimly,
as in a mirror,
but face to face,
even as we are known,
that day of which
the joy of this day,
great as it is,
is but a sign,
the day of the great wedding feast of the Lamb.
May God’s grace bring the two of you,
through the love you vow this day,
to that feast.