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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Thoughts on today's readings (Tuesday, 2nd week of Lent)

Tuesday Reflection

Today's gospel comes from the end of Matthew, after the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, before the Last Supper. His work is in ruins, he and his followers are, for all practical purposes, fugitives. The author of the gospel begins using apocalyptic language to talk about the outcome: things are so bad, in other words, that God will have to sort this out in the end. His efforts at preaching the reign of God have been blocked by the very people whom he should have been able to expect as allies: the religious establishment. But he has not found allies in them, but jealousy, suspicion, and sabotage. 

One of the pervasive themes of the Lenten scriptures, the readings of the 40 days of Lent that serve as a kind of "crash course in Christianity" for the elect  who are waiting for baptism and for us, is religious integrity. Religious integrity is "practicing what we preach," not deluding ourselves that preaching is enough, or baptism, or ordination, or any other ritual act. Jesus himself, speaking through the gospel writers and apostles, notably in the letter of James, warns against any sense of religious entitlement based upon rank or birth or even deeds. From the time of John the Baptist's preaching, there seems to have been some resentment of the temple priesthood, whom John refers to as "viper's brood," poisonous snakes, and Jesus repeats that epithet, also calling them white-washed graves, men who "strain the gnat out their soup while swallowing the camel." In fact, the entire rest of the chapter from which our gospel today was taken is a series of seven "woes" or warning curses. That there are seven is significant: it is complete condemnation. 

But the trouble is, we think that those condemnations apply only to the old lawyers and enemies of Jesus and the early church. That sets the whole problem in the past, and makes it easy to avoid thinking about it as applying to us. I can hear the same condemnation of hypocrisy and false religion falling upon me and people like me. If Jesus were here today, he might just as angrily say to us, "baptized? saved? Catholics? God could raise up baptized catholics, even liturgists and musicians, right here out of these tiles." Then I realize what I just said: "if Jesus were here today..." Of course, Jesus is here today, alive in the scripture we have just heard, truly present in its proclamation in this assembly.

On the very first day of ancient Lent, the first Monday in Lent, the bottom-line lesson of Christianity reads like a blessing and a curse, and we need to be careful about which side we see ourselves sitting. In that gospel from Matthew 25, just two chapters later from today's gospel and part of this same discourse, Jesus gives an apocalyptic parable, a vision of the end of time, when God will finally set things right in a world that has gone amok for too long. People will be gathered into two groups that  look alike, until the king starts speaking. But what the king says startles everybody. The entrance into the "Son of Man's" kingdom isn't based on any creed, or birthright, or ritual, or even obedience to the law. (It's not even based on tithing. Remember the Pharisee and the tax collector? The widow's mite? Can you imagine a religious leader more concerned with service than tithing? It's not that tithing is not required; only that the heart matters more.) Welcome into the kingdom of the Son of Man is based only upon good deeds, deeds of compassion and mercy for the "least of my brothers (and sisters.)" And denial of entry isn't based on any great felonies, heresy, or lack of a baptismal certificate, marriage license or other credentials. It's simply: you didn't notice. I was out there, i needed you, and you didn't lift a finger.

This prophetic critique of worship and professional ministry was nothing new. Right in chapter one of Isaiah, of which we heard a section today, the prophet rails against the temple, referring to the king's priests and the temple caretakers as Sodom and Gomorrah. Why? For some reason, the verses that most clearly tell us are excised from the reading, making me wonder why. Is someone afraid we might misinterpret the prophet, or possibly apply them too literally to our present circumstances? Isaiah derides the religion of Israel for being letter-perfect about sacrifices and rituals while it abuses people. Enough with the music and incense and sacrifice, Isaiah says. Right the wronged, care for the widow, support the orphans. THEN, says the Lord, THEN I'll start listening to your songs and prayers again. 

The music, the incense, the community feeling, the colors and sounds of liturgy can make us feel like everything is  OK and God is on our side. But the feeling of belonging is just part of the baptismal reality. The other part is mission, is living eucharistic life, serving the world, washing feet, feeding the hungry, unraveling the web of injustice in which we've entangled ourselves. It may help us to remember that looking for the God whom we wish to serve, as we were reminded on day one of the first week of Lent, means looking downward toward those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, and not upward. God has made a choice to be with the poor. "Whoever wants to be first among you must serve the rest. Everyone who humbles self shall be exalted, and whoever exalts self shall be humbled." 

In the 17th century, St. Vincent de Paul told his congregation, "When you are called from your prayers or the Eucharistic celebration to serve the poor, you lose nothing, since to serve the poor is to go to God. You must see God in the faces of the poor." Our baptismal promises ask us, "Do you believe in God? Do you believe in Jesus Christ?" Today's scripture points us toward a way of discerning our answer, and moving toward belief in the right God and the real Jesus. We are not sent away from God and Jesus, away from worship, when we are sent to serve. We're sent into the temple into which God has already preceded us, and where service and ministry at the altar of human need sends sweet smelling incense and psalms of praise that will, finally, honor the true God who was made flesh, and has pitched a tent among us.

Reflection was given during a parish mission in Walpole, MA, in 2014.