Ordinary Time Year A

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year A
Though Sunday, January 9, is the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the story of that baptism is still being told on the next Sunday, January 16, when the Gospel of John is read. This is the one Sunday before we begin the 2005 Ordinary Time reading of Matthew's Gospel from beginning to end. From January 16 until the Sunday before Ash Wednesday we are reading the powerful first two chapters of 1 Corinthians, texts that deserve to be the focus of at least one homily on those four Sundays. What follows is offered as an approach to mystagogical preaching on January 16, when we return (briefly this year) to Ordinary Time, when we mark the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., and when we are a few days away from the inauguration of the President of the United States. What do the scriptures we read and the ritual deeds that we do mean for us in this moment?

Gabe Huck

Between this Sunday and next Sunday, we who live in the United States will do two significant things. We will hold in our national memory the life and work and words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as we mark his birthday. And we will inaugurate the President of the United States. We who live in the United States may or may not take part in specific observations of these occasions, but they are still part of us, part of defining who we are and who we are not. As we meet here today, we cannot pretend to live outside the civil and political worlds. Catholic may be one thing and citizen another, but the two meet inside each one of us.

Who is here today? The church is here, all of us baptized people and people preparing for baptism. When we come through the doors, we take the waters that remind us of that baptismal plunge we took, some of us a long time ago. Those waters touch us each Sunday and they mark us with the cross of Jesus; they claim us for Christ. What are we here to do? We open the book and we listen with great attention to the word of God. That's exactly what gives this church here today its foundation - the word proclaimed. Sunday after Sunday we turn the pages and ponder the texts and struggle with God's word and what that word wants of us. And then, as church, we have our business at the table, the business of sharing what we have with the poor and the business around bread and wine. It is the work we do of giving God thanks and praise, of being the voice of all creation crying,"Holy, holy, holy" and remembering God's love poured out in our savior Jesus, and saying Amen. And the business of the table is concluded in the holy Communion in the body and blood of Christ, a procession, a morsel of bread, a sip of wine. By such deeds we do what the church does.

But who are we, this church of ____________ in the middle of January 2005, dwelling in that part of the planet Earth that has been called the United States for just a little more than two centuries? Do the scriptures that are still echoing around this room right now, do they not bang into our whole being? We are each of us young or old or in between, each of us male or female, each of us with troubles and joys, each of with commitments and fears. The scriptures bang against all of that. And they bang against who we are as dwellers in this nation. And when we come to the table to praise God and to share the holy Communion, to be the holy communion- yes, we are the body of Christ - we are, in those deeds of Eucharist and Communion, putting aside every earthly difference and acting as if God's own time had come at last. This is never a merely private moment. It is God's world breaking through, the old ways turned upside down as the last are first and the first last.

Who are we then to do such things? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that through the rest of this week we look and act pretty much like everyone else? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we do not in some way stand out because of what we have heard in our scriptures and done around the table? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that many of us seldom see a need to hold our national citizenship in harsh tension with our citizenship in the reign of God? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that others of us believe that our citizenship in the state and our citizenship in the church are one and the same, the loyal Catholic being by definition a loyal American?

We have some thinking to do and some work to do. It is always that way with the church. The events of this week can be an occasion to take on this work. The juxtaposing of King's birthday and the inauguration of a president should push us to hard questions: How did Dr. King find a foundation in the scriptures, in the Gospel, for understanding that as a citizen of this nation he had to say yes and to say no- that he had to struggle with what it means to be first of all baptized into Christ Jesus, and so to put every other world, every other relationship, every other demand, every other law under the scrutiny of baptism and the Gospel? Was his baptism different from yours or mine? Was the Gospel he heard different from yours or mine?

Dr. King said it hard and clear, and he did the deeds to back up the words: The Christian can't cheer for everything the state does. The Christian can't be quiet in the face of everything the state does. In the midst of the Vietnam War, Dr. King, after long hesitation and with anguish, spoke the words that cut through all the other rhetoric. He spoke painful words born of Gospel pondering:"I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today- my own government. For the sake of … this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent." So said Dr. King in 1967, a year before he was himself the victim of violence.

Today, certainly, he would not have been afraid to call government violence by another name: terrorism. The terrorist's word is: Do as we say or the innocent will die. Especially since Vietnam, where two to three million Vietnamese died and children not yet born were poisoned with herbicides, the message of the United States to other peoples and nations has too often been: Do as we say or the innocent will die.

For our part, what does the Gospel compel us to do as citizens of this country? We are, before all else, the people baptized into Christ's violent death and sustained by Christ's body and blood. We call God our Father and we claim to forgive and to be forgiven. Sunday after Sunday, day after day, we lift our voices to God for the victims of the violence we pay for. No matter who is this person or that person being inaugurated as president, we are lifting up prayers to God to protect the world from the violence and the terror that this nation wields. And we are lifting up that president and Cabinet and Congress and court to the mercy of God. And we lift to God our poor selves.

What we struggle to enact each Sunday in this room cannot be left in this room. If here we try to practice how the children of God should behave, how such children of God share and share alike God's gifts, how the children of God call one another sister and brother and so act- then what kind of a world are we to work for? Consider one way of coming at this question.

We rather easily recognize that we have obligations, that we, the tiny rich side of the world, have some obligation to be charitable to the others, the massive poor side. We give to Catholic Charities, to Catholic Relief Services, to emergency collections in times of drought and flooding. We sing about a God who hears the cry of the poor and we like to think that yes, we hear that cry also and we write checks. We expect to go on writing these checks all our lives because we expect there will be poor people in need all our lives. We are nothing if not generous. But there it often ends. When do we ever ask: Why are the poor poor? Why are they so many today in this world that could easily feed and care for the health of all? Why is the gap between us and the poor growing and growing? And hardest of all: Would we cease to be rich if they ceased to be poor? And is all this violence about making sure things stay pretty much as they are? Who is supposed to benefit from all the violence? Think of Iraq, think of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, the spoiling of earth and air to keep us consuming. Like it or not, we are all tangled in these issues because we benefit from them and we must ask the hard questions.

We have before us this challenging week. Beyond that we have only three more Sundays until we enter into Lent, when all these questions of violence and wealth become more intense. The Sundays between now and Lent will bring some scriptures to help this church ponder our fidelity to the death-and-life waters of baptism. This morning we just read the salutation that begins Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth. We'll continue reading that letter until Lent begins. Paul exhorts the church to be united in Christ. He reminds us that God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, those who are nobodies to reduce to nothing those who are somebodies. How's that going to make us feel?

The Gospels will be about Jesus beginning to preach repentance, about a day when he called the poor and the meek and the justice-seekers blessed and how he told his disciples to let their little lights shine. Prophets will be heard also, and they'll be speaking of the God who smashes the yoke that some people would put on other people; about the obligation to seek both justice and humility; and on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, we will hear Isaiah with an agenda that is probably clearer today than when he first spoke it: Remove from your midst oppression and malicious speech; satisfy the afflicted.
Church, let us be about the work of the baptized.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year A
In the May 2005 issue these two pages offered an approach to some elements of the assembly's gathering rite at Sunday liturgy. This month the homily below speaks of the liturgy of the word. These homilies, and probably several to follow, have elements and approaches that could be used at other places in Ordinary Time. The scriptures of the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (June 26, 2005), are mentioned, but the readings of other Sundays could be spoken of instead. As usual, these examples call attention to the homilist's responsibility to draw on the scriptures of both Sunday and season as well as other elements of our rituals. These elements - from the sign of the cross to the whole season of Lent, from the proclamation of scripture to the praying of the eucharistic prayer, from the procession at holy communion to grace at table - are all there for the homilist to help the assembly unfold. There is a catechetical element to this, but that is caught up in the formation of an assembly that accepts its right and duty to full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy. The third paragraph of this homily says how important all this is.

Gabe Huck

What did we just say? Was it,"Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ"? What words invited that acclamation? Simply:"The gospel of the Lord." We have that little interchange each Sunday here. The one reading comes to the end of the gospel portion assigned to the Sunday and announces that the reading is concluded:"The gospel of the Lord." Everyone responds to this:"Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ," words that are meant to come as a resounding voice of approval and thanks. Someone listening in should know at once: Those people must be so glad, so thankful, to have heard what they just heard. Is that what we sound like? Some times, some places, a stranger listening in might ask,"What did the reader just say and what did the people mumble as they sat down?"

When I had said"The gospel of the Lord," what did I do? I picked up this book and I kissed it, I kissed the words that I had just been reading from the gospel. What does it mean to kiss words? A child might answer truthfully:"You must love those words!" In some Christian traditions, many others kiss the book as well, or touch their hands to their lips and then touch the book with their hands. Here I kiss the book, as one of us acting for all of us, as I would kiss the cup that brought cold water for a great thirst. Or as we would kiss a letter come after much silence from a person we love.

These are two tiny moments in the rituals we do together here each Lord's Day. Like all such rituals we are not to puzzle out what they mean, but to ask: How do these rituals tell us what we mean? Who are we, church, and what do we mean in this world? Who are we, baptized people? And not just"Who are we?" but"Whose are we?". These tiny rituals of ours help us little by little to find out.

The acclamation,"Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ," and the kissing of the book come in the midst of what is called the liturgy of the word. This liturgy of the word is what we do every Sunday immediately after the church has gathered and sung together and signed ourselves with the cross. The liturgy of the word comes once we have done all we can to make it clear that we have come to this place at this time because we need this assembly, we need to be this assembly and do together the things baptized people do in the praise and thanks to God. Once such gathering has been done, we do what the church always does. We get out the book. We open the book. We listen.

Did all of that gathering happen here today? Whether it did or not, at a certain point, we sat down and one person approached this ambo and opened the book of the scripture reading, and announced to us:"A reading from the Second Book of Kings." And so we began the liturgy of the word.

Do we tend to think that this is a very passive time? After all, we are sitting down, and isn't that often a passive posture? Certainly it can be, but think how it is also the posture of people who are engaging in earnest conversation. Think of dinner tables, of park benches, of coffee shops, and sometimes the seats on a bus or a train. Two or more people are conversing, and each is anxious to hear every word the others say. If that is how we can think about what is to happen here, then who is doing something when the reader has opened the book and has begun to read? Is there only one person active in this room? When you are speaking to others at the dinner table, are you the only active person? We should hope not. The action of one person is speaking, but the action of the church, of all of us in this room, is listening.

So our book is opened when the church is ready. This book is made up of many books by who-knows-how-many speakers and writers. Part of it was already there at the time of Jesus: the Torah, the Psalms, the Prophets. Christians added the books we call the New Testament, and from this whole collection we read each Sunday from three different places. We may be listening to letters written by Paul or to parables told by Jesus, to wise old sayings or to fearful visions, to the truth-telling prophets or to the poetry of Job, to the trials and tribulations of Israel or of the apostles, to the love lyrics of the Song of Songs or to the miracles of Jesus. Much of this is strong and beautiful writing. Some of it is boring. And many parts are hard to appreciate all these centuries later.

It is this writing, with all its long history and all its variety, that baptized people have carried everywhere that Christians gather: whether to preach or to pray, to anoint the sick or bury the dead, to unite in marriage or call to holy orders, to bless homes or ashes. Above all, the church carries this book into this Sunday assembly. The plan for what to read each Sunday has been fairly simple since the Second Vatican Council. In a cycle of three years, during the seven months of Ordinary Time, we read in order through Matthew's gospel one year, then Mark the next year, then Luke, then Matthew again, and on and on. The gospel of John has no year of its own, but it comes at crucial points each year.

Before the gospel, in the second reading of each Sunday, we read from the letters of the New Testament. We are in the midst now of reading Paul's Letter to the Romans; it takes us sixteen Sundays to do this. Around the beginning of October we'll move on to four Sundays reading the Letter to the Philippians and four Sundays reading the First Letter to the Thessalonians.

Almost always, the first time the book is opened on Sunday, we hear the Hebrew Scriptures, sometimes called the Old Testament. These are not read in any order but have been chosen because something in the day's gospel echoes something in that passage. Today Jesus was saying something about"whoever receives a prophet will receive a prophet's reward," and the story read as our first reading told of the prophet Elisha and the family that always offered him hospitality. Last week's gospel had Jesus saying we should"not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul." The first reading had Jeremiah the prophet in anguish because his words are rejected and his life threatened.

Each Sunday the moment comes to open the book. Here we all are. What kind of a church is going to listen well to its book? One with no worries or one struggling with everyday life? Whatever our troubles, aches, and pains, whatever our worries and delights and preoccupations, let them be caught up into the troubles, aches, pains, worries, delights, and preoccupations that are sitting beside, behind, and around each one of us. That's who the church is. And if that's us, then we'll be coming here each Sunday hungry, a church hungry to hear the word of God. Day by day we are told from a thousand places that we need this, we need that. But can we cut through all that and face how much our need and our hunger are for God's word?

The church that is hungry and thirsty for these scriptures is most likely going to be a church of people who know how to open their Bible at home. It is very difficult to listen well here if we are not listening day by day at home. Some people find it helpful to read the Sunday readings at home in the week before they are heard by the assembled church. Others repeat this Sunday's scriptures through the next week. Others read through various parts of the Bible little by little. Others read here and there. Some read alone, some as a household with children included. Some look for help in understanding these texts, others are happy just to hear them.

When we get here on Sunday and the book is opened by the first reader, by the second reader, by the gospel reader, we each and all together have a task. We are to fix our eyes on the reader and give full, active attention to what we hear. We do not read along unless we have problems hearing. We look at the reader and we give our whole gathered attention to what God speaks to the church. All week long we are surrounded by words and most of them are blah blah blah. We get used to tuning it out. But here the words are food and drink to us and we must train to do good, hard listening. Listen as we would to the voice of one who loves us. Don't try to find some immediate message, just listen. Just be the church on its journey, carrying its book, hungry for the word of life.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for
Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year A
Over the past two months we have begun an effort to"unfold the mystery" of the Mass, to talk about what we baptized people do when we gather and when we attend to the Word.  We did this in the context of specific Sundays of May and June. What follows is directed toward Sunday, July 3, 2005, the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. It is of course also the Fourth of July weekend. That can't be ignored. So here we tackle the whole context: the Ordinary Time scripture proclaimed in the eucharistic liturgy on a Sunday that is already loaded with content - and also subtly continuing to talk about the liturgy expected of all of us every Sunday. For that last, we are still talking about elements of the Liturgy of the Word. Note also that the homilist should be seeing the flow of scriptures and should be able to look back at recent weeks or forward to what is coming (in this case, next Sunday's first reading, Isaiah 55:10-11).
Gabe Huck

Sunday by Sunday, the church gathers here, and when we are ready to engage ourselves in hard listening and pondering, we sit and we open the book of scriptures and we give attention. When we have read briefly or at length from the Hebrew scriptures, the letters of the New Testament and finally the Gospels, we have this time called the homily, or the sermon, or the preaching. This homily is to ponder the holy scriptures we have heard, and it is to draw on anything else that is done here this morning, and with this, to engage this flesh-and-blood church of ours in a conversation. That is not a conversation among ourselves only, but a conversation with God, to whose word we have given our full attention.  

As the homilist, I have the responsibility to spark this conversation. I prepare to do that when I listen through the previous week many times to those readings, when I seek what others have said about them, when I let them come to my heart and mind fresh and strong and with power. I ponder these scriptures always within the place where they live, this Sunday gathering where we, the church, have met to hear God's word to us and to do our best to gather our intercessions and our thanks and praise and so come to share holy Communion. The words of the scriptures are of a piece with all that we do here.

I don't do this preparation work alone. I do it with eyes and ears open to the church, all of us here, and to the world where this church is living, struggling. That"world," of course, is not something other than ourselves. We are ourselves that world, some bit of it. So it is our business here to note that we meet today just before a national holiday, the Fourth of July, and that this comes in a troubled time when life-and-death matters are being debated in relation to wars, occupations, trade, jobs, health care, the environment, the use of economic and military power. All of this and more is on our minds, in our hearts, when we attend to the scriptures and figure out how to enter into this homily. The homilist does not speak only as a teacher here, but as a member of the church responsible for engaging the church and its scriptures. I may do this well or badly, but in any case I, along with all homilists, need your attention here and your conversation - not just your criticism - all through the week.  

So today, though I am speaking, enter with me into a conversation. Begin with the words of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel that are read today, for these are words cherished by many people. In some Christian churches, especially in Eastern and Southern Europe, they are seen again and again in the image of Christ holding a book or scroll. Written on that book or scroll is today's Gospel:"Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest." Here are words held dear especially by those with little power over their own lives: by people whose daily work is hard and long and little rewarded, by people who have no work at all, by people bearing the burdens of debt for life's necessities; words held dear by people addicted, people who are developmentally disabled, people weakened by sickness or by AIDS or by old age. Come to me and I will give you rest.  How prisoners and women and harshly treated minorities have clung to those words!

They are words that have somehow seemed to many to sum up the whole of the Gospel of Jesus. They seem true to the one who could say:"Blessed are you who are poor now, blessed are you who are hungry now, blessed are you who weep now." They seem true to the one who by word and touch would heal the sick. They seem true to the one whose mother sang the praise of God bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. But above all, these words"Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened" seem true Gospel of that Jesus who did not back off when the people of power came for him - the religious leaders, the military, the bullies, the civil authorities. He became the burdened one.

The words of Jesus that begin today's reading are a prelude to this"come to me" summons. These opening words are a prayer, a praise of God spoken by Jesus. Jesus began this prayer with words that all his listeners would know well for they were part of everyone's daily prayer:"I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth." They are still part of Jewish daily prayer and, in fact, are the way we pray when we come together to the table and begin our eucharistic prayer. For what is Jesus giving thanks and praise to God, to the Father?"You have hidden these things from the wise and the learned and have revealed them to little ones."

Don't we seem to know at once exactly what Jesus is talking about? Who can the"little ones" be? Children, yes. But also all those others who have no say, those whose faces are not seen in places where power is exercised, whose voices are not heard when decisions are being made or when the loot is being divided. Those, we say today, with no access.  Those who don't even know who the"gatekeepers" are. Jesus is saying: Praised are you, God, that you have been hiding from those with plenty of money and power and education, and have been showing yourself to those at the other end, those at the short end of the stick. Today the short end is shorter than ever and there are more people trying to cling for dear life.  

These Gospel words call to mind that old summons to the preacher: Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. They may have a sharper edge because of the weekend when we hear this Gospel. In 1776, a group of wealthy white males signed onto a document that put their lives and fortunes at risk. This was an assertion that when any government abuses the very reasons for there being a government, then the people (and yes, by"people" they meant only the wealthy white male people) have the right to change that government. Such ideas had been talked about, but here were people putting it in a Declaration of Independence, signing their names. That is what we remember this weekend: that governments are given power by the people, and when a government begins to do more harm than good, the people not only can but must take its power away.  Of course there are questions: Whose harm? Whose good? What power? Jefferson and the other signers tried to answer those questions - for their place and time - very concretely. The heritage would best be honored not just with fireworks and parades but with soul searching and boldness.

Many today confuse their Christianity with their citizenship, always a mistake. But it is no mistake to say that as citizens who listen to the word of God in our church, we come to our citizenship with our eyes - and often our mouths, too - wide open. From our Gospel and our communion here we learn where to look and where to pay attention. And if we try to do that, we are always, always, always going to confront those powers in this world - political powers, economic powers, military powers, even institutional church powers - that trample the earth and the poor. We who were baptized are either those little ones, the burdened of the world, or we are their faithful advocates, their voices, their servants somehow.  

What is asked of us as Christians who happen to be citizens of the United States? Where should our eyes and thoughts and voices be this weekend especially? We could listen harder to those few words from the prophet Zechariah in this morning's first reading.  This prophet too lived in troubled times when economic and military power were rampaging. The temptation then, as now, was to get on board the strongest chariot, the most expensive tank; to back the brutality and torture as long as it was happening to somebody else; to tighten the borders and draw clear lines between us and them. If we don't do it to them, they might do it to us, right? Later Jesus would challenge how there could be a"them" and an"us." But Zechariah takes another sort of stance, a lot like prophets before him who spoke of beating swords into plows and studying war no more.  Zechariah says:"The messiah/king will banish the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem; the warrior's bow shall be banished."  

Is it pie in the sky or is it our Gospel duty to speak of banishing the instruments of war and oppression - chariots and horses, bows and arrows? How have we as a church let our prophetic voice be shushed even in a society that is founded on the need for prophetic voices? Standing as we do in the tradition of Zechariah and Jesus, how engaged are we here - we who this weekend remember a time when some people said power comes from the people and the people must stay very clear about that? How uncomfortable are we that it takes so many horses and chariots and bows and arrows to keep our gasoline supply flowing and our shopping centers full? How uncomfortable are we that those horses and chariots and bows and arrows cost so much money that the schools and veterans and so many others are left with the scraps?  

This is the conversation to which we are summoned today. God's word has challenged us. When we gather here next week and open our book, we are going to hear this: Thus says the Lord,"Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth … so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will."

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year A
This is the fourth month in which these homilies have attempted to demonstrate a way to"unfold the mystery" of the Mass in the context of Ordinary Time in Year A. In May the homily asked the assembly to reflect on the gathering rites, in June and July on various aspects of the liturgy of the word. This August homily invites consideration of silence in the liturgy of the word (and beyond). It is intended for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 7, 2005. In each of these homilies the ritual considered cannot be left in the abstract. If one talks about silence in the liturgy, is there any? Is there going to be an effort to prepare ministers so that what the assembly is asked to make part of their Sunday action will in fact be possible, be regular, be respected by all (presiders and musicians too)? The approach here is through another good use of the homily: an attempt at discovering how lively and life-giving are some of the characters of scripture. As in the homily in the August, 2004, issue of Celebration, there is occasion to consider the anniversary that is marked this weekend.
Gabe Huck

The prophet Elijah has now been here two days in a row! Yesterday, August sixth, was the day that the church calls Feast of the Transfiguration. The gospel story is read about the time Jesus went with Peter and James and John up a high hill, and there Moses and Elijah came and talked with Jesus. We may remember Peter blurting out:"It is good for us to be here! Let's make three tents!" By coincidence, today we first opened the book of scriptures to the assigned reading - and there was Elijah once more and a mountain once more. These are two very strange but wonderful stories.

We need to remember what we know about this prophet Elijah. He lived eight hundred fifty years before Jesus, but no one in Jesus' time had forgotten him. Remember how they thought that John the Baptist might be Elijah returned? Remember how Jesus' disciples told him that some people thought he himself might be Elijah? Remember how when Jesus was crucified they thought he was calling Elijah and someone said:"Let us see if Elijah comes to save him"? Even now when Jews celebrate Passover and keep the Sabbath, there is a song that yearns for Elijah again.

Elijah lived about one hundred fifty years after the heady times when David was king. But in between David and Elijah, David's kingdom had broken in two. Most of the kings on both sides of the divide, as the Bible says,"did what was evil in the sight of the Lord."

Then something happens. A man named Ahab is king in Israel and the queen's name - a lovely name - is Jezebel. We are in the seventeenth chapter of the first book of Kings and out of nowhere comes this sentence:"Now Elijah the Tishbite said to Ahab [the king], ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.' " As Elie Wiesel says,"Nobody expected him." We never hear what this Elijah did before, how he managed to get to the king, nothing. All of a sudden, there he is.

We call Elijah a prophet, like Miriam before him, like Jeremiah after him. But Elijah doesn't make long speeches like Isaiah, or write books like Ezekiel. Like all those prophets, though, when he speaks up he lets the listeners know: This isn't what I say, this is what God says. Prophets are not fortune tellers, they are truth tellers. They do not predict what's going to happen; they look deeply into the present moment and they say what is happening right now. LOOK!

Usually no on wants to hear this, especially the people with power. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had brought all manner of gods into Israel. They had practically forgotten the covenant that the Lord made with their ancestors. So here comes Elijah. He doesn't organize people to protest. He doesn't build a political party. He doesn't look for some bodyguards or a small militia just in case. And he doesn't suggest to the king and queen that a little moderation would be in place. No. He goes, all alone, and he says to them:"Here's the deal. There will be no more rain until I say so."

What does it mean? It means: You, Ahab and Jezebel, are not in control. God is in control. And by God's word, until I say so, no rain. Then Elijah runs off and God hides him from Ahab's wrath. When the drought has lasted three years and everyone is desperate, here comes Elijah to Ahab again. Ahab recognizes him and says:"So is it you, you trouble-maker for Israel?" And Elijah snaps back:"It is not I who make trouble for Israel, but you, Ahab! You have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and you follow other gods."

Elijah is pure daring. He proposes a contest. Ahab and Jezebel can get all their best prophets of this and that god together on one side, and Elijah will be alone on the other side. Here's the test: Who can call down fire from the heavens? So first the prophets who work for Ahab and Jezebel carry on the whole day, dancing and crying out and beating themselves bloody to get their gods' attention and just a little bit of fire. Nothing happens. Elijah's turn. He prays a little prayer to the Lord and a great fire falls from heaven. Then the drought ends in a tremendous thunderstorm.

But this isn't the end of the story. Jezebel is furious and swears she'll have Elijah's life. Elijah goes into hiding but now his spirit is broken. "Let me die," he prays, but God will have none of that. An angel brings Elijah water and bread and Elijah eats and drinks and then walks 40 days to Mount Horeb. He climbs the mountain and finds a ledge on which he waits for God to pass by. Now comes that little snatch of the story we read this morning. First a wind that tears the mountain and crushes rocks. But the Lord is not in the wind. Then an earthquake. But the Lord is not in the earthquake. Then a fire. But the Lord is not in the fire. What else could Elijah expect as he waited? Isn't the Lord about might and power and awesome deeds? Wind, fire, earthquake: How do you follow that act?

"There was then," the scripture says,"a tiny whispering sound." Other translations say,"a gentle whisper," or"a still, small voice." And when Elijah heard this, he hid his face. This at last was the Lord.

We ought to ask: Where's the whisper, the still, small voice now? The world's awash in noise, and even in this room we do our best to make a noise, a joyful noise to the Lord. So it should be. But we are shaped by a world around us that has had to invent"white noise" so that one noise will keep us from hearing others. Silence scares us. And we are who we are, even here. We worry if there isn't some noise, some motion, something to hear, something to watch, something to do. So we tend to keep things moving, even here at the liturgy. Catholic practice on Sundays often ignores and minimizes those times when the liturgy needs both silence and stillness. Yes, the silence and the stillness are there in the books, but it seems such a waste, so awkward, and we quickly get on with the action, the singing, the reading.

And the rhythm is lost. The"Elijah" element of the liturgy is lost. For the liturgy intends to have a very human rhythm, a pace and a movement that this whole assembly can enact together Sunday after Sunday. Liturgy requires intense attention at some times, as when the scriptures are read or the eucharistic prayer is prayed. Liturgy requires moving and processing by all of us, and also acclamations, chanting and singing and sharing and greeting. But the rhythm of liturgy is lost without the"Elijah" moments, the moments so quiet and still that a tiny whispering sound can be heard.

When are these to be and how can we do them better? There are four times at least when we all are to keep a silence and a stillness together. The first comes after the first reading from scripture. The second comes after the second reading from scripture. The third comes after the homily. The fourth comes when all have received holy communion and all, ministers included, can now be seated and be quiet - together.

We have to learn how to do this. How not to fidget. How not to wonder if something is wrong. How not to plan the afternoon's activities. Have we listened well to the first reading? Then the silence will be something we need or the reading will never set to work in us - set to work in us not only as individuals but most of all set to work in us as the church we are. Same with the second reading and even the homily. The rhythm is one of intense listening and then welcome and lovely silence. Most of us will begin to know the place of silence only when we discover some childlike way to enter into it. We can, for example, let a single word or a small phrase from the reading sound again and again inside us, not trying to make sense of it, just letting it make sense of us perhaps. The rhythm of silence and listening makes ours this liturgy of readings and psalm and acclamation. What about children? Maybe some of the children have this rhythm still inside them, not yet covered over by the way we demand one sound after another, one entertainment after another. Adults, work at it yourselves, ourselves. Some of the children may show us how.

The silence we keep and the noise we make need fixing. Elijah, we need your help. We'll work at the silence, doing here at liturgy what we each need to do in our lives day by day, saving and savoring time for quietness and reflection. And we'll work at the noise too. How Elijah came to be on that mountain. He made some noise. He broke the fearful silence and rebuked the king and the queen and challenged their prophets and prayed to God.

A time for words, a time for silence. Here we are on August 7, sixty years and one day after the city of Hiroshima was leveled by a single bomb that took no note of military or civilian, young or old or little baby. And so did war creep across a line, never to go back. More than twenty years ago our United States bishops called on us to repent of what our nation did on August 6 and 9 in 1945. But nothing happened, even here in the church. Elijah, where are you? Where are you now when the immense costs of war making and preparing for war making go almost without challenge? Who will speak to Ahab and Jezebel today? Who will challenge the false gods and their prophets? Probably only those who Elijah-like know how to listen also for God in whispers and still, small voices. Those many voices from Iraqi children or Africans suffering with AIDS or someone just across town from us. Who can keep quiet enough to hear them? Who can go like Elijah to stand up for them?

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for
Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year A
The first Sunday in September is Labor Day weekend; the second Sunday is 9/11. The September homilies in this column in 2003 and 2004 included thoughts that might also be useful in preaching this year in consciousness of Labor Day and 9/11. The homily below is intended for one of the final two Sundays in September. For the fifth consecutive month, this is a homily that attempts to"unfold the mystery" of our Sunday liturgy by exploring one particular moment of that liturgy. Previous months have looked at the gathering rites and aspects of the Liturgy of the Word. This September homily's focus is the responsorial psalm. As is bound to happen in this series, the homilist must consider the way this congregation prays the psalm. Is it sung or read? If the latter, can some simple ways of chanting the psalm, with the assembly singing only the refrain, be introduced? If it is already sung, what translation is used? How clear are the cantor's words? Is there good silence before the singing begins? Other questions involve the use of the seasonal psalms given in the Lectionary so that people get to know a few psalms better rather than just a fleeting encounter with a different psalm each Sunday.
Gabe Huck

What is your favorite quotation from the Bible? My own guess is that the single line that would be cited by more Christians than any other line is this one:"The Lord is my shepherd." Maybe this is only because it appears on millions of memorial cards at funeral homes each year. The shepherd image has stayed with us far longer than shepherds themselves. How many of us here could say at once where to find that line in the Bible? I think a lot of us would know right away: Psalm 23. Good, but what if there were a third and a fourth question:"The twenty-third psalm, you say? Twenty-third of how many psalms? And where in the Bible are those psalms? Could you show me?"

I don't mean to play biblical trivia here. It may be that we can answer those questions very quickly or it may be that we cannot. It isn't terribly important to know that there are one hundred fifty psalms in the Book of Psalms in the Bible. It is far more important that we know where to find that Book of Psalms. Is it Old Testament? New Testament? How quickly could we find our own Bibles and go to Psalm 23?

The Book of Psalms in most Bibles is going to be near the middle of the book: after the five books of the Torah, after the storybooks of Judges and Kings, but before the books of the prophets and before the books of the New Testament. The Book of Psalms is part of the poetry and the wisdom literature that also includes the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Job. The whole collection of one hundred fifty psalms will take up about five percent of the pages of your Bible, a few pages less probably than the four Gospels combined will take.

The Bible is made up of more than seventy books. Some are letters, some are stories, some are detailed regulations, some are records of what the prophets said, some are wise old sayings, some are love poems, some are visions of gloom and glory. There are so many different purposes and moods to the Bible. But of those seventy-plus books, only one of them gets opened up every single time we gather to do the liturgy. Every Sunday of every year we hear the words of this Book of Psalms.

Why is this? When we look at the Gospels, at the book of Acts of the Apostles, at the letters of the New Testament, something becomes very clear. None of the speakers, Jesus included, and none of the writers of the Gospels or the letters of the New Testament, none of them carried around a little pocket edition of the psalms. Then how come they all knew the psalms so well that they is quoted more than any other part of the Hebrew scriptures? The word"psalm" means"song" and it seems that the Jews of Jesus' time sang these songs enough that they knew many of them by heart. When Jesus lived, this collection of psalms had been around for many generations. Various psalms were sung in the Temple and in the synagogues and, we can presume, at home. People then, as now, who could not read readily memorized even long poems and songs.

So from the start, even as the first generations of Christians accepted non-Jews for baptism, they left behind some Jewish practices and took on some practices adapted from other cultures. But these Christians never put down the Jewish psalter. They had these psalms already translated into Greek and eventually had them in Latin and then in so many other languages. The psalms so dear to the Jewish people, so dear to Jesus, became the prayers of Christians. No one ever seems to have said:"Hey, those are Jewish prayers. We need a book of Christian prayers in the Bible." Jews and Christians both went on singing the same psalms.

By the time the liturgy of the Lord's Day took on many of the marks it still has, the psalms were essential elements of that liturgy, especially at three moments. First, when the assembly began, the gathering rite with its procession would be marked by the chanting of a psalm. Second, the procession of all at Communion would be marked by psalm singing. Eventually both of these rites became very quiet and the psalm was reduced to one verse, and that verse was recited in a whisper by the priest. But the psalms never disappeared in quite this way from a third place in the liturgy. Little chunks of psalms remained for the priest to recite or the choir to sing after the first reading. With the renewal of the liturgy after Vatican II, this use of the psalms in our liturgy was renewed and expanded and this was done in our own languages.

The psalms were always sung in prayer beyond the Sunday liturgy. In the Western churches especially, the psalms were the foundation and the largest part of what was known as the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours. These were morning and evening and night prayers, usually assigned to the clergy. Today there are many longer and shorter editions of this morning and evening prayer available for use by all the baptized.

Here's the problem. Can prayers that are more than two thousand five hundred years old be of any possible use to me or to you? Do we right now, without looking at any book, remember anything about the psalm we prayed (in song) just a few minutes ago after the first reading? Why is it so forgettable? What was our refrain? What did the cantor sing (the reader read)? Why do we hold onto this part of our liturgy that very often seems to be in one ear and out the other?

Is it because these aren't always such sweet little poems? What do you think this tribal-sounding war cry psalm is doing in the book?

God executes judgment,
crushes the heads of nations,
and brings carnage worldwide. (Psalm 110)

And what shall we think of this bit of hopeless despair in Psalm 88?

Weak since childhood,
I am often close to death.
Your torments track me down,
your rage consumes me,
your trials destroy me.
All day, they flood around me,
pressing down, closing me in.
You took my friends from me,
darkness is all I have left.

The mood is not always so grim, but even the language of praise may seem foreign to us:

Praise! Praise God with trumpet blasts,
with lute and harp.
Praise! Praise God with timbrel and dance,
with strings and pipes.
Praise! Praise God with crashing cymbals,
with ringing cymbals. (Psalm 150)

Is that the way we people do our praise? When did you last see a timbrel? So why keep these psalms? Why do they still show up Sunday after Sunday, morning after evening after morning? Why are we all given some little refrain to repeat as we weave together a psalm with our cantor?

The quick and maybe very good answer could come from that song"Gimme that old-time religion." If it was good enough for Jesus, good enough for Jesus, good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me. The psalms were clearly good enough for Jesus; even on the cross he was praying Psalm 22:"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

Don't think that we are the first people to see that these are the prayers and songs of people who lived quite differently than we do. That was true even before Jesus' time. Yet Jews and Christians kept learning various psalms by heart and later making them part of prayer books. The psalms have taught the synagogue and the church how to pray. Other texts come and go, even good texts, good words of prayer. Christians of any age find they can make some psalms their own and not others. All in all, these psalms remain as a kind of foundation. They are there for us when we need words of joy or of penance or of thanksgiving or of praise or of terrible lament. Far more important, they are there when we ourselves do not this minute feel the need for words of joy or penance or thanksgiving or praise or lament. But, and this is crucial, the church that we all are does need such words. We need them every day and every moment because the church is Christ praying to the Father, lifting up the whole world in all its horror and its beauty. All of it. All of it. And if we are to do what we were baptized to do, if we are to continue lifelong to clothe ourselves in Christ our Lord, then it is of the psalms that we fashion our garments.

Every time we gather here then we have at least the one psalm that we sing after the first reading and the time of silence. Think about it this way: Here is where we learn how to pray. Here is where the church, that body of Christ that we are, learns from one generation to the next how to pray. No matter what lovely prayers come from this author or that tradition, here in the psalms is the teacher and the measure of our prayer.

Are we then to encounter the psalms only for a brief moment on Sunday? How can psalms and pieces of psalms be part of how we pray by morning, at table, by night? If we learn to sing a psalm verse here, where else can we sing it? The task is this: That we seek to know by heart some of the poetry of the psalms not only so we have words when we are joyous or helpless or grieving, but so that we have words day in and day out to sing and speak before God for all the joyous, all the helpless, all who are grieving. That is in truth who we are - we who are the baptized, the church.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year A
What follows is cast as a homily for October 6, 2002. That is the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. On that Sunday we have come to Matthew's telling of the parable of the wicked tenants (43) and with it the first verses of Isaiah 5, also about a vineyard. The second reading is from Philippians. This homily, and similar efforts to follow, is an exploration of how the rites we do, as well as the scriptures we read, are integral in preaching. This effort should be considered, month by month, a work in progress that invites your comments (gabeandtheresa@gmail.com). In some congregations, these texts might make useful discussions for those involved in preparing the liturgy (the committee or board or whatever entity or individual takes that responsibility).
Gabe Huck

Every Sunday in this room we give God abundant thanks as we surround a table that has but two things placed on it, two foods from our everyday life.

Bread is always on our altar table. Bread is the name we give to a spectrum of shapes and tastes: tortilla to Wonder, pita to pumpernickel. What is bread? Grains of various kinds - wheat, corn, rice - cracked or ground into a flour, water added, then heat to bake. We can get more or less elaborate in the breads we prepare or buy, but the basic stuff of them all is just this: some crushed grains that grew and in a field and were harvested, some water, a fire for heat. Everywhere in the world where grains can be grown, people have their versions of bread; often it is the food that is on the table whether rich or poor, festive time or ordinary time. We talk about our daily bread, about the breadwinner, about the staff of life. So it is and so it is there on our table.

But next to this bread is something both similar and very different. Wine and bread are both gifts of the earth and both are the work of human hands. The vine, rooted in the soil, produces clusters of grapes year after year, fragile fruit that is carefully harvested. Then like the grains of wheat, these grapes are crushed. As the grain disappears, ground to flour, so the grapes disappear, flowing now as juice. Sealed away, the chemistry does its work and the natural sugars become alcohol and what we called juice we now call wine. But that working is in its own good time. The word"wine" can be used also for the fermented juice of various berries and fruits; like bread then, wine has its many identities for those people living where the summers are long enough to bring forth such fruits. Here on our table on Sundays we have the fermented juice of grapes.

Grape wine was readily at hand in the culture of Jesus and the Mediterranean cultures where the church first took root. It was ordinary but it was also valued. The composer of Psalm 104 praised God for bread by saying how bread delivers. The psalmist says that God gives us"bread for bodily strength." But of wine the praise was not for good health or good nourishment or for thirst quenched. Rather, the psalm gives God thanks for wine saying,"Wine to warm the heart." To warm the heart. A different need, a different delight. Both bread and wine taste of the soil where wheat and vines are growing, and both taste of the human work of milling, crushing, and storing. But bread is about bodily strength, the nourishment to live another day. Wine is about warming the heart, about a bitter or sour taste perhaps, but a warmth within. Wine is addictive for some because of the alcohol, but for those who can drink it, it speaks of God's good earth, ever lavish in its blessings.

In Jesus' day, some renounced wine because they were waiting for the coming of the messiah's time; then and only then they would drink deeply. They wanted no earthly wine to turn them from their longing for God's time. Jesus himself was not to be found with these folks. Far from it."He eats and drinks with sinners," people said of him. And so he did. But not just with big sinners like the prostitutes and tax collectors. At Cana , the evangelist John tells us, Jesus was responsible for letting the wine flow freely at the wedding of family friends. Ordinary people too, ordinary sinners.

For three weeks now the gospels have been telling stories of vineyards. First there were those laborers who came to work at all different hours, harvesting the grapes, but at the end of the day each was paid the same. And last week the two sons, one promising to go out and work in the vineyard, but not doing so; the other refusing the father's request, but then going to work anyway. Now today another vineyard, another story. To prepare for it, we listened to Isaiah.

"My beloved," Isaiah begins,"my beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill." How the beloved cleared the land, planted choice vines, hewed a wine vat - but all for naught. No good grapes would grow. In language no one could miss, Isaiah laid it out: this beloved, this hard-working farmer, is none other than God, and we are God's vineyard, and much is at stake. The yield God intends is justice, says Isaiah, but God looks at this vineyard world and sees not justice but bloodshed. Enough!

The story Jesus tells seems to be about this same farmer God, but here it is the tenants who are the culprits. Jesus asked:"What will the owner do?" His listeners answer,"The owner will put those wretches to a miserable death," but we never do hear what Jesus thought about this solution. So we have Isaiah's story and Jesus' story of vineyards gone awry, and there is one more.

The psalm assigned for today is Psalm 80, and here again comes God as planter of vines. This is a song about a vine that once flourished. Why then did the one who had planted and cared for it leave it for thieves and wild animals? Listen:

You brought a vine fromEgypt,
cleared out nations to plant it;
you prepared the ground
and made it take root
to fill the land.

It overshadowed the mountains,
towered over the mighty cedars,
stretched its branches to the sea,
its roots to the distant river.

Why have you now torn down its walls?
All who pass by steal the grapes,
wild boars tear up its roots,
beasts devour its fruit. (Psalm 80:9–14, ICEL translation)

The song ends with a plea to God that could well be the church's own:"Turn our way, tend this vine you planted, cherish it once more."

The wine on our table comes with its stories and they are not all gentle stories of happy endings. We who share this cup so far away and so long after are still telling the stories of vineyards that went bad, tenants who murdered, a grower of vines who abandoned those dear vines. And all of these merge with other stories: Think of Jesus saying that he was himself a vine and we were branches (but ask: can anyone tell a vine from its branches?). Think of what Luke tells of the last supper: Jesus says:"I tell you I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." Think of the Pentecost story when some in the crowd sneered and said,"They are full of new wine!" Peter responded that they had not been drinking. But perhaps we can say still that they were indeed full of the new wine.

The wine on our table tastes of all these stories, and of that singular story we tell around the table each Lord's Day:"Take this, all of you, drink it. This is my blood. It will be shed for all so that sins may be forgiven." We tell this again and again to remember this Jesus who had preached the presence of God's reign, who had healed the sick and raised the dead to manifest God's reign, who had lived in God's presence loving the poor and the children. While we pray in great thanksgiving each Sunday, we tell of words about blood spoken over wine because in drinking from the cup we submit as Jesus did to our own transformation, our own crushing and fermentation. We, all of us, one body, we eat of the bread broken and we drink of the life poured out. We proclaim the mystery of faith. Christians knew this well when they imagined that the cross on which Jesus died was itself the wood of a great grape vine, fruitful again, a tree of life of which we are the branches.

The cup filled with wine does not remain on the table. It is taken and shared among us. The fruit of all those vineyards scripture tells about with all the betrayal and anger, the sorrow and neglect: it is the blood of Christ for us to drink. The fruit of all those vineyards joyfully sipped at the Cana wedding or the house of Levi the tax collector, all the rejoicing and all the hilarity, the new wine of Pentecost: it is the blood of Christ for us to drink. Scripture says that Noah was a man of the soil who had been away from the soil sailing the flood waters; after the flood, Noah planted the first vineyard, and here we are all these generations later, coming in procession to drink the fruit of some descended vineyard.

There is bread on the table, there is wine on the table. Bread sustains us, bread we need. Wine warms and troubles our hearts, a different sort of need. The blood of Christ. Amen.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).