Ordinary Time Year B

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year B
The following is cast as a homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B (January 22, 2006). Like a few other homilies in this series, this one takes time to retell a bit of scripture. This is done both because that scripture is worth exploring and because we need to be invited regularly to read our Bible apart from these few minutes on Sunday morning. Within the context of the whole story of Jonah, then, something can be said about ourselves, our rituals, and what is demanded of us.
Gabe Huck

Scrunched in among the very long books of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and the fairly short books of prophets such as Amos and Hosea, comes the book of Jonah. This little book can be read in about five minutes. It is the work of a storyteller who left us one well-remembered image: a man being swallowed by a whale, then living in the whale's belly for three days, then being vomited onto some bit of shore.

Only once in every three-year cycle of Sunday scripture reading do we open the Bible to the book of Jonah. Only once- today-and notice that we didn't hear a word about that whale. Instead, we were reading the last part of Jonah's story, where we find Jonah in the city of Nineveh.

If the many books that make up this Bible of ours are worth carrying around century after century and continent after continent, then it must be that we're intended sometimes to take the snippets of a Sunday morning and look beyond this one scene to the bigger story. If we do that with this book of Jonah, we find that the very first lines move quickly to the heart of things:"Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.' "

This Jonah is apparently not a well-known person in his town or time. Like most of us, he never expected to hear the word of the Lord quite so clearly, let alone be told to set out across mountains and deserts to find the city where powerful enemies of his own people live, and then tell them to repent. This first act of Jonah takes exactly two sentences.

Act 2 begins immediately as Jonah leaves home not for Nineveh but in the opposite direction, toward the seacoast. At Joppa he buys a ticket to Tarshish, probably a city at the far end of the Mediterranean, and boards the first ship out. God is not pleased and sends a mighty storm as soon as the ship is at sea. The crew is terrified. First they pray
to their various gods, then they lighten the ship by throwing their cargo overboard. It's a frantic scene, but Jonah misses it because he's down in the hold of the ship sleeping. The captain rouses him and tells him to pray to his god. Still the storm rages. The next strategy is to find out who caused this, to find out which person did some evil that brought on this storm that threatens all their lives. How to find out? They toss the dice and Jonah loses.

The crew and passengers interrogate Jonah: Who are you? What god do you worship? Why is your god doing this? What can we do to save ourselves? Jonah, and this may be something of a turning point, tells them who he is and why his God is angry."Throw me into the sea," he says,"and the ship will be saved." But the others are reluctant to do such a thing and they try harder than ever to bring the ship to land. When they cannot manage it, they pray to Jonah's God:"Do not make us guilty of innocent blood!" Only then do they do as Jonah himself had said. They throw him into the sea, and at once the sea is calm. Those on the ship offer sacrifice and prayer and make vows because of their gratitude and because they believe they have taken a human life. We hear nothing more of the ship's crew, but all in all, the story treats them as a remarkable group of people.

Act 3, the one we know best, lasts three days and three nights and it happens in the belly of the huge fish that swallowed Jonah. The fish's belly has become a sort of shrine where Jonah, still alive, makes a prayer to the Lord. Missing from Jonah's prayer is any reference to doing what the Lord asked in the first place: that trip to Nineveh. When the fish finally vomits Jonah onto a beach, the Lord starts the whole drama over again:"Get up, Jonah, go to Nineveh and proclaim the message I will tell you." This time Jonah does so.

And so we come to Act 4, part of which we heard this morning. So large is the city of Nineveh (which still exists, part of the city now called Mosal in northern Iraq) that it takes three days to walk across it. After he has been there a single day, Jonah calls out the one and only line of his preaching in this whole story:"Forty days more," he shouts,"and Nineveh shall be destroyed."

Think of all the prophets God sent to the people of Israel and the people didn't listen. Think of the anguish of these prophets as the word goes unheeded. But one line from our reluctant Jonah and the citizens of Nineveh, high and low, rich and poor, proclaim a fast and put on sackcloth. The ruler of Nineveh decrees that all the people and all their animals shall fast, shall repent and shall call out to God for mercy. Even the cows and the cats are to fast and wear sackcloth! And this ruler strips off the royal robes and puts on scratchy burlap and calls out:"Let us turn from our evil ways and from the violence that is in our hands." And the story says that God also turns around, that God has a change of mind and does not do to Nineveh what had been intended.

The next and last act could never be expected. Jonah, whose paltry preaching brought the great and powerful of Nineveh to their knees, is now furious at God, and the two finally have it out. Jonah speaks:"Lord! Didn't I know this would happen? Didn't I try to get away to Tarshish just to keep this from happening? Didn't I know that you are so ridiculously merciful, always forgiving the evil done by people like these Ninevites when in fact they should have been punished? It doesn't make any sense, and I wish I were dead."

And with these words Jonah storms out of the city into the parched wilderness, where he sits down to brood and pout. It's hot. God, ever merciful, has a plant come up to shade Jonah from the heat, then lets it die in the night. The following day God sends a scorching sun and a hot wind and Jonah has no shade, no protection.

And so we come to the last exchange between Jonah and the Lord. The Lord asks:"Jonah, are you angry about the shade plant that died in the night?" Jonah answers,"Yes I am, mad enough to die." And God has this last word:"Jonah, that plant sprang up, lived and died without any work on your part and yet you are now furious because the plant died. Should I the Lord not be concerned for the good of the people of Nineveh? Are they not my people too?"

And so ends one of the Bible's best, strangest and funniest short stories. So much for any of us who claim God's exclusive love. So much for our great success at keeping our religion tame, well fed, private, something between me and God. So much for the ever alluring urge to think we can keep the old routines going, whatever the fate of the others on this earth.

For us Christians, the year turns, and in six weeks Lent will come round and we'll be talking fasting and alms and prayer and even sackcloth right here. For us Christians, the week turns, and we find ourselves together here on every Sunday always getting our act together with words about God's mercy and our sin and how the two meet: what I have
done and what I have failed to do, and may almighty God have mercy. The day turns and we go off to bed and to sleep, but perhaps not without some sense that we stand responsible for what the day has brought, and not just in our own home and workplace but beyond and beyond. This assembly is, like it or not, baptized into the mercy of God. Did God need Jonah? Does God need you or me? What do you think after hearing about Jonah? And why do we so often head west for Tarshish or east to pout under a shady plant when it isn't all that hard to see, in the light of a merciful God, where the work is?

It is three years since we last listened together to the story of Jonah and it will be three years before we hear it again. In this year 2006, how can we not be struck by what the ruler of Nineveh does? The fasting and the sackcloth are there to make physical in every way what is the core of the conversion. Listen to what the text says:"All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands." Where did that come from? Is violence the name of what must be put aside, left behind, renounced? How is it that the storyteller would weave a tale where God's love for a violent people somehow takes hold and they turn from their violence?

Our other two readings echo here also. Paul is telling the church at Corinth to get about their work not as in previous times, for, so Paul believes, time is running out. What worked yesterday won't work today. What was good enough yesterday is not going to be good enough today. Time is running out! And it is! This is no end-of-the-world scenario but a desperate sense for the mercy of God that would burst forth in our lives. And we heard Jesus proclaiming that right now- not tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow- now is the time of fulfillment. Look, he says, the reign of God is at hand. So, whether in Nineveh or here, repent and believe in the Gospel.

We are baptized Christians living in a sort of Nineveh, a place that exercises immense power and is no stranger to violence whether open or subtle. Sometimes we would rather not look, and various industries are only too happy to keep us entertained. Sometimes we do force ourselves to look at how we keep our power through violence, but we do not see alternatives. The lies that led to the invasion of Iraq, the deeds of torture condoned by those in power, the way we outspend the whole world together to make more weapons of shock and awe and to keep the human and natural resources of the whole world at our disposal, the refusal to join the world in doing whatever it takes to turn back global warming: All of this is violence beyond anything the world has known before.

The story of Jonah will not be found in the history books. It is gospel truth, not historical truth. The people of Nineveh never got a Jonah. The ruler never put on sackcloth and called for an end to violent ways. But the gospel truth of the story of Jonah is what gathers us once again on a January Sunday to remember God's mercy as we have known it in Jesus and to know that we who are baptized into his death are ever in danger of being swallowed by that great whale as we try day by day to get to Tarshish, when at this time God's mercy needs us in our own Nineveh.

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).
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year B
The following is cast as a homily for February 23, 2003, Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.

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

Sometimes to get your job done you have to go up on the roof and make an opening in it large enough to lower your friend down. Even then, you can't be sure what will happen. It's a deed not done before. Nobody was that desperate until now. Imagine being inside as pieces of the roof are pulled off or pushed in and suddenly, bigger than life, here's a paralyzed man- a man who can't move- being lowered down into the room right in front of you.

So it is. We are ten days from the beginning of our annual roof removal season. It is time to recognize where we are paralyzed and time to grasp at desperate measures for ridding ourselves of the paralysis. But not alone. The season for roof removal is called Lent and nobody ever goes into it alone. Who'll pull off the roof tiles? Who'll lower the mat down? Who'll deal with the upset people inside?

The season we are talking about is Lent. We have now these ten days until Ash Wednesday. I'll take that time to remember how much I need lowering through a roof into an amazed room. I need these ten days to get up the courage to do it. Each of us needs that time to ponder the paralysis that keeps us on the mat, stuck, getting nowhere. And worse, we have gotten so used to it. We always come to Lent in faith, only the slightest clues about what we need, about how paralyzed we are, about what might happen to us as we take the ride down from the roof into the presence of the Lord.

We may not be sure then how to welcome Isaiah's telling this morning of God saying:"[S]ee, I am doing something new! . . . / In the desert I make a way, / in the wasteland, rivers" (Isaiah 43:19). What is this something new? What is this way in the desert or, in the wasteland, how can there be rivers? Wild promises? Yes, promises like these might lure us to the roof to do something unheard of, letting our paralyzed selves go public. But perhaps we have never been thirsty enough to rejoice in the promise of a river, or lost enough to grasp at the promise of a road.

Remember this: Though each of us must get ready, must prepare ourselves as best we can for the ashes that are coming, no one does Lent alone. We go together into the fray, sisters and brothers, or we do not go at all. The church does Lent. That's us, this assembly, this parish. There is no Lent except the one we do. If you are thinking your part doesn't matter, think again. I need you with me. So do we all. And you need me. Only holding to each other can we hear what is said over the smudge of the ashes: Remember that you are dust. Repent, believe the gospel. Who could bear that alone?

We have these ten days and we have work to do. How will we know among ourselves that we are dwelling in Lent? No alleluia? The ambiguity of the purple worn on Sundays here? The Sunday by Sunday presence of those preparing for baptism? Yes, all this and more. But there's no Lent unless all these moments come to life within a parish that is eager to find how fasting and almsgiving and prayer can fill our households these forty days that begin on Ash Wednesday. This is the language we speak in Lent, the language that will get us unto the roof and so lowered down before the Lord, the language that will make us thirst for rivers in the wasteland and long for a road in the desert. The language of fasting, alms and prayer will do this: They will show us the desert and the wasteland so that we can hear God's promise and rejoice in it.

From now to Ash Wednesday then are these days that are carnival, right up to Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. Whatever the society does with these days, we the church will be coming to terms with the most unlikely promise: If we take on the ashes as sign of our church's repentance, and if we then speak for forty days the language of fasting and almsgiving and prayer, the world will be changed! God will work the transformation as we lean on one another to get through. The one on the mat will leap up and grab the mat and run off shouting in joy, and all will be astounded. The secret will be out!

Consider then these three disciplines of Lent. Consider first the mystery of fasting that has so much more to it than what and how much is eaten. Fasting- in all sorts of ways- in our day is being rediscovered as solidarity with the poor. And fasting is being discovered as solidarity with the earth, with God's good creation. What does that fasting look like? It can be different for various ones of us, but it is something that the adults of this community embrace. Fasting from food- just one kind of lenten fasting- may bring us down a notch or two on the food chain. We may explore the diet of the third world. We may explore a diet that abuses the earth less than our usual ways.

We all know some of the numbers. We Americans, six percent of the earth's population, control half the world's wealth. One of us uses up what fifty people in India use up. Thousands die each day from lack of enough nourishment. But for us, even a modest salary opens up what is impossible to billions. Lent's question for those who believe the gospel is: What right have we? Maybe when we fast, we will come at last to believe the gospel. What right have we? and what are we to do? Lent's fasting has us deal with these scary questions together, and not so much in our minds as in our stomachs. What right do we have?

If we are willing to be hungry- and in more ways than one- perhaps what will be revealed to us is our own emptiness. For what then shall we hunger? Lent's first Sunday tells of Jesus' fast of forty days and the temptations after: For what did he hunger? With Jesus, we people together may come to hunger for God, for God's word. We aren't used to hunger like this. We're afraid of it. I am certainly afraid of it. But I want to trust the wisdom of the church and of the saints. And that wisdom is that what we shall find in this discipline of lenten fasting is not gloom but a loosening of the cultural chains. There's a gospel freedom, we are told, on the far side of this Lent. Keep our eyes on the prize!

And think these ten days about how you will fast from more than food. Here's one way to go at this. What have a million Iraqis died for these past twelve years of economic sanctions enforced by the United States? Most of the watching world believes it's obvious: They died because our part of the world wants control of their oil. People who live there tell visitors:"If we had cabbages instead of oil, we'd all still be alive." Fasting means confrontation with the demons of consuming, the demons of greed. What sort of world have we made in our land, in our own expectations of plentiful and cheap energy for every moment of our lives? What sort of fasting would be witness that another world is possible? That other possible world is the work of Lent. It isn't about the temporary inconvenience of giving up candy or cigarettes or dessert. It is about getting the world right. Starting right here in this assembly.

And Lent is almsgiving. What the scriptures seem to tell us is this: Make a jubilee. That is, the goods of the earth must periodically be redistributed or the strong are going to take it all. If fasting is asking us: By what right? then almsgiving also has a three word meaning: It isn't mine. It isn't mine. It never was. I have to give it back. Almsgiving isn't just writing a check or putting a dollar in someone's cup. It is not about charity. It is about justice.

In Lent we look at what we have in our control, goods we own and savings and wealth of all kinds. We look at what we"own" and we listen to words like those Saint Basil told his congregation long ago:"The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help." That's strong. He isn't talking about what kindness we might do for the poor of the world, he's talking about theft! Basil says we must do justice, not charity. We must return what is in our possession to the rightful holder. And Basil didn't know how much worse it would get in our day, he didn't know about all the ways of owning and controlling the wealth of the world. What would he preach to us on Ash Wednesday?

So we have ten days to ponder how we'll take some baby steps with almsgiving during Lent, how we'll go into training as almsgivers, finding the muscles we need to let jubilee loose in the world.

And Lent's third discipline is prayer. Sometimes we think that means deciding to pray more during Lent: daily Mass, stations of the cross. That's good. But the reality is this: Lent is the forty days when we give attention to the way we pray each day of the year, holding that up against the life we lead and discovering what it is that daily prayer could be for us. What is the prayer at the start of the day? We have a certain Christian vocabulary: the sign of the cross, the praise of God in various words from scripture, the Glory Be or Glory to God in one of its forms, that"Lord, open my lips" prayer where we remember who it is who unlocks our speech. We have a vocabulary of prayer for meals, for evening, for bedside. Lent is for getting some little daily habits into our lives- not to be given up at Easter but to live now with an Alleluia.

So, every one of us can take these ten days until the day of ashes and with joy and with great seriousness prepare for being lowered through the roof, prepare for whatever the rivers in the wasteland and the road in the desert might mean. Talk about how fasting and alms and prayer can change us and so change this world. Lent is about nothing else because it is, above all and before all, how we come each year to discover that we have died and our whole life now is in Christ. So hear what Paul wrote to the Corinthians in today's reading:"Jesus Christ was not ‘yes' and ‘no,' but in Christ it is always – Yes!

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)
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year B
It would be difficult to imagine any set of readings better at preparing us for Lent than those the Lectionary brings before the assembly this February, the Fifth through the Eighth Sundays of Ordinary Time, Year B. The homily that follows is intended (as have others in February these past years) to be a mystagogy for the season of Lent. The season itself is a ritual we perform that is made up of many rituals and disciplines, and the preacher should attempt more than once in the Sundays of the season (and through Easter season until Pentecost) to explore these with the assembly. Sunday February 26, the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, is imagined here as the day of this preaching, but other scriptures of earlier Sundays are mentioned.
Gabe Huck

Today is our last assembly before this church enters Lent. What we hear and what we do together now make us ready or not for the ashes and the Forty Days. What is this Lent of the year 2006 to be for us, for this assembly, this parish, and for the little and big assemblies of the ecumenical church all over the earth? Of course, we don't know yet. The pity would be if when Easter and then Pentecost come we still do not know. Our readiness for Lent is not a matter of deciding on some self-improvement exercise. That would reduce Lent to a private business intended to do something for me that I think I need. Nor is Lent some exercise in trivialities, doing for a few days without some
stuff I don't need anyway.

What then is Lent for? Sometimes it helps to look beyond and see where it goes. At the far end of Lent we will gather in darkness to bless fire and to spend a good long time giving our hungry attention to stories and poems from our scriptures. On that night we'll be a long time together in this room of ours until we are as ready as we can be to go to the waters for baptism. Then, with those newly baptized, we'll go to the table for Eucharist. Lent is nothing more than a way that Christians devised to get themselves ready for that baptizing and that Eucharist, ready for that night's scriptures, ready for the waters and ready for the table.

Over the centuries, those connections were lost and Lent was left as a time of penance, which it is, but without the direction that baptism and Eucharist give. Without that direction, Lent had less and less to do with the church, with all of us who are the church together. Instead, Lent had more and more to do with me and my sins and my little acts of penance and self-improvement. But the Second Vatican Council recognized what had been lost to us as baptism became a private ceremony instead of what it is, the deed that forever defines us. The council called loud and clear for a reform and renewal of these seasons and these deeds. Lent is to be the work of us all so that at its end we may baptize and discover more and more what it means to be a people defined by our baptism. Lent and Easter season are to create and strengthen this church, this body of Christ, this joyful servant of God in the world, this church that we are.

For about forty years we've been up and down, in and out, with how to bring about that renewal. It has been confusing and in some ways disappointing. Some have given it up and said it was better before, we never should have started all this work of reform. Others have found the reforms weak and without much significance for their everyday needs and they have gone off. Most of us who hang on have at times felt great discouragement as the institution and those who hold various offices in the church seem to lurch from one crisis to another. In our part of the world, the rich part, we often seem at a loss to make any sense out of what the Gospel we carry has to say about how baptized people are, to use the simple image Jesus gave us, to be down on our knees washing the feet of all, upsetting the powers that be and calling steadily and intelligently for justice and for love.

So we come today face-to-face with the ashes of this coming Wednesday and we ask what Lent is to be for us this year. The scriptures of these weeks leading to Lent can help us. Three weeks ago today we heard a short reading from the book of Job. You might remember it because the words were so striking and so unlike most of our readings.
We heard:

Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,
and are not their days like the days of a laborer?
Like a slave who longs for the shadow,
and like laborers who look for their wages,
so I am allotted months of emptiness,
and nights of misery are apportioned to me.
When I lie down I say,"When shall I rise?"
But the night is long,
and I am full of tossing until dawn.
My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle,
and come to their end without hope.
Remember that my life is a breath;
and my eye will never again see good.

Now that is far from the way our times and our commerce-filled world want us to think. Job would quickly find himself isolated in an institution or at least treated with some mind-altering drugs. So it is an amazing thing that Jews and Christians put such people as Job into the holy book where they have to be heard again and again. Job, no stranger to ashes and sackcloth and fasting, wants our attention as the day of ashes nears. But Job is no whiner. Job is one of the rare souls who call God to account for the injustice all around. And it is this Job who will perhaps accompany us into our Lent. What complaint, what lament, what demand should be ours?

From the garbage dump, with his family and property gone, his health ruined, Job demands that God behold this injustice. Can we learn the way of Job this Lent? Can this church lift its voice before God and all the powers of earth to say there's something terribly wrong? Can we name the wrongs and keep naming them in public places until, like the widow in that Gospel story, we get some attention and some change? For all that Lent is a time of reflection, it is in every way also a time to open our eyes to injustices of every kind- economic and educational and political and environmental and racial and gender-based- and, eyes wide open, to become loud advocates.

But who has the strength for such banging on the doors of heaven and the doors of all the powerful? Who has the strength to imagine how the world could be? Strength aside, who has the time? That, too, is our work in Lent: grappling with the ways we are using our strength and our time. We are, most of us, caught. Prisoners. We who have so many
choices in everything from soap to television channels seem to have no real choices about how to spend tomorrow. But here comes Lent, ready or not, and the first thing it wants to do is break us loose, ask why we're prisoners and what the freedom of the Gospel is all about.

Little by little, we revive the imagination. Little by little, we begin to use our nerves and muscles to see the world God loves and to imagine what we baptized believers in the Gospel must be about.

A week ago today we heard of some folks who had a paralyzed friend and they couldn't even get close to Jesus with their friend. They opened the roof of the house where Jesus was and from above they lowered the bed down in front of Jesus and that person ended up carrying that bed home. The Gospel says:"They were all astounded." Indeed they were.

What made for this miracle? Friends, a little community that imagined doing things a different way, use the roof when you can't get in the door. But isn't this our community, the one assembled here right now? What can we do to free one another of our paralysis? Is that what it means to keep Lent together? Paul, writing to the church at Corinth,
knew that church isn't something that's going to happen in Rome or at the bishop's office. Today Paul says:"Look, the best truth and the hardest one is that you are it. I don't have some tablets inscribed by God. I have you! The writing is you and it is to be read by all." True at Corinth a long time ago, true here today.

We have today another prophet's word for imagining our Lent."Thus says the Lord," we read in Hosea,"I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart." Hosea imagines God as someone so in love that no matter what goes wrong, love can take hold again. And that is another way to think about this Lent that is before us. To go to the desert is to make room where there seems to be no room, to take away the clutter that keeps us from seeing what we're baptized to see, from doing what we're baptized to do. Of course this frightens us: Once the clutter is gone, when we're in the desert with God, what if there's nothing left?

Jesus also had the desert and some kind of wedding in mind when he was asked why John's disciples fast and his disciples don't. It is a good question as we decide whether to embrace Lent or let it slide by. Jesus says:"Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.""That day" is here. If in Lent we are to discover the way the Gospel makes us a community of Job-like protesters, of lamenters and advocates of justice, then also we are to discover that we have gospel hungers and gospel thirsts. These are not satisfied by anything except earth and heaven wed, anything except being wedding-bound as we seek God in the works of justice and of beauty and of human kindness.

For at least a few minutes before Wednesday, think and talk about this Lent and the way we can embrace its disciplines and discover in us the gospel clamor for justice, the gospel eyes to see clearly what is what in this town and this world, the gospel strength to imagine how we together can loosen the blindfolds over our eyes and the gags that close our mouths and the chains that keep us forever too busy to be a Job or to be Paul's letter to the world. Think and talk about the kind of fasting that will make us hunger and thirst for justice. We are baptized to do this great and hard thing called Lent together. Sunday
by Sunday we will be here in assembly to support one another, to bring our Lenten lives before the church and before the Lord, and to feast as we do each Lord's Day on the body broken for us, the blood poured out for the life of the world.

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).
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year B
In 2006 it is the last Sunday in June before we hear that a Sunday is"in Ordinary Time." That last June Sunday is the place for the homily below. As preparation, read again the book of Job and renew your wonder at its poetry.
Gabe Huck

This year all the Sundays of March, of April, of May, and of June until today have been called Sundays of Lent, or Sundays of Easter, or-most recently- Trinity Sunday and the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. But from today until the end of November, five months of summer and autumn, we'll be in the"counted" Sundays. We began these numbered Sundays early this year, after Epiphany and before Lent. Now we resume the counting and we call today the 12th Sunday of Ordinary- or "Counted"- Time. We'll go from Sunday number 12 to Sunday number 34 before we enter Advent in early December. This year is the middle year of our three-year cycle of reading the scriptures. Always in this middle year we read the Gospel of Mark on nearly all of these counted Sundays, going from the fourth to the thirteenth chapter. But we make a detour for a few Sundays in late summer, a detour into John's Gospel. We're bound to notice this because the style and stories of Mark are so different from those of John. The communities where these two writers lived had different memories of Jesus and different ways of understanding.

In the second readings we now have some Sundays with Paul's second letter to the church in Corinth, then we come to many Sundays reading the letter to the church at Ephesus. Then on September's Sundays the tone will change greatly as we read the letter of James. Later on, look for another change of tone as we read the letter to the Hebrews in October and November.

The first readings, as usual, will be jumping from here to there in the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures. When these first readings are juxtaposed with the others, with the Gospels especially, sometimes- like today- each one enriches the other.

One thing that the first people to call themselves followers of Jesus knew from their own Jewish tradition was this: When you come together, whether on the Sabbath or on the First Day, Sunday, you must always read together and listen together to the scriptures, to the word of God. Jews continue to do this on Sabbath. Christians continue to do this on Sunday. Back we come, back and back and back again, to this book. However much we may or may not read the scriptures at home, here we read it all together, one family, one tribe gathered around someone whose ministry it is to speak it out that all may hear. These scriptures are not the private property of the clergy or the scholars or of any elite. They are first and last the words that exist to be spoken in the Sunday assemblies of baptized people. Sunday by Sunday and year by year and century by century the assembly hears the scripture and tries to grapple with it, tries to weave into its life these parables and stories, these poems and letters.

In this year and this place, it is this assembly, you and I, who are to carry on this listening and this pondering. Each Sunday when the scriptures and the homily conclude, ready or not, we turn to the work of interceding and to the work of giving thanks to God at the table where we have placed bread and wine, and so to the holy Communion. Sunday by Sunday the work of reading and the work of listening and the work of preaching are going to shape how we intercede, how we give thanks, how we become a holy communion. And we hope there is more. We hope that Sunday by Sunday the work of reading and the work of listening and the work of preaching are making us a church where intercession and thanksgiving and communion become a way of life. Sunday's deeds here are like a rehearsal for loving God's world by endless hard work toward justice.

Enter Job in today's first reading. Even people who never read their Bibles know Job. His name is synonymous with"troubles." The book of the Bible that bears his name is a well-told story about a question that tormented people twenty-five centuries ago and still does today. Some would say that question is: Why do bad things happen to good people? But a better framing of this story's plot might be: If God loves us, if God is merciful, how will we ever understand the suffering of children, the suffering of the innocent? Job was a good person, a husband and father, faithful to God. The drama comes when Satan challenges God to take away Job's wealth, health, and family. Then we'll see how virtuous this fellow is! God agrees to the contest, and soon Job's wealth is gone, his children are dead, and his health is ruined. Various members of the community urge Job to beg God's forgiveness. Job will have none of this. He knows this suffering is not punishment for any wrongs he has done and he will not grovel.

On a Sunday last February we read a short passage in which Job voices his grief and his weariness with himself, with the world, and with God. Job says:"I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me. If in bed I say, ‘When shall I arise?' then the night drags on. My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle; they come to an end without hope. Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again." Job struggles not only with grief for his dead children and the agonies of his own body, but with those who tell him that all this happened because he offended God. Listen here, Job, even if you don't know how you sinned, repent! But Job will not beg God's forgiveness for wrongs he never did. What kind of god would demand that?

What kind of a god would on purpose or by neglect let awful suffering come to the good and bad alike? It is still a question. Some despair of an answer. Job's wife tells him it was a fantasy to think God would reward good and punish evil. No such thing. So rise up in anger that all your efforts to be a good person were for nothing."Curse God and die," she says. It is an answer we can well understand. But more is at stake for Job than his own life, his own death. What is at stake is how people are to live with one another. When Job finally lifts his voice it is not to ask forgiveness but to demand some answer from God. Here we begin to see how flimsy are many of our own ways to deal with suffering and injustice in this world, our too-easy answers about rewards in heaven, our day-by-day excuses for living quietly and in comfort while we know full well the lot of- for starters- innocent people in prisons and children born with AIDS.

Job's speech to God in Chapter 31 shows a down-to-earth understanding of how Job had always understood what God meant life to be in a harsh world. It seems an honest speech and a searing accusation. Job says: Look at my life. I wept for those whose day was hard. My soul grieved for the poor. I knew well that you, God, care as much about the poor and the slaves as you do about any of us, and so I reared the orphan like a father. If I saw a person without warm clothing, I gave of my own. I never made wealth or power my goal. I never took delight even in the sufferings of cruel people. I never failed to care well for the land itself. Job says: God, I did feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty and I clothed the naked and visited the prisoner and sat the poor down at my own table. Isn't that what we are supposed to do?

What was read this morning was a tiny excerpt from God's long answer to Job. That answer is at once a beautiful poem and a harsh disappointment. The core of God's answer is simple: Who are you to question me? Instead, Job, I will question you. And so comes the refrain: Where were you, Job? Where were you when I fashioned the earth and when the morning stars sang together? Where were you when I put limits to the sea? Did you ever call for the sun to rise? What do you know of this world? Was it you, Job, who gave birth to the ice? Do you cause rain to fall? Job, do you even know what a wonder is a mountain goat or a horse or a hawk?

Perhaps this reminds some of us of a time that we challenged our mother or our father when we thought they were being unfair. And Mom or Dad gave a sharp answer that didn't seem to have anything to do with our question. Like:"I suppose you know what it takes to keep food on our table, to keep the lights on? I suppose you know how we had to do without for years so that you children could look forward to a good education?" Maybe you've heard something like that. Maybe you've said something like that.

And though the story of Job adds a brief, happy, and very superficial ending, God's poem is the story's climax. Job, like us, wanted an answer. In the end, Job had to face the hard truth that neither God nor religion is about answers. Like the disciples in that Gospel boat today, we are terrified both of the storm and of the one whose word can calm the storm. We might be afraid that if we try to deal here in this assembly with God we'll get a poem instead of an answer and we'll have no idea what to do with that poem. We might on some Sundays have been thinking about the suffering of the innocent in this world, maybe we've been thinking- for it is much in the news these days- about what is almost certain to befall the poor of the world as global warming takes hold. We might be graced to wonder about the fairness of this. After all, those who will suffer and those who will die are very unlikely to be the ones who caused the problem. We might be toying with questions to put to God.

The truth is we do put this to God every Sunday, sometimes well, sometimes not, when we make those prayers of the faithful, those intercessions. It seems harmless enough to raise up the names of the sick, the condition of the homeless, the suffering of those who live with war, the loneliness of the old. It seems harmless but it isn't supposed to be. In fact, when we do this we are Job-like, going before God and saying: This isn't right! How can you let innocent people suffer? Do something about it. Such talking to God is something that comes with baptism.

What else can we do? We're the descendents of Job and of the terrified disciples. It is our responsibility to bang on God's door and demand justice for the innocent. But doing so, we know well the answer God gave Job. Where were you, Job? Where were you, where are you, church of _____?

We work with stories here. We work with hard questions. We work from that never comfortable deed we will together do in a few moments: giving thanks over bread and cup for the life and bloody execution of the one we call our Lord Jesus Christ who asked Job-like questions. Ponder now what hard questions we are going to put to God this day and what we will do when God answers with a poem.

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 B
The following is an example of how catechesis from and for the liturgy may be done in the Sunday homily. This is written as a homily for July 6, 2003, Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B. This is the July 4 weekend. Thus this attempt at mystagogia draws on both the liturgy of the Christian assembly and that of the nation.
Gabe Huck

At the opening end of this weekend stood the Fourth of July, Independence Day, the birthday of the nation. Picnics. Flags. Fireworks. Parades. Speeches. And at this end of the weekend stands our assembly, the Lord's Day gathering of the faithful. Gathering with the sign of the cross. Proclaiming God's word. Thanksgiving over bread and wine. Holy Communion.

Thus within these few days we juxtapose two answers to the question: Who am I? On Friday, we probably answered easily: I am an American. And today the same"Who am I?" question brings the different answer: I am a Christian. Or: I am a Roman Catholic Christian.

What seems to go without saying is that we can also answer: I am a Christian by religion and an American by citizenship. And then one can add: I am a truck driver by profession, a mother, a member of this or that organization, a descendant of slaves or of immigrants or of natives to this land. And so we are. But the question wasn't: What is my religion and what is my citizenship. The question was: Who am I? That is: What is the heart of the matter here, the core? Where and with whom do I find the meaning of life and of my own self? Do I judge a matter by all that makes me Christian or by all that makes me American? What's the mix? Who am I-first and last?

The scriptures that happen to fall on this Sunday seem eager to contribute something to the answer. Ezekiel, the prophet of the dry bones, gets a rare chance to be heard in our assembly. Where is he? He's in Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers, the land we call today Iraq. He and thousands of others were taken into exile when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. These exiles are facing the"Who am I/Who are we?" questions as they never have before. We know from where we stand that some of their children will go back to Jerusalem in a few decades, having decided that"who they are" means being there. And we know that the children of other exiles will stay in Babylon and be the beginning of a Jewish community that has endured and sometimes thrived these 2600 years.

But Ezekiel is speaking here at the very beginning of the exile time, when the community is just sorting out"Who am I?" questions. And little that Ezekiel has to say is going to give much comfort. Perhaps that is why Ezekiel is at pains to say: This is not what I say but what God says. He narrates how God told him:"[O]pen your mouth and eat what I shall give you." Then Ezekiel tells us:"[A] hand stretched out to me, in which was a written scroll. It was covered with writing front and back, and written on it was: Lamentation and wailing and woe! . . . So I opened my mouth and [God] gave me the scroll to eat" (Ezekiel 2:9, 3:2). What is this about? Ezekiel wants it to be clear: If you don't like what I have to say, if you don't like these words of lamentation and wailing and woe, just know that they are not my words but the words God put into my mouth.

We heard today how God gave Ezekiel this commission:"I am sending you to the . . . rebels who have rebelled against me. . . . Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they . . . And whether they heed or resist . . . they shall know that a prophet has been among them" (Ezekiel 2:3–5).

The gospel tells a story that happens more than seven hundred years later. The prophet Jesus is teaching in the synagogue of his hometown. As in Ezekiel's day, there are multiple answers to"Who am I?" and"Who are we?" Are we going to be people who recognize that the Romans are in charge now and our fortunes depend on theirs and so let's get on with life? Or do we see the Romans as enemy occupiers of our land against whom we have to preserve our lives and identities? And what is that identity anyway? And if that isn't enough, who is this Jesus to tell us anything at all, this fellow who grew up here, the carpenter for heaven's sake, Mary's boy? We can almost see the town's people raising their eyebrows and nodding their heads slightly as they add: Yeah, we all know that family.

So we have these two prophets, Jesus and Ezekiel, these two persons who do what prophets do. Prophets do not foretell the future. Prophets tell God's truth about the present. And telling that truth, whether we heed or whether we resist, is where the future comes into it.

The prophet is a problem. Anyone can claim to be one, claim to have God's word, even the most unlikely suspects such as Ezekiel and Jesus. Most are on ego trips. A few are not. How to know the true prophet from the false prophet? The true prophets almost never say things we like to hear. They do offer us some help for answering"Who am I?" and"Who are we?" but they are unlikely to say: We're God's best, we're the apple of God's eye, and now have a nice day. More likely the real prophet will be as hard to take as Ezekiel or Jesus: Not a fun person at the party but someone consumed with getting us to see what God wants of us, hard stuff that God wants.

We come here Sunday by Sunday. Most of the time we have to work hard to hear the prophet's voice here in our assembly. But if we are hungry for God's truth about the present we should know that God's truth is being told right here. What we do here, all of us together, are prophet-like deeds. They move us a little closer to seeing "Who am I?" and"Who are we?" We should know that in this assembly we are little by little able to know who we are meant to be. But we can miss God's truth because our eyes aren't focused, our ears not in tune, our hands in our pockets. All of us miss it most of the time, perhaps because we don't come hungry but already satisfied. The prophetic things we do here often just sail right by.

What prophetic things? What do we do here that tells God's truth about the present moment in the world's life? What do we do here that brings us face to face with any ways we have been holding to some truth other than God's about the world's life in this summer of 2003? What do we do here over and over again on the Lord's Day that is able to give us not words but deeds that will define who we are? What do we do that shapes in us a way to live and a way to see and a way to think and a way to act?

Consider just two tiny deeds of this sort. The first is this: We enter this room and we take water- water that reminds of our baptism- and we make on our bodies the sign of the cross. Then a few moments later, all together as an assembly, we again trace that cross on our bodies. What is this? What are we doing?

We have seen infants brought into this assembly by their parents. Those parents say they are here to ask for baptism. Then presider and parents and godparents all sign the infant with the sign of the cross and the presider says:"I claim you for Christ." And it may be that child will come one day to stand among us and make the sign of the cross with us. It may be that child will learn from parents that the day begins with the sign of the cross, or that we end our prayers at bedside with the sign of the cross."I claim you for Christ." What does that cross we make so simply mean? Or rather: What does it mean to be a person who identifies myself with a cross traced on my body? How is this a prophetic gesture, telling God's truth about this world and how we are to live?

There's one response to that today from Paul in the second reading:"I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10). That sounds like someone who has made the cross his own, who lives as if claimed by Christ. Weakness and insult. Hardship and persecution and constraint. We make the sign of the cross and that's what we're signing on for.

Or think of another tiny prophetic deed we do here each Sunday. When the time comes, the bread is broken for holy communion and we come to the table to take the Body and Blood of Christ. The plate that the minister holds does not have large pieces of bread for some and small pieces for others. The thought is absurd! It does not have large pieces for the best donors, or the most active, or the seniors. It is the same for all. And exactly here is the prophetic deed, telling the truth about who we are. The prophetic deed is saying that before God these distinctions of ours don't matter. In the world we would fashion, all would share and share alike as we do here at this table. And that is a part of this understanding of who I am and who you are and who we are.

Those willing to be so claimed will, like Paul, find ourselves in constant trouble, for there are other claims on us, claims that offer lots more than weakness and insult, hardship and persecution.

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 B
The text below is for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 2, 2006. It is one exploration of how the liturgy the assembly is celebrating, the scriptures that have been listened to, and our lives in the present moment might come together. The quotation at the beginning is from"With Her," a short poem that Czeslaw Milosz (pronounced CHESS-wah MEE-wash) wrote in 1985. If the homilist wants to use this poem, it should be well rehearsed. The four words,"This is for me," seem especially important. The text also presumes that the full (longer) form of the Gospel reading will be heard.
Gabe Huck

We heard a rather startling assertion at the very beginning of the first reading."God did not make death." More than twenty years ago the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years later, wrote about being at Mass on this Sunday at a church in Berkeley, California. That Sunday was his seventy-fourth birthday and the poem tells us that his own advancing age brought thoughts of his mother. Milosz's poem begins:

Those poor, arthritically swollen knees
Of my mother in an absent country.
I think of them on my seventy-fourth birthday
As I attend early Mass at St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley.
A reading this Sunday from the Book of Wisdom
About how God has not made death
And does not rejoice in the annihilation of the living.
A reading from the Gospel according to Mark
About a little girl to whom He said:"Talitha, cum!"
This is for me. To make me rise from the dead
And repeat the hope of those who lived before me,
In a fearful unity with her, with her pain in dying . . .

Milosz heard the readings that we have listened to this morning. Think of how it began:"God did not make death, nor does God rejoice in the destruction of the living." This reading is from the book of Wisdom, probably written about the time Jesus lived. The author is unashamed to celebrate and proclaim that there is wonder and truth not only in the tradition and learning of the Jews, but in other traditions. This writer knows also what harm and what tragedy come when such mutual respect is lacking. Then fear and hatred enter and there are persecutions and terrible clashes between peoples. If God did not make death and does not rejoice in the destruction of the living, neither does God prevent the destruction of the living. But if such destruction, age after age, brings sorrow to God, should not we share in God's sorrow day after day, we who claim that human beings are made in the image of God?

The poet Milosz knew such violence from his early decades in Poland: the Nazi occupation, the war, the destruction of the Jewish community, the hard and oppressive years afterwards, the deportation of whole communities. Milosz heard today's reading from Mark's Gospel from that same history. He heard Mark's two stories, one enfolding the other. The center story tells of a woman who for twelve years had suffered from bleeding and no physician had been able to help her. The outer story tells of a sick child, herself twelve years old, who dies even as Jesus, summoned by her father, is coming to their home.

In the inner story, the woman works her way through the crowd and touches Jesus' clothes. When he asks who has done this, she steps forward"in fear and trembling" because of what she knows has happened to her. Listen to what Jesus says to her:"Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease." There is no rebuke, and there is no demand.

The outer story of the dead child called back to life echoes two stories already ancient when Jesus lived. One of these told of the prophet Elijah who takes the dead body of a child from the grieving mother, carries the body to a small upper room and prays to God for the child. The other story is about the prophet Elisha, some years later, and here, too, a child has died. These children, like the twelve-year-old girl in the Gospel story, are raised to life when the prophets cry out to God. Such stories would have been well known to these grieving parents and their friends, but at the family's home, Jesus finds that the people who have come to mourn the girl's death clearly expect nothing. Instead, they laugh at Jesus and he tells them to leave the house. Then Jesus, the parents and three of Jesus' disciples crowd into the little room where the child lies dead. Jesus- like Elijah and Elisha before him- touches the dead body and says the words that the poet Milosz heard with such gratitude centuries later:"Talitha cum," "Little girl, get up." Those present are"utterly astounded" and the story concludes when Jesus reminds them of practical things, telling them to give this child something to eat.

In the poem, Milosz has four simple words in response to"Talitha cum" and to what the Wisdom writer had said about God not rejoicing in the destruction of the living, and to what had happened to the woman who touched Jesus. Milosz says:"This is for me." And he tells why:

This is for me. To make me rise from the dead
And repeat the hope of those who lived before me,
In a fearful unity with her, with her pain in dying . . .

He is speaking of his mother's life and death and of others"who lived before me." That is why we repeat these ancient stories here. We somehow know to say:"This is for me. This is to make me rise from the dead." Or if we can't say that yet, we want to say it, or we are learning to say: This is for me. This"Talitha cum," this grasping by the hand, this concern that the child be given something to eat."This is for me, to make me rise from the dead." But even more, as we gather here in our assembly, this is for us, this is for the whole assembly here, the whole church. This is for us, to make us rise from the dead. "Little girl, get up." Milosz hears his own name. We are to hear our names and we are to hear the name we are all called,"Church, get up." "Assembly of ________, get up."

We are always veering toward death, always playing loose with what the poet calls"the hope of those who lived before me." We easily forget what the church hopes for, what baptized people hope for. We all so easily shrink this thing called hope and think of it only terms of the tiny world of self and of family. We seem often not to imagine that the hope we have as church grounds itself not in optimism but in looking straight on at what ails our times, what ails our town, what ails our world. In fact, we often avoid paying too much attention to all the sorrow and mayhem of the world or all the scary stuff about climate, because we don't want to be gloomy. We figure: I'll be good as I can be in my own little realm, good to my family, my neighbors, my coworkers. Leave the science and the politics and the economics to someone else.

What difference will it make to us that God does not rejoice in the destruction of the living? What difference will it make to us that a woman broke all the rules to touch Jesus' garment? What difference will it make to us that Jesus takes the hand of a dead child and says simply:"Talitha cum"? Get up, little child. These stories, these words proclaimed in and by the church, these are for us, to make us"rise from the dead and repeat the hope."

The language of that hope is the language we try Sunday by Sunday to speak in this room. It is the language we learn from the scriptures and it is the language that we speak at the table when we lift up our hearts, proclaim the mystery of faith, put the resounding Amen on a prayer that chooses to give God thanks even when we have looked straight at the suffering world and all the ways we ourselves contribute to it. This language of ours, this language of hope, is spoken here with such seemingly harmless, powerless things as bread given to eat and wine to share from a cup, with greetings of peace and songs and processions to the table. We rehearse this and try Sunday by Sunday to find in such words and deeds done together who we are and what we are doing here.

We have no large budgets to back up our language of hope, and the very people most identified with our church often seem intent on reducing that hope to mere institutional survival. No wonder so many of us, never really so fluent in this language of hope anyway, are content to narrow, narrow, narrow ourselves until the world God loves so much is but a blurry background to our own modest ambitions.

But where today, on the Sunday nearest July 4, are we Catholics who are also living in this nation to go with the kind of hope that brought a woman to touch Jesus' garment, that got the little girl to rise up, that got a poet to know and admit a"fearful unity" with the suffering of his mother and of whole peoples and generations? From the hope we proclaim at this table and in our holy communion, do we have anything to confess? Anything to ask of God and of one another? Anything for which honest thanks can be given? These are immense questions because the military and economic might of our nation is- so we say- our responsibility. The failure to join in making national sacrifices to stop global warming is- so we say on July 4-our responsibility in a democracy. The failure to uphold and strengthen international law and courts of law is our responsibility.

This is not only what the church teaches, it is what the church rehearses. Here. On every Lord's Day. At this table. All of us. So when we look, as an example, at the controversy over so-called illegal immigrants, are we right there with the archbishop of Los Angeles and others who have said that if we have to break laws to keep faith with the Gospel, then that is what we must do? This and so many other troublesome issues should be in our hearts and in our conversation this week and beyond.

Sometimes it is so hard, but what we come here to do on Sunday is to remember and rehearse those Gospel hopes that will take us who knows where. Jesus, who sent the woman away in peace and who told the mourners there was nothing to mourn, would soon enough have no garments for anyone to touch and no hand free to take a child's hand. That is what hope means. We come to the table of the one who not only spoke"Talitha cum" to the child, but a moment later said to anyone:"Give her something to eat." That is evidently up to us.

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 B
The following is an example of how catechesis from and for the liturgy may be done in the Sunday homily. This is written as a homily for August 10, 2003, Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. This attempt at mystagogical preaching invites the assembly into reflection and conversation on the presence of bread in our midst Sunday by Sunday.
Gabe Huck

Every third year when we are reading through the gospel of Mark Sunday by Sunday, we come to this stretch of five summer Sundays when we detour from Mark's gospel to John's gospel. Today we are on the middle Sunday of the five. This detour to John happens when we reach Mark's telling of how Jesus fed the multitude with bread and fish. That seems to remind the church that John goes on at some length about this event, and so we go the sixth chapter of John and take these five Sundays to read through it.

Listening to the gospel today we may be thinking: Hey, that sounds like what we read last Sunday. It does! A week ago in the gospel Jesus says,"I am the bread of life." He repeats that in today's gospel and adds:"I am the living bread that came down from heaven." And next Sunday's gospel will begin with Jesus repeating those same words. Two Sundays from now, Jesus admits:"This saying is hard!"

The problem for us may be not that"this saying is hard" but that this saying is no longer shocking, amazing, dreadful even. It may not even catch our attention.

Better at getting our attention are the characters we meet these Sundays in the first readings. Two Sundays ago we met Elisha who did his own multiplication of loaves. Last Sunday we had a story of Moses and the manna God provided in the wilderness when the hungry people were about ready to turn back toward Egypt: Better a good dinner as a slave, they said, than dying of hunger in this endless wasteland. Next Sunday the first reading will introduce a feminine image of God. This is Wisdom and she is calling throughout the city for all to come to the table, to eat and to drink what she will provide. Two weeks from now we meet Joshua, who took over leadership after Moses. Joshua confronts the whole assembly with a choice: Will they serve the Lord or serve the old gods of other times and nations? Joshua draws the line and concludes: "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15).

Elisha, Moses, Wisdom, Joshua- and with them today's appearance of Elijah. Here is possibly the most unpopular prophet of them all. Elijah has just been through the great contest where he took on the prophets of the other gods, prophets in the employ of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Read about it in First Kings 17 and 18. God came through and Elijah won the contest, but also he won the wrath of Jezebel. Now he is on the run from assassins and he is weary in body and spirit and ready to die. Now!"This is enough, O Lord! Take my life!" Loneliness and fear and terror are what his faithful service to the Lord has brought him and he wants no more of it. He falls asleep under a tree, but twice he is awakened by an angel."Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!" And there by Elijah's head is bread and water. So he eats and he drinks and this prophet who came from nowhere and has no following walks off, forty days and forty nights, fasting and alone, to the mountain of God.

Like the hungry people in the wilderness, like all those called to Wisdom's feast, like the crowd that had come to hear Jesus, Elijah is fed, sustained."Get up and eat," the angel tells him. And likewise tells us. Coming every three years to this mix of stories about hunger and food, we can only wonder at our own assembly's hunger and food. But there is even more to put into this wonder today.

By coincidence, we are here listening to these stories on August 10, the day when the church has for centuries kept the memory of St Lawrence. Who was Lawrence? A deacon in third-century Rome. Legends tell that during a persecution of Christians this Deacon Lawrence was summoned before the court and told to produce the riches of the church. Lawrence went out and returned to the court bringing with him the true riches of the church: the poor and the afflicted for whom he cared. Enraged, this official ordered Lawrence to be roasted to death. That roasting is what makes the good coincidence with our readings about food today. As Lawrence was being roasted alive in the presence of his friends, he tried to ease their grief by shouting out to the guards from the barbeque pit:"You can turn me over, I'm done on this side." Remember Lawrence the martyr and the patron of cooks, especially when you are doing your grilling outside. And remember him with that last line from Paul's letter today when Paul says that Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as an offering to God-for a fragrant aroma!There's another place where Paul says that we are all the sweet aroma of Christ. It's hard to keep Christians and cooking apart.

Now one text that our church has prayed on the feast of Lawrence puts these words on Lawrence's lips:"When accused, I did not deny; when asked, I confessed Christ; when roasted, I was thankful." Legends like this may not be eye-witness accounts, but they have a way of getting to the deepest reality. I did not deny, I confessed Christ, I was thankful. Thus did an obscure deacon for the little Christian community in Rome give us vivid language to talk about what we do here on Sundays.

It should be plain for all to see that when we have gathered and completed some time of listening to and pondering God's word, we make prayers of intercession and then take up an offering for the poor and the church. Then we approach the table with bread and wine. It should also be plain for all to see that when the table is prepared, this whole assembly stands and with voices and hearts lifted up gives God thanks and praise. No matter what!"When roasted, I was thankful," Lawrence said. Even then thankful! Lawrence didn't learn this kind of gratitude, this thankfulness, in the barbeque pit. He learned it around a table like this table. He learned to be thankful in the midst of the assembly as they gave thanks every Lord's Day and prayed over bread and wine. When we say that we lift our hearts to the Lord, when we say it is right to give God thanks and praise, when we give full attention to the prayer and to our acclamations right up to our Amen, we are rehearsing like Deacon Lawrence. We are understudies to the saints and martyrs, trying to become a people ever giving thanks to God.

Without the Sunday eucharist, how would Lawrence have known, in the face of death, to mock the powers of the earth- mock them!- by bringing forth what he and other Christians saw as true treasures- poor people, people who were nothing in the eyes of the powerful? Where else except at the table did he come to understand that his lot was cast with the Christ who"handed himself over," who did not claim any privilege- none- but grasped instead at being with the poor and the criminal. And yet this Jesus is the one Paul says was a fragrant aroma. And this is the one who, in John's gospel today, says:"I am the bread! I am the bread of life! I am the living bread!"

Where are Elijah and Moses and Wisdom, where are Lawrence and the"treasures of the church," the poor, when we gather at this table Sunday by Sunday? They are right here beside us. And what then engages us all when we gather at this table? Don't we make a prayer of thanks and praise over these gifts of earth and work of human hands, bread and wine? That prayer begins as we lift up our hearts and continues through to the final Amen before we pray the Our Father. All the stories about bread rattle around in our heads- the living bread, the Elijah loaf, the manna, the sweet table set by Wisdom, Jesus who calls himself living bread- and our own poor bread at this table partakes of all those stories. As Elijah, we take and eat this bread as food for the long journey, the journey of the week ahead, our own forty days and nights walking to Mount Horeb."Food for the journey" is what the church calls viaticum, being"on the way with you," when it is our final communion before death. But every time we eat together at this table, it is viaticum, food for the journey.

It is too miserly of us to treat the great thanksgiving prayer as some lengthy setting for the words of institution,"This is my Body . . . This is my blood." And it is too dull of us to sit back and let the priest do what we may think of as the priest's thing. Here at the table giving thanks is where Lawrence learned what matters. Here is the thanksgiving that shapes our lives into thanksgiving. Here is the wonder of Elijah's bread that can sustain our lives on their way. Here is the whole assembly gathered around and partaking of the bread of the poor, getting it into our hearts and heads, our bones and our muscles that this kind of giving thanks, this kind of reverence, this kind of food shared and shared alike, this kind of communal doing and singing and processing, this is what a Christian community looks like- and if we look like it here and now, we can look like it out there and all week.

What we call eucharist is the true deed we do here together. We miss all the wonder when we settle for saying,"This bread is now the body of Christ. This wine is now the blood of Christ." That is only the shorthand for what is intended, that we who here stand in for the whole world around us, that we are bit by bit becoming that which we here eat and drink, the body and blood of Christ. And if that is so, then we who here give thanks and eat and drink are ourselves taking on the aroma of Christ, which is not simply that of fresh baked bread or hearty wine, but is in fact the aroma- some would stay stench- of the poor like those whom Lawrence loved, the roasted prisoner Lawrence became, the crowded apartment of the barrio, the wasted industrial plants, the hospitals and homes for the aged, poor devastated Iraq. Such an aroma! The aroma of Christ before God.

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).
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year B
What follows is given for August 20, 2006, the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B. This is the fourth of the five consecutive Sundays this summer when the Gospel is from John 6. It is a series of Sundays many homilists understandably find difficult if only because the Gospel texts seem so repetitious. But somewhere in that series of Sundays the homilist should seize the opportunity to do reflection on the Eucharist, specifically mystagogy: What do we do here at this table on Sunday and how well do we do it and what does doing this mean in our lives and our world? A homilist working from the text below might well try to illustrate the first paragraph with an example of such humor (e.g., from a Woody Allen movie, a Garrison Keillor story of Lake Woebegon, a favorite cartoon).
Gabe Huck

Those with an eye and an ear for comedy often make us laugh simply by getting us to observe ourselves doing those little acts that are repeated over and over again in our lives. A couple kissing so quickly they hardly touch as they go their separate ways for the day. A parent's automatic response to some child's misbehavior. We see how some moment, lifted out and looked at, makes us laugh at ourselves. And perhaps more than laugh. Perhaps think about these little moments and how they work in our lives sometimes for good, sometimes not.

Though the Gospel readings for these Sundays of August may seem more tedious than amusing, they ought to be doing something like the comedian who makes us think about how we look and sound when we do some routine thing: brush our teeth or shake hands or walk down a street talking on a cell phone. These Gospel readings the past three Sundays and today and a week from today are a time-out from our year-long reading of Mark's Gospel. Just when we came to Mark's story of Jesus feeding a multitude of people with a little bread and a few fish, we detoured to John's Gospel, chapter 6, and we have been reading that long conversation about Jesus being the bread of life. Here's the question: As in good comedy, can this five-week-long story bring insight, bring helpful reflection on the way we behave in relation to this bread of life?

Think about the gap between what Jesus is saying and what we do with our Sunday gatherings here. On the one hand are Gospel words like these:"I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.""Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you." The other hand has many dimensions: How did each of us wake up and get ourselves here for our weekly eating of the living bread that makes us live forever, our weekly drinking of the blood that is said to give us life? How did we get ourselves ready as we got out of bed, did whatever needed doing, got here and joined the rest of the people? Become a first-time visitor with attentive eyes and ears. What does it look like and sound like in our room here at the moment that this bread is being shared and eaten, this cup shared and drunk? Do we look like, do we sound like we are sharing and eating living bread? Does it look and sound like, in Jesus' own words, we are"feeding" on him?

Perhaps it helps to surround those hard words of Jesus with the other stories we have been reading these weeks. We had the story of the prophet Elisha and how he fed a hundred people with a few barley loaves and even had leftovers. The next week we heard about another feeding, this one when God promised Moses in the desert there would be manna from heaven every morning. Last week that most interesting of prophets, Elijah, was running for his life from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. We heard him praying that God would let him die. But no such thing. Instead an angel woke him with bread to eat and water to drink and this desert meal gave Elijah strength to walk forty days and forty nights.

Today we read of a woman called Wisdom who opens her home to the whole city, the whole earth, in fact. Unlike Moses, who received the manna that would be food for the people through the forty years in the wilderness, unlike Elijah, who was given the angel's bread and water, unlike Elisha, who simply trusted that those few loaves would somehow be enough for the whole crowd- this woman called Wisdom is the one who provides, the one who invites, the one who opens her home and sets her table and gives freely:"Come, eat of my food, drink of the wine I have mixed."

We hear these four stories told during these August Sundays before we hear the drone-like pronouncements of Jesus and the challenges from his hearers and the shaken faith of his followers. Each of the stories is help for seeing ourselves here, now, around this table. For the table has many facets all at once: Here is manna-like food in the wilderness of this world, but not only that. Here is angel-given food and drink to strengthen us for perils ahead, but not only that. Here is generous abundance where we thought there was only greed and scarcity, but not only that. Now- and this is what the woman called Wisdom brings to our story- here is the table meant above all for the simple, for the needy, for the foolish.

The needy? The foolish? Are they here somewhere? And didn't we think that this table is to be approached only by those who are in good standing? Isn't this the table over which is spoken the ancient invitation: Holy things for holy people? Yes to all of that, but yes also to this being the table before which we freely admit,"Lord, I am not worthy." Yes, Lord, we are not worthy, none of us is, but, Lord, here we are. Not: Here we are even though we are foolish, even though we are not worthy, even though we fail again and again. That is not it at all. Rather: Here we are because we are foolish, because we are not worthy, because we fail again and again. If we listen to these stories, if we listen to what Jesus says about feeding and drinking, we can never close down our wonder before this table, never let it be only this or only that when it is so, so much.

The question we who listen to these scriptures must answer is not: Are we worthy?- for we are not worthy. The questions put to us at this table are hard ones: Are we hungry? Are we thirsty? That is the essence of all the stories: to be hungry for the food and to be thirsty for the drink on this table that Wisdom has prepared. Where are our hunger and our thirst? We know that sometimes Christians have gone without food and drink before they come to the table on Sundays, letting that fasting tell them in their own bodies just how hungry they are for the bread of life, how thirsty they are for the cup of salvation. That can still be for some of us an excellent way because the simple hunger in our stomach can open us to learning little by little how to be truly hungry for the bread of this table, thirsty for the cup of this table. Such fasting was and is one way that we let ourselves come here hungry and thirsty for our time together and deeds together on Sunday.

Fasting or not, what we do here we do as an assembly of the unworthy, an assembly of the foolish, an assembly of those whose true hunger and thirst can come to light without any shame. Each of us is to do what we need to find within us such hunger and such thirst that we can hear Wisdom calling us to a full table.

How then are we to conduct ourselves around this table? We heard Paul offer some advice to the church at Ephesus. Paul told them about how to handle themselves day to day, about the good habits they were to cultivate in order to hold to the Gospel, a tiny community living in a hard place and a hard time. What he told them was that the deeds they do together on the Lord's Day are a sort of practice, a rehearsal, for the lives that Christians live. And what deeds are these? Paul says:"Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father."

That is good for us to hear. We are here the generations blessed with the challenges given forty-some years ago by the Second Vatican Council. We are yet a long way from that transformation of Christian life and worship, a long way yet from seeing how life and worship are not separate worlds but the same world. That is what Paul tells the Christians at Ephesus. He wants them to know by heart their songs and psalms, for these, both on their lips and in their hearts, will be a language for addressing one another and even for addressing the world out there.

Where are our songs? Where are our psalms? What do we have on our lips and in our hearts, both here and all the other places and days? Paul wants them above all to know that baptized people have this amazing task: to give thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father. And where are we to learn to be such givers of thanks? Lift up your hearts, we say. And we respond: (pause to let all respond). And we say, Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. (Pause to let all respond.) And then the whole prayer that we make until we sing our great Amen is the heart and soul of Christian prayer and life: Giving thanks to God in the midst of everything, giving thanks even when grieving, giving thanks even when repenting, giving thanks even when weary, giving thanks even when crying out to God with a passion for justice and for the poor.

That is how we stand around our table, hungry for our true food, thirsty for our true drink. And it is not something we do alone. Always, always and only we do it as the church, this assembly of the baptized. If at this table each Sunday we tell again with amazement and with thanksgiving what Jesus said,"This is my body" and "This is my blood," if we call God's Holy Spirit to come upon our gifts and affirm this with a resounding Amen, if we come to the table and feed upon the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation, then are we not ourselves being slowly transformed to be the food and the drink that give life to the world?

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-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year B
Our exploration of mystagogical preaching continues. What follows is a homily for September 7, 2003, Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time of Year B. It is also Labor Day weekend and the week of the second anniversary of September 11, 2001. The intent here has been to preach in a way that draws on the assembly's (including the homilist's) experience of hearing the Letter of James read through these Sundays, as well as the experiences of being a Sunday assembly and of Labor Day and of September 11.
Gabe Huck

For these several weeks as summer turns to autumn, we are hearing in the second readings the letter of James. Through the centuries many have argued that this piece of writing doesn't belong in the Bible. Some Christian churches decided to exclude it. The letter itself is only three or four pages long. It is eloquent at times, but it is also harsh and hard to take. But every three years, we who take James's letter as part of scripture, grit our teeth and open the letter and we read it aloud. We started last Sunday and will be continuing most of September.

We know we're in trouble when the first line James writes to the church is:"My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy." Joy? Joy, we might reply, may be what we expect after the trial, a reward for enduring the trial. But for James, joy is the trial itself- and by trials the author is talking about serious afflictions and persecutions. Our letter back to James that might begin: Speak for yourself.

Last week's reading had James in one of the best known passages:"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father," James writes,"is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:27).  Period. James makes it clear: Show me what you do, and I'll tell you if you are religious or not. Perhaps he had heard what Jesus says in Matthew 25: the judgment before God is going to be about the hungry fed and the prisoners visited and the sick cared for. Period.

Now immediately after telling us how to test true religion, James goes after the problem at hand. This is what we heard today. He writes (in the NRSV translation):"My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?" What a question! We tend to think that what I claim to believe I believe- no matter how I act. James will have none of this and he moves directly to confront us with a question just as valid now as all those centuries ago. What happens, he asks, when you gather on the Lord's Day and there you all are, and just before the song begins, somebody you don't know walks in. What if this person is wearing well-tailored, expensive clothing and some costly jewelry? What reaction do you have? Where do your thoughts go? What do you say and what do you expect to happen? So far so good.

Now, James says, what happens in the very same circumstances - the Lord's Day, all together ready to pray and read scripture- and someone walks in wearing shabby, ill-fitting clothes that have not been washed in months. What reactions do you have? What do you say to this person? What is your instinctive reaction? What do you expect to happen?

Remember: James is trying to make a point about what religion is and is not. So he sets up this situation that anyone in the community might encounter on any given Sunday. We must answer the questions honestly. Do we react in one way to the person who is well dressed and in another way to the person who might have spent the night sleeping in a doorway? If so, says James, then we have made ourselves judges. James chose two persons at different ends of the economic spectrum. He could have used other measures than wealth and dress, but perhaps this difference is the most telling. Wealth and good clothing speak of being comfortable and secure and perhaps powerful. But the threadbare and bad smelling speak of one without comforts, without security, without power. Age to age and continent to continent, that difference persists.

By the accidents of the calendar, the questions James asks become more pointed in our gathering today. We are on the eve of Labor Day in the United States, a day that would never have been invented or needed had there not been haves and have nots. We are part of a society whose powerful media and advertising engines coax us to identify with the haves, with the well-dressed and the celebrities.

Labor Day wasn't meant to be for saying sweet things about how work is meant to be fulfilling. Labor Day was meant to raise questions about whether we should stomach a lopsided economic system that gives as much to the richest one percent as to the poorest fifty percent- and leaves most of us closer to the poor but holding on to the coattails of the rich. James has a message for us this Labor Day about the rich and the poor and the in-between: "Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be heirs of the kingdom promised to those who love God? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?" (James 2:6). With lines like these, it is easy to picture James with a bullhorn in his hand. He has some angry, tough questions. He wants us to look at the rich, perhaps including ourselves, and look at the poor, perhaps including ourselves, and get it straight once and for all. Neither rich nor poor are to be dishonored. And neither is one to be honored above the other. Is it possible?

Here are two of many things that this assembly, our whole roomful of baptized people, might try to deal with today and through September as we continue to read the letter of James.

First, we notice that both these characters- the poor person and the rich person- are welcome to walk through the doors in James's church and in ours. Neither one stays away because of fear of being out of place. If the world outside has rich and poor, if it has men and women, old and young, educated and uneducated, healthy and sick, if it has a spectrum of skin colors, if it has abilities and disabilities- then all those kinds ought to be in our meeting place also. In fact, if this assembly has somehow learned to do without the spectrum of the world outside, then we have already done what James is so adamantly against: we have made distinctions, set ourselves apart. So first we examine ourselves on this: Do we who constitute this assembly look and speak and smell mostly alike? If so, then we've made ourselves in the mode of this society so segregated by race and money and age and sexual orientation and educational levels. Where else in our society if not here will all be welcomed alike, poor and rich and in between, old and young and in between, all the spectrum of ability and disability? We are to do something here that seldom gets done today, even in the schools and the jails. There is no more rich or poor, male or female, young or old in the reign of God and that's what we are trying to gather here.

Second thing James brings home is: The way we act inside this place is like a rehearsal for the way we are going to act outside. Once in the early centuries of the church a teacher, no doubt one familiar with the letter of James, wrote this to the bishop about the gathering of the church on the Lord's Day:"If the church is all assembled and the room is full and then a poor person arrives and there is no place left for this person, then you, Bishop, give this poor person your own chair even if you have to sit on the floor." And how then do we think that this bishop is to act in the crowded waiting room of the doctor's office, or when alerted to the asthma that is spreading among young children in the poor part of the city, or when considering the lopsided distribution of the earth's resources? If the bishop learned in the house of the church on Sunday morning to give his chair, the very symbol of authority, to a poor person who can find no other place in the room, how will this bishop act all the rest of life?

And so it is with all of us. If when we come here we come wearing whatever we wear but somehow really wearing only the all-alike robe of our baptism, if somehow here we practice treating all alike, treating each one with great respect for each one's humanity, treating all alike as child of God regardless of gifts and limitations, then what can we expect of ourselves when we are in the doctor's waiting room, or when we learn about the asthma, or when we consider the horrors of wealth and poverty in the world?

Here we are putting on our baptism, putting on the Lord Jesus Christ. Here we are learning the reverence we are to have for every human being-learning it in how we support one another in song and attentive prayer, in how we walk together all alike in the communion procession, learning it in the way we lift up to the Lord the troubles of all and then together lift up to the Lord our hearts, learning it in the way we embrace one another or grasp hands and speak the word of peace, learning it in the way we eat from the same loaf and drink from a common cup- all alike, whatever our age, our wealth or poverty, our accomplishments or failures, our abilities or disabilities. And it isn't easy here but we keep coming and we keep trying because most of us will never get it right out there in day-to-day life without the practice and the strength and the skill we gain here.

Now, expect to be put to the test this week. On Thursday, September 11, we will be told we are to leave this gospel stuff at home, told we are not before all else the baptized but the threatened, not the church but part of a fearful citizenry, not servants of all but masters of the world. We will be asked again to draw lines between ourselves and the outsiders, lines that turn into walls and fences. We will be told that indeed, contrary to what James may have ranted about, you can't treat the rich and the poor the same. Expect to be put to the test. And when we are put to the test this week, together we can remember who we are most truly and finally. We are the people who do in our lives what we rehearse here every Sunday. Expect to be put to the test. Hold on to one another.

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-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year B
From September through December of this year, these attempts to explore mystagogical preaching will have a common thread: the rituals of the household (be that one person or many). Perhaps placing these homilies in the fall will build on the cultural sense that September is in many ways the beginning of a new year in people's lives. Each of these four homilies will, as usual, spring from the liturgy and the scriptures of a specific Sunday. The text below, an initial reflection on rituals of the home, is presented for Sunday, September 17, the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B. It calls attention to the Letter of James (this is the middle of five Sundays when the church is reading that letter). In the following three months of 2006 these homilies will deal more specifically with scripture reading, morning and evening and night prayer, and meal prayer. How do these relate to the Sunday liturgy? How do they become good habits? How do they shape our lives for gospel deeds? If a parish would decide to treat these as a series, it would be possible and helpful to provide households with access to good resources and perhaps also to offer some extended catechesis and discussion apart from the Sunday liturgy. Probable dates for the three homilies to follow are October 8, November 19, and December 17. 
Gabe Huck

We are today in the middle of the five Sundays when, every third year, the church grits its teeth and reads that short and disturbing part of the Bible called the Letter of James. We began it two weeks ago today and we'll conclude two weeks from today. This is a letter that some churches judged too eccentric to be included in the Bible or read in the liturgy. But for us, here it is. The whole letter is only a few pages long. The writer had strong ideas and opinions about how the followers of Jesus ought to live. James doesn't beat around any bushes and doesn't deal in generalities. Though writing during the very first generation of Christians, the author knows that already Christians find it hard to let the gospel shape their lives. So this James makes an impassioned appeal to the church, a down-to-earth look at how Christians might live their lives day by day.

We had a good taste today of how direct and perhaps even sarcastic James can be. We heard this:"If a brother or a sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,' but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?" If that made people squirm all those centuries ago, all the more it makes us squirm now when we know full well what multitudes on this earth live without even"the necessities of the body." We may not even trouble to say,"Go in peace, keep warm, eat well." We just change the channel because it isn't our fault, is it? James doesn't care that we know the Creed and come to church. James wants to see some action from those who have accepted the gospel. If we are waiting for justice to come from the rich and powerful of the world, we'll wait forever.

Nor is James easy on us for our deference to the wealthy and the powerful. Remember what we heard last Sunday from James:"If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,' while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,' or ‘Sit at my feet,' have you not made distinctions among yourselves?" James has observed what we all observe, the thousand ways we bow and smile before those with more wealth than ourselves, and ignore or worse those with less. James would not have been surprised at how today we give such attention in the media and in conversation to the celebrities. But what interest do we have in the dull misery of immigrants, inmates, AIDS victims, sweatshop workers, and on and on? James wants to pull the blinders from our eyes, saying that we have things upside down:"Is it not the rich who oppress you?" James asks us.

James wants the church to figure out what the gospel means when it comes to there being rich and poor in the world. James clearly has cast his lot with the poor. In one place he writes:"Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom?" As for the rich, he says:"In the midst of their busy lives, they will wither away." Two Sundays from now we will be reading from the concluding paragraphs of the Letter of James and we will hear a final and vivid word to the rich:"Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire."

The last we'll hear from James until fall of 2009 is a sentence that sounds as if it were meant for us, for the churches of the United States. Perhaps it will stay in our hearts:"You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter."

Is this day, our day, these times we live in, such a day of slaughter? By every way of counting, yes. Is it also a day when many within the world's mightiest military power are living in luxury and in pleasure? By any fair comparison to the lot of most people on earth today, we are. In a day of slaughter by weapons old and new, by hunger and by AIDS, by prisons and by torture, by bad water and new diseases and the calamity of global warming, in such a day we mostly mind our own business, guard our own borders, look out for our own futures, and have no ears and no patience for fiery preachers like James. Besides, whatever difference could any of us make?

Thanks be to God that James and his like were not expelled from the scriptures. Somehow these wild-eyed but clear-sighted preachers and prophets are still being heard when the church gathers to do the eucharist. And what James is saying is what we need to hear when we gather here to do our thanksgiving to God over bread and wine, and our sharing in the body and blood of Christ at this table. The people who have died to sin and are alive now in Christ Jesus, that is ourselves, together lift our voices in intercession and bold complaint to God, and then again make a thanksgiving that contains even lamentation, and then together break and share one bread and drink from one cup, eating and drinking to proclaim that death by which we have life. Perhaps we know that these deeds are Images of what we long for and what James longed for, the world a common table where all share and share alike.

But our deeds here on Sunday are necessarily so brief, just this time together on Sunday. And that needs our attention. Are we agreed that we are first and last members of the body of Christ who have accepted the gospel, and only as such are we anything else, be it teachers or students, laborers or professionals, citizens or members of organizations? But if we are ever to figure out how to do that, we will have to find and hold unto ways that this scripture and this eucharist on Sunday are echoed in the little rituals of our every day. Christians, like other believers in this world, have now very little sense for what was once just common sense. That is, the coming and going of every one of our days needs its moments of prayer, alone or with others in our households. If we take James and all the others seriously, if we take this eucharist seriously and our baptism, too, we are needing rhythms to our days when we rehearse and echo our assembly's Sunday eucharist.

What we hear in the scriptures here on Sunday and what we must do around this table, these are like some strenuous athletic event where there are no spectators. Everyone of us must be training to do these deeds. If one such deed is attentive listening to God's word in the scriptures, then are we training for that day by day with Bible open and passages long and short to be read? If another such deed is naming all the troubles of the world, interceding for all the suffering in the world, then who can do this except by daily exercising, daily practicing, daily clamoring for God's attention? And if another such deed is lifting up our hearts and giving thanks to the Lord our God, where are we daily exercising that deep thanksgiving? This is the thanksgiving that Christians learn to make not by pretending that all's well with the world, but by facing head-on that all is not well, that the sounds of our helpless lamentation must be somehow woven together with the sounds of our everlasting thanks to God. As those baptized, this thanksgiving is our right and it is our duty.

We are in the midst of September. For many of us the rhythm of family and work make September like the beginning of a new year, a month to adjust the routines and find the rhythms that will take us through fall and winter and spring. Could we make beginnings this September with creating one or two simple habits? From our tradition we can name what might be the elements of these habits. (From time to time this fall we will reflect more carefully on each of these. For now, just an overview of the tradition.)

Those habits of prayer attach themselves to the moments that have to come every day, to those little passages that get us from here to there and there to here. We get tired and we sleep and we rise. That basic rhythm, the to and fro of sleep and waking, has seemed to many peoples the necessary moments of ritual, of prayer. We all know waking, rising, taking care of our bodies. The time and the mood may alter with weekday and weekend, with sickness or good health or life's worries, but still this is a passage we're likely to make every day. And our tradition has been to mark this daily passage with words and gestures that relate to both the sleeping and the waking. Through the centuries Christians have made the prayer of early morning a prayer of praise, a eucharistic prayer of simple thanksgiving that we and the world have come to morning. Whatever else it may be, we proclaim that the new day is God's gift.

And when the day has passed and the body is weary, the passage is toward rest, toward sleep. Many of us learned as children,"Now I lay me down to sleep . . . ." And that prayer for safety in the night and for a good death at last is what the Christian always prays at night in a variety of ways. But there is more to the night. We pray for family, friends, those in distress, peace, hope. We pray as Jesus taught us to pray. And each night we cannot help being aware that the day ending has had its hard moments and its failures and we pray for God's mercy.

All our days have another transition that comes simply from our need to eat. This also is a passage: from hunger to nourishment, and often from being alone to being with others. How are we to mark this moment whether we are alone or with family? What do we learn here at this altar table that prepares us for all the other tables where we eat and drink?

Within the daily ways of praying we need time also when we open the book that the church always carries, the book we read here each Sunday, our Bible, our scripture. Listening to God's word here, together, was never meant to be the only time we open the Bible. Rather, the reading here becomes vital and provocative and lively only when many of us are reading that book day by day, discovering its poetry, complexity, stories, letters, parables, and on and on. The scriptures are not riddles, are not the private domain of scholars and preachers. They belong to all of us and they are part of a conversation we joined at baptism.

Have we wandered far from that Letter of James with its no-nonsense approach to how to live a Christian life? Or have we wandered right into the middle of James's exhortations to turn our lives to gospel paths? Here in the daily prayers of Christians we can come to the strength to take that hard path, the joy to know what matters and what does not, the love we have for this world that God loves.

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 B
What follows is a homily for October 5, 2003, Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B. It is the day after the feast of Francis of Assisi. The intent is a mystagogical reflection on what it is to bless and to be blessed.
Gabe Huck

In a book about the words and gestures we Christians have to make our daily way from the waking hours to the time of rest, a Colorado mother wrote this about how she would sign each child at night with the sign of the cross on the forehead:

"I began, nearly twenty years ago now, to mark my children with the sign of the cross. Lying in bed, just before sleep, they can feel my thumb as it traces the strokes- now down, now across- of their true shape and rightful belonging. I sign them as I did on the day of their baptism, a first and final blessing."

She writes also of the years when children begin to leave home for longer journeys, for school trips and summer trips. She would sign their foreheads just as she had done as a night time blessing, but:

"It is my experience that teenagers leaving for rafting trips or orchestra tours do not wish to be signed on the forehead with the cross. They do not wish it as they do not wish to have ‘geek' printed across their foreheads in red permanent marker. There is a danger of smeared make-up, of oily thumbs on freshly de-oiled skin, of hooking a careful curl and messing up the mousse . . . I have persevered, and so have my teenage children. I have aimed and they have ducked, flinched, grimaced, bobbed and weaved. . . . I have had Mary Margaret close her fingers gently around my upraised wrist and assure me, as one assures those who need to find a hobby, get a job, get a life, put down the knife, ‘Mom, it's all right.'

"When Abram left for college, the first of our five to leave, he came to me and solemnly, silently, inclined his head. . . . I realized what he was waiting for, what he was asking for: his blessing. And I was at last able to reach forward slowly and make that most graceful of Christian gestures with deliberation and care. ‘Abram,' I said, ‘go with God. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.' It had been a long time coming, that bending of his stiff, adolescent neck, that inclining of his head toward my hand upraised in blessing. So slowly does the heart turn that we cannot detect the movement. And so little do we trust that we despair of what we cannot see. ‘Eighteen years,' I lay in bed that night and thought, ‘eighteen years is almost half of my life, and he just now comes to ask for his blessing' " (Melissa Nussbaum, I Will Lie Down This Night, LTP, 1995, pages 121–25).

What is this thing we do called blessing? When we assemble here, most of us come into the room and take some water and"bless" ourselves. And before we take leave of one another, we hear:"May almighty God bless us . . ." or some similar words that invoke blessing. What is blessing? What do we mean when we"bless" ourselves or invoke the"blessing" of God in our assembly? What was the mother who told that story doing when she would sign her children at night with the cross, and what was happening when the boy leaving for college bent his head to receive her blessing? Why do some people respond to an "ACHOOO," with a"God bless you"? What do we imagine when we say each Sunday at our table that Jesus"blessed" the bread,"blessed" the cup before saying, "Take this, all of you, eat. . . . Drink"?

Could one imagine Christianity- or Judaism or Islam- without the notion of blessing? It is fundamental in our scriptures. Think of Jacob wrestling all night with the angel. All night! And finally Jacob has the angel pinned and the angel begs,"Let me go!" But Jacob says,"I will not let you go unless you bless me" (Genesis 32:26). What is blessing? Think of old Moses near the end of the long wilderness time when he blesses the ragged, tired people:"Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading-bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out" (Deuteronomy 28:3–6). Think of the hymn called Old Hundredth because it is really Psalm 100:"Praise God from whom all blessings flow!" All blessings! Our poetry and song echo this thousands of times as in"Joyful, joyful we adore thee." There we begin a verse:"Always giving and forgiving, / Ever blessing, ever blest."

Ever blessing, ever blest. We address this to God. Whatever it is, this blessing we speak of, whatever it means to bless and to be blessed, it seems it has to do always with the very self-giving of God, with peace inside and out that we could never find by ourselves, with the birth and growth of children that are always miracles to us, with the astounding beauty of night or of day, with the great goodness of food and drink. Ever blessing, but also "ever blest" for in the scripture and in our practices, the blessing God does, the blessing that God is, becomes the blessing that we do. We learn from God how to behave toward creation and toward one another. With blessing. Jesus leaves no doubt when he proposes the absurd idea:"Bless those who curse you!" (Luke 6:28). Ever blessing, ever blest. And long before Jesus the people began to speak as if all those who have God's blessing can do something that seems impossible: They can bless God!

We don't need a definition of blessing, we know what blessing is from years of living and years of the scripture stories and years of being loved or not, loving or not. Blessing is what God does and what a good parent does. It might be the shortest ever way of saying what you and I are trying to do in this world, this place where we are so often caught up in the opposite of blessing, the curse. Think of the saint the church remembered yesterday, October 4, Francis. As a teenager he got to know first-hand the way of cursing, the way of war, the way the rich have while the poor don't. But he turned around, opened his eyes, saw that the work of God is blessing and made it his work also. He walked naked from his father's house, he embraced the lepers and cared for their sores, he taught the killer wolf the way of peace, he went in peace to see the one person whom the whole Christian world called evil itself- the Sultan, and in the Sultan, leader of the Muslim people, he found a gentle and learned soul.

Francis died young, having taught the way of blessing to all who cared to pay attention. Near the end he wrote the canticle we try to make our own:"Be praised, my Lord, for brother sun, for sister moon, for brother wind and sister water." Francis dared to bless God even for death, for"sister death" who once embraced our Lord Jesus. We may love to put little statues of this good person Francis in our gardens, but have we learned to bless as he blessed? Have we learned that God's blessing frees us from grasping for more, God's blessing allows us to abstain and shout"No" when everyone seems set for war, God's blessing lets us turn away from paying for prisons, and indeed frees us from all anxiety? God's blessing can make us bold and joyful as Francis.

Think of what we hear in scripture about blessing. Today Genesis has a poem on the lips of delighted Adam when at last, the old story tells it, God succeeds in fashioning a fitting companion. Is not this speech by Adam a blessing of God:

"This one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh" (Genesis 2:23).

God is blessing Adam, God is blessed by Adam. Ever blessing, ever blest! It is the first love song in our scripture, but it follows the story of creating everything. This whole blessing business started when God blessed the swarms of living creatures and blessed the male and the female. Every day God saw that the creation was good and at the end God even blessed the seventh day and so holiness was in time as well as space.

Jesus does likewise. When his disciples would send the pesky children away, Jesus rebukes them, speaks sternly to them. They, like us, have not been paying attention or they would know better."Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the dominion of God- the kingdom of God, the reign of God- as a little child will never enter it." That is: My friends, don't you know this yet? Don't you know that these children here aren't a distraction to our lives and our work. They are our lives and our work. And don't you know yet that we're not here to dominate the children, but to imitate them? Don't you see what they are?" And then Jesus showed what the children are, for he took them up in his arms, and he laid his hands on them, and he blessed them. And, almost certainly, they also blessed him.

There is something Jesus does here that we must not miss. He laid his hands on them. This was already for centuries the way human beings honor and bless one another. Not in the violent sense of laying hands on someone, but in the blessing sense. So we do when we anoint the sick, when we confirm, when we scrutinize the catechumens, when we come to the sacrament of penance, when we ordain. And even here, at this table, we have a laying on of hands as we pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and the gifts of bread and wine and make them for us the Body and Blood of Christ. It is the same as the mother who writes about the bedside prayer with her children, her blessing each one with the thumb making the sign of the cross on the child's forehead. So might we do for our children, so might we do for one another in our homes at night and when we must separate for some time from those we love.

Here in the book of our scriptures, here at our table, here in the presence of one another we see that blessing is all around us; we, like God, are ever blessing, ever blest. So we are sent to live the life of the blessed, the life of blessing.

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-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year B
Do I want to see and am I willing to make the request, do the work, ask the questions, to pay attention, to go through the lifelong striving to clear away the vanities, the pretensions, the lies?

In October 2003, the last time these particular scriptures were read, the homily in this column was for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time and it dealt with the notion of blessing and particularly how this has been and can be part of our everyday lives: e.g., parents blessing their children. It spoke also of the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, celebrated the previous week, and of Francis as example of one who was blessed and who blessed others. That homily may be helpful this year in continuing to explore the place of ritual and prayer in daily life (on this, see the homily for September 2006 which began a series of four on rituals of everyday life). The homily below, though it refers in places to the scriptures of the Twenty-seventh Sunday, is suggested for the following week, October 15, 2006, the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B. It explores two aspects of what our tradition of ritual and daily prayer has been: the reading of scripture and the prayer of early morning. As often in these homilies, the homilist ranges over the scriptures of several Sundays. This is a deliberate effort to encourage both homilist and assembly to grasp what a lectionary is and what we are to do with it; it also sets up the discussion of daily reading from scripture.
Gabe Huck

In just six weeks we will conclude our year-long reading of Mark's gospel. As that gospel nears its telling of the passion and death of Jesus, Mark's rapid chronicle of Jesus' ministry slows a bit and he has a series of stories where people ask Jesus questions. Two Sundays ago we heard one of the disciples asking what to do about people who drove out demons in Jesus' name, but weren't part of the community around Jesus. Jesus said to leave them alone. Then last Sunday Jesus was asked whether he agreed that a husband should be able to divorce his wife. Jesus' answer was from the poetry of the creation stories in Genesis. Mark follows this with a little confrontation between Jesus and his disciples when some of them tried to keep children away from Jesus.

Today the question in Mark's gospel seems something like the old story of the person who goes to the ends of the earth to find some saint or guru who will answer the question:"What is the meaning of life?" Here a man runs up to Jesus, falls on his knees and asks:"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus first suggests what the man already knows: Keep the commandments of the law, the Torah."I have done this," the man tells Jesus, as if to ask: What more? And suddenly this story becomes a challenge:"You are lacking in one thing," Jesus tells him. That turns out to be one very crucial thing.

If we look ahead, we see that next Sunday the question to Jesus comes from the brothers James and John, two disciples who are always part of the inner circle around Jesus. They ask about what's in it for them, maybe a promise for the most glory if and when this kingdom of God ever comes about. Jesus will be quite direct with them:"You do not know what you are asking," he says and then turns the questioning back toward them:"Can you drink the cup that I drink? Can you be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" Jesus answers one question with another question as he did with the rich man who wanted eternal life, and suddenly the questioners are hearing more than they wanted to know. Jesus tells the two ambitious disciples that he is turning things upside-down. He himself will be the servant of all and will give his very life.

Mark's gospel concludes these question-and-answer stories three weeks from today. In that final story Mark tells of someone who asks Jesus to name the most important commandment. Jesus does so, and after that, Mark says,"no one dared to ask him any more questions." But before that happens, Mark tells one story (we hear it two weeks from today) when the question is not addressed to Jesus but it is Jesus who asks first. This is the story about a man who is blind and who begs at the roadside. This man makes a great commotion as Jesus passes by. Jesus asks to meet him and then comes Jesus' question:"What do you want me to do for you?" The man answers as we all would answer and should answer:"I want to see."

"I want to see" is perhaps the truth behind all the other questions. This simple statement of something so straightforward became in the communities of Christians a way to talk about what it means to become a follower of Jesus. They knew that this meant striving to see, asking to see. But what does this"seeing" mean? Why it is such an excellent and universal way to talk about the Christian's life?"I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see." Do I want to see and am I willing to make the request, to do the work, to ask the questions, to pay attention, to go through the lifelong striving to clear away the vanities, the pretensions, the lies? I want to see the deep goodness of God's creation. I want to see without blinders what humankind has made of God's creation. I want to see!

All these question-and-answer gospel stories from Mark are tiny pieces of this striving to see. Someone wants to know the most important commandment, someone else asks a question about who's getting the best reward, someone else asks a trick question about divorce, and someone else gets told more than he wants to know about the cost of being a disciple of Jesus.

And what of ourselves? Do we have hard and urgent questions? Do we want to see? Some will say yes. Others of us aren't so sure or never think about it, but can we take two steps to finding ourselves with a passion to see, and with the questions that get us there?

One step would involve this book where the question stories are found, the book we open every time we gather here, reading and listening to three readings each Sunday. That reading of the scriptures in the assembly was already the common Jewish practice when Jesus came to the synagogue on the Sabbath. This communal reading of the Bible simply passed into the little communities of Christians and we have been doing it ever since. Where the church goes, the scriptures go; when the church gathers, the book is opened and the scriptures are read. Whatever the century, the continent, the politics, the language, the wealth or poverty, when the church gathers, the book is opened and the scriptures are read.

For Catholics, one of the first reforms of the Second Vatican Council to be implemented forty years ago was the Council's decision that we read more scripture Sunday by Sunday, a three-year cycle of readings rather than the old one-year cycle, and normally three readings on Sunday rather than two so that the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, would be read more often. This year of 2006 is the middle year of the three-year cycle, the year when Mark's gospel is read.

What happens here in this assembly, though, depends on what happens outside. Here we open the book and we read and we listen. But if in our lives that is the only opening of the book, the only reading, the only listening, we will have a hard time doing it well. What we do here on Sunday should be shaping what we do day by day. And the day by day opening of the book in our homes and reading the scripture will be training us for the listening we do here on Sundays. For us the scriptures are not just a way to get ready to do the Eucharist. Rather, the church reading its scripture is the foundation for all else that we do: the foundation of Eucharist, the foundation of justice, the foundation of service and of charity. The foundation is that on which all the other parts are to be built. No foundation, no building.

For some of us, time is a problem. Others of us are frightened by the size and seeming complexity of the Bible. Maybe once we tried to read this book, a little every day, but it didn't last. We got too busy. We got too bored. Can we try again or try for a first time? Can we do this as a household and, if not, as individuals? Can we look at what is fairly constant in our weekday and weekend routines and identify a time and a place where we can sit for just five minutes, just that, and be reading through day after day? Can we do this from one of the better translations, the New Revised Standard Version or the New American Bible? Can we do this from a book where scholars have provided some helpful introductions and explanatory notes?

If we want to read the Bible a few minutes each day as a family, a household, we need to identify the time when we are most likely to be together, but also understand that the reading will happen whether on a given day we can all be there or not. For some that would be breakfast, for others dinner, for others later in the evening. We need this regular time, a place, a good Bible, and a plan for which books of the Bible we will read. Maybe we begin by reading Mark's entire gospel, beginning to end. Or maybe we read Luke's gospel in preparation for the Sunday gospels that begin this December and go through next year. Or maybe we begin at the beginning, with Genesis and its vaguely familiar characters. Or maybe we begin with some tiny books, the Letter of James or the Letters of Peter or the Song of Songs or the shorter books of the prophets. Read the introductory notes first to know something about who probably wrote this, and for whom, and when, and where and why.

Whatever we choose, when Friday or Saturday comes, read the scriptures that we will be reading here together on Sunday.

The second regular practice to think about today is this: Find a way to pray in the early morning, in the time soon after we open our eyes again to a new day. Jewish prayer has a way of doing this that simply follows what happens to each of us when the alarm goes off. These are the tiny prayers of thanks and praise to God for the simple things that happen. For example:"Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for you take the sleep from my eyes, the slumber from my eyelids." That is like a prayer when we wash our face each morning. Or:"Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for you clothe the naked." That is a prayer when we dress for the day. Or this prayer just for that tough moment when we go from the posture of night to the posture of day:"Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for you raise up those who are bowed down."

With these and other short prayers of praise, we do two things. First, we join ourselves and our day to this Sunday Eucharist where despite everything that's wrong with us and the world, we lift up our hearts and give thanks and give praise to God. Always. Everywhere. That's what baptized people do, but baptized people need to rehearse, need to get that thanks and praise into our muscles and our bones and our hearts and our lips. It may be that even this simple short praise to God comes hard in the first minutes of our new day. That's expected. But when we pray, we put on our baptismal garment and we pray as the church. We pray not from the feelings of the moment, but from the promises of our baptism. We pray not from how we feel but from who we are.

And so the second thing we are doing becomes clear: When we do such prayer in the morning, we immediately put ourselves not only in the presence of God, where we are always, but in the presence of those who are bowed down in so many ways by so many afflictions and oppressions, those who are naked, those who cannot see. We open our own eyes and we look where we should be looking, we get this eucharistic work straight first thing in the morning. Such morning prayer almost surely will put us in the company of those we meet in Mark's gospel, the people with many questions.

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).