Saturday, September 10, 2016

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
Ps 51
1 Tim 1:12-17
Lk: 1-32

“Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see”

The first stanza of one of the English speaking world’s greatest and most well-known hymns says it all.  The words were written by John Newton in 1772 when he had the same realization Paul described to Timothy.  He had the same realization as the psalmist. He had the same realization as the prodigal son of the gospel. I am a sinner.  Weirdly enough, there are other versions of the hymn that replace the word wretch with the non-judgmental and vaguely self-affirming term "soul", or the thoroughly pallid, “that saved and set me free”

These revisionist song writers are trying to deny the reality that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and redemption.  The sanitized versions of the hymn apparently understand the human condition in the same way as Garrison Keilor described Lake Woebegone,

“. . .where all the men are strong,
the women good-looking,
and the children above average.” 

Today’s readings testify to the fact that we are wretches in need of saving.  They affirm that the we are sinners.  But, we are sinners who are actively and passionately pursued by God who loved us first.  By God who continues to love us.  How can anyone explain the behavior of the Israelites in the desert?  When Moses did not return from Mt. Sinai quickly enough they manufactured and worshipped the infamous golden calf.  How quickly they forgot what God had done for them.  We differ from the ancient Israelites only in our choices of false gods.  More often than not the false god is a version of our own image of ourselves.  Being a wretch, being a sinner, being in need of repentance and forgiveness  is not usually part of that image. 

The letter to Timothy gets it right, just as the original version of Amazing Grace gets it right,

“I was once a blasphemer
and a persecutor
and arrogant. 
But I have been mercifully treated.” 

After this confession of his own sin, Paul goes on to state a fundamental tenet of our faith:  “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance, 
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Like God the Father with the Israelites in the desert—Jesus is patient and forgiving.  We need only admit that we are sinners, confess our sins, and ask for forgiveness. 

The responsorial psalm, Psalm 51, is the great Miserere, a psalm that has been set to music by many composers.

It begins by pleading for mercy,
Miserere mei, Deus:
secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.

“Have mercy on me, God,
in your kindness.
In your compassion
Blot out my offense. . .
and cleanse me from my sin . . .

“ . . . My offenses truly I know them;
my sin is always before me.

The Church prays the Miserere every Friday morning.  Read it slowly.  Read it out loud.  Listen to the sound and cadence of the words.  What does it say to you? 

The Gospel parables continue the theme: “I once was lost but now I’m found.”  All three parables describe what God will do to find us and the enormity of His mercy and love once we allow ourselves to be found. We can all identify with the woman who swept the entire house searching for her lost coin.   All of us have lost something valuable and turned the house upside down looking for it.  We can identify with her joy when she recovered that which she had lost.

Though Jesus' question suggests otherwise, it makes no sense to abandon 99% of the flock so as to search for the one that strayed.  What rational shepherd would leave his entire investment unguarded in the hostile desert to search for one stray?  It makes no sense to take that much of a risk for one sheep.  None whatsoever.  Yet that is exactly what God does for us.

The parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin come together in the famous third parable.  The prodigal son is a challenging parable.  It can be read and analyzed on many levels.  It is rich with characters, motives, actions and reactions.  Psychiatrists have a field day evaluating the personalities of the various actors in the drama. In the end, however, the parable of the prodigal son reveals the depth God’s love and mercy for us once we have admitted to Him and to ourselves that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and love. The father loved his son enough to let him go out on his own, well financed and provisioned.  The rest was up to the boy.  The son rejoiced in his new freedom. Liberty.  No curfew.  Carouse.  Party.  Make noise. He spent his money and fell into  despair.   Only when he was at rock-bottom did he yearn for his father’s steadfast love.  Only when broken and wretched did he want to return to the safety of home.   Having squandered all he had been given, he swallowed his pride, admitted his wretched state to himself and journeyed back.  What he didn’t know was his father's desperation for his return.  He had no idea how the father would rejoice.  The son had been lost and now was found. 

As is usual in Jesus’ parable the story does not have a pat ending.  We don’t know how the lost son acted once he was home.  We don’t know if his angry older brother reconciled with him.  All we know is that the father forgave him.  And welcomed him back.  Just as God forgives us and welcomes us back again and again, once we admit our need for His love and mercy. 

This will be the last post before I head to Slovenia in 12 days.  Will be there for nine months, returning to the U.S. sometime in July.  Except for the packing part I'm ready to go.  Will fly to Munich, have a fairly short layover and then to Ljubljana.  

My sister came to visit for a few days this week.  She succeeded in making me do something I've been avoiding since first moving to Boston in 1993: The Duck Tour.  I'm not certain I would have enjoyed it as much without the camera.  As things turned out it was informative (discount everything you know about Paul Revere) and allowed for some photos of Boston from a different perspective.  

We had about 30 minutes to wait for the boat.  No problem.  Got this shot of pedestrians crossing one of the skywalks at the Copley Place mall and hotel complex.  
While driving through the streets of Boston got this reflection.   Reflections are a particular favorite technique as is shooting through store windows. 
While on the Charles had a chance to photograph Warren Building (the red brick with white window frames) at Mass General.  One of the windows on the sixth floor is the office I used while a fellow with George.

A view of the Zakim Bridge from the water.  Had never seen it from this perspective.  The Zakim bridge almost makes the Big Dig worth it.  It became a landmark almost as soon as the towers went up.  It is illuminated at night.  It leads underground.  
Going back onto land in the duck boat.  Traffic mirrors even on the river. 

After the tour we stopped in Copley Place for a light lunch.  Got this photo of the Prudential Building using the supports of one of the arcades to add emphasis. 
The next day we went to Gloucester.  I'm still amazed that there was a full-bore cruise ship in Gloucester Harbor.  Was the captain lost of was he taking a page out of the idiot Italian ship captain who ran aground?
The light house near the breakwater at Gloucester Harbor.  One of my favorite places up there.  During the novice long retreat I'd run down there and then scamper along the breakwater, a scamper that required close attention as the granite blocks were quite irregular. 
Two mailboxes at the lighthouse.  The sort of simple photo that says a great deal.  Looks as if Mr. Postman hasn't stopped in a bit. 

Next entry probably from Ljubljana.  Leave here on 22 September with anticipated arrival early Friday afternoon 23 September.  

+Fr. Jack SJ, MD

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