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"FIRST IMPRESSIONS"

4th SUNDAY (A) January 29, 2017

Zephaniah: 2:3, 3:12-13; 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31; Matthew 5: 1-12a

By Jude Siciliano, OP

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Dear Preachers:

 

   The 4th

Sunday in

Ordinary

Time

A while back I picked up the bulletin at a parish where I preached. I noticed the Mission/Vision Statement on the front page. A number of parishes I have been to have worked out such mission statements and posted them in their bulletins, or at the main entrance to the church, for all to see.

This parish’s mission statement begins by describing itself as a "family," stating "At the heart of our family is Jesus Christ whose love we passionately strive to reflect in our worship, our educational, pastoral and social outreach ministries." Based on this initial declaration, the statement goes on to "challenge ourselves...to enrich and enliven our family gatherings around the table of the Lord...to embrace a commitment to life-long learning for all members of our community...to be bold and passionate in our witness to the Gospel...to be unceasing and generous in our compassionate outreach...to be uncompromising in warmly welcoming our distant brothers and sisters...." (I have abbreviated these statements, for each statement gives specific groups of people who will be the recipients of the parish’s outreach.) How did the parishioners get the insights for their mission statement? I presume hey looked at the life of Jesus and at their own community’s attempts to live that life in our modern world.

What strikes me about this mission statement is that it begins with the declarative statement of faith and grace. Christ is at the heart of this community and, as a result, the parish can accomplish its list of imperatives.... "to enrich...to embrace...to be bold...etc." This pattern, the declaration of what is given (Christ at the heart of this community) and then the imperative consequences, is the same pattern I see in today’s gospel, the Beatitudes. I also see the Beatitudes as a kind of early mission statement for the church to whom Matthew was writing.

The Beatitudes begin the Sermon on the Mount. There will be much in the Sermon that will tell how the disciples of Jesus are to behave towards one another and in the world. The Sermon sounds like a rule book – something like, "If you do these things I am laying out for you, then I will reward you." But the Gospel, even when it specifies behavior, is not a rule book. It is Gospel, the Good News of transforming grace. Where is Jesus in all our attempts to follow the teachings of the Sermon? He is, in the words of that parish’s mission statement, "At the heart of our family...." He is the heart, source of the blood flow in us that enables us to live his life in our world. So, the Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, and the Beatitudes put the demands of the Sermon in focus...they start the Sermon with a proclamation of grace.

There is some ambiguity about the audience Jesus is addressing as he went up the mountain, sat down and began his sermon. Today’s opening verse states that there are crowds following Jesus and that, after he sat down, his "disciples came to him." The biblical commentators tend to agree that Jesus is addressing his disciples, not the general crowd. But the crowd is there to listen in – as they are today – to note the manner of the Christian community’s life together and in the surrounding world. If the disciples reflect the Sermon they are about to hear, others who have been listening in, may feel drawn to enter the community. Will our observers sense that Christians are energized by a good force at work in their midst? Will they experience Jesus "at the heart of our family" and want to come to a source for new life for their spirits?

The Sermon will tell the disciples that their lives are to be exemplary. They are to be "salt of the earth...light of the world" (next week’s gospel). But before they are told how they are to behave they are told they are blessed. Jesus’ words do what they say – they grant the blessing. Remember, early in Genesis (1:28) the Creator blessed human beings. They lived in a blessed relationship with God. But their sin ruptured this relationship. When God chose Abraham and Sarah (12: 1-3) God once again blessed humans and made this couple special. "All the communities of the earth shall find a blessing in you." Zephaniah describes the faithful ones as, "the humble of the earth" who have observed God’s law. The faithful in the biblical story are those who have received God’s blessings and have lived faithful lives. They are blessed and they acknowledge God as the source of this blessing. How often Jewish prayers begin with, "Blessed are you God of the Universe...." Our own Liturgy of the Eucharist reflects the awareness that we have been blessed. As the gifts are prepared the presider prays, "Blessed are you Lord God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread...this wine to offer...." And the congregation responds, "Blessed be God forever."

The Beatitudes declare blessed those who form the new community Jesus has called. Their lives, quiet and often hidden from the world’s bright lights, are nevertheless witnesses to God’s presence in the world. What appears fixed now in the world’s way of reckoning – the rule of power, wealth, ruthlessness, oppression and greed – will be reversed, we are told, someday, when God’s rule (kingdom/reign) becomes fully manifested in the world. But even now there are signs of God’s presence and influence in the world. It is Christ’s faithful followers who can read the signs and celebrate the hope they anticipate. Christians who have Jesus "at the heart" receive the blessings that enable them to persevere in the way Jesus has shown us.

The Beatitudes don’t tell us how we ought to behave – let’s make ourselves poor in spirit, meek, merciful, etc. Rather, the followers are blessed by Jesus. He confirms his ways in them and enables them to live as he did in a world that does not always accept him. The faithful little ones, the "anawim," will declare by their words and actions the presence of God’s reign in the world. With Jesus’ blessing they will also wait in hope for its full manifestation when Christ returns.

It must be noted that included in Jesus’ blessing are those who have been victimized by society. He is not telling his disciples to become victims. Some may interpret the Sermon in that way. As we shall see, those who are victimized – struck on the cheek, have a shirt taken, forced to go a mile (5: 39-41) – are not to be victims. Instead, they are to take the initiative and choose to turn the cheek; give not only the shirt, but the cloak as well; go the extra mile. You may be victims to brute force, Jesus seems to be saying, but you don’t have to think like victims. Those who hear the blessings at the beginning of the Sermon know with certainty of the ultimate victory of God’s reign and so receive the blessings and assurance they convey. Beatitude people do not have to serve power, scheme or join the many ways the world has of taking care of itself.

The Beatitudes certainly give us an upside down way to look at our lives and the world in which we live. The things we have been told are important, are not why Jesus blesses us. When things go well for us: we have our health, earn money, have successful careers, have our kids in the best schools, etc., we say we are "blessed." Maybe yes; maybe no. Jesus is not blessing those who have made it and are admired by their peers. They already have their "blessings" from their equals. "Way to go!" "Lucky stiff!" "You’ve got it made." These are people who exchange the "high-fives" of victory and success.

Jesus saw what Zephaniah saw, those "humble of the earth" who seek the Lord. These are God’s remnant who have been faithful, those who have suffered the slings and arrows of the world, but have persevered in the vision of true happiness that can only come from God. Lest they forget where the gift of their fidelity and good works comes from, Jesus makes it clear, "You are blessed"...and that is why you can live without the items and accolades the world considers essential for happiness – so essential, that people are willing to do anything to achieve them. But not so you, for you are blessed and with that blessing you are able to live in true happiness, the kind of happiness only God can bestow. "Blessed are you."

So the preacher needs to be careful in preaching the Beatitudes. They are not ways we ought to live, not Jesus’ own Ten Commandments. They are not commandments at all, not a code of ethics for the Christian community, not directives that will better help us follow the model behavior of Christ. (Cf. Brueggemann quote below.)

As has been suggested above, the Zephaniah reading ties to the Gospel, it is a promise that finds its fulfillment in Jesus' proclamation. Zephaniah was a prophet who preached in a period of moral decay; religion in Israel was at a low point. Attempts at reform did little to change things and fidelity to the covenant was on a downward slide. So Zephaniah preaches an end time message; it’s a wake up call. He seems to live up to some of our notions that the prophets were gloomy. Zephaniah certainly was. He tells us that God is angry and is coming with a day of terrible punishment. Sometimes we need a rough or rude awakening to bring us to our senses. This warning is like the sound of a smoke detector going off; it offends the ears, but it could also save us. Zephaniah’s speech is rough, but he reveals the passionate concern God has for us, especially when we sin and choose another path.

Notice the word of grace present, even in this difficult-to-hear message. There will remain a faithful remnant, "in your midst". These people will truly be the faithful ones who find their security or riches, not in passing power and material riches, but in taking refuge in God. These faithful ones will guarantee the future survival of God's people and will see the promises of God fulfilled. You can see that this reading is pointing to today’s gospel beatitudes.

The reading from Zephaniah is memorable because it contains the key word "anawim," which means the poor little band of people. The prophet gives new life, new hope to this group who are waiting for God's intervention. Have we ever lived on the promise of another, on the word of one whom we could trust? Have we ever trusted their words despite appearances to the contrary? Would we gamble our possessions, even our lives on what they have said to us? A child leaps off a mantle into her father's arms because he said he would be there to catch the child. Abandoning fear and doubts, the child flings herself into the air, confident in her father's assurance, "Don't worry, I will catch you." So do the anawim trust a parenting God who has made a similar promise, despite all appearances to the contrary. "I will be there to catch you."

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/012917.cfm

ONE GOOD BOOK FOR THE PREACHER

Walter Brueggemann, FINALLY COMES THE POET: DARING SPEECH FOR PROCLAMATION. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.

Brueggemann says that preaching has become trivialized. He insists we need to find another way to speak and proposes poetic speech is the appropriate language for preaching. Poetic speech shakes up our patterned ways of speaking and evokes in the listener new possibilities. Poetic speech helps construct a world beyond the one we live in and take for granted. This book has become a contemporary classic and is a must read for the preacher.

JUSTICE BULLETIN BOARD

Seek the Lord. . .seek justice, seek humility; perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger - (Zephaniah 2:3)

The age of Zephaniah (640-609 BCE) was a time of religious degradation and Zephaniah is speaking to Jerusalem as a corrupt city. He announces its impending judgment, the day of the Lord. You will notice that the word "seek" is repeated three times. This is always a heads up that something very important is being stated. It is urgent that they (and we) seek the Lord and his justice with an attitude of humility. In the second reading, Paul wants his readers to realize that God can only work through lowliness and humility as who we are and what we do comes from God. This leads us to the Gospel Beatitudes, the framework and core of expectations for all disciples of Jesus. In the readings for today, we see the complete guidelines for the "residents" of the city of God and how it should ultimately look. The city of God, we will discover, has very little to do with a geographic location.

What shall be our course of action?

Seek the Lord--not only is God to be found in our celebration of Eucharist at Mass but also in every human being as created in God’s image.

Seek justice--our Church teaches that there are three basic relations or structures: Commutative or reciprocal justice focuses on relationships between members (ex.-restitution), distributive justice orders the relationship between society and its members (ex.-an equitable distribution of goods, benefits, and burdens of society so that all persons receive their share of the common good), and social justice makes a set of moral principles to inform economic, political, and social structures so that they serve and not hinder the common good (ex.-the contribution each person ought to make for the well-being of society). Justice is not only a cardinal virtue, but is also "a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel" and the mission of the Church (Justice in the World 6).

Seek humility--a moral virtue in which an individual shows dependence on God and respect for other persons. A person with humility does not look down on others and is not overly concerned about his or her prestige. The Old Testament promises blessings to those who are humble in the form of wisdom, good tidings, and honor.

Seek and you will find.--Matthew 7:7

-----Barbara Molinari Quinby, MPS

Coordinator of Social Justice Ministries

Sacred Heart Cathedral--Raleigh, N.C.

FAITH BOOK

Mini-reflections on the Sunday scripture readings designed for persons on the run. "Faith Book" is also brief enough to be posted in the Sunday parish bulletins people take home.

From today’s Gospel reading:

Jesus began to teach them, saying,

"Blessed are the poor in spirit;

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Reflection:

The Beatitudes begin the Sermon on the Mount. They put the later demands of the Sermon in focus: they begin the Sermon with a proclamation of grace. Before we are told how we are to behave we are told we are blessed. That blessing is the source for our changed behavior and so that we can enflesh and give witness to the Sermon in our lives.

So we ask ourselves:

  • What would you name as the "blessings" in your life?
  • Are they true blessings from God – or are they the result of our hard work or position in the world?

POSTCARDS TO DEATH ROW INMATES

"The use of the death penalty cannot really be mended. It should be ended."
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick

Inmates on death row are the most forgotten people in the prison system. Each week I post in this space several inmates’ names and addresses. I invite you to write a postcard to one or more of them to let them know we have not forgotten them. If you like, tell them you heard about them through North Carolina’s, "People of Faith Against the Death Penalty." If the inmate responds you might consider becoming pen pals.

Please write to:

  • Eddie C. Robinson #0347839 (On death row since 5/19/92)
  • Carl Moseley #0294214 (10/1/92)
  • Nathan Bowie #0039561 (2/5/93)

----Central Prison 4285 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-4285

For more information on the Catholic position on the death penalty go to the Catholic Mobilizing Network: http://catholicsmobilizing.org/resources/cacp/

DONATIONS

"First Impressions" is a service to preachers and those wishing to prepare for Sunday worship. It is sponsored by the Dominican Friars. If you would like "First Impressions" sent weekly to a friend, send a note to fr. John Boll, OP at jboll@opsouth.org.

If you would like to support this ministry, please send tax deductible contributions to fr. Jude Siciliano, O.P.

St. Albert Priory 3150 Vince Hagan Drive Irving, Texas 75062-4736

Make checks payable to: Dominican Friars. Or, go to our webpage to make an online donation: http://preacherexchange.com/donations.htm

ANNOUNCEMENTS

1. We have compiled Four CDS for sale:

  • Individual CDs for each Liturgical Year, A, B or C
  • One combined CD for "Liturgical Years A, B and C."

If you are a preacher, lead a Lectionary-based scripture group, or are a member of a liturgical team, these CDs will be helpful in your preparation process. Individual worshipers report they also use these reflections as they prepare for Sunday liturgy.

You can order the CDs by going to our webpage: www.preacherexchange.com and clicking on the "First Impressions" CD link on the left.

(These CDs have been updated twice in the last five years.)

2. "Homilías Dominicales" —These Spanish reflections on the Sunday and daily scriptures are written by Dominican sisters and friars. If you or a friend would like to receive these reflections drop a note to fr. John Boll, O.P. at Jboll@opsouth.org.

3. Our webpage: http://www.preacherexchange.com

Where you will find "Preachers’ Exchange," which includes "First Impressions" and "Homilías Dominicales," as well as articles, book reviews, daily homilies and other material pertinent to preaching.

4. "First Impressions" is a service to preachers and those wishing to prepare for Sunday worship. It is sponsored by the Dominican Friars. If you would like "First Impressions" sent weekly to a friend, send a note to fr. John Boll, OP at the above email address.



Thank you and blessings on your preaching,

fr. Jude Siciliano, O.P.

St. Albert Priory

3150 Vince Hagan Drive

Irving, Texas 75062-4736

frjude@judeop.org

972-438-1626

 


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