Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Dan 12:1-3; Heb 120:11-14, 18; Mk 13:24-32]

We began this liturgical year on the First Sunday of Advent with the five verses from Mark 13 that follow today's reading. Chapter 13 of Mark thus forms bookends for the lessons given over this past year. The first words Jesus says in Mark's account are, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” In other words, let the gospel affect us; let it affect the way we live, the way we understand life. Most of all, let the good news affect what we pay attention to. Vigilance was the theme of Mark 13 last Advent; it continues today with a warning to read the signs… and that interior turmoil will result if we let things of this world affect us more than the kingdom of God we have learned about over the past year. In short, we are being told to take the gospel seriously.

Getting serious is the idea behind St. Benedict's first degree of humility: become aware of what sin is; flee forgetfulness of God by remembering judgment. Do this by being constantly mindful of God's presence. Jesus and Benedict are calling us to get morally serious.

Fear is the root of all sin. It is forgetfulness of God's gratuitous favor to us. It is a lack of trust and gratitude. Thus, Benedict begins his program for learning perfect love not by rooting out fear, but by converting it. Fear of the ultimate, of One Thing, can greatly diminish fear of many lesser things. Fear goads us to self-protection. It is the reaction of “he who would save his life.” Fear of the Lord keeps us mindful of what matters most.

It is that to which we order our lives. We have an imperfect knowledge of God and of the happiness of the beatific vision, so faith gives order to our lives. Hope gives order by showing us that such happiness is not impossible to attain. And it is love that directs us to what matters most.

And love has its own order. St. Augustine shows us the order of love. He writes: “You are to love things in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved or fail to love what is to be loved.” To do that, we must know the truth. So love what you can never lack when you love it. Love what endures.

Augustine goes on to say that we should not have a greater love for what is to be loved less. In other words, avoid idolatry. He further says we should not have an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. In other words, let things reveal their true, intrinsic value to us and do not value them only because of their pleasant effect on us. He is urging indifference toward things of the world that change with fashion.

We experience a conversion when we take that order seriously and let it affect us. We find that order shows us how to live in constant mindfulness of the fundamental truth that “God loved us first.” As we grow in our response to that love and in gratitude for it, our reciprocal love will drive out fear. St. Bernard states it best: “I owe everything for having been created, what can I add for being re-made and being remade in this way? I owe myself twice over. What can I give God in return for Himself?” The answer is simple: On that to which everything is owed, everything must be spent.

Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Prov 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; 1 Thess 5:1-6; Mt 25:14-30 ]

A girl in eighth grade walking home from school noticed a sign in a store window: “Help wanted.” She applied for the job. The owner asked, “What can you do?” She said, “I can do what I'm told.” He replied, “You're hired.” At first she was given small tasks, and then entrusted with greater ones. Years later the owner gave charge of his entire store to the young woman who could do what she was told and make the business profitable. Commerce hasn't change in thousands of years. Good managers are entrusted with more, while poor managers are fired.

The master in today's parable is no ordinary rich man. He has tremendous wealth. His gold talents were not coins that you could hold in your hand. They were heavy bars of bullion that you could hardly lift, each one weighing up to 110 pounds. That was equal to twenty years of hard earned wages. Such a rich man would have summer homes and winter homes, with residences in foreign lands, and dozens of servants. From them he chose three to entrust his possessions according to their abilities. Could they do what they were told? Would they be good investors? Two of them doubled their master's gold, an astonishing accomplishment!

But the third was so slothful he didn't even invest it with bankers to earn interest. So, like all bad managers, he was fired. Today he might have been excused for burying his master's gold. Many banks have failed. Credit is tight. Interest rates are low. Recently a businessman asked to talk with a bank officer about a very large loan. The banker said, “That's great, how much can you lend us?”

The useless servant not only lost his job, he was cast into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Suddenly we are confronted with more than losing a job. Salvation itself is at stake here, eternal life. This parable is not about money. The master is God who entrusts us with grace and charity. No earthly wealth can compare with these treasures. Can we do what we are told? Consider this story of a good manager of God's love who “reaches out her hands to the poor and extends her arms to the needy” (Prov 31:20)

A few days ago I received this copy of a letter from a 29 year old nurse who grew up in Michigan. She is now fighting Ebola in West Africa. She writes, “Another week has come and gone here in Liberia. As the rainy season disappears, the heat and humidity are climbing rapidly. There are a lot more insects, scorpions, and snakes. Despite these challenges, we are determined to provide good care for our Ebola patients. Wearing full protection equipment is a challenge. In addition to the physical limitations, it's difficult to recognize individual staff members and it hides all of our emotions. Not a day goes by that I don't wish I could pull off that mask so that my patients can see I am laughing, smiling or even crying with them. The kids, especially, are terrified by our alien appearance.

There were nights when little Christine was close to death, but somehow she held on. She finally turned the corner and became a whole new person: sassy, demanding and snooty. Yesterday I went to see how she was doing. As I turned to go, she stood up on her bed, crying and asking me not to leave. I went back and sat at the end of her bed and started talking to her. She didn't respond, but instead crawled onto my lap and put her arms around my waist. My heart melted all the way down to my boots. I put my arms around her and rocked her gently for a while. Christine left for home a few days later. A part of me wished that she didn't have to leave.

For some of our patients, like Christine, there's a happy ending. But for many others, like Ester and her son Saah, it's a very different outcome. Ester's husband was the first of her family to die of Ebola, leaving her with four children. Ten year old Saah is the oldest, but he shoulders responsibility like a grown man. He spent hours at his mother's bedside assisting her in any way possible, despite being sick himself. Ester seemed to be getting better for a few days, but her frail body wasn't able to fight the virus for long. Saah took the loss of his mother very hard. He became especially quiet and withdrawn.

A few days after Ester died, Saah's six year old brother arrived. Saah immediately went from a grieving child to a loving father. Just as he did with his mother, he looked after his brother's every need. He changed him, bathed him, fed him and, as his brother became weaker and incoherent, Saah simply stayed close to his bedside. A few days later the little boy died. Saah's blood test came back negative and he was able to go home. When asked if he was ready to leave, Saah replied, 'I have seen hell. Yes, I want to go home.' Ebola cases in the remote regions are on the rise. Entire families in these outlying towns and forest villages are infected.

Liberia is teaching my heart to stretch and grow. It's stripping me of my normal methods to demonstrate compassion and care because of all this protection equipment and limited patient contact. I'm in some of the most excruciatingly painful situations I've ever seen human beings experience. Now I'm learning what it means to love, and how to communicate that love in ways I didn't even know were possible. Not externally, but internally. A heart that truly loves has no trouble conveying compassion, because that type of love resonates from the very deepest corners of the soul and becomes an almost physically compelling force experienced by all those around. I miss everyone, but I can not imagine being anywhere else in this world. 'Even though I know it is a reality that I could get sick, and that I could be one of them that does not survive, I am OK with that because I would rather be here helping than home and safe.' Please keep all of us, patients and staff, in your thoughts and prayers!” Love, Kelly.

Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Mal 3:19-20a; 2 Thess 3:7-12; Lk 21:5-19 ]

In a letter to his friend, Donatus, St. Cyprian writes: “This is a cheerful world, as I see it from my garden under the shadows of my vines. But if I were to ascend some high mountain and look out over the wide lands, you know well what I should see: brigands on the highways, pirates on the sea, armies fighting, cities burning, in the amphitheaters men murdered to please applauding crowds, selfishness, cruelty, misery and despair under so many roofs. It is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy that is a thousand times better than the pleasures of a sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians, and I am one of them.”

There are many gardens where this world is experienced as a truly cheerful place, like that of the apostles in the company of Jesus when they looked with joy on the beauty of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish historian, Josephus, described it this way: “The front of the Temple was covered all over with massive plates of gold, and at the first rising of the sun it reflected back a very fiery splendor, so that those who looked upon it had to turn they eyes away. Those parts not covered in gold were exceedingly white, and when seen from a distance, appeared like a mountain covered with snow.”

But Jesus, from the heights of his divinity, saw a different picture. He said to his apostles: “All these things you are staring at now, the time will come when not a single stone will be left on another. Everything will be destroyed.” Then he spoke of an incredibly bad world that will attack Jerusalem and persecute Jesus’ disciples. Josephus witnessed the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He wrote that 6,000 refugees perished in the burning of the Temple, and the Roman army put over a million Jews to the sword, and took 97,000 captives to Rome.

Jesus sees the destruction of the Temple and the persecution of Christians as an archetype for the end of the world when all the beautiful monuments of human achievement will be thrown down and the faith of his disciples will be sorely tried. In the drama, Green Pastures, the Archangel Gabriel describes it this way, “Everything that was fastened down is coming loose!”

For Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world are archetypes of a greater tragedy, the loss of even one single person for all eternity. St. Ambrose writes, “These words [of destruction] were true of the Temple built by Solomon [and of the world]… for everything built by human hands either wears away or disintegrates or is overthrown by violence or destroyed by fire… But there is also a temple within every one of us that crumbles whenever faith is lacking.”

Creation will be renewed; and not a hair of faithful disciples will be lost. So, when Jesus wept over Jerusalem and the world he was not weeping over the city but over the citizens, for all those who disbelieve in God’s mercy and choose their own destruction by refusing repentance. It is not God who rejects the sinner, but the sinner who rejects God.

This is illustrated in a play1 about a woman who dies and appears for Judgment before an angel sitting at a table. On the far right is a door labeled Heaven, and on the far left another door labeled Hell.

She asks: “Does that door really lead to heaven and that one to hell?”

The angel replies, “That’s correct. Please don’t take too long, there are others waiting.”
The woman says, “But, what do I do?”

Angel: “You go through one of them.”

Woman: “You mean I have a choice?”

Angel: “That’s right.”

She replies craftily: “Oh, well, I’ll take heaven.”

Angel: “Over there, please.”

Woman: “Well, thanks!” She starts toward heaven gleefully, then turns and asks, “Look, I don’t want to make any mistakes at a time like this. I have a choice. I can go to heaven or to hell. That’s what you said, isn’t it?”

Angel: “That’s correct. Heaven is offered to everyone by the mercy of God.”

She reflects: “That’s hard to believe. Now just because I choose heaven doesn’t mean I’ve always been a model of good behavior. I haven’t always been perfect you know. Who has?” She laughs as though sharing a joke.

The angel replies: “I understand.”

She says: “All right, just so long as it’s clear.” She starts toward heaven again, then hesitates, “Ah, pardon me; once I go in there I stay there, right? I mean, this really is Judgment Day?”

Angel: “Yes, and once you enter it’s final.”

Woman: “But that’s not the way it is at all. Ask anybody! The righteous go to heaven and are rewarded for their goodness. The wicked have to go to hell and are punished for their sins! Are you trying to trick me? Did you reverse the signs?”

Angel: “No. Please don’t take too long, there are others waiting.”

Woman: “But this is stupid. Wouldn’t everybody choose heaven?”

Angel: “Some, not all.”

Woman: “Look, have I got it wrong? In heaven the streets are paved with gold. And hell is a lake of fire where you burn forever. Isn’t that so?”

Angel: “That’s correct.”

Woman: “Then I don’t understand. Why would anyone would choose to go there? I demand a fair trial.”

Angel: “There’s no trial.”

Woman: “You mean to sit there and tell me this is Judgment Day and it’s my choice even if I haven’t earned it?”

Angel: “That’s correct. Please move along.”

Woman: “This is outrageous! I don’t need anyone’s charity. I’ll show you!” She runs for the door to hell and passes through.

God is so gracious and merciful to the sinner that everything can be forgiven, not because we earn forgiveness. We can’t. It is offered to us as a gift earned by the passion and death of Jesus. But it is a gift that can be refused. It is not God who rejects the sinner, but the sinner who rejects a merciful God and everyone else.

The poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, tells how two Rabbis on the Day of Atonement prayed all day long to be forgiven. Just before nightfall each one still felt the burden of sin on his conscience. Finally, one Rabbi prayed, “Oh Lord God, if it be Thy Will not to forgive my sins, do Thou forgive the sins of my brother who is in agony of soul.” At that moment his sins were forgiven, for heaven’s door is open to those who come together. It is by the loving mercy of God that we enter the gate of heaven together or not at all.

As St. Cyprian expressed it, “I have discovered in the midst of [the world] a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy that is a thousand times better than the pleasures of a sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians, and I am one of them.”

Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Prov 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31, 1 Thess 5:1-6, Mt 24:36, 25:14-30]

Fr. StephenI think it would be presumptuous for a monk to give a homily on the ideal wife as described in Proverbs, and I don’t want to speculate on when the Day of the Lord as described in Thessalonians will come, because I know as little about the time of the Lord’s second coming as I do about women. So I’m going to head for the safer ground of the Gospel parable about investing talents, a good topic for our times. Mark Twain once said October is the most dangerous month to make investments, and the other most dangerous months are November to September. In the parable one servant felt the same way. ” Why bother to take the risk? It is too dangerous. I’ll bury the talent. It will be there when my master returns. If those other two servants lose any of the talents entrusted to them then I will look pretty good by comparison, having preserved all of the principal.” Well, as it turned out the other two made 100% returns on their talents, and the third servant ended up with egg on his face. After making excuses and insulting the master, he returned the talent, was promptly fired and then cast out to weep and grind his teeth with other losers. But, was what he did that bad?

When Sherlock Holmes was investigating a crime he asked Dr. Watson if he noticed anything strange about the watchdog’s behavior on the night of the murder. Dr. Watson said, “No, the dog did nothing.” Sherlock Holmes replied, “Yes, that was the strange behavior.” A person who buries his or her talent is like a useless watchdog that does not bark. As someone said, “For evil to triumph it is only necessary for the good to do nothing.”1 But all the lazy servant did was bury his talent. Was that really so bad?

The lazy servantParables are like detective stories. They challenge us to search through the clues, to establish the facts and to discover the beauty of the inexhaustible mystery of the kingdom of heaven. To us a talent means an ability or a skill that is above average. Like the college student named Gordon who was a genius with a photographic memory. He didn’t bother to apply himself, preferring to play poker and drink every night with fellow students in his dorm. A week before exams he would read borrowed textbooks and always passed. Professors lamented his laziness and bad influence. He laughed at them and challenged them to ask a question he couldn’t answer. The professor of religious studies and spirituality said, “Okay, I will ask you one question on the final exam. If you answer it you pass, if not you fail.” The smug, self-confident genius agreed. Opening the exam next day he read the question, “What is the name of the person who cleans your dormitory?” He flunked and was cast out. Like the lazy servant, he didn’t bother learning anything he didn’t have to. Understanding talents in this sense focuses on ourselves, on our abilities and skills. That’s not what the parable is about.

Pounds of goldTalents in the parable focus on God. They belong to the master and they are entrusted to his servants according to abilities and skills they already have. So, what are these talents that belong to God? In the ancient world a talent was the largest unit of weight for gold or silver. A single talent of gold weighed over seventy-five pounds, far beyond what a person could save during a whole lifetime of labor. Even today one little ounce of gold is worth almost $400. Seventy-five pounds of gold is a huge sum of money. This is a world of high finance. The parable is not about money, it is a metaphor for the kingdom. It manifests God’s extravagance, with the Lord’s great trust in all three servants. It begins with grace which is his property. It belongs to God and is extremely valuable. The talent is a metaphor for the grace of God’s infinite love. The way we receive God’s love and are moved by it is a matter of heaven or hell. Salvation itself is at stake here.

Gift of Holy Spirit inspiring us to perfect charityThis is not primarily a parable about our natural abilities, a warning to use them or lose them. It is not about ordinary people who only have one little skill trying to match returns with extraordinary people who have many. It is about grace, being entrusted with something so valuable that even the smallest measure of grace exceeds anything the most talented person could earn in many lifetimes of labor. The grace entrusted to us is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who inspires us to perfect love. That’s the talent the third servant buried. He dug a hole in the ground and put the Spirit there. He covered it over and stamped on it with his feet so that he would not have to listen to the voice of love calling him to respect and care for others. He was too lazy. He couldn’t be bothered. What he failed to do was very bad.

C. S. Lewis interprets the talent as the gift of love. In his classic book, “The Four Loves,” he writes, “Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to be sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to a pet. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safely in the casket of your selfishness. It will then become unbreakable, impenetrable, unredeemable. The only place outside of heaven where you can be safe from all the dangers of love is hell.” Yes, not to be bothered with loving others is the most dangerous thing of all, as another parable confirms: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not minister to you?” “Truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.Mt 25:44-45

In contrast to the lazy servant who buried his Master’s love, the woman described in Proverbs looks very good, “She makes cloth with skillful hands, and her fingers ply the spindle. She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy. She rises while it is still night” and her fingers ply the candy wrapping machine. With skillful hands she makes delicious caramels, and Swiss mints, all the while praying for the world. When the Lord comes he will say, “Well done good and faithful servants. [I will put you over many candy machines.] Come share your master’s joy.