Sunday, July 22, 2007

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
The Messiah is Among You

Readings: Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15:2-3, 3-4, 5; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42

Sisters and brothers, do you ever find yourself wishing you could hear God’s voice, or see God’s face, or sense God’s presence in some way? Is it possible to do this? If so, how? And what difference would it make anyway?

I’m reminded of that well-known story about a monastery that had fallen on hard times because of persecution. It used to be a large and thriving order with a central monastery and many branch houses. But now only five monks were left living in a crumbling building: the abbot and four others, all over seventy years of age.

In the forest surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a Jewish rabbi occasionally used for a hermitage. One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi to seek his advice on how the monastery could be saved. The rabbi welcomed the abbot, but could only say, "I know what it’s like. The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." And the two old men wept together. But just as the abbot was about to leave, the rabbi said to him: "I am sorry I have no advice to give. But I can tell you this: the Messiah is among you."

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did he say?" “The rabbi said something very mysterious. I don't know what he meant. He said that the Messiah is among us."

In the days that followed, the old monks continued to puzzle over what the rabbi could have meant. The Messiah is among us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks? If so, which one? Could it be the abbot? Yes, if he had been referring to one of us, then it would be Father Abbot. He has been our leader for many years. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Everyone knows he is a very holy man. But he certainly could not have meant Brother John! John gets moody and grumpy at times. But then he is also always right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother John. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, he has a strange gift for always being there when you need him. He just magically appears. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course, the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? But that’s too much to expect. Or is it?

As they continued to ponder in this way, the old monks began to pay more attention to one another. They began to treat one another, and even themselves, with greater respect. After all, what if one of them was indeed the Messiah?

And the few people who still visited the monastery occasionally also began to sense a difference in the atmosphere of the place. They sensed the aura of respect that began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them. Without quite knowing why, they began to come more often, to pray, or to talk to the monks, or simply to walk around and to picnic on the grounds. They brought their friends, who brought their friends. Some young men even began to ask about joining the monastery. Within a few years it once again began to thrive. It soon became a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the country. All thanks to the rabbi’s words: the messiah is among you. (Adapted from here)

The messiah is among you… Sisters and brothers, what do you think these words mean? Was the rabbi lying? Was he only trying to get the monks to change? Or wasn’t he referring to a very deep mystery, the same mystery that we heard about in the second reading today? This is the message which was a mystery hidden for generations… and has now been revealed to the saints… The mystery is Christ among you, your hope of glory…

The mystery is Christ among you…Isn’t this what we are being reminded of today? That even though we may not seem to be able to see or hear or touch him, the Messiah is among us. Christ is among us. God is among us. And notice what happens when people become aware of God’s presence. The dying monastery becomes a life-giving oasis for the whole country. Abraham and Sarah, who are old and barren, receive the blessing of a long-awaited child, who becomes a blessing not just for his parents but for us as well. And the author of the second reading can even rejoice in his sufferings. It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now.

This is the difference that God’s presence makes. But to experience this presence we must first learn to recognize and to receive the God who comes among us. We must learn to be good hosts to Christ our guest. Here we can learn much from the experiences of Martha and Mary and Abraham.

We know the gospel story well. Probably the first thing that strikes us is what Jesus says to Martha when she complains about her sister. Mary has chosen the better part… Does he mean that, in order to encounter God, it is better for us to pray quietly than to busy ourselves with work? Does he mean that we must all stop whatever we are doing and enter the Carmelite monastery? But surely this is not very practical. How are we to survive if no one works? How are we to eat if no one cooks?

No, the problem with Martha is not that she is busy, but that she allows herself to be distracted with all the serving. She becomes too focused on herself and on what she is doing. She begins to compare herself with her sister. She forgets the real reason for her busyness. She forgets to attend to the Lord.

That this is true becomes even clearer when we consider Abraham’s experience in the first reading. We are told that the Lord appears to him during the hottest part of the day. Yet isn’t it striking how busy Abraham becomes, how fast he moves? He runs from his tent to meet the three men. He hastens back to the tent to find Sarah, and tells her to hurry to make bread. He then runs to pick a tender calf and hands it to the servant who hurries to prepare it. But unlike Martha, Abraham’s busyness doesn’t distract him. His attention, his focus, is always on his guests. Isn’t this precisely the reason why he rushes about, so that he can quickly return to wait on them? As we are told in the reading, after all the food and drink have been prepared, he remains standing near them, watching them as they eat.

In our lives too, God often comes as an unexpected guest arriving during the hottest part of the day. Sometimes God comes to us in an irritating family member or colleague. Sometimes God comes to us through various disappointments we may encounter. Whatever the case may be, it’s not always easy to keep paying attention to our guest. We may become distracted by our anger at him for not coming at the appointed time, or we may try to impress him with our cooking skills, or the beautiful things we own. And in being so distracted, we miss the blessing that God offers us.

But even so, all is not lost. When we find ourselves busy to the point of losing focus, perhaps we can learn from Martha, who even in her distraction, turns to the Lord. And although her complaint is misguided, in turning to Jesus, she receives a blessing from him. Jesus guides her back on the right path. Isn’t this also the wonderful and joyful result of that great mystery we are celebrating in this Eucharist? It is Christ among us, the divine guest, our hope of glory

Sisters and brothers, truly Christ is among us. How might we better receive him today?

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