Twenty Sixth Sunday of the Year
Celebrating 150 Years of Worship
at St. Michael’s Church, Ardaghey
30 September 2012
Fellow Priests, dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
A young rabbi, after his appointment to a new congregation, found himself unexpectedly in the deep end of the pool. During the Friday evening services, half of his congregation stood during one part of the ceremony while the other half sat down. Decency and decorum were forgotten, as one side looked askance at the other. Members of each group insisted that theirs was the correct tradition.
Seeking guidance and harmony, the young rabbi took a representative from each side to visit the synagogue’s founder, a ninety year old rabbi, now living in a nursing home. “Rabbi, isn’t it true that tradition was always with the people who stand at this point in the service?” asked a man from one side. “No, that was not the tradition,” the old man replied. “Then it was true for people to stay seated,” suggested the representative of the other group. “No, said the rabbi, “that was not the tradition.” “But Rabbi,” said the young Rabbi, “what we have now is complete chaos. Half the people stand and shout while the others sit and scream.” “Aha,” said the old man, “that was the tradition!”
Does it sound familiar? Most organising committees could identify with this scenario. We human beings have a tendency and a need to form groups, and very soon divisions can occur, and sometimes what we call cliques can form and they can become dangerously exclusive. Can we see signs of this at work in today’s Gospel? A man was doing some of the same things as the disciples, we are told, but instead of being accepted he was condemned by them. He was not an inside member of the group and he was therefore seen as a threat.
When this was reported to the Lord himself, his response was not what the disciples were expecting. “He who is not against us is for us,” he replied. Instead of being exclusive, the Lord preaches an inclusiveness which is based on the all embracing goodness and love of God. It is an openness and generosity that we are called to imitate, but if the truth were told, we are usually better at pinpointing those whom we consider not to belong, those whom we think should be excluded from acceptance and those who appear to us to be a threat.
The first reading would seem to suggest that human beings don’t change that much over the centuries. It describes how the people ofIsrael, or at least some of them, approach Moses to complain about Eldad and Medad. These two men have been prophesying in the camp, but they were not at the tent of meeting, when all arrangements and appointments were made. Speaking with the wisdom of one who was used to listening to God, Moses rejoiced that Eldad and Medad were prophets. Instead of being jealous of anyone who might share his blessings or his leadership role, he rejoiced that God’s grace was flowing freely. As long as God was gifting the people with the blessings they needed, Moses rejoiced in the sharing of the Spirit, even with people who apparently did not meet all the requirements for fulfilling the prophetic role.
In a little town in one of the southern American states, where an old preacher served, there was a black man who had been a kind of “Uncle Remus” figure to several generations of children who had grown up there. He told them stories, taught them to hunt and fish, and in general, was much loved and respected. He owned a little cabin and some land and, after his wife died, he lived there alone.
One year a very valuable deposit of copper was discovered that ran through his property. Some of the wealthy businessmen from town came to see the old man and offered to buy his land so they could start a mining operation. The old black man had not been raised in a money culture. He just wanted to live out his days in the only house he had even known and so, with total naivete, he refused to sell. Since a great deal of money was at stake, the atmosphere turned ugly.
When the businessmen could not buy him out, they resorted to threats. Some of the people he had befriended all his life became his foes. The old man was eventually given a final warning, “be off the property by sundown tomorrow night and accept our offer or we’re coming to get you.” The old preacher got wind of what was happening and was there at sundown when the hooded men arrived on horseback. He stepped out on the porch with the black man and said, “John knows that he is going to die. He has asked me to read to you his last will and testament. He wants to give his fishing rod to Pete, because he remembers the first bass Pete caught with it. He wants to give his rifle to James, because he remembers using it to teach him to shoot.” Item by item, the will listed items to be lovingly given in memory to the very people who had come to run him off his piece of land. It was more than even the most hardened spirit could bear so, like those facing the adulterous woman, they turned away in silence until no one was left.
Wealth and possessions, in their many forms, are a major cause of division and disharmony among people. Some of the harshest words in the Scriptures are
directed towards the rich and, as usual, James, in the second reading, does not put a tooth in it, – “weep for the miseries that are coming to you – your wealth is all
rotting – it was a burning fire that you stored up as your treasure for the last days”. In the Jewish tradition, the well-to-do were expected to generously support public works and provide for needy individuals. James pictures them as having such an excess of goods that they cannot make use of everything. According to James there was no hope for them. Their desire for wealth was unquenchable, insatiable and overpowered any concern for others. James’ interpretation of the Lord’s teaching is clearly that wealth does not always lead to happiness and that to set our hearts on material wealth is foolish. Wealth which is acquired through exploitation of others is sinful, and poisons a person’s heart and spirit. Wealth is a responsibility. We will be judged on two scores – how we got it and how we use it.
One of the outstanding figures on American baseball courts until he retired was Michael Jordan. His father was murdered in 1993. Before that happened, Michael Jordan had declared in an interview “My heroes are and were my parents. It wasn’t that the rest of the world would necessarily think they were heroic. But they were the adults I saw constantly and I admired what I saw. If you are lucky, you grow up in a house where you can learn what kind of person you should be from your parents. And on that count, I was very lucky. It may have been the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.”
The Gospel reading has some very strong words for anyone who is an obstacle to or brings down one of the little ones. We are warned in the strongest possible terms to confront and remove anything that causes us to sin. We would be better drowned than leading astray one of the little ones.
Today’s readings have led us to share thoughts that hardly brought a smile to our lips. In his poem “The Rock” T.S. Eliot writes,
Why should men love the Church?
Why should they love her law?
She tells them of life and death
And all they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard.
And hard where they would be soft.
She tells them of evil and sin
And other unpleasant facts.
There was a wise old Mother Superior who was dying. The nuns gathered around her bed to pray and made her comfortable. They gave her some warm milk to drink but she refused it. Then one of the nuns took the glass back to the kitchen. Remembering where there was a bottle of whiskey which had been received as a gift the previous Christmas, she opened it and poured a generous helping into the warm milk. Back at Mother Superior’s bed, she held the glass to her lips. Mother drank a little, then a little more, then before they knew it she had drunk the whole glass down to the last drop. One of the nuns asked her is she had any wisdom to leave them before she departed. She raised herself up on her elbow and pointed out the window, and said, “Don’t sell that cow.”
My dear people of Ardaghey and Rackwallace and invited guests, today is for you a day of joy and celebration. This beautiful little rural church, dedicated to Saint Michael, is to you a beacon of light, hope and warmth. The light which the created universe brings, and which has been deftly corralled to filter brightness to all corners of the building, is a fitting symbol. It whispers God’s love for his people, and lifts the downcast heart. Its rising beauty is a worthy loving human response to God reaching down. This Church has been a home to your people for almost a century and a half. Around the altar here, you have gathered regularly, and shared with the Lord your intimate thoughts and feelings at the significant moments of your lives. You have given space to allow God’s words to shape your community into a communion of love, rather than become an example of fractured and divided humanity. You allowed God’s compassion to inspire you to share his gifts with the needy, and grow into a caring community rather than become a collection of individuals who exploit others for their own ends.
As was the norm in our parish communities, St. Michael’s Church was a gathering point for home and school. They complemented each other, in the breaking and sharing of the bread of life. This bread nourished our children, fed their minds and hearts with wisdom and unselfish love, and guided them in making the universe bloom in the use of their talents on God’s gifts. There are happy times to be recalled and many memories to bring a smile. But as we leave the Church to enjoy refreshments in the community centre, we are aware of a shadow on the horizon. There are many, varied and conflicting voices in today’s world not all of them in tune with the way, the truth and the life. A garden untended, without proper care and attention, can become a desert. Is it time to take stock, to weed and to prune, to acknowledge where we are failing and to purify the air and the water which we bring to the garden? Remember the little ones. Is it time we let it be known that the cow is not for sale, that the freedom to educate our children in the faith, and the sacredness of human life at all stages, are among the many values that are not negotiable?
+Liam S. MacDaid