Sunday Word

No cotton candy

Father Ben Berinti
Sunday, Sept. 15
Ex 32:7-11, 13-14; Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19; 1 Tm 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-32

I wouldn’t be surprised to see, while presiding at Eucharist this weekend, more than the normal number of folks casually slip out of their pews and head to the restrooms as the proclamation of the Word of God begins—and perhaps to stay occupied until after the homily. There is a whole lot of tough, gut-punch, face-the-hard-truth stuff coming our way in this 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, which hardly makes it an “ordinary” Sunday. Sometimes the Word of God offers us sweet cotton candy—but not this week!

While there is no need to be scolded for seeking warmth, comfort and consolation from the Word of God, as we face the trials and conundrums of each day, our encounter with scripture this weekend provides no saunter around the carnival lot savoring our fluffy pillow of spun sugar.

Today’s first reading from the prophet Amos reminds us that greed, exploitation of the poor, dishonest business practices are not new phenomena, and that they have been and still are sinful in God’s eyes.
And lest we allow ourselves to slip off the hook because we think this only applies to the Amazons and Googles and ConAgras of the world; we are also called to the witness stand to give an accounting of our own use of finances, the choices we casually make in the grocery line, and the comments we make under our breath about people who should just “get a job!”

Lest we sulk in misplaced guilt or worse yet, get our feathers ruffled because “politics and economics” need to stay out of church (an understandable response once we hear the castigations of this week’s scriptures), fortunately, we are a redeemed people, whom Jesus has instructed in ways to embrace the poor.

We are all called to “prepare a full account of our stewardship”—and not just on our deathbed, or when we stand before the pearly gates. This accounting is a daily affair, wherein we review the decisions and choices we are making each day. To put it in the words we pray in the Confiteor, we must daily discern “what we have done, and what we have failed to do”—for the poor!

This past week I read a wonderful article on a Jesuit priest, now dead over 25 years, who labored with the poor and exploited in Washington, DC. His name was Father Horace McKenna.

Two brief quotations attributed to Father McKenna, known as the “Apostle to the Poor,” touched me, and I share them with you.

One bitterly cold winter night, just months before he died—partially blind and barely walking with the use of a cane—McKenna insisted he be brought to a homeless shelter, because, as he said: “I want to be where Jesus is tonight.”

When asked about summarizing his life, Father McKenna offered this simple, but profound response: “My greatest cause for thanksgiving is that I am involved with the poor.”

And so must we all be—if we are to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While St. Paul urges us to “lift up holy hands with supplications, prayers, petitions and thanksgiving for everyone,” may we also be lifting up hands in response to the cry of the poor, whomever they may be and wherever they may be, as we make our way along the path of our lives this week.

Sorry, it’s no cotton candy Sunday Word this time around. No worries though, since a Word that leads us to embrace the poor, the Lord assures us, is a far sweeter gift.

Pricey discipleship

Father Ben Berinti
Sunday, Sept. 8
Wis 9:13-18b; Ps 90:3-6, 12-17; Phmn 9-10, 12-17; Lk 14:25-33

A number of years ago while on retreat, I was walking through a beautiful, tree-lined path, when I bent over to pick up a large, broad leaf that had recently fallen from a mighty oak. During those sacred days of retreat, I had been thinking a great deal about the call of Jesus and its cost, and suddenly, the leaf symbolized all that I had been praying about and pondering.

Very neatly eaten out of the leaf was a hole about the size of a quarter. As I looked at the tiny chomp marks, I began thinking that often I feel like that leaf—consumed by ministry and responsibilities. The appointments, liturgies, meetings, and obligations I mark off in my calendar take away a part of me.
Sound familiar to you?

I am reminded of this experience as I allow the heavy sentiments of this Sunday’s scripture work on my heart. Each in their own way, the Word of God seems to be saying to us: count the cost! It is a challenge to all of us who give up too readily; who quickly lose sight of what really matters in daily living; who primarily rely on our own resources to muddle through; who sit back and allow everyone else to care for the community and its ministries; who struggle with “conceiving what the Lord intends”; and who complain when little parts of our lives are eaten away by demands with voracious appetites.

But “in every age O Lord, you have been our refuge,” and with even greater love for us than St. Paul had for Onesimus, God continuously sends God’s heart back to us. Through the power of God’s Word and the grace of the Sacraments, we are “given wisdom and the Holy Spirit from on high.”

In other words, the call to discipleship, although incredibly demanding (despite every ill-fated effort we make to soften it), is not meant to ruin us, or to toy with us as if we are playthings in God’s hands. Rather the demands of discipleship are meant to keep us focused on the Lord.

May we leave the tables of the Word and Eucharist this week fortified with the strength to face and to count the cost of discipleship, but also to taste and see, with increased conviction and gratitude, the gifts we ultimately receive when we are willing to pay the price.

Father Berinti, Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood, is pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Melbourne Beach.

Ego deflation

Father Ben Berinti
Sunday, Sept. 1
Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Ps 68:4-7, 10-11; Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a; Lk 14:1, 7-14

Back in the days of my time in campus ministry, I always chuckled when I spotted a newly-minted first year student, jaunting about campus, feigning confidence—and sporting their high school letter jacket. Trying to establish their new identities at college, they relied on evidence of their former glories as an accomplished, highly decorated (at least from the number of bars and stars and patches on their jackets) athlete or band member. The problem was that no one cared about who they were in high school; college was a new game, a new landscape, and anything worth noting would have to be accomplished anew. Walking around campus, decked out in past accomplishment was a mistake of the ego—and I can tell you, a lot of ego-deflation went on. Usually by week two or three, the letter jackets disappeared; I suspect mothballed for posterity.

We hear a good bit in our Sunday Scriptures this week about the dangers of ego, and the ways in which it inhibits our relationship with God and our ability to see God in the stranger.

The wisdom of Sirach sets us up for Luke’s account of Jesus, once again, getting into what I like to call “table-trouble” with the religious leaders. Sirach calls us to humility, noting that the greater we are, the more we will need to humble ourselves. I never tire of being reminded that the word humility has its origin in the Latin humus, meaning soil or earth. In other words, a humble person is one who is rooted in reality; someone who has one’s feet on the ground (not their head bowed in pious display); a person who knows both the richness of who she is, what may grow in and through her, as well as the dirtiness, the sinfulness of who he is.

Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, who has struggled with and written voluminously about ego, has this wisdom to offer:

The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling, or changing, or dying. The ego is part of you that loves the status quo—even when it’s not working. The ego hates losing—even to God (Falling Upward).

Indeed, ego has a way of cutting us off from God. But when we nurture humility, naming our wealth and poverty (and everything else in between), as the psalmist reminds us, “God makes a home” for us. And no matter what the circumstances, we ought never to fear approaching God. For God is not, as the author of Hebrews proclaims, “a blazing fire, gloomy darkness, or a storm,” but rather is a compassionate, loving and merciful God.

We may not be sporting letter jackets today, or for that matter ever even earned one in high school, but we all struggle with incursions of ego that lead us to judge, to want the higher seat, to be patted on the back for our generosity, to be observed as someone worth noticing.

But in the end, we are all the “poor ones”—each carrying about in this earthy body and soul of ours something that is crippling and blinding. But God, with profound love and tenderness and understanding, opens the banquet table for people just like us. God feeds us with nourishment that helps us uncover the distortions of our egos, and slakes the thirst we often have for pretending to be more than we are.

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United States Conference of Catholic Bishops