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The 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 29, 2017

Click here to listen to this homily (.mp4 file)

    A little parable from the Eastern mystical tradition to begin with this morning.

     An itinerant holy man arrived at a village and settled down under a tree for the night when a villager came running up to him and shouted, “The stone!  Give me the precious stone!”

     “What stone?” asked the holy man.

     The villager replied, “Last night an angel appeared to me in a dream and told me that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk I should find a holy man who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich forever.”

     Well, the holy man rummaged through his bag and pulled out a stone.  “He probably meant this,” he said as he handed the stone over to the villager.  “I found it on a forest path some days ago.  You can certainly have it.”

     The villager looked at the stone in wonder.  It was a diamond.  Probably the largest diamond in the whole world, for it was larger than the holy man’s hand.  He took the diamond and skipped happily away.  But all night long he tossed about in his bed, unable to sleep.

     The next day at the crack of dawn, he ran to the holy man, awakened him, and said, “give me the wealth that made it possible for you to give away this diamond so easily!”

     The Beatitudes which we just heard in the gospel are a proclamation about that greater kind of wealth: greater than diamonds or the most coveted of this world’s goods. The Beatitudes proclaim a wealth that can’t be held in the hand or salted away.  The Beatitudes proclaim that the happiest people are those who hold onto nothing at all – only God; that the richest people are really the poorest.

     But in all fairness I have to acknowledge that it’s not the materially poor but the “poor in spirit” that Jesus calls blessed, and the poor in spirit includes anyone whose trust is totally in God and not in things, anyone for whom God is absolutely central. But the truth is that there is something about the materially poor that gives them a head start on being “poor in spirit.”  I think it’s their immunity to the insidious pull of possessions.

     The poor are spared the dangerous illusion that can so easily trap people like many of us (I include myself) who have enough – maybe far more than enough – of this world’s goods: the illusion that we are somehow in charge of our lives, or that things can bring us happiness, or that if we have enough of this world’s goods we will be able to control our destiny.  Such thoughts never occur to the poor.  They live close to the edge with none of the toys or trappings of what I like to call the alphabet of success: they have no SUVs, BMWs, CDs, IRAs, or 401Ks.  And because they live so close to the edge with no comfortable cushion, no safety net, no back-up system for a rainy day, the poor have a head start on the rest of us in knowing how utterly dependent they are on God.
Of course, it is not just the poor in spirit who are proclaimed blessed in Matthew’s Beatitudes.  There is a whole list of others whom Jesus calls blessed: the sorrowing, the meek, those who hunger for holiness, the merciful, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.  Quite a list, isn’t it?  Would you recruit them as building blocks or foundation stones if you were building a kingdom?  I wouldn’t!  How can you build a kingdom with a bunch of losers (pardon my bluntness!)?

     And the answer is that you can’t. But God can. And God does. God has chosen to work the divine wonders through those who, in their pain and powerlessness, their honesty and their humility, allow God to be God.

     Isn’t this exactly what St. Paul was saying in that passage from First Corinthians we heard in today’s second reading?  “Brothers and sisters, consider your own situation.  Not many of you are influential; and surely not many of you are well-born.  God chose those whom the world considers absurd in order to shame the wise; God singled out the weak of this world to shame the strong, the world’s lowborn and despised, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.”

     You’ve heard me speak over the years about the L’Arche Community over on Capitol Hill. It is one of the quiet blessings of my life.  L’Arche is a community of love for the developmentally disabled, a harbor of hope for wounded people who could easily be overlooked and get lost in life’s shuffle.  L’Arche is the Word of today’s scriptures made flesh. Each of those special people gives a human face to one of the Beatitudes.

       My relationship with L’Arche has opened up for me the meaning of today’s scriptures in a way that years of study never could.  Thanks to those beautiful people, I understand the Beatitudes in ways I never could have.  Strange, isn’t it?  Nearly thirty years ago when I first went to L’Arche I thought maybe I could do something good for them. I had it wrong: they were the ones with something good for me!

        And so it is in this upside-down world of the Beatitudes.  God’s blessings come in strange shapes and sizes and from altogether unexpected places. And God’s Kingdom is getting built. God is the one who is building it, slowly but surely building it with the most unlikely of materials, including my friends at L’Arche, and, yes, including people like you and me!

Father Michael G. Ryan 

 

 

 

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