Sermons

July 25: Summer Reading & Travelogue (17 B)

“The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.” Psalm 145

In John’s gospel, Jesus is the “living bread” and sees this bread as nourishing and healing food for life.

The scene of the multiplication of loaves and fishes appears six times in the four gospels, so these generous acts of Christ had tremendous significance to his early followers as it does for us today. Also, in the first reading, we have a brief glimpse of how Elisha’s feeding of his people places Jesus in this prophetic tradition.  I’ll say this homily contains two themes —  “Summer Reading & Travelogue.”

This past Sunday evening, I watched with some anticipation a new documentary series entitled “Jerusalem: City of Faith & Fury” on CNN. Essentially, the first episode outlines the history of this city from the earliest days under King David — later programs deal with the role of Jesus within the context of the Roman empire, the fall of the temple, the plight of the Jews, the Crusades, the rise of Palestine, and to the present day. This six-part series extends into August on Sundays. The very first episode on Saul and David reminded me of the Bible history class of my youth.

The program recalled for me one of the books that I should have read long ago — namely “Jerusalem: The Biography” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. The British historian is one of the commentators in the documentary, and in fact, the chapter headings of his book become the outline for the series. I’ll be honest, I picked up the weighty tome several years ago, but its 736 pages is a bit daunting. I have promised myself to finish reading this for summer reading — all summer. Wish me luck!

The history of Jerusalem (if there can be a single history?) is so complex, with so many notable individuals, such density of subject, multiple ancient languages, and diverse peoples. Of course, this story is intense with explosive conflicts between – Jews, Palestinians, and today the fraught hostility even among Christian denominations, Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical.

If there can be a single compelling history of Israel and Jerusalem, you might turn to fiction. Many years ago, I found such a tale in James Michener’s “The Source.” It’s a fictionalized account of the establishment of Israel told in stories about people whose lives were touched by this land. Layer upon layer of a particular archeological dig or tell, the source that gave meaning to those who lived over centuries — in this holy land.

I read this book in the summer of 1979 as I traveled around Israel. I will never forget this experience and how Michener’s book help reveal a country’s vitality even in an arid desert, and, most of all, the central importance of Jerusalem in the lives of the three Abrahamic traditions – Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Now on to my travelogue about Jerusalem.

Once a friend of mine asked: “Over your many years as a priest, Father Mike, is there a particular Mass that’s most memorable to you?”

How so with you or me is there one or more celebrations of this sacrament that stands out or remains memorable? Yes, of course, there are several celebrations, but one, in particular, is extraordinary. After all, Jesus says: “Do this in memory of me.”

That year, I stayed in Israel for ten days, mostly going from the American Colony Hotel, nearby Herod’s Gate, and across from the Episcopal College. On most days, I took guided walking tours into the ancient city with excursions around the country via small buses or limousines. One day, on the road to Acre, we passed by the very sites that Michener describes in his novel.

Now on to my travelogue about Jerusalem — a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is called the “fifth gospel.”

“Do this in memory of me,” a great memory to savor, so many years later. Mostly, I recall meeting the Notre Dame Sisters of Sion, a group of nuns who run the Ecco Homo Pilgrim House, situated in the heart of the old city on the Via Dolorosa, the very street on which Jesus carried the cross.

Before my trip, a priest friend had written to the head sister that I was coming. But alas, they were already booked solid for the summer. However, Sister Joan invited me to stop by the convent and meet the sisters. When I got around to visiting them, they asked me to celebrate Mass that evening for themselves and their guests in the upstairs chapel and dining room. On the sixth floor of this building, there is a panoramic view of 180 degrees of the city of Jerusalem.

What is the most memorable Mass? The idea of celebrating the Eucharist with a group of pilgrims and a convent of religious women whose very mission is peace and reconciliation in a divided city, then this is it — in an upper room overlooking the place that Jesus knew and died for.  As real estate agents might say, “location, location, and location.”

Before I began Mass, the sister sacristan reminded me that their Muslim neighbors were celebrating the last days of the holy season of Ramadan. She counseled that I pay no attention to the call to prayer from atop the minarets. She added that their prayers should not interfere with our celebration of Mass.

As you may have already guessed, the calls to the prayer from the several mosques in the area had the sonic blasts of jet engines. If we were competing for God’s ear, the Muslims had it all over the Catholics. We were drowned out, so much so I had to pause every few minutes, remain silent, and then wait for the all-clear signal, then proceed to celebrate Mass. Only to stop again for another earsplitting shock wave from a more distant mosque. It reminded me of the noise of Fourth of July fireworks coming from next-door neighbors with an over-supply of ammo. Nonetheless, this was a privileged moment in time — amid the sights and sounds!

Back to the gospel, Jesus addresses the real needs of people. He welcomes them, cares for their needs, and brings nourishment. He meets them where they are — as they follow him. 

Pope Francis continually reminds us that the sacramental bread or Eucharist is not so much a reward as it is a healing bread of forgiveness, mercy, and tenderness on our life’s journey.

Since we don’t live perfect lives, this bread is there to sustain us on the bumpy and this sometimes challenging road. Yes, even our noisy neighbors have something to shout about, and their celebration of God’s call to prayer and service should not distract us. 

Again, the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect. Instead, the young boy in today’s gospel with his five barley loaves and two fish has the power to nourish those thousands who were hungry and in need, and Jesus to touch their lives.

Saint Angela Merici, Pacific Grove, CA.

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