Today’s mass commemorated a former student of mine who died on this day in 2013. He is greatly missed and will be remembered for the bright, loving, generous fellow so many of us knew and loved.
Heb 10:32-29/ Mk 4:26-34
When considering the readings for today, which follow the regular selections for this time of year, I wondered if they would be appropriate for a memorial mass. In fact, the first reading in particular spoke immediately to my heart. Both readings are about faith. And about faith and patient endurance. Faith may seek understanding and turn into theology, but often it winds up in deep and dark mystery. And this faith leads us to endure.
Suffering, especially the suffering of the good and innocent, has challenged the faith of believers at least since the Psalms and the Book of Job were written. Even Jesus was hard-pressed to account for unmerited human suffering and had no truck with notions that we’re paying for our sins. Nor did he tell us to offer it up for the poor souls in purgatory. Suffering remains a deep, dark mystery, one whose resolution lies in the mighty heart and power of God. We know so little of either.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus told the mob of critics that the man born blind he was about to heal was not paying for his sins or those of his parents, but so that the works of God might be revealed. It’s a brilliant explanation but one that relies completely on faith. Suffering is not something to be understood, nor, as the Buddha also taught, to be avoided, but to be endured. A friend has it this way: we cannot go around suffering, we can only go through it.
And so we believe. It does not lessen the suffering, but allies it with those of Jesus himself who suffered and died on our behalf. But he did not end suffering. It is a dark door each of us had to go through, hopefully guided by the light of the Risen Christ.
I think Meister Eckhart may have addressed the mystery better than anyone of his own time and long after. He startled his hearers by stating baldly that “God us our suffering.” What he meant by that strange claim is that, as he says, we have no suffering that God has not suffered with us and even before us. Our suffering is God’s suffering and what is in God, is God. For Eckhart, a man of tremendous faith, we do not simply let it go, we give it to God. And that’s hard, but that’s IT.
Somewhere in the wings, almost a century later, I hear Julian of Norwich echoing this faith with her famous refrain, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”
If we believe that, we can endure what we do not understand. And even as we and our loved ones suffer we can anticipate the great reunion in which God will “wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things will have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” [Rev. 21:4-5a]
Hearing the Voice calling in the night is only the beginning. What happens next changes the world.
A prophet can be described as someone who not only hears God calling in the night, but like a worried spouse or parent stays up waiting for the call. Samuel is remembered as the first great prophet after Moses. The name “Samuel” means “heard of God.” His whole life was centered on hearing the word of God and keeping it — no matter what the cost. And the cost was high. It still is.
Prophets like John the Baptist, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, and Sister Dorothy Stang, the environmentalist who was gunned down in Brazil, often end badly as the world sees things. I suppose that’s why not many people are eager to stay up listening for heavenly voices in the night.
At the age of 15 Martin Luther King entered Morehouse College in Atlanta. After graduation in 1948, although he was only 19 years old, he was ordained at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he became Assistant Pastor. In September of 1951, he began doctoral studies in Systematic Theology at Boston University. He also studied at Harvard University. On June 5, 1955 he was awarded the Ph.D. in Systematic Theology. With such credentials, he could have found a teaching position at almost any university or theological seminary in America. But he accepted the call of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, to work among the poor and outcast among his own people. He was pastor there from 1954 to November 1959, when he resigned to move to Atlanta to direct the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Before his life was cut short by a bullet in 1968, King had received over twenty honorary doctorates, including those from Boston University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Yale, and one of the earliest, from the Chicago Theological Seminary, in 1957. Dr. King also received several hundred awards for his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963 Time magazine named him named “Man of the Year.” In 1964 he won the John Dewey Award from the United Federation of Teachers and the John F. Kennedy Award from the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago. Later that year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — at 35, the youngest man, the second American, and the third black man awarded the honor.
But years before, in the dark days of the early civil rights movement, the young Baptist minister spent a sleepless night praying at his kitchen table in Montgomery, Alabama. A bus boycott was getting underway as a protest against discrimination and segregation.
King’s work seemed to have gone nowhere. Faced with disillusionment and fear, he prayed. And the Voice he heard within him that night told him not to be afraid, to go ahead, that he would never be alone.
Like the prophets before him, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., listened to that voice, obeyed it, and ultimately paid for that call with his life. Samuel, so far as anyone knows, died a natural death — and the fate of prophets is not that important anyway. Their life and work are — being attentive to the Word of God, reading the signs of the times, and doing what has to be done to prepare the way of the Lord without counting the cost.
In the passage we have just heard St. Paul reminds us that as bodily temples of the Holy Spirit, God lives within us. We are not limited to external hints, clues and directions. God is right here, inside, whispering, listening, guiding, and raising us up. The problem is that we only rarely pay attention. Sometimes we are so distracted the only way God can get through is when we’re dreaming. Or maybe a little deaf. Or just at our wits’ end.
The truth is, all of us are called to prophecy by the simple fact of our baptism and confirmation. Every moment of our life is an opportunity to hear the Word of God and keep it. But there is something more — something the gospel tells us today. We are not merely passive recipients of instructions that come to us in a burning bush or a still small voice in the night. We also need to act.
In the story from the gospel, the first disciples are also given an invitation, a call — “come and see.” Like Andrew, Peter, and King we have to go somewhere — maybe a trip into the desert of our times in order to find what we’re looking for. What was it they went out to see? They hardly knew. Still they went. And what they saw changed the world forever.
For they saw Jesus. But going to see Jesus means looking for the Word of God — paying attention, even in the still small hours of the night. Even in our dreams. But as Martin Luther King learned, no less than Samuel, John the Baptist, and those first disciples did, the dream has to be made real. We have to do something. That is how we follow Christ. So let us pray that both awake and asleep we continue to keep open the eyes and ears of our hearts, ever attentive to the signals of divine intent that ring around us like voices calling in the night. Let us pray that we will put into practice what we have heard whispered in that dark stillness.
[Facts on the life and achievements of Dr. King were taken from “Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Biographical Sketch,” LSU Libraries, Louisiana State University, Selected Reference Resources no.218, Mitchell Brown, Compiler: http://www.lib.lsu.edu/hum/mlk/index.html.]