Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

I begin with a story about a rural convent.  The abbess was dying and all the nuns were gathered around her bedside.  One gave the abbess a glass of milk with plenty of brandy in it, to ease her pain. The abbess took a sip and suddenly perked up.  Another nun asked for the abbess’s dying words.  The abbess took a really big gulp of the brandy/milk, smiled, and said, “Don’t sell that cow.”

The word of God takes us back in our imaginations to the 7th century before Jesus, to a man named Zephaniah.  Ancient Assyria had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and made a satellite of the southern kingdom. But now Babylonia was emerging as the new middle east superpower.

The author of Zephaniah challenges the Hebrews, in light of this new threat, to seek God in their daily lives.  How?  By being faithful to their covenant promises, fair in their dealings with one another, and acknowledging their absolute dependency upon an all-good sovereign God.  Perhaps God then will protect them from Babylonia.

But then the author dramatically changes the scene in the second sentence from danger to deliverance.  Yes, some Hebrews, a remnant, will survive; they will acknowledge God; walk in the ways of the covenant; and live in peace.

The author invites us, creatures who came out of nothingness, to be humble and grateful to an all-good God for who we are and what we have.

Paul in his letter to the Christian community in Corinth reminds them they are nobodies: with neither intellectual heft nor political clout, little to nothing to brag about.  But God chose them.  God does wondrous things through the least likely people to demonstrate that it's the power of God at work. Paul then adds that Jesus is our true wisdom, our sole redeemer and sanctifier.

Paul urges us to let people see the power of God at work in our lives.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus describes what it means to be disciples: they recognize who they are (mere creatures of an all-mighty creator); they seek God in their daily lives; they forgive wrongs done to them; they are peacemakers, bridge-builders; and yes, ready to do the right thing. The beatitudes are indeed a splendid spirituality for all ages.

Jesus in the beatitudes calls us to do “surprising” things, to live by spiritual rather than material values: to attach ourselves to the things of God; to find our joy and purpose in service to others; to seek what is right in all things; to be compassionate and forgiving; to stop and listen to God's voice speaking in the quiet of our hearts; to work for peace in our homes and communities; and to invest what we have and are in bringing about the kingdom of God in our own time and place.

What does that mean concretely?

If you do something for someone else for no other reason than to bring joy to people’s lives; and if you put yourself second for the needs of another, blessed are you.  If you do the “right” thing when the conventional wisdom is to do the “smart” thing; forgive someone for wrongs done to you and move forward; and stop and spend even just a moment thinking about all the good in your life and find yourself feeling a sense of gratitude, blessed are you.

If you can diffuse someone's anger, bridge a chasm between you and another, bring a positive perspective to an otherwise negative situation; and endure a “funny look” from someone because you took a stand based on what was morally and ethically right, blessed are you.

In the blessings you give, you have been blessed.

Every one of us is mortal.  I don't want to be morbid but it's true: we are going to die. We don't when or how, but we do know we will die.

Now, when was the last time you stopped to think about your life?  The fact of death should make us think about what we will do and how we will live.  If your doctor told you, “You probably have about six months to live,” you would live very differently.  That's why it's spiritually healthy to reflect upon our mortality.  It generally rearranges priorities.

Most people get no warning.  But if your doctor gives a time-frame, and you think about living and dying, you have the benefit of getting your affairs in order and the opportunity of bidding farewell to those you love. With that news, we quickly sort out the important things from the not so important.

There's an ancient wisdom that says God sends each person into this life with a special message to deliver, with a special song to sing for others, with a special act of love to bestow. Perhaps this prayer can be our message and song and act of love:

In a world full of sadness, may we be people full of gladness...
In a world that complains, may we be people that care...
In a world that's out of tune, may we be people full of harmony...
In a world full of war, may we be people full of peace...
In a world full of crime, may we be people full of honesty...
In a world full of heartache, may we be people full of hope...
and in a discouraged world, may we be people full of encouragement.

I conclude with experiences from hospice nurses.  Someone asked these nurses, “When people are dying, what do they talk about?”  The nurses said that people who are dying often speak to them about how they wish they had lived differently.  For example,

I wish I had spent more time with the people I love.

I wish I had made spirituality more of a priority.

I wish I hadn't spent so much time working.

I wish I had been a better spouse.

I wish I had discovered my purpose earlier.

I wish I had quit my job and found something I really enjoyed doing.

I wish I hadn't spent so much time chasing the wrong things.

These were the regrets of people finishing their time on this earth.  Each of them contains a powerful lesson for those of us who are still living.  The point is this:  It's healthy to think about mortality from time to time.  It puts things in perspective and reminds us what truly matters.

Someone wrote: “Twenty years from now we will be more disappointed by the things we didn’t do than by the ones we did.”  Think about it.  Live a life of no regrets.

The perspective that death is inevitable may compel us to re-order our priorities and live a life of the beatitudes.  The goal is not gloom and doom, but rather to focus on our deeply held values, to celebrate the joy and purpose of the gift of life.  And that gift of life is important for people of all ages and stages to celebrate.  Don’t regret a moment.

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