First Sunday in Advent. The key virtue for Christians is simple: "Be watchful! Be alert!"
Four neighbor women gather their teenage children as the smog-filtered sun begins to rise. The mothers check backpacks and bundles, all the while giving directions. Do this, don't do that. Go here, don't go there. Keep clean. Pray. Every day, pray. Everyone is frightened, confused. Each holds on to another as if existence itself depends on the feel of skin on skin. The teens hold back tears. The mothers' eyes are overflowing.
Do you know what a talent is? In the biblical sense, it's not the ability to carry a tune or the instinct for making a fortune on the stock market. A talent is a measure of weight, specifically the typical weight of a soldier's pack, something in the range of 75 to 100 pounds. As it is used in this parable, it refers to the weight of the coins entrusted to three servants. The talents the master gave his servants made a heavy load of very valuable coins; one talent is estimated to be worth something like a million dollars in today's money.
Today, we celebrate the oldest and first-ranked of Rome's four great basilicas. St. John was surnamed "Lateran" because it stands on the site of the palace of the family of the Laterani. During his reign as emperor, Constantine gave the palace and its lands to the church in 311. A church council was first held at the Lateran in 313. A papal residence until the scandal of Avignon, St. John is considered the cathedral of Rome and the mother church of Christendom. From the 12th century, this day, Nov. 9, has been observed as the anniversary of its dedication.
Today, we remember and celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us, "that great cloud of witnesses who surround us" (Hebrews 12:1) and support us with their prayers. Of course, there is sadness when a friend or family member dies, but, in the end, it is faith that enables us to surrender our mourning and be joyful in our memories.
I'm still haunted by a late 1960s survey of American Catholics. Participants were asked just one question: What's the more important law -- love your neighbor, or give up meat on Friday? More than 50 percent responded, "Give up meat on Friday." When meatless Fridays trump love of neighbor, we Catholics are in deep trouble.
David Letterman didn't invent the top 10 list. In one form or another, such inventories have been around for a long time -- even during the biblical period.
Our second reading, the opening of Paul's letter to the Thessalonians sets up our consideration of today's Scriptures. Paul invites us to listen to his letter as though we were the community originally addressed, to bask in his description of us, and nod in agreement with the members of that early community of Greek-speaking Christians.
In the sacred texts we hear today, Isaiah and the Matthean evangelist offer their understanding of the kingdom of God -- or, as Matthew preferred, the kingdom of heaven. Both of the sacred authors thought of the kingdom in terms of a banquet of rich food and choice wines, prepared by God.
When the eighth-century prophet Isaiah had a harsh truth to communicate to his contemporaries, he wrapped his message in a ballad -- a love song that told of God's love and Israel's repeated infidelity. He warned of judgment and well-deserved punishment, but he sang of these realities, and thereby created an opening in the hearts of those who might otherwise have turned a deaf ear.
Not everyone's happy with God's forgiveness.
When I preached on these three readings years ago while in residence at our cathedral, I got lots of feedback -- little of it positive. One man, for instance, came up after the Eucharist and angrily informed me, "I didn't like that sermon about forgiveness at all." Then, whirling around as he was going out the door, he yelled, "Thank God my two teenage boys didn't hear that [expletive]! If they had, I'd never be able to control them again!"