To examine the readings of today’s Mass I will begin and end with personal anecdotes. The first is somewhat banal, the second decidedly unflattering but both are highly instructive.
At an informal gathering of priests, I asked, “Who would notice if your parish were to disappear overnight?” We first gave obvious if somewhat facetious answers: our vendors and UPS carriers. We then got more serious and remembering that the church teaches the preferential option for the poor and marginalized, added food pantries, 12-step meetings, and a neighborhood senior drop-in center. I added a community organizing effort. All of these are good, and much more could be added but we quickly realized that to have an effect a parish must be more than the sum of its parts or the number of its committees.
Last week St Matthew gave us the beatitudes and told us that our church will be built by meekness, mercy, cleanliness of heart, and the other blessings. Today he tells us that we will know that we have accepted these blessings when our light shines out to all. As we will be reminded throughout our reading of Matthew this year, Matthew led a divided community and wrote this Gospel to help with healing. A favorite technique was to show the continuity between the Old Testament and the New. This week he centers on the book of Isaiah with its theme of light. Light is how we live “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord” (Is 2:5) Light is why the Jewish people were called: “ I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. (Is 49:6). We could add many more and so we must ask how do we live in and spread the light. Let us look at our own parish.
Before covid we had done many community building activities within the parish but knew that we needed to engage the wider community. I thought that neighborhood involvement would be impossible during the pandemic. Then I blundered into helping at the food pantry in Catholic Charities, people joined me and eventually we moved it here. I learned several lessons:
First, we live on God’s timetable not ours. I would not have predicted a food pantry at St Charles nor gone out of my way to start it. This involvement during the pandemic was at very least surprising to us but the preferential option for the poor is from God and he always wants everyone nourished in every way. Today’s first reading from Isaiah tells us:
Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless Then your light shall break forth like the dawn ,and your wound shall quickly be healed; (Is 58:8)
Second. It calls upon the parish to be the body of Christ. The logistics for the pantry were quite beyond me but people in the parish and the community came forward and made it an efficient operation. We know that we are doing what God wants when we find our skills and talents being used and we know that the spirit is really working when we discover skills that we didn’t know we had. I should note that my job in the pantry is now to count and check off the boxes when they are delivered. Third grade math is about my speed. Also. The two largest donations to the food pantry have been from a non-Catholic neighbor on Sidney place and a friend went to mass here saw the bags of food and then donated her winnings from the 50/50 at a catholic charities fundraiser. Trust that light is seen.
Also, we do not know where it will lead. Last year it became obvious that covid based assistance for renters would be ended and that this winter we would need to have a plan for homeless people who would come to the pantry. Some tentative moves were made but then the asylum seekers were placed literally on our doorstep, and we were forced to either try not to see them or to do something for them. I am amazed at the generosity not only of our parish but the wider community. We received substantial donations of clothing and essential items from organizations I did not even know existed. The diapers are still rolling in and I remain the diaper king of Brooklyn. I will not speculate what will come next, but we have a God of surprises.
The light is not for us to hide within the four walls of St Charles. Isaiah tells us that it must be brought into the world. As Catholic Christians we have an extraordinary gift which brings us to the second anecdote.
When I was a newly minted pastor in Bed Stuy I received a call from Fr Jim Goode, the dean of black catholic preachers. I knew him slightly and he asked me how I was doing. I said fine and then told him all the plans that I had for the parish. He listened with great patience and then very kindly but firmly told me: “Bill you are the Pastor of a small catholic parish in a non-Catholic neighborhood, you don’t have much money, you don’t have many people, you don’t have any political clout, but you have the Eucharist. With the Eucharist you have all you need; without it you have nothing”.
This has guided my life since then.
We come together every week not for a lecture or a strategy session or even bible study but to celebrate Mass as a family. We ratify our covenant with God by participating in Jesus’s offer of himself, wholly and completely, to the Father. It makes us one and when we leave, we are told to love and serve. The light that is ignited here in the church should be kindled throughout the week in good deeds that glorify our heavenly father. From the Eucharist we can give light to everyone, everywhere, every time.