Fr. Bryce McProud

August 27, 2017 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

 27 August  Comments Off on August 27, 2017 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Aug 272017
 

Matthew 16:13-20

Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

The Gospel lesson we just heard is pivotal for Roman Catholic self-understanding. It’s the foundational scripture for St. Peter becoming Christ’s Vicar here on earth. Jesus proclaims: so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Every successor of St. Peter has inherited this promise and it is the bedrock of the Church’s authority.

At the beginning of this passage we hear Jesus asking his disciples: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

The responses were interesting: John the Baptizer, who had recently been killed by Herod, Elijah the OT prophet who was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot and who would usher in the Messiah, the Christ. Or some thought the Son of Man might be Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. But Jesus presses them: “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s response is among the most important in scripture.

Among other things, this Gospel lesson is a story about conversion, the conversion of Simon Peter and by implication it’s a call to conversion for all who would serve Christ in His Church. This is the underlying message of the “New Evangelization” that the Church is emphasizing so strongly. We know that Simon Peter wasn’t a newcomer to following Christ, but this revelation depicted in the Gospel lesson was a call for Peter to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God and for Peter to receive him fully and to serve him with the entirety of his being. For the faithful thereafter, this was and is a call for all of us. We are to commit to Jesus deeply, strongly and with fervor. To embrace the fact that he is the Christ the Son of the living God.

The Catechism defines conversion as “A radical reorientation of the whole life away from sin and evil, and toward God. This change of heart or conversion is a central element of Christ’s preaching, of the Church’s ministry of evangelization, and of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.” (p 873)

It’s important to remember that for us Christians, our conversions start at baptism but they continue until we reach the throne of Grace. Even time spent in Purgatory is time spent in conversion, in changing whatever would separate us from God until we finally enter heaven. This is the process. The goal is to put our full faith, love and trust in Christ. This is the basic message of Evangelization.

As just mentioned, we Catholics are so blessed to have a Church which provides us with a sacrament that is focused entirely on conversion: the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. To lay our sins out to God in the presence of a priest as we repent them fully and then to have the words of absolution and pardon and peace proclaimed to us is so sacred, and so dear. Conversion in this sense is mostly course correction to make sure that we are walking on the path Christ has set out for us and when we deviate from it by our sins, God lovingly calls us back.

As we read through the rest of the New Testament, it is really evident that Peter’s conversion was to be a very long process. From denying our Lord 3 times to battling with St. Paul, St. Peter kept having to repent in order to stay the course. And for each of us, conversion is a long process too, a lifelong process if you will, and so often repentance is the only means that gets us back on course when we stray in thought, word or deed.

Other Christian traditions, especially evangelical Protestants, put more emphasis on a particular event in life which is frequently called “being saved.” When for example, a Baptist is asked when he or she was saved, often a specific point in time is mentioned. The Catholic Church acknowledges the validity of these experiences that turn one’s heart to Christ. So back in 1988 the Catholic Church and the World Baptist Confederation actually put out a statement of mutual agreement on the nature of conversion.

Here, in part, is what they said:

“Conversion is turning away from all that which is opposed to God, contrary to Christ’s teaching, and turning to God, to Christ the Son through the work of the Holy Spirit. It entails turning from self-centeredness of sin to faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. Conversion is passing from one way of life to another new one, marked with newness in Christ. It is a continuing process so that the whole life of a Christian should be a passage from death to life, from error to truth, from sin to Grace.”

“Individuals respond in faith to God’s call, but faith comes from hearing the proclamation of the Word of God and it is to be expressed in living together in Christ, that is the Church.”

I rather like this statement.

It’s important to keep in mind the primary purpose of Jesus’ declaration to St. Peter. He, Peter, would be the rock upon which the Church would be built; it was more about the Church and less about St. Peter. Individual Christians do need to engage in that long and important process of conversion, but as the Church teaches, the emphasis on personal conversion must be for the well being and furtherance of our community.  For us, conversion always takes place in the context of community. We Catholics think “we” rather than just “me.”

Put another way, conversion is personal but not private. Not only is conversion for individual piety and holiness, it is also to enhance the Church, sometimes this is even done from the grave.

The story is told of the Emperor Charlemagne, who according to legend, was buried sitting upright on his throne. He had commanded that the crown remain on his head and that his scepter be in his right hand. He also gave instruction that the royal cape was to be draped around his shoulders and an open Bible be placed in his lap.

Nearly 200 years later, the emperor Othello determined to see if the burial instructions had been really carried out— so he ordered the grave to be opened. They found the skeleton just as Charlemagne had commanded. But what was most interesting was that the bone of the index finger of his left hand was pointed to a passage in Scripture six verses farther from the end of our Gospel lesson today: Mt 16:26: What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? It was message from the grave as a reminder to us all. It was a faithful response from a converted king.

The combined task of the individual believer, the Church, all the angels and saints and the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is to see that one does not forfeit one’s soul. Individuals need to be engaged in the long process of conversion, all the while being surrounded and supported of such a vast community of faith. And all this is set secure on the solid rock of the Church.

 

 

 

August 20, 2017 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 20 August  Comments Off on August 20, 2017 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Aug 222017
 

Matthew 15:21-28

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.

In our Gospel lesson we read that a Canaanite woman called out [to Jesus], “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

For background it is important to note that the Canaanites were a loose federation of tribes who occupied the “Promised Land” before Abraham arrived to claim it in the name of God. The Canaanites had a long history of conflict with the Hebrew people dating back to Noah shortly after the flood, centuries before Abraham.

The story is that Noah got drunk, took off all of his clothes, and passed out. His son Ham walked in on him and ridiculed him to his brothers. Noah was so humiliated and infuriated that he put a curse on Ham and all his descendants, who later became known as the Canaanites. An aspect of this curse was that the Canaanites were to be slaves of Noah’s two other sons, Shem and Japheth. As you may guess, the Canaanites weren’t too keen on this. (Gen. 9:20ff)

Several centuries after Abraham, when Moses was trying to retake the Promised Land after the Children of Israel escaped from their Egyptian slavery, it was the Canaanites with whom they often engaged in battle. There was no love lost between Jew and Canaanite.

To make it even worse, there’s a passage in Deut. 20:17 in which God calls for the destruction of all Canaanites and in Zech. 14:2, Canaanites are specifically excluded from worship. You can see the basis of a pretty deep seated animosity. So in light of all this, it would not be possible to overestimate the “chutzpah,” the brass, the audacity of this Canaanite woman. She ruffled a lot of feathers by approaching Jesus as she did.

We read in the text that this woman rushed up and knelt before Jesus, begging for help for her demon tormented daughter. He couldn’t ignore her any longer, so said in reply: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

This is a significant exchange; in Biblical times, dogs were not the revered pets that they are today in our society. In the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 7:6, Jesus states, Do not give dogs what is holy… And then in the Revelation to St. John of Patmos, chapter 22 verse 15, it says, that some will be excluded from the heavenly city and the list includes…dogs, and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”

The Greek word for dog is Kuon, it is the basis for our word “Cur.” Even now, as then, in much of the mid-east, dogs are slinking street creatures that function as scavengers and sentries. These curs were and are nobody’s pets.  To add to the insult, the word Jesus used in the Gospel lesson is kunaria, the diminutive form and it means yappy little dog.

I think that with a twinkle in his eye, Jesus was comparing the Canaanite woman to the yappy little lap dogs that many Canaanites had as pets, something that disgusted Jews of that day. And the woman was quick enough to get it.  By implication, He was referring to her. He was comparing her loud persistence to a little dog that would not shut up. And this is what’s fascinating to me, she agreed. Note her esponse: “Yes Lord, yet even the kunaria, the yappy little dogs, get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”

I think Jesus then laughed. And then I think that with great warmth and humor in his voice he said, “‘Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”

In contrast, recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, are not a laughing matter.

One of the more insightful statements about that horrible situation came from Archbishop Charles Chaput (SHAP-you) of Philadelphia who said: “Racism is a poison of the soul. It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed.” * I find his words uncomfortable, but we have to listen to them. Getting personal, I was raised in a family in which racial and ethnic slurs were commonplace. I suspect that many of you were too. When that kind of language permeates our psyches when we are young, it tends to stay put indelibly. It affects us both consciously and unconsciously, individually and our society as a whole.

Let’s take a minute to look at Archbishop Chaput. He is a member of the “Prairie Band of the Potawatomis;” He’s the second Native American bishop and the first Archbishop. His father is French Canadian and his mother is a member of the Potawanomi nation.

The Archbishop’s words have a political import, but they are also theological.

To talk about the original sin of the United States makes perfect sense. Not far from Charlottesville is Monticello, the estate of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. He is the one who declared that all men are created equal, and he enunciated a doctrine of human rights, but he also owned slaves, including Sally Hemings who was the mother of his six children, who were also slaves. That he mistreated not only numerous black people, but his own flesh and blood as well, represents the most breathtaking hypocrisy. This manifests the original sin of which Archbishop Chaput speaks; a Constitution that speaks of liberty for all, but which denies it to some on grounds of race.

Ironically Charlottesville is named after Queen Charlotte, the consort of King George III of England. Evidently she was a black Queen whose ancestors came from Africa, which is irony indeed.

When Archbishop Chaput speaks of original sin, he refers not just to the sin at the beginning, but the sin that endures. America today, despite the promise contained in the Constitution, is not a land of equality and great social mobility, despite having had an African-American President. Things are better along racial lines, but they are a long way from being fixed.

Archbishop Chaput, of course, is of Native American stock on his mother’s side, and therefore has a special insight into questions of race. We should not forget that our country existed before Europeans “discovered” it, and that their settlement of the land was anything but peaceful.

Our current troubles, of which Charlottesville represents but the tip of the iceberg must make anyone sad, but the question remains: “What is to be done? The Archbishop rightly points out: “We need more than pious public statements.” He goes on to say: “If our anger today is just another mental virus displaced tomorrow by the next distraction or outrage we find in the media, nothing will change. Charlottesville matters. It’s a snapshot of our public unravelling into real hatreds brutally expressed; a collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country. We need to keep the images of Charlottesville alive in our memories. If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others. That may sound simple. But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.”*

I find this “original sin of our country” of which Archishop Chaput speaks is manifest in other areas. It’s tied up with what punsters are calling “identity politics.” I interpret this to mean that we are getting tribal in our country; we want to be with folks who are just like us and we are suspicious of anyone who is different. There is also a strong reaction to what I like to call the politics of guilt and pity. Many are tired of being blamed for the problems of others, particularly if it has to do with being “politically correct.” Unfortunately, all too often, there is an overreaction to folks of color who have a legitimate beef because of serious discrimination. Yeah, I get it. We don’t like aspersions of guilt being thrown on us and we often over react. But we do have a problem. The oppression against others, especially against people of other races is real.

The Sin of Adam and Eve, the Original Sin, led to dissension between these first two human beings and it has been passed on to us. The reconciliation that heals such dissension comes from Christ Jesus, himself. He is the one who undoes the damage inflicted by our first parents. Moreover, He is the great sign of unity, as He died and rose for all, black, white, brown, Canaanite and Jew . The Redemption wrought by Jesus is the foundation of human dignity as it shows that He thought we were all worth dying for. So the Archbishop is right to call for conversion of heart.

Ours is a deeply religious nation. A reflection on the foundations of our expressions of faith would be a good place to start to address the injustices of racism. And we can look to Jesus and the Canaanite woman as an example.

*STATEMENT OF ARCHBISHOP CHARLES J. CHAPUT, O.F.M. CAP. REGARDING RACIAL VIOLENCE IN CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA

Racism is a poison of the soul.  It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed.  Blending it with the Nazi salute, the relic of a regime that murdered millions, compounds the obscenity.  Thus the wave of public anger about white nationalist events in Charlottesville this weekend is well warranted.  We especially need to pray for those injured in the violence. 

 But we need more than pious public statements.  If our anger today is just another mental virus displaced tomorrow by the next distraction or outrage we find in the media, nothing will change.  Charlottesville matters.  It’s a snapshot of our public unraveling into real hatreds brutally expressed; a collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country.  We need to keep the images of Charlottesville alive in our memories.  If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others.  That may sound simple.  But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.

+Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

Archbishop of Philadelphia 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August 13, 2017 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 13 August  Comments Off on August 13, 2017 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Aug 132017
 

Matthew 14:22-36

After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

As we look closely at today’s Gospel lesson from the 14th chapter of Matthew, we read that Jesus wanted to be alone. Following the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, Jesus needed to restore his spiritual energy, so as our text said, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.

His disciples went on ahead of him in a boat to get to the other side of that fresh water lake called the Sea of Galilee. They probably thought that Jesus would either catch a ride in another boat, or take his time and walk around.

It wasn’t a long voyage for the disciples, 5 miles at the most. If it remained calm, they could row across in under two hours; if the wind came up they could sail across in half the time; after all many of them were experienced fishermen and boatmen and they knew the waters well. What we assume began as a routine evening crossing, soon turned into a nightmare. Even today, Galilean fishermen fear the treacherous storms caused by cold winds blowing off the surrounding mountains. They create a sudden tempest in the warm air covering the low lying waters.

The storm that broke on the disciples so unexpectedly that evening came from the direction in which they were heading. Against such a head-wind it was nigh on impossible to make much progress. But the disciples knew that they dared not allow the boat to be driven back to the shore they had just left. The waves could dash their craft against the rocks, endangering it and everyone on board. Their only hope was to ply the oars as long as the storm continued, trying to remain a good distance from the rocks. You can almost hear them uttering what I like to call the “Please, Oh Please, Oh Please God Prayer: “Oh Please God, we gotta stay in deep water, gotta stay away from the rocks, gotta stay in deep water, Oh Please, Oh please, Oh please God!” Most of us know that prayer pretty well.

Our story is set in the “4th watch of the night.” The night in those days was divided into four equal parts or watches. So if there were 8 hours of darkness, each watch would be two hours in length. Assuming they had embarked before nightfall, they would have been in the boat at least six hours. They’ve been battling the storm and they are exhausted, soaked to the skin, cold and frightened. Small wonder, then, that they cry out in fear as they see a figure approaching across the wind-whipped waves. It is Jesus, coming to them walking on the water. “Take courage,” he calls out. “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Acting in his typically impetuous manner, Peter shouts back, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” Jesus replies. Peter’s willingness to do the unthinkable at the command of his Lord enables him to experience the impossible. He climbs out of the boat and starts to walk to Jesus across the storm tossed waves. “But when he saw how strong the wind was,” Matthew tells us, “he became frightened. And beginning to sink [and] he cried out, “Lord, save me.”

“Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him and said, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” They both got into the boat and the wind died down.” Those in the boat did our Lord homage, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Now to us, as far as we know, walking on water wasn’t something members of the early Church expected to do themselves. So we can assume that Matthew expected us, his readers, to hear this story in terms of our own journeys and our own times of doubt, especially when we have stepped out in faith.

We all know what it’s like to start something with confidence and then right in the middle things happens and down we go: maybe we were crossing a stream on a fallen log, stepping carefully on the mossy surface, doing just fine until we look at the rocks and rushing water below and fear takes a grip and balance is lost and we wobble or freeze, and we lose our balance, and down we go into the water, or if we catch ourselves, we sit down and scoot the rest of the way on our backsides.

Or maybe we we’ve been learning to ride a bicycle and we’ve gained enough speed that we’ve suddenly stopped wobbling and we’ve started flying and as the grin grows larger and the heart is rejoicing, a rock is hit, confidence gives way and we lose balance and crash into the neighbor’s hedge. We all know what this is like.

So, how many times have we asked ourselves “Why don’t I have more faith? Why can’t I trust God more? Why am I afraid to let go and let God take care of this? I believe I’m in God’s hands and that they are really good hands, but then I lose my job and can’t find another and as the interviews go on and on and our savings disappear, my faith seems to go with them and I begin to sink.

And we do have the hope of heaven and a bright future with all the Angels and Saints but then sickness sets in and no healing miracles occur and the doctor says six, maybe nine months and we all pray for a miracle and no miracle comes and the waves start to creep up our legs and we begin to sink.

Personally, I have no doubt that God is all powerful and lovingly present and active in this world, but as I look at the situation with Christians being driven out of Iraq and there is still the incredible barbarity of the those rogues who are trying to establish a pure Islamic state out of Syria and Iraq, or I look at those poor kids from central America who have gone through unspeakable hardships to flee from atrocities in their home countries, only to find such incredibly mixed messages once they arrive here in the United States; with all this I have to confront my own sinking doubt.

So why do we doubt? There are a bevy of reasons, but at the top of the list is cynicism which is usually a mask for fear, because the sea is so vast and we are so small, because the storm is so powerful and we are so easily sunk—AND— because we do have a modicum of faith, we have at least some. Like St. Peter, we do have at least a little, and a little is a whole lot better than nothing, even though there are times when it does not seem to be enough to save.

Like Peter, we have faith and we doubt. We take a few shaky steps and then we sink.

So I ask you, “What if Peter had not sunk? What if he had jumped out of the boat with perfect confidence, landed with both feet on the water and strolled across the waves to Jesus without a moment’s hesitation? What if the other disciples had followed suit, piling out of the boat after him and all of them with perfect faith, sauntering toward Jesus on top of the water while the storm raged and the wind beat the sails of their little ship and the lightning split the dark night above their heads and the thunder cracked all about them?

Well, it would be a different story. It might even be a better story, but it would not be a story about us. The truth about us is more complicated. The truth about us is that we are both obedient and we fear; we walk and we sink; we believe and we doubt. It is not one or the other. Our faith and our doubt are not mutually exclusive, they both exist in us at the same time, one buoying us up and the other beating us down, giving us courage and feeding our fears, supporting our weight on the wild seas and sinking us like stones.

This is why we need Jesus.

This story assures us that when the storms of life rage and the night is the blackest, when we cannot see the way ahead, when we are bone weary and life’s struggles are beating us down and our hearts are failing because fear is emerging victorious, there is good news, Jesus is close. As Catholics, we know this—we really know this—after all, we are here gathered as his Body, eagerly anticipating receiving him fully, completely, unequivocally in the Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith. We don’t doubt that and that is enough to give us the hope of salvation, no matter how strong the storm.

 

August 6, 2017 The Transfiguration of the Lord

 06 August  Comments Off on August 6, 2017 The Transfiguration of the Lord
Aug 062017
 

2 Peter 1:16-19

Beloved: We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts

 

Both Latin and Eastern rite Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration today. It’s the traditional date on both calendars.

For Eastern Catholics, the Feast of the Transfiguration is especially significant. It is among their 12 “great feasts.”  Eastern Christianity emphasizes that Christ’s transfiguration is the prototype of spiritual illumination, which is possible for the committed disciple of Jesus. This Christian form of “enlightenment” is facilitated by the ascetic disciplines of prayer, fasting, and charitable almsgiving.  A revered hierarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the late Archbishop Joseph Raya, described this traditional Byzantine view of the transfiguration in his book of meditations on the Biblical event and its liturgical celebration, entitled “Transfiguration of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  “Transfiguration,” Archbishop Raya wrote, “is not simply an event out of the two-thousand-year old past, or a future yet to come. It is rather a reality of the present, a way of life available to those who seek and accept Christ’s nearness.”

For us in the Latin or Western Rite Church, the Transfiguration is also an important Feast Day. In his address before the Angelus in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI described how the events of the Transfiguration display Christ as the “full manifestation of God’s light.”  This light, which shines forth from Christ both at the transfiguration and after his resurrection, is ultimately triumphant over “the power of the darkness of evil.”  The Pope stressed that the Feast of the Transfiguration is an important opportunity for believers to look to Christ as “the light of the world,” and to experience the kind of conversion which the Bible frequently describes as an emergence from darkness to light.   “In our time too,” Pope Benedict said, “we urgently need to emerge from the darkness of evil, to experience the joy of the children of light!”

This feast commemorates one of the pinnacles of Jesus’ earthly ministry. On Mt. Tabor Christ revealed his divinity by means of a miraculous and supernatural light to three of his closest disciples: Peter, James and John. A couple of decades later, St. Peter shares his experience in today’s epistle lesson, the second letter which bears his name. It is the only place in the Scriptures outside the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, where anyone refers to the “Transfiguration.”

To refresh your memories, it’s the occasion when Jesus suddenly becomes radiant with divine light as he converses with Moses and Elijah. And then, behold!—Jesus is standing alone. And all of a sudden, God’s voice came from heaven proclaiming: “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In a rather matter-of-fact way, Peter remembers that We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.

We can presume that by the time of Peter’s writing in mid-first century that some of the opponents of the faith were scoffing at the extraordinary tales that were going around about Jesus. Peter insists that the “transfiguration” actually happened. He was a personal eye-witness.  The result of this eye-witness testimony is that the apostles could look back on the entire world of biblical prophecy; that grand, untidy seemingly chaotic collection of stories which revealed as one story the series of sign posts pointing to what was to come and by divine revelation through the teaching of the Church, it all somehow made sense.

Among the prophecies was one from Numbers 24 which referred to the star that would arise from Jacob. This was widely understood to be a prophecy of the Messiah and it may very well have supplied Peter with the inspiration for his statement at the end of our lesson today that Jesus is the “morning star.” (Num. 24:17)  Peter’s point in this little discourse is that the stories of Jesus reach something of a climax in the extraordinary revelation of glory at the moment of transfiguration. In part because of this event, the Church is now enlightened to read the entire Hebrew scriptures in the light of Christ.

Peter is addressing the new reality that has come about by the Incarnation of Christ. The Transfiguration bears witness to this. God had come in the flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and the transfiguration gives us a glimpse of his divinity. This was something incredible, something that culminated in the Cross and Resurrection. Everything had been straining forward to the day when God’s glory would be revealed.

But nobody thought that there would be this tremendous lag time between the Messiah’s appearance and the time of his return which would mark the beginning of the new age and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. There were no speculations what this interim period would be like or even why such a period would exist.

So Peter and the other Apostles went about the business of explaining. They shared why and how the scriptures were being fulfilled even yet and what the faithful should be doing in the meantime. Christians then and now are in need of solid teaching as St. Peter stated in verse 19 from today’s reading.  He writes… we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

As mentioned earlier, this “morning star” is most certainly a reference to the messianic proclamation from the OT book of Numbers, which speaks both to prophecy in general and specifically to one of the main reasons for the transfiguration; it was an act of enlightenment to show the faithful the way to true holiness in the glory of God.

For the faithful, Christ’s coming, his teaching and miracles, this transfiguration, his death and resurrection are to be held on to, like people clinging to a bright light in the most oppressive darkness, all the while awaiting the coming of Christ in the fullness of Glory.

So, let us step back a bit and take another look. We must remember that things were tough for the early Church. St. Peter’s ideas and practices confront a striking resemblance to our own day. He was confronting skeptics who questioned God’s direct intervention into the affairs of the world, especially those of the faithful. He also took to task those who refuted Christ’s imminent return in Glory to judge the living and the dead and to establish a new heaven and a new earth.

Peter was also calling to judgment an extremely permissive age, an age of excesses of appetites of all forms in the name of personal freedom.

Peter was also reminding the reader of God’s divine activity in our day to day endeavors and that ours’ is not just a God who is remote, far off in heaven—transcendent if you will—but a God who is also imminent, who is near and active in our lives.

For a good illustration of what things were like, I quote from the introduction to the “Student Bible.”  First-century apostles must have felt like pioneers in a mosquito-infested swamp. A pest attacked them—Slap—They’d kill it and instantly another would land. Wherever they went new dangers swarmed up.   One group denied Jesus was God; then another declared him God but not fully human. The apostles denounced scrupulosity, only to encounter free-swingers who assumed “anything goes.” Members of one congregation quit work and huddled together to await Jesus’ return; those of another gave up on his returning at all.

Second Peter was written in response to the young Church’s jumpy tendencies. Whereas First Peter centered on fearsome dangers from outside, this letter speaks of dangers from within. False teachers were stirring dissent, questioning basic doctrine, and leading Christians into immorality. 2 Peter’s purpose is to set the record straight and to call people to the holiness of observing the one true faith.

And from St. Peter’s second letter, it is the Transfiguration in particular that we honor today. It helps to enlighten us and show us Christ’s divinity and our hope of the glory of celestial holiness and to affirm the solid teaching of the Church, especially in the bedrock found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the teaching that keeps us faithful when there are so many forces that yearn to lead us astray.

 

 

 

 

 

July 30, 2017 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 30 July 2017  Comments Off on July 30, 2017 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jul 302017
 

1 Kings 3:5, 7-12

The LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream at night. God said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” Solomon answered: “O LORD, my God, you have made me, your servant, king to succeed my father David; but I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act. I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong. For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?” The LORD was pleased that Solomon made this request. So God said to him: “Because you have asked for this— not for a long life for yourself, nor for riches, nor for the life of your enemies, but for understanding so that you may know what is right— I do as you requested. I give you a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you.”

 

Much wisdom comes from experience and common sense.  But there is another kind of wisdom; the wisdom that is a gift from God. As you know, the Church teaches that Wisdom is one of the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism tells us that holy Wisdom enables us to know the purpose and plan of God…(p. 903)  I like this observation: “Wisdom is the God-given ability to see life with rare objectivity and to handle life with rare stability.” Today, the OT reading from I Kings tells of God granting the gift of Holy Wisdom to Solomon.

As background, Solomon, the son of King David and Bathsheba, has inherited the throne after the death of his father. He has gone to a place called Gibeon to pray and to worship God.  Solomon eventually falls asleep and God appears to him in a dream. God said, “Ask anything of me and I will give it to you.”

Solomon answered: I am a mere youth, not knowing how to act…Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.  This petition to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, is very important; it is the key ingredient of wisdom. A truly wise person can see the subtle distinctions.

For those without the gift of holy wisdom, this may seem too black and white. So many things seem gray; after all, good and bad do seem to blend together.  At another level we also tend to avoid rigid folks who claim to know the truth; we often question their insight. More often we don’t like it when they point out things that make us uncomfortable.

Holy Wisdom empowers us to see through the grayness and tells us, “This is black and this is white; this is right, this is wrong; this is good and this is evil.”

For practical usage, this gift is to be applied more to ourselves and less to others. Knowing what’s black and what’s white, what’s good and what’s bad, is more for our own conduct and less for judging others. Having the Gift of Wisdom does not mean that we will always use the Gift of Wisdom. Our consciences kick in and we discern the differences between right and wrong; we have the wisdom to do the right thing or to avoid doing the wrong thing, but we fall into the sins of commission or omission.

Sometimes we do it out of defiance,  “I’m gonna do this or I’m not gonna do that.” The motivations for sin are legion, but often we have the God given wisdom not to sin for this is when the Holy Spirit prompts our consciences, but we either plunge in or back away. We often ignore or don’t follow through on the wisdom that we have.

Solomon asked for and received the gift of Holy Wisdom but eventually he quit following through on his part of the bargain. He let his conscience get calloused over and eventually it led to his downfall. He gave into temptations of political intrigue, sexual misadventures and personal glory.

Let’s develop this a bit. Solomon’s father King David made Israel into one of the political powerhouses in that region of the world. And Solomon tried to carry on with the work of his father. After becoming king, one of his first acts was to engage in some political intrigue by sealing a pact with Egypt by marrying one of Pharaoh’s daughters, a common enough practice. Historically marriage has been a key means by which countries made treaties and formed alliances. But it was against God’s specific instructions and Solomon went ahead anyway.

Eventually Solomon developed an insatiable sexual appetite, and soon he was to have 700 wives and three hundred concubines. Aside from the obvious problems of polygamy and sexual license, these foreign wives brought their pagan religions with them.

And as folk wisdom tells us, “There’s no fool like an old fool.” As he grew older, Solomon gave into the pressures of his wives and concubines. In the 1lth chapter of First Kings, we learn of Solomon’s problems. We read: “Was it not because of [these] marriages…that Solomon sinned? Among the many nations, there was no king like him. He was loved by God and God made him King over all Israel, but he was led to sin by foreign women.”

Solomon put up lavish altars to various gods to please these very strong, very smart, very demanding foreign women: The Sidonian wives worshipped Ashtoreth, a goddess of war and fertility; the Ammonites worshipped Milcom or Maloch, a fierce god who demanded child sacrifice, and for the Moabite wives their God was Ba’al Pe’or, whose worship included drunken revelry and debauchery. Solomon not only built the altars to these false gods, he actually engaged in these horrific immoral acts of idolatry with his various wives and concubines.

The Lord became furious at Solomon. He vowed to destroy Israel as punishment. However, because of His great love for David, he waited until Solomon died before He tore Israel apart.

Solomon also succumbed to great self-aggrandizement. He engaged in a huge building program, ostensibly for the Glory of God, but it turned out to be more for his own ego. Although he constructed a magnificent Temple in which to worship God, he built an even more magnificent palace for himself and his wives and concubines.

The price of all this ran pretty high and it was his subjects who had to pick up the tab. One of the ironies is that he eventually enslaved his own people much as the Egyptians had done to the Children of Israel centuries earlier. He forced these people to do the actual building of the two great monuments, without pay. And those who weren’t enslaved were taxed unbearably. And like so many of us, Solomon got pretty good at rationalizing his sinful behavior. The temple and the palace got built, but Solomon broke his people in the process.

There it is: political intrigue, sexual license, general unfaithfulness to God and the quest for personal glory; they all became more important than using the great gift of Holy Wisdom God had given him.

That was the there and then message, let us go to the here and now application. We all get caught up in worldly things, the sins of various appetites, our own self-centeredness, our own quest for power and glory. And sometimes they can be all consuming, even traumatic for us.

We do have free will, but we often don’t use it very well. As I’ve shared frequently, we are like sheep; we frequently just nibble ourselves astray. We like this bunch of grass here, we go over the hill just to see what’s on the other side, a little bit here, a little bit there, and next thing you know, we are over in the next county, focusing on our own agendas and ignoring or at least trying to avoid what God has for us. We turn down the volume on the voice of our consciences. Unfortunately, all too often, the little venial sins can lead to mortal sins and then we are in real trouble.

But here’s some really good news, news that I that I talk about regularly. The Church teaches that each of us has a guardian angel to assist us in all our needs. We have the intercessions of the saints, especially the Blessed Virgin. St. Paul tells us in Romans that we have the Holy Spirit who intercedes on our behalf with “sighs too deep for words,” and most especially we have the Lord Jesus himself who intercedes to the Father on our behalf. And of course we have the Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. God does provide.

The Church also makes clear that there is a tempter who does his best to have us abandon the faith and the world can be so seductive. But Christ wins and with Him, so do we.

So for our reflection, I think I need to close with this. God gives us gifts and we are to use them for his glory and the good of others and for our own holiness. But we lose track and either ignore our gifts or think they are to be used solely for our convenience and gratification. The key is to focus more on the giver and less on the gift, and in so doing we can keep our perspective and claim the blessing.

If we misuse our gifts, specifically today the gift of Holy Wisdom, there is often significant repercussions for others. I like to call it the splatter factor; our misuse is like chucking a big rock into a mud puddle. The splattering mud usually hits someone else. Solomon was hardly cold in his grave when revolution split his kingdom in two.

Our decisions, with few exceptions, don’t have that kind of impact. But there are repercussions for us and for others if we do not use God’s Gifts faithfully. Knowing this and implementing it, is true wisdom, in itself a wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

July 23, 2017 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 23 July 2017  Comments Off on July 23, 2017 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jul 232017
 

Matthew 13:24-30

Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field.  While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.  When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well.  The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?   Where have the weeds come from?’  He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’  His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’  He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.  Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”‘”

St. Matthew focuses largely on what scripture scholars call the “Eschaton.” Eschaton is the 50-cent word that refers to the time of the return of Christ, the final judgment, the end of the world and the dawning of the new age. In Matthew, Jesus speaks of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew’s is the only Gospel that mentions wise and foolish virgins or the separation of sheep from goats or in today’s lesson, the separation of weeds from wheat. Note the reference to harvest and weeds, the burning of the weeds, and the ingathering of the grain into the barn. This all speaks of the Day of Judgment, the Eschaton, the day in which people will be deemed faithful or wicked, blessed or cursed.

It all is something that is clearly in the teaching of the Church but there is a particular emphasis in Matthew. In this Gospel, Jesus speaks of those who have ears to hear and those who do not. In this day and age when there seems to be a great preponderance of weeds in the ripening field of the Lord, this whole theme is causing a great deal of reflection and conversation.

Matthew in particular seems to depict Jesus as saying that there are only two kinds of people in the world: wheat and weeds. Each of us can ask “What am I—wheat or weed? Am I blessed or am I cursed? Am I faithful or am I among the wicked?”

In pondering this, it must be said that there is more than one way to deal with this stark question. One of the lovely and mysterious aspects of parables is that they prompt us to ask such questions and yet they give no clear-cut answers. You see, parables are not mathematical formulas. The Catechism tells us that Parables are simple images or comparisons which confront the hearer or reader with a radical choice about [Christ’s] invitation to enter the Kingdom of God. (p891) The Catechism goes on to say that Words are not enough; deeds are required. The parables are like mirrors for [us]; will [we] be hard soil or good earth for the word? What use [have we] made of the talents [we have] received?…

The catechism then tells us that [one must become] a disciple of Christ in order to “know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. For those who stay “outside,” everything become enigmatic. (CCC #546)

To remind you, an enigma is somebody or something that is not easily explained or understood. It’s a mystery. However, the Church is clear: the way we live out this mystery is to identify with Christ, confess him as Lord and follow him as a disciple. This is the backbone of all parables, in fact of all the faith. And those who choose not to follow will be mired down in the confusion.

We much prefer explanations over mysteries, particularly in matters of faith. And yet here we have these wonderful stories of Jesus, these parables that wash over us like a wave full of light and life, but not giving explanation. A parable confronts us as a tool that enables us to grow in the faith and to improve the conditions of the world; they don’t directly answer questions, however much we may want “yes” or “no” answers. This speaks to their unique, timeless power. They usually teach us something different, however small, each time we hear them, speaking across great distances of time and place and even understanding.

In short, parables help us become better disciples. In contrast, an explanation gives us something to put in a Church bulletin: a short, snappy answer to life’s most compelling issues. Explanations may deal with the short answer, but they often offer little challenge for taking up our crosses and following Christ to Golgotha.

But we can look and reflect on some of the possible answers the parables offer. For example, we can look at the slaves in today’s Gospel reading. They are so eager to please. They know something is awry in their Master’s best field, the wheat is overrun with weeds and they offer to fix it. They say to him ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

In this parable, our Lord was not talking about weeds plural. Rather he was referring to a specific plant, a particular weed, zizania in Greek. It has a Latin name, “Lolium Ter-mu-lentum,” and in English its name is Darnel. It is a particularly nasty, noxious plant, a weed with poisonous seeds and roots like nylon cord. And while growing, Darnel is almost impossible to distinguish from the wheat.

The householder replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with it. Let them grow together until the harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into the barn.’”

Now Jesus’ explanation of this parable to the disciples is clear. This is about the final judgment. There will be those who will be included in the Kingdom as represented by the wheat and there will be those who will not be included, represented by the Darnel.

As we look more closely, however, we find there are some more subtle implications to this parable for us to consider.

Upon reflection we can see that the servants weren’t skilled enough to separate the Darnel from the wheat, the faithful from the unfaithful. I reiterate, it is really hard to tell Darnel from wheat. These slaves probably would have gotten frustrated and jerked on something that looked like Darnel, only to discover that it was a wheat plant. Or, as Jesus points out, the roots were intertwined and carefully pulling out a weed probably would have brought a wheat plant with it.

According to the householder, it is more important for the wheat to live, than to kill the Darnel.

This does speak to us Catholic Disciples. We frequently have done significant harm when our intent is to be agents of God’s judgment. An example is in the first crusade over a thousand years ago when the goal was to drive the Muslims out of the Holy Land. Hundreds of knights and thousands of other warriors set off from Western Europe to Jerusalem to do the Lord’s bidding as they understood it.

These men of war blew through the territories of the Eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately they had a tendency to make assumptions about the inhabitants of some of the communities that they found there. On several occasions they would raze a village or town, thinking it to be Muslim, only to find that when they turned over the bodies that the corpses had crosses fastened around their necks. It never occurred to these crusaders that Christians would come in colors other than white.

An effect of this is that people remember. A thousand years later, what we now call Eastern Orthodox Christians still remember the atrocities done to their ancestors by these crusaders from the Latin Church. Many of these descendents are still angry.  At the root of much of our ongoing problems in the Middle East is the fact that many Muslims suspect that “Westerners” are engaging in another crusade. Those folks also remember and are suspicious of our motives.

This leads to another observation. An added reason to let the weeds grow is that they may be useful in unexpected ways.

Listen to the words of the Master: “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles…” This speaks of the final judgment, but there is more. Let me suggest a further interpretation. In first century Palestine, fuel was hard to come by. Wood was scarce, so folks had to make do. A primary source for heating and cooking was dried weeds. They were tied tightly together in bundles that gave size and density, so that they would be more efficient as fuel.

Here’s an irony. By letting the weeds and wheat grow together, farmers had two of the major ingredients for making bread: wheat for the flour and weeds for the fuel to bake the bread. For us, this has clear Eucharistic implications.

This metaphor of weeds and wheat also speaks of God’s wonderful ability to turn evil and pain and rebellion into something useful. It speaks most clearly to the fact that God is in control and we are not. When we get impatient and frustrated, we need to know that God does have a master plan, and when we are faithful, we help implement his plan, and when we are not faithful we become impediments.

This has a finer point, as St. Augustine observed, “many at first are weeds and then become good seed …[and if the slaves had] not endured with patience, they would not have attained the praiseworthy change.” This is the purpose of Evangelization, sharing the Good News of Jesus with folks, a sharing that may bring about conversion, often miraculously turning Darnel into wheat.

God does not want us to weed too recklessly—or too soon— and consequently destroy the wheat along with the weeds, knowing that some of the noxious Darnel is being transformed into the finest wheat.

Jesus wants his followers to live with the tension of believing that the kingdom was indeed arriving in and through his own work. He wanted them, and now us, to know that this kingdom will come, will fully arrive, both with a bang, and with the process of the slow growth of crops in the field, in the time of bread dough to rise and then to be baked in celestial ovens. Such is the nature of the Eschaton, the final judgment. And such is the Kingdom of God.

July 16, 2017 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 16 July 2017  Comments Off on July 16, 2017 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jul 172017
 

Matthew 13:1-9

On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore. And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

In the Gospel lesson for today we have the familiar story of The Sower.  As we just heard, Jesus says that a sower casts seed on four different kinds of ground: first the packed ground of the footpath, second the ground that is full of rocks, then the ground that is thick with thorns, and finally good fertile, well-tilled ground. Depending on where they land, the seeds are eaten by birds or spring up quickly and then wither away and die or they get choked out by the thorns. However, some of them, roughly a quarter, take root in good soil.

In the longer reading, Jesus explains the parable, explaining why some folks are faithful and others are not. Those of us who have reflected on this parable over the years worry about what kind of ground we are. We get concerned about how many birds are in our field, how many rocks, how many thorns. We have firm talks with ourselves and prayerfully try to figure out how to turn ourselves into well-tilled, well weeded, well fertilized fields for the full reception of the sowing of God’s word.

It’s awfully easy to see this as a story that informs us that the odds of being faithful are 3 to 1 against us. We may start stewing about what we need to do to beat those odds.

This parable is often heard as a challenge, a challenge to be different, a difference that comes about by doing a good and thorough personal inventory which leads to repentance and amendment of life. I’ve often prayed that my heart would be fertile ground for the word of the Lord so that I would be open to fully receive and ultimately bear a good yield for the furtherance of the Kingdom.

In reflecting on this parable, we note that there are times when we are like the well-trampled pathway. We’ve become hardened. We don’t want to hear God’s word and we certainly don’t want it to sink in; we are just not interested, we are not available for God the Holy Spirit to speak to us, even to bless us and empower us.

We don’t want to be bothered— thank you very much— and you can almost hear the devil chuckle, “This is too easy” as we putter or lurch around in our disobedience. Sometimes we do it with our feet up watching TV or sitting in front of a computer screen.

Sometimes we are like the shallow soil of the rocky ground. We get enthusiastic and determined to be faithful. But it’s all based on feeling good, so that when things don’t feel so good, we dry up, we wither. There’s no root system, we haven’t built on our sacramental foundation which in part is meant to sustain us during the dry spells; there’s no discipline of daily prayer nor works of mercy; there’s little or no financial generosity. We are shallow. Jesus is explicit: such a person has no root, but endures only for awhile, and when trouble or persecution arises…that person immediately falls away.

Sometimes we are like the thorny ground. Our intentions are good, we start off right, we get involved, we even try to be steady in our weekly Mass attendance and other acts of faithfulness that the Church prescribes. But pressures with the job, with the family, with recreation, with life in general just get to be too much and we literally get choked out. This is a dangerous time, too. For thorns and thistles and weeds in our life not only rob us of spiritual nutrition, they also make us feel guilty and resentful and we tend to pull away even more.

I don’t think I can count the number of people I know who have excommunicated themselves because they were being choked out by the cares and pressures of the world: all too often the lure of money and power and feeling good, of succumbing to the oppression of an all consuming “busyness,” or maybe just by abiding by our own selfish agendas and not God’s.

A choice is made and the choice is to stop being fed by the Body and Blood of our Lord, the one antidote to the world, the flesh and the devil. Sadly what is given up is nourishment from the Eucharist, true food of life and for life and along with the abandonment of the other sacraments and regular daily prayer, generous stewardship, and the love and comfort of the Christian community. When this happens something within shrivels and sometimes even dies.

But sometimes we are like the well-tilled fertile soil. We are open, we are receptive and we are prepared to accept all that God has for us. We are useful for the kingdom and our bountiful harvest blesses God and others who receive what God has produced in us to offer to them.  We have been empowered for discipleship. It is a wonderful experience of what it means to be faithful and fruitful.

Showing how we may be at times the beaten path, the rocky soil or the thorn-filled field and even the good fertile field is basically the standard interpretation of this parable.

But there is another dimension to this parable. Remember that for centuries it has been known as the parable of the Sower which means that we may have it backwards when we focus only on ourselves and our response to the word of God. This parable is primarily about the sower and not just about the various kinds of soils, or the birds and rocks and thorns and even the devil. We need to ask, “Is there another point that Jesus is making?  What else could he be saying?”

I suggest this: what if this parable is also about the incredible extravagance of the sower who does not seem to be fazed by the hard path and the birds and the rocks and the thorns? What if the sower intentionally flings seed everywhere with a kind of reckless abandon, a holy abandon, what if he delights in feeding birds and whistles at the rocks and nimbly picks his way through the blackberries, what if he sings hymns of joy, beaming and brimming with good will as he just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty and at harvest time the produce will fill every barn in the community to the rafters?

If this parable is also about the largess of the sower as well as the different kinds of ground, then we have something really important here. How do we respond to such incredible generosity? What happens when our hearts are so full of gratitude that tears start to well up? Perhaps we will be motivated to express our gratitude by praying more, by being more faithful in Mass attendance, by choosing to extend ourselves more in our acts of charity, by digging deeper for the financial needs of the Church and of the poor?

If this interpretation is applicable, and the focus is not just on us and our shortcomings but more on the great and kind and incredible, even mind-blowing, generosity of God, the prolific sower who is not stingy with his grace, who casts the seed of his word everywhere, upon good soil and bad, who is more joyous and generous than he is judgmental or even practical, who seems to keep reaching into a bottomless seed bag, and flinging out the seed, covering the whole of creation with the fertile kernels of the word of truth.

You and I would not do it that way of course.  If we were in charge, we would devise a more efficient operation, a neater and cleaner and more productive one that does not waste good seed on birds and rocks and thistles. We’d concentrate only on the good soil and what we could do to make it that way.

But if this is the parable of the sower, then Jesus seems to be suggesting that God has another way of doing things, a way less concerned about our productivity and more about loving us.  In response maybe we could even trust Him to take care of us and the terrible state of affairs this old world is in. Now that is really Good News!

 

 

 

 

July 9, 2017 Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

 09 July 2017  Comments Off on July 9, 2017 Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jul 092017
 

Matthew 11:25-30

At that time Jesus exclaimed: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.

As I prayed and pondered the Gospel lesson for today, I got to reflecting on this statement that is so very dear to our hearts: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. This phrase in all its various translations has given immeasurable comfort to people in distress. It can be found engraved on tombstones or designed in stained glass windows or even stitched in needlepoint and framed to hang in church halls.

This is a wonderful promise, a comforting promise to which many of us turn when burdens are seemingly impossible to bear, when our best efforts to cope are inadequate and we are close to collapse. This is the promise of a loving Redeemer who will lift the sweaty loads off our backs and replace them with something that is greater than we are, and yet with this supernatural help we can shoulder any burden.

Let’s reflect on the situation in which Jesus spoke these words.

Here we are in the beginning stages of Jesus’ ministry. He had just called his inner core of disciples, the ones whose names we know: Peter, James, John and so on. Many others had decided to follow Jesus as well, perhaps as many as 200 or so. So here was this itinerant preacher and miracle worker wandering about the country preaching and teaching about the coming Kingdom of God. And he was accompanied by a whole slew of other folks.

Jesus had just finished the portion of his ministry that is generally known as the “Galilean Mission.” He had been preaching, teaching, healing and exorcising in various cities in Galilee, a region of what is now Northwestern Israel, but his reception had been less than warm. First, you can imagine the sight of a couple of hundred people descending on your village or town. That in itself would make you somewhere on the scale between curious and anxious, maybe even fearful. But itinerant Rabbis and their entourages weren’t that uncommon, so most folks took it in stride.

It also must be noted that the people in these communities were smart, resourceful, capable and most were prospering despite the Roman occupation. The vast majority were not looking for help from Jesus, nor from anyone else for that matter. Sure they hoped the Romans would be kicked out, but they knew this wasn’t likely, so they did the best they could. And like so many today in our own country, those folks may have found Jesus and his message interesting, but they were far more fascinated by the miracles than in the call to repent and amend their lives. They soon grew tired of this itinerant rabbi and his motley band of followers.

We can see how that group of newly minted disciples of Jesus would be discouraged. They hadn’t been at this very long and they were far from seasoned. It was all new to them and it was probably tougher than they expected.

The setting for today’s Gospel lesson depicts Jesus and the disciples sitting down to rest. Right before our reading, Jesus had been heaping some powerful reproaches on those who did not receive him and his Gospel message. In our text, Jesus is starting to pray. He thanked God for revealing his message to those so called “little ones” who took his words to heart over against those so-called wise and understanding who could not/would not be receptive. We read: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. (By the way, if you are among the “little ones” to whom God has revealed the fullness of the Gospel, consider yourself blessed.)

And then Jesus addresses his burdened disciples by saying: Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

My word, what does he mean? First of all, I think he was addressing the immediate situation. It wasn’t easy following an itinerant rabbi. You were always scrounging for food and a place to stay. Frequently you weren’t particularly welcomed and often, in the dust and fatigue, it would be easy to be discouraged. We do know that some joined and then left. We note this especially in the 6th chapter of St. John’s Gospel where Jesus made the great pronouncement that unless you eat his body and drink his blood, you have no life in you. We are told in verse 66 that after he said this, many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. But that’s later. Now we are in the beginning stages of his earthly ministry and Jesus is teaching his disciples about the importance of sharing burdens. That’s something we need to be reminded of as well.

Second, it’s important to note that Christ gave this message of helping with our burdens shortly after his first pronouncement about taking up our crosses. Both are critical for faithfulness; the cross shows our willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. Taking on the yoke of Christ shows that we desire to be useful for the Kingdom.

Much has been written and said about the yoke of Christ. It is almost always thought of in the singular, that there is a unique, distinctive personally made yoke for each one of us. I wouldn’t refute that, but there is another dimension here as well. Starting with a basic tenet of Catholicism that drew me to the faith, I want to affirm once again that Catholics “think ‘we’ instead of just ‘me.’” I’ve said it many times and I believe it applies here. We are communitarians. We are people who function in community with a heavy emphasis on collective responsibility and blessing.

With that as a premise, I want to do a bit of reflecting on yokes. If you’ve traveled around the world or just read National Geographic on occasion, you know that there are two basic kinds of yokes that are used to bear burdens, single ones and shared ones.

The single ones are very efficient. By placing a yoke across the shoulders and fitting buckets that are hung from poles on each side, a human being can carry almost as much as a donkey. However, a single person will tire easily and have to sit down and rest frequently. Their shoulders will ache all the time and backs will eventually give out. But it is possible to move great loads from one place to the next using a single person under a single yoke.

A shared yoke works quite differently. It requires two creatures for one task, but if they are well matched, they can work all day, because under a shared yoke there is a greater distribution of the load. They can take turns bearing the brunt of the weight; they can cover for each other without having to lay their burden down so frequently. They have company all day long and when the day is done both are tired but neither is exhausted because they are a team and the burden has been shared.

Plenty of us labor under the illusion that the yoke Christ has for each of us is a single one, that we have to go it alone, that the only way to please God is to load ourselves down with heavy requirements: good deeds, pure thoughts, blameless lives, perfect obedience while not receiving any help. And yet, as I like to remind folks, we Catholics have so much help available to us.

We start with Christ and the other two members of the Holy Trinity. We have the Angels and Saints, especially the Blessed Virgin, we have patron saints and saints who are focused on specific needs. As an example I’ve been calling upon St. Alban lately. He’s the patron of immigrants and prisoners and those being persecuted. I invoke him in my daily prayers to watch over and tend those millions of people who flee for their lives from the incredible violence and persecution that is out there. We also must believe that we are yoked with these folks in peril and distress, especially with the Christian minorities who are blatantly being persecuted. We are yoked with so many others, those who have incredible burdens and those who help carry them.

We must believe that the mysterious yoke that Christ lays upon us and upon so many others is the same yoke that he bears himself. We are called to be “yokefellows” if you will. Jesus is right here, half of the yoke on his own shoulders, the other half wide open and waiting for each of us, a yoke that requires no more than that we step into it and become part of a team. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. It’s not just for select individuals. It’s for all of us who get weary and teeter on despondency and despair. And it’s also for those of us who are willing to help shoulder the burdens of others, both physically and with our prayers and by means of other support. No wonder these words have weathered the centuries so well; no wonder these words are still music to our ears.

They assure us that those who please God are not those who can carry the heaviest loads alone, rather they are the ones who are willing to share their loads and to be with Christ as he hefts the burdens of so many.

In closing, it must be said that we who are willing to share burdens are blessed by entering into relationship with the one whose invitation is a standing one. Once again we hear: Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.

 

July 2, 2017 Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

 02 July 2017  Comments Off on July 2, 2017 Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jul 022017
 

 Matthew 10:37-42

Jesus said to his apostles: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple— amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.”

 

If you’d like to see my shoulders slump, then tell me what I should or should not do, particularly if I’m not inclined to do what needs to be done or if I want to keep on doing what I shouldn’t be doing. I think this is a part of the Catholic ethos I’ve picked up that I wasn’t anticipating. I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about; it’s what’s called in the vernacular Catholic Guilt. I’m going to change the name, but a Catholic woman once told me that she’s thought about introducing herself this way to strangers: “Hi, I’m Betty and I’m sorry.” I suspect some of you can identify with this.

The primary reason for this is that there are many “shalls” and “shall nots” in our faith. We can start with the 10 Commandments and go from there. I don’t need to tell you this; it is part of our ethos. It’s particularly true if we really, truly want to be faithful above all else. So let’s look more closely. It’s about discipleship.

The Gospel readings this time of year focus on what could be called The Cost of Discipleship. You may have noted that with the Church’s emphasis on Evangelization, the term disciple is being used more and more. The Catechism tells us that:  The disciple of Christ must not only keep the faith and live on it, but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it: “All however must be prepared to confess Christ before[others] and to follow him along the way of the Cross, amidst the persecutions which the Church never lacks.” Service of and witness to the faith are necessary for salvation…(CCC#1816)

I like to define discipleship as actually following Jesus over against just admiring him, usually from a passive perspective. Disciples get up and move; they actually follow him both literally and figuratively. They do what needs to be done and they refrain from doing those things that are not in accord with faithfulness. Discipleship is the manifestation of an active faith, not a passive one. Disciples are willing to be inconvenienced and even suffer for the cause of Christ. They are willing to take on the guilt as well as the glory.

In contrast, admirers tend to remain inert or to find something else to do. I remember a former parishioner once telling me that “Church is what you do in your spare time.” This is not an expression of discipleship.

But this former parishioner was on to something. There are many people who want all the benefits of the faith without the rather rigorous requirements and especially they don’t want the guilt. There are many reasons, but I have noticed that people tend to be natural minimalists, particularly when it comes to matters of faith. Frequently questions like: “What must I do to be saved?” or “How much should I give away?” or “What is required of me to forgive that “so and so” who cheated me?”  These are almost always implying: “what is the very least I have to do to be saved, to give away or even to be forgiving? What are the minimum requirements to be obedient? What is the least I have to do to quit feeling guilty?”

In other words, “what are the minimum requirements to be a true Disciple of Jesus?” Now we do that with a lot of things, but it’s particularly prevalent among those who want to identify as being part of the faithful without having it cost too much.

Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this “Cheap Grace,” which he defined as the “grace we bestow on ourselves… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, receiving Holy Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Cheap grace is concerned about social approval and risks nothing.

Over against cheap grace is costly grace. The term costly grace may seem like a contradiction in terms. However, let’s just think about Jesus’ parable of the treasure hidden in a field (Mt. 13:44ff). If you remember, this is the story of the man who discovers this hidden treasure in a field and happily cashes in everything he owns so he can to procure it.

Costly grace is not simply a lucky door prize. This grace takes the form of a call to follow Jesus to the cross. This was a teaching that the first disciples found very hard to take. How could the coming kingdom of God really mean that they might have to follow Jesus even to his death? Was there no short cut that did not involve this path?

There is no short cut. Grace costs nothing, but it demands everything. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels us to submit to the yoke of Christ and to follow him.

True grace comes only from God. It is free, but it is ever so costly. It took the crucifixion for it to be always available to us, the recipients. And disciples are aware of that cost and consequently they—we—are charged to offer our very lives as the only appropriate response. And when we don’t want to do that, when something else is more important or even more interesting, the guilt kicks in. The Catechism tells us that: In union with his Savior, the disciple attains the perfection of charity which is holiness. Having matured in grace, the moral life blossoms into eternal life in the glory of heaven. (CCC #1709)

But it is not an easy journey to get there. We hear this in today’s Gospel lesson:

Jesus said …: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his [or her] cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 

We must be careful with this. This is not the case, as some have claimed, that what matters is following Christ in your own way. Jesus is saying loud and clear, that what matters is allegiance to Him and the Gospel and on his terms, not ours. This is not some kind of hobby that we do in our spare time when it fits our schedules. It is not grace that we bestow on ourselves. Following Christ on his terms and not ours must supersede everything else.

But we can see as this story unwinds, how difficult this was even for people who were His disciples back then. Eventually Peter denied Him three times, Judas betrayed Him, and the rest ran away and hid. But His call and challenge remain: embracing everything, demanding everything, offering everything, promising everything.

So how do we respond? There may come a time when the hassle and even the persecution can and will be almost unbearable. But never forget that the challenge of Jesus’ sayings is always matched by the remarkable promises He makes to those who accept and live by them. We will never be abandoned. Ours is a God of love, and love will prevail.

So let’s remember this when our shoulders slump and the guilt kicks in. This is what keeps us on the straight and narrow; it leads us to repentance and reconciliation and puts us back on the path of true discipleship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 25, 2017 Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

 25 June 2017  Comments Off on June 25, 2017 Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jun 252017
 

Matthew 10:26-33

Jesus said to the Twelve: “Fear no one. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”

 

A basic theme of today’s Gospel lesson is martyrdom. We note that Jesus presents a key component to martyrdom as he instructs the disciples to go out and share the Good News. He tells them twice: “Do not be afraid.” I’ve reflected several times with you on the martyrdom that is occurring today. More Christians have been slaughtered in the last hundred years for the cause of Christ and his Church than all the previous 19 plus centuries combined. This aptly-named red martyrdom is ongoing.

So let’s get some historical perspective. I would remind you that the word “martyr” means “witness.” The first centuries of the Church were spattered red with the blood of these heroic martyrs. Finally peace of a sort came to the Church in the 4th century when the Emperor Constantine became Christian and officially protected the Church. This was the age of councils and sophisticated theological development. It was principally the Councils of Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 that brought about the establishment of the Church’s official teaching on the doctrine of the Trinity. We proclaim the result each time we recite the Creed. But all did not stay rosy and there was still a need for heroic witness.

Very soon the concept of “white martyrdom” developed; a martyrdom without death, but still bearing the brunt of scorn and ridicule and sometimes violent hatred of the faith and the faithful. These white martyrs were those who gave total offering to God while dying to self, the world, and its allurements.

There is much “white martyrdom” today, some with bloodshed. I recently read about some young Catholics in China who belonged to the Legion of Mary. They were forbidden by their government to practice the faith. But that didn’t stop them. They eventually were arrested and their rosaries confiscated. While in jail they continued to pray using their fingers to count the decades. The government swiftly chopped off those fingers.

Hopefully none of us will ever have to endure such a trial for our faith, but many ordinary Catholics do suffer rather minor but persistent persecution, especially if they—we— are committed to following Jesus for more than an hour on Sunday. Do you know anyone who is suffering a quiet white martyrdom for the faith? There are quite a few out there.

Let me offer some examples with corresponding Scriptures. To start, I read of a woman who announced, through heart-wrenching sobs, that her husband wanted a divorce and was moving out. After six kids and 19 years of marriage, you can bet they had their ups and downs. There finally was an issue of faithfulness that caused the break. You see, all throughout their marriage they had practiced Natural Family Planning. But now with age and unpredictable cycles, the husband did not want any more children, his solution was contraceptives. Her solution was continued Natural Family Planning and faith in the wisdom of God. After seeking counsel from several priests, family therapy, and prayer, he moved out. I believe she is a “white martyr” for the faith, a true witness for Christ and his Church.

The Prophet Sirach declares: When you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, undisturbed in times of adversity. Cling to Him, forsake Him not; thus will your future be great. Accept what befalls you; in crushing misfortune be patient. For, in fire gold is tested, and worthy men [and women] in the crucible of humiliation. Trust God and He will help you. Make straight your ways and hope in Him. You who fear the Lord, wait for His mercy. Turn not away, lest you fall. (Sirach 2:1-7)

Here’s another account of “white martyrdom.” A Jewish convert to Catholicism was abandoned by his family upon his conversion. He took refuge in his new-found faith. He even turned away from a lucrative business career in order to shoulder the wheel of evangelization. The people in his church-related workplace proved more secular and profane than those on the outside. He continues to struggle with disillusionment as he tries his best to share the faith with cynical, condescending cradle Catholics.

St. Peter wrote…you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

Another convert is a lector and Eucharistic minister who brings Holy Communion to the sick at hospitals and to the homebound. His fellow very secular colleagues think it is hilarious to send pornographic images to his computer because of the “shock value” it evokes.

Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John: Remember the word I spoke to you. No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. (John 15:20)

A young woman college student, the eldest of seven children, is walking in the way laid out by her holy parents, the way of Truth. She suffers from several chronic diseases, and has been accosted by inexplicable satanic malevolence. Yet she continues to be cheerful, faithful and unafraid. She is a hero of the Church and a good example to young people all around her. Her witness comes at great cost, but it is a scourge to the nemesis, and a scandal to worldlings at her college.

St. Timothy tells us: In fact, all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Tim 3:12)

In today’s society faithful Catholics are regularly held in contempt. They are the “spoilers” of deviant lifestyles, polluted entertainment and sinful pastimes. They are the moral compass in the office, in politics and in the world. These are the faithful voices that make so many angry and sometimes even violent.

Should we be surprised? Jesus tells us in the 15th chapter of St. John’s Gospel:  If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)

But take courage! St. Peter exhorts us to cast all our worries upon Jesus because he loves us so very much. In the Epistle of First Peter we are told to be steadfast in faith, knowing that our fellow believers throughout the world undergo the same sufferings.  Peter tells us that the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory through Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered a little. (cf. 1 Peter 5:10)

We take solace in Our Lord’s promise: Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. (Mat 5:11)

We are told in the book of Hebrews that God… will never forsake you or abandon you. Thus we may say with confidence: “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me? (Heb 13:5)

God’s love for us is so deep and intense. Someone once said that he has a picture of you on his refrigerator. But there is a bit of carrot and stick here. Let me say that God would rather coax than coerce us to be faithful, but there are consequences for unfaithfulness. That is something of which we all need to be aware. We are loved without reservation, but it is not a sloppy agape. There is order and there are requirements. This is what we hear in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus says to his disciples: Fear not:

Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”

This is the stuff of martyrdom, both red and white. It’s worthy of our reflection.