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!

 

 

 

 

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

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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.