September 10, 2017 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Sep 102017
 

Ezekiel 33:7-9

Thus says the LORD: You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die, ” and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.

Romans 13:8-10

Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet, ” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

 

St. Paul lays it out for us right here in today’s Epistle lesson:  Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.( Romans 13:9) 

Paul is intentionally using the metaphor of debt to make his point that there is an obligation which is owed by everyone. It’s the extension of Christ’s loving gift of himself on the Cross, and our fullest and most proper response, in fact, our only response is to love others as a sign and symbol of Christ’s love for us.

Paul was reinforcing the point that Jesus made. To refresh your memories, we read in the 12th chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel that Jesus had a particular encounter with a scribe who wanted to know about the greatest law. There are 613 laws in the OT and it was common to debate which one was supreme. Jesus quotes Dt.6:4-5 (Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is one!) This passage goes on to tell us that we are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and all our strength. The implication is that a love for God does not arise spontaneously but by conscious commitment that stems from every ounce of our energy and aspect of our being.

Again to remind you, the second part of Jesus’ response to this scribe quotes Lev. 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus finishes by saying that “There is no other commandment greater than these.” St. Paul is picking up on this theme.

As we know, the Greek term for this love is Agape, and this emphasis on Agape love is foundational for all the Faith of the Church. We read much about this throughout the New Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers. Perhaps the most famous passage is found in the 13th Chapter of First Corinthians where Paul writes that “faith, hope, love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”

What does agape love mean?  My New Testament professor in seminary defined agape love as “unconditional positive regard.” This means that we need to love with no reservation. But neither Jesus nor Paul were naïve in making this requirement. So in the chapter before today’s Epistle lesson, Chapter 12 of Romans, St. Paul emphasizes that love must be “genuine.” (Rom. 12:9) The actual Greek translation tells us that love must not be “hypocritical.”

So how do we do this? Here’s how. If we treat someone we thoroughly dislike and mistrust as if we hold them close to our hearts with the deepest of affection. if we do everything we can to imagine and remember all the difficult things that have happened in their lives that made them so very hard to love, then it may well happen that authentic sympathy and even affection may arise.  And with God’s Grace it will be sincere, not hypocritical, something truly loving that stems from our hearts. It’s the practical implementation of that old statement from 12 step programs that we see so often on bumper stickers: Fake it ‘til you make it. Often times acting as if we are loving is sufficient; the actions will bring along the sincerity.

This love is tough; not simply in the sense of the “tough love” that is sometimes needed when dealing with a recalcitrant teen who has succumbed completely to addiction and rebellion. Rather, this love springs not from the emotions but from the will. This love grits its teeth and sets its jaw and behaves in loving ways, no matter the feelings, all the while trusting that eventually the feeling will come trotting along at the appropriate time and place. If we reduce this holy love to our emotions and feelings, we lose not only consistency but any kind of true piety.

Perhaps no one knew this better that Saint Theresa of Calcutta. To remind you her feast day is September 5th and we’ve just celebrated the 20th anniversary of her death. As you know, it came out after her demise that she suffered terribly from a profound darkness, perhaps a clinical depression. Much of the time she did not feel loving, but she chose to act in a loving manner. This was conveyed both by her actions and the words she wrote. For example:

“I realized that I had the call to take care of the sick and the dying, the hungry, the naked, the homeless…to be God’s love in action to the poorest of the poor.” That was the beginning of the Missionaries of Charity [the religious order she founded.]”

She continued: “I see God in every human being. To God there is nothing small. The moment we have given it to God, it becomes infinite. When He was dying on the cross, Jesus said, ‘I thirst.’  Jesus is thirsting for our love, and this is the thirst of everyone, poor or rich alike. We all thirst for the love of others, that they will go out of their way to avoid harming us and to do good to us.”

What a remarkable woman! As I reflected on her statement “I see God in every human being,” I immediately made a mental list of people in which I have a lot of trouble seeing God…terrorists, abortionists, child molesters, the guy who cut me off in traffic, and then I realized that St. Theresa, Mother Theresa, would have no trouble seeing God in these people and I am chagrinned.

She had amazing vision. Not only did she see God in despicable people, she saw God even in the rich and the powerful who turn a blind eye to the perils of the poor and the helpless. Amazing.  As her reputation grew, she was a perennial guest of the most powerful leaders in the world, largely, I think because these leaders needed to be seen with her for political reasons more than she needed to be seen with them for economic support.

In many ways, Mother Theresa was like the appointed Watchman mentioned in today’s lesson from Ezekiel. His job was to warn the inhabitants of Jerusalem of impending danger. The citizenry had the right to exercise free will in ignoring the warnings, but they did so at the risk of their own jeopardy. From the passage today we hear:

…if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.

These are pretty uncomfortable words, but I think, in many ways Mother Theresa embraced them…and we are the recipients of her warnings.

One of her favorite themes was this: “We are called to be faithful; we are not called to be successful.” We may fail in the eyes of the world; we may not have the well paying job, the perfect smile, the attentive spouse. But if we are faithful to God by loving others, then that is enough. Being faithful is more important than accumulating material wealth.

That was a message not well received by many here in the United States. So, rather than backing off, Mother Theresa pushed it.  She said, for example, that on the streets of Calcutta, the dying were suffering only from material poverty. In fact, she said, these street people were far richer than most Americans.  For the street people, in all their misery, loved one another. They tended one another as best they could. And they did it day in, day out, week in, week out. It was the way they lived. They tended one another.

In contrast to this, she said, the individual competitive drive is so intense here in the States that we will be supportive for the short term, but we get weary and even annoyed with giving long term support because there doesn’t seem to be much return on our investment of time and perhaps other resources. In our system things are supposed to get fixed quickly; if they are not, then something is really wrong and we need to back off.

Mother Theresa said that we do things well for the short term, but how many are excluded because they cannot meet our expectations for the long run?  With very few exceptions, we are good at dealing with crises; we are not so good at dealing with chronic, long term problems. Think about Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.  We’re willing to give storm relief, but we continue to build on flood plains and we are reluctant to spend the money to fortify the infrastructure of dikes and so forth that would lessen the damage of such terrible storms.

Among other things, the result of our attitude is that there is a myriad of very lonely people here in the states. Prophetically a Watchman like Mother Theresa pointed out something obvious: loneliness in America is epidemic. Just think of the number of people who live alone or who are institutionalized and have no one to really love them, and who, in turn, are not encouraged to love others. You see, love is about the long haul, not just the short term.

This was the theme of her life, and she would be fierce about it. And she took it to places that made many of us really uncomfortable. Her eyes would blaze as she talked of what she called the holocaust of abortion.  At the National Prayer Breakfast, shortly before her death, she made her point crystal clear. Here she was at her prophetic, watchmanlike best:

She said:“A nation that destroys the life of an unborn child, who has been created for living and loving, who has been created in the image of God, is in tremendous poverty.” She pulled no punches as she continued:

“I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion because it is a direct killing of the innocent child. Abortion is murder in the womb. A child is a gift from God. America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe V. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men.  It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships.  It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society.  It has portrayed the greatest of gifts…a child…as a competitor, an intrusion and an inconvenience.’

“It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the dependent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters. And in granting this unconscionable power, it has exposed many women to unjust and selfish demands from their husbands or other sexual partners.”

“Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his [or her] humanity.  The right to life does not depend, and must not be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent…You must weep that your own government seems blind to this truth.”

As an aside, Oregon House Bill 3391, signed into law by Governor Kate Brown, requires all insurance companies to provide free abortions, and provides free, taxpayer- funded abortion for undocumented residents. 117,000 valid signatures are required to qualify our pro-life measure for the next statewide ballot, to reverse the expansion of taxpayer-funded abortion mandated by HB 3391. After mass there will be opportunities to sign a petition to have this horrendous law overturned. If you are a registered voter, and have not signed this petition, we implore you to do so.

It is one thing to have this intense, some would say pushy, little nun doing unpleasant things with unpleasant people over in that unpleasant country on those most unpleasant streets. It’s quite another to have her come over here to the land of the free and the home of the brave and the incredibly generous and tell us that those wretchedly impoverished people are richer than we are and that we should be weeping for our sins. She told us what it is really like to be loving. She said: “Keep the joy of loving God in your heart and share this joy with all you meet, especially in your family. Be holy…” We are indebted to St. Theresa of Calcutta and we owe it to her to love and protect these little ones in particular.

 

 

 

 

September 3, 2017 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Sep 032017
 

Matthew 16:21-27

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”

We have one of the harder sayings of Jesus in our Gospel lesson. Whoever wishes to come and follow me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

This is one of those passages that makes most of us pretty uncomfortable if we take it seriously. We prefer passages like Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Mt.11:28) or God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not parish, but have eternal life. (Jn. 3:16)

These are comfortable words, words that generate good, secure feelings of affirmation. But to tell us that we need to “deny” ourselves and take up our crosses, that’s hard. Especially when it’s tough enough just to keep the bills paid and to put food on the table; when it’s hard enough just to get up in the morning to face the challenges of an ordinary day.

We may hope that this was just a message for the disciples back then and not for us. Surely we get a pass, do we not?

And we all know folks who have taken this hard saying and made it their mission statement. They put themselves down all the time and they shun comfort as if it were poisonous to their souls. They deny themselves even the smallest pleasures of life and view themselves like death row prisoners, as if human happiness were somehow a deep betrayal of God’s Grace. Do we really have to die to show our love for him? Isn’t there some way to show our love for him by living fully?

This whole conversation came about because St. Peter was asking the same kinds of questions. The disciples were off by themselves with Jesus, taking a breather between rounds with their critics. In the passage just before this one, Jesus asks his disciples who they thought he really was. Peter gave the right answer: you are the Christ, the Son of the living God. It was then that Jesus proclaimed that Peter was the rock on which he, Christ would build his Church.

But Peter’s glory doesn’t last long. Jesus begins to tell all his disciples what is going to happen to him, how he is about to walk right into a trap set for him in Jerusalem, where he will suffer and be killed and then be raised from the dead. Peter explodes. “God forbid, Lord” he shouts. “This will never happen to you.” It is simply too much for Simon Peter to imagine Jesus coming to such an ignoble, bloody end. There’s a bit of scolding here as well. Peter’s outburst is not so subtle criticism and Jesus unloads on him. Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.

What a shock that must have been not only for Peter, but for the other Disciples as well. To hear Jesus call Peter, the foundation rock of the Church, a stumbling block is startling. What did Peter do wrong? What was his sin? All he did was protest the forecast that Jesus was to suffer and die. All he did was to say out loud that there had to be another way.

But as far as Jesus was concerned, it was Satan talking. Satan the ancient tempter, from the beginning of time has offered alternatives to the directives of God: easier alternatives, often flashier alternatives, all of them temptations for us to do and be something other than what God has called us to do and be.

In this particular case, the temptation for Jesus is to play it safe, to skip the trip to Jerusalem and to find another way to bring salvation to the human race. Perhaps he could direct the effort from a safe and secure place, to elude his enemies, staying just out of reach and leading his holy revolution without placing himself in jeopardy.

We need to assume that this was real temptation for Jesus, or why else does he rebuke Peter so harshly? Like the tempter in the wilderness at the start of Jesus’ ministry, Peter is offering Christ a way out, a detour around Jerusalem with all its risk of pain and death. For a moment at least, the possibility may have seemed real to Jesus, real and desirable. And then his head clears and the desire to shirk vanishes. Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.

There is something troubling about this. Does Jesus mean that those of us who pray to be delivered from suffering and death are on the side of fallen humanity and that the side of God is reserved only for those who are ready and willing to suffer and die? If true, then that is troubling.

If we step back, we can see that this is not the point. The point is that God cares more about our quality of life than he does the quantity of life. Although biological human life is precious and we are to fiercely defend the life of every person from conception to natural death, it must be said that God is not primarily interested in the continuation of my breath, the health of my cells, rather he is vitally interested in the depth of my life, the heft and zest of my life. And he is particularly interested in my life of faithfulness.

The deep secret of Jesus’ words for us in this passage today is that our fear of suffering and death robs us of life, because fear of death always turns into fear of life, into a stingy, cautious way of living that is not living at all. The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words is that the way to having abundant life is not to save it but to spend it, to give it away, because life cannot be shut up and squirreled away any more than a kitten can be put in a shoebox and stored on a closet shelf.

It seems to me that Peter wanted Jesus to do that. He wanted Jesus to become cloistered, perhaps like some Eastern Guru and who had people climb the mountain to come to his cave to obtain wisdom and enlightenment.

Let’s look again at the first sentence of our Gospel lesson, Mt. 16:21: Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

When we ponder this, we often get stuck on the suffering and death part. We get that far and then say “God forbid Lord! This shouldn’t happen to you and I especially don’t want it to happen to me!” When we do this, we are ignoring the final words that on the third day there is resurrection.

We don’t get there if we let the suffering and death throw us off track, if we let fear of those things keep us from sticking our necks out from taking the appropriate risks that make life worth living. We can try to stockpile it, being very, very cautious about whom we let into our lives, frisking everyone at the door and letting only the most harmless, benign people inside, and being very, very wary about going outside ourselves, venturing forth only under heavy guard and ready to retreat at the first sign of trouble.

We can live that way, but if we do, then we mustn’t expect to enjoy it very much or to accomplish very much. And if we do, then we’d best not expect to be missed when our safe, defensive life finally comes to an end and no one notices that we are gone. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose itBut Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues— but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Living the life of faith is not about being a daredevil. It’s not about signing up for bungee jumping at 90, however, for some that might be fun. Jesus is talking about living the life that matters. A life for Christ’s sake, a life about refusing to put our own comfort and safety ahead of living a life that pours itself out for others as an act of gratitude to the one who poured his life out for us. It’s a life that is generous without counting the cost, knowing that there is always more life where our own life comes from and that even when our own lives run out, God has more life for us, more than we can ask or imagine.

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me—said Jesus. These will never be easy words to hear, but they are not, in the ultimate and final analysis, an invitation to follow Jesus into eternal death, rather it is an invitation to follow him into everlasting life, both now and later on. We can only follow him if we do not get tripped up on the suffering and death part; if we get so frightened and anxious and preoccupied by all this that we forget “who we are” and “whose we are” and why we are alive in first place.

There is a certain amount of pain involved in being a human being, and a good bit more involved in being a human being dedicated to being fully faithful, especially in a world that counts on our fear of death and uses it to keep us in line. Jesus’ enemies counted on his fear of death to shut him up and to shut him down, but they were wrong. He may have been afraid, but he did not let it stop him. He did not get stuck on the suffering and death part. He saw something beyond them, something more wide and glittering than the sea, something worth every risk required to reach it, and he did not stop until he got there.

To follow Jesus with our crosses on our shoulders means going beyond the limits of our own comfort and safety. It means receiving our lives as gifts instead of hoarding them as our own possessions. It means that each of us is to share the life we have been given instead of bottling it up for our own consumption. It means giving up on the notion that we can build dams to hold back the bright streams of our lives and letting them flow instead, letting all the streams of living water swell their banks and spill their wealth until they carry us down to where they run, full and growing fuller into that wide and glittering sea.

 

 

 

July 30, 2017 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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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

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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

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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

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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.