Friday, September 21, 2018

SEEDS AND SOILS


Homily for September 22nd, 2018: Luke 8:4-15.

          Jesus’ favorite form of teaching was through stories. We call them parables. Most of them are so simple that they can be understood even by children; yet so profound that scholars are still writing books about them. The parable of the sower and his seed occurs in three of the four gospels. At the most basic level, the story is encouragement in the face of failure. It is Jesus’ answer to the rising tide of opposition which his teaching and ministry provoked. Most of the seed which the farmer sows is wasted. Despite this waste, the story promises a “hundredfold” harvest. A modern commentator writes: “A 20-to-1 ratio would have been considered an extraordinary harvest. Jesus’ strikingly large figures are intended to underscore the prodigious quality of God’s glorious kingdom still to come.”

          Today’s gospel reading gives the story another interpretation. By speaking about the different kinds of soil on which the farmer’s seed falls, Jesus directs our attention to our role in the harvest. It comes from God, yes. But it requires our cooperation.

          The different kinds of soil symbolize the many kinds of people who heard Jesus’ message: in his lifetime, and still today. “Those on the path are the ones who have heard,” Jesus says, “but the Devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts that they may not believe and be saved.” There are people like that in every parish, the world over.  

So also for those on rocky ground. They receive Jesus’ words with joy. But they have no root, so in times of temptation, they fall away. The seed falling among thorns represent people unable to bring any fruit to fruition, because they are so busy with other things: anxiety, and the pursuit of the false gods of pleasure, possessions, power, and honor.  

The super-abundant harvest of which the story speaks comes only for those who internalize Jesus’ words, praying over them, and making them the foundation of their lives. In response, then, we pray: “Take hold of me, Lord. Help me to know that you are always with me; that I can find happiness only by fulfilling the purpose for which you fashioned me in my mother’s womb: to praise, serve, and glorify you here on earth; and so to be happy with you forever in heaven. Amen.”

Friday, November 24, 2017

LIFE BEYOND DEATH


Homily for November 25th, 2017: Luke 20:27-40.

          Our lives are a journey. The journey begins at birth, most people would say, and ends at death. Christians know that the second part of that statement is false. Death is not the end of our journey. We journey on beyond death – to God. But what will our life beyond death be like?  Priests get this question often. Over the years I have developed this answer.

Go back in imagination, if you can, to a week before you were born. You were in your mother’s womb. You recognized the sound of her voice. You were moving about, but could not see. You could not possibly imagine what lay ahead of you: emerging into an initially frightening world; learning to move more freely, first to crawl, then to walk; learning to talk, to write, to read; learning later, perhaps, to play a musical instrument, to draw, to speak and read a second language. You could not possibly have imagined any of this in advance. Life beyond death, is something like that – yet infinitely more wonderful.

St. Thomas Aquinas, one the Church’s greatest theologians, writes: “Eternal life is the perfect fulfillment of desire; inasmuch as each of the blessed will have more than he desired or hoped for. The reason for this is that in this life no one can fulfill his desires, nor can any creature satisfy a person’s craving; for God alone satisfies and infinitely surpasses our desire ... Eternal life consists in the joyful companionship of all the blessed, a companionship which is full of delight; since each one will possess all good things together with all the blessed, for they will all love one another as themselves, and, therefore, will rejoice in one another’s happiness as if it were their own, and consequently the joy and gladness of one will be as great as the joy of all.”

The late English Benedictine, Cardinal Basil Hume, in his day one of the great men of the Church, wrote, shortly before his death of cancer on June 17th 1999: “We each have a story, or part of one at any rate, about which we have never been able to speak to anyone. Fear of being misunderstood. Inability to understand. Ignorance of the darker side of our hidden lives, or even shame, make it very difficult for many people. Our true story is not told, or, only half of it is. What a relief it will be to whisper freely and fully into the merciful and compassionate ear of God. That is what God has always wanted. He waits for us to come home. He receives us, his prodigal children, with a loving embrace. In that embrace we start to tell him our story. I now have no fear of death. I look forward to this friend leading me to a world where I shall know God and be known by Him as His beloved son.”

Thursday, November 23, 2017

GOD'S TEMPLE: VISIBLE AND INVISIBLE


Homily for November 24th, 2017. Luke 19:45-48.

          Jesus’ people, the Jews, thought of the Temple in Jerusalem as the earthly dwelling place of God. God, the creator and ruler of the world, was there as truly as he is the tabernacle in every Catholic Church the world over. A modern biblical scholar writes: “When Jesus enters the Temple, or is in the Temple, the Temple is really the Temple.” What those words mean is this: when Jesus, who is God made visible in human form, is in the Temple, then God’s presence, normally invisible, becomes visible.

          In his first Letter to the Corinthians St Paul tells us that we too are God’s temples or dwelling places: “You must know,” Paul writes, “that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within – the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own.” (6:19) And the Catechism says this happens at baptism. “Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte [a technical term for a newly baptized Christian] ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son [or daughter] of God, who has become ‘a partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit” (No. 1265).

          This truth of faith, that in baptism we become temples or dwelling places of God, corrects a widespread but false conception of our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. The Christian life is not a striving after high ideals which constantly elude us. Rather it is living up to what, through baptism, we have already become and are: God’s adopted sons and daughters, partakers of God’s nature, members of Christ’s body, co-heirs with him of God’s kingdom, and temples of God’s Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

"I WAS AFRAID OF YOU."


Homily for November 22nd, 2017: Luke 19:11-28.

          How can we make sense of the story? Is the central figure, the master, simply arbitrary: generous with the first two servants, cruel to the third? So it would seem. 

          To make sense of the story we must ask not about the master, but about servants. The first two servants acted out of trust. A man who had entrusted them with so much of his riches, they reasoned, was clearly generous. He could be trusted. The third servant was motivated by fear.  He says so himself. “I was afraid of you, because you are a demanding man.” It is this fear which the parable condemns. Jesus came to cast out fear. 

          To escape condemnation we don’t need to establish a good conduct record in some heavenly golden book: a series of stars after our name representing our prayers, sacrifices, and good works. Thinking we must do that is “not believing in the name of God’s only Son.”  His name is synonymous with mercy, generosity, and love. Escaping condemnation, being saved, means one thing only: trusting him. It is as simple as that. We don’t need to negotiate with God.  We don’t need to con him into being lenient. We couldn’t do that even if we tried, for God is lenient already. He invites us to trust him. That is all. 

          Trust is at the heart of faith. Many Catholics think of faith as a matter of the head: affirming as true the statements we recite in the creed. Those truths are properly called the faith. Our assent to them is important, and necessary. Faith itself, however, goes beyond mental assent to a list of truths. It is resides not so much in the head as in the heart

          Yes, and trusting God means risking our hearts. It means loving: generously, recklessly, without limit and without conditions. Because that is the way God loves us. And yes, doing that will mean suffering when those we love fail to respond, or even betray us. .    

          With this parable of the three servants entrusted with gifts on behalf of an absent master Jesus is inviting us to imitate the first two servants: to recognize the generosity of the One who gives us all our gifts; and to trust him as we use and share these gifts, confident that when the Master returns we shall hear his voice, speaking to us personally, and with great tenderness: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come share your master’s joy!” (Matt. 25:21)

 

Monday, November 20, 2017

JUDGMENT


JUDGMENT  
Christ the King, Year A. Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; Matthew 25:31-46.
AIM: To present Jesus’ parable of judgment as both a warning and encouragement.
 
          “Thus says the Lord God: I myself will look after and tend my sheep, as a shepherd tends his flock ...” Ezekiel’s words from our first reading give us the theme for this final Sunday in the Church’s year. We find it continued in the responsorial psalm, with its familiar opening words, “The Lord is my shepherd.”  We hear the same theme in the gospel from Jesus himself, telling us that on judgment day we shall find him sitting, as a king, “upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him.” He will act like a shepherd, separating the sheep from the goats in his flock. 
          But what does this image of a shepherd have to do, you may be wondering, with today’s feast of Christ the King? It tells us what kind of king Jesus is. He is no conventional ruler, a person of might, power, and glory who lords it over people. Jesus is a king who serves those he rules. “He exercises his kingship,” the Catechism says, “by drawing all men to himself through his death and Resurrection.” (No. 786) 
          In baptism we receive a share in Christ’s kingship. The first Letter of Peter says that baptism makes us “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people he claims for his own ...” (2:9). We exercise this royal priesthood when, like Jesus our king, we serve others; “particularly,” the Catechism says “the poor and the suffering, in whom the Church recognizes the image of her poor and suffering founder” (786, cited from Vat. II: LG 8).
           The parable of the sheep and the goats which we heard in the gospel tells us that service of others will the standard by which, one day, we shall be judged. We won’t be asked how many prayers we have said, or how many Masses we have
attended. We shall be asked one question only: How much have you done for others? Have you done anything at all?
          Can Jesus really be serious?  What about our duty to God: Sunday Mass, prayer, obedience to the precepts of the Church? Are these things unimportant?  Of course not. Duty to God is his first commandment, every bit as important as duty to our neighbor. In this parable, however, Jesus tells us that we fulfill our duty to God first of all by serving others. That is why St. Vincent de Paul could write: “God is not neglected if prayers are put aside ... Therefore, when you leave prayer to help some poor man, remember this – that the work has been done for God.” (Letter 2546; Office of Readings, Sept. 27). Jesus says it even more directly: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
          Common to both groups in this parable of the sheep and the goats is surprise at the verdict pronounced on them. Those who are condemned appeal to their good conduct record. They have not lied, murdered, stolen, or committed adultery. As far as they know, they have kept all the rules. And now they find themselves condemned not for anything they have done, but for things left undone.  Surely, they think, there must be some mistake.
          The just are no less astonished to hear themselves praised. They were never conscious of doing anything special. They had not looked for any reward; and they certainly had never even started to calculate how high the reward might be. And precisely for this reason they receive a reward – one far greater than any they had ever dreamed of. 
          What a lesson there is there for us Catholics. The parable is, first of all, a warning. It tells us that everything we do in life, as well as the things we leave
undone, have eternal consequences. The choices we make each day and hour are determining, even now, our final destiny. Judgment is not a matter of adding up the pluses and minuses in some heavenly account book. Judgment is simply God’s confirmation of the choices, or judgment, we have already made by the way we chose to live our lives. That is the warning.

          Jesus never issues a warning, however, without giving us with it reason for encouragement. This consists here in the assurance that we need not fear judgment if we are trying to help people in need whom we encounter along life’s way. It is not that our good deeds gain us a row of gold stars in some heavenly account book which help balance out the black marks. Jesus is saying something quite different.  He is telling us that the person who is genuinely trying to serve others’ needs will not fail to attain moral goodness in other areas as well. And such failures as remain (and we all have them) will be forgiven by God.  

          So which is the story for you? Warning? or encouragement? That depends.  When you come to Confession, do you find that you have little to confess? You haven’t missed Sunday Mass. You have avoided mortal sin. Oh, perhaps a few white lies now and then, some bad language, and a little impatience – “but nothing really serious, Father.” If that is your situation, the story is probably a warning for you. Then ask yourself: Do I ever fail to help, when help is possible? Am I offended by sermons or statements by Church leaders on topics like war, oppression of the poor, or racial justice? Do I complain that in Church we should hear only about spiritual things? If the answer to such questions is Yes, then the story is certainly a warning for you.

          Perhaps, however, your situation is different. Do you come here discouraged because your life is a tangle of loose ends, failed resolutions, and broken promises? You pray poorly, you lose your temper, you’re impatient, you are unable to overcome some bad habit or, as they say, to “get it all together.” Take heart! If that, or any of that, is your story, then the parable of the sheep and the goats is Jesus’ encouragement for you. It is his way of telling you that your failures are not ultimately important, if you are looking for opportunities of helping others, and using those opportunities when you find them. Anything good you try to do for others, no matter how insignificant, is of infinite worth. It is done for Jesus Christ. One day you will discover, to your astonishment, that you have been serving Him all along, without ever realizing it. You will hear the voice of your shepherd-king saying to you tenderly, and very personally: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

          That, friends, is the gospel.  That is the good news.

"HE HAS GONE TO A SINNER'S HOUSE."


Homily for November 21st, 2017: Luke 19:1-10.

          Zacchaeus was an outcast. He collected taxes for the hated Roman government of occupation. And everyone knew that much of the money he collected went into his own pocket. So when Jesus went to dine at Zacchaeus’ house, the good religious people of Jericho were scandalized. “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner,” they protest. What for them was a scandal is for us good news. Jesus is the one who “has come to seek out and to save what was lost.” 

          Those words tell us who Jesus is. Then, now, for all time, Jesus Christ is the one who does not look at what we have been, or even at what we are. Instead Jesus looks at what, deep in our hearts, we would still like to be. He is the one who has come to search out and to save people without hope, the most abandoned, those most deeply entangled, like Zacchaeus, in webs of selfishness, self-indulgence, and greed.

          “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus told Zacchaeus. He says the same to us today. This is our great today. This is our hour of salvation. Jesus is calling us, inviting us to his holy table. He reaches out to us in active, accepting love, though we have done little or nothing to deserve such love. He comes to us for no other purpose than to seek out and save people who, without him, are floundering, without hope, and lost. 

          Zacchaeus “welcomed Jesus with joy,” Luke tells us. We can share that joy. Because of Jesus Christ, and his love for us, life is not aimless, not without meaning. Our sins, our failures, our compromises are not the last word about us. The last word belongs to the One who tells us that he has come “to seek and to save what is lost.” No matter what others think of us. No matter what we may sometimes think of ourselves. There is One to whom we are infinitely precious. He is Jesus Christ: Son of man and Son too of God — our brother, our lover, our best friend; but also our savior, and our God!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

THANKSGIVING


Homily for November 23rd, 2017: Thanksgiving Day.

          On this Thanksgiving Day I’d like to tell you about something the Lord moved me to do on my 13th birthday, in May 1941. It has been a source of great blessing to me ever since. I visited the chapel of the small and very spartan Connecticut boarding school where I was being educated. Kneeling, or perhaps sitting, in the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle, I wrote down a list of all the things I was thankful for. I continued this practice on my birthday for a number of years thereafter. The list was always a long one. And it was never difficult to compile. It always brought me joy.

It is decades since I have used my birthday to compile that list of blessings. But that boyhood practice has made thanksgiving central in my life, and in my prayer. If you are looking right now at a happy man, and a happy priest -- and I can assure you that you are – it is because I have trained myself to say every day, more times than I could ever tell you: “Lord, you’re so good to me. And I’m so grateful.”

And now I have a suggestion for you. Before you start to eat your Thanksgiving dinner today, go round the table and ask each person, young or old, to say at least one thing that he or she is thankful for. You may hear some surprises. Whether you do or not, I promise you one thing that a richly blessed life of more than 89 years has taught me. Thankful people are happy people – no exceptions!

"LORD, I WANT TO SEE."


Homily for November 20th, 2017: Luke 18: 35-43.

          “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks the blind beggar who has been calling out loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” Having heard that Jesus would be coming to Jericho, the beggar had positioned himself on the road where he knew Jesus would pass. There would surely be a good crowd eager to see the famous rabbi from Nazareth. With any luck at all, the beggar expected to receive many gifts. Yet when Jesus asked him what he wanted, the beggar asked for something more important than money: “Lord, please let me see.” The words of that blind beggar changed the life of a man who has been for the last 22 years the leader of the Benedictine community here in St Louis: Abbot Thomas Frerking. Let me tell you his story, just as he related it to me.         

Born into a Lutheran family, Thomas Frerking, like many young people today, gave up all religion in high school. Following graduation from Harvard, he went to Oxford University in England, on a Rhodes scholarship, to study philosophy. Reading Mark’s gospel one day, he came to the story about this blind beggar. We have just heard Luke’s version. “That’s me,” he thought. “I felt convicted of intellectual pride, and kept repeating: ‘Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I heard Jesus saying: ‘Call him over.’ So I went to Jesus – and he gave me a hard time. He asked me: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ I had to tell him: ‘Lord, I want to see.’ This happened several times over the next few days. I realized that the people around Jesus were Catholic Christians. I knew I must ask for instruction in the Catholic faith. But then I thought: ‘Oh no, I could never do that!’”

“That was in July 1969. In August I came home for a holiday n the Rocky Mountains with his parents. Looking up at a cloud one day, the decision was just given to me. When I got back to Oxford in September I called the Catholic chaplain. He did know me from Adam. Yet he was with me in 15 minutes. I was received into the Church the following Easter.”

Jesus continues to speak to us today. His words still have power to change lives.