Sunday, July 16, 2017

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle A

Farming in Jesus’ time was very difficult. The soil in the middle east can be very hard and required hard work to break up, using rudimentary plows, really just sharp sticks that were dragged across the surface by a team of oxen. Back breaking work. The sower would then simply grab a handful of seed from a sack and throw it out over the field. He didn’t dig a hole, drop in a seed, and then put in some fertilizer. He didn’t tend the field after planting it. He relied upon the rains to water it, and as you know, there wasn’t a lot of rain. He didn’t weed it. He basically left the seed where it landed and hoped for the best. It was up to the field itself to determine if anything grew or not.

The ancient farmers saw everything they received as a gift from God. They trusted that God would provide the rain and snow to water the plants to create seed and wheat for bread. They were totally reliant upon the whims of nature, or, as they saw it, the pleasure of the creator. Whether the farmer’s family ate or starved was at the mercy of God.

So the people listening to Jesus that day could really relate to the story. They understood the seriousness of the situation because they experienced it first hand. They just had a hard time relating themselves to the story. The did not understand how it applied to them. What could they do to affect the harvest when it was really all in God’s hand?

This is not a passive parable. There are two actors working together in this parable: the sower and the field. Each has an active role in whether or not the seed bears fruit.

The sower firstly chooses to sow. The sower prepares the field. It’s the same field, but with different conditions in different areas of the field. It receives the same water and sunlight, and the sower scatters seed to the entire field. He does not discriminate or play favorites.

The field also has a choice in the matter. The conditions of the field can change if the field wants them to. We are the field. If we want we can move to a better part of the field. I think we are always moving around the field. Sometimes we are the rocky soil, sometimes we are among the thorns, other times we are the good soil. Heck, I’ve been in all three areas just in one day!

This parable is all about the choices we make. We can choose to let the seed fall on the hard ground, or we can cultivate the hard ground to receive it. Are our hearts open to the seed? Do we want to truly understand? Have we hardened ourselves to the word of God, to Jesus? We prepare the ground of our own hearts and we accept the cultivation and sustenance we are given.

Some seed fell on the path and the birds ate it before it could take root. There was no understanding, and so the devil came and took it away. To take root and flourish, the word of God must be received with understanding. That requires that we seek to understand. We receive understanding first from the Holy Spirit revealing the word to us in scripture and in the teaching of Jesus that has come down to us from the Apostles. Understanding is how we prepare the soil of our hearts. We break up the hardness to allow the seed to penetrate deeper, where it can take root.

Knowledge leads to understanding, understanding leads to decision, and decision leads to action.

Some seed fell on shallow rocky ground. It sprang up quickly but had no depth so it soon withered in the hot sun. Sometimes people base their faith upon emotion or self-centeredness only, and so once the excitement wears off and trouble comes, the faith dies. They are attracted by the externals of religion, or by a charismatic preacher or teacher or the music they like, or by the feeling they get in a certain community. But they never really go deeper, never seek to truly understand, and so they don’t stay long. They don’t study their faith. They don’t seek God in service to others. They just want to be fed themselves. They hop from congregation to congregation, always looking for that one experience that will make it all click. That is not a faith that survives adversity and suffering.

Some seed fell among the thorns, and when those thorns also grew up alongside them, they overwhelmed the good plants and choked them out. Worldly desires and worries choke them out. We can choose to let the world choke out the word, or we can clear the path of all the things that distract us and cause us to turn away. We are all planted in the same field, however, we are in the world but should not be of the world.

Oftentimes those thorns are on rosebushes; they are really attractive and beautiful. We are drawn to their beauty and don’t see the thorns underneath. Sometimes the thorns seem so tall and so strong that they overwhelm us, and we lose hope. The thorns are all around us. The key is to not let the thorns be the focus, but the word. Letting go of worldly desires and anxieties is a choice we have the power to make, and it can be liberating.  

But Jesus says that the seed that falls on good ground not only grows but yields so abundantly that it makes up for all the seed that did not produce anything. The field will therefore be plentiful, even though only a small part of the seed took root and flourished. Because in God’s plan everything he does bears fruit. His word will not return to him until it produces exactly what he sent it to do.

God has a choice and he chooses to send us his word to give us life. He offers that life to everyone he has ever created and will create, without favor. It is the same life for everyone. He doesn’t plant good seed in one field and poor seed in another. His will is that the seed take root and accomplish what he sent it to do. It will accomplish that because God cannot fail. However, when and where His will is accomplished requires a decision and action on the part of the recipient. We have the ultimate say in the matter.

We are not passive actors in this play. We are not simply receptors of the message, but active searchers and cultivators. We are active participants in the growth of the seed. God will do his part. He will send his word to us like he sends the rain to the earth, and that word will give life to the world, whether we as individuals accept and cultivate it or not.

God will not be denied, but we can deny God. It is our choice. We choose what to do with the word and with the life it can give us. The seed has been planted in you. What will you choose to do with it?




Saturday, May 13, 2017

To Serve and To Give

5th Sunday of Easter

Cycle A

Ever since Easter Sunday we have been reading from the Acts of the Apostles, hearing about how the early Church sought to live out the mission that Jesus had given them. We have no record of Jesus giving the disciples instructions on how to organize themselves into Church. It is interesting how they chose to do so. From the very beginning we see them putting into place an attitude and a structure of service. First and foremost service to one another, and then expanding to service of the entire community.

We will be listening the next few weeks to verses from the Gospel of John from what is called, “The Last Discourse”. This passage today comes immediately following the story of the washing of the feet we heard on Holy Thursday, where Jesus told his disciples, “If I washed your feet – I who am teacher and Lord – then you must wash each other’s feet. What I just did was to give you an example: as I have done, so you must do.”

This is where the Church received its marching orders from Jesus, and we are beginning to see how they chose to live out those orders. This took on a very practical orientation. From the very beginning the Church ordered itself in practical ways to carry out its mission of service. This attitude of loving service, of subordination to each other, was what attracted so many people to Christianity.

The Church addressed both the spiritual and physical needs of its members. The role of the apostles was to preach and teach the gospel. They also governed the community. When they found themselves being bogged down with the temporal needs of the people, they set aside certain people to take on that role.

We hear today the story of the ordination of the first deacons; the very name means servant in Greek. Their job was to take care of the poor and the sick and the needy, just like today. They were the servants at table, both the dinner table and the altar of the Eucharist. It may seem that the Apostles were delegating the dirty work to lesser men, but in fact service at table is what Eucharist is all about, isn’t it?

Archbishop Niederauer, whose motto was “To Serve and To Give”, liked to say that Eucharist happens under the table as well as on top of it. We gather around the table to share in the banquet on the top, but we serve down below. Because foot washing happens under the table. If we are to be people of Eucharist, we must be foot washers for one another.

“Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do,” Jesus said, “and will do greater ones than these.” Jesus in his earthly ministry fed the hungry, healed the sick, raised the dead, taught his disciples, gave himself in Eucharist to us, gave his very life for us. As his disciples we are called to do the same. Jesus did all these things himself, because he was giving us example. However, we aren’t called to serve God’s people all by ourselves; we are called to do our part as members of the larger Body of Christ. Some of us feed the hungry, some of us heal the sick, some lead us in Eucharist, still others teach, but all of us are called to give our lives for others, not necessarily literally, but we are called to live our entire lives in service.

Service is not an option; it is what we are compelled to do through the Holy Spirit. If you have the spirit of God within you you will do great works. That is how you know you have the Spirit. When the Spirit came down upon Jesus at his baptism, he didn’t just go off somewhere to study or to keep this power within him. He didn’t keep it just between God and himself. He immediately went throughout the entire countryside spreading the gospel he had found. He was driven into the desert by the spirit and then from there spent the rest of his life in service to God’s people. He didn’t work a year or two and then say, “Well, I’ve done my part, now it’s time for someone else to take over.” He was serving unto his death. He was obedient to the will of his Father unto his death. Only when he went back to the Father did he hand over his ministry to his disciples. To us.

It really is all about stewardship. We have all been given great gifts from God. Everything we have – our health, our relationships, our children, our jobs, our material possessions – ultimately come from God. We have been given so much, and we have an awesome responsibility to take care of those gifts.

As stewards we understand that while we have so much, we do not really own anything and nothing really owns us. We are here to nurture and grow the gifts we have been given, to increase their worth and give them back to the creator who gives them to us in the first place. The greatest gift we are called to take stewardship of is one another. By serving one another we help each other to grow and become the people God intends us to be.

It’s fitting that we celebrate Mother’s day this weekend. A mother is a natural steward. Motherhood is a vocation of service, of nurturing, of giving tirelessly of self for the benefit of others. There is something about having a child that brings out this selflessness. We fathers also feel this need, but a mother’s love begins in the womb, with a baby’s total reliance on her for sustenance. The connection between mother and child is both physical and spiritual. And once born, a mother’s selfless service to her family only grows deeper and stronger.

The Church is a lot like the womb in that regard. One of the strongest images we have of the church is as mother. Mother Church we call it. As Church we look out for one another. We take care of the spiritual and physical needs of others, whether they belong to our community or not. We see each other as special gifts from God, and we offer up our own unique talents for the benefit of all.

Because that’s what love is and that’s what love does. Jesus gave us our mission. “Love one another as I have loved you.” And then he gave us his example of humble service to show us how to live that love.

A good friend of mine posted today on Facebook,

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, "I have nothing left, I used everything you gave me."

To me, that says it all.



Sunday, April 2, 2017

Will Jesus Cry When I Die?

5th Sunday of Lent

Cycle A

Will Jesus Cry When I Die?

I attended the funeral of Deacon Ricardo Arias on Friday. Ricardo and I were ordained in the same class, and he is the fifth of my class that has died. He had suffered from cancer for a long time. The funeral Mass was held at the cathedral, and the bishop presided, along with dozens of priest and deacons, and the cathedral was filled with people who came to pay their last respects.

The bishop spoke of Ricardo’s quiet, unfailing love for and service to the church. He spoke of his dedication to God’s people. He had been a good and faithful deacon. Ricardo had obviously touched a great many people. Many wept.

I preside at a lot of funerals. Many of them are for people I have never met or known. Many times the only Catholics in the church are myself and the person in the casket. I hear a lot of stories about the deceased, how he or she has touched the lives of their friends and family. Some are good and some not so much so. Some are pretty vacuous. Most people don’t live heroic lives. Many lives are defined by the activities they contained rather than how they affected the lives of others.

Funerals often make me think about what my own funeral will be like. What will I be remembered for? What will people say about me? How many people will be there out of respect for me or my family, and how many will be so perturbed at losing me that they will weep? How many lives will I have touched and influenced? How many have I led to Christ?

Like Lazarus, will my life, and death, be for the glory of the Son of God?

This was not the first time Jesus had raised someone from the dead. He had raised Jairus’ young daughter, and the son of the Widow of Nain. He had done so out of compassion for the grieving parents, and he did so in privacy. Lazarus was different. Jesus didn’t cry when those young people died, but here we hear those famous words written for the first and only time in the gospels – “And Jesus wept.”

For Jesus, Lazarus’ death was personal. Outside of his apostles, Mary, Martha and Lazarus are the only people named as his friends. I imagine that Jesus often went to their home just outside of Jerusalem to rest and get away from the crowds. Jesus had a special place in his heart for them. He was very close to them, and so it is understandable that Jesus would be upset when his friend died.

Jesus weeps for his friends. Jesus weeps for them because they are not just some people he meets on his way. Jesus happened upon Jairus and the Widow. Jesus had a personal relationship with Lazarus. Jesus wept for Lazarus because he was his friend. He was his family. He loved him because he was loved by him.

Will Jesus cry when I die?

Will I just be another disciple among the crowd, or will he consider me his friend? His close friend? His family? Will I have invited him into my home? Will we have broken bread together often? Will I have sat at his feet while he taught me? Will I have thrown myself down before him in shame and have asked for his forgiveness? Will Jesus know me so well that he will be perturbed when I suffer?

Today’s gospel is the promise. This is what it is all about. This is why we believe and this is what we hope for. Without Jesus’ promise of the resurrection from the dead why should we bother? Jesus’ resurrection really means nothing for us unless it points to our own destiny. Why should you change your life, why should you become His disciple if it were not for the reward of everlasting life?

Those are the fundamental questions we ask ourselves sooner or later. We all want to believe that there’s something after this life. We all want the promise. That’s why Lazarus’ story is our story, because we all have that promise.

Jesus didn’t just say he was the resurrection and the life, he proved it. He rose again to a new kind of life, a glorious life, and he promised that we would have that same life, too. That’s why this story is for all of us, because Jesus came so that all may have everlasting life. The promise he gave to Martha is the promise he gives to us.

May we all live as children of the promise.