16th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle A July 20, 2014

There’s a constant tension that exists between our Christian faith and the world we live in. The first part of the tension goes right to the Book of Genesis, where it says that God created the world and saw that it was very good. God’s vision was filled with delight and satisfaction. Not only with the beautiful mountains, rivers, seas, oceans, forests and landscapes, but most notably with Adam and Eve. They were the apple of His eye. In them, God saw a replica, a part of himself like nothing else in the call of creation.

From Genesis, we can jump forward a few billions years or more to the Second Vatican Council, called together by the recently named saint, John XXIII, known as The Good Pope. A jolly ol’ fella was he. I’m glad he never dressed up in a big red suit and be mistaken for someone else. He was a Pope filled with much wisdom. And the Council he called, in one of the general statements made to Catholics and all Christians alike was the message that we are to engage the world we live in. Don’t run and hide from it, unless you’re on retreat for a few days up at the Spencer Abbey eating their jelly and drinking their beer. Don’t find a forest to hide in. Don’t go to the edge of the earth – wherever that is – and jump off. Rather, engage. Be a part of. Contribute to. Assist in. Have an influence.

Why does the Council say this? My guess would be Genesis; God created the world and saw that it was very good. It is a world we live in that is configured and set up for participation. And the fact that we are social beings has something relevant to do with it also. We are hard-wired to participate. We can run if we wish, but we cannot hide forever.

So, I was speaking with a priest friend of mine just the other day, a classmate from seminary who works in the vineyard of Erie, Pa. – far away from Gettysburg – and our conversation came back to the tension I refer to. The constant tension of the wheat and the weeds. The wheat being the children of the kingdom, the good seed of our faith. The heavenly teachings of Jesus Christ. When these are put into practice, they produce an abundant crop of wheat. They produce more children for the kingdom. Not just for the Lord on a heavenly plane, but children who engage the world we live in. Now, for Catholics who do not believe that the practice and living out of our entire faith produces good wheat, and not just the parts of our faith we like and agree with, then such faith is watered down and convenient.  The teachings of Christ are not made for picking and choosing. They are made for obedience.

But the latter part of my conversation with my classmate from seminary centered around the other part of this tension we live in, that being the weeds. He did the talking; I did the listening; I haven’t sent him an invoice yet. His comments centered on the many weeds that have been planted, not only in America, but throughout the world. From the violence of war to the violence of abortion. Two forms of violence, by the way, two weeds that in my humble opinion, can never be separated. Because if we allow this to happen to children, call it someone’s right, and protect it by misguided law, then how can we expect the rest of humanity to not be at each other’s throats? Do we wish to be rid of war? I’m sure we all do. Then let’s be rid of abortion, the most violent act against the most innocent person.

So my priest friend from Pennsylvania gave me some of his list of weeds that are presently living among the wheat. At this point I make one insight; that the weeds in our world, all the evil that human beings allow and perpetrate and fiercely protect, all the weeds are an outside invasion thrust upon the good seed and good wheat that existed first. Weeds are foreign elements to God’s good world that attempt to alter the goodness of God’s creation.

Imagine you own a company you’ve started, and you want your company to be a model, not only in terms of profit, which is necessary for survival, but also in the ways of virtue. You treat your employees with concern; you don’t cheat anyone; your practices are upstanding; they reflect the commandments of your faith in God. Then, an outside agency invades your business and tries to force you into practices that sow weeds. Weeds you never want as part of your company.

“God created the world and saw that it was very good.” The weeds invaded the goodness of God. They were not part of the original creation, which is why one day they must be done away with. They must receive their sentence and judgment in the fiery furnace, never to be heard from again.

So, by the time my friend finished his bucket list of weeds, I could have predicted his concluding comment; “I cannot wait until Jesus returns to get rid of all this evil.” And one day Jesus will do both. He will return, and he will cause all evil to be non-existent, especially the evil of death.

However, while I can understand the frustration that my priest-friend expressed – I border on that myself at times – and while we look forward to Jesus’ return in glory, any frustration with weeds must be met with engagement. This reflects the wisdom of the Second Vatican Council. As Catholics, we don’t run from the world. We engage the world with the message of Christ, penetrating any political correctness that tries to block us, which Pope Francis does on a daily basis.

Our engagement is grounded in the goodness of God’s creation. Even while the weeds rear their ugly heads. We believe that good overcomes evil, because it existed first from the mouth of God. That love is more powerful than hate; and that forgiveness changes hearts in ways that the weed of anger cannot. We engage because love is a commandment to be obeyed and shared.

In the meantime, may we have the fortitude to live and bring the Gospel message to others. Not some of the message, but all of it, reflecting we are indeed children of the kingdom.

15th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle A July 13, 2014

I’m not used to carrying a pair of scissors around with me. Look at my hair! What do I need those for? And I’m sure you also are not used to carrying on your person a pair of scissors as you are out in the world performing your daily tasks. But it may not be a bad idea! In fact, it may be a good idea to carry scissors. Not the metal kind. Not the kind you buy at CVS or Wal-Mart. Rather, the spiritual sort of scissors that can slice up and cut through any thorns sent our way from the Evil One.

This parable today makes me want to carry an item necessary for warding off and deflecting the poisonous plants that can potentially infiltrate a human heart and draw us away from the good seed that bears fruit.

In this parable, Jesus speaks of four types of people as connected to having faith in him alone in this language of the sower and the seed. God is obviously the Sower who plants the seeds of Christian virtue in our hearts. There are times we like to take credit for the good we do. It’s almost natural for us to take credit. But the truer understanding of the good we do is to say, “I take no credit, but give it all to God, who empowers me to make a difference.” We’re not capable of doing good on our own. So any good that is accomplished in and through our lives is a sign that the Spirit of God is within. If you do much good, then you’re filled with the Spirit, and not full of ourselves.

Jesus tells the disciples they have been granted knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven. As they probably scratch their heads at such a compliment, thinking they know little rather than much knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom, I’ll try to capture some of their knowledge for the sake of interpreting this parable for our time.

The first type of person, who we never give up on, is the person who says they can go it alone. They don’t need God. Or, they don’t believe in God. Birds come by and eat up all the good seed – and birds know the difference between good seed and bad seed, sometimes more than people do – and when all the good seed is consumed by those flying creatures, those vultures, there’s no understanding left of the Kingdom of God. The good seed of understanding and humility is lost. Our hope is to replant through constant prayer and example.

The 2nd type of person Jesus addresses is the one with little soil. There’s something there, but there’s also some negative emptiness that holds back their potential for living a life for God. Something holds them back from being grounded in God rather than a passing world. They hear the word, receive it with joy, they bring their child for Baptism, and then we never see them again. The word isn’t taking hold, for any one of 1000 reasons. And whatever is going on, it’s almost always the Church’s fault. We pray for their spiritual growth and wisdom.

The 3rd type of person could easily be many of us here, including yours truly. This is the person that needs scissors. Spiritual scissors, to cut the thorns that can choke our precious pearl, our faith in Jesus Christ. The thorn is wise enough to go after that which we need the most in our lives. This person has very good soil. There’s a nice richness to it. A good texture where virtues will grow and love is the goal. Love of God and neighbor.

What gets in the way of such a person reaching their full potential? Thorns! Thorns that can choke the precious pearl. Jesus calls them worldly anxieties and the lure of riches. The thorns, if we’re not careful and we have no scissors, are any worldly item or status that we consider to be of greater importance than the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.

The irony is that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus will richly provide the necessary blessings we seek. If only we trust. Instead, the many attractions that surround us can potentially capture hearts and hold our vision. So, we need a pair of scissors to cut away any thorn that blocks our eyes from seeing the face of God. When I see the face of God one day, I don’t want any thorns to alter such beauty.

The 4th person, who produces fruit many times over, are those in the Communion of Saints. May they pray for the rest of us.

14th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle A July 6, 2014

As our beloved Boston Red  Sox struggle mightily through a season after winning the World Series last year, a season where their yoke is anything but easy and their burden anything but light, we try our best to keep faith. For those of us who care, at least. Faith that after the All-Star break  they will have a better 2nd half to the season.

Truth be told, there doesn’t seem to be too many easy yokes  and light burdens nowadays. It seems like the world we live in not only goes at a much faster pace than not so long ago, but it also seems like things get more complicated rather than easier or simpler. It’s sort of like the tax code and tax laws of the United States government. I’m not sure there is even one genius out there who knows the entire tax code and understands it all. It wouldn’t be surprising that even those who make up the tax laws of our nation understand the laws they create in their entirety. I’m not sure that even God understands them. I have a feeling our Father in heaven is scratching his Divine scalp saying, “What are they doing? Why do those people complicate things so much for themselves? Don’t they know that my yoke is easy and my burden is light? All they have to do is come to me!”

And this is just one part of the genius of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The part of our Lord – who is all genius – that uncomplicates what we complicate by coming to him. I’m not sure if Jesus has a simpler tax code listed anywhere in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. But he most certainly has a good and better way of addressing our day to day communication with the world that surrounds us. This fast-paced world.

There are times when I do get a bit envious of all those wonderful monks up in Spencer at St. Joseph’s Abbey. Their slower pace; their specific time for prayer; their time in contemplation with the Lord; the amount of attention given to the ways of the Lord; their working in the jelly factory and the beer factory. I’m really envious of those two!

It would have been nice if UPS let me park my brown truck somewhere on my route each day and spend 15 minutes in prayer. Three times a day. Leave the brown truck like the monks leave the jelly and beer factories all at the same time to go pray. I don’t think that would have put a smile on the face of Big Brown!

But those holy monks, brothers and priests up on the Spencer hill teach the rest of us a couple of essential spiritual practices to incorporate into our lives as connected to the words of our Lord today.

First, in order for easy yokes and light burdens to be had and called our own, takes some self-reflection. Understanding who we are before the Lord and the world, and where exactly do our hard yokes and heavy burdens lie, and why are they there. Understanding for ourselves the where and what of what ties us down, and what holds us back from knowing in clear and honest ways the power of the Lord’s easiness and lightness will serve us well. Identifying any of the world’s heaviness, bringing it to the Lord who says “Come to me,” and creating a space in our lives for God’s favor and presence to touch our hearts is really the first step toward unraveling the many complications of our fast-paced world. Jesus says somewhere, “Your life does not need to mirror the tax code of the United States government.” You think they worry about that stuff up in Spencer? If they have worries, which I’m sure they do, it’s more like, “How can we help bring everyone to heaven?” They understand who they are before God. And now that they’re selling beer, they better understand who they are before God! I hope St. Benedict isn’t rolling in his grave!

Second, once such awareness of burdens and yokes is attained, then we are challenged by the words of St. Paul today who tells the Roman Christians to “put to death the deeds of the body.” Paul, who is forever insightful and useful, is addressing the topic and issue of holiness in those words. They used to be pagans, many of these Roman Christians. They’ve been preached to and accepted the Good News and Good Ways of Jesus Christ. Just like ourselves. I’m sure all of us can say that in our lives we have accepted into our hearts, our minds, our wills that Jesus is Lord. With that universal truth comes responsibility. The responsibilities of putting to death any former ways that create distance between Jesus and ourselves.

Paul addresses the deeds of the body. This could be relational in nature. It could mean sexual choices. He could easily be addressing sins of omission, of not loving and caring for one another, especially the poor and insignificant. Paul could also be referring to putting away the verbal stuff that makes us worldly and not saintly. Any deed of the body – meaning the entire person – that slices up and cuts into pieces the holiness we gain in knowing Christ Jesus our Lord is to be put to death. A good death.

By desiring and searching for holiness in all areas of our lives, and not leaving our faith behind on the shelf from Monday morning to Friday evening, and being open to God’s grace for such holiness, brings us to a place of easy yokes and light burdens. Like those monks up there! Whereas living the “deeds of the body,” as St. Paul puts it, will surely add to our yokes and burdens.

So, may we perform a spiritual reflection on ourselves, put away the deeds that pull us away from the Lord who we know and accept, and embrace his offer of finding rest for ourselves. Especially during the summer months.

And maybe the Red Sox will start winning more consistently.