25th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle A September 21, 2014

“Why do you stand here idle all day? Go in to the vineyard and labor the harvest! Don’t stand there and look pretty! Get your keester into the vineyard!”

Each one of us is blessed with certain gifts and talents. Some people can do flips on a bicycle. Some can flip bowling pins in the air – four or five at a time. Some can play sports better than others – which is why we have winners and losers in sports. Some people are better with technology – especially if you’re under 10 years old. And many people are talented with their bare hands, like most of the men and women I worked with at UPS all those years. They were very good at “handling” boxes.

God has blessed all of us in our own way with a combination of differing gifts and talents. But all of us have the talent to “labor in the vineyard of the Lord.”

This wonderful parable Jesus tells to his disciples, the parable of the landowner and the vineyard, can also be called the Parable of Doing Our Duty.” Of having the insight and the fortitude and the initiative to enter the Lord’s vineyard each day in the world and put in our best effort to yield the harvest. To bring God to others. To give people hope, including ourselves. To offer an olive branch taken from the vineyard where one needs to be offered in our lives, so that the peace of Christ may reign in human hearts. And not stand idle.

Doing our duty; a phrase not only for soldiers. But a phrase also for soldiers of Christ. Whereas the soldier is expected to perform their military duty; in today’s present climate that can mean serving somewhere in the ever-dangerous Middle East, or even the Commander-in-Chief of our nation using our sons and daughters, our fathers and mothers to help combat the Ebola crisis in Liberia. Whereas the military soldier has solemn and serious responsibilities toward the safety of others, the soldier for Christ is concerned also with the payment. The day’s wage at the end of the day. Not only for ourselves, but for all.

In the context of being soldiers for Christ and Doing Our Duty, I offer a few insights on how these readings speak to us as Christians.

First, back to the question the landowner asks the laborers, “Why do you stand here idle all day? Why are you loitering?” In other words, he’s telling them they’re wasting their talents and time by standing around waiting to be told what to do. I’ve noticed over the years this can be a bad habit for us Catholics. The standing around idling is a posture that says, “I don’t understand my faith well enough to act on my own, so I have no idea what to do, where to go, who to speak to, etc… I need someone to tell me what to do.”

As Catholics, we have our leader, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, in Pope Francis. But the message of Pope Francis is to get out there and work in the vineyard each day. Don’t wait for an invitation. The invitation has already been given in our Baptism and Confirmation. And please don’t think you’re somehow too old to work in the vineyard. There is no retirement or pension plan with Jesus. And don’t think we’re too restricted to work in the vineyard. Some of the hardest workers in the vineyard are the homebound who pray for the rest of us all the time. And don’t think you’re not intelligent enough to work in the vineyard. Many of the saints were unlearned people. All of us have something to offer to ensure that the harvest is brought into the barn. Jesus doesn’t want excuses. He wants the many works of love we are capable of performing. “Why do you stand idle all day?” is not part of the message of hope and salvation. It contradicts the Christian message. So we push ourselves into the vineyard, where we make a difference.

Second, there’s the payment issue that upsets so many workers in the parable. Those who toiled all day under the sun flip out on the landowner. Very simply, we don’t set the wage for being a soldier for Christ Doing Our Duty. When I was at UPS the Teamsters Union would negotiate with the company what the hourly wage would be for the thousands of workers. There would be different levels of payment, depending on the job being performed. Here, God sets the payment, and there’s only one price. That may not sound appealing for those of us who have toiled in the vineyard all life-long. Or close to it. If we’ve been a committed Christian our entire life, how does it make us feel when the guy on death row who has a conversion while awaiting his fate receives the same eternal payment we will receive, meaning heaven of course? The blood of Christ is the one satisfying payment for all. Jesus’s blood doesn’t ask at what point in our lives did we come to love our Savior and perform works in his name. Even in a death row cell. The Spirit moves where he will. And where he is welcome into human hearts. There’s one optimal price for all people of faith.

And third, there’s the St. Paul issue of Doing Our Duty. The guy is amazing! He wants to live here, but he doesn’t want to live here. “I long to depart this life and be with Christ, which is far better. Yet, I want to stay and be with the Church and the people I love, for their benefit.” It’s a conundrum for Paul.

Paul has arrived at a point where he is living in the fullness of this life. He doesn’t want to depart because he hates his life or he can’t stand being here. That would be a misread of Paul, and a misread of our Christian faith. He wants to depart because of his love for Christ, and the deepest desire to want to live with him forever. This is how working in the vineyard is meant to transform us. To want to be with our Lord while loving his people now.

This is why it’s so important to stay in the vineyard of the Church, despite all her human faults. Because over time, our work here is ultimately connected to our payment, which is to be with Christ. Paul has the best of both worlds; he loves his life, but he loves his Savior much, much more.

So continue to do the Lord’s bidding in the vineyard of our world through the bountiful vineyard of our Catholic faith. The one payment for Doing Our Duty is worth it.

Exaltation of the Holy Cross of Christ Cycle A September 14, 2014

When the Israelites of old complained against God and the food he was feeding them, they set their own stage for a situation and circumstances that would come back to bite them. Bite them, as the 1st reading says, with serpents. Unfortunately, they couldn’t see the future results of their present choices and words.

Now, I’ve never been bitten by a serpent, and you probably haven’t been either. I’m sure many of us at one time or another have been stung by a bee, which is a bee’s way of biting. Or, we’ve been bitten by a dog. Or a tick. Or some other creature in nature where the bite was anything but comfortable and pleasing. It could have even been life-threatening.

But when the Israelites got bit by the serpents that were sent to remind them so crudely that their complaining against God was uncalled for and unjust on their part; when they complained so loudly about what God had placed on their dinner table in the desert, the serpents sent were deadly. Poisonous venom was the result of harsh complaining against the love and generosity of God. They would have returned to Egypt and be slaves where they could have one awful meal a day, rather than be free – even in the desert – and cared for by the God who proved his love time and again through signs and wonders. This is why complainers should never be our leaders or spokesmen. It will lead to nothing but serpents and their venom.

Eventually, God brings them into the land flowing with milk and honey, where meals become abundant, worship sincere – for a while, where homes could be settled into. But eventually, they would turn away again, complain again, find something wrong with God their Rescuer, have more “serpents” show up, such as the “serpent” of Babylon where they would be cast out of Israel for 70 years, seek God’s mercy, and mercy would be shown them, these fickle people. Sort of like Red Sox fans.

The Israelites of old were not all that different from us. Especially the part where the seeking of God’s mercy is to be continuous. For we all fall short. Every day. No one except for Jesus and Mary has ever lived a day of perfect love before God. Every day we fall short in mind, body, or spirit.

Does God get tired of extending and offering His mercy to us? Some people think he does, which would explain why they would stop seeking it. But in a book I’m presently reading by an Austrian Cardinal, he writes, “There is only one limit to God’s mercy; believing that it is limited.” So, the only way to limit God’s mercy is the same way, ironically enough, for serpents to perform their venomous duty; we set the stage for such possibilities.

It’s amazing to think we can limit God’s mercy that is supposed to be infinite. It may be even more amazing to understand, however, that God’s mercy is infinite.

On this Sunday, we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross of Jesus Christ. The exaltation of it. The lifting up of the Cross that held Jesus’ body. If that Cross had stayed on the ground 2000 years ago, and Jesus is never lifted up for the world to see, something very, very essential to our faith would be missing. It’s in the lifting up to a position on a hill outside the city walls of Jerusalem that all humanity is drawn to the sacrifice that allows us to reflect upon and seek the incredible love God has shown us in this desert. We would not see that if Jesus died on the ground. The Roman soldiers performed an eternal grace for us when they lifted up our Lord between two criminals.

What do we see when we look at the Cross, either in this Church, in our mind’s eye, on a chain around our necks, or on a Rosary we use to pray and meditate on the mysteries of Jesus’ life?

What we see, of course, is sacrifice. Jesus hanging on the Cross is for all of us, not for himself. He didn’t deserve that result. It’s similar to a person on death row who receives the chair or needle that ends their life, and they were truly innocent of the crime. For most capital punishment sentences, that’s not the case, where they were innocent. But undoubtedly there have been those put to death for a crime they did not commit, where the weakness of human judgment was strong. That’s Jesus! An innocent Lamb led to the slaughter. But God overpowers our incredibly weak judgments by making his Son’s lifting up a sacrifice for us. He flips the entire death ritual on Golgotha on its head by making it a sacrifice that offers us life forever and ever.

What we also see in the exaltation of the Son of Man on the Cross is his eternal mercy. Mercy and sacrifice go hand-in-hand. What is this mercy that comes down from the Cross? What is this mercy that flows from our vision of Jesus hanging on a Cross in his best sacrificial pose?

Mercy allows us the possibility, like the Israelites of old, to once again be in right relationship with our God. And God says to us in the lifting up of his Son, “Here before you is enough mercy for all of you, my beloved people, to come back to me with all your hearts. And when you mess up in the desert again, for surely you will, reach into my infinite bucket of mercy and return. And when you mess up in the desert of this world again, return to me again. And again, and again. Because the arms of my Son on the exalted Cross you can see reveals how much I love you.” Mercy is effective only when we return.

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his mercy endures forever. Give thanks to Jesus in his exaltation, so that we may live forever. For God so loved the world , that he gave his only Son, so that those who believe in him, and see him hanging on the tree for the life for the world, may not perish on the ground, but be exalted to eternal life. The Cross is God’s symbol and action of love, that far surpasses our own. Yet, he has made his love and mercy ours too.

23rd Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle A September 7, 2014

I enjoy doing crossword puzzles when the time permits. And when I put forth my best effort to solve one, I always have a pen in hand. Along with a pencil with a good eraser. I need to erase the handful of mistakes that will undoubtedly be made on any given crossword puzzle that I do. I’ve read in more than one obituary of people who would solve the Sunday New York Times Crossword Puzzle with pen only. I’m thankful to God I’m not that smart!

There’s someone I know who gives me a hard time – can you believe that?- for using a pencil with an eraser alongside a pen when trying to solve a crossword. Without the pencil with eraser alongside the pen, I would have even less of a chance to complete a crossword that was readable and legible. I have no ego when it comes to that stuff. Is the world going to laugh at me because I use a pencil with eraser for a crossword puzzle? Go ahead! I don’t care!

Our readings this Sunday lend to the theme of “solving.” That there’s a process and a way to solve crossword puzzles in the daily events of our lives. We can choose to solve the crossword puzzles in our lives with just a pen; black, blue, or red, whatever color you like. But whenever a mistake is made –for surely they will be – it can get a little messy when trying to make things right before God and man. Pen writing over pen can be tough to read. But if we write at times with a pencil for those uncertain situations, which can be seen just as well as a pen, and a mistake is made, then we can erase the lead and put in the correct answer with the ink.

There’s a process for approaching and addressing the situations in life that get us angry, frustrated, cause us sleepless nights, bring out the worst in us, and show our dark side. And the process our Lord sets forth is not pure psychology, or anger management, a term we like to use today. And the Lord’s process is not only about “getting along.” “Let’s be peaceful together, hold hands, and sing Cumbaya.” That doesn’t address the deep, emotional realities of everyday living. This crossword puzzle of our lives is more complicated than using a fluffy approach.

What the Lord sets forth to his disciples, and to us, is a religious, theological, divine approach to the hurtful answers and actions in all of our lives. If you’re perfect, then you don’t need to listen to this homily. You can go to sleep right now and wake up in a few minutes. But, if you’re not perfect, I have a couple thoughts to share.

The Gospel begins with the words, “Jesus said to his disciples.” His disciples, as we know, were imperfect creatures. Our Lord’s answer to solving problems and crossword puzzles is both mature and Church-driven. Meaning, we are to be spiritually mature enough to address the difficult issues of life, family or otherwise. Man to man. Woman to woman. Woman to man. Then man gets on his knees and begs forgiveness from the woman. If the one-on-one fails to settle any issues, get the pencil out, erase the answer that didn’t work, and seek the advice of competent people. This is spiritual maturity. Getting the advice of people who will simply agree with us, will nod their heads up and down and sideways at our complaints, and will stroke our ego is the wrong answer written in pen.

The Apostles had some wrong answers written in pen on their way to loving Jesus perfectly. Before they became spiritually mature. They fought over who was going to be the greatest in the Kingdom. The wrong answer to the question, “How will I spend eternity?” Jesus corrects them with a theological, heavenly answer about crosses and drinking his cup of martyrdom. Also, Peter tries to stop Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem when Jesus talks about going up to the holy city to suffer at the hands of evil men, be killed, and raised on the 3rd day. “No such thing should ever happen to you, Lord,” Peter says. The wrong answer written in pen! Peter is rebuked, “Get behind me Satan, and take your pen with you!”

Like the Apostles, we get answers wrong also. We say and do things that ruffle the feathers of heaven. And those around us too. Where forgiveness becomes necessary for living a life for Christ. So when the one-on-one, or the witness of others, done with spiritual maturity, does not solve the answer on our crossword puzzle, then call 508-754-8419, ext. 16. That’s Fr. Riley’s number. “Tell the Church,” Jesus says. You can also call the Bishop, or another priest. I have no problem with that. I’ll offer an honest answer to the crossword puzzle you’re dealing with. I would try to give the correct answer in ink, but it may also be a pencil answer that needs to be erased.

And if that spiritual, theological, Church-driven approach fails to satisfy, then treat them like you would treat a Gentile or tax collector. Hard words from Jesus. It almost sounds like the Lord is saying we are to give up on finding the correct answer in ink. But no. My interpretation is Jesus is saying we need to move on with our lives, and live our lives each day. There are exceptions to this. Marriage being one of them. But fundamentally, Jesus is saying let go and let God, and the spiritually mature thing to do is to pray. This is why the Gospel ends in prayer. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”

It’s a theological, spiritually mature process to the crossword puzzles of our lives, and to some of the answers in that puzzle. A puzzle certainly in need of a pencil and eraser at times, to help erase any anger and hurt, and bring about the possibility of forgiveness, because some answers just need to be erased.