Saturday, July 11, 2020

Parents, Teacher, Priests, Evangelizers: We Sow, but God Grants the Growth (15.A)

The delightful Danish comedian and musician Victor Borge decided to buy a chicken farm.
“But you don’t know anything about breeding chickens,” a friend argued.

“No,” Borge replied in his usual deadpan way. “But the chickens do.”

I’m not funny like Victor Borge, but I’m with him when it comes to any kind of farming or gardening. In fact, someone once accused me of having a black thumb.

So, whenever Jesus starts talking about vines or plants or ploughing, I can get a little lost. But today’s parable is simple and straightforward; even someone with a black thumb can understand what’s happening.

The seeds fail to produce for three reasons: they get gobbled up by birds, they’re planted in thin soil, or they’re choked by weeds.

Or, rooted in good soil, they produce an abundant crop. 
That’s what’s happening with the seeds. But what’s really happening? What’s the point of the parable?

Jesus usually allows his stories to speak for themselves. With the parable of the sower and the seed, however, he spells out the meaning. Today we had the choice of a longer and a shorter Gospel. I chose the shorter, because I didn’t want my homily to compete with the that one Jesus gives in the longer text!

Actually, my big reason was that sometimes we tune out words that are too familiar. So instead of reading the longer Gospel, I thought I would read you a passage from a New Testament paraphrase called The Message.

Here’s how it presents the thought of Jesus:

“When anyone hears news of the kingdom and doesn’t take it in, it just remains on the surface, and so the Evil One comes along and plucks it right out of that person’s heart. This is the seed the farmer scatters on the road.

“The seed cast in the gravel—this is the person who hears and instantly responds with enthusiasm. But there is no soil of character, and so when the emotions wear off and some difficulty arrives, there is nothing to show for it.

“The seed cast in the weeds is the person who hears the [good news of the kingdom], but weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard, and nothing comes of it.

“The seed cast on good earth is the person who hears and takes in the Good News, and then produces a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.”

A bit easier to figure out what the parable means, don’t you think?

But there’s still more to this story. Notice, for one thing, that there’s no criticism of the sower. Jesus doesn’t point out that he or she should be more careful, less wasteful with the seeds.

If you’re spreading handfuls of seed from a sack you’re carrying, you don’t have a whole lot of control where it lands. It’s not really the sower’s fault if some spills on the path and some lands where there’s more gravel than earth.
We naturally take this parable as a warning to ourselves, not to let the seed of faith be snatched away from us or choked by our worries and ambition. Fair enough.

But I’ve never forgotten a homily that pointed out how the parable is also a consolation to those who sow the Gospel with disappointing results. At the top of that list, of course, are parents.

I wouldn’t know how to research the subject, but I am pretty sure there’s never been a time in history when so many children of faithful and devout Catholics have stopped going to Church.

Yes, it’s hard when you invite someone to Alpha and they quit coming after four weeks, but it’s a whole lot harder when you’ve shared your faith with a child for eighteen years and he or she rejects it outright.

Today's first reading, Psalm and Gospel all remind us of the same thing: our job is to sow, not to make the seed sprout. St. Paul explains this very simply to the Corinthians “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

So discouraged faith study leaders, parish priests, teachers and parents all need to remember who’s in charge.  Pope Paul said, “The Holy Spirit is the principal agent of evangelization: … it is He who … causes the word of salvation to be accepted and understood.”

That doesn’t get us off the hook when it comes to preaching and teaching and reaching people effectively. But if we have done our best and taken our mission seriously, the rest is up to God.
We don’t give up inviting friends to Alpha or Discovery because our first efforts weren’t fruitful. And we don’t give up witnessing to adult children because they’re not coming to church.

The important thing is to keep on sowing. Like Victor Borge with his chickens, we don’t know what makes the seeds sprout. But God does.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Don't Let the Yoke Become a Burden (14.A)

I get annoyed when someone knocks priestly celibacy by saying an unmarried man can’t know anything much about marriage. That’s silly. A priest may not know marriage from the inside out, but he knows countless marriages from the outside in.

So even though I don’t preach often about marriage, I feel capable enough when I do.

But I’m not so sure of myself when it comes to preaching about suffering. I’ve suffered very little in my life so when I speak to others about their suffering, I tread very carefully.

A dear friend encountered great suffering this week, suffering of a kind that I’ll never face. I hope to see her in a day or two, so I was wondering what to say.

Of course, I knew enough to consider the good option of saying nothing. Sometimes there just nothing we can say to help. Just being there may be the only thing possible.

But what if she comes to Mass today or tomorrow? What would I want to say to her about the Gospel we’ve just heard?

I would want, somehow, to explain that these words of Jesus are not hollow—that they’re not meant to invite pious feelings in pious people. If they don’t contain some deep power to help and to heal, they’ll do her more harm than good.

At a time of deep pain, how can we respond to this invitation to come to Jesus with our weariness and our heavy problems?  In particular, how can his yoke lighten our burdens? That sounds like adding even more weight on our shoulders, already bearing the burden of our sorrow or distress.

Can you see the danger I see here? It wouldn’t be hard for me to make things worse for someone who is suffering, by suggesting that they need only put on the Lord’s yoke and carry on. Follow the formula, and all will be well.

If we're not careful, we can make the yoke seem like another burden. Small wonder I’m careful when I speak about suffering or to the suffering.

But despite these challenges, we can—and sometimes we must—get to the heart of what Jesus is saying here. So let’s try.

The first thing to notice is the unusual location of our Lord’s call to come to him for rest. Without any explanation or context, these words follow immediately after his passionate prayer to the Father. One minute, he is talking to God, the next he is taking to us, particularly those of us in pain or distress.

One scholar says today’s Gospel passage takes us into the soul of Jesus. We see the depth of his relationship to his Father expressed in words of gratitude. And then we are invited to the same unity with the Father through the Son.

We find rest for our souls not in the temporary relief of our pain, but in leaving it behind as we become one with Jesus in love—moving into an intimacy where our pain is his pain.

I said when I began that being there is sometimes all we can for a friend who is really suffering. When Jesus offers to ‘be there’ with us, it takes the ministry of compassion to a whole new level. Unlike any human friend, he knows exactly what we’re going through, and exactly how the Lord of heaven and earth will heal and console.

I don’t know exactly what my friend is going through, and I don’t know exactly how the Lord will heal and console her.  Maybe that’s why Jesus speaks about a yoke—clearly a two-person yoke that brings us right beside him as we plough on despite our burdens.

Maybe Jesus is just asking us to get close enough to hear him speak loving words of hope and encouragement that can bring our souls the rest they need.

The powerful image above is by Christian artist Maria Lang.  You can see her work and read her reflections here.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

A Welcoming Parish! (13.A)

Back in those happy days of full churches, a man came to Mass wearing a hat. The ushers asked him to take it off, but he refused. Several folks in the nearby pews did the same, but the hat stayed on.

 The priest noticed this too, and spoke to the man after Mass. He told him he was happy to have him as a guest, and invited him to join the parish, but he explained the traditional practice about men not wearing hats in church. And he said “I do hope you’ll take it off the next time.”

 “Thank you, Father,” the man replied. "And thank you for taking time to talk to me. It’s good of you to invite me to join the parish. In fact, I joined two years ago and have been coming ever since, but today is the first time anyone paid attention to me.”

 “After being an unknown for two years, just by keeping my hat on I’ve had the pleasure of talking with the ushers, several of the parishioners and you. Thank you very much!”

 I’m sure the parish in the story isn’t ours! While we’re not perfect, we’ve been trying hard to make this a welcoming church. It’s a big part of our parish plan to invite people to become intentional disciples.

 And as you’ve just heard, welcoming is an important part of the Christian life.

 In today’s Gospel, Jesus says “whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” That’s a powerful statement. In the first place, those who welcome the Apostles are welcoming the Lord himself. Then he says that those who welcome a prophet—a teacher, a preacher—will also be rewarded.

 Even those who show hospitality with as simple a thing as a drink of water are promised a reward.

 This is a wonderful weekend for Christ the Redeemer Parish. Yesterday, Archbishop Miller blessed our new entrance doors; tomorrow, we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the old doors at the dedication of the church in 1990.

 Our call to be welcoming and inviting was an important part of the Archbishop’s homily at the blessing ceremony yesterday, which was attended by members of the parish pastoral and finance councils who helped to plan the project, and by members of the Project Advance team who helped to raise the funds.

 Here’s what the Archbishop said: “The new doors of this church beckon people, above all but not only parishioners, to come in and be enfolded in God’s love and mercy.

 “But once inside, once nourished by divine worship, we are to push through those doors, which open to the world in need of your witness to the Gospel, your compassion and your willingness to give to others an account of the hope that is within you (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).”

 Thirty years after the dedication of this church to the glory of God, we thank him for how the Gospel has been preached not only in its sanctuary but in the lives of our parishioners. The parish community has certainly welcomed apostles, prophets, and righteous persons, but it has also put faith into action by offering much more than a cup of cold water to the needy, the lonely, and the young.

 I not sure where I fit on that list, but the parish has also welcomed me. Today is the 34th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, which means I will have spent more than one-third of my priestly life as pastor of Christ the Redeemer Parish.

 During my years here, I have always experienced your spirit of welcome and kindness, but never more so than during these months of the pandemic, where an astonishing number of parishioners have emailed, texted, and called with words of encouragement at a very difficult and uncertain time.

 I wish the whole parish could have been here for the blessing of the doors; I wish we could have a party to celebrate our thirtieth anniversary. I wish we could be having coffee and welcoming visitors after Mass today.

 But for now, my prayer to God comes from the words of the late Dag Hammarskj√∂ld, the second Secretary General of the United Nations. He wrote “For all that has been: Thanks. For all that is to come: Yes!”

 On-line or in-person, “church never stops” in our family of faith.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

ur parish is blessed this summer by the presence of Joseph McDaniel, a seminarian with the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. A gifted teacher and speaker, Joseph offered the following reflection after Mass this morning. I hope you will find it as inspiring as I did.

He also presented a beautiful half-hour devotion to the Sacred Heart that you can view here on our parish YouTube channel: 

In our lives, we give our hearts to many people and to many things.
We give our hearts to our spouses, our children, our friends, our careers.

To give our heart to someone, to something, is to give of our life and our love, and hopefully, to receive love and life in return.

But we also know that, sometimes, when we give our heart to someone, to something, we do not receive love and life in return.
We receive a wound instead.

We know this from our own experiences, or the experiences of those close to us. 

We know of relationships grown cold because of indifference, dashed upon the rocks of betrayal, or ended prematurely because of death.

We know of years spent building up something in our careers, only to see it taken from us or thrown away by those to whom we entrusted it.

It seems that when we give our hearts to someone, to something, our hearts sometimes become emptied, through both our own voluntary giving and the involuntary bleeding that ensues when they become wounded.

It sometimes seems that the greater the love, the greater our self gift, the greater the possibility of being wounded, and the more it hurts when it happens.

When feel like we have nothing left to give, we may ask ourselves,
“Why bother give my heart to anyone, to anything, anymore?”
“How can I possibly give when my heart has been emptied?”

It is precisely at these moments of emptiness when Jesus says to us,
“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest...for I am gentle and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:28).

When we are feeling hardened and empty of heart, Jesus invites us to draw near to his gentle, humble heart, because he knows exactly what it is like to give of one’s heart to another and to be wounded for it.

When God willed the human family, when God willed each of us into existence, Jesus foresaw each of the many great and small ways in which our sin would wound his own heart, even unto the nails of Calvary.

Yet, he chose to love us anyway, to give us his Heart anyway, even to the point of “emptying himself” on the Cross. And it is from that Heart, as St. Bonaventure writes, that flows the power of the sacraments of the Church “to confer the life of grace” (Office of Readings, Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus). It is to that Heart, that Love of God to whom we bring our own hearts, from whom we can drink “a spring of living water” to refresh us when our own hearts feel wounded and empty.

It is that Sacred Heart of Jesus, who gives Himself to us, here and now, until the end of time, as the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation.

As we approach the Sacred Heart of Jesus, may we come before Him singing for joy, praying together, as St. Francis de Sales wrote at the conclusion of his Treatise on the Love of God:

“O love eternal, my soul needs and chooses you eternally!

Come Holy Spirit, and inflame our hearts with your love!

To love - or to die! To die – and to love!
To die to all other love in order to live in Jesus’ love, so that we may not die eternally.
That we may live in your eternal love, O Saviour of our souls, we eternally sing, “Live, Jesus! Jesus, I love! Live, Jesus whom I love! Jesus I love, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.” (Book 12, Chapter 13).

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Did You Miss Me? (Jesus Asks Us) Corpus Christi 2020

"I'm back! Did you miss me?"

When your spouse, parent, child or friend asks that question after returning from a trip, there's only one right answer. Yes!

But what if, deep down, your answer isn't really yes? What if you realize that you didn't really miss your loved one all that much? 

If that's the truth, that's the truth. It doesn't mean you're a bad husband or wife or parent. But it does mean you've got some work to do on the relationship.

(Although when I used the line on Father Jeff when I'd been away for a week before the pandemic, he replied "well, it was rather nice to have the rectory to myself"!)

On today's feast of Corpus Christi, on which we celebrate the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, we might hear him saying "did you miss me?". How much have we missed coming to Mass and receiving him in Holy Communion?

Some of us, if we are really honest with ourselves, might realize that this long absence hasn't been particularly painful. It's made for relaxing Sunday mornings watching Mass on-line, or not even watching Mass at all.

Of course many parishioners have really suffered deeply from being deprived of the Eucharist. But what if you realize you haven't missed going to Mass all that much?

That doesn't mean you're a bad Christian or a bad Catholic. But it does mean you've got some work to do on your relationship with the Lord.

It could even be a blessing to know just how you feel about the Sunday celebration--an invitation to start thinking and praying about it.

In our first reading, Moses tells the people that God humbled them by letting them hunger. He tested them to know what was in their hearts. Might that not be what God has done with us, during this long Eucharistic fast?

Even for those who truly longed to get back to Mass, the opportunity to receive the Body and Blood of Christ can be a time to reflect on the place that the Eucharist has in our lives--and in our parish.

In the months before the pandemic hit, the parish team worked hard to create a graphic that would show the life of Christ the Redeemer parish in a simple way. Here it is (you'll need to click on it to see the full image):

You can see the various stages through which we move as we grow as disciples, and as a parish. But notice that all those circles revolve around a symbolic Host. At the center of our parish life is the Mass, to which everything tends and from which all these invitations flow.

Let's think today about what is in our hearts as we begin to return to church, taking stock honestly and humbly, knowing that the Bread of Life will draw us ever closer to him and one another as parish life resumes.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

#churchneverstops A Rich Harvest at Pentecost!

I have been pastor of this parish for twelve years, four months and twenty-seven days. During that time we celebrated the parish’s 25th anniversary, my 25th anniversary, and many other important events. But I think that yesterday was the greatest day of all.

At this time of uncertainty and worry, eight men and women stood at this baptismal font to have their sins washed away and to join the household of God. A ninth—for one of our converts was already baptized—received the gift of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation and the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. A tenth could not be with us and will be baptized later this week.

Two of the newly-baptized brought their children with them to the font, one of them a student at St. Anthony’s School.

Eleven baptisms in the midst of a pandemic.

Most of you know me: am I going to get through this Pentecost homily without choking up?  I broke my record yesterday: I choked up at the first four words—when I addressed the catechumens as “dear brothers and sisters.”

Frankly, we should all choke up. These new Catholics represent the harvest we have worked and prayed for since the parish decided to make evangelization its priority. Until now we have mostly been sowing seeds; now we are seeing the fruit of our labours, just when we need God’s encouragement the most.

Most of the new Catholics came to us from Alpha. All of them took part in the RCIA program under the dedicated guidance of Glen Goh and Nicole Bitelli, with the help of other generous volunteers and their sponsors.

Short of a parking lot full of people hearing us preach to them in their own language, what greater experience of Pentecost could this parish have? The new members of our parish family come from at least three countries, and they are as joyful a group as you could ever want to know. The oldest is 58 and the youngest 17, if you don’t include the two children.

That’s about all I can say without getting too emotional. But please, do two things. First, pray for our new brothers and sisters in Christ. Pray they will know the peace that Jesus promised his disciples. Pray that they will stay strong during the time we cannot be together every Sunday.

And pray in thanksgiving for how God has blessed our parish. We’ve spent literally years reflecting, and planning and training to become a parish of missionary disciples; this visible fruit is a gift from God, not an accomplishment. But it gives us the strength to continue in the direction we have been taking.

That’s not all. The second reading today has a message for the new Catholics, for sure. St. Paul reminds them that it’s because of the Holy Spirit that they can profess their faith in Jesus. They didn’t learn that Jesus is Lord by watching videos at RCIA.  It’s a gift from the Holy Spirit.

But St. Paul also has a very important message for every one of us. Let me boil down what he says: we are not given the Spirit just for our own good.

The Spirit is poured into our hearts to set them on fire with energy—divine energy that moves us to serve others. And not always one-on-one, but in the Body we call the Church.

The ten new Catholics would not have joined our parish without the welcome and formation they received from dedicated parishioners—parishioners who put to work the gifts they received at baptism and confirmation. They put them to work for the common good, they used them to serve.

What a terrible mistake it would be to say “oh those are special folks. I couldn’t teach at RCIA.”

No?  What about the people who cooked and cleaned at Alpha? What about the people who delivered our invitation cards at Easter in 2019? What about the people who will make it possible for us to add more Masses attended by the public?

“There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of services, but the same Lord.”

"To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good."

Think about how you could serve as we begin to resume parish life. Send me an email and ask what’s needed. Pray and ask God what gifts you have.

It’s too early to make post-pandemic predictions. But I wonder if things will ever be the same for our parish. Will we go back to business as usual? Somehow I don’t think so. Restoring parish life will not take a handful of volunteers but an army. Fortunately, every baptized member of this community has both a commission in that army and the equipment—the gifts of the Holy Spirit—needed for the spiritual battle.

Pentecost was the birthday of the Church—the day the great work of evangelization began in earnest. A work that continues to this very moment, guided by the same Spirit, as we see in this rich harvest that God has granted.

The months of the pandemic have taught us a new way of doing things and—at least for those of us who aren’t young anymore—a whole new set of words. Pandemic itself was a new word, as was social distancing. I had no idea what Zoom was, and didn’t know what “meme” meant.

Now I do. But I still haven’t figured out exactly what a hashtag is. I know what it looks like—it uses what we used to call the pound sign or a number sign on a typewriter.  I just don’t know what it is.

However, I do know one thing. I know that the three words on a hashtag from the Archdiocese sum up my experience of these months of isolation. These three words have helped me move from spiritual desolation to consolation.

Those words are Church Never Stops.

The Church never stops because the Holy Spirit has come down on the earth. The Church never stops because God’s Spirit is always at work.

And that’s what Christ the Redeemer Parish experienced this Pentecost, in the year of the pandemic, 2020.

Eleven Baptisms! Vigil of Pentecost 2020

Yesterday, the Vigil of Pentecost, I baptized eight adults from our R.C.I.A. program and confirmed a ninth. Two children, a baby and a youngster, joined their parents at the font. A tenth member of the group will be baptized and confirmed thus week. The celebration was the first 'public' liturgy in the church since the pandemic began.  Here is my homily.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

What a joy it is to call you that!

You probably know—or at least you need to know—that I am famous for getting emotional when I preach.  Gratitude seems to overwhelm me; it’s quite beyond my control.

But in all my years of preaching, I never teared up at the first four words of a homily—until today.  However, when I typed “Dear Brothers and Sisters” on my computer, that’s what happened. I’m afraid it’s a bad sign of what’s to come as I speak to you today and to the whole parish tomorrow.

But it’s a good sign—a very good sign—of what has happened during these months of preparation for your baptism, during these weeks of waiting for baptism, and of what’s about to happen at your baptism. Something worth grateful tears, something truly earthshaking and momentous.

As I planned for our liturgy this afternoon, I thought we might try to use some aspects of the Easter Vigil, when we had all hoped you’d be baptized. I thought I might ask Nick Curalli to hide in the choir loft and to sing the great Easter proclamation, the Exultet, as I began my homily.

That was before I saw the readings the Church provides for the Vigil of Pentecost. Although this liturgy must take second place, it has the same power and glory and beauty as the one we celebrated at Easter.

There’s more than enough drama in the Bible texts we’ve just heard. There’s more than enough to set our hearts on fire with excitement and gratitude.
Look at the first reading [Joel 2:28-32]. The Lord promises to pour out his spirit on all flesh—on all who call on his name. Entire families will receive this gift—sons and daughters and elders. Isn’t this what’s about to happen right here, right now? Two generations of one family are here in church; three generations of another.

And what a time to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit! I don’t think we are yet in the end times—the sun has not yet turned to darkness nor the moon to blood—but we are in a time of crisis and uncertainty. What better time to know that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”?

What better time to know that we can survive anything as long as we are among those whom the Lord calls?

The prophet Joel was sharing God’s promises about 400 years before the birth of Jesus. We are blessed to hear those promises from the Lord’s own mouth. In today’s Gospel, Jesus promises another outpouring—rivers of living water, flowing out of the heart of the one who believes in him.
But before the promise comes a personal invitation: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.”

Dear brothers and sisters, you came to us with your thirst: with your thirst for God, for truth, for love, for community. You came and you drank.

The third Sunday of Lent was the last time we were able to gather in this church. We met for the First Scrutiny of catechumens. It was the first and the last. But in the Gospel for that celebration, you heard the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman.  Do you remember them?

In case you don’t, I’ll remind you. They connect directly to the Gospel today. Jesus promised the woman at the well that she would never be thirsty again if she would drink of the water he offered her.

The Preface for Mass that Sunday is beautiful. It says that when Jesus “asked the Samaritan woman for water to drink, he had already created the gift of faith within her.”

“And so ardently did he thirst for her faith, that he kindled in her the fire of divine love.”

That’s the story of the woman at the well, and that’s the story of each one of you. Jesus approached you in what might have seemed a casual way—after all, he just asked the woman for a drink of water. But he already knew you, he had already given you the gift of faith.

You responded, and nothing will ever be the same for you.

The sacraments you are about to receive mean you will never again be dry. Sure, you may feel dry or a bit dusty, but the desert will never be your home again. God’s word spells it out beautifully: the first Psalm says you will be like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in due season. The famous 23rd Psalm says God will lead you beside still waters.

And if you’d been able to attend the Easter Vigil, you’d have heard sung these words from the prophet Isaiah: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”

In our second reading [Romans 8:22-27], St. Paul speaks of groaning inwardly while we await adoption as sons and daughters of God.  I think I may have reached the point in the homily when you are groaning inwardly!  Your waiting for this moment of adoption has gone on long enough. Let us now celebrate your baptism, the gateway to life in the Spirit.