Thursday, July 31, 2014

...To Follow Jesus

The crowd of teenagers was speechless.

A young man had been invited to speak to their youth group. At the start of a promising career, he decided to leave his job, sell his condominium and his car to become a Franciscan priest. The teenagers just could not understand why he would give up so much. They asked him if he was afraid that he was making a mistake or whether he thought he would be missing out on all that life could offer him. To all their questions, he simply replied that he had found something better. He had seen what the world had to offer and decided that God had something even better in store for him. He had met Jesus and in comparison to serving him, everything else began to seem worthless.

This young man was able to give up everything to follow Jesus. But we know that it is not only priests or nuns who sacrifice themselves for the Lord. It is also young families who are willing to sacrifice vacations or bigger homes to have more children. It is also business people who take smaller salaries so that they can pay their workers a just wage. It is single people who often are left out because they will not follow the crowd. All these people are willing to give up money, comfort and friends to live the message of the gospel. Why? Because they have met Jesus, and when you have Jesus, you have everything.

Jesus’ parables about the treasure buried in the field and the pearl of great price teach us that there is nothing the world has to offer that can compete with the riches we find in the Kingdom of God. Why is that? Because God created this world with all its wonders. If He created it, He must be greater than it all. And if He is greater than it all, why would we settle for the things of creation when we can know the Creator Himself?  It would be like a wife loving her husband’s shadow more than her husband. It does not make sense. In just the same way, it makes no sense for us to love material possessions and even other people more than we love God Himself.

Jesus’ parables also teach us that, though we can have a loving relationship with our God, it must come at a price. It will cost me something to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Not everyone will have to give up everything like the people in the parables, but everyone will have to give up something. If we are to reach out our hands to grab hold of the love, peace and joy which Jesus is offering us, then we have to drop whatever we are holding on to.

What are you holding on to that is keeping you from living the gospel with fervor and joy? Is it material possessions, a sinful relationship or a bad habit? Are you holding on to the fear that if you give your life totally and completely to God you might be missing out on what life has to offer? Or are you holding on to the worry that others will judge you or call you crazy? Whatever it is that you and I are clinging to cannot compare to what God has to offer us. It is sad to lose the things we love. But it is even sadder to hold on to those things so tightly that they crumble apart in our hands.

The enemy does not want us to receive all the blessings of grace that God wants to give us. He wants us to hold on to our false securities and fleeting pleasures. He whispers in our ear that if we give anything up for God we will regret it. He tells us that we will be missing out if we change our lives to follow God’s plan for us.

But if God is asking us to give something up, it is because He has something even better to give us. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading, “all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.” We can trust Him to lead us in the way that will make us thrive and prosper.

And if God is asking us to give something up for Him, He will also give us the strength to do it. He will place within our heart a desire for Him that is so strong that we will be able to sacrifice ourselves willingly. And, like the people in the parable who discovered the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price, the result will be great joy.

The love of God is within our reach. The price to receive that love will be different for each of us,  but it will cost us something. As we prepare to receive a gift which is beyond all price, the Body and Blood of Jesus, let us look honestly at our lives. What is it that God is asking us to do without so that we can follow Him more closely? Let us offer it up to Him together with the bread and wine. Let us ask Him to give us so deep and moving an experience of His love and goodness that we will desire to give up anything and everything to serve Him. Then we will know the joy that comes from discovering that treasure hidden for many ages but now revealed in Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Leaving It Behind

Jesus was a master story-teller. He crafted the parables he told carefully so that his audience could both relate to them and be surprised by them. Whoever heard Jesus speak could not help but think long and hard about the point he was trying to make.

The parables in today's gospel reading are no different. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is like a valuable treasure buried in a field and like a priceless pearl which a merchant seeks. In both cases, the men are willing to sell everything they have to acquire them. The treasure and the pearl fill the men with such joy, in fact, that they rush out to rid themselves of everything else that once held value to them. Those belongings now seem worthless because of the prospect of acquiring something so much greater. Jesus' message is simply this: there is no treasure as valuable as God. And, following Jesus is worth giving up everything we have.

The crowds listening to Jesus knew he wasn't exaggerating. They looked at the example of Jesus himself. He left a simple life in Galilee to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God. Because of his preaching, he had no home of his own and no wealth of his own. Jesus had left everything and everyone behind to proclaim the good news. Eventually, Jesus would give his very life on the cross. Serving his Heavenly Father was a priceless treasure for Jesus, a treasure which made everything else seem worthless.

As Jesus was speaking, the crowds could also look to the apostles to know that he wasn't exaggerating. To follow Jesus, the apostles had left their jobs, their homes and their families. When Jesus called them, they joyfully dropped everything to join him in spreading the good news. The apostles had discovered in Jesus a treasure which was worth pursuing at all costs.

Two-thousand years later, there are people who still sell all they have to follow Jesus. They are the people with good paying jobs who, upon discovering the love God has for them and the message of Jesus, decide to leave those jobs to serve God in religious life. They are the doctors and nurses who leave lucrative practices to heal the sick in third world countries. They are life-long politicians who risk their careers to speak out against abuses of human rights and to defend the unborn child's right to life. They are young people who risk being ridiculed and rejected by their friends to live a pure and chaste life, saving themselves for the one who will be their life-long love.

What has compelled people throughout the centuries to abandon all they have known and all they have loved to serve Jesus with all their heart and all their strength? Quite simply, it is because they have fallen in love with the person of Jesus. They have discovered in Jesus a God who knows them, who forgives them and who loves them. This love makes everything else seem worthless. Because of this love, they want everyone to know the God they have discovered. Jesus himself is the priceless pearl. Jesus himself is the valuable treasure.

Most of us gathered here today will not be called upon to sell everything to follow Jesus. For most of us, following Jesus will be a simple act of being faithful to him by being good parents, good citizens and good children. However, following Jesus always costs something. 

First of all, following Jesus costs us time. Even though Mass rarely lasts more than an hour, there are other things we could be doing with this time. And, how many times are we distracted during Mass thinking about things we need to get done? All of us give this hour to God because we believe that something special happens here. We believe that Jesus is truly present in his word and in his Body and Blood. And so, we gladly sacrifice this hour to meet Jesus, our friend and brother.  

Secondly, following Jesus very often costs us friendships. When we take our faith seriously, it is a very common thing that there are some friends who just don't understand why we have changed. They may even think we are hypocrites and phonies because they knew the way we used to be. They haven't yet discovered the priceless pearl we have discovered. No matter how dear those friends may have been to us before, those relationships often fall by the wayside when we decide to follow Jesus.

Time and friendships are just two examples of things we leave behind to acquire the priceless pearl and the valuable treasure. Each of us could probably name several others. But, no matter what it is we are called to leave behind, like the men in the parable, we ultimately do it with joy because we are receiving something infinitely greater than anything this world can offer.

It could also be that, for many of us here today, our faith is still a buried treasure, a treasure we have not yet discovered. In fact, no matter how advanced we are in our journey with Jesus, there is always so much more to be discovered. We can never exhaust all the riches of our faith. This likewise gives us great joy to know that there is still so much to learn up to the day that we meet Jesus face to face in heaven.

Jesus is offering each of us a priceless treasure. It is not the type of treasure, however, that we can keep to ourselves. Rather, it is the type of treasure whose value we discover as we share it with others. We are to go from this place filled with joy at the priceless pearl we have discovered and tell others about it so that they can share our joy. There is no joy greater than discovering the depth of the love God has for us and the mercy he has shown us by forgiving us our sins through the blood of Jesus.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Growing Together

From where I am standing, I see a congregation of very different types of people.

Some of us are attentive, listening to every word. Others of us are distracted, preoccupied with other things. Some of us have gathered here out of a burning love for God and desire to grow in knowledge of Him. Others of us are here to fulfill our weekly obligation. Some of us are on fire for the word of God and want to share it with others. Others of us are afraid what people will think if we talk too much about our beliefs. Some of us are eager to volunteer to further the mission of the parish whereas others of us are content to show up on Sundays and other feasts. Some of us are gentle and kind to those who are struggling with their faith while others of us can be judgmental and cold.  Looking out on this assembly of very different people, we see both wheat and weeds.

However, when I look within myself, I also see a divided and conflicted person. There are times when I have great zeal for prayer and works of mercy. There are other times when my focus is on how I can make myself most comfortable. There are moments when I want to help others and other moments when I just want to help myself. At times I can feel confident in my faith and other times when I can be wracked with doubts. Some days I can treat those who believe differently than I with compassion and other days that I am quick to judge them. When I look within myself, I see both weeds and wheat.

And, if you are like me, when you look within yourselves, you see the same.

As a community of believers, the parable in today’s gospel has much to teach us about loving and accepting one another. The type of weed that is sown in the garden by the enemy is called “darnell”. When it is first growing, it is virtually indistinguishable from wheat. If the servants had gone out too early to pull it up, it is very likely that they would have mistaken some of the wheat for weeds and ruined the harvest. It is also very likely that they would have missed some of the weeds, mistaking them for wheat, and allowed them to grow. In either case, trying to pull up the weeds too early would only make matters worse. The master was wise enough to know that only when a plant is fully mature, when its fruit begins to appear, can we judge whether it is good or bad.

And so, looking out upon our sisters and brothers who have joined us for prayer, we may be tempted to judge one another immaturely. We may be tempted to draw conclusions about them, even subconsciously, based on the way they are dressed,  by how they conduct themselves or by how often we see them at Mass. However, we must always remember that looks are deceiving. The person who appears to not care about how he is dressed may be struggling financially. The person who appears to be distracted may be anguished over the health of a loved one. The one who only shows up occasionally to Mass may be working several jobs. And the cranky old man might be suffering mightily from arthritis or other ailments. All of us are a combination of wheat and weeds. Only God can look past the appearances to the heart. For our part, we can only accept and love one another just as we are, with our strengths and weaknesses, our blessings and our curses.

I want to address some words especially to the young people who are praying with us today. Your joy, idealism and enthusiasm are such gifts to our community of faith. We need your involvement to keep our parish energized and alive. I know that there are times, however, when you feel frustrated because we older folk are not always the best examples to you. Too often we are afraid of change and unwilling to try new things. Sadly, you too often feel judged by us when you express your feelings and beliefs. Too often you have been treated more like weeds than wheat. I want to apologize to you and encourage you to keep on contributing your talents and insights to our community despite the obstacles. We desperately need your friendship and input if we are to grow to be all that Christ dreams we can be.

At the same time, I want to offer you a challenge. In the idealism of youth it is easy to fall into the trap of judging others to be hypocrites, especially when they do not seem to share your values or passion for goodness. However, this is a very subtle trap that the evil one sets for young people. It is very easy to fall into the temptation of judging others for being judgmental. When we do that, we are being hypocrites ourselves, doing the very thing that we are condemning. Just as you would want us to be patient and gentle with you, we ask the same courtesy. We are in this together, imperfect people, wheat and weeds, all striving to know and do God’s will to the best of our ability. We need each other and will only make progress as a community once we stop judging each other and learn to love and accept one another.

The same is true of the world that lies beyond the walls of this church building. It is a mixture of wheat and weeds. It is up to us to bring the love of God to our conflicted and divided world. To strengthen us for such a daunting task, our Heavenly Father gives us the best of wheat, the Body of Christ broken for us so that we may be made whole. Though He is perfect, He is patient with our imperfections and teaches us to be merciful to others so that they too may experience in us the love that Christ longs to share with a broken world.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Good and Evil

A boy came home from school crying. An older boy had been picking on him during recess. Because he did not want the other children to see him crying, he had held his emotions in all day. But coming home and seeing his mother, he could not hold it in any more. He sobbed uncontrollably.

It took him a while to compose himself, but finally he told his mother how the boy had teased him about his weight, called him names and pushed him. The mother promised that she would speak with the teacher, but he was afraid it would only make things worse. He would have to handle the older boy’s taunts on his own.

The next day, after school, to show his mother how he had been bullied, he began acting out what the older boy had done. He mimicked his tone of voice and the expression on his face. Every day, he would do the same thing, until after a while, they could begin to joke about it. With time, the boy even began to feel some sympathy for the bully. Imitating his words and actions began to give him some insight into the bully’s insecurities and pain which made him want to push other children around. With that, the teasing became less painful, and the bully eventually lost interest in picking on him.

This boy learned the wisdom of the Native American proverb, “Do not criticize others until you have walked a mile in their shoes.” Very often, the bad behavior of those around us is a result of the anguish, insecurity and fears that burden them. Weighed down under so much pressure, they often cannot help but lash out. We know how true that is in our own lives. When we are feeling down on ourselves, it is hard to be kind. We get so bogged down in our own problems that we cannot consider the needs of others. If we can take a little time to look at things from another person’s perspective, if we can try to understand the pain that may be causing the bad behavior, we might develop some sympathy and things may begin to turn around.

This is a reality Jesus knows very well. He became man so that he could walk in our shoes. Though He is God, He was willing to live a human life with all its difficulties, pains, anxieties and struggles. He knows through and through what it is like being human. And so He can sympathize with our weakness and have mercy on us in our sinfulness. Rather than be quick to condemn and punish us, Jesus is always ready to forgive and heal. As the first reading tells us: “You gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins.”

This reality of God’s infinite mercy revealed in Jesus gives us insight into the meaning of the parable of the weeds and the wheat which we hear proclaimed in today’s gospel. As Jesus explains it, the wheat is the children of the Kingdom and the weeds are the children of the evil one. God allows them to grow together. The weeds receive the same nourishment as the wheat does. At times, the weeds are even indistinguishable from the wheat. So it is with our world. Good people do not always prosper and evil people are not always punished. We can easily be tempted into thinking that our good deeds are getting us nowhere or that the evil we commit is going unnoticed. We can wonder if God is really paying attention to what is going on down here or if He really cares.

But God sees the situation of the world much differently than we do. He looks into the heart of each person. He knows who is being sincere and who is putting up a front. He knows who is suffering and who is grieving. Many people who appear to us to be thriving are really dying on the inside. They may not seem to be suffering because of their sins, but their misdeeds are eating them up. In the same way, many people who appear to be good are hiding hearts full of rage. We cannot often tell the weeds from the wheat. But God sees it all. God sees each of us from the inside out. And so we must leave it to God to judge.

We have to be careful, however. Understanding the weaknesses of others can make it easier for us to forgive and to bear patiently with each other. But we can never allow our personal pain or insecurities to become an excuse for making bad choices. Every time we choose sin, no matter what weakness may be motivating us, we wound ourselves even further. We dig an even bigger hole for ourselves and make it that much harder to climb out. By continuing to choose sin, we keep ourselves imprisoned in fear.

God has something so much better in store for us. His mercy is not given to us to make excuses for us. His mercy is given so that we can be healed and restored to our full dignity as His children. He offers us forgiveness so that we can walk out of the prison of our shame and live confident lives. He wants to relieve the burden of our anxieties so that we can hold our head up. He offers us strength in place of our weakness, faith in place of our fear and victory in place of our defeat. He transforms the weeds in our life into wheat.

At this table, we will witness the greatest of all transformations. The gift of wheat which we will offer will become the Body of Jesus. He is the one who walked in our shoes. He knows the struggles we face and gives us nourishment to overcome them all. We offer Him all we are at this liturgy - the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the weeds and the wheat. He accepts us as we are. He understands where we are coming from. But He points the way to a future of healing and hope.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Weeds and Wheat

Anyone who has ever taken care of a lawn or tended a garden knows how dangerous weeds can be. Whether it is crabgrass or dandelions, not only are weeds ugly, but they leech nutrients and minerals from the good plantings. The only solution is to pull them up from the roots or poison them with chemicals. There is a risk to these treatments, however. Very often, in trying to uproot the weeds, some of the good grass is pulled up leaving an ugly bald spot on the lawn. And, with chemical treatments, the good plants can also be poisoned along with the weeds leaving an unsightly burn mark behind. Once weeds take root, they are very difficult to extricate from a lawn or garden.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus tells the parable of a landowner whose wheat field becomes infested with weeds. The weeds which Jesus describes, which Bible scholars sometimes translates as "darnel", are not the type of weed which farmers can recognize right away. Unlike a dandelion or crabgrass, darnel mixes in with the wheat. It is not until the crop matures and starts to yield grain that you can tell the wheat from the weeds. Because the crop is already so far along, the landowner fears that ripping up the weeds will do damage to the wheat. He is content to wait until harvest time rather than risk ruining any of his crop.

Jesus tells us this story to teach us something about God and about how He manages the world. As Jesus explains, the field is the world and all the people in it. The wheat represents good people and the weeds represent bad people. Like the landowner in the parable, God does not act right away to pull up the weeds. But God's failure to act does not mean that he is not offended by our sinfulness, and it certainly is not a sign of weakness. Rather God waits patiently for sinners to repent and to change their ways. As we hear in the first reading from the book of Wisdom, God shows his power not in his willingness to punish but in his willingness to forgive. Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son and the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep, God does not want to lose any person he has created. And so, he deals patiently with sinners in hopes that they will recognize his love and turn to him for pardon. God gives each of us the time we need to turn to him for forgiveness.

There is a good reason for God's patience. Unlike the landowner in Jesus' parable, God has the power to change weeds into wheat. God can work in our heart, helping us to recognize the error of our sinful ways and calling us to embrace the love he offers us. Saint Paul alludes to this in the second reading. None of us is able to pray as we ought. We get distracted or fail to make the time necessary for God. Nonetheless, God's Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness by interceding for us. The Holy Spirit is within us as we pray so that our prayer can become acceptable to God. Just so, the Holy Spirit is working in our hearts and minds calling us to be holy and transforming us from weeds which are useless and harmful into wheat which provides food for the world. As long as we are alive, God never gives up on any of us but is always trying to find ways to get our attention so that we can become a shining harvest for him.

There is another way we can understand Jesus' parable. The field can represent not only the world, but each of us. Each of us is a mixture of good and bad. There is some wheat in us and some weeds. We love, but we also have resentments. We forgive some people, but judge others. We may wonder why God allows us to be so weak in some areas of our life. Could it be that, like the landowner in the gospel, God is allowing some weeds to grow within us? Could it be that God is trying to teach us something through our weakness and our temptations?  Very often, God allows some failures in our life to keep us from getting proud. There is no weed which is as dangerous to our spiritual life as pride is. It is the sin which made the devil himself fall from heaven. If it were not for our sinfulness, we could begin to think that we were better than others. We could even begin to think that we had no need for our heavenly Father. If it were not for our weakness, we would not know how the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, as Saint Paul tells us. If it were not for our human frailty, we might not turn to God at all. And so, God can allow some weeds in the garden of our heart to remind us that it is he who is the landowner and that he is the one who makes our garden grow.

Because God wants us to be saved, he is patient with us. He gives us the time we need to recognize our sinfulness and to turn to him in repentance. As we receive the gift of finest wheat, Jesus' Body in the form of bread, we must pray that we never become discouraged by the evil we see in the world or the evil we see in ourselves. In our weakness, we must pray to understand that God's purpose is somehow being served despite the sinfulness we see around us and in us. If we can entrust ourselves to God in our weakness, then he will transform us into wheat to feed the world. And, when God finally comes to reap his harvest, we will have confidence that he will gather us up to the reward he has prepared for us.

Friday, July 18, 2014


Words can be cheap. Anyone can say or do anything. We can't always tell whether people mean what they say until we see them do something about it. There are some people whose word we can trust, but they are very often the exception. For most people, we need to get everything spelled out in writing or in a contract so that we can hold them to it. For most of us, actions are what count, not words.

With God, however, it is different. Because God is truth, God's word is trustworthy. Unlike people, God cannot use words to lie or to deceive. God's words are never empty or meaningless. If God says it, we can depend on it to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. God means what he says. And, what God says has the power to change us and to save us.

We see the awesome power of God's word in the story of creation from the book of Genesis. God created the heavens and the earth simply by the power of his word. God said it, and it came into being out of nothing. God said, "Let there be light", and light was created. God said, "Let the earth be filled with every sort of creature", and it happened. God's word has the power to make things happen and to create the world anew.

 Today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah describes the power of God's word. According to the prophet, it is like rain which drenches the ground and feeds the soil causing vegetation and fruit to grow. Just as the rain gives life to the earth, so God's word feeds our roots and fills us with life.

Furthermore, the prophet Isaiah proclaims that God's word will not come back to him empty. God's word will fulfill its purpose. God's word will not be frustrated. If we hear God's word and take it to heart, it will mean salvation and life for us. If we decide to ignore God's word and to live our life as if God didn't exist, we will be judged by that word. Either way, God's word matters. And, how we have heeded God's word will be the measure of our eternal reward.

In the gospel reading, Jesus uses another image to describe God's kingdom and his word. Jesus compares it to seeds which a man scatters on the ground. Seeds are tiny. But, when one of them finds the right soil, it can grow into a fruitful tree. Like God's word, seeds are what make life possible on earth. Like a seed, God's word doesn't always seem like much. But, when we take it to heart and it finds good soil in us, it has the power to really change us, to give us life and to make us fruitful.

The image of the seed helps us to understand God's Kingdom in another way. God's kingdom grows in our midst silently and slowly. The growth is so slow that we don't often notice it from day to day or even from year to year. But, with sure progress, God is laying more of a claim on our society and on our hearts. Just as a seed, once it is planted, has a power within it that drives it to become the tree it is meant to be, so God's kingdom, once planted in our world and in our hearts by Jesus himself, takes root and spreads its branches slowly but surely throughout all of human history.

As we look at our world, at our Church and at ourselves, we know that we are not all that we could be. We know that as a community and as individuals, we fall short of the high standard that God's word has set for us. But, we are still in seed form. We are still growing. Just as it takes time for the tiny acorn to become the mighty oak which is sleeping within it, so we are still far off from the glory and the freedom which will be revealed in us as sons and daughters of God. As Saint Paul writes in the second reading, "All creation groans and is in agony awaiting the revelation of the sons and daughters of God." Brothers and sisters, there is a glory and a freedom sleeping within all of us, growing slowly, leading us to become more fully the women and men God intended us to be. God tells us so in his word. It is true, even though we cannot yet see it.

Two things are needed, then, if we are to grow strong in the word which God entrusts to us. First, we are to make sure that the soil of our hearts is a welcome place for the seed God wants to plant within us. We must work everyday with God's grace to root out the selfishness, the bad habits and the bad attitudes which make our hearts unwelcoming to God and his word. Second, we need to trust patiently that the word, once planted, will grow and bear fruit within us. We will not always feel as though we are growing. We will not always feel as though we are making progress. Nonetheless, we must always trust that, no matter what we see or feel, God is actively working within us through the power of his word.

God is in the middle of creating a new heavens and a new earth. At present, it is still in seed form. We don't often recognize it. In fact, many people ignore it all together. But those with faith get glimpses of it as it grows. Christ will one day come again in glory to reap the rich harvest of the kingdom he has planted and to reveal the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God. God promises us this in his word, and his word accomplishes what he intends it to. And so, in eager expectation, we prepare our hearts to receive him because we want to be among those who have attended eagerly to God's word and have borne fruit abundantly in faith, hope and love.  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Flourishing Garden

We remember Saint Francis as a man of peace, but early in his life he dreamed of winning glory on the battlefield as a soldier. He had his chance when his home town of Assisi went to war against the town of Perugia. However, his dreams of glory were short lived when he was soon captured and held for ransom. Nearly a year passed before his father finally paid to have him  released.

Returning to his native Assisi a much humbler man, he attended Mass one day and heard these words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew, “If you want to be perfect, sell all that you have...and follow me” (Mt 19:21). This scripture passage struck a chord in Francis’s heart. He did want to be perfect. He did want to follow Jesus. Though he was the son of a very wealthy man, he decided he would sell everything he had and live a life of poverty. In one of the most dramatic moments in Christian history, he ran out into the town square and literally stripped himself of his fine clothes declaring to the world that he was abandoning everything to follow Jesus.

We know the rest of the story. Saint Francis would go on to found one of the world’s largest religious orders and bring much needed renewal to the Church.  Jesus sowed a word in Francis’s heart. It found rich soil and bore abundant fruit.

Like Saint Francis, Saint Augustine came from a wealthy family. However, unlike Francis, he did not dream of finding glory in war. Rather, he sought pleasure. Like many young men, he wanted nothing more than to satisfy his urges. He quickly found, however, that all the drinking and partying came at a price. Rather than find joy and peace, he found shame and despair. He was beginning to feel out of control, unable to stop himself even though he desperately wanted to.

One day, while walking in his garden, he was feeling especially distraught and cried out to God, "How long more, O Lord? Why does not this hour put an end to my sins?" Then, he heard the voice of a child say, “Take up and read.” Grabbing a copy of his Bible he came along this passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep...Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provisions for the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:14).

Finding inspiration from those words, Augustine was immediately baptized and began living a devout life. The story of his conversion and the holiness of his life became so well known that the people of Hippo in the north of Africa clamored that he serve as their bishop. With his great learning and intelligence, he preached against many of the errors of his day. His writings on a wide variety of topics including baptism, grace and the Holy Trinity have influenced Christian teaching through the centuries.

Jesus sowed a word in Augustine’s heart. It found rich soil and bore abundant fruit.

We could go on all day telling the stories of holy women and men who, like Francis and Augustine, were touched to the depth of their being by the word of God and forever changed. Like the rich soil in Jesus’ parable, they bore abundant fruit and reaped a copious harvest. Because of the example of their lives, the institutions they founded or the writings they left us, we continue to benefit from the fruits of God’s word in their lives.

What about you and me? What words have struck a chord within us? What gospel stories have touched our hearts and moved us to change either our behaviors or attitudes? Where has the word of God found rich soil in our hearts?

Let us take a few seconds right now to remember what words of Scripture have inspired us over the years. It might have been a story of healing from the gospels, one of Jesus’ parables or words from one of Saint Paul’s letters. How have those words comforted us over the years? How have they moved us to grow and change? What fruit have they borne in our lives? And how have others benefited from what God has done in us through those words?

It is important for our spiritual lives every now and then to look at the garden of our heart and see where God has brought fruitfulness and growth. It is good for us to look over our lives and enjoy how our Heavenly Father has used the rich soil to bring his word to fruition within us. That really is what our Sunday rest is all about, taking time to savor the sweetness of God’s work in our lives. Doing so reminds us that it is our Heavenly Father who is at work and that not everything depends on our efforts alone.

Once we spend time reflecting on how God’s word has molded us, it becomes evident what our next step must be. To continue to experience growth, we must pick up the Bible everyday so that God can continue to sow His word in the rich soil of our hearts. Doing so allows the Holy Spirit to water what Jesus has planted so that we can grow more and more filling our garden with lush plants bursting with fruit to the glory of God the Father.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Finding Rich Soil

The Earth is a marvel among all the other planets in our universe. While all the other planets are essentially just barren rocks, our planet is pulsing with life. Conditions are just right on Earth to support life. There is enough oxygen for animals and enough carbon dioxide for plants. There is plenty of water for fish to live in and for us to drink. There are plants and animals in abundance to provide us with food. Not only does our planet provide for our physical needs, it also is a place full of wonder. We look in awe as the sun sets into the horizon. We marvel at the beauty of the oceans and the majesty of the mountains. Our world is a wonderful place. Unlike any other planet we know of, it is uniquely capable of sustaining life in such abundance.

Though we can clearly see how special Earth is, there are many who believe that it was all an accident. They think that it was just by pure luck that there is  enough water and oxygen to support life. They say that it is by pure chance that we are close enough to the sun to not be frozen but far enough away to not get burned up. These people look upon the same wonders of nature as we do but they do not see the same creating power of God that we see. The evidence of God’s handiwork in creation is plain for all to see, but they do not recognize the same Lord and Giver of Life that we worship. They are the ones of whom Jesus said: “They look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.”

God reveals Himself clearly in the beauty of the natural world which surrounds us. But He has also revealed Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the image of the Heavenly Father. Whoever looks on Jesus, sees the Father. Whoever listens to Jesus, hears the voice of the Father. And whoever welcomes Jesus, welcomes the Father. Just as the evidence of God’s existence is manifest in the universe, so the evidence of His great love is revealed in Jesus who taught us to love one another and showed us the real meaning of love by dying on the cross for us.

Jesus understood very well, however, that no matter how convincingly He spoke and that no matter how many miracles He performed, there would be those who would refuse to believe. There would be those who would close their hearts to His message of love. And there would be those who just would not listen. He encountered opposition to the good news at every turn right up until the moment He was condemned to die.

And so we can understand the meaning of Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel, the Parable of the Seed and the Sower. Though the seed is spread over a wide patch of land, only some of it takes root and grows. There is nothing wrong with the seed. But there is something wrong with much of the soil. Unless the seed falls on soil that can nurture it, it cannot grow.

The meaning is clear. Some people will accept God’s word and it will transform their lives. Others will totally reject it and get nothing from it. There is nothing wrong with the messenger. There is nothing wrong with the message. But there is often something wrong with our hearts. We are often too closed-minded, too preoccupied with other concerns or too afraid to welcome God’s word and its power to transform us.

All of us have had this experience. We are sitting in church during Mass but are so concerned with our work, with bills we have to pay, with homework assignments that are due or with other matters that we do not even hear what is going on around us. If someone were to ask us after Mass what the gospel or the homily was about, we would have no idea. We were not paying attention because we were so wrapped up in our problems. And yet, next week we will come to Mass with a whole different set of problems and will barely remember what we were worried about today.

That is why Jesus tells His disciples that anxiety over our lives can so often choke off the power of God’s word within us. While it is natural to be distracted over our problems, it does not have to keep us from listening to and profiting from the proclamation of the good news.

The first thing we need to do is become aware that we are distracted. We have to be able to catch ourselves starting to drift off. Then we have to make a conscious effort to pay attention to what is going on at Mass. Getting mastery over our distractions in prayer is no different from telling our children to stop talking during Mass. As we would do with our children, we remind ourselves that now is not the time to be thinking about our day-to-day problems. The more we remind ourselves, the better we will be at turning our minds and hearts over to God and letting His word sink into our soul and find rich ground within us.

The other thing we need to do is remind ourselves that God cares about us and knows the problems we face in our lives. Then we can place all that anxiety we are feeling in God’s hands and ask Him to help us deal with the difficult circumstances we are facing. As Saint Peter tells us, “Cast your cares on Him because He cares for you.” As we grow in trust, the anxiety will diminish and we will find ourselves better able to focus and pay attention.

We are here today because God has spoken His word in our hearts and it has found rich soil within our soul. We have seen and believed. We have heard and understood. At the same time, there is still so much soil within us that is overgrown with fear, anxiety and doubt. However, the more we choose faith over fear, trust over anxiety and belief over doubt, the more God’s Holy Spirit will be able to make our souls a fitting place for His word to take root and bear much fruit.

Friday, July 11, 2014

God Chooses the Weak

Imagine receiving a vision of Jesus or of Mary. How would you feel? Afraid? Astonished? Would you wonder what was so special about you that they would choose you to appear to? Would you feel humbled to have been selected by God to receive such a favor?

A young girl, Bernadette Soubirous, was given the incredible grace of receiving eighteen vision of Our Lady. We all know the story of how Mary appeared to her in Lourdes, France to call the world to repentance and faith. Saint Bernadette is part of a select group of people who were blessed in such a way.

Later in her life, wanting to avoid all the fame that the apparitions had brought her, she went to live with the Sisters of Charity. One day, a sister asked her how she kept from being filled with pride knowing that Our Lady had chosen her to appear to. In all honesty, Bernadette replied, “Mary chose me because I am ignorant.”

At the time that she received the visions, Bernadette could neither read nor write. Some villagers even thought she might be mentally ill or have a learning disability. Nonetheless, it was to her and not to more educated people that Our Lady chose to appear. In fact, it was because of her lack of education that her parish priest came to believe her story. When she told him that the woman who appeared to her was the “Immaculate Conception”, a term she could never have come across, he knew that what was taking place in the village was not coming from the imagination of a young girl but from the hand of God.

God chooses those who are weak, those who are uneducated, those who have no status in the world to do His work so that it will be clear that whatever is accomplished comes from Him.

We see this very clearly in the life of Jesus. He did not pick the best and brightest to follow Him. He did not choose the scribes who had the best education. He did not choose Pharisees who were the most religious. He did not choose Sadducees who had power and influence. Rather, He called fishermen, tax collectors, zealots and other outcasts. Furthermore, it was the poor, the needy, the sick, the Samaritans and the lepers who came out to hear Him speak while lawyers and religious leaders were looking for ways to put Him to death.

This is the reason for Jesus’ spontaneous prayer of praise to the Father in today’s gospel. He thanks His Heavenly Father for revealing Himself to the “little ones”, to the merest children. He thanks God that the poor, the sick and the outcasts are coming to Him for comfort. Out of the great love within His heart, He wants to embrace all of them in His arms and give them rest.

Why is it the ignorant and the weak who come out to see Jesus? Why are sinners the ones who seek Him out? Because they know their need for God. Left to themselves, they know they will be lost. In their poverty, they are looking for someone to enrich them. In their weakness, they are looking for someone to strengthen them. And they find just that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

All of us who gather here today come to this altar as beggars. There is not one of us who is worthy to stand here on our own. None of us is so holy that Jesus did not have to die for us. None of us is so good that we do not need His forgiveness. None of us is so strong that we can endure temptations, suffering and persecution on our own. None of us is so educated and intelligent that we can fathom all the mysteries of life and the universe. We are here because we need God. We are utterly dependent on Him. Without Him, we can do nothing.

Once we recognize this truth, however, we do not go in the corner and sulk. We do not bow down our heads and cower. Rather, we rejoice as Jesus did. When we know our weakness, then we can tap into His strength. When we know our sinfulness, then we can experience His mercy. When we know that nothing is possible for us on our own, we discover that all things are possible with God. Once we drop our illusions of control, independence and self-reliance, we become free to tap into our Heavenly Father’s wealth of resources. Then we well up with joy because we no longer are burdened with having to figure and work everything out on our own. We can take up Jesus’ gentle yoke and, learning from Him, follow His plan rather than try to draft our own.

God chooses the weak, the sinful and the small. Just look around. Left to ourselves, we do not amount to much. However, once we surrender to God, nothing can stop us. When we realize that we come to God as beggars then the Holy Spirit can begin to use us as Saint Paul teaches us in today’s second reading. Then we can expect the effects to be dramatic for they will come not from our puny efforts but from the hand of God who reveals Himself to the little ones.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Slow Down!

In no other time in human history have we been so busy. Our society values keeping active, and so we fill our calendar with work and social events. The number one complaint most people voice is that they don't have enough time or that they are always rushing. We had hoped that technology would help us by making our work easier, but it has actually gotten worse! Because we have cars, computers and cellphones, we are expected to do more and to be ready for action at a moment's notice. All this rushing around has made health problems such as chronic fatigue, stress and anxiety a fact of modern day life.

We all need to take time out from our harried schedules to rest. Just as rest is important for our physical health, it is supremely important for our spiritual health and well-being. We can recognize immediately when our bodies are tired because we lose energy, our muscles ache and we get sleepy. But do we know when our soul is tired? And where do we turn when our soul feels empty and our spirits need a lift?

Among the symptoms of a tired soul are boredom, loneliness, irritability and anxiety. They are just a few signs that we have not been giving our soul the nourishment it needs.

Too often when we feel lonely or anxious, we turn to the TV, to alcohol or to other empty ways of wasting time in hopes that we'll eventually feel better. Though there's nothing wrong with watching TV or drinking alcohol with friends in moderation, these activities can often deplete us and make us feel even emptier than we felt before. This is especially true when we turn to sinful ways of comforting ourselves.

The only way to refuel our spirits and fill our hearts with joy is to turn to Jesus in prayer. Whether it is through meditation, reading the Bible or going to Mass, when we reach out to Jesus we find the rest our souls are longing for. The anxiety or loneliness that cause us so much heartache is very often a cry from within that something is missing in our lives. That missing piece is Jesus and his love.

The good news is that Jesus is never far from us. We don't have to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to find him. Nor do we have to jump through all kinds of hoops to get his attention. Jesus wants us to know him and wants us to love him. Because of this, he is always near to us when we call on him no matter how sinful we think we are or how undeserving we may feel.

Jesus takes delight in revealing the Father to us. The whole purpose of his life was to teach us how deep and how wide God's love for us is. Because Jesus and the Father are one, whoever sees Jesus sees the Father. Whoever hears Jesus hears the Father. And whoever is touched by Jesus is touched by the Father.

Who is this God whom Jesus reveals to us? He is not a God who is eager to condemn us or to scold us. No, the God of Jesus Christ is a God who is meek and humble, as we hear in the first reading from the prophet Zechariah. He is a God who is close to those who suffer. He is a God who is eager to forgive.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus rejoices that it is the little ones, the dejected and the outcast who gather to hear his words. Because his heart goes out in love to those who suffer and to those who are forgotten, Jesus stretches out his hand in welcome and comfort to all who seek rest in his words and in his presence. He calls out to all those who have lost hope and to all those who are weary from the cares of this world: "Come to me and find your rest."

When Jesus walked the earth, he revealed God's love through the words he spoke and the miracles he performed. In our day, Jesus continues to reveal the love of the Father through the Scriptures and through the Sacraments. When we hear the gospel, we hear Jesus speak. When we are touched by a sacrament - whether it be confession or the Eucharist - we are touched by Jesus himself. Jesus is alive among us giving much needed rest to our souls by revealing God's love and mercy.

God commands us to keep the Sabbath day holy. We observe the Lord's day as a day of prayer and rest. On Sunday, we are called to take a step back from all the hurrying and all the activity of the week to remember why it is that we are doing all this work in the first place. Is all this activity really bringing us closer to our family and loved ones? Is all this work really making us more secure financially? Or is all this running around really a way of avoiding our problems and neglecting our other responsibilities? And where have we been turning when our souls need rest?

As we gather in this place today, we prepare ourselves to receive the supreme gift of God's love and mercy - the Body and Blood of Christ. It is the most important way that Jesus feeds our weary soul. When we approach Jesus in the Eucharist today, let us place all our burdens and worries on his shoulders and receive him with love and devotion. He wants nothing more than that we turn to him and find our rest in him alone.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Lord Will Rescue Me From the Lion's Den

On May 13, 1981, four shots rang out in Saint Peter's Square. A gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, had made an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II as he greeted the crowds gathered there for his weekly audience. The gunman was apprehended immediately after being wrestled to the ground by a nun. As it turned out, he was a Turkish national whom many believe was contracted by the Soviet KGB to silence the Pope who had given a voice to the suffering of people living under communist rule. Despite the seriousness of his injuries, Pope John Paul II survived the attack and credited the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary for both protecting him and restoring him to health. And, in just eight short years following the attack, the countries of Eastern Europe living behind the Iron Curtain including Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, would be liberated from their communist governments almost overnight, and the Soviet Union would crumble under the weight of its corruption and godlessness. Many historians credit Pope John Paul II with helping to bring an end to the communist superpower which had murdered millions and had spread fear throughout the world.

In today's first reading, Peter - the first pope - was under a similar threat. He had been arrested by Herod who planned to execute him after Passover. However, the people of God had been praying incessantly for Peter. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in prison loosening his chains and leading him out past the guards to freedom. Just as all the powers of the Soviet Union were no match for the powerful intercession of the Mother of God on behalf of John Paul II, the power of Herod backed by the force of the Roman guards and legions were no match for the prayers of God's holy people.

In the gospel, Peter professes his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus rejoices in Peter's bold profession of faith because he recognizes that it wasn't the result of Peter's intelligence or powers of observation, but that it was a gift of insight given him directly by God himself. It was this faith that Jesus used to build his Church. And, Jesus promised that all the powers of hell itself would be no match for the faith that this simple fisherman professed. Peter would find this to be true in his own life up to the time that he was martyred in Rome. Jesus' promise would continue to hold true through the centuries up to the present day as we witnessed with the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.

We see the same scene played out day after day in our world. The powers of hell strive to silence the good news which we live and proclaim as a Church. In China, Catholics are routinely imprisoned and tortured. In Pakistan, Christian churches are targeted for bombings and other acts of violence. And, in the United States, the followers of Jesus are routinely ridiculed in the media. Yet, the Church has survived every threat whether it be from the Roman Empire or the Soviet Union. Christians have courageously professed and lived their faith whether the persecutions originated with Nero or with Hitler.

How is it that for over two thousand years believers have never failed to pass on the good news of Jesus Christ to a world so hostile to the message and despite powers so opposed to it? It is for the same reason that Herod could not keep Peter chained to a prison wall in Jerusalem. It is for the same reason that an assassin's bullet could not silence the witness of Pope John Paul II. Very simply, God has willed that his Son, Jesus Christ, be proclaimed to all generations as Lord and Savior until the end of the world. No earthly power nor any power in hell will frustrate God's plan to bring salvation to the world he created in love.

Today, we gather in this place to celebrate the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. We celebrate Saint Peter's profession of faith upon which Jesus built his Church. We also celebrate Saint Paul who tirelessly preached the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection. We are here today because of them. And, not just them, but because of millions of believers who throughout the centuries sacrificed their lives to bear witness to Jesus Christ. The Church is still here two thousand years later, and - if Christ does not come in his glory in the meanwhile - the Church will be here two thousand years from now preaching the same gospel that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and the Savior of the World.

In every age, God provides the world with women and men of faith who witness powerfully to his love. It began with Saints Peter and Paul. The task now falls to each of us. In this place, Jesus invites us to a meal and asks each of us, "Who do you say that I am?". Thanks to the witness of Saints Peter and Paul, we already know the answer - Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God! Thanks to the witness of Pope John Paul II, we know that this truth has the power to change the course of history. What's to stop us, then, from leaving this place to proclaim to everyone we meet the joyful message of a God who loves us and has saved us in Jesus Christ?