Thursday, July 27, 2017

Growing Together - Both Wheat And Weeds

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 rashly. 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 adults 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 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.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sympathizing With Another's Weakness

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 23, 2017

Weeds Among The Wheat

Anyone who has ever taken care of a lawn or tended a garden knows how dangerous weeds can be. Whether it's crabgrass or dandelions, not only are weeds ugly, but they steal nutrients and minerals from the good plantings. The only solution is to pull them up from the roots or poison them with chemicals. There's 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 leaving a burn mark behind.

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 the Bible sometimes translates as "darnel", are not the type of weed that farmers in Jesus' day could recognize right away. Unlike a dandelion or crabgrass, darnel mixes in with the wheat. It's not until the crop matures and starts to yield grain that you can tell the wheat and the weeds apart. Because the crop is already so far along, the landowner is afraid 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 God handles 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 don't 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. And, we may wonder why God allows us to be so weak in some area 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 weakness 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 weaknesses, we could begin to think that we were better than others. We could even begin to think that we didn't need God. If it weren't for our weakness, we wouldn't know how the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, as Saint Paul tells us. If it weren't for our weakness, 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.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Tending The Garden

If we were to plant a garden this summer in our yards, we would need to make some basic preparations.

First, we would need to clearly delineate the boundaries of the garden by putting up string or even building a fence around it. Next, we would need to clear the ground by pulling up any grass or weeds which might be growing up. We would then loosen up the dirt by turning it over with a hoe and digging up any rocks we find. To make sure the soil is rich enough, we might even bring in some loam and manure. Next, we would grade the soil to make it level and then make sure it is adequately watered. Once we’ve decided what we wanted to plant, we would then make straight rows in the soil and sow the seeds.

Just as our garden needs preparation before it is ready to receive the seeds, so our soul needs preparation before it is ready to receive God’s word.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us what prevents the seed of His word from taking root within our heart and bearing abundant fruit.

The first obstacle Jesus warns us about is lack of understanding. We all have had the experience of sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning, listening to the readings and having no idea what is being said. We do not know who the people are that the reading is referring to. We may be unfamiliar with where it is taking place and even the words sound foreign to us. Though we want to pay attention and learn from God’s word, we end up getting distracted and our mind starts to wander.

It is natural that we often find God’s word hard to comprehend. Remember, these texts were written many thousands of years ago in an original language that can be difficult to translate and in cultures that are vastly different from our modern one. Even scholars who dedicate their lives to studying the Bible can have difficulty explaining the meaning of some of its passages.

That does not mean, however, that we cannot get a good enough grasp of the Bible to understand much of what it teaches and apply it to our lives. Today’s gospel is a good example. Though Jesus speaks in a parable, we can all understand His explanation of its meaning.

Also, when we have questions about a Scripture passage, we have so many tools at our disposal to understand what its meaning is. Most Bibles today have notes along the bottom of the page that give an explanation of the readings. Also, with the internet, we can find answers within seconds to our questions. Finally, we can always turn to someone who is more knowledgeable - perhaps our parish priest or deacon - to walk us through it.

The fact that the Bible can be difficult for us to understand can be no excuse to never read it. Knowledge of Scripture is fundamental to our lives as Christians. As Saint Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Even if it means that often we will be left scratching our heads because the meaning of a passage escapes us, we must persevere in reading the Bible so that God’s word can be planted deep within us and bear abundant fruit.

The second obstacle that Jesus points out to us is a lack of perseverance.  Jesus compares those who lack perseverance to rocky soil where the root cannot take hold. They are people who give up easily when the road becomes difficult or who get easily discouraged by their own weakness and failures.

There is no doubt that living God’s word in today’s world is difficult. There are those who will judge us as narrow-minded or prudish. With all the allurements around us, we often find ourselves falling short of the ideals of the gospel and sinning. It can be tempting to give up or to live our Christian commitment only on the surface. However, if we do so, God’s word cannot take deep root within us. It would be like pulling up a plant and trying to replant it. It just will not work.

What is needed, then, is for us to pick ourselves up every time we fall with the help of God’s grace and start over. God is merciful and loves us immensely. He always welcomes us back. When we fall short, we simply need to ask for His strength to continue on the road, especially when it is difficult. If we do so, then we will see the roots of His word deepening within us.

The final obstacle is one that is familiar to all of us. “The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word…” How many times have we sat in church and found that we have not paid attention to one word because we have been consumed with worry about what the week ahead will bring?

The Bible has some passages to help us overcome worry and trust more in God’s promise to provide for us.

Jesus says: “Which one of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Lk 12:25).
Saint Peter says: “Cast your cares on Him for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
Saint Paul says: “And my God will supply all your needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).

Memorizing scripture verses that remind us of God’s love and care is a powerful way of easing our anxiety and helping us focus on what is most important in our lives. When we do so, we will find the peace necessary to allow God’s word to bear fruit in us.

God assures us through the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading: “ word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” Just as the tiny seed explodes with life and bears abundant fruit, so every word that comes forth from God’s mouth has the power to transform and enrich us. When we root out ignorance, inconstancy and anxiety from our souls, then God assures us we will enjoy a rich harvest of joy and peace. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Words That Bear Fruit

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.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Planet Full Of 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.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

When God Speaks

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 altogether. 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.  

Friday, July 14, 2017

God Reveals Himself To The Little Ones

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.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Finding Rest

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.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Litany of Humility

Have you ever heard of a powerful or wealthy man who was also humble?

Admittedly, it does not happen very often. But just such a man was Rafael Merry del Val.

Rafael Merry del Val was born in 1865 to a wealthy Spanish family. His father was a diplomat in England, so young Rafael was able to attend the best prep schools and universities. He regularly socialized with wealthy and influential people. On top of all this, he was extremely intelligent. During his lifetime he would earn doctorates in both philosophy and theology. With his powerful connections, charming personality and many talents he could have become a very wealthy man himself. However, he chose to serve Jesus as a priest putting his talents at the service of God’s Kingdom.

Those talents were immediately recognized by his superiors. Within a short period of time, he was given important assignments and responsibilities in the Church. His work put him in contact with both cardinals and kings on a regular basis. Eventually, in 1903, he was made a cardinal and then given the responsibility of representing the Pope throughout the world as Secretary of State for the Vatican.

With all his important responsibilities, with all the power he had as a cardinal and with all his talents and intelligence, Cardinal Merry del Val was above all known for his humility. He never lost sight of the fact that he was merely a servant called to put his talents at the disposal of God and his people. He gave God credit for all his successes and regularly asked for forgiveness for  his failures.

His desire to grow in humility lead him to write the beautiful “Litany of Humility”:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

How could such a powerful man as Cardinal Merry del Val also have been so humble? Because he learned it from the master, Jesus.

Jesus was also a very powerful man. In fact, as the Son of God, He was the most powerful man to ever walk the earth. As God, He had the power to heal, the power to control the wind and the sea, and He could read hearts and minds. He is the most important and influential person who ever lived. No one has influenced the course of history as much as Jesus has.

And yet, Jesus was humble. Though He was the Son of God, he associated with the lowly and with sinners. He did not use His power to amass wealth and comforts for Himself. Rather, He chose to be homeless and penniless so that He could preach the good news of God’s love. When He was falsely accused by evil men, insulted and spit on, He prayed that those who tormented Him would be forgiven. And in the greatest act of love the world has ever seen, He accepted a humiliating and excruciating death on the cross so that we could be forgiven. Though He was God, Jesus was meek and humble of heart.

If Jesus, the most powerful man who ever lived was humble, then what possible reason could we have to not also be humble ourselves? Is any one of us better than Jesus?

Jesus tells us that He is meek and humble of heart, and that we can learn from Him. He assures us that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. When we do not follow Jesus’ example of humility, we take on a very heavy burden. It is not easy to always be in competition with other people. It is not easy to have to fight everyday to see to it that our interests and concerns prevail. It is not easy to have to strive to make sure we have the best of everything and that everyone notices how great we are. Showing off how important we are and maintaining an extravagant lifestyle is exhausting and, ultimately, unfulfilling.

Jesus’ way, the way of humility, is so much better. And it is available to everyone no matter how rich or how poor, no matter how important or how insignificant, no matter how educated or how simple. We can all turn to Jesus and we can all learn from Him. He offers us rest from our society’s competitiveness and materialism. By living a simple life in imitation of Him, we can learn the real meaning of life which is to know, love and serve our Heavenly Father. When we take His yoke upon us, then we can be truly free.