Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Not Fair, but Generously Merciful

Today is the last night of a parish mission that I am leading at St. Justin Martyr Church in the St. Louis area. The following is a summary of my homily from last Sunday, the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A.

When I was growing up we played "Hide and Seek."  Everyone is familiar with how that goes. If you are "it" you have to close your eyes while the others all run and hide. Then you seek them and tag them before they can reach "goal" which we pronounced "gool."  If you put your hands over your eyes but then spread your fingers to see where people went to hide you might hear back "No fair peeking." 

Children have an innate sense of fairness. If a teacher plays favorites or treats the girls better than the boys they will complain that the teacher isn't being fair. And vice versa.  Children don't learn fairness, though they often have to be reminded. A victim of unfairness knows immediately that something isn't right.  This sense of fairness seems to be part of one's conscience--an innate sense of right and wrong.

That being said, most of us hear today's Gospel (Matthew 20: 1-16a) with the parable of the workers who labor for various numbers of hours in a vineyard yet get the same pay and we react, "That's not fair!"  That's especially not fair if we consider that perhaps the reason why the workers who were hired at five weren't there at the crack of dawn because they were sleeping in.  Should such laziness be rewarded?

Remember: the parables of Jesus were designed to shock people--his listeners then and all of us now--into thought and action.

What was Jesus trying to teach us with this parable? What did he want us to think and to know?

Our first reading (Isaiah 55: 6-9) gives us a clue. Through the prophet, God, "who is generous in forgiving," tells us "my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways." 

The parable Jesus told was a description of "the kingdom of heaven."  Every human being is created for heaven--for union with God and the communion of saints. But from the beginning we have rejected God's desire and plan.  Yet God persisted.  As the landowner in the parable is "generous" so is God.  To save us from our sins and the alienation and destruction they cause, the Son of God took flesh, suffered, and died.  He took upon himself the penalty of our sins.  Then he rose from the dead and shared the reward of his obedient love with disobedient humanity.

We did not earn it.  He did not deserve it.  This was totally unfair, but it was totally merciful.

This is our faith. It's what we celebrate every time we gather for the Eucharist.

But remember, parables are designed to not only shock us into thought but also into action.  What is the action Jesus hoped to achieve with this story?

That we would be as generous and merciful as our Landowner God is.  That we would desire and then pray and work for the salvation of all.  That we would want everyone in heaven as much as God does.

That's difficult. We all have people that we don't like.  We have enemies and the thought of being with them for eternity in heaven sounds more like hell!

It is difficult and perhaps impossible to be as merciful as God is merciful. Yet we are called to be such and the power to be merciful is a divine power that is given to us in the Eucharist.  There we receive the Heart of Jesus when we receive his Body and Blood.  There our hearts are transformed to be more like the generously merciful Heart of our Savior.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Triumph of Our Crosses

On September 14 we celebrated the Exaltation or Triumph of the Holy Cross.  I gave the following homily to a group at the Sacred Heart Retreat House in Alhambra, CA.

We are celebrating a great mystery today. It's the mystery of how God saved the world from sin and death.

In the first reading (Numbers 21: 4b-9) we heard of a paradox: how a serpent, the source of death, was lifted up and became a source of healing.

This prefigured Jesus who took upon himself sin and death, was lifted up on the cross, and became the source of ultimate healing.  The cross--an instrument of death--became the instrument of life. The sign of failure and utter defeat became the sign of victory.

In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches there is a beautiful hymn that is sung over and over again at Easter: "Christ trampled down death by death."

Who would have thought it?  Not Satan who was behind the crucifixion and who thought he had won but was defeated.

Now it's our turn.  Jesus told us to pick up our crosses and to follow him.  We are to pick up the daily hardships, sufferings, and frustrations--all those things that call for sacrifice--and unite them to the cross of Jesus. By following him in this way we follow him to victory.

The Bishops at the end of the Second Vatican Council had a series of messages for various groups of people including the poor, the sick, and the suffering. To them they said:

All of you who feel heavily the weight of the cross, you who are poor and abandoned, you who weep, you who are persecuted for justice, you who are ignored, you the unknown victims of suffering, take courage. You are the preferred children of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of hope, happiness and life. You are the brothers of the suffering Christ, and with Him, if you wish, you are saving the world.

This is the Christian science of suffering, the only one which gives peace. Know that you are not alone, separated, abandoned or useless. You have been called by Christ and are His living and transparent image. In His name, the council salutes you lovingly, thanks you, assures you of the friendship and assistance of the Church, and blesses you.

Of course Jesus is the one Savior of the world. He won salvation through his death and resurrection. But not everyone knows of this victory nor has accepted it. Now each one of us plays a role in the ongoing work of salvation.

Christ won the victory. It may not seem like it, but victory is assured. Evil will not win in the end, just as it did not win when Jesus was crucified.  Have hope! You too will triumph with Christ if you join your crosses to his.

Our human tendency is to want to see tangible results, to know that our prayers and sacrifices--all the sufferings we offer up--are making a difference.  Pope Francis addressed this in his Apostolic Exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel" (#278-9) and he offered a word of hope:

Faith also means believing in God, believing that he truly loves us, that he is alive, that he is mysteriously capable of intervening, that he does not abandon us and that he brings good out of evil by his power and his infinite creativity. It means believing that he marches triumphantly in history with those who “are called and chosen and faithful” (Rev 17:14). ...

Because we do not always see these seeds growing, we need an interior certainty, a conviction that God is able to act in every situation, even amid apparent setbacks.... It involves knowing with certitude that all those who entrust themselves to God in love will bear good fruit (cf. Jn 15:5). This fruitfulness is often invisible, elusive and unquantifiable. We can know quite well that our lives will be fruitful, without claiming to know how, or where, or when. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force. Sometimes it seems that our work is fruitless, but mission is not like a business transaction or investment, or even a humanitarian activity. It is not a show where we count how many people come as a result of our publicity; it is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement. It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit. The Holy Spirit works as he wills, when he wills and where he wills; we entrust ourselves without pretending to see striking results. We know only that our commitment is necessary. Let us learn to rest in the tenderness of the arms of the Father....

The theme of our retreat this weekend has been the question of Jesus, "Who do you say that I am?" Our answer today is, "You are the winner!"  You are the one who defeated sin and death with a cross. You are the one who now invites each of us to be a winner.