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Homily for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

6.16.24


As someone who tries to follow Jesus, did you ever think that if only Jesus had provided a blueprint, a constitution, or at least some kind of brochure, it would be so much easier, perhaps at least a bit clearer?


We know that that's not the case. In a way, we really shouldn't be surprised because, for those of you who are fathers, you also know that on the birth of your firstborn, they did not come with an instructions manual either. You had to do the best you could with what you knew, and when the challenges got beyond you, you reached out to others with more experience for guidance and assistance.


That's really the nature of the Christian life: we do the best we can with what we know, and when we get into muddy waters or the unknown, we reach out to others, perhaps with more experience, for guidance and assistance. The challenge is that today, life has gotten more and more complicated, so even for the best among us, we often struggle in our attempts to follow the Lord and truly live authentically good Christian lives.


The Gospel today talks about the Kingdom of God. If we could understand precisely what he meant by the kingdom and knew where it would be found and how we could be certain to be part of it, we might have an easier go of it, but he didn't. Instead of the straight descriptive answers we often times crave, we get oblique and even startling parables–what some people call sorta-like stories. A zebra is sorta like a horse, but not really, almost, but not quite.


Today's Gospel reading features two stories pointing to the reign of God. One turns on the everyday mystery of growing seed, and the other about the mustard plant shrieks with exaggeration and incongruity. This chapter concludes with the statement that Jesus taught only in parables, but then he explained everything in private to his disciples. If only he would do the same for us!


Despite their simplicity and commonness, especially for the people of the day, these parables can leave us puzzled about how to understand the kingdom of God in light of our everyday life and the challenges of our day. I'm sorry to tell you that these parables do not offer an easy take-home message. They ask that we engage our imaginations to follow the possibilities and incongruities that distinguish a world where everything is planned, linear, and logical from one filled with mysteries and surprises into which a sovereign God invites us to live.


Our life's work is to fully develop our unique Christian character. Our faith tells us that Christ has redeemed us to conform us to His image. The end goal of the work of redemption is God's glory.


According to the Scriptures, Christian character includes the pursuit of truth, godliness, righteousness, love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, patience, perseverance, meekness, humility, self-control, compassion, thankfulness, forgiveness, contentment, and unity. God produces Christian character in our lives as believers through faith in Christ, in the power of the Spirit, by the Word of God, and in the sacraments. We know that suffering is also an essential part of the process of forming our Christian character.


So, perhaps in these quiet days, we can all take a breath, take a self-assessment of our Christian character, and see where we are doing well and where we need work. Authentic self-improvement of our Christian character is a lifelong journey, but it starts every day with the first step.


Blessings!


RSM

Do you ever think about the devil? What do you believe about the devil? And where did you learn about the devil?


Under different names, Satan, Lucifer, and the Devil, the most popular explanation maintains that he is a fallen angel tempted by pride. He is said to be a seducer originally created as good and whose rebellion against the divine will is reflected in the temptation he offered to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden – the passage we heard today.


Given the entire garden and its gifts and forbidden only from eating from a tree with mystic powers for the knowledge of good and evil, our first parents chose to listen to the tempter. Like him, they revolted, seeking to be like God. Sin, suffering, and death were thus inserted into the creation story—stemming like a spiritual virus that had its inception in the original rebellion of Lucifer and the other fallen spirits.


The authors of Genesis seem to have had no problem describing the first sin without blaming it on the devil. There is no indication in the story that the serpent was anything more to them than a talking snake. Interestingly, Satan as a character doesn’t appear in the Bible until the Book of Job, where he is portrayed as a servant rather than an enemy of God. By Jesus’ time, the devil had become the explanation for all that went wrong in the world.


One of the attributes that we hear of the devil is chaos. Ever since the fall from heaven, some believe that Satan seeks to divide the world. His first action was to divide the angels, followed by tempting Adam and Eve in the garden, driving a wedge between the first humans and God.


Division is the devil’s playground, and it shouldn’t be surprising. The word “devil” comes from the Greek word diabolos, which can be translated as “to divide,” “to separate,” or more literally, “to throw against.”


While you might think that this is more of a mythical reflection than a homily, Pope Francis has spoken much about the devil and this tactic of division. Divisions are a handy weapon that the devil uses even to destroy the Church. He has two weapons, but the main one is division. And this is where I think our modern-day reflection on the devil can be fruitful.


We live in a world that is ripe with division. News articles discuss the deep divides in societies the world over. Whether the division occurs in politics, education, religion, or culture, every side has strong proponents and equally strong opponents. Why are people so deeply divided? And is there a solution?


Divisions are as old as mankind. Disagreements about who the leader should be, who has water and grazing rights, on whose property is the well, where the property boundary line is, and which god should be worshipped all go back to antiquity.


Taxes have long been a source of division, leading to conflict and, ultimately, to war. Throughout recorded history, we find many deep divides that led to wars. Even when one side prevailed and destroyed the other side, the “winning side” still suffered losses.


Today’s world is no different. Our headlines tell of the deep political divides between liberals and conservatives, between government and the governed, between “haves” and “have-nots,” between inner city and urban, and between religions, cultures, races, and ethnicities. We continue to witness such divides that often lead to heated rhetoric, contention, and outbreaks of violence. This occurs on college campuses, at town hall meetings, during political rallies, in the midst of demonstrations in the public square, and sadly, even in our Church.


People are divided on so many issues that you can mention any subject, and there will be people on both sides of the issue. A thinking person may ask, “Where is God in all this? Why is there so much division in the world? Didn’t Jesus come to bring unity?”


Listen to the Scriptures:


I pray not only for them but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one, as we are one (John 17:20-22).


So, what does this all say to us? What are the practical lessons we can take away this weekend?


1. Fight against division because it is one of the weapons that the devil uses to destroy. Whenever we see division in the world, especially division that pits one group in society against another, we can affirm that the devil is behind it in some way. He wants us to destroy ourselves, and hatred against other people is one of the fastest ways we become the authors of our own demise.


2. Be ambassadors for unity because it reflects the presence of God in our midst. The Holy Trinity is the prime example of unity and communion, something we will ultimately participate in if we reach heaven someday. Heaven will essentially be “communion,” where we are unified not only with God but also with each other.


3. Above all, we need to strive for unity in truth, coming together to fight against injustices with charity. If we can stay united together under the leadership of Jesus, we will be able to thwart the plans of the devil.


The Gospel of Mark says pointedly:


If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand (Mark 3:24-25).


Perhaps this week, we can take some time to see where we are in conflict with someone else. And more importantly, maybe we can take some time in prayer and reflection to ask God to help us find the path to greater unity.


One final note. Recently, I received a beautiful note from someone who is moving out of Summit to a new location and, subsequently, a new parish. Among other things, the letter says: I will miss you, Monsignor Bob. I will miss the stained glass and the choir. I will miss the baptisms, friends, and neighbors. Hopefully, we will find a kinder spiritual home for our family.


But amid all the nice things written in the three-page letter, it notes that at times, as a family in this parish, they suffered from being the subject of gossip. Friends, there is no more practical example of the work of Satan than gossip ... Enough said!

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

4.28.24


This week, I had a very nice experience here in our parish. Someone who has been a member for more than 60 years is retiring and came to say goodbye and thank you to me and to all that St Teresa’s has been in his life for him and his family. It’s heartwarming to have those encounters!


It may seem strange to hear, but I tell you that over the course of some years, in the normal cycle of a parish, a good number of people leave, but very few ever come to say goodbye. Now, of course, as a pastor, I feel a sense of loss whenever someone chooses to go to another church, particularly when it has nothing to do with a job relocation or a geographic move, as is sometimes the case. And more so when someone leaves the parish because of me due to something I said or something I did. It's troublesome. In reality, though, it’s the natural ebb and flow of a parish in today’s world.


Many people have changing life circumstances – they go and never come to say goodbye. Maybe for some, it may feel awkward, but as pastors, you really become a part of our lives and we of yours because, for the most part, we are present at the most important days in your journey: baptisms of children, witnessing of marriages, or more significantly, presiding at a funeral for a loved one. It’s a sacred relationship, one that I treasure, and I know my brother priests do, too!


When members of the parish disappear one day, and that is that, it hurts. But even at its most painful moments, that is nothing compared to how Jesus feels when he “loses a branch.”


The Gospel today from John 15 reveals all kinds of interesting things. One of the most startling perhaps is how much Jesus wants to be close to his people. Verse 2 notes that the branches that the Father cuts off are described as having been “in me.” This soon-to-be dead wood once had every bit as intimate a relationship with Jesus the Vine as every other branch has. It is not as though these branches had once floated freely above the vine or had, at best, only a small connection to the larger vine stem.


A branch is a branch, and it is organically united with the vine. To lose such a branch is to lose part of your very self. The act of cutting that branch is a wounding, scar-making affair. It is a small wonder Jesus expresses such fervency in John 15 that disciples do not let this happen! Jesus is desperate to keep everyone, desperate that they remain in his love even as Jesus himself and his words remain in the hearts of all branches. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches.


Some might say that many people in the world are accustomed to living in very voluntaristic societies. We view our membership and involvement in almost every institution as something that is wholly up to us—we can initiate membership, and we can terminate membership at will. Hence, we tend to view the status of our membership, of our belonging to this or that group, sort of at arm’s length. Being a volunteer member carries with it a vague sense of detachment. I come and go as I please, thank you very much.


And so, for some, that’s true even in terms of church membership. Being a voluntary member of some group means joining or resigning are rather easy things. Being a body part carries with it quite other connotations! We believe that being members of the Church is an extension of being a member of the body of Christ – and that means that, on the one side, the church needs to treasure and respect that relationship, and the members need to support that relationship on the other.


A passage as rich as John 15 offers many interesting insights. But perhaps, in this Easter Season, it is most important to remind ourselves of what it means to dwell “in Christ” as a member of his community, a member of his Church.


American Express has that great slogan – membership has its privileges! So, too, for us, in the Church. As a “member,” you have rights. In fact, the Code of Canon Law has an entire section on the rights of the Christian faithful. One of the most basic canons says:


Christ's faithful have the right to be assisted by their Pastors from the spiritual riches of the Church, especially by the Word of God and the Sacraments.


It means that you have the right to these things and that I have the duty to provide them. I hope that you see here at St Teresa’s that we work hard to do so and to do so well. And, of course, if we can do better, I am all ears!


But the other side of the equation is that you also have responsibilities, and the Code of Canon Law has another whole section that addresses those, too. Listen for a moment:


(Can. 225 §1) Lay persons are designated by God for the apostolate through baptism and confirmation, and they are bound to work so that the divine message of salvation is made known and accepted by all persons everywhere in the world.


You have a duty to spread the word because, by your baptism, you put on Christ. Further...


According to each one’s own condition, they are also bound by a particular duty to imbue and perfect the order of temporal affairs with the spirit of the Gospel and thus to give witness to Christ, especially in carrying out these same affairs and in exercising secular functions.


You have a duty to support the Church and help with your life’s vocation to advance the work of the Church along with me and the other sacred pastors. Both sides of the altar have different but collaborative rights and responsibilities.


And of those who are married and have children, the canon says...


(Can. 226 §1) those who live in the marital state are bound by a special duty to work through marriage and the family to build up the people of God.


(§2) and parents have a most grave obligation and possess the right to educate them. Therefore, it is for Christian parents particularly to take care of the Christian education of their children according to the doctrine handed on by the Church.


Parents have a special and high duty to teach their children about Jesus and the Gospel. And there’s so much more.


So today, on this fifth Sunday of Easter, the Gospel reminds us that faith is about remaining, abiding, staying still and calm and in one place, rooted to Jesus. At the same time, we are called to produce fruit, to be active, vibrant, and verdant in living, celebrating, and exercising our rights and responsibilities in the Church.


And I know that with this message, I am preaching to the choir. You are here. You attend, and you support, and for that, we are very grateful.


But what about the rest? How can you help us invite, encourage, and challenge the rest to do their part? If we get lazy about this, someday, there will be nothing left but warm memories and fumes of the past!


Blessings!


RSM

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