Our parish year of prayer with its theme--Pray Together, Stay Together—officially launched last weekend. Over the next nine months, we will endeavor to grow closer to the Lord through prayer. Last week, a parent told me that our church and school have become more integrated and the parish more welcoming. Having worked together over the last year on becoming more deeply connected as One Body in Christ, we will spend this year becoming more deeply connected with God, so that we can stay together as his people.
Bulletin articles each week will focus on practical approaches to prayer in the Catholic tradition. Through our innovative Small Bytes program, guest speakers in a series of talks on Sunday mornings will deliver small “servings” of theology and catechesis to teach us different ways to pray, with an opportunity to learn more later in the same week. We will also put into practice what we have learned about prayer in our many small groups, which are forming quickly. We also will be preaching about prayer throughout the year. In fact, this week we begin a new eight-week message series at Sunday Mass called, More Than Lip Service: Living Out An Uncomfortable Religion.
Many people think of prayer as just something we speak using our tongues and mouths. But true prayer is more than lip service. It is a call to live in the way we pray and to pray based on the way we live. In other words, prayer leads to action, and good works lead us back into prayer. As the Catechism tells us, “prayer and Christian life are inseparable” (CCC 2745). And that can be just a little uncomfortable, if we’re not living as we should.
For instance, Jesus makes a rather uncomfortable statement in the gospel reading today. He says that the kingdom of God will be taken away from those who are unfruitful and “given to a people that will produce its fruit.” Many Christians comfort themselves with the oft-quoted maxim that God does not call us to be fruitful but only faithful. Yet, the opposite of fruitfulness is not faithfulness but failure. That God would destroy his own vineyard because it did not bear fruit, as the allegory set forth in the first reading today suggests, is indeed uncomfortable to think about.
Perhaps even more uncomfortable is the question whether we are producing sufficient fruit for the Lord. Discipleship is more than lip service, and the purpose of the Church is more than to secure the comfort of its members. In reality, a comfortable religion is a dead, sterile, self-serving religion. Christians instead are called to produce good fruit by growing the kingdom of God through mission and ministry. If Christ is the vine and we are the branches (John 15:5), then we will produce good fruit by grafting the wild shoots of the unchurched, the lost, and the questioning onto the true vine that is Jesus.
We can do that by being welcoming at church, inviting at work and school, serving the poor with the love of Christ, and witnessing to him by conforming our lives to gospel values.
Over the last four weeks, we have examined four destructive and isolating behaviors and attitudes Jesus addressed in the gospel readings over the same period. These include making judgments about others, refusing to forgive people, as well as jealousy and resentment when others have received more than their fair share. Indulging these behaviors and attitudes is like getting up on a “high horse” with a false arrogance that comes from jealousy, bitterness, indignation, and resentment.
This week in the gospel reading, Jesus calls out the smug, sanctimonious, and self-righteous nature of the chief priests and elders of the people. They had set themselves up on high horses over the people, demanding stringent observance of the Mosaic law and standards that were nearly impossible to achieve. But Jesus tells them that even the most notorious sinners of the day, “tax collectors and prostitutes,” would be first to enter the kingdom of heaven because they had repented.
The gospel reading identifies two types of “sons.” The first agreed to go into the father’s “vineyard” and work, but then did not, while the second initially refused, but then changed course. The worst offenders and violators of the law, Jesus suggests, were like the sons who at first refused to go but then did what the father asked, while the chief priests and elders were too self-satisfied to comply. Their pretentious and supercilious attitude was the result of their sense of ownership of the law that had been handed down from Moses. In other words, they believed that they could save themselves by rigid observance of the law and therefore rejected even God’s Son and refused to go into the vineyard to tell others about the message of salvation he had brought to humanity.
We have all heard the message of repentance. But how deeply do we perceive the need to change, grow, and deepen in our spiritual lives, leaving behind sin, arrogance, false beliefs, and destructive behaviors? Are we willing to get off our high horses and join the rest of the human race in the struggle of life, recognizing our dependency on God? Or do we remain entrenched in the stubborn belief that we can do it ourselves, with a private spirituality and the false belief that simply attending Mass once a week and receiving the Eucharist with a closed heart is sufficient to save ourselves?
As lifelong Catholics, the temptation to treat the sacraments and Sunday Mass like talismans is ever present. Without intending it, we can easily fall into the trap of believing, like the chief priests and the elders of the people in the gospel reading, that our external religious observance will be enough to “earn” our way into heaven. Yet, the grace of God poured out in the sacraments is a living relationship with the God who desires our whole hearts. The grace of the sacraments will indeed remain inactive in our lives, unless we are open to its effects and are willing to go into the vineyard to do the Father’s will. In other words, true repentance means investing ourselves fully in the God who created and loves us and is the only way off our high horses.
My father had a strict rule when my brother and I were children. When we divvied up a piece of cake or other treat, he would say, “one divides while the other chooses.” The regulation, he said, was intended to prevent squabbles about unfairness or uneven division. If the brother who split the portion also were to choose which helping he would take, there would be a natural incentive to divide the ration in an uneven way, given the reality of original sin. The brother who was cheated out of his full portion then would cry foul and a fight inevitably would break out. To keep the peace, one divided while the other chose.
Jesus tells another parable in the gospel reading this Sunday. The workers who started their employment late in the afternoon obviously expected to be paid a small portion of the daily wage, but surprisingly were given the usual rate for the entire day, which in those times was a Roman silver coin called a denarius. When the day laborers who had arrived in the morning and had worked all day saw this, they expected to be paid more. If the latecomers earned a silver coin for one hour of work, they must have thought, shouldn’t they earn twelve silver coins for twelve hours of work? That would be the fair and equal result. Yet, when they also received the normal daily wage, they grumbled against their employer because the portions had been divided unequally and they did not get to choose the portion they would receive. Since they equated inequality with injustice, they complained.
We began a four-week message series two weeks ago called, Get off your high horse, Lone Ranger, and let’s do life together. The series is based on the four destructive and isolating behaviors and attitudes Jesus addresses in the gospel readings over this period, such as making judgments about others, refusing to forgive people, and becoming too self-righteous. The parable of the day laborers is a perfect illustration of the human tendency to become resentful and jealous when we perceive that we have not been treated fairly. The landowner’s response to the complaints of the day laborers essentially was to tell them to get off their high horses. “What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?” he asked. “Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”
As Psalm 37 exclaims, the Lord hears the cry of the poor; he does not hear the cry of the jealous, the bitter, the indignant, and the resentful. The point of the parable is that God opens his hand to those in need, giving generously, even to those who have dallied and waited until the eleventh hour. The Lord gives people what they need, not what they think they deserve or what human wisdom defines as “fair.”
If you, like most of us, have taken umbrage at some perceived offense or inequality against yourself by others, catch yourself falling off your high horse andn forgive. The impact from the drop may be a little painful, but there will be others there to heal you and welcome you back into the community.
“Pay it forward” has become a common term in American parlance ever since the Hollywood film by the same name was released in 2000. It’s the story of a young boy, who attempts to make the world a better place after his teacher gives him that chance.
The movie chronicles twelve-year old Trevor McKinney’s launch of a goodwill movement known as “pay it forward.” Trevor’s social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet, gives the class an assignment to devise and put into action a plan that will change the world for the better. Trevor’s plan is a charitable program based on the networking of good deeds. He calls his plan “pay it forward,” which means the recipient of a favor does a favor for three others rather than paying the favor back.
Trevor’s vision is that the uplifting actions continue along a branching tree of good deeds, spreading across the whole world. Indeed, the movie sparked a number of pay-it-forward movements. In Atlanta, for example, a Christian radio station, “104.7 The Fish,” created the “Drive Thru Difference.” Customers in a drive-through line at a fast food restaurant are encouraged to pay for the food of the person waiting in line behind them. “You never know what type of difference you could make in the lives of those around you,” the station’s website urges. “The person working at the restaurant sees you making a difference, and the person behind you may even decide to do the same thing for the person behind them.”
In the gospel reading today, Jesus basically sets forth a pay-it-forward program of forgiveness. In the parable told by Jesus, the audience rightfully is scandalized by the actions of the unforgiving servant, who was forgiven an enormous debt by the king but then refused to pay forward the mercy he received and forgive someone who owed him a much smaller debt.
We all know that we should forgive each other. Yet, one of the most common confessions I hear is lack of forgiveness. Perhaps the incongruence is best explained by an assumption that forgiveness is something we choose to extend magnanimously, when it suits us. Forgiveness, we tend to think, is a free act of generosity towards the one who has offended us. We can decide whether to forgive or to condemn, to show mercy or to remain unmerciful, to move on or cling to resentment.
There is some truth, of course, to this perception. However, the last words of the parable should remind us that the mercy and forgiveness we seek from God is conditioned on our readiness to extend mercy and offer forgiveness. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “[f]orgiveness is the fundamental condition of the reconciliation of the children of God with their Father and of men with one another” (CCC n. 2844).
Forgiveness is an act of the will. “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” (CCC n. 2843). Today, pay forward God’s incredible mercy and forgiveness given to you through the atonement of Christ on the Cross.
Jesus built his church on the rock of Peter, as we heard in the gospel reading two weeks ago. I think we can all agree that Jesus was savvy and must have known that gathering a sinful people in his name to worship God, connect with each other, grow in faith, serve others, and spread the Word would be a daunting task, to say the least. Fights would break out, conflicts develop, and divisions follow. He therefore set up in the gospel reading today a very clear system for conflict management within the Church he founded.
Disciples first are to work out their disagreements in private, so that a Christian who falls into serious sin can and should expect fraternal correction. If this approach does not bear fruit, they are to bring witnesses, in order to heighten the guilty party’s awareness of the seriousness of the sin, much like a modern-day “intervention.” If he or she still refuses to repent, Jesus says to “tell the church,” which may, as a last resort, temporarily excommunicate the person until they seek forgiveness.
This instruction undoubtedly would have made sense in ages past, when the Church was dominant, influential, and the foundation of society itself. Indeed, the Church had authority to judge cases of misconduct and impose penalties and sanctions, including excommunication and even imprisonment for priests religious and to root out heresy through its own judicial processes. Thus, to “tell the church,” as Jesus directed, was a fitting solution in an era when it was the linchpin of the social order.
How do we make sense of the command to “tell the Church” in a world today, where religion largely has been marginalized, driven out of the public sector, and relegated to the private sphere of life? Indeed, “[o]ne of the greatest challenges to the life of Faith in the modern world is the privatization of religion [and] . . . the elimination of [its] naturally communitarian character” (Jeff Mirus, Ph.D. www.catholicculture.org, June, 14, 2015). Whereas the local parish was the hub of every kind of activity in the past, today the spokes have come loose.
Though we may be tempted to mourn the loss of a muscular church, there is a silver lining. Today, we are forced to focus more on inspiring people than commanding them, on elevating their souls to heaven than frightening them into submission. The parish renewal movement that is spreading across our country is built on insightful preaching, inviting hospitality, and beautiful music. It emphasizes winning converts, saving the lost, and attracting unbelievers. Increasingly, parishes are paring down extraneous activities like bingo, parties with no discernable spiritual benefit, and poorly-attended events that continue year after year simply for the sake of tradition. Instead, the quality of the Sunday worship experience and deepening every person’s relationship with God have become the center of church growth.
Although many of the historical but secular functions of the Church have been stripped from her control, the Church’s ancient mission to “go and make [true] disciples,” perhaps now more than ever, out of necessity, is being lived out to the full. Therefore, even now, we can go and “tell the church,” as Jesus commanded, because the more genuine disciples are formed, the less fraternal correction will be necessary in the first place.
Sunday, September 3, 2017
Twenty years old and a sophomore in college, I decided to try out becoming a police officer. I abandoned my studies for a semester and joined the Atlanta Police Department. The challenging obstacle course at the academy remains a vivid memory. It was filled with hurdles, fences, walls, and ditches that had to be negotiated with a certain amount of skill and in a certain amount of time. Looking back, it perhaps was the obstacle course that ultimately convinced me to return to my schoolwork.
Life is filled with obstacles, problems, and obstructions that stand in the way of freedom, happiness, and growth. These may include financial and relationship difficulties, troubles at work or school, and illness. Most of the time, we think of these hindrances as barriers that simply block the attainment of our personal ambitions in life. In the gospel reading today, however, Jesus refers to Peter himself as an obstacle because he tries to talk Jesus out of his destiny. Peter rebukes Jesus for believing that he will be persecuted in Jerusalem by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. By essentially saying, “Come on, everything thing’s going to be okay, stay positive,” Peter denies the mission of Jesus and invalidates the truth of what he must face.
I have heard this same conversation many times when well-meaning people try to “cheer up” someone who is going through a difficult time. Adult children encourage their elderly parents who are seriously ill in the hospital by telling them they will soon be going home, when in fact they will not. Friends often downplay what someone is feeling with platitudinous phrases like, “it’ll get better,” “it could be worse,” or “you shouldn’t feel that way.” Priests, ministers, and counselors who try to draw the sting of a troubling situation with trite religiosity and blame shifting to the divine only rob the hurting individual of the nobility of his or her suffering. The patterns of rhetoric we choose when with all sincerity seeking to buoy another person going through a difficult time can unwittingly reinforce the erroneous notion that every unpleasant obstacle in life is a hurtle to be overcome as quickly as possible, so that we can return to our own goals and desires.
Jesus reminds his disciples in the gospel passage that “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [Jesus’] sake will find it.” Sometimes, the greatest act of charity for a suffering individual is simple accompaniment without a lot of words. A quiet, supportive presence avoids false encouragement, does not deny the truth of the situation, and usually is all that is needed to comfort the person.
In those times when suffering is confronted authentically, when we deny ourselves for Christ and willingly take up our crosses because he did the same for us, the experience can be redemptive and edifying. Similarly, when we refuse to become an unintended obstacle to the difficult future faced by another person by using stale idioms and offering false hope, but rather are willing to accept what lies ahead alongside the one who must face it, then we and the suffering person will experience the truth of the resurrection after the dark night is over.
The first reading this Sunday may seem like an obscure passage written by an archaic prophet, but at the time it was steeped in real economic and political concerns that threatened the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. A constant worry among the ancient Jews was the real danger posed by neighboring nation-states and imperial powers. For most of their history, the Israelite kingdoms had to contend with small, rival nations who competed for control of the commercial and agricultural resources in the eastern Mediterranean region. The principal enemies of the northern kingdom were Aram and Moab, while the southern kingdom of Judah principally competed with the Philistine city-states and Edom.
However, it was the rise of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires to the north that were of the most concern because of their aggressively expansionist policies. The Israelite kingdoms were sandwiched between Egypt and these two empires, whose joint goal was the conquest of Egypt to the south, as well as control over the trade routes between them. Egypt of course resisted, and the Israelite kingdoms were caught in the middle. To stave off war, Egypt tried to convince several vassal states of Assyria to revolt, forcing the political giant to focus its attention elsewhere.
The prophet Isaiah insists that Judah refuse such political machinations and instead trust God to protect the nation. Although Judah ultimately did not join the conspiracy against Assyria, which spared the city of Jerusalem, the ensuing revelry among its inhabitants angered Isaiah, who said their conspicuous consumption and disregard for the poor would result in God’s judgment. In particular, Isaiah blamed the king’s chief of staff, Shebna, and predicted his fall from power and replacement by another royal steward named Eliakim. The royal steward traditionally held the keys of the kingdom because he had the most powerful governmental position in Israel under the king.
In the gospel reading today, Jesus borrows this ancient feature of royal power when he says that Peter will be installed as the chief steward of God’s kingdom. He and his successors will possess the keys, so that “when he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open” (Is. 22:22). His teaching and juridical authority and ability to forgive or retain sins will allow him to “loose” and “bind” on earth with authority.
Throughout its history, the Church has derived its understanding of the papacy from this passage. The dogmatic constitution, Pastor Aeternus on the Church of Christ from the First Vatican Council in 1870 teaches and declares, “according to the testimony of the Gospel, that the primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church was immediately and directly promised to and conferred upon the blessed apostle Peter by Christ the Lord.”
In our postmodern, anti-institutional culture, power and authority are immediately suspect. In a confusing and relativistic world, however it is not a clear abdication of the power of free thinking to trust in the solid foundation of the authority of Peter and his successor popes on which Christ himself founded his Church.
During the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday, we pray for the Jewish people, “to whom the Lord our God spoke first, that he may grant them to advance in love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant” and that “the people [God] first made [his] own may attain the fullness of redemption.” It is a beautiful prayer of hope and inclusion, that no person may ever be left without the salvation won for all humanity by Jesus Christ.
Since at least the early part of the third century, the doctrine has been that, outside the Church, there is no salvation (Extra ecclesiam nulla salus). In large part, the teaching rests on the words of Christ himself: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Because the Church was established by Christ (Matthew 16:18) who shows us the way to the Father, there can be no salvation outside the Church.
Recognizing that this teaching has been widely misunderstood, the worldwide college of bishops clarified its teaching during the Second Vatican Council in the document, Lumen Gentium (“LG”), otherwise known as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. As a result, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) now states more positively that “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC n. 846). Indeed, “[a]ll men are called to belong to the new People of God,” which is “present in all the nations of the earth” (LG 13).
While it is true that there is no salvation for those who knowingly reject the Church (CCC 846) and that salvation is most certain for those fully incorporated into her, nevertheless, “all people are related to the People of God” and therefore may be saved (LG 16). Non-Catholic Christians, for instance, are “in some real way joined to us in the Holy Spirit” (LG 15). Moreover, the Jews, “are a people most dear,” and “the plan of salvation also includes . . . the Moslems.” (Id.) “Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God . . . , since the Saviour wills all [people] to be saved.” (Id.) Those unaware of the message of Christ but who “nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience . . . too may achieve eternal salvation.” (Id.)
In the second reading today, Saint Paul firmly rejects the notion that God has rejected the Jews who did not accept Christ. Israel’s current unbelief is only temporary, he insists, and will last only until “the full number” of Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25). In a poignant hope for his own people, Paul believes that, one day, “all Israel will be saved” by believing in the gospel (11:26).
We must always respect the religious traditions and beliefs of all people. However, as the People of God to whom the message of Christ has been entrusted, it is our sacred duty to pray for all those who do not yet believe in Christ and to work earnestly for their salvation.
A rite of passage in the seventh grade of my college preparatory school in Atlanta was to learn how to dive. It was part of the rigorous P.E. class that had become legendary in school folklore. Each of us only had to dive into the pool one time. But it wasn’t just any dive; it was a high dive, backwards, with our eyes closed, into the deep end of the pool.
For weeks before D-day, I agonized over the requirement. Not only had I inherited my father’s severe fear of heights, I also was deathly afraid of miscalculating the trajectory of the dive and smacking into the surface of the water like a ton of bricks. I tried everything to get out of it, including talking to Coach Higgins about it and even calling in sick the day my name came up. But when I returned to school, Coach barked out my name just the same, and I was forced to climb the long steel ladder leading to certain death.
As I nervously edged my way down the endless length of the diving board, my stomach bunched into knots. I came to the end of the fluttering plank, turned around, took a deep breath, and then bolted like a spooked horse. I was the laughingstock of the class. Unlike Peter who tried to walk on water and then sunk, I never even dared to get wet at all.
On that day, I learned that fear is a powerful motivator, and I vowed never again to be seduced by it. As Nelson Mandela once said, “courage [is] not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” I also have come to realize that fear comes in all forms, including perhaps most significantly the fear of change.
As a community of faith, we are on a mission from God. We have a purpose, and God expects that purpose to be our driving force and single motivator in life. That purpose is to gather together in fellowship and prayer, mature and grow in faith, and then take what we have learned into ministry and mission, serving others and teaching them about Christ. Although like so many others we easily can fall into spiritual ruts, refusing to change, fearful of the high dive or drowning in uncharted waters, we are called to close our eyes and trust in God.
This Fall, we will take the plunge into new waters, and I urge you to take a risk and dive in with us. We will roll out our new Saint Brendan Small Bytes Program, so that you can learn more about your faith in easy-to-digest ways. We will launch our Small Group Experiences, so that you can share your faith and do life together with other Catholics in a relaxed, intimate setting. We are charting a new direction in our Faith Formation program for children, and inviting world-class speakers to address us on important topics of faith throughout this year.
Our theme for the year is Pray Together. Stay Together. Read more in the following articles, and take the free fall with us. Do not be afraid, for it is the Lord who commands us to “come to him on the water.”
Put yourself in the shoes of Jesus’ disciples, who witnessed firsthand his Transfiguration. Jesus had said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men,” and they left their nets, boats, and family to follow him. They listened to the Sermon on the Mount, watched him teach astonished crowds, and saw many healings and miracles. They followed him, as he “went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness” (Matthew 9:35). It must have seemed at that point that their decision to leave everything and accompany Jesus was a good one.
Then the narrative shifts. Jesus sends them out to preach that the “kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 10:7), but at the same time warns them about coming persecutions and the need to be courageous because he will be a cause of division. They will need to take up their crosses and lose their own lives for his sake.
Then he squares off with the Pharisees, who question his every move. They demand a sign from him to justify his authority. He speaks in parables because “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven . . . has not been granted” to an evil generation (Matthew 13:11). He was rejected by the people in his hometown, who “took offense at him” (Matthew 13:57). He then predicts his own passion and death, and reminds the disciples that they must pick up their crosses and follow the same path. “Whoever wishes to come after me,” he said, “must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). I wonder how many of the apostles, at that point, reconsidered the wisdom of their decision to follow Jesus.
After the Transfiguration, there would be more trouble. Jesus would predict his own passion and death two more times. More persecution would lie ahead. His authority would be questioned in Jerusalem. He would be tested by the Sadducees, and the Pharisees would plot against him. He would lament over the impending destruction of Jerusalem and face off against the Pharisees once again. Finally, one of his own would betray him, leading to his crucifixion and death.
The Transfiguration, which occurs roughly halfway through Matthew’s gospel, would be a kind of intermission for the disciples. It was intended to encourage them, like a coach who encourages his team during the halftime of a game. According to CSU coach, Gary Curneen, “the half-time team talk in a game can be the most vital 15 minutes for a coach on game day.” It is an opportunity to motivate, encourage, and make necessary adjustments for the second half.
Jesus came over to his cowering disciples, touched them, and said, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” This was Jesus’ halftime speech. This is what gave them courage to continue into the second-half of Jesus’ ministry. Whatever difficulties you face, crosses you are forced to carry, or deaths you must suffer, remember this message from our Lord. For no matter what fearsome roads lie ahead, it is the Lord who accompanies you, who drops everything to follow you. So, “rise, and do not be afraid.”