The Kingdom of God is Coming, It’s Here: 25th Sunday

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Matthew 20,1-19   25th Sunday A

The kingdom of God is coming, it’s here, Jesus says in the gospels. Often he describes the kingdom of God as a harvest, as he does in today’s gospel from Matthew. It’s an abundant harvest, bigger than you think. Pray that God’s kingdom come, he says to his disciples. Pray that it comes here on earth as in heaven. Don’t underestimate the kingdom, the harvest God sends.

It looks like the owner of the vineyard in our parable today has underestimated the size of his harvest. The first crew he sends out at 9 in the morning aren’t enough, so he calls more workers at noon, then 3 in the afternoon. At 5 in the afternoon he’s still adding to his workforce. Looks like he didn’t expect much.

That’s one of the first lessons to draw from the gospel. Don’t underestimate the power of God. Unfortunately, that’s what we do. We can expect too little from God. We forget that his kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. We think he has nothing or little to do with human affairs, or our world or the things here on earth.

The workers in the vineyard don’t seem to appreciate a big harvest either. They’re interested in something else– how much they’re getting paid and how much the other fellow is getting paid. The owner’s not fair, they say, because he pays the last workers the same as those who came first to work in the vineyard. They’re concerned with themselves, blinded as they are by envy and jealousy.

“Are you envious because I am generous,” the owner of the vineyard, who now seems to be a figure of God, says to them. Is this another lesson to draw from the parable? Envy and jealousy and measuring everything from our own perspective blinds us to God’s generosity. They blind us to the coming of God’s kingdom.

On his way through the towns of Galilee, Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God. He was bringing it to the world. It was an abundant harvest, yet even as he announced it, powerful voices were denying it was true. The scribes and Pharisees called him a false teacher, even his own disciples’ and his own family didn’t understand him. Still, he proclaimed God’s great kingdom. In the darkness of calvary he proclaimed it to a thief on a cross, and then he proclaimed it to his own disciples as he rose from the dead.

But let’s admit it, as we look at our world today we don’t see signs of a great harvest. Where is the harvest Jesus spoke of? Where is the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God seems far off, hardly here or ready to come. We’re living in a post-modern age, they say, when cynicism and questioning touch everything.

More than ever, we need to look at our world, not with our own eyes, but with the eyes of Jesus.

I like the story from John’s gospel describing Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman on his journey from Jerusalem to Galilee. It’s a hot afternoon; Jesus is tired and stops by a well to get a drink of water. It’s not a friendly place; the Samaritans don’t like the Jews and the Samaritan woman doesn’t like this Jew sitting at their well. But as they talk a new world appears, a light pierces the darkness and  the woman recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and calls the people of her town to see him.

“‘In four months the harvest will be here’”? Jesus says to his disciples, “ I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest” He sees the kingdom of God coming in this small unexpected event. In the awakened faith of the woman before him, he sees the kingdom come.

That’s one of our greatest challenges today, to look up and see, in simple signs and in spite of everything, that the fields are ripe for the harvest. The kingdom of God has come.

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Visiting the Rhine River

Cologne

I’m going in October with a group from St. Mary’s, Colts Neck, NJ, on a river cruise on the Rhine. This river was a path Christian missionaries took to bring the gospel to all nations. We’ll visit cities like Strasbourg and Geneva, places connected to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

In his book “Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era”, Harvard University Press, 2000, John W. O’ Malley, S.J. says that historians today are wary of using the words Reformation and Counter-Reformation to describe these historical periods. Recent historical research indicates the names don’t altogether fit the reality of the two movements.

“Reformation” means reform, the reform of something broken or in need of new life. In the case of the Catholic Church, it implies it was in shambles because of superstition and abuses of power. But recent social research indicates that the Catholic experience at the time was still quite vital, for the most part. True, the papacy was in need of reform, other abuses were present as they always are, but ordinary Catholic life was far from lifeless.

“Counter-Reformation,” or “Catholic Reform” usually mean that reform of the Catholic Church took place mainly through the efforts of the Council of Trent and a renewed papacy. But recent research questions the determining part played by the council and the popes in the life of the church at the time.

Historians in the past tended to see the Catholic Church then only in terms of the papacy and council bodies like Trent. They didn’t see its complexity exemplified by its confraternities, religious orders, saintly mystics and patterns of devotion. Social historians today are aware of the vitality in the Catholic Church that existed in its ordinary fabric. Its renewal didn’t just come from above, but from below.

The medieval cathedrals at Strasbourg and Cologne, which we’re going to visit, are examples of the profound faith of the medieval church. They weren’t built to satisfy the vision of a powerful bishop or ruler; they expressed the faith of a dedicated people. We can read what they believed and how they thought about life in those great cathedrals.

One of the O’Malley’s insights I liked was his comment on the lecture on the Counter Reformation by H. Outram Evennett, an English historian, some years ago at Trinity College. Rejecting the thesis that the Reformation was solely a reaction to a decayed medieval church, Evennett opined that both the Reformation and Counter Reformation “were two different outcomes of the same general aspiration towards ‘religious regeneration’ that pervaded the 14th and 15th centuries.”

Does this indicate that both Catholicism and Protestantism are moving in sync towards a place together in the modern world? I hope so.

This Sunday we listen to one of the parables of the kingdom, the Workers in the Vineyard, from Matthew’s gospel. Like the workers, squabbling among themselves, we’re often blind to the larger patterns of God’s plan unfolding in history. In a post-modern society of questioning and doubt it’s also difficult to believe in a plan for the world. There’s a harvest on its way and it’s an abundant one. My homily’s on that.

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Saints Cornelius and Cyprian

Cornelius

The feasts of Saints Basil and Gregory Nazienzus are celebrated together on January 2nd because they were friends from schooldays. The two bishops from Cappadocia shared common interests; they liked each other and were friends till death.

You can’t say that about Saints Cornelius and Cyprian, whose feasts are celebrated together today, September 16th, in the Catholic calendar. Cornelius, bishop of Rome, and Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in Africa were hardly friends; their relationship might be best described as a proper but cool rivalry.  What bound them together was loyalty to Jesus Christ and his church.

They lived in difficult times. Imperial persecutions brought uncertainty, suspicion, and fear to the churches of Rome and Carthage. Christians died for their faith, but when the testing came some, perhaps many, professed their allegiance to the emperor. When the persecutions ceased, many wanted to return to the church.

Should they be welcomed back? If so, what should be asked of those who denied their faith? The questions brought conflicting answers and further suffering and disputes to an already suffering church.

Both Cornelius and Cyprian wrestled for answers that would bring unity to the church. They made the good of the church, not their own positions or power, their goal, and they sought God’s guidance in prayer.

Cyprian’s teaching of prayer surely reflects his experience from this critical time. In his comments on the Lord’s Prayer he writes:

“Let’s pray, brothers and sisters, as God our Teacher teaches us. In that trusting, intimate prayer we speak to God with his own words, we bring to his ears the prayer of Christ.

“The Father hears the words of his Son when we pray, and the One who dwells within us speaks in our voice….
Let us pray remembering we are standing in God’s sight…..”

That’s where answers come from.

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Teach Us To Number Our Days Aright

Learning takes place day by day. That’s true of everything, even our faith. We learn it day be day. That’s why the church’s calendar is so important.

John Chrysostom, whose feast we celebrated last Saturday, complained in one of his homilies that people didn’t know much about the church’s calendar; they were hardly aware of it: “Many people today just about know the names of the feasts we celebrate in church. They know hardly anything about their history and meaning…What a shame.”

The saint knew that feasts of Our Lord and his saints, seasons like Lent and Advent, have the power to teach us how to live and what to hope for as Christians. They’re ordinary ways we learn. They “teach us to number our days aright and gain wisdom of heart.”

The Feast of the Triumph of the Cross on September 14th is an example. It’s a wonderful reminder that a sign of death can become infused with life. The story of the finding of the cross, the church that stands over the tomb of Jesus and the place of Calvary, cause us to see in God’s plan for his Son an answer to the signs of death we face. God brings life, not death.

I like the way we celebrate the feast of Saint John Chrysostom the day before that feast, because Chrysostom tells us you can face death for doing well what you are called to do. He was a preacher not afraid to speak to power and power sent him into exile where he died–on September 14, the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.

The Feast of our Mother of Sorrows, September 15th, follows the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. Remember that Mary’s sorrows took place over the whole span of her life. Her greatest sorrow, of course, was when she stood beneath the cross of her Son, but she teaches that bearing the cross of Jesus is not the same as sharing his physical sufferings. Her patient waiting, her struggle to understand God’s plan, her experience of faith’s darkness tell us that the mystery of the cross falls on all the times and circumstances of human life.

So what’s the cross we bear now?

The Church’s calendar is a great teacher. Like a good teacher, it knows we are forgetful listeners. It will remind us again, year by year. It’s more than dates and bits of history. It’s a way of growing in faith.

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Mother of Sorrows

Mary sorrow

We remember the sorrows of Mary on September 15th, the day after the church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. In John’s Gospel Mary stands bravely close to Jesus while others flee the dark happenings on Calvary. Standing beneath the cross of her dying Son was certainly her greatest sorrow.

Her sorrows were not confined to Calvary, however. They began earlier.  Early in Luke’s gospel, the priest Simeon in the temple, taking the Child Jesus in his arms tells Mary this child will cause a sword to pierce her heart. His words were etched in her mind as she left the temple holding her endangered Child. Fleeing to Egypt, she protected him in her arms. Later, she sought him anxiously when he was lost on a Jerusalem pilgrimage.

These were hardly all the sorrows she faced, though. What of her long waiting in Nazareth, not knowing all to expect? What of the years her Son ministered in Galilee, when he faced rejection even from his own family? What of the ominous journey to Jerusalem? Those years brought, not physical sufferings, but sufferings of another kind.

Mary’s sorrows were the sorrows of her Son. Mary’s cross was a daily one she bore day by day.  “O Lady Mary, thy bright crown is no mere crown of majesty. With the reflect of his own resplendent thorns, Christ circled thee.” (Francis Thompson)

Mary teaches us  that our sorrows, whatever they may be, reflect the Cross of Jesus. They will not crush us or beat us down; they lift us up to glory.

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The Exaltation of the Cross September 14

 

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Holy sepul
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross,  celebrated today by many Christians, originated in Jerusalem where Jesus died and rose again. On September 13, 325 AD, Christians came for all over the Roman world for the dedication of a church the Emperor Constantine built over the empty tomb of Jesus and the place where he was crucified.

Called the Anastasis (Resurrection) or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church was one of early Christianity’s largest and most resplendent holy places; its liturgy, especially during Holy Week, influenced churches throughout the world. Devotional practices like the Stations of the Cross grew up around this church because of its association with the death and resurrection of Jesus.Holy Sepulcher - 28Holy Sepulcher - 28

Visitors to Jerusalem today see a smaller, shabbier successor to Constantine’s great church, because the original building was largely destroyed in the 1009 by the mad Moslem caliph al-Hakim. Half of the church was hastily rebuilt by the Crusaders. Today, the old church shows the scars of sixteen centuries of wars, earthquakes, fires, and natural disasters.

Scars of a divided Christendom are also visible in it. Various Christian groups, claiming age-old rights, warily guard their separate responsibilities in the place. Visitors have to wonder how this church represents God’s saving plan?Holy Sepulcher - 04

The scriptural readings for the feast refer to the scandal of the cross so evident in this place and in the Christian churches throughout the world.  After being freed miraculously from Egypt, the Israelites grumbled during the grueling journey they made through the desert. “With their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses. ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water?’”(Numbers 21,4-9)

Life’s journey has crosses we don’t expect and we lose patience and perspective.

In the 2nd reading for the feast, St. Paul reminds us that in the Incarnation Jesus Christ “took the form of a slave” when he became human. He didn’t have a privileged, carefree human life, without suffering and death. “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2,6-11)

When Jesus says “ follow me”, he means following him each day as human beings, bearing our own cross.

In the gospel for this feast, Jesus recalls the people who grumbled and complained about God and Moses. He’s now the serpent lifted on a stick to cure unbelief, Jesus tells Nicodemus, the man who came to him by night. The Son of Man will be lifted up on the cross. A strange remedy! Yet by looking at him, we gain wisdom. “Everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3,13-17 ) DSC00234

“Do not forget the works of the Lord!” (Psalm 78, Responsorial Psalm) We can’t forget Jesus Christ. Like those before us, we seek and inquire after God again and again; we remember God our rock, the Most High God, our redeemer. Don’t forget Jesus Christ who “emptied himself.” His cross lifts us up.Via Dolorosa - 17

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Saint John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom

Saint John Chrysostom was born around 340 into a military family in Antioch, Turkey. After study under Libanius, the great rhetorician of the day, John lived with monks in Syria for a few years, but poor health brought him back to Antioch where he served the church for five years as a deacon, taking care of the poor.

Ordained a priest in 386, John became an outstanding preacher and bishop; his “golden mouth” (Chrysostom) delighted his hearers with sermons on the gospels and letters of Paul. Appointed bishop of Constantinople, his sermons had the opposite effect on the rulers and churchmen of that city with his attacks on their pomp and luxury. The Empress Eudoxia exiled him from the city in 402 AD.

He returned after a brief absence and resumed his fearless preaching against the city’s powerful political and church elite.  Eudoxia finally sent him into exile on the Black Sea after John gave a sermon that began “Again Herodias  is raging, again she is perturbed,  again she wants to receive the head of John on a dish.” Hardly a way to ingratiate yourself with royalty.

“ Glory be to God for everything. Amen” John said before he died on his way to exile. “If Christ is with me, whom shall I fear. Though the waves and the sea and the anger of princes are against me, they are as weak as a spider’s web.”

He died on September 14, 407 AD, the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, which we celebrate tomorrow.

We need people today with “golden mouths” to speak to power. In its prayer for his feast, the church thanks God for this bishop made “illustrious by his wonderful eloquence and his example of suffering,”  a nice reminder that preaching isn’t just about beautiful words. John died on a feast of the Holy Cross. Preaching can be a dangerous act.

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