Sunday, July 26, 2020

Predestined and Called

Homily for the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, July 26, 2020. Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52. Theme: Predestined and Called

Today’s Gospel speaks about the Kingdom of God and, though I want to focus on the second reading, I cannot totally ignore the Gospel because it is about the “kingdom of God” which is the primary theme of Jesus’ mission.  “Kingdom of God” is found 99 times in the four gospels and 90 of those times it is found on the lips of Jesus himself. It was the #1 theme of his preaching, teaching and miracles. So, we better learn what he means!

What is the kingdom of God?  First of all, it is not a place. People often make this mistake because Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven” in place of “kingdom of God”.  But he did this because he was composing his gospel for observant Jews who would not utter the word “God” for they thought it to be a sin against the 2nd commandment.  The kingdom of God is a state of being, a way of living, a way of looking at life and reality.

What it means is this: “God rules and reigns as supreme Lord and Master of my life. My heart and my choices are to be governed by his law of love and mercy.” This is why, when Jesus finds a person who is compassionate to others and sincere in his or her quest for God, he declares that this person is “not far from the kingdom of God.”

This actualy dovetails nicely into the second reading, because in it St. Paul tells us how God acts towards those who enter into his kingdom.  He begins by writing that, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

He’s assuring us that for those who love God everything - no matter what it is, no matter how terrible it might seem - can and will be used for our ultimate good. Note that he is not saying that only good things happen to those who love God. No, he is stressing the truth that nothing whatsoever can outsmart God and his plans for each one of us, not even COVID or the violence and anarchy in our cities or the dirty politics that use citizens like pawns on a chessboard.

He reminds us that God makes everything work out because he has a purpose in mind for each one of us and nothing is going to get in the way of that purpose becoming a reality.  And his purpose is this: that we come to know, love and serve God in this life so as to live forever with him in the next.

But as we make our way through this life with our eyes on the next, we have to remember that right now we only see a little tiny part of that plan. So, when things get difficult or we wonder why we are undergoing a particular difficulty, we have to trust in God and that he is good and that it’s all part of that plan.   It can be as if we are putting a jigsaw puzzle together without the advantage of the cover picture to guide us. But God sees the bigger picture. He’s got the cover of the puzzle box in front of him, so to speak, and knows precisely where each piece goes. And so we trust him.

Next, St. Paul says to us, “For those he foreknew he also predestined…And those he predestined he also called…“

I find this to be utterly amazing! These few words reveal to us that the God has had plans for us from way before we were born. From all eternity, eons before any of us existed, God foresaw each one of us clearly and perfectly in his mind. He foresaw both the good and the bad. the beautiful and the ugly within us.  And he fell in love with what he foresaw! Right then and there, God predestined us to live and called each one of us into existence at the time in history that would be best for us. Isn’t that awesome?!

None of us are a mistake or an accident no matter what the circumstances of our conception or birth might be.  None of us are just a face lost in a sea of a billion faces to God because he knows and loves each one of us, individually and personally and passionately.  Now with this kind of love in mind, how can we doubt that God will not make all things work out for our ultimate good, so that we can live a real life with him forever?

But as if that’s not enough St. Paul continues… “and those he called he also justified and those he justified he also glorified.”

It was not enough to God that we exist as humans on planet Earth, he wanted to do more good for us. And so, he justifies us, which means that we are put into an intimate relationship with him.  And he glorifies us, which means that we participate in his awesome goodness and powerful greatness.  It’s part of his plan, part of his purpose in calling us, that we begin this journey to eternal life with Baptism, which washes sin away and makes us his actual adopted children, brothers and sisters of Jesus, and living temples of the Holy Spirit predestined to live forever. And this double-blessing of justification and glorification is increased within us each time we mindfully receive the Eucharist, the Bread of Eternal Life, though which God lives in us and we in him.

All this was made possible for us by God taking the most horrible example of bad things happening to good people, the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and turning it completely around by means of the Resurrection! What looked like the ultimate evil that humans could do to their Lord and God became instead the ultimate blessing for those who love God and live according to his plan. The power of death is destroyed and transformed instead into a doorway to eternal life; God making all things work out for our good.

Now if God has gone to the trouble, so to speak, of doing all these things for us, why should we ever doubt the depths of his fatherly love? He calls us into existence, justifies us by Baptism, glorifies us with the gift of his Holy Spirit, and sustains us with the Gift of his very Self in the Eucharist so that he can live life with us. Why in the world then should we doubt and worry about anything whatsoever?  The coronavirus cannot take away our call from God.  Dirty politics and violence cannot rob us of our glory. Even life itself turned totally upside down cannot shake us free of God’s firm grasp.
Deacon David Previtali · Predestined and Called

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Amazing Mustard Seed

The 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, July 19, 2020. Matthew 13:24-43.  Theme: The Amazing Mustard Seed
Jesus gives us several parables in today’s gospel, each one saying something different about how we experience the Kingdom of God in everyday life. It can be like a field with people who are a mix of good and bad seed, with only God knowing which is which because he alone can read the human heart.  Or it can be like leaven, like yeast, that can elevate the ordinary routine of daily life into something extraordinary from the inside out when life is lived for God and in service to others.
But the parable that catches my attention today is that of the mustard seed.  I think what Jesus is saying is that even just a little faith, small as a mustard seed, contains within it the power to do the impossible.  This mustard-seed sized faith, planted in the hearts of those who trust in God and who believe in the cumulative power of small things, can enable the Kingdom of God to emerge from within us and confront the evil and injustice we see in the world. We have proof of this in the lives of some heroic Christians who have gone before us.
In 1948, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was just an ordinary nun like many others, teaching high school to wealthy girls in India. But every day she came face-to-face with the destitute poverty and desperate hunger among the poor outcasts in the streets.  Her mustard-seed sized faith that God could somehow use her to do something about it moved her to leave her comfortable convent and live among the poor. It didn’t seem like much at first. It was a simply a thing she could do to try and become closer to them to help them.
Many years later, after she was world famous and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa was asked how it all started. She replied, “I never thought of doing anything big. One day, I just saw one poor abandoned dying man lying in the street and so I picked him up and brought him home.” Today, there are over 4,000 Missionaries of Charity Sisters and Brothers relieving the suffering of hundreds of thousands across the globe. All because the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows to become a large world-embracing bush.
In 1964, Rosa Parks, a devout Christian black woman in Montgomery, AL, was on a segregated bus-ride home after a long day at work. At one of the stops, 4 black passengers were told to give up their seats for on-boarding white passengers.  3 of them got up but Rosa stayed put. The mustard-seed sized Kingdom of God within her was enough to inform her that she had dignity just as much as anyone else and so she remained seated.  Rosa was arrested on the spot and also lost her job.
Once the word about Rosa’s actions got out to the public, this Kingdom of God mustard tree grew and began to spread its branches among the black population. They boycotted the local bus system for 381 consecutive days, bringing it to its financial knees. This ultimately resulted in the US Supreme Court ruling in favor of racial equality and jump-started the civil rights movement.  All because the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows to become a large world-embracing bush.
Their stories might make us ask ourselves: “What small mustard-seed is Jesus asking me to plant for the good of others?” Allow me to suggest a mustard seed that you can plant right where you live and work and socialize. The idea for it came to me a few weeks ago when I saw all the terrible anger, hatred, violence and destruction breaking out in cities across our nation.  I asked God what I might do to plant a mustard seed here in my limited life in Marin County.

And then the Peace Prayer of St. Francis came to mind. I am sure you know it, it begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”  The conviction came to me then and there to make a commitment to recite it daily from the heart and put into practice what it says.  No use just saying it; the mustard seed of the Kingdom is in the living of it.  It’s simple and easy enough for anyone of any faith to do, though it’s so much easier to say than to live consistently!  It’s a wonderful summary of Kingdom-living, of Gospel-living. I like to call it living as a Peacebearer of St. Francis.

Now this commitment by one person to pray and live the Peace Prayer of St. Francis certainly doesn’t seem like something that can have an effect on the whole world.  But imagine if there were many Peacebearers and if each one did this wholeheartedly, just in their own little slice of life! Imagine the cumulative effect this could have! We may be tempted to think that what we are able to do is too little, too insignificant to make a difference. But remember that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows to become a large world-embracing bush!

Never forget that Mother Teresa did not have the slightest clue that picking up one dying man would result in an international movement of service to the poorest of the poor.  And Rosa Parks had absolutely no idea that her refusal to give up her seat on that segregated bus would become the catalyst for a worldwide racial equality movement.  They were, each one of them, simply acting upon their mustard-seed sized faith and doing what little thing they thought they could do, at that time and in that place.

And so, let’s each ask ourselves how Jesus might want to use us to plat mustard seeds of peace and unity in the midst of so much injustice and suffering. Trust him if he puts an idea into your heart and be willing to step out of your comfort zone because…it’s absolutely amazing what God can do even just through one person who decides to plant a tiny mustard seed of the Kingdom of God in the soil of everyday life.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

What Kind of Soil Are You?

Homily for the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, July 12, 2020. Gospel of St. Matthew 13:1-23. Theme: What Kind of Soil Are You?

I grew up in a family very connected to the land, to fields and farms, and so todays Gospel is one that I can relate to very easily.  And if you are someone who has a green thumb and is really into gardening than I am sure that you, too, can grasp what Jesus is saying to us today. Like most thing rural and natural, its quite simple to understand and makes a lot of sense!

But just to quickly recap in case you haven’t had time to really think about today’s Gospel, in this parable Jesus, the Word of God become human, is the Sower. The seeds are the words of God, that is, the teachings of Christ inviting us to a change of heart, to enter the Kingdom and receive the gift of eternal life. The different kinds of soil are the various responses people can have to both Jesus and his Gospel way of living. If you take some time to ponder this parable you will easily see what Christ is describing and how to identify where you are and where you want to be in this agricultural scenario.

But I think what is very much worth our time is for us to reflect a bit upon how we can make the soil of our hearts better, richer, more receptive for the seed. I think we would all admit that at one time or another we are alternatively a shallow pathway or a rocky ground or a thorny patch.  Not a one of us could honestly say that the soil of our hearts is always welcoming to the Word of God and sprouting its green shoots of faith, hope and love. So, like a good farmer or gardener we need to focus on how to improve our soil so that we can have a lush and fruitful crop, a beautiful and pleasing garden.

There are three things that are essential for this to happen no matter what kind of seed we sow: fertilizer to enrich the soil, water to soften it and increase its capacity for nutrients, and plant food to enrich and sustain the growth.  Each one of these has a corollary in the spiritual life so that the Word of God can be confidently planted within our hearts and produce both the fragrant flowers of virtue and the various fruits of the Holy Spirit.

The first thing that usually happens when we want to improve soil is that we add fertilizer to it. Now we all know where good organic fertilizer come from!  And yes, it is precisely those things in our life, the “stuff” that happens that we would like to avoid, that can actually be the best spiritual fertilizer for us. But just like natural fertilizer we can take the stinky lousy stuff that happens to us and turn it around, putting it to good use for our benefit.

The key is in knowing what to do with it. And what we have to do is to accept, offer and unite these things to the fertilizer that happened in Jesus’ life. Traditionally in Catholicism, this positive turning-fertilizer-into-soil attitude is called the Daily Offering and through it we make a gift of love out of everything- even the stinky bad and the ugly – to the Heart of Jesus, uniting it to love he bore for the Father and for each one of us in the fertilizer of the Passion and Cross. This is key to everything else we can do to improve our soil because it is an act of the will, a matter of the heart, a conversion of our attitude, so that we can see the hand of Christ in all things that take place in our lives and so not be choked by weeds or pricked by the thorns that try to kill the seed of God’s Word within us.

The next step in producing better soil is to water it regularly. Water does s couple of things to make for a better environment for seed-growth. First, it softens the earth making it more pliable and accessible for the planting of the seed. Second, it conditions the earth so that when plant food is given more of the nutrients reach the roots and are not wasted or lost. Now when it comes to supernatural gardening, this water is the grace of God, his blessings and strength rained down upon us by the Holy Spirit. It’s no coincidence that in both Scripture and Liturgy water is a primary symbol of both God’s grace and his Spirit.

The water of God’s grace does for us, for our souls, exactly what natural water does for soil.  It softens us and opens us up to compassion and love. It conditions us to be more open to God’s guidance and inspiration in our daily lives, more attune to what he is asking of us in a particular circumstance or situation. So, we need to know and make use of the ways that God tends to ordinarily bestow this life-giving water upon us.  The words of the Bible, the tradition of the Church and the experience of the saints show us that these ways are three: prayer, good works, and the sacraments.

The first is prayer, which is conversation with God, is personal and variable in how it is done. What is of utmost importance for all of us however is that it be honest and sincere. We own up to where we have gone wrong. We express gratitude for what God has enabled us to do right. We make known our fears, joys, needs and desires with confidence that we are heard and with patience to await an answer in God’s good time. This personal prayer must be a non-negotiable part of our everyday lives.  

Next comes good works is a catch all phrase that is meant to include anything that we do that is a reflection of our interior relationship with Christ.  So, this can cover a whole plethora of things such as deeds of mercy, fasting, spiritual reading, service to the poor and needy, teaching catechism…in short, just about anything we do that is not sinful and that is carried out in the spirit of love for God and neighbor.  Each person’s good works are fashioned according to their particular situation in life and so they are not a matter of “one-size-fits-all”.  But it’s very important for all of us to know that our good works in and of themselves do not earn us the grace of God. Rather, they open our hearts to receive his grace so that the seed of the Word of God can grow more fruitfully in our lives.

Finally, the Mass and sacraments are the essential plant food for the soil of our souls.  We know what each one is for, but do we know who to get the most spiritual nutrients from each of them?  If we want to become good fertile soil then we must approach them with mindful preparation, devout reception, and grateful appreciation. It is so easy, too easy, for us Catholics who are quite used to all the ritual to just go through the motions and parrot back the responses of the liturgy. But if how we do this then we are not good soil at all, but only that shallow footpath or that rocky ground that Jesus warned us about. He said that these types of people fail to produce spiritual fruit because they fail to study and understand his word. They do not grow strong roots in their relationship with God.

To avoid this fatal mistake, we must focus on the Word of God. Every sacrament, and especially the Mass, is steeped in Scripture both in its ritual prayers and in the readings that are proclaimed in its celebration. We need to be good spiritual farmers and gardeners and prepare the soil of our hearts for the seed of God’s Word by reflecting on the Scripture readings either before or after Mass. We need to hear and apply worthwhile homilies that can boost the nutrition of God’s Word, sustaining us throughout our journey on planet Earth.

I am confident that he person who does these things - the person who commits to a lifestyle that includes prayer, good works and the sacraments - will find that the first reading today from the Prophet Isaiah becomes a reality in his or her life.  The grace of God will indeed rain down upon them from Heaven and water the soil of their hearts. It will make their relationship with God fertile and their lives fruitful in living his Word.  They shall return to the God from whom they came with hands and hearts filled with the produce of his blessings, having cultivated by his grace the seeds of peace, love, forgiveness, faith, hope, light and joy.