Saturday, July 26, 2008

Finding the Treasure

(17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

Today we hear two more parables that come to us in a pair. They follow the classic form of “the kingdom of God is like…,” and are meant to teach us something about knowing the kingdom of God in our own lives.

In each of these short parables something valuable is found, either the treasure buried in the field or the “pearl of great price.” We have to be careful, though, that we don’t just see image of the kingdom of God in the valuable thing! When Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” it refers to the whole of the story. In each of the parables there is a discovery and a response, and both of these together are what make for an image of the kingdom of God.

In the discovery of the valuable object, there is a significant difference between the two parables. The merchant, Jesus says, had been “searching for fine pearls,” when he found the “pearl of great price,” while the person in the field just found the treasure. In one case someone was looking for something and in the other it was discovered by surprise. It goes the same way for us; we can find the kingdom of God in our lives in our world in both ways. We can look for the kingdom of God by reflection on how God has been working in our lives, how the Providence of God has led us along to this point, putting the right people in our path and supporting us through hard times. This is an important part of everyone’s spiritual practice, that we reflect and try to notice how God has been with us in the past and continues to operate in our lives now.

On the other hand, I think we’ve all had the experience of suddenly becoming aware of God “out of the blue” as it were. Maybe it’s in a situation of loss or grief and all of a sudden at some moment we know the strong hand of God with us. Or it might be in a moment of beauty like when we are contemplating the order and wonder of creation and we are suddenly aware of the great and adorable Mystery behind it all.

In the end though, it doesn’t matter how we find and become aware of the kingdom of God because the response we are called to make is the same whether we were looking for it or not. The merchant who found the pearl and the person who found the treasure in the field do the same thing once they find the object of value: they buy it. And not only do they buy it, but they “sell all” and buy it, doing whatever they have to do to own that treasure. Having found it, they single-mindedly make it the entire focus of what they want.

This is “the kingdom of God;” not that we just notice or become aware of God working gently and humbly in our lives, but that we buy into that experience, doing whatever we need to do to own it and make it our primary focus. This is the twofold process that brings us into the kingdom of God: first, that we find the Treasure, the awareness of God with us and working in our lives and our world. Second, that we should invest ourselves in that awareness and make it our guiding principle—allowing the rest of our lives to be organized around it. That’s what it means to put God first, to let God be “king” of our hearts and our world, and to step into the kingdom of heaven.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Mixed Motivations

(16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

The Lord’s parable the weeds and the wheat is first of all a continuation of the parable of the sower which we heard last Sunday. You will recall that in that parable we had an image of God scattering the seeds of goodness and righteousness over the world. Some of these seeds of grace get into people’s hearts and bear the fruits of prayer and devotion, justice and charity, “a hundred, or sixty, or thirty-fold,” as the Lord says. Today’s parable, though, recognizes the fact that within this great harvest of righteousness and goodness that God is planting and tending in creation, there are also weeds: injustice, violence, hate, disregard for life, and every other kind of evil—and these seem to grow in the world as well. Just like weeds in a garden, they rob the good harvest of space and nutrients. So we have a fairly accurate picture of our world in this metaphor of the field or the garden, in which the good harvest of justice, righteousness, and love is in competition with the weeds of sin, violence, and injustice.

What is Jesus’ advice to us who find ourselves in this world of wheat and weeds? As he counsels his disciples, at the end of the age, when the harvest is complete, the good wheat will be harvested and the weeds burned. So in our world of conflict between good and evil we must have a stance of patient endurance, confident that in our final destiny the good will prevail and evil be destroyed.

To me, though, there’s a deeper level to the parable. For the wheat and the weeds aren’t just out there in the world; there’s also in here, in the heart and the mind of each of us. Each of our hearts is a mix of motivations and most things we do come from a complex mixture of good and evil intentions. Even the most beautiful things we human beings are capable of, loving another person for instance, are often partly made up of admixture of evil motives, like possessiveness or control, for example.

This is nowhere more true than in religion. What motivates us to be religious? What drives us to prayer? What makes us get up early on Sunday and drag ourselves here to church, while so many who blissfully ignore God are resting easy? Certainly it’s because we love God. God is infinitely adorable of course, by definition. We are also moved by our gratitude for the regeneration we have received in our rebirth through the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. Finally, we are here because we look forward in hope and anticipation to the joy and peace of the eternal life which is ours in Christ.

But we all know this isn’t the whole story of our religious motivations. There are imperfect motives for our religion, and even evil ones. For example, there’s a little bit of fear in the heart of every religious person who isn’t yet a saint. For me, it’s what drives me to say the Act of Contrition over and over on take-off and landing. Even though the Lord has assured us that he calls us friends rather than servants, there’s often a little bit of fear mixed in with our devotion and faithfulness to God. Or we might pray sometimes not because we love and are grateful to God, but because of what we think God can do for us; that’s the story behind the so-called ‘gospel of prosperity.’ Or, worst of all, we might be at least partly motivated in our religion because we like the idea of being a faithful and religious servant of God; we are enamored of ourselves and make an idol out of our own goodness.

Finding ourselves in this situation of mixed motives in our faith, we must not despair! True, our motives are so mixed that, as the Lord himself says in the parable, to uproot the weeds too fast might endanger the roots of the wheat as well. So let us be content with our situation of mixed motives, and let it teach us humility.

God promises in the parable today that, despite our mixed motives, he will harvest the good that is in us. This means that in this life God will use the good that is in us to bring his own goodness to others, and even to multiply it. In the end, God will harvest the good motives in us for eternal life. And when we leave this world, the brilliance of the vision of God will burn and clean away all of our impurities and sins and bad motivations. The wheat will be harvested and the weeds burned. To really see God, as we will after this life, is to love him perfectly, and everything in us that isn’t love will fall away. That, by the way, is what we call purgatory, and it’s something to look forward to.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Generous Sower

(15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

When we come to the wise and wonderful parable of the sower, the first thing we need to do is discipline our reflection a little. This is because the first thing we tend to do is ask ourselves which category we’re in; are we the shallow soil, the thorny patch, or the hardened path? We love to put people in categories, including ourselves, so that we judge them. We’ll get to all that, but first let’s back up and start at the beginning, with God.

Notice the image of God in the parable. God is like a farmer scattering seeds on the earth. Indeed, our God is an overflowing love who is always raining down his grace upon us. Just as the sower in the parable scatters the seed all over, even on places where it is unlikely to grow or thrive, so God in pouring out grace is not asking first who is worthy or who is likely to use and appreciate it. This is the God in whom perfect humility and perfect generosity meet, the God who offers his grace just as much to the just and the unjust, just as much to the saint as to the sinner, and who is just as much in love with the grateful and holy soul as he is with the one who never bothers to notice or appreciate God’s goodness to him.

This truth that God is universally generous leads us directly to the problem that the parable is meant to address. If God loves everyone, and does not discriminate, why is there such a diversity of reception? How come one person receives faith and another not? Why do some of us become people of prayer while others live in isolation from God? The parable explains why the grace of God bears fruit in some people and gets nowhere in others.

It’s not God’s fault that some of us become saints while others don’t. It’s our problem. The grace of God is there, poured out for everyone. And we have to ask ourselves: What keeps me from noticing and appreciating God’s grace and what practical strategies can I put into my life to change? Here’s where we can get into some self-examination and use the parable as a starting point.

Probably most of us who are here in church are safe from the first problem, represented by the seeds that fell on the hard path. These are folks who are completely closed to spiritual reflection. There are a lot of reasons why someone is like this; they might be those who already know everything or they might have been hurt someone who was supposed to be a minister of religion. (Like everybody else, they make the most important decisions in life based on spiritual realities like love or truth, but going against what they know in their deepest selves, don’t let themselves admit that spiritual things exist.) But as I say, those of us who are at least who show up to pray and worship together are probably safe from this problem.

The second hindrance we human beings put before the grace of God is represented by the seed that fell on the shallow, rocky soil. This is something we religious people have to watch out for. The grace of God, like any relationship, needs to be cultivated. When we notice God’s goodness to us, we need to deepen that awareness in prayer. You know how when you have an old friend and you fall out of touch and haven’t called for a few years, and then you finally one of you calls the other and you find you don’t have anything to talk about anymore? Well so it is with our relationship with God. If we don’t keep it up in prayer, keeping ourselves aware and grateful for the grace of God, eventually we will find—and I know I’ve been there and I bet there are people who can relate—that though we thought we had a relationship it was kind of an abstract idea with no real content.

The third hindrance to the fruitful reception of the grace of God is represented in the parable by the seed that fell in the thorny patch. It can’t grow because it’s chocked by the thorns. As Jesus says, this represents those for whom the activity of God’s grace is choked by worldly anxiety and the lure of riches. This, in my opinion, is the real spiritual problem that we face in our time and place. We are distracted and anxious and because of it we fail to notice and appreciate the grace of God flowing over the world. But we can choose to change this! For example, when we’re driving or walking along, where do we put our mind and our spirit? Do we dwell on the last difficult conversation? Do we indulge our anxiety about the next thing we have to do? Of course we do; this is the spiritual state of our culture, but it doesn’t have to determine our interior behavior. Instead of dwelling on the past or being anxious about what’s next, we can decide to notice, in that little moment, the beauty of the creation around us, or to become aware for a moment of the miracle of life that is breathing in and out of our bodies.

I mention this because it’s just one of many little practical strategies we can use to improve our spirituality, so that we might notice and appreciate more the grace of God that is all around us. This is how we make our hearts and minds into the good soil that God can use to multiply his grace and to use—often without our knowing about it—to bring his grace to others.

As the prophet Isaiah says today, God’s grace will find a way to be fruitful in the world. If not through us, the history of salvation shows that God is ready and willing to go to somebody else. God’s Word, which as we know is present to us as Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, will accomplish the salvation for which God speaks it to the world. Let’s open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts and become grateful places where that Word can take root and grow. As the Word return to God, taking the resurrected humanity of Christ with it, let us consent to God’s desire that the whole world be lifted up in that Resurrection.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Beginning the Pauline Year

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

Last week the universal Church began the year of St. Paul, a celebration of the bimillenium of the birth of this great apostle to the nations. That is to say that for the next twelve months, until the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul next year, we are celebrating the 2000th anniversary of Paul’s birth.

Paul’s influence on our faith is incalculable. Apart from Jesus, Paul is the only person in the New Testament that we really know anything about in terms of personal history. The Pauline epistles, written either by Paul himself or his disciples, associates, or those inspired by him, actually make up the majority of the New Testament.

And yet, I think we don’t often hear about Paul’s teaching at the Sunday Eucharist. I guess that this is at least partly due to the way the readings are arranged for us in the lectionary. In these weeks of Ordinary Time we read continuously in one of the Gospels. This year, of course, we have been reading along in Matthew. The first reading is then selected to match with the Gospel, showing the hidden presence of hoped for Christ in the Old Testament. For example, in the Gospel today Jesus speaks about how God passes over those who are clever and learned by the world’s standards and reveals himself to those who receive him simply like “little ones.” To complement this, in the first reading we hear the prophecy of Zechariah, who looked forward to the Messiah who would arrive like a “little one,” seated on a donkey. And we know well that this prophecy was fulfilled by Jesus in the humble arrival at Jerusalem we celebrate each Palm Sunday.

The second reading, however, at least in these Sundays of Ordinary Time, proceeds on its own cycle and isn’t necessarily related to the Gospel or the Old Testament reading. So, I think that faced with a beautiful Gospel and an Old Testament related to it, preachers often concentrate on those, and leave the second reading alone. But it’s in the second reading that we hear St. Paul. So, in celebration of the opening of the year of St. Paul, and because we are in the midst of Paul’s beautiful and deep letter to the Romans, I want to preach a little on St. Paul.

In the selection we have from Romans today, we hear Paul setting up the classic device of “there are two kinds of people in this world.” There are those who live according to the flesh and those who live according to the Spirit. Now here we have to be very careful. By “flesh” and “Spirit” Paul is not talking about two parts of ourselves, like our soul and our body. Instead, he is talking about two spheres of influence or two centers of spiritual power which are in constant competition for our attention, allegiance, and obedience.

The flesh is that center of power which is set against God. It is everything out there in the world—and in our own hearts—that is selfish, that puts us and the welfare of our own bodies, communities, and nation ahead of the good of all. It is the culture of violence that believes in retaliation, preemptive war, and puts convenience ahead of the sanctity of life. The glittering promises of this arrogant world of the flesh are all around us. We see them everyday in the world’s advertisements, for example.

But to follow this selfish world that Paul calls the flesh leads only to misery and meaninglessness. That’s the mystery of Jesus’ own words that the one who seeks to save his own life will lose it. Paradoxically, concentrating only on ourselves—whether it be me, my community, or my country—leads to unhappiness. And just as a life lived “in the flesh” has the proximate result of misery, depression, and isolation in this world, so Paul tells us that it terminates in eternal death.

The other option, Paul tells us, is a life lived “in the Spirit.” What is this Spirit? Paul tells us: it is “the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead.” Think about that for a moment and notice how amazing it is! The exact same Spirit which effected the Resurrection of Christ is available to you and to me. Because of the humanity that we share with Christ we are linked with him and the same Power that raised him from the dead lives in us. This is the meaning of our Baptism, by which we are baptized into the dying and rising of Christ. It is the meaning of the Eucharist, by which we become the Body of Christ we receive. As the great mystic of the Dominican Order, Meister Eckhart said, the difference between physical food and spiritual food is that the physical food we eat becomes us, but when we eat spiritual food—as in the Eucharist—we become it. That’s why we’re here at the Eucharist: to be transformed into the Body of Christ risen from the dead and the place where the Spirit lives in the world.

Thus, to live in the Spirit is the opposite of living in the flesh because the Spirit teaches us how to let go of our addiction to selfishness, how to let go of the tyranny of thinking only of ourselves or only of our families, communities, and nation. Paul says that just as the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, the same Spirit living in us—if we allow it—will raise our “mortal bodies also.” This means that here and now the Spirit of God can lift us up from whatever holds us down—whether it be sin or selfishness, anxiety or depression. To live in the Spirit is to be free and at peace, knowing that God is with us. It also means that those who live in the Spirit, because they are already lifted up in the Resurrection of Christ, have their eternal destiny in that same Resurrection. There they live forever as those who were willing to become the self-sacrificing Body of Christ on earth and that now lives forever with God in heaven.