Homilies - July 2014

Select a homily to read:
Fourteenth Sunday of the Year: July 6, 2014 by Fr. Boniface Von Nell
Feast of St. Benedict: July 11, 2014 by Abbot James Wiseman
Fifteenth Sunday of the Year: July 13, 2014 by Fr. Gabriel Myers
Fifteenth Sunday of the Year (at St. Pius V Parish): July 13, 2014 by Fr. Joseph Jensen

Fourteenth Sunday of the Year

  • July 6, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Boniface

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Friday we celebrated Independence Day with speeches, music, and parades. Above all we gave thanks for our freedom. Just as the mood of that day and the holiday weekend is one of happiness and joy, so too our readings today ring out their joy. These readings rejoice, however, in an even greater freedom won for us by God’s redeeming love at work among us.

Zechariah was a prophet of Judah after the return of the Jews to Jerusalem. In his prophecies, Zechariah envisaged a new religious messianic community with its center in Jerusalem. The time is near, a time which will usher in the end times. But contrary to the messianism of earlier times, the most striking characteristic of this Messiah is that he will be a Messiah of the poor. With the disappearance of the monarchy for several centuries the external features of this messianic ruler are now not the trappings of royalty. He has instead become identified with the devout poor and lowly of postexilic Judaism.1

This Messiah is a king, “a just savior is he meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.” He will be a different king from those who glory in their warlike power, who ride horses, the symbols of conquest and royal arrogance. This peaceful Messiah will do away with war chariots, with war horses and the warrior’s bow. He will extend his peace to all the nations and his rule will extend from sea to sea.2

We are accustomed to associate this text with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. And indeed, it is the only feature of royal messianism accepted by Jesus, who took that occasion to underscore his unique role as Messiah. In today’s liturgy, however, the prophecy is to be understood more broadly. Jesus was sent by God with power and authority and yet “meek and humble of heart.” When Jesus began his mission, he proclaimed blessed the poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus addressed himself to the poor and powerless, the sinner and the outcast. And they responded with joy and thanksgiving.3

The verses prior to today’s gospel speak about Jesus’ rejection and the growing hostility of the leaders of the people. “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, “We piped to you and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn” (Matt 11:16, 17). John the Baptist invited them to repent, but their excuse was that he had a demon. Jesus’ table fellowship with publicans and sinners also gave them an excuse. He was a glutton and drunkard.

These, of course, were not the real reason. They were camouflage that made them look good. The real reason they refused to change was because they were the religiously and moneyed privileged. They held on to what they had. Those whom Jesus ironically called the “wise and learned” blocked the revelation of the mysteries of the kingdom. They did not see how the love of God could enter and transform the human heart. They obsessed over the minutiae of the law, straining the gnat yet swallowing the camel. And what did not fit with what they knew, they dismissed.4

Jesus was disappointed. Jesus had taught and worked signs and wonders in their towns and villages. Still they rejected him. They could not deny the reality of his miracles but these “wise and learned” men attributed them to magic, or worse yet to Satan. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes: (Mtt 11:21). Jesus’ opponents did not recognize him as the Messiah precisely because he came as the Messiah of the poor and lowly. He came in peace. Their mindset could not see the love of God revealed in the person and work of Jesus.

Although Jesus was disappointed at this rejection by the elite, he praises the Father for the little ones who received his revelation. These are “the childlike,” who welcomed the revelation hidden from the “wise and learned.” These are the disciples and all those he has called “blessed.” They are the rough fishermen, the publicans and tax collectors. They have no illusion of who they are. Their acceptance compensate\d for his rejection to such a degree that Jesus exclaims, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth.”5

A child’s mind is eager and open. It is not cluttered with many thoughts and opinions. A child is always learning from experience. This flexibility allows it to be open to Jesus. A child’s mind is relational, totally dependent upon its parent and does not think it is something in itself. Such a mind in an adult opens the soul to God ready to enter the mind of Jesus.6

Jesus’ prayer of thanksgiving is followed by a call to become his disciples, to take his yoke that he calls “easy,” because he, Jesus, is meek and humble of heart. He invites those whose labor weighs them down. This includes those in his audience who struggled to be righteous by conforming to the multiple religious laws decreed by his opponents. But it also includes all those oppressed by discrimination and injustice. In fact, Jesus’ invitation goes out to all who are weary, whose way is difficult. It is an invitation to all suffering humanity, especially those whose suffering has caused them to lose heart.7

Jesus promised them rest. But it is not a rest without work. It is the rest that happens when the end for which we have been created is realized. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God (St. Augustine). By following Jesus, we are brought to the Father who fulfills us and makes of us a new creation. This rest happens when we live in harmony with ourselves, our neighbor, and God.8

The way to this rest is to yoke ourselves to Jesus and to learn his meekness and humility. Meekness is the steady flow of gentleness. It does not break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick. It is patient and courageous. Humility, the handmaid of meekness is truth, it is of the earth. Humble people remember at all times that they are creatures, dependent on God and meant to serve God’s purposes.9

This yoke of humility and meekness, the labor and burdens that Jesus imposes are light because they are the expression of our true being. It is that rest in God for which we are made and that supports us in all our activities in all our joys and sorrows. It is this that the child-like, the little ones instinctively recognize in Jesus. It is by assuming this yoke that permits even the great ones to be born again, to become little and participate in the Messiah’s rule of peace.

Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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1 John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (Milwaukee, Bruce, 1965) 950
2 Days of the Lord, The Liturgical Year, v.4, Ordinary Time, Year A (Collegeville, Minn., Litu- rgical Press, 1002) 114
3 Days of the Lord, 114, 115
4 John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Year A (Collegeville, Minn., 2004) 218, 219
5 Days of the Lord 116
6 John Shea, 220
7 John Shea, 221
8 John Shea, 221
9 John Shea, 222

Feast of St. Benedict

  • July 11, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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If after this homily you decide it was “for the birds,” at least in one sense you’d be right, for I am going to focus on birds, specifically on one particular species. In our festal Vespers binder, the sheet with a tab for today’s feast has the image of a dark bird with something round in its beak. Why this? Well, as many of you already know, this image was chosen because of an incident in the life of St. Benedict as recounted by St. Gregory the Great. As regrettably happened several times in Benedict’s life, others became envious of his holiness, in one instance a priest named Florentius who, under the guise of friendship, gave the saint a loaf of poisoned bread, hoping thereby to get rid of him once and for all. Even though aware of the poison, Benedict thanked the priest for the gift but afterwards told a raven that regularly came out of the nearby woods to receive food from the saint to fly away with the loaf and drop it where no one would ever find it. At first the bird was reluctant even to touch the poisoned loaf, but eventually it obeyed, afterwards returning to receive its usual meal. This story may not be the best-known of all those in Gregory’s life of the saint, but it was striking enough to lead many artists to draw or paint Benedict with a raven standing at his feet.

Why I bring this up will become clear by looking at some things said about ravens in the Bible. The first time the bird is mentioned there is in the Book of Genesis, in the account of Noah and the ark. When the deluge had ended and the waters had so diminished that the ark had come to rest on a mountaintop, we read that Noah opened the hatch and released a raven, which flew around until the waters had dried up. He later released a dove, which returned once because it could find no place to rest and then returned a second time with an olive branch in its bill, letting Noah know that it was now about time to safely leave the ark. In the ancient Jewish document known as the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis commented on this passage about the raven in an interesting way. They have the raven complaining bitterly to Noah about being the first to be sent out from the safety of the ark. It says, “Of all the birds that you have here, you are sending none but me!” to which Noah petulantly replies that the world has no need of a raven anyway, for it is among the animals proscribed as unclean and therefore fit for neither food nor sacrifice. But the account proceeds to show that God was more compassionate toward the raven than was Noah. The key lines go like this:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Noah: “Take the raven back, because the world will need it in the future.” “When?” asked Noah. The Holy One replied: … “A righteous man will arise and dry up the world, and I will cause him to have need of the ravens, as it is written, ‘And the ravens brought him bread and flesh.’”

That reference is to Elijah in the First Book of Kings, where the prophet, after accurately predicting a drought to King Ahab, is told by God to go to a wadi east of the Jordan River, where ravens would bring him bread and meat every morning and every evening, as indeed they did.

Now is there anything we can learn from these passages, strange though they be, complete with a talking bird and a crabby shipwright? I think there is, and it was nicely brought out in a recent article by a Benedictine sister I know, a convert from Judaism who is equally well-versed in Talmudic lore and in the wisdom of our monastic tradition. Sister Sarah Schwartzberg writes that despite Noah’s disgruntlement that the raven, unlike the dove, did not return to let him know when vegetation was again available on earth, with its later mission to feed the prophet Elijah

the raven was given a second chance. It succeeded where it had failed before and was destined to perform great deeds.

[So, too,] God gives us all a second chance. [As Psalm 86 insists, God is] “good and forgiving, most merciful to all who call on you.” Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery and tells her: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (Jn 8:11). Following the Gospel, Benedict gives those who sin a second chance. In chapter 23 of his Rule, a disobedient monk is to be warned privately the first time. If necessary, he is warned a second time. If he still fails to change his behavior, he is given a public rebuke. He is disciplined [by excommunication or stripes] only if he fails to amend after three warnings….

[Thus,] the ravens that fed Elijah and that came to Benedict’s aid teach us the importance of giving ourselves and others a second chance. We learn from them that, with God’s grace, we can get up again after we have fallen, that we can keep trying even after we have failed, that we can hope for success. We have only to trust in God’s love.1

Through the example and intercession of our holy father Benedict and through the power of this morning’s Eucharist, may we take this teaching to heart and be persons marked by a forgiving spirit, whether toward ourselves or others.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Sr. Sarah Schwartzberg, O.S.B., “St. Benedict and the Raven,” Spirit and Life 110, no. 2 (July-Aug. 2014), 15.

Fifteenth Sunday of the Year

  • July 13, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Gabriel

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[The pertinent phrase in this gospel seems to be “Jesus spoke at length, and said….]

This story of the sower seems to be Jesus’ first parable. It is given at tedious length. It is hard to like.  It is cut and dried.  The explanation is so spelled out.   There is little to engage the imagination.  It makes me feel fatalistic, as if I were one kind of soil or another and there is little I can do to change that.  I have only one chance in four of getting it right.  There are factors over which I have no control.  The evil birds straight out of Alfred Hitchcock; the flinty soil; the internal problem of anxiety.  Matthew’s gospel seems obsessed with the problem of anxiety.  Remember what Jesus says in the sermon on the mount about lilies and non-Hitchcockian birds.

However, we can appreciate and learn without liking.  For starters, we might notice the apprentice quality in this first effort on the part of Jesus to teach by parable.  We might see him struggling to package new and unconventional subject matter in a format appealing and understandable.  As a human he too learns by trying things out; he doesn’t turn out a fully-finished product on his first try.  Like our chief executive has been at times, he is not “fully in control of his narrative.”

If we dare approach the teaching of Jesus like this, we see a rising line of development in his parables.  Gradually he leaves the cave of his own understanding. Gradually he embraces his audience in a way that really connects.  We see that the later parables in Matthew are more emotionally genuine.  The wise and foolish bridesmaids, the servants being given talents to use in their master’s absence.  These are compelling stories.  They make us want to have sufficient oil so that we are not left behind.  They make us want to invest wisely, so that we can please the master.

But the surface of even these parables motivate by fear, which is a shortcoming.  The door is shut against the foolish bridesmaids.  The timid servant loses his coin and is cast out of the estate. Is this approach helpful to the spiritual life?  The parables in Luke and John are more helpful. They are more subtle.

John doesn’t use the word parable.  But in his gospel Jesus speaks in a very sophisticated way.  He tells us about the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd.  And most powerfully, about the vine and the branches.  Notice that these are not similes—Jesus isn’t like bread or light or vine.  He is those essential life-giving forces.  We benefit as passive receivers.  But with the vine and branches he moves beyond this.  It is possible to have intense connection with Jesus.  His sap, his life-blood, can flow in our veins.  It is the sort of metaphor from which mystics get their energy.

The parables I come back to again and again are the ones from Luke.  The good Samaritan, the Pharisee and tax collector, the prodigal son.  These show powerful contrast: compassion vs carelessness in the good Samaritan; humility vs arrogance in the Pharisee and tax collector.  In the prodigal son, the masterpiece, you get much more than a contrast between right and wrong; you get life in all its complexity.  You see the merciful father waiting for the “wrong” one to return.  We get inside the mind of the wrong one.  We see him come to admit that he is powerless over his problems. We see him start his twelve-step program.  In the older son we see the consequences of not starting a twelve-step program. There are so many ports of entry into this story like this.  It is Jesus at the top of his story-telling form.

So back to the sower parable.  It is a patchwork quilt, a diagram showing the different kinds of soil.  The soils are not so much different personalities.  They represent different parts of our personalities, how we manage the various situations that come to us.

Thus, in certain situations we are defensive, as the rocky soil suggests.  In others we worry, as the choking thorns depict.  In other situations we allow outside influences to determine our view: the media, the opinion of peers or of supposed authority figures.  We are mentally lazy; we wallow in our prejudice and second-hand beliefs. Jesus fights this.  He wants us to notice, take, and tend the tiny kernel of new and truth he sends our way.  All of this happens in the soil of the heart, which, Jesus is trying to say, is worth noticing.

He also implies that spiritual growth is not automatic.  He doesn’t do a perfect job of getting this across.  That causes the backstage scene showing the disciples as bewildered. It is interesting to watch Jesus’ annoyance.   Why don’t you get the point?  Must I stand on my head to get your attention?  He quotes Isaiah about looking and not seeing, about hearing and not listening.  The odd conclusion is that parables are deliberately obscure so the obtuse will not get the point. This contradicts the usual impression that parables are simple stories to make things clear.

All of this argument, and it is argument (rather unpleasantly so) is to shake us out of our complacency.  To waken us, to make us sit up and take notice, so that we begin to see and to listen.  This is the great opportunity that the kingdom of God presents: to be awake, to see and listen from the heart.  The parable of the sower does not tell us what we will find when we do so.  It tries to get us started.  As the prodigal son learned, to see and listen from the heart can get you started.  You may have to swallow your pride, slowly begin the twelve-steps. You may have to retrace your path, go backwards a bit, but the journey is worth it.  It allows you to find your true identity. This you find in the father’s embrace.

Fr. Gabriel Myers
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Fifteenth Sunday of the Year (at St. Pius V Parish)

  • July 13, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Joseph

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Given at St. Pius V Parish in California.

First, a little one question quiz: What do we use more than almost anything else, and yet almost never think about? I could probably have you raise hands and never get the answer I have in mind. I’m thinking of words. We use them all the time: conversation, reading, telephone, radio, TV, computer, texting, twitter, for advertising, for instruction—thousands of other uses. So common is the exchange of words that teachers have to worry about students texting during class, not paying attention; hopefully no one would be so bad as to do that in church, during a homily. But how often do we think of them? Yet how important they are to us! We need to use them carefully. It has been said, with perhaps at least a grain of truth: “People may forgive you anything you do, but they’ll never forgive anything you say.” St. James says: “If anyone does not sin with the tongue, he is a perfect person, able to bridle his whole body also” (Jas 3:2).

If even the human word is so important, so powerful, how much more the word of God? When a lector reads the first reading or the epistle, she concludes, “The word of the Lord,” and we understand how important it is. We used to say, “This is the word of the Lord.” Do you know the reason the bishops mandated that little change? It is because when lectors said “THIS is the word of the Lord,” they would usually raise the book and so give the impression that the word of God is contained in the book. Words in a book are simply ink on paper: the Word of the Lord is that which has been proclaimed, is now (hopefully) in our minds and in our hearts.

Today’s first reading, from Isaiah, is all about the power of the word of God: just as the rain and snow from above accomplish the purpose for which God sends them, to make the earth fruitful and provide nourishment for us, so does God’s word accomplish that for which He sent it. And what is that end? We can sum it one in one word: redemption. Now redemption is a very inclusive term. If we were to capture a live Catholic and set him/her here and ask “What does “redemption” mean? The answer might be “to save the soul,” or “to go to heaven,” and they would be partially correct, but it means so much more. First of all, we are human beings, not disembodied souls, so redemption relates to the whole person, it will involve also the body. And though we are individuals, we are also members of society, and we could not be whole persons if we did not wish all of society to be redeemed with us. Finally, society itself does not exist in a vacuum but is a part of the whole cosmos; the cosmos would not be complete without us, nor we without it. So redemption has a cosmic aspect.

St. Paul asserts that very clearly in today’s epistle: he speaks of creation as it is now being “made subject to futility,” of its “slavery to corruption,” and “groaning in labor pains.” From all these it is to be delivered, as will we, as we “await the redemption of our bodies.”(N.B.) If we think of it on the purely earthly level, what is meant by “corruption,” we see our waterways being polluted, our air being corrupted. When I was young I used to be able to look up at night and see the sky ablaze with stars, brilliant, beyond counting. How many can see that today; perhaps it you went far out into the desert, but never in the city. Or if we think of the world culture. What part of the world does not know wars, slums that stretch for miles, housing thousands or tens of thousands of underprivileged, starving, despairing people, often existing right next to neighborhoods that are rich and affluent. I think we can all agree that our culture is in need of redemption.

This situation is all our own doing, the product of greed, selfishness, and lack of compassion for the miserable. But God has not left us without instruction and direction. The Old Testament is full of concern for the poor. From the Book of Proverbs we read: “He who oppresses the poor blasphemes his Maker, but he who is kind to the needy glorifies him” (14:31); “He who has compassion on the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his good deed” (19:17). And of the condemnation by the prophets of human heartlessness, just these past two weeks we have heard from the prophets Amos and Hosea. And from Micah, too, we hear: “Woe to those who covet fields, and seize them; houses and take them; you cheat owners of their houses, people of their inheritance” (2:2). Sounds like our current mortgage crisis, doesn’t it?

But God has given us not only the words of the prophets, but, most importantly His only Son, the Word of God made flesh. He walked among us and spoke God’s word to us more directly than the prophets. Not only that, but He came for our redemption, to provide grace and strength to do God’s will. So why isn’t the world completely changed, redeemed? As we often hear it said, so creation can say, “God isn’t through with me yet.” The sending of His Son, the Word, is the most immediate way God continues His work. Today’s gospel is the parable of the sower. I could have read a longer version, with an explanation, but I think we all understand that the seed is the word of God and the soil on which it falls is the human heart—that is, on the heart of each of us.

How do we receive the word? How do we put it into effect? Does it flourish in our heart or wither up and die? The most important of the words Jesus spoke to us are in the Sermon on the Mount. The beginning of that is “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” He isn’t exalting poverty, but He certainly tells us not to be attached to wealth, not to be greedy. Now we have a wonderful example in our Holy Father, Pope Francis. The riches of the Church are at His feet, but he lives in a small apartment and drives a used car (they joke that he should have a bumper sticker that says, “My other car is a Pope mobile). He not only exhorts us to live simple lives and to be generous to the poor, but he leads by example. How different from the billionaires who think about nothing except money and getting more of it! If all would be “poor in spirit,” world poverty would be ended. “Blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your heavenly Father.” If we would take these words not just as beautiful sentiments, but take them to heart and act on them, wars could be brought to an end. Good example is infectious, good will is infectious. People will treat you as you treat them and by our good actions we can change the world. Don’t ask, “How about all those other people out there who won’t do right?” Don’t worry about other people; God will deal with them. Concentrate on your part of the cosmos, that is, yourself.

So how about the redemption of the cosmos? Will that come about in an instant, as God zaps it from on high? He could do it that way, but what would that accomplish? Manifest God’s omnipotence? God doesn’t want that; He wants us to change ourselves, wants us to change the world. God’s word is effective, achieves the end for which He sent it, but He will not do it without us; the word must fall on good soil (our hearts) and bring forth much fruit. It may happen only very slowly, but God is all wise in His ways, and very patient. Remember, it took the universe 13.8 billion years to get where it is. God may be willing to wait that long, but we shouldn’t be.

Fr. Joseph Jensen
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