Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 106

The kingdom of heaven may be likened
to a man who sowed good seed in his field.
While everyone was asleep his enemy came
and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.
When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well.

Gardeners tell me they must tend their garden plots often. Weeds appear in a matter of days, within a week of sunshine and rain they smother vegetables and flowers. True hobbyists enjoy weeding despite the hot sun, kneeling on all fours, stiffness in the back and the effort to stand up again. It’s a necessary part of the process and if you don’t want to weed you’d best take up another hobby. The joy of gardening absorbs its challenges; we call that virtue patience.
Today’s gospel offers three parables about God’s divine patience. First there is the farmer whose fields suffered an invasive species; then the tiny, unpretentious mustard seed; and finally the yeast that disappears into dough. The farmer might have been frustrated by the appearance of weeds; someone might expect nothing of so small a seed, and the ignorant would ask, “What’s the point of adding yeast?”

In all three cases the wise know to wait patiently while the ignorant rush to judgment and wasteful, ineffective action.
These later chapters of Saint Matthew’s gospel concern the mission of the disciples and the life of the Church. The new disciple, eager to announce the Gospel and more eager to get results, will suffer endless frustration. He might go to war with certain elements of the Church when they disagree with him. They represent evil to him. Even baptized and fully engaged members with impeccable credentials suffer his interdict when they present obstacles to his success. He would weed them out of his church.

The same tyro will regard the small stuff, the mustard seed, as unimportant and unworthy of attention. The little birds – children, elderly, disabled, poor – will not find shelter in his presence; he is out there doing Great Work.
Finally, he’ll take short cuts as he kneads the community and bakes it into a communion.  He might ask, “What difference does the yeast of personal prayer make anyway? If the bread fails to rise it’s the fault of those people who shouldn’t be in my church to start with!”

These parables teach us about Divine Patience. Unlike the annual cycle of planting and harvesting, God has all the time in the world. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” His Kingdom of Heaven will appear, but not in the foreseeable future, nor within the time I have left.
No one can know yet which members of the church are wheat and which are weeds. The wise tell us, “Call no one happy before she dies.” Likewise, call no one saved and no marriage successful before they have ended in grace. Those judgments belong to the Lord who planted the Seed of Justice in a garden just outside Jerusalem.

Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene

Lectionary: 603

The Bride says: 
On my bed at night I sought him 
whom my heart loves– 
I sought him but I did not find him. 
I will rise then and go about the city; 
in the streets and crossings I will seek 
Him whom my heart loves.

When many people think of the word Catholic or Catholic Church the first thing they think of is a Roman Catholic teaching about sexuality. It might be the issue of birth control or abortion. It might concern "homosexual marriage" or the required celibacy of priests. Or perhaps it's the refusal to ordain women. Many people rightly suspect the Church has a low opinion of transgender medical procedures. And extra-marital sex is still out of the question. Artificial insemination? No, thank you. We also frown upon incest; marriage is permitted only between persons who do not have a first degree (mother/son or father/daughter), second degree (brother/sister) or third degree (uncle/niece, aunt/nephew.) Fourth degree (first cousins) relations are reluctantly permitted. 

If a fertile couple intends not to have children -- that is, not to accept them as a gracious gift from our generous God -- they do not have the wherewithal to be married. Likewise if they intend to be unfaithful, or marry with the proviso that they might divorce, they may appear to be married but are not. 

No matter the issue, if it's sex, we've got a teaching, policy or position; and it's probably not conformed to the currently popular opinion. 

Unfortunately, that negative publicity overshadows our enthusiastically favorable attitude toward sexuality. Especially, we love the Sacrament of Marriage. Even a grade school child should notice that neither religious life nor celibacy is a sacrament, while marriage is. 

Historically, that has been controversial. There is a shadow tradition of Manichean heresies among Christians, beginning even before the birth of Jesus. They have always despised Marriage. Their dualism sees only good and evil: the divine is good, human is evil; spirit is good, flesh is evil; male is good, female is evil; friends are good, enemies are evil; and so forth. Manichaens  have opposed the institution of marriage because  they suspect everything about flesh, desire and pleasure. But it's a lot easier to suppress marriage than sexuality; the very people who despise the sacrament as carnal often slip into carnality. 

Clearly, by anyone's account, Saint Mary Magdalene was attracted to Jesus. Thousands of people flocked to hear his words and to be healed by his touch; she readily joined the throng. Did she have a sexual relationship with him? Only in the fantasies of today's sexually-obsessed public. There's no indication of that in scripture. 

Much can be made from an argument of silence -- that is, "Just because the Bible doesn't say it doesn't mean it didn't happen." -- but nothing persuasive. An argument from silence could just as well suppose Jesus traveled to China. 

We celebrate Mary Magdalene as a disciple of Jesus. She wept at his grave and he appeared to her on Easter Sunday. Their embrace ended when he sent her to tell the others. We know little more than that about her. She loved him intensely and he loved her as well. Like every relationship of two persons, like your relationship to Jesus and like mine: theirs was absolutely unique. 

But of course there were sexual feelings as there are around any desirable male or female. Did Jesus exploit the desires of the women or men who came to him? That would fit no one's image of Jesus. 

We honor Saint Mary Magdalene among the disciples of Jesus for her chaste devotion to him. During this licentious age, insanely preoccupied with sex and gratification, we pray that her Spirit might guide us in all our gatherings, conversations and interactions. 

Friday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 393

But the blood will mark the houses where you are. Seeing the blood, I will pass over you; thus, when I strike the land of Egypt, no destructive blow will come upon you.

It is wonderful to see the number of Catholics who more deeply participate in the Eucharist as they drink the Blood of the Lord from the chalice. This privilege, once permitted only to bishops, priests and deacons, belongs to the baptized. 
One of the Fathers of the Church, remarking on that practice, promised his congregation that the Avenging Angel, seeing the blood on the lips of God's people, would pass over them. 
There are innumerable references to blood in the scriptures, beginning with the blood of Abel that cried to heaven for revenge, through the "blood and water" that fell from Jesus' body when he was crucified, to Revelation 19: 13: 
He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 
The implication is always violent. Blood is not supposed to leave the body; it does so only when the body has been violated. But this violence is a sacred sacrifice which is beautiful and precious in God's sight. The Father is pleased and grateful for the Son who offers his life to save his people. 
So when the Christian drinks the Blood of the Lamb she welcomes the full measure of blessings and trials that must come her way. 
If Jesus was not exempt from suffering, obviously his disciple will not be either. 
Saint Francis readily embraced the way of the cross when he taught his friars that poverty is the easiest, surest, quickest and most blessed way to heaven. Just as Jesus was homeless and poor, as he relied on kind strangers in every town he visited, so should the friars prefer neediness, shortages and the ever-present possibilities of hunger, cold and privation. 
As Francis' teaching worked its way into popular devotions, traditional expressions appeared. We say things like, "Offer it up!" and "All for Jesus." These sayings help us cope with the disappointments which are natural and inevitable. 
If my first emotional reaction was self-pity and "Why me?" remembering the Blood of Jesus I will ask, "Why not me?" 
Today's liturgy gives us an even more delightful response to difficulty, "I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord."
It is a phrase we should recall each time we step from our pews to join the procession to the altar, as we slowly step forward, and as we bow before the Eucharistic Minister who offers the Precious Blood of Jesus. 
"I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord."

Thursday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 392

Then he added, "This is what you shall tell the children of Israel: I AM sent me to you." God spoke further to Moses, "Thus shall you say to the children of Israel: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. "This is my name forever; this my title for all generations.

A child's first word is "Momma." The simple sound of m and ah, created by pursing the lips and shaping a breath, thrills the infant's mother. If the baby is her first she has a new identity, one she had hardly dared to dream of or expect. Though she cannot be unfamiliar with the word, it is entirely new when it's mouthed by a new born baby.
The baby's word is a new identity for the new mother. Regardless of titles ahead of her name, or degrees fastened at the end; regardless of whatever she was called by her parents, friends, enemies or government, the one that matters to the child and to her is "Momma." 
In Exodus 3 the Lord reveals his name to us. That is, he reveals the name by which we shall call him. It is not an abstract concept  like god, which might prove useful for the classroom or theological debate. It is a sacred name by which we enter the unfathomable mystery of God's presence, entering freely and without hesitation, as a child runs into his mother's room crying, "Momma, Momma, Momma!" 
It is a privileged name, given to a particular people. Not every child in the neighborhood can call this woman, "Momma." They have their own parents. Likewise not anyone can call on the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob unless they have been adopted or born into the family. 
"This is my name forever; this my title for all generations.
Like the proud new mother, the Lord boasts of his name and would be called by this name "for all generations," precisely because the Lord is proud of his people. 
so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, to be my people, my fame, my praise, my glory

Wednesday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Moses said to God,
"Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh
and lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?"
He answered, "I will be with you;
and this shall be your proof that it is I who have sent you:
when you bring my people out of Egypt,
you will worship God on this very mountain."

I find it more than remarkable that the "proof" God offers for Moses' authority is the worship the Hebrews will offer on Mount Sinai. We usually look for more spectacular demonstrations and there are plenty in the history that follows this conversation in the wilderness. Who would not be persuaded by the ten plagues that afflicted the Egyptians, the parting of the Red Sea and the complete destruction of Pharaoh and his army? But these mighty deeds were not the proof the Lord offered. Nor would they prove a reliable foundation of faith.

Rather, it was the worship the Hebrews offered on "this very mountain."

"No sign will be given!" Jesus thundered at his critics. His changing water to wine and feeding five thousand in the desert did not satisfy them. Neither his compassionate healing nor his numinous presence could bring them round. They would not see his passion, death and resurrection as a proof of his authority. As he had prophesied, "If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead."

We read of that proof in Exodus 24, when Moses presided over the Mount Sinai covenant. He sprinkled the blood of an ox on the people and on the altar, which represented God. Thus they were bound together in the blood.

The Church sees this remarkable ceremony as a prototype of the Mass. We are joined to our God and to one another in the Blood which was shed on Mount Calvary. It flowed from his open chest when a soldier pierced his side with a lance; it is the very blood which we drink at the altar.

The proof God offered during that burning bush epiphany was the covenant of communion with himself.  This sign is recognized with the eyes of faith, by those filled with the Holy Spirit.

There will always be cynics and critics who demand more persuasive, "scientific" proof. They point to the persistence of evil -- which abides even in Christian hearts! -- to show that an all-powerful God is neither good nor just.

Our eyes have been opened and we see God's vindication on Calvary and our Communion in the Blood of the Lamb.

Tuesday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 390

And as for you, Capernaum: Will you be exalted to heaven?
You will go down to the netherworld.

For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you."

Growing up in the mid-western Catholicism of the 1950's I remember presumption as one of the more serious sins. Although I conformed to the six laws of the Church and the innumerable laws of civil society, I should not presume I would go to heaven or, to use the Protestant word, be saved. I should still cultivate an attitude of fear and trembling before the sacred mysteries of faith. The nun, the priest, the church, the sanctuary, the tabernacle and the Most Blessed Sacrament demanded and deserved great reverence. If I walked or drove past a Catholic church or cemetery I should sign myself with the cross; I should be afraid not to do so. 

This training met some resistance with the onset of cynicism in American society during the 1960's. Resistance to the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the furor around birth control and Humanae Vitae and many other circumstances created an atmosphere more tolerant of presumption. 

Advertisers in particular told me, "You deserve a break today!" Baby boomers were special, entitled and privileged.  Americans in general were supposed to colonize the world with our culture of privilege. There would be no more minorities; everyone had the right to think, feel, speak and buy whatever he could afford. Laws might prohibit abortion, guns, gambling, Sunday shopping, divorce, and recreational drugs but they could be changed for the entitled generation. With a new millennium even "same sex marriage," which had been both unmentioned and unimaginable, became not only a privilege but a right for those who wanted it. 

In this Brave New World everyone was saved; Hell, Purgatory and Limbo were no more. A Good God who loves everyone unconditionally must assume everyone into heaven immediately upon their death, regardless of their deeds. 

Theologians tell us presumption is a sin against the virtue of hope. Where hope stands in eager waiting before a generous God, presumption ignores the Presence of God. Where hope wonders what gifts might appear as unexpected adventures unfold and insurmountable difficulties arise, presumption wants no challenges . Presumption knows what it wants, expects and demands it. 

Where hope ennobles, presumption enslaves. Hope allows the Holy Spirit to bless one with courage when distressed and joy when disappointed. It recognizes the sovereign freedom of God to give and withhold gifts, and remains confident that His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches over me. Presumption disappointed plunges into angry despair. 

Finally, hope recognizes presumption and does penance for it. If I am disappointed I know it comes from my expectations and not from God's failure. Presumption cannot be converted to hope; it clings to itself and bitterly resents every challenge. 

In today's gospel Jesus uses the strongest possible language to warn against this sin. It must suffer the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, even as hope confidently waits God's mercy. 

Monday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 389

A new king, who knew nothing of Joseph, came to power in Egypt. He said to his subjects, "Look how numerous and powerful the people of the children of Israel are growing, more so than we ourselves! Come, let us deal shrewdly with them to stop their increase; otherwise, in time of war they too may join our enemies to fight against us, and so leave our country."

Exodus is the story of refugee immigrants. No descendant of Abraham, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Mormon, can forget that God has given us a home along with our traditions and identity. We are the people he chose for his own; if we prosper it's because we were blessed when the world hated us.

Christians in particular cannot forget, "Out of Egypt I have called my son." The infant Jesus was a refugee, whisked out of Bethlehem in the dead of night to flee with Mary and Joseph from Herod's soldiers. There are many passages in the Old and New Testaments that remind us to welcome refugees; for instance:
You shall not deprive the resident alien or the orphan of justice, nor take the clothing of a widow as pledge. For, remember, you were slaves in Egypt, and the LORD, your God, redeemed you from there; that is why I command you to do this. When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; let it be for the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD, your God, may bless you in all your undertakings. When you knock down the fruit of your olive trees, you shall not go over the branches a second time; let what remains be for the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you pick your grapes, you shall not go over the vineyard a second time; let what remains be for the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow. For remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt; that is why I command you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:17-22)
Refugees and their descendants do not forget where they came from. Syrian, Kurd and Iraqi refugees fleeing to Europe want to return to their homelands. Most do not intend to stay in foreign, strange lands. When they ask for help it is first to help them survive the moment and then to return to a safe, stable home. They truly become displaced persons when they and their children forget their native land. 

The cruelest people are those who have forgotten their native lands. Many American have lost their memories of Northern Europe; they do not remember the religious violence that drove them out of their homelands. They call themselves "Americans" and feel entitled to taunt and jeer at the latest refugees to reach our country. They would build walls against Latin Americans; some even discriminate against the Americans native to the southwestern territories stolen from Mexico.

Our Catholic traditions teach us to remember our history, including the suffering of our ancestors, and to show both compassion and hospitality to refugees. Not to do so is to betray our own souls; not only do we lose our heritage, we take for granted the blessings God has given us. 

Wikipedia lists twenty-one places in the United States named "Providence." Their founders believed God would provide for them through the hardships of building a new home far from their native lands. Only those who have lost faith in Providence, who believe God no longer provides for this country would build a wall against Latin Americans fleeing the drug wars spawned by North America's addicts.