The laborers are few

Today’s Gospel reading puts the modern-day priest shortage into a useful perspective. Jesus had no priests to work with when he founded his ministry. Today, in the 9th Chapter of Matthew, He calls the 12 Apostles to him, recognizing that “the harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few.” Tomorrow’s reading is from Chapter 10 and it has Jesus sending the Apostles out to the Jews, curing their diseases, casting out demons, and most important, telling them that the Kingdom of God is at hand. The first Christian Missionaries are put to work.

Jesus saw the hunger for God in the people around him. Matthew tells us that the Lord’s heart was troubled when he saw how they were “harassed and helpless.” Jesus was the embodiment of His father who is love itself, and love grieves when it sees pain and loneliness. But Jesus knew that he could not reach everyone by himself. Although he traveled all over his part of the world, he was still one man and walking was the fastest form of transport available to him. So he sent the Apostles. And then later, the 70 disciples. And then the Holy Spirit who supercharged the work of Jesus’ followers, allowing them to bring thousands of people to the Way of Christ by their zeal and love. And now, he sends you and I.

The work that began in the 9th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel continues today. There are still many, many lost sheep. There are people among us who have never heard the good news, or who have heard it but have forgotten it or who never understood the incredible promise of eternal life that lies within it. Each of us has friends, neighbors and family members who are “harassed and helpless” because Jesus is not a part of their life. They need gentle reminders that the Kingdom of God is truly at hand.

The harvest is still abundant, but the laborers are still few. Jesus continues to call us to go forth and spread the good news. Most of us don’t have the power to cure illnesses or cast out demons, but we do have the power to love. That was enough for the 12 in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s enough for us today.

Want world peace? Try this.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told us that, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is the second-greatest commandment, second only to “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Everything Jesus taught and (according to Jesus himself) everything in the scriptures are based on these commandments. Everything.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “a society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow individuals to obtain what is their due.” Furthermore, the Church recognizes that the rights of the individual come before those of society and must be respected by society in order for that society to maintain any moral legitimacy. A government that is not built upon the foundation of this golden rule is a government doomed to failure.

And what is our individual role beneath the umbrella of social justice? We are each called to look upon our neighbor (with NO exception) as “another self,” entitled to the means of living life with dignity. It is our obligation to live our lives in community with our neighbors; we are obligated to see to one another’s needs. The Church refers to this as “Solidarity,” and points out that social, economic, political and even international problems cannot be resolved in any way except by practicing the principles of solidarity.

I had known all of this, in one form or another, for my whole life. Being told that God wants us to love our neighbor is hardly a revelation. But what strikes me for its simplicity and depth is the Church’s contention that all of the world’s problems could be resolved by these words alone. And furthermore, none of the world’s problems will be resolved without them.

There’s a tendency in the world today to separate faith from society. To live out our religion within the four walls of our churches and our homes. To leave our Catholicism at home when we head off to work. But when we do that we are leaving our most important tools behind. The principles of Christian charity are just as essential in our work lives as they are in our home lives. And right now, couldn’t our world use a lot more “love your neighbor”?

Have you hugged a Samaritan today?

Sunday’s Gospel is the story of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The story, like all good Bible stories, makes a number of really good points about the sort of world God wants from us. The point that struck me this time is how bold Jesus was, talking to a woman who belonged to a tribe the Jews hated. The Jews wouldn’t take anything from Samaritans, and here Jesus was, asking for a cup of water. Jesus even accepts their invitation to..ewww…stay with the Samaritans for a couple of days.

Samaritans were among the early Israelites, but split from the Jews hundreds of years before Jesus arrived on the scene. Along the way there were religious disputes; political and territorial disputes, battles, etc. Once we decide to dislike a group of our brothers and sisters, it doesn’t take long for us humans to come up with all sorts of ways to make the rift permanent. Sound familiar?

The lesson is clear. Jesus has no use for the worldly things that separate God’s children. He wants us to reach across human-created barriers, whether religious, ethnic, political (yes, political) or economic. And that’s the point. Who is your Samaritan? Is it the people who voted for Trump? Or Hillary? Is it the well-meaning 7th Day Adventist who dropped off a seven page anti-Catholic screed in an attempt to save your soul? Immigrants? The rich? The poor? We all have Samaritans in our life; a family or group of people who look different or espouse something that we disagree with and so we avoid them. That’s not Jesus’ way.

Our Father created each and every person on the planet, including you and your Uncle Ralphie who talks too loudly about politics. God loves you and Uncle Ralphie equally, and His desire is that we love one another so we can help one another reach the Kingdom of Heaven. Let’s think about that in our hyper-politically-divided America. Maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be so hard to share a cup of water with a Democrat. Or a Republican. Or a Lutheran. Jesus did.

One more about the Sermon on the Mount

This makes three weeks in a row that we’ll be talking about the Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Book of Matthew). I can’t help it; there’s so much good stuff in those three chapters of the Bible I could spend a lifetime studying them. The sermon is a complete guide to living a Christian life, packed into roughly 2,000 words.

It begins with the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, the meek, who hunger and thirst, et al. We’re introduced to the idea that we are the “salt of the earth,” and then told that Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Ten Commandments and the other laws but to perfect them. “You have heard, “You shall not kill” but I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” Jealousy, adultery, making promises, almsgiving, prayer, fasting; check, check, check. Temptation, worry, and judging others; all dealt with. Bear good fruits; don’t just talk a good game—you have to play the game of Christianity. When Jesus was done, people were astonished. You think?! I’d be breathless.

Saint Augustine called the Sermon “a perfect standard of the Christian life.” Indeed, Jesus closes the sermon by telling us that “every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded on the rock.”

Like all things Christian, it can be difficult; scratch that; it’s IMPOSSIBLE for us humans to live up to this standard every day and in every action. We will fail at all of them some of the time and at many of them most of the time. God doesn’t expect perfection; he looks for willingness. After all, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Sufficient for a day is its own evil

Last week we talked about not worrying; about accepting the portion that God gives us for today, both the good and the bad. The post was based on the “Worry Sermon” (I made that title up); which is the last portion of the Sermon on the Mount (see Chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel).

There’s a sentence in that reading that has always felt wrong to me. The last sentence of Chapter Six reads “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” Other translations put it this way: “Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” Those words always felt awkward, like there was a word missing or out of order. Surely Jesus meant to say “The day’s own good things are sufficient for the day,” or, “I’ll give you enough to help you through today.” Why “sufficient for a day is its own evil?” It’s as though Jesus is promising us bad things, and plenty of them. Seems very un-Jesus-ey. It feels particularly out of context in a reading about not worrying. I’m all set to live free as a bird, peaceful as the wildflowers, and comfy as Mary at Jesus’ knee (while Martha serves lunch). And then Jesus tells me that today’s gonna be a handful.

St. John Chrysostom must have talked to someone who knows me. He wrote about this sentence. His answer was this: “Doesn’t every day have enough burdens of its own? Why do you add to them by laying on those that belong to another day?”

This sentence is one of those examples of parts of the Bible that need to be read in context. You can’t just quote this as a one-liner at parties (unless you like being alone at parties). It just doesn’t make sense outside of the context of the idea that came before it. The sentence before it that goes, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself,” helps a lot. Backing up another sentence, Jesus reassures us that, “Your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all (clothes, food, shelter). But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows that we can only deal with things, both good things and bad things; in daily doses. This is one more reminder to live in a relaxed manner; by living for today and meeting today’s challenges as they come. And not by dragging tomorrow into the day’s fight.

One day at a time.

I’m confused, and that’s good

Last week’s daily scripture readings confuse me. We were reading from Paul’s forceful letter to the Galatians warning them not to get enslaved to the law of Judaism. We also read Jesus’ “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees,” speech, in which he chastises the Scribes and Pharisees for teaching the law but not teaching and practicing love. It’s new testament Christianity at its most bold.

But at the same time, the Psalms for the day rejoice over the law. Meditate on the law, contemplate the law, the law, the law.

When I step back from these readings, this looks to me like the conflict between Catholicism and Protestant “Free Churches.” Catholics have the Catechism and all of its rules, explanations and consistency; Free Church Christians have Paul and his Live-by-the-Spirit, Die-by-the-Law attitude. Which is right? Are they both right? Are they both wrong? Or, more likely, am I just missing something?

I’m a Roman Catholic. I am a believer in the Church that Jesus built on the shoulders of St. Peter (“The Rock.”) One church. A universal church. A “catholic” church. That’s not going to change. Is the Church wrong in teaching the Old Testament? Should we tear Psalm 1, 119 and others out of the book and say that they no longer apply? Somehow, I don’t think so.

I used to cringe when something appeared in my spiritual path that I didn’t understand. I would quickly turn the page and move on to something easier. But after a very powerful epiphany several years ago, I learned that these moments can be doorsteps to a whole new understanding of Christianity. The Catholic Church has honed the Mass over two-thousand years. The readings chosen for the Mass were handpicked and arranged as they are for a reason. That reason may not be obvious to you and I, but there is a reason.

The Church says the New Testament, the story of Jesus, is hidden within the Old Testament, and the Old Testament is made manifest in the New. The various books are written in a variety of styles, from poetry and song to historical narrative, and they are interconnected. It’s a treasure trove, filled with inspirations and surprises. The Bible is one of the most important ways God speaks to us, and when God speaks to us, he speaks to us one-on-one. God doesn’t do mass marketing. God has a relationship with you that is unique and different from his relationship with me. He has things to say to you that I won’t understand. And God uses all of His tools, including the Bible, to convey that personal message.

So, last week, he was provoking me by putting two readings together that appeared to contradict each other. God was saying to me, “Child, it’s time to learn something new.”

Living between the lines

The Church that Jesus Built is awesome. It’s filled with miracles, with saints by the thousands, and with countless stories of faith-filled heroism. Its boundaries are the outstretched arms of the one and only God, who allowed Himself to be humiliated by His own creation; to be tortured and killed so that He could show us that our Earthly lives are just the beginning. Since the dawn of creation, the Church has been the “Greatest Story Ever Told.”
But most of the Church’s story is never told. Most of what takes place under the big tent of Christianity will never be written about, or spoken about, or made into a movie directed by Cecil B. DeMille. God is truly with us, and because He is with us, the majority of His work is the work of day to day living. It’s not the epic stuff of Moses talking to a fiery shrub, or St. Paul getting knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus. It’s not even Pope Francis tweaking the egos of the College of Cardinals. It’s doing the dishes for your wife just because. It’s calling old Aunt Tess to ask about her day. It’s turning to God with a problem while you’re at work and listening for a bit of small inspiration to get you through. It’s slogging through your day and remembering to take Him with you.
Sometimes I read Jesus’ admonition to “be perfect,” and I despair because…well, I’m just not. Sometimes I read the lives of the Saints and wish that I had that kind of faith. I read about Fatima and dream that maybe I could be there for the next one. I want the drama, I want the excitement of the Big Story.
Then God gives me a little poke in the side. He whispers a sentence or two to guide my writing. I blow the dust off the cover of my Bible and read the Book of James. And I’m inspired. “Faith without works is dead,” is a pretty simple and profound motto to live by. I turn to Him with a worry about my wife, daughter, son or friend and within a day that worry evaporates. Or he simply makes the sun rise in a particularly beautiful way.
The Bible was never meant to be the whole story. The stories of Jesus, of Abraham, and all the others in the Bible are just small slices, quick glimpses of the lives that they lived. As John the Apostle said in chapter 21 of Revelation: “There are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” But that doesn’t mean the other stuff, the stuff that was not written down, is any less wondrous. God gives us the Bible as a tool, a source of inspiration. But God gives us something much greater than the Bible. He gives us his presence throughout our day, and through all of our ordinary, non-heroic little lives. God is with us between the lines.

Who’s in charge?

Last Sunday, December 28, was the Feast Day of the Holy Family. Right after Christmas we are treated with a portrait of the new family of Joseph, Mary and their newborn son, Jesus. After Christmas the three of them trekked over to Jerusalem for Jesus’ circumcision and other Jewish rites for a newborn and his mother. (Luke 2:22-40) After the prescribed rituals, and, undoubtedly some oohing and aahing from friends and neighbors, they went home, where not much more is said about their family life, except that Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

Alongside that inspirational family photo, for many of us, the Feast of the Holy Family could be known as “Who’s In Charge Day” because of one sentence in the second reading. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he provokes arguments when he says, “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” (Colossians 3:18). Let the debating begin, as we couples try to maintain our Christianity and at the same time square these words with modern beliefs about the roles of men and women. Which side should I be on? Paul or Modernity? Is my wife in charge, or am I? Or are we equal partners?

It’s a false choice, and getting caught up in that debate pulls us farther away from the point Paul was trying to make: “Above all these, put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.” Paul was using the understood family roles of the day to tell us how to love one another. And how’s that? Like Jesus loved us: humbly, and with everything we have. Whatever role we are called to play in our family, our marriage, our work and our society, we must act out of love in everything we do. Stewing about who’s in charge takes us in the opposite direction.

Paul was not trying to establish or re-establish the rules of social order. He was taking people where they were: as sons, daughters, fathers or mothers, masters or slaves, and saying, in essence, whoever you are and whatever you do, do it in love and service. He was telling us to fulfill our duties to one another in love, knowing that when we serve one another we are serving God.

Who does God want you to help today?

Today’s Gospel reading (Mt 25:31-46) is one of those “tough love,” statements that soft and squishy Christians (like me) would prefer to avoid. Jesus talks about separating “all the nations” into sheep and goats. The sheep get eternal reward in Heaven. The goats get eternal punishment. What separates the two? Caring for their neighbor during their life on Earth. The sheep are those who fed, sheltered, and cared for the poor, the lonely and the hurting. The goats took care of nobody but themselves.

While the message is pretty clear (and sobering), did you notice that the sheep weren’t aware of who they were serving? Jesus predicts that, even when they’re standing in front of Jesus, the sheep won’t realize that when they were caring for the less fortunate, they were actually caring for Jesus himself.

I think about that and I reflect on my day. There weren’t too many blind, lame or lepers in my path today. But there was a funeral for a member of my parish that I was just too busy to attend, and I skirted around the tall homeless guy at the bus stop who asked me for a couple dollars. I was nice to my spouse, but I seem to recall reading that “even the pagans” love their own family members. Hmmm. I hope I have another shot at this tomorrow.

Here’s to you, St. Peter

Today is a feast day for the Chair of St. Peter (I think that’s a churchy way of inviting him to take a break; “Here, Peter, sit down and rest for a few minutes. Luke will keep an eye on the Pearly Gates for a while.”) It used to be the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, but that got moved to the Summer. Don’t ask me why. If you are curious and find out why, reply to this post and tell the rest of us.

I’ve said before that St. Peter is my favorite Apostle. He’s just so…human. Sometimes he was a hot-head, sometimes he was a bonehead, and other times he was just plain scared. When they saw Jesus walking on water, Peter was the one who jumped out of the boat and tried to imitate him. It worked for a few minutes, until his human side took over and he sunk. (Put yourself in his mind. “Wow! I’m doing it! I’m doing it, I’m walking on water! Hey, guys, check this out, I’m walki…wait. What the heck and I doing? This water is deep. What if I trip over a fish? I can’t do thi….glub, glub, glub.”)

Peter was imperfect by most human measures. He wasn’t wealthy; he was a simple fisherman. He wasn’t scholarly. He wasn’t saintly. On more than one occasion, Jesus had to correct him, and when the chips were down, Peter claimed that he had never even met Jesus. But he is the the rock. He is the foundation of the universal church that Jesus came here to form. He was given the power to make rules for both Earth and Heaven. (His first rule was probably, “Okay, from now on, NO walking on water.”) And he is as human as you and I.

So, what does that say about God’s plan for you and I? Can we still argue that we’re too (choose one or more) weak, ignorant, old, young, hotheaded, fearful, doubtful, willful? God made Peter. He chose Peter. God also made you and chose you. So, if he calls you to do his will, how can you say no? Go ahead, step out of the boat. Remember, even if you sink, he will catch you, just like he caught Peter.