I. From the third-century Desert Fathers comes the story of a young monk who came to the elder Abba Joseph and said,
“Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and quiet; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my mind of evil thoughts and my heart of evil intents. Now what more should I do?” The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven. His fingers ignited, like ten flames. He said, “Why not become fire?”
II. The talents—the weights of gold coins—that the master gave to his servants added up to a fantastic sum—one and two and five million dollars: a fortune. What so peeved the master about the servant who buried his million was not that he didn’t turn a profit, but that he had apparently learned nothing. The master trusted them with eight million dollars, a huge risk. He expected them to continue his work, to carry on his enterprise, by taking bold risks themselves.
III. Like the young monk, we ourselves may go along, keeping the rule, saying our prayers, doing what’s required of us. While God has handed us a fortune, blessing our lives in a million ways, our spiritual and evangelical lives may be a timid, tepid response, marked by safety and security, rather than boldness and courage. That, I fear, is where I find myself—too often, even today.
In his exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis writes,
How I long to find the right words to stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervor, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction! Yet I realize that no words of encouragement will be enough unless the fire of the Holy Spirit burns in our hearts.
God dared to put his divine Spirit into us. We can be risk-taking Christians because we have a risk-taking God. As Jesus spent his life, so are we meant to spend ours: continuing his work, carrying on his enterprise, taking bold risks, letting the Gospel loose into the world.
Why not become fire?
I. They said that the world was going to end on September 23. Then it was October 15. Then October 31. Now it’s November 19. Harold Camping, a Christian radio broadcaster, was one of those who had issued multiple failed predictions of the end of the world. He said this led to some tough times. Conan O’Brien noted that friends tried to console Mr. Camping, calling and telling him, “Hey, it’s not the end of the world.”
Mr. Camping conceded that, through it all, he finally learned to walk more humbly before God: remembering that God is in charge. Never too late to learn that lesson.
II. These are tough times for many. In the face of doomsday predictions, the Christian doesn’t cross his fingers and wish for something, then wait until it happens. Since the incarnation of God in Jesus, God has come to the world once and forever. God’s coming is not a one-time “rapture.” Rather, God regularly penetrates space and time; God’s presence and participation in our histories is constant.
Christian hope, born of the Resurrection, is something other than wishful thinking. More than confidence in our future, Christian hope is confidence in God’s future. When we come to the end of our potential, what we can do, or can’t imagine any good that can come of what we’ve been dealt, hope in what’s possible for God—hope in God’s future—takes over. Christian hope doesn’t believe there’s a chance that God will intervene, but expects it, counts on it. It keeps our torches lit.
III. So, for those distressed at the state of affairs in our country and world, with crises and conflicts and clashes; with the threats of arrests and deportation and the undoing of families; and in the face of our weakened bodies and tired spirits, we do not retreat from faith and its practice, “as those who have no hope,” St. Paul says. Rather, we stride more deeply and resolutely into our life with Jesus Christ—our only hope. Consequently, our ultimate encounter with Christ will be the joyful meeting of familiar friends, longtime companions.
“Therefore,” St. Paul says today, “encourage one another with these words.”
I. My heart was pounding yesterday morning as I arrived at the Basilica of Saint Mary for the Confirmation of some young people from Ascension. My exaggerated heart rate was the result of racing back from the Cathedral of Saint Paul where I thought the ceremony was taking place. During the Mass, I couldn’t help but wonder what the confirmation candidates were feeling. Were they excited or utterly disinterested? What were they thinking about the Mass, the Church, its members and its leaders? Do they, like Jesus in today’s gospel, find their religious teachers hypocritical, proud, and arrogant? Do they even listen to them? Pope Paul VI once said that people will not listen to teachers unless they’re also witnesses. People feel, he says, (quote), “an instinctive revulsion for everything that appears as pretense, façade or compromise.”
II In contrast to those qualities, lining every hallway in Ascension school are white cards that describe Christian character traits: kindness, optimism, respect, and the like. Each week our school community focuses on one of the traits, and tries to live it. When I asked the scholars at our All Saints Day Mass what the first thing a visitor might see upon walking into the school, one student mentioned those white cards. Another went one better. She said that the first thing a visitor might see is, “Kids being nice to each other.” Practicing what we preach.
III How does Ascension exercise religious leadership in this place in this time? How is Ascension called to lead on the North Side? How are we called to lead in support of immigrants and immigration reform? How am I called to lead? If we are to be credible, Pope Francis regularly reminds leaders and teachers to be shepherds living with the smell of their sheep. He says,
When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a [poor] neighborhood and quite another to go there, live there, and understand the problem from the inside and study it… One cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty.
“If you want to know what a person believes, watch their feet, not their mouths.” How does one stop talking and start leading?
h/t: Kathryn Mathews
I. “What to wear?” I worry over that every day. If you Google, “what to wear,” you get 396,000,000 responses. The poor slob in today’s gospel who got booted from the banquet should have consulted the “What to Wear to a Wedding” website. Had he done so, he would have discovered that it wasn’t a matter of what one wears, but who one wears. No, not Gucci, or Pucci, or Prada. The Ultimate Host expects that his guests be clothed in Christ.
II. Today’s Gospel story is marked by urgency: the food’s hot and it won’t wait. The time to put on Christ is now. In a Christian community, it’s expected that all of us wear Christ all the time. It should be as obvious as wearing this white thing. It’s called an “alb,” from the Latin word, “albus,” meaning “white.” I wear this alb every time we get together, as did the early Christians, making it apparent that they were “putting on” Christ, as if He were their very skin.
In this parish, wearing Christ means that everyone will find a lavish welcome at the table, that all will receive and all will give. It’s an urgent matter: if we can’t count on always and forever finding Christ here, then, pray God, where?
III. The feast that God offers is not only some churchy thing that only takes place in a limited sacred space, or some fantastic reality that’s awaiting us in the beyond. Jesus saw all of life as God’s joyful hospitality, God’s love and generosity spilling over, the world charged with the grandeur of God, every breath a mouthful of grace. It’s an invite too good to pass up. Those in today’s parable who had the gall to refuse had their town burned down: “Zero Tolerance” for party poopers.
In her poem, “Good Times,” Lucille Clifton writes:
my mama has made bread
and grampaw has come
and everybody is drunk
and dancing in the kitchen
and singing in the kitchen
oh these is good times
oh children think about the
Dancing and singing here in the Eucharistic kitchen trains us to know the good times.
I. Whenever someone says, “Tell me about Ascension. What’s your parish like?” I don’t know where to start: you’re impossible to explain. We are a Spanish-speaking community, we are an English-speaking community. We have black and white and brown skin. We’re young and old, some wealthy, some who live in poverty. We’re immigrants from Africa and Asia and islands, and the children of European immigrants whose families have warmed this church for generations. And then there’s the rest of us and all the others. This is the vineyard of which you and I are the heirs, its stewards and trustees.
II. In an article titled, “Despite Our Differences, We Are One Holy, Catholic, Dysfunctional Family,” Brian Harper writes,
We live in an extraordinarily and boundlessly diverse world. If our faith is to have any significance, it must be reflective of that world…How will we possibly be able to encounter the complicated world lying beyond our cathedral walls if we cannot stomach the complexities within?
Beyond regularly congratulating ourselves on being so fashionably diverse, we must encounter and accompany one another at the cost of discomfort and pain, so that encounter and accompaniment makes a difference in our lives and in the world. Our complexities in here make us more able to encounter the complicated world out there.
III. Some months ago, a few of us gathered on Saturday mornings to pray for peace in our neighborhood and justice for our immigrant brothers and sisters. Every week, we prayed these words:
For our faith community, that we may celebrate and welcome the diverse faces of Christ in our worship, our ministries, and our leaders;
For the wisdom to receive the stories and experiences of those different from ourselves and to respond with respect;
For the courage to have difficult conversations about racism, and for a better appreciation of how our words and actions—or even our silence—can impact our communities.
Having been welcomed indiscriminately to the vineyard ourselves, let’s be benevolent stewards, dependable tenants, of the lush vine entrusted to our care.
I. Living in Rome and the Vatican for five years, I became familiar with something known in those cultures as bella figura: one makes the best possible impression by cutting a “beautiful figure”—a bella figura—with high fashion, flowery speech, and impressive titles. It’s about how one carries oneself in the world. It’s all about appearances. Better to cover up flaws and failures and hope you’re not found out, than reveal what’s really going on.
The answer to the riddle posed by Jesus today may seem obvious. Which son did what his father wanted? Well, the one who, despite what he said initially, ultimately did the right thing: he showed up. But, on the other hand, for those who value looking good above all else—bella figura—the better thing is to give the admirable answer: just say yes—even if you privately bear the weight of being a fraud.
II. In the ordination rite for a deacon, the bishop places the Book of the Gospels in the hands of the newly ordained and says,
Believe what you read,
Teach what you believe,
And practice what you teach.
We can profess and confess, and jabber about love and mercy and justice, but living it demands so much more. When truth is spoken plainly, it’s breathtaking; all the more when that truth is lived plainly. Personally, as one who professes, confesses, and jabbers about love and mercy and justice for a living, the stakes are high. If I don’t practice what I preach, I’m a liar and fraud.
III. So, as St. Paul urges us today, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus; have in you the same attitude. But, Paul goes on, Christ emptied himself, he was obedient to the point of death on a cross: Christ not only said, but did. Let’s us not only say, but do. Let’s move beyond words and appearances. Let’s cut a beautiful figure—a bella figura—by living the truth.
I. I once asked a class of ninth-graders to imagine that, if their lives were to span six days of creation, what would the six benchmarks, those six milestones be. There were some obvious answers: birth, starting school, 8th-grade graduation. But one teen mentioned that significant in the story of her creation was “family conflict.” I’m not sure she realized how mature a response that was: the recognition that pain and struggle were integral in shaping her to be who she is.
II. Isaiah reminds us today that God’s ways are not our ways. At this point in my life, I really don’t need to be reminded of that anymore. Quite contrary to my plans and expectations, the most formative events in my life have been both unforeseen and unwelcome: sickness, weakness, failure, and collapse. Such humbling occurrences are the primary portals for the penetration of God’s spirit and grace into our lives. God’s way is that want and need are the way to abundance; that weakness is the way to strength; that death is the way to life; and that the last will be first.
III. Jesus intended his parables to provoke and confound us. To the landowner’s question whether I am envious that others have more, and whether I resent his generosity, my answer is, “Yes” and “Yes.” And there it is: yet another opportunity to surrender to God’s way.
I. Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, speaks of “The Danger of a Single Story.” As I listened to a presentation of hers, I was both captivated and heartsick. She reminded me that, as impressionable young children, some of us heard and absorbed many single stories about certain kinds of people. From these stories, we concluded that black people were to be feared, their families were unstable, and they were always mad. Likewise, we learned that Mexicans were criminals who’d snuck across the border, who weren’t smart enough to speak English. We also heard single stories about American Indians, the divorced, the Irish, Protestants and Jews. Certain groups of people were outsiders not to be trusted and ought to be avoided. Now, as an adult, while I strive to be better educated, have a variety of relationships with all kinds of people, and hold various stories about others, I feel that I’m immune to the danger of those single stories, yet also know that some measure of unseemly racist residue remains in me.
La escritor nigeriana, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, habla del “peligro de una sola historia.” Al escuchar una presentación suya, me captivó y me angustié. Ella me hizo recordar que, como niños y jóvenes impresionables, escuchamos y absorbimos muchas historias singulares a cerca de ciertas personas. A partir de estas historias, estábamos enseñados que deberíamos temer a los negros, que sus familias eran inestables, y siempre estaban enojados. Asimismo, aprendimos que los mexicanos eran delincuentes por cruzar la frontera sin permiso y que no eran lo suficientemente inteligentes para aprender y hablar inglés. También oímos las historias singulares acerca de los indios americanos nativos, los divorciados, los irlandeses, protestantes y judíos. No hay que confiar en ciertos grupos de personas, y de los extranjeros, hay que evitarse. Ahora, como adulto, aunque me esfuerzo por ser mejor educado, y tengo una variedad de relaciones con todo tipo de personas, me lamento que hay rasgos de racismo y estas historias dañosas que todavía son parte de mi.
II. A signature theme for Pope Francis is his call for a “culture of encounter.” A culture of encounter reaches out, fosters dialogue and friendship outside our usual circles, among different cultures and ethnicities, and especially with the struggling, the alienated, and the poor. For him, encounter, or encuentro, isn’t just a meeting, but a communing: a meeting of minds and hearts that defies exclusion and isolation.
Algo muy importante para el Papa Francisco es promover una “cultura del encuentro”. Tal cultura es dinámica, fomentando el diálogo y la amistad entre diferentes culturas y grupos étnicos, y especialmente con los que luchan, los marginados y los pobres. Nos llama a irnos más allá, fuera de nuestros círculos habituales, para encontrarse A DIOS en el enriquecimiento que nos espera. Para el Papa, el encuentro no es sólo estar juntos en el mismo lugar, sino una comunión de mentes y corazones que niega la exclusión y el aislamiento.
III. Here at Ascension, we are challenged to embrace our life as a multicultural community. What an opportunity. What a blessing. What a challenge. Why do we bother with all the multicultural and bilingual complications? Diversity is a path to a larger goal, something that we might call a reconciling community. There are too many instances in our histories when we have hurt another, when we have offended another, when we have sinned against one another. If we are privileged to live in a reconciling community, that means we don’t have to rely solely on our own inner resources to forgive those hurts, offenses & sins. It is God’s unlimited power to forgive that flows through us.
In today’s Gospel, The servant who was forgiven by the king was asked to forgive his fellow servant a debt of only one six-hundred-thousandth of what he had been forgiven. With God’s help, we can manage that, right?
Aquí en Ascensión, trabajamos intencionalmente y duro para tratar de crear una comunidad multicultural. ¡Qué oportunidad! ¡Qué bendición! ¡Qué reto! ¿Por qué molestarnos con todos los detalles multiculturales y bilingües? Yo propongo que la diversidad es un camino hacia una meta más grande, algo que podríamos llamar una comunidad reconciliadora. Lamentablemente, hay demasiados veces en nuestras historias cuando hemos herido uno a otro, cuando hemos ofendido uno a otro, cuando hemos pecado uno contra el otro. Si tenemos el privilegio de vivir en una comunidad reconciliadora, significa que no tenemos que depender solamente de nuestros propios recursos interiores a perdonar las ofensas y pecados. Es el poder a perdonar ilimitado de Dios que fluye a través de nosotros como individuos y como comunidad.
Hoy en el evangelio, el rey que perdonó a su siervo mucho, espera que este mismo siervo actúe con compasión para perdonar a su compañero con una deuda mucho más pequeña. Con la ayuda de Dios, podemos hacer eso, ¿verdad?
San Pablo nos recuerda:
Dios… nos ha entregado el mensaje de la reconciliación. Nos presentamos, pues, como embajadores de Cristo, como si Dios mismo le exhortara por nuestra boca.
Podemos ser una comunidad reconciliadora. ¿Qué nos impide perdonar individualmente y como comunidad? ¡Somos llamados a ser embajadores de Cristo!
To quote the Apostle Paul:
[God] has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us. This makes us ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you, in Christ’s name, be reconciled to God!
We can be a reconciling community. What gets in the way of our forgiving one another as individuals and as a community?
We are called to be ambassadors for Christ!
I. That “actions speak louder than words” is a common sentiment among the saints—and non-saints. “We must speak to them with our hands before we speak to them with our lips.” Those are the words of St. Peter Claver, a 17th-century Jesuit whose feast was yesterday, whose tomb in Cartagena, Colombia Pope Francis will visit today. In Claver’s day, Cartagena was part of the Spanish kingdom, one of two ports where 10,000 slaves arrived every year from Africa to be sold in South America. Peter sought the abolition of the slave trade, and worked daily to minister to the slaves, entering the holds of the ships, bringing food and medicine, making sure that all received some measure of care. He vowed to be “the slave of the slaves.” Today, St. Peter Claver is the patron of racial justice.
Bishop George Murry, the head of the U.S. Bishops Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, says that,
St. Peter Claver is a model for us in understanding that hard work and perseverance is required to combat the sin of racism and build community; we must begin and end this effort in prayer together, even as we seek to act in concrete ways.
It’s that last part—“to act in concrete ways”: to speak with our hands—where we typically drop the ball.
II. The vibrant Eucharistic communion that we enjoy at Ascension can unleash energy, creativity, and passion to be transformative in the world, providing the means, motivation, and grace for us to be co-creators of God’s reign of justice, by loving one’s neighbor as oneself. As today’s gospel makes clear, the Church and her members have always worked to hold themselves together for the long haul. That’s why Matthew and the disciples wrote down the words Jesus left them. Jesus wanted them to tell others that he was still and always with them. He charged them with keeping his ongoing presence alive in the community. They did this by practicing forgiveness, sacrificing when things weren’t to their liking, and putting others’ concerns before their own. When they despaired, the community helped them see the Lord again.
Such solidarity was expressed by the U.S. Bishops this week when they denounced the cancellation of the DACA program for young immigrants, calling the action “reprehensible.” I’m heartsick when I think of the young people in our parish and their families who are directly affected by this action. The bishops went on to say,
As people of faith, we say to DACA youth—regardless of your immigration status, you are children of God and welcome in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church supports you and will advocate for you…We pledge our support to work on finding an expeditious means of protection for DACA youth.
That means we’re in this together for the long haul. I, hopefully all of us at Ascension, pledge the same support and advocacy. (At the end of Mass, we’ll mention some action steps.)
III. Pope Francis says that authentic faith is never completely personal. It always involves a deep desire to change the world, to leave the earth somehow better than we found it. If just for today, let us speak with our hands before we speak with our lips.
I. This past Friday, September 1st, was my 60th birthday. I don’t typically read my horoscope in the newspaper, but I check it out when it reads, “Your birthday today.” Here’s what it said:
The love coming into your life will grow and grow. You’ll sail the uncharted territory and make your own map in October. In November, choices that seem monumental are actually as silly as worrying about choosing which side of the bread to butter…Sagittarius and Pisces adore you.
“The love coming into your life will grow and grow.” That sounds great, and it is. But Dostoevsky says that, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
Even though it’s a holiday weekend, today’s gospel is tough: it’s that pesky cross again. By marking ourselves with the sign of that cross, which we’ve already done four times in 15 minutes, we proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, and everything else is not lord. It confesses that our first allegiance is to Jesus Christ, that we are willing to meet whatever comes as a result of imitating his life of service and sacrifice. The sign of the cross is the offering of our bodies, St. Paul says today, “as a living sacrifice”—that is, making all that we do an act of worship. Stunning!
II. After two years, two months, and two days at Ascension, I sometimes wonder how I got myself into this deal with all the mess of bilingualism and multiculturalism, the distress of immigration and racism. I just want to say Mass! Someone said to me the other day, “I’d love being a pastor if it weren’t for all those people.” Love in practice is something quite other than love in dreams.
III. Like Peter in today’s gospel, I prefer no-pain, cost-free discipleship. Today’s gospel calls us to stand up for the reign of God, no matter the cost. Dying with Christ is not a matter of being strong enough, but being weak enough. Resurrection comes, not from the exercise of our own capacities and resources, but in and through our openness, our emptiness, our powerlessness. No matter how prevalent the violent forces we face, our faith holds fast to the truth that Resurrection prevails, and that the love coming into your life will grow and grow—whether it’s your birthday today or not.
h/t: Mary McGlone