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
I. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Rilke encourages a 19-year-old aspiring artist that understanding and experiencing the world around him is the way to truth. In one letter, Rilke writes that, because we have more questions than answers, we must try to love the questions. He writes,
Do not now seek the answers…Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
II. “Live the questions.” And there are many questions today, right? Neo-Nazis? White supremacy? How did we get back here? Why are we still here?
Jesus asks a stunning question of his disciples today: “Who do you say that I am?” Imagine a spouse, or parent, or friend asking you that question. The question, and its response, would define everything.
III. When we truly hear and understand the question—“Who do you say that I am?”—and who is asking it, we begin to understand who we are and whose we are. We understand ourselves to be those whom the living Christ sees, those to whom he speaks, those he seeks, those he pursues, those he has chosen to continue his mission. So, if Jesus were to pose this question today, how would I answer, and what would be the implications of that answer?
• You are the Christ, the one who will establish justice on the earth for people of all races and lands—and I offer my gifts and services to you in this venture.
• You are the Christ, the one who will ensure that the vulnerable and marginalized will not be exploited, that the immigrant will not be disrespected—and I will stand with you in their defense.
• You are the Christ, the one who will usher in the kingdom of peace—and I commit myself to the practice of peace in all my relationships.
• You are the Christ, the one who will refashion us into a holy people and nation—and I open myself to any transformation necessary to be your disciple.
“Who do you say that I am?” Live the question. Live that question.
h/t: Dianne Bergant
I. It’s hard being a mom. In an Associated Press article titled, “A Tortured Choice in Famine,” it was reported that, when the 3-year-old son of Faqid Nur Elmi died of hunger and thirst on the road to Kenya from Somalia, his mother could only surround his body with small dried branches to serve as a grave. She couldn’t stop to mourn—there were five other children to think about. “Where will I get the energy to dig up a grave for him?” she asked. “I was just thinking of how I can save the rest of the children.”
II. The mom in today’s gospel story is trying to save her daughter. If she had been seeking help for herself, she might have given up. But there’s nothing that fuels a mother’s audacity more than concern for her child’s well-being. She’s ready to cross whatever boundaries she needs to cross, to do whatever it takes. She tries “noisy and assertive,” then “pleading and compliant,” finally “clever and confrontative.” Her baby is sick, and if this Jesus guy could help, by God, he’s going to.
III. The “great faith” that Jesus attributes to this mother is not only her belief in God, but her single-minded, persistent, unrelenting commitment to making her beloved’s situation better, and finding a way to accomplish it. Among the women of great faith whom I know are the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who founded Ascension School and served here for decades. On Friday, they issued a statement in response to last week’s violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is valuable for our multi-racial, largely immigrant faith community.
As Sisters of St. Joseph, we are called to build a more unified and peaceful society. We believe mutuality can only happen when we acknowledge and deepen our understanding of our racism. These recent events are symptomatic of rises in hate crimes, violence and deep-seated racial injustice. The acts of violence on minority and racially diverse groups have been misconstrued as individual acts rather than recognizing the more historic and systemic ideology of racial hatred…We are called to “profound love” in action by being unifiers and reconcilers for peace, healing, and anti-racism. We denounce hatred of any kind….We recommit ourselves to nonviolence by our life style, charism, action, prayer and participation with others in challenging dehumanizing and violent actions…
If the evidence of “great faith” is single-minded, persistent, and unrelenting commitment to making the situation better and finding a way to accomplish it, just how great is our faith?
h/t: John Shea
I. My six years as the associate pastor at the Basilica of Saint Mary allowed me a thousand passes up and down the worn steps of its prominent high pulpit. At the top, imprinted in the marble floor, was a pair of footprints, about a size ten, left behind by a century of well-polished preachers. It was my favorite place in the world to stand, resting in those footprints—until I got to my next parish and stood at that pulpit in those footprints. And now, here. I love standing here: it’s safe, secure, familiar. Here I have a script: I don’t work without a net. Standing here, I don’t get my well-polished shoes dirty, or my feet wet.
II. One would think that the disciples are frightened today because of all that wind and those waves. But such sudden storms are frequent on the Sea of Galilee: these fishermen wouldn’t have been surprised by the weather. So what were they afraid of? They thought they saw a ghost. They thought Jesus was a ghost.
Leave it to Peter, he who frequently had his foot in his mouth, to be the one to dare to put his foot into the water, unafraid to get his feet wet. When he faltered, he reached for the hand of Jesus, trusting that he would find it there, that Jesus was real, that he was no ghost.
III. Too often, we profess with our lips that Jesus lives, that Jesus is, but in reality we fear he’s just a ghost, a phantom, a fake. We’re afraid to step out of the boat (or the pulpit), out of our comfort zone, without a script or a net, into those pesky winds and waves and storms and squalls, because we don’t really believe Jesus is there.
The gospel calls us to go to the margins, the peripheries, to unsafe, unfamiliar places. Whether these days it’s walking into the terrifying hurricane our immigrant brothers and sisters are facing, or the roiling waters of white supremacy and racism, or the daily storms faced by the poor and marginalized, we must hold fast to the fact that we are not alone, that we are never without the steadying hand of Jesus, who in his love and concern walks across the waters to reassure and steady us. Again and again and again, the living Lord, stretching out his hand, encourages us to take heart. Take courage. Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet.
h/t: Karoline Lewis
I. Theologian John Shea tells of a man who took the spiritual quest seriously. He went on a prolonged retreat, and when he came back, he was loving, considerate, and compassionate. That is, until his mother came to visit.
We all move from being centered to being scattered, from having it together to being fractured: a few steps forward, a few steps back. We are, at the same time, saint and sinner. As Shea says, “We are repeat offenders, and so we become ‘repeat repenters.’” We’re wheat and weeds.
II. Especially to gardeners, Jesus’ advice today may be confounding. Let the wheat and weeds grow together, good and evil side by side. It’s God’s prerogative alone to judge between them. Our response is to intensify our practice of faith, hope, and love, to be good wheat: to mind our business, and leave the rest to the master gardener.
III. When there appear to be more weeds than wheat in our world, when we don’t know what to pray for anymore, St. Paul reminds us today that, at these times, the Spirit does the praying, interceding for us with “inexpressible groanings,” with sighs too deep for words. When we ourselves don’t have the words for prayer, St. Francis de Sales says,
When you come before the Lord, talk to Him if you can; if you can’t, just stay there, let yourself be seen, and don’t try too hard to do anything else.
If we give ourselves to a life of unrelenting faith in God and God’s action, God will take care of the rest. In the landscape of God’s kingdom, what appear to be weeds will ripen into wheat; good endures, life wins. In God’s Kingdom, it’s always too soon for discouragement, too soon to pull up the weeds.
I. Washington. Russia. North Korea. North Minneapolis. Mexico. Syria. Twitter. I, like you, am wearied by today’s social and political rancor, being inundated with unsettling news. On top of all that, everything that having a personal life brings.
II. Fully aware of everything that conspires to bring us down, Jesus simply offers a parable. It’s worth noting that today’s tale is titled, “The Parable of the Sower” and not, “The Parable of Various Types of Soil.” Jesus doesn’t focus on us and our flaws and shortcomings—the rocks, the thorns, the weeds. Rather, he emphasizes the extravagant, indiscriminate, prolific, prodigious, and prodigal Sower who, despite the challenges and obstacles, keeps reaching into his seed bag and flinging those precious seeds. He doesn’t give up. He doesn’t quit.
After two millennia of sowing the word of Jesus Christ—or better, sowing Jesus Christ, because he himself is the seed—we might, at times, be disheartened or cynical about how little good has come of all of it. On the other hand, given how inhospitable the world can be, we might be amazed how effective God’s word has been. After all, here we are, two thousand years after these words were first spoken, still listening to them: they matter.
III. In those moments when God’s word seems ineffective and lifeless, remember that, despite the odds, we’re still here, ready for, open to, a revelation. In a society and world that groans with labor pains, we are God’s best hope that God’s word will accomplish its purpose. Jesus, this very day, invites each of us to live his parable, to participate in the mission: to be the soil, the seed, the sowers.
Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful…so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.
That’s the promise.