Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tare or Wheat? Sixteenth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Wisdom 12:12, 16–19; Romans 8:26–27; Matthew 13:24–43

I think Jesus is talking about my yard in this week’s readings, because regardless of how much I water and tend it, I constantly have weeds in my flower beds, and I have stopped even trying to sort them out. Clearly, if I’m following scripture correctly, I’m supposed to let the angels sort them out at the end of time. That means my yard will look awful for the time being but will look fantastic at the final judgment.

I wish I had the patience to wait that long.

 In last week’s readings, the disciples questioned Jesus about his use of parables, and this week, we really get a good dose of Jesus’ parabolic teachings. I want to focus on the first one because I think it highlights a particular bit of spiritual nearsightedness that many of us have, yours truly included. We see the master sowing good seed in the field, but as everyone sleeps, the enemy comes and sows weeds. Our English translation uses the word weeds, but the actual word, tzitzania, refers to cheat grass or tares—a plant that looks a lot like wheat when it’s growing, but when mature is a lot easier to identify.

So the servants are able to see that something is not right in the fields, but the master knows that uprooting the weeds will also cause some, perhaps many good plants to be uprooted and destroyed as well. This decision on the master’s part no doubt rankles a few of his servants, who probably believe that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If they take care of the weeds now, they won’t have to work as hard separating them during the harvest. The danger is that they will accidentally destroy the good with the bad. The master recognizes this and stays their hand, instructing them to wait until they can clearly see the fruits that have been sown. In the master’s wisdom, judgment has been reserved until the fruits are obvious to everyone.

Now, the master in this parable is obviously God, and clearly He knows the outcome before we can see it. So why does He wait to sweep the field? Why does he let the unclean mix with the clean? It seems counterproductive to us at least, but even dangerous if the weeds somehow stunt the growth of the healthy plants or even choke them out altogether.

Does this line of thought sound familiar? I hear it pretty frequently from various parties in our Church concerning the people on “the other side.” Those people who can’t really be Catholic because they don’t hold the right opinions. I recently read about a proabortion and procontraception politician back east who was touting her credentials as a devout Catholic and decrying how her faith had been hijacked by extremists who didn’t believe in abortion or contraception. I have to wonder just what faith she was actually practicing since the teachings of the Church have always since the first century condemned both.

On the reverse side of the coin are those who insist that Catholic teaching is equivalent to US policy or capitalist ideology. Anyone who suggests that US policy might be errant or that capitalism might need constraint are branded as Godless communists. But the Church has never declared capitalism as sacrosanct, and US policy is made by very fallible human beings.

And very recently we’re hearing a whole lot in the news and elsewhere about the problems down on the border. Now here’s a perfect example of our moral blindness at times, when we can look at the wheat and see nothing but weeds. When we look at children coming across the border and all we can see is an illegal alien. There’s a problem with our perception. In most other countries, when a child is sent away from home because of violence and danger, we don’t call them “illegals.”

We call them refugees.

So who of us are being truly Catholic and truly Christian in our perceptions? Now I like to apply the original meaning of the word Catholic in such instances. Katolikos means universal in Greek, so whatever is truly Catholic should universally offend and rankle those on all points of the political spectrum. To be Catholic is to be universally irritating and challenging. I say that with tongue in cheek, and hopefully not with foot in mouth, but there is some truth to this as well. Our faith isn’t meant to reconcile us to our culture. Our faith is meant to help us to see through God’s perspective. We are supposed to be leaven in the mix and cause the dough to rise, to start as a small bush but give everyone a place to perch. Our Church is a broad net that catches all kinds of fish, and it needs to accommodate that diversity without being undermined and distorted. I frequently tell people that Catholic social teaching has something to tick off both progressives and conservatives. That is not a sign of falsity but of truth, because our culture and its biases tend to obscure our vision.

The problem here is that we ideologues don’t see the world by the infinite wisdom of God. We look at the world through our own culturally conditioned lenses, through our own rose-colored glasses. And that means we never see what is true. We see what we expect to see and judge accordingly. We lack mercy, wisdom, and a true notion of justice.

The reading from the Book of Wisdom brings to the foreground how we should understand God’s perspective. First, He has care over all:

  • not just those who are properly documented 
  • not just those who are pacifists and proponents of gun control
  • not just those who are straight
  • not just those who support nationalized health care 

and not just those who conform to whatever we with our personal preferences consider righteous. He knows who is truly righteous. Might is the source of his justice, as the reading from Wisdom asserts. His power is what allows him to be just. He isn’t worried about anyone’s opinion, so He applies true justice untempered by external bias.

We underestimate just how different we are from God. We forget that our notions of justice, of mercy, of might, and of wisdom are all limited and fragmentary. For us, these are all separate qualities, but God is infinitely simple. That means that there is no difference for these qualities in Him. His justice is His mercy is His might is His wisdom. When we read that there is no partiality in God, that is meant both in how He judges us and in how He knows our world. This isn’t to say that we don’t need to discern objective moral right and wrong, but we do need to recognize that we do not see the big picture, and we never will until we meet God face to face.

Our Catholic faith is one of few hold outs for objective truth. Our faith insists that there is an objective truth by which all will be judged, but it also insists that we not judge the hearts of our fellow travelers in this world. We have to seek communion rather than division. And that means that we have to forgive. And sometimes we need to recognize our own need for forgiveness because all of us fall short of the kingdom.

In a few minutes, we’re going to celebrate the paschal sacrifice of our Lord. This celebration has always had two realities as both a sacrifice and as a meal—one shared with friends and family. Just like a family is one even though it is made up of very different personalities and opinions, our family in faith is also diverse.

But in a greater sense we are one. We are one Body of Christ, and we need to hang together. We’re seeing signs of new pressures in our country that will be coming down on us, and we need to recognize that if we’re for Christ, we also have to be for each other—one bread and one Body, to quote the hymn.

Our Catholic faith is counter cultural and it challenges all of us. If you want to be a rebel, be Catholic. If you want to resist the inexorable drumbeat of so-called progress and seek instead the kingdom of God, be Catholic. You will be walking in the footsteps of Christ if you reject the popular road and stick with the Lamb of God. You might be crucified for it… but you will be raised in the end.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

My Daddy's Caddy

My father bought his first Cadillac in 1973, perhaps a bit after he was promoted to Lt. Col. in the US Air Force and when we were still living on Fairchild Air Force Base.

It was a black Coupe de Ville, and it was fancier than anything we'd ever owned (although Doc had owned an Austin-Healey in his bachelor days). At the time, we still lived in base housing, and I suspect that Mom wasn't fully on board with the purchase. But I think Dad needed to have some physical representation of his accomplishments. We named the car "the Black Torpedo," and I think Tim and I loved every moment in it.

In three years, Doc traded up for a Sedan de Ville, a very nice four door that looked a bit more like a stately family car, just shy of a limousine. He made the trade during the summer while Tim and I were back and forth for summer camps, so it was a few weeks after he made the purchase that I finally noticed. And I wasn't impressed. I liked the Black Torpedo. Of course, by that time, brother Patrick had arrived on the scene, so a four door made much more sense. I suspect that Mom had something to do with that decision, but we were going to miss the Black Torpedo.

Doc dubbed the new sedan the Blue Sapphire. We accepted the new name, but I don't think we ever bought into it. Despite many happy adventures (some 30 years of them), I think Tim and I would have preferred the coupe. I don't recall that Doc ever named another Caddy after that.

That's not to say we didn't have great times in that boat. We drove that beast to Alaska, up the Trans Alaska Highway and back. I don't recall if we lost our muffler on the way up or the way back, but it happened on once of those trips. I remember that we ate a whole canned chicken in White Horse, a metropolis in the Yukon which was smaller than the small town (Medical Lake) just outside of the air base where I'd spent most of my life. Doc thought it pretty funny to talk about talk about the Al-Can Super Highway on which we were driving: It was a dirt road from the US Canadian Border north of Skagway to the Alaskan border.

Three years later, we made the same trek back in the same car. If you want to know why my dad bought Cadillacs, that's why. We hauled a trailer up and a boat back. Or vice versa. Doc probably liked the status symbol of owing a Cadillac, but ultimately, the reliability of the car kept him from buying a Lincoln.

That car remained with the family until Doc completed his  residency for Child Psychiatry and moved back to Boise in the 90s. He purchase another 70s era Eldorado that Patrick drove for a while, but the sedan was his primary vehicle for many years. Eventually, the Blue Sapphire became a utility vehicle. That Caddy hauled camping and boat trailers all over all kinds of roads you wouldn't believe.

Doc later made a point of buying used Caddys every few years. After the first two, I don't think he ever bought another new one off of the lot. He never again bought a black or blue sedan (and they were always sedans), but I recall one red sedan and mostly silver.

My mom preferred smaller, less ostentatious cars, but even when Doc was ill and she drove back and forth to visit him in the hospital, she drove his car (maybe because he didn't want to be seen carted around in a subcompact—not really sure).

I got used to seeing the silver sedan parked by St. John's Cathedral, and occasionally I would catch him as I drove by and wave. Or I'd see him driving down State Street heading toward the cathedral. I equated seeing a later model silver Caddy as seeing Doc on his way to or from his late vocation.

Doc passed away a little over a month ago. The car is still at the house, but it will be sold soon. It's another in a long line of Caddys, so none of us are attached to it, but we're attached to the memory of Dad's love for his Caddys.

Yesterday, I rode out in my Honda Odessey to pick up an order of beef from a packing company in Nampa. I didn't want to listen to the chatter of DJs, so I plugged in my phone to hear my Pandora channels as I made the return trip.The first song that came on for my return trip was "Finally Home" by Mercy Me. It's a beautiful song, even though it's not theologically accurate. The first verse is this:
I'm gonna wrap my arms around my daddy's neck, and tell him that I've missed him. And tell him All about the man that I became, and hope that it pleased him. There's so much I want to say,There's so much I want you to know.
Doc battled cancer for a good eight years or longer. I had prayed that he would be able to see me finish my master's in theology and see me ordained. I had even hoped for him to see me finish a Ph.D. But I'll take two out of three.

Anyway, I pulled on to Ten-Mile Road and headed for the interstate. When I got to Victory road, I pulld up behind a silver Cadillac Sedan de Ville, and for a split second, I thought, "Hey, maybe that's Doc."

And then I realized that it wasn't, and that I'd never drive by him in his Caddy again.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Proclaim the Gospel to the World!—Fifteenth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Isaiah 55:10–11; Romans 8:18–23; Matthew 13:1–23

Each of the readings in this week’s liturgy relate in some way to fertility or birth—to the fecundity and creativity of God’s word in the world and in the lives of those who hear it. God’s word goes out and it moves our world, it moves our hearts and our souls.  I think these passages are evocative because they touch on our experience, and probably did so even more for the people of the times who were more familiar with the agrarian contexts.
First, there is the fertility of earth and seed compared to the word of God in the writings of Isaiah. The word doesn’t simply fall and return to God but is fruitful like the rain and snow that falls. St. Paul describes the coming of the kingdom—the redemption of creation—in terms of labor. Finally, Jesus’ “Parable of the Sower” describes how the word of the kingdom falls like seed onto different types of ground and then responds accordingly. Each passage presents the Word of God or Revelation as something that is sown and which then grows into a new creation, if the conditions favor its growth.
All three passages, then, have a theme that has been very common in the writings and homilies of the last three popes. Pope St. John Paul II introduced the phrase “the New Evangelization” during his pontificate, and both Pope emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis have each contributed to this conversation in word and in deed. Our pastors, from the popes down to our parish priests, have been encouraging and exhorting us to take the gospel out into the world. They are trying to remind us of the core mission of the Church—and the mission of all baptized people. We are not just to come in here on Sunday or the Saturday vigil and fill up the tank with high-octane grace and then go out to cruise for the rest of the week.
We’re supposed to take what we get here through the sacrament and through the preaching of the word, and we’re supposed to take it out to the world and offer it to everyone we can: that means people in our own families, in our workplaces, sometimes even in our own parish. That’s what is meant by the New Evangelization, but the mission is as old as the foundation of the Church. In Matthew 28, Jesus tells the Apostles to go out and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. So we are sent by Jesus and by our pastors to proclaim the good news to the world.
“But why is that necessary?” you might ask. “Don’t most Americans know about Jesus? Aren’t we a Christian nation? Isn’t 1.2 billion Catholics in the world enough?”
As it so happens, 1.2 billion Catholics are not enough. Would it be enough if only half of the people in the world knew who Jesus was and knew that he came to give them salvation? Would it be enough if only half of your family knew? Of course not. We want everyone to hear the good news, but our effort has not been enough.
In fact, it hasn’t been enough for a while. Europe can barely be called Christian these days, where church attendance across all denominations is at record lows, where a secularist mindset dominates, and where an implicit atheism spreads and festers. And if you think things are much better here, well, they’re only marginally so. Even among believers in Christ, a true understanding of Christian doctrine is weak, and among Catholics, basic doctrines are completely misunderstood.
But what’s more is the simple good news is often unknown. Doctrine is important, but doctrine is not the good news. The good news is not a something. The good news is somebody: Jesus Christ. The good news is that Jesus Christ came to repair what mankind broke. He came to heal the rift between us and God. He came to make us adopted sons and daughters of the Father. And He came to show us what real love is. That’s the good news. That God loved us so much that He came to live with us, to suffer with us, and to die for us so that we could join Him in heaven. But would you believe that more and more generations are growing up in our post-Christian nation without that very basic belief?
They need to be told. They need to hear of God’s love. They need to see God’s love in the way we live our lives.
They hear more about what we supposedly believe from the distorted reports the news media gives on TV. We have to take back our story and tell it the way it should be told.
People are searching for what is good. No one intentionally seeks what is bad for them. They want what is good, but they can’t see past the things our culture puts in front of their faces day in and day out. They wallow in excess, in sex, in drugs, in material things and distractions until they are drained. I’m sure I don’t have to point you to examples of this self-destructiveness in our popular culture. You might even have family members and friends whom you see trapped in these lifestyles. They want what is good, but they don’t know what it is or where to find it.
As one Catholic speaker put it recently, these people are dying to hear the good news. They just don’t know it.
Well, people, that’s our mission, and we all have a part to play. We can be those who sow the seed and plant the words of truth in people’s minds. That’s when you tell your friends, family, and acquaintances about your faith and tell them why you have accepted Jesus as your savior. You don’t have to be pushy. Just be honest. In fact, sometimes it’s more effective just to live in such a way—to live with such Christian joy—that they can’t help but ask. As Peter said in his first epistle, we need to be ready to give an account of our faith. So be ready. You are planting a seed in their minds. The Holy Spirit will do the heavy lifting.
You might also be one of those who prepares the soil. In Jesus’ parable, the seed falls on different types of ground. If the seed falls on the beaten path, it can be taken away by any opinion or cultural prejudice. If the seed falls on rocky ground, it might sprout, but it doesn’t grow deep enough to take root. If the seed falls among thorns, the plants are choked by other concerns. So someone has to prepare the soil, to till it, to remove the thorns and rocks. We have ministries like Returning Catholics that operate in the parish. We also have groups like St. Paul’s Street Evangelization that go out to public places; give away rosaries, prayer cards, and medals; and tell people about the teachings of the Church. They help to prepare the soil so that the seed of another’s faith can be planted.
Or you might be one of those who tends the growing faith of those who have been drawn in by God’s Word or by another’s faith. You might be assisting in a bible study or in RCIA. All of these ministries work together to help God’s Word take root and thrive. Ultimately it’s up to the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of those who hear the good news, but there needs to be the seed. They need to hear the news before the Holy Spirit can help it to take root.

I know that it can be uncomfortable to share your faith, and some people can challenge you and intimidate you. Pray for courage from the Holy Spirit, and ask our patron St. John the Evangelist to intercede for you. There’s a world out there that needs to be saved, and like the Blue Brothers, we’re all on a mission from God. Take up that mission. Take up that cross, and proclaim the gospel to the world.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

A reductio ad absurdum

Let's try a little thought experiment.

Imagine some time in the future that the Supreme Court has ruled that all citizens have the right at all times to carry a sidearm for self defense. You can't fire or refuse to hire a person who chooses to carry. They can't be barred from businesses, but of course, they are "responsible" for whatever they do with their firearms.

Now, imagine that some employers, wanting to attract and keep employees, decide to start providing related employment benefits: holsters, shoulder straps, firearm lessons, and so on. The practice becomes so ubiquitous that everyone expects it when they're employed. Some people even perhaps lobby for legislation to have mandatory firearm benefits from large public corporations (maybe those employing 50 or more employees).

Maybe someday in the future, the government says, "Okay, since these programs are practically ubiquitous, and people with useless firearms are in danger because they can't defend themselves, all employers must now supply ammunition to their employees. If they don't want to supply it themselves, they have to pay for someone else to supply it."

Maybe you own a small business—an LLC or an s-corp. Maybe you have a family-run business, a c-corp, of 100 employees, and your family has always believed that personal ownership of firearms for self defense is immoral. Is it an infringement on your rights to free exercise of conscience to do be forced to supply someone's ammunition or be forced to pay for it to be supplied?

If you took the issue to the Supreme Court and found that it infringed on your rights, would you be guilty of pursuing a war on gun owners?

Reasonable arguments for or against are welcome in the combox.