Laborers for the Harvest

Posted on June 28, 2016 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, July 3, 2016, 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Workers harvesting grapes from rows of vines in a vineyard.

In workshops, retreats, and classes I’ve offered over the years to parish and diocesan groups around the country, I’m consistently struck by the tension that many people feel between spirituality (which they often think of as something private) and action (which is, of course, more public). People can be hesitant to talk about how they pray. It’s much easier to talk about what we do—how we minister and the ways we serve.

But, as the Letter to the Galatians has been reminding us over the course of the past several weeks, we risk losing something essential if we focus too much of our energy on actions (i.e., observing “the law”) and neglect the deeper and more important spiritual realities that should be the foundation for everything we do in life, including our works of mercy and justice.

So, how can we begin to bring together our personal spirituality and our more public works? I think this Sunday’s Gospel provides us an important insight: the quality of our relationships.

This might seem like an odd answer, given the emphasis on mission and vocation in this Sunday’s Gospel passage, but let’s consider what Jesus instructs his disciples to do. He sends them out in pairs to “every town and place he intended to visit.” These disciples were to let the local communities know that Jesus and the Apostles were on their way. They were being asked to evangelize—to announce the good news that Jesus was coming. (Remember that our word “evangelize” comes from the Greek word evangelion, which originally meant a joyful announcement that a king was coming to visit or that a military battle had been won.) And the message, the evangelion, that Jesus had instructed the disciples to proclaim was simple: “The kingdom of God is at hand for you.” Here. Now.

The disciples’ journey and their announcement of the coming of the kingdom—and of the King himself—was the action. But what was bubbling beneath the surface, within the hearts and souls of those early evangelizers? It was their own faith in and relationship with Jesus and with one another.

When Jesus sent out the disciples as “laborers for his harvest,” he wanted them to work together, to share their faith, support and encourage one another when the journey was difficult, and to witness to the fact that to be a disciple of Jesus calls for collaboration and community. But Jesus also instructed them to pay attention to the response of the people they were visiting. They weren’t to just ride into town like gunslingers in a cowboy movie. They were to share their message about the coming of the kingdom but also to watch and listen—to be in relationship with the people they visited. As one commentator observed, “Whether accepted or rejected, disciples ‘harvest the ‘kingdom of God’ by their very presence, by their very proclamation of Jesus’ name, by their very fidelity to Jesus’ mission” (from Living Liturgy 2016).

Their mission was to proclaim the faith they held within their hearts and invite others—all others—to join them in building up God’s kingdom as faithful disciples. Faith and action came together in relationships—the communion and community of the kingdom of God.

As we reflect on the quality of our own relationships, we can certainly also think about the community of our nation as we look forward to our Independence Day celebrations on the Fourth of July. The Founding Fathers and first parents of this country envisioned the United States as a nation where all people were equal (cf. the Declaration of Independence) and where essential rights and freedoms were available to all people without fear of retribution or retaliation. America was built upon a belief in the necessity of right relationships and the responsible practice of freedom for the good of all our people.

As Christians—disciples proclaiming our interior faith through our public works of mercy and justice—we are being invited to reflect on how we are helping build God’s kingdom within our families, parishes, communities, and country. How are we building relationships with others? How does our faith form and inform our relationships? Who are we inviting? Who might we be excluding?

Silas S. Henderson, MTS

PRAYER

God of justice, Father of truth,
who guide creation in wisdom and goodness
to fulfillment in Christ your Son,
open our hearts to the truth of his Gospel,
that your peace may rule in our hearts
and your justice guide our lives.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Collect from the Mass for Independence Day from the English translation of The Roman Missal © 2010, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Answering the Call

Posted on June 21, 2016 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, June 26, 2016, 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Volunteer Jim constructing a welcome sign at Biblical Tamar Park.

“When was the last time you volunteered your time to try to help your community?” That was the question this past week on The Book of Questions Calendar that I purchased at the beginning of 2016. Hmm, I thought to myself, volunteering… I pictured myself raising my hand at some committee meeting.

Every morning around breakfast time, Jim and I share a reading for the day from his devotional and the Scripture passage referenced. We discuss it and then ask “the question of the day from the calendar.” From breakfast we go about our work. We are at Biblical Tamar Park in the Arava Desert in Israel. Volunteers! Jim is from Texas and I’m from Wisconsin.

As I read “the question” last Tuesday, I asked Jim, “When was the last time you or I ‘unvolunteered’?” And we laughed. This is my third summer spent in the heat of the Israeli desert. Jim has been here multiple times. Jim decided, when he retired, that he would spend the rest of his life volunteering. He’s helped build a playground by the source of the Amazon in Peru and worked in Cameroon as well as Nigeria. Both of us have volunteered in our local churches in the US. Our discussed common goal is to help any way we can to spread the kingdom.

Is volunteering like answering the call in this Sunday’s readings? We would hope so! Spreading the kingdom today is both similar and dissimilar to scriptural times. Most of us don’t have a prophet throwing the cloak of his ministry over us or Jesus himself inviting us. In that way, the call may be dissimilar. But similar in so many ways, one of them being questioning its genuineness.

How do we know when a call comes? How do we know if it is from God or is just a crazy idea popping up in our heads? Jim can attest that some of those crazy ideas are genuine calls. If it won’t go away, that may be one sure sign it is genuine. We can’t always expect a confirmation of our call from the people around us. Just reading about Elisha’s sacrificing all his oxen seems foolish at first glance. Can you imagine what his family, friends, and coworkers thought about that? How they must have talked during the great feast that followed his sacrifice! He really burned his bridges along with his plows! He gave all he had to follow his call.

Excuses. Jesus invited and got excuses. Just questioning the idea can be an excuse for not responding to the call. The idea is just too crazy! What I heard from some friends and acquaintances was that going to Israel is walking into the lion’s den. Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria are much too close for comfort. And then there are the constant threats of conflict between Jews and Palestinians. But then, who would have guessed that going to a club in Orlando could be so disastrous? (We are praying for all involved!)

What are our excuses for not answering the call? An older lady from Saskatchewan stopped here with a tour last week. She asked about volunteering, but had no idea how to do it? What about visas? Is there a lot of red tape? I assured her that it was an easy process. Was she too old? No, I’m seventy-seven and can still do all the tasks I’m asked. Jim started volunteering at seventy-one and you should see him go! He says, “God has blessed me all my life. I want to give him all that is left.” No excuses!

What is God calling you to do? Listening for God’s ideas can be the hardest part. They may seem really crazy! But so was following a wandering Jew who had nowhere to lay his head. Is there a crazy idea in the back of your head? Might it be from the Spirit? What excuse is holding you back? Come!

Pat DeGroot, OblSB

PRAYER

Lord Jesus,
we thank you for the wondrous gift of Your Incarnation.
Just as the Blessed Virgin Mary was used to bring You into this world,
help us to use our time and talents to bring the Good News into the world.
May we never forget the love You have for all of us,
and may we never forget to share that love with others.
Amen.

-Closing Prayer from the Stations of the Nativity from the Institute on Religious Life.

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A Lesson We Were Not Prepared For

Posted on June 14, 2016 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, June 19, 2016, 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Man carrying cross on his back.

It was my first day as a college student. Arriving at an Introduction to Education course, we found a chair placed in the middle of the room, facing the student desks. The professor asked one student to sit in the chair, facing the rest of us, and she was given a mirror. She was told to address the person in the mirror, to express whatever she wanted to say to herself, aloud, with the class watching and listening. Then, one by one, each of us were called forward. As a painfully shy seventeen-year-old, this was almost more than I could manage. I remember thinking to myself, “What is her point?” After all of us had gone through the exercise, the professor explained. “You cannot hope to teach anyone anything unless you know yourself, are comfortable in your own skin, are prepared to be yourself in the presence of others.” This was a lesson I had not expected to learn—I can admit now that I did not really want to learn the lesson then, but fully grasp the professor’s wisdom now. This was for me, and I imagine for many of the other students, the real beginning of education. We began to learn what it means to be a person.

The apostles in Sunday’s Gospel were presented with a lesson for which they were not prepared. They had followed Jesus from town to town; they had witnessed miraculous healings, heard his teaching, and had come to believe that he is the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah. Now, at the very moment in which Peter voiced their conviction about his identity, Jesus directed them not to tell anyone what they have come to understand. Not only this, he told them he will be rejected, suffer, die, and rise—what must they have thought? They might have wondered, “What is his point?” This is not the sort of life they had envisioned as disciples of the Messiah! There is more. Jesus told them, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Jesus understands the inner conversion of heart and spirit the apostles must embrace in order to be his disciples in the world. He has predicted his own suffering and death, which the apostles cannot possibly yet grasp. He is asking them to change their expectations—the Messiah is not a temporal king who will overturn Roman rule. The Messiah is the One who shows us how to abandon false notions of power and control, lose our lives to God’s will, and love beyond our limited human imagination.

We deny ourselves when we fall into negative behavioral patterns, denying our self-worth and failing to recognize the impact of such behavior on others. This is not the sort of self-denial Jesus commands. Jesus’ call to self-denial is the call to humbly give our lives to God, trusting that all will be well. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians underlines the change of mind and heart that results from this trusting faith. In Christ, there is no room for division or prejudice due to ethnic origin, social status, or gender. Those who are clothed with Christ are to be unified in mission as children of God. This is a lesson we may not be ready to learn, yet must. The lesson is twofold: First, we must pray for an open mind and heart, that we may be conformed to Christ’s way of humble fulfillment of the Father’s loving will. To “deny yourself” will require each of us to some specific movement of human and spiritual growth, which is in itself a lifelong process of ongoing conversion.

Secondly, we take up our own crosses, the daily deaths, burdens, and struggles that we bear, while standing in solidarity with those whose crosses are greater than our own. This weekend, we learned again a lesson that none of us wants to learn. Violence and terror are again on our minds; images of grieving families again fill media; our hearts hurt for the victims and their families, and wonder what our Christian response must be. We take up the cross with all who are hurting through the senseless violence and terror, knowing this is one act among many. The statements of Pope Francis and Archbishop Kurtz (president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) voice our solidarity with all who suffer in Orlando. Archbishop Cupich of Chicago calls us to act as Christ’s people in the world, seeking the end to such senseless violence. Whether in the relatively mundane aspects of daily life, or in the larger moments of challenge in acting faithfully as a person in the world, we must be true to our master teacher, Jesus, the Christ of God. And what is Jesus’ “point” for our lives? “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Leisa Anslinger

PRAYER

O Lord,
give us a mind
that is humble, quiet, peaceable,
patient, and charitable,
and a taste of your Holy Spirit
in all our thoughts, words, and deeds.

O Lord,
give us a lively faith, a firm hope,
a fervent charity, a love of you.

Take from us all lukewarmness in meditation
and all dullness in prayer.
Give us fervor and delight in thinking of you,
your grace, and your tender compassion toward us.

Give us, good Lord,
the grace to work for
the things we pray for.

—St. Thomas More

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Tears of Sorrow, Tears of Joy

Posted on June 7, 2016 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, June 12, 2016, 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eye

In October 2009, Abby Johnson worked as the manager of a Planned Parenthood facility in Texas. Witnessing an abortion on ultrasound convinced her of the brutality and immorality of the procedure. From that time, she has worked to uncover what goes on behind the walls of abortion facilities throughout the country. She founded the pro-life ministry And Then There Were None to reach out to those who work in the abortion industry, to help them to transition out, and to find healing and forgiveness. Her first book, Unplanned, tells the dramatic story of her decision to leave Planned Parenthood and how God has used her to bring hope and healing to women like her who have been the victims of abortion.

In her latest book, The Walls Are Talking, she, along with several other former abortion workers, tell the story of their experiences in the industry. One of the heart-rending stories is that of a woman she calls Angie. Coming into the clinic for her ninth abortion, she appeared to be calm, joking with the staff, and conversing easily with them up to and even during the procedure. While in the recovery room, she asked if she could see the fetus. Typically the staff would not have allowed it, but because Angie appeared to be so calm and had already gone through so many abortions, the supervisor allowed it.

Upon looking at the twelve-week fetus, however, she became hysterical and wailed uncontrollably. Up to that time, she imagined that her unborn child was just a gelatin blob of tissue. Now she was confronted with the reality of the lives she ended. Because the customers waiting in the lobby were becoming agitated with her screaming, the staff got her boyfriend to go into the bathroom, pick her up off the floor where she continued sobbing, and take her out into the parking lot.

The scene is somewhat similar to the story in this Sunday’s first reading from Second Samuel. To take Bathsheba as his own wife, King David has Uriah the Hittite killed. However, he is not convinced of the evil he has committed until the prophet Nathan shows it to him through the parable of the lamb. Seeing his actions for what they are, he is able to experience true sorrow for his sins. Though he must suffer the consequences of his actions, he can now find forgiveness.

To find forgiveness, we must first be convinced of our sinfulness. Mercy ultimately has no value if we are unaware that we have done wrong. Sometimes it takes a dramatic event, like Angie’s experience of seeing her unborn child, or the words of a wise friend, like Nathan’s words to King David, to shake us out of our denial and fully accept responsibility for our wrongdoing. Whatever the means and whoever the messenger, coming to conversion is the first step to forgiveness and healing.

The story of the penitent woman in Luke’s Gospel drives this point home even further. This woman, known to all as a sinful woman, lavishes ointment and tears on Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair. Grieving over her sins, she turns to the One who has shown her mercy and finds forgiveness. The experience of God’s mercy in Jesus then produces love.

Simon the Pharisee, in contrast, is convinced of his righteousness. Therefore, he cannot overlook his judgement of the woman as a sinner. At the same time, he cannot see mercy flowing from Jesus’ heart and judges him unworthy of being a prophet. If Simon could be convinced of his own sinfulness, then he would be able to experience Jesus’ mercy for himself and then, be capable of loving. However, he remains locked within his own smug self-assurance in denial of his need for a savior.

Like the penitent woman, our tears of sorrow can become tears of joy when we accept forgiveness from Jesus. And that joy then radiates out in love that compels us to tell our story to others so that they too can experience healing and forgiveness in Jesus. We do not know if Angie ever found forgiveness, healing, and peace after her ninth abortion. We do know, however, that it is possible. It is our job, now, not to sit in condemnation of others but to bring them to the mercy of Jesus because we have experienced his love firsthand.

Douglas Sousa, STL

PRAYER

Dear Lord,
your word tells us
that we have all sinned
and fallen short of your glory.
Give us perfect and true sorrow for our sins.
May that conviction not lead us to despair,
but to reach out to you with tears of sorrow
and, receiving your forgiveness,
may we reach out to others with love,
never condemning but always welcoming,
for you have welcomed us
in the person of Jesus, our Lord.
Amen.

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