Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Homily 15th Sun O.T., Year A–The Soul of Fruitful Soil

sowerI’m very glad to be with you all today to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving for my Ordination to the Priesthood and to thank you all for your prayers and support and for helping to form me into the man I am today. I feel like I should briefly explain why I am a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville rather than the Diocese of Owensboro! I grew up in this parish and my mother Jan was one of my teachers at Blessed Mother school. I then went to Catholic Middle and Catholic High and after going to Lindsey Wilson College I got a job in Louisville as a software developer for an investment firm. That job, which I had for about 3 years, is what brought me to Louisville and it was during that period that I discerned that God was calling me to be a priest. I felt like he had led me to Louisville and that I was called to serve the people of the Archdiocese of Louisville. But, every time I use the word “home”, I still think of Owensboro. I love this diocese and this parish and will always look forward to the opportunities to visit. Besides, we gave you one of our priests as your new bishop so I’ll probably be made pastor of 4 or 5 parishes one day because of that so we’re even!

Shortly after I entered seminary at St. Mary’s in Baltimore in 2005, one of the first steps toward being ordained was being Instituted a Lector, or being made an “official” reader in the Church. After that we were Instituted as Acolytes or “official servers” and then as Candidates, professing publicly our intent to be ordained. In our preparation for receiving the Ministry of Lector, I remember well that our first reading today from the prophet Isaiah was the reading that we had to practice over and over: “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, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth…”

When each one of us were instituted as lectors we knelt before the bishop who placed a Bible in our hands and said, “Take this book of Holy Scripture and be faithful in handing on the Word of God, so that it may grow strong in the hearts of His people. Amen.” I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed at that point. It is God who plants his word in our hearts, like a sower of seeds, and I was to be an instrument of that planting.

In a sense, we all received this ministry at our Baptism. After we were Baptized, the priest made a sign of the cross on the crown of our heads with the Sacred Chrism saying, “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life. Amen.” Then after we were clothed in a white garment and received our lit baptismal candle the priest prayed the Ephphetha prayer, which is Aramaic for “be opened.” With his thumb he touched our ears and lips saying, “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the mute speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father. Amen.”

The Ephphatha prayer is one of the last prayers of the ritual of Baptism. In that way it is a sort of commissioning. In a very real way, our life’s mission was given to us at that young age. Each one of us was meant to live a life of opening our ears to receive God’s word and our mouths to proclaim his faith. We were anointed as Prophets. This is what we were called to be, no matter what our vocation, or job, or state in life: we were made to be lectors in our everyday lives.

At our Baptism we were brought into the kingdom of God, made co-heirs with Christ of all of the spiritual riches of that kingdom, and given the grace we need to lead holy lives. Then how do we account for such a wide diversity among Catholics today? Some Catholics only go to Mass on Christmas or Easter, others go every Sunday or every day. Some spend one or two hours a week in Adoration, adoring our Lord present in the consecrated host. On the other hand, many still do not believe that the bread and wine at Mass truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. Some Catholics go to confession once a month while for others it has been decades. If the seeds of God’s word were sown in all of our souls why then do those seeds bear fruit and yield a hundred fold in one, sixty in another, or thirty in another? The sower is the same for each of us, the seed is the same, the difference is the soil. “God pours himself into our souls in accordance with the degree of welcome He finds there” (In Conversation, Fernandez, 4/19.3).

In the parable of the sower in our Gospel, Jesus reveals how the mysteries of his kingdom should be received. Unfortunately, throughout our lives we have a tendency of disturbing the soil of our souls: matting it down to where it becomes only a hard pathway so that the seed stays at the surface and is eaten by the birds; or making it rocky and shallow so that the roots cannot take hold and the seeds are scorched by the sun; or littering it with thorns so that they are choked and overcome by them. With these images Jesus reveals the three constant sources of all of our troubles, the three traditional sources of evil in our lives: the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Those who have souls matted down and trodden underfoot can only accept external, superficial things. They never even consider supernatural realities or their spiritual lives. They never think of anything beyond what their passions demand of them. When asked to think deeply they are dumbfounded. They hear God’s word, they may even hear it every Sunday. But they do not listen to it and so it stays at the surface, easily snatched away by the devil.

Those who have souls of rocky ground can receive the seeds of God’s word but do not have an inner depth in which the roots can take hold. They can become excited about a new insight they have discovered that helps them in some way or encourages them in a particular practice. But this enthusiasm is easily scorched when the weakness of this first blush of commitment is tested by a real trial or difficulty. They are tempted to turn back to their former way of life when the Gospel begins to demand too much.

Those who have souls of thorns growing all around it are also able to hear the word but the cares of the world and the delight in riches stifle it, and it proves unfruitful. An excessive ambition or an excessive concern for being well-off and comfortable is evidence of the thorns of worldliness and materialism. Becoming obsessed with acquiring one big thing after the next is a thorn that will always wound us. We all have had times of each type of soil.

I know all of this sounds a bit negative, but it is important that we see others and ourselves for who we really are: our life’s mission – to receive God’s word and proclaim it in our own way – is at stake. “But,” I could ask, “if I’m perfectly fine with the way my life is going, why should I care what type of soil my soul is for receiving the seeds of God’s word? Because those ultimate questions of life, of religion, of God will always escape us if we don’t prepare the soil of our souls to receive the mysteries of God’s kingdom in a deeper and deeper way. The questions like, “Why am I here? Why am I doing this? What is all of this for? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why was I laid off? Why did my mother or sister or brother die? Why am I suffering? Why am I doing so well when others are doing so poorly? Why me, God? These are questions we all have asked, no matter who you are. And that’s why we should care. Because the answers come easy to those who allow God’s word to bear fruit in them. But they constantly plague those who refuse him.

Those questions may not bother us now, but some day we will come face-to-face with something we can’t explain and those of us with souls producing the flowers and fruits of grace, wisdom, and the light of the Holy Spirit will find comfort where those souls left open to the devil or overcome by human weakness or worldly cares will be desperate to know where to turn.

The hope in all of this is that we all have been given the gift of free will, the freedom of self-determination, the freedom to make ourselves whatever we want to be according to our decisions. No soul is too hard for God to break through, too rocky for God to take root, or too full of thorns for God’s presence to grow strong and free, if that is what we want. No evil spirit is too greedy or too quick for God to overcome – that victory has already been won. No doubt or hesitancy or uncertainty is too much for God who is Truth Himself. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in, Adoro Te Devote, his hymn of adoration: “Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:/ How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;/ What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do; Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.” Finally, no worldly concern, no vacation, no cushy retirement, no pile of cords and gadgets, no high-paying job comes close to the infinite worth of one drop of Precious Blood or one tiny piece of a consecrated Host. The choice for God is ours to make. No matter where we’ve come from or what we’ve been through, all of us are able to have a soul of rich soil, to hear the word and understand it, and bear fruit in a life of holiness that yields not just thirty or sixty but hundredfold. Indeed, as the Psalm says for Saturday’s Morning Prayer: “The just will flourish like the palm tree/ and grow like a Lebanon cedar./ Planted in the house of the Lord/ they will flourish in the courts of our God,/ still bearing fruit when they are old,/ still full of sap, still green,/ to proclaim that the Lord is just;/ in him, my rock, there is no wrong” (Ps 92).

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