Sunday, September 21, 2008

Workers and Friends in the Vineyard of the Lord

(25th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 21 September, 2008 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Matthew 20:1-16)

Death…Judgment…Heaven…Hell. We do not really talk much about these things at the breakfast table! They do not often come up in conversation when we are out having a cup of coffee with friends. You will not find these words in many email headings! And yet these are the Four Last Things that the Church, for centuries, has always encouraged Her faithful to consider and meditate on. Death, judgment, heaven and hell. In light of God’s mercy and compassion, those realities help us to put things in perspective and guide us on the way to eternal life with God.

Although not common, there would be nothing wrong with talking about them (in the proper context). And by all means there is nothing wrong with preaching about them. Jesus Christ, many times, preached about the Four Last Things.

I remember hearing once, in fact, that Christ preached more about hell than He did about heaven. I was not all that convinced then; I am still not. But I did “Google” it the other day, just to get the “definitive” word! I discovered that there are basically two camps: those who count up the number of times Christ uses the words “heaven” and “hell”, with the former taking precedence. Then there are those who say you have to look at the context; hell featured more prominently in Jesus’ preaching, they say.

Whichever camp we side with, however, the one obvious fact is that Christ preached about both heaven and hell, often. And He almost always spoke about them together. Why is that?

Throughout this past week at the seminary here we have been blessed with the guidance and teaching presence of Fr. James Wallace, C.Ss.R., a nationally known and respected Professor of Homiletics at Washington Theological Union. He has been here to give our seminarians a workshop on preaching, and the gospel text we have been focusing on is the one we listen to this weekend: the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

One of the shining themes of that parable—evidenced in all the homilies our seminarians have delivered throughout these past few days—is the absolute and overwhelming generosity of God. It is a parable about heaven, the goal and destiny that God has in mind for each of us from the beginning.

Christ describes God as a landowner who is constantly on the move. It is as if every moment of every hour he is out inviting and welcoming workers into His vineyard. It is the offer of grace and the mercy of God, withheld from no one. Yet along with that tremendous offer of generosity and love comes a terrible risk: the possibility that such an offer could be rejected.

One of the workers in the parable turns on the landowner and begins to grumble about the workings of the vineyard:

These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.
—Matthew 20:12

The reply from the landowner is a sobering one, even somewhat haunting:

“My friend,” he says to him, “I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go…”
—Matthew 20:13-14

In other words, if you do not like the conditions of the vineyard, then you are under no obligation to remain. It is haunting because the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is not about workers, and it is not about a vineyard. It is about the invitation to eternal life with God, and this person is in danger of walking away from that! That is about as close to a definition of hell as you can find.

C.S. Lewis, in his fictional novel The Great Divorce, says that, in the end, there are only two kinds of people. There are those who say to God, “Thy will be done.”

It may be a sin that we would really like to hold onto, but we realize it has the power to keep us from God, and so we let it go. Thy will be done. Or perhaps there is someone who has hurt us so badly that we do not wish to ever forgive them…but God is relentlessly moving us in that direction. Reluctantly, perhaps, we force those words from our lips: Thy will be done. Or maybe we are carrying a cross that is so heavy, a trial that is nearly unbearable, but we trust in the mercy of God to see us through. Thy will be done. That is the first kind of person described by C.S. Lewis.

The second, however, is the one to whom God must say, in the end, and with great sorrow: Thy will be done. If you do not wish to be a part of this Kingdom, thy will be done. If you are not willing to accept my offer of generosity and merciful love on my terms, but instead insist on your own terms, thy will be done. “Take what is yours and go.” What an awful and tragic prospect.

Yet there are two words in the parable that militate against that possibility, two words spoken to each one of us, as well. Words that flood the world with hope: My friend!

“My friend,” the landowner says to that perplexed and grumbling worker. My friend. There is absolutely no evidence to support the notion that this acknowledgment of friendship is anything but authentic. There is no bitterness or sarcasm here; only the absolute and overwhelming generosity of God. And that may be the closest thing to heaven that we will ever experience here on earth.

St. Thomas Aquinas refers to heaven and the eternal relationship God offers to us as Amicitia Dei, friendship with God. How remarkable! We are not merely workers in the vineyard. We are friends, called to a life of intimacy with the living God! I would like to suggest there are at least three ways we are called to nurture that friendship and to remain closely united to Christ.

The first and foundational way is prayer: daily conversation with God. We take the time each day to be alone and still before God. We talk to Him, and try very hard to listen. A great example of this kind of conversation that keeps friendship alive and thriving is found in Christian marriage. A husband and wife are called to develop and nurture their friendship through daily conversation and continual communication. Yet never is that conversation more intimate and powerful than when they speak to each other in the silence and communicate with the language of their bodies in the union that is the God-given sign of their love. That conversation has the power to generate new life in the world we live in.

It is also the level of intimacy that God calls each of us to in our conversation with Him in prayer. Does that sound outrageous to you? We would never even imagine a relationship with God that intimate, if God Himself had not revealed it to us in the Scriptures. Through the prophets of the Old Testament, God reveals his love to the People of Israel as the love of a husband. He espouses Himself to Israel; she is His chosen bride.

In the New Testament Jesus Christ is the Bridegroom of His Bride, the Church. It is for Her that He is willing to suffer and die, giving His very life that She may be forever united to Him. At the Last Supper He speaks perhaps the most profound and life-giving words in all of Sacred Scripture: This is my body, which will be given up for you. Take and eat it. This is the cup of my blood…shed for you. Take, and drink from it.

That conversation of Christ with His Bride the Church, then and at every celebration of the Eucharist, has the power to bring about the one-flesh union between Bridegroom and Bride. That intimacy is continued through our prayer leading to and from the Eucharist each day. Amicitia Dei, friendship with God, is nurtured and sustained by prayer.

Secondly, we are able to remain close to God when we read about and from the people who were closest to Him: the Saints. Spiritual reading draws us up into the same love that they had for God, and it has the power to enkindle the flame of devotion in us.

The story of Edith Stein—who would later become St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—provides a compelling testimony. Edith was a brilliant, young Jewish philosopher and ardent searcher of truth. Yet in all her learning she still sensed that there was something else, something more which she could not fully grasp.

By the grace of God she was led to the teachings of the Catholic faith through the example and witness of several faithful souls near where she lived. They gave her a book on The Life of St. Teresa of Avila and she read the whole thing in a single night (it is by no means light reading!). In the wee hours of the morning she read the final page, closed that book and said to herself, “This is the truth.” She converted to the Catholic faith, was baptized and eventually entered a Carmelite community in Cologne, Germany, a few hours away from where we gather for this Mass. She would later die in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, witnessing to her faith and love for Christ to the end.

Spiritual reading has the power to change our lives and draw us into the very heart of God. If we want to get wet, we have to stand where the water is. If we want to get warm, then we have to stand in the fire! Spiritual reading and the lives of the saints can set our lives on fire and help us to grow in our friendship with God.

Finally, not only prayer leading to and from the Eucharist, and spiritual reading, but also imitation of Christ is what we need to nurture that intimate friendship with Him. We look at the generosity of God in this parable and we desire to love like that. We see how willing God is, at every moment of every day, to reach out in love and we are moved to want to do the same. We look to Christ, who on the cross pours out His body and blood, His very life for our salvation, and we also seek to make that total gift of self.

May this coming week find us growing ever more deeply in our relationship of intimacy and friendship with God. Amicitia Dei, it is the closest thing to heaven that we will find here on this earth, and it is the sine qua non for every worker in the vineyard of the Lord.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Blessed Damien and Amazing Grace

American College of the Immaculate Conception, Orientation Week-2008

(This homily was given on 4 September, 2008 during Orientation Week for the new seminarians of the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Belgium. The seminary is located a mere half mile from the resting place of Blessed Damien of Molokai, soon to be canonized a saint. We had the privelege of celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at Blessed Damien's crypt, directly beside the saint's remains, located in the Church of St. Anthony of the Sacred Heart Fathers in Leuven, Belgium. For reflection on the gospel reading for that day, see Luke 1:39-56)

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see

Our gospel this morning is about conversion. We see, in the person of St. Peter, a man who was blind to the God standing right in front of him, but whose eyes were suddenly opened and whose life was changed forever.

“Duc in altum,” Christ commands St. Peter. Put out into the deep! “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). It is an invitation to so much more than fishing, something far deeper than any ocean. But St. Peter cannot see that…not yet.

“Master we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.” He was exhausted; all of his own efforts had failed. Nonetheless he obeys: “At your command I will lower the nets” (Luke 5:5). With that St. Peter’s nets are filled and his mind is flooded with the recognition of who this Man is: Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.

“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”
—Luke 5:8

It is a request that Christ has no intention of granting, a prayer that will never be answered. From that moment on, St. Peter’s life would never be the same again. His eyes were opened to Christ, and would gradually be opened to all that God had called him to embrace.

We cannot encounter Christ the way St. Peter did and remain blind to God and to the needs of this world. Seeing Christ and hearing His call in our lives changes everything for us. Everything. But it also changes the lives of those around us.

How blessed we are to be here this morning, at the Crypt of Blessed Damien of Molokai. Ordained a Catholic priest in 1864, he came as a missionary to Hawaii to proclaim the gospel in word and deed. Less than 10 years later, in 1873, he was sent to assist at the Leper Colony on the Island of Molokai. It was a job that almost no one else wanted, and even those who had the courage to embrace this ministry took turns for several months at a time in order to diminish the chances of becoming infected.

But soon Blessed Damien volunteered to live there permanently. His eyes were opened to the needs of the people there and, as Pope John Paul II said in a homily here in Belgium for Fr. Damien’s Beatification, his love for the people on the Island of Molokai “expressed the tenderness and mercy of Christ towards all people,” and revealed to the world that no one—no leper nor anyone with any disease or illness—is entirely sick, deformed, weak or completely disfigured. We all possess tremendous interior beauty (Homily of Pope John Paul II, in Brussels for the Beatification of Servant of God, Damien de Veuster, 4 June, 1995).

Blessed Damien of Molokai changed the people of that small island, but in the process he also changed the world around him. He changed the way people looked at and treated the sick, and those who witnessed the effects of his ministry were often never the same again.

I am sure you have heard of the author, Robert Louis Stevenson. He wrote Treasure Island, and many other books and stories. Towards the end of his life he suffered from tuberculosis and, like many of those suffering from that devastating illness, sought refuge and the hope of recovery in tropical climates. One of the places he turned to was Hawaii and, completely against the wishes of his doctor, he travelled to the Island of Molokai just after Blessed Damien had passed away.

It was not that Stevenson was interested in Blessed Damien or seeking some religious experience by going there. Stevenson had grown up in Scotland and had always been somewhat cold and distant when it came to the Christian faith. After hearing firsthand the stories about the Apostle to the Lepers and witnessing its fruits in such a remarkable way, however, he began to see things in a whole new light. He would later say that eight days “on Fr. Damien’s Molokai” changed his life.

At about the same time there was a protestant minister in Hawaii named Rev. Dr. Hyde. Hyde had once publicly praised the work of Damien, yet suddenly he turned against the memory of that celebrated man and slandered his name in the press. People began to doubt the integrity of this great missionary priest and many readily received the lie instead of the truth.

But one of the people who read the article was Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson’s wife later recalled how, after reading Rev. Dr. Hyde’s comments on Damien, he locked himself in his room and began muttering to himself; he was furious. In response he simply turned to the one thing he did best: writing.

Stevenson wrote what he entitled: Father Damien: An Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde and offered it first to the Sydney Morning Herald. The letter was eventually circulated rapidly to several different countries and quickly overshadowed the minster’s own letter that had instigated it.

The Rev. Dr. Hyde was especially bitter, it was said, about the final lines of that letter. Stevenson had written:

“The man who did what Damien did is my father ... and the father of all who love goodness: and he was your father too, if God had given you the grace to see it.”

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see

Where are the places in our lives that we need to open our eyes most as we begin this new experience of seminary formation?

Who are the people in our lives—the suffering, the weak, the fearful, the lonely—that we need to see more clearly and love more completely, like Blessed Damien of Molokai?

Christ is calling us to “put out into the deep”—Duc in altum! We pray this morning that God will open our eyes and help us to be transformed—like St. Peter and like Blessed Damien of Molokai—and to be instruments of transformation, like they were, in the world we live in.