Saturday, July 26, 2014

Sowing the Seeds of God’s Love

A wonderful man died earlier this week.  I was privileged to give the homily at his funeral this morning.

The Sower, by Vincent van Gogh (1888)
You gotta love John Burns.  Any man who loved manly dogs and even little toy dogs; any man who could be bribed with a maple-frosted donut; who ended his busy day with a Comfort Manhattan; who called his wife Honey Bunny and who had nicknames like “John John” and “Mr. Jabooboo,” can’t be all that bad.  But John wasn’t just “any man” because John’s capacity to love was much deeper than these simple things would suggest.  John loved God, and John loved us, and he made sure we knew it.  In his quiet, simple way, John sowed the seeds of God’s love.  And that’s what our scripture readings call us to do too.

          Our Gospel passage recalls the parable of the sower, where Jesus teaches us that those who hear the Word of God and embrace it with a generous and good heart will bear abundant fruit.  God’s Word, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, can be summed up in just one word – love.  As our second reading tells us, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.”  (1 John 4: 16)  So “God’s love for us is the source of our power to love.”[1]   Love is dynamic, not static.  It has to move.  So if we embrace God’s love with a good and generous heart, we won’t be able to hold it in.  Like the sower, we’ll scatter the seeds of love far and wide.  We will, ourselves, become sowers of the seeds of God’s love.  And we will produce abundant fruit.

          That’s our challenge from today’s readings – to embrace God’s Word; to embrace God’s love and share it with others.  I’m told that there’s a saying hanging on a bulletin board in John’s classroom that goes something like this:  “God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers.”  Now, in light of John’s illness and death, we might be tempted to think that God gave John his battle with cancer.  But that’s not true.  God can’t harm us or hurt us.  It’s inconsistent with his very being, which is love.  In fact, God already conquered death through the passion, death and resurrection of his only Son.  God won that battle.  We’re celebrating Christ’s victory over death and his gift of eternal life in this Mass today.  No, God’s toughest battle is convincing us to receive his boundless love and to share it with each other.  That’s the battle that God gave to John.  That’s the battle God gives to all of us.  And God gave us the only weapon we need to win it – love.  So the only question that remains, then, is whether we’re willing to take on that battle – whether we’re willing to sow the seeds of God’s love. 

          John was.  It took Debbie and me all of 5 minutes to choose today’s readings because sacred scripture spoke so vividly to us of John.  John lived a scriptural life.   He embraced the Word of God, he embraced God’s love with his good and generous heart, and he sowed the seeds of that love among us.   John wasn’t boisterous or preachy about his faith, like me.  John, like Elijah in our first reading, found God in the “tiny whispering sound.”

+ John sowed the seeds of God’s love playing that organ for us every Sunday in his beaten up, band aid-bound shoes;

+ John sowed the seeds of God’s love by sharing his love for God with his students and colleagues at Pius X High School;

+ John sowed the seeds of love perfecting his “Crater Cakes” recipe for Katie and never missing a performance or recital; and

+ John sowed the seeds of God’s love loving Debbie, even when, in her words, she wasn't very lovable.  

One of John’s students captured him perfectly when she said, “I love the way love shines in you.”  John was a strong soldier, a generous sower, and a great example for us. 

          So I return to our challenge:  Will we embrace God’s Word with good and generous hearts?  Will we sow the seeds of God’s love like John did?  Well, I already know the answer to that question . . . because I've seen it happening. 

+ John’s family and friends sowed the seeds of God’s love by offering prayer, food and support during John’s difficult illness;

+ The students and staff at Pius X sowed the seeds of God’s love in the cards and messages you sent John that brightened his days and moved him to tears;

+ Katie:  You sowed the seeds of God’s love by loving those “Crater Cakes” more than the Spinning Wheel Diner’s pancakes (or at least pretending to), but most importantly by sharing your triumphs and your challenges with him and making him so proud of all that you do; and

+ Debbie:  you sowed the seeds of God’s love by loving John in sickness and in health, and even when he extended his summer vacation to a vacation from showering and shaving.

“In Christianity, love is the reason, the means, and the end of life.  God is love, and love is life’s driving force.  God created out of love, has sent his son into the world out of love, and in the end that Love and all that Love has loved return to the Creator to live eternally.”[2]  John loved, so I have no doubt that he lives in perfect health and happiness in the comforting embrace of the one who is perfect love because “love never dies.”  (1 Corinthians 13: 8)

          I don’t remember when I first met John.  We knew each other as fellow parishioners who exchanged pleasant greetings on Sundays; later as brothers in ministry who collaborated at Mass; and finally, by the grace of God, as friends.  I came to know John best in his darkest hour, and what a gift that time with John was for me.  We shared our hopes and fears.  We had deep theological discussions, and we chatted about the weather.  We mused about why he loved to watch golf on TV but couldn't understand what people found so entertaining about soccer.  But most of all, we talked about love.  He told me that Debbie and Katie were the loves of his life.  He told me how much he loved all of you.  He told me how deeply he felt your love for him and how your love carried him through his illness.  And he told me that he truly believed that God loved him more than he could imagine.  Even in dying, John sowed the seeds of God’s love.  You gotta love John Burns.

Readings:  1 Kings 19: 4-9a, 11-15a; 1 John 4: 7-16; Luke 8: 4-10a, 11b-15

[1] C. Clifton Black, “The First Letter of John,” New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XII (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998) at 429.
[2] Michael Patella, Angels and Demons:  A Christian Primer of the Spiritual World (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2010) at 81.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


          One day, Hans and Fritz were resting on a hay bale at the side of the road when a young, American exchange student approached on his bicycle. The student asked, "Do you know the way to Frankfurt?" Not speaking any English, Hans and Fritz just shrugged their shoulders. Having majored in foreign languages at Georgetown University, the premier language learning institute in the nation, the exchange student was undaunted. He tried the question in French, but with no luck. He tried again in his best Italian, then Spanish. He even threw in some Japanese for good measure, but with each translation, Hans and Fritz just shrugged, unable to understand what the young man was asking. When he ran out of languages, the exchange student realized that he was getting nowhere, so he rode on. After a few moments, Hans turned to Fritz and said, "You know, we really need to grow. We should learn a foreign language." But Fritz replied, "Why? It didn't help him." Fritz didn't understand that if we really want to grow, we have to help ourselves. That's the message of today's Gospel.

          In today's Gospel we hear the familiar story known as the Parable of the Sower. But oddly enough, the parable isn't really about the sower. All we learn about the sower is that he went out to sow, and he sowed freely and liberally. Seeds were flying everywhere. The parable really focuses on the seeds and the soil – God's Word, and those who hear it. 

          God's Word is freely and liberally sown. The "salvific seed of God's good news [is] sown freely and indiscriminately so that anyone with ears to hear and a heart willing to understand might listen and learn the ways of God.”[1] God's Word is available to all of us. "The sower does not make distinctions between different soils; he simply throws the seed.”[2] And that seed, God's Word, is always effective. It always finds good soil. As God says through Isaiah in our first reading, "my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55: 11)

          That leads us to the soil: those who hear God's Word – to us. The parable speaks of four different types of soil, but only one produces an abundance of good fruit: the rich soil; the soil that's been cultivated. As the Gospel tells us, the rich soil is "the one who hears the word and understands it." (Matthew 13: 23) But let's face it, Scripture can be difficult to understand, and Jesus speaks in parables. He can be so confusing that his own disciples even challenge him, asking him why he speaks that way. What's the big secret? Is God trying to hide the ball from us? No. "The reason the secret 'has not been given’ is not that Jesus desires to hide the truth but that he wants his followers to seek the truth.”[3] We play an important part in cultivating God's Word. "In order to understand parables, hearers must be attentive and open to the things of God.”[4] Ultimately, each one of us is responsible for our own journey of understanding – the journey from God's Word to the good fruit we produce with it. We have to help ourselves. "[W]hen the word and soil come together completely and effectively, the result is an abundance and an excellence beyond imagination.”[5]

          So the challenge of this Gospel for us begins with the obvious question: "What kind of soil am I?"

  • If I hear God's Word, but make no effort to understand it, I'm the path where the seed will be stolen away from me;
  • If I find great joy in God's Word but don't let that joy take root in my heart, I'm the impenetrable rocky ground, where the fruit of God's Word will quickly wither when times get tough;
  • If my life is a tangled mess of worries and material desires, I'm the thorny land that chokes God's Word so that it bears no fruit in me.
  • But if I receive God's Word in my heart, ponder it and act upon it, I'm the rich soil, and I will bear much fruit.
The reality is that we're probably all of these types of soil at different times in our lives. "At one time or another every person loses the word to the evil one, is enthusiastic but not persevering, pursues riches at the expense of soul, and also bears abundant fruit.”[6] Every one of us has the opportunity to be rich soil for God's Word. So not only does the seed always find good soil, it finds good soil in each one of us. As Pope Francis so beautifully put it, "Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow.”[7]

          You know, "[t]he purpose of life on earth is that the soul should grow. So grow!"[8] But we all know that growth requires nurturing, some hard work, and we may even need to get our hands a little dirty. It's the same with our faith. God wants us to enjoy the fruits of his Kingdom now, and he's given us the seeds and the tools we need to do just that. The rest is up to us. We need to cultivate our lives to be receptive to God's Word; we need to remove the stumbling blocks and thorns that keep us from bearing good fruit. If we really want to grow, we need to help ourselves. It's our choice: We can choose to grow and bear good fruit, or we can just sit on the side of the road like Hans and Fritz shrugging our shoulders as we watch the fruits of God's Kingdom pass us by.

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

[1] Patricia Datchuck Sánchez, “A Missiology to Make Our Own,” National Catholic Reporter, vol. 50, no. 18 (June 20-July 3, 2014) at 27.
[2] Madeleine Baumont, Days of the Lord: Ordinary Time Year A, vol. 4 (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 1992) at 125.
[3] John W. Martens, “Listen!” America, vol. 211, no. 1, (July 7-14, 2014) at 45.
[4] Baumont at 124.
[5] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: On Earth as It is in Heaven, Matthew, Year A (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2004) at 228.
[6] Shea at 228.
[7] Antonio Spadaro, SJ, “A Big Heart Open to God,” La Civiltà Cattolica (September 19, 2013) at 11.
[8] Zelda Fitzgerald, letter (1944), reprinted in Nancy Milford, Zelda (New York, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2011).  

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Speakin' Deacons 2014!

Deacon Mike Meyer will join Deacons Michael Martini and Joe Campbell to answer your questions about our faith:  Thursday July 24, 2014 at 7:00 pm.  Immaculate Conception Church, Parish Hall - 316 Old Allerton Road, Annandale, NJ 08801.  Disclaimer:  The Deacons are not responsible for the advertising associated with this event. . . .

If We Could Hear Their Prayers . . .

Pope Francis: 
Merciful Father,
Continue your work ending European dominance in the Church and the world by granting victory to Argentina on Sunday.  Oh, and help the poor, too.  Amen

Pope Benedict:    
Gracious God, source of all justice,
I gave Argentina the papacy, grant Germany victory on Sunday.  It’s only fair.  Oh, and lead us from the darkness of relativism to the light of Truth, too.  Amen

Sunday, June 29, 2014

I Think I Can . . .

                That familiar motto from The Little Engine that Could was chugging through my mind as I approached the piano at the Hunterdon Hills Playhouse for my first ever piano recital.  I've played piano for many years but never really mastered it in large part because I’m terrified to play in front of people.  When I was a child, I talked my way out of a recital every year, telling my piano teacher that we were going to be away that day.  It sounds clever, except for the fact that she lived down the street from us so she knew our comings and goings.  She was very kind, though, so she never pushed me.  I think she knew that if I were going to really overcome my fear, I’d have to push myself; I’d have to want to conquer that fear, and I’d have to think I can. 

                I have a personal theory that every one of us can accomplish anything if we really want to.  My theory isn't found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (that I know of), and it’s not the philosophy of some great mind who died a long time ago.  It’s a theory based on my own experiences, my observations of others, and my belief that we’re all created in the image and likeness of God.  Now, before you write my bishop, I‘m not claiming that we’re gods.  We’re not.  But I am saying that God has given us tremendous talents and resources to make us happy.  He wants us to use these talents to create his Kingdom here on earth.  Now that’s a pretty tall order, so he must have given us a lot of talent and a lot of ability.  And he did.  I've seen my theory proven true over and over again because I've seen so many people do extraordinary things. 

                But I've also seen a lot of people fail at what they set out to do out of fear – fear of failure.  It seems strange that being afraid to fail can actually lead to failure.  When we allow our fears to get the best of us, we just give up, out of fear, and we fail.  It’s amazing how much we let fear govern our lives.  How often do we say, “I’m not good at that,” or “I can’t?”  That’s fear talking.  I love music, but I've allowed my fears to keep me from enjoying it as much as I could.  I allow my fears to limit my happiness.
It’s even stranger, though, that repeated failures are the building blocks of great successes.  We all know the countless adages that encourage us to keep trying:  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again;” “Practice makes perfect;”  “Wash, rinse, repeat!”  Talents have to be developed; we have to practice them; we have to grow into them.  Whether it’s playing a musical instrument, painting, playing a sport or even shampooing our hair, if we really want to do it, we have to keep trying.  We have to choose to not let fear control us.  We have to think we can.

                The route from my chair to the piano seemed like the longest walk I’d ever taken.  My heart was pounding in my chest like it wanted to get out and run for the hills.  I would've readily followed it.  As I reached the front of the room, a loud murmuring rose from the audience.  They recognized me!  About 80 percent of the audience was made up of parishioners, and they were very surprised to see me parking my caboose on the piano bench.  Anonymity was not an option.  The success or failure of my performance would be very public.  But as I neared the piano, my teacher said, “Smile!”  That’s exactly what I needed to hear.  That one word made me chuckle.  It made me realize that Western civilization would neither rise nor fall on the outcome of my performance.  It made me wonder why a 48 year old man who stands in front of hundreds of people every week without fear is worried about playing a simple piano piece for a few friends.  I sat down, tuned them all out, and played.  It went well; I made one little mistake but, mercifully, it actually fit the tune of the song.  Most importantly, I was very happy with my performance.  A lot of hard work went into that little piece.  I have a wonderfully patient teacher, and I practiced a lot.  But in the end what got me through was that I thought I could.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Father’s Day Prayer

Almighty God, the perfect Father,

We ask your blessing this day on our fathers.

Hold their hands when things get scary;

Encourage them when life gets tough;

Make them laugh until milk shoots out of their noses;

Provide them with all they need;

Guide them to make good decisions in life;

Stand by them when they don’t;

Wipe their noses; dry their tears;

Let them play in the mud and jump in puddles, but don’t tell Mom;

Inspire them to dream dreams bigger than life;

And when the time comes for their earthly life to come to a close, cradle them in your big, strong arms.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

A Thirst for Joy - Homily for the Vigil of Pentecost, June 7, 2014

          Sister Cristina has boundless joy, incredible energy and a beautiful voice.  She lives a simple life as an Ursaline Sister of the Holy Family in Milan, Italy, where she teaches in a Catholic school and sings to children in church.  She also has tens of millions of television and YouTube fans, and she just won the Italian version of the TV singing contest, The Voice.  Dressed in the traditional habit of the Ursaline Sisters, with a cross around her neck and sensible black shoes on her feet, Sister Cristina uses her gifts to deliver a spiritual message through secular music.  She attributes her sudden rise to fame to a thirst for joy among her fans.  If you listen to her music, I’m sure you’ll agree that Sister Cristina has quenched her thirst for joy in the living water of Jesus Christ.  Today’s Gospel invites us to do the same.
          In our Gospel passage, Jesus tells us that he is the living water that will quench our thirst for joy through the gift of his Spirit – the Spirit of life – the Holy Spirit.  It’s amazing what an integral part the Spirit plays in just about every aspect of our lives, and we hardly notice it.  In fact, the thirst for joy that Sister Cristina spoke of comes from the Holy Spirit.  You see, the Spirit “engenders within believers a certain ‘restlessness’ with their lot at the present time when the new age overlaps with the old.”[1]  For all of the wonders of God’s creation, the things of this world can never fulfill us.  This world can’t give us perfect love, perfect justice, perfect joy or even the perfect martini (Deacon Michael, notwithstanding).  Perfection rests in God alone.  As Saint Augustine said, “our hearts are restless until they rest in [God].”[2]  So our joy can only be complete – in God, who is perfect joy.  The Spirit initiates our thirst for perfect joy, and quenches it through Jesus Christ.

The Spirit is working in and around us all the time to quench our thirst for joy.  In fact, “[a]lmost every human flourishing is prompted and produced by the Spirit.”[3] 
-         The urge to pray or go to Church – that’s the Spirit;
-         The inspiration to use our talents to help others – the Spirit;
-         That small voice in our conscience telling us right from wrong – again, that’s the Spirit.
Last night at 11:00, I got stuck right here in this homily.  Writer’s block.  At 5:00 this morning, the Spirit woke me with the words of this paragraph.  I wouldn't have minded waiting until 7 or so, and you might be wishing that the Spirit had just let me sleep, but the Spirit works as the Spirit works.  And the Spirit works.

          The challenge for us, and there’s always a challenge for us, is to listen to that voice, to follow that lead, to respond to that nudge.  Like everything with God, it’s our choice.  God gives us free will because love must be freely given and freely accepted.  God will never stop nudging, pulling, prodding, poking, guiding and leading us to him – to the only water that will quench our thirst for joy.  But as the saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”  It’s up to us to believe, to trust, to follow the Spirit and to receive the gift of living water.

           It’s our choice.  Choices aren't always easy.  We don’t always hear the call; we don’t always understand what’s asked of us; we don’t always know what to do; we don’t always follow the lead.  But the Spirit also gives us everything we need to make the right choices.  You remember the gifts of the Holy Spirit – or at least I hope you do since they’re displayed on the banners on the walls all around me (we’re not a subtle religion).[4]  I note, for the record, that the Holy Spirit inspired someone to hang the banner for “knowledge” in front of me.  Just sayin’.  “Like a great and holy enabler, it is the Spirit who aids us in interpreting who Jesus is and who empowers us to follow in Jesus’ ways.”[5]  The Spirit energizes us; it empowers us; it transforms us.  The Spirit transformed boys into heroes, giving the young men who climbed the cliffs of Normandy the strength and courage to rescue humanity from the grip of tyranny; the Spirit empowered an unknown Argentine Cardinal to become the firecracker Pope that we are blessed to have today; the Spirit energized the youth of our parish who received the Sacrament of Confirmation this weekend, enabling them to accept and carry out their Christian mission; the Spirit inspired a simple Italian nun to bring the joy of the Gospel to the world through her beautiful voice.

          After Sister Cristina was announced as the winner of the Voice, she did something unusual for a TV singing contest.  She asked everyone to join her in praying the Our Father.  The host uncomfortably told her that there was no time – the show was running over, but she wouldn't take no for an answer.  Following the Spirit’s lead, she just began to pray.  And do you know what happened?  The audience accepted the Spirit’s invitation.  They prayed with her, and from the looks on their faces, they were very happy.  The words our Savior gave us, quenched their thirst for joy.

Readings:  Joel 3:1-5; Psalm 104; Romans 8:22-27; John 7: 37-39

[1] Brendan Byrne, Romans, Sacra Pagina, vol. 6, Daniel Harrington, ed. (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2007) at 263.
[2] Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, Book I, Chapter 1 (New York, Random House, 1997) at 3.
[3] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers:  Following Love into Mystery, Feasts, Funerals, Weddings (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2010) at 195.
[4] Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Knowledge, Fortitude, Piety and Fear of the Lord. 
[5] Patricia Datchuk Sánchez, “The Spirit as Midwife,” National Catholic Reporter, vol. 50, no. 16 (May 23- June 5, 2014) at 25.