Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Amos 7:12-15; Eph 1:3-14; Mk 6:7-13 ]
There are three ways to be a Christian missionary. The first is by active ministry in the field, and we are all responsible for the field around us.
Imagine Jesus sending out missionaries today. What would they take? Well, first their car keys and airplane tickets, then enough money, a traveling bag with several changes of clothes, a cell phone and a laptop. But what if Jesus said: “Wait, you won't need car keys because you're going to walk. And forget the money, leave it behind, you're going to beg for food and a place to stay. Keep your jogging shoes but don't take any extra clothes. All you need is holy oil to anoint the sick. Sorry about the cell phone and laptop, those have to stay behind, too. Now go, preach repentance, heal the sick and cast out demons.” No, that's not right. Jesus isn't asking us to live according to the culture of the first century.
Thomas à Kempis explains what it means to follow Christ in every age. He writes, “Jesus has many lovers of the heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of his cross. He has many desirous of consolation, but few of tribulation. He finds many companions to share his table, but few to share his fasting. Many love Jesus as long as no adversities befall them; many praise him as long as they receive consolations; but if Jesus hides himself and leaves them for a little while, they fall into complaining and dejection of mind and heart.”1 The apostles began as lovers of the kingdom, wanting the rewards without the labor. Jesus had to form them for the arduous vocation of following him, even to Calvary. It's not easy.
To evaluate a prospective missionary, a vocation director tested him as follows. He called the candidate at three a.m. in the morning and asked him to come to his office right away for a special interview. Then he kept him waiting. Finally, at eight o'clock, the vocation director arrived and said, “Let's begin. Please spell the word love,” which he promptly did. “Now, what day is Christmas on?” The applicant replied, “December 25th.” The director said, “Very good, you have passed my interview. I will recommend you to the board of admissions.” Meeting with the board he said, “This person has all the qualifications of a good missionary. First, I tested his selflessness by asking him to come for a three a.m. appointment. He left his warm bed to come out in the middle of the night without a word of complaint. Next, I tested his patience by making him wait five hours to see me. An ill-tempered person would have gone off in a rage. He didn't. Then I tested his humility by asking questions any child could have answered. He wasn't offended. I highly recommend him without any reservations because of his selflessness, his patience, and his humility.” That's what today's Gospel asks of us.
It's like the great Protestant pastor, Albert Schweitzer. He gave his life serving as a missionary minister and doctor in central Africa. One day dignitaries in a European city were waiting to welcome him as the first class passengers got off the train. But Albert Schweitzer wasn't among them. They waited while the second-class passengers disembarked. Still no sign of him. Finally, they saw him coming out of third-class carrying his own suitcase. A city official asked him, “Why are you traveling third-class?” Albert Schweitzer replied, “Because there's no fourth-class.”
The second way we can be Christian missionaries is by martyrdom. Tertullian writes, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
In one of the Peanuts comic strips, Linus is listening to Charlie Brown's younger sister, Sally, as she boasts about her religious zeal and her potential to be a good missionary. She says, “I could be a terrific evangelist. Do you know that kid who sits behind me in school? I convinced him that my faith is better than his.” Linus asks, “How did you do that?” Sally replies, “I hit him with my lunch box.” That's crazy, of course. But replace her lunch box with bombs, guns and knives to cut off heads, and we're face to face with the way ISIS tries to force conversions today. There are more martyrs now than in any other century. Could we be called to shed our blood and be the seed for new Christians?
The director of the missionary society called “Youth with a Mission” for Christ reported on Voice of the Martyrs Radio that one of their members in the Middle East was asked to meet with an ISIS fighter who had killed many Christians, and enjoyed doing it. But one day as he was about to kill another Christian, the victim said, “I know you will kill me, but I want to give you my Bible.” He did kill him, but he also took the Bible and began reading it. Soon he felt really sick and uneasy about what he was doing. One night he had a dream in which he saw a man in white who said, “You are killing my people.” Now he wanted instruction so that he could become a Christian. Without doubt, like St. Paul, he will also become a martyr and a witness for Christ before his own people.2
The third way we can be Christian missionaries is by prayer. A story is told about a Dominican preacher whose sermons converted people by the hundreds. Then it was revealed to him that those conversions were not due to his persuasive eloquence, but to the prayers of a humble lay brother kneeling in a side chapel praying for those conversions.
St. Therese of the Child Jesus writes, “One day I was pondering over what I could do to save souls. … A phrase from the Gospel showed me. 'Pray the master of the harvest to send out laborers.' Jesus has such a love for us that he wants us to share with him in the salvation of souls. He wants to do nothing without us. He waits for the prayer of little souls to save others … even a sigh from your heart!”3 Think of that! A little sigh coming straight from your heart can save souls.
Rejoice, for even if we are not called to labor in the wider field of the world, or to shed our blood in witness to Christ, we can still share missionary love for others every day by many little prayers and sacrifices. Let us live not inattentively to the value of our prayers and sacrifices. Rather, let us be mindful that we have been chosen and sealed with the Holy Spirit for adoption into God's own nature for the praise of his glory in his beloved Son.
Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Is 55:10-11; Rom 8:18-23; Mt 13:1-23 ]
Pride is the giant ragweed of our interior gardens. It is the rocky surface hiding behind a soft face, the thorny bush that chokes better thoughts. It is so evident to others, but so hidden from ourselves. A young college student visited New Melleray to discern whether or not he had a vocation to our way of life. One day he was assigned to help Br. Placid in his organic vegetable garden. Br. Placid, who grew up during the Great Depression and learned to work at a very early age, about five years old, likes to know what newcomers can do. So he asked Eric if he knew anything about carpentry. “No,” he replied. “Well, how about painting.” “Haven’t done that,” he said. “Okay, do you have any experience in farming?” “No,” he answered. Br. Placid is willing to teach someone who wants to learn, so he asked Eric to pick up a hoe and come with him to the garden. Eric replied, “I can’t do that.” “Why not?” Placid asked. Eric said, “Because I’m an intellectual.” Now, you can imagine Br. Placid’s reaction! He stared at Eric for a few moments and then pointed to the Abbey and told him to go back to the house! Word of this exchange got around the monastery. Next day one of the novices was assigned to work in the garden. Br. Placid asked him to hoe out the weeds between the rows of sweet corn. The novice said, “I can’t do that” “Why?” Placid asked. The novice tilted his head, looked up into the sky and said with a smile, “Because I’m an intellectual.” At that they both burst out laughing. St. Benedict teaches that monasticism is a life of prayer. But he also writes, “Then they are truly monks when they live by the work of their hands” (Rule, ch. 48:8).
Jesus did. At an early age he began working with Joseph learning carpentry and masonry-for Joseph’s trade included both-and working with Mary, bending low to plant, hoe and harvest in the family garden. As he worked with wood, stones, and soil, Jesus uncovered parables about life: how important it is to lay good foundations, how different ground produces different yields. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, who left his position as a scholarly university professor to become a monk, authored an excellent commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Erasmo, now Br. Simeon, describes the parables of Jesus as, “a coded letter left by a Lover, revealing exact directions to the tryst.“1 In today’s parable of the Sower, Jesus describes this Lover lavishly spreading seeds of the kingdom all around on every type of soil. God’s all-inclusive love is offered to everyone, even weedy, rocky, thorny ground. No farmer wanting to make a profit would be as free spreading his valuable seed as God is generous in sowing the kingdom. But pride can turn good beginnings into nauseous endings.
In the first frame of a Peanuts comic strip, Lucy approaches her younger brother, Linus, who is watching television. She says, “Here, I brought you a piece of toast.” He replies, “Well, thank you.” Holding the toast at arm’s length away from Linus, she corrects him, “Thank you, dear sister.” Smiling, Linus repeats, “Thank you, dear sister.” Lucy continues, “Thank you, dear sister, greatest of all sisters.” Anxiously holding out his hands for the piece of toast Linus repeats, “Thank you, dear sister, greatest of all sisters!” Lucy grips the toast with both hands, lifts her nose in the air, and says, “Thank you, dear sister, greatest of all sisters, without whom I’d never survive.” Linus, no longer smiling, repeats, “Thank you, dear sister, greatest of all sisters, without whom I’d never survive.” Then Lucy gives him the toast and walks away saying, “You’re welcome.” In the last frame Linus looks sick, with one hand clutching his stomach and his tongue hanging out of his mouth. He says, “How can I eat when I feel so nauseated?” Pride, so evident to others, is often so hidden from ourselves that we need help to see and get rid of this giant ragweed, this hard bedrock, this sharp thorn bush.
An interviewer asked Mother Theresa what was the biggest problem she faced in her congregation. She replied, “Professionalism.” He had expected her to say something like finding a suitable successor, or raising sufficient funds. She went on to explain: “I have five sisters getting master degrees, and far more getting their R.N, or L.P.N. degrees. When they come back from their education, they are concerned about titles and offices and privileges. So I take all of that away from them and I send them to the Hospice for the dying. There they hold people’s hands and pray with them and feed them and clean them. After about six months, they get things straight again and remember that their vocation is to be a loving presence first, and a professional presence second.” Only soil that is rich in humus, humility, can produce a hundredfold. If we let others help us bend low now, we will not have to be brought low later by hand of the Lord.
Among the coded letters given to us by the Lover who reveals the exact directions to our tryst with him, is the little prophet Obadiah. He is so short that not one verse is ever read at the Liturgy of the Word. But this smallest prophet attacks the greatest of all sins. Speaking for the Lord, Obadiah writes, “The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who dwell in the clefts of the rock, whose dwelling is on high, who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’ Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down, says the Lord” (Obadiah 3-4). How can we overcome temptations to pride? By listening to the Lord’s thoughts rather than our own. “For his word will not return to him void, but shall do his will, achieving the end for which he sent it” (Is 55:11).
In Bread for the Journey, Fr. Henri Nouwen writes, “Many voices seek our attention. One voice says, ‘Prove you are a good person,’ another says, ‘Nobody really cares about you,’ and another, ‘Be sure to become popular, successful, powerful. But underneath all these very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you.’ That’s the voice we need to hear most of all. … That’s what prayer is, listening to the [Lord] say, ‘You are my Beloved’ (Song 6:3).” 2 “You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you” (Is 43:4). St. Teresa of Avila prays, “O Lord my God, you possess the words of eternal life … But what a strange thing, my God, that we forget your words in the madness our evil … causes! Bring it about, then, Lord, that my thoughts not withdraw from Your words.“3 Let the Word of God dwell richly in the humble soil of your hearts, your interior garden, as you teach and admonish one another,4 and you will bear a hundredfold.
1. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Meditations on the Gospel of Matthew, vol 2. p 192
2. Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
3. St. Teresa of Avila, Soliloquies no. 8
4. Collosians 3:16