Sunday, July 6, 2014

Pastors and Flocks and Jesus, Oh My!

Readings for Sunday, July 6/ 14th Week in Ordinary Time:
Zechariah 9:9-10
Psalm 145:1-2, 8-11, 13-14
Romans 8:9, 11-13
Matthew 11:25-30

Transitions in parish life are always bittersweet. It was hard for me to leave behind the parish family that I had come to know and love after being there for two years and I know that it was tough for y’all to see Fr. Lee leave after ten years here and becoming such an important part of your lives and community. For me, though, and hopefully for you as well, there is still a great sense of joy in transition because it gives us the chance to reflect back upon the many ways that God has acted in our lives before, the blessings we’ve received, the relationships that have changed us and give thanks to the Lord for those things. And it is a chance to start anew, to witness the work of God in a new context, and to build new relationships. That said, I’m very happy to be here to see what God has in store for us.

Apparently that joy is evening showing on my face a little these days. Friday I went home to celebrate the 4th with my family and my oldest sister came up and said to me, “Brent, you look…happy!” Now that might not seem like a big deal, but it was and reason is this: I’m not a very visually expressive person. Often I am having a great time and you simply can’t tell from my facial expression. And I can remember several Christmases when I got absolutely incredible gifts and my response was a subdued “cool,” much to my parents’ frustration. So when my sister told me I looked happy, it really struck me and was good to hear that the joy in my heart was actually showing in my face. The joy is showing more now not because my other assignments weren’t enjoyable (quite the opposite!) but that it I’m entering into the state of life that I was created for and for which I have longed – to become a father in a community.

A quick snapshot of my vocation story: I was baptized Catholic, raised in the Methodist faith, and confirmed on my 11th birthday in the Methodist Church. Then my mom decided to become Catholic and my stepdad returned to the Church and I came along with them and, joy of joys, I got to start my religious education all over again in a new church when I had just finished it. You can probably guess how excited I was about this becoming Catholic thing! But I became Catholic nonetheless, or at least attended the Church. I say that because while I was externally Catholic, I was internally an atheist. I thought all of the stuff I was hearing, seeing, and doing was just a bunch of nonsense, but I had to continue on to keep mom happy. Eventually I got involved in the high school youth group and began to believe in God and experience great conversion. Right before my senior year of high school I began to feel a calling to ‘something more’ in the Church. It took me a year to realize it might be priesthood and two more years to work up the courage to actually pursue that path. By that time I was already in my second year at LSU. I transferred to the seminary in Covington and complete my undergrad work in two years and graduated. Then I took a year off to think about become a monk, because what better place for a simple little introvert that in a quiet monastery where I could read and pray and serve in a hidden capacity, right? Well, I went and had a great time, but things changed when I returned home.

One day I went to my parish and asked the pastor if he could hear my confession and he was gracious enough to do so. We talked for a little bit about my discernment and he sent me off on my way. Later on in prayer I realized that what my pastor had done for me was what I had desired in my heart along: to be able to be in the midst of a community in order to know people and journey with them as they walk toward the Lord. His example gave me clarity and I returned to the seminary that summer and four years later was ordained a priest.

Doing Communion Visits during mission in Nicaragua
I tell you that story about my pastor because it is what I (and, really, the Church) envision as the role of the pastor in a community. I don’t know if you might have heard about Pope Francis’ homily last year at the Chrism Mass, but he said something that has helped me to think more concretely about that desire of my heart. He said to a group of priests that a shepherd must smell like his sheep. And that is exactly what I’m here to do. Not smell like a sheep of course, but to be here in the midst of you, to journey alongside you, and together to walk toward the Lord Jesus. Now, if any of you has sheep, I’d be happy to visit with you and smell like an actual sheep afterward too. The point is that if I as the shepherd in the community do not spend time in the midst of you, how will I get to know you? How can I know what are your needs, desires, struggles, and joys? It is not the task of the parish priest to stay cooped up in the rectory and read, write and reflect all day. While those things are good and necessary, my first obligation is to care for the flock entrusted to me: to care for each of you. On the flipside of the coin, if you don’t know me, what reason do you have to trust me, listen to me, or follow me as a spiritual shepherd? I want to be with you to get to know you personally and let you get to know me as well. That will happen some here at church, but I’d like to visit with you at your home, to share meals with you, to hunt, fish, or anything else with you. I don’t know how to do most of the latter, but I’m willing to do anything once as long as it’s not a sin!

The simple point in the midst of this all is that I want to get to know you and have you know me so that together we can walk toward the Lord Jesus who bids us come. Because that’s the reason we’re here. The whole Gospel and the whole Bible in general can be summed up in the three simple words Jesus speaks to us today, “Come to me.” Our whole life is about coming to Jesus over and over and over again. It’s about trying our best to recognize and to live the truth that Jesus really is the center of everything. Often we’ll think of our lives like a pie – a chunk of our time for work, a chunk for family, a chunk for this and that activity – but our relationship with Jesus isn’t supposed to be a piece of the larger pie, it’s the crust that hold all the rest together. This is my ultimate goal for each and every one of us, myself included: to come to a place in our lives where we have a deep, unshakable conviction in our hearts that without a daily, personal, intimate relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are dead. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and today he bids us come to Him and find peace. All of us. Nobody is an exception because all of us are weary, all of us have burdens we’re carrying through this life, and all of us want peace. Come. Place yourself in His hands and He places Himself in yours at Holy Communion. Come to Jesus.

In a time of transition there are always little tweaks and changes and you can see a few of them already with the vestments, altar cross, and chanting. There are particular reasons for each of those things, which I will explain in subsequent homilies, and the main reason is always to give another opportunity, another way, to encounter Jesus Christ and to walk away changed because that’s what it’s all about. So as we begin to walk together toward the Lord Jesus, let us call upon the protection of our heavenly patrons to watch over us and keep us safe: St. Ann, pray for us. St. Vincent de Paul, pray for us. Amen.

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