Readings for Sunday, September 4/ 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time: Wisdom 9:13-18 | Psalm 90 | Philemon 9-10, 12-17 | Luke 14:25-33
Yesterday, September 3, was the feast day of Pope St. Gregory the Great - one of the few saints in the church that has that title "the Great," added on to his name on account of the number of gifts he brought to the church and the profound impact he's had on the life of the Church since his reign as the Holy Father. He himself was a man who knew his weaknesses. He was raised in the world, and then left to join the monastery became a Benedictine monk and enjoyed living a life of quiet prayer and simple labor until he was elected as the Holy Father. He was in the world, then removed from the world, and then thrust back into the world. In one of his reflections on the prophet Ezekiel, he lamented the fact that how so often he was easily caught up in prayer in the monastery, and yet when he was busy about the things of the world he often found it easier to sin than to be caught up in the things of prayer, to be consumed of the stuff of the world than the things of God. In that same reflection, he also mentioned the fact that every church, every community, has a watchkeeper, one who is supposed to be set on the heights and who is able to see the whole terrain so as to guide the flock most effectively. He said in proclaiming that I automatically condemn myself because I, the leader of the Catholic Church, myself fall short of being a good watchkeeper.
St. Gregory the Great is my patron saint. I took him as my confirmation saint when I was in eleventh grade because he is the patron saint of musicians and I wanted to be a rock-star, so I figured the patron saint of musicians could help me reach that end. Little did I know that I would take a different route in following him and become a watchkeeper myself, a watchman in the pulpits, and to be able to be called by Christ as a priest, to watch the terrain and see where it is that the flock is called to go. Much like St. Gregory I am condemning myself because I stand here every day and proclaim to you the things of God, knowing good and well that I don't fulfill them perfectly myself. So, if ever my homilies seem a little bit harsh and a little bit hard, you're in good company because I'm preaching to myself. And I said that especially in regards to the homily this weekend.
The Letter of St. Paul to Philemon is a beautiful and striking letter. If anyone has ever had a desire to read a whole book of the Bible, you should read Philemon - it's one single chapter. It'll make you feel good about things ... "I read a whole book of the Bible today!" I encourage you to go read it even though we have a good portion of it here and get the main part of it in what we just heard, how Paul is in prison writing a letter to Philemon. Philemon has sent one of his slaves, Onesimus, to Paul in his imprisonment to help him and to care for him for a short time. Maybe he brought him letters, correspondence, or something of that nature. Maybe he sent him some bread and wine so he could offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice in prison. We don't know. But Onesimus went to go serve Paul, and Paul says: I wish I could keep him here for myself, I wish I could keep him because he's like a son to me now, a brother, a friend. I love him with all my heart, and I wish I could keep him here with me, but I'm not, I'm sending him back to you Philemon, but I'm sending him back a little bit different. He gives Philemon a challenge. He says I want you to receive him back not as a slave but as a brother. He says if you regard us as friends, receive Onesimus your slave, as if he were me, your father in faith. It's quite a challenge - to receive a slave as if he was his father in faith, as if he was the one who gave us life.
Whenever I came here to our community, I was warmly welcomed. There was little signs at the rectory, little balloons and all kinds of things. We had the reception and cake, and more cake, and more cake ... the cake hasn't stopped in two years much to my frustration. But there is a very warm welcome I received, and was glad to receive. That's one of the trademarks of parish, also of our local community - being welcoming to others. Whenever people come from other places, they are warmly received and welcomed, and rightly so - they should be. But the question the Lord invites us to reflect upon, especially with Onesimus and Paul, is: How do we receive those not who are coming from far away, but those that are right here in our community but haven't been here in Church in a while? How do we welcome them? How do we welcome the ones who maybe have strayed from the faith for a little while, gone away for a few years and we haven't seen their face? What about the ones that have done or said something or committed some sin that we have deemed unforgivable and we hold it against them, and we know it, we know what they have done? What about those that simply are here, but not here, that are in and out at times, inconsistent? Maybe that them is me. Maybe it's that I hold myself to those things. How do we respond when people we know and love come to church when we don't expect them to?
A lot of times whenever we see it, it can that response of Onesimus; we have that response of either we can keep in slavery or we can unbind in freedom and welcome as a brother. Sometimes it's those things, it's other stuff, maybe it makes us uncomfortable, maybe it's someone who is a little bit different from us. How easy it can be for us to hold something against someone else and make them as a slave. Again, it can be the sins of the past, the absence from Mass, it can be characteristic flaws that we don't like in them. Whatever it may be, we allow it to be a binding force that separates us, that excludes them and doesn't welcome them. In fact, Christ calls us to freedom - all of us.
Whenever we welcome somebody in church we haven't seen in a while, there's a number of responses we can have. And one of the things that I think is natural in us, there's a difficulty sometimes in how to respond. What do we say? There's a sense in which we have to acknowledge that we are happy to see them, rightly so. I think we usually are. Most of us are not upset when people show up to church. So we are happy to see them. But I think sometimes there is that difficulty of how do I address the fact that I'm happy to see you and yet I haven't seen you in a while, where have you been. And when we say that, we try sometimes to break the ice a little bit with humor, but the humor sometimes comes with a little dagger in the back of it. "Wow I haven't seen you here in awhile! Who let you in this place? I hope the walls of the church don't fall in. Did the holy water sizzle when it touched your head?" We laugh, but these are the things I've heard from the lips of people as I've stood at the entrance of the door of the church, sometimes at our own parish. And I've known people who've told me that exact same thing - that they went to church for the first time in a long time, and they felt like the Lord was leading them back to church, and they were welcomed with one of those greetings, and they turned around, walked out the door and never came back. Never came back. How much are words can have an impact. I got an email this week from a young man I ministered to in a youth group, and I thought I was doing well, I thought I said the right thing, and he sent me an email this week saying, "Fr. Brent, I haven't been to church in several years on account of you." Something I said. I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I was saying the right thing. He hadn't set a foot in the church because of me. Our words have great power - for ill, but also for good. When someone comes through the door that we haven't seen in a while, whats the proper response? "Good morning!" .... "Hey! How's the kids? How's the family? How about those Tigers ... the Saints" ... pick a more pleasant topic to talk about ... anything ... Anything. Be able to simply love the person who came in. It's a temptation sometimes because the tension in us wants to resolve, but everybody knows it's there. It's just to show love - to love the other person. Period.
This morning the Holy Father celebrated the canonization of now St. Teresa of Calcutta - Mother Teresa. St. Teresa is also someone who provides us with a little extra encouragement this weekend in that same regard - to welcome the other, to love the other, even when they may be entirely different from us, even entirely unlovable in a sense from a worldly view. She shows us how to love.
In the community of the Missionaries of Charity that Mother Teresa founded, each morning they would have a holy hour in community and then they would have Mass offered.So every day, they would spend an hour in prayer in their chapel before the Blessed Sacrament, and then they would have Mass, then go off and do their work serving whoever it was, whatever mission it was that they went to go out and serve that day. And on several accounts, various sisters came to forward to ask her different scenarios saying "Mother we spend so much time in the chapel. What if we cut that time in half - maybe to 30 mins in prayer, then did Mass and then went out, we would be able to serve that many more people. We would be able to be that much more effective in our community." Mother Teresa wisely responded, "It's only because we know the Lord Jesus here in our time of prayer, in our Mass - it's only that we know Him and love Him here - that we can see Him out there and serve Him. If we lose Him here (the chapel), we can't find Him there." So the Lord invites us the same - that whenever we come to Mass, whenever we find ourselves with an opportunity to pray in church, to know that there we can find our Lord. We can come to know Jesus, to love Jesus, to be loved by Jesus. And only in doing those things can we go to the doors of the church and beyond and see Christ in other people. Until then, we will only be able to be bind up in chains. But in Christ Jesus we can bring freedom.
So we pray the grace of the Lord to be with us today through the intercession of St. Gregory the Great and St. Teresa of Calcutta, that we will be able to draw close to the Lord Jesus in this Mass, that we may be able to know Him a little bit more, to be able to love Him more deeply, to be able to go forth to see Him, to serve Him, and to bring freedom to our brother and sisters around us.