Readings for Sunday, February 26 / 8th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Isaiah 49:14-15 | Psalm 62 | 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 | Matthew 6:24-34
Ash Wednesday, just a few days away, we come to the end of the Lenten homily series, the pre-Lent. And so we have reflected in recent weeks on the aspect of fasting, reflected on prayer, and today we come to that invitation the Lord God gives to us of alms-giving, to continue to correct our hearts to show to show generosity, but even more so to instill within us trust in our God.
At the college seminary, things were pretty easy as far as a life of discernment and prayer, relatively speaking, it wasn't too stressful because priesthood was still somewhere else, it was still far in the distance, it was a good at-least four years away at most. And so there was not a lot of pressure, but when I moved to the theology seminary in New Orleans, there was a whole different ball game. You would walk out the door and the guy next to you is already wearing a Roman collar and you referred to him as deacon. It is a different reality as it puts a whole lot more stress on the actual discernment of one's possible vocation to the priesthood. There was a lot more focus on the life of prayer and trying to trust in the Lord that He would in fact give me everything that I needed. And one of the things that helped me more times than I can even count was the statue of Our Lady over the entry way of the seminary itself. As you came in the front door through the parking lot, there was a statue of Our Lady, and at her feet a simple phrase, two words, "Deus Providebit", "God will provide." And over and over again as I walked into the seminary so many times, to look up and read those words, it was a consolation to me "God will provide." It was a reminder that my God loves me and if I actually believe the things that are said about Him, I ought to trust that He will provide for my needs, and not to be consumed with worrying about so many things, but rather simply to trust and do my best each day to follow after Him. Deus Providebit, God will provide."
It's that sense that the Lord invites us to give alms. Really ultimately to trust in Him, that He will provide for us. Alms-giving comes in a variety of ways, but ultimately it's a recognition that it's something given to us that we are called to give to others. In our seminary course, we had a course on the spiritual life, and there was one reality that they described, the way of God's grace that comes to us, that has continued to resonate within my heart. And it's something that comes in very practical days through the course of the days, and grace was described in two separate ways. The Latin phrasing for one, gratia gratum faciens, which is grace that makes one graced, so it is grace that does something in the individual. And gratia gratis data, grace which is to be freely given. And so it was this recognition that God's grace that comes to us has one of two purposes: either it changes me or it's given to me to help change someone else. On a practical level, it comes out as things such as in the midst of my day when I am struggling with being impatient over something or I want something to happen faster, or I'm stuck in traffic, frustrated with any number of things, I can pray one of those little "arrow prayers" as they say it, those prayers that pierce the heavens and go to the heart of God, and I can simply say, "Lord, help me." And in that moment, God can hear my prayer and grant me the race to be patient in the particular moment, and if I am open to receiving the grace, it can change my heart. And in that particular place, I can become more patient - grace that makes me graced - something that changes my heart. But as we know, there are a number of gifts that are given to us not for me, but for others. Before my ordination to the diaconate, I spend a number of days praying various novenas to different saints and I was praying for certain spiritual gifts that I knew I would need if I was to be able to perform my ministry as a deacon and as a priest in any way, shape or form. I noticed a lot of deficiencies in myself and one of those was in public speaking and in preaching. And so, I prayed for the grace to preach. I don't know if you believe that I have the gift of preaching or not, but I think I do simply on account of the fact that when I was leading community prayer, I knew every single guy, we lived all in the same house, there weren't knew faces or anything else, and all I had to do was simply read out of a book and my hands would be shaking the whole time because I was so nervous. At my first Mass, I forgot the words of the sign of the Cross because my human nature was so freaked out about being in front of people. And so I knew if I was to do anything other than be a mumbling fool in the pulpit, that I would need God's grace. And so I prayed, and I believe it was received.
But it's not for me. I don't stand up here and preach for myself. I preach to myself quite often, but I don't preach for myself. Rather, I preach that others might be able to hear, that the Gospel might be able to be spread and have some actual transforming power in the midst of our world. It's a grace that comes and is given to me simply, and only, to be given away, that others might be able to receive freely of the gift of God. And that's almsgiving - it's the way in which God gives to us some special gift, He makes us stewards as our second reading refers to today, and He invites us to be generous stewards of our gifts. Every single one of us has received a whole variety of gifts from the Lord our God. They come in different ways. They kind of break out into the three general categories of generosity with our time, generosity with our treasure/finances/world means, and generosity with our talents - the things we are good with essential. So God invites us to make use of these things to whatever extent we are able, to be able to continue to build up the Body of Christ because they are given to us for others, not for ourselves. Again, certainly that doesn't mean that every penny that we take in we have to give away and we just have to trust that someone will pay our light bill and someone else will pay our house note and someone else will pay the car note and insurance - obviously that's not the way it works. But it's not to make the things of this world our God. That's what the Lord speaks of in the Gospel - you can't serve God and mammon; mammon being possessions, things. Rather, we have to trust in the providence of God for us, that our God loves us, He knows what we need, and He will grant it to us. And so He invites us, with the gifts He bestows, to be generous. It's easy for us to say no when asked to be generous with our time. Most of us are pretty busy these days, whether it's things at work, at home, things we are doing with the church, whether it's kids, grandkids or other family obligations that takes us here, there and everywhere and it seems like we don't have a minute to stop, and Father asks us to stay a few minutes after Mass, which I'm going to ask y'all today, to stay a few minutes after Mass. And it's easy for us to go, "I got so many things," and to not give our time. Or to know we have other opportunities to grow in our faith or opportunities to serve someone else, not just in the church but in a larger community, and sometimes we can become stingy with out time, which try to hoard it all to our self, not to be able to give it up. We try to store it up for ourselves - the gift of our time.
The Lord also bestows upon us many treasures, the things of the world. He gives us many gifts and they can be use for incredibly good things, but sometimes we place our security in the things of the world. I think that if my checking account is big enough, I don't have to worry about anything because I don't have to take care of myself. And as soon as I think I can take care of myself, the Lord usually quickly, and boldly, such is not the case. Remember the man in the Gospel, who having an abundance harvest. He looks out and says, "My barn isn't big enough to hold all this, so I'm going to tear down my barn and build an even bigger one." It doesn't work out for him because he tries to hoard it for himself, take for himself, which was not rightly his. Rather the Lord bestow it upon him, to bestow it in generosity to others. So also our talents, the things that we are good at. A lot of times we think that when we can't do anything for the church because we think we can't read in front of people, we can't do whatever we think we are supposed to be doing to be good Christians. But every single one of us has gifts that can build up the Christian community. If there is something you're good at, I can almost guarantee there is a way the Church can utilize that for the good of the community..To be willing to put ourselves at the service of God and the Church, yes but also in our community. But sometimes we can shrink back and say, you know someone else is better than me in that particular aspect, so I'm not going to do that. But we can tie our talents with our time, and go you know I really could do that, but I just don't have time these days, and then we shrink back. Again, it's not to be able to give wholly even to the detriment of our self, but rather to give generosity when we are able to because it teaches us to trust.
The temptation often times is to control things for ourselves. We get it from our first parents. Adam and Eve, when Eve looked upon the fruit in the garden, she noticed there was three things about it, and one of them was that it was pleasing to the eyes and it was good. She wanted it for herself, and rather than trusting the Lord God would give her what was good and holy, she took it and she tried to keep it for herself. A similar is what the Lord experienced when we was tempted after his 40 days of fasting in the desert; of how the devil came to Him and took Him up the mountain to show Him all the kingdoms of the world, and he says, "All these things, I can give to you. I can give you the souls that you have come to die for, Jesus. All you have to do is bow down before me." And Jesus has the opportunity to take every soul for Himself right on the spot, and the emphasis is to take it. To be able to take rather than to receive. By being obedient to the Father, He now reigns glorious as the King of all the heavens and the earth, and all those souls that could have rightly been taken, have now been given, and even more. Our Lord God provides for us in the same. To the extent that we desire to take something, we will fall short. The desire that we are generosity in our giving and allow the Lord to provide for us, we will always be surprised because our Lord is never outdone in generosity. If we give one, the Lord gives a hundredfold He says, in this world and in the next. What a gift, to know of the love of our God.
And so when those fears come into our heart in the course of our days and whatever way the Lord is inviting us in generosity, in so many ways we can do exactly as is said in the Gospel. We worry, we worry about tomorrow, we worry about what our food, our drink clothes, what about this, what about that, what if what if what if .... And we worry ourselves, and there is so much concern, and at the root of it all, is because I'm trying to provide for me rather than to let the Lord provide. And so when those moments of fear, reservation and concern come into or hearts, we don't only listen to the words of the Lord spoken to us the prophet Isaiah today. The Lord God says, "Can a mother forget her infant? Be without tenderness for the child of her womb." As crazy as that would seem to us, as if a mother can simply bare a child and forgot that it every happened, she would bore a child in her womb for nine full months and gave birth with joy. As crazy as that seems, the Lord God continues, "Even should she forget, I will never forgot you." I will never forget you. The Lord God knows your needs, He knows your longings, He knows everything. It's simply an invitation to come and to trust.
Deus Providebit, God will provide.