Sunday, July 3, 2016

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 66:10-14c; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

Our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah,
speaks of the city of Jerusalem as a mother
at whose breast—from whose very body—
her children find abundant and unfailing food and comfort.
Then, in a subtle turn at the end of the reading,
the image of Jerusalem as mother
is transformed into the image of God as mother:
“as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”
God is the mother who abundantly feeds us from her own body,
a reality we experience each week as we gather
to receive the body and blood of Jesus at his altar.
The fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich wrote:
“The mother may give her child suck of her milk,
but our precious mother, Jesus,
he may feed us with himself, and does it,
full courteously and full tenderly,
with the Blessed Sacrament
that is the precious food of my life” (Revelations of Love, ch. 60).
This idea of God as an unfailing source of abundance
is reflected not only in our first reading’s imagery
of God as a loving mother,
but also in the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading:
“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.”
Our readings call us to reflect on God’s abundance
and our call to be workers in God’s field,
missionary disciples gathering in God’s harvest.

As many of you know,
the Archdiocese is engaged in a process of planning,
to discern how best to use our resources
as we seek to be a community of missionary disciples.
As part of this, you were all invited last winter to take a survey
to help us determine our parish’s readiness to take up that mission
and for the past several weeks
the parish staff and a group of parishioners
have been meeting to review the results of that survey,
to assess the opportunities and challenges that we have as a parish,
and to produce a document that will be shared with the Archdiocese
as part of the planning process.
In the coming weeks there will be opportunities
for parishioners to offer feedback on that document
so that the widest range of viewpoints can be represented.

As we participate in this planning process
there is a temptation to think that all of this
is really about managing parish closings or mergers
in an age of ecclesiastical scarcity.
But we should resist that temptation,
for while it is undoubtedly true that there will be
some restructuring of parishes and how they are staffed,
the Archbishop says, and I believe him,
that first and foremost this is about reflecting on how we can best
present the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our time and our place,
by identifying and facing the challenges and opportunities
that God’s abundant providence has given us.

Jesus sends out seventy-two missionary disciples,
telling them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.”
Notice that the image that Jesus uses
is not one of sowing and planting, but of harvesting.
Jesus is, I think, quite deliberate in his choice of imagery.
The seventy-two are not being asked
to plant the seed of God’s word where it has not been
but to harvest the fruits that have burst forth from those seeds.
The implication is that through the words of Jesus
and the hidden working of the Holy Spirit
God’s word has been planted and already now is ripening.
The work of the seventy-two missionary disciples
is not to bring God into a situation
from which God has up to that point been absent,
but to recognize the abundant fruits of the Spirit
growing in the field of the world
and to gather them in.

On our parish survey, 48% of those who responded
said that the greatest obstacle they had to sharing their faith
was a desire not to push their beliefs on others.
But what if we think of our task as missionary disciples
not so much as sowing and planting—
pushing seeds into the soil where they have not been before—
but rather as giving those within whom the Spirit is moving
the life-giving and challenging opportunity
to be gathered into a community of faith?
Just as the many grains of wheat from the field
are ground and kneaded and baked into one loaf,
so too those in whom the Spirit is at work
can through their unity be transformed
into the living body of Christ,
given as food for the life of the world,
becoming part of how God’s abundance feeds and comforts.
In inviting others to reflect with us
on God’s work in their lives
we are not planting the seeds of our own opinions
but harvesting the work of the Spirit
by sharing with them how God has worked
and continues to work in our lives.
Not to share your faith,
not to share the love you have for Jesus,
is to let those fruits go unharvested.

Of course, perhaps our hesitation comes not simply
from a desire not to offend others
but from a fear of being met with hostility or indifference.
Our Gospel today seems to presume that the seventy-two
are being sent out into a world that is often hostile toward them.
The harvest may be plentiful,
but the harvesters are sent out like lambs among wolves
and the prospect of a positive response seems dubious.
If the seventy-two felt that they faced hostility,
many of us today may feel that we face indifference.
In our parish survey, 39% of parents
said that the greatest challenge they faced
in passing on the faith to their children
was “swimming against the tide
in a society that does not value faith,”
and 31% of respondents said that lack of interest in others
was the greatest obstacle they faced in sharing their faith.
The indifference to faith that we perceive in our society
might lead us to think that,
whatever may have been the case in the time of Jesus,
the harvest today is certainly not abundant.

But I suspect that the disciples in today’s Gospel
were just as dubious
when Jesus told them the harvest was plentiful.
The plenty of the harvest can hidden from our eyes,
masked by our presumptions
about the the hostility or indifference of others.
Saint Augustine noted how Jesus instructed the seventy-two
that they were to offer the greeting
“peace to this household”
in whatever house they entered.
Augustine wrote:
“Since we do not know who is a son of peace,
it is our part to leave no one out, to set no one aside,
but to desire that all to whom we preach this peace
be saved” (Admonition and Grace 15.46).
We should not presume indifference or hostility;
indeed, we should presume
as we step into the field of the world
that Jesus has already been there,
planting the seed,
that the Spirit of God has already been there,
giving growth to the fruit
that we are being asked to gather in.

If we are to be missionary disciples,
we must cling to faith in a God of abundance and generosity.
It is an act of faith to offer the peace of Christ
to a seemingly indifferent or hostile world:
it is an act of faith in the efficacy of the Spirit’s sowing,
an act of faith in the boundless power of God’s generosity.
The field of our modern world may look barren to us
but Jesus assures us that the harvest is abundant,
because, like a loving mother
who holds her child at her breast,
God is providing for her children.