16th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle A
St. Mary, Trenton
July 17, 2011
First Homily as the new pastor of the parish
with references to the Gospel of the day, Matthew 13:24-43
So here I am, your new pastor. 38½ years ago – I stood over there on a Christmas morning and played guitar, leading singing for Mass. The thought never crossed my mind that several years in the future I’d be standing here, sent to you by our Bishop, to lead you not just in singing but as your pastor! As Yogi Berra, that great baseball player and philosopher once said, “Its déjà vu” all over again!”
Someone asked me the other day, “You’re from Breese, aren’t you?” Then this person jokingly said, “Well, we won’t hold that against you here in Trenton!” I took no offence and had to laugh. I’ve been away from Clinton County for 30 years but in some way things are still the same as when I grew up in this area. There is still a friendly rivalry between towns, obviously; a pride in one’s community. Are you a graduate of Mater Dei or Wesclin or Central high school? (I’m a Mater Dei alum, by the way; one of the few priests to graduate from there along with your parish’s own native son, Sean Pallas.) Someone else wanted to know what parish in Breese I haled from. Let’s just say “the good one.”
Actually, the fact that I am from the area has given me a bit of anxiety about becoming pastor, here at St. Mary. Probably many of you went to Mater Dei during the same time as me, or knew me when I was much younger. The story of Jesus trying to preach to people in his home town comes to mind. The folks in Nazareth couldn’t accept what Jesus was preaching saying things like “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? We know him!” with the evangelist ending the story saying Jesus wasn’t able to work any miracles there because they couldn’t accept him as the person Jesus had become, their eyes still seeing the kid that ran around town. I hope that isn’t our experience here, as we begin to share this chapter of our lives.
The last two times I became pastor of a new parish, I told the folks there I was sent to that meeting of the new pastor and parishioners is like a “Blind Date.” Each party only knows a few, mostly superficial things about each other. They don’t know if they’ll hit it off. They’ve heard a few stories about each other because they did a little research about the person they’ve been set up with for the blind date. Here we are now, in that first awkward meeting of two people starting a date. Let’s agree that I’ve changed from that teenager who played guitar on Christmas morning and you’re not the kids who may have gone to school with me at Mater Dei. We’ve all had a lot of experiences that have shaped us to be who we are, today. It’s exciting to meet you, a pleasure to meet you for the first time. I’m hoping, by God’s grace, that we’re going to have a good time on this date, so much so that we’ll be sorry to see it come to an end some day. It was tremendously difficult and sad for me to leave St. Stephen after 13 years. That was a sign that we had given our hearts to each other, pastor and parishioners. I have every desire to see the experience repeat itself here. I promise I will love you with all of my heart as long as I’m here. I ask that we give each other a chance and see where God is going to take this relationship. I have prayed for you, my new parishioners, each day at Mass since the day I learned I would become your pastor. I hope you did the same for me. Now, let us pray for each other, every day, that God will use us collaborating together to make his Kingdom grow in this small portion of his field. I promise to listen to you, carefully, to attempt to hear what needs you have that I can help you with. It’s my hope that you’ll be able to listen to me, too. Together we’ll listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit and discern what God’s mission is for our parish the next few years.
There a bit of a culture shock for me, moving from Caseyville to Trenton. Caseyville was a small village, but had an edge to it. The first morning here I realized I hadn’t heard any sirens of police and ambulances on the highway outside my bedroom window. Instead I was awakened by the Angelus Bells at 6:00 AM (that may have to change…you’ll learn I’m not a morning person!).
In Caseyville, about the only crop that people ever saw growing was horseradish. For several years my parish property was surrounded by fields of horseradish until the storage facility on one side and city hall was built on the other side of the parish. The kids in the school didn’t know what I was talking about when I used the example of a wheat stalk in a homily early in my first year there. Now, I’m back in an environment I grew up in; small town, with farmers and wheat and corn and soybeans part of the everyday conversation. It feels like coming home, in a way. Being in a farming community will make preaching about parables like today’s story of seeds and weeds a bit easier! You’ll get the references Jesus is making without having to explain what growing wheat looks like.
Speaking of today’s readings in which Jesus uses examples familiar to his farming families, instead of talking about me, I should at least take a few moments to help us delve into what God is telling us through his Gospel.
You’ll hear me say this a lot…Parables are like windows into the Kingdom of God. Parables are a way Jesus got people to experience what it is like to have God totally in charge of your life. Parables should be like little time bombs. We think we know what God is like and then, “Boom!” The problem is that the parable stories have become so familiar that they rarely surprise us. When Jesus told his stories, people walked away wondering “What the heck?” because Jesus had a habit of taking familiar images and throwing in a twist, coming up with an unexpected ending. Because we don’t always know the culture of the people in Jesus’ day we often miss the twist in the story.
The story of the Mustard Seed was once described by a classmate in the seminary as a story where the Ugly duckling grows up to be an ugly duck, not a swan, but still is aware of its inner beauty. Did you hear how the seed grows up to be a shrub, a bush, not very majestic or tall…yet it becomes home. We don’t have to be the biggest or most extravagant of parishes, with the most wonderful of programs to witness to God’s love…we just have to be a people whose hearts go out to those in need and do (in the words of Blessed Theresa of Calcutta) small things well….Take care of our families, provide food for the local food pantry, contribute to collections for the needy. The Kingdom of God is here when we provide what shelter we unselfishly can with the resources we have.
Yeast, in our culture, is seen as a rather benign thing. But, to a Jew, yeast was a thing that corrupted bread. The holiest of bread was unleavened. You got rid of yeast from the house lest you defile the home during Passover. So, a woman takes yeast and “HIDES” it in the dough. Just a little affects the whole batch. When God inserts himself into our lives, when we insert God into the life of society…then expect society to be corrupted. Business as usual is over. The order of society is, in a way, corrupted, by the values of the Kingdom of God. Wealth means nothing. The most important people are the ones not in the seats of kings and presidents, but those who serve their brothers and sisters, doing things like caring for the sick, feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. If Jesus were to tell the story today he might say “The Kingdom of God is like a restaurant chef that contaminates the whole kitchen by not washing his hands after going to the bathroom. Everything has to be cleaned up and the meal started over, again. The Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus was the beginning of a new order of humanity cleaned up and starting over, again, to be made anew into the image of God.
Every farmer here would shake their heads at the lake of good cultivation practices that Jesus advocates. On Jesus’ farm he leaves crop and weeds grow up together, threatening the per acre yield of the crop. The methodology of Jesus is not very effective. Where’s the herbicide? Where’s the fertilizer? Sort of like the church, isn’t it. We are not an effective organization. We forgive sinners and don’t throw them out. People we are suspicious of living less than holy lives are standing in line with us to receive communion. Bishops appear to do little to discipline abusers and don’t hold themselves above the law. In the Kingdom of God there is one Judge who will sort it all out. We are not to judge, but be busy doing what we can to produce of crop of sacrificial love for the welfare of those who are in need, saints and sinners at the same time. God brings forth the crop, blessing our efforts with success. God is in charge, we are the co-workers. Someday, God will make all things work out for the good and glory of his name and we’re fortunate to be employed as workers on the farm.
So, my new brothers and sisters of the family of St. Mary, Trenton…
The blind date has begun, we’ve been recommended to each other by a mutual friend, Bishop Braxton, and Fr. Buerster has made sure we were introduced to each other. Now it’s up to us to slowly reveal our hearts to each other and find out if we’re going to click. Together, we’ll plant a few seeds in the fields of Trenton and see what God brings forth of his Kingdom. If we’re faithful to our mission as a parish, we’ll be a little part of the corrupting influence of the Kingdom, a bit of yeast and change the reality of the world far beyond this village. Let’s promise each other that we’ll be what we were created to be and baptized into the church to be, a place where people of every race, language and way of life will find welcome and what they need, shelter from all that would threaten life, a home where human life will be honored and flourish.
It’s good to be here. Thanks for agreeing to go on this date with me.