Genesis of the Catholic School Year

Catholic School Classroom Desks

This year I was asked to lead our school’s retreat. This was the opening I wrote for it.

Genesis of the Catholic School Year

In the beginning
God created the school year.
The school year was without form and void,
and darkness was upon the face of the classroom;
and the Spirit of God was moving over the summer vacation.
And God said, “Let there be fluorescent lights”;
and there were fluorescent lights.

And God saw that the light was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

And God said, “Let there be waxed floors”; and there were waxed floors.
And God saw that the waxed floors were good;
And God separated the stacked chairs,
And arranged the desks.
And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

And God said, “Let the offices be open
And the people begin to gather into one place
And the secretaries appear.”
And it was so.
And God said, “Let the office put forth emails, binders, and folders,
each bearing fruit in the hearts of the students, parents, and teachers.”
And the secretaries brought forth supply lists, packets, class lists—
photocopied, sorted, and stapled.
And God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the hallways and walls of the classrooms, and let them be for guidance and planning.”
And it was so.
And God made the two great lights,
the Mission Statement and the Student Learning Expectations;
And God set them in the hallways and walls of the classrooms
to give light upon the school
and separate the trivial from the important.
And God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

And God said, “Let the parking lot bring forth swarms of energetic teachers,
and let them descend upon the classrooms.”
And it was so.
And God said, “Let there be bulletin boards and name tags,
calendars and religious corners,
to mark the seasons and spaces of the classrooms.”
And God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.

Then God said, “Let us make children in our image, after our likeness.”
So God created children in his own image,
in the image of God he created them.
Girls and boys he created them.
Musicians and athletes he created them.
Readers and gamers he created them.
Dancers and poets he created them.
Mathematicians and singers he created them.
Noisy and quiet he created them.
Tall and short he created them.
Freckled and tan he created them.
ADD and OCD he created them.
Autistic and diabetic he created them.
And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply,
and also add, subtract, and divide.
Diagram and outline, take notes and exercise,
paint and experiment,
and sing.”
And God said, “Behold, I have given you fluorescent lights, waxed floors,
chairs and desks, class lists, binders, name tags, bulletin boards,
mission statements and student learning expectations;
custodians, secretaries, teachers, administrators, pastors, parents,
that you may become
faith-filled Catholics,
lifelong learners,
and responsible community members.”
And it was so.
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

And on Labor Day, God finished his work which he had done,
and he rested on Labor Day from all his work which he had done.
And there was evening and there was morning,
and the school year had begun.

Boxed and Labeled: Homily for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A

This summer
Brenda and I did a lot of cleaning and reorganizing around the house.
Our two older boys have moved out,
we’ve done a shuffle of the girls’ bedrooms,
and we’re trying to get rid of all the unnecessary stuff
that we’ve accumulated over the years.

One thing that helps us to organize
is to put things into boxes and label them.
It makes it easier to remember where you’ve put things.
We’ve got boxes with the boys’ names on them,
we’ve got boxes labeled “Christmas,”
and we’ve got boxes labeled “winter clothes.”

What works with stuff around the house, though,
doesn’t work with people.

Syrian RefugeeThat’s the trouble the Canaanite woman has in today’s gospel.
She’s been put in a box labeled “Foreigner. Enemy of Israel. Dog.”

Jesus has withdrawn to the borders of Israel,
he’s near the territory of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile country.
He’s kind of taking a break
after having had a conflict with the Pharisees.

And while he’s resting,
this woman keeps calling out after him and his disciples
to heal her daughter.

In Mark’s gospel she’s simply called a Greek,
a Syro-phoenecian, a non-Jew.
That would make her outsider enough.

But in Matthew’s gospel she’s called a Canaanite.
It’s a label his audience would have understood immediately,
a box they were quite familiar with,
but not because they used the word all the time.

Nobody in Jesus’ time used the word Canaanite anymore.
Matthew’s using it to emphasize his point.

He’s writing to Jewish Christians
and some of those Jewish Christians weren’t too happy
about the Gentiles being accepted in the Church.

Some of those Jewish Christians were thinking,
“We’re the chosen people,
We’re the ones who have been waiting for centuries for the Messiah.
Jesus came to us.”

Matthew wants to help them understand
how radically universal Jesus’ embrace is.
so he uses the word “Canaanite.”
Not just a Gentile, but an enemy of Israel.

This outsider, this enemy of Israel,
dares to come forward to Jesus and ask for her daughter to be healed.
Jesus responds with silence.
“Yes,” Matthew’s audience thinks to themselves, “that’s right.”
“Ignore her, she shouldn’t be there.”

Next, the disciples ask Jesus to send her away.
“Right,” Matthew’s readers think,
and they would be nodding their heads in approval,
especially when Jesus says,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

And finally,
they would have loved it when Jesus said,
“It’s not right to take the food of the children and give it to the dogs.”

That’s what the Israelites called foreign enemies: dogs, or even swine.
That was the label on the box. Dog.

And after all, Israel is God’s chosen people, his covenant children.
Jesus has come to them first and foremost.

But the Canaanite woman has a great comeback:
“Even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.”

She acknowledges that Jesus has come to Israel first.
Yes, they are the ones who’ve been waiting.
They are the chosen people.
She acknowledges them as the children of the covenant.

“But surely there’s enough for me, too,” she says.
“Surely there’s enough
just in the table scraps
for my daughter who’s ill.
Can’t you spare even a little crumb?
A crumb is all I need.”

And that’s where Jesus breaks open the box and rips off the label.

This foreigner, with no knowledge of the Law or the Prophets,
knowing nothing of Temple worship or purity rituals,
unfamiliar with Abraham or Moses,
knows Jesus.

She knows Jesus so well
that she’s not put off by the silent treatment,
or by the disciples trying to send her away,
or by insults.
She simply wants Jesus.

And he responds, “Great is your faith!”
No one else in Matthew’s gospel gets this kind of compliment.

The message to the early Christians and to us is clear:
All are welcome.
All belong.
The Chosen People may have been the first to receive the Good News,
but the Good News is for everyone.

There are to be no more Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.
There is only Christ, and we are his Body.

Today’s gospel is just as relevant today
as it was to those first Christians.
Do we see Christ in the Other,
especially in those who are different from us?
There are so many ways to be different today.
So many people can seem foreign to us,
both outside the Church and within it.

The foreigners in Jesus’ time were called dogs.
We have our own names for people who are different.
We create boxes to put people in,
labels to tag them with, some of them very cruel.
We hear them on TV shows and Internet videos,
we post them on social media sites.
Sometimes we put ourselves into boxes.

It’s these boxes that lead to prejudice.
It’s these labels that lead to bullying.

But Jesus reminds us today that God sees past boxes and labels.
There are no foreigners in the promised land.
There is only Christ and his Body.

So the first message of the good news today
is that if we feel boxed in or labeled,
individually or as a group,
God sees our faith.
We can draw strength from the example of the Canaanite woman
who refused to give up,
who was assertive.

And the second message is that boxes and labels don’t belong
in the People of God.

When we put others into boxes,
then what we get is what’s happening in Iraq
and in other war-torn parts of the world.

If, instead of welcoming the foreigner,
we fear them, label them, or put them into boxes,
then we can never trust or accept them,
and violence is the inevitable outcome.

And as Pope Francis said when speaking of the situation in Iraq,
“Violence generates more violence;
dialogue is the only path to peace.”

This Sunday, the United States bishops have invited all of us
to pray in a special way for peace in Iraq.
Maybe this would be a good time for a family rosary,
or a visit to the Blessed Sacrament,
or a special prayer over dinner.

The Christians and other religious minorities
who are suffering in Iraq, Syria, and other countries
know first hand what the Canaanite woman felt.

Like her, they have been persistent in their faith,
despite encountering great resistance.
Like her, they have been calling and calling for help.
Will we meet them with silence?
Will we tell them to go away?

Or will we recognize their great faith?

Click here to help families in the conflict-torn Middle East.

Stinkweeds and Thistles: Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thistle in Wheat

Thistle in Wheat

Today we’re asked to use our imaginations
and picture ourselves as wheat.
“The kingdom of heaven
may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field.”
Imagine us first as good seed, held in the hand of the Farmer.
As he runs us through his fingers,
he feels the potential for growth we carry within us.

Just at the right time of the year,
he carries us into the field,
then scoops us up with his hands
and scatters us onto the ground.

We lay there helpless, unable to move.
The sun comes up, the sun goes down.
It rains, and we soak in the cool, clear water.
Soon roots emerge, and we draw nutrients into ourselves.
We’ve sprouted, and we’re getting taller each day.
We’re doing exactly what wheat is supposed to do:
We’re basking in the sun, drinking in water, growing up toward the sky.
We’re growing.

This is what it means to be the Farmer’s good seed,
to be children of the kingdom.

The single defining characteristic of the kingdom of heaven
that we can see clearly in today’s three parables
is growth.

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that raises the whole loaf of bread.

In each parable,
growth is happening.
Love is always about growth, about fruitfulness.

Our vocation in this life is to grow,
to reach up to the sun.
Jesus came and planted divine life in each of us,
and like the field of wheat
we take in water—the water of grace at baptism.
We take in nourishment—the nourishment of the Eucharist.
We absorb the rays of the sun—the Son of God.

But then one night,
while everyone is sleeping,
the Farmer’s enemy sneaks into the field and sows weeds.

Soon stinkweed and thistle begin to grow,
and it becomes harder to get to the water,
and the nutrients, and the sunlight.

Jesus says the weeds
are all those who cause others to sin
and all evildoers.

Maybe we know a few stinkweeds or thistles,
and we’d like to pull them up and toss them away.

Maybe we’d like to get them out of our lives,
get rid of them, cast them aside.

But that’s not how the kingdom of heaven works.
“No,” the Farmer says,
“if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.”
“Let them grow together until harvest,” he says.

In other words,
we risk losing our lives
if the stinkweeds and thistles are simply pulled up and cast aside.

Our lives are intimately bound up with everyone we meet,
stinkweed or not.
What happens to one affects us all.
Who is it that we would cast away?
And who are we to recognize what’s a weed and what’s wheat?

Because the truth is, there’s a little stinkweed in each of us,
a little thistle, isn’t there?
So let’s not be so hasty to yank up the weeds, you know?

Jesus was patient and merciful with the weeds in his life.

He came across plenty of thistles in the wheat field of his ministry:
the woman caught in adultery,
Zacchaeus the tax collector,
the disciples who abandoned him in his darkest hour,
the centurions who executed him.

Jesus didn’t yank them up from the ground.
He showed patience and mercy:
“Go and sin no more.”
“Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

His ministry was not harvest time.
It wasn’t the time for weeding,
it was a time for sowing and growing.

Our time is not a time for weeding.
Our time is a time for sowing and growing.
The harvest will come some day,
but not today.

If the Farmer’s not worried about the weeds
then we don’t need to worry about them either.

The Farmer has chosen to leave the weeds among the wheat,
knowing that we’re strong enough to withstand them.
They won’t overshadow us,
they won’t strangle us,
they won’t steal our nourishment.

Yes, we have to struggle now for our water,
we have to fight for sunlight and nutrients.
We have to deal with stinkweeds and thistles.

But a miraculous thing happens when we stop worrying about the weeds
and instead focus on the wheat.

When we concentrate on growing in faith, hope, and love,
when we spend our time drinking in the waters of grace,
absorbing the light of Christ,
feeding on the nourishment of the Eucharist,
then we have an effect on the stinkweeds and the thistles.

If, instead of cutting them down to be burned in the fiery furnace,
we continue to live with them and beside them,
then they have the opportunity to become wheat.

I have been a stinkweed and a thistle myself
more than once in my life.
It’s only because of the patience of significant people in my life
and the grace of God
that I find myself here in this wheat field now
striving to reach the sun.

How many of us have been stinkweeds and thistles to others,
only to have been met with patience, mercy,
and forgiveness?

On any given Sunday, this church is filled with both weeds and wheat,
entangled and entwined together.

And our vocation is not to root out the weeds and cast them aside,
but to grow right beside them.

To know Jesus more and more through daily reading of Scripture
and through personal prayer.
To serve Jesus more and more
by being a blessing to the people in our lives:
our families, our coworkers, our neighbors,
the poor and outcast,
and especially the stinkweeds and thistles.

This is what it means to be a child of the kingdom,
this is what it means to be wheat and not weeds:
to continually work at growing in intimacy with God,
to work every day at lifting our souls up and up and up,
like wheat.

Anyone who’s ever received an email from me has seen at the bottom
my signature, which includes a quote
by a woman named Elisabeth Leseur.

The quote goes like this:
“Every soul that uplifts itself uplifts the world.”

This is another way of describing what it means
to live as wheat among the weeds.
It means that if we can forget about the thistles
and concentrate on growing up to God
then we can help others become wheat.

And if anyone knew what that was like, it was Elisabeth Leseur.
Elisabeth lived around the turn of the last century,
and was married to Dr. Felix Leseur, a determined atheist.
In fact, he was the editor of an anti-Catholic newspaper
and constantly worked at trying to shake Elisabeth’s faith.

You can imagine the tension that caused in their marriage.

But rather than casting off this thistle she had married,
Elisabeth used his efforts as motivation
to study and deepen her faith.
She came to believe that her mission in life
was the salvation of her husband’s soul.
At one point she even told Felix that she firmly believed
that after her death he would become a priest.

He laughed at her, of course.
But two years later, as she was dying of breast cancer,
he became increasingly impressed by her courage and composure,
and he began to realize that she drew this strength from her faith.

After she died in 1914,
Felix was overcome to discover a note in Elisabeth’s spiritual diary
in which she offered her sufferings and her life for his conversion.
He went on to publish her spiritual writings,
and in 1923 he was ordained a Dominican priest.

Elisabeth lived as wheat among the weeds.
Her tiny mustard seed became the largest of the plants.
She was the yeast that leavened her little corner of the world.
She didn’t worry about the stinkweeds or thistles in her life.
Elisabeth concentrated on lifting up her soul.

We, too, are called to have patience and mercy
with the stinkweeds and thistles.
Especially because, at different times, they are us.
The kingdom of heaven is about growth,
not about weeding out.
And “Every soul that uplifts itself uplifts the world.”

Note: Information about Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur was adapted from a profile by Robert Ellsburg in the May 2012 issue of Give Us This Day.

Solid and Liquid: Homily for the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

Saint Peter and Saint Paul

Saint Peter and Saint Paul

We have kind of an unusual circumstance this year.

Instead of celebrating the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time,
we’re celebrating the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul,
which always occurs on June 29.

Usually when a feast falls on a Sunday, the feast gets skipped.
It’s rare that a saint’s feast would take precedence over a Sunday.
And when a feast does supersede a Sunday
it’s usually a feast of Jesus, or Mary, or Joseph.
But today the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time gives way
to our remembrance of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

It’s also unusual that we celebrate two saints on the same day,
especially since those two saints already have other days during the year
on which they’re commemorated.

And so here we have two saints,
who already have other feast days,
being celebrated together,
and replacing the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

That says something.
By giving this feast such prominence
the Church is telling us something about these two people Peter and Paul
and their importance in our lives and in the lives of the entire Church.

The Scriptures give us an insight into what that importance is,
and they also help us to see how the lives of Peter and Paul
make a difference in our own lives.

First we see that Peter and Paul have several things in common.
They were both leaders in the early Church.
Peter was the leader in Jerusalem and ultimately the leader in Rome.
Paul was a leader among the different church communities he established throughout his travels:
Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Ephesus,
and all of those places he established churches and then later wrote to.

Both Peter and Paul were so influential that they were arrested and jailed.
And so in many ways they led similar lives.

And yet there were some differences in their lives as well.
We can see this in the ways they are described.

Peter is called by Jesus in the gospel today as “the rock.”
“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”
And Paul calls himself a libation, he says he’s being “poured out like a libation.”
So you could say that Peter is solid and Paul is liquid.

And I think that’s important.
I think that’s really the key to understanding the meaning
of these two men being celebrated on the same day.
Because they illustrate two important aspects of the Church
that we don’t want to lose sight of.
That the Church itself is at the same time solid and liquid.
Here’s what I mean:

First, Peter was solid, the firm foundation.
He was confident and bold.
He was the spokesperson for the apostles
and he’s the one who was bold enough to declare,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

But this is also the same Peter who is going to say, just a few verses later,
“No, you’re not going to suffer and be killed, Lord.”
And at the Last Supper when Jesus was washing the disciples’ feet,
he is going to say,
“You’ll never wash my feet, Lord.”
And Peter is the one who said,
“I will never deny you.”
You know, Peter wasn’t always on target.
In all of those moments his confidence and passion were clearly visible,
and yet he occasionally misunderstood the message.
Jesus had to correct Peter.
He had to tell Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
“I will go to Jerusalem, I will suffer, I will be killed.”

And at the Last Supper Jesus had to say to Peter,
“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
And bold Peter says: “Then Lord, wash not only my feet, but my head and hands as well.”
And after Peter’s three-time denial he asks Peter three times,
“Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me.”

But despite all of Peter’s misunderstandings,
Jesus saw in him what the Church needed.
He saw in him a firm foundation.
Peter was that solid rock upon whom Christ would build his Church.

While Peter is the solid rock, Paul is the libation.
A libation is a drink that is poured out as an offering to God.
Before taking a drink, the Greeks would pour some on the ground
to honor a god or goddess.
Paul thinks of himself here as a libation as he writes from prison.
He is about to die, his life is about to be poured out
for the sake of God.

Peter is the rock, Paul is the libation.
Peter is solid, Paul is liquid.

A rock is solid and firm, but it stays in place.
That is its virtue, that is its strength, but it is also its limitation.

You know, the very remains of Peter are under Vatican Hill,
and the church, St. Peter’s Basilica, rests right on top of his bones.
He is literally and figuratively the rock upon which the church is built.
But the Church was never meant to stay in Rome.

Paul is like a libation pouring out of that rock and flowing through the world,
coursing out among all the peoples.

It’s like the story of Moses striking the rock in the desert
for the Israelites.
Moses struck the rock and water came from it.
Peter is like the rock, and Paul is like the flowing water.

Paul carries the message
to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Philippians,
to the Thessalonians,
and on from there to the ends of the earth.

And yet, he too, recognizes the need to have the rock that is Peter.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes about the times that he met Peter.
Paul tells how he described to Peter
the gospel he had been preaching to the Gentiles.
Paul says he wants to make sure what he was doing is true to the gospel.
Paul understands the importance of having that solid foundation,
and he recognizes Peter as that Rock.

And so Peter and Paul remind us this weekend
through their lives and through the images that describe them
that we as a Church are to be both a solid foundation for the world
and a life-giving libation poured out as an offering to God.

Peter and Paul are different and yet one.

In our own lives we may identify with one more than the other.
We may identify with that solid foundation that never changes,
and the security that comes with that.

We may also identify with the fluidity of our faith,
a fluidity that sees it lived differently in different places at different times.

The world needs the comfort of the solid rock of the Church,
especially in these sometimes chaotic and unsure times.
It’s good to have solid rock under our feet.

At the same time, the world needs to know
that the Church is not some cold edifice of granite, uncaring and unmoving.
The Church is also a libation, a sacrificial offering to God
that cares for the poor, the widow, the orphan,
that stands up for the marginalized and the weak.

And what is true of the Church is only true
because it also true of God.

The Solemnity of Peter and Paul takes precedence today
because of how these two apostles reveal God to us.

It is God who is the rock, and it is God who is the libation.

When the winds of chaos, tragedy, and doubt swirl around us,
it is God who anchors us, who keeps us safe, who gives us a firm footing.
And when we are thirsting for life, for a full life,
it is God who pours out his own Son as an offering
so that we might have life
and have it to the full.

And so today Peter is a reminder of the rock solid foundation of God’s love for us,
never fading, always faithful, ever present.
And Paul is a reminder of how God poured himself out for us,
sacrificing himself until blood and water flowed from his side.

We gather here around this altar to receive that
solid foundation and that life-giving offering,
so that we can be a rock and a libation for the world.