“Sowing in the Field of Faith and Charity unto a Bountiful Harvest”
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year “C”
September 24, 2022
Readings from Amos 6:1-1, 6:4-7; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31
Homily delivered at the Saturday Vigil Mass at the Church of the Nativity
Menlo Park, CA
On the occasion of
The 150th Anniversary of Nativity Parish
Reflecting on the gospel reading for this Sunday’s Mass made me think of the famous cantata composed by Carl Orff in the 1930s, Carmina Burana. It popularized a series of medieval secular poems. The poems capture the medieval concept of a wheel as an allegory to teach people about the precariousness of pinning one’s hopes on the passing things of this world—sort of a wheel of fortune, or of misfortune.
Reversal of Fortune
A person may be at the top of the wheel at one moment, but as the wheel turns, eventually the person will be crushed at the bottom. But it’s an even more ancient idea—it was common in the ancient Greco-Roman world from which medieval Europe derived it. But it is also found in the world of Semitic cultures of Biblical times, as we see reflected in the parable of today’s Gospel: the reversal of fortunes between Lazarus and the rich man.
Notice what the rich man says from his place of punishment: he begs “Father Abraham” to have pity on him. Abraham answers, though, that the chasm between them is not traversable. That is, it is not enough for the rich man to claim Abraham as his father in order to be saved. He was, literally, a physical descendent of Abraham, being a part of God’s chosen people. This, though, did not qualify him for salvation. This truth is already evident at the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel with the preaching of John the Baptist, where John speaks of the fruits of repentance: “Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’” (Luke 3:8).
What, then, does Father Abraham reply when the rich man asks him to send someone from the dead to warn his family members? “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” In other words, this is not a matter of some sort of automatic, mechanical role reversal; rather, the rich man’s punishment is due to his refusal to heed the law (represented by Moses, of course) and the prophets, that is, the essence of Sacred Scripture, consisting of the law and the prophets.
Notice that there is nothing really new here. We see the same thing with the prophet Amos in the Old Testament. In our first reading, he excoriates the people of his time for living comfortably, complacently, as he says, “stretched comfortably on their couches,” eating, drinking, entertaining themselves. One might say that what we have here are the original couch potatoes! Being a couch potato, though, does not lead to salvation; these people, in fact, will be, as he says, “the first to go into exile,” that is, to perdition, which the exile of God’s people of old symbolizes. Their exile was the punishment due to them for failing to keep the covenant that God had made with them. God had made a marriage covenant with His people, and they were unfaithful. They violated their marriage covenant with the one, true God by worshipping false gods, because they wanted to be like their pagan neighbors. They wanted to just blend in with everyone else.
This sense of getting one’s due is heightened in the case of the rich man, whose situation is ironic indeed. He refused to show mercy during his earthly life, and he now asks for it in the next. The real sin in both of these stories is being oblivious—oblivious to the suffering all around (in the case of the rich man), and in the case of the people of Amos’s time, oblivious to the demands of covenant—that covenant which called God’s people to be a people set apart, that is, different from others because they belonged to the one, true God. They had the call to be a holy people.
Notice, too, what is stated at the beginning of today’s Gospel: right before Jesus gives this parable, he addresses it to the Pharisees. Even the Pharisees fell victim to this temptation. The line at the end of the parable, “neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead,” is directed at them, because they would, in the end, reject the resurrection. There is an irony here, too: they were the experts in the law and the prophets, they were scrupulous in observing the outward requirements of the law, but they failed to fulfill its demands of justice toward the poor and marginalized. They were so blind as not even to recognize the Messiah, not even after He rose from the dead.
It should come as no surprise, then, that we hear this principle repeated continuously in our Lord’s teaching and preaching. We are familiar with these phrases, right? “The last shall be first and the first shall be last;” “The greatest in the Kingdom of God are those who humble themselves to serve others;” “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and He will raise you on high,” and so on. This is all throughout our Lord’s teaching in the gospels.
Lessons for Life Today
We must pay close attention here because it is very easy for us to fall into the same trap. It is easy for us to become comfortable and complacent, oblivious to the demands of faith. This is especially so when we are oblivious to the poor, keeping in mind that poverty takes many different forms. We are called to show mercy to the poor. The Church teaches us that there are spiritual as well as corporal works of mercy. Mercy is to be shown not only in aiding those suffering from material need, but also in aiding those who are poor in the spiritual or moral sense, who need to be guided to the path that leads to wholeness, healing, and holiness, which is the only way to true happiness in this life as well as the next. Our religion, too, places certain requirements upon us – that is one of the characteristics of the Catholic faith: there are certain obligations that are required of us – and it is very easy to slip into a routine, to fulfill our obligations but still be oblivious to the plight of the poor – both materially and spiritually. That does not help lead one to holiness in life (in fact, quite the opposite), it does not help to build up the Kingdom of God in our midst, it does not lead to salvation.
There is a lesson here, then, about what the world is like when everyone lives for themselves, versus looking to the good of the other. Happily, today’s celebration gives us a very vivid example of the latter, a living witness to all that can be accomplished for the glory of God and the sanctification of God’s people when they live their commitment of faith with generosity and charity. The very building we worship in today, this church, is a visible sign of that, beginning with your first resident pastor, Fr. Speckles, who moved the church to the present site and built the first residence. And then all of the pastors who, with the generous support of parishioners, have been able to add embellishments to the church over the years to make it the beautiful structure that it is now: Fr. Riordan’s work to add the bell tower and install the bell, and enlarge and the church twice; and Fr. Brennan, who enlarged the sanctuary and, most significantly, added the famous rose window over the altar here, depicting the Nativity, thanks to the generosity of the Altar Society.
(Yes, I read this in the excerpt of the parish history of your longest serving pastor, Father McKeon, which is posted on your website. Full disclosure. And I noticed he mentioned that Fr. Brennan, on a trip to Europe, died in France because he refused to drink wine; he drank only water because he was completely abstinent and as a consequence contracted typhoid and died after only two years as pastor of the parish. Now, that’s all I know about Fr. Brennan. However, given the fact that he went to France and did not drink wine, even when his life depended on it, tells me a little more about him: he must have been a convert to the faith!)
And then there was nationally-renowned artist Fr. Luigi Sciochetti, whom (your longest-serving pastor) Fr. McKeon brought from Italy in 1923 after he and his brother were banished from Italy by Benito Mussolini. So much of the art in this church is credited to him, including the Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon, the Our Lady of Fatima mosaic, and the St. Joseph statue, among many others.
Your very church building speaks to the power of beauty to touch the soul and lift us to God. Just being inside of this church is an inspiration. We do well to sing with the Psalmist tonight, “How lovely is Your dwelling place, Lord God of hosts!” Indeed, one day within God’s dwelling place is better than 10,000 elsewhere! Why would we want to be anywhere else but this church? But there is so much more your parish has done to fulfill the Great Commission in those ways that are the staples of Church life: first and foremost, prayer, marked most significantly by your now nearly quarter-of-a-century of Perpetual Adoration; the strong sense of community life; care for the poor; and, most especially, education. Today’s celebration moves us to give special recognition to the Sisters of the Presentation for starting Nativity School in 1956, even converting a classroom into a makeshift dormitory for their living quarters before the convent was built. Now that’s dedication! And all thanks to the generosity of the parishioners, who tirelessly collected and donated the funds to make your school possible.
There is so much for which to give thanks as we mark these 150 years of Church life here in Nativity parish, beginning with the pastors on horseback to reach their parishioners down to your current pastor, Msgr. Otellini (fortunately for him, those days of pastors on horseback have come and gone!). A century-and-a-half of continuity of commitment of priests, parishioners, religious and deacons have reaped a rich harvest, building Nativity parish into the gem that it is today, a veritable beacon of parish life in our Archdiocese.
So, we learn a valuable lesson here: life’s wheel of fortune is not really a matter of fortune at all, but rather a matter of reaping what we sow. If we invest ourselves in the precarious fortunes of this passing world, then sooner or later we will end up being crushed at the bottom of the wheel and we will lose the opportunity for salvation. We also cause the world to be a much uglier place in the process. But we can look around us today and see what happens when we sow in the field of faith. So, keep sowing, and you will continue to reap a bountiful harvest.
In conclusion, I want to take this opportunity to thank you on a personal level. As you may have suspected, I do not have what one might exactly call an easy job. (Yes, some people tell me that.) Your support and love for the Church, your vibrant and faith-filled parish, are a bright light in my own life, and you give me inspiration as the shepherd of this Archdiocese. So, I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart, and may God continue to bless you abundantly for a harvest worthy of heaven for the next hundred and fifty years and beyond.