Yes in Words and Deeds to our Renewal, Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), September 25, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Saint Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
September 25, 2011
Ezek 18:25-28; Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21:28-32

Today, at this Full Family Mass in which we as a parish family come together at one time in order to grow in love of God and of each
other, and to focus together on the renewal of our parish as we prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the dedication of this most beautiful house in which we worship God, the Lord Jesus gives us in the Gospel a parable of two sons. Here at this Full Family Mass it could likewise be called the parable of two parishioners, two sons or daughters of this family of faith. The lessons that Jesus, out of love, was trying to communicate in the temple of Jerusalem to the chief priests and elders of the people who had assembled to question him, are the same he is here in this resplendent temple trying to communicate to us.

In the parable, Jesus employs the image of working in his Father’s vineyard to encapsulate human life. There are two essential aspects of our life. The first is to be attached to Jesus Christ, the Vine, and to his Father, the vine grower. The second is to be a worker in his vineyard, to bear fruit. Jesus tells us during the Last Supper that if we remain in him and he in us like branches on the vine, then we will bear fruit and our fruit will last. He also tells us that he never ceases to call us to this relationship with him and to this work with him in the Father’s vineyard. Last Sunday, he gave us the beautiful image of going out to hire laborers for the vineyard at dawn, nine, noon, three and five, saying that if they responded to the invitation, went into the vineyard and worked hard, he would generously give us all the same lifetime wage. Last week, those who went out to work early in the morning complained, just like the people at Ezekiel’s time in today’s first reading, “The Lord’s way is not fair!” But God tells us that he seeks to relate to us not merely with justice but with mercy and generosity:“When the wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is lawful and right, he shall save his life. Since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely life.”

We see this mercy of God to the first of his two Sons, who reminds us, in a way, of the first of two Sons in the parable of the prodigal Son, the one who initially treats his Father as dead and refuses to live in his house, but who eventually comes back and receives the Father’s love. Today, Jesus describes that the first son initially refused when his father said, “Son, go out and work in the vineyard today,” but afterward changed his mind and went to work. After the parable, Jesus implies that this is the proper way to understand those prostitutes and tax collectors and other types of sinners, who even though for lengthy periods of time they said “no!” to the sixth, seventh and other commandments, eventually converted and were now working in the Lord’s vineyard, building up and entering into his kingdom.

The second son responds to his father’s command saying respectfully, “I will go sir,” but never acts on that promise. Jesus says that this applies to precisely those he was addressing, the chief priests and elders of the people, who were often praying very publicly in the temple chanting their loud “Amen’s!” to God, but who were not following through on their covenantal commitments. Their lips were saying yes to the Father’s will but their actions were not. We see where their hypocrisy would lead: they end up framing Jesus and having him tortured, crucified and killed

It’s obvious that the Lord wants all of us today to reflect on not only what we say to God, but especially how we follow through on our commitments. We’re here this morning because we are people who have said “yes” to God many times over the course of our lives. On the day of our baptism, we, or our parents and godparents for us, spoke up and made our baptismal promises, in which we committed ourselves to burn with and walk in Christ’s light, to keep our baptismal garments clean and to live up to our dignity as God’s adopted children. At our confirmation, we stood up and renewed those baptismal promises to reject Satan, his evil works and empty promises, and to believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the body and life everlasting. At our Confirmation, we also committed ourselves to go and work in the Lord’s vineyard, with tongues of fire, using our tongues to proclaim the Lord’s Gospel with ardent passion. The Lord wants us to ask ourselves today whether we’ve been following through on those commitments and been getting down to work in his vineyard. If we have not been following through, if we’ve been saying “no” to the Lord with our bodies despite the yes-es of our lips, then the Lord wants us to learn from the example of the first son and head out to do the Father’s will. Jesus is clear with us about his preference for deeds over words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21).

This morning in Germany, Pope Benedict said that Jesus’ words in the Gospel point to one of the “fundamental themes of [his] prophetic preaching.”

  • “When asked by Jesus which of the two sons did the father’s will, those listening respond: ‘the first’ (Mt 21:29-31). The message of the parable is clear: it is not words that matter, but deeds, deeds of conversion and faith. Jesus directs this message to the chief priests and elders of the people, that is, to the experts of religion for the people of Israel. At first they say ‘yes’ to God’s will, but their piety becomes routine and God no longer matters to them. For this reason they find the message of John the Baptist and the message of Jesus disturbing. The Lord concludes his parable with harsh words: ‘Truly, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him, and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him’ (Mt 21:32).

The Holy Father then went on to “update” this image into the language of our time, something that applies not just to Catholics in his native Germany but also to so many of us here.

  • “Translated into the language of our time, this statement might sound something like this: agnostics, who are constantly exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart but suffer on account of our sin, are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is ‘routine’ and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting their hearts be touched by faith. The words of Jesus should make us all pause, in fact they should disturb us.”

The Holy Father is saying that for many sons and daughters of God, our “yes” in faith has become routine. We say it so naturally and readily that we have ceased to understanding the meaning of what we’re saying and act on that commitment.

  • Every week we say “Amen!” when the priest or Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist says, “The Body of Christ,” but do we really structure our lives in a way consistent with this affirmation?
  • We say, “Thanks be to God!” when the Word of God is proclaimed at Mass, but do we show that gratitude for this incredible gift by making time each day to meditate on what God is saying to us and apply it to our lives?
  • We affirm, “I believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit” but do we still believe when God asks us to do something challenging, like hard work in his vineyard, or does our faith weaken when God asks of us something we don’t want to do?
  • We confess our faith in the “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church,” but do we look at the Church as just one other organization to which we belong or rather as the Bride and Body of Christ that he set up for our salvation and for the salvation of our family members, friends, enemies and the whole world?

Pope Benedict said that “in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching something more is needed” than simply words or a routine life that has lost its life-giving sap.

  • We need “an open heart that allows itself to be touched by the love of Christ, and thus gives to our neighbor, who needs us… love, in which the other person is able to see Christ, the loving God.”
  • Our yes to God begins with fully allowing God and his love into our lives in such a way that we will b e transformed by that love into agents of that love for others. It’s a yes to living fully in Christ the Vine so that attached to him we may bear great fruit in the Father’s Vineyard.
  • That’s the reason why Pope Benedict asked his fellow German and Roman Catholics to ponder the following question based on today’s Gospel: “How is my personal relationship with God: in prayer, in participation at Sunday Mass, in exploring my faith through meditation on sacred Scripture and study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church?”
  • This is where it all starts. Our “yes” to God takes on flesh in these ways, in which God is able to transform us and through us to transform the world.
  • In the last analysis, dear friends,” the Holy Father said, “the renewal of the Church,” which is what this Gospel is all about, “will only come about through openness to conversion and through renewed faith.”

The renewal of the Church will come about only through openness to conversion and through renewed faith.

Everyone of these full family Masses that we’ve been doing over the course of the last two years has had a “theme,” something major that the members of the parish pastoral council and I have identified that we need to focus on together as a family. The theme for today is to announce the general outlines of how we intend to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the dedication of this beautiful temple dedicated to God. We’re going to have a year-long celebration, which will begin on the first Sunday of Advent this year, November 27, and extend through the precise 100th anniversary, which will take place on November 28, 2012. The point of this year is not principally to look back at the past and retrace the past 100 years. It’s to look to God, to thank him for all the blessings he’s showered down from heaven on this holy spot and all those who have worshiped him here, and to ask him to open up the heavens again and rain down his help so that we may experience a total renewal in the faith. It’s really a great blessing from God that, as we begin this year of thanksgiving, the Church has asked us to begin to use a new and much better translation of the Mass in English, which will assist us a great deal in this renewal.

Renewal, as Pope Benedict said this morning, happens only through openness to conversion and through renewed faith. It begins by recognizing the times we’ve said “no” to God or even said “yes” but not followed through, to ask his mercy for those times and to give us his grace so that we may act on our commitments as disciples and apostles, as branches of Christ the Vine and as workers in the Father’s vineyard called to bear fruit that will last.

I’ve written in the bulletin four general ways that the members of the parish pastoral council and I have identified in which God is asking us for renewal. We’ll have a chance to focus on them more as we move ahead. But what I’d like to ask all of us to do today, as a family, is to make a commitment to this renewal, to say “yes” as beloved sons and daughters of the Father, as brothers and sisters of each other, and then to help each other to follow through on these words so that each of us may be renewed and our whole parish be rejuvenated and strengthened by God.

1. The first area of personal and parochial renewal that parish lay leaders and I have identified is a spiritual renewal. We’re proposing three items, all based on the theme of “100” years.

  • The first is 100 days of prayer, beginning on November 28, 2011 and lasting through March 6. We’re going to ask everyone during that time to try to make a special commitment to pray for the parish and for parishioners living and dead. There will be a special prayer written for the centennial that we’ll be asking every parishioner to pray each day, hopefully within the context of either daily Mass, adoration or the recitation of the Rosary.
  • The second aspect of the spiritual commitment is 100 consecutive hours of adoration of the Lord, which will be held during Lent the week of March 11. We haven’t fully determined the start and closing times yet, but for 100 hours, just over 4 consecutive days, we’d like to have around the clock adoration in the Church as we ask every parishioner to make a commitment for one hour each of those four days to come to the Church and pray.
  • The third spiritual activity will be the 100 Heroes of the Faith series in which for 100 consecutive days beginning the day after Easter, we will have a reflection written by a parishioner and distributed to the rest of parishioners on one of the great heroes of our faith. We’ll begin with all the saints and Old Testament figures depicted in our Church and then expand to some of the other major ones. What we’d be asking is for 100 parishioners — including some of our youngsters in our CCD program — to volunteer to write a small reflection on one saint or hero; then, we’d be asking all parishioners to make a commitment to read about that saint each day over the 100 day period. They’ll be posted on the website, sent out by email, facebook and twitter for those who use these modern technologies and made available to others who don’t use computers and smart phones.

The point of all three of these is that we’ll be praying together, uniting our hearts together to God, even when we can’t all come together to pray as a family here in Church. We believe that all three aspects will help us, individually and as a parish, to experience a spiritual renewal over the course of the year. We ask you to make a commitment to this spiritual renewal along with us.

2. In terms of communal and social renewal, we’d like to increase Sunday Mass attendance by 100 or more over the course of the centenary, by asking every parishioner to gently invite someone back to Church that they know has given up the practice of the faith or invite someone else who might not practice any faith to consider becoming Catholic. We’d like to have more social activities and greater participation in the ones we have, so that we can nourish our bonds with each other. We’d also like to ask every parishioner to commit to “100 acts of service” that we can document and then provide as a spiritual bouquet of thanksgiving to God at the end of the year, so that our renewal will help to renew our families, our neighborhoods and our community.

3. In terms of educational and spiritual goals, we are going to start to give regular tours of the Church and, as well,  have a few events that will help us all to understand how our parish has gotten to where we are today and what it means. We’ll focus on the foundations of the great faith that built this parish and seek God’s help to imitate that commitment. Our branches are always stronger the more they’re attached to the roots. We also hope to have several events like field trips to places associated with the history of our parish that in addition to being fun bonding experiences will also help us to become more grateful for all God has given us and still wishes to give us.

Finally, we hope to have a renewal in terms of our stewardship of the parish, to help us all recognize that, like a poor family, we’re all “co-responsible” for the present and future of our parish. In the next couple of months, we’ll be identifying some concrete goals and price tags that we’ll be proposing to you, in the hope that together, as hard workers in this part of the Lord’s worldwide vineyard, we, like our ancestors, may continue to build and rebuild this temple to the Lord, as the famous Latin inscription over the main arch of our Church attests.

The true goal of our parochial and personal renewal, of our conversion and renewed faith, is to become more and more like Jesus himself.  Pope Benedict said this morning:

  • The Gospel for this Sunday speaks of two sons, but behind them, in a mysterious way, there is a third son. The first son says “no,” but does the father’s will. The second son says “yes,” but does not do what he was asked. The third son both says “yes” and does what he was asked. This third son is the Only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, who has gathered us all here. Jesus, on entering the world, said: “Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God” (Heb 10:7). He not only said “yes”, he acted on it. As the Christological hymn from the second reading says: “Though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a Cross” (Phil. 2: 6-8). In humility and obedience, Jesus fulfilled the will of the Father and by dying on the Cross for his brothers and sisters, he saved us from our pride and obstinacy. Let us thank him for his sacrifice, let us bend our knees before his name and proclaim together with the disciples of the first generation: “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:11).  The Christian life must continually measure itself by Christ: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5), as Saint Paul says in the introduction to the Christological hymn.

In response to Jesus’ question in the Gospel, “Which … did the will of his father?,” we’re called to respond that JESUS did the will of the Father! Today Jesus calls us to follow him in doing the Father’s will. He calls us to say “yes” to the Father and to act on that “yes.” At no matter what “hour” he is calling us, whether early in life or late, we’re called to go together with each other into his vineyard and accomplish the Father’s work, in us and in the world, which is the purpose of our life.

The greatest way we begin to learn how to do that, the supreme example of doing the will of the Father,  of putting God’s words into action, of putting on the mind of Christ, we find in the Holy Eucharist. Even though three times Jesus prayed in Gethsemane that the Father would take the chalice from him, three times he prayed, “But not my will, but thine be done!” (Lk 22:42). That chalice was the cup of his suffering, filled with his own blood. When Jesus told us during the Last Supper to “do THIS in memory of me,” he was not merely telling us to convene as we do today to celebrate this greatest event of all. Jesus was telling us to make our lives truly Eucharistic and, following Jesus’ example, become obedient even to our own death, saying to God and to others, “This is my body, this is my blood, this is everything I am and have, given for you.” It is here that we attach ourselves to Christ Jesus the Vine and insert ourselves into his work to in the vineyard of the world, his great mission of salvation. May this third Son, this faithful Son whom we’re about to receive, help us not merely to say, “Amen!,” but to follow through on the mission that He, out of love, has entrusted to each of us and all of us, so that, not merely by our lips but by our lives, we might together as a spiritual family lift up the same spiritual canticle of the early Church and show the world that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father! Amen!