I‘m a big fan of the best-selling book called The Shack and recommend it to people who suffer a great loss in their lives. Perhaps you’ve read it.
The story is a beautiful parable about faith, loss, great pain, and eventually healing and forgiveness through the guidance of the Holy Trinity. It’s been called a modern retelling of the Book of Job.
The story centers on a father whose young daughter is kidnapped and brutally murdered by a serial killer while on a family vacation in the Wallowa Lake area of eastern Oregon.
“The last trace of his daughter, a blood-stained dress, is found on the floor of a dilapidated shack set deep in the woods. In the wake of the murder, a crushing depression settles on (the protagonist) and he (begins) to question his belief in God. As the novel opens, (the man) receives a mysterious invitation to come to the shack.” The man thinks the letter is penned by the killer, but it turns out the letter is sent by God.
Noted theologian Father Robert Barron also recommends the book for any Catholic who has suffered a great loss in their lives in spite of some reservations about its Protestant take on faith.
He said reading The Shack is kind of like eating a sweet, tasty watermelon. “You got to spit out a few seeds!”
I’ve posted Fr. Barron’s thoughtful comments and recommendation on my blog.
For the purposes of this homily, I’d like to borrow The Shack author’s metaphor of the human soul as being like a beautiful garden when tended properly.
In our lifetimes, many thorns develop in the gardens of our souls and need constant care and tending to create a thing of beauty in the eyes of God.
Some of us may think we are immune to these thorns cropping up in the gardens of our souls. But we are not. None of us. Not even this deacon. And I think that’s what Jesus is telling us this weekend. We need to keep our gardens tilled with rich, fertile soil for the word of God to continue to take root in our hearts and souls.
One thing we Catholics have to help us clean out our overgrown garden is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is where we can examine closely each and every thorn bush that’s growing in our hearts and through the healing power of our savior’s love start the process of removing these thorns and tilling the soil so good seed can grow abundantly.
I have a question for us all today.
Is our soil rich and fertile creating conditions required for the Word of God to be nurtured and come to fruition as a Disciples of Christ?
How about the soil of our children? As Catholic adults, are we helping them to keep their soil rich and fertile so as to keep their faith fully alive and thriving?
As some of you know, I have a new job. On the very day Fr. Hersey returned from Guest House in Minnesota, I was asked to become the Campus Minister at Archbishop Murphy High School. After much prayer and discernment, I accepted the job a few weeks later.
It’s been an eye-opening experience to see faith through the eyes of our teenagers.
You see, our teens pay close attention to what we say and do and are quick to point out any hypocrisy. Especially hypocrisy to the teachings of Christ. As parents of teens, we know how this story goes.
Right now, our parish community is cultivating a renewal of our youth ministry. It’s trying to create a new garden with rich, fertile soil so the Word of God can grow in the hearts of our young people.
This is so important and so vital, because so many young Catholics today walk away from faith because we fail to help them clean out their thorny gardens.
We talk about the lessons of Jesus, but we sometimes fail to live up to Jesus’ example. We fail to tend to our own thorny gardens and don’t see that our own hypocrisy is one of the main reasons our young people leave the faith.
Our judgments of others without showing mercy and understanding, our unkind and unloving words about our enemies, our intolerance of those we disagree with, our failure to help the least of our brothers and sisters in need, our focus on material wealth and all its trappings, all these things are enabling young people to question what this Jesus thing is all about -- what this Church is all about.
That’s why Pope Francis could not have come at a better time in our troubled world. The Pope prefers to teach not only by his words, but more importantly by his actions.
Ask any effective parish youth minister and you will hear the same thing, “kids are paying attention to everything Pope Francis is saying and doing.”
His appearance at last summer’s World Youth Day in Rio captivated three-point-seven million of our Catholic young people as he called them to “make a mess” with their love of the Gospel.
The Pope told them to make “a mess in the dioceses! I want people to go out! I want the Church to go out to the street!
I want us to defend ourselves against everything that is worldliness… that is comfortableness, that is clericalism, that is being shut-in on ourselves. The parishes, the schools, the institutions, exist to go out!
He also told them, “Jesus, with His Cross, walks with us and takes upon Himself our fears, our problems, and our sufferings, even those which are deepest and most painful.
With the Cross, Jesus unites Himself to the silence of the victims of violence, those who can no longer cry out, especially the innocent and the defenseless.”
The Pope also did something remarkable this past week. He said to victims of sexual child abuse gathered at the Vatican:
“I beg your forgiveness.”
He told them, “The scene where Peter sees Jesus emerge after a terrible interrogation… Peter whose eyes meet the gaze of Jesus and weeps… This scene comes to my mind as I look at you, and think of so many men and women, boys and girls. I feel the gaze of Jesus and I ask for the grace to weep, the grace for the Church to weep and make reparation for her sons and daughters who betrayed their mission, who abused innocent persons.”
Some may say, “Well, Pope Benedict did the same thing.”
Yes, he did apologize to sex abuse victims on behalf of the Church, but what ‘s remarkable about Pope Francis’ actions is the Pontiff publicly pledged himself to accountability, and not just accountability for clergy who abuse, but for bishops who cover it up.
Powerful words on the most important crisis in our Church’s history -- what some might call the biggest thorn bush to spring up in our collective souls as Catholics.
This is why when I arrived at the campus ministry office at Murphy and noticed not a single image of Pope Francis on its walls, I immediately had numerous framed pictures made of some of the Holy Father’s most impactful teaching by example moments and put them up for all the students to see.
The lesson learned for us all can be found in a quote attributed by some to Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi:
“Preach the Gospel always. And if necessary use words.”
This is how we make rich, fertile soil in our souls and the souls of our children. When there is harmony between our words and our actions and when we let our actions speak louder than our words, we create soil rich, fertile for the Word of God to take root.
If we teach the lessons of Christ, but fail to live them in our own lives, we allow thorns to grow not only in our own gardens, but the gardens of our children.
“Whoever has ears ought to hear."
At Archbishop Murphy, with the help of the students, we recently erected a Marian Grotto. Around the Grotto and lovely statue of the Virgin Mary is a beautiful flower garden. One of my favorite things to do daily is tend the garden, water its flowers and make sure it looks beautiful. I suppose in a few months I’ll be tending to the weeds and thorns that may try to take root in the now rich, fertile soil. And so it goes…