By: Fr. James Gross
Some years ago a psychiatrist that I met told me about a study that was conducted here in the U.S. The study concluded that up to 50% of Americans, at some time in their lives, suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition. They weren’t referring only to severe or debilitating diseases, but the point behind the research was that a lot more of us are dealing with these struggles than we may think. I remember guessing that the number would be much lower than 50%, and I think I concluded naively that mental health issues were much more the exception than the rule. How many people do I know that “keep a stiff upper lip” and tell themselves that others have it worse than they do? We just need to suck it up, push through, and put our best foot forward, or else we probably are just making a mountain out of a molehill.
I’m bringing this up because of the numerous times Jesus refers to worry and anxiety in today’s Gospel. I dare say that a lot of us experience anxiety in our day-to-day lives, and for a good number of us, we turn to medication and/or therapy to cope with them. My Grandma Gross, for example, had what I’m pretty sure was a form of anxiety disorder, even though doctors may never have given that it name when she was alive. What are we supposed to do with what the Lord tells us?
First of all, we know that God wants us to live life to its fullest and enjoy health of mind, body, and soul. The message of the Gospel is not a stoic, “tough love” approach that turns a blind eye to our moments of misery. Neither is the Gospel message a version of that old 1980’s pop song from Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It’s a disservice to reduce the words of Jesus to an airy cliché. I’m probably going to regret mentioning that song; I hope it doesn’t stick in your mind like an earworm and distract you the rest of the mass.
The anxiety of which Our Lord speaks today comes from false assumptions. First of all, we can falsely think that there is a limit to the bounty of God’s gifts. We fear that they are rationed thin, and when our ration runs out, then what will we do? Secondly, we can falsely think that God is not interested in the needs of His children, as though he can’t be expected to “sweat the small stuff.” Also, we can tell ourselves that personal success is all on our shoulders. This is the residual effect of the Enlightenment period, and the attempt to remove God from our lives as an active cooperator in meeting our needs.
Should we be conscientious? Should we play by the rules? Should we live responsibly? Should we make our best effort? Absolutely, but insofar as we give glory to God as the one who makes it possible. By using terms like worry and anxiety, Jesus is confronting the doubt we can harbor in His desire for our true welfare. As Isaiah poetically put it, we should no more expect a mother to forget about the child in her womb than we would expect God to forget about us.
Stresses and pressure will come at us from the outside. The key is that, through God’s grace, we can control how we respond to them. Here’s how I like to think of what Jesus is saying. During the Mass, after we finish reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I pray that, “by the help of God’s mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress.” The distress is the unavoidable garbage that comes at us. Anxiety is the permission we give external distress to overwhelm us and lose hope in God’s providence. That is the very thing Jesus teaches us to wage war against.
Consider the beautiful examples Jesus gives from nature: the value the Creator places in birds of the air, providing creatures with sustenance, and the exquisite detail of flowers that soon perish. I imagine the Father saying to us, “I have plenty of everything. Do not be anxious that there may not be anything left for you.” That being said, the Lord warns us that we cannot serve two masters. God must be God of our lives, and everything else must stand in proportion to Him. As he said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Otherwise, we begin to live like idolaters, depending on ourselves or something in creation to satisfy our desire for lasting happiness. Then we chase after the wrong kinds of things and start believing that God won’t really come through for us.
This past week, during Msgr. Shea’s mission talks, he reminded us of how important it was that God commanded the Hebrews, through Moses, to keep the Sabbath day. God’s people were freed from slavery. They did not have to act any longer like they were still slaves. They could enjoy a day of rest every single week, following the standard God set in the Book of Genesis, where all unnecessary work or errands get put on hold. We take this to mean that we can concentrate on taking care of each other and allowing Holy Mother Church to nurture us.
It takes discipline to make the most of our Sundays, to be here right now, and not to treat this day as “Saturday, part two.” Perhaps many of you already carry anxiety in your heart about what you have to do on Monday morning. But is that how God asks us to live? Ironically, many of those who feed their anxiety with all sorts of busy-ness on Sundays don’t really feel like they are caught up. Instead of being tranquil and dispelling the anxiety, it somehow gets revved up and moves even closer to the center of their thoughts.
You may be saying, “Yes, Father, but I’m still anxious. I’ve got problems that weigh heavily on my heart.” Certainly you do; far be it from me to trivialize them. But God’s shoulders are broad. Will we trust that our Heavenly Father knows what we need better than we know it ourselves? Will we take the risk that comes with the virtue of faith to ask in humble prayer for what we need? Will we trust that God can provide for His children what we cannot provide for ourselves?
By: Fr. James Gross
“You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” So soon after meeting this large group of people who gathered with him on the mountaintop, Jesus made these extremely bold declarations. He didn’t say, “You might be the light of the world someday, if you play your cards right.” Instead, he used “you are,” the present tense.
The Lord is not expecting something of us well beyond our reach, but seeks to expand our imagination of what we can become and accomplish as his disciples. If it were out of reach, his listeners would have drifted away, their hearts heavy with despair. On the contrary, more and more of them dropped everything and flocked to Jesus. How well can we relate to what they did? Will I be salt and light regardless of what I do, or is the Holy Spirit calling me to a greater response? What is God’s plan of action for my life?
I want to use an example of a saying I used to hear as a kid. When someone tried to enter a building, but it was not open, people would often say that it was “locked up tighter than Fort Knox.” Well, what did I, as a little kid, know about Fort Knox? It turns out that Fort Knox is an army installation near Louisville, Kentucky, and on the grounds is one of the world’s largest gold depositories. It’s among the most heavily guarded places on planet earth.
Let’s say a friend of mine went to visit Fort Knox, and tells me, “Father, I brought you back a souvenir.” He pulls out a brick-sized bar of gold and hands it to me. I look at this gleaming, highly-polished bar, feel the weight of it in my hands, and say, “I know what I’ll do: I need a doorstop for my office, and I bet this will do the trick!” How do you suppose that friend would react? For one thing, he’d want me to get my head examined.
My point behind that silly story is simply this; do we truly know the value of God’s gifts? Light shines forth unmistakably. Food that is seasoned is not bland. It stands out. We are not salt and light all by ourselves. God makes it possible. We are to be like a bright full moon, reflecting the sun’s light because the light is not our own.
To put it another way, what has Christ given us that is different? What does it matter that I come HERE and do THIS? Why does it matter that we celebrate the Eucharist, and what do we do with the Communion in Christ that we receive? The clear expectation of Jesus is that we will make a contribution in the world that no one else makes, because we are salt and light. The story goes that many pagans in Rome came to describe their Christian neighbors this way; “See how they love one another.” They may not have been on board with believing in Jesus as Lord, but they could not deny the fruits of His followers. They were persecuted for their faith, but still shone forth as a city on a hill.
Isaiah urged us in today’s first reading to invest our talents for the well-being of others: “If you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted, then light shall rise for you in the darkness.” Lots of people look around and know what could be done. Some of them take the risk to do those things. As Christians, we go farther by identifying Jesus in the least of our brothers and sisters. We give not so as to receive a reward, but to secure a heavenly reward not measured by human esteem.
In the coming weeks you are going to hear us speak a lot about the practice of stewardship. Ideally we wouldn’t crowd these items together, but life doesn’t always work that way. You’ll notice that soon we will kick off the annual God’s Gift Appeal. Bishop Folda wants to express his deep gratitude that the diocese met its goal for 2016, and the participation of you, our parishioners, was instrumental in making that happen. On a local level, as part of our parish Centennial celebration, we hope to embark on a project to update and enhance the beauty of our worship space. We invite all of you to join in one of the informational meetings coming up to see how you can share in this endeavor.
And then there are consistent needs, such as the collection we solicit the first weekend of every month for non-perishable items in our Food Pantry. Between our St. Vincent de Paul Conference members, Fr. Courtright, Deacon Stu, and yours truly, we can attest that many households make good use of this resource to provide nutritious meals when they otherwise would have to go without.
If we believe that we are salt of the earth and light of the world, intended not to blend into the background but step forward on the world’s stage, our stewardship is not some extraordinary act of heroism, but rather an expression of who we already are. God is the one true owner of our material blessings. Someone else applied them before us, and someone else will do so after we are gone. What we choose to give is not a matter of what we give up from our own storehouse, but what we share of God’s bounty in a way that glorifies Him. And as more people take part, the entire work prospers. It’s like moving to a new home; a crew of two or three will get worn out, but with a dozen helpers, the task becomes easier, even if a couple of volunteers can only carry a few pounds.
Let me leave you with one more example that I found intriguing from today’s Gospel. Jesus said that, as people light a lamp in their home and do not hide it under a bushel basket, so our light must shine before others. A bushel is a measure of volume—its weight depends on the contents. Wheat runs about 60 pounds a bushel, whereas a less dense grain like oats is significantly lighter.
The average family in the time of Christ would keep a bushel basket filled with grain in a storage room, and as needed, fill a smaller container for the kitchen, to grind into flour as needed. To keep an empty bushel basket in one’s home would have been odd in that society. If someone came to your door for a handout, you may use that basket to cover your lamp, so as to suggest that no one is home. But then, greed may tempt you to bring the basket to the marketplace and fill it with treats for yourself, not once considering what we might give to our neighbor.
Am I the person clutching the bushel basket, poised to hide behind it? Am I using my bar of solid gold as a doorstop? Or do I accept that, as a member of the Body of Christ, I am salt and light for the world?