Tag Archives: vocation

Homily: “On Being Called to the Vineyard”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year A), 2017.

It is typical to preach on the appointed Gospel Lesson of the day, and if possible to touch base as well with the other appointed lessons; and as you know, I typically like to frame my preaching in the context of the prayer of the Collect of the Day. Today, however, I will devote nearly all of my sermon to our Old Testament lesson and more broadly to what the Book of Jonah can teach us. I said the word “nearly” because I did want to make a couple of points about our Gospel lesson because it pertains to our Mission to Tazewell County. Notice that it is God who recruits workers into the vineyard, not the other workers. They go about their work as God would have them do in the vineyard, and while they are doing so, it is God who is finding more workers. This should be a great relief to us. It is God who gives the increase, who sends more labors into the harvest, who recruits workers for the vineyard—not us, at least directly. When God decides that He needs more laborers, more workers, our all-powerful Lord Jesus will call people to that work, to join us. This should relieve all Christians of anxiety they might feel as they look around and see fewer people in the pews.

Now, to the main part of my homily. Continue reading

What does ‘Remnant’ mean?

When we look at businesses or organizations as a whole, there tends to be a core group within the whole who constitute the “heart.” Not necessarily the ones who put in the longest hours or do the most taxing work, yet something irreplaceable and necessary rides on the shoulders of these core people: their vision, their behavior, their commitment. And through their work, the whole organization, all the way out to its margins, benefits and shares in, even can take on the character of, that core.

The Chicago Blackhawks of 2015 are a pertinent example. There is a spectrum that constitutes everything meant by “the Blackhawks.” Certainly much rides upon the shoulders of the players themselves, whom we can easily see as “the core.” Yet important also are the trainers, team management, all of the ticket-holders and fans, all the way to the kids who wear Patrick Kane jerseys at their neighborhood ice rink. All are part of the same “team” yet with different roles to play according to their gifts and vocation. Seen in this way, the “team” in the narrow sense becomes something of a wider “family.”

This manner of thinking can be applied to the Church, and particularly the Parish, with intriguing ramifications. The theological term used by the Church is “Remnant.” We find this in Saint Paul: “At the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:5-6). In the Authorized Version (popularly but inaccurately called the “KJV”), the term also occurs in The Revelation to John (12:17): “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

To what does “woman” refer? Marian scholar Hilda Graef writes, “The early patristic tradition unanimously regards this woman as a symbol of the Church” (Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, Chap. 1). Later patristic, medieval and modern tradition grew to see the “woman” as a composite symbol of both the Church and Blessed Mary. Writes Graef: “Mary is not merely the individual mother of Jesus, she is also the ‘daughter of Sion,’ the representative of the People of God.” This means that Mary is representative of the Remnant as seen in Elisha, Amos, Micah, First Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Joel, Ezra, and Deutero-Isaiah. Furthermore, Remnant is directly implied by the stories of Noah (Gen 7:23), Abraham (Gen 18:12-32), Jacob (Gen 32:9), and Joseph (Gen 45:7). In each of these instances we see the common theme in two parts: 1. a person or small group of people chosen by God as His instrument and 2. upon whom the salvation of the whole world depends.

These are in fact complementary emphases. For without the core people who are chosen (elected) by God, who continue in the example of Blessed Mary and reform into ever-greater likeness of Jesus, what are the Saints but curious, even bizarre, people? Likewise, absent the participation of the wider community according to their gifts and talents, what claim can the Church possibly make to being “Catholic,” a term which means “universal” and “according to the whole”? And without the whole, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7) is empty sentiment.

Now, just as the Blackhawks players must, in fact, play, the Remnant must do their work in relationship to the whole. This work is the perpetuation of Christ comprehensively and completely. A classic description of the Church is that it is the extension of the Incarnation of Christ. This in fact is a Remnant way of describing the Church: people who are to be the extension of Him. The preaching, teaching, healing, leading—all of what Jesus did—we can sum up as His Prayer, which was always in perfect adoration of the Father Almighty. By perpetuating His prayer, we perpetuate Him, by His grace—and actual people are called by God to do this. These people we call the “faithful Remnant” and together with their community, “the Remnant Parish”—all exercising their gifts and talents given by God for the common good.

It is a severe distortion to imagine that only the Remnant is going to heaven, a mistake some are tempted to make. Our Lord did not command his Apostles to baptize the nations so that, upon baptism, they would perish in eternal damnation. Rather, His command was for the salvation of the whole world. The faithful Remnant Parish is not pessimistically withdrawn from the world; Remnant is the opposite of retreat. Remnant means engagement, as Jesus himself was the Suffering Servant giving himself to all of humanity.

Our terms are that we are to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” from our Baptismal Covenant. Likewise, the faithful Remnant and Remnant Parish pray as a family on behalf of those members of society who do not sense any calling whatsoever to attend church, and even are actively antagonistic towards Christianity. Such a parish prays in part because others cannot or will not—Remnant prayer is “substitutionary prayer,” so to speak. This is particularly evident liturgically during the Prayers of the People: “Let us pray for the Church and for the whole world,” “For all people in their daily life and work” (Forms IV and VI). The Remnant Parish is distinct because called by God, yet is intimately and sacramentally connected with, and responding to, the concerns, challenges, problems and evils of the world through the compassion of Christ.

What emerges in relief are five, possibly startling, points for further pastoral, devout experimentation:

  • The Remnant are “the bearers of the community’s future existence” (Fr Leslie Hoppe, OFM, The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p. 827). Canonical and local Saints teach us about who we the Church will become.
  • In the Remnant is an infectious holiness demonstrated through purity in worship, loyalty in faith, and complete abandonment to God and His Providence. Remnant prayer is the prayerful center of the Parish and is its central activity.
  • The Remnant serves the whole of the Parish. As Fr Thornton wrote, “It is the very heart which recapitulates and serves the whole; in fact the complete Body of Christ in microcosm, and its relation to the environment is the relation between Christ and the twelve, to their world. This palpitating heart pumps blood of life to all the body as leaven leavens the lump or salt savors the whole” (The Heart of the Parish, IV). The primary condition is that a parish “believes, practices, and teaches the full Catholic faith and supports and promotes authentic Catholic culture,” in the words of Fr Fraser. True catholicity implies locality.
  • The norm of parochial Prayer is the threefold Regula performed daily by the members of the faithful Remnant, elected by God to pray vicariously on behalf of all, and joined by the whole community as they are able, which typically means in the celebration of the Eucharist on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Remnant prayer truly pervades all.
  • Part and parcel of Remnant reality in the parish is Catholic imagination. To wit: “It is not, however, merely the human part of the created order that receives redemption and makes its true self-offering to God by joining ‘with the angels and archangels’ in the heavenly worship. The whole material realm in involved, for man is ‘nature’s priest.’ . . . Not only man, but the universe, will be transfigured and glorified, and in this transfiguration the great mystery of the Resurrection of the Body will be brought about” (20th-century Anglican divine Eric Mascall, in Christ, the Christian, and the Church, XIII and IX). Parochial activity overflows into all of life and involves the whole material realm.

What, in sum, does Remnant mean? Remnant doctrine emphasizes that God does His saving work through His Body. He works through the diverse gifts and graces He has given particular members to exercise for the benefit of all (see 1 Cor 12). As a whole, we are “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20). Remnant doctrine synthesizes fundamental Church’s theology (e.g., Incarnation, Baptism and all the Sacraments, the Church, Election/Vocation, People of God, Theosis) and emphasizes both corporate and individual aspects of our shared call to follow the example of Blessed Mary and all the Saints in obedient life dedicated to Jesus, extending and perpetuating the Catholic faith within Christ’s Church with infectious holiness and through vicarious, trinitarian prayer (Regula). Remnant doctrine teaches that the one Body of Christ shares in each other’s God-given gifts and graces, and is so doing we share in the prayer life of those particular souls, lay and ordained, who are elected by God to the full life of Christian prayer on this earth.

In short, Remnant means being Blessed Mary’s children. The Mother and Bearer of God—Theotokos—Saint Mary is also, we must proclaim, the Mother of the Remnant. Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Homily: “‘Yes, but How?’ Blessed Mary and Vocation

Delivered on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2014 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.

How delicate these last days must have been for Mary—these last days before the birth of her son, Jesus, the son of the Most High. These last hours when, as it does for women about to go into the ever-deepening cycles of labor, the time becomes ever-fuller, the senses heighten, each breath a bit more noticed, a bit more conscious and intentional. Having lived for nine months with Gabriel’s message, perhaps her mental life was like what we call today “centering prayer”—her centering word, “Jesus.” Each breath, one breath closer to seeing Him, to holding Him. Each breath, one breath closer to hearing Him cry, to feeding Him, rocking Him to sleep. Each breath, one breath closer to being changed by Him—not into a different person but into more of who she was called by God to be from the first moments of her own immaculate conception: the Theotokos, the Mother of God, the bearer of He who will reign over the house of Jacob for ever.

Unlike Adam and unlike Eve, Mary was never apart from her God-given vocation. She was never cut off from God’s will for her. Early Christian legends about Mary—non-canonical and not part of the authoritative biblical literature, to be sure, but still widely read and disseminated in the early Church, and hence influential in Christian tradition and our living memory today—told of Mary being conceived to her elderly parents, Anne and Joachim, also through a kind of angelic annunciation. The angel said, “You shall give birth to a daughter who shall be blessed throughout the world,” as one legend tells it. It was said, “all of the house of Israel were happy with her and loved her.” Those around her, and her parents at her conception, saw, or perhaps intuited in a still unfocused way, a mystery about Mary—something of who God made her to be. Her vocation was woven into her being, inseparable from her existence, and never denied by her family, her priest, or Mary herself.

It may be that the Annunciation that Saint Luke describes between Mary and the Angel Gabriel was in fact not the first moment that Mary learned of her vocation. It may be that, like the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, where Jesus is given but the fullness of his own vocation through the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove and through the words of His Father—“Thou art my beloved Son with thee I am well pleased”—because we know that something of his vocation to be the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was not only known before this baptism, by the twelve year old Jesus as well as his parents and relatives, yet somehow by all creation knew of Jesus, through whom all things were made, all things perfected—for Mary, too, there were inklings of her vocation, her predestined identity, while still in her mother’s womb, and upon birth and her subsequent development, all of which was then confirmed by Mary by her glorious words to Gabriel: “Let it be to me according to your word.” And so, Our Lady’s “Yes” to God can teach us about the Sacrament of Confirmation, when one learns about and then accepts his or her vocation to the general priesthood, the ministry of the laity, what is taught in this parish as a form of ordination.

For just as with the Sacrament of Confirmation, the person accepts Jesus to be the central focus of the rest of his or her existence, in his life and into the next, so with Our Lady. Gabriel tells Mary that she is to be the Mother of Jesus, that the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. Mary accepts this invitation, confirms this vocation given by God—and her son becomes the ever-blazing heart of the rest of her breathing.

And can we doubt that what also was announced to Mary was a sacramental imagination, a Catholic imagination? Can we doubt that Gabriel’s message permanently sealed Mary’s very being, her very view of all reality? Whether it was an abrupt shift in conscience, or one gradual, is difficult to say when we remember that Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation comes 90 to 100 years after the fact, give or take a decade or two. Perhaps Saint Luke wisely leaves this detail out, and invites us to consider Mary’s reaction to Gabriel, to live into this experience as we are able—what it would be like to be in her shoes. For every moment when we ourselves have a hint or a glimpse into the truth of our own vocation, who we are meant, even predestined by God, to be, then by analogy we are just like Mary with Gabriel. For some of us, the truth of our vocation startles us, shocks us, throws us for a loop. For others of us, we are not so much as disoriented as we sink into a state of deep awe and wonder, even speechlessness. Aspects of our past come together; we see them as providential: we thought we were alone that moment so many years ago, but God was there, gentle guiding us toward Himself. Some of us resist or even deny our vocation. Yet can be there a more troubling form of sin that to deny God’s will for us? It is nothing less than the Capital Sin of pride, the root sin, and it is deadly.

Let it be said loud and let it be said clear—to question, to inquire, to be puzzled by, and to not fully understand our vocation is absolutely not a form of sin. God reveals His will for us when we are ready to receive it, when we can bear it, when the time has a fullness about it, a consonance within it, and we are able to respond. He knows that our vocation will be heavy, will be weighty, truly, like an anchor. I daresay he expects us to inquire to him, even argue with him, to examine this revelation with the full capacities of our earthly life—our reason, our intelligence, our emotions, our bodies, and our heart, the seat of our choosing.

If it sounds wrong for me to say that God expects us to inquire and argue with him about our vocation, then Mary too was wrong, for she said, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” But she is not wrong—she is not questioning God’s authority, nor his power. Mary believed God. She took His presence very seriously. It is a sign of our seriousness, of our maturity, when we can believe in God’s utter sovereignty and at the same time honestly interrogate what God appears to be telling us. This is called “the discernment of spirits,” and the key to it all is humility, is openness before mystery. God knows how powerful and how provocatively deceptive Satan can be, how skillful Satan is in twisting God’s words into grave distortion, as he did with Adam and Eve. God equips us with brains with which to think, communities and families with which to discern, the mystical family of the Church through the parish with which to live, he provides opportunities for us to verify and test our vocation. God gives us sacraments and our liturgical prayer life.

“How shall this be?” is the question that is the foundation of being a disciple. In still shorter form, the question is “Yes, but how?” This by analogy is the same question the first Christians asked of Saint Peter at Pentecost, the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, also a product of Saint Luke’s authorship—for after they heard Peter preach on text from the Prophet Joel, how the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, and about the crucifixion and the resurrection of Our Lord, and that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, how what was kept secret for long ages but now disclosed and made known to all nations—what was the first response from the people but the words, “Brethren, what shall we do?” A “Yes, but how?”—an echo of Mary’s own devout interrogation of God.

It is not self-explanatory how to center our lives around the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, truly God and truly Man. It is not a matter of merely being “good people.” It is not a matter of merely reading the Bible on one’s own. It is not a matter of merely learning the right doctrinal words in the right doctrinal order. It is not merely about coming to Church. It is not merely finding quiet moments to talk with God. It is all that and a whole lot more, according to the pattern of the Church, its Regula. Spiritual guidance or direction is essential to work through what seems like an overwhelming jumble of spiritual possibilities, of spiritual insights, of doctrine, of piety.

When presented with the fullness of God’s purpose in creating us, and his promise for us, “Yes, but how?” becomes perhaps the only sane response. By asking God, and our priests, our catechists, and the holy people in our lives, “Yes, but how?” “How shall this be?—and then, listening to God’s answer—we invite God to lead us still closer to him, ever closer to Christ’s nature, ever closer to who God has called us to be, has chosen us to be, in him before the foundation of the world. We need to be reminded daily of Mary’s commitment to God so that our own commitment to God becomes more like Mary’s. Without a daily relationship with Mary’s commitment to God, a daily relationship within our conscious prayer life, we deny ourselves the sure and certain means for being formed more fully into disciples of the Son of the Most High.

Pray for us, O holy mother of God. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton. 

To Be Called by Jesus

Homily delivered on the Solemnity of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, 2014 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.

“Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”

Immediately we should ask, “What does it mean to follow Jesus?” And furthermore, because Jesus said, “Follow me,” we should ask, “What does it mean for Jesus to call us?”

Our Collect reads, “We pray that, after Saint Matthew’s example, we may with ready wills and hearts obey the calling of our Lord to follow him.” And so the Collect gathers together the two questions — what does it mean to follow Jesus? and what does it mean for Jesus to call us? — in a neat little package that if taken seriously, has to do with the very core of being Christian today.

So, how do we answer these questions? And how do each of us in our own unique devotional lives come to grips with the implications? One thing is certain: all of us are called in some way; God’s calling is an actuality in our lives, because we are here at Mass. Each of us here has chosen God rather than the alternative. The very act of choosing to be here, of choosing God, means that we are avoiding sin, in that sense “repenting,” because to be separate from God is sin and by being here we all intend therefore not to be separate from God, but to be closer to Him.

So it is not that we should look at Matthew as if what he did in following the call of Jesus is alien to our experience. It is not. Now, our gospel does present Matthew’s response as rather instantaneous and perhaps there is something to be gained in understanding that Jesus’s call to us, whenever it happens, should be not merely heard but obeyed — responded to with active listening. Our Collect also speaks of having ready wills and hearts. Matthew, despite his lifestyle, or perhaps because of it, is shown to have had a ready will and heart. He is an example of discipleship to us.

Blessed Mary, as the Church teaches, is the model disciple, and we can see here that Matthew’s response to Jesus’s call is analogous to Mary’s response to God when he bestowed upon her a vocation to be the Mother of God. Just as Mary’s response was immediate, so was Matthew’s.

I mentioned a moment ago that it may have been because of Matthew’s lifestyle that he had a ready will and heart. I say this because we must always remember the insight that comes from St Thomas Aquinas — that grace does not destroy our nature; rather, grace perfects nature: fulfills our nature. God’s actuality in our lives means that when we become more truly human, truly at home in God’s creation, truly at home in being a creature of God and the humility that requires, more truly in this world — when we accept that God wants us to follow him in this life, in this situation, in this context, with these challenges — this is when we truly cooperate with the grace, the love of God that came before our awareness of it, yet if obeyed, will carry us to the glorified existence in the power of the Holy Spirit through our incorporation into the glorified Body of Jesus the Christ.

So we should not think that Matthew did anything else but respond properly to his situation as Jesus revealed it. And what was his situation? As a tax collector, Matthew worked in a kind of toll-booth. He worked in that tollbooth to collect fees on goods, probably the fish caught nearby. As something of a cog in the government’s financial system, perhaps his relationship with those fishers was one of exploitation. Such people are not “doers;” they take from doers. That is the essence of the relationship, even when done without malice.

Whatever the details of his life, by being a tax collector, in light of the presence of Jesus, Matthew saw himself out of harmony with his surroundings, his life, his context, those fishermen. When we listen to Jesus, really listen by choosing — actively choosing — to open our hearts, the Church teaches that we are brought from disharmony with our surroundings to harmony; from dissonance to consonance; from blurry to focused; from jumbled up and messy to organized and ordered.

It is useful to recall that earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 4, Jesus told Peter and Andrew, when he called them, that he would make them “fishers of men.” So we can see that Matthew moved from being a collector of money from the activities of fishermen to being a fisher, to being an apostle of the kingdom of heaven, which is true. Whereas from the hard work of others he once collected money, through being in relationship with Jesus, he was thrust directly into intimate relationship with the very people from whom he probably used to be at arm’s length. Jesus brings us closer to people; our sensitivity to people and their lives increases.

Why? Because of grace. Grace makes us more alive. We need the grace, revealed by Jesus, because without Him our lives are out of harmony; in that sense, sinners; less alive hence more dead; or in the Benedictine sense, out of balance.

Jesus balances, Jesus harmonizes, Jesus makes us more alive because of his grace. As it was then, it is now. But this movement of grace is not abstract, intellectual, or magicial. It is incarnational: it happens through activity. But which activity?

If we distill his activities to their fundamental essence, we see a pattern. The grace of Jesus spread through meals together, dining together, communing against the conventions of the day. This is Eucharist.

The grace of Jesus also spread through his adoration of the Father; his perfect prayer. His Father, and through him, our Father. This is the Office.

And what’s more, the grace of Jesus spread though his life lived with people, healing, teaching, listening, leading, breaking open Scripture in new ways. This is Devotion, the ministry of our baptism.

This pattern of three activities — Office, Eucharist, Devotion — are core practices that Jesus calls us to do. He calls us to them because these are his activities, and we are called to follow him, to be His Body left behind to continue His ministry. Following him means we respond to his call to order our lives around Him, and His grace. Just like Saint Matthew.

It is through these activities, as a pattern called regula, that we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. Regula is how Jesus taught us to pray, to worship God. And it is through these activities — codified for Anglicans in our Prayer Book — that we are given, by the grace of God who came to us and continues to come to us, a right view of our state before God which, in the words of the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey, enables true vision instead of a vision clouded with unrealities. A true vision of the truth of our vocation.

Saint Matthew, pray for us.