Scripture Readings, June 16, 2024

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ezekiel 17:22-24

2 Corinthians 5:6-10

Mark 4:26 – 34

I found myself singing to the children of a young single mother. Maria had recently moved into a small Polish flat in Milwaukee. She was thrilled with her new space because for once her kids had bedrooms. She was satisfied sleeping on a mattress on the floor, her only piece of furniture. The song came out of the depth of my soul, a remnant from raising my own children: “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” a standard piece sung in vacation bible schools across the ecumenical landscape, nestled in my memory and now being sung to two little children, so poor, so without anything much to sing about. Yet, the 7-year-old little girl, who could not speak, began to dance to the song, and the 4-year-old little boy lit up like a firefly in the night. I sang it loud and clear, as my husband and I finished a St. Vincent de Paul visit.

How could I sing about the love of Jesus for this family whose front door was bolted by huge boxes for fear the children would escape and end up in the busy road just outside? They stared out the front windows like two little black silhouettes against the brilliant morning.

How could I sing? Because love walked into their home that day with vouchers for furniture, appliances, food and clothing. I had my own thoughts about the matter. When I was a child and my father became ill, it was the St. Vincent de Paul visit that saved us many times. “Here,” the man would say to my mother, rocking my newborn sister, “give us your electric and gas bill, and St. Vincent de Paul will cover it.” It was a seed of kindness that brought me years later to the home of Elayna and Javier to bring them the same compassion. I always cry when I leave the faces of poverty, but before I did leave, the little girl looked up at me with her lips puckered for a kiss, which I left on her cheek.

It is the seed planted in our childhood that bears fruit in our future. The Rosaries our parents prayed, the little devotionals that found their way to our bedrooms for nighttime prayer, memorizing the answers to our faith questions: “Who are you? Why did God make you?” Even now, the answers can well up within us like earth waters.

Is this what the Kingdom of Heaven is like? Leaving a home so barren by poverty with a modicum of hope? Is this the seed that grows quietly over time to create abundant fruit? Will it continue, and will children be the fertile ground for faith to grow in the future? Does the Lord really bring low the high tree and lift high the lowly tree, and make the withered tree bloom? I saw this young mother’s brown eyes grow big with surprise. “You came so soon! I just submitted my request!” Knowing she would have a stove to cook on and a refrigerator to keep her children’s milk, the tree bloomed.

I was grateful for St. Vincent de Paul, who had a vision centuries ago that the goodness of parishes that support the poor would bring dance to a child and hope to a mother. Moments like this cause my heart to swell with gratitude for the Catholic faith, which has held me like a mother so many decades.

But this is not the experience of many today. In March, the Public Religion Research Institute published a report examining the religious landslide among churches in the United States. The statistics are staggering, with 26 percent of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated (a 10-point increase since 2016) and more than one fifth of people who left their religion identified as former Catholics. And of those former Catholics, only four in 10 describe themselves as “spiritual.” On the negative side, it seems like Americans think religion has nothing to offer them.

But I digress. I believe that today it takes courage to stay within the context of a religious community. It would be easy to be pulled down by the negative statistics leaving us to scratch our heads and wonder if religion is dying in America. But it is not. One theologian recently said just the opposite. It is not dying, but rather it is experiencing an ascension.

Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to cling to him when she found him outside the tomb. Because if she clung to him, he would not be able to be for her in a new way, a way that would urge her to grow. And growth takes courage, like the small mustard seed tenaciously responding to the earth, water and sun over time becoming a bush and a nest for the birds.

Leaving the home of our new neighbors that spring morning, I was so happy the Church was ascending into a new dimension of love. In that humble home, the seed had become a bush, and the birds found a nesting place there. Barefooted and eager, a boy and a girl who could not speak, and their wide-eyed mother, gave witness that the lowly tree could indeed be raised high.