“I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother.” Hard words from today’s Gospel (Mt 10:34-11:1). But, I’m going to warn you in advance–just to temper your expectations–today’s blog post isn’t really about this message in Matthew. And it certainly won’t explain it. But is is about witness. And memory. And the mystery of the Kingdom of God.
So here’s how the story begins, every year when I hear today’s distinctively hard and confusing Gospel, I’m transported back to when I heard a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain named Fr. Paul deliver a homily on this text at a daily Mass at Camp Victory, just outside of the city of Baghdad, Iraq.
For two months I lived on Camp Victory and had the blessing of frequently attending daily Mass with a handful of other U.S. troops–setting up aluminum chairs and then quickly hurrying back to our duties. I can’t remember Fr. Paul’s last name, or even his rank. I do remember his voice, his Iowan accent that sounded exactly like the M*A*S*H* character Radar O’Reilly. Fr. Paul was incredibly pastoral–one weekday in August that year, during the prayers of the faithful, I prayed for my parents on their anniversary. Afterwards he asked me, “would you like me to send a holy card to your parents? I’ve got some in my backpack and I included them as an intention of this Mass.” I’m sure he knew that as a deployed young adult, I’d probably forgotten to send them a card and would be hard pressed to find the time or available phone that day to give them a call [he was right].
For today’s Gospel reading, however, Fr. Paul didn’t prepare a typical homily. Instead he told us, somewhat haltingly, of a conversation he’d had weeks prior with an Iraqi Christian man on the base. Fr. Paul was visiting him to minister to him and they started talking about this Gospel passage. The man explained with passion how this Gospel message spoke to him. Jesus was speaking of his experiences–of having his faith in Jesus the Messiah and conversion to Christianity be a divide in his family and those around him. There was probably more to the story that Fr. Paul didn’t share with us–as I can still remember how he seemed ever so slightly choked up. He was humbled by the man’s witness and the mystery of how the Kingdom of God comes to be planted and nourished in each of us, nourished in ways beyond our human comprehension.
As I mentioned earlier, I only stayed at Camp Victory for two months. I probably didn’t visibly grow much in my faith under Fr. Paul’s pastoral care. I still don’t remember his last name. During combat deployment, troops move around a lot–and so the next time I was around Camp Victory for a visit (months later) I stopped by the chapel, and Fr. Paul had redeployed back to the U.S. But, I remember his witness–just as he remembered the witness of the Iraqi Christian he discussed today’s Gospel with.
Catholic chaplains are among the most underrepresented chaplains in the U.S. military in proportion to the religious identification of troops. As the Archdiocese for the Military Services explains, “Chaplains often speak about the exciting, creative nature of their ministry. They seek ways to reach out and connect with the different people they serve on a personal level, an opportunity they note is hard to come by in a civilian parish.” But here’s the flip-side, with the short contact many chaplains have with troops, they very often don’t get to see the seed of the Word of God grow within those they care for. They may plant, tend, and/or water the seed of the Word, but do not always have the opportunity to glimpse the fruits that emerge after many seasons or years.
While military chaplains illustrate this in a particularly vivid way, isn’t it really the same for all of us as evangelists?
We can and should take concrete actions to create an environment of trust and experience of God’s love, so that we can preach the message of salvation. We can and should cultivate conditions for the un-evangelized to then respond to the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. We can and should offer the ongoing catechesis and formation in and through sacraments. We can and should form ourselves and others to continue this cycle of evangelization.
But, we rarely directly experience seeing the mystery of the Kingdom of God, the mystery of the Word implanted in a heart, unfold in one person through every stage of evangelization. As Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth” (1 Cor 3:6). We are “God’s co-workers”–every person we meet is “God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:8-9). We may not see the the fruit of every seed we plant, or every small tree we water.
I remember the witness of Fr. Paul. I remember the witness of the Iraqi Christian man he spoke to. The seed of the Word of God was nourished in me, through them. They are both God’s co-workers–even though neither will likely ever know (this side of eternity) what fruits in my life either contributed to.
Be then an evangelizing, co-worker of God! Whether tilling soil, planting seeds, watering or harvesting–what you do matters, even if you do not see the fruits.
This essay originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com.