Sunday, June 17, 2018

Arbor Day? Father's Day!

   Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 
Trees seem to be on God’s mind this Father’s Day…and so they’re on my mind, too.

Trees play an important role in many passages from the scriptures.  Just last Sunday, we were reminded of the repercussions from Adam and Eve’s snack stolen from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which sent them next to the fig tree to make themselves some clothes.  

Without a doubt, the most celebrated of trees in the Bible are the famed cedars of Lebanon. In the responsorial psalm this morning, we were told that the just man grows like one of these.  There are not too many cedars of Lebanon left these days, but once upon a time these mighty trees grew in thick forests on the snowy mountain slopes there—some of them living for more than 1,000 years. Their wood was highly prized, such that King Solomon harvested their timber to build the temple in Jerusalem.

We have our own majestic trees much closer to home.  Did you know that the tallest tree in all of New York State stands just 30 miles south of here, not too far outside of Paul Smiths?  There you’ll find an old growth grove of white pines, which have somehow been spared logging and storms for centuries.  They’re believed to be nearly 350 years old.  5 of them are taller than the Statue of Liberty.  The tallest is over 160 feet tall, and more than 13 feet around.  (Those measurements are from 2012, so it’s likely even a bit bigger now.)

These trees are massive!  But consider how they started out.  Have you ever seen a white pine seedling?  It’s a rather puny thing.  (Think Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree…only more pathetic.)  It’s a stick with a few needles—that’s it! So tiny, so vulnerable, so seemingly insignificant.

God’s not only thinking about trees this Sunday; he’s also thinking of the birds in their branches. Our readings speak of how the birds of the air dwell in their shade.  Trees offer them shelter; trees protect them.  And trees also bear fruit—seeds and cones, nuts and berries—providing birds with food; trees nurture them.   Now, birds aren’t meant to stay in trees; the sky is their true home.  But the shelter and sustenance birds get from trees makes it possible for them to do what they were created to do: to fly high, to soar.

Ezekiel uses a cedar to prophesy about Israel: that out of this tiny nation would one day come a mighty king—a savior, the Messiah.  And Jesus points to the largest of plants that springs up from the smallest of seeds to teach us about the Kingdom of God: that from a few ragtag followers would come a great community of believers—the Church.

But in addition to these original meanings, I think the trees have a particular message for us on this Father’s Day.  You see, what trees provide for the birds is pretty much a dad’s job description: to project and to nurture his children.  And he does so with one goal in mind: so that these kids can soar!

It’s clear enough how to do this for children’s bodies: they need shelter and they need food. (And if there are teenagers in the house, they need lots of food!)

But what we do for their bodies, we must also do for their souls.

Many commentators today are saying that, here in the U.S., we have a Catholic Man Crisis.  

In 1965, 55% of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday; now, it’s only 23%.  50 years later, we have 30 million more Catholics on the books, but there are actually 8 million fewer Catholics sitting in the pews. 

It’s not been an equal exodus of the sexes.  Just look around!  Conservative estimates are that among regular Mass-goers, 60% are women, 40% are men.  We see the same thing in the rest of church life, as well.  Experts say that when it comes to roles in the Catholic Church that do not require ordination, 85% are filled by women.  The Catholic Church has the reputation of being a patriarchal and male-dominated institution…but the facts on the ground are a good bit different from the perception.

Among the men who are here in church, studies show that they’re rather disengaged.  83% say they rarely or never take part in any parish activity outside of Mass.  Less then half of these men say they pray at any other time.  And 55% say they get nothing out of Mass.

The Catholic Man Crisis quickly becomes a Catholic Fatherhood Crisis.

When children—especially sons—see dad bored, disengaged, late for Mass, leaving early, dozing off, skipping it completely, checking the score on his phone during the homily, checking out the ladies on the way to Holy Communion, checking out from Mass all together, it sends a message: Maybe this Catholic thing isn’t real.  At the very least, it’s not very manly.  I guess that, if I want to learn how to be a man, I’ll have to look somewhere else.

And when these same children notice that what they hear from the pulpit doesn’t match up with the way dad speaks and acts the rest of the week, it teaches them:  There’s no real connection between faith and life.  It’s OK to just go through the motions. (It must just be something we do to keep mom happy.)

These are not simply my own observations.  The Swiss did a rather revealing study a few years back.  It showed that when mom is regular about going to church but dad is not, then only 2% of their kids (just 1 in 50) will remain faithful to the religion in which they were raised.  But when it’s dad who goes regularly to church but mom does not, that number jumps to 44% of their kids remaining in the faith.  (Oddly and interestingly, that rate for dads is even higher than when both mom and dad are regular churchgoers.  But moms: that doesn’t mean I want you to stay home!)

All this is to say—Dads, your faith may sometimes feel like a white pine seedling: kind of puny compared to the task at hand, easily overlooked, knocked over, or snapped right off.  But what God sees is not something puny at all; what God sees is something full of potential. Yes, God can make your faith grow—make it strong and fruitful—but only if you let him.  Do that, and you’ll be able to fulfill the noble vocation the Lord has given you: to protect and nurture those souls that God allowed you to bring into this world—souls he created because he hopes to see them soar…all the way to heaven.

So let God our Father be a true father to you.  Let him shelter you.  Let him nurture you.  Let him teach you how to walk by faith, not sight.  After all, you can’t give what you ain’t got.  But God can turn that right around—in fact, God’s the undisputed master when it comes to starting small but reaching high.

I issue this Father’s Day call to “man up” as your spiritual father.  “Father” is more than just a formal title for me as your parish priest; it’s my job description, too: to protect and to nurture the church family entrusted to my care.  If I don’t call and challenge you to grow—well, the ripples effects…we’re already seeing them.

How I long to see this parish become a grove of old growth Catholics—the most magnificent around—strong and fruitful in a way that puts the white pines of Paul Smiths to shame! But I myself can only do so much. As every wise farmer and forester knows: the real secret of growth is hidden away, underground.  It must all begin in the soil of our hearts.

Just men shall flourish and grow like the cedars of Lebanon.  Thus the Lord has spoken.  Let us strive to make it so.

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