The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I have to tell you, we have two of my very favorite readings in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  I like them because they both show God interacting with us, his creatures, in powerful ways.  In the first reading, we see the prophet Elijah literally running for his life.  He has just embarrassed, and then put to death, the four hundred or so false prophets of the so-called god Baal – the pagan god worshipped by the gentiles.  Because of this, Jezebel, the wife of king Ahab, vowed to do the same thing to Elijah himself.  So Elijah is fleeing, and complains to the Lord God that everyone in Israel has rejected the Lord, turned to other gods, and have put all the legitimate prophets to death, and that Elijah is the only one left.  So God says that Elijah should stand on the mountain and wait, and soon the Lord would be passing by.

So in Scripture, when it says of the Lord that he would be “passing by,” it means something different than just that the Lord was out for a little walk.  Passing by means that he would be doing “a God thing,” something that God alone could do.  It’s a little like saying that God would be revealing his power to his creatures.  For Elijah, that was intended to be a consolation and a revelation that the Lord God would be with him even though things looked pretty bad.  And it’s interesting how it happens.  Elijah experiences some frightening things: destructive and heavy winds, an earthquake and a blazing fire.  But he did not experience God in any of those things.  He only experienced God in a “tiny whispering sound.”

And I wonder about that, to be honest.  Yes, we can take that as a revelation that we have to quiet ourselves and listen for the voice of God’s presence.  But I want to carefully note that this does not mean that God wasn’t present in those other things.  Because we often find ourselves in the midst of mighty winds, earthquakes, or fire.  Even if not literally, we experience these things all the time in the form of the crises of our lives.  And I want to assure you that God is with you in those moments.  But it may take us stepping back a bit, and listening for the whispering sound, to note that happening.  And I think that’s the direction toward which this reading is pointing us.

Okay, so that brings us to the second of my favorite readings today, and that is the Gospel.  Because I love Saint Peter: He’s always making mistakes, but he is always letting Jesus take what little he can give and turn it into something huge.  This is such a special reading for me because reflecting on it led me to my vocation.

In this reading, Jesus has just fed the multitudes, as you may remember from last week’s Gospel.  After that, he takes some time alone to pray, and during the fourth watch of the night, walks across the water toward the disciples who were on a boat bound for the other side of the sea of Galilee.  In Saint Mark’s version of this reading, it says of Jesus at this point that “He intended to pass them by.”  Does that sound familiar?  Yes, very similar to the first reading, Jesus intends to do a “God thing,” to reveal himself to his disciples this time in a very powerful way.  They think they’re seeing a ghost, but Jesus reassures them that it is he, and Peter immediately asks if he can come out and walk on the water too.  Jesus says, “come.”

So think about that.  You see the Lord walking on the water, and you actually ask if you can get out there and join him.  Who even has the nerve to say something like that to Jesus?  Well, Peter, impetuous as always, he does.  And for a while, he does okay. He’s making progress, walking toward Jesus. But then he stops looking at Jesus and starts looking at the storm, and when he sees the storm what happens?  The story tells us: “But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” So let’s stop right here.  Do you see that? While he’s looking at Jesus, he is able to walk toward him, but as soon as he takes his eyes off Jesus in favor of looking at the storm, he sinks. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asks him, pulling Peter out of the water.

We might be tempted to criticize Peter for his lack of faith.  But I’m in favor of cutting him a little slack.  What I think we have to realize is that he at least had enough faith to get out of the boat.  The other eleven did not.  He got out of the boat because he wanted to be where Jesus was, and Jesus was not in the boat: he was out there on the water.  Was Jesus present for him when the wind and the waves threatened to take his life?  Absolutely.  God is present for us when we are in the middle of the storm.

So I think that’s where these wonderful readings of God’s mighty power take us this week: into the midst of our storms, whatever they may be.  We probably have several we can pick from these days: the implications of a pandemic, our children returning to school (or not), civil and social unrest caused by racial injustice, violence in our cities, and the list goes on.  I heard a news story this week that said the number of people reporting feelings of depression is three times what it was a year ago.  We are weathering a lot of storms right now.  So I pray that today’s Liturgy of the Word would help us to find our Lord in the midst of the wind and the earthquakes and the fire.  I hope that the faith these readings inspire in us will help us to step back in those storms and see our Lord passing by in power and might, and lifting us up out of the waves.

Now let’s try a little prayer experiment.  I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.  And with your eyes closed, I invite you to think about a crisis you’ve been in recently, or even one that’s still going on.  It might be little or big, but whatever it is, bring it to mind.  That crisis is the waves in the story, so try to visualize that.  Now you are Saint Peter.  You’re on the boat, that relatively safe refuge that is leading you to the place that Jesus has in mind for you.  Only on the voyage, your crisis begins a storm that tosses you around so badly that you can’t even see your destination anymore, and you fear for your life.  But you see Jesus out there, on the water, in the distance.

You call out to him and he calls back for you to come to him.  You think about it for a minute, but you realize you have to give it a shot: after all, you want to be where Jesus is, and Jesus is not in the boat.  So you get out of the boat, that safe refuge that gives you some comfort even in the storm, and you start to walk toward Jesus across the stormy sea, with the wind and the waves of your crises swirling around you.  And you do okay for a while, looking at your Lord, but then you wonder if your prayers will ever be answered, or if you should even bother God with your little prayers, or if there is any hope for your situation at all.  You feel the wind pushing at you and notice that the waves of your crisis are a lot uglier than you thought they were.  And you begin to sink into them, despairing that there is no hope for your situation.  At this point, Jesus reaches out his hand to you, pulling you up out of the stormy sea.  The storm is still raging, but with Jesus’ help, you get back into the boat, and the waves calm down, and you continue the journey to the place where Jesus wants you to be, having made just a little bit of progress, confident that he is with you even in the storm.

That’s a prayer exercise that you can come back to.  Whenever you have a crisis, you can pull this out of your prayer toolbox.  Whether we are experiencing wind, waves, earthquakes or fire, we can always be confident that our Lord is with us.  We might still have to go through all those nasty crises, but we can go through them with hope that comes from the presence of our God, who is with us in our darkest times, whispering to us, or calling out to us from the water.

The Transfiguration of the Lord

Today’s readings

When I was in Israel last fall, we were able to visit Mount Tabor, the traditional site of the transfiguration of the Lord, the feast we celebrate today.  We went up several mountains on that pilgrimage, and the thing about being on top of a mountain is that it’s like you can see everything.  And I think that is an important point about this feast, because, in the Transfiguration, the disciples started to see who Jesus really was.  The Transfiguration is the fourth Luminous mystery of the Holy Rosary, the mysteries on which we usually meditate on Thursdays.

Sometimes I think that, because of the limitedness of our minds, we accept a rather small and rather bland view of Jesus.  I think that was true for the disciples too, although they had a good excuse: they didn’t have two thousand years of Church history to guide them!  It’s understandable that they were definitely familiar with the human side of Jesus: over the time they had spent with him thus far, they had become close to him and saw him as a friend, a companion on the journey, and a great teacher, even a miracle worker.  They experienced him in his humanity every day.  But they were always having trouble with his divinity; they often missed his connection with the Father.

Today’s feast changes all of that for them, and for us as well.  If there was any doubt about who Jesus was, it had to be gone now.  That voice from the cloud is absolutely specific: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  Jesus is the Son of God and his divinity must be embraced and proclaimed.  It’s nice, even comfortable, for us to have a picture of Jesus that is absolutely human, but we must always keep in mind the Transfigured Christ, dazzling white, radiating glory, the lamp shining in a dark place.  He is the “one like a Son of man” of whom the prophet Daniel speaks in our first reading today, and to him belongs dominion, glory, and kingship.  If Jesus were only human, we would have no Savior, we would be dead in our sins, and we would have no chance of being caught up in the divine life ourselves, that life for which we were created and intended from the very beginning.

On the way to the mountain, the disciples came to know Jesus in his humanity, and on the way down, they came to know Jesus in his divinity.  Knowledge of both is absolutely necessary because Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  That trip down from the mountain took him to Calvary, and ultimately to the Resurrection, the glory of all glories.  Christ is both human and divine, without any kind of division or separation.  Peter, James, and John got a clear picture of that as Jesus was transfigured on the high mountain.  We too must be ready to see both natures of our Jesus, so that we ourselves can transfigure our world with justice, compassion and mercy, in the divine image of our beautiful Savior.  No matter what challenges may confront us or what obstacles may appear along the way, we must be encouraged to press on with the words of the Psalmist: “The Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth.”

Monday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Give them some food yourselves.”

That’s what Jesus says to the disciples.  Yes, it would be easier to send the people away so they can fend for themselves.  But that’s not how God wants to feed them, and Jesus won’t hear of it.  “Give them some food yourselves.”  That had to be more than a little bewildering for them, because all they have are five loaves and couple of fish, hardly enough for the incredible crowd.  Hardly enough for their own group, to be honest.

But what they don’t know is that that little sacrifice in the hands of Jesus is enough to feed all of them and then some.  How amazed they must have been as the meal is passes around and one by one, every man, woman and child is able to eat.  And it’s not like they just get a little nibble: they all eat and are satisfied!

Think about it.  We are often asked to address an issue we feel unequipped to handle.  We may feel we don’t have the resources, or the experience, or the energy to to even make a dent in the issue.  But we have to remember the loaves and the fishes.  Giving what we have to our Lord, we can then trust in him to make up our lack.

What meager offering will you be called upon to sacrifice today so that others can be fed?  Our little service might not seem like much, but in Jesus’ hands it is more than enough. 

“Give them some food yourselves.”

The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Saint Paul asks a very important question in his letter to the Romans: “What will separate us from the love of Christ?”  Then he lists a number of rhetorical examples of what one might think would do that: anguish, distress, persecution, famine, the sword and many others.  Lest we let that little list run right past us, I want to emphasize that all of these things, when the original Roman church heard them, were equivalent to the end of the world.  Saint Paul was asking – rhetorically of course – if Armageddon could separate us from the love of Christ, and the answer is quite emphatically, “NO!”

And the end of days was on the minds of the early Christians.  They were often persecuted, cast out of the community, and even put to death.  So it’s easy to see why Saint Paul would seek to give them comfort.  But what about us?  Does the message ring truth in our ears?  Well, in these crazy days, how could it not?  The whole aspect of a pandemic, a fast-spreading disease that travels through the whole world which does not have a firm cure or vaccine; well, in ancient days they’d call that a plague, and that too would be a sign of the end of the world in those ancient days.  Add to that social unrest caused by racial injustice, tensions throughout the world, rampant crime in the city of Chicago, and so much more.  There’s plenty for us to worry about and that is to say nothing of our own personal crises.  Illness, death of a loved one, relationship issues, job stress or employment uncertainty.  All of these things take a toll on us, and at times, we have to wonder if these are signs of the end times, or if we have actually been separated from God’s love.

The answer is as it was in Saint Paul’s day, absolutely not.  If we want to see the answer underlined, all we have to do is look at today’s Gospel.  Matthew takes note that when Jesus saw the vast crowds who had been following his every word and hanging on every miracle, he was moved with pity for them.  I’m not a Greek scholar, but I love the word that is translated “pity” here.  That Greek word is splanchnizomai, which is literally a deep-down, guttural reaction of sadness, pain, and even exasperation.  It’s used also in John’s Gospel when Jesus arrives in the town of his friend Lazarus, who has just died, and sees the people’s grief.  In that Gospel, the pity that he has causes him to cry out in anguish, giving voice to the deep feeling of compassion that Jesus had in that moment.  In today’s reading, Jesus is moved with pity because of the people’s hunger: not just their physical hunger, but also the spiritual hunger that has been unmet for so very long.  He felt that deep down to his very essence.

And so he takes five loaves and two fish – practically nothing – and feeds thousands of people, people he created out of practically nothing, but who were everything to him, and he goes about feeding every kind of hunger they have.

We’re going to go through rough stuff in our lives.  The world may seem like it’s crumbling around us.  It sure does right now.  What is the right thing to do in this pandemic for ourselves, our loved ones, and all the people God has put in our paths?  How do we keep people safe and well but still pass on the faith and meet their spiritual and temporal needs?  I struggle with that on a daily basis.  Many of you do too.  How do we keep people safe and yet put an end to racial injustice that has been part of our history for far too long, and needs to be a long-distant bad memory as soon as we can make it happen?  How do we keep on going when one crisis after another comes at us every day?  The answer is that we need to lean more on the splanchnizomai of Christ, to remember that he has pity on us and wants to make us whole.  Because while God may allow the bad things that happen to us as a consequence of the fallenness of our human nature, I think it’s important to note that he never intends us to be unhappy, never wants us to despair of his love.  He might not wave a wand to make all our troubles go away, but he is always going to be with us in good times and bad, giving us grace to get through whatever we have to suffer, growing in his love, and becoming more in the process.

If God had meant anything to separate us from his love, he would have written us off in the Garden of Eden.  But instead, he sent his Only-Begotten Son to walk with us, to feed us beyond anything we could hope for, to pay the price for our many sins, and to give us the invitation to everlasting life.  That’s our God.  And nothing can ever separate us from his love.  Nothing.

Thursday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings present us with two very interesting images.  The first is that of a potter working at the wheel.  When the object turned out badly, the potter re-created the object until it was right.  Jeremiah tells us that just so is Israel, in the hand of the Lord.  Not that God couldn’t get it right the first time.  This prophecy simply recognizes that through our own free will we go wrong all the time, sadly, and Israel’s wrong turns are legendary throughout the Old Testament.  Just as the potter can re-create a bowl or jug that was imperfect, so God can re-create his chosen people when they turn away from him.  God can replace their stony hearts with natural ones, and give them new life with a fresh breath of the Holy Spirit.

The image in the Gospel is a fishing image.  The fisher throws a net into the sea, casting it far and wide, and gathers up all sorts of fish.  Some of the fish are good, and are kept; the others are cast back into the sea.  So will it be at the end of the age.  God will cast the nets far and wide, gathering up all of his children.  Those who have remained true to what God created them to be will be brought into the kingdom; those who have turned away will be cast aside, free to follow their own whims and ideas.  Turning away from God has a price however; following one’s own whims and ideas leads to nothing but the fiery furnace, where there is wailing and grinding of teeth.

The message that comes to us through these images is one of renewal.  We who are God’s creatures, his chosen people, can often turn the wrong way, and we do!  But our God who made us does not will that we would end up in that fiery furnace; he gives us the chance to come back to him, and willingly re-creates us in his love.  Notice that all we have to be is willing; the potter—God—does the work.  We just have to be docile to his re-creating merciful love.  Those who become willing subjects on the potter’s wheel will have the joy of the Kingdom.  Those who turn away will have what they wish, but find it ultimately unsatisfying, ultimately sorrowful, ultimately without reward.

Today we pray that we would all be willing to be re-created on that potter’s wheel.

Tuesday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning, the prophet Jeremiah is urgently reminding the people Israel – and us too! – that every good thing we have, every blessing we receive, all of it comes from the Lord God Almighty.  Israel was trying to find blessing in the strange gods of the peoples around them, forging alliances with foreign people instead of trusting in Almighty God, and then as a result of those alliances, going over to worship their pitiful gods.

We certainly shake our heads just thinking about this.  It’s hard to understand why they would abandon God after he had done everything for them.  But not so fast; we have our own strange gods too, I think, in which we try to find blessing.  Whether it’s possessions or wealth or prestige or career, or whatever else tends to get in the way of our relationship with God, none of these strange gods will ever grant us blessing.  We know this, and yet, just like the Israelites, we abandon God when we want what we want. 

“You alone have done all these things,” Jeremiah observes. Sometimes I think we all need to take a step back and make that same observation. Maybe our prayer today can be an honest inventory of God’s blessings to us, do that we can give him the honest worship due to him alone.

Monday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We’ve had these parables about the Kingdom of Heaven a bunch lately.  At Sunday Mass over the past few weeks, and we’re now working through them at daily Mass.  One thing we can say about them is that they are head-scratchers for sure!  I am sure we can all understand how the people were confused by Jesus’ description of the Kingdom, since it even seems foreign to our ears, even though we’ve heard them so often.  One might wish that he would just say: “Okay, look, here’s what the Kingdom is like,” and stop with all the parables already!

But as often as I read and reflect on these parables, it strikes me that no words would be adequate to express how wonderful is the kingdom.  It’s big, like a mustard tree, and expansive, like rapidly-rising dough.  But whatever we can say about the Kingdom of God, it’s going to be too little.  Our language fails us.  It will never even come close to describing the Kingdom in its fullness.

My guess is, no matter how often we hear these wonderful parables, on that great day when we – please God! – get to the Kingdom of heaven, we will be amazed beyond our wildest dreams.  God’s heavenly Kingdom is something we certainly don’t want to miss.  So let’s not be like those Israelites in the first reading who Jeremiah rightly pointed out never listened to God, or who as the Psalmist points out have even forgotten God.

Because if we remember our God, and listen closely, maybe we’ll hear just a tiny clue of what heaven will be like. That way we’ll recognize it when we get there.

The Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Think about it.  God comes to you in a dream and says that you can have anything you want—just one thing, though.  It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  What would you ask for?  What is that one thing you’d give anything to have?

God already knew what Solomon was going to ask for; he already knew that what Solomon wanted was something that would be good for Solomon to have.  Solomon asks for a wise and understanding heart so that he could more readily lead the people God had called him to lead.  And so God grants his servant’s request: he gives him so wise and understanding a heart that there was never anyone as wise as Solomon, before or since.

Solomon’s answer to God’s question told us what was of most importance to Solomon. In today’s Gospel, we are asked to answer that same question. Jesus speaks, as he has been for a few Sundays now, of what the kingdom of heaven is like. A couple of weeks ago, the kingdom was like seed that was scattered and sown. Some fell on rocks, some among weeds, but some on the good soil that yielded more than anyone had a right to hope for. The kingdom of God is something like that: the more we nurture and cultivate our life with God, the more we benefit ourselves and others. Last Sunday, the kingdom was again like seed, which was carefully planted, but was interrupted by someone planting weeds in among the wheat. The landowner had the harvesters sort it all out at harvest time. The kingdom of God is something like that: the good and the bad will all be sorted out in due time.

Today the kingdom is like buried treasure or the pearl of great price.  The treasure is so great that when it is found, the treasure-hunter sells everything he has to buy the field.  The pearl is so wonderful that the merchant gives everything he has to buy it.  Can you imagine their joy?  What they have found is so wonderful that they give up everything to possess it.  Well, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like that.

But not just like that, right?  Because we know that worldly goods can never hold a candle to the riches of the Kingdom of heaven.  The success in our careers is nice, the nice things we have in our homes give us some pleasure, our accomplishments may even give us some pride.  But all of these pale in the face of the joy of the Kingdom.

And so we have the invitation today.  We don’t have to look, because we have found the great treasure, the pearl of great price.  We have come here today to worship and to receive the Lord in the Eucharist, really present for those here in church, and at least spiritually for those at home.  There is nothing better on the face of the whole earth.  We know where to find that which is ultimately valuable.  But the fact is that we can come and go from this holy place today and still not have what’s truly worthwhile.  Because in order to receive it, we have to give up everything.  We have to sell everything and buy the field in order to have that pearl of great price.

That might mean walking away from a business deal that is profitable but has consequences for the poor or the environment.  Or perhaps it means giving up a relationship that is destructive.  We may have to give up a leisure pursuit that is enjoyable but separates us from family and friends.  We have to make choices, changes and decisions that amount to selling everything in order to make room for something that is of ultimate importance: that pearl of great price which is the Kingdom of heaven itself.

Today’s Liturgy of the Word leaves us with some very important questions.  What is the pearl of great price for us?  What is the thing for which we would give up everything else?  How important is it for us to enter the Kingdom of heaven?  What is it that we must give up in order to get there?  Our prayer today is that we would be strengthened by the Word of God and nourished by the Eucharist so that we would have the courage to sell everything for the Kingdom of heaven, that pearl of ultimately great price.

Saint James, Apostle

Today’s readings

“Can you drink the chalice of which I am going to drink?”

What does that even mean for us?  We know what Jesus’ chalice was like: it led him through sorrow, and abandonment, and ultimately to the cross.  If we have ever been in a situation in which we have felt intense grief, or felt abandoned, or had to stand by and watch the death of one that we loved, well then, we know a little bit of what that chalice is going to taste like.

Being a disciple is messy business.  It means that it’s not all the glory, butterflies, and dancing.  It means that our faith sometimes has to move from the mountaintop experiences down into the valleys of despair.  It means that there are times when we will be in situations that are frustrating, infuriating, debilitating, grievous and horrible.  We will have to drink a very bitter chalice indeed.  And Jesus wasn’t just talking to John and James when he said “My chalice you will indeed drink.”  That’s the cup reserved for all of us who would be his disciples.

Very clearly those words of Saint Paul in our first reading today ring true for us:
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
For we who live are constantly being given up to death
for the sake of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

What is unspoken here but clearly implied is the grace.  Those who abandon their lives to take up the cross, wherever that leads them, will always have at their disposal the grace to live a life that is joyful in the face of affliction, confident in the midst of uncertainty, whole in the midst of destruction.  There is nothing that the world or its evils can throw at us that cannot be ultimately overcome by the grace of God, because God has already conquered the world.  We will still have to live through sadness at times, but that sadness can never conquer and must never overtake the joy we have in Christ.

Like Saint James and his brother John, we are all called to drink from the chalice that Jesus drank. That means that we will always bear the dying of Jesus in our own bodies. We can’t explain why bad things happen to good people, but we can explain how good people handle bad situations well: they handle it well because they know Christ and live in Christ every day of their lives. Sometimes the chalice we will have to drink will be unpleasant, distasteful and full of sorrow. But with God’s grace, our drinking of those cups can be a sacrament of the presence of God in the world.

Everyone who is great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first among us must be the slave of all. Saint James learned how to do that and still thrive in his mission. May we all be that same kind of sacrament for the world.

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