Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: God’s abundant care for us.

We are taking a bit of an excursus or diversion here for the next few Sundays. You may know that throughout this Church year, we have been reading from the Gospel of Mark. Well, for the next several Sundays (with the exception of next Sunday because it is a special feast), we are reading from the Gospel of John. We are reading a very important part of John's Gospel at that: it is the sixth chapter, known as the Bread of Life Discourse. In this chapter, John shows us how Jesus is Eucharist for us. Today we begin with a familiar story: the feeding of the multitudes.

Someone once explained this miracle to me by saying that it happened because people were moved by Jesus' preaching and works among them, so in response, they took food they had with them and shared them with one another. As the food was passed around and the remnants were gathered up, it turned out they had enough to feed everyone after all – and then some. This wonderful story, they told me, showed the power of sharing in response to the work of God in our lives.

That's a lovely explanation, isn't it? Too bad it's garbage.

Yes, garbage. It's garbage for a few reasons. First, if that's the way it happened, why didn't the evangelists record it that way? This miracle has the distinction of being recorded in all four Gospels. One would think that if this had been a miracle about sharing, one of them would have reported it as such. But they didn't. Maybe you're thinking that the Gospel authors wouldn't have reported it that way because it would be embarrassing to Jesus. But that doesn't work either, because they reported embarrassing things about Jesus all the time. Just a few weeks ago, we read how Jesus could not accomplish any miracle in his home town. That was sure embarrassing. So I'm thinking that if the miracle turned out to be a case of wonderful sharing, that's how the story would have been told.

Another reason this explanation doesn't work is that it misses the point entirely. The sharing explanation seems to take the power out of Jesus' hands and put it in the hands of the crowd. We like that kind of explanation in our culture, because we want it to be about us. We want to feel in control, to feel that we have the power to fix our problems and handle our own lives. But the truth is that we are not in control: all we have are five barley loaves and two fish, and that seems woefully inadequate to address the incredible needs we and our contemporaries have every day. The whole point of this story is that we can't address all our hungers, but Jesus absolutely can do so, and because of that the story of sharing does not make much sense at all.

The real explanation here is that Jesus took five barley loaves and two fish, and passed them around, and they became enough to feed thousands. We believe in miracles, brothers and sisters in Christ, and a miracle is exactly what we believe happened here. And it wasn't a miracle of human making, it was a miracle of Jesus' power at work in the world which addressed a need that Jesus noticed, made up for human inadequacies, and fed the crowd more wonderfully than they could ever have imagined.

First of all, Jesus notices a need. He sees that the people are coming to him, clamoring after his healing miracles and the words he has been preaching. They recognize he is someone special, someone they want to hear more of, and they follow him without any thought for their own comfort. And so Jesus notices that they are hungry. Now let's just stop for a minute and acknowledge that there are probably two kinds of hunger going on here: certainly physical hunger, since they have not eaten, but also a spiritual hunger. A hunger for eternal life that will only ever be fulfilled in God himself. Jesus here intends to feed them in both ways.

Second, Jesus makes up for our inadequacies. Having seen the need, he asks Philip to arrange to feed them. Philip falls for it, hook, line and sinker. "Two hundred days' wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little." Philip says there is no way they could take care of the physical hunger of the crowd, and with his response, betrays that he is also quite unprepared to take care of their spiritual hunger. But Jesus takes them where they are at. Andrew offers the five loaves and two fish that come from one of the boys in the crowd. That's all they can find. We should note that barley loaves are particularly inadequate since they were considered the bread of the poor. But even with that little, poor bread, Jesus feeds the great crowd. So little food is obviously inadequate for the hunger of so many, but Jesus uses it and makes up for the lack, feeding the people and satisfying their every hunger.

Third, Jesus feeds the crowd more wonderfully than they could have ever imagined. John's Gospel is filled with images of superabundance: huge jugs of water made into incredible wine at Cana, and now five loaves and two fish that feed a large crowd, and provide twelve wicker baskets of leftovers. Jesus takes care of every need with overwhelming power. He does not just provide a little afternoon snack; he provides a glorious meal, feeding crowds of people with bounty and grace. Indeed this is a miracle of Jesus our God taking notice of our needs, filling up our lack, and feeding us with superabundance. This is no simple sharing ritual, but a gracious act of God in our world to make his presence and care for his people known.

What is important here is that we need to know that this kind of thing goes on all the time, even in our own day. Jesus always notices the needs and hungers of his people. Perhaps you have seen a need in your community, maybe a family who is in need, or a whole segment of the population not served in some way. You need to know that you noticed that because of the spirit of Jesus working in you. It's very easy to go through life noticing nothing and no one, but that doesn't happen in disciples. Disciples are the ears and eyes of Jesus, and he notices the needs of his people through us every day. Now, having noticed a need, we may very well feel inadequate to fill it. What good is our few hours of time or few dollars going to do for such a huge need? How can our imperfect talents make up for such a need? Here we have to trust that Jesus will do with our imperfect offerings as he did with the five loaves and two fish. Jesus makes up for our lack, and we can take comfort in that. If we are faithful to respond to the need with what we have, we can be sure that Jesus will use what we have to feed our hungry world with superabundance.

We can do that because Jesus feeds us all the time. Every time we come to the Table of the Lord, we are given a little bit of bread and a sip of wine that has become the Body and Blood of Christ our Savior. At every Eucharist, we are fed more wonderfully and superabundantly than even the crowd in today's Gospel. We are fed with food that will never pass away or perish, we are fed with the Bread of Eternal life. Since we disciples have that gift at our disposal, we would do well to bring ourselves to it as often as we can, and as well-disposed for it as we can. We must make it our constant care to attend Mass every week, and even during the week if we can, and to use the Sacrament of Penance to prepare ourselves to receive the grace of the Eucharist. Disciples who regularly and faithfully feed themselves with the Bread of Life will find it natural to offer their meager gifts to feed great hungers in our world, hungers that our God longs to fill.

And so we gratefully come to the Eucharist today, to take part in a meal even more wonderful than the feeding of the multitudes, and partake of a bread far more nourishing than barley loaves. We come to the Eucharist today to have all of our hungers fed, and to take baskets of leftovers to feed those who hunger in and around us this week. We pray for the grace to notice the needs of others and
the grace to offer what we have to serve the poor, trusting in God to make up for what we lack. We pray the words of the psalmist with trust and gratitude: "The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs."

St. Martha

Today's readings | Saint of the Day

Along with her sister Mary, and brother Lazarus, St. Martha was a personal friend of Jesus.  He seems to have come to their house by invitation, not to affect a conversion or anything like that, but just to share some time and a meal.  And you know the rest of that story, right?  Mary sits at Jesus’ feet while Martha makes all the preparations in the kitchen.  Martha quite rightly (in my opinion!) demands that all should lend a hand in the preparation of one’s house for guests.  Jesus’ response there is that “Mary has chosen the better part:” this reminds us that everything isn’t always up to us.  We are called to do our part and rest in God’s loving care for us.

But today’s Gospel reading is really the great story of Martha’s saintliness.  She says three very faith-filled things in and around this passage.  The first is that she runs out to greet Jesus and proclaims a small part of her faith: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”  Here her faith is not quite perfect.  She is confused that Jesus was detained and her brother died.  But there is that aspect of trusting faith that knows that Jesus has power to do whatever he wills.  The second great thing she says here comes right at the end of the story we hear today.  In this, she proclaims a more perfect faith: “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”  In this great profession of faith, Martha is just as bold and courageous as St. Peter who proclaims the same kind of faith when Jesus asks him “who do you say that I am?” 

The final great thing that Martha does comes right after the story we read today.  Having professed her faith in Jesus, Martha now returns to her sister and calls her to come to Jesus: “The teacher is here and is asking for you.”  Those who profess their faith in Jesus cannot possibly keep it to themselves.  And Martha does not.  She goes to retrieve her sister, who once sat at the Lord’s feet, but now for some reason chose to remain at home.  Perhaps Mary was hurt that Jesus had not come right away.  Whatever the case, Martha’s faith does not leave her sister in the dark.  Like Martha, we who believe in Jesus must tell everyone who needs to hear it that the Teacher is asking for them.

Thursday of the 16th Week of Ordinary Time: Blessed are Your Eyes and Ears

Today's readings 

If your spiritual life is anything like mine, it often seems like God still speaks in parables. We often wonder what is the right direction to go in a given situation. We ponder why bad things happen to good people. We puzzle over the meaning of natural disasters, civil unrest, wars and terrorism. We often search for the meaning of life, only to be frustrated in our attempts time and time again. Just as the disciples asked Jesus why he spoke to the crowds in parables, so we too might ask why God seems to speak in so many incomprehensible ways every day.

I wish I could give you an answer for all that. All I can say is that traditional spiritual wisdom tells us that we do not have the ability to see the events of our lives in the context of the “big picture” that God is part of by his very essence. What we know about life, our world, and the events that surround us is so miniscule compared with the knowledge of everything and everyone and every time that is the mind of God. The answers to all these puzzling things will not be ours this side of the Kingdom of God. All that we can really hope for is that when we come to the Beatific Vision in heaven, we too will be able to understand things with the mind of God himself.

Having said that, there are things that we can know because we are people of faith. We know that God is at work in our world because our faith reveals miraculous events all the time. The sick are healed, good things happen, areas destroyed by natural disaster or civil unrest are rebuilt, lives of the faithful are lived with beauty and grace; all of this because we have faith. Those without faith would never see these things, or if they did would not think much of them or see them as the beautiful hand of God at work in our crazy world. Things happen all the time for which we cry out “thank God!” and we know that we are blessed to see them. Because of our faith, we can make sense of some of the incomprehensible events of our world. And we know that Jesus is speaking to us, too, when he tells the disciples:

“Blessed are your eyes, because they see,
and your ears, because they hear.
Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people
longed to see what you see but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

This verse has special meaning for me. Last summer, when I was doing my hospital chaplaincy, my group would often puzzle about all the horrible things we had seen and been part of. But when one of my fellow students brought in this very Gospel reading for reflection one morning, we realized all the really wonderful things we had heard and seen in the midst of the pain and sorrow we had experienced with our patients. As we come to the Eucharist today, then, maybe we can all thank God for the good things he has revealed to us through faith.

Cardinal George to Undergo Surgery for Bladder Cancer

Cardinal George to Undergo Surgery for Bladder Cancer

"I ask my fellow priests, the religious, all Catholics in the Archdiocese and other friends and colleagues to pray for me. I trust that the Lord will give me the strength and grace I need during these next days and weeks."

In some ways, this seems like a deja-vu experience. First Cardinal Bernardin, now Cardinal George. And most especially it is a deja-vu in perhaps the most important sense: both exhibit a trust in God regarding their disease that is hardly surprising. A friend of mine once said to me, "pray while you are well, because you cannot pray when you are sick." I'm not sure I agree with that totally, but it kind of makes sense. If you don't pray when you're well, praying when you're sick won't do any good: you won't have the context for faith that is required. Both Cardinal Bernardin, and now Cardinal George, have exhibited that faith that comes from their daily walk with Christ.

St. Peregrine, pray for Cardinal George, and for all who suffer from cancer.

Ss. Joachim and Ann

Saint of the Day

Joachim and Ann—whether these are their real names or not—represent that entire quiet series of generations who faithfully perform their duties, practice their faith and establish an atmosphere for the coming of the Messiah, but remain obscure.

 

This feast of Joachim and Ann helps me to remember with great fondness my own grandparents, now gone home to the Father.  They were a big part of passing on the faith to me, and I am so grateful for that.  Ss. Joachim and Ann, grandparents of Jesus, pray for us.

The Feast of St. James: We are called to be sacrament for the world

Today's readings

"Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?"

Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a family friend. He was just 37 years old, had six children; two of them with special needs. It was probably one of the longest funerals I had ever been to, and certainly one of the most memorable. Rob was a police officer, and there were probably 150 or so officers in attendance from his department and several other departments throughout the suburbs. But that was nothing compared to three times that many sitting in the body of the church. Rob had been a part of the church, active in youth ministry when he was in high school, and was in my parents' religious education class in his freshman year. He was involved in several community projects, as well as the Special Olympics. He was a very giving and loving young man, and he will be missed.

One of my memories of him was just last year at this time, when I was working as a hospital chaplain at Good Samaritan in Downers Grove. One Sunday morning, we had a terrible accidental death that came in, and the family members were feuding about it, accusing one another of causing the death. I had been running back and forth between the two groups, and finally I was told the detective was here, and the family was with him. I went in to check on them, and noticed that the detective was Rob, who had the family calmed down – much more than their chaplain had been able to do – and the situation was finally under control for the moment. He had the ability to do that, and many will miss that about him.

Rob found out six months ago that he had stage four cancer and would not have long to live. I am told he lived his last months with great beauty, continuing to love his family and respect those who cared for him. I think Rob knew what St. Paul said to the Corinthians in today's first reading:

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.

stjamesapostle

Like St. James and his brother John, we are all called to drink from the chalice which 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 our slave. Rob knew how to do that and be joyful in it. May we all be that same kind of sacrament for the world.

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: My Shepherd is the Lord

Today’s readings

I don’t know how you feel about being compared to sheep without a shepherd, but I have to tell you, I’m not all that flattered by it! Yet there’s some painful truth to that statement, and some rather beautiful truth as well. Because we do need leaders, those who will walk before us to show us the right way in the world, and even the right way to the world yet to come. I don’t think the problem is a lack of shepherds. There are many voices out there from which to choose. The problem is, which voices are trustworthy? Who do we listen to; who do we follow?

Many people prefer to listen to nobody. They want to do their own thing, make their own way, to be independent, free spirits. Our American culture tends to herald those folks and applaud their pioneer spirit. But the problem with that philosophy is that it only goes so far. At some point the freest spirits out there need to look at other free spirits and independent thinkers so that they can fashion their way of life. Nobody has ever made their way through life before, and the only way any of us can do it is to look to someone else. So even the most independent of us has to get his or her ideas from someone else. While they may prefer to listen to nobody, they do in fact listen to somebody, and then we’re back at the question we started with: who do we listen to?

Jeremiah prophesies woe to the false prophets:

You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them,
but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock…

Jeremiah’s problem is with the leaders of the people, the monarchy. Not only have they neglected the people of God – the people they were supposedly chosen to serve – but they have also misled them, causing them to be scattered into Exile. Since they could not be counted on to lead people to God, then God himself would be the one to remedy the situation. God would punish these leaders, and gather up his lost children under the leadership of the one true shepherd.

Would that the false prophets had disappeared after Jeremiah’s prophecy. Unfortunately, I think, we still have plenty around today, and we have to take care to discern them in our midst. So many will flock to the latest self-help book or program, or will model their life and philosophy after the likes of Oprah, Dr. Phil or – God help us – Martha Stewart. And as interesting as they may be, we must be very careful not to swallow their philosophies whole and entire. Because their concern is not that you would have eternal life; their concern is that you would watch their shows and buy from their advertisers. I’m not trying to tell you not to watch their television shows … well, that’s not entirely true, maybe I am. What I do want you to hear though is that these folks are not the true shepherds that Jeremiah foretells. If you want a voice to lead you in life, you’re going to have to look somewhere else.

Thankfully, God has made good on his promise to send a true shepherd, and that would be Jesus Christ. This Jesus who sent his apostles out on mission in last week’s Gospel, now gathers them together and invites them to take time away. But, as so often happens in Mark’s Gospel, this time away is interrupted by pastoral need. Before they ever reach the deserted, out-of-the-way place Jesus called them to, the people are there looking for them. Maybe they were the recipients of the Apostles’ ministry as they were sent out two-by-two last week. Or maybe they have just heard the amazing news about the things Jesus did – or maybe a little of both. Whatever the case, they came hungering for more, and Jesus takes pity on them.

This word “pity” has many negative connotations in our culture. Pity reeks of insincerity or superiority or condescension, and when we hear that word or use it, I think we kind of recoil a bit. But that’s not what is happening here when Jesus pities the crowds. The Greek word that we translate “pity” here is splanchnizomai. Now I’m not a Greek scholar, so there are two reasons I bring this up. First is that I like to say splanchnizomai – it’s kind of fun, and I know you’ll all be using it at your next cocktail party. But my second – and more serious – reason is that splanchnizomai is an example of onomatopoeia: it sounds like what it is. It has kind of a deep, guttural sound, and that’s kind of what it means. Splanchnizomai is a kind of pity that causes a reaction deep inside; it’s a strong concern that cannot help but translate into action. It’s a kind of pity that has none of the superiority, insincerity or condescension we hear in our word; it’s a pity that evolves into care and blessing. It’s such a strong term that Mark only uses it in his Gospel to refer to Jesus, or coming from the mouth of Jesus.

This reaction of care and blessing answers the question of who exactly is the true shepherd. We cannot possibly miss it from today’s Scripture readings. If the monarchy of Jeremiah’s time had abandoned and misled the people, then Jesus in his time was all about bringing people back together and leading them to the Father. In another place, Jesus says that he is the way, the truth and the life, and the only way to the Father. He is the shepherd that the people have been longing for, all the way back to Jeremiah’s day and before.

Back in our own day, we have to come to see Jesus as our true shepherd also. We too, are like sheep without a shepherd at times. We have all sorts of trials in our lives. We struggle with finding the right spouse for marriage. We debate the best ways to raise our children. We agonize over the best neighborhoods in which to live and the choice of a school in which to educate our children. We struggle with the illness or death of those we love. We have problems at work, or lose a job. Life can often be uncertain at best, and we need direction to follow the right way. The good news is that Jesus has splanchnizomai for us too. He longs to gather us up, to teach us “many things,” and to lead us home to the Father. That’s the way it was always supposed to work in the first place.

The problem is that we are not exactly like sheep, are we? We have our own wills and we tend often to ignore the voice that’s leading us in the right direction. It’s long past time that we all followed Jesus to a deserted, out-of-the-way place and put our complete trust in his love and guidance. We might not be able to take a week-long retreat or find a desert in which to come to Jesus. But we can come here to Church, maybe more than just on Saturday or Sunday. We have available the great gift of daily Mass, and a church building that is open early in the morning until late in the evening. We have the Sacrament of Reconciliation to help us to come back to Jesus and to receive the Church’s direction in our troubles. We have the Blessed Sacrament in our Tabernacle in the Chapel where we can pray and actually be in the physical presence of our Lord. Brothers and sisters in Christ, this parish church is our out-of-the-way place. This is the place where we can steal away even for just a few minutes in our hectic day and be one with the Lord. And even if we cannot come to church on a given day, maybe we can find the space in our homes to close the door and be alone with Jesus for a few minutes.

The important piece is that Jesus is our true shepherd. He is the only voice that has the splanchnizomai to lead us in the right direction, which is home to the Father. We must hear this and turn to Christ our shepherd with the words of the psalmist today: “My shepherd is the Lord; nothing indeed shall I want.”