Monday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There are so many places I could go with today’s first reading: it give us so many opportunities to look at leadership and the spiritual life. But I think what leapt out at me today is that Moses asks Aaron the exact right question: “What did this people ever do to you that you should lead them into so great a sin?” My moral theology professor in seminary, a crusty old Jesuit that never minced any words, told us that leading a person into sin is the worst thing one could do to that person. It would be better, he used to tell us, to murder them in cold blood. Now, I’m not sure I’d tell you to make that choice, but he has a point. Leading another person into sin is an act that erodes that person’s conscience, it takes them out of relationship with God and the Church. God forbid that any of us would ever lead another person into sin.

I was thinking of this yesterday before I even knew what were today’s readings. Fr. Ted and I were talking on Saturday night about the new Planned Parenthood abortion clinic near Fox Valley Mall. He told me that Planned Parenthood didn’t even tell their contractors how the building would be used, because they knew some contractors would have objected and not worked on the building. Planned Parenthood led those people into sin, just as they lead so many into sin by counseling for abortion. Now, the fact that those contractors didn’t know what the building was used for mitigates their sin, but Planned Parenthood still bears the responsibility for doing that, because leading those people into sin was clearly their intent.

To all of this, Jesus tells us that we must be the mustard seed and the leaven that brings forth the Kingdom of heaven. Even in the face of so much evil and malicious intent, just a small act of faith on our part can lead people to the Kingdom, which is our role as disciples. Saying a prayer for anyone going to the clinic might soften hearts and lead to life. A small donation to a group like Women’s Choice Services or volunteering in a Project Gabriel ministry might make it possible for a child’s life to be saved. We can be the parable that Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel, announcing what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world, helping to bring people to the Kingdom, even one soul at a time.

Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy of the Word gives us a welcome look at the urgent need for persistent prayer. In our readings today we see God’s openness to our prayers, we hear a model for our prayers, and we receive some instruction on what prayer should be like. But above all, the point that we must not miss today, is that in the life of the disciple, prayer is to be constant, persistent, and as much a part of our life as breathing.

This first reading has always intrigued me, ever since I can remember hearing it as a child. God intends to destroy the city of Sodom because of its pervasive wickedness. Abraham, newly in relationship with God, stands up for the innocent of the city, largely because that was where his nephew, Lot, had taken up residence. In what seems to be a case of cosmic “Let’s Make a Deal,” Abraham pleads with God to spare the city if just fifty innocent people could be found there. God agrees and Abraham persists. Eventually God agrees to spare the city if just ten people could be found in the city of Sodom.

Now we don’t know how many people were living in Sodom, but it was certainly a great many more than fifty. But God agrees to spare the city if just ten just people could be found, a number that was probably some fraction of one percent of the population. Now, we know the rest of the story without even having heard it today, don’t we? Sodom is eventually destroyed for its wickedness, along with the city of Gomorrah. So let’s think about that for a minute. Not even ten good people were found in that area, so great and widespread was their wickedness!

Now the Old Testament has a number of stories like this where a great many people are destroyed in their wickedness. From this we should not draw the hasty conclusion that we worship a wrathful God. Instead, we worship a God who is just and merciful, not punishing the great many innocent for the wickedness of but a few. It is important, I think, to know that Abraham’s prayer does not really change his unchangeable God. Instead, God always intended to spare the city if there were just people in it, it’s just that there weren’t any just people in it!

What I love about this first reading is Abraham’s line, “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes!” Here he prefigures the kind of prayer Jesus has in mind for us, who also are but dust and ashes. The prayer Jesus teaches us is amazingly familiar, in the sense of being close to God. Our God is not a distant potentate who has set the world in motion and then stepped back to observe events as they unfold. No, instead our God can be called “Abba, Father” and we can approach God as we would a loving parent. Because of this, we can pray, “Father, hallowed be your name…”

So far we have learned that prayer never changes our unchangeable God. God always intends the best for us, and it is he himself who puts the prayer into our hearts in the first place. Secondly, our prayer is not a formal request to a distant deity, but instead a personal plea to God who is like a loving parent. I think we can all relate to all of that. But it is the parable that follows the Lord’s Prayer in today’s Gospel that tells us something we have to learn over and over again: prayer must be persistent. This flies in the face of the notion that prayer is not something that changes our God who always intends the best for us. Why do we have to pray the same thing over and over again if God always intends to give us what is best. Put another way, in fact the words I often hear from parishioners who are heartbroken, “Why doesn’t God answer our prayers?”

Whether you have a sick loved one, or a child who’s gone the wrong way, or a marriage that is troubled, or a job situation that is unhappy, or any one of thousands of other problems, you too may have asked “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” Today we’re hearing that we should be persistent in our prayer and that God will answer the prayers of those he loves, and so you may well be asking yourself, “What good does that do?” These are questions I get all the time, and I can understand them, having asked them a time or two myself. So let me give you my take on it with a parable out of my own life.

When my dad was dying back in May, I was absolutely positive that he was going to be okay. If I had my own way, of course, I would have prayed that he would live another fifty years, but I knew that was selfish. God had made Dad for himself, and I knew that he was going back to be with God. I wanted nothing else for him than that he would be free of pain and happy forever. I was positive that was what was going to happen. The day before he died, he told my aunt, his sister, that he had seem their mom. I knew that the saints had come to take him home. We believe in that, you know: we call it the Communion of Saints. Just before he died, he looked up at the nurse who was attending him and said, “It’s going to be okay.” And of course that was true.

How did he know it was going to be okay? Because Dad was a man of prayer. He went to Mass with my mom every Sunday and many weekdays too. He prayed his rosary and daily prayers every day. He and I used to go every Holy Thursday to pray before the Blessed Sacrament together. His wonderful life was immersed in prayer and he had no regrets. Everything was going to be okay. And because he was a man of prayer, I knew that I could let him go and that God would take care of him. Prayer is like that; it’s contagious. His example of persistent prayer was one that led me to my vocation.

The point is this. Praying persistently doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going to come out the way we want it to, but it does mean that everything is going to come out the way God intended it, which is so much better than our little plans. If we are people of prayer, if we pray persistently, we will be able to see the blessings in the midst of sorrow and to have confidence when everything seems to be falling apart.

Praying persistently doesn’t mean praying constantly for just one thing. It means praying in all ways, praying in adoration before our beautiful Savior, praying in contrition and repentance for our sinfulness, praying in thanksgiving for our many blessings, praying in supplication for our needs and the needs of all the world. It means praying, above all, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The psalmist today says, “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.” God intends the very best for us, we may be certain of that. And if we are people of persistent prayer, then we will indeed see blessing all around us. My prayer today is that we would all be persistent in prayer, that we would become people of prayer, and that we would never, ever, ever lose heart.

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

xl christ in the house of martha and mary

Most of the time when I preach, the homily isn’t really for me. There is always something in the Scriptures that speaks to me in some way, but the main message that I receive from God is not necessarily addressed to me. That’s how preaching works: the Word is for all of us, not something the preacher gets to keep for himself. But today’s Scriptures are a little different. They have had something to say to my own spiritual life, and the message has been coming through loud and clear. My guess is, though, that this message isn’t just for me.

I sometimes say about the Scriptures “this is one of my favorite readings.” Today’s Gospel is the opposite. I have always found this Gospel challenging, and it makes me squirm inwardly every time I hear it. Because I’d always like to be Mary, but most every day I’m called upon to be Martha, and that makes me sad sometimes. As I reflected on my first year of priesthood, I found that I had not taken my yearly retreat, and that the only vacation I took was a few days to help my Dad in the days before he died. Maybe you can relate to this. Perhaps you’d like to spend more time in prayer, or reading the Bible, and instead you have to take care of the children, or you end up working late, or you just plain fall asleep from exhaustion at the end of the day. The truth is, some days we are way more Martha than we are Mary and if you’re like me, you feel a little guilty about that.

Back in my first year of seminary, I was in charge of the Liturgies for our class. One day we had a class Liturgy and the Rector of the seminary was the celebrant. I was running around like a madman trying to make sure everything was perfect, and that the Rector would have everything he needed for Mass. When we finally got around to hearing the Gospel for the day, it was this one, and I realized I had fallen into the trap of missing what God was telling me while I was “anxious and worried about many things.” I remember sitting there, thinking, “rats.” So it’s no wonder this isn’t one of my favorite Gospels.

But I have often found when the message isn’t one I’d like to hear, it’s because God is speaking to me about something I need to change in my life. Clearly that’s what’s going on here today. I have also found that when God starts speaking in this way, the best thing I can do is to be still and listen, letting God be God, and trying to find a way to do what he’s asking of me. So maybe all of us who find ourselves a bit too much Martha today can reflect on that message a bit.

First off, let’s give Martha a bit of a break. Because there is a difference between the very legitimate and laudable act that Mary was doing – listening to the Word of Jesus – and just being plain old lazy. Many of us could be tempted down those roads too, and that’s not praiseworthy. You can’t claim to be “sitting at the feet of Jesus” when you’re just trying to avoid doing anything resembling work! And Martha’s tasks were important ones. The demands of hospitality in the ancient world were taken very seriously. Just as Abraham leapt to his feet in our first reading to welcome the three visitors and provide them with a beautiful meal, so Martha had things to do to care for her own guest.

But where Martha went down the wrong path was that she let the details of the tasks of hospitality overshadow the hospitality itself. In doing all the things she was doing, she had actually neglected her guest. Perhaps there was a way that she could have provided refreshment to Jesus in a way that didn’t take her outside his company for so long. Maybe a simpler meal would have sufficed. When the details of hospitality overshadow the guest, then it’s not really hospitality at all.

What’s at stake here is balance in our spiritual life. We are not called upon to make a choice between being Martha and being Mary. We are called upon to be both Martha and Mary. This scripture readings speaks of the service of the disciple, in Greek the word is diakonia, from which we derive our word, deacon. This tells us that the life of the Christian disciple – which is all of us, brothers and sisters in Christ – is about service. What we see in today’s Gospel is that there are two aspects of that service. The first is represented by Martha’s work, and is the kind of service that takes care of what is necessary in order that God’s will would be done: it is a service that reaches out to those in need. The second kind of service is represented by Mary’s work. Her work is one of contemplation: she sits at the feet of Jesus to absorb his words and his presence.

Both kinds of service are necessary in the life of the Christian disciple. The trick is keeping them in balance. Because it is Mary’s contemplation that gives us the spiritual refreshment necessary to reach out to those in need. And it is Martha’s active service that gives meaning and context to our prayers and our preaching. When we avoid either aspect of service, we are getting it wrong, and perhaps our Gospel today is a tug at our hearts – I know it’s tugging at mine – to get it right.

So we need to make time for both our work and our prayer. We have to give priority to contemplation and Scripture reading and whatever kind of prayer speaks to us just as much as we give priority to the demands of our vocations, whatever those vocations may be. We have to let God speak to us in our quiet and in our activity, and to remember that doing God’s will sometimes means getting quiet and sitting still long enough for him to speak to our hearts. It may take a lifetime to get this right, but as we put effort into our service of God, we too will be choosing the better part, and it will not be taken from us.

Friday of the Fifteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

When I was in seminary, one of my professors used to tell us that the most basic prayer we had to learn was to walk outside, look up and say, "You are God, and I am not." I think that prayer was first uttered by one of the saints, but I could not figure out which one. The point is we have to stop trying to do God's job and focus instead on worshipping rightly, and doing what he's asked of us. We have to believe with our minds, hearts and actions that God is sovereign in every situation.

For the ancient Israelites, they had to realize that God is sovereign over their lives and longed to deliver them from oppression. They had to be ready to give up the relative comfort of their lives in Egypt in order to be free from slavery and to take possession of the land that God had in mind for them. They had to be convinced that God could take them out of Egypt, through the desert, and provide for their needs and safety. God is sovereign over oppression and faithful in providing.

For the Pharisees, they had to realize that God is sovereign over the Sabbath. Now, of course, they mostly never got this or they never would have crucified Jesus, but that was the word that Jesus was preaching to them. God made the Sabbath and could observe it as he saw fit; human customs did not fulfill the Sabbath's demands. If God wanted to provide for the hunger of his faithful ones on the Sabbath, then God had a right to do that. But the Pharisees were unable to see that Jesus was much greater than the temple. But God is still sovereign over our customs and faithful in providing.

What is it that we have to let go of in order to let God be God in our lives? What is so comfortable to us that we refuse to let go of it, regardless of how destructive it is to our spiritual lives and how great an obstacle it is to our relationship with God? Maybe we want God to answer a particular prayer in a particular way, and God is offering us something better. If so, we need to let go of our own ideas of how God's will must be accomplished in order that we might see where he is leading us. God is sovereign over our lives and is faithful in providing. But we must be willing to say, "You are God, and I am not."

Thursday of the Fifteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

God says to Moses today, “I AM who am.” God cannot be known as something or someone static or even two dimensional. Our God is a God who is active, relational, transcendent and yet immanent, our God is not something or someone, but is in many ways a verb: I AM who am.

Our God is a God who saves. He took the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and delivered them to a land flowing with milk and honey. Just so, he takes us out of slavery to this world and out of slavery to our sinfulness and delivers us to a life of grace and true joy. We have nothing in heaven or on earth that has not come from God and our God is faithful in giving, faithful in saving, faithful in relating to his people, the people he has chosen for all time.

Our God gives us rest from our burdens. He replaces the burdens of the world and the burdens of our sinfulness with the burdens of following him. His burdens are easy and light, not necessarily in and of themselves, but they are easy and light because the burdens God gives us, God also helps us carry. Only by taking on the burdens of our God can we ever truly find rest for ourselves.

We gather to give thanks to our God today, our God who remembers his covenant forever.

Monday of the Fifteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It’s a frightening thing, I think, to hear Jesus say in today’s Gospel reading, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” And it’s frightening not because of some actual sword that might impale us, but instead because of the havoc a statement like that could wreak in our spiritual lives. There’s an old trite saying that says Jesus didn’t come just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. It may be trite, but there is truth there.

The spiritual life is one of precarious balance. Things can be going along alright, much as the relationships the Jews had with the Egyptian government while Joseph was alive. But then something can change in our lives: in the words of our first reading today, a new king, who knows nothing of Joseph, can take over. In the context of that first reading, the new king taking over didn’t know Joseph and thus have all the good feelings toward the Jews that Joseph inspired. In the context of our spiritual lives, the new king is whatever new distraction may come our way and, knowing nothing of Joseph, that is, knowing nothing of the harmony that can be part of our lives when we follow the right way, that distraction takes over and tears us away from our God.

In that light, the first reading today is a discussion of the seductive power of sin. Just as the new king wanted to stop the increase of the Jews, so sin wants to stop our increase in the spiritual life. Just as the Egyptians oppressed the Jews with hard labor, so sin oppresses us by affecting our work, our relationships, and our life of faith. But just as the more the Jews were oppressed, the more they multiplied, so the more that we are oppressed by sin, the more we can multiply grace by turning back to God.

Sin is a dreadful power in our world. Sin knows nothing of Joseph, knows nothing of the life of grace and its joy. But we don’t have to let it oppress us. We can let Jesus bring the sword to afflict the comfort of our sin and help us to multiply and increase in the life of grace and faith. As our Psalmist says this morning, “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

Thursday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.”

Joseph realized what this Gospel statement of Jesus meant long before Jesus himself ever uttered it. Given his position of power, he could have had all of his brothers imprisoned or worse because of what they did to him. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, the anger in his heart is broken, and he realizes that what happened to him since being sold into Egypt was eventually a very great gift. In fact, it was such a great gift that it fulfilled God’s plan for the people. And he was glad to be reunited with them. He realized that he had been given many blessings without cost, and he was now prepared to bestow them on his brothers in the same way.

We too have received so much without cost. Think about the place we live. We are in one of the richest cities in one of the riches counties in what is, hands down, the richest nation on earth. Not only that, we are able to worship freely here today, without fear of persecution or any kind of danger. This church building provides refuge from the weather, be it hot or cold, snow or rain. We have places to live and food to eat, and freedom to do whatever pleases us. Whatever we have worked hard for, even the ability to work that hard was given to us. We have talents and gifts that we could never have produced in ourselves. Even our ability to think, reason and communicate comes from God. Without cost we have received indeed.

And now we, like the Apostles, are being told to give without cost. To use our talents and gifts to build up the kingdom and not just our own interests. To take advantage of our ability to worship freely and let the Lord mold us into disciples who can make an impact on the world. To share our incredible resources with all God’s people. Because there has been no limit to God’s lavish giving, there can be no limit to our grateful sharing. Without cost we have received, without cost may we give.

Tuesday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Some people think that the spiritual life should be easy. Today’s readings prove to us that it’s not that way. Jacob wrestles with “some man” in today’s first reading; ostensibly, it’s God himself. They tussle all day long and finally they declare it a draw, but leave poor Jacob injured from the battle. But, in the end, Jacob receives a blessing. That’s the way, brothers and sisters, the spiritual life works. We often wrestle with God in some way or another, and occasionally the battle marks us, but we always end up blessed by the experience, that is, if we’re ready to do battle for the long haul.

I think what’s hard about this is that first you have to identify what the battle is, and then you have to have the courage to stick with it. Maybe you’re struggling with God because he’s calling you to do something new; something you’re not sure if you want on your plate. Or maybe your prayer life has grown stale and you are being called to revitalize it. Or maybe he’s encouraging you to move to a new place in a relationship or in your vocation or whatever it may be. It’s a struggle, and there could be considerable wrestling with God. But you have to identify it. And then stay with it.

All the saints have had to wrestle with God at some point or another. It’s a process of getting over our own inhibitions to the spiritual life and passing the obstacles that we put in the way of our relationship with God. It’s difficult, and it’s scary, and it needs to be surrounded with prayer. Only then can you stay with it and bear its marks, and receive God’s blessings.

Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If we want to know if we are doing God’s will, I think, we need to examine our lives for evidence of joy. The disciple who goes about his or her work in this world grudgingly and amidst a total disconnect with other people isn’t much of a disciple at all, I’m afraid. I have been a priest now for just over a year, as you know, and lately I have been examining my vocation and how it’s been going. I wanted to see what I need to spend more time on and what I need to perhaps let go of. One of the great barometers for me has been to look at what gives me joy in my ministry. Not that every moment is supposed to be a picnic, that’s not the point at all. But God speaks through joy in our lives because joy is an indication that we’re doing what God wants from us. And I can find joy in doing some pretty hard things, like anointing a person near death, or ministering to a family who has come to the Church to arrange a loved one’s funeral. Joy doesn’t necessarily mean doing things that are easy and fun, but it means more that we are doing what we were created for, that we are using our time and our talents to build the kingdom in the particular way God has called us to do that, that we are living our discipleship in a way that gives honor and glory to God.

Now discipleship is not a popular term these days, I’m afraid. Maybe that’s because it comes from the same root as the word discipline which can be such an ugly word for us sometimes. And in a world where people do pretty much what they want, when they want and where they want, the idea of discipline doesn’t really work. But all of us who are followers of Jesus are disciples, and as such, we are subject to the discipline of the One we follow, Jesus Christ. So let’s take a look at today’s Liturgy of the Word and see what we can find out about the discipline that Jesus teaches us, and perhaps where we can find joy in following that discipline.

Now, before I launch into that study of the readings, I should point out that this is one of Fr. Ted’s favorite Gospel readings. He is so aware of the many needs of our parish and the difficulty of fulfilling them all, that he points to this reading as a reason to have two priests in a parish. “The Lord sent them out two by two,” he often tells me, “so I am so glad to have an associate to go out and do the Lord’s work with me.” Now, a little further down in the reading, the Lord says he was sending them out “like lambs among wolves.” So guess what that makes all of you… But I digress….

There are three specific disciplines that Jesus teaches the seventy-two that I want to reflect on today. First: don’t rely on yourself. Second: go in peace. And third: eat and drink what is set before you.

So first, don’t rely on yourself. Listen to the instructions Jesus gives the seventy-two before they leave: “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way.” Now that all seems pretty impractical to those of us who have to travel in the twenty-first century, doesn’t it? I mean, the only possible instruction in there that would make our travel at all easy is to wear no sandals – bare feet sure travel easier through security checkpoints! But we definitely need a money bag to carry what we’d need to pay tolls and buy fuel, and certainly we’d need a sack to carry identification as well as just basic things we’d need for the journey. And greeting no one along the way just seems downright inhospitable.

And this is worse for me, because I always overpack for a trip! But I think we’re missing the point here. If we take the time to bring everything with us that we’d ever need for the journey, we’d never get on the road. It’s much like the disciples in the Gospel reading last Sunday who wanted to bury their dead or greet their family, all at the expense of following Christ. At some point we have to stop thinking about maybe doing God’s will and just get out there and do it. Another point is that if we were even able to foresee every possibility and pack for every possible need, we would certainly not need Jesus, would we? Jesus is telling the seventy-two, and us as well, to stop worrying and start following. Rely on Jesus because he is trustworthy. Experience the joy of letting Jesus worry about the small stuff while he is doing big things in and through you.

Second, go in peace. Jesus says to the seventy-two: “Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’ If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you.” Those disciples were sent out with the peace of Christ, and were told to expect to be received in peace. The source of the peace they were sent out in was, of course, Jesus himself. He is the one who greets the disciples after the Resurrection by saying “peace be with you.” The peace he is offering is not just the absence of conflict. In fact, their journeys may indeed involve some conflict: conflict with demons, conflict with illness, conflict with those who may not receive them. No, the peace he sends the seventy-two out with is a peace that they receive from knowing they are doing God’s will and that souls are coming back to God. It is a peace that says that everyone and everything is in right relationship, the way things are supposed to be.

The disciples are told to enter a place and say “Peace to this household.” So we too must also offer this greeting of peace to those we come to work with. There are a lot of ways to make this greeting, though. We could say it in those words, or perhaps through our actions: in not returning violence with violence; doing our best to diffuse anger and hatred; treating all people equally; respecting the rights of both the well-established and the newcomer; working to make neighborhoods and communities less violent; protecting the abused and the ridiculed. This peace is a peace that brings true joy.

And third, eat and drink what is set before you. This is again a trust issue. The seventy-two are to trust that since the laborer deserves his payment, the Lord will provide for what they need. But there’s a bit more to it, I think. Eating and drinking what is set before them meant that if they were to be given ministry that is difficult, they needed to stay with it, because that’s what was set before them. If they have been received in peace, then they need to know that they are in the right place. That doesn’t mean that the mission would be easy, though, and they need to take what’s given to them. We too have to know that our mission may not be easy, but if we have been given it in peace, we have to accept the mission we have. Taking things as they are and trusting in God to perfect our efforts is a path to true joy.

Blessed Mother Teresa once said, “Joy is prayer – Joy is strength – Joy is love – Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.” For the disciple, the life of prayer must lead us to this kind of joy. Because joyous disciples are the ones who bring unbelievers to the faith. They are the ones that bring God’s love to the forgotten and the sorrowful. They are the ones that make God’s presence and care known to those who have been marginalized and exploited. Following the discipline of Christ by relying on Christ – not ourselves, by bringing the peace of God to our missionary encounters, and by eating and drinking what the mission sets before us, this is the way to true joy. This is the joy of which the Psalmist sings, “Shout joyfully to God, all the earth, sing praise to the glory of his name!”