Tuesday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Jesus tells us today that we must become like children if we wish to enter the kingdom of heaven. Now when I stop to think about that, I wonder what it is about children that makes them so eligible for the kingdom. Anyone who’s spent quality time with a bunch of three year olds, or has been a substitute teacher for some sixth graders, knows that children aren’t righteous in and of themselves. So if it’s not that they are so pure, what is it that makes them heirs of the kingdom?

One thing about children – at least before they become teenagers – is that they are absolutely dependent on their parents or guardians. They can’t do much of their own power, so they depend on adults to give them what they need. I think this is the crux of what Jesus is getting at today.

Because so often we adults feel like we are supposed to handle everything ourselves. And we need to come to two very important realizations. The first is that we can’t do everything ourselves, and the second is that we’re not supposed to. We can’t because we simply don’t have the power. And that’s not a defect, it’s by design, and that’s why it’s important to realize that we’re not supposed to do everything ourselves. Only when we come to this point can we then turn and become like little children before our God who longs to nurture us into the kingdom of heaven.

God refuses to let any of his little ones to be lost. No shepherd worth his salt would leave 99 sheep alone to go out in search of one. But God does, because every single one of his little ones is important, every one of them was created for the kingdom of heaven. He goes out to look for those who are lost, and when they are lost they are most like children, needing God to show them the way. And he does show them the way. What is it in us that needs to change so that we can become more like children before our loving God?

Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings speak to all of those of us who have had to deal with stormy times in their lives. Which is to say, I would guess, all of us. And so if we remember what’s going on with Elijah, I think we could identify with him today. Elijah has just come from soundly defeating all of the pagan “prophets” of Baal, which was very embarrassing to King Ahab and especially to Queen Jezebel, who vowed to take Elijah’s life in retaliation. So he has been hiding out in a cave, not for protection from inclement weather, but for protection from those who sought his life. In the midst of this, God asks Elijah why he is here. Elijah explains that the people of Israel have been unfaithful and have turned away from God, not listening to Elijah’s preaching, and they have put all the other legitimate prophets to death. Elijah alone is left. So clearly he would prefer to be left alone in the cave to have some rest from his enemies.

But the Lord doesn’t leave it at that. He tells him to go out to the entrance of the cave where the Lord will be passing by. So when he does that, Elijah experiences a few different things that could well have signified God’s presence: wind, an earthquake, and fire. These represent the many ways we tend to hope God will come to us. When we’re at the end of our rope and we are running for our lives in whatever crisis we can think of, we want God to come on the scene with a mighty act of power and make it all better. But sometimes all we get is a tiny, whispering sound. That’s what Elijah gets, and he knows without a doubt it is the Lord.

Many people ask me how they can know God’s will in the midst of a difficult situation. The answer always is that God will speak to our hearts. Not in some mighty act of power, but in a tiny, whispering sound. We have to be open to that, we have to be listening. And that’s the problem. Because sometimes we’re so caught up in running for our lives, that we miss the tiny whispering sound, we miss the presence of God.

Our Gospel makes that same point. Jesus has just fed the multitudes, as you’ll recall from last week’s Gospel, and now he sends his disciples out in the boat while he goes off to pray. While they are at sea, a terrible storm rages and the wind and waves are tossing the little boat all over the place. The disciples, like Elijah, are afraid for their lives. In the midst of it all, they see Jesus walking on the water. Now they aren’t real sure that’s who it is, but I think for them it was a fairly safe bet. Peter speaks up and says “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” So Jesus gives the command and Peter gets out of the boat.

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: “But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” 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.

But we’re going to give Peter a break today. Let’s try a little prayer experiment. I want 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 bring that to mind. That crisis is the waves in the story. Now you get to be Peter. You’re on the boat, that 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 on the water.

You call out to him and he bids you to come to him. You think about it for a minute, but you realize you have to give it a shot. 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. And you do okay for a while, but then you wonder if your prayers will ever be answered, 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. And 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.

Now we can beat ourselves up, us and Peter too, for having a lapse in faith that lands us in the waves. But think about the other eleven who never even got out of the boat. Because the worst failure is never even trying to come to Jesus. Preferring the comfort of the boat to making that uncertain leap of faith. Maybe the boat is a job you’re not meant to have, or staying away from school because you fear you might not do well, or not making the phone call to that distant loved one because you might be rejected. It’s a lot more comfortable staying where we are, but when we stay in the boat we never have the opportunity to come to Jesus. Because Jesus isn’t in the boat, he’s out there on the water.

When I was in my mid 30s, I was going through a time where I knew I needed a change in my life, because my spiritual life was pretty stagnant. But I was safe and comfortable in my boat: I had a good job, family and friends who are great, and participated in ministry at my church. But I knew the job I had wasn’t what I was meant to do forever. And then I read a book called If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. It was by an evangelical pastor, and obviously, it went into this Gospel reading in great detail. That’s when I knew that I was cowering in the boat. I had to get out and walk on the water. And that’s how I ended up in seminary, to make a long story short!

Jesus isn’t calling us to be perfect today. Only faithful. We will only be able to walk on the water with Jesus’ help. We may even need him to pull us up out of the waves once in a while. But we were not created for the boat, we were created to walk on water. And we’ll never be able to do that if we don’t get out of the boat.

Saturday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Because of your little faith.” If that was the allegation of Jesus’ disciples, those men and women walking with him in person day after day, how much more does it apply to us today? How many situations absolutely confound us? How many injustices seem chronically irreparable? How many emotional crises seem insurmountable? There are demons of all shapes and sizes and types. How effective are we at casting out those demons of addiction, ignorance, or apathy? Why can’t we drive them out? Because of our little faith.

I always bristled a bit at the instruction at the end of today’s Gospel about moving a great mountain. I was pretty sure I’d never have faith that big, and even if I did, why would I want to move a mountain?! But we get all this wrong. It’s as if it depends on us, and it certainly does not. Are we convinced that God can move mountains, that he can drive out demons, that he can respond to addiction, ignorance and apathy? Certainly. But that kind of believing has to get beyond just being in our heads and come out in our words and actions and living.

Because faith is useless if we never put it into practice. It might be tough to be in the midst of addiction, emotional crisis, or injustice, but that’s when we need to depend on our faith. What good is our faith unless it can lead us through hard times and accomplish great things in the midst of the messiness of life? Habakkuk tells us today that “the just man, because of his faith, shall live.” That might not seem possible when we are in the midst of crisis. But our faith tells us that whatever happens, God will never stop being with us.

Maybe we’ll never move a mountain. Who wants to anyway? But with faith we can certainly move from a dark place to light, from despair to peace, from sadness to joy.

Thursday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In the ancient Hebrew, the word we have for righteousness and justice is sedeq, which most literally means right order. The idea is that when things are as they were intended to be by God, then the poor will be taken care of, nobody’s rights will be trampled on, and God’s grace will be evident in every situation. So this idea of sedeq is of course a frequently-mentioned topic in the prophets’ preaching. Today we have the prophet Jeremiah pointing out the lack of sedeq in the community of the Israelites: “for they broke my covenant,” Jeremiah prophecies, “and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.”

There is just one possible antidote to the infidelity of the people, and that is God’s loving-kindness. The Hebrew language has a word for this, too, and that is hesed. It is summed up in the way the Lord wishes to bring the people back into right relationship as Jeremiah says: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

The hesed that Jesus brings is still more radical, and that turns out to be a problem for Peter. He knows well enough who Jesus is: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus enthusiastically accepts his statement of faith and confers on him the ministry to direct the Church of the future: “And so I say to you, you are Peter,” Jesus proclaims, “and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” But when it turns out that the way for Jesus to make all that happen and unleash God’s ultimate loving-kindness is for Jesus to die, that doesn’t set well with Peter. “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”

The thing is, for hesed to happen in any situation, someone pretty much always has to lay down their life. It might be physically as Jesus did on the cross, but it could also be by letting a disagreement go, pursuing forgiveness even at the cost of being right about something on principle, or giving up one’s own desires so that others can be nourished. And Satan knows that hesed is the worst thing in the world that can happen for him. So he always wants us to say “God forbid, Lord! Why should you have to die? Why should I have to die?” But we have to put such thoughts aside. We have to think as God does, not as human beings do.

St. John Vianney, priest

Today’s readings: Ezekiel 3:17-21, Psalm 117, Matthew 9:35-10:1

St. John Vianney’s seminary education got off to a rather rocky start. In fact, his poor previous education nearly kept him out of the seminary. Then he had trouble understanding lectures in Latin. He was only able to overcome this with some private tutoring and amazing dedication to his dream of becoming a priest. He was eventually ordained, and is known to be the patron saint of parish priests.

John Vianney truly heard and understood the commission given the Twelve in today’s Gospel. Just as they were sent out to drive away unclean spirits and cure every disease and illness, St. John Vianney considered it his mission to heal the broken and drive out the demons of sin. He was known to spend 11 or 12 hours in the confessional every day in the winter, 16 hours in the summer! He said that he drew his strength for this ministry from the Eucharist.

In fact, he tried to bring everyone together for the public worship that was the Eucharist. About public and private prayer, he said: “Private prayer is like straw scattered here and there: If you set it on fire it makes a lot of little flames. But gather these straws into a bundle and light them, and you get a mighty fire, rising like a column into the sky; public prayer is like that.”

As we are gathered here for our public prayer today, we pray for that mighty fire to well up in all of us so that our dark world can be set ablaze with the fire of God’s love.

Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

As you may know, I kind of like to cook. I learned to cook back when I was about eleven or twelve, when my mom started a part time job working in the evenings. My Dad, God rest his soul, wasn’t much of a cook. We used to say he used the smoke alarm to time when things were done cooking. So, in defense of myself and my two sisters, I learned to cook. And Dad wasn’t real unhappy about that, as you might guess. Anyway, as I was learning to cook, sometimes I’d come across a recipe for which we didn’t have the exact right ingredients. Sometimes it was a spice we didn’t have, or maybe it called for butter and all we had was margarine. But whatever the case, there were a few times when I just adapted and took a chance. Sometimes it worked out okay, and sometimes not, but I always learned from the experience.

I was reminded about that experience when I was reading today’s Gospel. Jesus has been attracting people to come to him. They have heard his words and seen what he’s done and want to be around him. But the disciples have no idea what to do with these people now that it’s getting late and nobody’s eaten yet. If they could, they might provide a rich feast that the author of our first reading hints at. A buffet flowing with wine and milk and rich fare. But they have nothing like that to give all these people. So they approach Jesus with a different idea: “dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus won’t hear of such a thing: “Give them some food yourselves.”

And to the disciples ear, that’s easier said than done. “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” But for Jesus, that’s good enough. Those might not have been the exact ingredients for a rich banquet for well over five thousand people, but they’d be good enough in the hands of Jesus. The drama unfolds over four very specific verbs: take, bless, break, give. Jesus takes the bread, says the blessing, breaks the bread, and gives it to the disciples to give to the crowds. And everyone has more than enough to eat.

Jesus does that same thing for us today. He takes the meager gifts we bring: bread and wine, our underdeveloped talents, our tentative faith life. They might not be the ingredients one would hope for, but for Jesus they are plenty. Because he doesn’t just stand off at a distance and see what it is we’ll do with our lacking giftedness, instead he gets right in there with us and supplies everything that what we bring lacks.

Then he says the blessing. In that blessing he gives our meager gifts the power to be a scrumptious banquet. And so our bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ himself, a banquet that in itself gives eloquence to our underdeveloped talents and power to our tentative faith.

Then he breaks the bread. Our gifts taken and blessed are now divided up to provide for the need that is the experience of our world. Because it’s not just us who need to be fed, but it is a hungry, waiting world, that numbers far beyond the shocking five thousand men, to include the billions of men, women and children from every time and place. These are people who are perhaps physically hungry, lacking food and money and clothing and shelter. They are also people who are spiritually hungry, needing something they can believe in, something that can deliver them from the limits of their sadness and pain. This broken bread has to feed all of them, and it will.

Finally he gives the bread to the disciples to give to the people. The disciples are the Church, bringing that blessed bread to all the hungry people. The crowds eat and are satisfied, but more important than that, they are nourished and strengthened for the task that lies ahead. That task is bringing all those hungry people of every time and place to the Church so that they too can be fed, so that their broken lives can be bound up and healed, so that their sadness and pain can be transformed in the healing power of the Cross and Resurrection. The Church’s mission to feed the hungry will never end until that great day when Christ gathers us all to himself.

Just like my culinary experimentation most often led to an edible dish, so the disciples had to throw in whatever they had and came out with an amazing meal. We must continue to do that, continue bringing our bread and wine, our gifts and talents, our faith – such as it is, and giving them to our Lord who takes it all, blesses it and breaks it, giving it all for the life of the world. But it all starts with us. We have to take a chance and give whatever we have. Because if we don’t, dinner will never be served.

St. Alphonsus Liguori, priest and doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

Today we have a kind of celebration of moral theology. In today’s first reading, Jeremiah receives word from the Lord that he is to crank up his preaching to have Israel turn from their sinful ways. “Perhaps they will listen and turn back, each from his evil way, so that I may repent of the evil I have planned to inflict upon them for their evil deeds.” The preaching of the prophets has always been inherently moral, calling people to repentance and sorrow for their sins.

Today is also the feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori, the patron saint of moral theology. At the age of just sixteen, Alphonsus Liguori received degrees in both canon and civil law by acclamation. He later gave up the practice of law to concentrate on pastoral ministry, particularly giving parish missions and hearing confessions. He was noted for his writings on moral theology, particularly against the rigorism of the Jansenists. The Jansenists were a rigorist movement that developed after the protestant reformation and the Council of Trent and emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination. Alphonsus’s moral theology was much more accessible to the average person.

In 1732, Alphonsus formed the congregation of the Redemptorists, who had as their special charism the preaching of parish missions. They lived a common life dedicated to imitating Christ and reaching out to the poor and unlearned. Although they went through their own struggles as a congregation, they were reunited after Alphonsus’s death and are of course active today.

Although Alphonsus was best known for his moral theology, he also wrote many other works on topics of systematic and dogmatic theology, and the spiritual life. Both Alphonsus and Jeremiah call us to return to the Lord. The call is a simple one; we need not be learned in all the intricacies of Canon Law to figure out how to live the Christian life. All we need to do is to pray the words of our Psalmist today: “In your great kindness answer me with your constant help.”