Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

As we have been reading from Matthew’s Gospel this year, we have seen various levels of faith: “lacking faith” as seen in the Jewish community, most particularly in the Pharisees and Sadducees, “little faith” as seen in the disciples, and particularly in the Twelve, and “great faith” as seen in surprising places, like in the Canaanite woman today. We’re all on different places in our faith life, and I think today’s Scriptures give us time for a quick summer check-up to see where we are in that spectrum.

Throughout our Gospel readings this past year, Jesus has run up against the religious leaders and even some of the Jewish people, those he was sent to save first, and found them seriously lacking in faith. They have heard him preach and seen his mighty deeds just like everyone else, but could not square it with what they believed, so they refused to believe in him. Maybe most disappointing to him was the lack of faith found in his own hometown. The Scriptures tell us that so lacking was their faith, that he could not do much in terms of mighty deeds while he was among them. This should not be taken to mean that their lack of faith restricted Jesus’ power. What it does mean is that whatever mighty deed he did had no effect on their faith. It’s almost as if they wouldn’t recognize a miracle if one came up and bit them in the … behind.

We have also seen Peter’s faith on display. He is kind of the spokesman for the rest of the disciples, often putting into words what they may have been too chicken to express. He was the one who proclaimed Jesus to be the Christ, the one who is to come. And Jesus praised him for his faith. But just a couple of verses later, he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him for talking about his death, at which point Jesus rebukes him for thinking as people do and not as God does. In last weekend’s Gospel, Peter was able to walk on the water when he had his eyes fixed on Jesus, but began to sink when he looked at the storm-tossed waves. Jesus pulled him out of the waves, saying “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” The disciples are those men of little faith, who were with him all the time, but often missing the point. And Jesus often seems to be frustrated with their little faith and slow understanding.

In today’s Gospel, though, we have “great faith” and from a surprising source. The woman is a Canaanite, a member of the race of people who lived in the Promised Land until God gave it over to the Jews. She is an outsider, who risked her life to cross into enemy territory. She knows enough to give her daughter’s situation to Jesus. And she is persistent enough to keep asking even though she is initially rebuffed. The disciples find her so irritating, they want Jesus to send her away. But he recognizes in her what he has been thirsting to find all along: great faith. And with that great faith, she was able to return to her daughter, freed from the demon, healed from the inside out.

So we have been able to see in Matthew’s Gospel, the range of faith. From the lack of faith of the Jews and religious leaders of the time, to the little, almost fledgling faith of the disciples, to the surprisingly great faith of the Canaanite woman. This begs the question in us, I think, of where we are in the journey of faith. Have we yet to begin, or worse, have we refused to begin? Do we hope our mere physical presence at Mass will be good enough? Do we hear the word of God but refuse to let it sink in, to travel from our brain into our hearts? Have we heard the Gospel but been very lax about living it? Do we come to Mass only to leave this holy place and become a very different person in the parking lot, or in our homes, businesses and schools in the week ahead? Do we find ourselves as lacking in faith as the Pharisees and Sadducees?

Or are we tentative in our faith? Are we among those who want to believe, but are afraid to take a leap of faith? Do we walk on water for a while until we notice the storms of our lives and then sink? Are we discouraged by what seems to be a lack of response to our prayers? Are we angry with God because of something that happened – or didn’t happen – in the past? Do we think it’s okay to miss Mass because we can worship just as well by taking a walk outside or spending time with our family? Are we hesitant to pray about something because we think it’s too big for God to handle, or too little to bother him about? Have we been looking for excuses to avoid something we know is God’s call in our life? Have we been of “little faith?”

Maybe we have found ourselves in one or the other of those places in the faith journey at different points in our lives. But maybe too – I hope – we have found ourselves on more solid faithful ground. Maybe we have taken a leap of faith and found ourselves blessed beyond our wildest imaginings. Maybe we have answered God’s call and found grace to do the things we never thought we could. Maybe we have given a problem or situation over to God and found out that in God’s time, healing came in unexpected ways. Maybe we have been surprised by our faith from time to time and heard God say, “Great is your faith!”

Like I said, I think many of us are in all of these places at different times of our lives. And that’s okay, okay as long as we make a little progress all the time, as long as we eventually find our faith taking us places we never thought we would go. The life of faith is full of surprises, most of them good, some of them challenging or possibly even disheartening. But when we approach it all in faith, all of it will work out for good in God’s own time. When we give our lives to God, when we take the leap we know God is calling us to take, when we get out of our boat, we might just find ourselves walking on water, or feeding thousands, blessing others and sometimes saying just the thing someone else needs to hear. All of this is God working through us, of course, all of it is because we have trusted God in some significant way.

Whether we find ourselves lacking or little in faith on some days, we must continue to work at it, giving more of ourselves to God. Because one day, we want to hear the same thing the Canaanite woman heard: “Great is your faith!”

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

“Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”

Those words, spoken by St. Elizabeth to Mary, summarize what is so important about celebrating the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary’s faith, to me, is remarkable. She could never have known where doing the Lord’s will would take her. An unplanned pregnancy, watching opposition toward her son grow, seeing him die on the cross. How could she have said yes to all of that? But she didn’t have to say yes to that, she had to say yes to God, to God in whose promises she trusted with all her heart.

This humble girl, with great faith, was raised on this day to the heights of heaven that we can yet hope for. Just like Mary, a lot of us have to live lives that are imperfect in some ways. There are those among us who have unplanned pregnancies. There are those among us whose children go in directions that put them in danger. There are those among us who have to watch a child die. But because Mary suffered these sorrows too, and yet was exalted, we can hope for the day when that which she was given and which we have been promised will surely be ours.

What the Assumption means for us is that as Mary has gone to exaltation before us, so we can hope for exaltation on that Great Day. We too are called to believe that what is spoken to us by the Lord will be fulfilled.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, priest and martyr

Today’s readings

Maximilian Kolbe became a Franciscan novice at the age of 16. Earlier in life he had a vision of the Blessed Virgin offering him two crowns, a white one of purity, and a red one of martyrdom. Maximilian said “I choose both.” The Blessed Virgin smiled and departed from him. Maximilian devoted his life to purity through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. He founded the Mission of the Immaculata to combat religious indifference, which he saw as the greatest problem in society. By the time the Nazis overran Poland, the mission numbered as many as a million people.

Maximilian was twice arrested by the Nazis and the second time taken to Auschwitz. One day a fellow prisoner escaped, and the commandant decided to put ten men to death, whom he chose by arbitrarily pointing men out as he walked among their ranks. Just after the tenth man was chosen, Maximilian stepped out of the ranks and asked to take the place of one man, who had a wife and children. The commandant asked “what about you?” to which Maximilian replied, “I am a priest.” Because the regime at the time was striving to eliminate all the leaders of the people, Maximilian’s request was granted, and he died in the starvation chamber some three months later.

Our Psalmist today urges us, “Do not forget the works of the Lord!” St. Maximilian Kolbe is one who kept the works of the Lord in front of him day and night. He was devoted to Mary and through her, to the love of God. That love translated into action, literally giving his life for others. His martyrdom joins his life to that of Christ with an inseparable bond.

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.