Thursday of the Thirtieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I think today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a good one for us to hear.  How often are we beset by all the frustrations of the world, and all of the sadness that our own lives can sometimes bring?  I’m not saying that every day is horrible, but we all go through times when it seems like it’s too much, like one more phone call and we’ll explode.

And to all of that today, St. Paul advises us to “put on the armor of God.”  Because when things go wrong, we have two choices.  We can go to pieces, wondering where is God when we really need him, getting angry with God, ourselves, and others, and lashing out at anyone and everyone in our lives.  Or, we can realize that what God allows he doesn’t necessarily wish on us.  We can join ourselves to him, and draw our strength and courage from the Lord himself, knowing that he walks with us in good times and in bad.

Because we know which one the devil himself would choose for us, right?  That evil one wants to use the trying times to drive a wedge between God and us.  And we need strength to guard against that “evil day.”  And so, St. Paul tells us, “In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the Evil One.”  And that shield, he says, is prayer: “With all prayer and supplication, pray at every opportunity in the Spirit.”  Prayer and faith are the armor we need to get through the trying times of life without falling victim to the evil one.

Sometimes life can feel like a war, but as the Psalmist says today, “Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war.”  Our stronghold is that whatever life brings us, we are never alone.  Never.

Ss. Simon & Jude, Apostles

Today’s readings

Today, we celebrate two apostles who, as often is the case, are relatively unknown except that they were followers of Jesus.  Jude is called Judas in Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles.  Matthew and Mark call him Thaddeus.  We have in the New Testament the letter of Jude, which scholars say is not written by the man whose feast we celebrate today.

Simon was a Zealot, a member of a radical party that disavowed all ties with the government, holding that Israel should be re-elevated to political greatness under the leadership of God alone.  They also held that any payment of taxes to the Romans was a blasphemy against God.

Neither of these men held any claim to greatness here on earth; they found their glory in following Christ.  Their joy was, as St. Paul instructs us in his letter to the Ephesians, in their citizenship which was of course in heaven, as it is for all of us.  We are merely passing through this place, and our task while we are hear, as was the task for Simon and Jude and all the apostles, to live for Christ and to live the Gospel.  The reward for them, then, as is for all of us, is in heaven, their and our true home.

Their message, as the Psalmist says, goes out to all the earth.  Blessed are all of us when we catch that message and live that message, following the way to Christ Jesus.

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.”

That certainly seems simple enough.  But we miss the mark on it all the time, don’t we?  The idea is to put God first, which of course, is the first of the ten commandments:  “I am the LORD your God; you shall not have strange gods before me.”  But we have all sorts of strange gods that vie for our attention every day, and way too often, we give in to them, and put something less than god ahead of the God who made us.

Back in my pre-seminary days, I used to work for a print company.  I had to manage multiple print projects for a few different customers, and so it was my job to schedule the print time in the plant, get proofs to customers, proofread projects, and a whole bunch of other stuff.  It could get very mind-boggling, so I took to writing very detailed to-do lists for myself so that I’d be sure to get everything done in the course of a day.

You probably do something like that too.  Whether you are managing a consulting firm or simply trying to get the kids to soccer and choir and reading club at the right times, you probably keep lists to make it easier.  I still do it today, and it’s the only way I can keep things going without forgetting something major.  These days, I use a computer version, but the idea is the same.

But one of the things I used to do when I worked at the print company was to include a one-word task every single day: “pray.”  I found, after I had been working there for a while, that I needed to do that to keep my faith life integrated with my work life.  The Scriptures teach us to pray always, and I found that unless I put that on my to-do list every day, there was precious little chance of my stopping to remember God, the One who created me and sustained me and loved me always.  Taking five minutes to pray was the least I could do.  I kept a Bible and a devotional in one of my desk drawers all the time, and I would take a five-minute break to use them.  That kept me a lot more focused during the day, and kept me from getting so full of myself that I made life intolerable for my coworkers.  Praying had a lot of benefits in the workplace.  And when I got to that one task – “pray” – I would remember to take time to do just that.

One day, I was very sick and couldn’t come in to work.  So my friend Joyce, who was my backup partner, filled in for me.  The next day, when I came in, I found she had left notes on my to-do list about what she was able to get done, and what happened on some of my projects.  Joyce is a woman of faith, so when she got to that “pray” task, I’m sure she smiled, and probably did just that.  But she left me a note next to that task that said something like: “Done.  But I probably should have made it a novena!”  Apparently it had been a hard day!

The point of all this is that we have to make a way to put God first in our lives.  Otherwise, if it’s not the busy-ness of the day, then it’s something else that comes first, and it’s almost never God.  It could be our status or ego that comes first, it could be money, it could be the latest gadgets or all the luxury comforts that we crave.  It could be sports, or it could be family activities, or even laziness that becomes a god for us.  And that’s all really sinful.  It’s a violation of the first commandment.  And it’s the first commandment for a very good reason: because it’s the most basic thing.  If we can’t hope to get this one right, we’ll never be very good at all the rest.

These days in our society, I have been wondering what is really first for us.  I’m thinking we may have made gods of government bailouts.  You’d think that in this time of uncertainty, and on the brink of a pivotal election, people would be coming to Church, reconnecting with their God, and drawing strength from their faith, putting God first even if they haven’t been doing that very well in the recent past.  But you’d be wrong.  Right now, we’re taking the annual “October Count” – a yearly mass-by-mass attendance count.  The attendance counts as compared to registered parishioners this year are running 2-3% lower than last year, and 6-7% lower than this time in 2004.  We are hearing that is true from other churches in our area too.

Even for those of us who manage to make the time to come to Mass on Saturday evening or Sunday morning, that still doesn’t necessarily mean that we are putting God first all the time.  We have to find ways to put God first, adding time with him to our to-do lists, making prayer and reflection a part of our daily routine.  Because it’s only by doing this that we can nurture a friendship with our God, a friendship that sustains us in bad times and in good, a friendship that ultimately leads us to heaven, that place we were created for by the One who created us.

Jesus makes it plain enough for us in today’s Gospel.  Love God and love your neighbor; these are the hallmarks of a Christian’s life, the hallmarks of life for all of us who were created by God and are called to return to God one day.  And so it is imperative that we get love of God and love of neighbor right.  To neglect these two commandments, which Jesus says today are the basis of the whole law and the prophets, is seriously sinful.

But the good news is that we have the chance, having heard the Word of God, to return and to re-prioritize our to-do lists, putting God first, loving God and neighbor, and coming at last into the presence of our God who loves us first and always.  The Psalmist, as always, helps us to make our prayer today: “I love you, LORD, my strength, LORD, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, My God, my rock of refuge, my shield, my saving horn, my stronghold!”  He is the LORD and there is no other!

Saturday of the Twenty-ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Have you ever seen a fig tree?  I haven’t.  But I can tell you I’d be pretty frustrated if I had cared for a fig tree for three years and never saw one bit of fruit.  I think we could all understand the man wanting his gardener to cut the tree down and give the good soil to some other plant.  Having nourished the plant and watered it and put in hours pruning it and doing all the things it takes to care for a tree, nothing has come of it.  Time to get rid of it and move on.

And so, one could certainly understand if God would turn out to be just like that frustrated man.  Having cared for, fed, nurtured, guided and corrected us sinners, when we don’t bear fruit, certainly in his frustration, God would be justified in blotting us out and never giving us a second thought.

But God is not the frustrated man in the parable, is he?  No, God is the gardener, the one who has really done all the work of nurturing, and he is amazingly patient.  The gardener says of the tree, “leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.  If not you can cut it down.”  And so God is with all of us.  God gives us another chance, even when we’ve had so many chances before, even when it seems like we just aren’t worth the trouble.  But God is patient.

And we are better than fig trees.  We know enough to respond to the nurturing of our God.  Our prayer today leads us to reflect on those ways in which we have borne fruit, and those times that we have been fruitless.  We are being cultivated and fertilized yet again at this Mass, so may we be fruitful in the days and years to come.

Thursday of the Twenty-ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Some people would say that Jesus was a peaceful man.  Saying that is really misunderstanding Jesus and who he was.  Because peace wasn’t necessarily his primary interest, at least not peace in the way that we often see it.

Because sometimes I think we misread what peace is supposed to be.  We might sell peace short and settle for the absence of conflict.  Or even worse, we may settle for peace at any price, swallowing our disagreements and never coming close to true healing in our relationships.  There are families in which never a harsh word would be said, but the underlying hostility is palpable.  There are workplaces in which there are never any arguments, but there is also never any cooperative work done.  Sometimes there are relationships where fear replaces love and respect.

And this is not the kind of peace that Jesus would bring us today.  This is the One who came to set the earth on fire, and his methods for bringing us to peace might well cause division in the here and now.  But there is never any resurrection if we don’t have the cross.  And so there will never be any peace if we don’t confront what’s really happening.  The fire has to be red hot and blazing if there is ever to be any regrowth.

And so today we have to stop settling for a peace that really isn’t so peaceful.  We may just have to have that hard conversation we’ve been trying to avoid.  Of course, we do it with love for our brothers and sisters, but out of love we also don’t avoid it.  Our words and actions must always be guided by the fire of the Holy Spirit, but we must never choose to neglect the Spirit’s guidance and instead just settle for something that is really not peace.  We have to work for true healing in all of our relationships.

The Psalmist tells us today that “the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.”  That goodness resides in all those people God has given us in our lives.  This day, we are called to relish their goodness and work for lasting peace with all of them.

Monday of the Twenty-ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It has often struck me when hearing the news the last several months that being rich in what matters to God is more important than ever.  With banks failing, Wall Street needing a huge bailout, and a 700 billion dollar economic recovery transfusion coming from the government, who among us hasn’t had the sinking feeling that this world’s riches are nothing at time but straw?

So you’d think that in this time of uncertainty, and on the brink of a pivotal election, people would be coming to Church, reconnecting with their God, and drawing strength from their faith, building up those riches that are from God.  But you’d be wrong.  Right now, we’re taking the annual “October Count” – a yearly mass-by-mass attendance count.  The attendance counts as compared to registered parishioners this year are running 2-3% lower than last year, and 6-7% lower than this time in 2004.

In some ways it strikes me that we are quickly losing our faith, or even worse, that we as a society are becoming indifferent to faith, seeing it as irrelevant or ultimately meaningless.  At a time in our nation’s history when we should be returning to God in droves, people instead are staying away in droves.

And it’s hard to live through uncertain times without faith.  How can we ride the ups and downs of life with anything close to tranquility without the rock that is our faith?  Instead we as a society seem content to place our faith in government bailouts, while we continue to practice unprecedented greed.  And to all of that God tells us today, what will happen if we hear “You fool, this very night your life will be demanded of you?”  The time to store up treasure in what matters to God is clearly here.  How will we people of faith give witness to that?

St. Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr

Today’s readings | Today’s saint

[Mass for the junior high school children.]

Of all birds, sparrows are probably the most insignificant.  They are small in size and dull in color.  They undertake no great flights.  They live in bushes rather than in trees.  Though they are found in vast numbers all over the world, we take them completely for granted.  They so blend in with the earth and their surroundings that we hardly ever notice them.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus wants us to know how far God’s love for us and care for us and knowledge of us goes.  In doing that, he didn’t talk about swans or eagles, even though these birds make a much more splendid appearance as opposed to the humble sparrow.  But listen again to what he says about them: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing.”

By this he means that everything that happens to any of his creatures, whether they are roaring lions or tiny sparrows, whether they are world leaders, or little children, whether they are great or insignificant, God still cares for them – they are still important to God.  He notices what happens to us, no matter who we are, he cares for us and wants us to be with him forever.

In our day, there are lots of things to worry about.  Many people right now are worrying about the economy.  Will we be able to stay in our homes or will we lose them?  Will we be able to pay our bills?  Can we still afford to live in a safe place?  And there are lots of other things we worry about too.  We worry about people we love when they are sick.  We worry about passing tests, whether they are tests in school or medical tests.  We worry about our family and friends who are off in foreign lands fighting difficult wars.  There is no shortage of things to worry about.

But Jesus reminds us today that we are in God’s hands.  The hairs of our head have been counted.  We are worth more than millions of sparrows, and God notices every single one of them.

St. Ignatius of Antioch was a bishop at the end of the first and beginning of the second century.  At that time, Christians were often persecuted, this time under the Emperor Trajan.  Christians were being forced to deny Christ or lose their lives.  Many of them chose to give their lives for Christ, and Ignatius was one of them.

When he was in prison, Ignatius wrote to the people in the churches he led.  He told them not to worry about him.  In fact, he told them not to try to intervene for him, not to try to stop what was going to happen.  He knew he would die for his faith, but he didn’t want them to try and stop it.  He was not worried about his life, because he knew that God would take care of him.  He wrote:  “No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.”

He was killed for his faith and became a martyr.  We celebrate his courage on this feast day for him.  We celebrate his faith in Jesus, that faith that told him there was nothing to worry about because God loved him and valued him more than many sparrows.

What we need to do today is to give our worries back to Jesus, to remember that we are in his hands, and to tell him that we trust in him.  After our prayers of the faithful, we are all going to come forward and offer our worries back to Jesus so that we can put them in his hands as we celebrate the Eucharist today.  After you come forward to give your worries to one of our students who will place them before the altar, I want you to return to your seat and imagine yourself giving that worry to Jesus.  Imagine him taking it from you, reassuring you that you are worth more than many sparrows, and imagine him embracing you and reassuring you that you will be cared for.

Thursday of the Twenty-eighth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

When I was in seminary, one of the big courses we had to pass with flying colors early on was called Christology.  As the name might suggest, Christology is the study of Jesus Christ, but perhaps more specifically a study of the Church’s theology about Jesus Christ.  That course covers what we believe about Christ, the history of the Church’s belief about Christ, and the history of the many schisms and heresies that developed around Christ through the early years of the Church.

When I read this morning’s first reading, I was so taken by the feeling that it was a reading about Christology as a whole.  If you want to know what we believe about Jesus Christ, just reread this reading a few times and reflect on it.  That’s your homework, by the way!  So what I’d like to do is to point out as many of the beliefs covered in this reading as I can, to give you food for thought.

The first part is the standard St. Paul kind of greeting in which he says “grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Foundationally, this prayer says exactly what we believe: grace and peace come from the Father and the Son.  He goes on to say that we have all been blessed by the Father in the Son with every spiritual blessing.  God has chosen to send his grace, peace and blessing to us through Jesus, because it is Jesus who can relate to us in our human nature.  Through Jesus, he says, we have been chosen and called to holiness, loved and adopted as sons and daughters of God.

Because of that love and adoption, God would not leave us in our sin.  No, through Christ we are also redeemed, forgiven and lavished with grace.  It is through Jesus also that God makes known all the mysteries of life and grace.  All of this had been set in motion before the world began, but given to us in time, here and now, through the One who was with him in the beginning and who stays with us until the end.  And at the end, everything in heaven and on earth will be summed up in Christ.

As St. Paul says in another place, through Christ, with Christ and in him all things are.  Through Christ everything continues in being right up until the end.  And so thanks today go to St. Paul, the master theologian who reminds us of the great heritage and hope that we have in Christ.  And thanks be to God for the grace that is ours in every moment.

Tuesday of the Twenty-eighth Week of Ordinary Time: Let your mercy come to me, O Lord

Today’s readings

“Let your mercy come to me, O Lord.”

I love that there were short verses for the psalm today, and we got to repeat this refrain from the Psalmist over and over.  If you think about it, and if you really enter into it, it becomes a kind of mantra, or Taize chant, or the Jesus Prayer, a way to center ourselves and open ourselves up to the Lord in this Eucharistic celebration.

“Let your mercy come to me, O Lord.”

Because we are all in need of the Lord’s mercy, aren’t we?  Whether it is sinfulness, addiction, illness or infirmity, anxiety, worry about a family member, uncertainty about a job or the economy as a whole, we all have to realize that so much of the time we are in desperate need of the Lord’s love and mercy.

“Let your mercy come to me, O Lord.”

And we come to the point that we know that the only thing that can help us is the Lord’s mercy.  We may have tried so many times on our own to cure ourselves or make the pain go away or focus on the positive or not cause waves, we know that of ourselves, ultimately, we are unable to fix the things that really vex us.  Sin takes hold, circumstances beyond our control confound us, powerlessness causes frustration.  And then, all of a sudden, we remember the One we were trying to hide from, or with whom we didn’t want to bother with our troubles.  But in the face of our own powerlessness, we must turn to the one whose power can overcome all.

“Let your mercy come to me, O Lord.”

And so that powerlessness eventually, inevitably intersects with the loving power of our merciful God, who desires so much more for us than we would settle for.  And then we really do let God’s mercy come to us.  Because it was always there in the first place; never withheld.  We had just to let it come to us, had to be open to it, had to be in the place where we could receive it and come to the point where we could acknowledge our need for it and our gratitude for receiving it.  And when we at last arrive there, and that mercy comes to us, how overwhelmed we can be, how transformed, how loved we can feel, how cared for.  God’s mercy is always there, we have just to let it come to us.

“Let your mercy come to me, O Lord.”

Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It was shortly after lunch that I finished this homily, and who could blame me?  With all this talk of “juicy, rich food” and wedding banquets, and even St. Paul saying that he knew what it was like to be well-fed and what it was like to be hungry, whose mind wouldn’t turn to food?  And that’s really okay, because all of us have come here [today / tonight] because we are hungry, but maybe hungry in a different way.

Many people, when asked why they pick one church over another, say that they do it because it is at that church that they are “spiritually fed.”  And that is certainly one of the tasks of the church, to feed those who hunger with the spiritual food that comes from our Lord Jesus Christ.  And I think that’s the lens through which we have to see this rather curious Gospel parable today.

When our modern ears hear this parable, there are surely things that seem odd about it, aren’t there?  First of all, as the wedding banquet is finished, the guests have to be summoned to the feast.  But in those days, they probably had received a formal invitation previously, and then had to be let know when the feast was ready.  But then we come to this very curious issue of the invited guests not wishing to attend.  What could possibly be keeping them away.  Even if they weren’t thrilled by the invitation and honored to attend, you’d think they would show up anyway because of who it is that is inviting them.  You would think they would want to keep the king happy.

And many of us have been in the position of going to some social event because it is expected of us, I am sure.  I myself remember clearly attending events for work in my pre-priesthood days because clients or other VIPs were in the area.  Even in seminary, we were often “invited” to events that really were mandatory, which always used to drive me nuts.  But we can all relate in some way to attending some social event because it is expected of us, and not necessarily because we would choose to be there.

And that makes what happens next even stranger.  Did they really think they could mistreat and kill the king’s messengers without any kind of consequences?  No king worth his salt would let such a disrespectful challenge to his authority go unpunished.

But now the banquet is still ready and the guests are well, unavailable shall we say…  So the king sends the messengers out to all the public places in order to invite whomever they find.  And who are they going to find?  Well, probably pretty much what you’d expect: peddlers, butchers, beggars, prostitutes, tax collectors, shop lifters, the physically impaired and sick … in short, not the sort of people you’d expect to find at a king’s wedding banquet.

So, to me, it’s not all that shocking that one of them is not appropriately dressed for the banquet.  What is shocking is that the rest of them are, right?  Some biblical scholars have suggested that perhaps the king, knowing who was going to show up, may have provided appropriate attire, and that one person refused to put it on.  Certainly if that were true, we could all understand the king throwing that person out.

Putting the parable in context, the banquet is the kingdom of God.  The distinguished invited guests are the people to whom Jesus addressed the parable: the chief priests and the elders of the people.  These have all rejected the invitation numerous times, and would now make that rejection complete by murdering the messenger, the king’s son, Christ Jesus.  Because of this, God would take the kingdom from them, letting them go on to their destruction, and offer the kingdom to everyone that would come, possibly indicating the Gentiles, but certainly including everyone whose way of life would have been looked down upon by the chief priests and elders: prostitutes, criminals, beggars, the blind and lame.  All of these would be ushered in to the banquet, being given the new beautiful wedding garment which is baptism, of course, and treated to a wonderful banquet, which is the Eucharist.  Those who further reject the king by refusing to don that pristine garment may indeed be cast out, but to everyone who accepts the grace given them, a sumptuous banquet awaits.

Can you imagine the hunger that those beggars, prostitutes, criminals, blind and lame people had?  Think about how filthy were the garments they had to be wearing.  Yet they are all washed clean in the waters of baptism, fed to satisfaction on the Bread of Life.

If by now you’re thinking that the beggars, prostitutes, criminals, blind and lame are you and me, well, now you’re beginning to understand what Jesus is getting at.  Our sinfulness leaves us impoverished, and hardly worthy to attend the Banquet of the Lord.  It would only be just for our God to leave us off the invitation list.  But our God will do no such thing.  He washes us in the waters of baptism, clothing us in Christ, bringing us to the Banquet, and feeding us beyond our wildest imaginings.  We come here desiring to be spiritually fed, and our God offers us the very best: his own Son’s body and blood.

[Today we join with our RCIA candidates for full communion, who are themselves answering the king’s invitation tonight.  They are one with us in baptism already, and in the days to come will complete the formation that will bring them along with us to the table of the Lord.  Their presence here stirs our own hearts, reminding us to keep that wedding garment pristine, and approach the Lord’s table with renewed love and devotion.]

As we come to the Banquet today, we must certainly be overjoyed that our names are on the list.  We have been summoned and the banquet is prepared.  Now we approach the Banquet of the Lord with gratitude for the invitation, which is certainly undeserved, but just as certainly the cause of all our joy.  We sing this joy with our Psalmist today: “Only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.”