Thursday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The Israelites wandering in the desert would seem to have had the spiritual life easy. How could they possibly miss God’s presence? There was a cloud to lead them to the Lord by day, and fire by night. But just like the stuff that ended up in the net in today’s Gospel, some people got it and some people didn’t.

The same is true for us. How hard can it be for us to see the Lord’s presence in our own lives?  Even now, some people get it and some people don’t.  And more than that, even the faithful among us sometimes get it and sometimes don’t.  I often think it would be good to have something as hard to miss as a column of cloud or fire to keep me on the straight and narrow.  Well, in a way – a much better way, actually –  we do: we have the Church, the Sacraments, and the Word of God, prayer that beckons us by day and by night. But even that doesn’t always light the way for us.  There are so many distractions.

The issue is urgent.  The Kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells us today, will be like the fishmongers sorting out the fish from the seaborne refuse.  We don’t want to get thrown out with all that vile stuff.  So, may God lead us all to be among those who get it, those who follow the way marked out for us. After all, we have something way better than clouds by day and fire by night, don’t we?

St. Martha

Today’s readings

St. MarthaYou know, I think St. Martha gets kind of a bad rap in general.  She is maybe best known for the fact that she complained about having to do all the cooking and serving while her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet the whole time.  But I think that reputation is undeserved.  I think today’s Gospel reading gives us a better look at why Martha is indeed a saint.  This reading gives us Martha’s profession of faith.  Jesus asks her if she believes that he indeed is the resurrection and the life, and she responds with great faith, “Yes, Lord.  I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

There was a division among the Jews at the time, between those who believed in life after death and those who did not.  It was the Sadducees that did not believe in an afterlife.  Martha clearly isn’t one of these.  Not only does she believe in a resurrection of the dead, but she believes that Jesus is the one who has come to make it all possible.  And she couldn’t be more right.

Martha’s profession of faith comes at a particularly low point in her life: her brother Lazarus has died.  So I think Martha is the patron saint of all of us who choose to witness to our faith even when times are hard.  Those who live faithfully when they are sick or dying, or when they are grieving, or when they are looking for work, or when they are suffering from addiction, or whatever it may be, can look to St. Martha as their patron.  Because when our faith is tested and we choose to live it anyway, that is when we are most like the saints.  And St. Martha is the one to lead us in proclaiming, “Yes, Lord: my faith may be tested right now, but I believe anyway.  You are the Christ.  You are the resurrection and the life.  You are the one who is coming into the world!”

Tuesday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel is perhaps a bit more vivid for me this week, because on Sunday I spent time weeding the side yard at my mother’s house.  It’s not a task I really look forward to, but it is kind of good in that when you finish a job like that, you can look at it and see something good happened.  There’s a sense of accomplishment.  When Father John and Father Jim and I had lunch yesterday, we talked about what we did over the weekend.  Father Jim joked that the difference between a weed and a plant was where it was growing.

That’s the kind of question the disciples had for Jesus today.  Jesus had just told them several parables about the kingdom of God, and this one didn’t get read in the Gospels the last few days.  So we have the explanation, but not the parable.  You can check it out in the 13th chapter of Matthew.  The story basically went that the landowner sowed good seed in the field, but when it started to grow, weeds came up too.  His laborers asked him about it and he said, “An enemy has done this.” So they wanted to pull up the weeds, but the master said to let them grow together until harvest time, lest in pulling them up they also accidentally pull up the good plants.  They could then be pulled up and burnt at harvest time.

Now I think a good gardener might quibble with the analogy.  But that’s not the point.  The point is good news, and the good news is this: however much we may resemble the weeds during our life, Jesus gives us the time to grow into much lovelier plants during our lives.  He doesn’t blot us out of the book of life for one transgression.  But the warning is that we only have so much time until the harvest.  If we are going to turn to the God who sowed us and provide good fruit, we need to do it now.  If we wait until the harvest, it may well be too late.  Our God gives us the freedom to choose to be the good seeds in the field of the world, blessed are we who choose to grow that way.

Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B

Today’s readings

The Bread of Life Discourse: an outline

Bishop Kaffer used to say that every celebration of the Eucharist was a greater creative act than the creation of the universe.  Now I think greater theological minds than mine would likely debate that, but what Bishop Kaffer gets at is worth considering.  The Eucharist is an incredible miracle, and we are privileged to be part of it every time we gather to celebrate Mass.  Beginning this Sunday, for five weeks, we will take a bit of an excursus from reading Mark’s Gospel as we do during this Church year.  We will instead read from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, which is commonly known as the “Bread of Life Discourse.”

The Bread of Life Discourse is one of the most important themes of John’s Gospel.  For John, this is the account of the institution of the Eucharist.  For Matthew, Mark and Luke, the institution takes place at the Last Supper with the famous words, “take and eat” and “take a drink.”  But John’s Last Supper doesn’t have that story.  There John focuses on the washing of the feet, teaching his disciples to care for one another as he has cared for them.

The feeding of the multitudes is a story that has the unique distinction of being in all four of the Gospels.  But, because this is John’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, he covers it a bit differently.  Still, that the story is found in all of the Gospel accounts that we have indicates how important the incident was for the early Church.  For John, though, it is clearly Jesus who is in charge here.  First of all, it is Jesus who notices that the crowds are hungry; they have expressed no such need.  Jesus doesn’t need anyone to tell him what the people need or how to minister to them; he has the ability to figure that out for himself.

Second, like a good salesman, he doesn’t ask any questions to which he doesn’t already know the answer.  When he asks Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” he already knows the answer.  But certainly it stumps Philip, who, not recognizing it as a rhetorical question, notes that not even 200 days wages would provide food for each of these people to have a little.  The key here, though, is that Jesus asked the question knowing full well what he was going to do.

And third, when the loaves and fishes had been gathered and blessed, it is Jesus, not the Twelve, who distribute the food to the people.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus gives the food to the Apostles to give to the people.  But in John’s account, Jesus takes the food, gives thanks, and gives it to the people himself.  The word “thanks” here, in Greek, is eucharisteo, which makes obvious the fact that this is Jesus, fully in charge, giving the Eucharist to the people and to us.

At the heart of John’s story of the feeding of the multitudes is the important teaching that Jesus is enough.  Here the boy brought two fish and five loaves of bread, and they were barley loaves, the bread of the poor.  It was probably his lunch for the day, and certainly not meant to feed so many people.  And there were a lot of people.  The gender-biased story says there were five thousand men there.  We can assume there were also women and children, after all it was the boy who sacrificed his lunch for the crowd.  So the actual number of people fed was huge.  But look again at how many pieces of food there were: five loaves, two fish, together that equals seven, which is a very Biblical number, usually symbolizing completeness.  Jesus takes the little lunch, and in his hands it is enough, and more than enough, to feed the crowd.

And everyone who needed to be fed was not at the picnic.  The disciples gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers, reminiscent of the Twelve apostles, and the twelve tribes of Israel.  All these leftovers are meant to feed others, including you and me.  And that can happen because Jesus is enough, and more than enough, to fill our hungry stomachs, and hearts, and souls.  This little picnic is the Eucharistic banquet par excellence, the first giving of the sacrament that is the source and summit of our lives as Christians.

Now I want to make a note about an explanation of this miracle that you may sometimes hear.  The explanation goes that when Jesus started passing around the loaves and fish, other people noticed what he did and they too decided to share their lunches with the crowd.  So someone took out a sandwich and shared it, another shared some of their fish, or some bread, or whatever it was they had.  And so on and so on until lo and behold, everyone has had enough and there are leftovers.  This is often known as the “miracle of sharing” and it’s very heartwarming to be sure.  It’s the kind of thing Oprah and Dr. Phil would be all over.  How great it is that we can help each other out and do great things.

But that explanation is wrong, dead wrong.  Absolutely wrong, without a doubt.  Don’t let anyone insist to you that it’s right.  And here’s the rule of thumb: whenever an explanation makes the Gospel story more about us than it is about Christ, it’s always wrong.  Always.  Without exception.  The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus came to bring, and the story is always about him.  The miracle here is not that so many people were touched to their heart and decided to share.  The miracle is that a boy sacrificed his five loaves and two fish, and in Jesus’ hands they become enough, and more than enough, to fill the stomachs of every person on that grassy hillside, and twelve baskets besides.  Period.

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

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

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

St. James, apostle

Today’s readings

“Can you drink the chalice of which I am going to drink?”

What does that even mean for us?  We know what Jesus’ chalice was like: it led him through sorrow, and abandonment, and ultimately to the cross.  If we have ever been in a situation in which we have felt intense grief, or felt abandoned, or had to stand by and watch the death of one that we loved, well then, we know a little bit of what that chalice is going to taste like.

Being a disciple is messy business.  It means that it’s not all the glory, pomp and circumstance.  It means that our faith sometimes has to move from the mountaintop experiences down into the valleys of despair.  It means that there are times when we will be in situations that are frustrating, infuriating, debilitating, grievous and horrible.  We will have to drink a very bitter chalice indeed.  And Jesus wasn’t just talking to John and James when he said “My chalice you will indeed drink.”  That’s the cup reserved for all of us who would be his disciples.

Very clearly those words of St. Paul ring true for us:

We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
For we who live are constantly being given up to death
for the sake of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

What is unspoken here but clearly implied is the grace.  Those who abandon their lives to take up the cross, wherever that leads them, will always have at their disposal the grace to live a life that is joyful in the face of affliction, confident in the midst of uncertainty, whole in the midst of destruction.  There is nothing that the world or its evils can throw at us that cannot be ultimately overcome by the grace of God.  We will still have to live through sadness at times, but that sadness can never and must never overtake the joy we have in Christ.

Like St. James and his brother John, we are all called to drink from the chalice that Jesus drank. That means that we will always bear the dying of Jesus in our own bodies. We can’t explain why bad things happen to good people, but we can explain how good people handle bad situations well: they handle it well because they know Christ and live in Christ every day of their lives. Sometimes the chalice we will have to drink will be unpleasant, distasteful and full of sorrow. But with God’s grace, our drinking of those cups can be a sacrament of the presence of God in the world.

Everyone who is great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first among us must be our slave. St. James learned how to do that and still thrive in his mission. May we all be that same kind of sacrament for the world.

Friday of the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Maybe you remember memorizing the Ten Commandments as a child.  I do.  I sometimes think that memorizing things is a lost art.  Certainly memorizing things like the Ten Commandments doesn’t happen as much as it used to, and that’s too bad.  The Psalmist is the one who tells us why today: “The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart.”  The commandments are not meant to be burdensome.  They are meant to give us a framework for life that allows us maximum freedom by staying in close relationship with our Lord and God, and in right relationship with the people in our lives.  Certainly the Ten Commandments, with all their “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” have gotten a negative reputation over the years.  But if we would have true freedom, then we must give them another shot at our devotion, for they are indeed the words of everlasting life.

Thursday of the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

During the summer before my final year of seminary, I worked as a hospital chaplain.  It ended up being a pretty rough summer for me and the other men and women in the student chaplain group: we had a record number of deaths and tragic accidents to deal with, and it was, as you might expect, getting us pretty down.  Then for morning prayer one day, one of my fellow students brought in today’s Gospel, and we reflected especially on the end part of the reading:

“But blessed are your eyes, because they see,

and your ears, because they hear.

Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people

longed to see what you see but did not see it,

and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

The more we explored that reading, the more we became aware that, even in the midst of all of the very real tragedy we were experiencing, we were also experiencing some very real great blessing.  How true that is for all of us in life.  We tend to dwell on the negative things we are seeing, and no one would ever doubt that we all have to see some pretty rotten stuff in our lives, some people it seems more so than others.  But the problem comes when we let go of the blessing that comes too.  We people of faith have to be convinced that God is with us even in, perhaps especially in, our darkest moments, and gives us glimpses of the kingdom of God that perhaps others don’t get to see.  Blessed are our eyes when we get to see them!

The people in Moses’ day didn’t ever really get to see God.  They got to see Moses, who sort of acted as an intermediary for them with God.  No one else could see God and live.  But our eyes do get to see God.  We can see God in the Eucharist, we can see God in the person sitting next to us, we can see God in the graced moments of our day.  Maybe we just need to open our eyes to see God more often, but he is there, longing to bless our eyes with the vision of him.