The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I had supper with a friend this week.  During the course of our conversation over dinner, he explained his conviction that most people, perhaps even some people who come to Mass every Sunday, don’t really have faith anymore.  He thinks our society has lost the conviction that our faith is radical, real, and life-changing.  And that is because, he says, if we really did believe that the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ, we wouldn’t have a vocations crisis, because parents would be eager to encourage their sons to become priests so that we would never go without the Eucharist.  I’m still mulling over the implications of what he said.

But whether he’s right or not, today’s Scriptures speak to exactly what he was saying.  In these summer days of the Church’s Ordinary Time, we have been exploring the meaning of discipleship.  Each Sunday, I think, we are given a tool for living our discipleship.  The tool we get today is that of faith.  And faith is a word that we toss around kind of carelessly in these days.  We talk about having faith in someone, having faith in ourselves, being people of faith.  But what does that even mean?  What does faith look like?  Well, today’s Liturgy of the Word helps us to paint that picture.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews lays down the definition of faith for us: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Faith is something we all strive to have, but faith is really a gift. We long to be people of faith because it is faith that gives peace in the midst of uncertainty. Faith, as the author points out, is not the same thing as proof. Proof requires evidence, and faith usually provides none of that. Faith, perhaps, is not knowing what will happen, but instead knowing the one in whom we trust. If we know our God is trustworthy, then we don’t need to know all the details of what is ahead of us; instead, we can trust in the One who leads us. The more that we exercise that faith, the more our faith grows.

The author speaks about Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob.  They were heirs of the promise God made, a real covenant with his people.  Abraham and Sarah should never even have given birth to Isaac and Jacob – they were too old.  But they did, and Isaac and Jacob were but the beginning of “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sands on the seashore.”  Even then, they didn’t see the fulfillment of the promise.  That would only come about in the Paschal Mystery of Christ our God, but they had the glimpse of it from afar.

The parable in our Gospel today tells us what living the faith looks like: “You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” Faith requires waiting, and we do all sorts of waiting. We wait in the grocery line and in the doctor’s office. We wait for friends or family to join us at the dinner table. We wait for job offers, for the right person in our relationships, and we wait for the right direction in our lives. In all of our waiting, Jesus tells us today, we must be prepared for the outpouring of God’s grace. If we are distracted by worldly things and worldly activities, we may miss that grace as it is poured out right before us. If we are caught up in things that have no permanence, we may miss our opportunity to follow Christ to our salvation. We must always be prepared for the Son of Man to come into our lives.

The parable gives us some wonderful images.  Those faithful servants, whom the Master finds busy doing their jobs when he returns, are not just given a pat on the back.  No, they are seated at table, and the Master himself begins to wait on them!  That image had to be astonishing to those servants of Jesus’ day.  But it is none the less real for us.  We come here to Mass today expecting that very same thing to happen.  We come to the table, and we are fed by our Master in a way that we could never feed ourselves on our own.  The grace poured out on us as people of faith is incredible, if we have the faith to notice it.

The second wonderful image in this parable is what happens at the end: “if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.”  But when you think about it, that has already happened: Jesus  has returned in his Spirit and has “broken into” our house.  Jesus’ return is unexpected: he is like a sneaky thief.  And so, we need to be vigilant, we need to be aware of the return of Jesus.

But again, what does that look like?  For what should we keep vigil?  This is where faith comes in to play.  It might be strength in the midst of crisis, or maybe a deep-down joy underneath the same old daily routine. It could be an unexpected treat, like a visit with an old friend. Sometimes it looks like a reassuring presence during a quiet moment of prayer. Or perhaps even a renewed commitment to keep on doing what we know we are called to do.

Faith can be nebulous, but in today’s Liturgy, we are taught that faith looks like something.  Faith means living the Gospel with urgency every day, as though Jesus were going to return tomorrow, even if that return is many years in the future.  Faith means looking for the blessing in every day, even when cares and concerns and sadness threaten to swallow us up.  Faith means standing up for the truth, reaching out to those in need, preaching the Gospel in our words and in our deeds.

The protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr spoke of the notion of faith in his famous “Serenity Prayer.”  You’ve probably heard the first part, but I think the last part is that prayer for faith that we all pray today:

God,

Grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change;

The courage to change the things I can;

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world

As it is, not as I would have it;

Trusting that you will make all things right

If I surrender to your will;

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life

And supremely happy with you

Forever in the next.  Amen.

The Transfiguration of the Lord

Today’s readings

How do you picture Jesus? We’ve never seen him face to face, but we have seen artwork depicting him. That artwork can be very inspiring. But that artwork can also give us a false, overly-familiar look at Jesus our God. I tend to think Peter, James and John also had a kind of familiar picture of their Jesus. Over the time they had spent with him thus far, they had become close to him and saw him as a friend, a companion on the journey, and a great teacher. But they were always having trouble with his divinity.

Today’s feast changes all of that for them, and for us as well. If there was any doubt about who Jesus was, it’s gone now. That voice from the cloud is absolutely specific: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Jesus is the Son of God and his divinity must be embraced and proclaimed. While it can be comfortable for us to have a picture of Jesus that is absolutely human, we must always keep in mind the Transfigured Christ, dazzling white, radiating glory, the lamp shining in a dark place. He is the Son of Man of whom Daniel speaks, and to him belongs dominion, glory, and kingship. If Jesus were only human, we would have no Savior, we would have no chance of touching divinity ourselves, that divinity for which we were created.

On the way to the mountain, the disciples came to know Jesus in his humanity, and on the way down, they came to know Jesus in his divinity. That trip down from the mountain took him to Calvary, and ultimately to the Resurrection, the glory of all glories. Christ is both human and divine, without any kind of division or separation. We must be ready to see both natures of our Jesus, so that we ourselves can transfigure our world with justice, compassion and mercy, in the divine image of our beautiful Savior. No matter what challenges may confront us or what obstacles may appear along the way, we must be encouraged to press on with the words of the Psalmist: “The Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth.”

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.” 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

Today’s readings

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 calling to become a priest. He was eventually ordained, and in sainthood, he is the patron saint of parish priests.

The Psalmist today sings, “The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.”   St .John Vianney is the image of the good shepherd who guarded the flock zealously.  He 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.

Tuesday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading is one of my favorites.  Truthfully, though, it always makes me a little uncomfortable.  Which is what it’s supposed to do.  This Gospel wants us to get out of the boat, too.

We can tend to give Saint Peter a lot of grief over this incident.  If he was able to walk on the water for a few steps, why couldn’t he finish the journey?  What we see happen here is that while he has his eyes on Jesus, he can accomplish what seems impossible: he walks on water.  But when he gets distracted by the storm and the wind and the waves, he begins to sink into the water.

Our spiritual journeys are a lot like that, I think.  It takes courage to get out of the boat, but the boat is where Jesus is.  We won’t get to him unless we make that leap of faith and step out of the comfort of our boats – whatever those boats may be.  And we do fine while we have our eyes on Jesus, but the minute we get distracted by the storms raging all around us, we begin to sink into the ocean of despair that surrounds us.

When that happens, we can be depressed about our progress.  We can be very hard on ourselves for falling yet again.  But we have to understand that Peter, and we, are not the biggest losers in this whole incident.  There were eleven guys who never had the courage or the faith to get out of the boat in the first place.  And so, like Peter, we can reach up to our Lord and let him pull us out of the swirling waters once again.

For those of us who take the leap of faith with Peter today, we may be of “little faith,” we may even doubt sometimes, but our faith in Jesus will always keep us safe.

Monday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Give them some food yourselves,” Jesus says to the disciples.  Yes, it would be easier to send the people away so they can fend for themselves.  But that’s not how God wants to feed them, and Jesus won’t hear of it.  “Give them some food yourselves.”  All they have are five loaves and couple of fish, hardly enough for the incredible crowd.  But, that sacrifice in the hands of Jesus is enough to feed all of them and then some.  What meager offering will you be called upon to sacrifice today so that others can be fed?  Our little service might not seem like much, but in Jesus’ hands it is more than enough.  “Give them some food yourselves.”

The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Recently in the news, there have been a few stories of people who have hoarded possessions so much as to put them in danger.  In the most recent story, a woman in the Chicago area had passed away, and rescuers needed to cut a hole in her roof in order to remove her from the home.  People like this have an illness with regard to hoarding, of course.  But today’s Liturgy of the Word seems to address the hoarder in all of us.  We are people of means, maybe not the most well-off, but certainly better off than most of the world.  When do we have enough?  When does it all become too much?

Listen to the last line of this morning’s Gospel one more time: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” So right away the parable is turned around and directed at all of us. And it wouldn’t be so hard to put that parable in modern terms, would it? Think of winning the lottery, only to know that the day you receive the check is the day you go home to the Lord. Or think of spending your days and nights in the office, building wealth and prestige, only to be part of massive layoffs when the company is sold. Or, even worse, spending your days and nights at the office, only to miss the growing of your family. So, Jesus asks us, what treasures have we built up? With what have we filled our barns?

Today’s first reading is from the book of Ecclesiastes, which in Hebrew is Qoheleth, who is the teacher in the book. Among the Wisdom books in the Scriptures, Ecclesiastes can be the hardest to read because it is almost prophetic in content. Qoheleth is considered wise among his contemporaries, much like many of the popular wisdom teachers of his day. While we don’t know who Qoheleth was, the book is attributed to Solomon, the wise king.  Solomon often wrote of the prizes that lay in store for those who were successful. But this book is a little different. Here he questions if it is all worth it, and challenges the complacence and dishonesty that run rampant in that society. If we didn’t know any better, he could well have been writing his words today, couldn’t he? In the end, though, Qoheleth’s message is basically encouraging, and brings us back to the God who made us. At the end of his book, which is not part of today’s reading, he says: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.” (Ecc. 12:13-14) Which is exactly what Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel.

St. Paul has a little bit of Qoheleth in him too, today. In the letter to the Colossians, which we have been hearing these past few weeks, he is trying to get that community to lay aside earthly things and seek God. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? “If you were raised with Christ,” he tells them, “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” In other words, stop filling your barns with the stuff that you accumulate on this earth, and be rich in what matters to God. Qoheleth, St. Paul, and Jesus are in complete concert today, and we must be careful to hear their message. St. Paul, typical for him, is very blunt about what he is asking us to lay aside: “Put to death then,” he tells us, “the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” And, “stop lying to one another.” We are called to be disciples who are pure, compassionate and truthful, because absolutely nothing else will lead us to the kingdom of God!

So, let’s get back to Jesus’ instruction at the end of today’s Gospel parable: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” We have to ask ourselves, then, the very important question: “what is it that matters to God?” I think we know what doesn’t qualify – St. Paul made that very clear. I think the things that matter to God are those things we might count among our blessings: namely our family and friends. Those things that matter to God might also be the things that make us disciples who are pure, compassionate and truthful. So we might seek to be rich in prayer, rich in reaching out to the poor and needy, rich in standing up for truth and justice.

Today God is tugging at the heart-strings of the hoarder in all of us.  What are we stockpiling?  Maybe we need a look at our checkbooks, our calendars, and our to-do lists to see where our money, time and resources have gone.  Can we take any of that with us if we are called home to God tonight?  If those things are all we have, we could find ourselves in real poverty when we arrive at the pearly gates.  This week’s to-do list might find us letting go of some of what we thought was important, so that we can be rich in what matters to God.  These, brothers and sisters in Christ, are the riches that will not spoil and can never be taken away from us.