The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Today’s readings

I love these readings today; they are so filled with rich imagery.  We can imagine the scrumptious banquet described in our first reading; we can just picture the picnic that Jesus provided in the gospel.  These are images that perhaps resonate with us as we spend our summertime attending family reunions, picnics, and neighborhood block parties.  And for those among us who are in need, the image of the heavenly banquet is one that they yearn for in suffering.

But as I read the gospel reading today, one particular word leapt out at me.  This word, I think, is the reason for the rich banquet we have been promised.  That word is “pity.”  The gospel says that when Jesus saw the vast crowd that was following him to this out-of-the-way place, “his heart was moved with pity for them.”  That pity led him to call on the disciples to give them some food to eat, and when they couldn’t, he helped them do it.

But that word “pity” has negative connotations for us, I think.  When we hear the word “pity” perhaps it implies condescension that makes people feel despised.  We have certainly heard people say, “don’t pity me” or “I don’t want your pity!”  And they say that because pity, to our ears, implies a feeling that writes the other person off as someone less than able.  “Pity” as we use it doesn’t generally move a person to action.

But for Jesus, the pity was anything but the experience we have had.  Pity for him moved his heart in such a way that he had to do something about the plight of the people who were following him.  So I did a little digging and found that the Greek word that is translated as “pity” in this reading is splagchnizomai.  Now I’m not a Greek scholar.  When I took Greek in seminary it was an optional class that carried zero credit hours.  So let’s just say that the homework didn’t often float to the top of the stack!  But I did enjoy it enough to get some things out of it and one of them was this word splagchnizomai.

Splagchnizomai is a Greek example of what we call onomatopoeia, that is, a word that sounds like what it is.  So it is defined as a deep guttural reaction that moves one to compassion.  This is hardly what we think of when we think “pity.”  Parents may relate to this word if they think about a time when, perhaps, they saw their child falling and they had a deep feeling of pain even before the child hit the ground.  The word is famously used in John’s gospel when Jesus learns of the death of his friend Lazarus.  In that instance we are told that Jesus was “deeply perturbed,” he had splagchnizomai for Lazarus, his sisters, and the people who were mourning.  In that instance, his compassion moved him to raise Lazarus from the dead.

So today, Jesus has splagchnizomai for the crowds.  That deep, guttural reaction was one that he was trying to teach his disciples.  When they approach him to suggest that he dismiss the crowds so they can go find supper, he says “give them some food yourselves.”  He recognizes that they have that feeling of compassion, but he wants them to complete it by acting on it.  But they can’t: they have only five loaves and two fish.  For Jesus, however, it is enough, and he famously prays over what they have and gives it to them to distribute, and it turns out to be even more than enough.  Jesus’ splagchnizomai for the crowds gave them more than they needed, more than they could have hoped for, and he teaches his disciples to have splagchnizomai too.

And so we disciples now need to respond to that.  We can, like Jesus’ apostles, feel overwhelmed in the face of so great a task.  We have enough on our plate dealing with our own families’ financial woes, job demands, raising of children, caring for the elderly, and so much more.  Then we find ourselves walking with friends, co-workers and classmates who are having problems.  How can we ever expect to then reach out and meet the needs of those in need: the poor, hungry and homeless, migrants, financially ruined families, and so many more?  What good are our meager efforts in the face of so much suffering?

But we should remember that God most likely has not asked us to solve all the world’s problems, but instead just handle our own little corner of the world.  God can multiply our efforts just as he multiplied the loaves and fishes to really affect the world for good.  It just starts with a little splagchnizomai, a little deep feeling of compassion that moves us on to action, that moves us to be the Body of Christ and feed others as we have been fed.  We just have to be willing to give them some food ourselves.

Saint 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.

The Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Today’s readings

Think about it.  God comes to you in a dream and says that you can have anything you want.  It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  What would you ask for?  What is the one thing you’d give anything to have?

I think the reason Solomon was even asked that question was because God already knew the answer.  God already knew that what Solomon wanted was something that would be good for Solomon to have.  Solomon asks for a wise and understanding heart so that he could more readily lead the people God had called him to lead.  And so God grants his servant’s request: he gives him so wise and understanding a heart that there was never anyone like Solomon and no one will ever be as wise and wonderful as he was.

Solomon’s answer to God’s question told us what was of most importance to Solomon.  In today’s Gospel, we are asked to answer that same question.  Jesus speaks, as he has been for a few Sunday’s now, of what the kingdom of heaven is like.  A couple of weeks ago, the kingdom was like seed that was scattered and sown.  Some fell on rocks, some among weeds, but some on the good soil that yielded more than anyone had a right to hope for.  The kingdom of God is something like that: the more we nurture and cultivate our life with God, the more we benefit ourselves and others.  Last Sunday, the kingdom was again like seed, which was carefully planted, but was interrupted by someone planting weeds too.  The landowner had the harvesters sort it all out at harvest time.  The kingdom of God is something like that: the good and the bad will all be sorted out in due time.

Today the kingdom is like buried treasure or the pearl of great price.  The treasure is so great that when it is found, the treasure-hunter sells everything he has to buy the field.  The pearl is so wonderful that the merchant gives everything he has to buy it.  Can you imagine their joy?  What they have found is so wonderful that they give up everything to possess it.  Well, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like that.

But not just like that, right?  Because we know that worldly goods can never hold a candle to the riches of the Kingdom of heaven.  The success in our careers is nice, the nice things we have in our homes give us some pleasure, our accomplishments may even give us some pride.  But all of these will pale in the face of the joy of the Kingdom.

And so we have the invitation today.  We don’t have to look, because we have found the great treasure, the pearl of great price.  We have come here today to worship and to receive the Lord in the Eucharist.  There is nothing better on the face of the whole earth.  We know where to find that which is ultimately valuable.  But the fact is that we can come and go from this holy place today and still not have what’s truly worthwhile.  Because in order to receive it, we have to give up everything.  We have to sell everything and buy the field or purchase that pearl of great price.

That might mean walking away from a business deal that is profitable but has consequences for the poor or the environment.  Or perhaps it means giving up a relationship that is destructive.  We may have to give up a leisure pursuit that is enjoyable but separates us from family and friends.  We have to make choices, changes and decisions that amount to selling everything in order to make room for something that is of ultimate importance: that pearl of great price which is the Kingdom of heaven itself.

Today’s Liturgy of the Word leaves us with some very important questions.  What is the pearl of great price for us?  What is worth giving up everything?  How important is it for us to enter the Kingdom of heaven?  What is it that we must give up to get there?  Our prayer today is that we would be strengthened by the Word of God and nourished by the Eucharist so that we would have the courage to sell everything for the Kingdom of heaven, that pearl of ultimately great price.

The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Today’s readings

Many of us have planted gardens, maybe you’ve put in some plants this year.  But I’m always astounded when I’ve planted some seeds.  Here is this tiny, dead-looking thing: how can it ever give life to a large plant?  But that’s just what happens, isn’t it?  We carefully plant the seeds and then care for them – giving them water and keeping out the weeds and feeding them on occasion – and just about always they give life, flowers or vegetables for our table.  It’s a way to experience the miracle of life, that something dead can give life and sustenance to the living.  What a beautiful little model of salvation the seed is!

But if you’ve carefully planted seeds in rows at any point, you might wonder a bit about the methods used in today’s gospel reading.  Seed is scattered willy-nilly and a lot of it seems to be wasted.  But the original hearers of the parable would have understood what Jesus was saying.  It was the method used at that time: seed would be scattered, and then the soil would be tilled thus planting the seeds.  And so they would have understood that sometimes the seed falls in places the farmer didn’t intend, and those seeds don’t come to life, or if they do, it’s not for long.

So Jesus explains the parable for his disciples and for us.  The seed is the seed of faith.  God scatters it with wild abandon, pouring it out freely that his chosen ones – that’s you and me, by the way – would come to know him.  Sometimes it works: we receive the seed of faith, it’s watered in the sacrament of baptism, and we are fertile ground letting it come up and grow and give life to the world.  But sometimes it doesn’t work.

The seed might fall in a place where the faith is not nourished and Christ is not known.  If these places on the earth don’t have the gift of missionaries, the faith might never grow in those people.  Or maybe, a little closer to home, the seed falls on those whose turbulent lives can’t give the seed any roots: they receive the word of God with joy, but the trials and tribulations of daily living upset the apple-cart and the faith never really sinks in.  Or, even closer to home, maybe it falls on us embroiled as we are with the cares of the world.  The “weeds” of our living are improper relationships, too much time playing video games or surfing the wrong places of the internet, watching too much television, especially Oprah or Dr. Phil.  There is so much that can distract us from our faith, and too often, we don’t weed the gardens of our souls the way we should.

We, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, are called to be rich, fertile ground to give life to the faith planted in our hearts.  That means that we must keep ourselves fresh by renewing the waters of baptism in our hearts.  We must feed that seed of faith by dedicating ourselves to the Eucharist and coming to Mass all the time, whether it’s convenient or not.  We must weed out the distractions of our lives and give that seed of faith room to grow.  We must shine the brilliant sunlight of God’s love on that faith by living the Gospel and reaching out in love to brothers and sisters who are in need.

We are the ones who have been called to yield “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”  The seed of faith comes in the form of something that might look dead – Christ’s saving action on the cross.  When we water and feed and weed and let the light shine on that faith, we can give life to the world around us and give witness that the world’s death is no match for the salvation we have in Christ.

 

Homily for Independence Day: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Famously begins the Declaration of Independence, signed by representatives of the American colonies on July 4, 1776.  Sometimes, I think, it seems we have strayed pretty far from the ideals found in this wonderful document.  Just that first sentence says a lot about who our forefathers wanted us to be: it acknowledges the Creator God who gives people a dignity and rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  These rights must still be vigorously defended today.

The right to life seems like a no-brainer.  But as our society has become more complex, the right to life has been somewhat blurred.  When does life begin?  What lives need to be protected?  The Church, of course, calls for a vigorous defense of life at every stage from conception to natural death.  That means abortion is wrong, embryonic stem-cell research is wrong, euthanasia is wrong.  These convictions make for difficult conversations, but life is and always will be a basic human right.

The right to liberty is similarly blurred in today’s society.  Nobody wants anything to infringe on their freedoms.  And nothing should.  But being free people doesn’t mean that we’re free to do whatever we want.  Our freedom cannot, for example, impinge on the freedom of another person.  Our freedom cannot allow us to harm another person.  Saint Paul says that “for freedom, Christ has set us free.”  Our freedom has a purpose, and that purpose is that we can then freely choose Christ, freely choose God, freely choose love.  None of that happens in a coerced way.  Freely choosing God means that we must be willing to freely choose all that that choice entails, without threat of harm from another.

And finally there is the pursuit of happiness.  We Christians believe that happiness will never be perfectly obtained in this life.  We long for the happiness of the kingdom of God, that place we were made for in the first place.  We have the right to pursue reasonable happiness in this life, and we have a right to exercise the means to pursue the most excellent happiness of the world to come.

We Catholics teach that with all these rights come responsibilities.  We have a responsibility to protect the rights of others, to keep our nation from harm, to work for lasting peace in the world.  Toward that end, we are mindful and grateful of the work so many have done to secure our rights and freedoms, both those who have gone before us and those still fighting wars today.  In our prayer, we long for the day when war will be no more, and the peace that is the presence of Christ will rule over a world still in need of the perfection of life, liberty and happiness.

In the last line of the Declaration, our forefathers pledged themselves to the great task of building a nation based on these inalienable rights: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  May we always make the same pledge that our nation may always be great.

 

Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Today’s readings

I have to say, this is a slightly odd selection of readings that we have today.  Zechariah’s prophecy in the first reading sounds like something from Palm Sunday, which in fact it is.  This is the reading quoted in the Gospel of Matthew that we had at the beginning of the Palm Sunday Mass.  The second reading from Saint Paul to the Romans sounds like something from Lent.  And in fact, it is.  During Lent we hear from this letter and we have hope that we who have been dead in sin can be raised up with Christ at Easter.  Then we have the reading from Matthew’s Gospel, which I’ve already preached on twice this week: once for a funeral, and once for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart on Friday.  So it might seem a little strange to hear these things on a muggy Fourth of July Weekend.

But what at first glance seems like an odd mix is really part of the toolbox that we get during these summer weekends of the Church year.  We turn back to Ordinary Time Sundays today, for the first time since Lent began back in March.  We’re wearing the familiar green vestments, and we’re getting back to the ordered Sundays of the year.  Now that we can take a breather from the special things we celebrated during the Lent and Easter Seasons, and on the past two Sundays with the Holy Trinity and the Body and Blood of Christ, we get to read in the Scriptures about the ways that we should be living the Christian life.

These are what I like to call “discipleship Sundays” because they teach us how to be disciples, followers of Christ.  In the readings during the summer we get to put together a toolbox of sorts that helps us to live the Gospel.  So today, in this seemingly odd mix of readings, I think the tool that we get is the tool of humility.

Now as I say that, I think I can hear some of us thinking, “Well, no thanks, actually.  I may just leave that particular tool in the toolbox.”  Because being a person of humility can be seen as something of a character flaw.  For decades, maybe even longer, our culture has encouraged us to toot our own horn, to look out for number one.  “Believe in yourself” has been the mantra of Oprah and Doctor Phil and all those other so-called gurus.  But we have to remember that we have not been breathed into existence in the image of Oprah or Doctor Phil.  We have been created in the image and likeness of God, and so we need to emulate our God as closely as we can.

What does our God look like?  Well, Zechariah gives us a pretty clear portrait today:  “See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.”  So our Savior was prophesied to be meek and just, and far from coming into the city riding on a mighty horse of a king, he comes in on a donkey, the beast of burden employed by the poor.  And that’s just how Jesus was, wasn’t he?  Since this reading is quoted in the Gospel for Palm Sunday, our minds turn to Palm Sunday and we can picture Jesus entering Jerusalem on a poor donkey.  The crowds want to crown him king, but the only throne he takes is the cross.  Jesus was a model of humility.

And that’s just what Jesus invites us to in today’s Gospel.  He invites us to take his yoke upon our shoulders.  A yoke back then was an implement that kept the oxen together so they could work the fields.  So a yoke implies a few things.  First, it’s going to be work.  That’s what yokes are for.  So when Jesus says he’s going to give us rest, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be some work involved.  Second, a yoke meant that more than one animal was working; they were working together.  So as we take Jesus’ yoke upon us, we are yoked to him, he calls us to work for the kingdom, but never expects us to go it alone.  That’s why his burden is easy and light: it’s still a burden, but we never ever bear it alone, Christ is always with us.

Since he is always with us, that circles us back to humility.  If we are not going it alone, that means that we can’t take the credit for the mighty things we do in Jesus’ name.  Yes, we do great things, but we do them because he has transformed us and has taken the yoke with us.  We are no longer men and women in the flesh, as Saint Paul says today, we are people of the Spirit, with the Spirit of Christ in us, and so in Christ we cast aside those deeds of darkness and, taking his yoke, we accomplish the work Jesus has given us.  Saint Augustine once said, “Humility must accompany all our actions, must be with us everywhere; for as soon as we glory in our good works they are of no further value to our advancement in virtue.”

And that is our goal as disciples: to advance in virtue.  Some days, that’s very hard work.  But we never have to go it alone, if we are truly humble people working in the image of our God.

 

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

Today’s readings

I remember when I was growing up, often visiting my dear grandmother.  She and I were best friends in so many ways.  I remember when we visited that she had a beautiful framed picture in the living room, given a spot of honor where everyone could see it, and that picture was of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Whenever I think of the Sacred Heart, I remember grandma, whose name was Margaret Mary, named after the saint who promoted veneration of the Sacred Heart in the first place.

And so, today we celebrate, with incredible gratitude, the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Through his most Sacred Heart, the love of God is made manifest among us.  This love is a pervasive love that burns in our hearts and changes our lives and leads us back to the God who made us for himself.  This love is irresistible if we give ourselves over to it.  It is a love that pursues us and a love that can go far beyond whatever distance we have fallen from grace.  It is a love that, as Moses tells us in the first reading, does not come to us because we are great, but because God has chosen us, and, as St. John tells us in the second reading, must continue to be poured out by us onto the world around us.  We who have been loved into existence must love others as we have been loved.  The love of God pours forth from the heart of Christ just as the water and blood poured forth from his side as he hung dead on the cross.  Death could not stop the outpouring of grace that he came to bring.

Today’s Gospel reading gives us a beautiful picture of God.  God is love, in fact God is a community of love.  The Father and the Son know each other in their loving, and the Holy Spirit then is the love between them.  God is love and creates us in love and sustains us in love.  In love, we long to return to him one day.

Today’s feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus finds us wholly consumed by grace.  We have been loved into existence by our God who made us like himself.  We have been loved into grace by Jesus who gave his life rather than live without us.  And we are being loved into heaven as we give ourselves over to the work of the Holy Spirit who is that love between the Father and the Son.  God is love and today we experience how powerful that love can be if we give ourselves over to it.