Monday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

These parables that we have today regarding the nature of the Kingdom of God are head-scratchers for sure!  I am sure we can all understand how the people were confused by Jesus’ description of the Kingdom, since it even seems foreign to our ears.  One might wish that he would just say: “Okay, look, here’s what the Kingdom is like.”

But as I read this last night getting ready for this homily, it struck me that no words would be adequate to express how wonderful is the kingdom.  It’s big, like a mustard tree, and expansive, like rapidly-rising dough.  But whatever we can say about the Kingdom of God, it’s going to be too little.  It will never even come close to describing the Kingdom in its fullness.

My guess is, no matter how often we hear these wonderful parables, on that great day when we – please God! – get to the Kingdom of heaven, we will be amazed beyond our wildest dreams.  God’s heavenly Kingdom is something we certainly don’t want to miss.  So let’s not be like those Israelites in the first reading who Jeremiah rightly pointed out never listened to God, or who as the Psalmist points out have even forgotten God.

Because if we remember our God, and listen closely, maybe we’ll hear just a tiny clue of what heaven will be like.  That way we’ll recognize it when we get there.

Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B

Today’s readings

Bishop Kaffer, of happy memory, 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 a detour 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.  John’s Last Supper 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, and it wasn’t the apostles bringing it to his attention so they could dismiss the crowds.  Jesus doesn’t need anyone to tell him what the people need or how to minister to them; he can 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 was 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 a little 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 complete: 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 Jesus, 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, Soul and Divinity 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 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 out of this holy place to feed those who hunger 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.”

The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [B]

Today’s readings

Today I want to reflect on what I consider to be one of the most important principles of the spiritual life.  That principle is completely summed up in one short sentence: “It’s not about me.”

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been able to take a look at the various people who have been called to ministry throughout history.  Last week, Ezekiel was told that whatever he did, his ministry would be mostly unsuccessful.  Paul, the great teacher of our faith, was afflicted with a “thorn in the flesh” – whatever that was – and no amount of prayer could make it go away.  In today’s first reading, Amos, who is told that he is not welcome to prophesy inIsrael, confesses that he is nothing but a simple shepherd and dresser of sycamores – completely ill-qualified for the role of a prophet, but nonetheless called to be one.  In today’s Gospel, the Twelve are sent out on mission to do the works that Christ himself did, and they were only to take with them the knowledge of Jesus’ teachings and their memory of what he had done among them.  They were simple men, called from their simple lives, not one of them qualified for the role they were to play, with the possible exception of Judas, and we know what happened to him, don’t we?

The point is, when we are called by our God, – and we are all called by God – it’s not about who we are or who we know or how slick our presentation is.  It’s not about what we have in our bag of tricks, or how much stuff we have.  It’s not about how developed we may think our faith life is, or how much we’ve studied theology.  Because it’s not about us at all.

I know many people, who when asked if they would become involved in some ministry or another, would say, “Oh, no, I could never do that.  I’m not qualified to do it.” There are people who always feel that others could do the job better than they can, and so others should do it and they should stay out of it.  But if we are to learn anything from the Scriptures today, we must hear that that kind of thinking is nothing but false humility.  And false humility is absolutely not virtuous!  I’m not saying we have to say “yes” to everything we’re asked to do, but I am saying that we must always prayerfully consider every opportunity, and then do what the Lord wants us to do.

So in what ways have you been called? In today’s Gospel, Jesus sends his chosen Twelve out on mission.  They were chosen not for their spectacular abilities or any particular quality.  But they were chosen, called and gifted to do the work of God in the world.  So are we all.  Just as the Twelve were sent out to preach repentance, dispel demons, and cure the sick, we too are called to do those very same things.

You may not think of yourself as a preacher.  But you are prophetic and a preacher of repentance when you forgive a hurt or wrong, when you confess your sins and make necessary changes in your life, when you become a member of a 12-step group to deal with an addiction, or when you leave a lucrative job with a company whose business practices make you feel uncomfortable.  You are a preacher of repentance when you correct poor behavior in your children rather than place the blame on the teacher or school.  You are a preacher of repentance when you accept constructive criticism in a spirit of humility and pray for the grace to change your life.  Preaching repentance very often does not involve words so much as actions, and we can all do that, even though it very often hurts a little bit.

Who are you to drive out demons? How is that even possible? But I am here to tell you that volunteering as a catechist or a mentor in a school or a homework helper is a way to drive out the demons of ignorance.  Going to a Protecting God’s Children workshop so that children in our schools and religious educations programs will be safe is a way to drive out the demons of abuse.  When you speak out to protect the environment, you help to drive out the demons of neglect and waste.  Volunteering to be part of a pro-life group helps to drive out the demons of death and promote a culture of life, protecting the unborn and the aged and infirm.  Working at a soup kitchen or our food pantry drives out the demons of hunger and poverty.  Helping at shelters for battered families drives out the demons of violence and isolation.  The demons at work in our world are legion, and every one of us is called to drive them out, not like “The Exorcist,” but more by our simple time and talent according to our gifts.

How is it possible for you to cure the sick?  Every act of care for the sick is part of the Church’s ministry of healing.  You heal the sick every time you remember them in prayer, or visit them in the hospital or at home.  You heal the sick when you volunteer as a minister of care.  You heal the sick when you bring a casserole to provide dinner for a family who are so busy with sick relatives that they have little time to prepare a meal.  You heal the sick when you drive an elderly friend or neighbor to a doctor’s appointment or to do the grocery shopping, or pick them up on the way to Mass.  Healing involves so much more than just making a disease or injury go away, and all of us can be a part of healing in so many everyday ways.

We absolutely must get from today’s Scriptures that God calls everyday people to minister to others in everyday ways.  If people are to know about God’s Kingdom, we have to be the ones to proclaim it.  If people are to reform their lives, we have to be the ones to model repentance.  If people are to be released from their demons, we have to be the ones to drive them out.  And if people are to be healed from their infirmities, it is all of us who have to reach out to them with the healing power of Christ.  We who are called to live as disciples do not have the luxury of indulging ourselves in misplaced false humility.  If we and our families and our communities are to grow in faith, hope and love, we have to be the ones to show the way and encourage as many people as possible to walk in that way.

Saint Paul makes our vocation very clear in today’s second reading:

In him we were also chosen,
destined in accord with the purpose of the One
who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will,
so that we might exist for the praise of his glory,
we who first hoped in Christ.
 

It’s not about us.  We who first hoped in Christ exist for the praise of his glory.  Let it be then that we in the everyday-ness of our lives would have the courage to preach repentance, drive out demons and heal the sick.

Monday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I love the words of the Psalmist today: “The Lord is gracious and merciful.”

These are words that are easy for us to pray when things are going well, but maybe not so much when we’re going through rough times.  At first glance today, it seems like the psalmist is going through some very good times indeed.  But we have no way of knowing that.  The only key to the great hymn of praise the psalmist is singing is that he is reflecting on the wonder of creation and the mighty deeds God does in the world.  Indeed, the psalmist sees wonders not just in his own place but everywhere.  He says, “The LORD is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.  Every part of creation has been blessed by God’s goodness.  Because of this, God is to be praised not just now, but “forever and ever” and by “generation after generation.”

This fits in very nicely with Hosea’s prophecy in our first reading today.  Preaching to the Israelites in exile, he proclaims that God will change the relationship between Israel and the Lord, much as one would change the relationship with a fiancé when the two are married.  God will give Israel the ability to be faithful to God, and for His part, God will remember His faithfulness forever.  God’s great mercy and compassion are seen in the Gospel reading, which is Matthew’s version of the story we had from Mark a week ago Sunday.  Jesus rewards the faithfulness of Jairus and the woman with the hemorrhage with miraculous healings.  Key to all of these wonderful events, in all three readings, is that God who has created us is committed to re-creating us in His love and faithfulness.

So as we approach the Eucharist today and reflect on all the mighty and wonderful things God does in our midst, may we too sing the Psalmist’s song.  May we all praise God’s name forever and ever, and proclaim his might to generation after generation.

The Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The story goes that one day, Saint Teresa of Avila was wheeling a cart across a bridge over the river. At one point along the bridge’s passage, a wheel of the cart got stuck in the planks, and Teresa had to wrestle the cart to get going again. In the struggle, the cart tipped over, and its entire contents spilled out and into the river. As she looked at all her stuff floating down the river, she said, “Well, God, if this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”

I am guessing that we have all had at least one time in our lives when we have felt like Saint Teresa in that moment.  I confess that I have had a week like that: my mother was without power in her house from Sunday to late Thursday, my aunt has had to go to a nursing facility at least for a month, I have a friend of the family who is at the end of his life, we have had a number of funerals over the last couple of weeks, and the heat has certainly taken its toll on staff relations.  So I can just imagine how Saint Teresa felt with all her stuff floating down the river.

Not that I’m Saint Teresa, mind you; I can only aspire to her level of holiness and her friendship with God that made such a conversation possible.  But I know how an accumulation of nastiness can drain one’s reserve of faith.  And it’s a great danger.  Last week’s Gospel showed how the faith of two people led to great healing: Jairus’s daughter was resuscitated from the dead, and the woman with a hemorrhage was cured after twelve long years.  But today’s Gospel shows us how a lack of faith prevented Jesus from doing much in the way of healing at all.

And so today, maybe we can take away two role models for having faith when it seems hard to do.  Saint Paul struggled with a “thorn in the flesh” – whatever it was for him – and remained faithful.  Saint Teresa grappled with the frustrations of daily living and remained a very holy woman.  May they be our intercessors when our reserve of faith is waning and the heat of the day is overwhelming.  And as the Psalmist models for us: may we be those who keep our eyes fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.

Monday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The immediacy of discipleship is of paramount importance.  The call of our baptism is more urgent than anything else in our lives.  Or, at least, that’s how it should be.  Just like anything else in life that requires something from us, discipleship can take a back seat to other things that come along.  Whether it’s the kids’ soccer game at one point in our lives, or lack of energy at another point, or so many life issues that come along, we can be derailed rather quickly from following God’s call the way we should be.

That’s how it was for the scribe in Jesus’ day.  There was no way he could ever tear himself away from the things that tethered him to this world.  Even assuming that his offer was genuine, it’s unlikely that he ever could have made good on his promise to follow Jesus wherever he went.  Jesus wasn’t letting any grass grow under his feet; he had to go where people needed healing, where people needed to hear the Gospel.

We can too easily be tied to the things in this world that are dead.  But our call is to live the life of the Gospel.  May we all hear God’s word today and follow him with urgency.

The Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I spent a good bit of time visiting people I know in the hospital this week.  My godmother had some serious surgery, which she came through quite well, praise God, but it looks like she will be recovering in the hospital a bit longer than she would like.  I also visited with one of our family’s long-time neighbors who has contracted a disease that the doctors aren’t sure how he got and don’t quite know what to do about.  And so as I hear about the miraculous healings of Jairus’s daughter and the woman with the hemorrhages, I find myself thinking, “how nice for them.”

And I’m sure many of us have similar reactions.  How often have we had to watch a loved one suffer, and think, why can’t God heal him or her?  The very first words of today’s Liturgy of the Word reach out and grab us: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.”  And perhaps we already knew that.  Perhaps we know that God does not intend our death or our suffering, but the really hard thing for us is that he permits it.  Why is that?  Why would God permit his beloved ones to suffer so much here on earth?

That’s a question for which I would love to have an answer.  I think maybe it’s one of those things we will finally understand when we get to heaven and see the big picture.  But for now, it can be a real stumbling block.  I would suggest that today’s readings are offered to us not to make us feel bad when we don’t experience immediate healing on our terms and timetable, but instead to remind us of the many ways God does heal us.

I’d like to take a minute to talk about some of the things that unite the two stories that we have in the Gospel.  First, we have the story of Jairus.  And I’m struck by how impatient I would be if I were him.  The story tells us that Jesus had just returned from the other side of the lake where he was for a time ministering to the Gentiles that lived there.  I’m thinking that Jairus had to be waiting for him to return the whole time, watching his daughter get sicker and sicker.  Then, while he and Jesus are rushing to his daughter’s side, they are detained by the whole incident of the woman with the multiple hemorrhages.  If I were Jairus, I’m pretty sure my head would have exploded.  But it turns out that Jesus has time enough to heal them both, and probably even Jairus as well in some ways.

So again, I think there are some aspects of the two stories that link them together.  The first, perhaps strangely, is the number twelve.  The woman with the hemorrhages suffered for twelve years, and Jairus’s daughter was twelve years old.  This is not coincidental.  The number twelve has biblical significance.  When we hear twelve in Scripture, we might think of the twelve tribes of Israel, or even of the Twelve Apostles.  Matthew’s account of the feeding of the multitudes mentions that there were twelve baskets of leftovers.  In these contexts, the number twelve stands for a kind of universality, encompassing all people or the whole known world.  The twelve tribes took up residence all over the holy land, which was the whole world for the ancients.  The Twelve Apostles were meant to bring the Gospel to the whole world, and the twelve baskets were meant to feed everyone in the world.  So the number twelve in the contexts of these two healings alert us to the fact that Jesus intends healing for everyone in the whole world.  That’s what he came for, and that’s why he was out expelling demons at the other side of the lake, in Gentile territory, in the Gospel passages preceding today’s reading.

The stories are also linked by desperation.  I’ve already spoken of how long Jairus was waiting for the healing of his daughter, and how he had to watch her get sicker and sicker.  But the same was true of the woman with the hemorrhages – that’s plural by the way, not just one hemorrhage – because she had suffered for twelve long years at the hands of many doctors.  For both of them, those with power have been unable to do anything, and the time for healing is now or never.

Another way the stories are linked are by un-touchability.  The woman with the hemorrhages was someone that could not be touched, or the person touching her would have been ritually impure: unable to worship with the community and an outcast, just as she was.  Jairus’s daughter became untouchable when she died.  Anyone who touched a dead person would be similarly ritually unclean.  But Jesus touches them both, because nothing can be an obstacle to his love.

The final thing that links them is faith.  We might say that what brought Jairus and the woman to Jesus was desperation, as I’ve outlined earlier.  But Jesus recognized their faith, and if it weren’t for faith, no miracles would have happened.  That occurred in Jesus’ hometown: no miracles could be accomplished because of their lack of faith.  But that’s clearly not an issue here.

And this is perhaps the most salient point of today’s Liturgy of the Word.  I’ve known so many people who have been through a lot: either medically, or emotionally, or these days especially financially.  And the ones who have survived have credited it to their faith.  Maybe things didn’t turn out exactly the way they would have preferred.  Perhaps real healing took way longer than they would have liked.  But all of them would tell you that their faith made them positive that God was present with them, and helped them to know that, however things turned out, they would be okay.

I am struck by the Eucharistic imagery at the end of today’s Gospel.  Jesus comes to the home of Jairus and finds his daughter asleep in death.  He reaches out to her, touches her, and raises her up.  Then he instructs those around her to give her something to eat.  We gather for this Eucharistic banquet today and Jesus comes to us, finding us asleep in the death of our sins.  Because we are dead in our sins, we can hardly reach out to touch our Lord, but he reaches out to us.  He takes our hands, raises us up, and gives us something to eat.

We come to the Eucharist today with our lives in various stages of grace and various stages of death.  At the Table of the Lord, we offer our lives and our suffering and our pain.  We bring our faith, wherever we are on the journey, and reach out in that faith to touch the body of our Lord, taking him into our hands.  We approach the Cup of Life, and whatever emptiness is in us is filled up with grace and healing love, poured out in the blood of Christ.  As we go forth to glorify the Lord by our lives this day, all of our problems may very well stay with us, remaining unresolved at least to our satisfaction.  But in our faith, perhaps they can be transformed, or at least maybe we can be transformed so that we can move through that suffering and pain with dignity and peace.  And as we go forth into the week ahead, perhaps we can hear our Lord saying to us the same words he said to the woman with the hemorrhage: “go in peace, your faith has saved you.”