The Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“For freedom Christ set us free.”  So writes Saint Paul in our second reading today.  And it’s a beautiful reflection for this weekend, when we are getting ready for our Independence Day celebrations.  When our nation’s founders set up this fledgling republic 231 years ago, freedom was certainly one of their primary concerns.  Freedom of religion was of primary importance, and they also held dear freedom of expression, freedom of association, and many others.  We are the beneficiaries of their hard work.  As “they” say, freedom isn’t free, it is purchased at a price, and at this time of year we remember those who paid that price for us.

In that second reading, Saint Paul is reflecting on the freedom that the early Christians had.  This freedom was a freedom from the constraints of the myriad of laws that they observed, laws that encouraged people to replace true devotion  to the spirit of the law with mere surface-level observance of the letter of the law.  Paul reminds them that their freedom was purchased at the incredible price of the blood of Jesus Christ the Lord who died that they, and we, might have life.

For the Galatians, as well as for all of us, freedom had to be defined a little more exactly, and that was St. Paul’s purpose in today’s second reading.  Because freedom isn’t free, it can’t be taken lightly or casually, and so he makes it clear what the freedom truly is.  The Galatians had the mistaken notion that freedom meant the same thing as license, which isn’t the case at all.  Freedom didn’t mean license to act against the law and to live lives of immorality and corruption.  That would be replacing one form of slavery with another, really, since immorality has its own chains.  The freedom Christ won for us is a freedom to live joyful lives of dedication and devotion and discipleship, all caught up in the very life of God.  Real freedom looses us from the bonds of the world and sets us free to bind ourselves to God, who created us for himself.  Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.

This distinction between true freedom and license for immorality is one that we must take seriously even in our own day, even as we prepare to celebrate our nation’s own independence.  Because in our own day, we too have confused the freedom we have inherited from our founders with a license to do whatever the heck we want.  And that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is not the gift we have been given.  Freedom of expression doesn’t mean we have the right to express ourselves in a way that slanders or ridicules others. And if you don’t think that’s an issue, just listen to some talk radio or watch some daytime television!  Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion, and it doesn’t mean that we have to practice our faith in secret and not let people know that Jesus Christ is Lord by the way we live and talk.  And you know that’s an issue: in the courts, in our places of business and our schools, and in our communities.  Being free doesn’t mean we have license to do whatever we want; being free means we are free to better ourselves, our families, our churches and our communities.  Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.

This freedom to be who we have been created to be is a matter of some urgency for Elisha in today’s first reading and the disciples that Jesus met in today’s Gospel.  All of them received the message that when God calls, the time to answer is now.  But all of them found that there were things going on inside them that kept them from answering the call; that kept them from being free to follow God in the way they were created to do that.

Certainly the rebukes they all received seem a bit harsh to our ears.  After all, they had good excuses, didn’t they?  Who would deny a person the right to say goodbye to their families or bury their dead?  But there are a couple of subtle distinctions that we have to get here.  First, it wasn’t as if they had ever been told to follow the call instead of taking care of family and burying the dead.  Yet they were using those things as an excuse to put off their response to God’s call.  Second, following God’s call very well could have meant doing those things they were involved in, but in a way that honored God.  The demand was to put God first, and one could conceivably do that and still take care of family, friends and business.

What’s at issue here is right relationship.  Responding to God’s call must always come first, but responding to God’s call may mean raising one’s family, tending to a sick parent or elderly relative, reading to one’s children, grieving the loss of a loved one or battling an illness.  It’s a matter of priorities, and true freedom means putting God first in all of that, trusting that God will help us to make sense of the ordinariness of our lives.

It’s important to know that God pretty much always calls people out of the ordinariness of their lives.  That was true of Elisha today.  He was minding his own business – literally – by plowing the fields.  And yet he gives it all up on the spot to follow God as Elijah’s successor.  It must have been an incredibly moving event for Elisha, because he was so excited that he ran back, slaughtered his oxen and chopped up the yokes to use as fuel to cook the flesh and feed his people.  Doing that was a complete break with his former life, and showed the length he was ready to go in order to do God’s will.

On this Independence Day, may we all remember that true freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, regardless of the implications for others and ignorant of our relationship with God.  True freedom doesn’t mean license to live an immoral life.  Instead, true freedom is about living the life God has called us to live and following as committed disciples, free to be bound up in the life of God.  True freedom means breaking with anything that holds us back from becoming the free sons and daughters of God we were created to be.  True freedom means putting God first and serving him in the ordinariness of our lives, following his call to our dying breath.  True freedom means finding the same joy that our Psalmist finds today when he sings, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.”

Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, Peter and the others are asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  We heard this Gospel story just last weekend.  Now, both Peter and Paul were committed to the truth about who Christ was.  They had too much at stake.  Having both messed up their estimation of who Jesus was earlier in their lives, they knew the danger of falling into the trap.  So for them Jesus could never be just a brother, friend or role model – that was inadequate.  And both of them proclaimed with all of their life straight through to their death that Jesus Christ is Lord.  We too on this day must repent of the mediocrity we sometimes settle for in our relationship with Christ.  He has to be Lord of our lives and we must proclaim him to be that Lord to our dying breath.  We must never break faith with Saints Peter and Paul, who preserved that faith at considerable personal cost.

Perhaps Saints Peter and Paul can inspire our own apostolic zeal.  Then, as we bear witness to the fact that Jesus is Lord of our lives and of all the earth, we can bring a banal world to relevance.  Perhaps in our renewed apostolic zeal we can bring justice to the oppressed, right judgment to the wayward, love to the forgotten and the lonely, truth to a society that settles for relativism, and faith to a world that has lost sight of anything worth believing in.  One might say that that is the Church’s mission, but actually the mission is what is of primary importance.  And so we believe that the apostolic mission has a Church, and it’s time for the Church to be released from its chains and burst forth to give witness in the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate a feast that is a bit unusual for us.  When we celebrate a saint’s day, it is usually celebrated on the feast of their death, not their birth.  But today we do gather to celebrate the birth of a saint, Saint John the Baptist, and the fact that we’re celebrating his birth points to the fact that St. John the Baptist had a very special role to play in the life of Christ.  In fact, the only other saint for whom we celebrate a birthday is the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Just as for Jesus, we don’t know the precise day John the Baptist was born. So the feasts of their Nativity – their births – were traditions developed by the early Church. The dates the Church selected are significant.  Jesus’ birthday was placed around the time of the winter solstice, mostly to counteract pagan festivals of the coming of winter. John the Baptist’s birthday was then placed around the time of the summer solstice for similar reasons.  But there’s more to it even than that.  Saint Augustine reminds us that in the Gospel of John, there is a passage where John the Baptist says of himself and Jesus, “I must decrease, he must increase.”  So John’s birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become shorter, and Jesus’ birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become longer.  John the Baptist must decrease, Jesus must increase.

Today’s readings have a lot to do with who the prophet is. St. John the Baptist was the last prophet of the old order, and his mission was to herald the coming of Jesus Christ who is himself the new order.  Tradition holds that prophets were created for their mission, that their purpose was laid out while they were yet to be born.  Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the old order, tells us of his commissioning in our first reading today.  He says, “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.”  The rest of the reading tells us of his mission, a mission of hardship, but one of being compelled to speak the word of god as a sharp-edged sword.  His calling began as a call to preach to his own people, but by the end of the reading, it is clear that that commission became a call to preach to every nation on earth.

Isaiah says that he was given his name while in his mother’s womb. The same was true of Saint John the Baptist, whose name was given to Zechariah and Elizabeth by the Angel Gabriel.  Names have meaning.  Maybe you know what your name means.  But far more significant are the names of the prophets we encounter in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  Isaiah means “The LORD is salvation,” which pretty much encompassed the meaning of Isaiah’s mission, proclaiming salvation to the Israelites who were oppressed in exile.  The name given to the Baptist, John, means “God has shown favor.”  And that was in fact the message of his life.  He came to pave the way for Jesus Christ, who was the favor of God shown to the whole human race.

Ultimately, the purpose for St. John the Baptist’s life was summed up in his statement: “I must decrease, He must increase.”  And so it must be for us.  Sometimes we want to turn the spotlight on ourselves, when that is exactly where it should not be.  For John the Baptist, the spotlight was always on Christ, the One for whom he was unfit to fasten his sandals.  Just as the birth of St. John the Baptist helped his father Zechariah to speak once again, so his life gives voice to our own purpose in the world.  Like St. John the Baptist, we are called to be a people who point to Christ, who herald the Good News, and who live our lives for God.  We are called to decrease, while Christ increases in all of us.  We are called to be that light to the nations of which Isaiah speaks today, so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

St. John the Baptist, pray for us.

Thursday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, we have the origin of the beautiful prayer the Lord gave us.  Unfortunately, that same prayer can get rattled off so quickly and second-naturedly that we totally miss what we’re saying and miss the real grace of the Lord’s Prayer.  We really ought to pay more attention to it, because it serves so well as the model for all of our prayer.

First, it teaches us to pray in communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  This week, in our Office of Readings, we priests and deacons and religious have been reading from a treatise on the Lord’s Prayer by St. Cyprian.  On Monday, that treatise told us: “Above all, he who preaches peace and unity did not want us to pray by ourselves in private or for ourselves alone.  We do not say ‘My Father, who art in heaven,’ nor ‘Give me this day my daily bread.’  It is not for himself alone that each person asks to be forgiven, not to be led into temptation, or to be delivered from evil.  Rather we pray in public as a community, and not for one individual but for all.  For the people of God are all one.”

Second, it acknowledges that God knows best how to provide for our needs.  We might want all the time to tell him what we want, or how to take care of us, but deep down we know that the only way our lives can work is when we surrender to God and let God do what he needs to do in us.  And so the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  The whole point of creation is that the whole world will be happiest and at peace only when everything is returned to the One who made it all in the first place.  Until we surrender our lives too, we can never be happy or at peace.

Third, this wonderful prayer acknowledges that the real need in all of us is forgiveness.  Yes, we are all sinners and depend on God alone for forgiveness, because we can never make up for the disobedience of our lives.  But we also must forgive others as well, or we can never really receive forgiveness in our lives.  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” might just be the boldest prayer we can utter on any given day.  Because if we have been negligent in our forgiving, is that really how we want God to forgive us?  When we take the Lord’s Prayer seriously, we can really transform our little corner of the world by giving those around us the grace we have been freely given.

And so when we pray these beautiful words today at Mass, or later in our Rosaries or other prayers, maybe we can pause a bit.  Slow down and really pray those words.  Let them transform us by joining us together with our brothers and sisters, surrendering to God for what we truly need, and really receiving the forgiveness of God so that we can forgive others.

Monday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We have been reading the last several days from the very challenging portion of Matthew’s Gospel in which we hear Jesus use the formula: “You have heard it said … but I say to you…”  Basically, in all of these instructions, Jesus is taking the old Jewish law and cranking it up a notch.   We heard that anger, vengeance and libel are as disastrous as murder.   We heard that lust is as morally reprehensible as adultery.   Today, Jesus takes on the concept of justice.

In the days before Jesus, justice was met by inflicting on the one who had wronged you what they had done to you.  An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, you steal one of my sheep, I take one of yours, that kind of thing.  It’s a very primitive sort of justice, but to be honest, I think, one that still kind of resonates in our society.  People might not like to say they believe this sort of thing, but you see it all the time.

Jesus isn’t into defining justice in this way.  For Jesus, true justice consists in rendering to God what he belongs to him; it means giving to others as God has given to us.  In a way, it’s the primordial form of the whole “pay it forward” idea.  If God has been generous to us, then, in justice, we need to be generous to others.  So we don’t argue about our tunic, but instead give our cloak as well.  We go the extra mile, and never turn our back on those in need.

We believers have to get our heads around the idea of true justice.  We have to be willing to give without counting the cost.  We have to remember that in justice, we should be condemned for our many sins, but instead we have salvation in Christ Jesus.  Because God has been merciful and generous to us, then in justice we must do the same for others.

The Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Scriptures speak to us all about our need for a Savior.  If we didn’t need a Savior, this would be a pretty strange gathering.  Why bother getting out of bed and dragging ourselves here?   Even  good King David knew that he needed a Savior and he, very appropriately, helps us to pray in today’s Psalm response: “Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.”

At the bottom of this need for a Savior is the fact that we are all sinners, every one of us.  We may not have done anything notorious, but we have to know that we all fall short of God’s expectations of us – and not just sometimes, but way more often than we’d like to count.  I know that’s not easy to hear, but it’s also not easy to argue against, is it?  It’s not popular to talk about sin even from the pulpit these days, because in our society everything is someone else’s fault.  In days gone by, if a child misbehaved in school, woe to him when he got home.  Today, if a child misbehaves in school, woe to the teacher when the parents find out the child has been held accountable.  If we spill coffee on ourselves and it burns us, we sue the purveyor who sold it to us.  Personal responsibility is not something we are ready to accept, let alone teach to our children.  Lord, forgive the wrong we have done indeed!

And so all of us sinners who are in great need of a Savior have gathered here for this weekend Liturgy.  What we hear from today’s Scriptures is all about sin.  First, sin has consequences.  Second, repentance is crucial.  Third, forgiveness is freely given.  And finally, reconciliation brings joy.

Sin has consequences.  This was what King David heard in today’s first reading.  You may know the story.  While the war was raging and his army was fighting for his own survival, David looked out and saw the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who was very appealing to him.  He sent for her, and had his way with her.  In the society of that day, such an act was an offense primarily against the woman’s husband, because it ended his blood line.  When that happened, the man’s property would not be passed on to his heirs after death, and would instead be given to the state.  King David was the state, so David’s taking of Uriah’s wife also meant that he stole his inheritance.  And just to make the deed complete, he arranged for Uriah to be “accidentally” killed in battle.  This was not just a minor sin or a tiny indiscretion.  What God says to David in today’s first reading is that yes, his sin is forgiven because God is mercy.  But, because of his wrong choices, David has unleashed a chain of events that will result in violence being part of his family’s inheritance forever.  That is not punishment for his sin, but rather the consequence of it.  Even when our sins have been forgiven, we often unleash consequences we could not have foreseen.  That’s how insidious and destructive sin can be, and that is why there is no such thing as a victimless or private sin in which no one else is affected.

Repentance is crucial.  We see that move to repentance in King David’s behavior today.  When confronted by God, David is quick to repent: “I have sinned against the LORD,” David says.  And this is the crucial step.  God is always ready to forgive, but we have to recognize that we need to be forgiven.  We have to know that we need a Savior.  I think we struggle with this.  I remember the first Ash Wednesday after the new Roman Missal came out, and the words were changed for the giving of ashes.  A couple of people were really angry with me for saying “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”  I am so aware of my own need for repentance that I didn’t really know what to say to them.  God’s forgiveness takes two: God to offer it, and us to receive it.  That’s why the Sacrament of Penance is so important.  You have to get to confession at least once a year, and I say it should be more like once a month.  We should always put ourselves in the presence of God’s mercy.  If you want God’s grace, all you have to do is to make a move to receive it.  We all need a Savior, and we are all promised one if we will just ask for it.

Forgiveness is freely given.  God’s response to David didn’t even take a minute.  As soon as he says that he had sinned against the Lord, God’s response comes through Nathan the prophet, loud and clear: “The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die.”  And notice, please, that the Lord doesn’t say, “OK, I forgive you,” as in “now that you’ve said ‘I’m sorry’ I will forgive you.”  No.  The message is that David’s sin has been forgiven; that is, the forgiveness has already happened.  It is not necessary that we repent, or do anything, in order that we be forgiven.  But it is crucial that we repent in order to receive that forgiveness and grace that is given to us freely, without a moment’s hesitation, by our God who is at his core, forgiveness and grace.  We should not, of course, commit the further sin of presumption by assuming that that it does not matter what we do because we are always forgiven.  But above all, we should not deprive ourselves of the grace of forgiveness by choosing not to confess and repent and receive what is offered to us.

Reconciliation brings joy.  I think what is so important in today’s Gospel is for us to see how great is the joy that comes from sin forgiven and mercy received.  The unnamed “sinful woman” is not bathing and anointing the Lord’s feet so that he will then forgive her sins.  She is bathing and anointing him because she is overjoyed that her many sins have been forgiven.  The little parable Jesus tells to Simon the Pharisee makes that clear: the one who was forgiven the greater debt loves more.  He loves not to have his debt forgiven, but instead he loves because the debt has already been canceled.  And so we too come together with joy this day because the debt of our sin has been erased.  We pour out our time, talent, and treasure, and especially our own lives, on this altar of sacrifice, because our sins have been forgiven and the debt has already been paid by our Savior who stretches out his arms on the cross so that we might have salvation and might be reconciled with our God who created us for himself.  Today in that silent time after Communion, we should all be filled with joy because of the great forgiveness that is ours when we sinful people realize that we need a Savior and turn to find his arms already open to us.  What other response is there to that grace but tears of joy?

It might not be popular to talk about sin these days but, brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s the only reason we’re here together this day.  If we don’t need a Savior, then we don’t need to waste an hour in Church, do we?  But the truth is we are a sinful people, a people in need of a Savior, who gather together to sing the words of King David, “Lord forgive the wrong I have done.”  In our gathering we can cry out in tears of joy for forgiveness freely given and mercy abundantly bestowed. “Blessed” – indeed happy – “is the one whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered.”

Saint Anthony, Priest and Doctor of the Church

St. Anthony is probably one of the best-known Catholic saints.  I’m sure many of us have prayed that familiar prayer, “Tony, Tony, look around, something’s lost and can’t be found.”  We all lose track of things from time to time, and it’s nice to have someone to help us find them.  But the real story of St. Anthony centers around finding the way to Christ.

The gospel call to leave everything and follow Christ was the rule of Anthony’s life.  Over and over again God called him to something new in his plan.  Every time Anthony responded with renewed zeal and self-sacrifice to serve his Lord Jesus more completely.  His journey as the servant of God began as a very young man when he decided to join the Augustinians, giving up a future of wealth and power to follow God’s plan for his life.  But later, when the bodies of the first Franciscan martyrs went through the Portuguese city where he was stationed, he was again filled with an intense longing to be one of those closest to Jesus himself: those who die for the Good News.

So Anthony entered the Franciscan Order and set out to preach to the Moors – a pretty dangerous thing to do.  But an illness prevented him from achieving that goal.  He went to Italy and was stationed in a small hermitage where he spent most of his time praying, reading the Scriptures and doing menial tasks.

But that was not the end for Anthony’s dream of following God’s call.  Recognized as a great man of prayer and a great Scripture scholar and theologian, Anthony became the first friar to teach theology to the other friars.  Soon he was called from that post to preach to heretics, to use his profound knowledge of Scripture and theology to convert and reassure those who had been misled.

So yes, St. Anthony is the patron of finding lost objects, but what I really think he wants to help us find, is our way to Christ.  As a teacher, a scholar and a man of faith, he was devoted to his relationship with God.  And so his intercession for us might go a little deeper than where we left our keys.  Maybe we find ourselves today having lost track of our relationship with God in some way.  Maybe our prayer isn’t as fervent as it once was.  Or maybe we have found ourselves wrapped up in our own problems and unable to see God at work in us.  Maybe our life is in disarray and we’re not sure how God is leading us.  If we find ourselves in those kinds of situations today, we might do well to call on the intercession of St. Anthony.  Finder of lost objects, maybe.  But finder of the way to Christ for sure.