Saint Martha

Today’s readings

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

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

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

Saint Benedict, Abbot

I must say that today, I observe with great fondness this feast of St. Benedict, abbot, and father of western monasticism.  My Benedictine roots stem from my college days at Benedictine University in Lisle (then called Illinois Benedictine College), and I have a deep fondness for the monks of St. Procopius Abbey, who staffed the college, and in whose monastery I made several retreats.   I have also on occasion celebrated Mass at Sacred Heart Monastery, praying with the sisters who were so influential to me during those college days.

Saint Benedict’s motto is Ora et Labora – Pray and Work — and it’s a constant reminder of the balance we are called to have in life.  A lot of people want to say that their work is a prayer, and yes, that may in fact be true, but it’s not supposed to be the only prayer we make.  Saint Benedict points out the complete necessity of taking time for prayer throughout the day, in order to sanctify the day and to be joined as one in Christ.

A wonderful source of inspiration to me while I was working in the corporate world was a daily reading from The Rule of St. Benedict, which is a great reflection on the balance we are called to in life.  You can easily read and reflect on a chapter in five minutes, making it a perfect break-time devotion.  Some of it obviously pertains specifically to monastic life, but an awful lot of it applies to all of us.  What greatly edifies me about the Rule is its acknowledgment that community life is necessary to lead us to the communal life we call heaven.

And so, as Saint Benedict instructs toward the end of the Rule, “Let [us] prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.” (RSB, 72)

Monday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In today’s readings, God proves himself trustworthy.  He appears to Jacob in a dream and promises that he will be with him wherever he goes, protecting him, and bringing him back to the land, which he would also give to Jacob’s descendants.  In his joy, Jacob reacts by consecrating the land to the Lord.

In the Gospel, Jesus heals not one, but two people: he stops the hemorrhage of a women who had suffered from the malady for twelve years, and then he resuscitates the daughter of one of the local officials.  In their joy, news of Jesus’ mighty deeds spread all throughout the land.

The Psalmist prays today, “In you, my God, I place my trust.”  It’s a call for us to do the same today.  We certainly don’t know how God will answer our prayers or even when he will do so.  He might bring healing, but maybe in a way we don’t expect.  But his promise to Jacob is one in which we can trust as well: he will be with us wherever we go, and he will protect us.

The Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the parts of the Liturgy that I love most in these summer months is the development of the theme of discipleship that unfolds in the Gospel readings.  We all know that, by our baptism, we are called to be disciples of Christ, those who follow him and live the Gospel and minister and witness in his Name.  But that’s easy to say.  Just how do you do that?  Well, that’s what these readings address.

Today’s Gospel reading has Jesus sending the seventy-two out, in pairs, on mission to preach the Gospel and heal the sick.  It’s the third Luminous Mystery of the Rosary: the preaching of the Kingdom with its call to repentance.  Jesus sent them out to villages he himself intended to visit, more or less preparing the way.  It’s a moving story about how Jesus was able to accomplish much through the ministry of the seventy-two, even without being physically present with them.  But it’s not just a moving story, right?  You know as well as I do that the reason we all got to hear that story today is because we’re being sent out on mission too.  When the time comes for us to “go in peace, glorifying the Lord by [our lives],” we have to be like the seventy-two, preparing hearts and lives for Jesus, preaching the Gospel, healing the sick.

Before they head out, Jesus provides instruction for them.  They learn it won’t be an easy task, but that they will be able to rely on God for their strength.  In this pre-mission instruction, he gives his disciples, which includes all of us, some tools for use in witness and ministry.  We can’t let them escape our attention, because we will need them if we are to be successful.

So the first tool he gives us is the wisdom not to rely on ourselves. Listen to the instructions Jesus gives the seventy-two before they leave: “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals…” Now that all seems pretty impractical to those of us who have to travel in the twenty-first century, doesn’t it?  We need a wallet or money bag to carry what we’d need to pay tolls and buy fuel and pay for what we need on the journey, and certainly we’d need a sack to carry identification as well as just basic things we’d need along the way.  Here’s the point, though: If we were able to foresee every possibility and pack for every possible need, we would certainly not need Jesus, would we?  Jesus is telling the seventy-two, and us as well, to stop worrying and start following.  Rely on Jesus because he is trustworthy.  Experience the joy of letting Jesus worry about the small stuff while he is doing big things in and through us.

The second discipleship tool is to “greet no one along the way.”  That sounds pretty unfriendly, doesn’t it?  We would think he’d want us to greet everyone we can, but that’s not what’s at stake here.  The point is, along the way, we can easily be derailed from the mission.  Other things can seem to be important, other people can try to get us off track, Satan can make so many other things seem important along the way.  The point here is that there is urgency to the mission.  People have to hear that Jesus is Lord and that God loves them now, not later, when it may be too late.  We have to get the show on the road, and the time is now.

The third tool is to go in peace.  Jesus says to the seventy-two: “Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’  If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you.”  Those disciples were sent out with the peace of Christ, and were told to expect to be received in peace.  The source of the peace they were sent out in was, of course, Jesus himself.  The peace he is offering is not just the absence of conflict.  In fact, their journeys may indeed involve quite a bit of conflict: conflict with demons, conflict with illness, conflict with those who may not receive them or want to hear the Gospel.  Instead, the peace he sends the seventy-two out with is a peace that they receive from knowing they are doing God’s will and that souls are coming back to God.  It is a peace that says that everyone and everything is in right relationship, the way things are supposed to be.  The disciples are told to enter a place and say “Peace to this household.”  So we too must also offer this greeting of peace to those we come to work with.  There are a lot of ways to make this greeting, though.  We could say it in those words, or perhaps through our actions: in not returning violence with violence; doing our best to diffuse anger and hatred; treating all people equally; respecting the rights of both the well-established and the newcomer; working to make neighborhoods and communities less violent; protecting the abused and the ridiculed.  This peace is a peace that is authentic and that really works.

The fourth tool pertains to sustenance and it is “eat and drink what is set before you.”  This is again a trust issue.  The seventy-two are to trust that since the laborer deserves his payment, the Lord will provide for what they need.  But there’s a bit more to it, I think.  Eating and drinking what is set before them also meant that if they were to be given ministry that is difficult, they needed to stay with it, because that’s what was set before them.  If they have been received in peace, then they need to know that they are in the right place.  That doesn’t mean that the mission would be easy, though, and they need to take what’s given to them.  We too have to know that our mission may not be easy, but if we have been given it in peace, we have to accept the mission we have.  We are called to accept people and situations as they are and trust God to perfect our efforts.

The final tool is this: do not move from one house to another.  It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want us to spread the Good News.  The discipline Jesus is teaching here is that we have to be focused in our ministry.  Once we have been given the mission, we have to stay with it, and not be blown about like the wind.  We are called to stay with a person or a situation until what God wants to happen happens.  When it’s time to move on, God will let us know, and we will come to know that time through prayer and discernment.

So we’ve received an awful lot as we come here for worship today.  We will be fed on the most excellent Body and Blood of our Lord which will give us strength to tend to the piece of the Kingdom that God has entrusted to us.  We have been instructed with some basic tools for doing the work of God.  If we use these tools and are faithful to the mission, I think we’ll be as overjoyed as were those disciples.  And then, we can rejoice with them that our names are written in heaven.

Independence Day

Today’s readings: Ezekiel 3:17-21; Psalm 8; Colossians 3:9b-17; Matthew 25:31-46

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.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

So begins our nation’s Declaration of Independence, a document of inestimable worth, authored by passionate men.  The independence that document brought came at the price of many lives, and so that independence and the rights it brought forth, must always be vigorously defended and steadfastly maintained.

The Liturgy of the Word today shows just exactly how important this is.  Yes, it’s good for people to be free from despotic rule, but there is more to it than that.  So in today’s Gospel, Jesus gathers his disciples and paints for them a picture of what the final judgment will be like.  When we think about judgment day, we often picture something that will happen to us as individuals, and indeed, that is one aspect.  But the really important judgment comes about not as individuals, but as nations.  Indeed, Jesus tells us that the nations will be assembled before him when he comes in glory, and these he will separate like the sheep from the goats.  It’s not an individual picture here at all.

So this makes exercising our rights a matter of great importance.  We can’t be a people who don’t take the time to vote, because the leaders of our nation can either lead us to salvation or to damnation.  We can’t be people who decide how to vote a matter of simply “what’s in it for me,” but instead must give due care to consider the welfare of our nation as a whole, and the influence that we exert on the world community.  We have to be a nation who brings others to Christ and gives witness to the Gospel.  As Ezekiel prophecies in our first reading today, woe to us if we don’t!

It’s a sobering thought, but not one that we should feel is insurmountable.  Since that momentous day of July 4, 1776, we have been a people that has vigorously defended the rights that bring us to peace in this life and salvation in the next.  We have defended life.  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.

We have defended the right to liberty, but that right 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.  As we heard in last Sunday’s second reading, Saint Paul tells us 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.

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.

Monday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s first reading has always intrigued me, ever since I can remember hearing it as a child. God intends to destroy the city of Sodom because of its pervasive wickedness. Abraham, newly in relationship with God, stands up for the innocent of the city, largely because that was where his nephew, Lot, had taken up residence. In what seems to be a case of cosmic “Let’s Make a Deal,” Abraham pleads with God to spare the city if just fifty innocent people could be found there. God agrees and Abraham persists. Eventually God agrees to spare the city if just ten righteous people could be found in the city of Sodom.

It is important, I think, to know that Abraham’s prayer does not really change his unchangeable God. Instead, God always intended to spare the city if there were just people in it.  What I love about this reading is Abraham’s line, “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes!”  It seems Abraham is testing the relationship, seeing how far it will go.  What happens is that he learns something great about our unchanging God: he learns that, as the psalmist sings today, “The LORD is kind and merciful.”

All of this leads us to an important issue at stake for the praying disciple: that is, prayer must come out of a relationship with God.  Abraham may have been somewhat presumptuous to speak to God the way that he did.  But if he didn’t know God, if he didn’t have a relationship with God, well, then his conversation would have been completely offensive, wouldn’t it?  But he did know God, and was getting to know him better, so his pleas for the just people of Sodom were completely appropriate.

We too are called to relationship with God, a relationship that finds its source in our prayer.  We can persistently plead for loved ones, but we also have to spend time in adoration and praise and thanksgiving, and even quiet contemplation so that this most important of our relationships can grow.  The LORD is kind and merciful, and he longs to reveal his mercy as we come to him in prayer.