The Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sometimes it’s hard to accept that something is in our best interest when we first hear of it.  I can remember often growing up not wanting to do something like go on a retreat or join the youth group, but my parents giving me that gentle nudge to do it anyway.  And then of course, when I went, I’d always have a really great experience, and then I had to admit to them that I liked it, which was harder still.

I always think of that when I hear this week’s Gospel reading.  I think it’s a pretty human experience to resist what’s good for us, especially when it means extending ourselves into a new experience, or when it means having to inconvenience ourselves or disrupt our usual schedule.  We don’t want to go out into the field and work today, or go help at the soup kitchen, or go teach religious education, or go on that retreat, or get involved in a ministry at the church, or join a small Christian community, or whatever it may be that’s in front of us.

I remember specifically an experience I had when I first started in seminary.  I became aware that some of the guys, as their field education experience, were serving as fire chaplains.  That scared the life out of me, and I said to myself that I’d never be able to do that.  Two and a half years later, one of my friends at seminary asked me to join him as a fire chaplain.  Figures, doesn’t it?  I told him I didn’t think I had the ability to do that, but he persuaded me to pray about it.  Well, when I prayed about it, of course the answer was yes, do it.  And so I did, and found it one of the most rewarding spiritual experiences of my time in seminary.

People involved in ministries here at the Church can probably tell you the same kinds of stories.  Times when they have been persuaded to do something they didn’t want to.  They could probably tell you how much they grew as people, how much they enjoyed the experience.  When we extend ourselves beyond our own comfort level for the glory of God, we are always rewarded beyond what we deserve.  And that’s grace, that’s the work of God in our lives.

What’s important for us to see here is this: God extends his mercy and forgiveness and grace and calling to us all the time. We may respond in four ways. First, we may say no, and never change, never become what God created us to be. This happens all the time because we as a people tend to love our sins and love our comfort more than we love God. We would rather not be inconvenienced or challenged to grow.

We might also say no, but later be converted. That’s more okay. Let’s be clear: there is no time like the present, and we never know if we have tomorrow. But God’s grace doesn’t stop working on us until the very end. So we can have hope because God does not give up on us.

We might say yes, with all good intentions of following God, being in relationship with him, and doing what he asks of us. But perhaps we get distracted by life, by work, by our sins, by relationships that are impure, or whatever. And then we never actually become what we’re supposed to be.

Or we might actually say yes and do it, with God’s grace. We might be people who are always open to grace and work on our relationship with God. Then that grace can lead to a life of having become what God wanted of us, and that puts us on the path to sainthood, which is where we are all supposed to be.

Today’s Gospel is a good occasion for a deep examination of conscience. Where are we on the spectrum? Have we nurtured our relationship with God and said yes to his call, or are we somewhere else? And if we’re somewhere else, what is it that we love more than God? What do we have to do to get us on the right path? We know the way of righteousness. We know the path to heaven. We just have to make up our minds and change our hearts so that we might follow Jesus Christ, our way to eternal life.

Thursday of the Twenty-fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You know, I think Herod was asking the right question.  Sure, he was asking it for all the wrong reasons, but still, it is the right question.  And that question is, “Who is Jesus?”

What Herod was hearing about Jesus is pretty much what the disciples told Jesus when Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?”  Elijah, or one of the prophets, or maybe even John the Baptist.  But Herod was the one who killed John so he knew that couldn’t be it, so who is he really?  Herod kept trying to see him, and of course, he’d have more than ample opportunity soon enough, after Jesus is arrested.

So we have the question too.  Oh, we know well enough – intellectually – who Jesus is, but we still have to answer that question in our hearts.  Who is Jesus for us?  We know he is not just some prophet; that he is not like anyone who lived before or after him.  But have we stopped being intrigued by the question, have we lost our fascination with Jesus?  Herod kept trying to see Jesus, and it’s the right instinct, or at least it is for us.  We have to keep trying to see him too, whether that takes us to a rereading of the Gospels or to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or to contemplative prayer.  Whatever the case, fascination with Jesus is the right way to go, and we have to let ourselves be intrigued by the question again.  Who is Jesus for us?

Monday of the Twenty-fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I love the little line in the gospel reading that says, “Take care, then, how you hear.” It almost seems like a throw-away line, but really, I believe, it’s an essential instruction from Jesus. We disciples are to take care how we hear. Not what we hear, although that’s probably part of it, but how we hear.

So how do we hear the words of the gospel? Do we hear them as something that seems nice but doesn’t really affect us? Do those words fly over our heads or go in one ear and out the other? Do we hear them at Mass, and then live however it is we want, seeming to ignore what we’ve just heard?

Or, do we really hear the Word of the Lord? Does the gospel get into our head and our heart and stir things up? Do the words of Jesus get our blood flowing and our imaginations racing? Does hearing the gospel make us long for a better place, a more peaceful kingdom, a just society? We are not just hearing words about Jesus, we are hearing Jesus, we are experiencing the presence of God right here, right now, among us. If we open the door of our ears and our hearts, we might just find God doing something amazing in us and through us.

Take care, then, how you hear.

The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I wonder if you find this Gospel parable a little aggravating. I know I do. Certainly the people hearing it in Jesus’ day would have been aggravated too. They knew the economics of day laboring better than we do (although day laborers are by no means extinct in the twenty-first century). The very thought that those who labored hard all day, in the sun, would get the same as those who worked but an hour was unthinkable. I dare say we find it that way too.

So it’s important for us to notice that this is not intended to be a parable about justice. Jesus tells us right away: “The kingdom of God is like a landowner…” So the parable is not about justice, but instead it is an illustration of the workings of the Kingdom of God. In one sense, that’s comforting, because Jesus is not telling us that we should run our businesses with lavish disregard for economic wisdom. I would be hard pressed to be convinced to even run the parish that way.

But now think about the fact that the parable is about the Kingdom of God. Jesus was delivering a message to the religious establishment: they didn’t have the monopoly on the kingdom. They thought they had earned God’s reward, and Jesus tells them it doesn’t work that way. It’s not about what you’ve done or how long you’ve been doing it, it’s about God’s mercy and love that is poured out with lavish generosity. They would have found that pretty irritating.

And maybe some of us do, too. Do you mean to tell me that those of us who have worked hard and long for the mission and spent our days and nights at church might inherit just as much as someone who ignores the Gospel and converts on his or her death bed? Well, yes. That could be. Many years ago now, I heard about the deathbed conversion of actor John Wayne.  I thought at the time, “Gee, that’s convenient.”  Here he may well have led a life of excess and who knows what all debauchery and only on his deathbed was he willing to form a relationship with God.  Here those of us disciples have been working hard at it all this time, and yet some can get it just at the last minute?  That makes me bristle with thoughts of unfairness.  But, as the prophet Isaiah tells us today, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, and our ways are not God’s ways.

It’s important to note that we cannot pass judgment on anyone. I don’t know the details about John Wayne’s life and certainly not about his relationship with the Lord. Who knows if a conversion wasn’t something he had been looking forward to for a long time and he didn’t know how to make it happen. The important thing is that his desire was granted, in the waning moments of his life, and God is generous. That’s all we need to know.

Let’s face it, none of us wants God to be too strict an accountant. No matter how hard we may try to be good disciples, we often fall short in big ways and small ways. God gives us second chances all the time. And thank God he’s generous, or we’d all of us be in a world of hurt, without exception. Pope Francis is reminding us all of that kind of humility and its value, and we would do well to live it. The last line of the Gospel is hopeful: “The first will be last and the last will be first.” So whether you’re first or last, you still have the possibility of life eternal. News doesn’t get any better than that.

Friday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today we get a bit of a glimpse as to how Jesus’ day-to-day ministry worked.  We can see three things in particular that characterize how things happened.  First, he journeyed to proclaim the Good News.  He met people where they were, and even sought them out.  This shows us God’s relentless pursuit of the people he loves.

Second, he brought people with him.  He travelled with the Twelve Apostles, some of the women he had cured of evil spirits and of illnesses, some particular women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna), and “many others.”  All of these were drawn to Jesus for various reasons.  We can assume they had all been given some gift: healing, a call to ministry, recognition of their worth – and all of them had responded by wanting to be near him.  This models for us our response to God’s work in our lives.

And finally, those travelling with him provided for his ministry out of their resources.  Some of the women were well-connected, especially Joanna, whose husband was a high official in the court of Herod Agrippa.  So she would have had resources to help with the ministry as well as leisure to follow Jesus.

We can hardly visit this gospel reading, though, and not notice the meticulous mention of the women that were among his followers.  In a day where a woman’s participation in anything of a public nature would be totally frowned upon, Jesus reached out to women, and brought them into his ministry.  Certainly the Evangelist would never have mentioned it if it weren’t important to the Gospel itself.

We come here today for Mass, aware that our God seeks us out in little and big ways every single day.  We too want to be close to him, and respond as did the Twelve, the women, and the “many others.”  Our desire for God and our yearning for forgiveness are themselves God’s gift to us.  Blessed are those who journey with Christ on the way.

Thursday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Simon the Pharisee had committed a grave error in hospitality, and a serious error in judgment. In those days, when a guest came to your home, you made sure to provide water for him or her to wash their feet, because the journey on foot was often long and hot and dirty, and it was pretty much always made on foot. But Simon had done no such thing for Jesus.

Simon’s intentions were not hospitable; rather he intended to confront Jesus on some minutiae of the Law so as to validate his opinion that Jesus was a charlatan. He judged the woman to be a sinner, and reckoned Jesus guilty of sin by association. But Jesus is about forgiveness. He didn’t care about the woman’s past; he just knew that, presently, she had need of mercy. Her act of love and hospitality, her posture of humility, her sorrow for her sin, all of these made it possible for Jesus to heal her.

But the one who doesn’t think he is in need of healing can never be healed. And so that’s our examination of conscience today. Are we aware of our need for healing, or have we been thinking we are without sin, without brokenness, without openness to God’s mercy? If so, our moments of reflection today need to guide us to honest and open acceptance of God’s mercy, and a pouring out of the best that we have in thanksgiving.

Saints Cornelius and Cyprian, bishops and martyrs

Today’s readings

Saint Cornelius was ordained as the Bishop of Rome in 251. His major contribution was to defend the faith against the Novatian schismatics, a group who denied the readmission into the Church of those who had lapsed in the faith when they performed a ritual sacrifice to pagan gods, under the threat of death by the Roman Emperor. Cornelius argued that being coerced did not sufficiently demonstrate a denial of the faith, and those who fell into it should be readmitted after performing penance. Saint Cyprian was a brother bishop who helped him in this struggle. Both men were subsequently martyred for the faith. Cornelius died in exile in 253, and Cyprian was beheaded in 258.

The focus of both men was to preserve church unity during a time when there was much oppression against the church. Cyprian wrote to Cornelius, “Dearest brother, bright and shining is the faith which the blessed Apostle (that is, St. Paul) praised in your community. He foresaw in the spirit the praise your courage deserves and the strength that could not be broken; he was heralding the future when he testified to your achievements; his praise of the fathers was a challenge to the sons. Your unity, your strength have become shining examples of these virtues to the rest of the brethren.”

The unity of the Church is one of the four marks of the Church, along with holy, catholic and apostolic. So preserving our unity is one of our primary duties, even now. That’s a challenge to us in these days of so many people not really living their faith; being “spiritual but not religious,” whatever that means, and so many little splinter churches starting up. This was not how Christ intended it to be and it’s up to all of us to be open to the return of our brothers and sisters.

So what will our own efforts at unity look like today?