The Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Freedom!

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 240 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, and those who continue to do so in the military every day.

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, 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, or perhaps listen to any of the current campaigning for office. 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 would-be 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 exact things they were involved in, but in a way that honored God. The call 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 it all.

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 lengths to which 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. I hope we remember that 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 caught 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.”

Thursday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time 

Some people say all you need to do is make a one-time decision to accept Jesus as your personal Savior and you’re saved. If salvation were something magical that came about as the result of just saying a simple prayer, once and for all, then why wouldn’t everyone do that? The fact is, salvation is hard work. It was purchased at an incredible price by Jesus on the cross. And for us to make it relevant in our lives, we have work to do too. Not the kind of work that earns salvation, because salvation is not earned, but the kind of work that appropriates it into our lives.

People who are saved behave in a specific way. They are people who take the Gospel seriously and live it every day. They are people of integrity that stand up for what’s right in every situation, no matter what it personally costs. They are people of justice who will not tolerate the sexist or racist joke, let alone tolerate a lack of concern for the poor and the oppressed. They are people of deep prayer, whose lives are wrapped up in the Eucharist and the sacraments, people who confront their own sinfulness by examination of conscience and sacramental Penance. They are people who live lightly in this world, not getting caught up in its excess and distraction, knowing they are citizens of a heaven where such things have no permanence. Saved people live in a way that is often hard, but always joyful.

Not everyone who claims Jesus as a personal Savior, not everyone who cries out “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven. That’s what Jesus tells us today. We have to build our spiritual houses on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, living as he lived, following his commandments, and clinging to him in prayer and sacrament as if our very life depended on it. Because it does. It does.

Monday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time: Reining In Our Pride

Today’s readings

Pride is, perhaps, the most insidious of the sins with which we have to deal. And I say “we” because yes, we all have to deal with it at some level at some point in our lives. Pride keeps us from seeing that we’re headed down the wrong path. Pride also keeps us from asking for help, or even from accepting help, when we’re in trouble. Pride, as the saying goes, goes before the fall, and it can land us in some serious difficulty if we don’t work hard to eradicate it from our lives.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus clearly wanted to make sure his disciples were not bogged down with pride. Perhaps he was trying to keep them from following the behavior of the Pharisees, or maybe he even saw traces of pride at work in them as a group. Whatever the case, he warns them clearly that pride has no place in the life of the disciple.

Now, to be clear, he is not telling them that they can never pass judgment on anyone. Judging is a part of law and order, without which no society can survive. Also, he knows full well that rightly-disposed believers can and should stop others from heading down an erroneous or dangerous path. What he is saying, though, is that the rod we use to measure the other is the same measure that will be used on us, so it would be well to make sure that our motives are pure in all cases.

It’s a chilling prediction, I think. I shudder to think of the measure I sometimes use on others being used to measure me. But if I measure with love and charity and genuine concern, I know that I can accept that same measure on myself. It’s a good thing that’s the kind of measure God wants to use on all of us. And he will, if we lay down our pride.

The Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Suffering, Redemption and Glory

Today’s readings

The talk of mourning and death in today’s Liturgy of the Word reminds us of a couple of really important life principles. The first is that we will have to suffer and mourn in this life, because this life is riddled with sorrows. We saw that clearly in Orlando this past week, and the truth is we see it all the time on the streets of Chicago. The second life principle is that Jesus embraced suffering himself, and did not come to make it go away. And finally, suffering was something our Lord redeemed, changing it from a dead end to a path to glory. The Gospel today in particular addresses these principles.

The story begins with a lesson on who Jesus is. Our own self-identity is something many of us spend a lifetime trying to figure out. Our identity is important to us: it tells us how we fit into the social structure as well as what makes us unique from others. Until we really know who we are, we are very unlikely to accomplish anything of importance or even be comfortable in our own skin. And so when Jesus asks the disciples “Who do the crowds say that I am?” it is a question with which we all resonate on some level, at some time in our lives.

Now, I’m not suggesting Jesus was having an identity crisis, or even that his notion of who he is was developing. Clearly, his asking that question wasn’t so much for his own information or even to see where he was in the social structure of Israel, but he was nudging the disciples to come to an understanding about what was going on. Jesus knows who he is and why he is here, but it’s for us and for those first disciples to begin to see Jesus in deeper ways.

The answers the disciples give to that question are interesting. John the Baptist risen from the dead, Elijah returned from the whirlwind, or that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Clearly he had no parallel on earth at the time; all their answers involved the return of someone from the dead or the beyond. The reason this is significant is because, at the time, the possibility of there being anything beyond death or any kind of resurrection was in great dispute. The Pharisees believed in a life after death, the Sadducees did not; that is the reason many of the Gospel stories show those two groups in opposition to each other.

But the real significant part of their answers lies in what is going on in the disciples’ minds as they answer Jesus. You can almost hear the excitement in their voices. They had been seeing Jesus healing diseases and casting out demons. Not only that, they had just returned from their own missionary journey in which Jesus gave them authority to do those same things. Clearly they were in the presence of a superstar, and his charisma was rubbing off on them. They were ready for the glory, and they will get it, but not in the way they’re expecting.

Now Jesus wants to dig a little deeper. “But who do you say that I am?” he asks them. Peter speaks for the disciples and gets the answer right the first time: “The Christ of God.” I think he answers that with deep reverence and awe, but unfortunately, he didn’t know the half of it.

Jesus affirms his correct answer, but then goes on to reveal what that means for him. Yes, he is the Christ of God, but the Christ isn’t what they had anticipated. This was not going to be simply some glory trip. The Christ would have to suffer, be rejected, be killed, and then … then be raised from the dead. And that whole being killed part is the sticking point, but it’s absolutely necessary, he can’t be raised from the dead if he isn’t killed; that’s not a step one can skip.

This all had to be pretty hard for them to digest. But it’s nothing compared to what Jesus reveals next. Those disciples who thought they were on the glory train could also expect to suffer:

If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

We don’t get to skip a step either. We too will be called to the cross. If we want eternal life, we have to be willing to give up this life. There is no resurrection without a cross; there is no Easter Sunday without a Good Friday. Not for Jesus and not for his disciples, not even for you and me.

We know that suffering is part of life. We have experienced illness, injury, pain, loss of a job, death of a loved one, physical or psychological abuse – the list is long. Just in the past week, our nation has suffered so much loss. So often all this suffering seems pointless. We might even be tempted to quarrel with God: if God is loving, why to innocent people have to suffer, why do we have to suffer? Why can’t it be the guy who cuts us off in traffic while he’s drinking coffee with one hand and talking on a cell phone in the other?

The truth is, the justice of suffering is beyond us. We don’t know why bad things happen to good people. Suffering can often seem so capricious, so random, so devoid of meaning. And it is, if we let it be. You see, sometimes we just get it wrong. We sometimes think that Jesus came to take away suffering and we get mad when that’s not what happens. But if Jesus came to take away suffering, he certainly wouldn’t have had to go through it himself. He didn’t come to take away suffering, but to give meaning to it, to redeem it – to come to glory through it.

We can see in the cross that the path to glory and the path to life leads through suffering to redemption. There’s no way around it. The cross Jesus took up will be ours to take up daily if we wish to follow Jesus to eternal life. He is the Way: if we want to get to heaven we have to follow his path. Our own identity as disciples and followers of Christ is bound up in the ugliness of suffering and the agony of the cross.

That flies in the face of our culture that wants us to take a pill for every pain and medicate every burden. Jesus says today that that kind of thinking is simply losing our lives trying to save them. The rest of life passes us by while we are self-medicated beyond our pain. But, if we lose our life for the sake of Jesus, if we take up our crosses and follow him, if we bear our burdens and our sorrows and our pain and our brokenness, if we join our sufferings to the suffering of Christ on the cross, then we too can experience what he did: the glory of eternal life. That was the only hope of those first disciples, and it is our only hope too, fellow disciples of the Lord.

Saint Anthony of Padua, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

St. Anthony is probably one of the best-known Catholic saints. As the patron for finding lost objects, I’m sure so many of us have prayed, “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.

Friday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So we know the back story on our first reading, because we’ve been hearing it this week. You recall that Elijah has just come from soundly defeating all of the pagan “prophets” of Baal, which was very embarrassing to King Ahab and especially to Queen Jezebel, who vowed to take Elijah’s life in retaliation. So he has been hiding out in a cave, not for protection from inclement weather, but for protection from those who sought his life. In the midst of this, God asks Elijah why he is here. Elijah explains that the people of Israel have been unfaithful and have turned away from God, not listening to Elijah’s preaching, and they have put all the other legitimate prophets to death. Elijah alone is left.

So God says that he will be “passing by” which in biblical language means that God will be doing a “God thing.” God will be revealing his presence. And so we have the story: there is a mighty wind, an earthquake and even fire. But Elijah only recognizes the Lord’s presence in the tiny whispering sound. After everything that had happened to him, mighty wind, an earthquake and a fire were just more of the same. But when there was that tiny whispering sound, Elijah heard the Lord speaking to him loud and clear. Then and there he receives instruction on how to move forward.

In our own prayer lives, it’s good to be attentive to the tiny whispering sound. We too have a noisy life – not because we are running from our enemies like Elijah, but more because we have created enemies to a recollected life. The television, the phone, the computer, all of that and more vie for our attention in every moment. And then we lament that we can’t hear God’s direction, can’t figure out what it is we’re supposed to do in this situation or that.

In my own life, I just recently created a little space in my room for a prayer altar. It has my bible, a painting of the Crucifixion of the Lord, a statue of Saint Patrick and one of the Blessed Virgin, and a candle. Now, when I want to hear the Lord, I can turn off everything, settle into a chair, and reflect. And the Lord has been speaking, was all along to be honest. Just now I’ve created a space, like Elijah’s cave, where I can hear him. God is always doing a “God thing” among us. We just have to make it our care to notice.

Monday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time 

Sometimes God’s blessings can be challenging. For example, we might not think that those who are meek and those who mourn are blessed. And we certainly wouldn’t celebrate the blessings of those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, would we? It’s even more challenging when we remember that the word “blessed” in Scripture could also be translated as “happy.” Would we think of those people as happy? Probably not, but God does.
Elijah the Tishbite knew this blessing of God too. The prophet’s job is always a demanding one. It’s one of great blessing, because the prophet is called by God and formed from his mother’s womb. But it’s also a great challenge: people don’t usually want to hear what a prophet says – after all, if they were open to the message, a prophet probably wouldn’t be necessary – and quite often the prophets were chased out of town, beaten, and even murdered. Elijah’s job was going to be challenging, but it would also be blessed: God provided for his needs at Wadi Cherith and at the end of his life, whisked him off to heaven in a chariot of fire.

So it’s important for us to remember, I think, that while God never promises to make our lives free and easy, he does promise to bless us. He will bless us with whatever gifts we need to do the work he has called us to do, the work for which he formed us in our mother’s womb. The happiness of the blessing might not come in this life, but we who do God’s will can look forward to our reward, which Jesus promises will be great, in heaven.