The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Stop Hoarding!

Today’s readings

Once in a while in the news, you will hear a story of someone who has hoarded possessions so much as to put them in danger. A while ago, I remember hearing of someone who had passed away, and rescuers needed to cut a hole in the roof in order to remove the person from the home. People like this have an illness with regard to hoarding, of course. But today’s Liturgy of the Word seems to address the hoarder in all of us. We are people of means, maybe not the most well-off, but certainly better off than most of the world. When do we have enough? When does it all become too much?

Listen to the last line of this morning’s Gospel one more time: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” So right away the parable is turned around and directed at all of us. And it wouldn’t be so hard to put that parable in modern terms, would it? Think of winning the lottery, only to know that the day you receive the check is the day you go home to the Lord. Or think of spending your days and nights in the office, building wealth and prestige, only to be part of massive layoffs when the company is sold. Or, even worse, spending your days and nights at the office, only to miss the growing of your family. So, Jesus asks us, what treasures have we built up? With what have we filled our barns?

Today’s first reading is from the book of Ecclesiastes, which in Hebrew is Qoheleth, who is the teacher in the book. Among the Wisdom books in the Scriptures, Ecclesiastes can be the hardest to read because it is almost prophetic in content. Qoheleth is the main character in the book, a man who is considered wise among his contemporaries, much like many of the popular wisdom teachers of his day. While we don’t know who Qoheleth was, the book is attributed to Solomon, the wise king. Solomon often wrote of the prizes that lay in store for those who were successful. But this book is a little different. Here he questions if it is all worth it, and challenges the complacence and dishonesty that run rampant in that society. If we didn’t know any better, he could well have been writing his words today, couldn’t he? In the end, though, Qoheleth’s message is basically encouraging, and brings us back to the God who made us. At the end of his book, which is not part of today’s reading, he says: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.” (Ecc. 12:13-14) Which is exactly what Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel.

St. Paul has a little bit of Qoheleth in him too, today. In the letter to the Colossians, which we have been hearing these past few weeks, he is trying to get that community to lay aside earthly things and seek God. Sounds like the message of Qoheleth, doesn’t it? “If you were raised with Christ,” he tells them, “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” In other words, stop filling your barns with the stuff that you accumulate on this earth, and be rich in what matters to God. Qoheleth, St. Paul, and Jesus are in complete concert today, and we must be careful to hear their message. St. Paul, typical for him, is very blunt about what he is asking us to lay aside: “Put to death then,” he tells us, “the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” And, “stop lying to one another.” We are called to be disciples who are pure, compassionate and truthful, because absolutely nothing else will lead us to the kingdom of God!

So, let’s look at Jesus’ instruction at the end of today’s Gospel parable: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” We have to ask ourselves, then, the very important question: “what is it that matters to God?” I think we know what doesn’t qualify – St. Paul made that very clear. I think the things that matter to God are those things we might count among our blessings: namely our family and friends. Those things that matter to God might also be the things that make us disciples who are pure, compassionate and truthful. So we might seek to be rich in prayer, rich in reaching out to the poor and needy, rich in standing up for truth and justice.

Today God is tugging at the heart-strings of the hoarder in all of us. What are we stockpiling? Maybe we need a look at our checkbooks, our calendars, and our to-do lists to see where our money, time and resources have gone. Can we take any of that with us if we are called home to God tonight? If those things are all we have, we could find ourselves in real poverty when we arrive at the pearly gates. This week’s to-do list might find us letting go of some of what we thought was important, so that we can be rich in what matters to God. These, brothers and sisters in Christ, are the riches that will not spoil and can never be taken away from us.

Saint Martha

Today’s readings

Along with her sister Mary, and brother Lazarus, Saint Martha was a personal friend of Jesus. We have all heard the story about Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet while Martha did all the cooking and serving. Martha quite rightly (in my opinion!) demands that all should lend a hand in the preparation of one’s house for guests. Jesus’ response there is that “Mary has chosen the better part.” This reminds us that everything isn’t always up to us. We are called to do our part and rest in God’s loving care for us.

But today’s Gospel reading is really the great story of Martha’s saintliness. She says three very faith-filled things in and around this passage. The first comes when she runs out to greet Jesus and proclaims a small part of her faith: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Here her faith is not quite perfect. She is confused that Jesus was detained and her brother died. But there is that aspect of trusting faith that knows that Jesus has power to do whatever he wills. The second great thing she says here comes right at the end of the story we hear today. In this, she proclaims a more perfect faith: “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” In this great profession of faith, Martha is just as bold and courageous as Saint Peter who says much the same when Jesus asks him “who do you say that I am?”

The final great thing that Martha says comes in the part of John’s Gospel, right after the story we read today. Having professed her faith in Jesus, Martha now returns to her sister Mary and calls her to come to Jesus. She says, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.” Those who profess their faith in Jesus cannot possibly keep it to themselves. And Martha does not. She goes to retrieve her sister, who once sat at the Lord’s feet, but now for some reason chose to remain at home. Perhaps Mary was hurt that Jesus had not come right away. Whatever the case, Martha’s faith does not leave her sister in the dark. Like Martha, we who believe in Jesus must tell everyone who needs to hear it that the Teacher is asking for them.

Thursday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings present us with two very interesting images. The first is that of a potter working at the wheel. When the object turned out badly, the potter re-created the object until it was right. Jeremiah tells us that just so is Israel, in the hand of the LORD. Not that God couldn’t get it right the first time. This prophecy simply recognizes that through our own free will we go wrong all the time, and Israel’s wrong turns are legendary throughout the Old Testament. Just as the potter can re-create a bowl or jug that was imperfect, so God can re-create his chosen people when they turn away from him. God can replace their stony hearts with natural ones, and give them new life with a fresh breath of the Holy Spirit.

The image in the Gospel is a fishing image. The fisher throws a net into the sea, casting it far and wide, and gathers up all sorts of fish. Some of the fish are good, and are kept; the others are cast back into the sea. So will it be at the end of the age. God will cast the nets far and wide, gathering up all of his creatures. Those who have remained true to what God created them to be will be brought into the kingdom; those who have turned away will be cast aside, free to follow their own whims and ideas. Turning away from God has a price however; following one’s own whims and ideas leads to nothing but the fiery furnace, where there is wailing and grinding of teeth.

The message that comes to us through these images is one of renewal. We who are God’s creatures, his chosen people, can often turn the wrong way. But our God who made us is not willing to have us end up in that fiery furnace; he gives us the chance to come back to him, and willingly re-creates us in his love. Those who become willing subjects on the potter’s wheel will have the joy of the Kingdom. Those who turn away will have what they wish, but find it ultimately unsatisfying, ultimately sorrowful, ultimately without reward.

Saints Joachim & Anne, Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Grandparents of Our Lord

Today’s readings

We don’t know much, well anything really, about Saints Joachim and Anne. Even in the Gospels where the ancestry of Jesus is traced, nothing is really said about Mary’s family, so we don’t have names that tell us anything about who Mary’s parents were. Their names themselves are really sourced by legend written more than a century after Jesus died, but even so, they have been confirmed by revelations to saints throughout the ages.

The Church has always inferred that Joachim and Anne were heroic people, having given birth to a woman of great faith. Mary probably had learned her great reverence for God from them, perhaps had learned to trust in God’s plan from them. She knew the law and was a woman of prayer, and we can only surmise that had to come from her parents who had brought her up to love God and his commandments. The Psalmist today cries out for deliverance from the nation’s oppressors. The Blessed Virgin was the one who made that deliverance possible through her fiat, her faithful “yes” to God’s plan. No doubt she learned that faith from her parents.

This feast helps me remember my own grandparents, whose faith and love are a part of me today. Their humor, their reverence for God, their love for people, all of that has become a part of who I am today. Maybe you too can remember some of the graces that have come from your own ancestors in faith. And for all these great people, along with Saints Joachim and Anne, we give thanks today.

Saint James, Apostle

Today’s readings

“Can you drink the chalice of which I am going to drink?”

What does that even mean for us? We know what Jesus’ chalice was like: it led him through sorrow, and abandonment, and ultimately to the cross. If we have ever been in a situation in which we have felt intense grief, or felt abandoned, or had to stand by and watch the death of one that we loved, well then, we know a little bit of what that chalice is going to taste like.

Being a disciple is messy business. It means that it’s not all glory. It means that our faith sometimes has to move from the mountaintop experiences we sometimes have, down into the valleys of despair. It means that there are times when we will be in situations that are frustrating, infuriating, debilitating, grievous and horrible. We will have to drink a very bitter chalice indeed. Jesus wasn’t just talking to John and James when he said “My chalice you will indeed drink.” That’s the cup reserved for all of us who would be his disciples.

Very clearly those words of St. Paul ring true for us:

We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus…

What is unspoken here but clearly implied is grace. Those who abandon their lives to take up the cross, wherever that leads them, will always have at their disposal the grace to live a life that is joyful in the face of affliction, confident in the midst of uncertainty, whole in the midst of destruction. There is nothing that the world or its evils can throw at us that cannot be ultimately overcome by the grace of God. We will still have to live through sadness at times, but that sadness can never and must never overtake the joy we have in Christ.

Like Saint James and his brother John, we are all called to drink from the chalice that Jesus drank. That means that we will always bear the dying of Jesus in our own bodies. Everyone who is great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first among us must be a slave. Saint James learned how to do that and still thrive in his mission. May we all be that same kind of sacrament for the world.

The Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time: Pray Without Ceasing!

Today’s readings

Prayer is that activity that people of God have at their disposal to remain in contact with God. It takes many forms: intercessory prayer, in which we pray for people or issues; adoration, in which we extol the greatness of God; confession, in which we note how, in comparison to God’s glory, we have fallen short; and thanksgiving, in which we remember the graces and mighty acts of God which have sustained us and blessed our lives. Prayer can change our lives and change our world, and today we need prayer seemingly more than ever.

So, based on today’s readings, I’d like to say three important things about prayer. First, prayer must always happen in the context of a relationship with God. Second, prayer must be approached with the long game in view, persistent and relentlessly hopeful. And finally I would like to answer the question that I get pretty often, and that is: “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” It’s a lot to cover, so please hang in there with me.

First, and this is really important: prayer must always happen in the context of a relationship with God. As I said a minute ago, prayer is an activity of the people of God, and to undertake prayer outside of that relationship will never be successful; indeed, it doesn’t even make sense. Let me illustrate with an apocryphal story: There was a woman who was not religious, didn’t worship, never prayed. But her life took several bad turns and she didn’t know what to do. Friends of hers found a lot of grace in prayer, so she figured it couldn’t hurt to try. She had a Bible on an upper shelf that she hadn’t opened in decades. But she got it down and dusted it off and said, “Okay God, if you’re there, I need to know it. Tell me what to do about my life right now.” She decided to open the Bible up, point to a passage, and hope it spoke to her.  So that’s what she did.  Opening the Bible, she pointed to a passage and read: “And Judas went out and hanged himself.”  She thought that was frightening, so she decided to try again.  This time she opened it up, pointed to a passage, and read: “Go, and do likewise.” She decided to try one more time, and on opening it up, she read: “Friend, do quickly what you must do.”

Now obviously, the woman was reading these passages out of context.  Had she read the whole story around each of these quotes, she would have been clear that none of these brief sentences spoke to her situation.  But more than that, she was praying without the context of a relationship with God.  Prayer can be very effective in times of crisis.  But a time of crisis is not the time to learn how to pray.  It is our relationship with God as disciples of the Lord that makes sense of our praying and teaches us how to speak to God. Indeed, if Abraham didn’t have a relationship with God, his bargaining in the first reading today would have been utterly offensive. And if the man in Jesus’ parable in the Gospel today didn’t have a relationship with his neighbor, he would never have been able to get the man out of bed to give him some bread.

The second thing I want to say about prayer is that it has to be persistent, part of the long view of our faith. Jesus presents this concept in the parable he tells about prayer.  Even if friendship does not get the neighbor what he wants, persistent knocking on the door will certainly help.  Nothing illustrates this better, though, than the very astonishing story we have in that first reading.  This reading has always intrigued me, ever since I can remember hearing it as a child. God intends to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their pervasive wickedness. Abraham, newly in relationship with God, stands up for the innocent of Sodom, 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.  Sadly, ten righteous people could not be found, and Lot escapes with his wife and daughters by the skin of his teeth. Don’t read the rest of the story though, it gets really awful from there! But that God would actually have this conversation with Abraham is what captures our attention: Our God is not a distant potentate who has set the world in motion and then stepped back to observe events as they unfold. No, instead our God can be called “Abba, Father” and we can approach God as we would a loving parent.

So finally, that brings me to the question I get so often as a priest. “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” And I get it; I’ve been in that situation myself. This summer has been particularly bad: I have had to just slightly re-word one of the prayers of the faithful seemingly every week this summer, changing just the location of the violence and tragedy that we’ve seen. Why doesn’t God hear our prayers and put an end to all this foolishness? Well, there’s a lot to be said about how that works, but let’s just talk about what prayer really does for us.

I always say that praying persistently doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going to come out the way we want it to. We often approach prayer with a vision of how we want things to turn out. What we have to remember is that, in prayer, everything is going to come out the way God intended it, which is so much better than our little plans. If we are people of prayer, if we pray persistently, we will be able to see the blessings in the midst of sorrow and to have confidence when everything seems to be falling apart. Sometimes, even when the circumstances don’t seem to change, the praying changes us, and makes us more open to the blessings God wants to give us in the midst of the pain.

Which makes us wonder, perhaps, how we are to deal with all the violence and discord in our society right now. If you’re like me, you’re almost afraid to turn on the news to hear where the tragedy is today. There’s almost a pervasive sadness that comes from experiencing so much of this all at once. But prayer is indeed the way we need to go with it. Because we are a people who have a relationship with God; we have the context of knowing that he wills the best for us and stands with us in good times and in bad. And we know prayer is the solution for the big picture. It’s not a magic wand that changes things immediately, but when we persist in prayer, it changes us and opens us up to God’s will which is infinitely greater than what we can see right now. God does answer our prayers. He answers them with love that puts us where we need to be in any given moment. And he answers our prayers with his abiding presence that brings light to every darkness that we encounter.

The psalmist today says, “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.” God intends the very best for us, we may be certain of that. And if we are people of persistent prayer, then we will indeed see blessing all around us. My prayer today is that we would all be persistent in prayer, that we would become people of prayer, and that we would never, ever, ever lose heart.

Saint Benedict, Abbot, Founder of Western Monasticism 

It is with great fondness that I observe this feast of St. Benedict the 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 my Priesthood retreat before I was ordained. Every now and then I go there for a few days of prayer, which helps me to be ready for whatever ministry is bringing my way. The motto Saint Benedict chose for his order was “Ora et Labora” – Prayer and Work — and for me it is a constant reminder of the balance we are called to have in life.
A wonderful source of inspiration to me while I was working in the corporate world, and still today, is reading from The Rule of St. Benedict, which is a great reflection on the balance we are called to in life. It was also one of the most groundbreaking works of spirituality and monastic rule at that time. It remains a spiritual classic today. Recently, I read a quote from the rule that spoke of something the abbot of a monastery should bear in mind. My reflection on it got me to thinking it was also extremely wise counsel for pastors of parishes, and even fathers – and mothers – of families. It’s from the second chapter of the rule and it goes like this: 
Above all, the abbot should not bear greater solicitude for things that are passing, earthly, and perishable, thereby ignoring or paying little attention to the salvation of the souls entrusted to him. Instead, may he always note that he has undertaken the governance of souls, for which, moreover, an account will have to be rendered. And if perhaps he pleads as an excuse a lack of wealth, then he should remember what is written: ‘First seek the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be added unto you’ (Mt 6:33), and again: ‘Nothing is lacking to those who fear him’ (Ps 34:10).

But it’s the second to last chapter that echoes the Gospel reading today. Jesus calls all of us disciples to stop making excuses and take up our crosses. Saint Benedict says it this way: Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and to life everlasting. This zeal, therefore, the monks should practice with the most fervent love. Thus they should anticipate one another in honor; most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character; vie in paying obedience one to another—no one following what he considers useful for himself, but rather what benefits another—; tender the charity of brotherhood chastely; fear God in love; love their Abbot with a sincere and humble charity; prefer nothing whatever to Christ.

When we follow Christ with this kind of zeal, Benedict says we can look forward to the ultimate reward: And may He bring us all together to life everlasting!