Homilies Ordinary Time

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, sadly, 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 children.  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, and we do!  But our God who made us does not will that we would end up in that fiery furnace; he gives us the chance to come back to him, and willingly re-creates us in his love.  Notice that all we have to be is willing; the potter—God—does the work.  We just have to be docile to his re-creating merciful 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.

Today we pray that we would all be willing to be re-created on that potter’s wheel.

Homilies Ordinary Time

Tuesday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning, the prophet Jeremiah is urgently reminding the people Israel – and us too! – that every good thing we have, every blessing we receive, all of it comes from the Lord God Almighty.  Israel was trying to find blessing in the strange gods of the peoples around them, forging alliances with foreign people instead of trusting in Almighty God, and then as a result of those alliances, going over to worship their pitiful gods.

We certainly shake our heads just thinking about this.  It’s hard to understand why they would abandon God after he had done everything for them.  But not so fast; we have our own strange gods too, I think, in which we try to find blessing.  Whether it’s possessions or wealth or prestige or career, or whatever else tends to get in the way of our relationship with God, none of these strange gods will ever grant us blessing.  We know this, and yet, just like the Israelites, we abandon God when we want what we want. 

“You alone have done all these things,” Jeremiah observes. Sometimes I think we all need to take a step back and make that same observation. Maybe our prayer today can be an honest inventory of God’s blessings to us, do that we can give him the honest worship due to him alone.

Homilies Ordinary Time

Monday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We’ve had these parables about the Kingdom of Heaven a bunch lately.  At Sunday Mass over the past few weeks, and we’re now working through them at daily Mass.  One thing we can say about them is that they are head-scratchers for sure!  I am sure we can all understand how the people were confused by Jesus’ description of the Kingdom, since it even seems foreign to our ears, even though we’ve heard them so often.  One might wish that he would just say: “Okay, look, here’s what the Kingdom is like,” and stop with all the parables already!

But as often as I read and reflect on these parables, it strikes me that no words would be adequate to express how wonderful is the kingdom.  It’s big, like a mustard tree, and expansive, like rapidly-rising dough.  But whatever we can say about the Kingdom of God, it’s going to be too little.  Our language fails us.  It will never even come close to describing the Kingdom in its fullness.

My guess is, no matter how often we hear these wonderful parables, on that great day when we – please God! – get to the Kingdom of heaven, we will be amazed beyond our wildest dreams.  God’s heavenly Kingdom is something we certainly don’t want to miss.  So let’s not be like those Israelites in the first reading who Jeremiah rightly pointed out never listened to God, or who as the Psalmist points out have even forgotten God.

Because if we remember our God, and listen closely, maybe we’ll hear just a tiny clue of what heaven will be like. That way we’ll recognize it when we get there.

Homilies Ordinary Time

The Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Think about it.  God comes to you in a dream and says that you can have anything you want—just one thing, though.  It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  What would you ask for?  What is that one thing you’d give anything to have?

God already knew what Solomon was going to ask for; he already knew that what Solomon wanted was something that would be good for Solomon to have.  Solomon asks for a wise and understanding heart so that he could more readily lead the people God had called him to lead.  And so God grants his servant’s request: he gives him so wise and understanding a heart that there was never anyone as wise as Solomon, before or since.

Solomon’s answer to God’s question told us what was of most importance to Solomon. In today’s Gospel, we are asked to answer that same question. Jesus speaks, as he has been for a few Sundays now, of what the kingdom of heaven is like. A couple of weeks ago, the kingdom was like seed that was scattered and sown. Some fell on rocks, some among weeds, but some on the good soil that yielded more than anyone had a right to hope for. The kingdom of God is something like that: the more we nurture and cultivate our life with God, the more we benefit ourselves and others. Last Sunday, the kingdom was again like seed, which was carefully planted, but was interrupted by someone planting weeds in among the wheat. The landowner had the harvesters sort it all out at harvest time. The kingdom of God is something like that: the good and the bad will all be sorted out in due time.

Today the kingdom is like buried treasure or the pearl of great price.  The treasure is so great that when it is found, the treasure-hunter sells everything he has to buy the field.  The pearl is so wonderful that the merchant gives everything he has to buy it.  Can you imagine their joy?  What they have found is so wonderful that they give up everything to possess it.  Well, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like that.

But not just like that, right?  Because we know that worldly goods can never hold a candle to the riches of the Kingdom of heaven.  The success in our careers is nice, the nice things we have in our homes give us some pleasure, our accomplishments may even give us some pride.  But all of these pale in the face of the joy of the Kingdom.

And so we have the invitation today.  We don’t have to look, because we have found the great treasure, the pearl of great price.  We have come here today to worship and to receive the Lord in the Eucharist, really present for those here in church, and at least spiritually for those at home.  There is nothing better on the face of the whole earth.  We know where to find that which is ultimately valuable.  But the fact is that we can come and go from this holy place today and still not have what’s truly worthwhile.  Because in order to receive it, we have to give up everything.  We have to sell everything and buy the field in order to have that pearl of great price.

That might mean walking away from a business deal that is profitable but has consequences for the poor or the environment.  Or perhaps it means giving up a relationship that is destructive.  We may have to give up a leisure pursuit that is enjoyable but separates us from family and friends.  We have to make choices, changes and decisions that amount to selling everything in order to make room for something that is of ultimate importance: that pearl of great price which is the Kingdom of heaven itself.

Today’s Liturgy of the Word leaves us with some very important questions.  What is the pearl of great price for us?  What is the thing for which we would give up everything else?  How important is it for us to enter the Kingdom of heaven?  What is it that we must give up in order to get there?  Our prayer today is that we would be strengthened by the Word of God and nourished by the Eucharist so that we would have the courage to sell everything for the Kingdom of heaven, that pearl of ultimately great price.

Homilies Saints

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 the glory, butterflies, and dancing.  It means that our faith sometimes has to move from the mountaintop experiences 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.  And 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 Saint Paul in our first reading today 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,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
For we who live are constantly being given up to death
for the sake of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

What is unspoken here but clearly implied is the 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, because God has already conquered the world.  We will still have to live through sadness at times, but that sadness can never conquer 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. We can’t explain why bad things happen to good people, but we can explain how good people handle bad situations well: they handle it well because they know Christ and live in Christ every day of their lives. Sometimes the chalice we will have to drink will be unpleasant, distasteful and full of sorrow. But with God’s grace, our drinking of those cups can be a sacrament of the presence of God in the world.

Everyone who is great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first among us must be the slave of all. 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.

Homilies Ordinary Time

Friday of the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning’s Gospel passage is the explanation of the parable of the seed and the sower, which we heard on Wednesday morning (and, for that matter, two Sundays ago).  What we quickly find out is that the parable is all about us.  Clearly the ideal is the good soil which produces much fruit, and just as clearly, we don’t want to be the soil on the path or the rocky soil, or even the soil with the thorny growth.  All those soils yield nothing but dead plants, hardly an offering to God or even anything that would be pleasing to us.

When we allow ourselves to have a surface-level relationship with God, one that is not nourished by devotion and worship, when we consider ourselves “spiritual but not religious,” we end up being easy picking for anything in the world that comes our way and would snatch us out of the hands of God.  Just like the seeds that fall on the path.

When we think that we can live our faith without any kind of effort on our part, we end up with a very shallow basis for that faith.  We sometimes latch on to the joy of religion or religious experience, but when it becomes hard work, as any relationship will at some point, well then, we let go of that relationship and have no way to keep growing.  Just like the seeds on the rocky soil.

When we try to live our faith and still be people of the world, we find that the faith gets choked out as our desire for more riches, more things, more prestige – or more whatever – overshadows our desire for strong relationship with God.  We can’t serve two masters, and we soon take the path of least resistance, abandoning the faith for what we think will give us more happiness, at least right now.  And when that fails us, we wither up and have nowhere to turn.  Just like the seeds that grow up with all those thorny plants.

But none of that works for disciples of the Lord.  We have to dig deep and have a faith that goes beyond the surface so that we can really know God.  We have to have a faith that is developed by embracing the hard work of repentance and devotion so that we can continue to go deep into the life of God.  We have to have a faith that is single-minded and not subject to whatever ill-winds and thorns come along; a faith that sustains us in our life of discipleship, in good times and in bad.  We have to be that rich soil which yields not only joy for ourselves, but grace for others.

Homilies Ordinary Time

The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today I want to talk about the way we worship.  And I’m not talking about wearing a mask, or social distancing, or even the rudimentary parts of worship like genuflecting or singing or observing silence, as important as those things are.  In fact, I’m not talking about worship in the sense of what we do here at church at all.  I’m talking about what we do before and after Mass; the worship we do out there in the world—the whole business of living our lives, and letting worship affect everything, because it should—in fact it has to.  The thing is, as challenging as it is to worship when we’re here in church, it’s still way easier than worshipping out there in the world, isn’t it?  But Jesus has always been clear that worship has to mean something in our daily living, or it’s not true worship at all.

You know the issue quite well, I’m sure.  We may intend to work hard, and pray reflectively, but life almost always throws us a curve ball and all our pious plans go out the window.  You know what I mean, right?  People at work don’t do what they’re supposed to.  Others in our family get into rough situations and test our patience.  Our commute is exacerbated by the pouring rain.  And it can go even deeper: news about a loved one’s illness, news about our own illness, the fear of a pandemic, and on and on.  And then we can slip up and fall into sin, that sin we have been praying hard to overcome and doing everything we can to avoid.  Our pious plans can turn into a very rough week indeed.  Really, among the blessings – and we have to admit, there are blessings – life can derail us and bring us to a rather frustrating place.

The good news is that our Liturgy of the Word speaks to all of that today, I think.  The wisdom writer in the first reading praises God who has the care of all, and who permits repentance for sins.  The Psalmist extols God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and fidelity.  Saint Paul tells the Romans, and us, that the Holy Spirit comes to our aid in our weakness, helping us to pray the right way, even praying in our stead when we cannot.  We need all that consolation when our week doesn’t go the way we hoped.

And then we have the Gospel, which continues the theme of planting seeds that we heard last week.  Here we hear of the wisdom of God who allows the weeds to grow among the wheat and is wise enough to sort it all out at the harvest time.  This Gospel talks all about the Kingdom of God and what it will be like.  It will be like a tiny mustard seed that grows up to become a huge shrub.  It will be like a measure of yeast mixed with flour to become a loaf of bread.

Here are a couple of things I want us to take from this Gospel.  First, the Kingdom of God is now.  Jesus made it real, showing us that the kingdom is present in ordinary ways: a mustard seed, a measure of yeast.  He wants us to see that we don’t have to wait for a far-off distant Kingdom or some kind of extraordinary sign, but instead to live in the Kingdom now, where he is our King.  That means we have to put the whole of our being and our lives and everything we do in his service.

Second, the mustard seed, the yeast – that’s us.  We are the ones to come to life and make the Kingdom happen.  Jesus needs us to go out and proclaim the message, to witness to the presence of the Kingdom, to make people want to be part of it.  Our prayer, our love, our joy, all of that make it possible for people to come to know Christ.  The Kingdom of God is our true home; the rest of the world is just a road along which we are traveling.  When we live in the Kingdom here and now, when every moment of our lives is lived in anticipation of the holy presence of God, we will be ready for the great coming of the Kingdom in heaven, where all will be made right and we will live forever as one with our God.

If we’ve had a less than stellar week, we need that good news, we need that Kingdom. We need to know that God is patient, and forgiving, and allows us to come to maturity before there’s judgment. We need to know there is mercy and forgiveness, and a Spirit that prays with us and for us in our weakness. And we need to hear Jesus call us to be leaven in the world, even though we’re not perfect. He needs us to work on changing sadness to hope, directing all eyes to the One who is our true King. That, friends, is true worship.

Homilies Ordinary Time

The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Todays’ readings

I’m not very good at it, and I don’t do it much any more, but I used to help plant a family garden.  I don’t have much of a green thumb, and I’m short on patience for that kind of thing, so for me it just doesn’t work out very well.  But I’m grateful for those times when I did plant a garden, because it really gives me an insight to the spiritual life.  What’s remarkable to me about a garden is that the seed that is planted looks, for all the world, lifeless … like something that is already dead.  It’s shriveled up and dry, so it’s really hard to believe it could give life to anything.  But when you put that dried up old seed in fertile soil, give it some water and nourishment, let the sun shine on it, well eventually it grows up to become something wonderful: flowers to delight us, vegetables for our table.

I often like to go on walks around the parish.  I’m a person who likes to see patterns and the big picture of how things are organized.  So when I pass by one of the cornfields around here, I’m often struck by the straight and orderly rows of corn that grow there.  The farmers take great care, it seems to me, to make sure they are planted that way: in orderly rows.  So when I hear the story we have in today’s Gospel reading about seed being scattered willy-nilly all over the place, some of it not even landing on suitable soil, well, it makes me wonder.

But the original hearers of the parable would have understood what Jesus was saying.  It was a method used at that time: seed would be scattered, and then the soil would be tilled thus planting the seeds.  And so they would have understood that sometimes the scattered seed falls in places that the farmer didn’t intend, and those seeds don’t come to life, or if they do, it’s not for long, but, either way, it’s no big deal.

So Jesus explains the parable for his disciples and for us.  The seed is the seed of faith.  God scatters it with wild abandon, pouring it out freely that his chosen ones – which obviously includes you and me – would come to know him.  He tills the soil of faith by sending us the sacraments, the Word of God, and his great love and mercy.  Sometimes it works: we receive the seed of faith, it’s watered in the sacrament of baptism, fed with the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and we make of ourselves fertile ground, letting it come up and grow and give life to the world.  But sometimes, of course it doesn’t work out that way.  We all know people who have received that seed of faith but haven’t let it blossom.

The seed might fall in a place where the faith is not nourished and Christ is not known.  Maybe it’s a foreign land without benefit of missionaries, and in those cases it’s understandable that the faith wouldn’t take hold.  But it could even be a little closer to home.  Perhaps the seed falls on those whose turbulent lives can’t give the seed any roots: they receive the word of God with joy, but the trials and tribulations of daily living upset everything and the faith never really sinks in.  Or, maybe it falls on us embroiled as we are with the cares of the world.  The “weeds” of our living are improper relationships, too much time playing video games or surfing the wrong places of the internet, watching too much television, wasting time on passing things.  There is so much that can distract us from our faith, and too often, we are not as diligent about weeding the gardens of our souls as we should be.

We, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, are called to be rich, fertile ground to give life to the faith planted in our hearts.  That means that we must keep ourselves fresh by renewing the waters of baptism in our hearts.  We do that by continuing to grow in our faith: by studying the Scriptures, by nurturing our prayer life, by intentionally going deeper in our relationship with Jesus who is the tiller of the soil of our faith.  We must feed that seed of faith by dedicating ourselves to the Eucharist and coming to Mass all the time, whether it’s convenient or not.  We must weed out the distractions of our lives and give that seed of faith room to grow.  We must shine the brilliant sunlight of God’s love on that faith by living the Gospel and reaching out in love to brothers and sisters who are in need.

God scatters the seeds of faith with wild abandon, because he created us in love to return to him, fully grown and abundant in the faith.  We have to be intentional about caring for the crop we are meant to be.  God gives us the seed, gives us the things we need to nurture it, but he doesn’t do all the work for us.  We have to respond to his great love and abundant grace by using what he gives us so we can become what he wants for us.

We are the ones who have been called to yield “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”  The seed of faith comes in the form of something that might, for all the world, look dead – Christ’s saving action on the cross.  When we water and feed and weed and let the light shine on that faith, we can give life to the world around us and give witness that the world’s death is no match for the salvation we have in Christ.

Homilies Saints

Saint Benedict, Abbot, Founder of Western Monasticism

Today’s readings
Rule of Saint Benedict

It is with great fondness that I observe this feast of St. Benedict the abbot, and father of western monasticism.  My own Benedictine roots stem from my college days at Benedictine University in Lisle (which was 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 being afraid to do the right thing and trust God to make things right.  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.

Friends, this is advice not just for monks, but for all of us.  When we prefer other things to Christ, when we are afraid to bear witness to the truth, we lose every benefit of relationship with Jesus.  Possessions cannot sustain us; our fears cannot sustain us.  So we have to follow Christ with incredible zeal.  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!

Homilies Ordinary Time

Friday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Our God never promises that the life of faith and discipleship will be an easy one; only that it will be blessed. One thing is certain: that life will certainly entail hardship, even suffering. That’s pretty evident in today’s Gospel reading. Faithful disciples have to worry about being betrayed by even their closest family members.

None of this is a surprise to anyone who has tried to live the faith. Perhaps at times the hardest people to evangelize are the members of one’s own family. I’m sure we all can think of people close to us who have abandoned the faith or practice it rarely. Maybe the ones who receive the Church’s teachings least are those we would hope would get it and be partners with us as we journey to the kingdom. It happens all the time – in your family and in mine.

These are trying times. It is hard to give witness to the Truth when the culture around us wants to make its own truth. The evils of abortion and impure relationships are all but normalized now, and those who take a stand against them are considered intolerant at best, and hate-mongers at worst.  And it’s painful to see our brothers and sisters fall for the lie hook, line and sinker.  It’s hard for parents to see their children go astray, when they’ve done their best to pass on the faith.  So how do we stand for the Truth when our loved ones tune it out?  What do we do when our loved ones reject what we’ve tried to give them to bring them to eternal life?

Our Gospel tells us that what we do is persevere: we continue to live the Truth and witness to our faith.  If those close to us tune out our words, then we have to be all the more attentive to our actions, to our lived witness, so that they can see that we live what we preach and believe.  We have to depend on God to give us the right words and help us to do the right things so that we won’t be a stumbling block.  And then we have to trust in God to work it all out in his time.

None of this is going to be easy, but Jesus tells us that the one who endures to the end will be saved.