Monday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This whole Gospel story can be a little bit jarring, I think. I was particularly struck by what the messenger said to Jesus when he asked him to come to the centurion’s house: “He deserves to have you do this for him.” As if any of us is ever worthy of God’s mercy! To his credit, the centurion must have heard about this, because he hurries to Jesus to set things right: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.” And what he says also explains why he sent a messenger to come to Jesus instead of coming himself. For his part, Jesus is impressed with the man’s faith: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he says. And so the healing of the man’s slave takes place at once. It’s an interesting exchange, to say the least.

We have the privilege, every time we gather for the Eucharist, to echo the centurion’s faith. Just before we come to the Altar for Holy Communion, we say: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” And saying those words out loud is so important at that moment in the Mass. Unless we truly believe that Christ’s Body and Blood are sufficient for the healing of our souls, unless we truly know that we are completely unworthy of God’s mercy, then we don’t have the faith necessary to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.

But when we do enter into that moment of Communion with hearts open in faith, everything changes for us. True healing can come about, and we can return to our daily lives and find our souls healed with the grace that prepares them for whatever this world brings them.

The Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The Liturgy in these past summer months has been teaching us how to be disciples of Jesus.  Today, the readings give us another tool for the disciple, and that tool is forgiveness.  These readings come on the heels of what we heard last week, which was about the way the Christian disciple resolves conflict.  Forgiveness is the natural conclusion to that discussion.

In the Gospel, Peter wants the Lord to spell out the rule of thumb: how often must we forgive another person who has wronged us?  Peter offers what he thinks is magnanimous: seven times.  Seven times is a lot of forgiveness.  Think about it, how exasperated do we get when someone wrongs us over and over?  Seven times was more than the law required, so Peter felt like he was catching on to what Jesus required in living the Gospel.  But that’s not what Jesus was going for: he wanted a much more forgiving heart from his disciples: not seven times, but seventy-seven times!  Even if we take that number literally, which we shouldn’t, that’s more forgiveness than we can begin to imagine.  But the number here is just to represent something bigger than ourselves: constant forgiveness.

The parable that Jesus tells to illustrate the story is filled with interesting little details.  The servant in the story owes the master a huge amount of money.  Think of the biggest sum you can imagine someone owing another person and add a couple of zeroes to the end of it.  It’s that big.  He will never repay the master, no matter what efforts he puts forth or how long he lives.  So the master would be just in having him and everything he owned and everyone he cared about sold.  It still wouldn’t repay the debt, but it would be more than he would otherwise get.  But the servant pleads for mercy, and the master gives it.  In fact, he does more than he’s asked to do: he doesn’t just give the servant more time to pay, he forgives the entire loan!  That’s incredible mercy!

On the way home, however, the servant forgets about who he is: a sinner who has just been forgiven a huge debt, and he encounters another servant who owes him a much smaller sum than he owed the master – for us it would be like ten or twenty bucks.  But the servant has not learned to forgive as he has been forgiven: he hands the fellow servant over to be put into debtor’s prison until he can repay the loan.  But that in itself is a humorous little detail.  In prison, how is he going to repay the loan?  He can’t work, right?  So basically the fellow servant is condemned for the rest of his life.

We don’t have to do a lot of math or theological thinking to see the injustice here.  The servant has been forgiven something he could never repay, no matter how much time he lived.  But he was unwilling to give that same forgiveness to his fellow servant; he was unwilling to give him even a little more time to repay the loan, which the other servant certainly could have done.  That kind of injustice is something that allows a person to condemn him or herself for the rest of eternity.  The disciple is expected to learn to forgive and is expected to forgive as he or she has been forgiven.  “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  We can’t just say those words when we pray; we actually have to do it.

This call to a kind of heroic forgiveness takes on a new meaning when we consider the state of our world today.  We still have conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria, and in many other places.  In fact, I’ve read that as many as a third of the nations of the world are currently involved in some sort of conflict.  And we owe a great debt to those who are fighting to keep our nation safe.  But I don’t think we can stop with that.  We will never find the ultimate answer to terrorism and injustice in human endeavor.  We have to reach for something of more divine origin, and that something, I think, is the forgiveness that Jesus calls us to in today’s gospel.

And it starts with us.  We have been forgiven so much by God.  So how willing have we then been to forgive others?  Our reflection today might take us to the people or institutions that have wronged us in some way.  Can we forgive them?  Can we at least ask God for the grace to be forgiving?  I always tell people that forgiveness is a journey.  We might not be ready to forgive right now, but we can ask for the grace to be ready.  Jesus didn’t say it would be easy, did he?  But we have to stop sending people to debtor’s prison for the rest of their lives if we are going to honor the enormous freedom that God’s forgiveness has won for us.

Every time we forgive someone, every time we let go of an injustice that has been done to us, the world is that much more peaceful.  We may well always have war and the threat of terrorism with us.  But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.  That doesn’t mean we have to participate in it.  Real peace, real change, starts with us.  If we choose to forgive others, maybe our own corner of the world can be more just, more merciful.  And if we all did that, think of how our world could be significantly changed.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today’s readings

In a lot of ways, this is a strange feast we are celebrating today. Think about it. This is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which in Jesus’ day would have been as big an oxymoron as one could possibly imagine. It’s like us saying that we are going to celebrate the exaltation of a lethal injection chamber. There is nothing exalted about an instrument of execution: it’s tortuous, humiliating, and as dark as one can get.

So to get from that to where we are now is nothing short of a miracle. A miracle, of course, of the highest order! God used this instrument of punishment to remit the punishment we deserved for our sins. God used the epitome of darkness to bathe the world in unfathomable light.

And he didn’t have to. The cross is what we deserved for our many sins. Today’s first reading gives us just a glimpse into the problem. The Israelites, fresh from deliverance from slavery in Egypt, are making their way through the desert. Along the way, they pause to complain that God’s food, which he provided in the desert, wasn’t good enough for them. They had chosen slavery over deliverance; food that perishes over food that endures unto eternal life.

But we’re there too, right? We often choose the wrong kind of food, get off the path, and choose slavery to our vices and sins over new life in Christ. In fact it was because of all that that Jesus came to us in the first place. God noticed our brokenness and would not let us remain dead in sin. So to put an end to that cycle of sin and death, he sent his only Son to us to die on the cross, paying the price for our sins. But that death may no longer have power over us, he raised him up, cheating the cross and the evil one of their power, and exalting the Holy Cross to the instrument not of our death, but of our salvation.

Because of the Cross, all of our sadness has been overcome. Disease, pain, death, and sin – none of these have ultimate power over us. Just as Jesus suffered on that Cross, so we too may have to suffer in the trials that this life brings us. But Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us, a place where there will be no more sadness, death or pain, a place where we can live in the radiant light of God for all eternity. Because of the Cross, we have hope, a hope that can never be taken away.

The Cross is indeed a very strange way to save the world, but the triumph that came into the world through the One who suffered on the cross is immeasurable. As our Gospel reminds us today, all of this happened because God so loved the world.

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So today our Gospel, at the end of it, talks to us a bit about what prayer looks like.  And that reminds me of one of my favorite little stories.

So this person was not a real person of faith, but they were going through some hard times.  So since everything else she tried didn’t work, she decided to pray about it.  Not knowing really where to start, she reached for the old Bible that was up on a shelf in her room, took it down and dusted it off.  She said, “Okay God, I need to hear you tell me how to fix this situation.”  So she decided to point to a verse and see if that was God’s answer.  She opened up the Bible and did just that and then read it: “And Judas went out and hanged himself.”  That was pretty horrifying, and she didn’t think that could possibly be what God was telling her, so she decided to try again.  Opening to a different place, she read the verse: “Go thou and do likewise.”  Now it was getting personal, but she decided to try one more time: “Go and do quickly what you must do.”

I have to say, when the Scriptures talk about prayer, I get a little uneasy.  Not because I don’t like to pray, or think prayer is a bad thing.  But more because I think mostly we misunderstand prayer, and usually a brief mention in the readings like we have today can do more harm than good.  The line almost at the end of the Gospel reading is the culprit: “if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.”

Really? Anything? I don’t know about you, but I personally can think of examples – plenty of examples – of times where I had prayed with friends or family for something and ended up not getting it.  You can probably think of examples too.  People tell me all the time, “Father, I have prayed and prayed about (fill in the blank), and I never get any answer, it doesn’t seem like God even hears me.”  Have you ever thought that?  Lots of us have.  So what are we to make of this?  Why would Jesus make a promise like that if he wasn’t prepared to deliver on it?  Well, I’d like to make three points about prayer that maybe will help with that conundrum.

First, in the line right after this, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  Notice how he says, “in my name.”  So it’s not like a couple of us can get together and pray for something crazy and hold God accountable for granting it.  That would be absurd; I’m sure you realize that.  If we’re gathered in anything less than the name of Jesus, we’re in the wrong place, and you don’t get what you want, or even what you need, when you’re in a place other than where Jesus is.

Second, reflecting on that same line, I would point out the last phrase: “there am I in the midst of them.”  Sometimes God doesn’t answer all our prayers in the way we think he should, or in the way we would like him to.  God isn’t a divine vending machine.  But he definitely always answers them with his presence.  Sometimes that leads to resolution of a problem that is greater than we could have imagined.  Sometimes it makes us a stronger, more faith-filled person.  And sometimes the answer to a prayer means that we are the ones who have to change, not the situation, or the other people, or whatever is going on.  So the abiding presence of our God, most perfectly experienced in community, when two are three are gathered in his name, is the most important answer to every prayer.  And even if it’s the only answer, it surely is enough.

Finally – and I can’t say this often enough, nor stress it strongly enough – prayer is not a magic wand.  You might read in this brief little passage that all you have to do is pray for something and you get it.  “God help me win the lottery.”  Not so fast.  Prayer is always experienced in relationship: relationship with God and relationship with others.  That’s why this brief little passage mentions praying together, and praying in Jesus’ name.  Those are important points, and it’s best not to overlook them.

Prayer is a relationship, prayer is work – sometimes hard work, prayer is a way of life for the disciple of Jesus.  We enter that relationship at our Baptism, and it’s our task as disciples to nurture that relationship our whole lives long.

Tuesday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The presence of God, in some ways, is quite often really unwelcome, at least to those who have made their own gods. In today’s Gospel the demons that possessed the poor man knew who Jesus was and what he came to proclaim. Those demons wanted no part of Jesus, in fact, they wanted him to go away. But of course, Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life will not let the man remain possessed, and the demon flees.

But the demons that oppose God’s presence remain in our world and are quite active. They possess people, institutions, and social systems. They attempt to cloud a respect for life by preaching the so-called truth of “choice.” They attempt to oppress whole peoples and developing nations with greed and rampant consumerism. They attempt to derail justice with corruption, peace with selfishness, respect for authority with a kind of false freedom of expression. The expression of truth in our society is so relativistic and centered around “me.”

But the Jesus will not go away; he will not be overcome by anything; he will be always omnipresent. And we believe that forces of darkness will never have the last word. For the truth will overcome them like the thief in the night, and all that darkness will be put to flight in the light of truth. So may we Christians continue to sing of the Lord’s truth so that all people will continue to be amazed, just like the bystanders at the casting out of the demon. And with the Psalmist, we can look forward to the full revelation of the truth: “I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.”

Labor Day

Readings: Genesis 1:26-2:3 | Psalm 90 | 1 Thessalonians 4:1b-2, 9-12 | Matthew 6:31-34

One of the things that I remember vividly about my childhood is how hard my parents worked. My Dad worked more than one job at a time for several years. And in his main job, he was with the company for well over forty years, finally retiring from the company he worked for since his late teens. My mother, too, worked outside the home, and still does on a part-time basis. They encouraged me to work as well, and the experience of the work I did in my late teens is something that I carried with me throughout my pre-seminary work years, and continue, really, to benefit from to this very day. And that’s how work is supposed to be: participation in God’s creation, enhancing our human dignity, bringing forth our gifts, and helping us to be better people. Work should also help us to sustain our lives and our families, and to provide for their needs, including health care and retirement. The Church has consistently and loudly taught these truths about work ever since Pope Leo XIII’s ground-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum, published in 1891.

As we observe Labor Day this year, though, I think we still have work to do on those principles. Far too many people don’t have the resources that work provides. The bishops of our nation publish a yearly Labor Day statement, and this year they write about the fact that so often labor is viewed as a commodity, a thing to be bought and sold, rather than as a participation in the ongoing creative work of God and an expression of the dignity of the human person, which is rightly work’s purpose.

“When workers and labor are properly honored,” they write, “the social bonds of society are strengthened.  Work is not just about individual growth and development.  When work finds its proper role in the life of society, Pope Francis explains, it is the great teacher of cooperation and solidarity.   Daily work is a form of ‘civil love’ that ‘makes the world live and carry on.’”

The bishops note that technology, while a wonderful development to help in human progress, can also be misused as a means to devalue human labor: “Today, we are in the midst of a technological revolution, which has coincided with severe economic disparity and threatens to continue or accelerate due to many factors such as the growing presence of automation technology in the workplace.  Once again, we see in many places the consequences of widespread failures to pay a just wage and to honor the dignity of work for each person.  The root of the problem, which remains prominent, comes from an errant understanding that “human work is solely an instrument of production” such that business leaders ‘following the principle of maximum profit, tr[y] to establish the lowest possible wages for the work done by the employees.’”

They also note the declining availability of time for rest: “When workers do not have adequate time to rest, families suffer.  Also lost is the necessary time for spiritual growth and building a relationship with God.  Pope Francis has said it is ‘inhuman’ that parents must spend so much time working that they cannot play with their children.  Surely many wish for more time, but their working conditions do not allow it.  As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, ‘Even as God rests in Himself alone and is happy in the enjoyment of Himself, so our own sole happiness lies in the enjoyment of God.  Thus, also, He makes us find rest in Himself, both from His works and our own.  It is not, then, unreasonable to say that God rested in giving rest to us.’   A culture that obsesses less over endless activity and consumption may, over time, become a culture that values rest for the sake of God and family.”

Finally, the bishops call us to rediscover the sacredness of work, which is rooted in the knowledge that as we work, we help God to continue to build up the world in his image.  “This notion that work is sacred is essential, not only to understanding our work, but also to coming to know God himself; nowhere do we see this more powerfully than in the Eucharist.  The Holy Father calls us to drink more deeply of this idea:  “Work is a friend of prayer; work is present every day in the Eucharist, whose gifts are the fruit of man’s land and work.  A world that no longer knows the values, and the value, of work does not understand the Eucharist either, the true and human prayer of workers . . .’”

And so on this Labor Day it is especially appropriate that we reflect on the Genesis story of the creation of the world, showing the work of our Creator God and the blessedness of the sabbath rest on the seventh day.  We are reminded too that if we seek God and his righteousness first and foremost, everything else worthwhile will be taken care of besides.

Labor Day is in fact a wonderful time to step back and look at the meaning of work.  Labor Day reminds us that we don’t have permission to write off human labor as some kind of necessary evil or a commodity to be bought and sold.   We are reminded that the economy exists for the good of people, not the other way around.   We must truly venerate all labor, that of our own efforts as well as that of others.  We must vigorously defend the rights and dignity of workers, particularly of the poor and marginalized.  And we must always offer all of this back to our God who created us to be co-creators with him.  May we pray with the Psalmist this day and every day, “Lord give success to the work of our hands!”

The Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So over the past several Sundays, we have been seeing a lot of one of my favorite characters in the Gospel, and that is Saint Peter.  Just three weeks ago, the Apostles were out in a boat, and Jesus came to them on the water.  Saint Peter asked our Lord to command him to come to him on the water, and he did, and we all know how that went.  Then last week, Jesus was quizzing the Apostles about who people said that he was.  Peter was the one who spoke up and professed that Jesus was the Christ, the coming Anointed One, and Jesus proclaimed Peter the Rock on which he would build the Church.

And here we are today, just a couple of verses later in Matthew’s Gospel, and Peter is in the spotlight again, but this time not for anything really good!  So, it’s important to realize that Saint Peter, like all of the Jews of that time, had a preconceived notion about what the Messiah would be like, and what he would come to do. Peter was still clinging to those old notions, and so he could not fathom that Jesus would have to suffer and die.  And so Jesus chastises him for thinking not as God does, but as people do.  It’s a mistake we all make time and again in our spiritual lives.

Peter’s faith journey was like that: up one minute, and down the next.  One minute he’s walking on water, the next he’s drowning; one minute he speaks eloquently of his Lord, and the next he’s the voice of temptation.  So maybe it seems like Saint Peter, flawed as he was, was an inappropriate choice to be the pillar of the Church, the first of the Popes.  But our Lord never makes any mistakes.  He chooses who he chooses for a reason, and I think that’s what we have to spend some time looking at today.

If Peter was unqualified for the position to which he was called – and it certainly seems like that was the case – then we have to expect to feel unqualified for the roles to which we have been called.  Parents often feel that way when they start to raise their first child.  Priests feel that every time they witness something incredible – which is a lot of the time.  We are all unqualified, but God sees more in us, he sees our heart, he sees who he created us to be, and he won’t rest until we’ve fulfilled that potential.  It’s often said that God doesn’t call the qualified, but instead qualifies those he has called.  If that’s true, then Saint Peter is the patron saint of that!

If Peter made some mistakes along his journey of faith and discipleship – and he clearly did – then we have to expect that we will make mistakes in our own faith journey.  One minute we’ll have a glimpse of God and we’ll feel like we could never let him down, then the next minute we’ll fall into sin, maybe a sin we’ve been struggling with for so long, and we’ll feel like God couldn’t love us.  But he loved Peter, and he loves us.  He pulled Saint Peter out of the stormy waves, and he will reach out and pull us out of our own storms of failure, as often as we cry out.

The one thing you can’t fault Saint Peter for is his courage.  Eleven other guys stayed in the boat, but Peter wanted to be where our Lord was: out on the water.  Eleven other guys kept their mouth shut when Jesus asked who they said he was, but Peter did his best to make a profession of faith.  Even what he said in today’s Gospel was probably what the rest were all thinking, but he at least had the guts to say it out loud.  His life wasn’t perfect, his discipleship wasn’t perfect, his faith had a long way to go, but he knew that he couldn’t leave our Lord forever.  Even when he blows it in the hours before Jesus died and denies our Lord three times, he accepts our Lord’s forgiveness and fulfills the role Jesus gave him in last week’s Gospel.

Saint Peter’s story kept evolving, and ours isn’t done yet either.  Our Lord loved Saint Peter and he loves us too.  And that’s all it takes for great things to happen.