Monday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Things are starting to get real for those first followers of Jesus.  Jesus speaks to his disciples at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading about his impending demise.  He foretells that he will be handed over and killed.  And the disciples are overwhelmed with grief.  Certainly we can resonate with their grief.  They’ve been following him and living day-in and day-out with him for quite some time now, and just when they are really starting to appreciate his message and mission, he’s talking about the end of it all.

We don’t have to spiritualize things too much to grieve ourselves over Jesus’ death.  Because we know what brought about that painful, humiliating death: our many sins.  Both our personal sins and the sins of our society have caused the evil which made his death the necessary means of salvation.  And so, as we look up there on that cross, well, we might feel a bit of grief ourselves over such great suffering for so much evil.

But we can’t miss what the disciples seem to have missed.  Right after the foretells his handing over and death, and before Matthew comments on their overwhelming grief, Jesus says this: “and he will be raised on the third day.”  Now, granted, they had no idea what that meant, so probably it couldn’t have been much comfort for them.  But we do know what it means – it means everything!  Yes, the weight of our sins is ponderous, but they don’t define us.  Yes, the evil in our world is overwhelming, but it is not triumphant.  Yes, death is sorrowful, but it is not the end.  It wasn’t for Jesus, and it doesn’t have to be the end for us either, if we believe in him and follow him and live the Gospel.

The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse III: Bread for the Journey

Today’s readings

You may have heard of Viaticum, which we generally think of as one’s last Communion. Indeed, the Church encourages us by precept of the Church to receive Holy Communion in our last moments, if at all possible.  The word viaticum is Latin for “bread for the journey.”  So in our last moments, when we set out on our journey to the life that is to come, we are fed with that Food that sustains us.  It’s a commendable practice and I highly encourage it.

Today we see the Scriptural basis for viaticum, that bread for the journey.  In the first reading, the prophet Elijah has had just about enough, thank you very much.  Despite some successes in preaching the word of the Lord, he has felt that he is a failure.  Today’s reading comes after Elijah, with God’s help, just defeated all the prophets of the false god Baal in a splendid display of pyrotechnics on Mount Carmel.  It’s a wonderful story that you can find in chapter 18 of the first book of Kings, and your homework today is to go home and look it up!  I promise, you’ll enjoy the story.  Well after that outstanding success, one would expect Elijah to go about boasting of his victory.  Instead, Jezebel, the king’s wife and the one who brought the prophets of Baal to Israel in the first place, pledges to take Elijah’s life.  Today’s story, then, finds him sitting under a scraggly broom tree, which offered little if any shade, and praying for death.  For him it would be better for the Lord to take his life than to die by Jezebel’s henchmen.  The Lord ignores his prayer and instead twice makes him get up and eat bread that God himself provides, so that he would be strengthened for the journey.  In the story that follows, Elijah will come quite face-to-face with God, and be refreshed to go on.  But he can’t do that if he starves to death under the broom tree.  Sometimes God does not give us what we ask for, but exactly what we need.

Our Gospel reading takes us back to Saint John’s “Bread of Life Discourse.”  We usually read from the Gospel of Mark during this liturgical year, but since Mark is shorter than Matthew and Luke, we have a five-week opportunity during the summer to hear John’s Eucharistic Theology beautifully told in the sixth chapter of his Gospel.  We began two weeks ago with the feeding of the multitudes; then last week the multitudes sought Jesus out so they could get more of the same and Jesus sets out to feed their spirits.  At the end of last week’s Gospel, Jesus told them that Moses didn’t give them bread from heaven, but rather God did; and then he made a very bold claim: “I am the bread of life.”  So this week, the people are angry with Jesus for that claim, for saying that he came down from heaven.  They murmured because they knew his family, and surmised that he couldn’t have descended from heaven.  They didn’t yet understand the depth of who Jesus was.  They were so hungry that they didn’t realize that the finest spiritual banquet stood right before them.

The thing is, spiritual hunger is something we all face in one way or another.  We all have very difficult journeys to face in our lives.  Whether we’re feeling dejected and defeated like Elijah, or feeling cranky and irritable like the Ephesians, or whether we’re just feeling superior and murmuring like the Jews in today’s Gospel, spiritual hunger is something we all must face sometime in our lives.  From time to time, we all discover in ourselves a hole that we try to fill with something.  Maybe we try to fill that up with alcohol, or too much work, or too much ice cream, or the wrong kind of relationships, or whatever; and eventually we find that none of that fills up the hole in our lives.  Soon we end up sitting under a scraggly old broom tree, wishing that God would take us now.  If we’re honest, we’ve all been at that place at one time or another in our lives.

We disciples know that there is only one thing – or rather one person – that can fill up that emptiness.  And that person is Jesus Christ.  This Jesus knows our pains and sorrows and longs to be our Bread of Life, the only bread that can fill up that God-sized hole in our lives.  We have to let him do that.  But it’s not so easy for us to let God take over and do what he needs to do in us.  We have to turn off the distractions around us, we have to stop trying to fill the hole with other things that never have any hope of satisfying us, and we have to turn to our Lord in trust that only he can give us strength for the journey.  Jesus alone is the bread that came down from heaven, and only those who eat this bread will live forever, forever satisfied, forever strengthened.  It is only this bread that will give us strength for the arduous journeys of our lives.

Because this Food is so important to us, because it is such a great sign of God’s presence in our lives, we should be all the more encouraged to receive the Eucharist frequently and faithfully.  Certainly nothing other than sickness or death should deter us from gathering on Sunday to celebrate with the community and receive our Lord in Holy Communion.  We should all think long and hard before we decide not to bring our families to Sunday Mass.  Sometimes soccer, football, softball and other sports or activities become more important than weekly worship, as if Mass were just one option among many activities from which we may choose.  Or maybe we decide to work at the office or around the house instead of coming to Church on Sunday, a clear violation of the third commandment.  I realize that I may well be preaching to those who already know this, and I realize that it’s hard, especially for families, to get to Church at times, but this is way too important for any of us to miss.  It is Jesus, the Bread of Life, who will lead us to heaven – the goal of all our lives and our most important journey, – and absolutely nothing and no one else will do that.

It all comes down to what we believe.  If we believe that Jesus is the Bread of Life, then why on earth would we ever want to miss worship?  If he is the only way to heaven, why would we think to separate ourselves from him?  Our Church teaches us that this is not just a wafer of bread and a sip of wine that we are receiving; we believe that it is the very real presence of our Lord, his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, under the mere appearance of bread and wine.  Because this is our Lord we are receiving, we should never allow anything to take its place.  Because this is our Lord we are receiving, we must return to this Eucharist every week, every day if we are able, acknowledging the great and holy gift that He is to us.

We will come forward in a few minutes to receive this great gift around the Table of the Lord.  As we continue our prayer today, let us remember the advice God gives to Elijah: “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”

The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Bread of Life Discourse II – What’s Your Hunger?

Today’s readings

My niece Molly used to say that she wanted to open a restaurant when she grows up. She even had a name all picked out for it: “Hungry.”  That makes a lot of sense when you think about it.  Where are you going to go when you’re hungry?  Well, to Hungry, of course!  I always think about that when these readings come around because today’s Liturgy of the Word speaks to those of us who are hungry – which is to say, all of us.

There’s a lot of hunger in the readings today.  First we have the Israelites, fresh from their escape from slavery in Egypt, finding that they are hungry as they wander through the desert.  I think we can understand their hunger.  But what is hard to understand is the content of their grumbling about it.  They say that they would rather be back in Egypt, eating bread and the meat of the “fleshpots.”  Why on earth did God have to drag them out into the desert only to kill them by hunger and let them die there?  They would rather be in slavery in Egypt than be in the situation in which they find themselves.

Please understand how serious this grumbling is: it is a complete rejection of God, God who has done everything miraculous to save them from abject slavery.  And that slavery was not some kind of minor inconvenience: the people were told to take care of the most strenuous of all labor, building the cities and even making the bricks for them themselves.  If they slacked off at all, or didn’t meet their captors’ unreasonable quotas, they were severely beaten.  They were subject to racism at its nastiest form, and their baby boys were put to death to keep them from rising up.  And yet, the people say they’d rather be in Egypt so they could have a little food in their stomachs.

Not so different is the clamoring of the people in today’s Gospel reading.  Today we pick back up our reflection on the “Bread of Life Discourse,” the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  Because Mark’s Gospel, which we are hearing from this liturgical year, is a little shorter than the others, we get five wonderful weeks to take a little journey into John’s Eucharistic theology during these summer days.  We began last week, with the famous story of Jesus feeding the multitudes.  Today’s story picks up where last week’s left off: the people were so impressed by Jesus feeding so many with so little that they pursue him across the sea to Capernaum.

Why do they follow him?  Well, they want more food, of course.  But the real feeding he intends is not just barley loaves, but instead something a little more enduring.  So Jesus tells them that the best way they can do God’s will is to believe in him – the one God sent.  So they have the audacity to ask him what kind of sign he can do so that they can believe in him.  Can you believe that?  He just finished feeding thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, leaving twelve baskets of leftovers to distribute to the whole world, proving that he was enough, and more than enough, to feed their hungers, and they stillwant to see a sign?  Instead, Jesus gives them a spiritual sign, a challenge really.  He tells them to believe in him because “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Jesus wants to get to the root cause of their hunger … and ours too, by the way.  So I think the starting point is that we have to be clear about what it is we hunger for.  And that question is very pressing on all of us today.  Every one of us comes here hungering for something.  Our hungers may be very physical: some here may be unemployed or underemployed, or perhaps our hunger is for physical healing of some kind.  But perhaps our hungers are a bit deeper too: a relationship that is going badly, or a sense that we aren’t doing what we should be or want to be doing with our lives.  Our hunger very well may be very spiritual as well: perhaps our relationship with God is not very developed or our prayer life has become stale.  [Very much so for Antoinette, our new catechumen, God has stirred up the hunger in her heart to know him and come to him and to join with us in the Church as we worship him together.]  Whatever the hunger is, we need to be honest and name it right now, in the stillness of our hearts.

Naming that hunger, we then have to do what Jesus encouraged the crowds to do: believe.  Believe that God can feed our deepest hungers, heal our deepest wounds, bind up our brokenness and calm our restless hearts.  Believe that Jesus is, in fact, the Bread of Life, the bread that will never go stale or perish, the bread that will never run out, or disappear like manna in the heat of the day.  Jesus is the Bread that can feed more than our stomachs but also our hearts and souls.  The Psalmist sings, “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.”  And we know that bread is the most wonderful food of all, because it is the Body of Christ. Amen!

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.

The Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Bread of Life Discourse I – Jesus is Enough and More than Enough

Today’s readings

Bishop Kaffer, of happy memory, used to say that every celebration of the Eucharist was a greater creative act than the creation of the universe.  Now I think greater theological minds than mine would likely debate that, but what Bishop Kaffer gets at is worth considering.  The Eucharist is an incredible miracle, and we are privileged to be part of it every time we gather to celebrate Mass.  Beginning this Sunday, for five weeks, we will take a bit of a detour from reading Mark’s Gospel as we do during this Church year.  We will instead read from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, which is commonly known as the “Bread of Life Discourse.”

We begin that study with consideration of the feeding of the multitudes, a story that has the unique distinction of being in all four of the Gospels.  But, because this is John’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, he covers it a bit differently.  For John it is clearly Jesus who is in charge here.  First of all, it is Jesus who notices that the crowds are hungry; they have expressed no such need, and it wasn’t the apostles bringing it to his attention so they could dismiss the crowds.  Jesus doesn’t need anyone to tell him what the people need or how to minister to them.

Second, like a good salesman, he doesn’t ask any questions to which he doesn’t already know the answer.  When he asks Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” he already knows the answer.  But certainly it stumps Philip, who, not recognizing it as a rhetorical question, notes that not even 200 days wages would provide food for each of these people to have a little.  The key here, though, is that Jesus asked the question knowing full well what he was going to do.

And third, when the loaves and fishes had been gathered and blessed, it is Jesus, not the Twelve, who distribute the food to the people.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s version of this story, Jesus gives the food to the Apostles to give to the people.  But in John’s account, Jesus takes the food, gives thanks, and gives it to the people himself.  The word “thanks” here, in Greek, is eucharisteo, which makes obvious the fact that this is Jesus, fully in charge, giving the Eucharist to the people and to us.

At the heart of John’s story of the feeding of the multitudes is the important teaching that Jesus is enough.  Here the boy brought two fish and five loaves of bread, and they were barley loaves, the bread of the poor.  It was probably his lunch for the day, and certainly was not meant to feed so many people.  And there were a lot of people.  The story says there were five thousand men there.  We can assume there were also women and children; after all it was a little boy who sacrificed his lunch for the crowd.  So the actual number of people fed was probably much larger than five thousand.  But look again at how many pieces of food there were: five loaves, two fish, together that equals seven, which is a very Biblical number, usually symbolizing completeness.  Jesus takes the little lunch, and in his hands it is complete: it is enough, and more than enough, to feed the hungry crowd.

And please note that not everyone who needed to be fed was at the picnic.  The disciples gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers, which is another Biblical number that calls to mind the Twelve apostles, and the twelve tribes of Israel, which means the whole world.  All these leftovers are meant to feed others, —the whole world — including you and me.  And that can happen because Jesus is enough, and more than enough, to fill our hungry stomachs, and hearts, and souls.  This little picnic is the Eucharistic banquet par excellence, the first giving of the sacrament that is the source and summit of our lives as Christians.

Now I want to make a note about an explanation of this miracle that you may sometimes hear.  The explanation goes that when Jesus started passing around the loaves and fish, other people noticed what he did and they too decided to share their lunches with the crowd.  So someone took out a sandwich and shared it, another shared some of their fish, or some bread, or whatever it was they had.  And so on and so on until lo and behold, everyone has had enough and there are leftovers.  This is often known as the “miracle of sharing” and it’s very heartwarming to be sure.

But that explanation is wrong, dead wrong.  Don’t let anyone insist to you that it’s right.  Because here’s the rule of thumb: whenever an explanation makes the Gospel story more about us than it is about Jesus, it’s always wrong.  Always.  Without exception.  The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus came to bring, and the story is always about him.  The miracle here is not that so many people were touched to their heart and decided to share.  The miracle is that a boy sacrificed his five loaves and two fish, and in Jesus’ hands they become enough, and more than enough, to fill the stomachs of every person on that grassy hillside, and twelve baskets besides.  Period.

What is important here is that we need to know that this kind of thing goes on all the time, even in our own day.  Jesus always notices the needs and hungers of his people.  Perhaps you have seen a need in the community, maybe a family who is in need, or an issue that needs to be addressed.  You noticed that because the Jesus is working in you.  It’s very easy to go through life noticing nothing and no one, but that doesn’t happen in disciples.  Disciples are the ears and eyes of Jesus, and he notices the needs of his people through us every day.  Now, having noticed a need, we may very well feel inadequate to fill it.  What good is our few hours of time or few dollars going to do for such a huge need?  How can our imperfect talents make up for such a need?  Here we have to trust that Jesus will do with our imperfect offerings as he did with the five loaves and two fish.  Jesus makes up for our lack, and we can take comfort in that.  If we are faithful to respond to the need with what we have, we can be sure that Jesus will use what we have, and it will be enough, and more than enough, to satisfy the need.

We can do that because Jesus feeds us all the time.  Every time we come to the Table of the Lord, we are given a little bit of bread and a sip of wine that has become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ our Savior.  At every Eucharist, we are fed more wonderfully and superabundantly than even the crowd in today’s Gospel.  We are fed with food that will never pass away or perish; we are fed with the Bread of Eternal life.  Since we disciples have that gift at our disposal, we would do well to bring ourselves to it as often as we can, and as well-disposed for it as we can.  We must make it our constant care to attend Mass all the time, and to use the Sacrament of Penance to prepare ourselves to receive the grace of the Eucharist.  Disciples who regularly and faithfully feed themselves with the Bread of Life will find it natural to offer their meager gifts to feed great hungers in our world, hungers that our God longs to fill.

And so we gratefully come to the Eucharist today, to take part in a meal even more wonderful than the feeding of the multitudes, and partake of bread far more nourishing than barley loaves.  We come to the Eucharist today to have all of our hungers fed, and to take baskets of leftovers out of this holy place to feed those who hunger around us this week.  We pray for the grace to notice the needs of others and the grace to offer what we have to serve the poor, trusting in God to make up for what we lack.  We pray the words of the psalmist with trust and gratitude: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.”

Saturday of the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There are a lot of pitfalls on the road through our spiritual lives.  We ourselves experience that all the time.  Making our confessions, we have a firm purpose of amendment, but it seems like the devil knows that, and so we barely make it to the parking lot and there’s a new temptation or frustration.  Those pitfalls in the spiritual life are many, and frequent, and exasperating at times.

Jesus said it would be so.  Listen to what he says in the Gospel reading again:

The Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man
who sowed good seed in his field.
While everyone was asleep his enemy came
and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.

Did you catch that?  The Kingdom of heaven will be like that.  It will be planted with good seed, but the enemy will sow weeds.  That’s still the Kingdom of heaven.  So when we are frustrated by the pitfalls we encounter, we can at least take some relative comfort in that our Savior said it would be like that, and we’re still in the Kingdom of heaven.

But what we can’t do is accept that to the point that we decide we can participate in it and still be forgiven.  We can’t love our sins and expect God to save us.  That’s called presumption, and it too is a sin, and a pitfall in the spiritual life.  Presumption is what was going on in our first reading this morning. Jeremiah calls the people out on their practices of worshipping and then as soon as they leave, sinning gravely. He tells them they can’t murder, commit adultery, and worship false gods only to say, “We are safe; we can commit all these abominations again.” God is a God of justice; he sees that kind of nonsense and calls it what it is.

So here’s the take away.  Yes, there will be pitfalls in the spiritual life.  But when we run into them, it doesn’t mean we’re not still in the Kingdom of heaven.  What we have to do is call them what they are, repent, reform our lives, and call on God’s mercy.  But we can’t presume God’s mercy so that we give ourselves permission to sin.  We have to love God more than our sins; love eternity more than today’s passing pleasures.  We have to be like the Psalmist today who recognizes the pitfalls and cries out:

My soul yearns and pines 
for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and my flesh
cry out for the living God.

Tuesday of the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The prophet Micah, in our first reading, proclaims the whole reason for our being here this morning.  What is incredible about our God is his limitless compassion, his relentless pursuit of a people who often spurn him, his steadfast faithfulness and consistent, unconditional, unending, unmerited love for all of us.  He actually delights, Micah tells us, in compassion and clemency, abandoning his righteous anger in favor of restoring us to life.

This is a God unlike any of the so-called gods of old.  Our God is the one who chooses to forget his anger, and instead grant unmerited clemency – clemency that is given before it is even requested.  He knows our sinfulness, yet chooses to cast those sins into the depths of the sea rather than remember them and dwell on them.  He shows faithfulness to Jacob and grace to Abraham, not because we have kept the covenant, but because his faithfulness will not allow him to abandon those he has covenanted to love.

The Psalmist sings our God’s praises well today, reflecting on the unmerited grace we have received:

You have favored, O LORD, your land;
you have brought back the captives of Jacob.
You have forgiven the guilt of your people;
you have covered all their sins.
You have withdrawn all your wrath;
you have revoked your burning anger.

Friends, this is the grace that gets us out of bed in the morning.  No matter how we have turned away, our God will not turn away from us.  No matter the darkness of our sin, our God will not refuse to bathe them in light.  God’s wrath could indeed be devastating, but our God chooses to forget his rage as he forgets our sins, and instead brings us back to life.

“Who is there like you?” Micah asks.  No one.  And that’s what brings us to celebrate this morning.

Monday of the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So Jesus today speaks of the “sign of Jonah.”  I think this sign could mean a couple of different things.  First, it is a direct parallel to the life of Jesus.  Just as Jonah spent three days as good as dead in the belly of the big fish before being disgorged to a new life in Ninevah, so Jesus would spend three days dead in the tomb before being resurrected to new life.

But second, this could refer to the effects of the sign of Jonah.  The Ninevites were evil people who had no idea that they should repent.  But Jonah – unwillingly of course – preached to them. And they didn’t require from him miracles and wonders. They heard his word – the word of the LORD – and reformed their ways, they straightened up their act. That’s what Jesus is extolling here. It didn’t take anything but hearing the word of the Lord for those evil Ninevites to turn to God for mercy. But the Israelites, who had in Jesus a much better sign than that of Jonah still demanded a whole side show to test his words.

What about us? What does it take for us to make a change in our lives? Has God been trying to get through to us, but we keep holding out for some kind of sign? Shame on us when we do that – and most of us do at some point. We, like the Israelites, have a wonderful sign in Jesus, and we would do well to take up our own crosses and do what the Lord asks of us.

The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Come and Rest a While

Today’s readings

I think a lot of us can identify with what’s going on in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus and the Twelve had been working hard: they had just been out on mission, proclaiming the Gospel and the Kingdom of God, casting out demons, and healing the sick.  It was hard work.  Some of it was successful, sure, but probably some of it wasn’t, because everyone probably wasn’t ready to hear what they were preaching.  So, coming back to the Teacher now, they were tired, but they were excited.  Jesus calls them together to go to an out-of-the-way place to rest a while, maybe have something to eat.  But as soon as they arrive, they find that the crowds figured it out and got there ahead of them.  The crowds clamored for Jesus’ attention, bringing to him as they always did, their needs and brokenness and pain.

If you’re a parent, that might sound familiar.  When’s the last time you had a minute to yourself, only to find out that the children have figured out where you were and needed something right now?  Or at work, you finally have five minutes to take care of your own projects, only to have a coworker come and ask for help with something they are doing?  We know the experience.  Responsibility for whatever we are charged with never really ends, no matter who we are.  We have so many things to do, we don’t have time for ourselves, for our spiritual lives, for those things that are ultimately important.

And Jesus doesn’t want it to be so.  He wants to shepherd all of us to an out-of-the-way place to rest a while, to rest in him.  He wants to feed all of us with the best of food: his own Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, that we might have strength to take care of those crowds clamoring around us for our attention.

So we have to let him.  We have to give him five minutes of our day, if we haven’t been giving him anything at all.  We have to give him a little more now, so that he can use that space to help us rest a while, to refuel, to recharge, to grow and become more.  I know that seems like pie-in-the-sky: surely, it won’t be easy.  If we can’t find five minutes for ourselves, how on earth are we going to find five minutes for Jesus?  But it is possible.  I think maybe it’s too much at the end of the day when we’re dog tired.  So we have to find another, better time.  Maybe we can get up five minutes earlier just to read a verse of Scripture and put ourselves in the presence of our Lord for the day.  Maybe at work, we can put our spiritual lives on our to-do lists, keeping a little devotional book or prayer book in our desk drawers or back pockets so that we can rest for five minutes and refocus.  It will make everything we do better.  I used to put prayer on my to-do list every day in the days before seminary when I was working at a print company.  One day I was out sick, and my co-worker who filled in for me wrote a note on the to-do list at the end of the day: “I don’t think it helped!”  But of course it did.  Prayer always gives us more than we give to it.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus can do a lot with five minutes.  In these summer days, those five minutes can be the refreshment we need to move forward in our relationship with God and with the people in our lives.  They can help us to not be resentful of what we’re called to do for others.  They can help us to give more than we think we can.   They can help us to give better than we can all on our own.  Five minutes can help us in good times and in bad.

Jesus wants to be our shepherd, spreading the table before us and making our cups overflow.  And he will if we carve open a space for him to do that in us.  Give Jesus five minutes, go to an out-of-the-way place to rest a while.

The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: It’s Not About Me

Today’s readings

Today I want to reflect on what I consider to be one of the most important principles of the spiritual life.  That principle is completely summed up in one short sentence: “It’s not about me.”

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been able to take a look at the various people who have been called to ministry throughout history.  Last week, Ezekiel was told that whatever he did, his ministry would be mostly unsuccessful.  Paul, the great teacher of our faith, was afflicted with a “thorn in the flesh” – whatever that was – and no amount of prayer could make it go away.  In today’s first reading, Amos, who is told that he is not welcome to prophesy in Israel, confesses that he is nothing but a simple shepherd and dresser of sycamores – completely ill-qualified for the role of a prophet, but nonetheless called to be one.  In today’s Gospel, the Twelve are sent out on mission to do the works that Christ himself did, and they were only to take with them the knowledge of Jesus’ teachings and their memory of what he had done among them.  They were simple men, called from their simple lives, not one of them qualified for the role they were to play, with the possible exception of Judas, and we know how that worked out, don’t we?

The point is, when we are called by our God, – and we are all called by God – it’s not about who we are or who we know or how slick our presentation is.  It’s not about what we have in our bag of tricks, or how much stuff we have.  It’s not about how developed we may think our faith life is, or how much we’ve studied theology.  Because it’s not about us at all.

I know many people, who when asked if they would become involved in some ministry or another, would say, “Oh, no, I could never do that.  I’m not qualified to do it.” There are people who always feel that others could do the job better than they can, and so others should do it and they should stay out of it.  But if we are to learn anything from the Scriptures today, we must hear that that kind of thinking is nothing but false humility.  And false humility is absolutely not virtuous!  I’m not saying we have to say “yes” to everything we’re asked to do, but I am saying that we must always prayerfully consider every opportunity, and then do what the Lord wants us to do.

So in what ways have you been called?  In today’s Gospel, Jesus sends his chosen Twelve out on mission.  They were chosen not for their spectacular abilities or any particular quality, really.  But they were chosen, called and gifted to do the work of God in the world.  So are we all.  Just as the Twelve were sent out to preach repentance, dispel demons, and cure the sick, we too are called to do those very same things.  I know you’re thinking, “really, preach, dispel demons, cure the sick – me?”  Bear with me.

You may not think of yourself as a preacher.  But you are prophetic and a preacher of repentance when you forgive a hurt or wrong, when you confess your sins and make necessary changes in your life, when you become a member of a 12-step group to deal with an addiction, or when you leave a lucrative job with a company whose business practices make you feel uncomfortable.  You are a preacher of repentance when you correct poor behavior in your children rather than place the blame on the teacher or the school.  You are a preacher of repentance when you accept constructive criticism in a spirit of humility and pray for the grace to change your life.  Preaching repentance very often does not involve words so much as actions, and we can all do that, even though it very often hurts a little.

Who are you to drive out demons? How is that even possible?  But I am here to tell you that volunteering as a catechist or a mentor in a school or a homework helper is a way to drive out the demons of ignorance.  Going to a Protecting God’s Children workshop so that children in our schools and religious educations programs will be safe is a way to drive out the demons of abuse.  When you speak out to protect the environment, you help to drive out the demons of neglect and waste.  Volunteering to be part of a pro-life group helps to drive out the demons of death and promote a culture of life, protecting the unborn and the aged and the infirm.  Working at a soup kitchen or a food pantry drives out the demons of hunger and poverty.  Helping at shelters for battered families drives out the demons of violence and isolation.  The demons at work in our world are legion, and every one of us is called to drive them out, not like “The Exorcist,” but more by our simple time and talent according to our gifts.

So how is it possible for you to cure the sick?  Every act of care for the sick is part of the Church’s ministry of healing.  You heal the sick every time you remember them in prayer, or visit them in the hospital or at home.  You heal the sick when you volunteer as a minister of care.  You heal the sick when you bring a casserole to provide dinner for a family who are so busy with sick relatives that they have little time to prepare a meal.  You heal the sick when you drive an elderly friend or neighbor to a doctor’s appointment or to do the grocery shopping, or pick them up on the way to Mass.  Healing involves so much more than just making a disease or injury go away, and all of us can be a part of healing in so many everyday ways.

We absolutely must get from today’s Scriptures that God calls everyday people to minister to others in everyday ways.  If people are to know about God’s Kingdom, we have to be the ones to proclaim it.  If people are to reform their lives, we have to be the ones to model repentance.  If people are to be released from their demons, we have to be the ones to drive them out.  And if people are to be healed from their infirmities, it is all of us who have to reach out to them with the healing power of Christ.  We who are called to live as disciples do not have the luxury of indulging ourselves in misplaced false humility.  If we and our families and our communities are to grow in faith, hope and love, we have to be the ones to show the way and encourage as many people as possible to walk in that way.

Saint Paul makes our vocation very clear in today’s second reading:

In him we were also chosen,
destined in accord with the purpose of the One
who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will,
so that we might exist for the praise of his glory,
we who first hoped in Christ. 

 It’s not about us.  We who first hoped in Christ exist for the praise of his glory.  Let it be then that we in the everyday-ness of our lives would have the courage to preach repentance, drive out demons and heal the sick.