The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

I have to tell you, we have two of my very favorite readings in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  I like them because they both show God interacting with us, his creatures, in powerful ways.  In the first reading, we see the prophet Elijah literally running for his life.  He has just embarrassed, and then put to death, the four hundred or so “prophets” of Baal – the pagan god worshipped by the gentiles.  Because of this, Jezebel, the wife of king Ahab, vowed to do the same thing to Elijah himself.  So Elijah is fleeing, and complains to the Lord God that everyone in Israel has rejected the Lord, turned to other gods, and have put all the legitimate prophets to death, and that Elijah is the only one left.  So God says that Elijah should stand on the mountain and wait, and soon the Lord would be passing by.

So in Scripture, when it says of the Lord that he would be “passing by,” it means something different than just that the Lord was out for a little walk.  Passing by means that he would be doing “a God thing,” something that God alone could do.  It’s a little like saying that God would be revealing his power to his creatures.  For Elijah, that was intended to be a consolation and a revelation that the Lord God would be with him even though things looked pretty darn bad.  And it’s interesting how it happens.  Elijah experiences some frightening things: destructive and heavy winds, an earthquake and a blazing fire.  But he did not experience God in any of those things.  He only experienced God in a “tiny whispering sound.”

And I wonder about that, to be honest.  Yes, we can take that as a revelation that we have to quiet ourselves and listen for the voice of God’s presence.  But I want to carefully note that this does not mean that God wasn’t present in those other things.  Because we often find ourselves in the midst of mighty winds, earthquakes, or fire.  Even if not literally, we experience these things all the time in the form of the crises of our lives.  And I want to assure you that God is with you in those moments.  But it may take us stepping back a bit, and listening for the whispering sound, to note that happening.

Okay, so that brings us to the second of my favorite readings today, and that is the Gospel.  Because I love Saint Peter.  He’s always making mistakes, but he is always letting Jesus take what little he can give and turn it into something huge.  I love this reading so much that I have this painting on the wall of my office.  It’s a painting that was given to me for my ordination by the seminarians of that time.  It’s even signed by our own Father David!  They gave me that painting because they know of the special place that particular Gospel story had in my faith life.

So in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has just fed the multitudes, as you may remember from last week’s Liturgy.  After that, he takes some time alone to pray, and during the fourth watch of the night, walks across the water toward the disciples who were on a boat bound for the other side of the lake.  In Saint Mark’s version of this reading, it says of Jesus at this point that “He intended to pass them by.”  Does that sound familiar?  Yes, very similar to the first reading, Jesus intends to do a “God thing,” to reveal himself to his disciples this time in a very powerful way.  They think they’re seeing a ghost, but Jesus reassures them that it is he, and Peter immediately asks if he can come out and walk on the water too.  Jesus says, “come.”

So think about that.  You see the Lord walking on the water, and you actually ask if you can get out there and join him.  Who even has the nerve to say something like that to Jesus?  Well, Peter, impetuous as always, he does.  And for a while, he does okay. He’s making progress, walking toward Jesus. But then he stops looking at Jesus and starts looking at the storm, and when he sees the storm what happens?  The story tells us: “But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” So let’s stop right here.  Do you see that? While he’s looking at Jesus, he is able to walk toward him, but as soon as he takes his eyes off Jesus in favor of looking at the storm, he sinks. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asks him, pulling Peter out of the water.

We might be tempted to criticize Peter for his lack of faith.  But I’m in favor of cutting him so slack.  What I think we have to realize is that he at least had enough faith to get out of the boat.  The other eleven did not.  He got out of the boat because that’s where Jesus was – out there on the water.  Was Jesus present for him when the wind and the waves threatened to take his life?  Absolutely.  God is present for us when we are in the middle of the storm.

So I think that’s where these wonderful readings of God’s mighty power take us this week: into the midst of our storms, whatever they may be.  If we’re not going through one now, one will come our way at some point.  And, please God, may these readings help us to find our Lord in the midst of the wind and the earthquakes and the fire.  I hope that the faith these readings inspire in us will help us to step back in those storms and see our Lord passing by in power and might and lifting us up out of the waves.

Now let’s try a little prayer experiment.  I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.  And with your eyes closed, I invite you to think about a crisis you’ve been in recently, or even one that’s still going on.  It might be little or big, but whatever it is, bring it to mind.  That crisis is the waves in the story.  Now you get to be Saint Peter.  You’re on the boat, that safe refuge that is leading you to the place that Jesus has in mind for you.  Only on the voyage, your crisis begins a storm that tosses you around so badly that you can’t even see your destination anymore, and you fear for your life.  But you see Jesus out there, on the water, in the distance.

You call out to him and he calls back for you to come to him.  You think about it for a minute, but you realize you have to give it a shot: after all, you want to be where Jesus is, and Jesus is not in the boat.  So you get out of the boat, that safe refuge that gives you some comfort even in the storm, and you start to walk toward Jesus across the stormy sea, with the wind and the waves of your crises swirling around you.  And you do okay for a while, looking at your Lord, but then you wonder if your prayers will ever be answered, or if you should even bother God with your little prayers, or if there is any hope for your situation at all.  You feel the wind pushing at you and notice that the waves of your crisis are a lot uglier than you thought they were.  And you begin to sink into them, despairing that there is no hope for your situation.  At this point, Jesus reaches out his hand to you, pulling you up out of the stormy sea.  The storm is still raging, but with Jesus’ help, you get back into the boat, and the waves calm down, and you continue the journey to the place where Jesus wants you to be, having made just a little bit of progress, confident that he is with you even in the storm.

That’s a prayer exercise that you can come back to.  Maybe you don’t have a crisis now to bring to that prayer, but when you do, you can pull this out of your prayer toolbox.  Whether we are experiencing wind, waves, earthquakes or fire, we can be confident that our Lord is with us.  We might still have to experience all those things, but we can go through them with hope that comes from the presence of our God, who is with us in our darkest times, whispering to us, or calling out to us from the water.

Saturday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Because of your little faith.” If that was what Jesus said about his disciples, those men and women walking with him in person day after day, how much more does it apply to us today?  How many situations absolutely confound us?  How many injustices seem chronically irreparable?  How many emotional crises seem insurmountable?  There are demons of all shapes and sizes and types.  How effective are we at casting out those demons of addiction, ignorance, or apathy?  Why can’t we drive them out?  Well, because of our little faith.

I always bristled a bit at the instruction at the end of today’s Gospel about moving a great mountain.  I was pretty sure I’d never have faith that big, and even if I did, why would I want to move a mountain?!  But we get all this wrong.  It’s as if it depends on us, and it certainly does not.  Are we convinced that God can move mountains, that he can drive out demons, that he can respond to addiction, ignorance and apathy?  Well, sure.  But that kind of believing has to get beyond just being in our heads and come out in our words and actions and living.  That’s the hard part!

Because faith is useless if we never put it into practice.  It might be tough to be in the midst of addiction, emotional crisis, or injustice, but that’s when we need to depend on our faith, because what else is there?  What good is our faith unless it can lead us through hard times and accomplish great things in the midst of the messiness of life?  Our faith tells us that whatever happens, God will never stop being with us.

So maybe we’ll never move a mountain.  Who wants to anyway?  But with faith we can certainly the mountains that confront us: emotional crises, addictions, sin, and all kinds of sadness.  With faith, we can certainly move from a dark place to light, from despair to peace, from sadness to joy.

Monday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

What I think the folks in our first reading need to learn – and maybe us too – is that the spiritual life is always about the big picture.  The Israelites in today’s reading have completely rejected the God of their salvation.  God had taken them from abject slavery in Egypt, in which they were oppressed beyond anything we could possibly imagine – let alone endure – and led them through the desert, through the Red Sea (covering the pursuing Egyptians in the process), and into safety.  He is going to give them the Promised Land, but they, thank you very much, would prefer to return to Egypt so that they no longer have to sustain themselves on the bread that they have from the very hand of God himself.  They would rather have meat and garlic and onions, and whatever, than freedom and blessing from God.  What a horrible, selfish people they have become.

And Moses is no better.  He alone has been allowed to go up the mountain to be in the very presence of God.  No one else could get so close to God and live to tell the story.  God has given him the power to do miraculous deeds in order to lead the people.  And yet, when things get tough, he too would prefer death than to be in the presence of God.

And aren’t we just like them sometimes?  It’s easy to have faith when things are going well, and we are healthy, and our family is prospering.  But the minute things come along to test us, whether it is illness, or death of a loved one, or job troubles, or whatever, it’s hard to keep faith.  “Where is God when I need him?” we might ask.  We just don’t often have the spiritual attention spans to see the big picture.  We forget the many blessings God has given us, and ask “Well what has he done for me lately?”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus feeds the crowds until they are satisfied and have baskets of leftovers besides.  God’s blessings to us are manifold, and it is good to meditate on them when times are good, and remember them when times are bad.  God never wills the trials we go through, and he never forgets or abandons us when we are in the midst of those trials.  God feeds us constantly with finest wheat.  That’s the big picture, and we must never lose sight of it.

Thursday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The Israelites wandering in the desert would seem to have had the spiritual life easy. How could they possibly miss God’s presence? There was a cloud to lead them to the Lord by day, and fire by night. But just like the stuff that ended up in the net in today’s Gospel, some people got it and some people didn’t.

The same is true for us. How hard can it be for us to see the Lord’s presence in our own lives?  Even now, some people get it and some people don’t.  And more than that, even the faithful among us sometimes get it and sometimes don’t.  I often think it would be good to have something as hard to miss as a column of cloud or fire to keep me on the straight and narrow.  Well, in a way – a much better way, actually –  we do: we have the Church, the Sacraments, and the Word of God, prayer that beckons us by day and by night. But even that doesn’t always light the way for us.  There are so many distractions.

The issue is urgent.  The Kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells us today, will be like the fishmongers sorting out the fish from the seaborne refuse.  We don’t want to get thrown out with all that vile stuff.  So, may God lead us all to be among those who get it, those who follow the way marked out for us. After all, we have something way better than clouds by day and fire by night, don’t we?

The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This week in my bulletin column, I have a reflection on the introductory rites of Mass.  But maybe in the homily, we can take a step back from that and think about what we’re supposed to do before Mass.  And what we do before Mass, and I mean before we even come to church, is live our life.  Because, 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?

We may intend to work hard, and pray reflectively, but life sometimes – well, more than sometimes: often – 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, 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.  In among the blessings – and we have to admit, there are blessings – life can derail us and bring us to a frustrating place.

The good news is that our Liturgy of the Word speaks to 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 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, but instead to live in the Kingdom now, where he is our King.

Second, the mustard seed, the yeast – that’s us.  We are the ones to 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 travelling place.  When we live in the Kingdom here and now, we will be ready for the great coming of the Kingdom in heaven, where all will be made right and we will live forever 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.

Monday of the Fifteenth Week of Ordinary Time 

Today’s readings

It’s a frightening thing, I think, to hear Jesus say in today’s Gospel reading, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” And it’s frightening not because of some actual sword that might harm us, but instead because of the havoc a statement like that could cause in our spiritual lives. There’s an old trite saying that says Jesus didn’t come just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. It may be trite, but there is truth in there.

The spiritual life is one of precarious balance. Things can be going along alright, much like the relationship the Jews had with the Egyptian government while Joseph was alive. But then something can change in our lives: in the words of our first reading today, a new king, who knows nothing of Joseph, can take over. In the context of that first reading, the new king taking over didn’t know Joseph and thus have all the good feelings toward the Jews that Joseph inspired. In the context of our spiritual lives, the new king is whatever new distraction may come our way and, knowing nothing of Joseph, that is, knowing nothing of the harmony that is part of our lives when we walk the path of righteousness, that distraction takes over and tears us away from our God.

In that light, the first reading today is a discussion of the seductive power of sin. Just as the new king wanted to stop the increase of the Jews, so sin wants to stop our increase in the spiritual life. Just as the Egyptians oppressed the Jews with hard labor, so sin oppresses us by affecting our work, our relationships, and our life of faith. But just as the more the Jews were oppressed, the more they multiplied, so the more that we are oppressed by sin, the more we can multiply grace by turning back to God.

Sin is a dreadful power in our world. Sin knows nothing of Joseph, knows nothing of the life of grace and its joy. But we don’t have to let it oppress us. We can let Jesus bring the sword to afflict the comfort of our sin and help us to multiply and increase in the life of grace and faith. As our Psalmist says this morning, “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s 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.  Now my sister mostly does that.  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.  But when you put it in fertile soil, give it some water and nourishment, let the sun shine on it, well it grows up to become something wonderful: flowers to delight us, vegetables for our table.

A couple of weeks ago, not long after I started here at Saint Mary’s, I went on a walk with Father John.  We passed by one of the corn fields, and as I often am when I pass cornfields, I was really 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.  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 seed falls in places the farmer didn’t intend, and those seeds don’t come to life, or if they do, it’s not for long, and 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.  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.

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, 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 the way 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 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.

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 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.