Friday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

For those of us who think we have it all together, that we are righteous in and of ourselves, well, today’s Gospel isn’t Good News, is it? Jesus says, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” But for those of us who know we need our Savior, what great joy to know that our Savior will come and dine with us!

That Jesus would call a man like Matthew to come and follow him is news of redemption and hope for all of us. Tax collectors in those days, as you may know, were notorious for exploiting the people they were collecting from, taking far over and above what their tax should be. The occupation of tax collector was synonymous with the name “sinner.” Clearly such a man was unfit for the kingdom of God. But to him, the Lord Jesus says, “follow me.”

The redemption we have in Christ is a complete healing and change from the inside out. We aren’t just forgiven and sent out to continue living our lives as we always have. No, we are forgiven and then told to “follow me.” Because following Christ is the only way that our broken lives can be reclaimed and drawn back to God who made us. And following Christ is the only way that we sinners can be part of the Kingdom of God.

Thursday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

God is always most concerned about what is going on inside of us. Which is why Jesus says to the paralytic, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” It would have been easy for Jesus to snap his fingers and heal the man’s paralysis, but that is not what he was most concerned about. Sometimes when a person has been sick a long time, there are resentments toward God and toward other people that have added to the misery of their illness. Jesus knew this, and took the opportunity to heal the man of those maladies as well. Saying to him, “Rise and walk” was merely incidental, and Jesus does that too. What we see in today’s Gospel reading is that our God longs to heal us from the inside out.

The incident with Abraham and Isaac feels like something else, though, doesn’t it? It almost seems as if this is a manipulative attempt on God’s part to see if Abraham was really on his side or not. But I don’t think that’s what God is doing here. I think this encounter shows us our God who is aching to pour out his blessings on us. If we will but give him everything, he will choose not to take it from us, but to work through our gifts and blessings to bless us even more. Listen to the promise he makes to Abraham: “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing.” Finally, God provides the lamb for the sacrifice, which is a foreshadowing of the way that he himself will give his own Son, Jesus Christ, to be the lamb of sacrifice for our sins.

Just as Jesus healed the paralytic from the inside out, so God blesses Abraham from the inside out, giving him knowledge of a God who longs to provide blessing and healing for his people. In our offering today, we too can come to be fed from the inside out, by giving God whatever we hold most dear, knowing that he intends not to take it from us, but to use it to bless us beyond our wildest imaginings.

Monday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning’s Gospel reading is the Matthew version of the Gospel reading we had yesterday from Luke. So I’m going to bracket that, and reflect this morning on the first reading instead.

This first reading has always intrigued me, ever since I can remember hearing it as a child. God intends to destroy the city of Sodom because of its pervasive wickedness. Abraham, newly in relationship with God, stands up for the innocent of the city, largely because that was where his nephew, Lot, had taken up residence. In what seems to be a case of cosmic “Let’s Make a Deal,” Abraham pleads with God to spare the city if just fifty innocent people could be found there. God agrees and Abraham persists. Eventually God agrees to spare the city if just ten people could be found in the city of Sodom.

Now we don’t know how many people were living in Sodom, but it was certainly a great many more than fifty. But God agrees to spare the city if just ten just people could be found, a number that was probably some fraction of one percent of the population. Now, we know the rest of the story without even having heard it today, don’t we? Sodom is eventually destroyed for its wickedness, along with the city of Gomorrah. So let’s think about that for a minute. Not even ten good people were found in that area, so great and widespread was their wickedness!

Now the Old Testament has a number of stories like this where a great many people are destroyed in their wickedness. From this we should not draw the hasty conclusion that we worship a wrathful God. Instead, we worship a God who is just and merciful, not punishing the great many innocent for the wickedness of but a few. The guilty are punished, but the just are not. And in Christ Jesus, we have the great grace of one being punished for the great wickedness of all of us. So merciful and gracious is our God that in these days after the birth of our Redeemer, we have been granted forgiveness for our sins, because the guilt was borne by our Lord Jesus.

That is why the Psalmist is quick to sing today, “The Lord is kind and merciful!”

Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“For freedom Christ set us free.” These readings seem to me to be a beautiful reflection for this weekend, when we are getting ready for our Independence Day celebrations. When our nation’s founders set up this fledgling republic 231 years ago, freedom was certainly one of their primary concerns. Freedom of religion was particularly important, as was freedom of expression, freedom of association, and many others. We are the beneficiaries of their hard work. To use a current catch phrase, freedom isn’t free, it is purchased at a price, and at this time of year we remember those who purchased it for us.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul is reflecting on the freedom that the early Christians had. This freedom was a freedom from the constraints of the law that encouraged people to replace true devotion and zeal with mere surface-level observance of their religion’s many laws. Those early Christians were beneficiaries of the hard work of others, also. Particularly, Paul reminds them, their freedom was purchased at the incredible price of the blood of Jesus Christ the Lord who died that we might have life. Their freedom wasn’t free either, and they, and of course we, are beneficiaries of the sacrifice of Christ.

For the Galatians, as well as for all of us, freedom had to be defined a little more exactly, and that was St. Paul’s purpose in today’s second reading. Because freedom isn’t free, it can’t be taken lightly or casually, and so he makes it clear what the freedom truly is. The Galatians had the mistaken notion that freedom meant the same thing as license, which isn’t the case at all. Freedom didn’t mean license to act against the law and to live lives of immorality and corruption. That would be replacing one form of slavery with another, really, since immorality has its own chains. The freedom Christ won for us is a freedom to live joyful lives of dedication and devotion and discipleship, all caught up in the very life of God. Real freedom looses us from the bonds of the world and sets us free to bind ourselves to God, who created us for himself. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.

This distinction between true freedom and license for immorality is one that we must take seriously even in our own day, even as we prepare to celebrate our nation’s own independence. Because in our own day, we too have confused the freedom we have inherited from our founders with a license to do whatever the heck we want. And that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is not the gift we have been given. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean we have the right to express ourselves in a way that slanders or ridicules others. And if you don’t think that’s an issue, just listen to some talk radio or turn on Jerry Springer. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion, and it doesn’t mean that we have to practice our faith in secret and not let people know that Jesus Christ is Lord. And you know that’s an issue: in the courts, in our places of business and our schools, and in our communities. Being free doesn’t mean we have license to do whatever we want; being free means we are free to better ourselves, our families, our churches and our communities. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.

This freedom to be who we have been created to be is a matter of some urgency for Elisha in today’s first reading and the disciples that Jesus met in today’s Gospel. All of them received the message that when God calls, the time to answer is now. But all of them found that there were things going on inside them that kept them from answering the call, that kept them from being free to follow God in the way they were created to do that. And the rebukes they all received seem a bit harsh to our ears. After all, they had good excuses, didn’t they? Who would deny a person the right to say goodbye to their families or bury their dead? But there are a couple of subtle distinctions that we have to get here. First, it wasn’t as if they had ever been told to follow the call instead of taking care of family and burying the dead. Yet they were using those things as an excuse to put off their response to God’s call. Second, following God’s call very well could have meant doing those things they were involved in, but in a way that honored God. The demand was to put God first, and one could conceivably do that and still take care of family, friends and business.

What’s at issue here is right relationship. Responding to God’s call must always come first, but responding to God’s call may mean raising one’s family, tending to a sick parent or elderly relative, reading to one’s children, grieving the loss of a loved one or battling an illness. It’s a matter of priorities, and true freedom means putting God first in all of that, trusting that God will help us to make sense of the ordinariness of our lives.

Because we really are usually called out of the ordinariness of our lives. That was true of Elisha today. He was minding his own business – literally – by plowing the fields. He certainly must have been a man of means, because he had twelve yoke of oxen. And yet he gives it all up on the spot to follow God as Elijah’s successor. The way Elisha’s call happened might appear a little strange, but we actually use elements of that call in our own Church’s Liturgy. Elisha’s call happened by Elijah throwing his cloak over him. It seems like an odd gesture, but it symbolized Elisha taking over the mantle of authority from Elijah. It’s a symbol I can resonate with, because at my Ordination to the priesthood, one of the most profound moments was the moment in the rite when two of my priest friends took off my deacon’s stole and put the priest’s stole over my shoulders. I knew in that moment that the Ordination was done; that I really had become a priest. I could almost literally feel the weight of following Christ in that particular way. It was an incredible moment for me, and it must have been so for Elisha. In fact, he was so excited that he ran back, slaughtered his oxen and chopped up the yokes to use as fuel to cook the flesh and feed his people. Doing that was a complete break with his former life, and showed the length he was ready to go in order to do God’s will.

On this Independence Day, may we all remember that true freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, regardless of the implications for others. True freedom doesn’t mean license to live an immoral life. Instead, true freedom is about living the life God has called us to live and following as committed disciples, free to be bound up in the life of Christ. True freedom means breaking with anything that holds us back from becoming the free sons and daughters of God we were created to be. True freedom means putting God first and serving him in the ordinariness of our lives, following his call to our dying breath. True freedom means finding the same joy that our Psalmist finds today when he sings, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.”

Tuesday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Listen to those words of Jesus again:

“Enter through the narrow gate;
for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction,
and those who enter through it are many.
How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life.
And those who find it are few.”

Those are pretty challenging thoughts, I think. But they are thoughts we can resonate with. Certainly Lot fell into the trap of going through the wide gate into the land of Sodom, the residents of which our first reading says “were very wicked in the sins they committed against the LORD.” And how true for us as well. Isn’t it always easier to take the road more traveled, despite the fact that that road doesn’t take you anywhere you want to go? We might very well take that easy road time and again, and end up, with Lot, in the land of Sodom.

Because the narrow gate isn’t easy to find and is harder still to travel. Living the Gospel and laying down our lives for others is hard work, and may often seem unrewarding. We may have to set aside our desires for the pleasures and rewards of this life. And we may even fail to get through that gate by our own efforts, due to the brokenness of our lives and the sinfulness of our living. We may find it next to impossible to travel through that narrow gate by ourselves.

But we don’t have to. The one who is our teacher in this constricted way is also the way through it. Our Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and through him we can all find our way to the Father. He even gives us the key to that narrow gate: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the Law and the Prophets.” As we pledge to live our lives by considering the needs of others just as we would consider our own needs, we will indeed find that traveling that narrow road is the way that gives most joy to our lives. As the Psalmist reminds us today, “He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.”

Friday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You know, it sometimes is amazing to me when I think about all that the early Church had to go through and put up with. We aren’t in that same situation. They had to put up with persecution. St. Paul mentions he put up with persecution from all sides: from his own people as well as the Gentiles. He was beaten often, endured hazardous journeys and perilous weather, as well as every kind of deprivation. His experience was definitely extreme, but others who lived the faith in those days were subject to persecution, torture and death. Our experience is not like that, is it? I mean, here we sit in this air-conditioned chapel and relatively comfortable surroundings. We came here freely to Mass this morning and it is unlikely that anyone will openly persecute us or torture us or put us to death for worshipping our God.

Yet there is a subtle kind of persecution that we must endure. We know that even if our society is not openly hostile to living the Gospel, it is certainly just one step short of that. Life is not respected in our society: babies are aborted, the elderly are not respected or given adequate care, children are not raised in nurturing families, people are hated because of their race, color or creed. Faith is ridiculed as the crutch of the weak. Hope is crushed by those who abuse power. Love is overshadowed by sexual perversion and self-interest. Living that Gospel is dangerous to anyone who would want to be taken seriously in our culture.

To all of us who come to this holy place to worship this morning and who hope to work out our salvation by living the Gospel, St. Paul speaks eloquently. We know that he, as well as all of the communion of saints, is there to intercede for us and show us the way. He says to us today, “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led to sin, and I am not indignant?” He points us to our Lord Jesus who paid the ultimate price for the Gospel, and reminds us that in living that Gospel, regardless of its cost, we store up for ourselves incredible treasures in heaven, because it is in heaven that our heart resides.

Wednesday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

Some people always seem to need to have the spotlight shining on them. If we’re honest, we probably all have a little of that in us. Who among us has not occasionally been disappointed when our best efforts have gone unrecognized? But that kind of attitude is one that Jesus completely rejects. His humility and dedication to doing his Father’s will took him to the cross, and so it must be for we who would be Jesus’ disciples. We need to turn the spotlight off, or even better, we need to shine it on our God, to whom all glory belongs.

There is nothing that we have that is not God’s gift to us. Our lives, our work, our family, the stuff we own, all of this is a gift, freely given by our God who loves us and cares for us. The Gospel says in another place, “freely you have received; freely give.” What Jesus and St. Paul are telling us this morning is that we must be not just willing, but eager to give of ourselves in fasting, almsgiving and prayer. We must be eager to do these things not because it makes the spotlight shine brightly on us, but because it makes the spotlight shine on our God. May everything that we do and everything that we are give God glory, now and through all eternity!