Thursday of the Thirty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Our worshipping in these last days of the Church year is often difficult, I think.  And you know why, don’t you?  These readings are just hard to hear.  The readings from Revelation this week have been confusing, to say the least, and maybe even a little frightening.  And if we could ignore the fright of the Revelation, well the Gospel is a bit more violent this morning than we’d like to experience at 8:30 in the morning, I think.

But there is a spiritual principle at work here.  We are being called to mindfulness.  If during this liturgical year we’ve been a little lax, or even have become complacent, these readings are calling us to wake up lest we miss what God is doing.  God is bringing the whole world to its fulfillment, and we are called to be witnesses of it.  We cannot be like those who missed the time of their visitation.  We have been given the wonderful gift of Christ’s presence in our lives all year long, and we are asked to look back at where that wonderful gift has taken us.

And if we haven’t come as far as we should, then we are called to wake up and realize what’s slipping away from us.  We cannot be left out of the kingdom, all our hopes smashed to the ground, all because we didn’t recognize that our greatest hope was right in front of us all the time.  We know the time is running short.  The days are shorter, and night approaches more quickly than we’d like.  The leaves have gone from the trees.  The nip in the air has turned to cold and even frost; we’ve even had some snowflakes.  These are the physical manifestations of creation groaning to come to its fulfillment.

If the coming winter leaves us empty and aching for warmth, then these final days of the Church year might find us also aching for the warmth of the kingdom, that kingdom we were created to live in all our days.  Let us not be like Jerusalem; we cannot miss the time of our visitation!

Tuesday of the Thirty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You have to love this story of Zacchaeus, I think.  I think there are two main components of the story that really stand out for me as hallmarks of the spiritual life.

The first is Zacchaeus’s openness.  First, he is so eager to see Jesus that he climbs up a tree to get a look at him.  We don’t have to go that far.  All we have to do is spend some time in the Eucharistic Chapel, or even just some quiet moments reflecting on Scripture.  All of those are ways to see Jesus, but like Zacchaeus, we have to overcome obstacles to get a look at him.  For Zacchaeus, that meant climbing up a tree to overcome the fact that he was apparently vertically challenged!  But for you and me, that might mean clearing our schedule, making our time with Jesus a priority.  Zacchaeus’s openness also included inviting Jesus in, despite his sinfulness.  He was willing to make up for his sin and change everything once he found the Lord.  We might ask ourselves today what we need to change, and how willing we are to invite Jesus into our lives, despite our brokenness.

The second thing that stands out for me is what Jesus says to those who chided him for going into a sinner’s house.  “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”  What wonderful words those are for us to hear.  Because we know how lost we have been at times, and how far we have wandered from our Lord.  But the Lord seeks us out anyway, because we are too valuable for him to lose.

And all we have to do is to be open to the Lord’s work in our lives, just like Zacchaeus was.  What a joy it will be then to hear those same words Jesus said to him:  “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The rather obvious and certainly oft-repeated application of today’s Gospel reading lies in the very literal interpretation of the word “talent.”  So we have been given many talents, and it’s up to us to use them wisely for the benefit of the kingdom of God.  Woe to the one who ignores his gifts and buries them out of fear.  And that’s a wonderful message.  I could go there.  But it’s wrong – that’s not what Jesus meant, and I think we have to dig just a little bit deeper.

The word we have translated “talent” here does not mean what we think it means.  When our English ears hear that word, we think gifts, we think of abilities, of things we can do.  But that’s not what it means in the original Greek.  “Talent” here does not mean gifts, a talent was a unit of money.  It was actually rather a large sum of money, equal to something like one thousand days’ wages.  So think about it, even the man who only received one talent actually received quite a bit – he received what the average person would earn in a little over three years!  That’s a lot of money for anyone.

The next thing we have to look at is who it was that was receiving such a large sum of cash.  On first glance, seeing what it is they have been given, we might think these are senior advisers to the master, people who would have been in charge of his estate and his business transactions.  But that’s not what it says.  It says he called in his “servants” – so we are talking here about slaves, slaves – not business advisers.  And so these slaves are getting ten talents, five talents, and one talent – all of them are getting a considerable amount of money!

If we think of the master as God, and accept the talents simply as money, I think God comes off sounding rather harsh.  The poor servants differed in their ability; that’s pointed out in the story and certainly the master would have known that.  So why would God be so horribly harsh when a simple slave with limited giftedness does nothing with his gifts?  It makes us bristle, I think, to imagine God treating someone like that so poorly.  And maybe that’s as it should be.  Because I think our bristling tells us that we still have to dig deeper into this very interesting parable.

So I think this raises a few questions for us.  Who is the master?  What do the talents represent?  Why would the master entrust such a large sum of money to common slaves?  Who are the slaves?  And what on earth was that third slave thinking when he buried such a wonderful gift in the sand?

Well, first off, I do think the master is God here – God the Father.  Now the talents, they’re not abilities or gifts, and they aren’t simply money.  And I think it’s our first reading that gives us a clue as to what’s really at stake here.  That first reading speaks of the worthy wife whose value is far beyond that of fine pearls.  So this first reading is teaching us to value not someTHING, but someONE.  What, or rather who, could be that valuable?  And I think the answer here is that it’s Christ himself.  Those talents represent Christ, the Gospel he proclaimed, and the Kingdom he came to make manifest.  The Gospel says the Master called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.  What we have translated “entrusted” here means, in the original Greek, something more like “handed over.”  In just the same way, God the Father “handed over” his only Son to us, for the salvation of the whole world.  What could possibly be worth more than that?

Now the slaves of course are the disciples, they’re you and me, people of every time and place who Christ has come to save.  We are slaves to sin, and we need a redeemer.  Some are more open to redemption and to the work of Christ and the call of the Gospel.  They might get five talents or ten, or maybe even a million – the riches of Christ can never be exhausted!  These go forth into the world, pouring out those riches of Christ into a world that desperately needs salvation, healing and hope.  As that message goes forth, proclaimed and lived by disciples ready to embrace it, they are able to earn five more, or ten more, or even a million for the kingdom.

But some are not as open to Christ’s life and work and Gospel.  There’s too much at stake.  They worry about what might happen if our world totally embraced Jesus’ teaching.  They can’t get past what discipleship might personally cost them.  They are represented, of course, by Judas, the apostle who was so overwhelmed by Jesus that he gave in to despair.  And in Matthew’s Gospel, this is the cardinal sin, because in at least a dozen places, Jesus says “do not be afraid” in one form or another.  That was Jesus’ message in Matthew’s Gospel, and so this third servant, who was afraid of what the Master might be like, buried his treasure out of fear.  And the parable points out that that fear wasn’t even reasonable, since he dealt so wonderfully with the other two servants, rewarding their work by calling them to share in his joy.

So today’s Gospel is a summary of the whole Gospel of Matthew that we’ve been reading with the Church this year.  We are told that the greatest gift is Christ, that we are called to live the Gospel, that we must take up the task before us without being afraid, that we are called to go out and invest Christ’s presence into a world that always needs to be renewed.  As we come here on this second-to-last Sunday of the Church year, we are brought to a summary of all that in order that we might look back and see how we’ve done that this year.  Have we treasured Christ as the greatest of all that we have been given?  Have we taken on the mission without being afraid, knowing that the gift we have been given in Christ can make up for anything that we ourselves may lack?  Have we accepted that wonderful gift and invested it in the world, proclaiming the Gospel by the way that we live, challenging the corner of the world we live in to take it up also, so that we might bring back another five or ten or a million talents?

Or have we been afraid, thinking that the Master is demanding beyond reason, afraid to make a mistake, afraid of what living the Gospel would mean for us, afraid of what it might cost us?  Because if we have lived this way, we have failed the mission.  Everything we have will be taken from us.  There will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

Here at the end of this Church year, we can renew our commitment, make a new year’s resolution, if you will, to live the Gospel and proclaim the kingdom in the year ahead.  It doesn’t have to be huge.  It doesn’t cost us anything, because everything that we need has been given to us.  Maybe proclaiming the Gospel means doing some kind of service for us.  Reaching out at a homeless shelter like Hesed House or at a soup kitchen or Loaves and Fishes.  Maybe it means leading a small Christian Community so others will hear the Gospel.  Maybe we’ll help teach a religious education class, or sing in the choir, or become a lector.  Maybe we’ll make an effort every day to put prayer in the course of our work day, and try to be people of integrity in our business lives.  On this Donor Sabbath Sunday, maybe we’ll register for organ donation so that lives will be saved even after we’ve gone home to our reward.  Maybe we’ll read the Scriptures each day before we go to bed, even just a few verses, so that the Lord can change our lives and hearts.  Throughout this Church year, we have received the greatest gift we’ll ever get – Jesus Christ the Lord himself.  Now it is up to us to bring back the gift with interest, taking a world of watching people with us. The Psalmist sings of our reward today: “For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork; blessed shall you be, and favored.”  Come, share your Master’s joy!

Saturday of the Thirty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You know, this Gospel reading is filled with all sorts of off-putting comments, isn’t it?  I don’t know about you, but I bristle at the thought of comparing God to a dishonest judge!  But that’s not the point here.  Of course, Jesus means that God is so much greater than the dishonest judge, that if the dishonest judge will finally relent to someone pestering him, how much more will God, who love us beyond anything we can imagine, how much more will he grant the needs of this children who come to him in faith?

But people have trouble with this very issue all the time.  Because I am sure that almost all of us have been in the situation where we have prayed and prayed and prayed and nothing seems to happen.  But we can never know the reason for God’s delay.  Maybe what we ask isn’t right for us right now.  Maybe something better is going to come our way at some time.  Maybe the right answer will position itself in time, through the grace of God at work in so many situations.  Maybe we just don’t have the big picture.

But whatever the reason, the last line of the Gospel today is our key: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  Our faith is what leads us to continue the prayer until it is finally answered.  Maybe the situation will come to a peaceful resolution, or maybe it is we who will be changed.  But if we approach it all in faith, then we know we have to approach it all with the long haul in mind, because our faith tells us that God answers in God’s time and in God’s way.

A delay could either bring us closer to God as we continue to pray in faith, or it can fracture our relationship with God when we give in to despair.  But let that not be so for us.  When the Son of Man comes, may he find us faithful ones busy in prayer.

Friday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings: 2 John 4-9; John 13:34-35

[This was Mass for the Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade school children.]

Today we celebrate a Mass in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  We celebrate Jesus’ Sacred Heard because we always think of love as coming from the heart, and we know that Jesus, our God, is love.

Last week, I read our Kindergarteners a story about how God loves us.  The Wemmicks were a little village of wooden people, kind of like puppets.  They used to give each other stickers.  The really talented, beautiful, special people used to get pretty star stickers.  The ones who had trouble doing anything good, or who weren’t so nice to look at, they got gray dot stickers.

Punchinello used to get lots of gray dots because he was really clumsy, and his paint was chipped and scratched.  He would often say silly things or make mistakes, and so he got lots and lots of gray dots.  He was very sad about that until he met a wooden girl who didn’t have any stickers at all.  She didn’t have stickers because the stickers wouldn’t stick to her.  Punchinello asked her about that, and she said she used to get a lot of stickers until she met the puppet maker.

Punchinello went to meet the puppet maker too.  He explained to Punchinello that the stickers only stick if you let them.  The puppet maker didn’t care what other people thought about Punchinello because he loved him no matter what he looked like, or what he said, or what he did.  When Punchinello started to understand that, one of his dot stickers fell off.

The Church teaches us that God loves us very much, just like the puppet maker.  He loves us because he made us.  So when he looks at us, he doesn’t see if we’re beautiful or not.  He doesn’t see how high we can jump, or how nicely we dance, or how beautiful our clothes are or how smart we are.  He sees us for what we are: wonderful people who were made by God, and are special just because God made us.

That kind of love is really wonderful.  It’s the kind of love that lets us know that we can live our lives in happiness because God loves us.  It lets us know that we can do anything God calls us to do.  It lets us know that no matter what other people think of us, we are wonderful in God’s eyes.

But love like that can’t be kept.  Just like the wooden girl who told Punchinello about the puppet maker, we have to tell other people how much God loves them.  We have to take God’s love and spread it around.  The really wonderful thing is that no matter how much we share God’s love, we’ll never run out of it.

So today we’re going to ask all of you children to spread that love around.  After Communion, you are all going to come forward to receive a blessing.  We’ll say “God loves you.”  And you’ll say, “Amen.”  Then we will give you the name of someone in your class.  You then have to find a way to spread God’s love to that person.  Maybe you can help that person if they’re having trouble one day.  Maybe you can sit next to them at lunch.  Maybe you can invite them to play with you and your friends at recess.  Maybe you can just tell them they are wonderful and that you love them just like God loves them.

I know that you will find a way to spread that love around.  We don’t need to be giving people gray dots or shiny stars.  We don’t need to say bad things about people.  We just need to let them know God loves them.  And we can do that, because God loves us first and best.

Saturday of the Thirty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“The love of money is the root of all evil.”  “Money can’t buy happiness.”  We have all sorts of proverbs that aim to keep us at right relationship not just with our financial resources, but really with all the many gifts that we have.  Today’s Liturgy of the Word gives us some humble pointers too on this important issue.

St. Paul, in thanking his friends in Philippi for their generous support of his ministry, tells them: “I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance.  In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.”  His gratitude isn’t so much that their gift to him filled him with plenty, but instead that their gift was a testament to their faith, and their love for the Gospel he preached to them.  He was able to use that gift to further his ministry elsewhere, making Christ known to others who longed to hear of him.

Jesus today speaks to the Pharisees, who, as the Gospel today tells us, “loved money.”  He tells them that their love of money was not going to lead them to God.  Instead, it leads them to dishonest transactions with dishonest people.  Just as a servant cannot serve two masters, so they could not expect to serve both God and mammon, the so-called god of material wealth and greed.

We live in times where the love of money has led us to considerable evil.  Greed and the desire for instant gratification has led people to be overspent and overextended.  Major corporations, greedy for more wealth, playing off the misguided desires of so many people, have defaulted, causing the government to have to step in and save them, for fear their downfall would take the entire world economy with it.  In these days, it may be well for us to hear that we cannot serve both God and mammon.  It may be well for us to come to the conclusion that we can live in both abundance and need.  And it’s never a bad time to hear that we need to make God our only God, yet again.

Thursday of the Thirty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It’s all a matter of perspective – that’s true in most things, but most especially true in our relationship with God.  Today’s Gospel gives us a glimpse at that.  Jesus asks, ““What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?”  Well, those men he talked to were shepherds, or had shepherds in their family, so they would have responded “nobody would do that!”  Why on earth would they risk losing the other ninety-nine sheep to find the lost one?

And as far as the coin goes, I guess it depends on what the coin is worth.  If it’s a denarius – a day’s wage – then yes, it would be worth staying up all night and searching carefully.  But if it’s just a small coin, why bother?  Who of us doesn’t have a junk drawer with a small collection of pennies in it?  If we lost one of them, we’d hardly even notice, let alone give up a night’s sleep to find it.

But here’s the perspective part: God is not like us.  Every sheep among us is important, and he will relentlessly pursue us individually until he has us all in the sheepfold.  And there are those among us who don’t see themselves as worth much.  Maybe we’re just simple laborers and not an influential businessperson, or maybe our own self-image is so poor that we think we are dirt.  But God does not; and if we’re lost, he’s going to light a lamp and stay up all night until he has us back.  For him, one of us is every bit as important as the other ninety-nine.  Every simple laborer is as important as the influential ones among us.  Even if our own self-image is poor, we are a treasure in God’s eyes.

And so that’s what the Kingdom of heaven is like.  It’s a relentless pursuit and a fury of activity until we are all back where we belong.  Once we are all with God, the joyful celebration can continue, knowing that we are all back where we were always meant to be.

Thursday of the Thirtieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I think today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a good one for us to hear.  How often are we beset by all the frustrations of the world, and all of the sadness that our own lives can sometimes bring?  I’m not saying that every day is horrible, but we all go through times when it seems like it’s too much, like one more phone call and we’ll explode.

And to all of that today, St. Paul advises us to “put on the armor of God.”  Because when things go wrong, we have two choices.  We can go to pieces, wondering where is God when we really need him, getting angry with God, ourselves, and others, and lashing out at anyone and everyone in our lives.  Or, we can realize that what God allows he doesn’t necessarily wish on us.  We can join ourselves to him, and draw our strength and courage from the Lord himself, knowing that he walks with us in good times and in bad.

Because we know which one the devil himself would choose for us, right?  That evil one wants to use the trying times to drive a wedge between God and us.  And we need strength to guard against that “evil day.”  And so, St. Paul tells us, “In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the Evil One.”  And that shield, he says, is prayer: “With all prayer and supplication, pray at every opportunity in the Spirit.”  Prayer and faith are the armor we need to get through the trying times of life without falling victim to the evil one.

Sometimes life can feel like a war, but as the Psalmist says today, “Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war.”  Our stronghold is that whatever life brings us, we are never alone.  Never.

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.”

That certainly seems simple enough.  But we miss the mark on it all the time, don’t we?  The idea is to put God first, which of course, is the first of the ten commandments:  “I am the LORD your God; you shall not have strange gods before me.”  But we have all sorts of strange gods that vie for our attention every day, and way too often, we give in to them, and put something less than god ahead of the God who made us.

Back in my pre-seminary days, I used to work for a print company.  I had to manage multiple print projects for a few different customers, and so it was my job to schedule the print time in the plant, get proofs to customers, proofread projects, and a whole bunch of other stuff.  It could get very mind-boggling, so I took to writing very detailed to-do lists for myself so that I’d be sure to get everything done in the course of a day.

You probably do something like that too.  Whether you are managing a consulting firm or simply trying to get the kids to soccer and choir and reading club at the right times, you probably keep lists to make it easier.  I still do it today, and it’s the only way I can keep things going without forgetting something major.  These days, I use a computer version, but the idea is the same.

But one of the things I used to do when I worked at the print company was to include a one-word task every single day: “pray.”  I found, after I had been working there for a while, that I needed to do that to keep my faith life integrated with my work life.  The Scriptures teach us to pray always, and I found that unless I put that on my to-do list every day, there was precious little chance of my stopping to remember God, the One who created me and sustained me and loved me always.  Taking five minutes to pray was the least I could do.  I kept a Bible and a devotional in one of my desk drawers all the time, and I would take a five-minute break to use them.  That kept me a lot more focused during the day, and kept me from getting so full of myself that I made life intolerable for my coworkers.  Praying had a lot of benefits in the workplace.  And when I got to that one task – “pray” – I would remember to take time to do just that.

One day, I was very sick and couldn’t come in to work.  So my friend Joyce, who was my backup partner, filled in for me.  The next day, when I came in, I found she had left notes on my to-do list about what she was able to get done, and what happened on some of my projects.  Joyce is a woman of faith, so when she got to that “pray” task, I’m sure she smiled, and probably did just that.  But she left me a note next to that task that said something like: “Done.  But I probably should have made it a novena!”  Apparently it had been a hard day!

The point of all this is that we have to make a way to put God first in our lives.  Otherwise, if it’s not the busy-ness of the day, then it’s something else that comes first, and it’s almost never God.  It could be our status or ego that comes first, it could be money, it could be the latest gadgets or all the luxury comforts that we crave.  It could be sports, or it could be family activities, or even laziness that becomes a god for us.  And that’s all really sinful.  It’s a violation of the first commandment.  And it’s the first commandment for a very good reason: because it’s the most basic thing.  If we can’t hope to get this one right, we’ll never be very good at all the rest.

These days in our society, I have been wondering what is really first for us.  I’m thinking we may have made gods of government bailouts.  You’d think that in this time of uncertainty, and on the brink of a pivotal election, people would be coming to Church, reconnecting with their God, and drawing strength from their faith, putting God first even if they haven’t been doing that very well in the recent past.  But you’d be wrong.  Right now, we’re taking the annual “October Count” – a yearly mass-by-mass attendance count.  The attendance counts as compared to registered parishioners this year are running 2-3% lower than last year, and 6-7% lower than this time in 2004.  We are hearing that is true from other churches in our area too.

Even for those of us who manage to make the time to come to Mass on Saturday evening or Sunday morning, that still doesn’t necessarily mean that we are putting God first all the time.  We have to find ways to put God first, adding time with him to our to-do lists, making prayer and reflection a part of our daily routine.  Because it’s only by doing this that we can nurture a friendship with our God, a friendship that sustains us in bad times and in good, a friendship that ultimately leads us to heaven, that place we were created for by the One who created us.

Jesus makes it plain enough for us in today’s Gospel.  Love God and love your neighbor; these are the hallmarks of a Christian’s life, the hallmarks of life for all of us who were created by God and are called to return to God one day.  And so it is imperative that we get love of God and love of neighbor right.  To neglect these two commandments, which Jesus says today are the basis of the whole law and the prophets, is seriously sinful.

But the good news is that we have the chance, having heard the Word of God, to return and to re-prioritize our to-do lists, putting God first, loving God and neighbor, and coming at last into the presence of our God who loves us first and always.  The Psalmist, as always, helps us to make our prayer today: “I love you, LORD, my strength, LORD, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, My God, my rock of refuge, my shield, my saving horn, my stronghold!”  He is the LORD and there is no other!

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