Saturday of the Twenty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but the last few days in the Gospel readings, there’s been a lot of wailing and grinding of teeth. This section of Matthew’s Gospel spells out the urgency of the call to discipleship and the nearness of the Kingdom of God. Today’s reading is no exception.

When some people have been encouraged to take on a new ministry or share their gifts in some way, very often they will say, “Oh, I could never do that.” Today Jesus says that kind of thinking isn’t kingdom thinking. What today’s reading tells us is that there is no such thing as a “little gift.” We are all called and gifted in some unique way, and we must praise God with that gift no matter what the gift is and no matter how insignificant it may seem.

So whether we have a gift that looks like ten talents, or five, or even one, the call is still the same. No matter how awesome the giver may be, fear of failure can never be an excuse to bury our talent in a hole in the ground. Every single talent must be reinvested in the kingdom, so that we can come together and bring forth a harvest of justice and peace and life and beauty. Because, who needs wailing and grinding of teeth?

Thursday of the Twenty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

When I was little, I often remember my grandmother saying “thank God for small favors!” Now that’s a holy and pious thought, and I’ll have you know my grandmother was certainly holy and pious. But when she said it, it was usually because someone had just done the least they could possibly do, or something they should have done long ago. So the sense of the saying was more like, “could you spare it?” or “well, finally!” Still, I love that phrase, “thank God for small favors” because it reminds us that everything, no matter how big or small, is God’s gift to us, and we should be grateful for it.

One of the most important marks of the Christian disciple is thankfulness. St. Paul was a man of thanksgiving, and we see that theme often in his letters. He may berate his communities when they were missing the point, but he would always also praise them for their goodness, and see that as an opportunity to thank God for giving the community grace. Today, it’s the Thessalonians he is grateful for. He praises them for their great faith and then says, “What thanksgiving, then, can we render to God for you, for all the joy we feel on your account before our God?” Because it’s always God at work in the believer and never the believer all on his or her own. It’s grace, and we are thankful for grace.

God continues to work his grace in our community as well. We are a community of faith, and we see that faith in action in the many ministries of the parish. But even more than that, we see that faith in action in our workplaces, communities, schools and homes. There is never a time when we are not disciples. We are grateful for God’s grace working in and through us in every situation. The word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving, and so the heart of even the most basic and solemn parts of our worship is thanksgiving. We are thankful for all favors, big and small!

Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s Readings

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.”

Those are kind of chilling words, in a way. We’ve been so conditioned to think that the spiritual life has to be easy. We are a society that has no patience for anything that requires a lot of work or effort. We have this sense of entitlement that eschews anything that makes demands of us. It’s no wonder that our society in general can often be so spiritually shallow, no wonder that we are caught up in consumerism, no wonder that people have little respect for one another. Because if the spiritual life is going to require work, then many people say they’re just not going to do it. That’s why so many people have left the Church. They might say there are other reasons, and for some people there genuinely are other reasons, but for many people, it’s just not worth the effort to get up on Sunday and come to Church.

To all of us who are tainted by spiritual laziness once in a while, or even very often, Jesus says today, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” It’s going to take some work, maybe even a lot of work, but if we have decided that eternal life with God our creator is worth it, then we will do what it takes. And it’s not enough to just say, “I’m okay because I believe in Jesus.” Some Churches teach that’s all it takes. But that’s not Biblical, and today’s Gospel is all the evidence for that that we need.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I was at the Cathedral in Joliet for Deacon Tom Marciani’s Ordination. As part of that rite, the bishop hands the newly-ordained deacon the Book of the Gospels and says, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” I remember that very well from my own Ordination as Deacon a couple of years ago, and I was thinking that part of that instruction really applies to all of us. Because we are all called upon to believe what we read, teach what we believe, and practice what we teach.

We are called to believe what we read because the Word of God is Truth. We might all be interested in what’s on the news, or what Oprah and Dr. Phil are saying, but none of that is Truth with a capital “T”. No, the only real Truth, the only Truth that matters is the Truth that comes from God who is Truth itself. That Truth is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and in the writings of Holy Scripture. Other information we get on a daily basis might be more or less true, but the Word of God is Truth. We are called upon to believe it and live it.

We are then called to teach what we believe because if there is just one source of Truth with a capital “T” then we need to make sure everyone knows about it. What good is Truth if everyone is believing something else? And before you object that you’re not a teacher, forget it. Every one of us is a teacher in some way. We might be called to teach in a classroom, but not everyone can do that. We might instead be called to teach in our workplaces by being people of integrity. We might be called to teach our children by living lives of faith and passing that faith on to them in word and action. We might be called to teach the world by participating in acts of justice and charity. We must all teach the Truth, because the Truth is worthy of so much more than being hidden by believers.

Finally, we have to practice what we teach. Because it’s not enough just to believe and teach. Authenticity in believing and teaching comes in our living. If we are people of faith, then we have to live that faith by reaching out to those in need. If we are people of Truth, then we have to stand up for that Truth by our integrity of life and our passion for justice.

All of this requires commitment and effort and real work from all of us. We have to strive to enter through that narrow gate, because we don’t want to ever hear those bone-chilling words from today’s Gospel, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, you evildoers!” God forbid.

Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The Church’s Catechism tells us that “Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.” (CCC, 1808) Jesus puts it even more succinctly in today’s Gospel: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” He wants us to be a people on fire, a people who will not waver in our pursuit of living the Gospel, a people who will not back down in the face of obstacles or even oppression, a people who live their faith joyfully and with firm conviction that our God is trustworthy and faithful. The Christian believer is called to exercise the virtue of fortitude because nothing else is worthy of our God.

Nobody says fortitude is easy. Jesus himself was very realistic about this, and warns us today that fortitude in living the Christian life can be a very divisive way of life. The disciple can and will run into all sorts of oppression, and can even lead to broken relationships with those who are dearest to us. If that Gospel calls upon us to take an unpopular position, and speak up on behalf of the poor, the alien, the prisoner, or a pro-life position, we may even find that some of our friends or family cannot go there with us. Being a Christian can make us feel like foreigners in our own land. It’s as if we are carrying a passport from another place. And we are, for those who are first of all citizens of God’s reign, Jesus’ vision and values come first in our lives. All because Jesus has come to set a blazing fire on the earth and that fire burns already in us.

Today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that we aren’t running the race of fortitude alone. We have at our disposal the support and encouragement of a “great cloud of witnesses” which the Church calls the Communion of Saints. Some of these people may have already died, but their lives remain as testimony to the virtue of fortitude. Perhaps these people were friends or relatives who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, loved ones who were examples of unselfish commitment. Or maybe they are relative strangers to us, people whose courage in the face of death has caused us to stand in awe. They may be people among us who are still alive, people in the neighborhood or in the workplace or at school whose friendliness brightened our day. This great cloud of witnesses cheers us on, and are God’s way of helping us to live lives marked by fortitude.

Very often on the journey of discipleship, we may find that the oppression and division that the Gospel causes casts us down. Like poor Jeremiah in today’s first reading, maybe we find that we have been thrown into a cistern of despair or hopelessness. Fortitude is the virtue that helps us in the midst of all that, to wait with faithfulness on Ebed-melech the Cushite to come to our rescue and draw us up out of the pit.

The truth is, today’s Liturgy of the Word can come across as very negative. Who wants to hear about being cast into a cistern? Are we eager to find that we are going to be in angry division with those we love most? The temptation to let all of this go in one ear and out the other, remaining instead in the comfort of our luke-warmness is almost overwhelming. But that’s just not good enough. We can’t live that way and still call ourselves disciples. It is not enough to love God in our heads. We are told in the book of Revelation how God wishes to spew the luke-warm among us out of his mouth. We need to be on fire, actively living the graces of baptism that we have received – to live with fortitude, integrity, conviction, fervor, and burning zeal. We have to be willing to live in the shadow of the cross, where we resolve all our divisions and receive the baptism that promotes Gospel peace.

Saturday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” My family has had a plaque with that very verse on it for as long as I can remember. This has always been one of my favorite quotes from Scripture. But it certainly is a hard thing to say, and Joshua makes that very clear in today’s first reading. Serving the Lord makes demands of us. We are called to live the Gospel and serve the poor and love everyone as we love God and forgive, and so much more. We are also told that we have to turn away from the worship of other gods, whatever those might be for us. Are they the gods of wealth, success, prestige, or self-interest? We must turn away from them. Are they gods that hold us back, bound to our own comfort, reluctance, or apathy? We must cast all of that out. Serving the Lord requires nothing less than total self-giving, because the Lord has first given everything to us.

The kingdom of heaven, as Jesus reminds us today, belongs to those who are like children before him. We must become childlike in our trust and obedience to the one who gives us life, love and salvation. We are called to decide today whom we will serve. Will it be the Lord, or someone or something else? For those of us who step forward to receive the Eucharist today, the answer must always and only be, “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

Thursday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

God always gives us a way out. The Israelites could celebrate that twice. Twice they came up against the obstacle of the deep waters. The first was on the way out of Egypt, and Moses was able to raise his hands with the power of God and part the waters of the Red Sea so the Israelites could pass to the other side in safety, then resume the flow so that their pursuers perished in the deep. In today’s first reading, we’re on the other end of the story. This time it is the new leader of the community, Joshua, who is able to raise his arms with the power of God to stop the flow of the Jordan, and allow the Israelites to pass over dry land to the promised land.

Would that the indebted man in today’s Gospel would have seen the way out and taken it. He had been forgiven his whole debt, but did not learn that the only way to true freedom was forgiveness. So his way out closed up with him in the midst of it, and he was dragged off to prison.

God gives us all a way out of whatever it is that is troubling us. Sometimes all the troubles don’t go away, but the way out gives us the opportunity to experience the strength of our God. What we need to do is to take the way out and move forward in discipleship. So if we’ve been forgiven, we need to forgive. If we have been blessed, we need to bless others. If we have been comforted, we need to comfort. You get the idea.

In our Eucharist today, God gives us the incredible way out of death, by finding our life in the Eucharist and leading us to eternal life. Blessed are we who receive it.

Monday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

A conventional piece of Christian wisdom tells us to “love what Jesus loved when he was on the cross, and despise what Jesus despised when he was on the cross.” We get that same message from Moses today in the first reading. He tells the Israelites that the high and mighty God loves the widow, the orphan, and the alien, and because of that, they too must love the widow, the orphan, and the alien. That is actually a common theme of all of the prophets.

In our day, loving what Jesus loved when he was on the cross might mean reaching out to those in need: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, those oppressed in any way. It might mean binding up wounds: old hurts, casual slights, or pervasive anger. It means forgiving as we have been forgiven, loving the person but hating the sin. We are called upon to extend ourselves and to go beyond our own pettiness to love sacrificially. We might not be nailed to a cross, but we may well have to die to our own interests and needs in order to love as Jesus calls us.

What do we have that is not God’s gift to us? The Psalmist says today: “He has granted peace in your borders; with the best of wheat he fills you.” We benefit eternally from the great sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. As we remember the grace we have been given in celebrating the Eucharist today, let it be our prayer that we would come to love as he has loved, no matter what the cost.

Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy of the Word, brothers and sisters in Christ, is a kind of handbook, I think, for the Christian disciple. Those of us who would follow in the steps of Jesus are given several wonderful pearls of wisdom which are meant to guide us on the way. So today, I thought it would be good to reflect on them, even though they may seem disjointed, and see where they are leading us. So let’s roll up our sleeves and work through them.

The first pearl comes from our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews. The first like is perhaps one of the best known verses of Scripture: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Faith is something we all strive to have, but faith is really a gift. We long to be people of faith because it is faith that gives peace in the midst of uncertainty. Faith, as the author points out, is not the same thing as proof. Proof requires evidence, and faith usually provides none of that. Faith, perhaps, is not knowing what will happen, but instead knowing the one in whom we trust. If we know our God is trustworthy, then we don’t need to know all the details of what is ahead of us; instead, we can trust in the One who leads us. The more that we exercise that faith, the more our faith grows.

The next three pearls of wisdom come from our Gospel today. We could really divide that Gospel into three parts, with the wisdom saying at or near the end of each part. The first of these is “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” This part looks a lot like the continuation of last week’s Gospel. Last week we were cautioned not to store up worthless treasure in barns, but instead to invest in whatever will lead us to heaven. Today’s saying is kind of an examination of conscience along that same line of teaching. Here Jesus is inviting us to look at exactly what has been our treasure. Has it been success, power, prestige and wealth? Or has it been compassion, nurturing, mercy and justice? Have we put all of our energies into our work or play time, or have we spent time on our families, in our prayer life, and in works of mercy? What is our treasure? If our treasure is in things of the world, then our heart will be in the world and we will have no chance for salvation. But if our treasure is in our true home in heaven, then that’s where we will find our heart and our salvation.

The next pearl comes at the end of a teaching on the need for watchfulness and waiting. It’s almost an Advent theme right here in mid-August. Here, Jesus says to us: “You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” We do all sorts of waiting. We wait in the grocery line and in the doctor’s office. We wait for friends or family to join us at the dinner table. We wait for job offers, for the right person in our relationships, and we wait for the right direction in our lives. In all of our waiting, Jesus tells us today, we must be prepared for the outpouring of God’s grace. If we are distracted by worldly things and worldly activities, we may miss that grace as it is poured out right before us. If we are caught up in things that have no permanence, we may miss our opportunity to follow Christ to our salvation. We must always be prepared for the Son of Man to come into our lives.

And the final pearl is one of my favorites, perhaps the most challenging words I have ever had spoken to me. It comes right at the end of the Gospel today: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” When I was in seminary, they used to put it in the words of another translation of this verse: “From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.” Think about it. We are citizens of the richest nation on earth. We live in perhaps the wealthiest city in the wealthiest counties in that nation. We worship freely, without threat of death or incarceration. Our children have opportunities for education beyond the wildest imaginings of those in other nations, or even in most cities of our country. We sit here in an air conditioned Church and worship with great music, vibrant ministries, and committed ministers of all kinds. We have truly been given much – much more than most people can dream of, much more than we deserve at any given point in our lives. Grace is all around us. So what are we giving in return? Much has been given, and much will be expected. If we are not living our faith every day, if we are not giving back to our world from what we have been given, then we are guilty of stealing it. Much is expected of us disciples, and perhaps today’s Scriptures are calling us to reflect on how we have been delivering on that expectation.

All of these pearls of wisdom are – to use a corporate expression that I absolutely loathe – “raising the bar” in our faith life. The letter to the Hebrews calls us to live our faith and not just say we have faith. Jesus in the Gospel tells us to take that faith and do something with it. He calls us to find treasure in the things of heaven, to wait for our salvation with eager longing, and to give from the rich treasure of that which we have been given. This coming year, our parish vision has us reflecting on stewardship, reflecting on what we have been given and what we are doing with it. Today’s Liturgy of the Word is a great way to start our reflections along those lines. We rejoice today to be God’s people, to gather around the table of Word and Sacrifice. As the Psalmist says so eloquently today: “Blessed,” indeed happy, “the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.”

Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy of the Word gives us no summer break. There is no rest for the weary here. Listen to the last line of that Gospel one more time: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” So right away that parable is turned around and directed at all of us. And it wouldn’t be so hard to put that parable in modern terms, would it? Think of winning the lottery, only to know that the day you receive the check is the day you go home to the Lord. Or even better, think of spending your days and nights in the office, building wealth and prestige, only to be part of massive layoffs when the company is sold. Or, even worse, spending your days and nights at the office, only to miss the growing of your family. So, Jesus asks us, what treasures have we built up? With what have we filled our barns?

Today’s first reading is from the book of Ecclesiastes, which in Hebrew is Qoheleth, who is the teacher in the book. Among the Wisdom books in the Scriptures, Ecclesiastes can be the hardest to read because it is almost prophetic in content. Qoheleth is considered wise among his contemporaries, much like many of the popular wisdom teachers of his day. He often wrote of the prizes that lay in store for those who were successful. But this book is a little different. Here he questions if it is all worth it, and challenges the complacence and dishonesty that run rampant in that society. If we didn’t know any better, he could well have been writing his words today, couldn’t he? In the end, though, Qoheleth’s message is basically encouraging, and brings us back to the God who made us. At the end of his book, which is not part of today’s reading, he says: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.” (Ecc. 12:13-14) Which is exactly what Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel.

St. Paul has a little bit of Qoheleth in him too, today. In the letter to the Colossians, which we have been hearing these past few weeks, he is trying to get that community to lay aside earthly things and seek God. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? “If you were raised with Christ,” he tells them, “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” In other words, stop filling your barns with the stuff that you accumulate on this earth, and be rich in what matters to God. Qoheleth, St. Paul, and Jesus are in complete concert today, and we must be careful to hear their message. St. Paul, typical for him, is very blunt about what he is asking us to lay aside: “Put to death then,” he tells us, “the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” And, “stop lying to one another.” We are called to be disciples who are pure, compassionate and truthful, because absolutely nothing else will lead us to the kingdom of God!

So, let’s get back to Jesus’ instruction at the end of today’s Gospel parable: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” We have to ask ourselves, then, the very important question: “what is it that matters to God.” I think we know what doesn’t qualify – St. Paul made that very clear. We’ll never get to the gates of heaven and have St. Peter say, “well, you know, you should have spent more time at the office and less time with your family.” I think the things that matter to God are those things we might count among our blessings: namely our family and friends. Those things that matter to God might also be the things that make us disciples who are pure, compassionate and truthful. So we might seek to be rich in prayer, rich in reaching out to the poor and needy, rich in standing up for truth and justice. These, brothers and sisters in Christ, are the riches that will not spoil and can never be taken away from us.

Today, as the Psalmist tells us, we have heard God’s voice. May we never harden our hearts to his message for us.

Friday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

[Votive Mass of the Sacred Heart of Jesus]

What kinds of mighty deeds is the Lord Jesus trying to do in our own lives? Is he finding success there, or have we put up obstacles through our own lack of faith?

Today we celebrate a Votive Mass of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for this First Friday. In this celebration, we realize that the “native place” of our Lord is in our own hearts. As he pours out the love of his Sacred Heart on us, he takes up residence in our own hearts in order to guide us and bring us to salvation. And so we cannot be like those in Jesus’ hometown who would give him no honor in his native place. We must joyfully give Christ honor in our hearts and let his love pour forth in all that we do and say this day and every day.

And just as Moses taught the people to observe the Lord’s commands for worship and rest on the Sabbath, so we too must carefully observe time for worship and rest in our own hearts, communing with our God who longs to warm us with his presence as the very blood flows through our bodies and who longs to guide the rhythm of our days just like the beating of our own hearts. May we all find a moment of our day today for contemplation to appreciate the presence of the Lord in our hearts and in our lives. May the mighty deeds the Lord longs to do in us pour forth from his Sacred Heart, which resides in the hearts of all of us.