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!

Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You know, there are a lot of differences here among us. This is a somewhat diverse congregation: different ethnicities, different cultural backgrounds, different educational levels, different types of careers and vocations. And we are all on different places in the spiritual life: some are traditional and others are progressive; some are advanced on the journey to Christ, some have only just begun; we all like to pray in different ways, and each of us has different experiences even in our common worship. But as diverse as we are, there is one thing that unites us without question: we all need a Savior. King David knew this very well and so it is very appropriate that he helps us to pray in today’s Psalm response: “Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.”

At the bottom of this need for a Savior is the fact that we are all sinners, every one of us. We all fall short of God’s expectations of us – and not just sometimes, but every single moment of our lives. Even our great successes in the spiritual life and our best efforts of discipleship are tainted by the wrong we have done, and the wrong we have chosen, over and over and over again. I know that’s not easy to hear, but it’s also not easy to argue against, is it? It’s not popular to talk about sin even from the pulpit these days, because in our society everything is someone else’s fault. In days gone by, if a child misbehaved in school, woe to him when he got home. Today, if a child misbehaves in school, woe to the teacher when the parents find out the child has been held accountable. If we spill coffee on ourselves and it burns us, we sue the purveyor who sold it to us. Recently an assistant state’s attorney got into a car intoxicated and got into an accident in which she died. Now her family is suing the restaurant where she, a prosecutor who brought intoxicated motorists to justice and who should certainly have known better, drank to excess. Personal responsibility is not something we are ready to accept, let alone teach to our children. Lord, forgive the wrong we have done indeed!

And so all of us sinners who are in great need of a Savior have gathered here for this weekend Liturgy. What we hear from today’s Scriptures is all about sin. First, sin has consequences. Second, repentance is crucial. Third, forgiveness is freely given. And finally, reconciliation brings joy.

Sin has consequences. This was what King David heard in today’s first reading. You may know the story. While the war was raging and his army was fighting for his own survival, David looked out and saw the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who was very appealing to him. He sent for her, and had his way with her. In the society of that day, such an act was an offense primarily against the woman’s husband, and rendered his blood line dried up. When that happened, the man’s property would not be passed on to his heirs after death, and would instead be given to the state. So David’s taking of Uriah’s wife also meant that he stole his inheritance. And just to make the deed complete, he arranged for Uriah to be “accidentally” killed in battle. This was not just a minor sin or a tiny indiscretion. What God says to David in today’s first reading is that yes, his sin is forgiven because God is mercy. But, because of his wrong choices, David has unleashed a chain of events that will result in violence being part of his family’s inheritance forever. That is not punishment for his sin, but rather the consequence of it. Even when our sins have been forgiven, we often unleash consequences we could not have foreseen. That’s how insidious and destructive sin can be, and that is why there is no such thing as a victimless or private sin in which no one else is affected.

Repentance is crucial. We see that move to repentance in King David’s behavior today. When confronted by God, David is quick to repent: “I have sinned against the LORD,” David says. And this is the crucial step. God is always ready to forgive, but we have to recognize that we need to be forgiven. We have to know that we need a Savior. God’s forgiveness takes two: God to offer it, and us to receive it. For us, I think, the move to repentance is easy to make by simply approaching the Sacrament of Penance. We offer it every Saturday here at the parish from 4:00 – 4:45 pm. You don’t have to have committed the sins of David to need this precious sacrament; in fact we are instructed to go at least once a year, because we all have some sins on our soul, and we all have need to receive God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness. I always say this, but if you haven’t been to the sacrament in a long time and have forgotten how to do it, just go. It’s the priest’s job to help you make a good confession and I know that Fr. Ted and I are committed to helping you do that. Remember, the step to repentance is a crucial one. If you want God’s grace, all you have to do is to make a move to receive it. We all need a Savior, and we are all promised one if we will just ask for it.

Forgiveness is freely given. God’s response to David didn’t even take a minute. As soon as he says that he had sinned against the Lord, God’s response comes through Nathan the prophet, loud and clear: “The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die.” And notice, please, that the Lord doesn’t say, “OK, I forgive you,” as in “now that you’ve said ‘I’m sorry’ I will forgive you.” No. The message is that David’s sin has been forgiven; that is, the forgiveness has already happened. It is not necessary that we repent, or do anything, in order that we be forgiven. But it is crucial that we repent in order to receive that forgiveness and grace that is given to us freely, without a moment’s hesitation, by our God who is at his core, forgiveness and grace. We should not, of course, commit the further sin of presumption by assuming that that it does not matter what we do because we are always forgiven. But above all, we should not deprive ourselves of the grace of forgiveness by choosing not to confess and repent and receive what is offered to us.

Reconciliation brings joy. I think what is so important in today’s Gospel is for us to see how great is the joy that comes from sin forgiven and mercy received. The unnamed “sinful woman” is not bathing and anointing the Lord’s feet so that he will then forgive her sins. She is bathing and anointing him because she is overjoyed that her many sins have been forgiven. The little parable Jesus tells to Simon the Pharisee makes that clear: the one who was forgiven the greater debt loves more. He loves not to have his debt forgiven, but instead he loves because the debt has already been canceled. And so we too gather with joy this day because the debt of our sin has been erased. We pour out our time, talent, and treasure, and especially our own lives, on this altar of sacrifice, because our sins have been forgiven and the debt has already been paid by our Savior who stretches out his arms on the cross so that we might have salvation and might be reconciled with our God who created us for himself. Today in that silent time after Communion, I hope I hear weeping for joy from all of us because of the great forgiveness that is ours when we sinful people realize that we need a Savior and turn to find his arms already open to us. What other response is there to that grace but tears of joy?

It might not be popular to talk about sin these days but, brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s the only reason we’re here together this day. If we don’t need a Savior, then we don’t need to waste an hour together, do we? But the truth is we are a sinful people, a people in need of a Savior, who gather together to sing the words of King David, “Lord forgive the wrong I have done.” In our gathering we can cry out in tears of joy for forgiveness freely given and mercy abundantly bestowed. “Blessed” – indeed happy – “is the one whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered.”

Friday of the Ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

straphael-tobias-2Angels are messengers that God sends sometimes to let us know his plans for us, or to guard and guide us, or even to help us to see what’s really important. And it’s that last thing that the archangel Raphael does in today’s first reading. If we remember all the way back to Tuesday, we heard about Tobit being made blind by cataracts caused by bird droppings, and later in that same story, he scolded his wife for accepting a goat as a bonus on her labor, because he did not believe her story. I mentioned then that Tobit had to learn that charity – for which he was quite well known – begins at home. His period of blindness gave him that very insight, I think, and in today’s story he rejoices in his cleared vision.

Through the intercession of St. Raphael, Tobit regained his sight and was able to see his son safely returned from a long and dangerous journey. He saw also the return of his family fortune. And he saw the union of his son Tobit with his new wife Sarah. There was great cause for rejoicing in all that he was able to see and Tobit didn’t miss a beat in placing the credit where it belonged. He said,

Blessed be God,
and praised be his great name,
and blessed be all his holy angels.
May his holy name be praised
throughout all the ages,
Because it was he who scourged me,
and it is he who has had mercy on me.

And so we praise God today for angels who help us to see what’s really important. We praise God for angels who clear up our clouded vision and help us to see past the obstacles we’ve put in God’s way. We praise God for angels who help us to overcome our pride and self-righteousness so that God’s way can become clear to us. May we rejoice along with Tobit and Anna and all the rest that God has truly sent his angels to us often to bring us back to him.

Thursday of the Ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no other commandment greater than these.

straphlLove is very definitely the theme of today's Liturgy of the Word. As I mentioned on Tuesday, I'm so excited because this week we are reading from the book of Tobit, from which we get the stories about our patron saint, St. Raphael. And today we hear about him entering the story, in the guise of the person of Azariah. Tobit and Tobiah and all the rest don't know he's an angel yet, but that will become clear enough when the blessing of love wipes the cataracts away from Tobit's eyes, and everything becomes clear to him.

And we know that it is love that can do all these things. Love can clear up old Tobit's vision. Love can and will let Tobiah survive his wedding night when he marries Sarah. Love can heal Tobit's and Sarah's broken hearts. And love can reveal that the power of God works in all of our lives, in all of our hearts.

Sometimes we need an angel to come to know that. During our lives, we can go through periods that are just awful and seem devoid of any joy. But love won't let that be the final answer for any of us. Just as the angel Raphael took the form of Azaraiah and was a blessing to Tobiah and Sarah, so too there may be angels in our own lives, in the form of family or friends or caregivers that end the cycle of sadness in the same way that God's blessing ended the cycle of death for Sarah's husbands.

Tobiah and Sarah sang a song of praise to God and said "Amen, amen" before going to bed for the night. They woke up the next morning to rejoice in God's love in the same way that we can, if we will but realize that there is no commandment greater than the commandment to love God and one another. Death cannot and will not ever win the battle over love.