Thursday of the Fifteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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Today’s Scripture readings have some “sound bytes” that I have found most meaningful in my prayer life.  Isaiah’s profession of faith today says, “For it is you who have accomplished all we have done.”  What a beautiful thing for us to remember.  This one statement, if we integrate it into our prayer life, will keep us from both false humility and excessive pride.  Because we have no right, when we are called by God to do something, to say, “Oh no, I could never do that.”  That might be absolutely correct, but it’s still completely meaningless.  If God calls us, he will make miracles happen from our willingness to follow.  For it is he who has accomplished all we have done.

And we have no right to be puffed up and call attention to ourselves, and say, “Now look how wonderful I am.”  Because the really good things that we do we could never possibly do on our own: whether that’s becoming a priest and preaching the Word, or becoming a parent and raising children, or whatever our vocation consists of.  That we are willing is cause enough for celebration, but let’s not forget to celebrate the miracle that happens when God does what he needs to do in us.  For it is he who has accomplished all we have done.

And the three verses in our Gospel reading are verses that have long stuck with me.  I have an old Bible in my office that my aunt gave me when I was probably in high school, so like a million years ago!  That Bible has these verses outlined in ink because I went back to them so often.  We all go through trials sometimes, but we can never give ourselves to despair because our Lord is so willing to help us shoulder the burden, and longs to give us the rest we all need to recuperate from the world’s trials.  All we need to do is to come to him for that rest, and to be willing to take up the burdens he offers us, knowing that we will never shoulder them alone.  For it is he who has accomplished all we have done.

Fifteenth Sunday: Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens

This was the alternate homily that I gave at 10:45 Mass, during which we accepted a young man into the Order of Catechumens.

 

In the ancient Church, there were several so-called orders within the assembly.  The main group or order was, of course, the believers.  These had been baptized and had come to accept Jesus Christ, to live within the Church and celebrate the sacraments.  Other orders included the Order of Widows, those women whose husbands had died and had no supporting family members.  These women were taken care of by the community, and in turn served the community as they were able. Another order was the Order of Penitents.  These people had sinned publicly, usually through some violation of the sixth commandment, and were unable to partake of the sacramental life of the Church.  They usually confessed their sins, and were given a lengthy penance to accomplish, and then were reunited with the Church on Holy Thursday.
The other order, which we still have today, is the Order of Catechumens.  These are unbaptized people who desired to become one with the Church and live the life of faith.  This is the order into which we accept Aaron today.  His search for Truth has led him here to us, and we have accepted him in our ritual.  This rite of acceptance into the Order of Catechumens is one that symbolizes a kind of first official step for Aaron.  He has been inquiring into the faith and now wishes to join us.  His formation will continue in the months to come, and he will be baptized, receive Confirmation and First Eucharist at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night.  

We are blessed to have Aaron with us today, because his presence indicates that our faith is alive and vibrant.  His presence shows us that God still searches for his people, calling them out of darkness into his own wonderful light.  As he continues to journey toward baptism, he will be with us in the assembly, being dismissed with candidates for Full Communion, until that day when they can all join us at the Table of the Eucharist.  

We accept Aaron publicly today, not just for his benefit, but also for ours, and for two very specific reasons.  First, we as a community have a responsibility to bring the faith to all people until the day of the Lord’s return.  It’s not just the RCIA team and catechists, not just the priests and staff, but the entire community that makes this happen.  Our faith must be a witness to Aaron and to others that Christ is alive among us and longs to lead us all to salvation.

Second, we have a need to grow in our own faith.  Every day, we come up against new obstacles, new darkness, and our faith must shine light into all of these situations.  We have a need to come to know our Lord Jesus in more intimate and meaningful ways.  And so Aaron isn’t journeying in faith alone here; we are all journeying and growing with him.

Just like that seed that found its rootedness in the good soil, so too may our own faith, and Aaron’s, take root in the good soil of instruction and prayer and earnest longing for Christ.  May God’s Word go forth from us and never return to God void, but instead achieve the end for which he sent it, yielding a harvest of a hundred or sixty or even thirty fold.

Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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This isn’t a rural, agricultural area – although of course, it once was.  And your preacher today is a city and suburb boy, so some of the rural and agricultural themes of today’s Scripture readings threaten to pass us by.  And that would be too bad, because these themes are at the root of our call to worship, of our need for growth in faith, and our invitation to holy recreation.  And all of these themes are perfect ones for our observance of summer.

Someone asked me recently how I was enjoying my summer, and noted that things must be slower during this time of year for me.  I thought about my schedule of weddings, complete with preparing the couples for the sacrament, I thought about the fact that we still worship all summer long, day in and day out and that we still have to give a homily, however brief, on these warm days.  I thought about the appointments I have for pastoral counseling, the projects I’m working on for the fall, and all the daily emergencies that come up.  Slower in the summer?  Not so much.

And how many of you find yourselves in similar situations?  If you have children, then you have them more in the summer, and they’re going more places and doing more things.  Working for any company these days hardly ever allows for slow seasons, since every workplace is working leaner, or even completely understaffed.  Even professions like teaching, which traditionally pause in the summer, only give people the chance to pick up summer jobs.  And with the price of gas and the difficulty of air travel, how many of us are even traveling as much as we might these days?  Slower in the summer?  Not so much.

Full disclosure here: I am just today returning from a week’s vacation with my family.  It was nice to have the time off, and I really did appreciate the opportunity to recharge.  And that’s as it should be for all of us, because there really is a need for a Sabbath.  That’s what we’ve been telling our staff these days.  We encouraged every ministry to pause during July so that we can clean the buildings, touch up the paint, wax the floors, make repairs, and even just take a break from the normal hustle and bustle of parish life.  Even the Church needs a Sabbath now and then.

From ancient times, farmers would observe a pattern of crop rotation.  They would plant soil-enriching crops a year after soil-depleting crops.  And one year they would leave the land fallow – that is, they’d leave it crop-free, so that it would have a chance to rest and re-charge.  And that’s crucial in order to avoid a field that isn’t good for anything except to harbor rocks, weeds, and thorns – all those things that prevent a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold crop.

Isaiah prophesies a time when the word of God comes down to settle on fertile ground, a ground that lets that word accomplish the end for which God sent it.  This is a ground as fertile as a field enriched by rain and snow, “making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats.”  Clearly he was thinking about that good soil that can be sown with the seeds of God’s word, that will produce that harvest of a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.  And this is the kind of soil God wants all of us to be.  We need to be fertile ground so that God’s word, sown in us, can grow up to feed multitudes.

But clearly that takes a certain care of the soil that is in us.  It has to be kept from the poison of the world: profane entertainment, relationships that kill the soul, poor use of free time, becoming embroiled in the things of the world instead of the people of the world.  That soil has to be watered with quiet time, reflection on our faith, and yes, given that fallow time, that Sabbath that allows us all to recharge.

And so this summer provides us the space for all of that.  Whether our situations provide for extended vacations, or even stay-cations, or whether we keep on going doing what we always do, we need to take time for a Sabbath.  Even if that’s fifteen minutes of quiet in an otherwise chaotic day. Worship, faith growth, and holy recreation cannot happen if we don’t take time out to let God’s word permeate our being.  We have to give the Lord time to let his word fertilize and water us, so that we can become fertile ground for anything God wants for us, or anything God wants us to do.  Because the Psalmist is right: “The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.”  Blessed are we when we pause to become that good, fertile, fruitful ground.

Saturday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

There’s an old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  And that’s fine, as far as it goes.  But the danger is that sometimes we get so attached to that principle that we fail to recognize when something is, in fact, broke.

That’s what the prophet Amos has been complaining about, isn’t it?  Today’s reading is much more conciliatory, because it comes after the punishment, after Israel had already felt the consequences of their sinfulness.  But Amos’s theme has been to prophecy against the way Israel’s leaders had been so focused on the laws that they had missed taking care of the poor, needy, oppressed, and widows and orphans.  They had convinced themselves they could cheat the poor if they just paid attention to the laws governing worship.  Their practice of their faith was, well, broke.  Only they didn’t want to fix it.

And that’s what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel: stop trying to fit everything new into the old wineskins.  God is trying to fix what’s broke, trying to do something new, only the religious authorities keep trying to make it fit with what they already saw as important, or else throw it out.  And for the disciple, that’s just not acceptable.

We do that too.  How often have you heard around the church: “but we’ve always done it that way?”  Our traditions are certainly important, but we can’t be so focused on them that we miss the movement of the Holy Spirit.  If God is trying to do something new in our lives, who are we to try to stuff it into old wineskins, old ideas of what works, old ideas of what our relationship with God must be?  When we try to do that, well, the whole life of faith just falls apart.

We have to be open minded to what God is doing in our lives.  We have to be good discerners.  We have to be open to the possibility of God doing something new in us and in our community.  We have to be ready to meet all that fresh wine with brand spankin’-new wineskins, so that God’s activity in our lives can be preserved, and our faith can be freshened.  So for those things in our lives that are, in fact, broken, let us let God fix them.

Tuesday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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You probably remember, maybe not fondly, the readings we had from the Books of Kings the last couple of weeks.  The names were hard to pronounce, and their deeds were hard to hear.  Each and every one of the kings was worse than the one who preceded him.  How often did we hear the ancient historian write “and he did evil in the sight of the LORD?”  What makes it doubly hard to hear, I think, is that Israel’s sordid history is in some ways our own.  How often do we too turn away from the Lord and his mercy and his plan for our lives?  Our deeds, hopefully, are not as murderous as those of the ancient kings, but they are still lacking, of course, in the sight of God.

And so the Lord has sent Amos to call those Israelites – and us, too – to conversion.  Amos is very hard to hear sometimes, because he calls a situation the way it is.  He doesn’t beat around the bush or soft-pedal his prophecy.  You know exactly what’s on his mind.  And poor Amos can’t do anything less.  He tells us in today’s first reading:

The lion roars—
who will not be afraid!
The Lord GOD speaks—
who will not prophesy!

For Amos, not to say what God is calling him to say is as fearful as facing the roaring lion.  And so, we are called to hear, and to reform our lives, and to follow the Lord once again.

As Amos expresses the Lord’s displeasure, it is the Psalmist who expresses the Lord’s mercy:

But I, because of your abundant mercy,
will enter your house…

We cannot make up for our sinfulness all on our own.  We need our Savior, the one who calms the storms, despite our lack of faith.  When we have messed up our lives so that we cannot see past the storm, we know that we can depend on our God who loves us back into relationship with him.  Even the violent winds and stormy seas of our own lives obey the one who gave his life for us.

Friday of the Fifteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

“There is something greater than the temple here.”

 

Jesus uses this kind of argument with the Pharisees very often, because they are always missing the significance of what Jesus is doing.  They are among those who refuse to see that a man like him could possibly be the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the One who is to come.  And so they instead continue to ponder all the tiniest implications of the Law and look out for anyone who might be living contrary to their interpretation of what the Law meant.  And since Jesus had a very different idea of the meaning of the Law, that meant he and his disciples were always running afoul of the Pharisees.

 

“There is something greater than the temple here.”

 

In today’s Gospel story, the Pharisees are supposedly defending the law that the Sabbath was a day of rest, in accordance with the Third Commandment.  What the disciples were doing though, was to provide food for their own hunger.  The disciples weren’t rich men, and so we can probably surmise that they depended on the generosity of those with means who had been touched by Jesus’ message or ministry.  The Law itself provided that grain in the fields that was not taken up by the first pass of the harvest was to be left in the field for the poor.  But the Pharisees mostly didn’t care about the poor, so they wouldn’t have seen that application.  But even worse than that, they didn’t see that Jesus was inaugurating a whole new Law – one that God always intended – one that provided for the needs of people rather than just the minutiae of the law.

 

“There is something greater than the temple here.”

 

So we have to hear this too.  Because there is always the temptation to defend the rules instead of seeing how the rules apply to people.  Even our own Canon law, with its many rules and regulations, provides that the most important part of the law is that it is to assist in the salvation of God’s people.  The law is meaningless in and of itself.  Law is there to help people on the way to salvation, to help people to know Christ, who is certainly greater than the temple, greater than the law.  And so, whenever we’re tempted to bind ourselves with our own interpretation of the law or rules of the Church, we should instead submit ourselves to the Gospel, which is the only authentic interpreter of the Law.  There is always something greater than the temple here.

 

Friday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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Today’s readings represent some of the deepest longings of the human heart, and expose one of the deepest wounds of the human heart.  The deep wound is the feeling of abandonment that we experience in the midst of trial.  Just as the Jews must have felt abandoned by God when the walls of the city fell, the Temple was burnt down, and everyone was marched off to exile in Babylon, so we can sometimes feel abandoned from time to time when we struggle with the many trials that come to us.  Whether it’s illness, death, or even a wayward family member, whether it’s unemployment or underemployment, or whatever the trial may be, it can be so devastating, and gives us the feeling that we are all alone.

It can be easy to forget God in those times when it seems like God has forgotten us.  And so the Psalmist expresses one of the deep longings of the human heart: “Let my tongue be silenced if ever I forget you!”  The Psalmist meant Jerusalem, but Jerusalem was really for them a symbol of God himself.  When people get to the place of forgetting God, all hope is really lost.  Remembering God in adversity at least gives us the light of faith, the glimmer of hope.  How people get through the hard times in life without faith, I’ll never know.  The Psalmist today desperately prays that no one would ever have to find out.

The leper in the Gospel reading expresses the second of the deep longings: “Lord if you wish, you can make me clean.”  When we have sinned and fallen from God, we often don’t know whether God would want anything to do with us.  We can feel unworthy of salvation, which of course is what Satan really wants to have happen to us.  Because when we’ve turned away from God in shame, again we lose that light of faith and that glimmer of hope.  But the answer to the Leper’s question is what we sinners all have to hear today: “I do will it.  Be made clean.”

God would rather die than live forever without us.  We have to remember that those deep longings of our heart were put there by our God who never wants us to forget him, and who desperately wills that we be made clean.  We may from time to time in our lives have to sit by the streams of Babylon and weep.  But we must never lose hope in the One who always wills our salvation.

Thursday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

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I read a quote recently that said, more or less, that you can have a relationship with anyone, but you have intimacy with relatively few people.  The evangelical call for everyone to have a relationship with Jesus Christ is, in fact, lacking.  If salvation were something magical that came about as the result of just saying a simple prayer, once and for all, then everyone would pursue a relationship with Christ.  But the fact is, salvation is hard work.  It was purchased at an incredible price by Jesus on that cross.  And for us to make it relevant in our lives, we have work to do too.  Not the kind of work that earns salvation, but the kind of work that appropriates it into our lives.

Because people who are saved behave in a specific way.  They are people who take the Gospel seriously and live it every day.  They are people of integrity that stand up for what’s right in every situation, no matter what it personally costs.  They are people of justice who will not tolerate the sexist or racist joke, let alone tolerate a lack of concern for the poor and the oppressed.  They are people of deep prayer, whose lives are wrapped up in the Eucharist and the sacraments, people who confront their own sinfulness by examination of conscience and sacramental Penance.  They are people who live lightly in this world, not getting caught up in its excess and distraction, knowing they are citizens of a heaven where such things have no permanence.  Saved people live in a way that is often hard, but always joyful.

Not everyone who claims a relationship with Christ, not everyone who cries out “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.  That’s what Jesus tells us today.  We have to build our spiritual houses on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, living as he lived, following his commandments, and clinging to him in prayer and sacrament as if our very life depended on it.  Because it does.  It does.

Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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On March 4th, in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as the thirty-second President of the United States, for the first of four terms.  As he began his presidency, the country was in economic crisis, mired as it was in the depression.  There were all kinds of concerns in the country at that time, with the economy going into some frighteningly uncharted waters.  In his Inaugural Address, he addressed those concerns head-on:

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  That one phrase – “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – became the watch phrase of his presidency and has been quoted in many terrifying situations ever since.

Sixty years later, in 1993, for the occasion of his fifteenth anniversary of elevation to the Papacy, Pope John Paul II, of blessed memory, did a series of interviews with Italian Radio that were collected into the wonderful little book Crossing the Threshold of Hope.  The first interview concerned his acceptance of the papacy in his own life.  His Holiness was asked if he ever hesitated in his acceptance of Jesus Christ and God’s will in his life.  He responded, in part:

“I state right from the outset: ‘Be not afraid!’ This is the same exhortation that resounded at the beginning of my ministry in the See of Saint Peter.  Christ addressed this invitation many times to those He met. The angel said to Mary: ‘Be not afraid!’  (cf. Lk 1:30). The same was said to Joseph: ‘Be not afraid!’ (cf. Mt 1:20). Christ said the same to the apostles, to Peter, in various circumstances, and especially after His Resurrection. He kept telling them: ‘Be not afraid!’ He sensed, in fact, that they were afraid. They were not sure if who they saw was the same Christ they had known. They were afraid when He was arrested; they were even more afraid after his Resurrection.

“The words Christ uttered are repeated by the Church. And with the Church, they are repeated by the Pope. I have done so since the first homily I gave in St. Peter's Square: ‘Be not afraid!’ These are not words said into a void. They are profoundly rooted in the Gospel. They are simply the words of Christ Himself.”  And these words – the simple three-word phrase – became the watchwords of his papacy: “Be not afraid!”

Both of these courageous men echoed the words of the Gospel that had formed them.  Roosevelt had been formed in an Episcopal boarding school whose headmaster preached the duty of Christians to help the less fortunate.  He had lived through polio.  Pope John Paul as Karol Wojtyla had lived through and beyond the Communist control of his country, buoyed as he was by his Catholic faith.  Both of them heard the same words we have in today’s Gospel, words that inspired and encouraged them, and words that they lived by:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?
Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.
Even all the hairs of your head are counted.
So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

These words echo through a world that is, at times, an extremely frightening place.  Even now, our own country faces some very uncertain times, and we are in a place we haven’t been in some time.  Wars rage on in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Relations with many other nations are strained.  Some of our traditional allies have not been able to stay with us.  Prices on everything from oil to milk are skyrocketing.  It’s hard for us to see where our society will be in the near or distant future.

Then, too, we have worries in our own lives.  So many people are facing the prospect of losing their jobs.  Unemployment is creeping to a level we haven’t seen in some years.  People are in danger of losing their homes.  Then there are the periodic worries that affect us all from time to time: illnesses suffered by ourselves or a loved one, the death of those close to us, raising children in a society that has more opportunities for danger than have been present in the past.

To all of our worries, both global and personal, the words of FDR, the words of JPII, the words of Jesus himself confront us: BE NOT AFRAID.  The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  You are worth more than so many sparrows.  Not a hair of your head goes uncounted.  God is in control.  We worry when we can’t see the big picture, or even the light at the end of the tunnel.  But the only words we need to focus on are the words our Savior shouts into the vortex of our whirlwind world today: BE NOT AFRAID.  God is in control, and his power is sufficient for any worry, global or personal.

I don’t bring you this message casually or even glibly.  I know the pain of many of these situations.  I have seen it on the faces of those I have been with in even just two years of priesthood when times are difficult.  But I continue to firmly believe that God is sufficient for our weakness, as St. Paul often tells us.  The One who can overcome the disaster of sin and death by his own sacrifice on the Cross can certainly help us through the rocky roads our lives sometimes travel through.  So be not afraid.

Jesus echoes the words that our Psalmist sings today:

“See, you lowly ones, and be glad;
you who seek God, may your hearts revive!
For the LORD hears the poor,
and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.”

God will not forget us, not even forget a hair on our heads.  We are worth more than many sparrows.  Be not afraid.

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