The Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I really don’t have a green thumb, but for a while when I was young, I was very interested in growing things. My grandmother on my dad’s side had quite the green thumb: anything she planted grew to be quite prolific.  I have whatever the opposite of that is! But still, I have always been fascinated by things growing from tiny little seeds to become large plants; no matter if they become beautiful flowers to decorate the landscape, or delicious vegetables to bring to the table.

It’s really a miracle when you think about it.  This tiny little dried-up thing looks for all the world to be useless and dead.  But when it gets planted in the earth, and watered by the rains, new life springs forth from it, and a tiny sprout appears, which grows day by day to become a fully mature plant by the summertime. Sure, we or the farmers might do a little work to nurture it and water it and keep the weeds and rabbits away, but we don’t make the plant grow: day by day, almost imperceptibly, growth happens.

And this is the image that Jesus uses today to describe the Kingdom of God.  These parables are a lens through which we are to see life: the life of God, and our life, and how they all come together.  And it’s – I think – an encouraging message that we hear today. Today, our Lord assures us that the Kingdom of God doesn’t come about all at once, in great power and glory, or in some kind of dramatic explosion.  The Kingdom is like those crops that grow to be fully mature plants and yield a harvest, but it happens little by little, almost imperceptibly, always growing, but we know not how.  And the Kingdom is miraculous like a mustard seed which one day is the tiniest of all seeds and eventually becomes a large plant that gives shelter to the birds of the air.

Here’s why I think these parables are so encouraging.  Because we all want to be part of the Kingdom of God.  We all want to grow in our faith.  We all want that faith to sustain us in good times and bad, and eventually lead us to heaven.  That’s why we’re here today.  But the truth is, if you’re like me, you get frustrated sometimes because it doesn’t seem like there’s any real growth going on.  We commit the same sins despite our firmest resolve.  We take one step forward and two steps back.  But still, like the seed scattered on the land, being here in church today isn’t nothing.  Our prayers, however lacking they may seem to be, are still a manifestation of our desire to be in relationship with God.  And God takes those tiny seeds of faith and waters them with grace and the sacraments and the life of the Church, until one day, please God, our faith makes a difference in our lives and the lives of those around us.  And whatever we start with in the life of faith may be as tiny as a mustard seed, but in God’s hands, it can become that shrub that is a shelter for those who are flying around in life from one thing to the next, without any real hope except for Christ in us.

We may not be perfect yet, friends, but we’re graced.  And grace will perfect whatever we sow and make our tiny little beginnings into great things, all for the Kingdom of God.

Saturday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the most vivid Church memories I have was of a friend who was making final vows as a Benedictine many years ago now. It was a very beautiful Mass, but what really stood out so vividly to me was that, while the assembly sang the Litany of the Saints and my friend lie prostrate before the altar, the abbot and some other monks placed the funeral pall over him.  This symbolized that he had “died” to his former life, in order to take up his new life in service to Christ.

So when we hear today’s first reading about Elijah placing his cloak over Elisha, it calls that memory to mind.  Elisha knew immediately what the action meant: he had been called to serve as prophet to succeed Elijah.  So after protesting he was not ready, he immediately set out to put to death everything in his life that held him back: he slaughtered his oxen and burned the plowing equipment to cook their flesh to feed his people. Then he freely left it all behind to serve God.

We too have, at some point, the mantle placed upon us.  Whatever our calling is, it involves a death to whatever has come before so that we can freely serve in whatever way God is calling us.  For most, it won’t be quite so dramatic, but there is that death. For example, for those getting married, it’s a death to the single life so that they can serve their spouse in love and fidelity.  We have to be ready to die to whatever holds us back from fulfilling God’s call, so that we can pray with the Psalmist today, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.”

Friday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We know a little of the back story on our first reading, because we’ve been hearing it this week. You recall that Elijah has just come from soundly defeating all of the pagan “prophets” of Baal, which was very embarrassing to King Ahab and especially to Queen Jezebel, who vowed to take Elijah’s life in retaliation. So he has been hiding out in a cave, not for protection from inclement weather, but for protection from those who sought his life. In the midst of this, God asks Elijah why he is here. Elijah explains that the people of Israel have been unfaithful and have turned away from God, not listening to Elijah’s preaching, and they have put all the other legitimate prophets to death. Elijah alone is left.

So God says that he will be “passing by” which in biblical language means that God will be doing a “God thing.” God will be revealing his presence. And so we have the story: there is a mighty wind, an earthquake and even fire. But Elijah only recognizes the Lord’s presence in the tiny whispering sound. After everything that had happened to him, mighty wind, an earthquake and a fire were just more of the same. But when there was that tiny whispering sound, Elijah heard the Lord speaking to him loud and clear. Then and there he receives instruction on how to move forward.

In our own prayer lives, it’s good to be attentive to the tiny whispering sound. We too have a noisy life – not because we are running from our enemies like Elijah, but more because we have created enemies to a recollected life. The television, the phone, the tablet, the computer, all of that and more vie for our attention in every moment. And then we lament that we can’t hear God’s direction, can’t figure out what it is we’re supposed to do in this situation or that.

In my own life, I have created a little space in my room for a prayer altar. It has my bible, a Crucifix, an icon of Jesus the Teacher, a statue of Saint Patrick, one of the Blessed Virgin one of Saint Joseph, one of Saint Michael the Archangel, and a candle. Now, when I want to hear the Lord, I can turn off everything, settle into a chair, and reflect. And the Lord has been speaking, was all along to be honest. Just now I’ve created a space, like Elijah’s cave, where I can hear him. God is always doing a “God thing” among us. We just have to make it our care to notice.

Thursday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sometimes the Gospel just makes good common sense.  Today, the Gospel expands on the Golden Rule, something we should all have learned when we were very little.  As my grandmother used to say, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.  But actually what Jesus is telling us today goes a bit deeper even than that.  Jesus equates the hatred in our hearts with outright murder.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes up this theme from this very Gospel reading: “Deliberate hatred is contrary to charity. Hatred of the neighbor is a sin when one deliberately wishes him evil. Hatred of the neighbor is a grave sin when one deliberately desires him grave harm. ‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.’” (CCC, 2303)

Today might be a good time for us to examine our consciences for sins against the fifth commandment.  Jesus says that these include murder and abortion, certainly.  But also hatred, vengeance and anger.  This might be a good time for us to call to mind those we have yet to forgive, and to pray for the grace to forgive them.  Or at least the grace to want to forgive them.  This might be a good time for us to look deep within us and ferret out any traces of racism, which is simply hatred directed at a certain group or race.  Casual racist jokes and stereotyping are evidence of a hatred that may be buried deep within us that comes out in inappropriate ways.  Today’s Gospel even hints that gossip, backbiting, and sarcasm directed at a brother or sister in Christ is an attitude that detracts from the dignity of another’s life and has no place in the heart or mind of the disciple.

“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says to us today.  Our witness to the life and dignity of the human person must be absolutely above reproach, or our witness for life is a sham.  And worse than that, we will have opted out of the Kingdom of heaven.

Saint Barnabas, Apostle

Today’s readings

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”

Saint Barnabas, a Jew of Cyprus, was not one of the original Twelve, but is honored as an apostle because of his work of evangelization in the early Church.  He was closely associated with Saint Paul (he introduced Paul to Peter and the other apostles) and served as a kind of mediator between Paul, formerly a persecutor of Christians, and the still suspicious Jewish Christians.

When a Christian community developed at Antioch, Barnabas was sent as the official representative of the Church of Jerusalem to incorporate them into the fold.  He and Paul taught in Antioch for a year, after which they took relief contributions to Jerusalem.

We see in today’s first reading that Saints Paul and Barnabas had become accepted in the community as charismatic leaders who led many to convert to Christianity.  The Holy Spirit set them apart for Apostolic work and blessed their efforts with great success.

Above all, these men hungered and thirsted for righteousness, a righteousness not based on the law or any merely human precept, but instead on a right relationship with God.  Just as they led many people then to that kind of relationship with God through their words and actions, so their witness calls us to follow that same kind of right relationship today.

As we celebrate the Eucharist today, we might follow their call to righteousness by examining our lives in light of the Beatitudes.  How willing are we to enter into poverty of spirit, work for peace and justice and pursue righteousness?  Blessed are we who follow the example of Saint Barnabas and blessed are we who benefit from his intercession.

The Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Where are you?

Today’s readings

Where are you?

This is the question God asked Adam and Eve early on in our first reading today.  And for them, the answer to the question was that they were not in an especially good place.  We know the story: God had given them everything they need to live in the Garden of Eden, instructing them that the only thing they could not do was eat from the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden.  The fall was already at work in them even then, because they found that the one thing they were not permitted to do was the one thing they wanted to do more than anything, and so they give into the seductive suggestions of the serpent and eat the fruit anyway.

They soon find that they cannot hide from their sin: they are naked in the garden, and the sin is apparent, and so they do what fallen human beings have done ever since: they try to hide from God.  Which would certainly be easy to do if God did not create man and woman out of love for them.  But he did that, and continued to seek relationship with them, and so he asks the question, the answer to which he certainly knows: “Where are you?”

Explaining that they had found their nakedness, the weight of their sin is apparent.  They desired something more than they desired God. That’s what sin is.  And what ensues is the first recorded instance of “passing the buck:” the man blames the woman (and also blames God for putting the woman in the garden with him in the first place), the woman blames the serpent. So it has gone ever since: we desire something more than God, that sinful desire drags us down, we try to hide from God, and when we can’t, we blame someone else.  Sin has entered the world and now darkens it in ways that are heartbreaking.

Where are you?

If you’re not seeing the face of God in your life; if you find yourself desiring something more than you desire God and the blessings God is giving you, it’s likely you’re not in a very good place right now.  Maybe we have just lost track of where we are, who we are and where we should be going.  Maybe we just plod along, very busy, very scattered by the rush and routine.  Or maybe, like Adam, we are hiding out, afraid to face or deal with something that needs addressing.

But that’s no way for us to live our lives, friends.  God made us out of love, made us for love, made us to love, and he pursues us no matter how far we have wandered or to what depth we have fallen.  If we come clean with God, name our sin and refuse to blame someone else, we can have forgiveness, we can have mercy.  We can have God.

That “unforgiveable sin” of which our Gospel seeks is exactly the kind of thing that got us into trouble in the first place.  It’s not something we’ve said or done to someone else, or even to God, but instead hiding from God and not wanting his mercy.  It’s like having a world-class chef offer you a sumptuous meal, but refusing to eat it because you don’t want to sit down with him and eat, so you go away hungry.  If you refuse God’s mercy because you don’t want his grace to change your life, you go away unforgiven.  You sin against the Holy Spirit.  It’s not that God won’t forgive, it’s that we don’t want to let God change our nakedness.

Where are you?

In these summer months, sometimes our routine changes.  Maybe there isn’t that constant daily hustle of getting the kids to school and then practices and activities and all the other things that make life crazy. Perhaps there’s a little leisure time, maybe even a vacation that provides a little more room for us to reflect on our lives and where we are and where we are going.  This is the time to see our lives for what they are, and come humbly to our God if we have been hiding.

Sin is not who we are, sin is not part of human nature.  Sin has certainly entered our world and we have to deal it in our daily lives, but it cannot ever define us unless we let it.  Jesus was the most perfect example of human nature, completely free from sin. We can approach that glory when we stop hiding ourselves from God, when we let God into our lives, and when we let his grace change us into what we were created for.  We are better than our sins.  God doesn’t ever stop pursuing us in love.  All we have to do is answer his call and say, “I’m right here, God. Standing before you in need of your mercy.  Pleading for your grace.  Wanting you and what you want for me more than anything.  I’m right here.”  Maybe we can make that our prayer today.  I know it’s going to be mine.

Where are you?

Thursday of the Ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Truth is quite a topic these days. Mostly because people choose to define truth in any way that suits them. Absolute truth is taken to be authoritarianism and it’s the real death of any kind of conversation that would lead to conversion. It’s the kind of thing where some people might dote on their pets and go to great lengths to cure their illnesses, yet they would be okay with abortion. When we allow ourselves to accept moral relativism, then any thing goes. Yet it is absolute truth that is at the center of today’s Liturgy of the Word.

Saint Paul exhorts his friend Timothy to be scrupulously careful to teach and defend the truth – “without deviation,” as he says at the end of today’s first reading. And we have to be that scrupulous in teaching truth, because the Truth is Christ. If we persevere in the Truth, we shall reign with Christ, but if we deny him he will deny us. Being denied by Christ our mediator and Savior is tantamount to eternal death. That’s what comes from deviating from the Truth.

Jesus brings the Truth to life in the Gospel reading by presenting us with the basis of all Christian life: love of God and love of neighbor. This is the Truth, it is the basis of the Gospel, it is the summation of all the law and the prophets, which is what the scribe was seeking of Jesus. If we accept this truth, we too will not be far from the Kingdom of God.

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate with great joy one of the most wonderful feasts on our Church calendar, the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.  Through this greatest of all gifts, we have been made one with our God who loves his people beyond all imagining.  We experience this love in perhaps one of the most basic ways of our human existence, which is to say by being fed.  Learning to satisfy our hunger is one of the first things we learn; we learn who we can depend on and develop close relationships with those people.  Today’s feast brings it to a higher level, of course.  The hunger we’re talking about is not mere physical hunger, but instead a deep inner yearning, a hunger for wholeness, for relatedness, for intimate union with our God.  This is a hunger that we all have, and despite our feeble attempts to do otherwise, it cannot be filled with anything less than God.

What we see in our God is one who has always desired deep union with his people.  Salvation began with the creation of the whole world, the saving of Noah and those on the ark, the covenant made with Abraham, the ministry of the prophets, and ultimately culminated in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world.  God never lost interest in his creation; he didn’t set the world in motion and then back off to leave everything to its own devices.  God has time and again intervened in human history, offering us an olive branch, seeking renewal of our relationship with him, and bringing us back no matter how far we have fallen.

God has repeatedly sought to have a covenant with us.  Eucharistic Prayer IV beautifully summarizes God’s desire. It says: “You formed man in your own image and entrusted the whole world to his care, so that in serving you alone, the Creator, he might have dominion over all creatures. And when through disobedience he had lost your friendship, you did not abandon him to the domain of death.  For you came in mercy to the aid of all, so that those who seek might find you.  Time and again you offered them covenants and through the prophets taught them to look forward to salvation.”  And unlike human covenants, which have to be ratified by both parties, and are useless unless both parties agree and commit to them, the covenant offered by God is effective on its face.  God initiates the covenant, unilaterally, out of love for us.  Our hardness of heart, our sinfulness, our constant turning away from the covenant does not nullify that covenant.  God’s grace transcends our weakness, God’s zealous love for us and constant pursuit of us is limitless.

Today’s Liturgy of the Word shows us the history of the covenant.  The first reading recalls the covenant God made with the Israelites through the ministry of Moses.  The people agree to do everything the Lord commanded, and Moses seals the covenant by sprinkling the people with the blood of the sacrifice and saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.”  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews makes the point that if the blood of sacrificed animals can bring people back in relationship with God, how much more could the blood of Christ draw back all those who have strayed.  Christ is the mediator of the new covenant, as he himself said in the Gospel: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.”

And so we, among the many, benefit from Christ’s blood of the covenant.  The preface for the Eucharist Prayer today says, “As we eat his flesh that was sacrificed for us, we are made strong, and, as we drink his Blood that was poured out for us, we are washed clean.”  God’s desire for covenant with us cannot be stopped by sin or death or the grave because his grace is mightier than all of that.

We disciples are called then to respond to the covenant.  Having been recipients of the great grace of God’s love, we are called to live the covenant in our relationships with others.  Which isn’t always the easiest thing to do.  Sometimes people test our desire to be in covenant with them; sometimes they don’t even want to be in covenant with us.  But the model for our relationships with others is the relationship God has with us.  And so sometimes we have to unilaterally extend the covenant, even if the other isn’t willing, or doesn’t know, that we care for them.  God wants to offer the covenant to everyone on earth, and he may well be using us to extend the covenant to those he puts in our path.

We do this in so many ways.  Here at Saint Mary’s, one of the important ways we do that is through the Interfaith Food Pantry which serves so many families each month.  Often food pantry donations dwindle in the summer when we are thinking about other things, or are away on vacation.  But the need for their ministry does not change.  One important way that we can extend the covenant of grace that we have received is to feed the hungry.  I would like to invite all of you to think about a donation of food for the poor the next time you do your grocery shopping.  It will go a long way to helping needy families through the summer months.

God’s covenant with us is renewed every day, and celebrated every time we come to receive Holy Communion. When we receive the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we are renewed in the covenant, strengthened in grace and holiness, and brought nearer to our God who longs for us.  We who are so richly graced can do no less than extend the covenant to others, helping them too to know God’s love for them, feeding them physically and spiritually.

The Psalmist asks today, “How shall I make a return to the LORD for all the good he has done for me?”  And the answer is given: by taking up the chalice of salvation, drinking of God’s grace, renewing the covenant, and passing it on to others.  May the Body and Blood of Christ keep us all safe for eternal life!

Saturday of the Eighth Week of Ordinary Time: My Soul is Thirsting

Today’s readings

Jude, perhaps the relative of Jesus and James (not James the apostle!), writes some words of exhortation in today’s first reading. He calls on his hearers to build themselves up in the faith, and show that by extending mercy and correction to sinners.  All of this is a development, of course, of the Law, in the spirit of the Gospel.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus tangles with the keepers of the Law again, those chief priests, scribes and elders who were more zealous for the Law’s minutiae than for actually keeping its spirit.  It’s a problem that developed over time for the Jews: those who kept the law, they felt, are chosen and blessed by God and are indeed God’s chosen people. So much of the Old Testament is devoted to the Law: the giving of it, the interpretation of it, singing the praises of it, and well, the breaking of it.  If the Scriptures show us anything, they show us how our ancestors in faith were people who fell short of keeping the law – wonderful as it was – time and time again.

But did that lack of faithfulness remove from them the great promises of God?  No, of course not.  God intervened in history often to bring his people back and to help them to realize that the Law was for their benefit and helped them to become a holy nation, a people set apart.  God in justice could certainly have turned his back on them, but in his mercy, God didn’t.

Instead, in the fullness of time, God sent his only Son to be our Redeemer.  He paid the price we so richly deserved for our lack of faithfulness.  His death not only paid the price but also freed God’s people from the bonds of the Law if they would but believe in Jesus Christ.  That’s why Jesus chose not to quarrel with the chief priests, the elders and the scribes in today’s Gospel reading.  He knew that keeping the Law was something that could only be accomplished by God’s mercy, and they refused to acknowledge that.  So they would never come to believe in the Gospel he was preaching.

But we do.   And we are invited to renew our love for God’s Law. Yes, we have been delivered from it, but that Law is still the joy of our hearts.  Because following God’s ways leads us to his truth, and his truth leads us to his salvation.  That is why we can rejoice with the Psalmist today by saying, My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.

Memorial Day

Today’s readings: Isaiah 32:15-18, Philippians 4:6-9, Matthew 5:1-12a

Memorial Day originally began in our country as an occasion to remember and decorate the graves of the soldiers who died in the Civil War.  Later it became a holiday to commemorate all those who had died in war in the service of our country.  This continues to be the main focus of Memorial Day, but I think this day has also become a day of remembering what we are about as a nation, and what it is that we have thought appropriate to live and die for.  Today is above all a time to remember; that is what brings us to our parish’s cemetery today.

One of the aspects of human nature is that we tend to look for heroes.  People we can look up to, who have buoyed our spirits in difficult times, who have turned our attention to the best parts of our humanity.  These are the people we wish to emulate, the people who bring us hope in a darkened world.  These heroes may be our loved ones or people in our communities who have done great things.  People who have sacrificed for the good of others.

On this day we especially look to those who have been heroes in war.  People who have given their lives for peace, justice, and righteousness.  The beatitudes that we just heard in the Gospel proclaim them blessed: blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are they that are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.  We have heard these before, but it’s so important that we hear that these people are blessed, these people are true heroes because of what they sacrifice and stand for and fight for.

I want to be careful not to glorify warfare.  I think our Church’s teachings counsel that war is not the way to peace and that developed societies like ours can and must use our resources to seek other ways to solve problems.  And I think that very many war heroes would give us a similar caution.  But I certainly acknowledge that there are and have been times in our nation’s history that have called on good people to fight for our freedoms and to fight for justice.  As John F. Kennedy once said, “The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it.  And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender, or submission.”   Today we honor the memory of those who have paid the price with immense gratitude, because without their sacrifice we might not enjoy the blessings we have today.

Those who have been part of our lives, and the life of our country, who have been people of faith and integrity are the heroes that God has given us.  These are the ones who have been poor in spirit, who have mourned, who have been meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, peacemaking, and all the rest.  If we would honor them on this Memorial Day, we should believe as they have believed, we should live as they have lived, and we should rejoice that their memory points us to our Savior, Jesus Christ, who is our hope of eternal life.