Monday of the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So Jesus today speaks of the “sign of Jonah.”  I think this sign could mean a couple of different things.  First, it is a direct parallel to the life of Jesus.  Just as Jonah spent three days as good as dead in the belly of the big fish before being disgorged to a new life in Ninevah, so Jesus would spend three days dead in the tomb before being resurrected to new life.

But second, this could refer to the effects of the sign of Jonah.  The Ninevites were evil people who had no idea that they should repent.  But Jonah – unwillingly of course – preached to them. And they didn’t require from him miracles and wonders. They heard his word – the word of the LORD – and reformed their ways, they straightened up their act. That’s what Jesus is extolling here. It didn’t take anything but hearing the word of the Lord for those evil Ninevites to turn to God for mercy. But the Israelites, who had in Jesus a much better sign than that of Jonah still demanded a whole side show to test his words.

What about us? What does it take for us to make a change in our lives? Has God been trying to get through to us, but we keep holding out for some kind of sign? Shame on us when we do that – and most of us do at some point. We, like the Israelites, have a wonderful sign in Jesus, and we would do well to take up our own crosses and do what the Lord asks of us.

The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Come and Rest a While

Today’s readings

I think a lot of us can identify with what’s going on in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus and the Twelve had been working hard: they had just been out on mission, proclaiming the Gospel and the Kingdom of God, casting out demons, and healing the sick.  It was hard work.  Some of it was successful, sure, but probably some of it wasn’t, because everyone probably wasn’t ready to hear what they were preaching.  So, coming back to the Teacher now, they were tired, but they were excited.  Jesus calls them together to go to an out-of-the-way place to rest a while, maybe have something to eat.  But as soon as they arrive, they find that the crowds figured it out and got there ahead of them.  The crowds clamored for Jesus’ attention, bringing to him as they always did, their needs and brokenness and pain.

If you’re a parent, that might sound familiar.  When’s the last time you had a minute to yourself, only to find out that the children have figured out where you were and needed something right now?  Or at work, you finally have five minutes to take care of your own projects, only to have a coworker come and ask for help with something they are doing?  We know the experience.  Responsibility for whatever we are charged with never really ends, no matter who we are.  We have so many things to do, we don’t have time for ourselves, for our spiritual lives, for those things that are ultimately important.

And Jesus doesn’t want it to be so.  He wants to shepherd all of us to an out-of-the-way place to rest a while, to rest in him.  He wants to feed all of us with the best of food: his own Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, that we might have strength to take care of those crowds clamoring around us for our attention.

So we have to let him.  We have to give him five minutes of our day, if we haven’t been giving him anything at all.  We have to give him a little more now, so that he can use that space to help us rest a while, to refuel, to recharge, to grow and become more.  I know that seems like pie-in-the-sky: surely, it won’t be easy.  If we can’t find five minutes for ourselves, how on earth are we going to find five minutes for Jesus?  But it is possible.  I think maybe it’s too much at the end of the day when we’re dog tired.  So we have to find another, better time.  Maybe we can get up five minutes earlier just to read a verse of Scripture and put ourselves in the presence of our Lord for the day.  Maybe at work, we can put our spiritual lives on our to-do lists, keeping a little devotional book or prayer book in our desk drawers or back pockets so that we can rest for five minutes and refocus.  It will make everything we do better.  I used to put prayer on my to-do list every day in the days before seminary when I was working at a print company.  One day I was out sick, and my co-worker who filled in for me wrote a note on the to-do list at the end of the day: “I don’t think it helped!”  But of course it did.  Prayer always gives us more than we give to it.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus can do a lot with five minutes.  In these summer days, those five minutes can be the refreshment we need to move forward in our relationship with God and with the people in our lives.  They can help us to not be resentful of what we’re called to do for others.  They can help us to give more than we think we can.   They can help us to give better than we can all on our own.  Five minutes can help us in good times and in bad.

Jesus wants to be our shepherd, spreading the table before us and making our cups overflow.  And he will if we carve open a space for him to do that in us.  Give Jesus five minutes, go to an out-of-the-way place to rest a while.

The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: It’s Not About Me

Today’s readings

Today I want to reflect on what I consider to be one of the most important principles of the spiritual life.  That principle is completely summed up in one short sentence: “It’s not about me.”

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been able to take a look at the various people who have been called to ministry throughout history.  Last week, Ezekiel was told that whatever he did, his ministry would be mostly unsuccessful.  Paul, the great teacher of our faith, was afflicted with a “thorn in the flesh” – whatever that was – and no amount of prayer could make it go away.  In today’s first reading, Amos, who is told that he is not welcome to prophesy in Israel, confesses that he is nothing but a simple shepherd and dresser of sycamores – completely ill-qualified for the role of a prophet, but nonetheless called to be one.  In today’s Gospel, the Twelve are sent out on mission to do the works that Christ himself did, and they were only to take with them the knowledge of Jesus’ teachings and their memory of what he had done among them.  They were simple men, called from their simple lives, not one of them qualified for the role they were to play, with the possible exception of Judas, and we know how that worked out, don’t we?

The point is, when we are called by our God, – and we are all called by God – it’s not about who we are or who we know or how slick our presentation is.  It’s not about what we have in our bag of tricks, or how much stuff we have.  It’s not about how developed we may think our faith life is, or how much we’ve studied theology.  Because it’s not about us at all.

I know many people, who when asked if they would become involved in some ministry or another, would say, “Oh, no, I could never do that.  I’m not qualified to do it.” There are people who always feel that others could do the job better than they can, and so others should do it and they should stay out of it.  But if we are to learn anything from the Scriptures today, we must hear that that kind of thinking is nothing but false humility.  And false humility is absolutely not virtuous!  I’m not saying we have to say “yes” to everything we’re asked to do, but I am saying that we must always prayerfully consider every opportunity, and then do what the Lord wants us to do.

So in what ways have you been called?  In today’s Gospel, Jesus sends his chosen Twelve out on mission.  They were chosen not for their spectacular abilities or any particular quality, really.  But they were chosen, called and gifted to do the work of God in the world.  So are we all.  Just as the Twelve were sent out to preach repentance, dispel demons, and cure the sick, we too are called to do those very same things.  I know you’re thinking, “really, preach, dispel demons, cure the sick – me?”  Bear with me.

You may not think of yourself as a preacher.  But you are prophetic and a preacher of repentance when you forgive a hurt or wrong, when you confess your sins and make necessary changes in your life, when you become a member of a 12-step group to deal with an addiction, or when you leave a lucrative job with a company whose business practices make you feel uncomfortable.  You are a preacher of repentance when you correct poor behavior in your children rather than place the blame on the teacher or the school.  You are a preacher of repentance when you accept constructive criticism in a spirit of humility and pray for the grace to change your life.  Preaching repentance very often does not involve words so much as actions, and we can all do that, even though it very often hurts a little.

Who are you to drive out demons? How is that even possible?  But I am here to tell you that volunteering as a catechist or a mentor in a school or a homework helper is a way to drive out the demons of ignorance.  Going to a Protecting God’s Children workshop so that children in our schools and religious educations programs will be safe is a way to drive out the demons of abuse.  When you speak out to protect the environment, you help to drive out the demons of neglect and waste.  Volunteering to be part of a pro-life group helps to drive out the demons of death and promote a culture of life, protecting the unborn and the aged and the infirm.  Working at a soup kitchen or a food pantry drives out the demons of hunger and poverty.  Helping at shelters for battered families drives out the demons of violence and isolation.  The demons at work in our world are legion, and every one of us is called to drive them out, not like “The Exorcist,” but more by our simple time and talent according to our gifts.

So how is it possible for you to cure the sick?  Every act of care for the sick is part of the Church’s ministry of healing.  You heal the sick every time you remember them in prayer, or visit them in the hospital or at home.  You heal the sick when you volunteer as a minister of care.  You heal the sick when you bring a casserole to provide dinner for a family who are so busy with sick relatives that they have little time to prepare a meal.  You heal the sick when you drive an elderly friend or neighbor to a doctor’s appointment or to do the grocery shopping, or pick them up on the way to Mass.  Healing involves so much more than just making a disease or injury go away, and all of us can be a part of healing in so many everyday ways.

We absolutely must get from today’s Scriptures that God calls everyday people to minister to others in everyday ways.  If people are to know about God’s Kingdom, we have to be the ones to proclaim it.  If people are to reform their lives, we have to be the ones to model repentance.  If people are to be released from their demons, we have to be the ones to drive them out.  And if people are to be healed from their infirmities, it is all of us who have to reach out to them with the healing power of Christ.  We who are called to live as disciples do not have the luxury of indulging ourselves in misplaced false humility.  If we and our families and our communities are to grow in faith, hope and love, we have to be the ones to show the way and encourage as many people as possible to walk in that way.

Saint Paul makes our vocation very clear in today’s second reading:

In him we were also chosen,
destined in accord with the purpose of the One
who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will,
so that we might exist for the praise of his glory,
we who first hoped in Christ. 

 It’s not about us.  We who first hoped in Christ exist for the praise of his glory.  Let it be then that we in the everyday-ness of our lives would have the courage to preach repentance, drive out demons and heal the sick.

Thursday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel is an impetus for the third Luminous Mystery of the Rosary: the proclamation of the Kingdom of God with its call to repentance.  Jesus charges his Apostles to go out and proclaim that the Kingdom is at hand, with all its accompanying signs and wonders.  We have to understand that this is the Church’s main job in every time and place.  We are now the ones who have to proclaim the Kingdom of God and call people to repentance by the witness of our lives.

We are now the ones called to drive out demons, cure the sick, and all the rest.  We do this by being Christ’s presence in a world that is sorely in need of it.  We drive out demons by casting the glorious light of Christ into every dark corner.  We cure the sick by reaching out to those who are ill, looking in on them, caring for them, bringing the Eucharist to them.

We also have to understand, though, that sometimes our efforts won’t prove fruitful.  Sometimes our peace won’t be received because the other person is not peaceful.  All we can do is do our best, offer Christ, and move on if that’s not accepted.  And we have to trust that God will give us everything we need on our journey.

Monday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I love the words of the Psalmist today: “The Lord is gracious and merciful.”

These are words that are easy for us to pray when things are going well, but maybe not so much when we’re going through rough times.  It seems like the psalmist is going through some very good times, but we have no way of knowing that.  The only key to the great hymn of praise the psalmist is singing is that he is reflecting on the wonder of creation and the mighty deeds God does in the world.  The psalmist sees wonders not just in his own place but everywhere.  He says, “The LORD is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.”  Every part of creation has been blessed by God’s goodness.  Because of this, God is to be praised not just now, but “forever and ever” and by “generation after generation.”

This fits in very nicely with Hosea’s prophecy in our first reading today.  Preaching to the Israelites in exile, he proclaims that God will change the relationship between Israel and the Lord.  That new relationship would be a spousal relationship between God and his people, in which the spouses are partners in the ongoing work of creation.  God will give Israel the ability to be faithful to God, and for His part, God will remember His faithfulness forever.  God’s great mercy and compassion are seen with abundance in the Gospel reading.  Jesus rewards the faithfulness of Jairus and the woman with the hemorrhage with miraculous healings.  Key to all of these wonderful events, in all three readings, is that God who has created us is committed to re-creating us in His love and faithfulness.

So as we approach the Eucharist today and reflect on all the mighty and wonderful things God does in our midst, may we too sing the Psalmist’s song.  May we all praise God’s name forever and ever, and proclaim his might to generation after generation.

The Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I often wonder how people get through the hard times of their lives if they don’t have faith.  We can all probably think of a time in our lives when we were sorely tested, when our lives were turned upside-down, and, looking back, we can’t figure out how we lived through it except for the grace of our faith.  During the course of my priesthood, I have been present to a lot of people who were going through times like that: whether it be illness or death of a loved one, relationship struggles, job issues, or financial struggles, or a host of other maladies.  Some of them had faith, and some who didn’t.  It was always inspirational to see how people with faith lived through their hard times, and very sad to see how many who didn’t have faith just broken when their lives stopped going well.

That’s the experience that today’s Liturgy of the Word puts before us, I think.  Let’s look at the context.  In last week’s Gospel, Jesus has cured two people miraculously.  He actually raised Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter from the dead, and he cured the hemorrhagic woman, who had been suffering for twelve years.  So both stories had occurrences of the number twelve, reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Abraham, and later the Twelve Apostles, both of which signify the outreach of God’s presence into the whole world.  So those two miraculous healings last week reminded us that Jesus was healing the whole world.

But this week, we see the exception.  This week, Jesus is in his hometown, where he is unable to do much in the way of miracles except for a few minor healings.  Why?  Because the people lacked faith.  And this is in stark contrast to last week’s healings where Jairus handed his daughter over to Jesus in faith, and the hemorrhagic woman had faith that just grasping on to the garments of Jesus would give her healing.  Faith can be very healing, and a lack of it can be stifling, leading eventually to the destruction of life.

We see that clearly in the first two readings.  First Ezekiel is told that the people he would be ministering to would not change, because they were obstinate.  But at least they’d know a prophet had been among them.  Contrast that with Saint Paul’s unyielding faith in the second reading to the Corinthian Church.  Even though he begged the Lord three times to relieve him of whatever it was that was his thorn in the flesh, he would not stop believing in God’s goodness.  Much has been said about what Saint Paul could possibly mean by this “thorn.”  Was it an illness or infirmity?  Was it a pattern of sin or at least a temptation that would not leave him alone?  We don’t know for sure, but this “thorn” makes Saint Paul’s story all the more compelling for us who have to deal with our own “thorns” in our own lives.  Saint Paul’s faith led him to be content with whatever weakness or hardship befell him, and he came to know that in his weakness, God could do more and thus make him stronger than he could be on his own. That assurance gives us hope of the same grace in our own struggles.

We people of faith will be tested sometimes; that’s when the rubber hits the road for our faith.  Knowing of God’s providence, we can be sure that he will lead us to whatever is best.  And our faith can help us to make sense of the struggles and know God’s presence in the dark places of our lives.  People of faith are tested by the storms and tempests of the world, but are never abandoned by our God.  Never abandoned.

Thursday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings Amos and Jesus are prophetic voices that we hear in our Scriptures this morning.  Unfortunately, as is often the case with prophets, neither is a welcome voice.  Amos makes it clear that he is not speaking on his own, or even because he wanted to. If it were up to him, he’d go back to being a simple shepherd and dresser of sycamore trees. But he knows that the Lord was using him to speak to Amaziah, and he had no intention of backing down. In today’s Gospel, Jesus could have cured the paralytic with one touch and without much fanfare. But that wasn’t what he was there to do. He was there to preach forgiveness of sins by the way he healed the paralyzed person. Jesus used that simple situation of healing to be a prophetic voice in the world, saying to everyone present that real healing only comes about through the forgiveness of sins.That unnamed, gender-unspecified paralyzed person could be you or me today, or someone we’ll meet during this day. Who among us is not paralyzed by sin in some way? To whatever extent we are the ones in need of healing, may we all hear the prophetic voice of Jesus saying to us: “Your sins are forgiven. Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.”

Saint Thomas the Apostle

Today’s readings

You know, sometimes I think we don’t know what we believe until we’re called upon to explain it.  Especially for those of us who are “cradle Catholics” – the ones who were baptized Catholic and have grown up in the faith all our lives.  We often just accept the things the Church teaches, and never really stop to question them.  And that’s okay, but it’s also okay when we’re called upon to explain our beliefs, if we have to do a little research.  Because there’s always more to learn, and there is always more believing to be done!

“Do not be unbelieving, but believe” is what Jesus tells St. Thomas today.  He might as well say that to all of us.  Because we should never stop exploring our beliefs, never stop learning about our faith.  We’ll never know it all anyway – at least not on this side of heaven.  On that great day when everything is revealed, things will be different, but until then, we have to renew that call to “not be unbelieving, but believe!”

I once had a couple preparing for marriage in my office.  The bride was not Catholic, but they are preparing to have their wedding in the Catholic Church, so they of course were going through our marriage preparation program.  The groom remarked when we met that day that “this might sound bad, but I’ve been learning more about the faith in explaining it to her.”  I told him that didn’t sound bad at all, and that moments like that are an opportunity for us to grow in faith.  So many spouses of people going through RCIA have said the same thing: they learn as much as their non-Catholic spouse when the attend RCIA with them.  Learning about our faith is a life-long, joy-filled process.  Do not be unbelieving, but believe!

And so we are going to give poor Thomas the doubter a break today.  Because we all need to grow in our faith.  And what a wonderful invitation we have from our Lord: “Do not be unbelieving, but believe!”

The Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Our readings today, I think, are very poignant and to the point.  As a pastor, I see a lot of suffering, and it breaks my heart when my parishioners are going through hard times.  Whether those hard times are brought about by death or sickness, or by relationship problems, or by poverty or job circumstances, or whatever it is, those hard times can be a real test of faith. The very first words of today’s Liturgy of the Word reach out and grab us: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.”  And perhaps we already knew that.  Perhaps we know that God does not intend our death or our suffering, but the really hard thing for us is that he permits it.  Why is that?  Why would God permit his beloved ones to suffer so much here on earth? This is one of those sticky questions that sometimes make people doubt their faith.

When I was in seminary, I worked as a fire chaplain the last couple of years.  We were called out one wintry night, just before Christmas break, to speak to some medics who had extracted a nine-year old child from a badly mangled car, only to have the child die on the way to the hospital.  These medics were from a neighboring fire department, so we didn’t know them, and I didn’t have too much hope that the conversation would go well. But, to my surprise, these men did open up and expressed the frustration they felt.  One of the men was Catholic and he was the one who had the task of extracting the child from the car.  His enduring question was, why did this innocent child have to suffer and die?  It was a long evening of conversation that really centered around faith that provided some consolation, although it could never really erase their sadness.

Which brings us to today’s Gospel.  Two people reach out in very different ways to end suffering and provide healing.  One is a man, who approaches Jesus and falls at his feet, begging the teacher to heal his daughter.  The other is a woman, who dares not make herself known, who sneaks up behind Jesus to touch his clothing.  The situations were different, but what unites them is their faith.  They have faith that reaching out to Jesus in their own way will bring them the healing they desire.

And there was a pretty serious leap of faith involved for the hemorrhaging woman.  Touch was her enemy.  She had suffered much at the hands of many doctors.  Not only have their ministrations failed to heal her, but they have also left her penniless.  And to touch anyone in her state of ritual impurity makes them ritually unclean too.  So she is totally marginalized: she is a woman in a patriarchal society, afflicted by an enduring and debilitating illness, she has no money to take care of herself, and she is unable to be part of the community or participate in worship.  Things could not have been worse.  Finding the courage to reach out to Jesus, even in her impure state, she is healed by her faith.

Now please note that that same faith was lacking in the people who were attending to Jairus’s daughter.  Even if they believed that Jesus could cure her illness, she is now dead, and so his assertion that she is merely “sleeping” meets with ridicule and scorn.  So Jesus has to throw out the faithless ones so that they would no longer be an obstacle.  The child cannot reach out to Jesus so he reaches out to her, taking her hand, and raising her up.

So it’s as simple as that.  An act of faith on the part of the hemorrhaging woman and the synagogue official provide healing and restore life. But how realistically does that match our experience?  I am guessing that those medics threw up a prayer or two in addition to all of the life-saving actions they performed on that nine-year old when he was in the ambulance with them, but the boy still died.  How many of us have prayed faithfully, constantly, only to be met by seemingly deaf ears?  We don’t even have the same opportunity as Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman.  We can’t reach out and touch Jesus in the flesh.  So I would never stand here and tell you that one simple act of faith is all it takes to make all your problems go away.  I always say that faith is not a magic wand.

But I will also say this: as I have walked with people who have suffered, those who have reached out to Jesus in faith have not gone unrewarded.  Maybe their suffering continued in some way, or even in some cases got worse, but in Christ they found the strength to walk through it with dignity and find peace.  Maybe Jesus won’t always stop the bleeding of our hurts and inadequacies and woundedness.  But through his own blood, he will always redeem us.  We who are disciples need to make those acts of faith if we are to live what we believe.  For those medics I spent the evening with, the conversation of faith didn’t bring the boy back, but it did provide them with healing and peace and a sense that in God’s time, all would be made right.

I am struck by the Eucharistic imagery at the end of today’s Gospel.  Jesus comes to the home of Jairus and finds his daughter asleep in death.  He reaches out to her, touches her, and raises her up.  Then he instructs those around her to give her something to eat.  We gather for this Eucharistic banquet today and Jesus comes to us, finding us asleep in the death of our sins.  Because we are dead in our sins, we can hardly reach out to touch our Lord, but he reaches out to us.  He takes our hands, raises us up, and gives us something to eat.

We come to the Eucharist today with our lives in various stages of grace and various stages of disrepair.  At the Table of the Lord, we offer our lives and our suffering and our pain.  We bring our faith, wherever we are on the journey, and reach out in that faith to touch the body of our Lord.  We approach the Cup of Life, and whatever emptiness is in us is filled up with grace and healing love, poured out in the blood of Christ.  As we go forth, glorifying the Lord by our lives this day, all of our problems may very well stay with us, remaining unresolved at least to our satisfaction.  Our suffering and pain may very well be with us still.  But in our faith, perhaps they can be transformed, or at least maybe we can be transformed so that we can move through that suffering and pain with dignity and find peace.  And as we go forth, perhaps we can hear our Lord saying to us the same words he said to the woman with the hemorrhage: go in peace, your faith has saved you.

Saint Irenaeus, bishop and martyr

When a person faces opposition from erroneous ideology, there is a difference between refutation or winning an argument and correction. It might even be fair to say that many people are up to the task of winning an argument, but it takes a saint to be content with correction. This subtle difference is one that Saint Irenaeus knew quite well.

Irenaeus was a student, well trained, no doubt, with great patience in investigating, tremendously protective of apostolic teaching, but prompted more by a desire to win over his opponents than to prove them in error. Irenaeus did major work in responding to the Gnostic heresy. Gnostics claimed access to secret knowledge imparted by Jesus to only a few disciples, and their teaching was attracting and confusing many Christians. After thoroughly investigating the various Gnostic sects and their “secret,” Irenaeus showed to what logical conclusions their tenets led. These he contrasted with the teaching of the apostles and the text of Holy Scripture, giving us, in five books, a system of theology of great importance to subsequent times. Moreover, his work, widely used and translated into Latin and Armenian in his day, gradually ended the influence of the Gnostics.

Saint Irenaeus was concerned with protecting the truth. But more than that, he was zealous about teaching the truth so that people would turn away from harmful errors. All of us are expected to stand up for the truth too, in our own way, among those people God has placed us. The simplest way to do that is to live the truth and to be people of integrity. Our witness goes a long way to teaching the truth and winning people over to the Gospel, which is way more important than simply proving others wrong and making them look foolish. Through the intercession of Saint Irenaeus, may we all gain many souls for the glory of the Kingdom of God.