23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time: Ephatha!

Today’s readings

A shortened homily today because of a witness talk being given by our teens, on behalf of those preparing for Confirmation.

To those of us with good hearing and the ability to speak clearly, today’s Gospel seems like just a nice story. Jesus takes the deaf man who had a speech impediment, and touches him and cures him. The first word the man ever hears is the miraculous word, Ephatha, or “be opened.” This opens a whole new world to this man who had been shut out because he could not hear or speak. And even though Jesus urges everyone to be silent about the miracle, there is no way to stop the cured man from singing praise and telling the whole story.

But, as my teachers used to say when I was little, there are two kinds of deafness. There’s the kind we just heard about in the Gospel, and then there is the deafness of those who refuse to hear. If we’re honest, there’s probably a little of that kind of deafness in all of us. There are all sorts of things we refuse to hear, or just don’t want to hear about. We may refuse to hear the needs of those closest to us, preferring to remain in the deafness of our own selfishness. Or we may choose not to hear the voices of those who are poor, those who are victims of wars and all kinds of injustice, those who are unjustly deprived of their freedoms. In this case, we prefer to remain in the deafness of our own self-righteousness.

Just as there are two kinds of deafness, so there are also two kinds of muteness. Some may be like the man in the Gospel, who have difficulties with everyday speech. Or perhaps we live in our own kind of muteness: a muteness that will not speak to teach the faith our children, preferring to leave that to the professionals. Or maybe it’s a muteness that will not speak out on behalf of those suffering from all kinds of injustice, preferring to leave that to the government.

An honest look at ourselves can reveal all kinds of deafness and muteness in us. To all of that, may we hear the words of Christ speak clearly to us today: Ephatha – be opened! May the deafness of our selfishness and self-righteousness be turned into the joy of hearing everything with clarity. May the muteness of our fear be turned into the freedom to speak out so that all might know the Gospel. That Ephatha word of healing was intended for us every bit as much as the man in today’s Gospel reading. May we today hear that word and be healed by it.

The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings [Mass for the school children:]

In a town called Nazareth in Galilee, a long time ago, Mary lived with her parents, Joachim and Ann. Mary was only a young girl, maybe 14 years old. She came from a quiet little area of the world, and just looking at them, you’d have to say nothing about her family was very special. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, because that was when people got married in those days, but she wasn’t married yet.

She was busy doing her chores one day, when she was surprised by the appearance of an angel named Gabriel. She was frightened, but Gabriel reassured her and told her that the Lord was with her. He told her not to be afraid, because God wanted her to be the mother of his Son Jesus. Jesus would become great and would rule over the kingdom of Israel forever. Mary was confused how she could have a baby, because she was not married, but the angel reassured her that all things are possible with God. She was amazed, but she had faith, and said to the angel, “Let it happen as you have said.”

Mary sang a hymn proclaiming how great God was, and went in haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also going to have a baby, even though she was old. When she got there, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy, and Elizabeth said, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” Mary helped Elizabeth for three months and returned home.

Joseph, the man Mary was engaged to, heard from the angel too. He came to be with her and took her into the city of David for the census, so that they could be counted. On the way, Mary gave birth to her baby, and had Jesus in a manger where the animals stayed. Many people came to visit Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and gave the baby gifts and said wonderful things about him, things Mary would never forget. She kept all of this very close to her in her heart.

Mary and Joseph raised Jesus and watched him become a strong, healthy, and smart young man. One time, when the family went to Jerusalem for a visit to the holy temple, Jesus got lost. They were on the way home when they discovered Jesus wasn’t with them or any of their friends or family. Returning to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple, talking about their faith, with all of the rabbis and teachers. He was only twelve years old!

Eventually Joseph died, and Mary stayed near Jesus. She watched him start his ministry, the whole reason God had sent him to earth in the first place. He called his disciples and taught all the people. He cured the sick and fed many hungry people. He worked many miracles and always talked about how good God was, and how much God loved people, and how they should all turn back to God and turn away from the bad things they had been doing. Mary watched as he did all these wonderful things, and she saw how faithful he was to God’s work.

But Mary also began to see that Jesus wasn’t making everybody happy. She saw that when he cured people on the day of rest, the leaders of the temple became angry. She saw that when Jesus told them to take care of the poor and the hungry and the homeless instead of worrying about what day it was, the religious leaders wanted to kill him. Mary watched as eventually they did take hold of Jesus, carried him off for a trial before Pilate the governor, and nailed him to the cross.

At the foot of the cross, Mary stood sorrowful, knowing what a wonderful gift she and the whole world had been given in Jesus. But Jesus took care of Mary even then, and entrusted her to the care of his friend John. After Jesus died on the cross, Mary along with some of the other women in the group were the first ones to see that Jesus rose from the dead! Mary stayed with the other disciples and prayed with them that the whole world would come to know the message of Jesus. Her sorrow turned to joy as she watched the community grow and live the things Jesus had taught them.

Those disciples were the ones who passed the faith on to us. Because of the courage of the disciples and especially of Mary, we today can believe in Jesus and receive the gift of everlasting life from him. Because of the faith of Mary, we can live forever with God and never have to be afraid of death or be mastered by sin. All of this happened because Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant! Let it happen as you have said.”

It is good for us to hear this story about Mary at the beginning of our new school year. As we listen to this story, we can see that faith changes everything. When we have faith that God will save us, we can grow as disciples in faith, hope and love.

We can grow in faith by coming to Mass ready to hear the Word of the Lord and ready to pray and, for those of you who are old enough, ready to receive the body of Jesus. We can grow in faith by praying every day and remembering the needs of everyone who has asked us to pray for them. We can grow in faith by remembering that even though there may be some scary things ahead of us in the new school year, God will take care of them and make this year a time of wonder.

We can grow in hope by refusing to be caught up in the things that can drag us down. We will grow in hope by doing our schoolwork well, by studying hard, by being good citizens, and by helping other students who need it. We will grow in hope when we refuse to join others who are picking on a person and stand up for them. All of this makes our school and our world a more hopeful place.

We can grow in love when we reach out to the poor and needy. Maybe as a class we will do some service project to show God’s love to the world. We can grow in love by taking the time to tell our families the wonderful things we have learned at the end of the day, and to thank them and God for the opportunity to attend such a wonderful school.

It’s very important that we all hear that just as God sent an angel to Mary, he sends angels to us all the time. Those angels tell us, too, that we should not be afraid because God loves us and cares for us and wants to do great things with us, just like he did with Mary. All he needs for us to do is to say, “I am the Lord’s servant! Let it happen as you have said.”

Thursday of the 22nd Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Wisdom is a relative thing when it comes to our relationship with God. Just when we think we have God figured out, we realize that God is out of our grasp. Wisdom, when it comes to our relationship with God, is to realize that we will never understand. In fact, St. Augustine said, “If you think you understand, it’s not God.” So that is how we should understand St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “God catches the wise in their own ruses, and again: The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.” Those who think they are clever when it comes to God will never really know him at all.

Maybe that’s a glimpse of Peter’s whole relationship with Jesus. It begins here in the story we just heard from the Gospel. Jesus tells him to put out the nets. Peter knows they have been hard at it all night long and was probably thinking “yeah, right.” But he had just heard Jesus speaking, and maybe it was something in what he said that led Peter to take a chance and put out those nets … the same nets that had been filled with nothing but seaweed all night long. And then Jesus does something amazing. Something Jesus just loves to do. He takes a tiny little display of faith – in this case, Peter’s begrudging agreement to put out the nets – and rewards it a billion fold! The nets were filled to the breaking point. Peter did something that, as an accomplished fisherman, he would not have thought wise. And Jesus turned it around to become the best catch Peter ever had. At the end of the story, the fishermen leave everything, everything, and follow Jesus.

Jesus longs to do that with every one of us. Where is it that Jesus has been calling you to cast out your nets? What step of faith has the Spirit been tugging at your heart to take? It might be crazy. There’s no way you could possibly do it. But expect your tiny leap of faith to pay of a billion fold! Know that God longs to work an incredible miracle in your life so that you’ll leave everything, everything behind and follow him. All you have to do is be wise enough to do the thing you may think is the most foolish.

Labor Day: Doing what we were created for

Today’s readings: Genesis 1:26 – 2:3, Psalm 128, Matthew 6:31-34

I want you to know some of the evils of seminary. On Labor Day of every year I was in seminary, we were at school. Last year, we even had classes on Labor Day. The Academic Dean obviously didn’t let today’s Scripture readings permeate into his heart. But that’s another homily!

Today, we’ve gathered to celebrate and bless human labor. Human labor is a cornerstone of our society and our world, dating all the way back to the creation of the world, as today’s first reading shows us. Whatever we believe about the creation of the world, – that, too is another homily – we know that at its completion God sanctified the whole of it through rest. And that’s an important point that I think we maybe don’t get the way we should.

According to an article I read recently, 60 percent of Americans don’t plan to take a vacation any time in the next six months, the lowest rate since 1978. Last year, a study revealed that 36 percent of all US citizens don’t plan to use all their allotted days off. Those who do take vacations, the article said, increasingly find that they are sitting on the beach next to their laptops, palm pilots and cell phones. I guess their families won’t be coming with them!

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that this kind of thing is just crazy. Worrying about work isn’t going to add a single moment to our lifespan. In fact, it will more likely reduce them. We are told very clearly: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”

We are certainly required to work hard and always give the best that we have to our employers or employees. That’s a matter of justice. It’s also a participation, the Church tells us, in the work of creation. Work is sacred and always has been, because, as the Genesis reading today shows us, work was instituted by God who told us to fill the earth and subdue it, having dominion over every living thing. We work because it is a sharing in what we were created for, the very imitation of God.

But there is that matter of balance. And we do have to step back and realize that God did indeed sanctify the whole of creation by blessing it with that seventh day, with that day of rest. And so we do our spiritual lives no favors when we ignore the commandment to observe the Sabbath through rest and worship. So much of our lives is consumed in labor; may we never fail to sanctify that labor by observing rest and worship.

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time: You are what You Eat.

Today’s readings

“You are what you eat.” We’ve all heard that as an injunction to eat healthier and take care of ourselves. And we would be well advised to do such a thing. I know I for one should have thought about that before I ate that pizza the other day. But I thought about that saying this week as I reflected on the readings we’ve just heard. You are what you eat. The externals don’t really matter that much; it’s the stuff that we let into us and then let come out of us that forms the kind of person we will be.

Today’s Liturgy of the Word speaks to us all about what’s in our heart. In the first reading, Moses enjoins the Israelites to obey the commandments, and only the commandments. Don’t add to it or subtract from it, he says, and people will know how wise and intelligent you are as a people. Indeed, obeying the law wasn’t for Israel’s sake alone. No, obeying the law was to serve as a witness to other nations that they too might see how good the Lord God is. God is there, Moses tells them, whenever he is called upon; God assures justice in the community and makes them respected in all the world. But this will only happen, he tells them, if they actually obey the commandments they’ve been given, and take them to heart.

Saint James picks up the theme in the New Testament reading today. Be doers of the word, he says, and not hearers only. What good is the law, what good is the covenant, what good is the Gospel if all we do is just passively hear it, letting it go in one ear and out the other? Better not to hear it at all than to make a mockery of it by simply ignoring it. When we hear the word proclaimed, it’s for our instruction, not just our edification. The word and the commandments are gifts to us, which is really just about the same thing that Moses was saying, and we should rejoice to have them.

As usual, in the Gospel, Jesus brings all this to critical mass. Here he has yet another altercation with the scribes and Pharisees. The begin to quiz him about his disciple’s habit of not washing their hands before they eat. Now before all you parents start siding with the Pharisees, they weren’t talking about cleaning dirt off their hands before a meal. They were talking about a ritual custom of washing, not only hands, but also jugs and other things. These rituals probably began as something the priests did before offering sacrifice. Much like the hand washing that is done in the Eucharistic Liturgy before the Eucharistic Prayer. But in the case of the Jews, this practice seems to have become something that ended up obliging everyone, and the Pharisees were keen to see that it was done faithfully by everyone, along with the other 612 laws they were required to practice!

So what Jesus was criticizing here was empty, meaningless ritual. Non-observance of these meaningless things, he says, do not make a person impure. Those demanding that people obey these human laws are themselves disobeying the law of God, Jesus says. So he illustrates the problem by making the point that real impurity comes from a much more fickle source: the human heart. It is not missing mere ritual cleansings that presents the problem. The real problem is not purifying the heart. Because from an impure heart comes all sorts of foul things: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils,” Jesus says, “come from within and they defile.”

The Catechism tells us, “The sixth beatitude proclaims, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ ‘Pure in heart’ refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness … There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith.” This, I think, is what Jesus was getting at. If we would be really clean, and not just ritually so, then we would do well to purify our selves from the inside out, and not the other way around. Pure hearts would avoid all the evils Jesus lists, and then some.

This is why I began by quoting, “You are what you eat.” The task before us is that of purifying our hearts, so that we may rid ourselves of the source of all these evil and vile things that can so easily come forth from us. What does that mean? Well, it’s probably different for every person. Maybe some of us need to stop watching so much television. Or spending too much time on the internet. Perhaps some relationships we have are not healthy and need to be ended. Maybe we’ve been paying attention to the wrong advice. Whatever it is that needs to be rooted out, it needs to go.

Then too, we have to put more of the positive stuff into our lives. Perhaps we need to pray more. Or to read the Scriptures or other spiritual books more. Maybe it would be good to spend more time with our families, to pray together, or watch some good television or a movie together, even to have more meals together. I know those things can be hard to do, but they’re never a waste of time or effort.

The point is that we need to do whatever it takes to purify our hearts. We need to root out the sources of evil thoughts and replace them with beautiful thoughts. Unchastity and adultery need to be replaced with faithfulness. Theft and murder with respect for property and above all, life. We need to do away with greed, malice, envy and deceit and replace them with honesty and justice. Root out everything that leads to licentiousness, arrogance and folly and replace them with encouragement and right relationships with others. And above all let there be no more blasphemy, that we may make way for true faith. Every source of vice has to be eliminated in our lives so that we can practice virtue, and become a people marked by purity of heart. This exercise is one that is tied to a promise for us: those who purify their hearts, the beatitude tells us, will truly see God. The Church teaches us that the goal of all of our lives is to become saints, and this, brothers and sisters in Christ, is how we do it.

What Jesus is saying to us is quite simple: we have to clear away the obstructions in our lives so that we can live as authentic disciples. Those of you who came to daily Mass this week may have heard me reflect for a few days on what the Christian disciple looks like. We heard all kinds of instruction on that this week. Today’s Liturgy of the Word brings that all to a crescendo. The Christian disciple looks like one who strives always to live with a pure heart. The Christian disciple watches what he or she takes in, because the Christian disciple knows we are what we eat.

Friday of the 21st Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

Today, again, we continue our look at what the Christian disciple looks like. Today's readings give us two more good descriptions.

In the first reading, the Christian disciple is foolish! Or, at least, the disciple is foolish in the eyes of the world. St. Paul tells us in great detail that the wisdom of men and women in the world, however great it may be, is nothing in comparison to the wisdom of God. It is God who created the world and all its wonders, and it is God who knows the depths of the human heart. So often we are confounded by the mysteries of life: why do people get sick, and why do they die? Why is do people suffer? It all seems so foolish to us, with our limited vision. But God's vision is vast and comprehensive: God alone has the big picture. Because God created us, and created the world and all its wonders, God knows how it all should work, and what will happen to it, and what it will all become. The Christian disciple, Paul tells us, lets God be God and recognizes that our own limited knowledge can never lead us to the Kingdom. The Christian disciple may be foolish in the eyes of the world, but the Christian disciple knows that God's wisdom is so much more precious than anything the world may try to pass off as wisdom.

In the Gospel reading, the Christian disciple is not foolish! Much like yesterday's Gospel, today's Gospel paints a portrait of the Christian disciple as one who is ready for the coming of the Master. The difference in today's story is that the Christian disciple, like the wise virgins, not only look's for the Master's return, but is actually prepared to welcome him. The foolish virgins were of utter contempt because they had one specific purpose, to light the way for the Bridegroom. Journeys in that day took time, and people would often be delayed. It only stood to reason that they would have procured extra lamp oil and brought it with them. But for some reason they were distracted. Whatever it was that distracted them, it succeeded in deterring them from their purpose and left them locked out of the banquet. Let nothing ever deter the Christian disciple from his or her one mission: to light the way to Christ in everything that they do. God forbid the disciple would be deterred from the mission and end up locked out of the wedding feast that God provides.

We've seen in these last few days what the Christian disciple looks like. The disciple is not disorderly and lazy, but works tenaciously. Their lives are marked by authenticity and righteousness that permeates from a grateful heart. They are hard at the Lord's work and are prepared to meet the Christ the Bridegroom when he returns. They look for God's purposes to guide them through life, regardless of how foolish it may make them look to the world. What is it that we see when we look at ourselves? May it be our prayer that every time we take a look at ourselves, we look more and more like disciples of Jesus Christ.

Thursday of the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Yesterday, I told you about how one of my seminary professors used to tell us that the “Christian disciple looks like something.” In the first reading yesterday, we found that the Christian disciple is not disorderly and lazy, but works tenaciously. In the Gospel, that disciple was described as authentic and righteous as opposed to being hypocritical.

Today’s readings give us another look at what the Christian disciple looks like. In the first reading, the Christian disciple is grateful. The more the disciple comes to know Christ and the more the disciple sees the work of God in himself or herself, as well as in others, the more grateful they become. That God’s purposes are being worked out in the world, through the disciple or the disciple’s friends or family or community, is a great cause for joy for all of us. We rejoice as we see the multitude of spiritual gifts at work in the community of believers. The Christian disciple has a grateful heart. We can cultivate that virtue of gratitude, brothers and sisters. Every night before bed we can think back on the day and reflect on the blessings of the day. A friend of mine even keeps a gratitude journal. Gratitude helps us to see God’s work more and more each day.

In the Gospel, the Christian disciple is awake and alert to God’s purposes in the world. We do not know on what day the Lord will come. Even more to the point, we don’t know, any of us, on what day we will go back to be with the Lord. We can’t live every day like we’re going to die, but we can live every day like we’re ready to meet the Lord. As faithful and prudent servants, we must be doing the work of Christ when the time comes. We must cast off drunkenness, distractions, and whatever keeps us from being ready for the Day of the Lord. The Christian disciple is not unaware of the presence of the Lord, but is always expecting the Lord to be present in every time and place.

The Christian disciple looks like something, indeed. With grateful hearts, may we always be hard at the Lord’s work, expecting his presence everywhere we look!

And yes, more on this tomorrow!

Wednesday of the 21st Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings talk all about authenticity. As one of my professors used to say, “discipleship looks like something.” People ought to be able to look at the Christian person and know that they are in the presence of a Christian person.

In today’s first reading, Paul points out that, as an apostle, he could have relied on and insisted upon the help of the Thessalonians to sustain him while he was at work preaching among them. He could have taken their charity and food, but he didn’t. Instead, he and his companions worked and toiled night and day so that they wouldn’t be a burden on the Thessalonian community. And so he then insisted that the Thessalonians live the same way. His behavior was to be a model for them, and those among them who would not work should not eat. Indeed, they were called upon to distance themselves from any member of the community who made a practice of living in a disorderly way. The Christian disciple is not disorderly, but works tenaciously.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus insists that the Christian disciple is not a hypocrite. The Scribes and Pharisees claimed to frown upon their ancestors who murdered the prophets and insisted that they themselves would never do such a thing. But Jesus notices that their behavior is quite like their ancestors of old, and that the apple hasn’t fallen very far from the tree at all. The Scribes and Pharisees made every effort to appear righteous, but true righteousness was never a virtue they felt was worth pursuing. Jesus says, “on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.” The Christian disciple isn’t a hypocrite, but instead is a person who pursues righteousness inside and out.

The Christian disciple looks like something. In our prayer today, may we all seek the help we need to be certain that the Christian disciple looks like us.

The 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time: Decide Today whom You will Serve

Today’s readings

Canon law requires a retreat before a man is ordained as a deacon or a priest, so about this time last year, I made my diaconate retreat up at Bellarmine Retreat House in Barrington. It was one of the most important retreats I have ever made, with the possible exception of the retreat just before my priesthood ordination. I took the occasion of that retreat to meditate on the three promises I would be making to be sure I was ready to make them. Those promises, of course, are celibacy, obedience to the Bishop, and the promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day. At the end of the retreat, obviously, I decided I was indeed ready for that commitment, and I was able to approach my ordination as Deacon last November with great joy.

I mention this because I think the making of a decision is an essential aspect of any retreat. No matter what kind of retreat you are on, the hope, I think is that at the end of it, you will have made some decision to approach your life, your vocation or your work with a renewal that will bring you joy. Many of you have been on Marriage Encounter retreats, and may have made a decision to approach your marriage with renewed appreciation for the love you share. A lot of you have made the ChRHP retreats and have made the decision to live your discipleship with a renewed energy and commitment to this parish. Some of the youth have made RPM or Reflections retreats and have made a decision to live your faith as you grow into young adulthood. Perhaps some have made personal retreats, and have made decisions that have strengthened your spiritual life. No matter what kind of retreat you may make, a decision is pretty standard fare at the end of it.

Today marks the last Sunday of a retreat of sorts that we have been making as a Church. For the last five weeks, we have taken a bit of a break from our reading of the Gospel of Mark to look at chapter six of the Gospel of John, commonly known as the “Bread of Life Discourse.” So this retreat has been all about the Eucharist, its importance in our lives, and a renewal of our joy for receiving it. Back on July 31st, we heard about Jesus feeding the five thousand on just five barley loaves and two fish: this wonderful miracle showed us how Jesus notices our needs, makes up for what we lack, and feeds us physically and spiritually with food more wonderful than we could ever imagine. The next Sunday, we celebrated the Solemnity of the Transfiguration. We were able to catch a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrected body even before he suffered and died: we were challenged to each transfigure our own world for the better, not the worse; for good and not for evil. The following Sunday, we returned to John’s Gospel and heard about Jesus being the true bread come down from heaven. That day, if you were at one of the Masses I celebrated, we reviewed how to receive Communion with reverence, faithfulness and joy. And last Sunday, Jesus proclaimed that only those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will live forever, that his body and blood are real food, come from heaven, to nourish all of us who believe. We dined at the rich table of Wisdom and the great banquet of the Lord and reflected on why the Eucharist and the sacraments are so important to us as Catholics.

This retreat has been rich and nourishing. It has provided us the opportunity to reflect on the wonderful gift of the Eucharist, and the Real Presence of Christ in our midst. We have been challenged, and we have been fed, perhaps we have even been refreshed. Hopefully the Eucharist, the receiving of which can become a routine when we do it week after week or day after day, has become even more important and awesome to us as we have reflected on it in these last five weeks. This has been such a wonderful opportunity for us to give thanks for the great Paschal Mystery which is the lifeblood of our Church and our spiritual lives. God willing, this retreat will nourish us and feed our spiritual lives in the months to come.

One of the hardest parts of any retreat is always the end of it. As wonderful as time away and time spent on our spiritual lives may be, we all have to go back to “real life” and all its responsibilities and demands. Back on Transfiguration Sunday a few weeks ago, Peter, James and John found the same to be true. They had experienced the Lord in an incredibly intimate way, but now they had to come down the mountain and live their lives. We have to come down a mountain of sorts every time we end a retreat, as we are doing today. And so as wonderful as our reflection on the Eucharist has been, we now have to come down the mountain into our lives as Christians. And for this retreat, it really is a coming down. From here on out, when we return to the Gospel of Mark, it’s all going to be about the Cross. Everything will be told from Mark’s point of view as a shadow of the suffering and death of Jesus. We will have to take the strength of the Eucharist upon which we’ve reflected in these last weeks into the real demands the Gospel and the Cross make of us as disciples.

Today’s Liturgy demands a decision of us. Now that we have reflected on the Eucharist, what’s it going to be? Are we going to follow Christ or not? Who will be our God? And make no mistake, brothers and sisters in Christ: these are not frivolous questions about which we can make a flippant comment and let that be that. No, these questions are life and death questions that will define who we are as a people and define who we are in the sight of God. If you come up to receive Communion today, you will have publicly answered those questions for yourself, and the implication of those answers for your life will be absolutely irrevocable. We know how powerful this decision is because, in the very first verse of the next chapter of John, we are told: “After this, Jesus moved about within Galilee; but he did not wish to travel in Judea, because the Jews were trying to kill him.” There are no promises of glamour or grandeur here, brothers and sisters, because sometimes discipleship is just that serious.

In today’s first reading, Joshua puts it very clearly to the Israelites: “Decide today whom you will serve.” They are told they can either serve the gods of their ancestors, a kind of ancestral spirit worship. Or they can serve the gods of the people whose land they have taken over. Those gods were based on worship to affect the richness of the land. Or, they could serve the LORD, whose mighty deeds and outstretched arm delivered them from their oppressors in Egypt and literally gave them the land in which they were now dwelling. Joshua then makes a declaration that has always inspired me, a decision that has echoed through the centuries ever since: “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” The decision he was asking them to make was one that would absolutely define who they were as a people. Either they would continue the ancestral worship of their fathers and mothers and be defined as individual clans, or they would worship the gods of the Amorites and be identified with the people they were supposed to be overcoming. Or they could worship the Lord and be defined as God’s people. They chose the latter, and that has defined them ever since, and it is the background of how we define ourselves as a people.

In the Gospel reading, it is Jesus who demands the decision. People have just heard his Bread of Life discourse, and many found it troubling. Either they were angry that he was claiming to be “bread come down from heaven” when they knew his mother and father and where he was from, or they were put off by his teaching that they should eat his flesh and drink his blood. One claim was pure blasphemy, and the other was just plain gross. The drinking of blood was also specifically prohibited by the deuteronomic law. So for one reason or the other, many of those who had been eagerly following Jesus now turned away, murmuring as they went: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Jesus then turns to his disciples and very bluntly asks them, “Do you also want to leave?” His question makes no specific judgment but does demand a decision.

It is Peter who answers, and not just for himself but for the other eleven too. He makes a beautiful profession of faith in three parts. First, he states that there is no one else to whom they can go, because nobody else preaches authentically as Jesus does. Second, he states that Jesus proclaims words of eternal life, words that really matter, words that are backed up by action, words that will lead them to the Kingdom of God. Finally, he professes faith in a Messianic identity of Jesus: he and the others are absolutely convinced that Jesus is the Holy One of God. Peter and the others have made their decision. Just as Joshua and the Israelites defined themselves as followers of the LORD, so Peter and the other disciples would define themselves as followers of Jesus. The implication of that decision for Peter and the other disciples (except for Judas) was martyrdom, as we know that they were later to suffer death for the faith they now professed.

So the questions are poignant for us now, aren’t they? We have just heard the same discourse the disciples did. Do we also want to leave? Who will we serve? Who will be our God? What will our faith look like? How will we choose to live? What meaning does the Eucharist have in our lives? What are its implications? We have many ways that we can answer those questions. We have many opportunities to continue this retreat we have been enjoying these last five weeks. We can join a small Christian Community as we will be hearing about today. We can go to Hesed House and serve the poor as a way of feeding others as we have been fed. We can teach the faith to our children, junior high students, or youth as we have been asked the last few weeks. We can become lectors or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. And those are just to name a few. Perhaps some of us may even need to discern a call to priesthood, the diaconate or religious life.

But all of these decisions begin with the one we will make in a few minutes. We will soon have the opportunity to come forward to receive the Eucharist about which we have been reflecting all these weeks. Receiving our Lord means we have decided who is our God and how we will live. As we receive the broken body and blood of our Lord, so we too have promised to lay down our lives for others. It’s that simple and that difficult, friends. Decide today whom you will serve.

Saturday of the 20th Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today, Jesus has yet another altercation with the Scribes and Pharisees, groups of religious Jews who were very scrupulous in their study and observance of the Torah, or Law. They went to great lengths to be sure that they, and others, did not break any of the 613 laws given in the Torah. Jesus, as we know, had a long-standing, ongoing feud with them. His problem with these groups was based on the fact that, though they knew how to follow the law, they didn’t know how to go beyond it. They couldn’t accept the Gospel that Jesus preached because they were devoted to the letter of the law, so much so that they often missed the law’s spirit.

The message Jesus gives his disciples then and now is not that we can disregard our parents or authorities. The message he gives us is that we must go far beyond that; we have to put God as the foremost of our authorities. This meant for the Scribes and Pharisees that they could not claim righteousness when the followed the law but ignored the real needs of other people. He might say the same to us today. We could get all caught up in the rules that define our society and our Church. And I won’t deny that these rules are important. But God’s law of love as shown in service to others surpasses any other rule we can name. Those of us who would be great must be the slave of all. Sometimes we will have to step aside and let go of things that had been important to us, and to take hold of the Gospel by serving the poor, visiting the lonely, healing the broken and comforting the sorrowing. The foremost of our authorities is not the law or rules, but the spirit of the Gospel, and the foremost of our energies has to be directed toward living that way.