Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If we want to know if we are doing God’s will, I think, we need to examine our lives for evidence of joy. The disciple who goes about his or her work in this world grudgingly and amidst a total disconnect with other people isn’t much of a disciple at all, I’m afraid. I have been a priest now for just over a year, as you know, and lately I have been examining my vocation and how it’s been going. I wanted to see what I need to spend more time on and what I need to perhaps let go of. One of the great barometers for me has been to look at what gives me joy in my ministry. Not that every moment is supposed to be a picnic, that’s not the point at all. But God speaks through joy in our lives because joy is an indication that we’re doing what God wants from us. And I can find joy in doing some pretty hard things, like anointing a person near death, or ministering to a family who has come to the Church to arrange a loved one’s funeral. Joy doesn’t necessarily mean doing things that are easy and fun, but it means more that we are doing what we were created for, that we are using our time and our talents to build the kingdom in the particular way God has called us to do that, that we are living our discipleship in a way that gives honor and glory to God.

Now discipleship is not a popular term these days, I’m afraid. Maybe that’s because it comes from the same root as the word discipline which can be such an ugly word for us sometimes. And in a world where people do pretty much what they want, when they want and where they want, the idea of discipline doesn’t really work. But all of us who are followers of Jesus are disciples, and as such, we are subject to the discipline of the One we follow, Jesus Christ. So let’s take a look at today’s Liturgy of the Word and see what we can find out about the discipline that Jesus teaches us, and perhaps where we can find joy in following that discipline.

Now, before I launch into that study of the readings, I should point out that this is one of Fr. Ted’s favorite Gospel readings. He is so aware of the many needs of our parish and the difficulty of fulfilling them all, that he points to this reading as a reason to have two priests in a parish. “The Lord sent them out two by two,” he often tells me, “so I am so glad to have an associate to go out and do the Lord’s work with me.” Now, a little further down in the reading, the Lord says he was sending them out “like lambs among wolves.” So guess what that makes all of you… But I digress….

There are three specific disciplines that Jesus teaches the seventy-two that I want to reflect on today. First: don’t rely on yourself. Second: go in peace. And third: eat and drink what is set before you.

So first, don’t rely on yourself. Listen to the instructions Jesus gives the seventy-two before they leave: “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way.” Now that all seems pretty impractical to those of us who have to travel in the twenty-first century, doesn’t it? I mean, the only possible instruction in there that would make our travel at all easy is to wear no sandals – bare feet sure travel easier through security checkpoints! But we definitely need a money bag to carry what we’d need to pay tolls and buy fuel, and certainly we’d need a sack to carry identification as well as just basic things we’d need for the journey. And greeting no one along the way just seems downright inhospitable.

And this is worse for me, because I always overpack for a trip! But I think we’re missing the point here. If we take the time to bring everything with us that we’d ever need for the journey, we’d never get on the road. It’s much like the disciples in the Gospel reading last Sunday who wanted to bury their dead or greet their family, all at the expense of following Christ. At some point we have to stop thinking about maybe doing God’s will and just get out there and do it. Another point is that if we were even able to foresee every possibility and pack for every possible need, we would certainly not need Jesus, would we? Jesus is telling the seventy-two, and us as well, to stop worrying and start following. Rely on Jesus because he is trustworthy. Experience the joy of letting Jesus worry about the small stuff while he is doing big things in and through you.

Second, go in peace. Jesus says to the seventy-two: “Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’ If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you.” Those disciples were sent out with the peace of Christ, and were told to expect to be received in peace. The source of the peace they were sent out in was, of course, Jesus himself. He is the one who greets the disciples after the Resurrection by saying “peace be with you.” The peace he is offering is not just the absence of conflict. In fact, their journeys may indeed involve some conflict: conflict with demons, conflict with illness, conflict with those who may not receive them. No, the peace he sends the seventy-two out with is a peace that they receive from knowing they are doing God’s will and that souls are coming back to God. It is a peace that says that everyone and everything is in right relationship, the way things are supposed to be.

The disciples are told to enter a place and say “Peace to this household.” So we too must also offer this greeting of peace to those we come to work with. There are a lot of ways to make this greeting, though. We could say it in those words, or perhaps through our actions: in not returning violence with violence; doing our best to diffuse anger and hatred; treating all people equally; respecting the rights of both the well-established and the newcomer; working to make neighborhoods and communities less violent; protecting the abused and the ridiculed. This peace is a peace that brings true joy.

And third, eat and drink what is set before you. This is again a trust issue. The seventy-two are to trust that since the laborer deserves his payment, the Lord will provide for what they need. But there’s a bit more to it, I think. Eating and drinking what is set before them meant that if they were to be given ministry that is difficult, they needed to stay with it, because that’s what was set before them. If they have been received in peace, then they need to know that they are in the right place. That doesn’t mean that the mission would be easy, though, and they need to take what’s given to them. We too have to know that our mission may not be easy, but if we have been given it in peace, we have to accept the mission we have. Taking things as they are and trusting in God to perfect our efforts is a path to true joy.

Blessed Mother Teresa once said, “Joy is prayer – Joy is strength – Joy is love – Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.” For the disciple, the life of prayer must lead us to this kind of joy. Because joyous disciples are the ones who bring unbelievers to the faith. They are the ones that bring God’s love to the forgotten and the sorrowful. They are the ones that make God’s presence and care known to those who have been marginalized and exploited. Following the discipline of Christ by relying on Christ – not ourselves, by bringing the peace of God to our missionary encounters, and by eating and drinking what the mission sets before us, this is the way to true joy. This is the joy of which the Psalmist sings, “Shout joyfully to God, all the earth, sing praise to the glory of his name!”

Saturday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings are, well, interesting. It’s hard to know in today’s first reading if the Lord is blessing dishonest conduct, or if it’s the providence of God that is working its way out. All of us must surely bristle a bit when we see Esau cheated out of his father’s blessing, and Jacob and Rebekah’s dishonest conduct blessed. Secretly we all must have been waiting for the wrath of God to come down upon the two of them and turn them into a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife. But that’s not what happens here. And we know that Jacob is blessed as the father of a nation. What the message seems to be here is that God does not let an accident of birth order stand in the way of blessing one he has chosen.

If our Gospel reading today could shed any light on this conundrum, perhaps it is that we cannot put new wine into old wineskins. The new wine of God’s justice and omnipotence just won’t be contained in the old wineskins of our understanding. Instead, that new wine bursts forth from those wineskins and saturates the earth with mercy and justice.

Today, may we rejoice with our bridegroom that God’s mercy and compassion never end and that our limited understandings cannot be the containers of God’s ways.

Friday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

For those of us who think we have it all together, that we are righteous in and of ourselves, well, today’s Gospel isn’t Good News, is it? Jesus says, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” But for those of us who know we need our Savior, what great joy to know that our Savior will come and dine with us!

That Jesus would call a man like Matthew to come and follow him is news of redemption and hope for all of us. Tax collectors in those days, as you may know, were notorious for exploiting the people they were collecting from, taking far over and above what their tax should be. The occupation of tax collector was synonymous with the name “sinner.” Clearly such a man was unfit for the kingdom of God. But to him, the Lord Jesus says, “follow me.”

The redemption we have in Christ is a complete healing and change from the inside out. We aren’t just forgiven and sent out to continue living our lives as we always have. No, we are forgiven and then told to “follow me.” Because following Christ is the only way that our broken lives can be reclaimed and drawn back to God who made us. And following Christ is the only way that we sinners can be part of the Kingdom of God.

Thursday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

God is always most concerned about what is going on inside of us. Which is why Jesus says to the paralytic, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” It would have been easy for Jesus to snap his fingers and heal the man’s paralysis, but that is not what he was most concerned about. Sometimes when a person has been sick a long time, there are resentments toward God and toward other people that have added to the misery of their illness. Jesus knew this, and took the opportunity to heal the man of those maladies as well. Saying to him, “Rise and walk” was merely incidental, and Jesus does that too. What we see in today’s Gospel reading is that our God longs to heal us from the inside out.

The incident with Abraham and Isaac feels like something else, though, doesn’t it? It almost seems as if this is a manipulative attempt on God’s part to see if Abraham was really on his side or not. But I don’t think that’s what God is doing here. I think this encounter shows us our God who is aching to pour out his blessings on us. If we will but give him everything, he will choose not to take it from us, but to work through our gifts and blessings to bless us even more. Listen to the promise he makes to Abraham: “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing.” Finally, God provides the lamb for the sacrifice, which is a foreshadowing of the way that he himself will give his own Son, Jesus Christ, to be the lamb of sacrifice for our sins.

Just as Jesus healed the paralytic from the inside out, so God blesses Abraham from the inside out, giving him knowledge of a God who longs to provide blessing and healing for his people. In our offering today, we too can come to be fed from the inside out, by giving God whatever we hold most dear, knowing that he intends not to take it from us, but to use it to bless us beyond our wildest imaginings.

Monday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning’s Gospel reading is the Matthew version of the Gospel reading we had yesterday from Luke. So I’m going to bracket that, and reflect this morning on the first reading instead.

This first reading has always intrigued me, ever since I can remember hearing it as a child. God intends to destroy the city of Sodom because of its pervasive wickedness. Abraham, newly in relationship with God, stands up for the innocent of the city, largely because that was where his nephew, Lot, had taken up residence. In what seems to be a case of cosmic “Let’s Make a Deal,” Abraham pleads with God to spare the city if just fifty innocent people could be found there. God agrees and Abraham persists. Eventually God agrees to spare the city if just ten people could be found in the city of Sodom.

Now we don’t know how many people were living in Sodom, but it was certainly a great many more than fifty. But God agrees to spare the city if just ten just people could be found, a number that was probably some fraction of one percent of the population. Now, we know the rest of the story without even having heard it today, don’t we? Sodom is eventually destroyed for its wickedness, along with the city of Gomorrah. So let’s think about that for a minute. Not even ten good people were found in that area, so great and widespread was their wickedness!

Now the Old Testament has a number of stories like this where a great many people are destroyed in their wickedness. From this we should not draw the hasty conclusion that we worship a wrathful God. Instead, we worship a God who is just and merciful, not punishing the great many innocent for the wickedness of but a few. The guilty are punished, but the just are not. And in Christ Jesus, we have the great grace of one being punished for the great wickedness of all of us. So merciful and gracious is our God that in these days after the birth of our Redeemer, we have been granted forgiveness for our sins, because the guilt was borne by our Lord Jesus.

That is why the Psalmist is quick to sing today, “The Lord is kind and merciful!”

Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“For freedom Christ set us free.” These readings seem to me to be a beautiful reflection for this weekend, when we are getting ready for our Independence Day celebrations. When our nation’s founders set up this fledgling republic 231 years ago, freedom was certainly one of their primary concerns. Freedom of religion was particularly important, as was freedom of expression, freedom of association, and many others. We are the beneficiaries of their hard work. To use a current catch phrase, freedom isn’t free, it is purchased at a price, and at this time of year we remember those who purchased it for us.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul is reflecting on the freedom that the early Christians had. This freedom was a freedom from the constraints of the law that encouraged people to replace true devotion and zeal with mere surface-level observance of their religion’s many laws. Those early Christians were beneficiaries of the hard work of others, also. Particularly, Paul reminds them, their freedom was purchased at the incredible price of the blood of Jesus Christ the Lord who died that we might have life. Their freedom wasn’t free either, and they, and of course we, are beneficiaries of the sacrifice of Christ.

For the Galatians, as well as for all of us, freedom had to be defined a little more exactly, and that was St. Paul’s purpose in today’s second reading. Because freedom isn’t free, it can’t be taken lightly or casually, and so he makes it clear what the freedom truly is. The Galatians had the mistaken notion that freedom meant the same thing as license, which isn’t the case at all. Freedom didn’t mean license to act against the law and to live lives of immorality and corruption. That would be replacing one form of slavery with another, really, since immorality has its own chains. The freedom Christ won for us is a freedom to live joyful lives of dedication and devotion and discipleship, all caught up in the very life of God. Real freedom looses us from the bonds of the world and sets us free to bind ourselves to God, who created us for himself. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.

This distinction between true freedom and license for immorality is one that we must take seriously even in our own day, even as we prepare to celebrate our nation’s own independence. Because in our own day, we too have confused the freedom we have inherited from our founders with a license to do whatever the heck we want. And that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is not the gift we have been given. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean we have the right to express ourselves in a way that slanders or ridicules others. And if you don’t think that’s an issue, just listen to some talk radio or turn on Jerry Springer. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion, and it doesn’t mean that we have to practice our faith in secret and not let people know that Jesus Christ is Lord. And you know that’s an issue: in the courts, in our places of business and our schools, and in our communities. Being free doesn’t mean we have license to do whatever we want; being free means we are free to better ourselves, our families, our churches and our communities. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.

This freedom to be who we have been created to be is a matter of some urgency for Elisha in today’s first reading and the disciples that Jesus met in today’s Gospel. All of them received the message that when God calls, the time to answer is now. But all of them found that there were things going on inside them that kept them from answering the call, that kept them from being free to follow God in the way they were created to do that. And the rebukes they all received seem a bit harsh to our ears. After all, they had good excuses, didn’t they? Who would deny a person the right to say goodbye to their families or bury their dead? But there are a couple of subtle distinctions that we have to get here. First, it wasn’t as if they had ever been told to follow the call instead of taking care of family and burying the dead. Yet they were using those things as an excuse to put off their response to God’s call. Second, following God’s call very well could have meant doing those things they were involved in, but in a way that honored God. The demand was to put God first, and one could conceivably do that and still take care of family, friends and business.

What’s at issue here is right relationship. Responding to God’s call must always come first, but responding to God’s call may mean raising one’s family, tending to a sick parent or elderly relative, reading to one’s children, grieving the loss of a loved one or battling an illness. It’s a matter of priorities, and true freedom means putting God first in all of that, trusting that God will help us to make sense of the ordinariness of our lives.

Because we really are usually called out of the ordinariness of our lives. That was true of Elisha today. He was minding his own business – literally – by plowing the fields. He certainly must have been a man of means, because he had twelve yoke of oxen. And yet he gives it all up on the spot to follow God as Elijah’s successor. The way Elisha’s call happened might appear a little strange, but we actually use elements of that call in our own Church’s Liturgy. Elisha’s call happened by Elijah throwing his cloak over him. It seems like an odd gesture, but it symbolized Elisha taking over the mantle of authority from Elijah. It’s a symbol I can resonate with, because at my Ordination to the priesthood, one of the most profound moments was the moment in the rite when two of my priest friends took off my deacon’s stole and put the priest’s stole over my shoulders. I knew in that moment that the Ordination was done; that I really had become a priest. I could almost literally feel the weight of following Christ in that particular way. It was an incredible moment for me, and it must have been so for Elisha. In fact, he was so excited that he ran back, slaughtered his oxen and chopped up the yokes to use as fuel to cook the flesh and feed his people. Doing that was a complete break with his former life, and showed the length he was ready to go in order to do God’s will.

On this Independence Day, may we all remember that true freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, regardless of the implications for others. True freedom doesn’t mean license to live an immoral life. Instead, true freedom is about living the life God has called us to live and following as committed disciples, free to be bound up in the life of Christ. True freedom means breaking with anything that holds us back from becoming the free sons and daughters of God we were created to be. True freedom means putting God first and serving him in the ordinariness of our lives, following his call to our dying breath. True freedom means finding the same joy that our Psalmist finds today when he sings, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.”

Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Today’s readings

Peter and PaulToday we celebrate a feast of great importance to our Church. Saint Peter, the apostle to the Jews, and St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, come together to show how the Church is truly universal, that is, truly catholic. There are similarities between the two men. Simon’s name is changed to Peter after he professes belief in the Lord Jesus, and Saul’s name is changed to Paul after he is converted. Both men started out as failures as far as living the Christian life goes. Peter denied his Lord by the fire and swore that he didn’t even know the man who was his friend. Paul’s early life was taken up with persecuting Christians and participating in their murder. And both men were given second chances, which they received with great enthusiasm, and lived a life of faith that has given birth to a Church.

In today’s Gospel, Peter and the others are asked “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Both Peter and Paul were committed to the truth about who Christ was. They had too much at stake. Having both failed on this early on, they knew the danger of falling into the trap. So for them Jesus could never be just a brother, friend or role model – that was inadequate. And both of them proclaimed with all of their life straight through to their death that Jesus Christ is Lord. We too on this day must repent of the mediocrity we sometimes settle for in our relationship with Christ. He has to be Lord of our lives and we must proclaim him to be that Lord to our dying breath.

Both Peter and Paul kept the faith, as Paul says in today’s second reading. If they hadn’t, it’s quite possible we would never have had the faith today – although that was certainly not God’s plan. But because they kept the faith, we have it today, and we must be careful to keep the faith ourselves. Too many competing voices in our world today would have us bracket faith in favor of reason, or tolerance, or success, or being nice, or whatever. But we can never allow that, we can never break faith with Saints Peter and Paul, who preserved that faith at considerable personal cost.

Perhaps Saints Peter and Paul can inspire our own apostolic zeal. Then, as we bear witness to the fact that Jesus is Lord of our lives and of all the earth, we can bring a banal world to relevance. Perhaps in our renewed apostolic zeal we can bring justice to the oppressed, right judgment to the wayward, love to the forgotten and the lonely, and faith to a world that has lost sight of anything worth believing in. To paraphrase Cardinal Francis George, the apostolic mission still has a Church, and it’s time for the Church to be released from its chains and burst forth to give witness in the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Tuesday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Listen to those words of Jesus again:

“Enter through the narrow gate;
for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction,
and those who enter through it are many.
How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life.
And those who find it are few.”

Those are pretty challenging thoughts, I think. But they are thoughts we can resonate with. Certainly Lot fell into the trap of going through the wide gate into the land of Sodom, the residents of which our first reading says “were very wicked in the sins they committed against the LORD.” And how true for us as well. Isn’t it always easier to take the road more traveled, despite the fact that that road doesn’t take you anywhere you want to go? We might very well take that easy road time and again, and end up, with Lot, in the land of Sodom.

Because the narrow gate isn’t easy to find and is harder still to travel. Living the Gospel and laying down our lives for others is hard work, and may often seem unrewarding. We may have to set aside our desires for the pleasures and rewards of this life. And we may even fail to get through that gate by our own efforts, due to the brokenness of our lives and the sinfulness of our living. We may find it next to impossible to travel through that narrow gate by ourselves.

But we don’t have to. The one who is our teacher in this constricted way is also the way through it. Our Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and through him we can all find our way to the Father. He even gives us the key to that narrow gate: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the Law and the Prophets.” As we pledge to live our lives by considering the needs of others just as we would consider our own needs, we will indeed find that traveling that narrow road is the way that gives most joy to our lives. As the Psalmist reminds us today, “He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.”

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Today’s readings | Today’s saint

birth of st john baptistToday we celebrate a feast that is a bit unusual for us. First of all, it’s a saint’s feast day, and saints’ days don’t usually take precedence over a Sunday celebration. Secondly, whenever we do celebrate a saint’s day, it is usually celebrated on the feast of their death, not their birth. But today we do gather to celebrate the birth of a saint, Saint John the Baptist, and the fact that we’re celebrating his birth and his day at all on this Sunday points to the fact that St. John the Baptist had a very special role to play in the life of Christ. In fact, the only other saint for whom we celebrate a birthday is the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that tells us something about how important John the Baptist is.

Just as for Jesus, we don’t know the precise day John the Baptist was born. So the feast of their Nativity – their births – was a tradition developed by the early Church. The dates the Church selected are significant. Jesus’ birthday was placed around the time of the winter solstice, mostly to counteract pagan festivals of the coming of winter. John the Baptist’s birthday was then placed around the time of the summer solstice for similar reasons. But there’s more to it even than that. In the Gospel of John, there is a passage where John the Baptist says of himself and Jesus, “I must decrease, he must increase.” So John’s birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become shorter, and Jesus’ birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become longer. John the Baptist must decrease, Jesus must increase.

Today’s readings have a lot to do with who the prophet is. St. John the Baptist was the last prophet of the old order, and his mission was to herald the coming of Jesus Christ who is himself the new order. Tradition holds that prophets were created for their mission, that their purpose was laid out while they were yet to be born. Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the old order, tells us of his commissioning in our first reading today. He says, “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” The rest of the reading tells us of his mission, a mission of hardship, but one of being compelled to speak the word of god as a sharp-edged sword. His calling began as a call to preach to his own people, but by the end of the reading, it is clear that that commission became a call to preach to every nation on earth.

Isaiah says that he was given his name while in his mother’s womb. The same was true of St. John the Baptist, whose name was given to Zechariah and Elizabeth by the Angel Gabriel. There’s a dubious story in my own family’s history that my mother had my name picked out from the time she was twelve. But it’s pretty hard for me to believe that a young Italian woman would have picked the name Patrick Michael for her son. But that’s how the story goes. Names have meaning. Maybe you know what your name means. I looked mine up this week and found that Patrick means “nobleman,” so if you feel like bowing when you see me, that would certainly be appropriate. But far more significant are the names of the prophets we encounter in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Isaiah means “Yahweh is salvation,” which pretty much encompassed the meaning of Isaiah’s mission, proclaiming salvation to the Israelites who were oppressed in exile. The name given to the Baptist, John, means “God has shown favor.” And that was in fact the message of his life. He came to pave the way for Jesus Christ, who was the favor of God shown to the whole human race.

Maybe we don’t know the meaning of our own names, and maybe we don’t know the purpose that God has for our lives, that purpose that God intended even when we were in our mother’s wombs. Whatever our particular names may mean, we are also called Christian, and there is meaning behind that name. To be called Christian is to be called a follower of Christ, which means that like Jesus, we must lay down our lives for our friends, that we must preach the Good News of Salvation in our words and in our actions, and that we must always help people to come to know the love of God. And that, ultimately, is the purpose for which we have been created, the purpose God had for us from the time we were in our mother’s wombs. The way we do that might be different for each of us. Some will work out their purpose in the married life, raising children to love and honor God. Some will do that as priests or religious, bearing witness to all God’s people of the love God has for them. Some will do that in the single state, as models of chastity and courage in a world that can be dark and lonely.

Ultimately, the purpose for St. John the Baptist’s life was summed up in his statement: “I must decrease, He must increase.” And that is a way that we must all be open to following. So often, we want to turn the spotlight on ourselves, when that is exactly not where it should be. For John the Baptist, the spotlight was always on Christ, the One for whom he was unfit to fasten his sandals. Just as the birth of St. John the Baptist helped his father Zechariah to speak once again, so his life gives voice to our own purpose in the world. Like St. John the Baptist, we are called to be a people who point to Christ, who herald the Good News, and who live our lives for God. We are called to decrease, while Christ increases in all of us. We are called to be that light to the nations of which Isaiah speaks today, so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

St. John the Baptist, pray for us.

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