Friday of the 15th Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

Getting worship right isn't as easy as we make it out to be sometimes. Often we pay so much attention to picking the right songs, taking care of the art and environment, and the many other details. And these things are all very important and need to be done. But none of them eclipses putting the right song in our hearts, beautifying our souls and living the details of our faith with fortitude.

Hezekiah had lived faithfully and so he cried out to the Lord when he heard of his impending death. The Lord in his faithfulness granted Hezekiah fifteen more years to serve him, as well as giving him rest from the bitter onslaught of the Assyrians. Hezekiah's response to all of this was a response of worship. Today's responsorial psalm consists of the verses of Isaiah that follow what we have heard in today's first reading. In those verses, Hezekiah sings the praise of God:

You have given me health and life;
thus is my bitterness transformed into peace.
You have preserved my life from the pit of destruction,
when you cast behind your back all my sins.
For it is not the nether world that gives you thanks, nor death that praises you;
Neither do those who go down into the pit await your kindness.
The living, the living give you thanks, as I do today.
Fathers declare to their sons, O God, your faithfulness.
The LORD is our savior; we shall sing to stringed instruments
in the house of the LORD all the days of our life. (Isaiah 38:16b-20)

The Pharisees, however, in all their good fortune, never gave true worship a moment's thought. Their worship consisted in simply following the rules, and never coming to an understanding or an application of the spirit of the Law. Had they been able to get worship right, Jesus' followers wouldn't have had to break the Sabbath by picking grains of wheat to eat. They would have been taken care of by the hospitality of others.

Because worship isn't just about what we do here in this place; it's all about what we do when we go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Every moment we have is a gift from God, and in every one of those moments, we must make the decision to worship with our thoughts, words and actions. When we do that, I guarantee that we will come to realize how truly blessed we are and realize the many wonderful ways God has saved our lives as he did for Hezekiah.

Monday of the 15th Week of Ordinary Time: Upsetting our Apple Carts

Today's readings

It seems to me that the readings this morning are pretty direct, aren't they? Isaiah makes it clear that if we pretend to worship God, no matter how beautiful our Liturgy may be, but forget about God as soon as we leave the parking lot, we might as well not worship at all. Isaiah came to prophesy that God does not want a proliferation of heartless worship or empty pomp and circumstance. No, God wants our hearts. Toward that end, we must reform our lives, clean our hands and our hearts, free ourselves from the false idols of our lives, and turn wholeheartedly and abandon ourselves to God. We must worship not just here in this Church, but in every moment of our lives.

Jesus is pretty direct too, isn't he? We might want simple words of peace – I know I could have used some today – but that isn't what he wants to offer. He wants to upset the apple carts of our lives, to afflict us in our comfort. He isn't asking us to abandon our families, but he is asking us to put discipleship on the front burner. His message is that every action of our lives must be directed toward taking up our crosses and following him. That might mean a simple glass of water offered to someone doing the Lord's work. Or it might mean answering a call we have received to be involved in a certain ministry. But whatever it means, there is nothing more important, and that call must be answered now.

But all of this comes with a promise. Whoever abandons themselves to wonderful pure worship in every moment, a worship that puts discipleship first and takes up his or her cross, that one will surely be rewarded.

Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: It’s Not About Us

Today's readings

One of my professors in seminary would often tell us that, because we had made a commitment to follow God's call, the devil would do everything possible to get us to change our mind. One of the devil's tricks would be to make us feel completely unworthy of the call, so much so that we'd abandon it. He cautioned that, the closer we got to ordination, the more intense that feeling would become. And boy, was he right! Weeks before the ordination, all of the sins of my life, along with all of my personal inadequacies and weaknesses, came to light before me in splendid fashion. I often felt so unworthy of answering the call that I wondered if I was making a huge mistake.

And the truth is, I am unworthy of the call. Looking around at my classmates, that was true of all of us. Some of us would be more willing to admit that than others, but it was really true. The truth is that none of us is ever really worthy of doing God's work, because none of us is perfect, and nobody is holy enough to stand in the place of God. Yet that was what we were called to do. Whether or not we had ever sinned, whatever our gifts or talents were, wherever we had failings or inadequacies, none of that mattered. Why? Because it's not about us.

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 get it to 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 what happened to him, don't we?

The point is, that 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.

We can depend on this: the Word of the Lord will continue to be proclaimed. Prophesy will still be spoken. Repentance will be preached, and all will know that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Demons will be driven out. And many who are sick will be anointed with oil and cured in the name of the Lord. And there isn't anything we underqualified, ill-prepared, flawed human beings can do to stop it. God will still use us despite our failings, and often enough even despite our own attempts to stay out of it.

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! Sometimes when others call us to do something, perhaps they see something in us that we can't see, or perhaps they may see God working in us in ways we don't fully appreciate. 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.

When I was in seminary, one of the things I heard about some of the guys doing was acting as fire chaplains. They would be on call with the fire department and would help them reach out to people in the midst of emergencies and crises. That kind of thing scared the life out of me, and I thought "I'll never be able to do anything like that." Well, of course, a couple of years later, I was asked to become a fire chaplain. My first response was, "oh no, I could never do that." My friend who asked me to do it asked me to at least pray about it, which I agreed to do. And when I did pray about it, my answer from God was that of course I couldn't do it by myself, but it wasn't about me. So I became a fire chaplain despite my promise that I would never do so, and I worked with folks whose house was burning down, or whose children had committed suicide, or whose loved ones died in an accident. I ministered to the fire and paramedic personnel who had been through some difficult times. And I was always glad I was there, letting God use me to do things I could never do myself.

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. 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.

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 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.

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 infirm. Working at a soup kitchen or 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.

How is it possible for you to cure the sick? You anoint the sick every time you remember them in prayer, or visit them in the hospital or at home. You anoint the sick when you volunteer as a minister of care. You anoint 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 anoint 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. Heal
ing 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.

Saint Bonaventure, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Today's readings | Saint of the Day

Saint Bonaventure was born in central Italy in 1221. As a boy, he was cured of a serious illness through the prayers of St. Francis. St. Francis was an inspiration to Bonaventure and because of that, Bonaventure entered the Franciscan order and later became a professor of theology at the university in Paris. He later became Minister General of the Franciscan order was made Cardinal-Bishop of Albano. He died at the Council of Lyons in 1274.

Bonaventure was a Franciscan, theologian, and doctor of the Church; a learned and holy man. In fact, he was known for his ability to unite theology and spirituality. He was a great mystic while remaining an active teacher and preacher, all of which shows the best of the Franciscan order.

Today's Gospel says that no disciple is above his teacher. Bonaventure was ever mindful of this, and took great inspiration from his teacher, St. Francis. The inspiration of Francis was what led him to study philosophy and theology, and to enter the Franciscan order. In Bonaventure's writings, we learn that he had many other teachers as well. This comes from his writing, Journey of the Mind to God:

Let us pass over with the crucified Christ from this world to the Father, so that, when the Father has shown himself to us, we can say with Philip: It is enough. We may hear with Paul: My grace is sufficient for you; and we can rejoice with David, saying: My flesh and my heart fail me, but God is the strengthy of my heart and my heritage for ever. Blessed be the Lord for ever, and let all the people say: Amen. Amen!

So Bonaventure had many teachers: St. Francis, St. Philip, St. Paul, and even King David the Psalmist. And in his pursuit of study and holiness he strove to become as much like them as he could. The example we receive from him is to find who our teachers may be. Who is it who has instructed us in wisdom and holiness? Who has led us closer to Christ? Who has taught us to pray in our bad times as well as our good times? These people have been teachers to us. They may be parents, loved ones, teachers, friends, co-workers, priests, deacons, or catechists. Whoever they were, Bonaventure would have us become like them, so that others might grow in the ways that we have and become God's holy people.

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Virgin

Today’s Readings | Saint of the Day

Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 to a Christian Algonquin woman. Her parents died in a smallpox epidemic – which left Kateri herself disfigured and half blind – when she was four years old. She went to live with her uncle who succeeded her own father as chief of the clan. Her uncle hated the missionaries who, because of the Mohawks’ treaty with France, were required to be present in the region. Kateri, however, was moved by their words. She refused to marry a Mohawk brave, and at age 19, was baptized on Easter Sunday.

Her baptism meant that she would be treated forever as a slave. Since she refused to work on Sundays, she was not given anything to eat on those days. She eventually took a 200 mile walking journey to the area of Montreal, and there grew in holiness under the direction of some Christian women in the area. At age 23, she took a vow of virginity.

Kateri’s life was one of extreme penance and fasting. This she took upon herself as a penance for the eventual conversion of her nation. Kateri said: “I am not my own; I have given myself to Jesus. He must be my only love. The state of helpless poverty that may befall me if I do not marry does not frighten me. All I need is a little food and a few pieces of clothing. With the work of my hands I shall always earn what is necessary and what is left over I’ll give to my relatives and to the poor. If I should become sick and unable to work, then I shall be like the Lord on the cross. He will have mercy on me and help me, I am sure.”

Kateri knew what it was like to be sent out like a sheep in the midst of wolves, as today’s Gospel says. She lived a very courageously Christian life in the midst of a culture quite hostile to our religion and way of life. The witness of her life, a life of virginity, penance and poverty, inspired many who knew her at the time, and continues to inspire us today. She never worried about what words to speak, because her life spoke volumes, and all of that was given her by the Holy Spirit.

We too are called to speak through our lives and our lips in witness to the Gospel. Let us all pray for the grace to speak courageously, in our words and actions, and to rely on God to give us what we need to speak in every situation.

Monday of the 14th Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

The Lord is gracious and merciful.

Recently, I was reading a commentary on preaching that encouraged preachers to preach once in a while on other readings beside the Gospel. The Gospel's almost always the most obvious choice, and certainly contains the crux of the message in the Liturgy of the Word. But wonderful gems can be discovered if we dig a little deeper into the other readings. So today, I would like to reflect on the responsorial psalm, often sung, often recited, but largely forgotten. I'm a singer, so the psalm tends to appeal to me, and you will often hear me preach at least a short portion of my homily about the psalm, quite often at the very end. Today, I'd like to take a look at the psalm because I think it provides a beautiful link between the first reading and the Gospel.

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. At first glance today, it seems like the psalmist is going through some very good times indeed. 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. Indeed, 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. Preaching to the Israelites in exile, he proclaims that God will change the relationship between Israel and the Lord, much as one would change the relationship with a fiancé when the two are married. 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 in the Gospel reading, which is Matthew's version of the story we had from Mark a week ago Sunday. 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.

14th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Our Eyes are Fixed Intently on the Lord

Today's readings 

The story goes that one day, St. Theresa of Avila was wheeling a cart across a bridge over the river. At one point along the bridge's passage, a wheel of the cart got stuck in the planks, and St. Theresa had to wrestle the cart to get going again. In the struggle, the cart tipped over, and its entire contents spilled out and into the river. As she looked at all her stuff floating down the river, she said, "Well, God, if this is how you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few of them!"

Many of us, I would venture to guess, have had experiences in our own lives where it seemed like the contents of our carts were floating down the river. Certainly that must have been how Ezekiel felt in today's first reading. To be told, in no uncertain terms, at the outset of your life's work, that your work will be frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful might be a little too much reality all at once. You'll never see that reading quoted on vocation posters or seminary websites!

Jesus' experience in the Gospel reading was much the same. The people who knew him first and knew him best, people from his own home town, totally misunderstood who he was and what his ministry was sent to accomplish. These people saw the miracles he worked elsewhere and heard the words he preached, but were so offended by it that their lack of faith stifled his ability to do anything great in their midst, other than to cure a few sick people.

Today's readings are filled with contrasts as we read them. Let's first back up a bit – all the way to last week. Do you remember last week's Gospel reading? The faith of Jairus and the woman with the 12-year hemorrhage made possible two wonderful, miraculous healings. Jairus's daughter was literally resuscitated from death because Jairus had faith enough to come to Jesus in humility. The woman with the hemorrhage was cured because she had just enough faith and courage to reach out and touch Jesus' garment. Last week we were impressed with faith that overcame long illness and even death.

Today's Gospel, coming right on the heels of that celebration of faith and healing, is the complete opposite. Where last week there was faith, this week there is rejection. Where last week there was courage, this week there is fear and offense. Where last week healing abounded, this week there is hardly any mighty deed to be found. What's going on here?

In Jesus' time, there was a clear delineation of one's class based on where one's family fit into the social structure. To honor one's family, a person worked hard, within the parameters of his or her family's place, and didn't rock the boat. Where striving to better ourselves is a hallmark of the American ethic, in that time it was scandalous to try to rise above one's place in the social structure. It just wasn't done. So this is the basis at which the people of Jesus' home town took offense at him. They knew he was a carpenter, they knew his mother and relatives. His actions and words seemed to put him above all that, and for them, that was just intolerable. That explains their reaction, but of course, it doesn't make it a good reaction, does it?

Another huge contrast in today's readings is the faith of St. Paul over against the lack of faith of Jesus' neighbors in the Gospel. In today's second reading, St. Paul has plenty of reason for a lack of faith: a thorn in the flesh – whatever that was for him – afflicted him and would not go away. In addition, he put up with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints. And yet, in all of this he did not waver in his faith: he put up with it all for the sake of Christ, proclaiming that when he was weak, it was then that he was strong. If Jesus' neighbors had just a little of that kind of faith, think of the many wonders that would have been accomplished in their midst!

The contrasts we have looked at in these readings show the range of response to the presence of a prophet in one's community. Everywhere Jesus went, his prophecy was met with wonder and awe – except in his own community, that is. In every other place, people came to him in faith and were healed of their illnesses and freed from their sins. In his own place, they were scandalized by him and wanted nothing whatever to do with him. That was just the kind of reaction that Ezekiel was promised in today's first reading. The people to whom he was being sent were "hard of face and obstinate of heart" but Ezekiel was sent to preach to them anyway, so that whether they heeded or resisted, they would nonetheless know that "a prophet has been among them."

The question for us, then, is how we will respond to the prophetic voices in our own lives? When we hear our parents, our elders, our Church or whoever it may be calling us to reform our lives, what will be our reaction? Will we become hard of face and obstinate of heart? Will we take offense at those who dare to speak to us, because we know who they are and where they came from? Or will we, like St. Paul, boast of our weaknesses and be content with all our afflictions, knowing that in all of that, the power of Christ will take hold of us and God will be glorified?

Because we all of us have days where our cart tips over and our stuff ends up floating down the river, don't we? St. Theresa could get away with taking God to task for that because her faith was unquestioning and her trust in God was central to her life. But what about us? Will we look at our stuff floating down the river and give it all up and turn away from the voices of those who strive to help us make sense of it all? Or will we hear the Word of the Lord speaking through the hard times and the crisis and the pain and respond in faith, knowing that God longs to collect the contents of our carts and restore them to us, sending us on our way to continue the journey over the bridge?

We have to see that what God is calling us to here today is a faithful response, and not necessarily a wildly successful one. Sure, we are going to have resistance to our best efforts. Yes, life will bring its share of hardships and obstacles. Some days we may be victorious over pain and evil and sin, and some days they may get the best of us. We may pray over and over and over again that God would deliver us from our thorns in the flesh, and we may get discouraged at the lack of results. But our response must always be a response of faith, letting God be God, and trusting in God for our salvation.

We've all heard the famous serenity prayer, written by the protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

But maybe you haven't heard the rest of that prayer. It goes like this:

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

We are a people drenched with the imperfections of the world, and yet called to a resilient faith. The psalmist today puts it well and sums up our experience of life by saying that we are "more than sated with contempt … with the mockery of the arrogant, with the contempt of the proud." But even suffering all of that, that same psalmist makes a case for faith and models what should be our response to it all: "Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy."