Thanksgiving Day: People of Eucharist

Today’s readings

Several years ago now, my sister emailed me pictures of a storybook that my niece, Molly, wrote for a second grade school project.  It was a story about an unnamed boy and girl – but we might as well name them, because it was clear to me that the girl was the author and the boy was her brother Danny!  The boy and the girl were having a discussion, and later an argument, about what they wanted to be when they grew up.  At some point, they were called to dinner, and the table was set with their favorite meal: pizza and fries.  They both enjoyed the meal and cleaned their plates and the boy said, “I want more.”  He didn’t get more, of course, because his demand was rude, but the girl did, because she asked nicely and thanked her mother.  Then she told her brother, “Use your manners.”  The really scandalous part of this exchange is that I’ve heard the real girl demand things without using her manners on more than one occasion!

That little story provides a rich framework for what I want to talk about today, and it’s an interesting illustration of today’s Gospel reading.  That reading is scandalous too, because it seems that nine believers – people who should know how to be grateful to God – failed to express their gratitude over a miracle that literally gave them back the life that leprosy took away from them.  It’s almost unthinkable.  Maybe we can cut them a little slack, because when you look closely at the story, Jesus really didn’t say or do anything indicative of healing – all he did was say “Go show yourselves to the priests.”  Now, it was the priests’ job to take care of ritual purity, but I’m guessing they had seen priests about their illness in the past and were probably ignored, or even shunned in the name of ritual purity.  So I can see how they would have been confused, frustrated, and maybe even a little angry at Jesus’ response.  But they absolutely could not have been confused about the fact that they had been healed.  And yet the only one who thought to give thanks and praise to God was this other guy, a Samaritan – a foreigner and a religious outcast who wasn’t expected to know the religious etiquette that one should follow.

Maybe the most deeply scandalous part of this whole reading is not just that nine lepers forgot to thank Jesus.  I think the most scandalous part of this Gospel is that it really can be a kind of mirror of our own society in this day, and, yes, I’ll say it: even our own lives.  Because these days gratitude is not a common occurrence; more often our society gets caught up in entitlement – we deserve blessings, we have a right to grace and mercy.  Just as we think we have a right to everything in the whole world, we lay claim to God’s grace in ways that are deeply scandalous and even more than a little heretical.

Just like those ten lepers had no right to lay claim to Jesus’ healing powers, so we too have no right to lay claim to his grace and mercy.  Those things do not belong to us, and even more than that we are quite unable to earn them, even if we had a desire to earn them in the first place.  But here’s the really great thing that shatters the scandal: even though those lepers had no right to be healed, Jesus healed them anyway.  Even though we have no right to God’s grace and forgiveness for our many sins, he gives those things to us anyway, without a thought of doing otherwise.  As the saying goes, God is good, all the time.

And so the message today is that we have to decidedly leave behind our sinful attitudes of entitlement and embrace an attitude of gratitude.  And honestly, I think that can make us happier people.  Grateful people live differently.  Grateful people look for the blessing in every moment, they hunt for the grace constantly at work in their lives.  They are like radios which are powered on so that they can receive the broadcast.  When you’re grateful, it’s amazing how much more you seem to be blessed.  Only it’s obviously not that you’re blessed more; instead it’s that you’re more aware of the blessing.  Thankful people are happier with their lives, because they’re simply more aware of what God is doing, how God is leading them, and they feel the touch of God’s hand leading them through life.  Being grateful is a choice, but it’s an important choice worth making, it’s a choice that makes our lives richer and more beautiful every day.

As Catholics, we are a people who, at least liturgically, constantly choose to be grateful.  Eucharist, as we have been taught, is the Greek word for thanksgiving.  And so the Eucharist is the Thanksgiving feast par excellence.  Every time we gather to celebrate Mass, we remember that God in his infinite mercy sent his only Son to be our Savior.  He came into our world and walked among us, filling the earth with his most merciful presence.  He journeyed among us, a man like us in all things but sin.  His great love led him to bear the cross for our sake, dying the death we so richly deserved for our many sins.  And then he did the greatest thing possible: he burst out of the grave, breaking the chains of death, and rose to new life.  Because of this grace, we sinners have the possibility of everlasting life with God, the life we were created for in the first place.

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember this awesome mystery.  Not only that, our Eucharist actually brings us to the hour of that grace, giving us once again a share in its blessing.  As a Eucharistic people, we Catholics are a people of gratitude.  That’s what defines us.

So how would a people defined by gratitude celebrate this Thanksgiving day?  Certainly we have made the best possible start: gathering for the Eucharist to give thanks for the presence of God and the grace he pours out on us.  Then we take that grace to our families’ own Thanksgiving feasts and beyond.  As we gather around the table today, maybe we can stop to reflect on God’s magnificent presence in our lives – in good times and in bad.  And then use that gratitude to make the world an awesome place – or at least our corner of it!

So we’re not like those nine lepers that somehow missed the grace and blessing that was happening right before their eyes.  On this day, we gather because we choose to be grateful.  On this day, before all the turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie, we stand up and bear witness that our God is good all the time, that there is grace and blessing all around us, and we can see it if we choose to do so.  We grateful ones come into this holy place to show a watching world that we are who we say we are – a people of Eucharist – of thanksgiving not just on this day, but every day.  And we proclaim to the world that gratitude is the antidote for misery of entitlement, and it’s an attitude that can make the world a more blessed place.  Like the pilgrims on that first Thanksgiving, our gratitude can become the source of our survival through the hard times and the source of our joy in the good times.  May we never cease offer our gratitude to God, singing to him our songs of thanks and praise.

Monday of the Thirty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

A story is told about the third-century martyr Saint Lawrence that, after the death of Pope Sixtus II, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence, who was the keeper of the material goods of the Church, turn over to him all of the Church’s treasures.  In response, Saint Lawrence brought out the poor, the blind and the lame, to whom he had distributed alms, saying, “Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church’s crown.”  That act cost Lawrence his life, but it also testified to the real truth of where our treasure is found.

In today’s Gospel, our Lord instructs those dining at the home of one of the leading Pharisees to do much the same.  Rather than inviting those who would give you a boost in social status or cause you to have the opportunity for repayment, instead they should “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” expecting blessing because of their inability to repay the favor.

As we near the end of our liturgical year, the Church gives us this reading to help us to reflect on our discipleship over the last year.  What has been our response to the Gospel?  Have we sought our own honor and glory, or have we instead turned to have compassion on others?  Have we treated people as stepping stones to something better, or have we humbled ourselves?

Friends, Jesus makes it clear that we cannot receive the blessing God wants to give us if we aren’t humble enough to let go of social status and wealth and the high estimation of others.  We cannot receive blessing when we are grasping for things that look better.   So if toward the end of this year, we have not grown in blessing, maybe it’s time we took stock of what we need to get rid of.  Empty hands can receive blessing.

Monday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

What I think the folks in our first reading need to learn – and maybe us too – is that the spiritual life is always about the big picture.  The Israelites in today’s reading have completely rejected the God of their salvation.  God had taken them from abject slavery in Egypt, in which they were oppressed beyond anything we could possibly imagine – let alone endure – and led them through the desert, through the Red Sea (covering the pursuing Egyptians in the process), and into safety.  He is going to give them the Promised Land, but they, thank you very much, would prefer to return to Egypt so that they no longer have to sustain themselves on the bread that they have from the very hand of God himself.  They would rather have meat and garlic and onions, and whatever, than freedom and blessing from God.  What a horrible, selfish people they have become.

And Moses is no better.  He alone has been allowed to go up the mountain to be in the very presence of God.  No one else could get so close to God and live to tell the story.  God has given him the power to do miraculous deeds in order to lead the people.  And yet, when things get tough, he too would prefer death than to be in the presence of God.

And aren’t we just like them sometimes?  It’s easy to have faith when things are going well, and we are healthy, and our family is prospering.  But the minute things come along to test us, whether it is illness, or death of a loved one, or job troubles, or whatever, it’s hard to keep faith.  “Where is God when I need him?” we might ask.  We just don’t often have the spiritual attention spans to see the big picture.  We forget the many blessings God has given us, and ask “Well what has he done for me lately?”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus feeds the crowds until they are satisfied and have baskets of leftovers besides.  God’s blessings to us are manifold, and it is good to meditate on them when times are good, and remember them when times are bad.  God never wills the trials we go through, and he never forgets or abandons us when we are in the midst of those trials.  God feeds us constantly with finest wheat.  That’s the big picture, and we must never lose sight of it.

Monday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sometimes God’s blessings can be challenging.  For example, we might not think that those who are meek and those who mourn are blessed.  And we certainly wouldn’t celebrate the blessings of those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, would we?  It’s even more challenging when we remember that the word “blessed” in Scripture could also be translated as “happy.”  Would we think of those people as happy?  Probably not, but God does.

Paul and Timothy in our first reading write to the people of the Church at Corinth that, when they are afflicted – as they surely were! – it was for the Church’s encouragement and salvation.  Paul knew well that following Christ meant going to the Cross.  He realized that, for him, it probably meant death, but for all of us, it means some kind of mortification, some kind of sacrifice.

So it’s important for us to remember, I think, that while God never promises to make our lives free and easy, he does promise to bless us.  He will bless us with whatever gifts we need to do the work he has called us to do, the work for which he formed us in our mother’s womb.  We may be reasonably happy in this life, but the true happiness must come later.  Our reward, which Jesus promises will be great, will surely be in heaven.

The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Listen to that opening line from Jesus in today’s Gospel parable: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” That is a revelation so glorious that it should have us up dancing in the aisles, praising God, and throwing a huge party. Think about it: the Father is pleased to give us the kingdom. The whole thing. Doesn’t cost us a cent. All of it is ours! If there was ever any good news to share, this is it. It’s better than a huge promotion at work, it’s even better than winning the lottery. All those things last but a moment, but the kingdom, well that’s for eternity.

So now that we know that the Father is pleased to give us the kingdom, I’d like to explore two questions. First, are we pleased to receive the kingdom? And second, what on earth do we do with it?

Okay, so are we pleased to receive the kingdom? Well, the obvious answer is “yes!” I mean, the kingdom is the great promise that brings us here to church today. Inheriting the kingdom means we are not going to hell; indeed, we will have everlasting happiness. But I wonder how readily we receive this gift of all gifts – and let’s be clear: this is the best gift we’re ever going to get. But there are so many other things out there, and we want to keep our options open. We’d rather pursue the big promotion, the latest and greatest shiny gadget, the American dream house, and so much more. Lots of things tempt us and look better than the gift the Father is pleased to give us.

Another obstacle to receiving the kingdom is maybe we feel like there’s always time to receive that gift. We’re going to live a long time, right? So why deny ourselves so many passing things in favor of receiving the kingdom? We can always receive the Father’s gift later. Except for the fact that none of us knows how much time we have in this life. Procrastination is our enemy, because some day could well turn into never. Not only that, but Jesus came to clearly proclaim that the kingdom is now, and why would we deny ourselves the pleasure of receiving the kingdom now and latch on to so many easily-tarnished things? Now is the time, and there’s no gift greater.

So if we receive the kingdom, what are we supposed to do with it? Well, just like all of God’s gifts, it’s not just for us. We’re supposed to share it. We’re supposed to live like we are part of it. So this gift of the kingdom calls us to greater integrity, greater love, greater mercy, greater holiness. And this may well seem like hard work, but that’s because it is. Jesus made it clear at the end of today’s Gospel: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”

So does that make the gift of the kingdom seem like a burden? Well, maybe. But it’s a happy burden, a glorious burden, a sweet burden. All the saints tell us as much. Even Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30) But we’ll never realize that until we go all in and receive the gift the Father is pleased to give us today. It’s kind of like that project that seems daunting, but once we get into it, is actually kind of fun. That’s the burden of the kingdom.

So Jesus brings us Good News today: the Father is pleased to give us the kingdom. So what do we have to do, what do we have to let go of, in order to receive it? That’s what should be our to-do list this week. And then we can rejoice in that gift with the Psalmist today who sings: “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.”

Monday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time 

Sometimes God’s blessings can be challenging. For example, we might not think that those who are meek and those who mourn are blessed. And we certainly wouldn’t celebrate the blessings of those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, would we? It’s even more challenging when we remember that the word “blessed” in Scripture could also be translated as “happy.” Would we think of those people as happy? Probably not, but God does.
Elijah the Tishbite knew this blessing of God too. The prophet’s job is always a demanding one. It’s one of great blessing, because the prophet is called by God and formed from his mother’s womb. But it’s also a great challenge: people don’t usually want to hear what a prophet says – after all, if they were open to the message, a prophet probably wouldn’t be necessary – and quite often the prophets were chased out of town, beaten, and even murdered. Elijah’s job was going to be challenging, but it would also be blessed: God provided for his needs at Wadi Cherith and at the end of his life, whisked him off to heaven in a chariot of fire.

So it’s important for us to remember, I think, that while God never promises to make our lives free and easy, he does promise to bless us. He will bless us with whatever gifts we need to do the work he has called us to do, the work for which he formed us in our mother’s womb. The happiness of the blessing might not come in this life, but we who do God’s will can look forward to our reward, which Jesus promises will be great, in heaven.

Monday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

What I think the folks in our first reading need to learn – and maybe us too – is that the spiritual life is always about the big picture.  The Israelites in today’s reading have completely rejected the God of their salvation.  God had taken them from abject slavery in Egypt, in which they were oppressed beyond anything we could possibly imagine – let alone endure – and led them through the desert, through the Red Sea (covering the pursuing Egyptians in the process), and into safety.  He is going to give them the Promised Land, but they, thank you very much, would prefer to return to Egypt so that they no longer have to sustain themselves on the bread that they have from the very hand of God himself.  They would rather have meat and garlic and onions, and whatever, than freedom and blessing from God.  What a horrible, selfish people they have become.

And Moses is no better.  He alone has been allowed to go up the mountain to be in the very presence of God.  No one else could get so close to God and live to tell the story.  God has given him the power to do miraculous deeds in order to lead the people.  And yet, when things get tough, he too would prefer death than to be in the presence of God.

And aren’t we just like them sometimes?  It’s easy to have faith when things are going well, and we are healthy, and our family is prospering.  But the minute things come along to test us, whether it is illness, or death of a loved one, or job troubles, or whatever, it’s hard to keep faith.  “Where is God when I need him?” we might ask.  We just don’t often have the spiritual attention spans to see the big picture.  We forget the many blessings God has given us, and ask “Well what has he done for me lately?”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus feeds the crowds until they are satisfied and have baskets of leftovers besides.  God’s blessings to us are manifold, and it is good to meditate on them when times are good, and remember them when times are bad.  God never wills the trials we go through, and he never forgets or abandons us when we are in the midst of those trials.  God feeds us constantly with finest wheat.  That’s the big picture, and we must never lose sight of it.