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

Today’s readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sometimes it’s hard to accept that something is in our best interest when we first hear of it.  I can remember often growing up not wanting to do something like go on a retreat or join the youth group, but my parents giving me that gentle nudge to do it anyway.  And then of course, when I went, I’d always have a really great experience, and then I had to admit to them that I liked it, which was harder still.

I always think of that when I hear this week’s Gospel reading.  I think it’s a pretty human experience to resist what’s good for us, especially when it means extending ourselves into a new experience, or when it means having to inconvenience ourselves or disrupt our usual schedule.  We don’t want to go out into the field and work today, or go help at the soup kitchen, or go teach religious education, or go to the parish mission, or get involved in a ministry at the church, or join a Bible Study, or whatever it may be that’s in front of us.

I remember specifically an experience I had when I first started in seminary.  I became aware that some of the guys, as their field education experience, were serving as fire chaplains.  That scared the life out of me, and I said to myself that I’d never be able to do that.  Two and a half years later, one of my friends at seminary asked me to join him as a fire chaplain.  Figures, doesn’t it?  I told him I didn’t think I had the ability to do that, but he persuaded me to pray about it.  Well, when I prayed about it, of course the answer was yes, do it.  And so I did, and found it one of the most rewarding spiritual experiences of my time in seminary.

People involved in ministries here at the Church can probably tell you the same kinds of stories.  Times when they have been persuaded to do something they didn’t want to.  They could probably tell you how much they grew as people, how much they enjoyed the experience.  When we extend ourselves beyond our own comfort level for the glory of God, we are always rewarded beyond what we deserve.  And that’s grace; that’s the work of God in our lives.

What’s important for us to see here is this: God extends his mercy and forgiveness and grace and calling to us all the time. We may respond, I think, in one of four ways. First, we may say no, and never change, never become what God created us to be. This happens all the time because we as a people tend to love our sins and love our comfort more than we love God. We would rather not be inconvenienced or challenged to grow.

We might also say no, but later be converted. That’s a little better. Let’s be clear: there is no time like the present, and we never know if we have tomorrow. But God’s grace doesn’t stop working on us until the very end. So we can have hope because God does not give up on us.

We might say yes, with all good intentions of following God, being in relationship with him, and doing what he asks of us. But perhaps we get distracted by life, by work, by our sins, by relationships that are impure, or whatever. And then we never actually become what we’re supposed to be.

Or we might actually say yes and do it, with God’s grace. We might be people who are always open to grace and work on our relationship with God. Then that grace can lead to a life of having become what God wanted of us, and that puts us on the path to sainthood, which is where we are all supposed to be.  The model for that, of course, would be the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was able to say “yes” to God’s plan for her and the world right away.

Today’s Gospel is a good occasion for a deep examination of conscience. Where are we on the spectrum? Have we nurtured our relationship with God and said yes to his call, or are we somewhere else? And if we’re somewhere else, what is it that we love more than God? What do we have to do to get us on the right path? We know the way of righteousness. We know the path to heaven. We just have to make up our minds and change our hearts so that we might follow Jesus Christ, our way to eternal life.

The Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sometimes it’s hard to accept that something is in our best interest when we first hear of it.  I can remember often growing up not wanting to do something like go on a retreat or join the youth group, but my parents giving me that gentle nudge to do it anyway.  And then of course, when I went, I’d always have a really great experience, and then I had to admit to them that I liked it, which was harder still.

I always think of that when I hear this week’s Gospel reading.  I think it’s a pretty human experience to resist what’s good for us, especially when it means extending ourselves into a new experience, or when it means having to inconvenience ourselves or disrupt our usual schedule.  We don’t want to go out into the field and work today, or go help at the soup kitchen, or go teach religious education, or go on that retreat, or get involved in a ministry at the church, or join a small Christian community, or whatever it may be that’s in front of us.

I remember specifically an experience I had when I first started in seminary.  I became aware that some of the guys, as their field education experience, were serving as fire chaplains.  That scared the life out of me, and I said to myself that I’d never be able to do that.  Two and a half years later, one of my friends at seminary asked me to join him as a fire chaplain.  Figures, doesn’t it?  I told him I didn’t think I had the ability to do that, but he persuaded me to pray about it.  Well, when I prayed about it, of course the answer was yes, do it.  And so I did, and found it one of the most rewarding spiritual experiences of my time in seminary.

People involved in ministries here at the Church can probably tell you the same kinds of stories.  Times when they have been persuaded to do something they didn’t want to.  They could probably tell you how much they grew as people, how much they enjoyed the experience.  When we extend ourselves beyond our own comfort level for the glory of God, we are always rewarded beyond what we deserve.  And that’s grace, that’s the work of God in our lives.

What’s important for us to see here is this: God extends his mercy and forgiveness and grace and calling to us all the time. We may respond in four ways. First, we may say no, and never change, never become what God created us to be. This happens all the time because we as a people tend to love our sins and love our comfort more than we love God. We would rather not be inconvenienced or challenged to grow.

We might also say no, but later be converted. That’s more okay. Let’s be clear: there is no time like the present, and we never know if we have tomorrow. But God’s grace doesn’t stop working on us until the very end. So we can have hope because God does not give up on us.

We might say yes, with all good intentions of following God, being in relationship with him, and doing what he asks of us. But perhaps we get distracted by life, by work, by our sins, by relationships that are impure, or whatever. And then we never actually become what we’re supposed to be.

Or we might actually say yes and do it, with God’s grace. We might be people who are always open to grace and work on our relationship with God. Then that grace can lead to a life of having become what God wanted of us, and that puts us on the path to sainthood, which is where we are all supposed to be.

Today’s Gospel is a good occasion for a deep examination of conscience. Where are we on the spectrum? Have we nurtured our relationship with God and said yes to his call, or are we somewhere else? And if we’re somewhere else, what is it that we love more than God? What do we have to do to get us on the right path? We know the way of righteousness. We know the path to heaven. We just have to make up our minds and change our hearts so that we might follow Jesus Christ, our way to eternal life.

Friday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today we get a bit of a glimpse as to how Jesus’ day-to-day ministry worked.  We can see three things in particular that characterize how things happened.  First, he journeyed to proclaim the Good News.  He met people where they were, and even sought them out.  This shows us God’s relentless pursuit of the people he loves.

Second, he brought people with him.  He travelled with the Twelve Apostles, some of the women he had cured of evil spirits and of illnesses, some particular women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna), and “many others.”  All of these were drawn to Jesus for various reasons.  We can assume they had all been given some gift: healing, a call to ministry, recognition of their worth – and all of them had responded by wanting to be near him.  This models for us our response to God’s work in our lives.

And finally, those travelling with him provided for his ministry out of their resources.  Some of the women were well-connected, especially Joanna, whose husband was a high official in the court of Herod Agrippa.  So she would have had resources to help with the ministry as well as leisure to follow Jesus.

We can hardly visit this gospel reading, though, and not notice the meticulous mention of the women that were among his followers.  In a day where a woman’s participation in anything of a public nature would be totally frowned upon, Jesus reached out to women, and brought them into his ministry.  Certainly the Evangelist would never have mentioned it if it weren’t important to the Gospel itself.

We come here today for Mass, aware that our God seeks us out in little and big ways every single day.  We too want to be close to him, and respond as did the Twelve, the women, and the “many others.”  Our desire for God and our yearning for forgiveness are themselves God’s gift to us.  Blessed are those who journey with Christ on the way.

Thursday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I always think it’s interesting that whenever we see Peter and the others doing what they grew up doing – that is, fishing – they are never doing any good at it unless Jesus is around.  Today’s Gospel is no different.  Here Jesus comes along and sits in his boat, and tells Simon to put out the nets for a catch.  I can almost feel him thinking “Put out my nets?  What do you think I’ve been doing all night long?

But when he gives in to his curiosity about Jesus, he is rewarded beyond anything he can possibly imagine.  The catch fills, and more than fills, two boats!  This great abundance foreshadows they way that Jesus will fill their lives and give them purpose beyond anything fishing can do.  Yes, they will be catching people, not fish, and winning hearts for the kingdom, but they will also find their true calling and be fulfilled in ways they could never have imagined.

Of it all, Peter feels unworthy:  “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  We might all feel that way when Jesus fills up our lives and reveals our true calling.  But we will never be truly fulfilled unless we leave everything and follow him.

Monday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It seems like just yesterday that John the Baptist was baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River.  Oh wait, it was just yesterday!  But today’s reading fast forwards a bit and takes us to a time after John has been arrested.  John isn’t dead yet, not yet out of the picture, but clearly he is decreasing, as he says in another place, so that Jesus can increase.

And Jesus is certainly increasing.  His ministry is kicking into full swing, and he begins by preaching that the kingdom is at hand – a theme that will continue his whole life long.  And he begins to call his followers.  Simon and Andrew, James and John, two sets of brothers, two groups of fishermen, give up their nets and their boats and their fathers and turn instead to casting nets to catch men and women for God’s kingdom.

As the author of our first reading from the letter to the Hebrews tells us, in times past God spoke in partial and various ways and through prophets – including, actually, John the Baptist.  But now God doesn’t need the prophets anymore.  He is speaking – and acting – directly through his Son Jesus, the heir of all things, the one through whom God created the universe, the refulgence of God’s glory.

You know, even though today is the first day of Ordinary Time, we continue some aspects of Christmas and the Epiphany right up until February second, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  So today’s Gospel fits right in with that.  Today’s Gospel gives us a little more light to see what Jesus is up to.  He calls us all to repentance and to accept the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.  He says to us just as he said to Simon, Andrew, James and John: “Come follow me.”  The year ahead can be an exciting spiritual journey for us.  Who knows what Jesus will do in us to further the kingdom of God?  We just have to answer that wonderful invitation – “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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So Jesus goes over to Matthew, who, at that time, was anything but a saint.  He was sitting at the customs post, collecting the required taxes.  He was a Jew acting as a representative of the Roman occupation government.  He didn’t have a fan club, to say the least.  It wasn’t just that he was a tax collector – probably that would have been bad enough, but it was also that he was an employee of the Roman oppression government.  It was almost like he was giving up his heritage.  This is the Matthew who Jesus approaches and gives a fairly simple, two-word command:  “follow me.”

We could be in wonder about why Jesus would pick such a man, and plenty of homily time has been spent examining that issue, I think.  What has me in wonder these days is Matthew’s response.  “And he got up and followed him.”  That’s it.  He left the table, didn’t even clock out, left all the money there, and took off to follow Jesus.  He didn’t cash out the register or finish up with the customer he was working with, or even take a minute to record the current transaction in a spreadsheet.  He followed right then and there.  He left his whole considerable livelihood behind.  And that livelihood was as rich as he wanted to make it, since all he had to return to Rome was the tax that was prescribed.  Anything else was his to keep.  But on the strength of a two-word command, he gets up and leaves his responsibilities to his employers, his family, and all he ever knew behind.

What was it that caused him to do such a thing?  It certainly wasn’t some kind of solidly-worded argumentation or beautiful preaching or rhetoric, because all Jesus said to him was “follow me.”  So did he know Jesus before this?  Had he indeed heard him preach before and experienced a stirring in his heart?  Had he witnessed one of Jesus’ miracles and always wanted the opportunity to know more about this man?  Was there something going on in Matthew’s life that was calling him to make a change?  Was he unmotivated by his current situation or had he felt God tugging at his heart?  Of course, we don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  All we do know is that Jesus said “follow me” and Matthew did.  Simple as that.

Yesterday I was at the Cathedral of St. Raymond in Joliet, for priesthood ordinations for our diocese.  Three young men were ordained for service to the Church of Joliet.  They, of course, looked elated, and had an excitement that I clearly remember myself.  This past week, I received a letter from a young woman I knew from the parish where I served my internship back in my third year of seminary.  She has finished her first year of formation for service as a Dominican nun.  Her letter told me about the richness of her experience of formation, including classes, prayer and ministry experiences.  Just a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the forty years of wonderful service that Fr. Ted has given our diocese, including his work for the last six years at our parish.  In his homily at his celebration Mass, he reflected on the many experiences he had over the last forty years, and said that if he had it to do over again, he would enter the priesthood again “in a heartbeat.”  Later this year, we will have the opportunity to celebrate the fifty years of service that Sr. Anne Hyzy has given as a nun.  She is a woman whose faith and spirituality have been a beacon for so many of us, and we look forward to celebrating her anniversary.  And just this past week, I celebrated my second anniversary as a priest.  So this has been a time when I have had the opportunity to reflect a bit on God’s call.

What is it that gets any of us to respond to that call: “follow me?”  Because – and let’s be very clear about this – every one of us gets that call in some way, shape or form, at some point in our lives.  We are called to rich vocational lives in so many different ways.  Some are called to be priests, deacons or religious.  Some are called to the married life and give of their lives as parents.  Some are called to the single life, sacrificing the promiscuity and worldliness of our current culture to be a witness to God’s power in the world.  We may be church workers, or doctors, or lawyers, or construction workers, or grocery store clerks, or any of a million different things.  But the one thing that unites us – our baptism – also unites us in its effect: we are all called by our baptism to do something specific, something heroic, something very significant for Christ.  To all of us – every one of us without exception – Christ is saying: “follow me.”

In a perfect world, it should be enough for us that God has forgiven us of our sins and made us one with him in baptism.  It should be enough for us that Jesus says, despite the myriad of ways that we are unworthy of any kind of call, “follow me.”  It should be enough that we are forgiven, and graced, and called, and loved to respond just like Matthew did, giving it all over so that we can follow the Lord wherever it is that he is leading us.  But lots of times, that isn’t enough.  Because we are sinful people who are afraid of commitment or are too bogged down in the world, or have turned away for so many reasons.  Sometimes, it takes a while for that “follow me” call to work its way through our hardened hearts and restless spirits.  I should know: it took thirty-six years for me.

So what about you?  Is there a customs post that you need to walk away from?  Is there a call to “follow me” that you’ve been hearing from the Lord for some time now that you have not had the courage to answer?  Because I think the real question is not what is it about Jesus that would make someone follow him with just a simple command.   No.  The real question is, what is it about us that would turn down the life of grace and happiness and adventure and joy that Jesus has in store for us? I can’t possibly imagine how terrible it would have been to say “no” to Jesus at this point in my life.  I always tell people that if you really want to be really happy, then you have to do what God is calling you to do.  Nothing else will make you that happy.  And I should know, because the last two years of my life have been the most wonderful I can remember.

Jesus comes to all of us today, in the busy-ness of our lives.  Right in the middle of taking the customs tax from a traveler, we are called: “follow me.”  What does that call look like for you?  Are you ready to get up and follow him, without another word being spoken?  If you’ve been on the fence, consider this homily the sign you’ve been looking for.  God is calling.  “Follow me.”