The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Loving Communities of Faith

Today’s readings

Today’s second reading is certainly familiar to anyone who has been to a church wedding. It’s easy to see why so many couples would choose that reading: the romantic nature of the love they have for one another wants a reading as sweet and beautiful as this to be proclaimed at their wedding. But I always tell them that they should be careful of what they’re asking for. Because the love that St. Paul speaks of is not something that you feel, it’s more something that you do. Or, even better, something that you are.

Because, in any relationship, love is a choice. If it were just a feeling that you automatically had for someone close to you, it would be so much easier. If love happened automatically like that, there would be no abusive relationships. Young people would never turn away from their families. Parents would never neglect their children. Spouses would never separate. We wouldn’t need the sixth commandment, because no one would ever think to commit adultery. Priests would never leave the priesthood because their love for their congregations and the Church, and above all, for God, would stop them from any other thoughts.

So as we hear that reading from Saint Paul today, I believe he’s giving it to us to show us how to be a community of faith. Because, in community, love absolutely has to address pomposity, inflated egos, rudeness, self-indulgence, and much more. All of us, no matter what our state of life, must make a choice to love every single day. If you are married, you have to choose to love your spouse; if you are a parent, you have to choose to love your children. Children must choose to love their parents; priests have to choose to love their congregations, and the list goes on. Love is the most beautiful thing in the world, but love is also hard work, and it is that hard work that makes us a community of faith.

As today’s Liturgy of the Word unfolds, we can see that love makes demands on us, demands that may in fact make us unpopular. In the first reading, Jeremiah is told that he was known and loved by God even before he was formed in his mother’s womb. That love demanded of him that he roll up his sleeves and be a prophet to the nations. God gives him the rather ominous news that his prophecy won’t be accepted by everybody, that the people would fight against him. But even so, Jeremiah was to stand up to them and say everything that God commanded him, knowing that God would never let him be crushed, nor would God let the people prevail over Jeremiah.

For Jesus, it was close friends and neighbors who rejected him. In the Gospel today, while the people in the synagogue were initially amazed at his gracious words, soon enough they were asking “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” as if to say, “Who is he to be talking to us this way?” When Jesus tells them that his ministry will make God’s love known to the Gentiles – those whom God had supposedly not chosen – it is then that they rise up and drive him out of the city, presumably to stone him to death.

So love has to endure all of that. Jeremiah had to weather the storm for love of God. Jesus had to eventually go to the cross for love of sinners, you know, like you and me. In a community, we will have to work hard to love one another and help one another to know God’s love and care for them. We will have to extend ourselves and take a step of faith so that love can be proclaimed and lived and shared.

The Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time [Cycle C]

Today’s readings

The past two weekends, we have had the first reading come from the book of the prophet Amos.  I love Amos.  He doesn’t mince words, and you can usually tell what he’s getting at right away.  Today, though, I think it’s a little harder to understand what he means.  The line that jumps out at me is the line, “Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.”  It almost sounds like a good thing.  David, of course, was a wonderful musician, so why would it be a bad thing that they are able to devise their own accompaniments, like David did?

Well, let me tell you a story from my own life that might shed some light on it.  This, too, is a musical analogy.  Back when I was in my early twenties, I was taking voice lessons. I had a really good teacher who taught me all the mechanics of voice as well as some music theory. He also tried to teach me how to play piano, but that never took. But I have to admit, sometimes I took things for granted and let my practicing slide. And that’s exactly what I had been doing that for a couple of weeks at one point.  The lesson right after that went okay, but I have to admit I didn’t really learn anything because I hadn’t put anything into it. At the end of the lesson, we sat down and talked for a while. Mostly my teacher was talking and I was getting an earful. But I thought he was praising me for my abilities and progress – the words he used were very positive and I left feeling really good about myself. But afterward, while I was driving home, I started to feel the kick in the pants that the talk really was. I got the message, loud and clear.

I think that’s what Amos is doing here.  Listen to that line again: “Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.” Again, it almost sounds like a good thing, but it isn’t at all. David could devise his own accompaniment, because he was singing those Psalms with the voice of God. But if everyone in our choir devised their own accompaniment, we’d have a cacophony. So here Amos is making the point that devising their own accompaniment meant that they listened to what they wanted to hear, not what God was telling them.  They did whatever they wanted to do, because it seemed like God was blessing them.  It’s kind of like the expression, “she dances to her own music.” It’s not a compliment at all.

The rich man in today’s Gospel devised his own accompaniment too. He ignored poor Lazarus every single day of his life. He knew Lazarus’s need, and maybe he even thought he’d get around to helping Lazarus one day. Or maybe he thought, “What good can I do, I’m just one person?” Perhaps he thought, “If I give him something to eat, what good will that do, he’ll just be hungry tomorrow.” He probably came up with all kinds of excuses about why he couldn’t help Lazarus right here and right now. He was devising his own accompaniment.

And we all know the story about the rich man. Someday becomes never. It’s eventually too late: poor Lazarus dies and goes to be with Father Abraham. But in an ironic twist of fate, the rich man also dies, presumably soon after. But it seems that Lazarus and the rich man end up in different places, doesn’t it? The rich man learns that devising one’s own accompaniment does not help one to sing a hymn of praise to the Lord, and his choice in life becomes his choice in the life to come. If one doesn’t choose to praise God in life, one won’t have that option in the life to come. Devising our own accompaniment comes with drastic consequences.

Even in death, the rich man is devising his own accompaniment.  Even now, he does not see Lazarus as anything more than a messenger to do his own bidding.  “Father Abraham,” he cries out, “have pity on me.  Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.”  When he learns that’s not possible, he tries another tack:  “Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.”  He never sees Lazarus as a brother, and that’s why they’re in different places.  That’s why there is that great chasm that Father Abraham talked about between them – the rich man built it!  Devising our own accompaniment means that we separate ourselves from the community, we literally excommunicate ourselves.

One of the principles of Catholic social teaching is solidarity with the poor and needy.  This was a topic that the prophets, like Amos, preached about all the time. Solidarity with the poor is the teaching that says we need to be one with our brothers and sisters, and not ignore their presence among us. I became very aware of this as I walked around downtown Chicago one time. I had come with some money to give to the poor. But on the train ride home, I realize that I had just quickly given some of them some money, and never really looked at any of them. They were my brothers and sisters, and I didn’t take the time to look them in the eye. Solidarity calls me – calls all of us – to do just that. We have to step out of that universe that we have set in motion around us and realize that Christ is present in each person God puts in our path. We have to step out of our own cacophony where we have devised our own accompaniments and step into the symphony that God has set in motion. We have to be one with all people.

God knows about this principle of solidarity. Because God holds it so dear, he sent his only Son to take on flesh – our flesh – so that he could live in solidarity with us – all of us who are poor and needy in our sins. He shared in all of our joys and sorrows, and reaffirmed that human life was good. Life was made good at creation and remains good to this day. But if God could take on flesh in solidarity with us, then we must take on the burdens of our brothers and sisters and live in solidarity with them.  We must abandon our own accompaniments and sing the song of our brothers and sisters in need.

In our second reading today, St. Paul tells us to “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.” We have to be serious about living our faith and proclaiming the Gospel in everything that we do. In solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters, we must sing to God’s own accompaniment and join in the wonderful symphony that is the heavenly worship.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Our first reading from Acts this morning tells us that the early Christian community cared for one another deeply, and were generous in that care.  They were even selling their possessions to give to those who were in need.  Nobody felt needy, nobody felt cheated, nobody felt like they were doing more than their share.  People were worshipping not just with their minds, but also with their hearts, and their worshipping didn’t stop when they left the worship place.  That was the kind of worship Jesus was encouraging Nicodemus to practice as well.

So the same has to be true for us, really. We have to be willing to give of our hearts, to believe not just when we’re in church, but also when we are in the rest of our life.  We have to trust God to take care of us when we stick our neck out to help someone else.  We have to worship not just with our minds but also with our hearts.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is a perplexing one, to be sure. But in the light of Easter, we can see that Jesus was proclaiming that God is doing something new. Not only that, but God wants us all to be part of that new thing. For Nicodemus, that meant the old ways of worshipping and living were no longer sufficient, and really no longer needed. God was looking not just for people’s obedience, but also their hearts.

We see those hearts at work in the early Christian community. The reading from Acts this morning tells us that the believers cared for one another deeply, and were generous in that care. “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.” They were even selling their possessions to give to those who were in need. Nobody felt needy, nobody felt cheated, nobody felt like they were doing more than their share. People were worshipping not just with their minds, but also with their hearts, and their worshipping didn’t stop when they left the worship place.

So the same has to be true for us, really. We have to be willing to give of our hearts, to believe not just when we’re in church, but also when we are in the rest of our life. We have to trust God to take care of us when we stick our neck out to help someone else. We have to worship not just with our minds but also with our hearts.

Thursday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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Sadly, the prayer that our Lord gave us to avoid multiplying words and babbling like the pagans can so much become for us an occasion to do that very thing.  We can rattle off the Lord’s Prayer so quickly and second-naturedly that we totally miss what we’re saying and miss the real grace of the Lord’s Prayer.  We really ought to pay more attention to it, because it serves so well as the model for all of our prayer.

First, it teaches us to pray in communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  This week, in our Office of Readings, we priests and deacons and religious have been reading from a treatise on the Lord’s Prayer by St. Cyprian.  On Monday, that treatise told us: “Above all, he who preaches peace and unity did not want us to pray by ourselves in private or for ourselves alone.  We do not say ‘My Father, who art in heaven,’ nor ‘Give me this day my daily bread.’  It is not for himself alone that each person asks to be forgiven, not to be led into temptation, or to be delivered from evil.  Rather we pray in public as a community, and not for one individual but for all.  For the people of God are all one.”

Second, it acknowledges that God knows best how to provide for our needs.  We might want all the time to tell him what we want, or how to take care of us, but deep down we know that the only way our lives can work is when we surrender to God and let God do what he needs to do in us.  And so the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  The whole point of creation is that the whole world will be happiest and at peace only when everything is returned to the One who made it all in the first place.  Until we surrender our lives too, we can never be happy or at peace.

Third, this wonderful prayer acknowledges that the real need in all of us is forgiveness.  Yes, we are all sinners and depend on God alone for forgiveness, because we can never make up for the disobedience of our lives.  But we also must forgive others as well, or we can never really receive forgiveness in our lives.  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” might just be the boldest prayer we can utter on any given day.  Because if we have been negligent in our forgiving, is that really how we want God to forgive us?  When we take the Lord’s Prayer seriously, we can really transform our little corner of the world by giving those around us the grace we have been freely given.

And so when we pray these beautiful words today at Mass, or later in our Rosaries or other prayers, maybe we can pause a bit.  Slow down and really pray those words.  Let them transform us by joining us together with our brothers and sisters, surrendering to God for what we truly need, and really receiving the forgiveness of God so that we can forgive others. 

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