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.

Saturday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the spiritual principles that often speaks to me is: “it’s not about me.”  It’s a spiritual principle I have to remind myself of often, because in our human weakness, we’re always thinking about ourselves first.  But here today, we have two wonderful Scriptural examples of this beautiful spiritual principle.  First we have Ruth, a foreigner, who came to the aid of her mother-in-law Naomi in her time of need.  Naomi had no heir, and her son, Ruth’s husband, had died. This left both of them in a very precarious position.  Neither of them had a male figure in their lives to afford them any legal status in that society, so that was very dangerous for them in that day and age.  And they were in the middle of a famine, which made things all the more frightening.  So Ruth could have gone her own way, returned to her land, and been safe, but she doesn’t: she takes care of Naomi anyway, offering to glean ears of grain so that they’ll have something to eat.  She didn’t have to do that, she could have left her mother-in-law high and dry, but she didn’t.

Boaz, too, didn’t have to be so welcoming to Ruth.  It was expected in Jewish law that after the harvest, whatever was left on the stalks was to be left for the poor.  But he didn’t have to provide her with water, and see that the men didn’t take advantage of her.  But he did.

All of this prefigures what Jesus was telling the people about the Pharisees in today’s Gospel.  These Pharisees did everything to be seen, because it was all about them.  They had the law, so they were teaching the right things, but not for the right reasons.  Do what they say, Jesus tells them, and not what they do.  Because it’s not about us.

Monday of the Sixth Week of Easter 

Today’s readings 

Today, Jesus has for us good news and bad news. The good news is that he is eventually going to send the Holy Spirit upon the world. The Holy Spirit will be a new Advocate for us, and will testify to everything that Jesus said and did. The Spirit’s testimony will be further evidence of God’s abiding love for us, a love that did not come to an end at the cross or the tomb, but instead triumphed over everything to make known his salvation to the ends of the earth. The testimony of the Holy Spirit, combined with the testimony of the Apostles, would be the birth pangs of the emerging Church, given by Christ to make the Gospel known in every land and every age.

But the bad news is, that glory won’t come without a price. Those Apostles would be expelled from the synagogues and misguided worshippers would think they were doing God’s will by killing them. Jesus knew this would be the lot of his baby disciples and he cares for them enough to warn them of what is to come. It is an important aspect of their discernment to know what is to come. Also, by warning them, he is preparing them for what is to come so that when it does happen, they may not be flustered or frightened, but might instead hold deeply to their faith, knowing that God’s providence had foreseen these calamities and they might know that in God’s providence, these calamities would not be the end of the story.
We are beneficiaries of the good news and bad news of today’s Gospel. We have heard the testimony of the Spirit and the Apostles, have been nourished by the Church they founded, have been encouraged by all that they suffered to bring the Good News to us. It is important that we too know that there is good news and bad news in the future of our discipleship. The Spirit continues to testify and the Apostles continue to teach us – that’s the good news. The bad news is, sometimes our faith will be tested, and sometimes our faith with cost us something. But in the end, it’s all Good News: even our suffering will not be the end of the story. God’s love triumphs over everything.

Tuesday of the Twenty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I’ve heard it said that the only one of the disciples Jesus called that day who was actually fit for his job was Judas Iscariot, and we all know how that worked out. We don’t know what God considers qualification for discipleship, we just know that somehow, for some reason, we have all been called to do whatever it is that we are meant to do in life. We probably don’t have all the skills necessary to accomplish it, but that’s okay. If we were able to accomplish everything on our own then we wouldn’t need God, wouldn’t need a Savior.

In just the same way, we are all called to be part of God’s kingdom by making his presence known in what we do or say. We may or may not be able to heal diseases. Maybe we can’t cast out demons, at least in the way Jesus did. Feeding the hungry with miraculous actions may well be beyond us. But we’re not called to be Jesus, only to do what he did. And so it may be enough to look in on a sick neighbor, or sit with someone who is troubled, or make a meal for someone who hasn’t had a good one in a long time.

We tend to think of discipleship as something huge, something way beyond us. But every one of us is called to take it up. As Saint Teresa of Calcutta once wrote, “Very humble work, that is where you and I must be. For there are many people who can do big things. But there are very few people who can do the small things.” Maybe our little work won’t change the world, but it can make things better in our small part of the world, and that may be what we’re called to do.

Thank God that we both need and have his presence in our lives, and that he has called us all to share in the work of discipleship in some way.

The Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So Jesus’ ministry is ramping up into full gear. In order to prepare the places he intends to visit, he sends out seventy-two disciples, in pairs, to prepare the way. They are going to do some of the same things he will do: curing the sick, healing the broken, and preaching the Kingdom of God, with its call to repentance. This is the third Luminous Mystery of the Rosary. They have great success because Jesus prepares them in advance and gives them advice about how to be good disciples.

And when we come to that advice, that should be a red flag. This story, nice as it is, is not about just those seventy-two. It is about all of us. Because, at our baptism, we too have been sent out on mission. We too are called to bring healing to a broken world, and to proclaim the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom is here and now, and it is urgent that people come to enter into it.

We might protest, I think, saying that we’re not ready, not equipped to be evangelizers and preachers and healers. Well, news flash: neither were those seventy-two. In fact, they came back amazed that they were able to accomplish the mighty deeds they did. And they were able to do those things because Jesus had prepared them in advance. He gave them several rules for mission, and of them, three really stand out. I think we are supposed to hear and appropriate these things as well.

So the first tool he gives us is the wisdom not to rely on ourselves. Listen to the instructions Jesus gives the seventy-two before they leave: “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals…” Now that all seems pretty impractical to those of us who have to travel in the twenty-first century, doesn’t it? We need a wallet or money bag to carry what we’d need to pay tolls and buy fuel and pay for what we need on the journey, and certainly we’d need a sack to carry identification as well as just basic things we’d need along the way. Here’s the point, though: If we were 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 us.

The second discipleship tool is to “greet no one along the way.” That sounds pretty unfriendly, doesn’t it? We would think he’d want us to greet everyone we can, but that’s not what’s at stake here. The point is, along the way, we can easily be derailed from the mission. Other things can seem to be important, other people can try to get us off track, Satan can make so many other things seem important along the way. The point here is that there is urgency to the mission. People have to hear that Jesus is Lord and that God loves them now, not later, when it may be too late. We have to get the show on the road, and the time is now.

The final tool is this: do not move from one house to another, to eat and drink what is set before us. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want us to spread the Good News. The discipline Jesus is teaching here is that we have to be focused in our ministry. Once we have been given the mission, we have to stay with it, and not be blown about like the wind. 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. We are called to stay with a person or a situation until what God wants to happen happens. We too have to know that our mission may not be easy, but we have to accept the mission we have. We are called to accept people and situations as they are and trust God to perfect our efforts. When it’s time to move on, God will let us know, and we will come to know that time through prayer and discernment.

So we’ve received an awful lot as we come here for worship today. We will be fed on the most excellent Body and Blood of our Lord which will give us strength to tend to the piece of the Kingdom that God has entrusted to us. We have been instructed with some basic tools for doing the work of God. If we use these tools and are faithful to the mission, I think we’ll be as overjoyed as were those disciples. And then, we can rejoice with them that our names are written in heaven.

The Third Sunday of Easter: Do You Love Me More Than These?

Today’s readings

What Satan wants is a community of disciples so mired in their sins, that they do nothing to foster the Kingdom of God and live the Gospel. Bookmark that thought, because I’ll come back to it in a bit.

I love today’s Gospel because it features one of my favorite characters, Saint Peter. Saint Peter has been inspirational to me because, despite being called to do great things for God, he does a lot of messing up and often has to pick himself up and start all over again. Today’s Gospel reading has him trying to figure things out. He’s very recently been through the arrest and execution of his Lord, only to find out that he is risen, and has appeared to various disciples, including Peter himself. I think today’s story has him trying to make sense of it all and figure out where to go from here. But he’s trying to figure it out in the midst of having fallen again, since he denied even knowing the Lord three times on the night of Holy Thursday.

So, in an effort to figure things out, he goes back to what he knows best, which is to say he goes fishing. And he takes some of the others with him. And, as is very typical of Peter’s fishing expeditions recorded in the Gospels, he catches nothing even though he’s been hard at it all night long. It’s not until the Lord is with them again and redirects their efforts, that they eventually pull in an incredibly large catch of fish. Jesus then invites them to dine with him, using one of my favorite commands in all of Sacred Scripture, “Come, have breakfast.”

Then we have this very interesting, and in some ways tense, conversation between Jesus and Peter. Jesus takes him off to the side after breakfast, and just as he redirected Peter’s efforts while they were fishing earlier, now he redirects Peter’s efforts in his life. There are a couple of points of background that we need to keep in mind. First, just as Peter three times denied his Lord on the night of Holy Thursday, so now Jesus gives him three opportunities to profess his love and get it right.

Second, the Greek language has a few different words that we translate “love.” Two of them are in play in this conversation. The first is agapeo, which is the highest form of love. It’s a love that always wills the best for the other person, a love that is self-sacrificing and enduring. It’s the love that God has for us. The other kind of love that is used here is phileo, a bit lower form of love that is something like a strong affection for someone else. Where agapeo is an act of the will, phileo is more of a feeling. Many scholars don’t see this as an appreciable difference and say John in his Gospel just uses two different words to mean the same thing. But I think John is careful with language, and the two uses mean something, as we will see.

So the conversation begins, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” That’s literally a loaded question, so let’s look at it. First of all, Jesus calls Peter “Simon, son of John.” But Jesus is the one who changed his name from Simon to Peter. So this seems to be a bit of a rebuke: Okay, Peter, if you’re just going to revert to your former self and pretend you haven’t known me the last three years, then I’ll just use your old name. I’m sure Peter didn’t miss the inference. Then at the end, “do you love me more than these?” Scholars have a lot of opinions on what “these” are: Do you love me more than you love these other guys? Do you love me more than these other guys love me? Do you love me more than this fishing equipment, the tools of your former life? It doesn’t matter what he meant by “these,” the effect is the same: Peter is called to a higher love, which is evidenced in the word Jesus uses for love, which is agapeo. Peter responds, acknowledging Jesus’ omniscience, “Lord you know that I love you.” But he uses phileo, perhaps acknowledging that he is not capable of the agapeo kind of love. And he’s probably right about that, since sin does diminish our capacity to love. He receives the response “Feed my lambs,” of which I’ll say more later.

The conversation continues in the same manner, using the same forms of the word “love” in both the question and the response, and ending with the injunction, “Tend my sheep.” But the third question is interesting. Jesus asks the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” But this time Jesus uses the word phileo, as much as to say, “Okay, Peter, do you even have affection for me?” And Peter seems to get the inference, because he responds emotionally: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And he’s right: Jesus does know. But Jesus needed Peter to know it too. Jesus, in his Divine Mercy, has healed Peter, forgiven his sins, and helped him to remember his mission, redirecting his efforts to “Feed my sheep.”

Because if Jesus hadn’t done this, Satan would have won. He would have had that community of disciples so mired in their sins, that they do nothing to foster the Kingdom of God and live the Gospel. And then we wouldn’t be here today, would we?

And let’s be clear about this. We, like Peter, all have a mission to accomplish. We all have some part of the Kingdom to build. We may not be the rock on which Jesus will build his Church, but we are indeed part of it. And we are all affected by our sins. We have all denied our Lord in one way or another by what we have done and what we have failed to do. And so the Lord in his mercy says to us today, “Patrick, do you love me?” “Susan do you love me?” And we respond with whatever love we’re capable of. In that moment, Jesus redirects our life’s efforts too, so that we can do what we’re called to do. We, who have been purified by our Lenten penance, are now called to the life of the Resurrection, in which all God’s lambs are cared for, and all his sheep tended.

School Graduation

Readings: Proverbs 3:13-35; Psalm 145; Philippians 2:1-5; Luke 6:27-38

Tonight as we come together to celebrate the Eucharist as a class for the last time, I would imagine you are experiencing a great many emotions. You may be feeling happy, even relieved, as you come to this milestone. Many of you have been at Notre Dame School for as many as ten years, and so this accomplishment has been a long time coming. You might also be feeling sad that you’re leaving behind some friends as they go to other high schools, or even uneasy because you’ll be heading into unknown territory. I’m sure you’re also feeling proud of the success you’ve had here at Notre Dame, particularly proud of the success that has led you to graduation this evening.

Success is the thing that everyone wants for you. Your parents want you to be successful, your teachers will be proud when you are successful. Even God wants you to be successful. But all those people may have different ideas of what success looks like. Some might see success as getting into a prestigious college. Others measure it by how much money you’ll eventually make. Maybe you will want to be the famous athlete, or the President of the United States. You might find success in inventing some new technology, or finding a cure for a disease. Success looks like a lot of different things.

Many people have written on what success is. Dale Carnegie wrote, “The person who gets the farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore.” Woody Allen once said, “Seventy percent of success in life is showing up.” Johann Sebastian Bach wrote, “I was made to work. If you are equally industrious, you will be equally successful.” I could go on and on quoting all sorts of famous people who have given their opinion on how to be successful, but I thought I might stop there and instead focus on what success looks like for disciples of the Lord.

Take a look at the Cross. Because that’s what success looks like for us believers in Christ. It looks like love beyond our wildest dreams. It looks like giving everything, trusting all the while that God will give us what we need in return. That’s how Jesus loves us, and that’s how we’re supposed to love one another too. He laid down his life for us, and we are called to do the same for others. We are probably not going to get nailed to a cross, but we are definitely called upon to give of ourselves, to lay down our lives for each other.

And so for the believer, success might look like becoming a missionary to bring God’s love to people in faraway lands. Or it might look like finding the cure for a disease without harming the unborn. Believers in Christ could become politicians too; helping to make the world a better place by standing up for what is right. Successful believers could become priests or religious sisters or brothers. They might even be parents who raise their children to respect others and have a strong relationship with God. They could be owners of businesses that practice their trade with integrity and a concern for those in need.

One thing is certain: successful believers will always have to sacrifice. Selfishness does not have a place in the life of a disciple and it will never even lead to real happiness anyway. A successful disciple might have to pass on a business deal because it looks shady, and trust God to give them something way better. Or she might give up a couple of years of her career in order to devote some time to working with the poor. A successful parent might have to put some of his or her plans on hold in order to raise a family. But successful disciples aren’t doormats either; they merely give of themselves and trust in God to give them real happiness.

And God does want you to be happy. In fact if you’re ever finding yourself unhappy in life – and most of us will be there at some point or another – stop and see if maybe you’re not doing what God wants you to do. Because, in my life, I will absolutely witness that the happiest times have been the times when I’ve stopped doing my own thing and listened to God. God is love, God is mercy, God is truth and beauty and grace, and he never wants anything for his children but the very best – just like any good parent.

Our Gospel tonight makes this all very clear. Jesus tells his disciples, which you well know includes every one of us here, to do everything I just said: love your enemies, do good to everyone, give when you don’t have to, love the people that are hard to love, give expecting nothing back. All of this stuff is sacrifice beyond belief. But then he makes a promise: “Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing…” When we give of ourselves and let go of the things that hold us back, then our hands are empty and ready to receive the enormous good gifts that God has in store for us. That, my friends, is real success.

For all these years, we have tried to give you the tools to grow into the people you were meant to become. If you remember these things and use them and grow in them, you will be successful, happy and blessed. The goal of all our lives is to get to heaven one day, and for the time you’ve been in our Catholic school, we have done our best to give you what you need to get there, because getting to heaven is the ultimate badge of success; it’s the greatest measure of our having become who we were meant to be. I hope that you will be reasonably happy in this life, but I really want you to be eternally happy with Christ in heaven one day. I look forward to seeing the great people you will surely become as you continue to be involved here at Notre Dame in the years to come. May God bless you in every moment of your lives. And don’t ever forget where your spiritual home is: right here at Notre Dame, because I really don’t want this to be goodbye.