Thursday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning’s readings give us a sense, I think, of the urgency of repentance and the real need for discipleship. The first reading from the book of Sirach reminds us that God’s patience should not be mistaken for acceptance of our sins. Just because God does not strike us down on the spot for a transgression does not mean that it our transgressions are not offensive to God. In fact, they are incredibly offensive, which is why the price of our sins was so great.

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus encourages us disciples to rid ourselves of everything that serves as an obstacle to living our call. If even some member of our body causes us to sin, we should part with it! That’s an incomprehensible directive, and it serves to illustrate the focus that we disciples have to have.

The Psalmist sings “Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.” Amen to that. As we turn up the fire in our spiritual lives as we approach the season of Lent, it would be well for us to remember that our repentance and discipleship are not optional, that they cannot wait for a more opportune time, that we can’t let anything get in the way of our relationship with God. Blessed are we who hope in the Lord!

The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter in today’s Gospel reading is a nice story, but I think it goes deeper than that. In this encounter, we see five very important principles of the life of a disciple. So I would like to reflect on these principles because we always need to grow in our discipleship, and conversion is an ongoing thing for all of us.

So let’s dive into these five principles. The first principle of the disciple’s life is that we don’t choose God; God chooses us. Simon Peter didn’t put out an invitation to Jesus to join him in the boat. He probably didn’t even want the company, to be honest. He was washing his nets and cleaning up the boat after a very long, and very unproductive night of fishing. They’d been up all night, they were frustrated, and they probably just wanted to be left alone. But Jesus gets into Simon’s boat without even asking if he can come aboard, sits down, and tells him to put out a short distance from shore so he can teach the people from that boat-pulpit. If we think we are all here today because we chose to be here, chose to be God’s people, then we’ve gotten it all wrong. God chose us to be here, and we might not even know why, but God does, and he will reveal it in his own time.

The second principle of the disciple’s life is that it’s not about what we can do. As I’ve pointed out, Simon and his co-workers had a very unproductive night. And that’s horrible for them because this is their livelihood. They weren’t out for a relaxing night of fishing, they were out for fish to sell at market to feed their families, and they’ve caught nothing. It wasn’t just that they caught very little; we are told that they’ve caught nothing – zero fish, or at least nothing they could sell or eat. And that’s not unusual. Whenever you see Peter and the others fishing in the Gospel, they are always catching nothing when they are on their own. Try it – go through the Gospel and look for those stores, you’ll see. So it might seem strange that Jesus would call fishermen to be his Apostles, but it almost seems like fiduciary misconduct to pick fishermen who were such complete failures at their craft. In fact we are told that the only really qualified guy he chose was Judas Iscariot, and we all know what became of him, don’t we? It’s not about what we can do, how successful we are, what personal gifts we have. God has something special in mind for us, and he can call anyone he wants. And he does.

The third principle follows from the second, and that is that it is always God who does the really great things that we seem to accomplish. For Peter and the others, we see it very simply … Jesus tells them to put out into the deep water, and despite their utter exhaustion and their better judgment, they do so, they lower the nets, and they can hardly bring the huge catch of fish in to land. They are extremely successful, but only because they have relied on God’s grace for their success. If we are serious about our success, either in our business or in our discipleship, then we too have to be ready to give it over to God’s grace. It’s hard because that involves letting go, giving God control, taking the good with the bad, constantly seeking God’s will. But that is our calling, fellow disciples, that’s what we do.

The fourth principle is extremely important for us to get, because this is so insidious. This principle tells us that we are completely unworthy of such grace in the face of how awesome God is. And it’s true, none of us is worthy of the calling we have received. I’m not worthy to be a priest, you may not be worthy to be a parent, perhaps you’re not worthy of the work you’ve been called to do. But God has called us to do all of this anyway. Yes, we’re sinful, and perhaps like Peter we’d like to say “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” or woman. Perhaps like Isaiah in our first reading, we find that we are men or women of unclean lips living among people of unclean lips. Who are we to proclaim the Gospel? Who are we to lead others? Satan throws this kind of thing in our faces all the time: he would love for us to give in to it. Because if we are caught up in our unworthiness, we can never be used to accomplish God’s will. But, unworthy as we are, it’s not about us, it’s about God and what God can do in us, so we have to seek forgiveness, pursue conversion, and then do what God asks of us. We must remember that forgiveness and conversion, like every other gift, is never meant just for us, it’s meant for us to share, and the way that we share that is to do God’s work in whatever way He’s called us to do it.

And the fifth principle is that God always sees better stuff in us than we see in ourselves. Jesus saw past Peter’s inadequacies as a fisherman and saw that he would be really great as an Apostle to bring people to the kingdom. He saw past Isaiah’s vulgarity to know that he would be just the person to speak his word. God knows that our sins do not define who we are; having created us, he alone knows of what we are capable, and he gives us a commission that goes beyond what we think we can do. He asks just one thing of us: “Do not be afraid.” This means we can do anything God calls us to do. Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.

Lent is coming. Lent is a call to conversion, re-conversion, and growth in discipleship. We would do well to remind ourselves yet again this Lent that it is God who chooses us, that it’s not about what we can do, that it’s always God who gives us the grace to do truly great things, that our unworthiness does not define us in the eyes of God, and that God knows of what we are capable and sees great things in us. Maybe Lent can find us putting aside whatever fears keep us from answering God’s call and instead allow ourselves to be truly changed, truly used by God to do great things. Do not be afraid.

Thursday of the Thirty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel calls us to examine our perspective. Jesus asks, “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” Well, those men he talked to were shepherds, or had shepherds in their family, so they would have responded “nobody would do that!” Why on earth would they risk losing the other ninety-nine sheep to find the lost one?

And as far as the coin goes, why bother staying up all night? It would probably have cost more to light the lamp and search all night than the coin was worth. It would be wiser to wait until she had the morning light and could find it easily.

But here’s the perspective part: God is not like us. Every sheep among us is important, and he will relentlessly pursue us individually until he has us all in the sheepfold. And if we’re lost, he’s going to light a lamp and stay up all night until he has us back. For him, one of us is every bit as important as the other ninety-nine. Even if our own self-image is poor, we are a treasure in God’s eyes.

And that’s all well and good, but we always have to ask ourselves why the Church gives us this reading again in the closing days of the Church year. We hear these kinds of parables typically in the summer months, when the Church wants us to see that God loves us and wants us to be his disciples. But hearing the parables in these days, there’s a little more urgency. Time is running short, and it’s time for the lost ones to be found and gathered up and celebrated. These waning days of the Church year are a foreshadowing of the end of time, and so we need to cooperate with God in making the urgent message of God’s love known in every time and place.

And so that’s what the Kingdom of heaven is like. It’s a relentless pursuit and a flurry of activity until we are all back where we belong. Once we are all with God, the joyful celebration can continue, knowing that we are all back where we were always meant to be.

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.

Easter Friday

Today’s readings

“Come have breakfast.”  These are some of my favorite words of Holy Scripture!  I say that in jest, but I truly think these are significant words in Scripture.  Here Jesus appears to his disciples, and just like the appearance on the way to Emmaus, the disciples recognize him in the breaking of the bread, as he is feeding them.  Jesus’ preferred way to be present to his people is by feeding us in our hunger, and that is truly something to celebrate in these Easter days.

It is always interesting to me that the disciples, who, we are told, were trained fishermen, never catch anything unless they are with Jesus.  Go through the Gospels and you will see that this is true.  Their nets always come up empty until he gives the command to cast the nets.  Then they can hardly bring in the catch because of the sheer number of fish they have caught.  Today’s episode finds the disciples dejected, not sure where to go, ready to return to their former life and their former career.  They had not yet made sense of the whole Jesus event.  Just when they thought things were going well, he is betrayed by one of their own brothers, arrested, killed on a cross.  And now he is appearing to them here and there.  They have no idea what to do so they do what they always used to do … they go fishing.

And it is Jesus once again who not only gives them the fish, but cooks breakfast for them.  They were hungering for wisdom, for some way to make sense of everything they had experienced.  And Jesus provides that by breaking bread with them, and helping them to see that it is only in him that their life makes any sense.  They’re not going to find it in their former work, they’re not going to find it in their pre-conceived notions about the Messiah.  They’re only going to find it by taking up the cross themselves, dying to what has made them feel comfortable, and rising to a freedom that nothing can match.  Then, in their relationship with Jesus, they’ll really be able to go fishing and will produce a catch that no net can contain.

We too, are called to go fishing for the Lord in some way, but we’ll never catch anything if we go off on our own.  Praise God that he is always willing to go fishing with us!

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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.

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