Monday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This whole Gospel story can be a little bit jarring, I think. I was particularly struck by what the messenger said to Jesus when he asked him to come to the centurion’s house: “He deserves to have you do this for him.” As if any of us is ever worthy of God’s mercy! To his credit, the centurion must have heard about this, because he hurries to Jesus to set things right: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.” And what he says also explains why he sent a messenger to come to Jesus instead of coming himself. For his part, Jesus is impressed with the man’s faith: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he says. And so the healing of the man’s slave takes place at once. It’s an interesting exchange, to say the least.

We have the privilege, every time we gather for the Eucharist, to echo the centurion’s faith. Just before we come to the Altar for Holy Communion, we say: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” And saying those words out loud is so important at that moment in the Mass. Unless we truly believe that Christ’s Body and Blood are sufficient for the healing of our souls, unless we truly know that we are completely unworthy of God’s mercy, then we don’t have the faith necessary to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.

But when we do enter into that moment of Communion with hearts open in faith, everything changes for us. True healing can come about, and we can return to our daily lives and find our souls healed with the grace that prepares them for whatever this world brings them.

The Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So over the past several Sundays, we have been seeing a lot of one of my favorite characters in the Gospel, and that is Saint Peter.  Just three weeks ago, the Apostles were out in a boat, and Jesus came to them on the water.  Saint Peter asked our Lord to command him to come to him on the water, and he did, and we all know how that went.  Then last week, Jesus was quizzing the Apostles about who people said that he was.  Peter was the one who spoke up and professed that Jesus was the Christ, the coming Anointed One, and Jesus proclaimed Peter the Rock on which he would build the Church.

And here we are today, just a couple of verses later in Matthew’s Gospel, and Peter is in the spotlight again, but this time not for anything really good!  So, it’s important to realize that Saint Peter, like all of the Jews of that time, had a preconceived notion about what the Messiah would be like, and what he would come to do. Peter was still clinging to those old notions, and so he could not fathom that Jesus would have to suffer and die.  And so Jesus chastises him for thinking not as God does, but as people do.  It’s a mistake we all make time and again in our spiritual lives.

Peter’s faith journey was like that: up one minute, and down the next.  One minute he’s walking on water, the next he’s drowning; one minute he speaks eloquently of his Lord, and the next he’s the voice of temptation.  So maybe it seems like Saint Peter, flawed as he was, was an inappropriate choice to be the pillar of the Church, the first of the Popes.  But our Lord never makes any mistakes.  He chooses who he chooses for a reason, and I think that’s what we have to spend some time looking at today.

If Peter was unqualified for the position to which he was called – and it certainly seems like that was the case – then we have to expect to feel unqualified for the roles to which we have been called.  Parents often feel that way when they start to raise their first child.  Priests feel that every time they witness something incredible – which is a lot of the time.  We are all unqualified, but God sees more in us, he sees our heart, he sees who he created us to be, and he won’t rest until we’ve fulfilled that potential.  It’s often said that God doesn’t call the qualified, but instead qualifies those he has called.  If that’s true, then Saint Peter is the patron saint of that!

If Peter made some mistakes along his journey of faith and discipleship – and he clearly did – then we have to expect that we will make mistakes in our own faith journey.  One minute we’ll have a glimpse of God and we’ll feel like we could never let him down, then the next minute we’ll fall into sin, maybe a sin we’ve been struggling with for so long, and we’ll feel like God couldn’t love us.  But he loved Peter, and he loves us.  He pulled Saint Peter out of the stormy waves, and he will reach out and pull us out of our own storms of failure, as often as we cry out.

The one thing you can’t fault Saint Peter for is his courage.  Eleven other guys stayed in the boat, but Peter wanted to be where our Lord was: out on the water.  Eleven other guys kept their mouth shut when Jesus asked who they said he was, but Peter did his best to make a profession of faith.  Even what he said in today’s Gospel was probably what the rest were all thinking, but he at least had the guts to say it out loud.  His life wasn’t perfect, his discipleship wasn’t perfect, his faith had a long way to go, but he knew that he couldn’t leave our Lord forever.  Even when he blows it in the hours before Jesus died and denies our Lord three times, he accepts our Lord’s forgiveness and fulfills the role Jesus gave him in last week’s Gospel.

Saint Peter’s story kept evolving, and ours isn’t done yet either.  Our Lord loved Saint Peter and he loves us too.  And that’s all it takes for great things to happen.

Reflections on the Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Friends, I wasn’t going to do a homily today since it’s my last day of vacation.  But I got a message from a friend who was troubled by the Gospel, and I realized it’s so commonly misunderstood that it can be troublesome.  So that said, I’ll just make a few important points.

First of all, let’s just agree that Jesus was always going to help the Canaanite woman’s daughter.  Probably even before the Canaanite woman asked.  He’s God, after all, and he knows our needs.  And we dare not accuse Jesus of being unchristian!  So some might tell you he did that to test her.  Well, that might be comforting if you love a God who has nothing better to do than test us and make us dance for him.  But that’s not our God.

Instead, I think he wanted the Canaanite woman’s faith to be noted by the people looking on, including the disciples, and perhaps even by the woman herself.  Because the Canaanites were a people that were presumed to be faithless and have no claim on the grace and mercy of God (as if any of us do!).  The Canaanites were the inhabitants of the Promised Land, which was given to the Israelites after being led of of Egypt by Moses.  So the disdain for them was long-standing by this point.

But Jesus notes her faith as opposed to the faith noted elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel.  In just a couple of chapters from now, Jesus will berate the “faithless generation” that included the scribes and Pharisees.  And just last week, Jesus chastised Peter for being “of little faith” when he pulled him up out of the water.  Contrast that with what he says about the Canaanite woman:  “O woman, great is your faith!”

All of this begs the question for us: where are we on the journey of faith.  For most of us, it probably depends on the day.  But are we bold enough of faith to implore God’s mercy when we have no claim on it?  When our sins have been dragging us down and we’ve been committing the same ones over and over?  When we aren’t where we think we should be in our lives?  When we feel like we’ve disappointed almost everyone?  When we’ve disappointed ourselves?

In those moments, are we of enough faith to call on the Lord and implore his mercy?  Because if we are, God is ready to answer us.

The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

I have to tell you, we have two of my very favorite readings in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  I like them because they both show God interacting with us, his creatures, in powerful ways.  In the first reading, we see the prophet Elijah literally running for his life.  He has just embarrassed, and then put to death, the four hundred or so “prophets” of Baal – the pagan god worshipped by the gentiles.  Because of this, Jezebel, the wife of king Ahab, vowed to do the same thing to Elijah himself.  So Elijah is fleeing, and complains to the Lord God that everyone in Israel has rejected the Lord, turned to other gods, and have put all the legitimate prophets to death, and that Elijah is the only one left.  So God says that Elijah should stand on the mountain and wait, and soon the Lord would be passing by.

So in Scripture, when it says of the Lord that he would be “passing by,” it means something different than just that the Lord was out for a little walk.  Passing by means that he would be doing “a God thing,” something that God alone could do.  It’s a little like saying that God would be revealing his power to his creatures.  For Elijah, that was intended to be a consolation and a revelation that the Lord God would be with him even though things looked pretty darn bad.  And it’s interesting how it happens.  Elijah experiences some frightening things: destructive and heavy winds, an earthquake and a blazing fire.  But he did not experience God in any of those things.  He only experienced God in a “tiny whispering sound.”

And I wonder about that, to be honest.  Yes, we can take that as a revelation that we have to quiet ourselves and listen for the voice of God’s presence.  But I want to carefully note that this does not mean that God wasn’t present in those other things.  Because we often find ourselves in the midst of mighty winds, earthquakes, or fire.  Even if not literally, we experience these things all the time in the form of the crises of our lives.  And I want to assure you that God is with you in those moments.  But it may take us stepping back a bit, and listening for the whispering sound, to note that happening.

Okay, so that brings us to the second of my favorite readings today, and that is the Gospel.  Because I love Saint Peter.  He’s always making mistakes, but he is always letting Jesus take what little he can give and turn it into something huge.  I love this reading so much that I have this painting on the wall of my office.  It’s a painting that was given to me for my ordination by the seminarians of that time.  It’s even signed by our own Father David!  They gave me that painting because they know of the special place that particular Gospel story had in my faith life.

So in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has just fed the multitudes, as you may remember from last week’s Liturgy.  After that, he takes some time alone to pray, and during the fourth watch of the night, walks across the water toward the disciples who were on a boat bound for the other side of the lake.  In Saint Mark’s version of this reading, it says of Jesus at this point that “He intended to pass them by.”  Does that sound familiar?  Yes, very similar to the first reading, Jesus intends to do a “God thing,” to reveal himself to his disciples this time in a very powerful way.  They think they’re seeing a ghost, but Jesus reassures them that it is he, and Peter immediately asks if he can come out and walk on the water too.  Jesus says, “come.”

So think about that.  You see the Lord walking on the water, and you actually ask if you can get out there and join him.  Who even has the nerve to say something like that to Jesus?  Well, Peter, impetuous as always, he does.  And for a while, he does okay. He’s making progress, walking toward Jesus. But then he stops looking at Jesus and starts looking at the storm, and when he sees the storm what happens?  The story tells us: “But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” So let’s stop right here.  Do you see that? While he’s looking at Jesus, he is able to walk toward him, but as soon as he takes his eyes off Jesus in favor of looking at the storm, he sinks. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asks him, pulling Peter out of the water.

We might be tempted to criticize Peter for his lack of faith.  But I’m in favor of cutting him so slack.  What I think we have to realize is that he at least had enough faith to get out of the boat.  The other eleven did not.  He got out of the boat because that’s where Jesus was – out there on the water.  Was Jesus present for him when the wind and the waves threatened to take his life?  Absolutely.  God is present for us when we are in the middle of the storm.

So I think that’s where these wonderful readings of God’s mighty power take us this week: into the midst of our storms, whatever they may be.  If we’re not going through one now, one will come our way at some point.  And, please God, may these readings help us to find our Lord in the midst of the wind and the earthquakes and the fire.  I hope that the faith these readings inspire in us will help us to step back in those storms and see our Lord passing by in power and might and lifting us up out of the waves.

Now let’s try a little prayer experiment.  I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.  And with your eyes closed, I invite you to think about a crisis you’ve been in recently, or even one that’s still going on.  It might be little or big, but whatever it is, bring it to mind.  That crisis is the waves in the story.  Now you get to be Saint Peter.  You’re on the boat, that safe refuge that is leading you to the place that Jesus has in mind for you.  Only on the voyage, your crisis begins a storm that tosses you around so badly that you can’t even see your destination anymore, and you fear for your life.  But you see Jesus out there, on the water, in the distance.

You call out to him and he calls back for you to come to him.  You think about it for a minute, but you realize you have to give it a shot: after all, you want to be where Jesus is, and Jesus is not in the boat.  So you get out of the boat, that safe refuge that gives you some comfort even in the storm, and you start to walk toward Jesus across the stormy sea, with the wind and the waves of your crises swirling around you.  And you do okay for a while, looking at your Lord, but then you wonder if your prayers will ever be answered, or if you should even bother God with your little prayers, or if there is any hope for your situation at all.  You feel the wind pushing at you and notice that the waves of your crisis are a lot uglier than you thought they were.  And you begin to sink into them, despairing that there is no hope for your situation.  At this point, Jesus reaches out his hand to you, pulling you up out of the stormy sea.  The storm is still raging, but with Jesus’ help, you get back into the boat, and the waves calm down, and you continue the journey to the place where Jesus wants you to be, having made just a little bit of progress, confident that he is with you even in the storm.

That’s a prayer exercise that you can come back to.  Maybe you don’t have a crisis now to bring to that prayer, but when you do, you can pull this out of your prayer toolbox.  Whether we are experiencing wind, waves, earthquakes or fire, we can be confident that our Lord is with us.  We might still have to experience all those things, but we can go through them with hope that comes from the presence of our God, who is with us in our darkest times, whispering to us, or calling out to us from the water.

Saturday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Because of your little faith.” If that was what Jesus said about his disciples, those men and women walking with him in person day after day, how much more does it apply to us today?  How many situations absolutely confound us?  How many injustices seem chronically irreparable?  How many emotional crises seem insurmountable?  There are demons of all shapes and sizes and types.  How effective are we at casting out those demons of addiction, ignorance, or apathy?  Why can’t we drive them out?  Well, because of our little faith.

I always bristled a bit at the instruction at the end of today’s Gospel about moving a great mountain.  I was pretty sure I’d never have faith that big, and even if I did, why would I want to move a mountain?!  But we get all this wrong.  It’s as if it depends on us, and it certainly does not.  Are we convinced that God can move mountains, that he can drive out demons, that he can respond to addiction, ignorance and apathy?  Well, sure.  But that kind of believing has to get beyond just being in our heads and come out in our words and actions and living.  That’s the hard part!

Because faith is useless if we never put it into practice.  It might be tough to be in the midst of addiction, emotional crisis, or injustice, but that’s when we need to depend on our faith, because what else is there?  What good is our faith unless it can lead us through hard times and accomplish great things in the midst of the messiness of life?  Our faith tells us that whatever happens, God will never stop being with us.

So maybe we’ll never move a mountain.  Who wants to anyway?  But with faith we can certainly the mountains that confront us: emotional crises, addictions, sin, and all kinds of sadness.  With faith, we can certainly move from a dark place to light, from despair to peace, from sadness to joy.

The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I’m not very good at it, and I don’t do it much any more, but I used to help plant a family garden.  Now my sister mostly does that.  What’s remarkable to me about a garden is that the seed that is planted looks, for all the world, lifeless … like something that is already dead.  But when you put it in fertile soil, give it some water and nourishment, let the sun shine on it, well it grows up to become something wonderful: flowers to delight us, vegetables for our table.

A couple of weeks ago, not long after I started here at Saint Mary’s, I went on a walk with Father John.  We passed by one of the corn fields, and as I often am when I pass cornfields, I was really struck by the straight and orderly rows of corn that grow there.  The farmers take great care, it seems to me, to make sure they are planted that way.  So when I hear the story we have in today’s Gospel reading about seed being scattered willy-nilly all over the place, some of it not even landing on suitable soil, well, it makes me wonder.

But the original hearers of the parable would have understood what Jesus was saying.  It was a method used at that time: seed would be scattered, and then the soil would be tilled thus planting the seeds.  And so they would have understood that sometimes the seed falls in places the farmer didn’t intend, and those seeds don’t come to life, or if they do, it’s not for long, and it’s no big deal.

So Jesus explains the parable for his disciples and for us.  The seed is the seed of faith.  God scatters it with wild abandon, pouring it out freely that his chosen ones – which obviously includes you and me – would come to know him.  Sometimes it works: we receive the seed of faith, it’s watered in the sacrament of baptism, fed with the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and we make of ourselves fertile ground, letting it come up and grow and give life to the world.  But sometimes, of course it doesn’t work out that way.

The seed might fall in a place where the faith is not nourished and Christ is not known.  Maybe it’s a foreign land without benefit of missionaries, but it could even be a little closer to home.  Perhaps the seed falls on those whose turbulent lives can’t give the seed any roots: they receive the word of God with joy, but the trials and tribulations of daily living upset everything and the faith never really sinks in.  Or, maybe it falls on us embroiled as we are with the cares of the world.  The “weeds” of our living are improper relationships, too much time playing video games or surfing the wrong places of the internet, watching too much television, wasting time on passing things.  There is so much that can distract us from our faith, and too often, we are not as diligent about weeding the gardens of our souls the way we should be.

We, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, are called to be rich, fertile ground to give life to the faith planted in our hearts.  That means that we must keep ourselves fresh by renewing the waters of baptism in our hearts.  We must feed that seed of faith by dedicating ourselves to the Eucharist and coming to Mass all the time, whether it’s convenient or not.  We must weed out the distractions of our lives and give that seed of faith room to grow.  We must shine the brilliant sunlight of God’s love on that faith by living the Gospel and reaching out in love to brothers and sisters who are in need.

We are the ones who have been called to yield “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”  The seed of faith comes in the form of something that might look dead – Christ’s saving action on the cross.  When we water and feed and weed and let the light shine on that faith, we can give life to the world around us and give witness that the world’s death is no match for the salvation we have in Christ.

The Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

On March 4th, in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as the thirty-second President of the United States, for the first of four terms.  As he began his presidency, the country was in economic crisis, mired as it was in the Great Depression.  There were all kinds of concerns in the country at that time, with the economy going into some frighteningly uncharted waters.  In his Inaugural Address, he addressed those concerns head-on:

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  That one phrase – “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – became the watch phrase of his presidency and has been quoted in many terrifying situations ever since.

Sixty years later, in 1993, for the occasion of his fifteenth anniversary of elevation to the Papacy, Pope Saint John Paul II did a series of interviews with Italian Radio that were collected into the wonderful little book Crossing the Threshold of Hope.  The first interview concerned his acceptance of the papacy in his own life.  His Holiness was asked if he ever hesitated in his acceptance of Jesus Christ and God’s will in his life.  He responded, in part:

“I state right from the outset: ‘Be not afraid!’ This is the same exhortation that resounded at the beginning of my ministry in the See of Saint Peter.  Christ addressed this invitation many times to those He met. The angel said to Mary: ‘Be not afraid!’  (cf. Lk 1:30). The same was said to Joseph: ‘Be not afraid!’ (cf. Mt 1:20). Christ said the same to the apostles, to Peter, in various circumstances, and especially after His Resurrection. He kept telling them: ‘Be not afraid!’ He sensed, in fact, that they were afraid. They were not sure if who they saw was the same Christ they had known. They were afraid when He was arrested; they were even more afraid after his Resurrection.

“The words Christ uttered are repeated by the Church. And with the Church, they are repeated by the Pope. I have done so since the first homily I gave in St. Peter’s Square: ‘Be not afraid!’ These are not words said into a void. They are profoundly rooted in the Gospel. They are simply the words of Christ Himself.”  And these words – the simple three-word phrase – became the watchwords of his papacy: “Be not afraid!”

Both of these courageous men echoed the words of the Gospel that had formed them.  Roosevelt had been formed in an Episcopal boarding school whose headmaster preached the duty of Christians to help the less fortunate.  He had lived through polio.  Saint John Paul as Karol Wojtyla had lived through and beyond the Communist control of his country, buoyed as he was by his Catholic faith.  Both of them heard the same words we have in today’s Gospel, words that inspired and encouraged them, and words that they lived by:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?
Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.
Even all the hairs of your head are counted.
So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

So, brothers and sisters, of what or of whom are you afraid?  Is it enemies, or at least broken relationships, like the prophet Jeremiah in our first reading and the mysterious enemies in today’s Gospel reading?  Is it the stain of sin or the finality of death, as Saint Paul related to the Roman Church in today’s second reading?  The truth is, we live in scary times – honestly, people have always lived in scary times.  We could be afraid of an uncertain economy in a state nearly bankrupt.  We could be afraid of violence in cities, terrorism abroad, and various forms of crime.

We could be afraid of an uncertain or serious medical diagnosis in ourselves or a loved one.  We could be afraid about a new chapter of life: children going away to school, family moving away from home, a new job or the ending of a current one.  The truth is, life is uncertain at times, and there’s a lot to be afraid of.

But, if we listen to FDR and JPII, we know that fear is useless.  It doesn’t add a second to our lives – actually, it probably robs us of important moments.  Fear contributes to poor health, and worst of all, fear decimates our spiritual lives.  We are always and forever in need of hearing those important words: do not be afraid.

So, okay, Father Pat, that sounds great, but how exactly do we get to the point of not being afraid?  How do we make that important journey from fear to faith?

Well, I think that, for inspiration, we can look at Jeremiah’s journey in our first reading.  Because Jeremiah wasn’t telling a hypothetical story, he was relating his own experience.  Prophets always and forever are speaking God’s word to people who often don’t want to hear it.  He had been accusing the religious establishment of turning away from trusting God and turning instead toward making alliances with worldly powers.  Not a popular message for the religious establishment and not a popular message for the worldly powers.  So the priest Pashur had Jeremiah arrested and scourged to keep him quiet.

But after his release, Jeremiah didn’t keep silence.  He continued to prophesy that if the nation continued in that way, they would come to doom and destruction and exile.  At that point, even Jeremiah’s friends were waiting for him to fall, and just prior to the reading we have today, Jeremiah famously poured out his lament before God by saying, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.”  It’s almost as if he was saying, “This isn’t what I signed up for!”

However, right in the middle of today’s reading is an important pivot in his outlook: “BUT the Lord is with me, like a mighty champion…”  Jeremiah is not going to be like the people he’s prophesying against:  he will not turn from trusting the Lord.  In the second half of this reading, he makes a strong act of faith that the Lord will be his champion, which is ultimately true.

Lots of people in today’s society talk about changing your attitude to change your situation.  “Believe and you can achieve” and all that nonsense.  But they’re getting close to the right place.  We do have to change our attitude if we want to move from fear to faith.  But we can’t shift to relying on ourselves or any other worldly power, because if we do we are so likely to fail.  We have to shift our attitude to make Jeremiah’s act of faith, remembering that our Lord has defeated sin and death.  If he could do that, he can shepherd us through our fear.

That doesn’t mean he’s going to wave a magic wand and make all our troubles go away, or even answer our prayers according to our pleasure.  He will answer prayer in his way, in his time, but he will be with us through it all.  Because we are worth more than many sparrows.  Do not be afraid.