The Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I’ve often heard stories of those who grew up in the great depression.  Many years later, they still had deeply engrained in them the scrupulous care for everything they have that was etched into their very being during that horrible time in our history.  They spent a lifetime wasting nothing, even hoarding things.  They would eat leftovers well past their freshness dates.  It was just their response to having nothing, completely understandable.

And that’s the lens through which I think we need to see this week’s Gospel parable.  Here Jesus presents the often quoted story of a rich man entrusting his slaves with a great deal of wealth before he sets off on a long journey.  The word “talents” here does not mean what we mean when we use that word: here we are not talking about gifts or abilities, but rather money, and a large sum of money at that.  Scholars suggest that a talent was equal to something like one thousand days’ wages, or what a poor person could have lived on for fifteen or twenty years.  So think about it, even the servant who only received one talent actually received quite a bit – he received what the average person would earn in a little over three years!  That’s a lot of money for anyone.

So who is it, then, that is receiving such a magnanimous gift?  On first glance, seeing what it is they have been given, we might think these are senior advisers to the master, people who would have been in charge of his estate and his business transactions.  But that’s not what it says.  It says he called in his “servants” – so we are talking here about slaves, slaves – not business advisers.  And so these slaves are getting ten talents, five talents, and one talent – all of them are getting a considerable amount of money!

And we know the story.  Two of them take what they have and very successfully invest it and when the master returns, are able to hand over the original sum with one hundred per cent interest.  Very impressive!  But the slave who received just a “little” (even though it was certainly still a lot of money), out of fear buries it in the ground and gives it back to the master untouched, with nothing to show for it.  It’s much like a person having gone through something like the great depression placing money under a mattress rather than trust the banks, which they saw fail miserably in their lifetimes.

It’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s see where we can go.  We’ve established that the gift they are receiving – even the slave who received little – is worth an incredible amount of money, especially to a slave who would never have the opportunity to see such wealth if not for the trust the master has placed in them.  So let’s be clear that this parable is not about us using our gifts properly; it’s about we slaves receiving something very great, some inestimable wealth.  What could that possibly be?  Well, of course, it’s God’s love, grace, and favor, which is undeservedly ours and given to us without merit.

So just for background, this is yet another indictment of the Pharisees and religious establishment of the time.  They were the ones who, because Christ was not yet present in the world, received just one talent.  But it was still a huge sum of grace!  Yet, their practice was to protect it so scrupulously by attending to the minutiae of the 613 laws of the Torah, that they missed the opportunity to really invest God’s love in the world and grow the faith to full stature.

So we can’t be like that.  We can’t have the faith taken away from us and be tossed out to wail and grind our teeth.  We have to take the faith we’ve been given, the grace we have received in baptism, and invest it mightily in the world, without fear, so that everyone will come to know the Lord and we would all go on to be put in charge of greater things, in the kingdom of heaven.  That is our vocation in the world, brothers and sisters in Christ.  We have to get that right.  We can’t cower in fear, or think our faith is too little, or we don’t know enough.  That was the cardinal sin for Matthew in his Gospel.  We have to be bold disciples and make sure that Christ is known everywhere we go, everywhere life takes us.  That is the only acceptable response to God’s love.

[[ Today we welcome our candidates for full Communion with the Church.  They have all been baptized in other Christian communities, and have come to us to become Catholic.  They have already been meeting with our RCIA program to grow in their knowledge of the faith and experience of God’s presence in their lives.  Welcoming them today, we have marked them with the sign of the Cross, helping them to remember the treasure of grace and love that God has already entrusted to them in baptism.  As we invest our faith in them today, we have hope that they will do the same for others, so that many more believers may be found for the kingdom of God.]]

We have come to the second-to-last Sunday of the Church year.  Next week, we will celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe, and then look forward to a new year as we begin the season of Advent.  And so it is important that we take today’s Gospel parable seriously.  We need to spend some time reflecting on how well we have invested God’s grace and love in the world around us.  Have we been good examples to our family and others?  Have we been people of integrity in our workplaces, schools and community?  Have we served those who are in need out of love for Christ?  Have we been zealous to grow in our spiritual lives?  Have we taken time to root sin out of our life, and to receive the grace of forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance?  Have we been unafraid to witness to our faith in every situation?

If we can’t answer all these questions affirmatively, we have some new-Church-year’s resolutions to make.  Because, and I can’t stress this strongly enough, brothers and sisters, the alternative is wailing and grinding of teeth.  And forever is a long time to be doing that!  No; God forbid.  Our desire is to hear those wonderful words from our Lord one day: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities.  Come, share your master’s joy.”

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.

The Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday)

Today’s readings

I often wonder what brings people to Mass on the Second Sunday of Easter.  We had crowds of people here last Sunday, as you know, but things this Sunday are, perhaps a bit unfortunately, back to normal.  The Easter duty is done, and most people go back to their normal Sunday routines, whatever they may be.  But many of us still gather for worship this morning.  What is it that brings us here today?

Maybe our motives are grand ones.  We can’t get enough of the Word of God and his Real Presence in the Eucharist – I hope that’s the case!  Or maybe we need to be together with the community in order for our faith to make sense and our life to be on track.  Maybe we know that our presence in the worshipping community isn’t just about us, but rather about all of us being together, that there would be no community without all of us present.  Maybe you came to one of my Masses last Sunday and were struck with awe at the inspiring words I preached!

But maybe our motives aren’t quite so lofty.  Maybe, at some level, we’re here because of fear.  Fear that our lives aren’t going the way we’d like them to.  Fear that family problems are not getting resolved.  Fear that our jobs are unfulfilling or our relationships are in disarray.  Fear that our lives are empty spiritually, and we don’t know where to find our Lord.  Fear that missing Mass will lead us to hell.  Fear that if we don’t get out we’ll be lonely.  I think if we’re honest, there’s a little fear in all of us, and at some level, that fear leads us here.

And if you find that’s the case for you, you have ten patron saints locked up in that room.  They too had a great deal of fear.  Fear that they too might be led to the cross by the same people who took Jesus there.  There was certainly some reality to that fear, and I think we can all understand it.  But I also think it’s significant to realize that the Eleven, all of whom lived closely with Jesus for three years, were not yet able to overcome their fears and pursue the mission of Jesus.  Instead, they gather in a locked room, mourning their friend, confused about the empty tomb and stories of his appearances, and fearful for their own lives.  We whose lives are filled with fear at times definitely have the Apostles as our kindred spirits.

The truth is that, like the Apostles, it doesn’t matter what has gathered us here.  The important thing is that at least we are here.  At least in our fear we did not hide away and refuse to be brought into the light.  Because there are many who have left us, aren’t there?  Many have had enough of church scandals and have decided to take their spiritual business elsewhere.  Many have been hurt in all kinds of ways and have not found immediate healing in the Church.  Many have been influenced by the allurements of the world and the false comforts of pop psychology and have given up on a religion that makes demands of them.  Many have left us, but at least we are here, at least we have gathered, albeit in fear, albeit locked up in our own little rooms, but definitely in the path of our Lord who longs to be among us in our fear and to say, “Peace be with you.”

The peace that Jesus imparts is not just the absence of war or conflict in our lives.  It is instead a real peace, a peace from the inside of us out.  A peace that affects our body, mind and spirit.  A peace that brings us into communion with one another and most especially with God for whom we were created and redeemed.  The peace that the Ten had upon seeing their Risen Lord, the peace that Thomas had just one week later, is the same peace that our Risen Lord offers to all of us fearful disciples who gather together as a refuge against the storms and uncertainties of our own lives.  That peace is a peace that invites us to reach out like Thomas did and touch our Lord as we receive his very Body and Blood in all his Divine Mercy.

That peace is not some passive greeting that rests upon us and goes no further.  Whenever we are gifted with any blessing, it is never intended only for us.  We who have been gifted and healed and transformed by the peace of our Risen Lord are called just like the Eleven to continue to write the story of Jesus so that others may see and believe.  We now become the peace of Christ to reach out to a world that appears to be hopelessly un-peaceful.  We must extend that peace by reaching out to touch those who are sick, or poor, or lonely, or despairing, or doubtful, or fearful, or grieving, or fallen away.  Our own presence in and among our loved ones and in and among the world must be a presence that is rooted in the Risen Lord and steeped in his peace.  We must be the ones who help a doubting world to no longer be unbelieving but believe.

We have come here today for all kinds of reasons.  We may have come here in doubt and fear, but as we approach the Eucharist and receive the very Body and Blood of our Lord who invites us to reach out and touch him in all his brokenness and woundedness, as we go forth to glorify the Lord this day, may we leave not in doubt and fear but instead in belief and peace.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Peace be with you.

The Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

Today’s readings

Fear keeps us from doing all sorts of things the Lord wants for us.  If we would truly let go of our fear and cling to our God, just imagine what he could do in us and through us.  Ahaz was King of Israel, a mighty commander, but yet was so afraid of God and what God might do that he refused to ask for a sign.  Perhaps he knew how far he had strayed from God’s commands, and he was afraid to engage God on any level.  He would prefer to cut himself off from God rather than give himself over to the amazing power of God’s presence in his life and his rule.  Because of that perhaps, he never lived to see the greatness of God’s glory.

But his weakness did not disrupt the promise.  In the fullness of time, God’s messenger came to a young woman named Mary and proposed to accomplish in her life the sign for which Ahaz was too afraid to ask.  She too was initially afraid, pondering what sort of greeting this was.  She was also confused, not knowing how what the angel proclaimed could possibly take place in her life.  Our reaction to God’s mysterious will for us is quite often the same, isn’t it?

The difference, though, was that Mary heeded the initial words of the angel that have resounded through Salvation history ever since: “Do not be afraid.”  And, thanks be to God, Mary abandoned her fear and instead sang her fiat, her great “yes” to God’s plan for her, and for all of us.  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”  These words are reminiscent of what the Psalmist sings today: “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.”

And we know what happened from there.  Mary certainly knew that none of that could be accomplished through her own efforts, but she absolutely knew that God could do whatever he undertook.  Nothing would be impossible for God, and she trusted in that, and because of that, we have the great hope of our salvation.  We owe everything to Mary’s cooperation with God’s plan for our salvation.

And so the promise comes to us.  We have the great sign of which Ahaz was afraid, but in which Mary rejoiced.  We too are told that God can accomplish much in our own lives, if we would abandon our fears and cling to the hope of God’s presence and action in our lives.  Can we too be the handmaids of the Lord?  Are we bold enough to say, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will?”  All we have to do is to remember the first thing the angel said to Mary: “Do not be afraid.”

The Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Journeying from Fear to Faith

Today’s readings

Getting ready for Mass today, I thought about my Dad. Not just because it’s Father’s Day, although that’s certainly part of it. But partly because of today’s Gospel. The story we have here today speaks about a journey, and I’ll say more about that in a minute. My Dad was great for journeys: he loved to drive and take the family to Wisconsin or to Disney, or wherever we needed to go. He’d have us up early in the morning so that we’d miss rush hour traffic, and we’d be on our way.

Today, Jesus and his disciples set out on a significant journey. The reading we have today is at the end of chapter four, in which Jesus has been standing next to the sea, teaching the people by means of parables. He has told them the parable of the sower who went out to sow seeds, the parable of the mustard seed, and the lamp placed on the lamp stand. He is explaining the kingdom of God to them, but they don’t quite get it. Even the disciples have to have it explained to them. When he’s done the best that he can with them, he is ready to move on. There are other people that need to hear the Good News, others who need to know Jesus’ power and authority.

And so he sets out on the journey, and the reading says that the disciples take him with them in the boat “just as he was.” That’s a curious detail, I think. But it makes me remember those trips with my dad. It’s time to get going, no time to change clothes or freshen up, just get in the car – or in this case, the boat – and let’s get started on the journey. But the journey isn’t always without its problems. On vacation trips we may run into traffic, or if in the air, perhaps turbulence. On the sea, the disciples experienced the raging waves of a fearsome storm. So they wake Jesus up, because apparently these storms don’t really affect him, and he rebukes the storm, and then rebukes the disciples for their little faith.

We’re all on a journey. That journey, like that of the disciples, is from fear to faith. We very rarely have time to think about it; we just have to get in the boat and get moving, just as we are. The journey is not always smooth: storms arise, and when they do, it often seems like our God is sleeping, seeming not to care that we are about to perish. I’m not going to fill in the blanks for you – you can all do that well enough. You’ve been on many journeys in your life, and sometimes the ride has been bumpy. But if we stay on the journey, we definitely get to experience this One whom “even wind and sea obey.” Even when our God seems to be sleeping, he is never unaware of our situation, and his love for us is never on pause.

The thing is, sometimes the storm doesn’t seem to stop so quickly as it does in today’s Gospel reading. Would that Jesus would stand up in the boat of our uncertainty and yell out: “Quiet! Be still!” But maybe he is. Maybe the “Be still” is directed at us and not at the storm. There was a contemporary Christian song a few years ago now, that had this wonderful line in it: “Sometimes he calms the storm, and other times he calms his child.” That song has given me peace in many situations. Because as frightening as the storms of our lives can be, they are no match for the grace of God. Even if God allows the storm to rage in our lives, if he is with us, calming us, we have nothing to fear. And maybe that is the occasion when we make progress on that journey from fear to faith.

So as we leave this holy place today, we are on a journey to the most holy place, our true home in heaven. Along the way, we will have other destinations, and as we travel, we know that Jesus will be with us through it all. He may calm the storms that arise, or he may calm his children, whichever is most appropriate. And we know that the journey from fear to faith will lead us back one day to the place we really belong, at the banquet table in the kingdom of everlasting life. May all of our life’s journeys end up in that same, great place!

The Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s Gospel story is a fitting one, I think, for this celebration of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  The evangelist tells us that Mary’s heart was filled with wonder.  There are a few stories in the Gospels that end with that wonderful line: “and his mother kept all these things in her heart.”  I think the moms here can understand the sentiment of these lines.  I think any mother is amazed at the things their children learn to do, but Mary’s wonderment goes beyond even that: she is amazed at the coming of age of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  She knew her child would be special, and when you read these stories you can just imagine how astounded she is at times.  Her heart was filled with wonder.

At other places in the Gospel, I imagine her heart is filled with fear.  She began to see, I am sure, that the wonderful things her son was doing were not universally appreciated.  She must have known that the authorities were displeased and were plotting against him.  She probably worried that he would be in danger, which of course he was.  Her heart was filled with fear.

Toward the end of the Gospel, her heart is certainly filled with sorrow.  As she stood at the foot of the cross, her son, the love of her life, is put to death.  The Stabat Mater hymn calls that well to mind: “At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping, close to Jesus at the last.”  The prophet Simeon had foretold her sorrow when she and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple.  Her heart was filled with sorrow.

At the end of the Gospel, her heart must have been filled with joy.  Jesus’ death was not the end of the story.  Not only did his life not end at the grave, now the power of the grave is smashed to oblivion by the power of the resurrection.  In those first hours after his resurrection, she shared the joy of the other women and the disciples.  Her heart was filled with joy.

And as the community went forward in the book of Acts to preach the Good News and to make the Gospel known to every corner of the world, Mary’s heart was filled with love.  That love that she had for her son, that love that she received from God, she now shared as the first of the disciples.  Her place in the community was an honored one, but one that she took up with great passion.  Her heart was filled with love.

For us, perhaps, the best news is that, through it all, her heart was always filled with faith.  That faith allowed her to respond to God’s call through the angel Gabriel with fiat: “let it be done to me according to your word.”  Because of Mary’s faith, the unfolding of God’s plan for the salvation of every person came to fruition.  We are here this morning, to some extent because of her faith, that faith that allowed her to experience the wonder, sustained her through fear and sorrow, and brought life to the joy and love she experienced.  She kept all these things in her heart, that heart that was always filled with faith.

Monday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

St. James today encourages us to consider it all joy when we experience trial.  I don’t know about you, but that’s not the emotion I usually find in frustrating or fearful circumstances.  And considering that the people to whom James was writing were probably being persecuted, they probably weren’t overjoyed at their trials either.  But the spiritual principle is that when one’s faith is tested, ones learns perseverance, and learns to trust in God.

But that presupposes that we will remain faithful in the midst of trial.  The minute we stop looking to our Lord for help in times of difficulty, perseverance and trust in God go right down the tubes.  The Pharisees in the Gospel had not yet learned faithfulness.  They kept their eyes on the minutiae of the Law instead of on God, and so they lost sight of faith and everything that was of true importance.  They were fearful; they wanted a sign, but they would never get a sign because they were always looking in places other than God.

Faithfulness is a difficult thing.  When we are tested, it’s so easy to want to throw in the towel and leave behind everything we believe in.  I have been there myself, but thankfully I still had prayer and people praying for me.  I think we’re all in that place at some time or another in our lives.  It’s easy to be faithful when there are no trials, but faith in times of trial produces the perseverance and lively faith that gets us through life.  And we definitely should consider that all joy.