The Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I really don’t have a green thumb, but for a while when I was young, I was very interested in growing things. My grandmother on my dad’s side had quite the green thumb: anything she planted grew to be quite prolific.  I have whatever the opposite of that is! But still, I have always been fascinated by things growing from tiny little seeds to become large plants; no matter if they become beautiful flowers to decorate the landscape, or delicious vegetables to bring to the table.

It’s really a miracle when you think about it.  This tiny little dried-up thing looks for all the world to be useless and dead.  But when it gets planted in the earth, and watered by the rains, new life springs forth from it, and a tiny sprout appears, which grows day by day to become a fully mature plant by the summertime. Sure, we or the farmers might do a little work to nurture it and water it and keep the weeds and rabbits away, but we don’t make the plant grow: day by day, almost imperceptibly, growth happens.

And this is the image that Jesus uses today to describe the Kingdom of God.  These parables are a lens through which we are to see life: the life of God, and our life, and how they all come together.  And it’s – I think – an encouraging message that we hear today. Today, our Lord assures us that the Kingdom of God doesn’t come about all at once, in great power and glory, or in some kind of dramatic explosion.  The Kingdom is like those crops that grow to be fully mature plants and yield a harvest, but it happens little by little, almost imperceptibly, always growing, but we know not how.  And the Kingdom is miraculous like a mustard seed which one day is the tiniest of all seeds and eventually becomes a large plant that gives shelter to the birds of the air.

Here’s why I think these parables are so encouraging.  Because we all want to be part of the Kingdom of God.  We all want to grow in our faith.  We all want that faith to sustain us in good times and bad, and eventually lead us to heaven.  That’s why we’re here today.  But the truth is, if you’re like me, you get frustrated sometimes because it doesn’t seem like there’s any real growth going on.  We commit the same sins despite our firmest resolve.  We take one step forward and two steps back.  But still, like the seed scattered on the land, being here in church today isn’t nothing.  Our prayers, however lacking they may seem to be, are still a manifestation of our desire to be in relationship with God.  And God takes those tiny seeds of faith and waters them with grace and the sacraments and the life of the Church, until one day, please God, our faith makes a difference in our lives and the lives of those around us.  And whatever we start with in the life of faith may be as tiny as a mustard seed, but in God’s hands, it can become that shrub that is a shelter for those who are flying around in life from one thing to the next, without any real hope except for Christ in us.

We may not be perfect yet, friends, but we’re graced.  And grace will perfect whatever we sow and make our tiny little beginnings into great things, all for the Kingdom of God.

The Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

What are you looking for?

That’s the question Jesus asks us today, and it’s a good one. For the disciples who were checking him out, I think it took them aback somewhat. They weren’t expecting that and they honestly didn’t have a ready answer. So instead they do what Jesus usually does and they answer the question with another question! “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And very cryptically, Jesus answers by saying, “Come and you will see.” That’s a wonderful line, so bookmark it for just a second.

Here we are, essentially just beginning the regular part of the new year of the Church. We’ve been through the Christmas season, we’ve celebrated Epiphany, Jesus has been baptized in the River Jordan by his cousin Saint John the Baptist, and now it’s time to get on with the ministry he came to do. So as he moves on, he begins to attract disciples, particularly those who had been followers of Saint John the Baptist. Most likely, they were there when Jesus was baptized and they experienced the wonders of that moment: when the Father spoke from the heavens and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. My guess is they would have wanted to get to know Jesus a little better.

And so that’s what brings them to the place we are today. Where are you staying? Come and you will see. And see they do. They recruit Simon Peter, and he joins the group. Together they will see the sick healed, the paralyzed get up and walk, the leprous cleaned, the possessed set free. They will see thousands fed by a few loaves and fish. They will witness the raising of the dead, and see Jesus’ transfiguration. But they won’t just see glory, will they? They will see suffering and death, and will then see resurrection. After that, they will see what Jesus saw in them – their ability to become the Church and spread the Gospel.

I wonder how much of that would have answered the question, “What are you looking for?” Probably none of it, really. Just like they had no idea how to answer Jesus’ question, they had no idea what to expect from their relationship with him. They really did have to take him up on his invitation to “Come and see.”

Which is where we are today, on this first, “ordinary” Sunday of the Church year. And I’m going to ask you all to pray over this in the week ahead: “What are you looking for?” What do you hope to see? What are your dreams for your spiritual life? How would you want God to work in your life right now?

For me, I’m looking forward to seeing Chris Lankford ordained to the Diaconate, the last step before his priestly ordination next year. I’m looking forward to seeing how some of our ministries develop, the fruits of adding some programs to our school, the continued growth of our parish council. I’m looking forward to baptizing an adult at our Easter Vigil this year, along with Confirming and giving First Eucharist to two other candidates. I’m looking forward to celebrating several marriages this year, along with 90 First Communions and 60 or so Confirmations. I’m looking forward to seeing how God will continue to work in my life and develop my ministry. But I know it won’t all be glory: I’ll have to celebrate funerals and say goodbye to some wonderful people. I’ll have to make hard decisions about our budget and prioritize ministries. Just like all of your families, there are tough decisions to be made in the running of a parish.

But I wouldn’t change it for the world. And I look forward to the journey. Sometimes things might not happen fast enough for my liking, or maybe they won’t happen in the way I would choose, but I know that along the way, I’ll see more of God’s grace, and that’s worth the ride all in itself.

So I’ll put this back in your court again: What are you looking for? Whatever it is, Jesus answers, “Come, and you will see.”

Monday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Very often, when we hear this story about the widow’s mite, the story is equated with the call to stewardship.  That’s a rather classic explanation of the text.  And there’s nothing wrong with that explanation.  But honestly, I don’t think the story about the widow’s mite is about stewardship at all.  Yes, it’s about treasure and giving and all of that.  But what kind of treasure?  Giving what?

I think to get the accurate picture of what’s going on here, we have to ask why the Church would give us this little vignette at the end of the Church year, in the very last week of Ordinary Time.  That’s the question I found myself asking when I looked at today’s readings.  Well, first of all, it’s near the end of Luke’s Gospel so that may have something to do with it.  But I think there’s a reason Luke put it at the end also.  I mean, in the very next chapter we are going to be led into Christ’s passion and death, so why pause this late in the game to talk about charitable giving?

Obviously, the widow’s mite means something else than giving of one’s material wealth.  Here at the end of the Church year, we are being invited to look back on our lives this past year and see what we have given.  How much of ourselves have we poured out for the life of faith? What have we given of ourselves in service? What has our prayer life been like? Have we trusted Jesus to forgive our sins by approaching the Sacrament of Penance? Have we resolved to walk with Christ in good times and in bad? In short, have we poured out everything we have, every last cent, every widow’s mite, for our life with Christ? Or have we held something back, giving merely of our surplus wealth?

In this last week of the Church year, we have to hear the widow telling us that there is something worth giving everything for, and that something is our relationship with Christ.

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

“Lord, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit.” You’re going to hear those words again in a few minutes, because they are the beginning of the Third Eucharistic prayer, which I’ll be using today. I think they speak well of what we hear in today’s Gospel.

I remember back in my second year of seminary, I took my first moral theology class. One of the first tests we took had that line from the third Eucharistic Prayer on it: “Father, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise.” This line came along with the question: “Rocks are part of creation. So how does a rock give God praise?” Only a Jesuit moral theologian would ask a question like that! The answer, we had been taught, is “by being a rock.” Certainly a rock could not sing a song of praise or pray a psalm, but just by being what it was intended to be—a rock—it gave God praise.

That’s what today’s Gospel is all about. Not about being a rock, that would be silly, but by rightly giving God praise by being what we were created to be: the most fully human people we can be. Now that might seem like a no-brainer. Hey, we can all be human, right? But that, I think, is based on a flawed notion of what it means to be human. How many times have we all said something like, “sure, I am a sinner; I’m only human, right?” But being a sinner is not the same as being fully human. The most fully human person that ever walked the face of the earth was Jesus Christ. Jesus, we believe, was like us in all things, except sin. This is how we know that sin is not part of what it means to be fully human. And sin obviously is not something that gives God praise. Indeed, that last line of the Gospel seems to leave no room for sin, and sets a rather high standard of what it means to give God praise: that we must bear much fruit – not just some fruit, but much fruit – and become disciples of Jesus.

To become more fully human is a life-long task, and we know that it will never be fully realized this side of heaven. But while we are on earth, that’s our primary responsibility: to give God praise by becoming more fully what we were created to be in the first place. Today’s Gospel gives us a picture of how we’re supposed to do that. It mentions two specific things we are to do.

The first thing we are to do is, quite frankly, painful. And that is to get pruned. I’ve pruned more than a few bushes at my parents’ house in my day. When I was growing up, I made the mistake of doing it well, and so I got that job every spring! I didn’t really mind doing it though, but I often thought about the fact that this process could not be all that painless for the shrub. It involved cutting away branches that looked for all the world like they were healthy and life-giving, and even cutting some branches radically away.

Well, we have to give in to that kind of painful process in our own lives too, I think. We have to be willing to get some of us pruned away if we are to grow as healthy and fully human people. This process is painfully difficult, but we recognize that the things we prune away can be really destructive: relationships that entangle us in ways that are not healthy, pleasures that lead to sin, habits that are not virtuous. However enjoyable these relationships or activities may seem to be, and however painful it may be to end them, end them we must in the name of pruning our lives to be healthier, to be more fully the people we were created to be.

The second thing we must do is to remain in Christ. That’s what he says in the Gospel:

Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.

And I’d have to say that they key here is the word “remain” because Jesus uses it four times in that short quote! “Remain in me,” Jesus says, as the branch remains in the vine. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that you can bear much fruit. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that you will not wither and dry up only to be tossed out and burned as rubbish. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that whatever you truly need and want will be done, and so that you can bear much fruit and be my disciples.

I think we can all get on board with remaining in Jesus, because this reading makes it sound completely wonderful. And it is wonderful. If we want to be truly happy, if we want ultimate fulfillment in life, if we really want to be the wonderful creation God made us to be, we must remain in Jesus, because, as he says, “without me you can do nothing.” And that’s true. How many times have we tried to better ourselves and lost sight of the goal before we even started? Don’t even ask me about my new year’s resolutions! How many times have we tried to stamp out a pattern of sin in our lives, only to fall victim to it time and time again? How many times have we tried to repair relationships only to have egos, hurts or resentments get in the way? When we forget to start our work and continue our work with God’s help, we are destined to fail. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. Well does he advise us to remain in him.

But what does “remain in me” look like? Unfortunately, we don’t get a clear-cut blueprint for that in today’s Gospel. And the truth is, remaining in Christ is going to be different for every person. Just like my pruning of mom’s shrubs wasn’t a once-and-for-all activity, we are going to have to do some pruning every now and then so that we can remain in Christ. And so we’ll have to continue to be on the lookout for parts of our lives that are not ultimately life-giving and prune them away. But we’ll also have to look out for opportunities that will fertilize our growth. We have to check our growth daily, we have to examine where we are remaining every day. That might start with Sunday Mass attendance, and perhaps move on to daily Mass, praying devotions like the Rosary, reading Scripture every day, and taking time at the end of the day to see whether we’ve been part of the vine, or are in danger of breaking away from it. We have to be willing to renew ourselves in Christ every single day of our lives.

On this Mother’s Day, I am particularly struck by the spiritual example of my mother and my grandmothers. These women have been faithful witnesses to the Gospel for me and have always encouraged me to live the most fully human life I possibly could. They encouraged me to become all that God had created me to be, and if not for their witness and their urging, I know I would not be standing here today. One of the many gifts God gives us in this life to encourage us in the very hard work of pruning and remaining is the gift of those who have been mother to us. These might have been our natural mothers and grandmothers, our godmothers, our aunts or sisters or some other nurturing female presence in our lives. For all of them today, let us give thanks, and praise our God for the ways they have helped us to be what God created us to be.

All creation, as Eucharistic Prayer III tells us, rightly gives God praise. But we aren’t rocks. It’s not so easy for us to be most fully the wonderful human creation we were made to be. But that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is our calling and our joy. May we all support one another in our times of pruning and through our journey of remaining.

Thursday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It’s interesting that in the Gospel reading it’s the unclean spirits who recognize the holiness of Jesus.  The religious leaders of the time didn’t get it, and sometimes I think we don’t either.  The author of our letter to the Hebrews today puts it rather clearly: “It was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens.”  I think we tend to get rather easily the immanence of Jesus: that he is our friend, that he is close to us.  And that’s good because it’s absolutely true.  But sometimes we miss the transcendence of Jesus: his holiness and the fact that he is above and beyond anything we can possibly imagine with regard to grace and divinity.

If we knew and appreciated the holiness of Jesus, we would never enter the church without a trip to the Tabernacle, even a brief one.  We would call on him to bless all our endeavors and plans because his ability to act on behalf of his beloved comes from his place in the Blessed Trinity.  We would conscientiously genuflect and bow in adoration of him at all the appropriate times.  We would be careful of how we used the name of the Lord in our speech.

It’s a great gift to us that Jesus is both immanent and transcendent: he is both near to us and far beyond our wildest imaginings.  We can never know him fully, because there is infinitely more of him to know.  That’s what keeps our spiritual lives fresh: we can come to know Jesus and be one with him, but there is always more of him to grasp, more that we can learn, more that we can experience, more that we can love.  That’s why spiritual growth is a life-long process, really a life-long gift.

And so, today we should take time to step back and see how it is that we have come to know Jesus.  We are grateful for what has been revealed to us, and eager to find what is still to come.  We are grateful that he is close to us, and we rejoice that he is beyond us in ways we cannot even come close to knowing.  If even the unclean spirits are impressed at the holiness of Jesus, then we have to be too.  We have the word of God and the ministry of the Church to remind us of who Jesus is.  Everything we say and do should reflect what the unclean spirits said: “You are the Son of God.”