22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

We have an interesting set of readings today. In the first reading Moses tells the people “Hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your Fathers, is giving you.”

He goes on to tell them that if they observe the laws carefully, they will give evidence of their wisdom and intelligence to the other nations. This was a tall order. The halakhah, or Jewish law, contains 613 individual laws covering every aspect of life; what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and can’t eat, what you can and can’t wear, how to groom yourself, how to do business, who you can marry, how to observe the holidays and the Sabbath, and how to treat God, other people, and even animals.

The halakhah was a handbook for Jewish life and Jews were expected to observe it, as Moses tells them today. These laws are still in effect and many, but not all, Jews follow at least some of them. Whether a Jew eating a ham sandwich is destined for eternal damnation is a question that’s open to debate. But probably not, any more than you and I are going to hell for eating that same ham sandwich on a Friday during Lent.

As Christians, we believe in both Testaments, Old and New. Obviously we wouldn’t have an Old Testament reading as part of most masses if we didn’t believe it. But, look at today’s Gospel. Jesus contradicts Moses! He and His disciples didn’t follow Jewish dietary law. They were eating without purifying their hands, among other things that the scribes and Pharisees are more than anxious to point out.

Jesus responds by calling them “hypocrites”.

Jesus was a faithful Jew. He knew the Scriptures and the halakhah, all 613 laws of it. What’s the deal? What happened between Deuteronomy and Mark’s Gospel? What changed?

Maybe I can clear it up a little bit. When we were children we had to follow a lot of rules. We couldn’t cross the street without holding Mom or Dad’s hand. We didn’t have the experience or the maturity to make good decisions to keep from getting hurt or killed.

We had rules about when we got up and when we went to bed; when to clean our rooms and when to take a bath and brush our teeth. It’s a parent’s job to teach us how to live our lives. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I had more than 613 rules to follow as a kid.

But as we grow and mature, we have fewer rules. We learn to look both ways before we cross the street. We don’t have to hold Mom or Dad’s hand anymore. We learn that if we want to have friends, there are certain rules of hygiene that we have to follow.

Don’t get me wrong. If you leave here today and head up Lafayette Avenue and the light is red, you’d better stop. Not so much because it’s the law, but because there’s liable to be a car coming up Tucker that’s going to cream you if you don’t stop because he has the green light. Traffic laws are there for a reason and we should all follow them to protect ourselves and others.

So, what’s that got to do with today’s readings? The people of Moses’ time were spiritually immature. They needed a lot of rules. But after a few thousand years, God decided that we needed something else. We needed a Savior. He sent us His Son.

Rather than insisting that we wash our hands before meals, Jesus came to offer us something much simpler, and at the same time, much more difficult. He said that nothing that enters us from the outside can defile us. What defiles us is what comes from within. “Evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within.” Get rid of those things and you’ll be pure whether you wash your hands or not.

So, what happened between Deuteronomy and Mark? Jesus happened. He came to form a new covenant. Love God. Love your neighbor. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What would Jesus do? “Greater love has no man than to lay down His life for his friends.”

Instead of a giant book of laws, we have wall hangings and bumper stickers. It’s all very simple. But in many ways it’s harder than the original Jewish law. Under the old covenant, you could look at the laws and know what you had to do. If you could follow instructions, you could be a loyal and faithful Jew.

You and I have to make decisions. What does “love your neighbor” mean. Does it mean I have to be his best friend? Or does it mean that I just have to tolerate him? When I see a beggar in the street, do I have to give him all my money, or just some of it? Or can I just pass him by, knowing that he’ll probably spend any money I give him on booze or drugs? Is it up to me to make that call? It’s just all so confusing.

But, if we’re going to have freedom, we have to make choices. Sometimes they’re easy choices. Sometimes they’re hard. But the New Covenant gives us free will. We can eat that ham sandwich without a guilty conscience, even though a salad might be a better choice.

Of course, we still have laws. We have those pesky traffic laws. But a speeding ticket isn’t going to send you to hell.

We have Jesus’ words in Sacred Scripture and that’s all we really need. There are thousands of books that have been written trying to tell us how to be good Christians. But one book is all we really need. Hopefully we all have one. It’s called the Bible. A friend of mine calls it B-I-B-L-E; Basic Information Before Leaving Earth.

Also, don’t forget that Moses told the people that they must follow the law to “take possession of the land”. Jesus wasn’t interested in land. He was interested in saving our eternal souls. He gave us a very simple code to follow. “Love God. Love thy neighbor.” That’s it.

He left us with one very important decision to make. Do we want to be Pharisees or do we want to be disciples? It’s up to us.

20th Sunday of Ordinary Time—The Bread of Life

EucharistToday is the third week in a row that we’ve read from the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel. All three Gospels have one thing in common. In each reading John speaks to us about the Bread of Life. Two weeks ago, Jesus tells us, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” He goes on to say, “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Last week we heard, “Amen, amen, I say to you whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. I am the living bread which comes down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

This last statement, which ended last week’s Gospel is repeated today. I guess it must be important. As Catholics, we have the privilege of receiving Jesus’ Flesh and Blood at every mass in the form of the Eucharist. In just a few minutes, we’ll all be allowed to participate in this heavenly meal.

Today we see that the Jews quarreled among themselves about this. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” That’s where they got it wrong. While Jesus is a man, He’s also the Son of God. He goes on to explain how this can be, but they still don’t get it. In fact, they don’t get it even today. They’re not alone. Many of our protestant brothers and sisters don’t get it either. Sadly, there are even Catholics who don’t understand how Jesus could give us his Body and Blood to eat and drink. Polls tell us the fastest growing “religious” group in America is “former Catholics”. I think that’s very sad and very confusing. How can anyone who understands what we’re receiving in the Eucharist ever just walk away? It’s the greatest gift in the history of the world.

Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, allows us to take His very Body and Blood into our sinful bodies. No God was ever so generous! Yet so many of us take this gift for granted and are even willing to leave the Church either to spend our time on earthly things like sleeping in, or golf, or whatever we think is more important.

Or worse, many leave the Catholic Church in favor of some other church where they offer a more entertaining service. High tech audio video, up-tempo music, or a watered-down message can never take the place of Jesus’ real presence.

It’s not always easy to be Catholic. We have rules. We stand for the truth, even when it’s not popular. We take Jesus’ command to take up our crosses seriously. But the reward is so great. Those of us who receive the Eucharist today, both here at Saint John’s and at thousands of Catholic churches around the world, will leave with Jesus’ life within us. Nothing can be better than that!

Some say that Jesus wasn’t speaking literally when He said we have to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. The Jews argue about it in today’s Gospel. In next week’s Gospel we’ll see that many of His followers left Him because of this teaching.

Let’s look at that for a second. Jesus came to earth because His Father sent Him to build a Church. He would even die a horrible, painful death to achieve His goal. Don’t you think that if He had been speaking figuratively, when He saw followers leaving He would have stopped them? Wouldn’t He have said, “Wait! Don’t go! I didn’t mean you REALLY have to eat my flesh and drink my blood. I was only speaking figuratively. You only have to eat bread and drink wine and pretend that they’re my Body and Blood.”

But He didn’t do that. He let them go and He lets them go still today. The Eucharist is the core teaching of our faith; always has been and always will be. Everything else we do is directed to this one simple truth. We have seven sacraments. Most of them we’ll only receive once in our lives. But the Eucharist, and the sacrament of reconciliation, which goes along with it, are available to us whenever we want them. Every minute of every day there is a mass going on somewhere and if you’re not in a state of mortal sin, you’re welcome to receive Christ’s Body and Blood at any of them.

In the last month, I’ve received the Eucharist in Canada, in Alaska, in Alabama, and on a cruise ship. And, you know what? Every one of those masses was almost exactly the same. Jesus has given us this great gift and made it readily available.

Over the centuries, loyal Catholics have fought and died for the Eucharist. Yet, today, people who call themselves “Catholic” can’t even be bothered to show up once a week. Like I said, many of them even leave the Church, giving up this great gift. But, you know what? If they decide to come back, Jesus welcomes them back with open arms. Go to confession, and it’s like you never left.

Frankly, I don’t understand it. We use the phrase “Sunday obligation”, which I personally hate, to describe our need to attend mass weekly. How can we refer to receiving our Saviour’s Body and Blood as an obligation? If we reflect and pray on these Gospels, wild horses shouldn’t be able to keep us away.

Like He said, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” I think that’s worth the effort, don’t you?

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

So, what to say about today’s Gospel, the familiar story of the loaves and the fishes. If you’ve looked at this week’s bulletin, you may have noticed that this miracle is repeated SIX TIMES in the four Gospels. Obviously it’s important. But eventually you begin to run out of things to say about it.

But there is one character in this story who doesn’t get talked about so much. It’s the little boy who contributes the bread and fish in the first place. Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother points out the boy and the fact that he has five barley loaves and two fish. It’s not much, but it’s all he has. Here’s the thing. The kid could have kept the food for himself. He didn’t have to give up his food, especially since he had to know that such a small amount, while it would have been enough for him, isn’t much to feed such a large crowd. Could he have known what Jesus was going to do?

We know that Jesus knew because the Gospel says so. But there’s no way of knowing what was in the boy’s mind.

We don’t know much about the boy. In fact we don’t know anything about him except that he had come to hear Jesus speak and that he was smart enough to bring lunch. We don’t know if he was alone, or if he came with his parents. Maybe he came with some friends. John doesn’t tell us. All we know for sure is that there were 5,000 adults in the crowd and this kid was the only one who planned ahead. And we know that he was willing to give all he had, little as it might have been, to help feed the others. He couldn’t have known that his small amount of bread and fish would be more than enough to feed everyone.

When we look at this story, we usually focus on the miracle. Jesus fed the multitude with a small amount of food and had enough left over to fill twelve wicker baskets, one for each Apostle. It’s definitely a story worth retelling over and over. Jesus performed a great miracle which, of course, is the precursor of the Eucharist. But it wouldn’t have happened without the generosity of this unnamed boy.

Which brings us to our Eucharistic meal that Father will prepare in just a few minutes. There’s a reason why someone from the congregation brings up the bread and wine. It’s representative of today’s Gospel story. Father will turn YOUR gifts into Christ’s Body and Blood, just as he fed the 5,000 with the young man’s bread and fish.

But, wait! There’s more! At the same time you bring up the gifts of bread and wine, you also bring up your monetary gifts. We can’t celebrate the Eucharist without bread and wine and we can’t celebrate the Eucharist without your gifts of time, talent, and treasure. Like most things in the Church, the offertory is symbolic. You could mail in your contribution. Many people do. Some churches use on-line giving. We’re not there yet, but some day we may be. We get money from other sources, like weddings and dinners, but it’s the offertory procession, you’re bringing the bread, the wine, and your financial gifts that signifies your generosity. It’s a reminder that the word communion comes from the same root as community. Father consecrates your bread and wine and we celebrate a meal together.

Jesus could have sent the Apostles off to the grocery store to get fish and bread. But He didn’t. He allowed an anonymous boy to provide the material for the miracle. In the same way, Father and I could just bring the bread and wine out of the sacristy for Holy Communion and we could ask you to mail us your tithe. But we don’t. Your gift to the Church is returned as Jesus’ gift to you.

So, as the ushers take up the collection today, remember that it’s your gifts that make this meal possible. Without your presence and your gifts there would be no Eucharist. Like the unnamed little boy, you make the meal possible.

Religious Freedom

By now you’ve probably heard that the US Supreme Court has ruled in favor of so-called “gay marriage”.  Many people much more qualified than I am have already expressed their outrage at this decision, so I’m just going to say that marriage is a sacrament and that no government has the right to define it.  Archbishop Robert Carlson of Saint Louis has issued a short statement that, in my opinion, say all that needs to be said.

“The decision issued today by the Supreme Court to effectively change the legal definition of marriage in the United States does not alter the unassailable truth that marriage is, and always will be, the life-long, life-giving union of one man and one woman.”

Nuff said.

The Mountain

Today my son, Tim, completed the Leadville Trail Marathon in Leadville, CO, in 4:01:16, a pace of 15:34 minutes per mile.  Yes, I’m bragging.  If you want to brag about your kid, get your own blog.  The fact is that, other than prayer, I had nothing to do with his accomplishment.  I ran a little when I was younger, but nothing like this.  He ran up a mountain and then ran back down, at high altitude.  They tell me that coming down is actually harder than going up, but I wouldn’t know.

Running this marathon is the culmination of months of training in good weather and bad.  Tim’s run in heat and cold, rain, sleet, and snow.  Today is his reward for hours and hours of hard work.  Only another distance runner can have any idea of how much work this must have been and how satisfied he must be to have reached his goal.  Congratulations, Tim!

Here’s the thing.  We all have our own mountains.  Some we chose, like Tim’s challenge of Leadville.  Others of us have our mountains thrust upon us, not of our own choosing.  Most of us tackle our mountains alone, just like he ran alone all those hours.  We may have a support system, but when it comes to the actual climb, its usually just us and God.  Of course we know that nothing is impossible with God’s help, but it can be a lonely climb.  It’s easy to become discouraged.

I wish I could have been there to run with Tim through the training and the actual marathon, but like so many things in life, when it’s time to put up or shut up, human help just isn’t possible.  I have a lot of friends who are climbing their own mountains, and I pray for them every day.  But, in the end, we must put one foot in front of the other and keep going.  Life is a series of mountains, some steeper than others.

So, yes, I’m proud of my son, just as I’m proud of all my children.  On this Father’s Day weekend I’m very thankful that God has chosen me to be the father of four wonderful human beings who make me proud every day.  I’m also thankful for my five grandchildren (with number six on the way).  God is good.

I pray that whatever mountain you’re trying to climb today, that God will be by your side and that you’ll reach all your goals. Like the song says, “you’ll never walk alone.”

Happy Father’s Day!

The “Serenity Prayer”

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

We’re all familiar with this prayer.  It’s usually associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve step groups.  It’s known as “the serenity prayer.”  But notice that when we say this prayer we’re asking for three things:  serenity, courage, and wisdom.  It could be just as well be called “the courage prayer” or “the wisdom prayer”.

But we call it “the serenity prayer” because that’s what we’re all seeking.  Sure, it’s great to be brave and wise, but isn’t serenity what we’re all really seeking?  And to be serene, we also need courage and wisdom.  Serenity isn’t easily achieved.

When we say the Lord’s Prayer at mass the priest follows it with these words,

“Deliver us, Lord, we pray from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may always be free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Again, we’re asking for peace and to be free from all distress; in other words, serenity.

We live in a stressful world.  We can never be free from all things stressful.  But, with God’s help, we can learn to handle stress and to create our own brand of peace in our lives.  With can’t control what happens around us, but with God’s help, we can choose to be at peace.

The Serenity Prayer isn’t just for alcoholics, or addicts, or any other particular group.  It’s something we should all include in our daily prayer lives.  When we’re faced with stressful situations, why not take a few seconds to repeat this awesome prayer silently, or even out loud when the situation warrants it.

Say it with me,

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  Amen!

5 Timeless Truths from the Serenity Prayer that Offer Wisdom in the Modern Age

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Saint Cyprian on the Lord’s Prayer

Today’s Liturgy of the Hours features a reading from Saint Cyprian on the subject of the Lord’s prayer.  He writes:

We do not say “My father who art in heaven” nor “Give me this day my daily bread.”  It is not for himself alone that each person asks to be forgiven, not to be led into temptation, or to be delivered from evil.  Rather, we pray in public as a community and not for one individual but for all.  For the people of God are all one.”

Cyprian lived in the 3rd century, so his words are nothing new.  But how many of us pray the “Our Father” in this spirit of community?  We often hear people, especially young people, who say “I don’t need to go to mass.  I can pray on my own.”  But that’s not what Jesus taught us.  He said, “Pray like this:  Our Father who art in heaven.”  The idea that God lives in heaven was nothing new.  But calling Him Our Father was.

While many of us include this prayer as part of our daily devotion, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s a communal prayer.  Even when we pray it in solitude, we’re calling on God in behalf of all people.

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