22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

 

Well, the readings today are quite a handful, aren’t they? First we have poor Jeremiah, the prophet. He’s ticked off. He’s miffed. He’s mad at the Lord. Or, maybe he’s mad at himself. He says, “you duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.”

Jeremiah is the object of ridicule and scorn because he’s been proclaiming the Lord’s message. But he can’t stop. He can’t help himself. He says “it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in.”

 

Next comes Paul, writing to the Romans. He tells them to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice. “Wait! What? What kind of religion IS this? I thought we sacrificed lambs, and goats, and doves and stuff. You want me to offer my own body!? What’s up with that?”

 

He also tells them, AND US, not to conform to this age, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God.” The Romans were pagans. They were used to gods who gave them stuff. Now this Jew is telling them something totally different. It couldn’t have been easy being Paul. Like Jeremiah, he suffered his share of scorn and ridicule and time in prison.

 

Finally, we have the words of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is speaking to His disciples about what was going to happen to Him. But Peter rebukes Him! Imagine that. You have to admire Peter for having the intestinal fortitude to rebuke Jesus. But he pays the price. “Get thee behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

 

With Peter suitably put in his place, Jesus turns back to the disciples. By the way, exactly what IS a disciple? The dictionary says it’s “a follower or student of a teacher, leader, or philosopher.” In this context, the disciples were obviously the people who followed Christ. And by follow, I mean they physically followed Him around. But they also hung on every word He said and did their best to follow His teachings.

 

Matthew ends his Gospel with these words of Jesus, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And, behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

 

But back to today’s Gospel. He tells His disciples, his followers, his students, that they must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Him. He tells them that if they lose their lives for His sake they will save their lives. He promises them, and us, that he will repay all of us according to our conduct.

 

Three readings. Jeremiah is the object of ridicule and scorn for delivering the Lord’s message. Paul tells the Romans that they must sacrifice themselves. Jesus tells His disciples that they must take up their crosses and follow Him, losing their lives to save them.

 

These are very Catholic messages. I say that because a lot of churches have become very popular preaching what is sometimes called “the prosperity Gospel”. If you follow Jesus, everything will be great! God will give you anything you want if you just ask Him. If He doesn’t answer your prayers it’s because you’re not holy enough. It sounds good and attracts a lot of people, especially poor people. Often these “prosperity preachers” make the poor even poorer by asking them to “give ‘til it hurts” knowing that God will provide. Unfortunately, the only one who seems to proper from the “prosperity gospel” are the “prosperity preachers.”

 

Our Gospel message isn’t that you’re going to prosper in this world, but that what God has prepared for us in the next world is so far beyond the riches of this world that we can’t even comprehend it.

 

So, how do we get to the next world? How do we get one of those many places that the Father has prepared for us? There’s a good answer in our missalettes, in the little italicized section at the beginning of today’s readings. You may not normally read it, but today it’s especially good.

 

“No wonder Peter rebukes Jesus! Jesus “began to show his disciples” [there’s that word again] what faithful discipleship demands: denying self, losing self, letting self die. Jesus teaches his disciples to let go of self so that a new self can be given. What we relinquish is ourselves as we are now; what we are given is a new self, born from identifying completely with Jesus. It takes a lifetime of discipleship to embrace Jesus’ way of living. It takes a lifetime of discipleship to let Jesus transform our life into His life.”

 

The writer uses the word “disciple” or “discipleship” five times in that short passage. It must be important. In fact, it’s more than important, it’s critical to our eternal life. The big question for all of us is “Am I a disciple?” Do I identify completely with Jesus. Have I let go of my self? Have I denied my self? Have I let my self die? If not, why not?

 

Is Jesus part of my everyday life, or is the sum total of my so-called discipleship coming to mass once a week? We all know people who call themselves Catholics who can’t even manage to do that! Today’s readings are a real challenge for all of us. It’s right there in black and white. If we’re serious about our eternal souls, and I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t be, then we have to be true disciples; not occasional disciples, not once a week disciples, but 100% disciples, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

 

We’re not called to do the least we can, we’re called to do ALL that we can. We’re called to let go of our selves. We’re called to deny our selves. We’re called to let our selves die. If we insist on holding on to our old selves then maybe we should rethink our priorities. It’s like they say on the airliners, we have to put on our oxygen masks first, then help others with theirs. We can’t make disciples if we aren’t disciples ourselves.

 

20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

The prophet Isiah lived in the 8th Century B. C., or about 800 years before Christ. Nearly 3,000 years ago he’s writing about racism. He writes that “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants” will be brought to the holy mountain. He says, speaking for the Lord, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

 

Remember, the Jewish people didn’t play well with others. Foreigners were the enemy. But here’s Isiah telling the Jewish people that foreigners who join themselves to the Lord will enter the heavenly kingdom. This was pretty radical stuff and you can bet that a lot of people didn’t like it.

 

Then we have today’s Gospel, where a Canaanite woman asked Jesus to have pity on her and to heal her daughter. Jesus ignored her. Again, the Jews and the Gentiles hated each other. Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, “Send this foreigner away. She’s bothering us.”

 

What Jesus does next is surprising. He tells the woman that He’s been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Do you think maybe He’s trying to teach the disciples a lesson? Maybe He wants them to see for themselves how wrong they are. He even calls the woman a “dog”. But this woman is no dummy. She says that even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.

Finally, Jesus praises the woman for her faith and heals her daughter.

 

Then we have our second reading where Saint Paul is writing to the Romans who are gentiles. Keep in mind that on most Sundays, our readings aren’t in chronological order. The first reading is usually from the Old Testament. The second reading is taken from the New Testament, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then we have the Gospel which usually falls between the other two readings in time.

 

Because the Gospel is Jesus’ words, it deserves the place of prominence as the last of the three readings. It’s like when you go to a concert, the headline act comes on last. The opening acts get the audience ready for what’s to come. It’s not a great analogy, but I hope you get the idea.

 

Anyway, Paul’s job is to convert them to the gentile Romans to the new Christian faith. He tells them, “I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them…..For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.” Like Isaiah, Paul is making a pretty radical statement. Again, the Jews and the gentiles hated each other. But here’s this new religion claiming that they’re all equal in God’s eyes.

 

See, racism isn’t new. Over the centuries, Jews have hated gentiles, then Muslims. There’s centuries-old animosity between the English and the Irish. And of course, today there’s the issue of black and white Americans.

 

The people who started this church were the victims of discrimination. When they came up the Mississippi River they weren’t allowed to settle in Saint Louis. Like the other immigrants, they were forced to locate outside the city limits. When word got out that the Bohemians were going to build this beautiful church, there were a lot of people who thought they couldn’t do it. Face it, a lot of people hoped they would fail. Who did these Bohunks think they were, anyway?

 

When my Irish ancestors arrived in America they were faced with help wanted signs that said, “No Irishmen need apply.” Newspaper editorial cartoons depicting Irish as monkeys were common. There’s even a term for anti-Irish, Hibernophobia. Here in Saint Louis, in 1854, the year our church was founded, there were anti-Irish riots.

 

You may not be aware of it, but there are people who hate us because we’re Catholic. Because Saint Louis is a fairly Catholic town, after all it was named after a Catholic saint, we don’t see as much of it as you might in other places, but believe me it’s there. I was shocked by some of the literature that was handed out here during Pope John Paul’s visit. It was pretty bad. Even our local media have an anti-Catholic bias that’s hard to overlook. You may not realize it, but every one of us has suffered some form of discrimination because of our faith.

 

We all have prejudices, some of us more than others, but we all have them. It’s only human nature for us to want to be around people like ourselves. But, that’s no excuse for hating someone just because they look different than we do, because they worship differently than we do, or because they have different political opinions than we do. There’s just too much hate in the world.

 

Muslims and Jews hate each other. Blacks and whites hate each other. Democrats hate Republicans and vice versa, so much so that nothing ever gets done.

 

You’ve probably figured out by now that what I’m leading up to is the situation in Ferguson. I have no idea what happened in the confrontation between Michael Brown and the police officer who shot him. Nobody knows except the people actually involved. We have to trust the investigators who are trying to figure it all out.

 

What we do know is that there’s a tremendous amount of racial tension in Saint Louis and all over America. Sadly, it seems to be getting worse. The thing is, the government isn’t going to solve the problem. Maybe it can’t be solved considering that Isaiah wrote about it 3,000 years ago. But God calls us to love one another. That doesn’t mean that we have to hang out with people who make us uncomfortable, but it does mean that we shouldn’t be so antagonistic to each other.

 

I’m sure you’ve noticed that most of the people who’ve been trying to diffuse the situation in North County are ministers; black ministers, white ministers, Catholics and protestants, including our own Archbishop Carlson. With the exception of a few misguided souls who think that they’re above the law and entitled to just take the things that they want, nobody wants to see people get hurt. Nobody wants to see violence in the streets. People in North County, and all over the country for that matter, just want to live their lives in peace.

 

Jesus used the Canaananite woman to show the disciples how wrong they were to dismiss her just because she was different from them. Isiah said that the kingdom of heaven was for all. Saint Paul risked his life to take the new faith to the gentiles, even though he was Jewish himself. God is love. He doesn’t want to see His creation destroy itself with hate.

 

So, what can we do? The biggest thing we can do is to pray. We should pray for those who are victims of discrimination, whether it’s racial, religious, or philosophical. Churches all over the area have been holding special prayer services during the last few days. And, guess what? It’s working. Things are calming down. The violence has subsided. But until every one of us, black, white, or whatever, starts looking at others as God’s creatures, there will always be an undercurrent of hate and distrust.

 

We should also pray that God opens our own hearts to those who are different from us. Of course we have to use common sense and be vigilant for our own safety, but we have to accept the fact that just because someone looks different from us, it doesn’t mean they’re a danger. We all want the same things; peace, safety, a loving family, food on the table and a roof over our heads. We all want to live in a world where violence is a thing of the past. Will it ever happen? I don’t know. But I can sure pray for it and work for it. So can you.

PRAY FOR PEACE! 

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Loaves and Fish and Faith-Inspired Generosity

When I looked at the readings for this week my first thought was, “Oh, no. Not the loaves and fishes again.” It seems like this story comes up about once a month. Not really, but we’ve heard the story so many times, what can I say about it that you haven’t heard before?

 

Actually, this is Jesus’ only miracle, other than the Resurrection, that appears in all four Gospels. That’s why we hear it so often. But if you look at all four versions, each one is slightly different. In Luke and John’s telling of the story, there are FIVE loaves. Mark and Matthew say there were SEVEN.

 

In John’s Gospel there is a boy who has five loaves in two fish. In the other three versions, including Matthew’s, which we read today, the disciples come up with the food themselves. But the differences aren’t that important. It was a miracle, whether Jesus started with five loaves or seven and no matter where the bread and fish came from.

 

But there is a small difference in Matthew’s telling of the story which makes it unique. It’s only one sentence. But it is significant. When Jesus asks them for something to feed the people, the disciples say, “FIVE LOAVES AND TWO FISH ARE ALL WE HAVE.”

 

Think about that! Jesus isn’t asking them for SOME food, He’s asking them for ALL THAT THEY HAVE. They must have been thinking, “But, what will WE eat tomorrow?” Of course, we know the answer. After the multitude is fed, there are twelve wicker baskets of food left over. One for each of them! Clearly, there’s a message here for us. Mark, Luke, and John focus on the miracle itself. Matthew offers us a lesson on selfless giving.

 

You and I are always asked to give. Give to the Church. Give to the poor. Give to the hungry. Give to this special collection and that special collection. Give to the ACA. And, on and on and on. But how much are we supposed to give? Shouldn’t we take care of our own needs first?

 

The Old Testament tells us we should tithe. That’s ten percent. Or to put it another way, God has given us everything we have. As a kind and benevolent Father, He says we get to keep NINETY PERCENT. When you think about it, that’s pretty generous. So, why doesn’t He just give us ninety percent and keep the other ten for himself? Good question.

 

God wants to see how much we really love Him. By giving us all that we have and then letting us decide how much to give back, He puts the decision squarely on you and me. Do we return part of our time, talent, and treasure to Him, or would we rather keep all of it for ourselves?

 

A side note here: The Catholic Church teaches that our tithing includes all giving. If we give five percent to other good causes, then we’re only expected to give five percent to the Church. The TOTAL of our giving should be at least ten percent.

 

Some churches teach that the ten percent tithe applies only to them. Anything else you contribute is over and above. If you want to give money to secular charities, that’s great! But that comes out of YOUR ninety percent, not their ten. Some go so far as to demand that members turn in a copy of their W-2 forms so they can make sure you’re doing your part. The Catholic Church would never go to such extremes. What you give is between you and God.

 

The disciples in our Gospel gave Jesus all that they had. But at the end of the day, they got much more back. They had faith in Jesus and their faith was rewarded. My experience has always been that that’s the way things work out. My former pastor used to say, “God can never be outdone in generosity.” How true that is.

 

But, the disciples didn’t give all their food hoping to get something back. Thinking as human beings, they had no clue how Jesus was going to feed so many people with so little food. They didn’t know what Jesus was going to do. But their faith made them give.

 

Does your faith cause you to give?

 

I’m constantly getting things in the mail offering to increase what YOU give. “Do this and your collections will go up by 10%” “Buy this program and people will be breaking down your door to give you money.” I say, “NONSENSE”. I don’t think Jesus wants us to trick you into giving more to the Church. I believe that He wants us to teach you, by word and example, why you should be generous to our God.

 

In the first reading, Isaiah tells the people, “All you who are thirsty come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come without paying and without cost.” In other words, if you have no money, God will provide. That’s the flip side of giving. If you’re broke, if you’re out of work, if you’re hungry, God will provide. Of course, what that really means is that you and I will provide on God’s behalf. This month, we’re collecting school supplies for kids whose parents can’t afford to buy them.

 

With four grown kids, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on school supplies. Shouldn’t my crayon buying days be over? Well, no, they’re not. I know what it’s like to have to choose between buying something I want and buying spiral notebooks. Most of us do. But we sacrifice for our kids and now that most of our kids are grown, it’s our turn to help others. Besides, it’s kind of fun to see all the new things that they have for back-to-school. Even though I basically hated school, it was always exciting to start back with a brand new box of 64 Crayolas, all with sharp points. A small blessing, but still a blessing. And, I didn’t even go to CATHOLIC school.

 

Who knows? The kid who gets the supplies that I contribute may grow up and find the cure for cancer. That may sound farfetched, but is it more outrageous than Jesus feeding thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes? Not really.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to guilt anybody into buying a backpack and a box of pencils. It’s not about guilt and it’s not about pencils. It’s about loving God and giving back what’s rightfully His to begin with. There’s an old saying, “God loves a cheerful giver.” That’s true. Like the story of the widow who gives her last penny, God will bless those of us who give when it’s sacrificial.

 

Isn’t it hypocritical for us to get down on our knees and thank God for all that He’s given us, then to ask Him for more, then to throw five bucks in the collection basket when we know we could do more?

 

Our minds aren’t even capable of understanding all that God has done for us. We have roofs over our heads and food on the table. But that’s small change. You and I live in the greatest country on earth, even though we do have our problems. The big news right now is how thousands of people are trying to come to America. Very few Americans are trying to get out. That’s a gift from God. Our very lives are a gift. No matter how smart or how talented we think we are, none of that is a result of anything we did. God gives us everything and He asks for very little in return.