At this time in our country great debates are taking place as different senators and other politicians try to look for what they call a just immigration reform. People have different ideas about how to treat “foreigners.” Many question their rights or lack of them. Today, our Scriptures help us turn toward the foreigner or the outsider. Certainly the first reading and the Gospel turn our attention upon the salvation and faith of the “foreigner” or the outsider, the one who lives on the fringe, the edge of society. Scriptures help us turn toward the forgotten man or woman, the one who is hopeless, the outcast and the no-person.
Dinosaurs on television! Who would have ever imagined? Animals and plants even older than dinosaurs, ancient seas, the continents of earth in a far different arrangement than what we know today. Stars a-booming, colliding, dividing, galaxies spinning off into space. Amazing what you can discover on television!
And then they show you how all these living things developed. And how they - suddenly! - came to an end. And, of course, when the dinosaurs, the great reptiles, died out, little mammals came to populate the earth, little mammals like – eventually – you and me.
This past week I’ve just finished writing an article on the problems facing the board of directors of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club, you will recall, is a nonprofit organization that has been around for over 100-years with the mission of protecting the environment from harm. Since the late 1990’s there have been many attempts at a hostile takeover of the board by antiimmigration groups. They are the ones who would like to see the Sierra Club embrace an antiimmigration agenda as part of the club’s environmental mission.
So what does the Sierra Club or anti-immigration enthusiasts have to do with the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time? On the surface, nothing, but underneath, the heart of today’s readings.
Justice, both socially and spiritually, is at the heart of today’s readings.
The parables are always about the practical implications of faith.
The theme of justice seems pretty obvious in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Justice is the rendering of what is due to, or merited by someone. It includes ideas like fairness, equity and impartiality. It doesn’t allow for favoritism, which always divides and hurts some people.
One of the greatest challenges many of us face in striving to live out our Christian vocation in the real world, it seems to me, has to do with the issue of forgiveness. If the people we often see on newscasts – people who have been aggrieved, against whom some crime or injury has been committed – if such people are at all representative of the population at large, justice rather than mercy often seems to be the prevailing force that moves us.
I am pretty sure that all parents have, at one time or another, found themselves in the position of trying to get their child to do something difficult or boring or distasteful, and having their child refuse with these words: “You know, I didn’t ask to be born!” The logic of the complaint seems to be that, by not actually requesting birth, the child must now be held to a lower standard of compliance with parental oversight. If children asked to be born, then it would be their own fault that they were here, and they would have to accept the consequences of mowing the lawn, doing the dishes, and studying algebra. But since they didn’t ask to be here, they expect to be cut some slack.
Today’s Gospel story asks the ultimate question: “What seats do you have?” Jesus tells a parable about the seats people want at a banquet to some Pharisees. In other words, Jesus teaches a group of educated, competitive, hard-working people with acquired tastes – a group of people a lot like me, and perhaps you, too.
I remember an early morning this spring when I was awoken from a deep sleep by the severe sounds of an approaching storm. There was a tremendous clap of thunder followed by a bright flash of lighting, the intensity of which drew me from my bed instantly and to the window. My immediate reaction was to quickly bless myself, making the sign of the cross, followed expediently by an act of contrition. The violence of the storm combined with the strange light of the morning in these moments just before dawn to frighten me and to wonder if this might be the end of the world! My response to the storm triggered a spontaneous spiritual reaction, readying myself for what might be the end.
I imagine the words of Jesus today may seem a bit heavy – especially at this time of year, when the summer heat tends to make many of us feel a little sluggish and lazy. Yet Jesus calls us to vigilance and readiness. Perhaps it’s precisely because it may be more difficult for us to hear this message now that the Church places this Gospel before us today as a reminder of what never fails to be important, namely, that we always be prepared for the Lord’s coming.
In my family, there are two organized religions: Roman Catholicism, and the Pennsylvania State Lottery. (Some interfaith family members also attend the Church of Powerball.) I recall the first time the jackpot went over one hundred million dollars. It was in the late 80s, and although I was living in Washington at the time, my brother, Matt, was giving me regular updates on the effects of this huge prize. There were long lines to buy tickets; people taking trains from New York, Baltimore, and Washington, others flying in from California and Europe and even Japan; and a level of general excitement that continued to rise every time there was a drawing without a winner. He assured me that he had purchased a fair number of tickets himself, and asked me if I would pray for one of them to win. I dodged the question by asking him what he would do if he won, and he revealed to me a very detailed plan of action. He had obviously given the matter a great deal of thought.
“When you pray, say, ‘Father, hallowed be your name’” (Luke 11:2).
Atop a mountain called Olivet, outside Jerusalem, there stands today a church with a strange name. It is called the Church of the Our Father. It stands over the spot where tradition holds that Jesus taught His prayer to the apostles.
In the sixth century, St. Benedict founded a dozen monasteries in Italy that would shape Europe for centuries to come. Carved over the entrance of the first Benedictine monastery at Subiaco is the famous motto, Ora et Labora: “Pray and Work.” In the death throes of the classical world, in the decay of ancient institutions and customs, St. Benedict located the foundation of spiritual growth and endurance in the balance of contemplation and activity.
“It is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”
“Let me just answer one more email.”
“I’ll be right with you. I just have to return one more phone call.”
“Hold on, my cell phone is ringing.”
“Sorry, this won’t take long…”
Sound familiar? All of us at one time or another has said this to a family member or friend who is waiting for us. Some of us make our companions wait quite a long time – the movie has already started, the specials at the restaurant have long run dry, the train has already left the station! Some of us never get out of the office, turn off the computer, or hang up the phone. All of us have been players in this “make ‘em wait’ game;” some of us have even made a career of it!
“Receive what you are, become what you receive, for this is the Body of Christ. Happy are we who are called to this banquet.”
In my years as a priest, I have witnessed many amazing things. I have heard the sorrow of men and women who have come back to confession for the first time in a quarter of a century. I have watched Catholics rally around parishioners in need, go out of their way to comfort the mourning, struggle and sacrifice to raise their children in the faith. I have seen people’s lives turned around by prayer, watched people come out from under addiction, and witnessed remarkable acts of forgiveness. I have even seen people break years of a bad habit, and start to come to Mass on time.
What do you think God is asking of you today? What are you willing to give to God? Are there limits to your response? Can you name them? In what ways do you hold back, ignore, or even say no? Why?
A few years back, on a warm Sunday in August, I was sitting in my sister’s backyard following a family barbecue. (It’s good to think of such things in the midst of a harsh winter, and be reminded that the fine weather will come again.) The rest of the family had gone, leaving me, my sister and her husband, and a young couple from next door. During a pause in the conversation, my four-year-old nephew, Matthew, who was sitting on my lap, slowly leaned over to the neighbor - who was very pretty and, let us say, dressed for summer - looked up into her face, and said in the voice of a twenty-year-old, “You have the prettiest blue eyes.” We all laughed, and the young woman said, “Well, thank you, Matthew! But my eyes aren’t blue. They’re green.” And without missing a beat, and in the same adult voice, Matthew replied, “Green is my faaavorite color!”
Happy Dependence Day! That’s right, it’s Dependence day, not Independence Day. Let me explain.
In general, there are three sorts of questions we encounter daily. First, there are things that sound like questions, but really aren’t. Second, things that don’t sound like questions, but really are. Third, there are real questions.
For instance, when we walk by someone we know in an office hallway or on campus or at the store, one of us says, “Hi! How are you?” Usually, we don’t want a real answer. If the person we have greeted stops and starts telling us about his recent medical exam, or about her mother in Altoona, generally we aren’t happy about it. It wasn’t a real question.