Sunday, July 26, 2009


Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
2 Kings 4.42-44 Psalm 145 Ephesians 4.1-6 John 6.1-15

I wonder what they did with all the leftovers. They had twelve wicker baskets – probably twelve large baskets – each full of pieces of the bread that started as only five loaves but was enough to feed a multitude. Everyone had plenty to eat – enough to fill them, the gospel says – and Jesus wanted to make sure that nothing was wasted. So he had the disciples gather the leftovers. But then what? What did they do with all the leftovers?

Of course, that’s not really the point. The point of the story in John’s gospel is that Jesus was able to work a miracle, to feed 5,000 men plus women and children with only five loaves and two fish. The point of the story is that Jesus want to feed us, to nourish us – not just physically, but spiritually, too. The point of the story is that God provides for us, not just the bare minimum, but in abundance – if we are really attentive to what God is giving us, we will find that we have more of his love and guidance than we could ever need. This story of the feeding of the multitude prepares us for the Eucharist, the bread and wine that become Christ’s Body and Blood, our regular spiritual nourishment that will never run out. But, still, there were leftovers. It may not be the main point of the story, but it makes you think – what happened to those twelve baskets of bread?

The gospel doesn’t answer that question – it really doesn’t even ask that question. The next thing we know, the disciples are on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, without Jesus, and suddenly Jesus comes walking across the water toward them. The crowd follows them to the other side of the sea, and Jesus spends the next day teaching them not about the bread and fish and physical hunger but about the Bread of Life and spiritual hunger. Perhaps the disciples divided up the leftovers among the crowd for them to take home. Maybe they kept them for themselves, as food for the next part of their own journey. Or maybe the disciples went off and found people who were not part of the crowd on the mountain and gave them the leftovers, maybe the poor or beggars in nearby towns. We don’t know; and it doesn’t really matter. But it should make us think.

What do we do with the abundance God gives us? When we are blessed with more food than we need, do we throw it away, or let it rot, or share it with family members, or take it to a local soup kitchen. When we are blessed with extra time on our hands, what do we do with it? Do we sit in front of the television, watching the latest round of reality TV, or do we exercise to take better care of our bodies or pray to take better care of our souls? When we are blessed with extra money, as hard as that may seem in the midst of a recession, but when we do find extra money in the bank do we spend it right away, or save it for something we’ve always wanted, or do we give part of it away so that people who aren’t as blessed can have a share in our blessings.

The abundance is there, the leftovers are there, if we look hard enough to find them. God has promised to give us everything we need, and to give it in abundance. But that abundance is not for us – it is meant to be shared, and in the sharing we become more like God. What do you do with your leftover blessings?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Theology of Vacation

Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Jeremiah 23.1-6 Psalm 23 Ephesians 2.13-18 Mark 6.30-34

In case you haven’t noticed, our pews are a less crowded these days than they are normally. The collection basket is a little less full. There are often more visitors here with us than usual, while many of our regular parishioners are not. It is summer, which for many people means one thing: vacation time! For about another three weeks or so, we are in the midst of the biggest travel time of the year, when school is out and the sun is shining and the beach – or the lake – or the campground – or the long-distant family – is beckoning. Of course, these summer days are not the only time for vacations, but it is when we notice it the most. And, believe me, vacation is a good thing. So good, in fact, that Jesus himself encourages us to get away.

If you read the gospels carefully, you’ll notice that Jesus has a regular pattern of active ministry that is balanced with time spent away from the crowds, time spent either by himself or with his disciples. Most of the time, when Jesus goes away by himself, he goes away to pray, and that prayer, that communion with his heavenly Father, helps to guide his future ministry. But sometimes, the time away is not just for prayer, like in today’s gospel. Jesus tells his disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6.31). Jesus knew that sometimes, we just need to take time away simply to rest, to relax, to rejuvenate our bodies and spirits, to refresh our minds for the work and ministry that lies ahead. In the example of today’s gospel, this attempt to get away for a while to rest was not very successful, because the crowds followed Jesus, and they actually got to his destination before he did. But the lesson is there – spending time away to rest is a necessary part of the rhythm of life.

And that rhythm is really a balance that Jesus tries to teach us – a balance between active ministry and quiet contemplation, a balance between business and rest, a balance between work and leisure. Our time is valuable, but sometimes the most productive way to spend our time is by not being outwardly productive. Sometimes the best way to spend our time is in rest and relaxation, knowing that this time of rest will then lead us back into the active world and the work that awaits us. For me, my ideal vacation is one where there is no sightseeing, not a lot of travel, and not a packed daily agenda – instead, my ideal vacation is a time of quiet and rest, reading a good book, taking a slow, leisurely hike in the woods, away from civilization. We need that time away to reconnect with ourselves and with God. We need a chance to slowdown, to spend each minute deliberately, not rushing from one thing to the next. We need a place to leave tension and stress behind us. Vacation can be holy, even Jesus went on vacation. But he would be the first to tell us that vacation cannot be an end in itself – it must always lead us back into the active work of our daily lives.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Just Passing Through: Simplicity of Life

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Amos 7.12-15 Psalm 85 Ephesians 1.3-14 Mark 6.7-13

Several years ago, a young priest from St. Louis was going to graduate school in Washington, DC. At Christmas time and during the summers while he was in school, he would drive back to his home in St. Louis, always stopping at the half-way point in Zanesville, Ohio, to stay in the rectory of one of the local parishes for the night. An elderly priest was pastor of this parish, and he and the young priest developed a friendly relationship over the years. On one of his visits, the young priest noticed how plain and simple the elderly pastor’s room was – he had one room in the rectory, which combined for a bedroom and study, consisting of a single closet, one bookshelf, a desk, a crucifix, a few pictures, a reading chair, and a lamp. The young priest was amazed at how simple it all was, and he asked the elderly pastor about it. He responded, “Well, if I walk down to your room all you’ve got is your suitcase!” “Well sure,” the young priest said, “but, after all, I’m, just passing through.” The response from the pastor: “Aren’t we all?”*

Just passing through. As the Year of St. Paul came to a conclusion, Pope Benedict inaugurated a new year: the Year for Priests. During this coming year, my hope is to occasionally preach about different aspects of the priesthood. On the one hand, these reflections may help us all to understand better what the ordained priesthood is all about. But on the other hand, I think they will also offer some wisdom and inspiration for living the Christian life in general, as members of the priesthood of all the baptized. Because really, the qualities and virtues that mark the priesthood are also qualities and virtues that all Christians should aspire to. And that is especially true for this first reflection on simplicity of life.

It may surprise some people that, as a diocesan priest, I have never taken a vow of poverty. Diocesan priests are those who serve primarily in parishes under the direction of a bishop. We are different from priests in religious orders – like the Franciscans or Benedictines – who do take vows of poverty. Sometimes, priests from religious orders also staff parishes, like the Conventual Franciscans who staff some of our local parishes. Priests in most religious orders do not own anything themselves – even their clothes and their books are the property of the community as a whole, not the individual priest. But diocesan priests are different. Our unique calling is to live in the world, among the people we serve. We do not take a vow of poverty, which means that we can and do own things. We own our clothes, our cars, our books and computers. We have checking and savings accounts and credit cards, like anyone else. We get a regular salary from the parish, with benefits including health insurance and mileage reimbursement – although it is a relatively modest salary, especially when compared to other professionals and even clergy in other denominations. And we pay income tax, like anyone else. When we take vacations, we pay for our own vacations out of our own money. When we want a new car, we buy that car with our own money. The parish we live in does provide housing and meals, but other than that we priests manage a personal budget like anyone else. And we also participate in parish stewardship just like we ask our parishioners to – a full ten percent of my personal income goes back to the parish, and I often give to other charities and religious organizations as well. We’re comfortable, we have everything we need, but we are certainly not wealthy. And money can consume a priest just like anyone else. There is no vow of poverty for us diocesan priests, but there is a promise: it’s called simplicity of life.

When priests are ordained, they promise to unite their lives “more closely every day to Christ the High Priest” (Rite of Ordination of a Priest 124). In other words, priests promise to be like Jesus Christ as much as possible. Priests look to Jesus as their model, the one who was born in a stable, who had no place to lay his head, who did not have a regular home and whose only possession was his tunic. Jesus instructed his disciple to live the same way he did when he sent them out – he told them to take nothing for the journey, no food, no sack, no money – just a tunic, sandals, and a walking stick. Now that is simplicity of life. Jesus recognized that too many possessions can divert our attention away from God. Too luxurious a lifestyle can make us think that material things can bring us happiness. But you don’t have to be rich to let your possessions rule you: being poor in material goods but consumed with a desire for riches is just as dangerous. Simplicity of life reminds us that we must trust in God’s providence to give us everything we need. Simplicity of life helps us to be in solidarity with the poor, locally and around the world. Simplicity of life teaches us that nothing we own will last forever – only God and God’s love is eternal. To be like Christ is to recognize that our possessions do not define us. To be like Christ is to live within our means, not building up debt and relying on credit. To be like Christ is to share what we have with others, to not be overly attached to the money or possessions we do have, whether great or small. To be like Christ is to live as if we are always just passing through. It means different things for different people, and not all of us do it well all the time. But if we want to be like Christ, then simplicity of life must be our goal. And it’s not just for priests; it is an example that all Christians are called to follow.

* As recorded in Timothy M. Dolan, Priests for the Third Millennium, Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2000, p. 185.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Silent Stone in St. Peter's Square

Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Ezekiel 2.2-5 Psalm 123 2 Corinthians 12.7-10 Mark 6.1-6

For many years, there was a single red paving stone among the thousands of gray stones in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. No other markers, no indication that this red stone meant anything – for all anyone knew, it had been a mistake, just one stone of the wrong color that got mixed in accidentally. Today, that red stone is no longer there, but it has been replaced with a slightly larger piece of white marble with a coat of arms and a date inscribed on it: May 13, 1981. No other explanation, and still out of place – just one piece of white marble in a sea of dark gray paving stones. But if you would go to the internet or to history books and would look up the date on the stone, everything would suddenly make sense. Because it was on May 13, 1981, that Pope John Paul II was shot as he was moving through St. Peter’s Square, an assassination attempt that nearly took his life, but which he survived. Pope John Paul himself had the plain red stone placed at the exact spot in the square where he was shot – an almost invisible marker to the rest of the world, but full of meaning for the Holy Father himself. Now, after his death, Pope Benedict has had the red stone replaced with the larger piece of white marble that has Pope John Paul’s coat of arms and the date of the shooting. Still, no indication of why it is there, no explanation of why that spot or that date is important. Just a silent witness, a simple reminder of a dark moment in the history of the papacy.

The great writer Ernest Hemingway once said, “Life breaks all of us, but some of us are strong in the broken places.” Most of us can point to something in our own life story that has tried to break us, to weaken us, to tear us down and make us lose hope. For some, it is the sudden, shocking loss of a loved one to violence, or disease, or suicide. For some, it might be a diagnosis of cancer or a massive heart attack or the effects of a debilitating chronic disease. It might be the day a marriage fell apart or the day a child left to fight in a war or the day an employer told you that your job was being eliminated. Or maybe it’s not one particular thing, but more a general feeling of sorrow or depression or lack of purpose. Somehow, in some way, the circumstances of the world do their best to break us down, to take away the comfort and security and love that we think we know so well. Life breaks all of us, Hemingway said. It’s like the thorn in the flesh that St. Paul speaks of, the weakness that follows him throughout his life.

But both Hemingway and Paul saw something more in the brokenness, in the weakness that we face – they were both convinced that our weakness can make us strong, that our suffering can make us a better person. But how? How can weakness be a good thing? For Paul, the answer was straightforward – when we are broken down, when we are so weak that we can’t do anything on our own, we are forced to rely on God. When the depression or pain or loneliness takes over our lives, when there is no strength left in us, the only place we can find strength is in the love of Christ – and if we open ourselves to that love, then we will discover that God’s grace, God’s presence in our weakness will make us strong. The only way to be “strong in the broken places” is to surrender to God, to let God be our life, to let God be our hope, to let God be our strength.

Remember the stone in St. Peter’s Square: at first a blank red stone and now a white stone with a coat of arms and a date; that single stone speaks volumes in its silent witness. Because we know what happened after that day in 1981; we know that Pope John Paul did not become content in his brokenness but used that experience to become stronger. That single stone in the square marks the spot where the brokenness of one man was turned into strength, where the weakness of a gunshot wound was turned into love and forgiveness. Not by anything that a human being did, but by God himself. And the really good news is that it is not just for that one man who was shot in the Square – God will do the same thing for each of us, he will turn our brokenness into strength.