Homilies for July 2016

St. Paul Writing by Valetin

St. Paul Writing by Valetin Serov (with insert of mosaic of
St. Paul Preaching to the Jews)

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time—July 3, 2016
Readings: Is 66:10-14c; Ps 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; Gal 6:14-18; Lk 10:1-12, 17-20

The New Rule
“Pride goes before disaster, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Paul writes his letter to brothers and sisters in Galatia, who are trusting in anything and everything except Jesus Christ. They need to be reminded of the teaching of the proverb: disaster, a fall, is coming, unless they get rid of their haughty spirit, their pride. Some are boasting about the fact that they have been circumcised. Others are boasting that they have not been circumcised. The apostle says that neither of these things means anything when it comes to following Jesus. Jesus is not looking for these external marks on our bodies, and then concluding, yes, you are my disciple, or, no, you are not my disciple. He is looking to see if we are being made anew. Are we a new creation? Are we changing and becoming more like Jesus, more like what we were created to be in the first place?

Pride, and the boasting that goes with it, can be very subtle. We know people who boast about their educational degrees, or where they received those degrees. Oh, they are pretty coy about it, but you get the point: you do not quite measure up. Dropping names is another way of boasting. As a deacon, I sometimes prepare people for marriage. The couple may be cohabiting and contracepting, but it is okay because “My uncle is Bishop so and so.” Well now, that makes everything “A-Okay.”

Very dedicated Christians often fall into this well of pride. John Cassian tells about a monk who only ate once every four days. Brother Benjamin refrained from the daily allotment of two biscuits. He was an ascetic, mind you, and did not need to eat every day. Cassian said that his pride got the better of him. He would fast for three days, sure enough, and not eat his two biscuits a day. However, on the fourth day he ate eight biscuits. Cassian says that Brother Benjamin didn’t make it as a monk.

Pride can raise its ugly head in the most interesting of ways. I am part of a religious community that has a Franciscan spirituality. Many of the brothers, in the spirit of the name “Friars Minor,” end correspondence with “Your little brother, so and so.” One day a brother began to end his correspondence with “Your littlest brother, so and so.” How do you top that, or should I say, get under that? How about “Your miniscule brother,” “Your itty bitty brother,” or “Your teensy weensy brother”? I am smaller than you, and don’t you forget it! 

When we are filled with pride, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and his being crucified to the world, recedes into the background. Yet, for Paul, holding on to Jesus, the crucified one, and having one’s own passions crucified, is the Rule of the new Israel, and the only way to experience peace and mercy. Pride comes because we are still alive to the flesh, and not dead to the world. The following story is told about one of the great desert fathers, Abba Macarius, the Egyptian:

A brother came to see Abba Macarius, the Egyptian, and said to him, “Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.” So the old man said, “Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.” The brother went there, abused them, and threw stones at them; then he returned, and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, “Didn’t they say anything to you?” He replied, “No.” The old man said, “Go back tomorrow and praise them.” So the brother went away, and praised them, calling them, “Apostles, saints, and righteous men.” He returned to the old man and said to him, “I have complimented them.” And the old man said to him, “Did they not answer you?” The brother said no. The old man said to him, “You know how you insulted them, and they did not reply, and how you praised them, and they did not speak; so you, too, if you wish to be saved, must do the same, and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men, or their praises, and you can be saved.”

Paul had received a lot of grief from the Galatians, who prided themselves in externals. Paul simply did not measure up. To Paul, however, the only externals worth boasting about were the physical marks on his body that he received because of his devotion to the cross of Jesus. “The marks of Jesus,” the result of being beaten, being stoned, being shipwrecked, and imprisoned, were the only external marks worth anything. When you embrace the cross of Jesus, die to yourself and the world, and serve others; then, you will receive those marks. And then, you can boast about Christ’s marks and Christ’s cross.

For further reading, see Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers or Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert.


Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time—July 10, 2016
Dt 30:10-14; Ps 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37; Col 1:15-20; Lk 10:25-37.

Just Do It
Several years ago I had a friend who really struggled with prayer. He wanted to know the various aspects of prayer, the differences between contemplative and intercessory prayer, the various types of written prayers, to go along with an extemporary manner of praying that he had heard growing up. Eventually, his frustration with prayer led him to a wise spiritual elder that he hoped could help him. He described his trips to various parts of the world to observe different faith traditions at prayer. He had gone to charismatic prayer meetings, monasteries where they prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, ashrams where he observed meditation, churches that had lengthy prayer gatherings, and just about every other potential situation where he could observe people at prayer. I’ve read at least three dozen books on prayer, he exclaimed. I am so frustrated. What do I need to do, he asked? The advice of the old man? Start praying!

I love this first reading. Moses has led the people for forty years, and he is about to die. These words are some of his last to the people. Moses had learned a lot about human nature, and how the Evil One can mess with our hearts. You shall not steal. “Oh, that teaching is too mysterious for me.” What part of “stop taking other people’s stuff” do you not understand? “Oh, that teaching is too advanced for me. I don’t get it.” So, “you don’t have sex outside of marriage” is that too advanced a thought for you?

Admittedly, I am over-simplifying things. There are difficult teachings. There are hard sayings of Jesus. Not everything is as simple as “do this” and “don’t do that.” However, Moses gets to the crux of many of the moral issues we face today. It is not that we do not know what to do— “you have only to carry it out.” The truth is that we have not been converted. I want to do what I want to do. I have not returned to the Lord with all my heart and all my soul.

Back before the Supreme Court came out with its same-sex marriage ruling, I was in a discussion with a group of people who wanted to accept and practice same-sex marriage, but also wanted to follow Christ. As we discussed the Scriptures, I set forth what those scriptures relating to homosexuality and marriage had historically meant to Jews and Christians. Various individuals struggled to overcome the plain meaning of those passages. Finally, one person said, “I really don’t care what the Scriptures say on this subject. Heck, I don’t care what God thinks about it. I know what I want.” Praise God, an honest person. Those Christian teachings aren’t mysterious, he said; I just reject them. This is the heart of the matter. Until I return to the Lord with my heart and soul, it won’t matter what I understand God to be saying.

In our parish, I lead our R.C.I.A. efforts, and prepare people to come into the Catholic Church. With few exceptions, the people I meet who are drawn to the Church truly want to be Catholics in-fact, and not in-name only. It is beautiful to see them learn what the Church teaches, and then ask questions as to how to put the teaching into practice. Some things are simple, as Moses said, they have only to carry it out. Other things are more difficult, for example, what all is included in remembering the Sabbath day in order to keep it holy? Yet, they desire to do God’s will. Their hearts and souls are being reformed. They don’t struggle nearly like the person who isn’t sure that he wants to follow the Church’s teachings. I recently had a colleague where I work ask me what I thought about the statement that a person makes when he or she are received into the Catholic Church, namely, “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” He asked me this as a cradle Catholic who regularly dissents from Church teaching, and cannot imagine anyone being able to make this profession. I responded that the folks in R.C.I.A. realize that they do not understand everything, but that they trust the Lord and the Catholic Church. As St. Augustine said, they are people of faith seeking understanding.

Has my heart and soul been reformed? Am I in love with God? Do I trust him? When I do, a lot of what I am called to do is simple and easy—I have only to carry it out. The rest may be mysterious and beyond my comprehension, but, in humility, I trust the Church and follow her guidance.

For further reading, see Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 158.


Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time—July 17, 2016
Gn 18:1-10a; Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 5; Col 1:24-28; Lk 10:38-42.

The One Thing
Jesus had numerous friends and disciples, but Martha and Mary seemed to be extremely close to him. He visits them, spends time with them, and even raises their brother, Lazarus, from death to life. On this particular occasion, Jesus comes to visit them, and Martha and Mary react differently to his presence.

Martha loves Jesus. She wants to honor Jesus, and she does this by working hard to prepare him, and his disciples, a meal that they will never forget. Mary also loves and wants to honor Jesus. Jesus is a prophet who speaks the words of God. Her way of honoring him is to sit at his feet and listen to what he says. Women were not supposed to sit at the feet of a rabbi, and listen to his teaching, but this is Jesus, mind you.

Both of these friends of Jesus are trying to honor him. Why, then, does Jesus end up rebuking Martha, and commending Mary?

There are those who read this story, and do not believe that Jesus rebukes Martha. They see Martha and Mary as two different sides of discipleship. For example, Saint Gregory the Great emphasized that they represent the active and contemplative lives. He said:

{T}he two women signify two dimensions of the spiritual life. Martha signifies the active life, as she busily labors to honor Christ through her work. Mary exemplifies the contemplative life, as she sits attentively to listen and learn from Christ. While both activities are essential to Christian living, the latter is greater than the former. For in heaven, the active life terminates, while the contemplative life reaches its perfection.

Saint Ambrose understands the passage in a similar way and states that “{v}irtue does not have a single form. In the example of Martha and Mary, there is added the busy devotion of the one, and the pious attention of the other to the Word of God…” He concludes that the latter is preferred. Saint John Cassian went so far as to say that Jesus was not really criticizing Martha.

Far be it from me to argue with three phenomenal saints, but I am wondering what they see in the story to think this way.

Luke tells us that Martha was “burdened with much serving.” She didn’t have to set out to prepare a nine-course meal for Jesus. That was her choice. But after getting into the middle of her project, she realizes that she has taken on more than she can handle, and she wants some help. Mary obviously didn’t want to spend her time preparing a banquet. She wanted to focus on Jesus, and his teaching. And this irritates Martha. Haven’t you experienced this? Someone has some brainy idea that you want nothing to do with, and when they get in the middle of executing their idea, they get overwhelmed, and upset with you, because you won’t help them. But you wanted nothing to do with it from the beginning. Martha goes over Mary’s head, and asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her.

Jesus’ response is what leads me to believe that there is nothing about Martha’s behavior that Jesus commends. Martha is “anxious and troubled.” Anxious is used elsewhere for the entanglements of life in the world. The latter term means “making an uproar.” Martha is so tangled up in her plan to honor Jesus that she is now in an uproar because Mary won’t help her.

Martha wants to honor Jesus, but it’s not the way Jesus wants to be honored. The key to hospitality is to pay attention to the guest. If the guest is a prophet, the appropriate way to honor him is to calm down, and listen to him. Martha had allowed her preparations to become too burdensome; a simpler meal that allowed her time to listen to Jesus would have been better.

Martha was anxious and worried about “many things.” Those many things were choking her, and keeping her from the “one thing,” the only thing that is necessary—hearing and responding to the Word of God.

Jesus is not minimizing the role of service. He is not saying that the contemplative life is greater than the active live. Actually, both are necessary. Diakonia, service, without a reliance on the Word of God, becomes social do-goodism. However, standing in the counsel of the Lord, and listening to his voice, eventually requires action, a response to “Whom can we send,” “Who will go for us?”

Luke has given us this story of Martha and Mary on the heels of the story of the Good Samaritan. In that story, Jesus emphasized that love for our neighbor requires us to serve them, to “go and do likewise.” Martha, on the other hand, needs to stop “going and doing.” She needs to fulfill the greatest commandment to love the Lord her God with everything she has by ceasing all activity, and listening to Jesus.

Slow down—stop—listen. Only then will the burden of service be lightened, and the anxiety and uproar in our souls be stilled.

For further reading, see Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2709-2719.


Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary TimeJuly 24, 2016
Gn 18:20-32; Ps 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8; Col 2:12-14; Lk 11:1-13.

Nailed It!
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem used to take the newly baptized to Jesus’ tomb, and point out that each of them were there when Jesus was buried. When they were baptized, they were buried with Jesus. I grew up in a denomination that used immersion only as the mode of baptism. We argued that baptism is a burial, thus, immersion is the only appropriate mode. However, the apostle doesn’t say that baptism is a burial. He says that we are “buried with him in baptism.” Our salvation comes from what Jesus has done in his death, burial, and resurrection. In baptism, we are buried with him. Through faith, we are raised with him. Jesus has won the victory, and we are united with him in that victory through baptism and faith in the power of God. In his worst moments, Martin Luther used to remind himself that he was baptized. “I am with Jesus.

What exactly do we experience through faith and baptism? The dead are raised to life. We read the Gospel stories of Jesus raising the dead, and in those events, we see the power of God, and the love of God, a God who visits his people. However, before we know Christ, we are dead, and the death we experience is of the spirit. Paul refers to being dead in our transgressions. Sin and Death dominate us apart from Christ. He also says that our flesh is uncircumcised, meaning that we are slaves to our passions.

Paul points us to Jesus Christ. Through him, we are brought to life. Through him, our transgressions are forgiven. Through him, the judgment against us is taken away.

In referring to this judgment, Paul uses the imagery of a certificate of indebtedness, a bond that is against us. It is not certain the type of bond to which Paul refers. Is this a document on which I have listed my debts? Some rabbis referred to God as the creditor, and us as his debtors. Is this document more like a confession of guilt that a criminal has just made out and signed? Some think that it could be a reference to the statement of charges that were nailed to the cross when a criminal was crucified—“Murderer,” “Thief,” “Insurrectionist,” or, in the case of Jesus, “King of the Jews.” Whatever type of bond Paul envisions, it is clear that the bond is against us. It opposes us. This dovetails nicely with Satan’s plan because he himself is called “the accuser of the brethren.” Paul declares that in his passion, Jesus obliterates this bond, removes it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.

I have a friend who had a very unique first confession. He and his wife were going through R.C.I.A. in their parish, and the time came for the candidates to make their first reconciliation. The weekend this was to be done happened to be the same weekend he was scheduled to be spending some time on retreat at a monastery. His pastor told him to go ahead and make his first confession there. So, when the Franciscan priest at the monastery sent around a schedule of times to hear confessions, my friend signed up for two, fifteen-minute periods. The monastery had no confessional, so the priest set up two chairs in the corner of the small chapel. When my friend arrived, the priest told him that he must have made a mistake—that he had signed up for two time periods. “Well, Father, this is actually my first confession.” And the priest responded: “Oh, my, we may not have enough time!”

My friend began to confess his sins. “Adultery.” The priest, who was pretty deaf, repeated it in a much louder voice. “Adultery, did you say?” “Yes, adultery.” My friend laughs as he tells this story. There were a couple folks sitting in the chapel at this time, and he thought that the rosaries started moving a lot faster every time he confessed a particular sin, only to have it repeated in a loud voice by the priest. In spite of the humorous aspect of this event, my friend was drawn through it into the very heart of Christ when the priest gave him his penance. He was to sit in front of the large San Damiano cross in the chapel, and place every sin that he had just confessed onto that cross. Jesus had already nailed them there. Now, it was time for him to nail them there, too.

Jesus has won the victory over Sin and Death. He has united us to himself in his death, burial, and resurrection. He has destroyed the legal charges against us. Let us remember, each day, that we are baptized. Let us trust in Jesus. Let us have faith in the power of God. Amen.

For further reading, see St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3101.htm


Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time—July 31, 2016
Ecc 1:2; 2:21-23; Ps 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17; Col 3:1-5, 9-11; Lk 12:13-21.

Seek What Is Above
I have a friend who used to be the pastor of a church that met on the beach in southern California. The church had a faithful group of parishioners, but every Sunday, they had people who would just be wandering down the beach, see the church praising God, and would join them. Pastor Tom would stand with his back to the ocean, and preach wonderful homilies that drew his flock closer to Jesus. One Sunday morning, he preached from today’s second reading, and his focus was on the verse, “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth” and “Seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” After the service ended, one of his parishioners came to him and said, “The Devil was on the beach this morning, Pastor Tom.” Little did Pastor Tom know that, just after he had begun his homily on setting our minds on things above, a couple came down the beach, spread out a blanket between him and the water, and began to give his audience a chance to set their minds on things other than Christ. The woman exposed herself, and the man started to squirt lotion on her, and rub it in. Set your minds on what is above, indeed.

That is the world in which we live. We strive to focus our lives on Christ, but there is the internet pop-up, or the magazine at the supermarket that offer us a chance to focus on the things of the earth. The apostle Paul is explicit that we must put to death the parts of us that are earthly. How do we do that?

First, we have to want renewal. We have to know what immorality is, and desire to be moral. Almost all religions agree on the basics of morality. However, our Catholic faith teaches us how to strive for holiness. This begins with a desire to do what is right. Recently, I had a conversation with a Catholic brother who is adamantly pro-life when it comes to a child in the womb. On the other hand, he argued that America has never done wrong in targeting civilians during warfare. I showed him the teaching of Vatican II, the Catechism, statements of Saint John Paul II, and Pope Emeritus Benedict, all sources that he said he deeply respected. He dismissed all of them. America has not done wrong in targeting civilians because it led to a good end every time. I think of myself as a loyal American, but the teaching of the Church is clear. She teaches us what is ethical, and what is not, what is moral, and what is not. Paul tells us to put certain practices to death, and that is easier said than done, but it begins with the desire to know what is right, and do it. I have to put to death my own thinking, and all of my loyalties, if I truly want to be hidden with Christ in God.

After putting to death the old self, Paul tells us to put on the new self. Sure, we have been raised with Christ, hidden with Christ, united to Christ, but we have a long way to go to look like Christ, to be renewed in the image of our creator. How is this done?

Paul says that it is through the renewal of our minds, being renewed for knowledge. We have to begin to think differently. This begins by seeing the world in the light of Christ. He has won the victory over sin and death. D-Day has come, and the enemy is defeated. However, between D-Day and V-Day, when Jesus returns in glory, there can still be casualties. So, by lifting up our heads, and looking for our Lord to appear in glory, our hearts will be focused on things above, and not on earthly things. Secondly, in Christ we begin to see the new world that is being created by Jesus, a world in which the barriers created by race, status, and external marks cease to exist. As far as Jesus is concerned, those marks don’t matter.

This is certainly a spiritual battle. The story is told of a hermit who was walking down a path. Upon hearing a group of nuns approaching, he moved off of the path into the brush so as not to see the sisters. As the women passed by, the mother superior said to the hermit, “If you were a spiritual man, you could walk by us on the path, and not even notice that we have passed by.” Perhaps that is true. We might even be able to sit on the beach, and continue to listen to Pastor Tom, even after seeing the spectacle on the blanket. We are human beings, and we live in this world. Yet, we can lift up our eyes to gaze upon Jesus and, by his power, put to death the things of the earth that weigh us down.

By God’s grace, this we will do.

For further reading, see Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2783, 1431-1432.

George Butterfield About George Butterfield

Deacon George Butterfield works as the Legal Reference Librarian at the Creighton University Law School Library. He also teaches Legal Research to first year law students and Advanced Legal Research to advanced law students. He and his wife Debbie have been married since 1970. Before being received into the Church, Deacon Butterfield spent thirty years as a Protestant minister, but he now also serves the Archdiocese of Omaha as the Coordinator of Pastoral Formation in the Permanent Diaconate.