Branching Out Blog

'Hear the Word!' by Bill Ayres: Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Posted by Bill Ayres on Jul 9, 2022 6:00:00 AM

A reading from the Book of Deuteronomy

(Chapter 30:10-14)

Moses said to the people: “If only you would heed the voice of the Lord, your God, and keep his commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the law, when you return to the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul. For this command that I enjoin on you today is not mysterious and remote for you. . . . No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”

The Law of Moses was superior to any other law that existed at that time. Moses was saying that the people had this Law not only in their mouths but in their hearts. There was a beautiful intimacy there that became much more complicated over the centuries as various priests of the temple, rabbis, Sadducees, and Pharisees piled on hundreds of dietary and other laws that became a terrible burden for the people and pushed them away from the powerful simplicity of the Mosaic Law, which focused on loyalty to the one God.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37)

“Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.” Which of God’s words give you Spirit and life? Ideally, it is love, God’s love for you and the love you share with others.

A reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians

(Chapter 1:15-20)

This is one of the most beautiful canticles in all of Scripture. It tells us who Christ is: “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, … He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent.”

Paul wants his readers and all who heard him to know the place of Jesus Christ in all of creation. This is not just another prophet or religious leader. No, he is the presence of God in our midst and being “the firstborn from the dead,” he brings eternal life to all. That is worth taking the chance that, even if you are martyred, you will have a new life with Jesus. That is the same promise that awaits us now.

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Topics: Reflections on the coming Sunday's Gospel, Hear the Word! by Bill Ayres, RENEW International

'Hear the Word!' by Bill Ayres: Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Posted by Bill Ayres on Jul 2, 2022 6:00:00 AM

A reading from the prophecy of Isaiah

(Chapter 66:10-14c)

This book has three sections, and this is the last. It refers to the Babylonian Exile from 597 B.C to 539 B.C. Jerusalem was in ruins as the exiles returned. Imagine how they felt coming back to their holy city, the center of their ancient religion, to find it destroyed.

God encourages them by promising that Jerusalem will be restored and will nurse them like a mother. “For thus says the Lord: Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river, and the wealth of nations like an overflowing torrent. As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort. When you see this your heart shall rejoice.”

These words gave the people hope and courage in the face of devastation and the exhaustion from having lived so long under tyranny. This is why Jerusalem is so important to the Jewish people today, after so many centuries of heartbreaking disasters and disappointments. It remains a powerful symbol of God’s promise.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20)

“Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.” Sadly, our beautiful earth is crying out to us today in pain as we continue to pollute its land, water, and air. Let us learn more about this tragedy and how we can help.

A reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians

(Chapter 6:14-18)

The Galatians were divided on the issue of circumcision; it was one of several issues that were causing division among them. Paul tells them, “neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.” There is something much more important: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” The Galatians have argued among themselves and with Paul, so he tells them, “From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.”

Paul knew what was most important, the powerful love and presence of Jesus. It is a good lesson for us as we sometimes become upset over small matters and miss the big picture.

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Topics: Reflections on the coming Sunday's Gospel, Hear the Word! by Bill Ayres, RENEW International

'Hear the Word!' by Bill Ayres: 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2022

Posted by Bill Ayres on Jun 25, 2022 6:00:00 AM

A reading from the First Book of Kings

(Chapter 19:16b, 19-21)

Elijah was one of the most important prophets of Israel, and now God was telling him that he must choose Elisha as his successor. The Lord said to Elijah, “You shall anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah as prophet to succeed you.” So, Elijah found Elisha “as he was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen. . . . Elijah went over to him and threw his cloak over him.” That was all the sign that Elisha needed to understand that he was chosen to be a prophet, so he slaughtered his twelve yoke of oxen and fed the people in his neighborhood. “Then Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant.”

This is one of many stories in the Bible about someone receiving a call to serve God, what we today would call a vocation. Most of us grew up thinking that the word vocation meant only being a priest or a religious sister or brother, but the truth is that each of us has a vocation, a calling from God to do some kind of service with our lives. For most of us, it means being a wife or husband or parent, but it can also mean being a devoted son or daughter, sister or brother or friend. It also may mean using our talents or positions in society to help others, especially those in need. It may be many of those roles, and we should celebrate each of them in our lives, especially those that are most challenging.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 16: 1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11)

“You are my inheritance, O Lord.” Most of us may or may not receive a large financial inheritance. No matter! In our response to the verses of this psalm, we acknowledge that God is our inheritance. What more do we need?

A reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians

(Chapter 5:1, 13-18)

Paul tells the Galatians, “Brothers and sisters: for freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.”

The yoke of slavery that Paul is talking about is the old law with its hundreds of prescriptions, including circumcision. Jesus had simplified the law into two great commandments: Love God and love one another. But Paul does not want the people to emulate the mistakes of sects that promoted practices that were against Christian morality.

He concludes by telling the Galatians, “But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” So, when you and I are faced with difficult decisions, we need to reach for guidance to the Spirit that lives within each of us. The Holy Spirit is our partner in life and our guide. That may not be news to you, but even if it is, it is good news. The very Spirit of God lives within you!

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Topics: Reflections on the coming Sunday's Gospel, Hear the Word! by Bill Ayres, RENEW International

'Hear the Word!' by Bill Ayres: Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Posted by Bill Ayres on Jun 18, 2022 12:21:06 PM

A reading from the Book of Genesis

(Chapter 14:18-20)

Abraham was the father of the Jewish people. Melchizedek is a shadowy character from the Book of Genesis who is mentioned only one more time in the Hebrew Scriptures—in Psalm 110. “You are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek.” In this reading Melchizedek is described as a king who “brought out bread and wine and, being a priest of God most high, he blessed Abram with these words: ‘Blessed be Abram by God most high, the creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God most high, who delivered your foes into your hand.’” So, Melchizedek is a priest and a king, and he shares bread and wine with Abram even before Abram becomes Abraham—the name God gives him as “God’s chosen one.”

It is an odd story, but it is in this liturgy because it mentions the sharing of bread and wine which is what we do during at each Mass, with one major difference. We believe that Jesus is truly present in the form of bread and wine as he was at the Last Supper.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 110:1, 2, 3, 4)

“You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.” Every priest that is ordained in the Roman Catholic Church is ordained with these words.

A reading from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians

(Chapter 11:23-26)

The Eucharist is the center of our weekly worship, and the center of the Eucharist is our participation in sharing the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the form of bread and wine. In this reading, Paul tells the Corinthians, “Brothers and sisters: I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”

Remember, in the beginning, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, most Christians, including Paul and the other apostles, believed that Jesus would soon return. Until then, they were to share his presence by celebrating a meal together as Jesus did with the apostles the night before he died. As it gradually became clear that Jesus would not come back as soon as the early Christians had hoped, the celebration of the Eucharist became more and more important and central to their worship, and it kept the various communities together just as it does today with us.

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Topics: Reflections on the coming Sunday's Gospel, Hear the Word! by Bill Ayres, RENEW International

'Hear the Word!' by Bill Ayres: Most Holy Trinity

Posted by Bill Ayres on Jun 11, 2022 6:00:00 AM

A reading from the Book of Proverbs

(Chapter 8:22-31)

“Thus says the wisdom of God: ‘The Lord possessed me, the beginning of his ways, the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago; from of old I was poured forth, at the first, before the earth.’” Who or what is this wisdom that seems to speak as a person? Is it God himself, or herself, because in the Hebrew Scriptures wisdom was often called Lady Wisdom? Later, in the Gospels, Jesus is called the Wisdom of God. Are you confused? Join the crowd that has been trying to determine this for two thousand years. We who are Christians or Jews refer to ourselves as monotheists, people who believe that there is only one God, and yet we Christians believe that Jesus is God and that the Holy Spirit that Jesus sent is also God. How does this all fit together? Welcome to the greatest mystery of our faith—the Holy Trinity, one God who is three Persons. This is not a mystery to be solved. It is the mystery that you and I live in every day, the mystery of God’s unconditional love.

Remember when you were taught as a child that you were created in the image and likeness of God? That God is not an isolated single being somewhere out there but rather a community of persons—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that God’s very Spirit lives within each of us even when we are off track, when we have seriously sinned or have disbelieved. God never abandons us.

It also means that we are not meant to be alone. We are communal beings created by our God who is a community of persons. That is why we long for the love and friendship of others, why we are willing to make great sacrifices for our families and friends and our larger communities. It is a major part of our spiritual DNA. Let us rejoice in who we truly are, not only created in the image and likeness of God but living our lives in that divine and human community.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 8”4-5, 6-7, 8-9)

“O Lord, our God, how wonderful is your name in all the earth.” Our love for one another is what makes God’s name wonderful. We are God’s messengers of that love.

A reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans

(Chapter 5:1-5)

Paul is writing at a time of great persecution and suffering, so he wants his people to have hope. “Brothers and sisters . . . since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God. Not only that but we boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character , hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Do you pray in the Spirit of hope, realizing that the answer to our prayers is often not what we may expect or when we expect it? Some prayers seem to be answered soon, others in time, and still others in ways we had not imagined. Yet, we pray in hope in the embrace of our God—all three Persons—in our Community of Divine Love.

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Topics: Reflections on the coming Sunday's Gospel, Hear the Word! by Bill Ayres, RENEW International

'Hear the Word!' by Bill Ayres: Pentecost

Posted by Bill Ayres on Jun 4, 2022 6:00:00 AM

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles

(Chapter 2:1-11)

If you wonder why there were so many people from so many countries in Jerusalem at the time described in this reading, it is because Pentecost was first a Jewish feast and a time when pilgrims from all over the near world would come to Jerusalem to worship. Saint Luke tells us of strange happenings: “a noise like a strong wind” and “tongues of fire” similar to events at the time God established the original covenant with the Jewish people. Luke wanted his audience to believe that this was God confirming a new covenant with a new diverse people—thus, the diversity of languages, yet all understanding one another. Of course, Luke is writing all of this a few decades after the actual events, and he wants people to know that this was the beginning of something new that had its roots in a previous tradition and fulfilled that tradition. Today, we say that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 104)

"Lord, send out your spirit, and renew the face of the earth." Here is a common thread between Judaism and Christianity—the Spirit of God. The difference for us Christians is that we believe that the Spirit of God is not “out there” somewhere but rather lives in each one of us. That is one of the major breakthroughs of Christianity. God is not some distant being but absolutely close to each of us even when we might not feel that presence. We are never alone.

A reading from St. Paul's first Letter to the Corinthians

(Chapter 12:3B-7, 12-13)

Saint Paul tells us that we may each have different gifts and forms of service, but what unites us all together is the one Spirit. And, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”

You and I each have different gifts from the Spirit. Do you believe that? What are your spiritual gifts? How do you use them, share them? Can you appreciate the gifts of someone else even though you might disagree with that person on one or more issues? That is particularly important today when our country and even our Church are often divided in many ways.

As we read the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Saint Paul, it becomes clear that there were a series of major differences within the early Church with so many groups coming in and out of focus, each believing that its version of the truth about Jesus was the right one. This has continued for some two thousand years and been the cause of wars and numerous unjust actions. It is only when we listen to the Spirit and act in the loving power of the Spirit that we have peace and true communion.

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Topics: Reflections on the coming Sunday's Gospel, Hear the Word! by Bill Ayres, RENEW International

'Hear the Word!' by Bill Ayres: Seventh Sunday of Easter

Posted by Bill Ayres on May 28, 2022 6:00:00 AM

Note: In some dioceses, the liturgy for the Ascension of the Lord is celebrated on this Sunday.

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles

(Chapter 7:55-60)

Here we have two stories, one an end and one a beginning. Stephen, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” a deacon, was a powerful preacher and witness to the Gospel and who infuriated the religious leaders, who stoned him to death. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, Stephen forgave his murderers. He is considered the first Christian martyr, a glorious ending.

Saul is an avid Jew who feels called to persecute what he considers to be a dangerous sect of Judaism, the young Christian community. He obviously was held in esteem by the Sanhedrin, and the witnesses who testified against Stephen “laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul” as they were stoning Stephen. This is a shocking story about the man, known to us as Paul, who was most instrumental in the growth of the early Church. He had a deep fear and hatred for all that Stephen proclaimed. Yet, after his dramatic conversion, he became the most important and courageous apostle who is more responsible than anyone for spreading the message of Christ. That is the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church, the same Spirit that abides in each of us today and in our Church with all its problems and weaknesses.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 97:1-2, 6-7, 9)

“The Lord is king, the most high over all the earth.” The psalmist lived in a time of kings. We do not, but his intention is the same as ours, to honor the power of God in our midst.

A reading from the Book of Revelation

(Chapter 22:12-14, 16-17, 20)

“Come Lord Jesus.” These are the last words of the Book of Revelation and Revelation is the last book of the Bible. Those words were written at a time of persecution and great distress to give hope to a struggling people. “Come Lord Jesus. Come Lord Jesus.” Could these words be part of our prayer when we experience crises, disappointments, and fears for the safety of our loved ones or our own safety and health; when we see pictures and hear stories of the millions of refugees and victims of war and persecution? We may feel helpless in the face of such daunting personal or global tragedy. Let us pray, “Come Lord Jesus.”

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Topics: Reflections on the coming Sunday's Gospel, Hear the Word! by Bill Ayres, RENEW International

'Hear the Word!' by Bill Ayres: Sixth Sunday of Easter

Posted by Bill Ayres on May 21, 2022 6:00:00 AM

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles

(Chapter 15:1-2, 22-29)

One of the first great controversies in the early Church was about whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised. This issue arose in Antioch because, as Luke writes, “Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.’” The apostles and elders in Jerusalem sent this response, which opened the Church to all: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place any burden on you beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right.”

The animal restrictions may seem strange to us, but it was an important part of Jewish practice that the apostles kept while eliminating the need for circumcision. This was a major breakthrough that opened the doors to thousands of Gentiles who otherwise might not have become Christians.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8)

“O God, let all the nations praise you.” Of course, not all nations praise God, but we do.

A reading from the Book of Revelation

(Chapter 21:10-14, 22-23)

The writer tells us, “The angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” This was written long after the physical city of Jerusalem had been destroyed. “I saw no temple in the city for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. The city had no sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light.”

Jerusalem, the heart of Judaism, had been destroyed, but in the vision the new holy city came down from heaven. It was the symbol of the new faith, built on Judaism but fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

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Topics: Reflections on the coming Sunday's Gospel, Hear the Word! by Bill Ayres, RENEW International

'Hear the Word!' by Bill Ayres: Fifth Sunday of Easter

Posted by Bill Ayres on May 14, 2022 6:00:00 AM

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles

(Chapter 14:21-27)

Another name for this book could be “The Travels of the Apostle Paul,” because even though other apostles are mentioned in the book, it is mostly about the heroic and enormously important 30-year journey of this amazing man. Paul was a driven man, driven by his new found faith in Jesus, driven by his guilt for having persecuted the early Church, but also energized by the forgiveness he received from the risen Jesus and by his initial belief that Jesus would soon come again and so would the end of the world. Of course, Paul was wrong about that expectation, as were so many early Christians. We don’t know when he became enlightened and changed his belief, but what is clear is that he was faithful to the end in preaching Christ crucified and resurrected.

Here we see Paul and Barnabas at the end of one of Paul’s early journeys. We are told that “they made a considerable number of disciples” and that they “strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, ‘It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.’” That was an understatement. Many of the new disciples would be martyred by the Roman Empire which regarded them as dangerous to imperial authority. That is why it was most important that they leave behind someone to be in charge, and so, “They appointed elders for them in each church.” The new faith spread everywhere Paul traveled.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 145:8-9, 10-11, 12-13)

“I will praise your name forever, my king and my God.” The Jewish people had a series of kings but worshiped God as their true king. We don’t think of God as a king but rather as a loving community of persons, the holy Trinity, in whose image we have been born and live in God’s all-loving presence.

A reading from the Book of Revelation

(Chapter 21:1-5a)

There is a controversy about when the Book of Revelation was written, whether around 70 AD or much later in the 90s. We know from the text that it was written during a time of terrible persecution by the Roman emperors who saw Christians as a major threat to their power. In this reading, John gives the Christians hope, a new vision. “Then I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth. . . . I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. . . . I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God.’”

And here is the best news for a persecuted people who were in danger of death and imprisonment every day: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.” Imagine hearing that in the midst of terror.

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Topics: Reflections on the coming Sunday's Gospel, God's unconditional love for all, Hear the Word! by Bill Ayres, RENEW International

'Hear the Word!' by Bill Ayres: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Posted by Bill Ayres on May 7, 2022 6:00:00 AM

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles

(Chapter 13:14, 43-52)

What we read in the Acts of the Apostles implies that Paul and Barnabas were inspired speakers who had a powerful effect on their listeners. They started out preaching mainly to Jewish people and converts to Judaism, but at this point their message is being received more positively by the Gentiles. It must have been hard for Paul who, in his previous life as Saul, was a rabid persecutor of the new Christian community. Up to this point, most of the followers of Jesus were Jews. From now on, Paul will truly be the Apostle to the Gentiles. It is because of him more than any of the other apostles that Christianity spread all over the Mediterranean world and beyond. Without him, it may have only been one more sect within Judaism. From what we know of Paul, he could be difficult at times but always courageous and persevering in his mission.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 100:1-2, 3, 5)

“We are his people, the sheep of his flock.” What does it mean for you to be a part of God’s people? How does that change you?

A reading from the Book of Revelation

(Chapter 7:9, 14b-17)

This book was written long after the death and resurrection of Jesus—around 95 AD. By this time, there were many thousands of believers, but they were being persecuted by the Roman Empire. It is hard for us, centuries later, to imagine how hard it was for people to be practicing Christians. By then, the Romans saw them as a major threat to the empire’s power and did everything they could to wipe Christians out. Some emperors were worse than others, but persecution was the order of the day. The author of the Book of Revelation wants to assure his readers and listeners that God is with them. Their suffering will end, and they will be rewarded.

We do not face anything like the vicious all powerful and pervasive force that was ancient Rome, although Christians in other parts of the world are subject to violent persecution even today. We do all suffer in many ways at numerous times in our lives. When you are in your deepest and most prolonged suffering, do you still believe in the healing, saving power of God’s unconditional love? Are you able to go back in time to other occasions of deep suffering and remember how you made it through? Remembering those past experiences can help you be conscious of, and rely on, the supportive Spirit within you.

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Topics: epiphany, Reflections on the coming Sunday's Gospel, Hear the Word! by Bill Ayres, Holy Trinity, RENEW International, The Good Shepherd

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