Saturday, July 31, 2010

The death of baptism; 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time C
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center
1 August 2010

For daily readings. click here

I visited the Truman home in Independence, MO this week. President Truman died in Independence in 1972, his wife the first lady Bess 10 years later, in the home owned originally by Bess' family. Since 1982 the 'summer white house' of the Trumans has been handed over to the national historical society. You can go in and see where the President, who left office with 30 percent approval rating but now ranks 5th in many polls of the most important presidencies in history, lived out his final days quietly. A simple kitchen and screened in porch where Harry took his coffee, read his papers, and did his own dishes are part of the tour. The man who made the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan lived out his years quietly, receiving few guests, in Independence, Missouri, living much like you and me.

Vanity of vanities, says Quoheleth, all is vanity. Everything that a man accomplishes, eventually fades away. All his possessions must be left to others who did not earn them and may not deserve them. The psalmist says that the most significant man is like the changing grass that quickly fades. In a religion, Christianity, which promises life in abundance, there is a lot of meditation on death. Ecclesiastes is one of the most often quoted books of the Bible, despite its negativity and conclusion that all is vanity. Catholics show up in droves every year to get ashes, and they volunteer enthusiastically to be reminded that they are dust and to dust they will return. A favorite psalm verse of mine is today's 'Lord, make us know the shortness of our lives, that we may gain wisdom of heart.' Christianity is a religion that promises victory over death, but this victory is won not by avoiding death, but by meditating upon it deeply, by learning about the enemy as it were, by keeping death daily before our eyes, and by choosing death before it chooses us.

Baptism itself, with all its symbols of life including candles, new garments and perfumes, is a celebration of new birth only insofar as it is also a true entering into death. St. Paul reminds the Colossians that death is not something that lies ahead of them, but something that lies behind them. He reminds them that they have died, that they are already dead, buried with Christ in baptism, and so free to stop counting the days they have left, and free to stop counting the ways that they can add to this life that is already over. St. Paul reminds the Colossians that because of their baptism, they are free to move away from sin, and to focus their lives on the things that are above. For the Christian, this must remain true everyday, that death is not something in the future, it is something in the past. That is why a true Christian should always be growing younger, not older, in his heart, and experience the freedom of being detached from this world in that way that Christ teaches his disciples to be.

The death that has been chosen for every Christian in baptism, and the death that we continue to choose in the renewal of that sacrament, is an altogether unique choosing in the history of philosophy and religion. It is not the same as a spiritual resignation that all life is suffering, so we must seek the peace that comes from no longer expecting anything out of this life. It is not the same as admitting with materialists that we are not that big of a deal, only a blip in the exchange of matter and energy in the cosmos, and so we must ignore as fantasy any desire for a relationship with the eternal. It is much more than the good bet baptism is sometimes caricatured to be, a magic trick of lowering expectations in this world in order to get more in the next. No, a Christian choosing death is quite different from these other spritualities and ideologies that are chosen by many around us, with whatever understanding of free will they are able to muster. A Christian choosing death in baptism is our use of a free will that is most apparent to us to respond to a love that we have received. A Christian choosing to die allows himself to be chosen by Christ who first loved Him and gave His life for him. Because Christ has died for me, I choose to die with Him, trusting in His love for me and in His promises that love and life are stronger than sin and death. Because Christ died for me, I have chosen to die with Him, and my life is no longer my own. It has been purchased, and at a price, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

This kind of death freely chosen in turn frees a Christian to grow younger even as he ages, as he knows the fear of death to be something conquered in the past and in the present, not something to be magically avoided in the future. The death of baptism frees the Christian to love the things of this world not less, but more, as he realizes that nothing can belong to a person who is already dead, for a person who has died with Christ has already left all his possessions to others. A Christian dead in baptism has been given the same relationship to the things of this world that God Himself has, a relationship not of needing them for anything, especially not for our self-esteem, but of enjoying them as gifts, and as revelations of the goodness, love and glory of God. Again, giving away our possessions is not so much in the future for us as Christians as something we have already done in the past, and this giving away, this charity, is the hallmark of a Christian life. What is more, a focus on charity frees the Christian to enjoy the providence and goodness of God in the things of the world, without ever putting pressure on anything in this world to provide a happiness that it cannot and should not ever provide. A Christian is able to move in the world grabbing nothing for himself, neither fearing death, but instead looking for ways to imitate the love of Christ, and looking forward to the revelation of his life that is the fruit of His love, to his life that is hidden with Christ in God.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Does prayer change the Father or us?

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
25 July 2010
St. Lawrence Center/TEC National Congress
For daily readings. click here
Abraham on the surface seems to change God's mind. He persists, like Jesus asks his disciples to persist in their asking, and seems to win God over by his persistence, even as he apologizes all the while for his being annoying. Yet Abraham does not change God's mind, at least not in the way that we might think of someone deciding not to do evil and deciding instead to do something good. God is good. He cannot be anything else. He is not evil one moment, and good the next. When we hear of God planning to inflict what appears to be evil as a punishment, He is not thinking of doing evil anymore than someone who injects chemotherapy is doing evil. The intent is to destroy the bad, which a good God does allow to coexist with goodness, with as little damage to the good as possible, for the sake of the good. That is always God's intent, for He is good. He cannot be anything else. He is not anything else, or He is not God. So Abraham does not convince an evil God to be good by his pleas, or an unmerciful God to be merciful. He engages God in a discussion about what is good and merciful; and in this case, Abraham is the instrument of God's goodness. Theologically speaking, what is happening can be described as this: God wills absolute things absolutely, and contingent things contingently. That is, if God wills something absolutely, we will not change God's will, for he knows what is good better than we do, and any apparent evil that God is involved in must not be evil at all, not even as a means to an end. Yet God does not will everything absolutely, as we see in Abraham's plea and in Jesus' instruction to his disciples to pray with persistence. God wills contingent things contingently. He appears to change or to respond to some prayers of his people, not changing himself from bad to good but changing his faithful people through their own prayers to be the instruments of his goodness. So the axiom holds true, even when we are encouraged to pray persistently and to ask many things from God, which we are in this weekend's scriptures, that prayer does not change God, who is always good, but prayer does change us, who are not always good. It is through prayer that we become knowers and doers of the good, and as Luke tells us, the gift of one who prays unceasingly is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which which gives us a full communion in God's eternal goodness.
When we pray the Our Father, we pray a perfect prayer, because it is how Jesus taught us to pray. It is perfect in content, yes, and sufficient for a full consecration of one's life to God, even as it is a short prayer. But more perfectly, it is the prayer that Jesus himself prayed, and because He taught us to pray 'Our Father' instead of 'My Father', the Our Father is a prayer that we pray together, right before receiving communion, but it is also a prayer that Jesus prays in us and with us and through us. When we pray the Our Father, it is Jesus praying through us to His Father as much as it is us praying alone. That is what really makes the Our Father perfect. Perfect in its content, yes, but more importantly, we have confidence that it is Jesus Himself who did pray and does pray in this way, and it is a prayer that cannot and should not be prayed individually, but always with Jesus, and through Jesus and in Jesus.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hospitality and Listening

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
18 July 2010
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center

St. Benedict challenged his monks to greet all guests as Christ. He admonished as well, however, that after three days, guests are like fish. They begin to stink. The excitement that Abraham shows in welcoming the three men who happen by his camp reminds us, if we have fallen down in this area, of the importance of being hospitable. As Christians, we need not be the most popular of socialites, but our homes ought to be places of welcome, both for our friends and for strangers. We should regularly be inviting people to our homes, and truly living in our homes, despite the constant temptations to the extremes of always going out or vegging out. We all know how easy it is to ignore our neighbors, and to get out of the habit of inviting both friends and neighbors and strangers to our homes. We do this to our own detriment, for Abraham shows in today's reading, and St. Benedict rightly teaches his monks, and Christ also says to his disciples, that whenever we welcome someone, especially the stranger, there is the chance of welcoming God Himself. Today's readings challenge us if we are falling out of the habit of making our homes a place of welcome, to recommit ourselves to the ministry of hospitality. We must trust that whenever we get together, Christ indeed is in our midst, and He brings with Him a blessing and His Holy Spirit which uses such opportunities to draw people together in love.
Our own Catholic tradition is rooted most strongly in this ministry of hospitality. More than anything else we do as Catholics, including bingo and fish fries, we gather for the breaking of the bread, and in the very structure of our liturgy and worship is a sharing of who we are and what we have on a table, an altar, and the chance to receive in return the Lord's blessing and the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to draw us to God and to one another more intimately. In our Catholic tradition, it has always been and continues to be, one of the gravest of sins to miss Sunday Mass, despite many attempts to minimize the importance of this obligation that we have. The great sin is not so much that we have an obligation to give honor and glory to God, although we do, but is the development of a most poisonous attitude that we go to Mass for what we get more than for what we give. We should know by now, but still we need reminding, that we will receive something at Mass only if we first truly place our lives with Christ on the altar of sacrifice, as St. Paul instructs us to do again in today's reading about making up in our flesh what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. It is the most individualistic and selfish of attitudes to approach Mass as a customer, trying to put a relative value on everything, and thinking about what we might get before deciding if we might give. It is equally poisonous to think that our own presence and our own offering of ourselves and our resources in sacrifice is of minimal importance to our brothers and sisters in Christ around us. The devil loves it when we think that the Church will be fine without me. The better attitude is that of the owner, who attends Mass hoping that his faithfulness will help others to also be faithful. A Catholic who attends Mass not for himself, but that others might see and be strengthened by his faith, and vice versa, is a true Catholic. A true Catholic is one who understands that faith is Jesus Christ is more communal than individual. Faith in Christ is something that we must share, if we are to have the faith that Christ left us, and not one we have customized for ourselves. A true Catholic is one who is excited each week not only to encounter Christ in the scriptures and in the sacraments, but also in His fellow worshippers and brothers and sisters who are with him. We do not come to Mass only to see people and to meet people, but there is nothing wrong with being excited that this Mass I will attend today is an opportunity to see, and to be with, and to meet my brothers and sisters in Christ. It is good to be excited that my contribution today, and how welcoming I am, will do much to build up the family of God that will last forever.
Still, we would be missing the most essential message of today's Scriptures if we left Mass today only thinking about what we have failed to do, and promising to do better in the area of hospitality. Mary has chosen the better part in today's Gospel, even though Martha is externally doing more to arrange for a meaningful dinner with Jesus, because Mary knows that our listening closely to Jesus is the one necessary thing. Being a disciple of Jesus is not simply feeling guilty about what we have failed to do, and promising God as we leave Mass that we will find a way to do more. It is not about adding more to an already busy life. Being a disciple of Jesus means having the discipline of waiting to act until we hear a word from Him. It is doing only what He tells us to do, nothing more, but nothing less. Being a disciple is not about doing as much as we possibly can for God, hoping that His will for us is somewhere in the ballpark. It is listening more intently for His voice, knowing that if the ears of the heart are atrophied, in vain do we labor. Being a disciple is trusting that if we do only what Jesus is telling us to do, and sometimes this does mean doing more, but oftentimes, it means cutting back and doing less, that everything we do with Him, in Him and through Him will redound to the glory of God, to our good and the good of our neighbor, and will build up the family of God that will last forever. Amen.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Do what is written in your hearts!

15th Sunday in ordinary Time
11 July 2010
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas

If Jesus Christ is not risen, your faith is in vain. If Jesus Christ is not risen, we Christians are the most pitiable people of all. St. Paul speaks to us bluntly, if ever we are attempted to think of Jesus as simply another great hero or teacher in human history. If we think of Jesus only in this way, Paul says we are stupid, and pitiable, and wasting our time. In today's letter to the Colossians, Paul gives an exalted theology of Jesus, defining Him as the origin and completion of all that ever was, or is or will be. Jesus is not just another teacher or hero. Paul says either He is everything or He is nothing.
Not that Jesus wasn't a great moral teacher as well. He teaches us so much about how to know and love and choose the good, and how to recognize, and hate, and avoid what is evil. If not the only great moral teacher, Jesus Christ is as good as any, and especially His parables like the Good Samaritan expose in a beautiful way if we are not living the best life we could live. If not the only great moral teacher in history, Jesus is especially good at rending our hearts wide open.
Yet Paul would remind us that we are not disciples of Jesus because we think we can prove He is the greatest moral teacher there ever was or ever will be. In fact, there are many who do not believe in Jesus precisely because they think His moral teaching can be found just as readily in something or someone else. There are many who do not follow Jesus because they find His disciples to be the most immoral of people. So we must remember that Jesus Himself did not ask us to follow Him because He alone knew how to teach us how to be good, nor does He say that anyone who does not follow Him is evil. No, Jesus says things that correspond to what Paul is trying to say to us. Jesus says things that confirm Paul's high theology of Jesus being the one through whom and for whom all things were made. Jesus proclaims Himself not to be the single greatest moral teacher of all time, but proclaims Himself to be the way, the truth and the life. He says that no one comes to the Father except through Him.
Regarding morality, Jesus might certainly agree with Moses, who in giving the decalogue received from God to the Israelites, tells them that the divine moral commands are not a new magic formula from heaven, but are to be a constant reminder of what is already written in their mouths and in their hearts. God has written his moral law to do good and to avoid evil in the very nature of the human person, so whenever Jesus or Moses or any other valid prophet speaks the divine law, it is not a law that imposes itself on the human person from the outside. We don't listen to God because we have to or else. We listen to God because He is helping to reveal us to ourselves. The divine law spoken well does not constrain an originally bad person from doing bad, it frees an originally good person to be good, and to know, and love and choose the good with all his heart and mind and strength. That the divine law is a law God has already written in the human heart, means that anyone who knows the natural law of man, anyone who can recognize what is true, good, beautiful and eternal, whether or not he possesses faith, can speak with Jesus and like Jesus about the moral law. Jesus never said that His voice was the only moral voice, or that His teaching could not be echoed and promoted and fruitfully elaborated on by many, even those who do not believe in Him. That is why there are and will always be and should be many good people who are not Christians.
Paul reminds us not to be Christians only because it is one of many paths to being good. He tells us to be Christians because Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead. He has revealed Himself as the One without which there is nothing. But of course we believe in Jesus not simply because we are afraid of Him and His judgements. No, quite the opposite, we believe in Jesus because in today's parable of the Good Samaritan, we are not the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan, or the innkeeper. We are not the scholar of the law seeking to justify himself by seeking a better definition of who is one's neighbor. No, in today's Gospel, we are the man in the ditch. We are Christians because Jesus continues to come to us when we are lost and naked, when we do not not how to live, and Jesus is the one who shows the greatest mercy to us. We are Christians because Jesus is the one who never tires of helping us. He is the one who forgives us, who pours oil and wine over our wounds, who bandages us, who carries us, and who redeems us by paying the price of redemption for us, as many times as we need redeemed. We are Christians because by the wounds of Christ we have been healed, and we have been washed clean by the blood of the innocent Lamb. We are Christians because Christianity is not a philosophy or a morality proposed to us from the outside, it is a relationship with a person who has healed us and set us free from the inside. We are Christians because anyone who has experienced the true love of God brought down from heaven, and delivered in the most intimate and perfect way by Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, no longer has need of the question - who is my neighbor?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Reflections of an American Catholic

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
4 July 2010
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center

For daily readings, click here

Are you more proud to be an American or to be a Catholic? Admittedly, some either/or questions are not that fair, and sometimes are better left unanswered. Even if the answer is that we are more proud to be a Catholic, on this Independence Day weekend, it's not exactly a good time to preach on why being Catholic is better than being American. That homily can be given anyday other than Independence Day. Today is a beautiful day for our country, a day when it is good to celebrate that we are free, and to celebrate the establishment of our republic that remains one of the most, if not the most, ambitious and hopeful experiments in world history. So even though it's not fair for me to ask the question today, of whether you are more proud to be a Catholic or be an American, perhaps it is a way for us to see how special it is to be an American Catholic, or a Catholic American, whichever you choose to emphasize at the particular moment.
The question of whether you are more proud to be an American or to be a Catholic is actually a good question for me, your preacher, at the moment, as I am on the heels of a very informative trip to South Africa, to cheer on, among other things, the stars and the stripes, the national soccer team. Thankfully, the U.S. did not lose while I was in South Africa! They lost on my plane ride home. It was an incredible amount of fun to cheer on the U.S. national team on foreign soil during the world's most popular international competition. It was like cheering for the Royals versus the Yankees, the Chiefs versus the Broncos, and the Jayhawks versus the Tigers all at the same time. It was so meaningful to cheer on the national team in the World Cup setting. It was fun being on a continent that had never before hosted such a significant international competition, and to cheer for the United States alongside millions of Africans who have a newfound love for America since the election of Barack Obama as president. Needless to say, it was easy to be patriotic there. I screamed USA, USA more times than I could count. I was proud to be an American.

But of course, those throngs of soccer fans that I found myself in the midst of cannot compare, even with vuvuzelas blazing, with the crowds that I have been a part of because I am a Catholic. I've attended World Youth Days with millions of pilgrims from all around the world, enough people to make you wonder if heaven could hold them all. The Church is everywhere, and of course, in South Africa I wasn't just proud to be an American. I was proud to be Catholic. During the course of our stay, we journeyed into the post-apartheid townships created in the 1950s with brother priests and Catholic missionaries, and with the St. Vincent de Paul society of a local parish to bring help and Christ's message of hope and peace and love to areas where evil and despair can easily set in. We said Mass in a parish where African teenagers sought refuge from the police for decades as they continued the long struggle against apartheid. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed as Christ's ministers, his priests, and people shared what they had with us because we were brothers in Christ. It was today's Gospel coming true - 2000 years later, in a place far from Jerusalem, in a place called South Africa. In South Africa, as everywhere, it was easy to find reasons to be proud to be Catholic.

As we gather to celebrate our Independence Day in the year of our Lord 2010, each of us here tonight knows that we have a responsibility to carry the promise of our great republic forward in history. There are enormous challenges facing our country, not merely that we might remain the most prosperous nation on earth, but that we might continue to be a light to the world, a piece of that new Jerusalem of which Isaiah preaches, a country to which all people in the world can look to for hope. Each of us here has the responsibility to help our country be what she was intended and what she aspires to be, a place that is truly free not merely because her military is the best, but because the citizens defended by that military are the most virtuous and generous and heroic of people, people who are free not merely to do what they want but to choose the good, not only for themselves but for their neighbor.

As Catholic Americans or American Catholics, I ask you in light of my recent trip to South Africa to use the freedom that you have received first from God, and the freedom that is guarded so well by our republic, for excellence. Most of all, I urge you to use the freedom you have, to respond with enthusiasm to the call of Jesus Christ that comes through today's Gospel. It is a beautiful way to live and to use one's freedom, to listen to Jesus as He does not take our freedom, but enhances it by marking out for us a vocation, a way of being with Him, through which we might make a perfect gift of ourselves, a gift that will give others life in abundance, and help them to know the love of God, and a gift of self that with Christ, will bear fruit forever.
We have enormous challenges facing our own country, and yet we are incomparably blessed. We know this but we must know it better. Our economic and political system faces great difficulty in providing for justice and opportunity and the common good of all people, and yet when I have just returned from a country that has unemployment beyond our wildest imagination, I cannot be pessimistic. Our country is woefully inadequate in providing a rule of law that protects the rights especially of the most vulnerable in our society, and yet when I have just returned from a country where I experienced corruption at every level of the legal process, once again beyond our imagining, I cannot be pessimistic that our rule of law will get it right and prevail. Our country has huge educational challenges, and huge obstacles in passing down a life of virtue to our young people so that they may know and choose the good, yet after returning from a country where there is little fear of AIDS, and little change in behavior, despite the enormous rates of infection, I cannot be pessimistic about the virtue of chastity, of authentic loving, or any other virtue for that matter, being nurtured in the hearts and minds of our young people. Our country is easily distracted from being a religious people, a people who through knowing God personally are intent on doing that which is really important, yet after returning from a country where even in a democracy, people have such few opportunities, I cannot be pessimistic.

America is truly the land of opportunity, and she remains so in 2010 as she was beginning in 1776. We must believe this, and in so believing, know our country to be a privileged place where we have the best opportunity to know, to love and to serve God with all our hearts, all our minds and all our strength. Let us not squander this opportunity, but thank God for it, and draw close to His beloved Son Jesus in today's Eucharist, and receive once again from Him a call to be the very best people we can be.