Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Law is a Gift (6.A)

A parishioner came in to the office a while back and asked to have a Mass offered for Donald Trump. I didn’t ask if she was an admirer or a critic, since we’re always ready to pray for those in authority, as St. Paul tells Christians to do.

One way or another, President Trump needs prayers; he's had a hard week. The courts have ruled against him twice now.

But it’s been a great week for America. Not so much because the travel ban was temporarily suspended but because the rule of law was magnificently respected. 

When one lone judge ruled against him, the president tweeted something disrespectful. But he didn't ignore the ruling or lock up the judge.

And when three judges refused to overrule the first, the President said he’d go back to the drawing board and come up with an executive order less open to legal challenge.

What power the law has in a democratic society—more power, when push comes to shove, than any president or prime minister.

Today’s readings remind us that law is also a powerful tool for God’s people. Understood properly, it is a gift by which God shows us the path to life.

The first reading, from the book of Sirach, is a wonderful tribute to law; a wonderful tribute to the beauty of God’s Law. It begins with three words about human freedom—“If you choose.” There’s no policeman enforcing this law.

But Sirach spells out the law as clearly as the U.S. Constitution. There are two paths, two choices, two ways of living God’s Law, the path of good or the path of evil, fire or water, life or death. Choose one way or the other.

Sirach spells out the law as precisely as your GPS gives directions—not to restrict or punish or control but rather to help us.

Has it ever struck you how fortunate we are to be guided so accurately through the crossings and turnings of life?

I think most of us are inclined to think that law restricts or even obstructs our freedom. Yet if we think about it, that makes as much sense as complaining that the GPS tells you the way to Whistler is the Sea-to-Sky highway.

Of course you can go to Whistler by way of Kamloops. Mind you, it will be a very long drive. Or you can head there on Highway 1, in which case you will never get there.

The fact is, the moral law—both the law revealed in nature and the law revealed in God’s word—is a precious gift that enables humans to flourish and grow. It’s a gift we need most when we’ve lost our way and need to be guided back to the path of life.

Like any of God’s gifts, the law can be misused or abused. At various times in the history of Israel and of the Church, some people thought that they could obey their way to heaven, without help from God. St. Paul rejects this way of thinking. To the Galatians he writes “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Christ” (Gal. 2:16). He says the same thing in the Letter to the Romans: “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Rom. 3:28).

Frankly, people today are rarely tempted to rely on law to save them. We’ve headed in the opposite direction. I haven’t met a legalist in years—but I know plenty of individualists, people who justify their actions by how they feel and how they think.

Our Gospel reading today tells us that law doesn’t just belong to the Old Testament when Jesus says ‘I have come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.’

Although the many legal regulations that governed everyday life for the Chosen People are no longer valid, the commandments remain. There are still concrete rules of conduct given by God—but the new law is the Law of Christ, transformed by grace.

The law is no longer exterior to us: it is written on our hearts when God fills them with his love [Léon-Dufour, Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p. 307.]

Jesus teaches us this today by contrasting the external observance of the law in religious rituals and the dispositions of the heart that are an essential element of real righteousness.

So how do we make proper use of this great gift from God? How can law help us choose life over death and good over evil?

Both our first and second readings have one answer: we must know the wisdom of God. Sirach says “great is the wisdom of God” and gives us the obvious reason why: “he is mighty in power and sees everything.”

St. Paul adds that this wisdom is not the wisdom of this age. It’s not the wisdom of the majority or of the elite or of the media. It’s God’s wisdom, coming directly from him down through the ages.

How do we discover this wisdom, which St. Paul calls “secret and hidden”? If we read to the end of the second reading, he tells us: God has revealed his wisdom to us through the Spirit. It’s only secret and hidden in the sense that it’s within our hearts.

The Psalmist asks God for understanding of the law—for how can we keep what we don’t know? “Teach me, O Lord” we pray in today’s psalm, as we promise to keep his commands until the end.

In other words, one way to learn what God commands is to ask him. In the quiet of our hearts, we ask God what we should do—or not do. Prayer like that is sometimes called discernment.

The Psalm has a line worth memorizing if we need some help with this way of praying: “Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”

On Thursday I was talking on the phone with a friend from Alberta, a real man of God—you have to be, with six kids! He told me what a huge difference it makes to what he chooses to say and do if he just stops in his tracks and speaks to God in his heart for two minutes.

Two minutes can make all the difference if we use them to ask “what do you want me to do, God?”

A second way to choose the path of life is to look at roadmaps from time to time—even to plan our trips in advance. God’s commandments are not only revealed in our hearts, they’re also found in the Bible and in the teachings of the Church.

To use an example from this morning’s Gospel, before asking God to reveal to your heart his laws about divorce, it only makes sense to learn those laws from the Scriptures and from the constant teaching of the Church.

Before a difficult conversation in the family or even at work, why not look for an answer to the problem in the Word of God or Catholic tradition?

I like to ask people “what are the most important pages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church?” No-one gets the right answer: the index. The list of topics covered in the catechism is very detailed, and you very easily find concise and clear teaching about almost any moral decision that you face.

A third thing that helps us keep the commandments—and obtain the amazing reward of being called great in the kingdom of heaven—is trust. Sirach underlines this in one powerful sentence: “If you trust in God, you too shall live.”

That’s an incredible promise. But it makes sense. How can we follow laws and commandments if we have no trust in the Lawgiver? One of the ways we strengthen our relationship with God is simply by trusting him enough to obey, even when our human wisdom is still struggling to understand and accept.

When we keep the commandments at some personal cost, we not only obtain the blessings they promise and the good things they protect; we also draw closer to God in trust, strengthening the virtue of hope.

Finally, we need to trust in ourselves. Whether because of past failures or current trials, we can lose confidence in our ability to do the right thing. We can doubt our strength or our courage. But what does God say to that? The first sentence of our first reading today is a straightforward answer: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments.”

God has given us clear teaching, the examples of the saints, the sacraments, and—most of all—“the help of the Holy Spirit living in us” (2 Tim. 1:14).

But he has also given us freedom. And so, as Sirach says, “To act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.”

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Light in the Darkness Around Us (5A)

If I’d won a scholarship to Harvard Law School the day before I went off to the seminary, I sure might have been tempted. It’s a fabled place and its graduates have their pick of very well-paying jobs.

Bryan Stevenson was a young black man from a poor family who got the chance to go to Harvard. But he didn’t line up an impressive job with a prestigious law firm: he went to work defending men facing execution in the American South.

Making enormous personal sacrifices, he went straight from Harvard’s leafy campus to death row.

The title of his book, Just Mercy, is a play on words. On death row, he finds little justice and no mercy. But most of all, he finds darkness—human tragedy on a grand scale.

But into the darkness, Bryan Stevenson brings some light. Often he fails to get unjust verdicts overturned; sometimes he witnesses great brutality and anguish. Yet always he brings some light, some hope, to people walking in the shadow of death.

The book is certainly a good argument against capital punishment—which is administered mostly to the poor, uneducated and vulnerable.

Still, we have no capital punishment in Canada; haven’t had it for years. Why then did this book challenge me to imitate the author’s courageous stand against darkness? Why did people walking in the shadow of death call to me from its pages?

I found an answer in the first reading at Mass today. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord calls everyone in every age to stand against injustice; every one of us is called to the same charity Bryan Stevenson showed to condemned men, although in the different circumstances of our own place and time.

That sounds like a tall order, but it’s also an invitation. I’m not even finished Just Mercy, but already I envy the author’s radical commitment; I felt like getting on a plane and visiting prisoners on death row in some wretched prison.

The first reading invites us to do what Bryan Stevenson did, but in a different way. There is injustice, poverty, oppression, hunger, homelessness and various forms of nakedness all around us. These tragic things aren’t the same in Canada as they are in the U.S., and they’re not the same in Vancouver as they are in other places in Canada, but they are here.

They are here, and today the Lord calls us to stand against them.

In last week’s Gospel we heard Jesus say “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” This week, the Word of God helps us better understand what that means. Our reading from Isaiah says that the fight for righteousness is like dawn in the darkness—because it draws us into the light of the Lord. We ourselves are healed and helped when we work to heal and help others. Our own darkness is lit up by grace when we minister to those who walk through the darkest valley.

The psalm takes this further. Things go well for those who are righteous. Their own hearts are secure, and they have nothing to fear from life. Righteousness brings a rich reward.

Doesn’t it sound attractive? I envy Bryan Stevenson, despite the sacrifices he made and the hardships he endured, because I believe those words in Isaiah and the psalm.

The truly miserable people in his book aren’t even the prisoners, but the heartless judges and warders who shut off all human compassion as part of their job.

But enough about the darkness of death row. Where, here and now, do we find those in need of our righteousness and mercy?

God has one answer very close to home. In the first reading, we heard about the naked and the hungry, but we also heard about finger-pointing and the speaking of evil.

Righteousness isn’t always dramatic; we don’t need to visit the destitute or prisoners when there are people around us needing mercy: people who have hurt us, people we want desperately to judge or to gossip about.

I found this great line on the internet this morning: “‘Charity begins at home’ isn't from the bible but it is so near to being so that it is reasonable to describe it as biblical.”

Which is not to say that charity stays at home. There are many ways in which we’re also called to a kind of charity closer to Bryan Stevenson’s. Most obvious, in our parish, is ministry to prisoners—a form of Christian compassion that so many of you have embraced.

The work on the Downtown East Side that’s done by members of our parish council of the St. Vincent de Paul society is equally an example of charity that comes straight from today’s first reading and from the Gospel beatitudes. 

What is our parish sponsorship of refugee families if not a response to the Lord's call to bring the homeless poor into our house?

But there’s much more. The people who walk in darkness are all around us. We live in a time of moral fog. Half our neighbours—at least—no longer can judge right from wrong. They don’t know why they’re on earth, they don’t know where to get help when they’re afraid, and more and more of them are thinking that choosing death is the answer to problems and pain.

Don’t those people live on a kind of death row, waiting for the day when their number is up?

We are called to break this yoke of confusion that binds the post-Christian generation. We are called to help people out of the oppression of uncertainty, and to free them from the oppression of fear.

And we can do this. We can do this by sharing with them the joy of our Christian life. In the next few months, we’re going to talk about how to share your faith story with others, in a simple and non-threatening way.

We can do this by sharing the basic truths of the Gospel. At the beginning of March we will again offer the Alpha course—a proven way to offer Christian answers to life’s scariest questions.

And we do this in our Catholic schools. They are not only places where we teach the catechism. They are places of formation that equip young people to see through the darkness that surrounds them—to light up their way through life not only by Christian doctrine but by sound intellectual reasoning.

All of this follows from what the Lord teaches us today through his prophet Isaiah. More glorious still, it’s part of the wonderful vision Jesus teaches in this morning’s Gospel.

“You are the light of the world,” he says. We are called to radiate the truth and joy of the Good News.

“You are the salt of the earth.” We are called to preserve what Satan wants to spoil.

At Mass today, we recognize the darkness that surrounds us—but we celebrate our call to bring light, and peace, and healing, straight to the heart of it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

It's Hard to be Humble (4.A)

Oh Lord it's hard to be humble
When you're perfect in every way.

It’s been twenty years since Mac Davis wrote those words, but it’s still the best opening line ever for a country and western song.

Not being a fan of country music, I never actually listened to the rest of the song. But since it came to mind while I was writing my homily, I checked out the lyrics.  Far from being an attack on humility, it’s really a warning about pride.

The singer has no girlfriend, because no-one can compete with his charm, and no friends, because he wants to stand out in the crowd. “I’m doing the best I can,” is his last line, and it’s clear his best isn’t very good at all.

I was pleased to discover the honesty of the song, because humility is one of the most misunderstood of all virtues. And false humility—seen best in Charles Dickens’s repulsive character Uriah Heep—is one of the most unattractive of vices.

So what is humility?

Our English word comes from the Latin humus, which means “ground” or “soil.” In classical Latin it was a negative word used to describe unimportant or insignificant things, or persons of lowly birth or weakness of character. In Roman culture, which worshipped power and nobility, the lowly were viewed with contempt. The humble were treated with contempt.

The Old Testament took a different view of humility. Those who were lowly in the eyes of the world were special to God, who hears the cry of the poor. Since they had nothing but God, he took special care of them. Psalm 25:9 says that the Lord “leads the humble in what is right” and teaches them his way. Psalm 131 is the beautiful prayer of a humble person, whose heart is not proud, allowing him to trust completely in God.

This morning’s first reading is a prophecy that calls Israel to humility and promises its reward. The humble are actually protected from God’s wrath by their virtue. Lowliness is a blessing, because it leads to depending on God alone. The humble utter no lies, because humility is rooted in the truth: in the truth about God, in the truth about each individual, in fact, “in the truth of reality” (The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, 516).

Jesus, whose leads us into all truth through the Holy Spirit (cf. John 13), fully develops the Old Testament view. He calls each disciple to be as humble as a little child (Mk 10:15) and to learn from him, for he is meek and humble of heart (Mt 11:29). At the Last Supper, he teaches by example, washing the feet of his disciples like a humble servant or slave.

The Gospel today is the high point of Jesus’ teaching on humility. He promises the lowly the kingdom of heaven. He offers the meek the whole earth as an inheritance. When his words reached the ears of the Romans, they’d have been mighty confused.

It’s not only Latin-speakers who can be thrown by this famous Gospel text. Almost all of us resist some of the individual beatitudes. Most of us are quite happy with “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We don’t choose to mourn, and we’re big on comfort.

Since we’re Canadians, known for our non-militaristic attitudes, we probably welcome the promises made to peacemakers; and who has a problem with being pure in heart?

But things gets tougher to swallow when Jesus talks about being meek or merciful. Here we come up against social and psychological values that resist these virtues—or which see them as vices. Certainly being meek is seen as a weakness, and mercy can degenerate into unhealthy enabling of others.

However, Jesus did not get up on the mountain and announce “I’m about to give what might become my most famous sermon. I’m going to teach eight beatitudes; each of you please choose six.”

To show that his words are meant to challenge and even distress us, Jesus saves the hardest of all eight teachings for last: blessed are the persecuted. Even if we’ve stayed with the sermon all the way through meekness and mercy and the hunger for justice, the Lord seems to go too far when he gets to persecution.

There are so many ways to look at this dilemma, but this morning I’m offering only one. Because I think the Sermon on the Mount not only teaches humility—it also demands humility if we’re to really hear it.

Hearing these words of Jesus requires a certain attitude. And that attitude says, more or less, that God knows what he’s talking about. That God actually knows some things I don’t.

G. K. Chesterton develops this idea in his book Orthodoxy. He writes that “Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and the infinity of the appetite of man. … if a man would make his world large, he must make himself small.”

I don’t say that you find it hard to accept that mercy and meekness and persecution are paths to the kingdom of heaven; I find it hard, so I simply assume you do too. But the reason I find it hard to accept these things is that, deep down, I make myself bigger than God.

What proof do I have that mercy and meekness and persecution aren’t blessings? None at all—only my human way of thinking, which by definition in this case is opposed to God’s way of thinking, clearly stated in the Gospel we’ve heard today.

And what’s the cause of that? A lack of humility, a lack of the humble attitude that puts God in charge and restrains the arrogance and infinity of my appetite to know more than he does.

My trusty spiritual dictionary says: “Humility is … grounded in a deep awareness of our limitations and shortcomings in the presence of the divine perfection, and of our sinfulness in the presence of the all-holy God… (The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, 516).

There’s the key to understanding and accepting the beatitudes: humility, which leads us to recognize that God’s perfect and I’m not. That only he, the Creator, sees the world exactly as it is, and me exactly as I am.

The same dictionary says that humility means grasping the truth about ourselves and about God. If today we accept what Jesus taught his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, despite our human doubts and hesitations, we’re becoming more humble; because we’re slowly seeing things through the eyes of God rather than our own.

Because there’s only One who is perfect in every way, and it’s not Mac Davis.