Monday, June 28, 2010

Freedom! (13C)

At this morning’s Mass we welcomed and congratulated our graduates. I was trying to think of something memorable to say to them on this special occasion when it struck me that the story I told at the final school Mass on Friday went over so well that it might strike a chord with older students as well.

It’s an old story about a king in the jungle and his closest friend.

The friend had a remarkable habit: whatever happened to him, good or bad, he would always say “This is good!”

One day the king and his friend were out hunting. It was the friend’s job to load the guns for the king. But the king’s friend did something wrong in preparing one of the guns. When the king fired it, he blew off his thumb.

True to form, his lifelong friend looked up and said as usual, “This is good!” To which the angry king replied, “No, this is NOT good!” and proceeded to send his friend to jail.

About a year later, the king was hunting in an area that he should have avoided. Cannibals captured him and took him to their village. They tied him up, stacked some wood, and tied him to a stake.

But just as they came near to set fire to the wood, these cannibals noticed that the king was missing his thumb. Being superstitious, they never ate anyone that was less than whole. So right away they untied the king, and sent him on his way.

On the way home, the king started to think about how he lost his thumb, and he felt very bad about how he’d treated his pal. He headed straight to the jail to speak with him.

“You were right,” he said, “it was good that my thumb was blown off.” After he told his friend all that had happened, the king said “And so I am I very sorry for sending you to jail for so long. It was bad for me to do this.”

“No,” his friend replied, “This is good!”

“What do you mean, ‘This is good? How could it be good that I sent my friend to jail for a year?”

“If I had NOT been in jail, I would have been with you.

The story provides a good laugh, but also some important lessons. Yesterday, I showed the students how it reminds us that God works for good in all things for those who love him.

Today, I’m using the story in a different way: as an example of true freedom. Going to jail seems quite the opposite of being free, and yet Christian history is full of people—from St. Paul to St. Thomas More to St. Maximilian Kolbe—who were perfectly free even when they were in prison.

The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev says we are free “when we unbind ourselves from slavery within.”

Freedom, like happiness itself, is an inside job.

And yet for many people today, “freedom” means doing what you want, where you want, when you want. We hear about freedom of speech, freedom 55, freedom of information. It’s one of those words that’s been hijacked by the world.

But freedom is Christ’s word. Freedom is Christ’s promise. St. Paul tells us so in today’s second reading: “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

If these words don’t send a shiver up your spine—if they don’t make you want to jump up and shout like a soccer fan in a South African stadium—then maybe it’s time we took a serious look at what freedom means for the Christian.

The New Testament’s promise of freedom is specific and clear.

We have Our Lord’s own words in the eighth chapter of St. John’s gospel: “Jesus then said to those Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him ‘We are descendents of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’

“Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.’ The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8: 31-36)

Three key points are easy to see: truth leads to freedom, sin leads to slavery, but the Son sets free.

The conclusion is obvious: to be called to life in Christ is to be called to freedom.

But what does this word ‘freedom’ mean?

Most of us have only a sketchy idea of what it means to be free. There is a host of ways to understand spiritual freedom, but I want to use a definition from St. Teresa of Avila: detachment from all things apart from and not centered on God.

That’s a mouthful, but what she means is that nothing should own me but my owner, and that is God.

What Teresa calls detachment, St. Ignatius calls indifference. In his Spiritual Exercises he invites the retreatants to make themselves “indifferent to all created things,” not preferring health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to humiliation, a long life to a short one.

Ignatius says what matters is to desire and choose only what leads us to the goal for which God created us—salvation. Imagine the freedom possessed by the woman or man who wants only what will lead most directly to the ultimate and only eternal goal.

There’s a hymn we occasionally sing—maybe the choir will sing it today, if they’re listening closely to my homily!—called “How Can I Keep From Singing.” We don’t know who wrote the words, but since it first appeared in 1868, and slavery in the US was abolished only three years before, I sometimes wonder if the unknown author could have been a slave.

Whatever the truth of that, he or she was obviously free! The verses are written by someone whose “life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation.”

The chorus celebrates freedom—a freedom that can’t be shaken by circumstances: “No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I’m clinging. Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

Such is the reward of detachment from our agenda, of indifference to everything that isn’t part of God’s saving will.

Freedom means being free to be my best self, my highest self—the self God wants me to be—and not being the slave to anything or anybody else.

Freedom’s what we are called to and made for. But of course it’s not free! Like everything precious, freedom has a cost. In fact, becoming free and staying free takes two things.

I’ve already mentioned the first thing: we must let go.

We must let go of the things we cling to as our security blankets. First on the list, of course, is sin. I’ve already quoted where Jesus telling us that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.

[St. Paul tells us that the stakes are high: “…now you have been freed from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit that you have leads to sanctification, and its end is eternal life.” (Romans 6: 22)]

Tackling addiction and bad habits is next on the list: Paul also says “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” Sometimes we need to let go of even smaller things like craving too much comfort, or too much praise. The obstacle to our freedom can be something as common as overeating—which can be a real slavery—or procrastination.

And today’s Gospel tells us that sometimes we must even let go of perfectly legitimate things, like the desire to please our parents or to have financial security. St. Benedict tells his monks “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” But that’s not just for monks: every serious Christian must put Christ first in every decision. That’s what Jesus means when he tells us not to look back once we have become his disciples.

And once we’ve let go, we must hang on—to Christ. We can’t be like the man hanging over the cliff who asks “isn’t there anyone else up there?” when God tells him to let go of his handhold. We must build a relationship of trust if we’re to stay free from the obsessions and drives that can take over our lives.

This advice doesn’t apply only to those who are trying to escape bondage; it’s also for those who have found freedom: we all must hang on. As Paul says, “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

So let’s say that I have convinced you of two things: 1) Christians are called to be free, and 2) that detachment from the things we cling to is a big step towards achieving that freedom.

What’s next? For many of us, our thoughts turn immediately to the weaknesses of the flesh—to things that make us feel out of control, even powerless. Nothing wrong with that; I’ve tried to make it clear that overcoming these things is a big part of getting free.

But that’s not the priority we find in the epistle we heard. Paul certainly talks about the desires of the flesh—but only after he’s talked about love. “Through love be slaves to one another,” he says, and then he quotes Christ’s second commandment “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

The subject of freedom is too big for one homily. But I think this point is crucial. What is our freedom for? What are we free to do?

The answer is love. Christ frees us from selfishness, egoism, fear, anger, resentment, obsession, addiction, compulsion, laziness, and much more for one main purpose—that we might be able freely to love the Lord our God with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves.

For freedom we have been set free—free to love, and to grow daily in love.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Missed Margaret!

My modest blog missed its moment! Margaret Visser, who played a starring role in last week's homily, tried to post a comment about it--but the blog wouldn't let her. Needless to say I'm disappointed.

(Equally needless to say, I have figured out the problem, and visitors like Dr. Visser will be welcome to comment in the future.)

Undeterred by the blog's inhospitable response, the eminent writer e-mailed me, and I briefly considered posting part of her gracious message here. But what she said was so kind that I don't dare to do that--who knows if Margaret Visser's next book will be about humility? I wouldn't want to end up as a case study!

I do thank her for trying, and I invite all readers--those who have joined the blog and those who have not--to comment freely in the future.

No "Cross-less Christianity" (12C)

Let’s talk a bit about fathers before we get down to more serious business. Some of you are here with your fathers, while other fathers are far away, and still others are now with the Lord.

My Dad is still with us, thank God, which reminds me that a father’s life has changed a lot over the years. I saw some comparisons on the Internet this week that made me smile. Here’s a few of them:

In 1900, fathers prayed their children would learn English.

Today, fathers pray their children will speak English.

In 1900, "a good day at the market" meant Father brought home feed for the horses. Today, "a good day at the market" means Dad did well on the stock exchange.

In 1900, fathers threatened their daughters’ suitors with dire consequences if the girl came home late. Today, fathers break the ice by saying, " long have you had that earring?"

In 1950, if a father put a roof over his family's head, he was a success.
Today, it takes a roof, deck, pool, and 3-car garage. And that's at Whistler.

In 1950, a father came home from work to find his wife and children at the supper table. Today, a father comes home to a note: "Jimmy's at soccer, Cindy's at gymnastics, I'm at Bible Study, Pizza in fridge.”

When I was a boy, fathers shook their children gently and whispered, "Wake up, it's time for school." Today, kids shake their fathers violently at 4 a.m., and shout: "Wake up, it's time for hockey practice."

In 1900, fathers were not appreciated enough.

In 2010, fathers are not appreciated enough. Some things never change.

So Happy Father’s Day to the Dads in our parish. You deserve to be appreciated.

But this morning we need to talk about something even more important than Father’s Day: the cross. It’s a topic most of us would prefer to duck.

However, as Christians we can never take our eyes from cross; if we do, we’re done for.

Feel-good Christianity—Christianity without the cross—is very tempting. You get a nice group of people to pray with, the calm and peace of liturgy, and the occasional good homily. It’s like a good club where dues are voluntary.

Feel-good Catholicism, the ancient Faith stripped of the duties or teachings that are most inconvenient or most in conflict with modern thinking, is equally tempting. But we’re blessed with a visual reminder that it’s not the real thing: the large crucifix hanging above the altar tells us better than any sermon that cafeteria Catholicism is not what Jesus died for.

In this parish, as in most churches, the cross is just too big to ignore.

That’s the message of our readings this morning/afternoon. The cross looms too large in our faith for us to ignore it. Zechariah wasn’t prophesying only about Jerusalem when he said they would “look on the one whom they have pierced.” Centuries after the death of Christ, every one of his disciples is called to look on him and to contemplate his wounds and reflect on his suffering.

One way we do this is by observing Friday as a special day. It’s not by accident that our two weekly prayer groups meet on Friday. And since the men’s group meets at 6 a.m., I like to remind them that it’s not only about prayer, it’s also about penance—at least for the younger members who find it hard to get up so early.

Friday penance has almost vanished since the Church relaxed the law about not eating meat on Fridays. Many good Catholics think that rule no longer exists. But it does, even in a gentler form.

What Church law requires is this: all Catholics fourteen years of age and over should abstain from meat every Friday, except for the major feast days we call solemnities. However, a Catholic may choose to substitute other forms of penance on Friday, such as giving up alcohol or dessert, or may do a special act of charity, like visiting the sick, or prayers like the Rosary.

The important thing is not what we do but why we do it. Friday penance makes us think about the One our sins have pierced. It keeps us from taking the saving death of Jesus for granted.

It’s true that Sunday Mass is centered on the Resurrection. But Jesus would not have risen if he had not first suffered and died for us. Easter Sunday would have no meaning without Good Friday.

The Gospel this morning/afternoon has two things to say about cross-less Christianity. The first comes when Jesus asks the disciples “Who do the crowds say I am?” The answers he gets remind us that the truth isn’t decided by opinion polls. The truth, easy or tough, has been revealed to the Church, not decided by the Church.

In fact, it seems that everyone’s got it wrong except Peter, speaking for the other disciples. There’s only one right answer to the question, not three. John the Baptist, Elijah and the other ancient prophets were fine figures, but Jesus is not one of them. The wrong answers might even be called flattering, but they’re still wrong.

Peter spoke the truth then, and his successor speaks the truth today. It can be an unpopular truth, which is when we must look to the cross and accept that Christian faith is not easy and sometimes is very difficult.

The second message is a tough one. We don’t just look at the cross, we carry the cross. Contemplating Christ crucified takes more than prayer, it also means imitating him. Jesus says that a disciple is not greater than his master; he’s telling us that we’ll also have our cross to carry.

What will that cross be? Jesus gives us a hint when he calls his followers to pick up their cross daily. Our cross, it seems, won’t usually be dramatic like his. Our cross isn’t likely to be one great moment of pain but an everyday thing.

The cross we pick up is simply the tough side of life: the things no-one can avoid, but which the Christian can embrace. Things that are part and parcel of a sinful world, but which are the raw material of holiness.

Certainly a minority of us have crosses that would fit on Calvary—some do face great troubles, terrible sufferings, even in our own parish. But for most of us, picking up the cross means accepting life’s inevitable trials, disappointments, and difficulties.

In other words, while some endure the pain of being nailed to a cross, for many people picking up the cross means living with splinters, smaller hurts that are still painful.

Just this month a young professional athlete gave us a good example of what it means to pick up an ordinary cross with extraordinary grace.

Armando Galarraga is a 28-year old pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. From what I can gather, he’s not exactly a star pitcher, and he hasn’t played very long in the major league. But on the second of June, he pitched a perfect game—for those of you who aren’t baseball fans, that’s a game where no opposing player gets on base. In other words, no hits, no walks. Every batter out.

It’s only happened twenty times in 110 years. But in the ninth inning, Armando Galarraga was on his way to the record books, with just one more out to go. The batter hits the ball. The first baseman fields it. He throws it the pitcher, who beats the batter to first base. Batter out!

A perfect game! Except the umpire blows the call. He calls the runner safe.

Even I can understand Gallaraga’s disappointment, and I can’t throw a baseball from here to the choir loft. It belongs in a category all by itself. “Crushing disappointment” wouldn’t come close to describing it.

What happened next makes Armando our guest preacher this morning. As Peggy Noonan writes, it’s what follows the umpire’s blunder that makes the story great: “When Galarraga hears the call, he looks puzzled, surprised. But he's composed and calm, and he smiles, as if accepting fate. Others run to the ump and begin to yell, but Galarraga just walks back to the mound to finish the job. Which he does, grounding out the next batter.”

After the game, the pitcher praises the disgraced umpire for his immediate apology. He tells reporters he feels worse for the umpire than he does for himself.

There’s today’s Gospel in action. Armando Gallaraga chose understanding over anger. He picked up the cross. He chose the humble path—he denied himself. He took the high road—the way of the cross.

The lesson he taught isn’t complicated. Accept what happens—don’t whine, don’t shout, don’t give up. And allow God’s providence to deal with what you can’t change.

Sometimes the results of acceptance will be immediate. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that this pitcher’s place in the history books will be better than if he’d got his perfect game. His story will be told long after those perfect games are forgotten.

Sometimes, we won’t see things working out. But we’ll know we did what followers of Christ are called to do, and that should be enough reward.

Sometimes our cross will be so heavy that only God’s abundant help can stop it from crushing us. More often than not, though, we’re called to cope with splinters—our everyday troubles—by accepting the things we cannot change and courageously working to change the things we can.

Either way, we live with confidence in the words of Jesus. By saving our life, we lose it, but by losing it for his sake, we save it. He is promising us happiness in heaven, and a great deal of peace here and now.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Giving Thanks

Margaret Visser is a Canadian treasure. She looks at ordinary things and writes about them in extraordinary ways. She wrote an entire book about mealtimes and another about the foods we eat and the way we eat them.

And in just one week last February, she spoke in Saskatoon about swearing and in Toronto about the Eucharist.

A kind parishioner gave me a copy of Margaret Visser’s longest book, The Gift of Thanks. For more than 400 pages she talks about gratitude from every angle.

Reading the book last week got me thinking about all the things in our parish for which I’m grateful, so I decided to share those thoughts instead of a homily today. But when I realized I was on my way to a 400 minute sermon, I posted the long version on my blog and gave the parishioners a summary. That ought to make them feel grateful!

First and foremost, during the fateful Year for Priests that ended yesterday, I have been grateful for your support and confidence. Perhaps even more, I have been grateful for your prayers. The children of St. Anthony’s School prayed for priests at lunchtime each day. At the suggestion of one parishioner, the group that prays the Liturgy of the Hours in church each morning has said daily the prayer for priests written by Archbishop Miller.

Coming a close second is my gratitude for the countless women and men who make it possible for one priest to minister to an active congregation this size. The parish staff—our parish secretaries, PREP coordinator, housekeeper, maintenance staff, and youth minister—work with so much generosity that we’d go broke paying them half of what they’re worth.

The volunteer catechists are like an evangelizing army, teaching with words but preaching by example. I think of the coordinators and team members of the RCIA and RCIC—the Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults and for Children—who have literally brought people from outside the doors of the church all the way to the baptismal font and the altar.

With the same dedication, the catechists working in the parish religious education program have been faithful stewards tirelessly sharing their faith with children. The same is done for our youngest members by those assisting with the Liturgy of the Word for Children on Sundays.

The leaders and team members of our youth group have made young people feel at home in the parish, while those who ran the high school religious education program known as I2T gave their time to high school students on Sunday evenings, when I’m sure they’d have preferred to relax in preparation for the busy week ahead of them.

The baptismal preparation team helps new parents prepare to undertake the responsibilities that come with presenting their child for baptism, while welcoming the parents themselves, who are often new to the community.

And now that the rainy season seems to have ended, I must pay tribute to those who do the least attractive volunteer service of all: parking patrol. They are faithful stewards of much more than parking spaces: they prevent chaos when medical emergencies require fire or ambulance personnel.

But of course we wouldn’t have a parking problem if we didn’t have good liturgies, and these are a result of careful preparation by our sacristans, excellent organization of, and service by, lectors and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, not to mention our gifted musicians, choir leaders and members.

I should single out the servers, who have started to assist at Sunday Mass in record numbers and growing confidence.

A stewardship parish is always a welcoming parish, and ours is no exception. Cheerful Sunday greeters help to make visitors and parishioners alike feel welcome, and the coffee teams support a vibrant social time after the 10 a.m. Mass. Equally hospitable parishioners organize a monthly breakfast during the week, not to mention many other receptions during the year. The CWL, in particular, offers bereaved people consolation and kindness by arranging funeral teas; the Knights of Columbus have provided help with barbecues and pancake breakfasts.

Still others ensure we reach out in love and service to those in material need.

And I can’t forget the many members of our parish councils and committees who make sure that we not only do things right but do the right things.

All these people, and many more, make stewardship of time and talent something real in our parish, not a catchphrase.

I have to stop, not because I am finished but because I can never finish. But I can’t end without expressing my deep gratitude for the many stewards of treasure in this generous parish of Christ the Redeemer. (Including, of course, our collection counters, accountant, and Project Advance team!)

Your response to Project Advance, and to the weekly and special collections, is a sign of something much more important than a dollar sign. When the economy weakened, your donations did not. When a drop-off in attendance was noted during the worst of the scandals, your donations did not.

A week or two ago, against her express orders, I paid tribute at the school Mass to a dedicated parent volunteer. She responded: I am just a drop in the bucket, and it takes many, many drops to fill it.

It was a simple image, but just the right one. One by one, volunteer by volunteer, minister by minister, donor by donor, we are filling the bucket to overflow in this community of faith.

Margaret Visser writes that “Deeply felt gratefulness is a species of awe, and as such requires humility. It implies a sense of one’s littleness before the wonder of the universe… and before the goodness of others.”

I know this to be true. The impossibility of a pastor’s task, and my own personal weaknesses, would make life overwhelming without the help, advice, wisdom, support, prayers, kindness, and patience you give me.

If deep gratitude is indeed a kind of awe, it means that you, my parishioners, are awesome.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

I'm Still Here!

It's the feast of Corpus Christi today, and my small but dedicated band of readers may be wondering whether I have given up posting homilies.

Well, I'm still here, but last week we had Bishop Gary Gordon visiting the parish, and he preached (wonderfully) at all the Masses. This week I am back in the pulpit, but decided it was time to preach without notes for a change, which gives me nothing to post for the blog.

Actually, I did have notes of a sort--I followed the outline of a brochure that we handed out with the bulletin this week. It's called "Five Ways to Prepare for Mass," and it's overflowing with helpful ideas that can deepen the experience of attending the liturgy.

The five ways are 1) "Know why you are there," 2) "Reflect on the readings,", 3) Think about your offering" (i.e. what you bring with you to Mass, both joys and sorrows), 4) "See yourself as part of the community," and 5) "Enter into God's presence" (by quiet and prayer before Mass begins).

The titles don't do justice to the richness of the text, which was written by Father Ralph W. Talbot, Jr. with Lorene Hanley Duquin. Under each heading there's several really practical ideas.

There's a separate section called "Preparation leads to Participation," listing another nine excellent suggestions.

The brochure is printed by Our Sunday Visitor. We've given out many of their various pamphlets over the past few years, and I can't recommend them too highly.