Saturday, March 21, 2015

God the Same Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Lent 5B)

An enthusiastic student bounced into music class one day and asked the teacher “What’s the good news for today?”

The teacher picked up a tuning fork and struck it. A clear note emerged and the teacher said, “There’s the good news for today. That, my friend, is an A. It was an A yesterday, and it will be an A tomorrow, and next week, and for a thousand years.

“The soprano in the senior choir sings off-key; the tenor flats his high notes, and the piano here in the music room is sometimes out of tune, but that is an A.”

God is like the music teacher’s “A”. He is steadfast, consistent, and always loving. We may go flat by falling into sin. We may stop reading his music. We may decide other notes are more to our liking. But God remains who and what he is.

As we heard in our reading from the Prophet Jeremiah: I will be their God, and they shall be my people. God remains faithful to us. In spite of our weaknesses and failures, he keeps offering us fresh opportunities to be reconciled with him.

Lent reminds us of God’s consistency, and of the fact that he always keeps his promises. The most important and fundamental promise, of course, was that he would send a Messiah to heal our sins and open the gates of heaven to us. Today’s readings show us how magnificently God did this, sending his only begotten Son to be lifted up on the cross, to draw all people to himself—“the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

Even before the birth of Jesus, God rescued his people time after time through a series of covenants. He gave them signs and sent prophets to preach that he would not give up on Israel. And eventually he promised a new covenant—an eternal covenant.

The new covenant isn’t engraved on stone tablets like the covenant with Moses on Mount Sinai; it’s written, as Jeremiah tell us, on our hearts. The human heart is changed, because the law of God is inscribed upon it. The new covenant “will bring about a change of hearts and the gift of the divine spirit” (Cf. Ezekiel 36, 26 ff; Xavier Léon-Dufour, Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 2nd ed., 96).

We are the people of the new covenant. We have the law written on our hearts, wounded though they are.

Jesus fulfills the promises made through the prophets. He draws us to himself from his throne upon the cross. We have the Church, the saints, the sacraments, Scripture and, most important, the Holy Spirit to guide us.

Still, many of us seem to be tone-deaf. We cannot hear God’s message, consistent and faithful as the music teacher’s “A”. God’s message is that he wants us to grow closer to him; to be with him forever.

In these last two weeks before Easter, let’s slow down and listen to the music. We can find time to harmonize our busy schedules with our need for prayer; we can look into our hearts to see where we’ve gone flat or sharp in our relations with God or others.

Let’s make a special effort to train our ears on the still small voice that calls us by name, perhaps by spending some time reading the Word of God. We desperately need to hear the crisp clear notes of the unchangeable teachings of Christ, given the uncertain trumpet that sounds in modern society.

There is still enough time for each of us to claim Christ’s loving promise of mercy, freedom and abundant life, so we can sing a new song at Easter and forever. 

I don't make much use of homily services, and when I do I generally revise the outline considerably. But this week I have relied very closely on a delightful homily by an anonymous author in "Homilies: Sunday and Weekday Masses, January - March 2015," published by Faith Catholic Publishing and Communications, an arm of the Diocese of Lansing, MI. This fine outfit also produces commentaries and intercessions for use at Mass.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sunday Mass: Not an Option (Lent 2B)

Almost every Wednesday I have the joy—and the challenge—of preaching to the students of St. Anthony’s at our weekly school Mass.

It’s a joy because they listen with attention, but a challenge because I like to ask them questions and I’m never sure what their answers will be.

Not long ago, I asked “who knows what a seminarian is?” I got the reply “someone from Seminaria.”

I’ve heard a few other amazing answers, though none quite as funny one a priest got when quizzing kids about the Ten Commandments. After explaining the commandment "honor thy father and thy mother," he asked "Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?"

Without missing a beat one little boy answered, "Thou shall not kill."

I can’t always find a message in the daily readings that’s relevant to youngsters, but a couple of weeks ago it was easy – the first reading was about parental discipline. They all listened to that homily, since doing what they’re told is probably the number one childhood difficulty (as every parent knows).

Today, the first reading also has a message all of us can understand. It’s about obedience, something we adults don’t hear about very much.

Abraham obeys God even when he’s commanded to do the unthinkable. Not only does he obey, but he obeys without questioning.

When God calls out Abraham’s name, our father in faith says “Here I am.” His answer and his actions are an example of obedience for all time.

Today, God calls us by name. What’s our answer?

Obviously, those of you who are in church this morning are responding “here I am.” You are here to offer the sacrifice of Christ to his Father.

Many of you are here for reasons of love or gratitude or piety. But others are here out of sheer obedience. You’re tired, maybe cranky, and you want to go walking in the sunshine on the seawall.

But you’re here. Because you respect what’s sometimes called the Sunday obligation—the precept of the Church that says every Catholic is bound to attend Mass every Sunday, unless excused by a serious reason like illness or a sick child.

Some of you are even here because you know that “those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” (CCC 2181)

I could preach for an hour about the positive reasons to attend Mass each Sunday: “it is good for us to be here,” as St. Peter says to the Lord in today’s Gospel.

The Catechism puts it beautifully: Participation at Sunday Mass “is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God's holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 2182)

And, of course, every Mass is the supreme sacrifice which is merely prefigured in the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham; at every Mass Christ is offered to the Father, “who gave him up for all of us.”

But rejoicing in the glory of the Eucharist isn’t the goal of my homily today. What I want to stress is simply this: Catholics are obliged to attend Mass every Sunday—not most Sundays, but every Sunday—unless excused by a serious reason.

Why do I feel the need to say this? There are two reasons why I’m talking about something that was obvious to an older generation.

The first reason is that it’s registration time for our Catholic schools, which offer a reduced tuition fee for active members of our parish. And every year at this time, I get surprised at how some folks define an active Catholic.

“I go to Mass as often as I can,” one person said, meaning once a month or so; another seemed proud of making it to Mass three Sundays out of four.

So the second reason is simply my fear that a generation of Catholics, raised in the “kinder and gentler” atmosphere of recent decades, just don’t know what the Church teaches about this.

As a pastor I’m duty bound to tell you what both divine law and Church law require of every Catholic. And you—who are here this morning—need to help me out with those who aren’t. As a parish community we need to encourage one another to be present for weekly worship; within families we need to remind one another of this solemn duty.

Everyone from Bing Crosby to Paul McCartney recorded the old song that goes “you’ve got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” Double-checking the words on the internet this morning, I was amused to discover that it was inspired by a sermon heard by the lyricist, Johnny Mercer.

Today’s Scripture readings accentuate the positive reasons for attending Mass. The Gospel reminds us that at the Eucharist we gather with the saints around the table of the Lord’s word and of his body; it is truly “good to be here.” The first two readings connect our Sunday celebration to the sacrifice of the beloved Son of the Father.

But we cannot entirely eliminate the negative. The basic virtue of obedience demands that we not miss Mass. God commanded us to keep the Sabbath holy, which Christians recognize as being Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. Jesus commanded “Do this in memory of me,” and we cannot fail to do so without spiritual harm to ourselves and the community of believers.

The rest of the first verse of Johnny Mercer’s famous song goes like this:

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
But don't mess with Mister In-between.

Haphazard attendance at Mass is well described as “in-between” Catholicism. It’s not for true disciples seeking to live fully the life to which the Lord has called us.