Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Sunday: A Rx and a Referral



A few weeks ago, in the middle of the night, I landed at the emergency entrance to Lions’ Gate hospital. I was alone and in pain. Within a minute I was taken into a treatment area, where my self-diagnosis of a kidney stone was swiftly confirmed.

I wasn’t a happy patient, but I was a grateful one. I am now a big fan of pain medicine! But the most positive element in my ordeal was the compassion and care of the nurses and doctor on duty. Before they sent me home, the kind young doctor gave me a prescription, reassurance and the answers I needed to plan the next step to recovery.

Why am I telling you all this? Because today I want to say “Welcome to the hospital!”

I know. You thought you were in church. But even Pope Francis has said “I see the Church as a field hospital after battle.”

And I love the old saying that the church is not a hotel for saints but a hospital for sinners, though I can’t find out who said it.

Whether you’re a visitor or someone who attends regularly, I want to welcome you to church today in the same way I was welcomed to the emergency department. We don’t offer pain medicine, but we offer pain relief.

This Easter Sunday, I hope you can find whatever reassurance and answers you need in your life—because I think many people in church today can identify with the story of the two disciples trudging along the road to Emmaus.

Cleopas and his unnamed friend represent religious people whose hopes have been dashed. But they also represent non-religious people who just don’t know what to believe. They represent the way almost everyone feels some of the time.

There’s a whole lot of us slogging along, standing still, looking sad. We have more questions than answers and it’s been a long time since we felt reassured or comforted by faith.

Some of our questions can be very basic: we wonder what life is all about. We ask “Is there a higher power? What is our purpose? Why are we here? Is there more to this life?”

We might feel that God is far away from us or that we are far away from God. This can leave us feeling guilty or empty. It can make us fearful or confused.

So why don’t we let those two disciples stand in for all of us, whatever their particular thoughts and feelings were that Easter evening? And let’s take a close look at how their questions and doubts were answered.

The obvious thing is that there was no obvious thing. Jesus performed no miracle, other than vanishing, and gave no special sign. He used the Scriptures—the prophecies about the Messiah—to open their eyes.

The disciples, in turn, did not shout out “Eureka! Now I get it!” All they did was try to continue the conversation. “Stay with us,” they said. Maybe they were just trying to be hospitable to this knowledgeable stranger, but we’ll never really know.

What we do know is that the combination of God’s word, broken open for them by Christ himself, and the breaking of bread that recalls the Eucharist opened their eyes to recognize Jesus.

The end result of this encounter is dramatic. Their hearts are on fire and the two disciples return to Jerusalem, sharing what had happened on the road and what they had seen and heard.

This Easter I want to invite you to that same experience—to that same encounter with Jesus. Sometimes our experience in church is like the waiting room just inside the door of Emergency. We know there’s help to be found, but we’re not sure when it’s coming or how.

Father Paul and I and all our brother priests do our best today and every Sunday to explain the meaning of the Scriptures. But only a personal meeting with Jesus really opens our eyes and sets our hearts on fire.

This Easter we want to invite every single person in church today to a conversation with the Lord that will lead to a personal relationship with him.

He wants to hear you say “Stay with us.” As the Book of Revelation says: “I’m standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”

At Easter we encounter the one who took upon himself the consequences of our sins and the sin of the whole human race. We meet Jesus who rose from the dead, brought us new life, and bridged the gap caused by sin.

Don’t start thinking you’ll find the whole story in one sermon. Just like the ER doctor, I’m going to offer you a prescription and a referral. The prescription is found in this little booklet called “The Ultimate Relationship”. It’s tells the story of the consequences of Easter and of what the Resurrection of Jesus promises.

The booklet begins with a question that I want each one of you to think about it right now. The question is “If you could know God personally, would you want to?” It’s a question for atheists and believers, for young and for old. If you could know God personally, would you want to?

Only you can answer that, but I can tell you that God wants to know you personally. He wants this Easter celebration of what we call the Paschal Mystery—the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus—to make a difference in your life, to open your eyes to what’s really happening around you and in you.

A few Sundays back I took the time to study the congregation. At Easter we have many visitors but on an ordinary Sunday I know most of the people in church. I think I expected to feel like the general manager of a hotel for saints—because certainly we have some wonderful, holy, and dedicated people in this parish.

But that’s not what hit me as I thought about the stories of the men and women sitting in front of me. I was truly the duty doctor in the ICU. There was a woman whose husband had left her abruptly and without warning; a few pews back a young man dealing with a recent diagnosis of serious illness.

On the other side of the church, a couple struggling to keep their marriage going; to the right of them a man unemployed after many years with the same company. Five rows back a grieving widow; right behind her someone struggling with addiction.

Real people. Real problems. But real Christians, putting their faith in the power of God to get them through.

You don’t get there in an hour on Sunday or an hour and ten minutes at Easter. You get that kind of practical help from the friendship of Jesus and a living faith in his power to save and to heal.

So there’s a prescription: The Ultimate Relationship booklet is a prescription you can take home with you today. But some of us need a referral. That’s the Alpha course.


Alpha is a series of social evenings where we explore life’s big questions with food, a talk and open discussion. There’s no pressure and no question that’s off-limits.

When the doctor at Lions Gate referred me to a specialist, he made sure I saw him right away. I want to refer you to Alpha with the same urgency—it starts this Thursday night, with dinner at 6:30.

It might just prove to be the kind of meal the disciples shared with Jesus that first Easter night.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Holy Thursday: The Eucharist and Charity

       
 I’m more than a little reluctant to post the following homily, because a great deal of the first part is taken straight from a marvelous sermon by Rev. Fleming Rutledge in her splendid book The Undoing of Death. I wrote in haste, without the time to properly identify all the many quoted or lightly adapted sentences I used. Many were so apt they resisted any attempt at paraphrase, and properly crediting their author would have made my delivery awkward.
         I’m indebted to my sister-in-law Nicole for the gift and discovery of Mrs. Rutledge’s book and to Bishop Robert Barron for introducing me to this remarkable Anglican preacher through his video on her more recent book The Crucifixion.
------------------------------------------------------------------
I complain often enough that almost everyone here tonight knows that I have a second job helping to train permanent deacons.  But many of you may not know that I am the pastor of four parishes.
         I am the pastor of every Catholic soul living in the territory of Christ the Redeemer church, whether or not those souls ever show their faces in church. 
I am the pastor of the wandering sheep who come and go, making their infrequent appearances particularly at Christmas and Easter.
         And I am the pastor of the thousand or so people who form the community at Mass every Sunday.
 But tonight I am pastor of the fourth parish, the parish I might call our family.  This night is one of the three greatest nights of the Christian year, but it attracts well less than half the number who attend Midnight Mass. 
It’s a fair bet that most people who make the effort to come to church on Holy Thursday—that would be you—are members of the parish-within-a-parish formed by the committed.
I was reading a Holy Thursday homily by Fleming Rutledge, an Anglican priest who is an expert on preaching. She said that “tonight the homilist can dispense with crowd-pleasing warmups” and go directly to the heart of the matter.  I thought that was such good advice that I even took out some teasing of Father Paul I had included in my first draft.
Really, there is just no better night to be in church than tonight.  At the Last Supper no one sat at the table with Jesus but his inner circle.  I don’t think it’s wrong for you to think of yourselves as the inner circle tonight—“not because you are more worthy than others, but simply because, in the mystery of his will and purpose, Jesus has called you to be here.”
This is family night.  Jesus had a reason for choosing the Last Supper to declare his love for his disciples; and he has a reason to gather us tonight, each of us drawing near to one another as Jesus draws us near to himself.
At the Last Supper Jesus changed the relationships of the apostles to one another, by making them sharers in the one bread and the one cup, while changing their relationships to him by sharing with them his Body and his Blood.
It is exceptionally difficult to do justice in one homily to the three peak moments of the Last Supper—the institution of the Eucharist, the establishment of the priesthood, and Christ’s example of charity which the Gospel just related.
It is difficult—but during this special family gathering it is possible, because I am not telling most of you anything that you do not already know, or that you haven’t at least begun to grasp in the depths of your heart.
Mrs. Rutledge’s advice about dispensing with crowd-pleasing warmups and going directly to the heart of this mystery was not intended to insult those who come to Mass out of a sense of obligation or even good habit; but the fact is that your ears are open tonight to words of greater depth than a homilist dares to speak on an average Sunday.
Consider these words about the Mass from the fourth century, and ask how they would go over with the crowd on Easter: “When you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that Precious Blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth?
“Are you not, on the contrary, straightaway translated to heaven?  Oh!  What a marvel!  What love of God to man!  He who sits on high with the Father is held in the hands of all, and gives himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp him.”
These words of St. John Chrysostom are not the thoughts of most folks who come rushing into Mass at ten after five on a Sunday afternoon.  But they must be our thoughts tonight as we allow the Lord to lead us deeper and deeper into the mystery he instituted that first Holy Thursday night.
The Passover meal that our Lord celebrated with his beloved apostles recalled the first Passover, which began Israel’s Exodus.  Instead of going where their captors demanded, as in the past, Israel became a people on the move at the command of God. 
In the same way, tonight’s sacred meal—like every Mass—makes us a people on the move.  The command to get moving flows directly from the Eucharistic Mystery; when Jesus told the disciples to follow his example of service, he did not intend to separate the humble gesture of foot-washing from the total sacrifice of self he was to make on the Cross.  His noble gesture at the feet of his apostles was not an invitation only to service, but to sacrifice.
I wonder if we are aware in this parish family of the extent to which the Eucharist is fulfilled by the Christian charity of many of the family present tonight?  You all know how difficult it is for me to cope with the emotion involved when I lay bare the gratitude of my heart.  But I must take that risk tonight; this Eucharistic community has examples within it as powerful, really, as Christ’s washing those feet.
I often speak of the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, but tonight I have an example even more concentrated, if I can use that word.  Last week a parishioner told me and some others of some great and painful difficulty he experienced a few years back. 
In his candid testimony, he named a parishioner who had been a tremendous support to him in those dark days.  He had no way of knowing that I was aware of two other men who had faced similar or even greater hardships, and who had been guided and supported by that same parishioner.
I’m trying my best to respect privacy but I can say that this man’s wife has been similarly generous to individuals, and has been instrumental of one of the most fruitful but demanding of our parish’s outreach ministries.
From what source has this couple received the spirit of charity, the tireless generosity, and the humility that demands no recognition for these and other works in the parish?  I don’t think I insult them at all in saying he is an ordinary man and she is an ordinary woman, although, in her case an ordinary woman with six times my energy.
But where did it come from?  The answer can only be this Eucharistic celebration, the institution of which we rejoice in tonight.  This link between the Mass and sacrificial service of others is something I studied in the seminary, something I’ve known, but it was only here at Christ the Redeemer that I’ve come to understand it. The parishioners, through their remarkable charity in many forms, have taught me this lesson, and taught it well.
So many of our parish family are, here and now, just what the great servant of God Dorothy Day was in an earlier time. 
Dorothy Day was known for a very progressive vision of social justice and Christian charity.  She worked to change society according to the Church’s social teaching—she was a radical, proposing a radical Christian alternative to the Marxist agenda for the poor and the working class.
And yet she said to all who would join her in the Catholic Worker Movement that the Mass was “the greatest work of the day”, and that all other works must flow from worship.

That is what Jesus has taught us tonight, that is what is happening in our midst in this parish community, and that is what each of us must recommit ourselves to as tonight we eat his Body and drink his Blood.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

His Passion Has Purpose


We've just heard a chapter of the greatest story ever told. If it were the last chapter it would be the saddest story ever told.

But of course it's not; there's a triumphant final chapter waiting to be read next Sunday.

Still, the Church wants us to pause at this point in the story and take a long hard look at the suffering and death of Jesus. What does his Passion say to each of us this morning?

A single verse from the Prophet Isaiah has an answer: “He was wounded for our transgressions... upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

Let me read you the same verse from the Jerusalem Bible, a less literal but more elegant translation: “Ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrow he carried… On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed.”  (Is. 53:4-5, JB)

Isaiah’s prophecy tells us that the sufferings of Christ were for a purpose. In the first place, to atone for our sins: he took on himself the punishment that we deserved.

In the second place, to give us peace: he took away the fears that we sinners carry around with us, namely the fear of condemnation and hopelessness.

And finally, to bring us healing: healing of the ancient wound of sin, healing of the modern wound of despair.

Listening to the Passion this morning with no sense of its purpose would really make this a sad story. We live in a world that’s horrified by waste. Throw out a half-eaten apple in any cafeteria and see how many dirty looks you get.

Yet we can “waste” Christ's sufferings, so to speak, by failing to apply their blessings to our lives. The purpose of the Passion is not accomplished fully without our involvement— without our own acceptance of the gift.

So let’s prepare for Easter by taking Christ’s Passion personally. Let's make sure we don’t waste—another word for taking for granted—a moment of his suffering or a drop of his saving blood.

The Lord has ransomed us, restored us, and healed us. We should walk through Holy Week with the gratitude that our awareness of such gifts demands.

In the face of his generous love, the least we can do is make a confession of our sins, and celebrate prayerfully the three liturgies that bring the paschal mystery to life—Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil.

Today’s bulletin contains a brochure that offers simple ways to walk with Jesus in Holy Week. I guarantee they can make this your best Easter ever.

More important, your walk with the Lord this week will help you find the true peace and healing that will make his Passion your hope.  

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Unbind Him! (Lent 5A)



Today’s Gospel is a drama in three acts. First, there is the illness of Lazarus—during which Jesus seems unwilling to respond. Then there is his death, followed by Martha’s encounter with Jesus. The drama concludes with the raising of Lazarus.

At every point the dialogue is gripping. Jesus declares that his friend’s illness will not lead to death, something his disciples must have struggled with when they found Lazarus was already in the tomb. There are the pained but faith-filled words of Martha when Jesus makes finally his appearance. And of course we hear Jesus praying directly to his Father as he stands at the entrance to the tomb.

We could reflect and pray for hours on any one phrase from this magnificent Gospel passage. Certainly the Church intends us to think about the Resurrection of Jesus, to which the raising of Lazarus is obviously connected, especially as Easter draws near.

But I would like to preach on just two words from St. John’s powerful text. The two words are “unbind him.”

Unbound is the title of a book by the Catholic layman Neal Lozano, who helps people struggling with evil in their lives. He and his wife speak internationally about the Gospel message of deliverance from sin, promoting five keys to freedom.

I believe there’s a need for this ministry in many lives, but there’s no time to talk about it today. But the first of the five keys described in Unbound is the essential one: repentance and faith.

Jesus is speaking to the Church when he says “unbind him.” The Church is called to free us from the sins that bind and encumber us—the sin that clings to us and restricts us, as the Letter to the Hebrews says (12:1).

But we are not passive, like Lazarus; we must repent personally of wearing the burial shrouds of sin, and have faith in Christ’s ability to restore us to life by his merciful forgiveness.

This is the time in our Lenten journey when we decide whether we’re going to make the effort to go to confession. The first of our two penitential services is this Thursday, at Holy Trinity parish, and the second is next Tuesday, here at Christ the Redeemer. Do we hear the Lord calling us to come out from the cave and into the light?

We all have our reasons for avoiding confession. Too busy. Too good. Too bad. But the worst reason is feeling that I’m not ready.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote that our modern world of instant communications, instant food, instant diets and instant-beauty aids often makes us think of repentance as instantaneous transformation: “We are rotten one moment, pure the next.”

He says this is bad psychology, “because it leads us to think God accepts us only after and because we have reformed. It leads also to discouragement because we soon see how quickly we fail after we had repented.”

But Archbishop Sheen, one of the great preachers of the 20th century, reminds us that the Prodigal Son did not say to himself: “I know what I will do. I will work myself back up by my own bootstraps, make myself acceptable again and then I will return to my father.”

“No, he went back a repentant, but not yet fully reformed, prodigal. We must think of repentance as a beginning rather than an ending, as a change of heart that only gradually leads to a change of ways. Repentant sinners are still sinners, but the difference is, they no longer want to be sinners.”

Doesn’t that make it seem easier to approach the sacrament of reconciliation?

During these final weeks of Lent, the Church hears the Lord’s call to unbind and untie her members from sin. Each of us should hear him call “Come out!” Even though our bodies are dead because of sin, as we read in the second reading, we know that God’s spirit will give us life.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Path of Life (3.A)


Pope Francis tells the story of a great Spanish preacher who gave a powerful and well-prepared sermon. Afterwards, the priest was approached by a man—a great public sinner—who asked, with tears flowing down his face, to go to confession.

He confessed a long list of serious sins. The confessor knew about the man, so he was amazed that his sermon had been so effective.

“Tell me,” he asked the penitent man, “when did you feel God touch your heart? At what point in the sermon?”

The man replied “When you said, ‘let’s move on to another subject.’”

I’m not sure about the moral of the story, other than the fact that it’s good for a homilist to be humble! The Pope pointed out that sometimes it’s the simplest words that help us, while at other times it
s the most complicated: “the Lord gives the right word to each of us.”

Today’s Gospel speaks to all of us—but the message will be simple for some, complicated for others.

The words are St. Peter’s: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” You can’t find a simpler prayer than this. Peter couldn’t begin to express his awe and wonder—and perhaps confusion—so he affirms the goodness of the moment.

It’s a prayer any of us could make every time we recognize that Jesus is with us. It’s good to be around the dinner table saying grace. It’s good to look out at the top of a ski lift and to know God holds such beauty in His hands. It’s good to be here at Mass.

Of course, not all of us here at Mass are ready to pray “Lord it is good to be here.” Some of us would rather be somewhere else. We’re here because our parents dragged us, or because we know God expects to see us. Still, I think most of us in church today are willing to pray those words with Peter.

But what do we say next? “Lord, it is good to be here… and… uh…” There we run out of steam. What are the deepest reasons why it good to be at Mass today?

Put on the spot, we might say what we think God wants to hear, just like Peter did. It is good to be here because we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. It is good to be here with friends or family, with a community of faith.

For some of us, these answers come from the heart. But for others they come from the head.

In our amazing parish mission yesterday, Jake Khym asked us the question Jesus asked Martha after the death of Lazarus: Do you believe this? Only those who make the effort to answer this question will fully share the awe and the wonder and the joy that Peter felt on the mountain of transfiguration. Because the Mass is our celebration of the whole story of Jesus—the story of His suffering, death, resurrection and ascension, the story we call the Paschal Mystery.

What a simple but complex question: do you believe this?

Jake asked us an easier question, though I didn’t know the answer. What were the two top songs of all time? Anyone guess one of them? The answer is the Beatle’s “Yesterday” and the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”

Both songs resonate in people’s hearts because they are about longing for better times, longing for something that’s beyond our reach. That longing, of course, is for heaven.

Most fairy tales and most of our favourite movies end “and they lived happily ever after.” Why is this? Because, as St. Augustine wrote, God made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.

Do we bring that restlessness to Mass? Does our time in church allow space for our longing for heaven? Can we pray, “Lord it is good to be here—because it’s bringing me closer to the deepest desire of my heart?

I wish every parishioner could have shared the amazing experience we had at the mission yesterday. Many times I prayed “Lord, it is so good to be here.” But God is generous, and anyone who will take the time to join the disciples at the feet of Jesus will also be richly blessed.

The practical directions to receive the grace we need next are given right in today’s Gospel. First, acknowledge Jesus as the beloved Son of the Father, and “listen to Him.”

Second, “do not be afraid.” Do not draw back from the Paschal Mystery and all that it means and promises and demands of you.

We heard was so much powerful preaching and teaching and testimony yesterday, but the Path of Life might well be summarized in those seven simple words: listen to Him, and do not be afraid.


As Pope Francis said, the Lord will give the right word to each of us.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Take it to the Lord! (8.A)

I came across a book this week, just in time for my homily on today’s Gospel.  It’s called How to Handle Worry: A Catholic Approach. 
I’m a worrier, so my first thought was “I’ll bet the book is out of print!” Well, it was, but its available as an e-book, so I had it in my hand as I prepared this homily.
The author, a professor named Marshall Cook, got my attention with the table of contents.  Among the chapter titles are “Why Worry is Inevitable”, “Why Worry Hurts Us”, and “Don’t Get Mad. Don’t Get Even. Get Peaceful”.
Any of those chapters would be well worth a homily, but I think the one called “Naming and Defeating Five Varieties of Worry” came closest to how Our Lord might have expanded on His beautiful words in today’s Gospel. 
Because I’m not sure that the people listening to Jesus preach were half as worried as we are today.  Jesus focused on material needs—food, drink, and clothing.  Those were the worries of his rural audience in the first century.
You and I have little fear of nakedness or hunger.  Our basic needs are met.  But I think we can easily identify with the kinds of worry that Marshall Cook deals with.  He lists such modern anxieties as info-ignorance, which is the state of knowing more and understanding less; we have more information than we can handle and it leaves us anxious and confused.
In the Gospel today Jesus tells us not to worry and tells us why we shouldn’t worry.  His examples are excellent and His teaching is forceful.  What Our Lord doesn’t tell us in this brief passage is how not to worry.  We find that a few chapters later in Saint Matthew’s Gospel:  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
Although each kind of worry calls for a different kind of response or approach, those words of Jesus must be our starting point.  As Marshall Cook says, “take it to the Lord.”
“Tell him the problem.  Alone, you may not be able to solve it, but with Jesus at your side all things are possible.”
The book gives some practical ways of dealing with anxiety and worry—we all know that God helps those who help themselves.  For instance, Saint Ignatius teaches us to seek divine help when making decisions, but he tells us first to weigh up the pros and cons in a common sense way.
But Cook points out that in a certain sense if you make a decision with God, you can’t make a “wrong” decision.  He’s not saying you’ll always make the “right” decision: what he means is that if you trust in God’s guidance and His love for you, there’s nothing that will take you from His abiding love.
The reason for this is found in my favourite Scripture verse:  “We know all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
The deeper we go with God and the closer we come to Him, the less we are anxious and alone.  Notice to whom Jesus is speaking to in today’s Gospel: his disciples, the men and women who are following Him, who are close to Him.  He didn’t give this sermon in a market square or to thousands gathered on the hillside.  This is teaching for His friends… “those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Lent, which begins on Wednesday, is quite properly seen as a time to do penance and to repent for sin.  But it is also the time to deepen our bond of friendship with Jesus. And if we do that His promises become real—they become antidotes to the many fears that rob us of peace and joy.
This Lent our parish offers each of you a remarkable opportunity, one that can make a true difference in your life.  Two weeks from now, we will hold our parish mission, called “The Path of Life.” It will be given by Mr. Jake Khym, a wonderfully gifted speaker, clinical counsellor, and teacher.
This one-day Saturday retreat assumes that we all want life, happiness, and peace, but aren’t always sure where to find it or how to keep it. It offers the answer that Jesus gives: The Path of Life, a road less traveled that leads to endless joy.
Why would anyone stay stuck in anxiety and worry when the road out of those miseries is available—when your own parish presents the roadmap with a knowledgeable and engaging guide like Jake Khym?
I can only think of one good reason to miss this event, and that’s being out of town on a non-refundable air ticket.  As you heard last week, Father Paul will be on a mission trip to the Philippines—I even asked him whether he couldn’t fly back for the day.  (He said no.)
But if you are truly unable to spend Saturday March 11th listening and praying, there are always other ways of finding God’s help with the worries of our complicated modern lives. They’re almost full, but we have retreats coming up at Westminster Abbey for men and for women—the men’s is next weekend, while the women’s is the first weekend in April.
A large group of men meet to pray together in the church every Friday morning at 6 a.m.  They follow the advice in St. Peter’s First Letter: “Cast all your anxiety on [God], because he care for you.” You’ll hear a bit more about that later.
The bulletin has a simple tool to plan your Lenten journey, which should begin for all of us with Mass on Ash Wednesday. But don’t think of it only as the road to Easter—it’s the road to peace.

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.”