Sunday, January 27, 2013

Liberty to Captives

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2013

The notion of freedom that is widely promoted today centers on the ability of the individual to be in absolute control of the world around them.   We can see this notion in so many commercials.  The person behind the new car console or the new computer screen or the new dishwasher is shown to us with almost divine powers: it will do whatever you want at the push of the button.  This product will make reality conform to your will, and it will make that happen quickly and easily.  You too, can be the master of your universe, you can avoid compromise, you can be completely and entirely free to make the world as you would like it to be.

Ecologically and socially, we see the same notion of freedom centered on the absolute power of the will: to be free means that I can determine for myself - just as I would fabricate a landscape or a character in a video game - the natural world around me, regardless of environmental consequences.  The size, shape, gender, looks, functioning and even urges of my own body are all adapted to what I want.  And further: all social interaction is on my terms. The so called ‘liberated’ person associates with those who they desire to associate with,  determining for themselves at any given moment who will be their spouse, family, friends, children, parents, and neighbors, who they will like, and who they won't.

In cases like abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia we see how far this distorted sense of freedom can go.  How many today argue that our freedom requires the ability to exercise control over life and death itself?  To end one’s own life or the life of another human person is claimed to be a choice that the free person must be able make without reference to others.

Without reference to others, without reference to God, without reference to even our very selves: this is how we are told free people should be able to act.  Without reference to anyone or anything, just pure absolute will.

But that is, actually, the very definition of hell.  Life without reference to anyone or anything.  An existence that produces only isolation, restlessness, and slavery.  How restless, how lonely, how enslaved we become when our own will is our master.  Slowly, reality is cut off from us, the ties of affection strangled as a bloated willfulness consumes more and more of our lives.  Our existence is consumed by what we want next and what we are doing to get it.  Gradually we lose the capability to love, to give of ourselves, to even notice others around us, not to mention the movements of the Spirit.  It is the sin of Adam, and it is the sin of every man and woman, the original sin.  It is the sin that enslaves, that Christ came to destroy.  That is what he proclaims in our Gospel today.

Christ takes up the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and declares that he brings to fulfillment the promise God made to our fathers: he will give liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.  His Spirit, the Holy Spirit, offers us the freedom of the sons and daughters of God, a freedom that cannot be found in this world, that cannot be found in our own will.

The Hebrew people were awakened once more to this truth by Ezra and Nehemiah as they heard God’s law read to them, we heard in our first reading.  They saw once more that their prosperity, that their liberty lay precisely in their faithfulness to the commands of the Lord who alone can give us the freedom that we desire as his sons and daughters.  “Amen, amen’ they cried upon hearing his commands: “I believe, I accept, I will follow.”  I want to be free.

We who follow Christ must be witnesses to this truth about freedom and slavery in our world.
Our readings manifest this point clearly to us: freedom, liberty is a blessing bestowed on us by God when we follow his will.
True freedom cannot be claimed for ourselves, it is the reward given to those who acknowledge God’s claim on them.

And what does that look like, concretely?  St. Paul understood the freedom of the sons and daughters of God better than most.  He had been a slave to his own will and then, through an incredible grace that we just celebrated this Friday during the feast of his conversion, he was set free.  He was liberated by his acceptance of the will of God.  It was as though a weight had been lifted from him.  He could  not proclaim loudly enough: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  Not my will, but his!  I am free!  So great was his love for Christ and the freedom that he had found in him that he even rejoiced over his struggles and persecutions because he saw them as opportunities to crucify his own will and live in complete dependence on the will of God that makes us free.

How many of us are mostly bamboozled on this one?  How many of us are obsessed with trying to get our will done.  Even when we pray, we are just asking God to do what we want.  To free us from the aspects of life that we don’t like.  If we desire true freedom, we should be asking God to free us from ourselves, not from our world.  Asking him to help us fully embrace his will, our place in his body, the Church.  Not to be like the foot that St. Paul speaks of in the second reading today, who says “Because I am not a hand, I am not part of the body.”  How many people say “Because I am not a priest or a sister, because I haven’t taken vows, I don’t have to be entirely obedient to God’s will?”  Baloney.  St. Paul knew.  You must follow God’s will if you want to be free.  If you want to be happy.  If you want to love.  There is no other authentic source of freedom, true freedom only comes from God.

Only in God are we offered the freedom to be authentic to who we are, to act in accord with who God made us to be.
Only in God are we offered the freedom to live in harmony with one another.  The freedom to love others as Christ has loved us, joyfully and generously.
Only in God are we offered the freedom to be in a profound union with Christ, who has made us members of his body.

Christ reveals to us that we will only be free when we freely accept God’s will and are faithful to it.  When we take our place as members of his body, his body that liberates us and allows us to be our true selves, to live in true communion with one another, and to live in true union with God.  You want to be free?  Than want God’s will.  Do you want God’s will?  Than you will be free.  We celebrated our parish’s patronal feast day, the Conversion of St. Paul, on Friday.  May God help us to follow in Paul’s footsteps: to desire more than anything to do God’s will, and so to be liberated by the Spirit of the Body of Christ.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Non-Institutional Institution

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2013

Imagine, if you will, a modern board room where the Board of Apostles is sitting down for the first meeting with Jesus to kick off their new endeavor, the salvation of the world.  They are batting around ideas as to how to kick things off.  Perhaps one suggests that Jesus should work the transfiguration miracle first: that would really demonstrate his glory and majesty.  “What about feeding of the 5000?” someone asks.  That would certainly impress people and show his impartiality and kindness.  Or raising Lazarus – show the people his power over death.  Maybe, someone suggests, Christ could journey to Rome, to the center of influence and commerce and there, in the Roman Forum, preach the Beatitudes, demonstrating the depth of his wisdom and his knowledge of the kingdom of God.

“No,” we can imagine Jesus saying, “I think for my first miracle I am going to invite you all home to a family wedding.  And after my mother asks me, I’m going to change water into wine.  That’s going to be my first miracle.”  A miracle performed as a favor for friends of the family that is completely unnecessary for anyone’s salvation.

How many times, as we reflect on the Gospels, are we reminded that God’s ways are not our ways and that his thoughts are not our thoughts?

We live in an era when even the most basic of human activities are increasingly becoming institutionalized and depersonalized.  We could speculate for a long time as to why this is the case, but everywhere around us we see that our lives involve less person to person interaction and more person to policy or person to institution interaction.  We hear often things like “I really sympathize with you, and if it were up to me, I would change things.  But there is this policy…  I can’t treat you any differently than anyone else… what if we did this for everyone?”

How many times people hide behind policies and institutions and organizational objectives and justify actions that they know are harming or making it impossible to help a person standing right in front of them?  The perceived good of the institution or the mission is placed ahead of the good of the person.  And how many of us fear not evil and violent men and women, but the cold impartiality of an institution that decides, that our job is no longer needed, that a medical procedure should not be covered, or that we have failed to meet requirements needed to move forward in our studies or career?

Now, some might ask, "Isn’t this the pot calling the kettle black?  After all, isn’t the Church a massive institution?"  And this is true in a sense – the Church does have many of the same characteristics as other earthly institutions.  But the Church has always fought against institutionalism, against making individual persons a means to a collective end.

Look at what St. Paul teaches in our second reading today:  two things: the Holy Spirit gives gifts to people, not institutions.  And the Holy Spirit does not give out the same gifts according to the same measure.  He chooses different people to do different things according to different degrees.  All of these choices, says St. Paul, are not made by God in view of fairness, to make sure that everyone gets the same.
St. Paul does not say “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same amount is given to each.”  He says “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit.”  He does not say “There are different workings but they are of equal importance.”  He says “There are different workings but the same God who produces them in everyone.”  And why?  Because when God gives us gifts, St. Paul tells us, he does so in an entirely personal and generous way according to some benefit that he knows is needed,  not comparing one of us to the other.  He looks at each of us, he looks at how he made us, our choices, he looks at what we need, he looks at the whole matrix of relationships around us and at his whole plan of salvation and he knows what he will give us to accomplish his plan of salvation.  He doesn’t measure us one against another, trying to figure out who is more deserving.  No one is deserving.  Instead he builds us up together so that we complement one another and together are able to respond to his grace.  Think of how often Jesus makes this point in the Gospels: workers are all paid the same amount at the end of the day regardless of when they arrived at work, he tells us that to those to whom much is given more will be added, and that to those who have little even what they have will be taken away.

Christ insists again and again that God does not act according to some worldly and arbitrary measure of fairness, according to heavenly policies and norms, but according to each of us and how he wishes to love us and help us respond to his gift of salvation.

Jesus demonstrated this kind of love and goodness in his lifetime and in his first miracle.  He did not put out forms and conduct interviews to see who were the most needy or who were the most in error, who were being tormented by demons the most.  Nor did he collect resumes for the Apostles and compare them, selecting the most qualified.  He already knew all the people in front of him and he responded to who they were, who he had made them, giving them what was needed in order for them to respond to his plan of salvation.

And in the case of that first miracle, apparently what they needed was wine.  And lots of it.  Maybe we can hear a detractor saying “Do you know how many poor people hardly have enough to eat and here he is making wine out of water, and not just any old wine, but really good wine.”  Why?  Because that’s what was needed and that’s where he was and he loved those people.  His mother told him “They are out of wine.”  Well, what are you going to do, say no?  Talk about how ‘What if I did this for everyone, mom?’  No.  That’s what was needed, that’s what he could give and that’s what he gave.  And then he moved on to help others.

We all should take a lesson from this first miracle.  If God does not ration out his love, if he does not disdain to provide for the simple needs of those around him, if he is willing to be especially generous to those who are his family and friends and who ask him for favors – why shouldn’t we?   Is the sense that there needs to be impartiality and objectivity in all things so that we do not show favoritism keeping us from loving the person in front of us?  Is the idea that we need to be strategic and efficient in the efforts that we make so that we achieve the greatest result for the amount of resources that we commit keeping us from being generous in the opportunities that present themselves daily?

If Jesus was not impartial, why should we hold ourselves to the standard of impartiality?  No, we should not.  We should hold ourselves to the standard of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul tells us, to the Spirit who through prayer guides us and shows us how to respond to the people and circumstances of daily life with generosity and love.  How to love those who God has placed before us: our wives and husbands, our children and parents, our neighbors and friends, and friends of the family.  These were the people who Christ chose to bless with his first miracle, his friends and family.  Christ shows us that our efforts to follow him must begin in the same way: by generously giving ourselves to the personal and intimate circumstances of daily life.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

We Are His

Homily for the Baptism of the Lord, 2013

Repent!  The end is near!  I think we can all picture the old guy with the scraggly beard holding up the sign on the side of the road, especially this past year, 2012.  How often Christianity is presented in threatening tones: Repent, of face eternal damnation!  As if Christ came to shame us and make us feel guilty.  As if it were only because of Jesus that there is such a thing as hell or sin or evil.

It is certainly true that in Christ the reality of sin and evil is revealed in all of its ugliness and brutality.  When one holds up a light in a room, one sees everything clearly, the good and the bad alike.  But as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, we are reminded that the message proclaimed by the Church to our world is incredibly and almost unbelievably positive.

The goodness of God’s will for us is made manifest in a particular way when Christ is baptized in the Jordan.  In his baptism, Christ immerses himself into the small and rather dirty Jordan river.  And he does so right along with thousands of other people, some of them very great and notorious sinners, who had come to be baptized by John.  And he does not distinguish himself, he does not separate himself.

In being baptized, Christ intensifies his identification with all of us.
He enters the river of human weakness and division, he enters the river of hatred and rivalry, he enters the river of indifference and deceit, and he immerses his whole self into these waters of our fallen human nature.  But as he rises out of the waters, something is new. The baptism of John was a baptism of repentance, a baptism that symbolized the desire of the sinner to repent and follow God’s will, it was not a manifestation of God’s will.

What we see in Christ is different.  His was not a baptism of repentance, but the manifestation of a new era of salvation.   Instead of baptism manifesting the sinner’s hope for mercy, in Christ baptism becomes the way that God adopts us into his life and shows us his favor.

It is critical that we who have been baptized in Christ realize that we have not received a baptism of repentance, the baptism of John.  We use ashes to symbolize our repentance, not water.  Instead, through water we now receive what John the Baptist called the baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire, the baptism of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Ours is a baptism of adoption, through which St. Paul tells us that we now call God Abba, Father.  In practice, water is still poured over our heads, just as Christ was immersed into the waters of the Jordan.  But in Christ, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Adoption has entered the into the waters.  At the moment when water is poured over our heads, God the Father speaks to us the same words that he spoke to Christ, “You are my son, you are my daughter, this day I have begotten you.”  In baptism, it is not we who attempt to make a claim on God’s mercy, but the Triune God who makes a claim on our lives.  We are his.

Jesus later taught his disciples what this meant.  We have been given the glory, he said, that the Father has given the Son.  We are in Christ, and he is in us, we are his body.  And the love that the Father has for the Son, the Love that is God’s life, is now given to us who have been immersed into him in baptism.

“Comfort, give comfort to my people,” Isaiah proclaims, “Here comes with power the Lord God.” He comes not to condemn but to save us by adopting us in accord with his plan from the beginning, allowing us to share in the fullness of his love.

Christians must seek to do good and avoid evil, we must repent and be faithful to the Gospel.  But we do so not because we are motivated by fear or the desire to appease a God who we perceive to be just waiting on the sidelines to condemn us.  Instead, our striving to do good and avoid evil, if it is genuine, arises from the grateful recognition of the gift of faith that we have received.  Our desire to be holy is nothing less than the desire to be authentic, to live according to who we have been made in baptism, the beloved sons and daughters of God, called to live the fire of love through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The baptism of John manifested repentance, the desire for mercy and divine favor.  The baptism of Christ reveals to us something profoundly new, that we would not have known on our own.  That God desires for us to dwell in him and to participate in his never-ending love.  So repentance  yes, sure that is part of the life of the Christian.  But more importantly, as we hear in the Psalm today: “O bless the Lord, my soul!”  He has immersed himself in our fallen world and through Christ made us his adopted children, with whom he is well pleased.