Saturday, February 25, 2017

Let the Children Come to Me—RCIA Retreat 2017

Gina and I spent the day with our catechumens and candidates today, After the first of three talks, we had exposition and benediction. Here's my homily from that event.
Mark 10:13–16
            Gina and I have five grandchildren, and with most of them, I have gone through the stage in which it is very popular for them to come and cling to me and hang on me, and just otherwise want to be around me. I'm good with that for a while, but it also happens that often the times that they can come to visit are the very times when I have limited free time to get various things done. So at a certain point, I'm not as accessible or generous as I'd like to be. I feel badly for admitting that, but it's simply the truth. Perhaps when I retire, I'll be less stingy with my time. I hope that is the case.
            But I'm always charmed to see young fathers with their toddlers in public, particularly at parks where there is so much to explore and so many new things to encounter. I do remember those times when my daughter was just beginning to verbalize, and she'd toddle up holding something in her hand and hand it to me and say something unintelligible but with obvious inflection: "What is this?" or "This is such and such" or even "Wow, this is amazing." If you have children, I know you know what I mean. This is one of those great moments in parenting.
            That's how I envision God in the Garden of Eden with Adam after He formed him from the dust of the ground and breathed life into him. After placing Him, His new offspring, into the garden, He realizes that man needs helpers, so He creates animals, and brings each one of them to man to name. I can see the Father presenting to his human son each animal, and the man looking each in the face and uttering something that would be as incomprehensible to us as those babblings of our own children. And I think of how God delights in it and gets such a kick out of man at his important task of naming the animals.
            God the Father is a much better papa than I am. Thank goodness I have His example to follow.
            I see the same dynamic in the reading this morning. The apostles and I have a lot in common. We see the children not through the eyes of the Father or our loving savior, but through our own concerns—the daily anxieties and cares that prevent us from seeing what truly matters. Jesus will have none of it. "Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these."
            The Kingdom of God belongs to those who flock to Jesus, who reach for Him and wish to be held by Him. And He picks them up and blesses each of them. That's the generosity of spirit that I wish I had. I guess I'm happy that I wish I had it. That's a start.
            Anyway, look at what Jesus tells his disciples: "Whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter into it." Elsewhere it says, "Unless you turn and become like children, you'll not enter the kingdom." Now notice that the acceptance is a two-way street. Jesus is receptive to the children, and the children are eager to be with Jesus. It begins with Jesus' openness to the children, but the children are likewise completely open to Jesus.
            That is our goal. I would like to be as generous as Jesus with my grandchildren, but maybe the way that I begin is by being completely open to Jesus to start. After all, all of the gifts we have come from God. To have the gift to give, we must first receive it from the giver of all gifts. So for me to be able to give that gift of generous, gratuitous love to my grandchildren, I have to be completely open to God's love for me. I have to become a child in His presence. Or perhaps more accurately, I have to recognize that I am a child in His eyes and respond accordingly.
            Beyond that, we need to understand what this passage does and does not say. It is not telling us to believe as children believe. That would be completely inappropriate for adults. We should believe with an adult faith and understanding of God—not a faith of mindless, blind obedience, but faith seeking understanding. But what the children have and what we often luck is complete trust. While we may not always understand, we must always remember that God is a God of love who does not aim to deceive us but desires to embrace us. Let us reach out to Him with that same child-like trust in His love.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Choice You Make—Sixth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)



Sirach 15:15–20; 1 Cor. 2:6–10; Matt. 5:17–37
I'm going to be bold and propose something to you that I believe is true and consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church, even though many of us don't realize it. Actually, I know it to be true, but it's one of those truths that isn't spoken often enough.
God will not condemn anyone who chooses Him. God will not forsake those, flawed as they may be, who sincerely and earnestly desire to be with Him.
By proposing this, I am not saying that sin doesn't matter or that God will not act justly and condemn some—perhaps many—of those who call themselves Christians, and some—perhaps many—who are not. But God will not condemn anyone who chooses Him.
What do I mean by that? How is it that Christians might not be saved or that non-Christians might be saved? I would point to our first reading from Sirach as a clue.
He has set  before you fire and water: to whichever you choose, stretch out your hand. Before a man are life and death, good and evil; whichever he chooses shall be given to him.
This passage is an allusion to one from Deuteronomy, Moses' final exhortation to the People of Israel as they prepare to pass into the Promised Land
I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him.
Notice that the Promised Land is already theirs. All they have to do is grasp it. They just need to make the right choice. There's no more searching and waiting. The choice is right there before them. They just have to choose the blessing, and that blessing resides in the words of the Law and the prophets.
            Now you would think that you could look at two such clear choices—life or death—and know exactly which you would choose, but human history demonstrates that we're really bad at this game. It goes back to the very beginning. Adam is plopped down in a garden where all these beautiful fruit trees and edible plants are, including the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God tells him, "You can eat from anything in the garden except that tree right there— the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil."
            It's right there next to the Tree of Life! Yet even then, which one does mankind choose?
            Such is the nature of mankind. Part of the problem is with our vision—our perspective. We simply don't see with clarity. Our vision is obscured, so how could we choose correctly? As St. Paul points out, "What eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love Him" or elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, "we see indistinctly as through a mirror." If we can't choose wisely from the obvious goods in front of us, how can we forestall those choices and choose what God has prepared for us—the greatest good that is so far beyond our understanding?
            We live in a world that does its best to muddy the moral waters and culture that encourages relativistic moral thinking. Nothings is black and white, just shades of gray. Never mind that you can't have gray without blending black and white. Now I'm not suggesting that all moral distinctions are easy to make, but some most certainly are, so long as we are willing to see.
            That's really Jesus' point here in the Sermon on the Mount. He's telling us that sometimes those gray areas we think exist between one choice and another, morally speaking, are not gray at all. The law says that those who commit murder are liable to the Law, but Jesus says anger at your brother, calling him Raqa or fool makes you liable.
            The law says not to commit adultery, but Jesus says even looking at someone with lust is equal to adultery. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand, cut it off.
            I don't think Jesus is buying this stuff about shades of gray either. In fact, he intensifies every law: not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter of the Law will pass away, He says. If anyone sets the bar high for righteousness, it's the King of Righteousness right here in this gospel.
            But how can anyone hold up to such a standard? To never condemn someone in thought? To never think a lustful thought, or to see and not covet? How can we hold to that expectation always?
            Well, fortunately, we get a bit of a break, because Jesus is using hyperbole in this passage. He's exaggerating in order to drive home His point. He knows that we have difficulty seeing clearly, so He blows up the examples to the point that no one can miss the message.
            Jesus doesn't mean that we should be cutting off our errant hands and blinding ourselves for the least temptation. He is telling us to be aware of the source of all sin: the mind and heart, because they drive the human will. The will is the immediate source of an act. Any wrong act that is not motivated by will is simply an accident. But only a wrong act motivated by will can be sinful. Sin is always a matter of the will and of choice. And our will is informed and motivated first and foremost by what resides in our hearts and thoughts. To the Jewish mind of Jesus' time, heart and mind would be one and the same.
            So Jesus isn't saying that your eye in itself is sinful, or that your hand is sinful. He's saying that when you hold something in your mind and heart that can motivate your eye or your hand to sin, you are already on the pathway. If you dwell on evil thoughts, you are giving them a chance to grow into evil action. Jesus is telling the crowds and his disciples to go beyond the letter of the law to its spirit. You can murder someone literally, which most of us would never do, but we can also murder them in our thoughts, in our hearts, or in our words. We might not commit adultery, but if we're harboring lustful thoughts toward someone, we're already building the doorway that lets us into that room.
            So at every moment, we need to be ready to resist, and resistance is a choice, which brings us back to what I said at the beginning of this homily.
God will not condemn anyone who chooses Him. God will not forsake those, flawed as they may be, who sincerely and earnestly desire to be with Him. Then how do we choose Him? Is it simply a matter of an altar call? Do we just believe in the Lord Jesus and recite the sinner's prayer, as some of our Evangelical brethren believe? I'll make another bold move now and propose, no. It is not enough to say the sinner's prayer or simply "believe in the Lord Jesus" or to simply "believe in God." St. James says that the "demons believe—and tremble." If belief were enough for salvation, then demons would have no need to tremble.
So belief alone is not enough. We must act on belief. We must choose, because only in our choosing God do we demonstrate faith. Faith and belief are not equal. I can believe that our government has the ability to make dramatic societal change in our time but have no faith in them at all. Belief and faith aren't the same thing.
If I have belief in God but don't trust His will for me, then I have no faith. If I believe in an all-powerful benevolent being who wills what is best for me but constantly choose what is worst for me, then I have no faith. If I consistently choose myself over my neighbor, myself over God's revelation, myself and temporal things over my own greatest good, I might have belief, but I don't have true faith.
Faith is what allows me to choose the thing that draws me closer to God. Through faith, I can understand that I do not see all matters clearly. I can grasp that my notion of what is good for me is distorted. I can accept that my will might not lead me to the greatest good, but God's will always does. So if I choose to align my will with God's, I will be saved. If I choose to seek Him in everything I do, I will be saved. If I choose always to have my own way, then it will be, and it won't be the will of God.
In the end, there are two outcomes. Either I say to God, "Thy will be done," or God says to me, "Thy will be done."