Sunday, July 26, 2015

Offer It Up

So, you'll see that this one is a sermon and a half...but that's because it includes the introduction to a five-part homily series that it's been on my heart to do for quite awhile.  The happy coincidence of Fr. Scott's upcoming trip and five Sunday's of gospel readings taken from chapter 6 of the Gospel of John told me now was the time to do it.

You can find all six of the Precepts of the Church listed in our parish's Sunday bulletin.

   Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

The Precepts of the Church
Part I

When Fr. Justin arrived a little over a year ago,
he marveled at the way we Americans drive.
Every time we were in the car,
he asked all kinds of questions—
about the lines on the road, the signs, the traffic lights.
What amazed him most
was the way drivers actually obeyed them.
It sounded to me like they have many of the same things in India,
it’s just that nobody pays much attention to them.
It sounds—frankly—like total chaos!
Now, most of us have imagined
being able to drive as fast as we want
without any fear of getting a ticket,
but deep down we know that we need traffic laws
to make driving safe.
In fact, the laws are even more essential:
I dare say that they make driving possible.
The same is true in sports.
We might chafe against the rules when things don’t go our way,
but without those rules,
you wouldn’t even have a game to play.

The Ten Commandments also work much like that.
Given by God to the Jewish people,
and later taken up by Christians,
we recognize them as basic rules for living
that are shared by most people of good will—
with a few variations—

whatever their religion.
But what about distinctly Catholic rules?
What does it take to make the Church’s life possible?
What do I need to do to be a good Catholic?
The Catholic Church 
has an entire, lengthy code of law—Canon Law—
that governs its operations.
(It’d be hard to manage a worldwide organization
with 1.2 billion members without one.)
But over the centuries,
the Church has prioritized her rules,
developing a list of six that represent the bare minimum
of what’s expected to stay in “good standing” with the Church.
They’re called the “Precepts” or “Commandments of the Church.”
There are no real surprises on that list.
Nothing all that exotic is required to be Catholic.
But the Precepts of the Church are little discussed these days—
making them increasingly less known,
less understood, and less observed.
But living by these Precepts—
like the rules of the road or the rules of the game—
are absolutely essential for keeping the Church together.
The precepts of the Church remind us
that being Catholic isn’t an inherited status
you can take for granted;
no—it’s a profound commitment to an entire way of life.

Fr. Scott is soon going to be away traveling for a few weeks,
so I’ve decided to seize the opportunity
and take five Sundays in a row to teach and preach
on the six Precepts of the Church.

This Sunday, I want to address two of these Precepts:

1. To attend Mass and rest from servile work
    on Sundays and holy days of obligation

4. To receive Holy Communion at least once a year,
    during the Easter season

Those precepts can sound a bit old fashioned
when we consider the way many Catholics today
actually practice their faith.
Once upon a time—and not all that long ago—
most Catholics went weekly to Sunday Mass,
but not all of them received Holy Communion.
Nowadays, fewer and fewer Catholics
regularly get to Mass every Sunday
(and even fewer still on holydays),
but when they do, nearly all of them receive—
whether they’re prepared to do so worthily or not.

It’s a sad thing to say, but when parishioners come asking
for a baptism or first Holy Communion,
a wedding or funeral these days,
I can safely assume more often than not
that they don’t usually go to Mass.
“But we’re Catholic!” they always assure me.
But what does that name “Catholic” even mean
if you don’t do the most basic things that Catholics do?
The Catholic Church is not a club
with lifetime membership status;
the Church is a family.
Which means that you are not so much invited
as you’re simply expected to take your place at the supper table.
All of you parents know how hard it is to keep a family together
if you don’t ever sit down to eat together.

Our obligation to attend Mass is a serious one.
Now, the Church’s laws are eminently reasonable,
and never require the impossible.
There of course is no obligation for those
who must care for the sick, or are sick themselves,
who live an unreasonable distance from a Catholic church,
or who must give immediate attention
to some urgent and unavoidable task—
the same sort of things that would honestly keep you home
from your job or a social obligation.
But to miss Mass through one’s own fault
on a Sunday or holy day is a mortal sin—
a sin with the power to cause death to the soul.

Yet notice that our obligation as Catholics
is to attend Mass every Sunday (and more),
but to receive Holy Communion only once a year.
That makes a certain priority clear—
one that’s lost on many of us.

Allow me to explain…

The most common reason Catholics give
for not going to church is,
“I don’t get anything out of it.”
And if you ask many Catholics what makes for a “good” Mass,
they’ll talk about the quality of the preaching,
the music, and the coffee and donuts served afterwards.
There are two problems with this list.
For one thing, there’s no mention of the main attraction:
the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist—
God come again from heaven to earth
in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
How can we overlook that?
It’s at the very heart of our Catholic faith!
Is something else besides needed to hold our attention?
Everything else is just window dressing, really.
The second problem with this list flows from the first:
it’s all rather self-centered;
it’s focused completely on what’s in it for us.

Why do we come to church?
Am I here more to get…or to give?
To feel welcome…or to worship?
True—there should be both.
But one is God’s intention in coming to us;
the other must be our intention in coming before God.
Our priority—as these two Precepts point out—
must not be what we come to get out of Mass,
but what we come to put in.

In this Sunday’s gospel,
Jesus shows his clear desire to feed mankind.
But he doesn’t do so out of nothing
(although he certainly could—
that’s how God created the world, after all).
Rather, Jesus makes use of the humble offering of a little boy.
His five loaves and two fish seem insignificant to the Apostles,
but the Lord welcomes them all the same.
Jesus knows how to put to good use
whatever we offer him.

Yes, we come to Mass to receive.
And, yes, the Lord wants to give.
But the Lord first needs to receive from us;
we need to give him something to work with.
And that something is worship:
our sacrifice—our offering—of thanks and praise.
What God wants you to give him Sunday after Sunday
isn’t so much something as somebody—it’s you!
It’s about putting God and his ways first in our lives—
ahead of all else, even ourselves.
One bad winter in the Arctic,
an Algonquin woman and her baby were left alone
after everyone else in their camp starved to death.
The woman walked away from that camp,
and, near a lake, found a single fishhook.
She could easily rig a line, but she had no bait.
Her baby cried and cried from hunger.
So she took a knife,
and cut a strip of flesh from her thigh.
She used her own flesh as bait, and caught a fish—
feeding her child and herself.
Of course, she saved the fish guts for bait
and was able to live at the lake, on fish, till spring,
when she walked out with her baby to find others.
That’s a true story;
those who tell it have seen her scar.  (cf. A. Dillard)

Her story of self-giving is really Jesus’ story…
…and it needs to be our story, too.

Jesus performed a miracle on the mountain
in line with those of Elisha and the prophets of old.
But at Passover another year,
he will do something even more wondrous:
God who became man, the Word that became flesh,
will give his flesh to be our bread—
to feed our souls unto eternal life.
That most blessed of miracles is renewed at every Mass.
And what we witness Jesus doing in every Mass—
making an offering of himself to the Father and to us—
we are likewise called to do ourselves.
If we are truly one body and one spirit,
if we are united by one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
then we need to come together regularly
to worship and adore the one God and Father of all.

We may not need our food to be multiplied.
But most of us could stand a multiplication
of our time and energy, our strength and our faith.
Make of them an offering to God.
Put yourself completely into the Lord’s hands.
Dedicate your whole being to his service.
And what once seemed rather poor and inadequate
will prove to be more than enough—
as much as you wanted, with some even left over.

Before Jesus feeds the crowd,
he stops to give thanks.
Before we’re fed by Jesus,
it's our sacred duty to give thanks, too.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Across the Pond

Even though we're both now assigned to the same parish, Fr. Scott and I (with help from Fr. Stitt) were able to get away for an overnight in the woods Wednesday-Thursday.  We'd originally been planning a more intense excursion (with a few High Peaks involved), but pastoral responsibilities and my lingering cold forced us to be prudent and scale things back a bit.  So we headed off to Taylor Pond (where I'd camped back at the end of March).  We rented a canoe there at the DEC primitive campground and set out across the 4-mile pond...

...along the flank of Catamount Mountain to a beautiful lean to at it's far western end.

Besides it's great views of the water...

...we also enjoyed watching (and listening to) the wildlife: bunches of laughing loons, a fawn sipping at the shore, a graceful great blue heron, a swooping osprey and a soaring eagle, along with a beaver (or maybe a muskrat) gliding across the bay.  (We won't put the abundant mosquitos and other buzzing bugs on that list).

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Rest A While

   Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

No homily for you this Sunday, my friends.  I came home from summer camp with happy memories, a few mosquito bites, ...and a severe cold.  I'll be back on track next Sunday.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Slip'n Slide

A very quick post before heading off to summer camp...

Last Thursday, I climbed up and over Mount Colden (4715 ft), #11 among the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks.  Passing Marcy Dam (or, I should say, what's left of it), I got my first glimpses of the peak.

I took the trail past Lake Arnold... the lower, northern summit, from which there were views (despite the low clouds) of my approaching destination...

...and the surrounding High Peaks.

The views only got better from the top.

I decided to take a different route for my return trip.  Not the best idea I've ever had!  While the scenery was stunning (as you'll see), the trail also left me a bit stunned.  There was basically a rather steep, mile-long Slip'n Slide, as the trail is exposed rock face and was running with water from all the recent rain.  Needless to say, I picked up a few scrapes and bruises before arriving at Mount Colden's base, taking me around Lake Colden...

...and then around Avalanche Lake and through Avalanche Pass..

...and completing my nearly 14 mile loop.

I was a bit sore that night and the next day...but, yes, it was worth it!


   Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

“My parents are sending me to summer camp,” said one boy to another.
“Why?” asked the second.  “Do you need a vacation?”
“No,” answered the first.  They do.”

Fr. Scott and I were in the car the other day
when we heard part of a radio program
discussing the American tradition
of sending kids off to summer camp.
Even if you never went to camp yourself,
I’m sure you have some notion of the annual routine
of youngsters heading into the woods for a week (or two or three)
of swimming and campfires and fast friendships.
I myself am heading to Camp Guggenheim later today
to spend the week there as chaplain.

But where did this idea come from?  How did it start?
The radio show began with a brief discussion
of the history of summer camping here in the U.S..
It seems it goes back to the late 19th century.
Even long before there were telephones, televisions, or the Internet,
people had great anxieties about the modern age
and where the world was going.
As cities grew rapidly,
there was also a growing sense
that urban life was not as healthy as life in the country—
and that men, therefore, were getting soft.
And so boys were taken camping,
to get away from their mothers and modern entertainments.
If they were going to develop into good leaders,
they would need some toughening up.
Eventually, summer camp was extended to girls, too,
and not reserved for children of the upper classes.
Many of the rituals still found at summer camp today
go all the way back to those early days.

That radio show got me thinking—
not only of my coming week at Guggenheim,
but about the gospel passage we hear this Sunday.
Maybe Jesus is doing for his Apostles
what summer camp was first intended to do:
maybe he’s trying to toughen them up.

And, in this modern age,
a bit anxious about where the world is going,
maybe that’s just what we need, too.

They’re odd instructions Jesus gives the Twelve, are they not?
To head out on a critical mission,
but take none of the usual gear required for the journey?
It can sound like he’s setting them up to fail…
…but Jesus is actually giving them the recipe for success.

I think Jesus sends out his Apostles—and likewise, sends us out—
essentially empty-handed for two very good reasons.

The first is so that we won’t have any crutches to lean on.
The tools we use to spread the Gospel
may have gotten more high-tech these days,
but the effect is still the same:
we can get so distracted by the instruments
that we forget our real purpose in using them
and depend too heavily on them to prop us up.
I’ve seen many articles and books
on how to use the Internet most effectively as a Christian…
…but I have yet to meet anyone who’s actually been converted
by a posting on Facebook.
We can easily hide behind our technology.
We can even more easily take our faith for granted.
Staying in shape—spiritually, just as it does physically—
requires regular exercise.
Take the health of your soul for granted
and, soon enough, it starts to get soft.
Jesus demands that we rely, not on gimmicks or gadgets,
but on him alone.
Purposefully going without,
withdrawing from our usual occupations,
can toughen us up and do us some good.
We must trust that God will provide everything we need.
Besides, what will really grab people’s attention
is not a person’s fancy provisions,
but when somebody practices what they preach,
when they love not only in word but in fact,
when they’re willing to put themselves on the line for what they believe.

A second reason Jesus sends us empty-handed
to announce his Gospel of repentance and salvation
is to strip away our excuses.
Jesus can dispatch the Twelve without the obvious equipment
because he’s already equipped them with everything they need.
And so, too, has Jesus done for you and me.
When people—decent-living, church-going people—
are challenged to step up and step out for their faith in Jesus,
a million excuses begin to pile up:
“Well, I don’t have a degree in theology.”
“You know, I’m not a very good public speaker.”
“Hey, everybody knows my past.  I’ll just look like a big hypocrite!”
In claiming such things, we actually deny our faith,
showing that we do not believe—as repeated by St. Paul—
that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing,”
chosen us for his purpose, given us a place in his plan,
destined us to exist “for the praise of his glory.”
An old saying puts it well:
“God does not call the qualified; he qualifies those he has called.”

Like the Twelve, we have been given a mission,
but not a guarantee of accomplishment.
God’s word is always effective—
but it’s not always the effect we’d hoped for.
Rejection is to be expected and, when it comes,
we are to shake it off as so much dust from our feet.
Yet what we have been promised is a share in the final victory:
the ultimate triumph of good over evil, of life over death.

Are you ready to set aside your crutches, your props?
Ready to drop your excuses?
Let’s empty our bags, and head with the Apostles to summer camp.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Amazing Grace

   Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

A funeral director called in a bagpiper
to play at the graveside service for a homeless man.
Without family or friends,
the deceased was to be buried
in a pauper’s field in the backcountry.
The bagpiper wasn’t familiar with the area,
but refused to stop for directions,
and so finally arrived a whole hour late.
There was no hearse, no clergy, no funeral director,
just the men with shovels,
apparently taking a break from their solemn duty.
Feeling bad enough already,
the bagpiper went immediately over to the hole, looked in,
and saw the vault lid already in place.
No knowing what else to do, he started to play—
and played like never before,
pouring out his heart and soul for this homeless man.
As the notes of “Amazing Grace”
floated out over the field and into the woods,
the workers gathered around, and tears began to form
in more than few of these strong men’s eyes.
When the song was over,
the bagpiper—himself moved, and so not saying a word—
packed up his pipes and headed for his car.
But as he opened the car door,
he heard one of the workmen saying,
“In all my 20 years of puttin’ in septic tanks,
I ain’t seen nothin’ like it before…”

We sing, “Amazing Grace.”
We repeat the words of the angel
and address the Virgin Mary as “full of grace.”
This Sunday, we hear the Lord say to Saint Paul,
“My grace is enough for you.”
It comes up all the time…
but what is grace?

The roots of our English word “grace”
denote goodwill, taking joy or delight in something or somebody,
bestowing a generous, undeserved kindness.
From the beginning, Christians have defined grace
as God’s free gift—given not because of our merits,
but because of God’s favor toward us.
Grace is not a “thing”—it’s more a “who” than a “what.”
Grace is God’s presence, friendship with God,
a share in God’s own life within us.
Grace is God’s gift of himself,
drawing us into the inner life of the Trinity,
that we might be capable of living a new life—now and forever.
Grace makes us children of God.
Grace is God’s help, God’s goodness—
a spiritual shot in the arm.
Grace strengthens us to know, will, and do everything
that leads to goodness and to God and to heaven.
Grace is especially extended to us in the sacraments,
and manifest in particular gifts and powers granted by God,
but is available to us always and everywhere.
As St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a Doctor of the Church,
dramatically said shortly before dying: “Everything is grace!”

Now, I know that grace can sound mighty theoretical,
but it’s actually the most practical thing under the sun.
What do you need when facing the tough stuff of life—
whether everyday struggles or extraordinary trials?
What do you need when trying to do the right thing,
despite your temptations and tendencies to do otherwise?
What do you need when it’s hard to believe,
hard to trust God completely?
The world would tell us that what we need is guts.
But if guts were enough,
that would mean we were able to save or sustain ourselves.
Experience tells us again and again: guts aren’t enough.
No, what we need is God’s grace.

Grace is required to be truly Christian,
to be authentically Catholic—disciples not just in name, but in fact—
in a world that’s increasingly hostile to the Gospel message,
even here in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
How could we expect it to be otherwise when even Jesus
has a rather rough time with the hometown crowd?
This Sunday, we’re told that the sabbath assembly—
filled with his old friends and neighbors—
is “astonished,” “amazed,” at this teaching;
like the man with the shovel, they say, 
"We ain't seen nothin' like it before..."
Of course, there are several ways to be amazed.
They could be overwhelmed with joy:
“I didn’t realize God cared so much!”
They could find it all too good to be true:
“God could never love me like that.”
Or they could be—and they were—scandalized:
“Just who does he think he is?
There’s no way I’m putting my faith in anyone
who’d tell me to do this, to stop doing that!”

There are many who still find it astonishing that the Church teaches
not what’s currently popular or “politically correct,”
but with the sacred authority entrusted to her by Christ.
Through his Church,
Christ himself is still prophetically speaking 
the truth about life and death, about heaven and hell,
the truth about Communion and confession,
about care for the poor and the environment, 
about sex, marriage, and family.
Yes, Christ is still speaking…
and not a few people are still taking offence at him.
People are still astonished
because Christ’s teaching is still amazing—in every way!
Prophets today, just as prophets of old,
are called by God to declare,
not, "Here's what I think," 
but, “Thus says the Lord!”
knowing that some will heed, 
but many will resist and rebel.

When your Catholic faith requires you 
to stand up and speak up,
to break from the crowd and go against the grain,
guts are required—for sure.
But they are not sufficient; only grace is enough.
How truly amazing!