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!

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