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.

4 comments: said...

The first homily was certainly a wonderful explanation of the reason for Church rules and how and why they are necessary! Enjoyed it very much! Uncle Al

Fr. Joe said...

Thanks, "Uncle" Al! Glad you found it helpful, and so nice to meet you. --Fr. Joe

margie said...

Fr. Joe, I've read this out loud to both Bill and Beth now. It's led to some great conversations! Thank you for doing this - it's so needed by our generation right now. We're looking forward to the rest of the series. God Bless! ~Margie Todd

Fr. Joe said...

You're very welcome. God bless you, too! --Fr. Joe