Sunday, July 22, 2018

A Brave Shepherd

   Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

What were you doing 50 years ago?  In 1968, the Vietnam War was raging—as was opposition to it.  The Beetles released their “white album,” and Led Zeppelin made its U.S. debut.  Other debuts included 60 Minutes, the Special Olympics, and Boeing’s 747 jumbo jet.  Yale admitted its first female students. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, as was Robert F. Kennedy.  Richard Nixon won the White House.  Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon.  The Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl, and the Detroit Tigers won the World Series.

And in the middle of it all, on July 25, 1968—50 years ago this week—Pope Paul VI released his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), outlining the Church’s position on artificial birth control.  It would prove to be one of the most controversial documents in the modern history of the Catholic Church.  And that’s strange, really, since it only reaffirmed what the Church had always taught: that there is an intimate, intrinsic bond between sex and marriage because they share the very same purposes: the lifelong, faithful union of husband and wife, and the procreation and education of children.  By God’s design, these purposes are not to be separated.  This teaching was unanimous among all Christians—despite their many other divisions—until the early 20thcentury.

With the western world in the throes of the sexual revolution, many folks were expecting some change to be announced by Paul VI.  But since this teaching was firmly grounded in the Church’s constant doctrine from earliest times, the words of Scripture, and in the very way God put human beings together, the Pope didn’t so much say that he wouldn’t be changing anything, but that he couldn’t.  

As the Pope confirmed the Church’s longstanding tradition, countless souls abandoned it.  Today, contraception has become the norm—as common among Catholic couples as in the general population, and all-too-often with the quiet encouragement of priests and even some bishops: “We all know what the Church says, but it’s really between you and God.  Do whatever seems right for you.”  (Those words sound eerily similar to ones spoken by a wily serpent to a couple of newlyweds a long, long time ago.)

Pope Paul VI made some predictions in his 1968 letter—predictions of what would happen if the Church’s teaching went unheeded.  He predicted an increase in marital infidelity.  He predicted a general lowering of moral standards.  He predicted a loss of respect for women. And he predicted government interference in citizens’ reproductive lives.

Every one of his predictions has come true.

Consider these very telling facts…  Over the last 50 years the divorce rate has more than doubled; it has actually started to decrease recent, but that’s likely because so few people are now getting married in the first place.  The U.S. birthrate has dropped to an all-time low; our population has grown, but only due to immigration, since we haven’t been at a replacement birthrate since 1971. Pornography has become an $100 billion industry, annually producing 20 times more movies than Hollywood; what once—quite literally—lurked about in the shadows is now today influencing everything from childhood development to presidential politics.  

In an age that’s so in love with things being “all natural” and “organic,” we seem to make an exception for human reproduction, using whatever artificial means we can devise to either force God’s hand in having a baby or in avoiding one—even if that means eliminating one.  This is the only field of medicine I can think of that aims to get a perfectly healthy part of the human body to stop functioning as it should. It’s so ironic that we call them “reproductive rights” when what we actually mean are the many ways we can avoid reproducing.  We only want kids on our own terms.  We used to see kids as such a priceless blessing; now we feel the need to calculate what they would cost us.

Of course, there’s also the significant, direct impact on the Catholic Church.  In our own parish back in 1968, we had 126 weddings and 230 baptisms.  This past year—50 years later—we had only 5 weddings and just 14 baptisms. It used to be that you’d see a big family and say (with a smile and a bit of pride), “They must be Catholic!” When was the last time you saw a big family—whether here in church, or anywhere?  Nowadays, folks mock or look down upon parents who have many children: “Don’t they know we’ve figured out what causes that?”

Pope Paul VI taught that sex and marriage go together, because loving union and procreation go together.  But over these past 50 years, we’ve watched them grow farther and farther apart, such that sex has become increasingly casual (even recreational) and deliberately sterile. It’s no wonder that every Pope since then has echoed the same concerns.  Does Humanae Vitae call Catholics to act irresponsibly, and simply have as many kids as they can—even more than they can handle?  Of course not.  But it does call us to accept and remain open to one of the noblest responsibilities entrusted to us by God: to cooperate with him in the creation of human life.

History has shown that any human society—including the Church—that hopes to survive (leave alone to thrive), does so not because they have lots of wealth, nor because they have military might, nor because they have a highly refined culture, but simply because they have children.

So if the Pope was spot on with all of his grim predictions 50 years ago, might he also have been right about how they could be avoided and corrected?

Our readings this Sunday talk a lot about shepherds—both good and bad.  Jeremiah warns against shepherds who mislead and scatter the Lord’s flock.  Jesus himself sees the vast, restless crowd gathering around him and, we’re told, “his heart was moved with pity for them”; the original Greek is a good bit stronger: he was stirred in his bowels—felt punched in the gut—to see them so lost, gone so far astray, “like sheep without as shepherd.”

Sheep require vigilant shepherds.  They are essentially without defense and cannot manage well on their own.  Even when they’re being guided to green pastures and restful waters, they are prone to wandering off and putting themselves in danger.

So it is with sheep. So it is with us—God’s sons and daughters.

Pope Francis has said of his predecessor 50 years later—a man whom he will canonize this October, “He looked to the peoples of the world and foresaw the destruction of the family because of the lack of children.  Paul VI was courageous.  He was a good pastor, a good shepherd.  He warned his sheep about the wolves that were approaching.”

It really all comes down to trust—to our need for an increase of faith.  When God creates the first man and woman, the Lord blesses them and gives them this first commandment: “Be fertile—be fruitful—and multiply…” (Gen 1:28).  Can we wholeheartedly believe that if we obey this command God will in fact provide all that we need?  Do we trust God enough to let him truly shepherd us, believing that when we do, we shall not want?  Can we let go of the fear that the Lord won’t come through for us, which sends us off trying to go it on our own?  Do we have faith that God is still teaching, still guiding, still protecting his Church through the shepherds he has appointed for us?

If we—sheep and shepherds alike—can grow in this trust, can live with this kind of real faith, then where might we be in another 50 years?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Pick me! Pick me!

   Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Remember picking teams in gym class or at recess?  I was often one of the last kids to be chosen.  I wasn’t exactly a nerd…but nobody was going to mistake me for a jock.  The team captains didn’t have much confidence in my athletic abilities…and neither did I, as a matter of fact.

It stings a bit when we get passed over—and not just when we’re little kids.  You finally get the courage to ask that beautiful gal/that handsome guy to go out on a date, and he or she says, “No thanks.” You apply for your dream job, and you don’t get hired.  But as much as rejection stings, we know what joy it brings to the heart when we’re noticed, when we’re acknowledged, when we’re chosen, when we’re made to feel that we belong.  And our desire for recognition, our need to belong, can sometimes cause us to veer in the wrong direction in order to get some attention.

We human creatures—even the most introverted among us—are inherently social creatures.  This is not only a matter of our emotional health, but also of our physical health (especially when we’re near life’s beginning or its end) and of our spiritual wellbeing, too.

Did you notice what St. Paul said in those verses from early in his letter to the Ephesians?  He said it repeatedly and in a variety of ways: that God the Father has chosen us in Christ—even before he created the world; that he has destined us for adoption as his own; that he has redeemed us, forgiven us, blessed us with every blessing in heaven; that he longs to lavish us with the riches of his grace.

God has chosen you!  You belong to him!  God is your Father, just as much as he is Jesus’ Father.

But why would God do such a thing?  Experience in this world tells us that we often get picked because of what we can do, because of what another person needs from us, based on how useful we’ll be.  And feeling valued for what we are able to accomplish gives shape to a whole lot of people’s identity.  But what does God need from us?  What can we possibly do for him?  Nothing, of course.  Which means that the only explanation for why he has chosen us is—pure and simple—out of love.

In an age that celebrates personal freedom, that thinks we have the freedom to choose our own path, to define ourselves, to be or become any ol’ things we want to be, we need this reminder: that what matters most is not what we choose, but that we have been chosen; that my real identity rests not in my own freedom of choice, but in God’s perfect freedom in choosing me as his own.

Just let that amazing truth of our faith sink in…

We see it in the call of the prophet Amos.  He begins to proclaim God’s message in the royal sanctuary at Bethel, and the priests of the shrine—members of the “establishment”—start asking, “Just who do you think you are, coming here and claiming to speak on the Lord’s behalf?” Amos’ response provides such a lesson: “Look, I know I’m just a country bumpkin—a tender of sheep and a pruner of trees.  I don’t know why he did it—maybe it’s because I’m such an unlikely candidate—but all I know for certain is that God has chosen me to be his prophet.  If you have a problem with that, you’ll have to take it up with the Lord.”

God has a part for you to play—specifically for you—in the great drama of salvation.  No, you don’t get to write the script.  He’s chosen your part, and no one else can do it. It’s all within God’s mysterious purpose, God’s plan.  You have been set apart for his service.  Discovering and fulfilling that special role is the secret to happiness.

We also see it in the sending out of the Twelve.  Jesus sends his apostles out to preach, to heal, and to battle the evil one. These guys were not the “first string.”  We’re not talking about men from prominent families, well-respected rabbis, or otherwise recognized community leaders.  A full third of them are fishermen!  (And not very good ones, from some of the stories you hear.) Jesus sends this motley crew out on mission very nearly—literally—empty-handed. That should make it clear to all: any truth they speak, any wonders worked at their hands, will not come from these Twelve mere mortals, but from the heavenly Father of Jesus Christ who sent them.

God does not call those who are qualified; God qualifies those he has called.

God has chosen you—chosen you out of sheer love.  Find your true identity in having been picked to be on the Father’s team. And find your true calling, your vocation, in the position the Lord has designated for you—and you alone—to play.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Out of Hiding

It's been since the last days of September that I spent a night in the woods--a rather long time for me to go without camping/backpacking.  It seems to have rained (or at least threatened to) on my every day off for a while now.  But not last Wednesday-Thursday!  It's wasn't extensive or overly adventurous, but I spent that night in the lean-to at Hidden Cove on Long Lake (a lovely spot I've visited before).  I wasn't too into taking pictures, but it sure was great to be out in the Adirondacks again...

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Reach Out & Touch Someone

   Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

The passage just proclaimed to us is the first Bible story I specifically remember hearing in church as a child.  It’s been more than 30 years now, so I don’t remember everything the priest had to say about it in his preaching.  But I do remember being struck not so much by the healing, nor by the raising from the dead, but by the story within a story.

This is more than just a good storytelling technique employed by St. Mark.  It points to the way that two people—previously strangers, I would guess—find their lives eternally intertwined after encountering Jesus.
"If I but touch his clothes..."
There are already a few connections between those who experience miracles in this gospel account.  For starters, they’re both women—which meant they weren’t exactly at the top of the pecking order in their society.  (It’s noteworthy that we’re told that Jairus is the name of the synagogue official, but both his daughter and the woman in the crowd remain unnamed.) The older woman has been sick for twelve years, which is also the exact age of the young girl; one’s been sick as long as the other has been alive.  And both of these women have been cut off, have become untouchable.  The hemorrhaging woman’s flow of blood resulted in more than the loss of her savings to unscrupulous doctors; it made her ritually unclean, and so cut off from community and worship in the temple.  Death has cut the girl off from life itself and from her family; it also means that anyone who touches her corpse becomes unclean.

But these two are now bound together even more intensely and intimately.  Both have been raised up, have been restored by coming into contact with Jesus.  Both are healed by his touch.  And as long as the story is told, it will be told of the two of them together.

Having such deep connections, being so closely intertwined, is not unique to these two biblical women.  We were made to be together (although I certainly understand if you don’t want to sit too close together in this heat).  After God creates the first human being, he fairly quickly observes, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  And what’s true of humanity in general is even more so the case for us Christians: God made us for communion with each other so that he could draw us into communion with himself.

But this coming together, this sticking together—we’re not doing such a good job of it lately.

Not long ago I read an article that addressed the prevalence of “diseases of despair” here in the U.S. today.  It spoke about the widespread sense of hopelessness in society, of the large number of people with an unfulfilled desire to belong.  We see it in the increasing diagnoses of depression and anxiety disorders.  The suicide rate has jumped 20% in just ten years.  Substance abuse—and deaths from it—are on the rise as people look for ways to numb the pain they’re feeling.  And mass shootings—which can only happen if you think that life has no real meaning or purpose—have become all-too-common these days.

We may be communicating information back-and-forth more and faster than ever before by means of invisible signals and those powerful little computers in your pockets…but we’re spending less and less time actually being together.  A recent study revealed that the average American family now spends less than 8 hours together out of the entire week.  One observer has called the way we over schedule our lives—especially the lives of our kids—“systemic abandonment.”  Modern life is practically programmed to keep us apart.
Jesus took the child by the hand...
While statistics and studies can be interesting, they also allow us to think that a problem is “out there,” “somewhere else.”  But I have to tell you: I now get a steady stream of people who want to talk to a priest because they feel utterly hopeless.  It’s for all kinds of reasons: divorce, a break up, a falling out with family, sickness, the loss of a job or housing, legal problems—you name it.  The problems aren’t new at all…but the deep sense of despair that results from them is.  I’ve noticed a common denominator.  I always ask these people, “Do you have a trustworthy friend or two that you can talk to—so you don’t have to face all of this alone?”  The answer I keep getting is, “I have no real friends.” I’ve come to realize that they’re not being melodramatic, since I hear the same thing again and again.  Their feelings of hopelessness come from feeling so very alone.  Remember that these folks aren’t seeking me out from across the country; they live right next door.

Our lives are meant to be intertwined…but instead we’re coming apart at the seams.

Our first reading this Sunday, from the Book of Wisdom, begins with a bold assertion: “God did not make death.”  Death, of course, is the ultimate disintegration.  Your body comes apart from your soul.  And I don’t at all mean to be disrespectful or distasteful, but it’s rather amazing how quickly (in moments, really) the human body begins to break down after we die.  Not to mention that our ties with the people we love are also broken.  Death is a coming apart in the most profound way.  But that was not God’s original plan for us.  Death came hot on the heels of sin—sin being the disintegration of our relationship with God.  And because God means to stick to his original plan, because God made us to be imperishable—to hold together within ourselves, among one another, and with him—God himself came to our rescue in Jesus.

The Lord rescued us the same way you rescue a drowning child: he jumped all the way in. (Jumping in…that’s kind of a refreshing thought in this heat, isn’t it?!) The Son of God fully immersed himself in our humanity.  He so perfectly enmeshed himself, so completely intertwined himself with us, that he willingly took upon himself our rejection, betrayal, isolation, abandonment—even wondering if he’d been forsaken by God his Father.  Neither did he shy away from that most bitter unraveling which is death itself.  But Jesus underwent death so that he could destroy it from the inside.  Jesus jumped all the way in so that he could rescue us from hopeless and despair, so he could restore us to right relationship with God and with ourselves and with each other.  In other words: Jesus dove in to bring us back to life again.

Jesus Christ still wants to come to our rescue.  But he’s looking of our help to do it.

Pope St. John Paul II once said, “Many people today are disoriented and lost in search of genuine fellowship. Often their lives are either too superficial or shattered by brokenness. Their work often is dehumanizing. They long for an experience of genuine encounter with others, for true fellowship. Well, is this not precisely the vocation of a parish? Are we not called to be a warm, brotherly family together? Are we not people united together in the household of God through our common life? Your parish is not mainly a structure, a geographical area or a building. The parish is first and foremost a community of the faithful. This is the task of a parish today: to be a community, to rediscover its identity as a community. You are not a Christian all by yourself. To be a Christian means to believe and to live one’s faith together with others.”

Those are such important words to hear on this fourth anniversary of the founding of St. André’s Parish.  And they’re so important to hear at this time of challenge and change in our parish.  It really is all about coming together.

To touch Jesus, to be touched by Jesus—as the hemorrhaging woman and the young daughter of Jairus attest—means allowing oneself to become completely intertwined with Jesus and with all those others he has come to save.  So let Jesus touch you, let him heal all that is broken inside you.  But also reach out to those who are hurting, those who feel hopeless.  They’re all around!  Make contact, make connections, with the folks in next pew, your classmates or coworkers, the stranger you meet on the sidewalk, the person sitting across your kitchen table.  Bring them—bring their wounds, bring the places in their hearts that have died—to Jesus.  Let Jesus touch and be touched by them through this parish.  Let Jesus touch and be touched by them through you.