Saturday, February 11, 2017

Broken Windows


6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle A

Sir 15:15-20

1 Cor 2:6-10

Mt 5:17-37

 

I guess I must have been about 13 years old. I can’t remember exactly what I had done wrong, but my dad had caught me red-handed and I was sitting on my bed waiting for him to come in for “the talk”. You see, whenever I did something wrong, first my dad would send me to my room for a while to “think about it”. Then, after he figured I’d been softened up enough, he’d come in and we’d talk about it. Usually he talked and I listened. Those were some of the most profound learning experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

Anyway, on this occasion I must have done something particularly heinous, because he proceeded to explain to me that what I had done had actually broken each and every one of the ten commandments. Each and every one. And he walked me through all ten in order and explained how I had broken it.

At first I was incredulous. I thought he was exaggerating. Surely I hadn’t killed anyone or anything like that. I don’t think I even knew what “covet” meant at the time, but I’d broken those two also. But, like Jesus in today’s gospel, he showed me how there were the seeds of my transgression that day in each of those ancient commandments. Dad was trying to tell me that I need to see further than do’s and don’ts.

He wasn’t trying to make me feel bad…well, maybe a little. He wanted me to be able to make decisions based upon more than just a set of rules. He wanted me to expand my awareness of right and wrong. And obviously, since I still remember it, that event has helped direct my conscience throughout my life.

Why was Jesus addressing this with his disciples that day? He had just finished preaching the Beatitudes to them. He had just told them that there was a new, proactive way of following the law. The ten commandments were mostly prohibitions. Necessary for any society to order itself, but full of “thall shalt nots”. The Beatitudes were a new way of looking at the world and the relationships among people. They were more about attitudes than actions. Was Jesus issuing a caveat here? Was he reminding them that this new way of acting and thinking was just a natural extension of those ancient prohibitions? Was he also trying to expand their awareness of right and wrong?

Or when Jesus said things like the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath, did some of his disciples think he was throwing out the old for the new, and so they weren’t bound by the law anymore? Were they trying to find loopholes in the law, those exceptions that gave them a free pass in this or that situation? They had done it with the law on divorce. They did it with how they treated foreigners and strangers. They were always looking for exceptions, for reasons the law didn’t apply to them. I think we all look for loopholes when we don’t want to keep the law because it is difficult or inconvenient to do so. We do it with the laws of society and the laws of God.

I don’t think Jesus was using hyperbole here. Jesus was talking about the sin of complacency. He was warning about getting bogged down in the letter of the law and ignoring the spirit of the law.

I’ve never killed anybody, so I’m off the hook with that one. But how many times have I murdered someone’s reputation through my gossiping?

I honor my father and mother, so that one doesn’t apply to me, either. Most of us honor our parents. But we can also honor the stranger amongst us.

Most of us are honest most of the time. But we can all work to be more transparent with those we love. How often does our yes mean yes and our no mean no?

Jesus wants us to see beyond the do’s and don’ts, to look beyond the law to the person who fulfilled it. But to Jesus it’s not just the spirit of the law that is important, but the letter as well. “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”

You’ve probably heard of the “broken window” theory of law enforcement. I believe it started in New York City in the ‘80’s. The thought was that if police tried to stop the simple petty crimes such as graffiti and vandalism, more serious crime would also be reduced. Clean up Times Square and other crimes would diminish. They even got rid of those guys who came up and tried to wash your windows while you were stopped at a light. Instead of spending all our resources on the big stuff… sort of a top down strategy…spend time also on the little stuff, because usually those people who committed the big crimes started out by committing little crimes. And it worked. Major crime was reduced drastically, and New York City is considered one of the safest major cities in the world today.

The letter springs out of the spirit. The letter is how we act out the spirit. It must be both. If it is just the spirit of the law then we will always rationalize a way around it. If it is just the letter then we will become rigid and unmerciful.

Originally the Jewish people saw the law as a very positive thing. It was written by the very hand of their God and given to them as a sign of the special covenant God had made with them. If they kept God’s law God would protect them and make them prosper. If they broke the law usually bad things happened to them. But over time the law itself became the most important thing and not the covenant it represented. It is sometimes easier to focus on the action and not on the meaning behind it. It can become blind obedience, not life changing behavior.

Christianity is not a completely new faith that sprung up on Pentecost two thousand years ago. Practically all of the teachings of Jesus can be traced to their roots in the Judaism he practiced. And if we truly believe that Jesus is the Word Made Flesh that has been with the Father since the beginning, then Christianity has been around since then also. St. Paul says today, “We speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory”.

If something is true it’s true. God does not change, only our understanding of God changes. Only the way we follow God changes. God set up the law so that we could live as we were created to live. The law is to guide us to God. It isn’t supposed to be about punishment, it is supposed to lead to our salvation. “If you choose to keep the commandments, they will save you.” The law is not intended to imprison us but to set us free.

We do not follow the law because if we don’t bad things will happen to us. We follow the law because it leads to so much more.

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.

 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Pledge Allegiance


3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle A

Is 8:23-9:3-1

Ps 27:1,4,13-14

1 Cor 1:10-13, 17

Mt 4: 12-23

 

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that all of you agree in what you say,
and that there be no divisions among you,
but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.

I guess the saying, “the more things change the more they stay the same” applies to today’s readings. From the very beginning of the Church there have been divisions. We hear today that the Corinthians were already taking sides, this one following Apollos, this other one Cephas, and yet another Paul. And it’s a natural thing to do. We do it ourselves. We prefer this priest or that, this pope or that, this politician or that. And I think that we follow them because they agree with us. Their worldview parallels ours, and that makes us feel justified and important.

Human beings have always joined themselves in factions, usually based upon what we feel best serves our interests. We naturally are attracted to people and movements that coincide with and reinforce our own beliefs. Ironically, in this way when we group ourselves with others we do it for completely selfish reasons. It really isn’t about the group, it is about us.

And I think the most destructive thing about this tribalism is that typically it moves beyond just identifying with a specific group to vilifying and demonizing people outside the group, who do not agree with our worldview. Factionalism often leads to arrogance and discrimination and closemindedness. It can ultimately lead to violence astonishingly quickly.

So, St. Paul is understandably frustrated. Didn’t they get it? It wasn’t about a human being’s thoughts or teachings or eloquence. It was about Jesus. It is about God. The one person who can truthfully claim that it is all about him is Jesus. Paul himself said that Jesus must increase and he must decrease. The deeper your understanding of your discipleship, the more you become like Jesus and the more he becomes the center of your life.

It’s like a cup of water. It can only hold so much. If you fill it with something else the water must be displaced. The more we let Jesus fill our souls the less space we ourselves will take up.

I think that’s what the apostles experienced when Jesus called them by the seashore. Their lives were filled with the cares and simple joys of their everyday lives. Like us, they were focused on themselves, even though they were devoutly religious people. Their belief in God was very important to them, but it wasn’t everything. They needed to make more room in their lives for God.

Jesus had one consistent message throughout his earthly ministry – “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Sometimes he referred to the Kingdom of Heaven, like today. Either way, the message is the same, for them and for us. I think we all too often think of God as being somewhere else. God is in heaven, a place we have some foggy idea of. Every now and then we are aware of God’s presence in our world; when we reach out to him in our distress, when we thank him for something wonderful that has been given to us, when we see the beauty around us in nature and in one another. For most of us, we move through awareness and unawareness of God.

Jesus is telling us something different today. He is saying that God is not somewhere else, he is here. And he is immanent, here at this very time in our lives and active in history. There are some people who view God almost like a celestial watchmaker. He has fashioned an unimaginably complex universe, set it in motion, and then lets it run by itself with no continuing interference from him.

But the reality of the incarnation – God become man – refutes that belief. Our king is so involved in our lives, in every area and fiber of our lives that he chose to become one of us. He is intimately a part of who we are and who we are destined to be. We are fully human when we rally around our king. We are fulfilling our destiny when we subjugate our will to His.

Jesus urges his disciples to be united around their king. But it’s so much more than just being subjects of the king. No matter how benevolent an earthly king is, there is still always a degree of separation between him and his subjects. Jesus said that our unity with our king is so much deeper, the lines of separation destroyed. He prayed, “that all of them may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I am in You. May they also be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.”

We are unified around our king. He is and should be the center of everything in our lives. It is difficult I think for us to submit to our king. As I said before, we gravitate towards those who agree with us. With God it’s different. We should not rally around our king because he agrees with us but because we agree with him. We are subjects, not the king ourselves. It is easy to forget that sometimes, especially with all the busyness in our lives.

Remember that the beginning of Jesus’ call to us is the word “Repent”. We are to first and foremost get our relationship right with our God. We need to realize that we all have the need to repent, to change, to turn from our sinfulness and re-orient ourselves to God each and every day.

Jesus repeated his message constantly, because we need to hear it constantly. It is so easy to fall back into our factions, to become broken, to split ourselves off into our little tribes who all agree but may not necessarily conform to the will of God. There can only be one king. Anyone else is an usurper and a pretender, even if it is ourselves. We must repent of anything that keeps us from complete unity with our king and our God.

Leave behind your tribe. Leave behind your faction. Leave behind anything and everything that causes division and strife in your church and in your life, and switch your allegiance to the King.

That is the one path to being truly happy in this life and in the kingdom to come.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

That Christmas Spirit


Christmas Eve 2016

His dominion is vast, and forever peaceful.

The world is getting smaller, isn’t it? Technology, the ease of travel, and the global economy have brought far flung cultures closer together. And yet, ironically, the world, our country, seems to be ever more divided the closer we get.

In the midst of all our squabbling and fighting and hatred and murder and injustice, there are moments that arise in which we put it all aside and reach out to those we hurt and hate and realize the peace of Jesus. And it is no accident that this sort of thing usually happens around the feasts of Jesus.

What connects us truly is not technology, it is our humanity. That’s also what connects us to God. God has chosen to become one of us so that we can become one with Him. In St. John’s gospel Jesus says, “As you, Father, are in me, and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”

The message of Christ has always been one of unity, not division. There’s something about Christmas that fills a deep basic need in all people all over the world. Christmas is not just for Christians. Its message is truly universal, truly catholic, if you will. Christmas is celebrated all over the world by people of all faiths, or no faith. The meaning of Christmas is instilled in each of our hearts and souls at the moment of our conception. We believe that God became truly human so that we could become fully human.

The message of Christianity has always been one of peace. If you delve into the true history of the Church and actually understand our doctrines and our teachings, it is always a spirit of peace that emerges. As human beings, we haven’t always lived that spirit, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there and isn’t true and valuable.

And perhaps that is why we are usually at odds with the world, because the world is not about peace. The message of Jesus has always been met with violence. The small innocent child that was born in Bethlehem became the greatest threat ever to the status quo. So much so that he was eventually tortured and killed. But his message endures just as he endures. It is telling that the first thing he assures his disciples of after his resurrection is that nothing has changed. He is still all about peace. Yes, he has suffered. Yes, they killed him. But he still brings peace. And he wishes to bestow that peace upon all mankind.

Life here on earth is not peaceful. Like Jesus, we suffer, we are attacked, we are misunderstood and maligned, and we die. But God is still all about peace. We wander far from our intended path but God is always calling us back. We have holidays, holy days, that remind us of that call from time to time, and for a time we experience a taste of His peace, until we go back to our old ways.

Just because we know we’ll fall back doesn’t mean we should stop our celebrations. It’s good that we have these few short periods of peace amidst the chaos of our lives. We need these touch points to keep us on track. Could you imagine the world without the promise of Christmas? Even the watered down, commercialized Christmas message of the secular world is based upon peace on earth, good will towards all. Christmas fills a basic human need. You can take the God label off it, but it is still God behind it. Because that need is for our salvation.

“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” The two things go together. If you give glory to God you will have peace. If you have peace you will be giving glory to God.

Tonight we do both.

Everyone, not just Christians, want the “Christmas Spirit”. Everyone wants a kinder, gentler, more compassionate world, and we want it more than once a year. We all know that things work better, relationships are closer, and life is more peaceful when we recognize and embrace the Spirit. We want the fruit of the Spirit but we won’t name the Spirit. We get almost there but can’t seem to make it all the way for fear of offending someone. It’s like we want to say it but can’t find the words. We acknowledge the gifts but not the giver.

The true “Christmas Spirit” is the Holy Spirit. The world will try to remove Christ from Christmas but it’s impossible to do so. All the wonderful fruit of the “Christmas Spirit” is actually the fruit of the Holy Spirit St. Paul talks about in his letter to the Galatians. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” The fruit of the Holy Spirit is the result of the Holy Spirit's presence in the life of a person.

Once we recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence in Christmas it will be easier to live the “Christmas Spirit” every day of the year. We must begin to see things differently, almost in reverse.

And I think that the real reason so many people come to worship at Christmas is that deep down, in spite of all the intense pressure to make Christmas all about Santa and turkey and buying and receiving just the right presents, we all know that that’s not what it’s all about. We all know the true meaning of Christmas. We all know that we all need a savior, and that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son to us to become one of us so that we could become like him.

 

We come because God wants us to come, and whether we recognize it or acknowledge it, that’s why we also want to come. The need for God is buried within us from our conception, and the important thing is not why we come, but that we come. We can work out the details later.

 

We know that no matter what we’ve done or what has happened to us this past year, for good or bad, it all comes down to that. I think that we all need to have this time to look at our lives, take stock in our actions and their meaning, and spend a little bit of time with our creator. Here we can escape what the world has done to Christmas and re-root ourselves in what is important. Unity with God, our families, and our fellow human beings. Take away all the decorations and music and presents and such, and that’s what is left.

 

My hope for you is that you can find that meaning in your lives, and that your time here at St. Mary’s will be one of peaceful contemplation of exactly what your God has done for you in giving you the Christmas gift of himself.

 

We often hear the saying, “Keep Christ in Christmas”. My prayer for you is that you keep Christ in yourself.