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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Social Insecurity

The word “security” is one of the most important words in the U.S. vocabulary. We have Social Security, Homeland Security, financial security, military security. If you want to win an election, just paste one of these labels over your campaign.

This compulsion to have security makes us a radically un-Christian society. Not only that, it makes us a radically un-Jewish society. Both Judaism and Christianity rest on a foundation of radical insecurity.

Look at the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. Most people would say that the Ten Commandments are central to Judaism, and that the Sermon on the Mount is central to Christianity. Some Christians even appropriate the Ten Commandments and want to have them enshrined in courthouses.

The Ten Commandments

There is a sleeper commandment among the ten: Remember to keep holy the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was (and is) the custom of setting aside the seventh day as a day of rest. Chapter 16 of the book of Exodus describes how the Lord provided manna for the people in the desert. Remember that they were in that very insecure desert situation because God had called them out of Egypt. They were hungry. God provided a mysterious food called “manna,” which appeared on the ground in the morning. Moses says to the people:

 “Now, this is what the LORD has commanded: So gather it [the manna] that everyone has enough to eat, an omer for each person, as many of you as there are, each man providing for those of his own tent.” The Israelites did so. Some gathered a large and some a small amount. But when they measured it out by the omer, he who had gathered a large amount did not have too much, and he who had gathered a small amount did not have too little. They so gathered that everyone had enough to eat. Moses also told them, “Let no one keep any of it over until tomorrow morning.” But they would not listen to him. When some kept a part of it over until the following morning, it became wormy and  rotten.

. . .On the sixth day they gathered twice as much food, two omers for each person. When all the leaders of the community came and reported this to Moses, he told them, “This is what the Lord prescribed. Tomorrow is a day of complete rest, the sabbath, sacred to the Lord. You may either bake or boil the manna, as you please; but whatever is left over put away and keep for the morrow.” When they put it away for the morrow, as Moses commanded, it did not become rotten or wormy. Moses then said, “Eat it today, for today is the sabbath of the Lord. On this day you will not find any of it on the ground. On the other six days you can gather it, but on the seventh day, the sabbath, none of it will be there.” (Exodus 16: 16-26)
Gathering more than you need on a single day is driven by a desire for security. Similarly, working every day of the week is often based on a desire for security. If you don’t work every available minute, you might not have enough. We are a society that praises people who work every minute. We accuse the poor of being poor because they don’t work enough.

Actually, the whole biblical story is a story of trust in the face of insecurity. God tells Abraham, leave your father’s house and go out to a place that I will show you. That was a pretty open-ended command. Was Abraham sure that it was God who was calling? Was he sure that the “place that I will show you” was as good as the place he was leaving?

God tells Moses to lead the people out of Egypt. They ended up in the desert, and grumbled to Moses, “Why did you lead us out of a place where we at least had enough to eat and drink?” The desert was insecure, but only that insecurity led them to freedom.

Our society thinks that security is a prerequisite for freedom. We have got it backwards. Insecurity is a prerequisite for freedom. We imprison ourselves.

A hundred years ago most of our forebears lived on farms. Farming is an insecure business. The temptation must have been strong to work on Sunday. Many people nevertheless refused to work on Sunday. They accepted a lower degree of security because of God’s commandment about the Sabbath.

The Sermon on the Mount

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

. .Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat (or drink), or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the  body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?

Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?

So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.

Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil. (Matthew 6: 19-20, 25-34)

This is counter-cultural. This is a message that our society just has to ignore. Catholics ignore it by saying that only people in religious life need to live it (and even they have problems with it). Protestants ignore it by saying that it represents an ideal, and that no one is supposed to really live that way.

What if a bunch of us were to begin to live that way?

First of all, we could reduce our concentration on the future and begin to live in the present more. “Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” We could practice what the Buddhists call “mindfulness.” We could see an upper limit on what we have to accumulate, either in physical possessions or in financial assets. Right now we are slaves to a bar that keeps getting higher and higher.

If enough of us started to adopt that mentality, it would get harder for politicians to vote huge appropriations for military hardware, and our taxes could go down. Executives would learn that they can live on less than 650 times more than the ordinary workers in their company, and there would be more for their employees.

We would not need to spend more and more just to insure ourselves against the possibility of lawsuits. We would start to see no one owes us a life free from injury and loss. Life is a gift, health is a gift, education is a gift. We need to banish the word “entitlement” from our vocabulary. Nobody is entitled to anything. When we see something as an entitlement, we take it for granted, and taking things for granted leads to boredom and anger. Boredom and anger are two of the most common emotions in our world.

God wants us to live in a world bathed in love. Love is vulnerable, faithful involvement. Vulnerability means that you don’t control things. You are insecure. If we were to become really involved with the people around us, we would not need to be thinking all the time about the future. The people around us would become our security. When disaster strikes, and old securities disappear, we turn to the people who are physically near us and discover how valuable they are. 

Why does it take a disaster to make us realize that every person around us carries gifts that God would like us to have?

The Counter-cultural

Some Catholic leaders argue that the Church needs to be countercultural. The problem is that they seem to mean that the Church needs to be Republican. We need to be more countercultural than that. We need to take the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount more seriously, and apply the lessons of those two documents to the real world around us.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Faith, hope, and love

     Faith does not mean that I assent to a proposition such as “God exists.” Somewhere in scripture it says “the demons know this and tremble.” Faith means that I know that God is good.

     To know that God is good is a gift. We don’t get that on our own. Others, and especially God, have to provide it for us. That is one reason that theologians call it a “theological” virtue. (There are three “theological” virtues: faith, hope, and love.)

     A virtue is a good habit, just as a vice is a bad habit. We acquire ordinary virtues, such as prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, by practicing the behaviors described by those words. When we have made those behaviors into a habit, we have those virtues. But we don’t acquire faith, hope, or love. These are “theological”--they are gifts of God.

     Theology also says that the theological virtues are the same as “sanctifying grace.” A grace is a gift, and sanctifying grace is a gift that makes one holy. Faith, hope, and love are gifts that make us holy.

     Theology even goes one step further and says that these gifts are the same as God’s gift of the Spirit. They are God’s Spirit indwelling in us. When God’s Spirit dwells in us, we know that God is good.

     When God’s Spirit dwells in me, I know that God is good for me. Now the goodness becomes personal. That is what hope is. Hope means that I know that God is good for me.

     Hope, too, is a gift. It is a sanctifying gift, one that makes me holy. When I have hope, I can live my life in a quite different way than I can when I don’t have it. But I don’t just get hope because I decide one day that I would like to have some. Someone has to give it to me.

     Love is vulnerable, faithful involvement. The habit of being involved with others vulnerably and faithfully is a gift. It too is sanctifying. It too means that in some way God’s Spirit is dwelling in me. We don’t just wake up one day and decide to love. In order for us to love, we first have to be loved. When someone else is involved with me vulnerably and faithfully, God is already in that involvement.

     Our culture is so oriented to economics and profit that we have gotten away from appreciating gifts. Christmas has turned into a business. The essence of a gift is that you can’t depend on it. When we let gifts become business, we start to think that people owe us the gifts. Gifts become entitlements.

     When we lose the ability to appreciate gifts, we can’t experience faith, hope, or love. That is our U.S. problem.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Communion of Saints

[homily from All Saints, 2009]

          The feast of All Saints was on a Sunday this year, and I was asked to preach at St. Francis Church here in Quincy.

          St. Francis is a church with life-size statues on each of the ten or so pillars that line the center of the church. The physical reality of being surrounded by those saints became the basis of my reflections on the communion of saints.

          A few years ago the parish had produced a small booklet describing the art work of the church, including the statues. I consulted the booklet to see if I could get any ideas from the stories of the saints who were represented by the statues. One story got my attention. The last statue on the south side of the church was a statue of St. Angela Merici, and the statue was put there in 1950 to honor a Sister Angela Merici for her 50 years of teaching in St. Francis School.

          It was fun to ask the congregation if they knew where the statue of St. Angela Merici was in the church. Then to ask them if they knew the story of how the statue got there. And the story of Sister Angela Merici (noting that some of the people in church probably had her in school). And to ask how many knew the story of St. Angela Merici, how she was the first person to gather women together into an order dedicated specifically to the education of girls. Did they know the story of the group that St. Angela founded, a group named the “Ursulines,” after St. Ursala? Did they know the story of St. Ursala, who was supposed to have been a woman martyred along with 11,000 virgins somewhere around 400 A.D.?

          As I thought of all the interweaving of these stories, the best metaphor I could think of to describe them was a bird’s nest. I seem to recall electricians describing some sloppy wiring jobs as a bird’s nest of wires. The communion of saints is like a bird’s nest of stories, all woven together. My story is woven into it, along with the stories of all the people who have been part of the story of Jesus down through the centuries.

          Thinking about bird’s nests got me to thinking about a robin’s nest that I took off a pillar at Holy Cross Friary where I live a couple of years ago. I was amazed at how solid the nest was. I could have used it like a Frisbee. I wondered how it held together so solidly. Where did the bird get the glue to hold twigs together so solidly? The only answer I could think of was that the bird somehow coughed up the glue that made the nest possible. The image was gross, but I couldn’t see any other alternative.

          The grossness of the image made me think of the gross things that surround our human stories, and of the forgiveness that redeems the gross things. I ended up with this description of the communion of saints:

          The communion of saints is a bird’s nest of our stories woven together by
          the glue of forgiveness.

          I have written elsewhere about how my soul can be thought of as my story, and about how God keeps all of our stories even when the rest of us forget them, and how God will one day tell our stories in the most loving way possible in that great event which we call the Last Judgment. After that God will rejoin our stories to physical matter in the “resurrection of the body” and set us on a course of sharing our stories with one another with all the time in the world (actually, all the time in eternity) to go into detail. And to share stories with the people we have hurt, an operation which is for me the most meaningful way to think about purgatory.