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Thursday, March 19, 2015

A homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, -- this is not from you; it is the gift of God.”
             Words taken from the second reading today, the Letter to the Ephesians

People sometimes ask me: “What is going to happen to the Church? So many people seem to leave the Church, especially young people, especially our young people. Children who went through years of Catholic schooling leave the Catholic Church for another church, or for no church.”

What are we doing wrong?

I have thought about that question for years. There is a theory that values come from actions. We do not do things because we value them. We value things because we do them. That’s perfectly good psychology. The reason people no longer value the Faith is that they have quit doing the things that strengthen faith. They have quit taking time for praying to God, for thinking about God, for reading about God. Going to church once a week is at least an action that reinforces the value of a relationship with God in our lives. When we quit taking time to do things that express our relationship to God, things like going to church or taking time to pray during the day—that relationship no longer has value for us.

I think that story of why people leave a religion makes sense. But it is a story that a good Pharisee would have told. A good Pharisee would say “you need to be circumcised and obey all the kosher laws about what you eat, and observe the sabbath by not doing any physical exertion on that day. If you don’t do those things, you will drift away from God.”

That way of looking at religion has it backward. It makes us the cause of our faith. If we can just get people to do the external actions that strengthen faith, their faith will return.

Paul was a good Pharisee. He was an up and coming star in the Pharisee world. And then Jesus met him. In fact, you could say that Jesus attacked him. Jesus knocked him to the ground and blinded him temporarily. Paul came away from that experience with the conviction that we do not love God because we do things to make that love happen. We love God because God comes at us first. In the words of the letter to the Ephesians that I quoted at the beginning of this homily, “For by grace you have been saved through faith—this is not from you; it is the gift of God.”

Gift. It is gift that is the key. We do not love God because we pray. We pray because God first loved us. Our faith is a gift.

We have said that for years—faith is a gift—but maybe we have not understood what we were saying. When we use the word “gift,” we imply that there is a giver. Someone has done something for us that we did not earn, we did not pay for. That makes us dependent. We are not in control of the relationship.

Compare this to a marriage. When two people are married, they have to do things that will keep the value of the marriage alive. They have to be courteous to each other, to do little actions that show the love. If they do not do anything physical to show love, the love will die.

But the physical actions are not the most important thing. The most important thing is that the love of the other partner is a gift. We do not earn people’s love. We do not pay for love. We receive love as a gift. That makes us dependent. We are not in control of the relationship. Without that sense of dependence, no amount of loving behavior will work.

We grow out of love because we lose the realization that the other person is a gift. We take the relationship for granted. We come to think that we deserve love. We pay for love by doing the things that love requires. If we pay for something, we expect that something to happen.

We make the mistake of the Pharisees. We forget that love is a gift, and every gift implies a giver. The person we are wanting to love does not have to love us. That person freely gives us love, freely does things to show us love.

Our relationship with God is the same way. When we forget that God is a giver, that God does not have to give us anything, then we forget that God loves us. And when we forget that, our faith is gone.

We live in a country where we are used to controlling things. If something bad happens to us, we blame somebody who didn’t do what should have been done. We sue somebody. We pay to make sure that nothing but good things happen to us, and that should take care of any situation.

We turn everything into a market transaction. We pay for what we get. If we do not pay, we do not get. If you do not have what you need, it is because you have not paid for it. You are lazy or have made stupid decisions.

We even turn gift-giving into a business. Christmas is a huge marketing season. We give gifts so that we stay in control of a relationship, and we receive gifts because other people owe us. We don’t count the exact dollars and cents in a gift, but we make sure that the balance is fairly even—we get back what we give.

The result is that we cannot love.

The reason that so many of us, especially our young people, leave our churches is because all of us, young and old, have forgotten what it means when we say that God loves us.

To say that God loves us is to say that we do not earn that love, we do not deserve that love. It works in reverse. God does not deserve our love. If we love God, that love is a free gift on our part. We do not earn God’s love by going to Mass every Sunday. We go to Mass every Sunday because we want to give freely of our time to God.

“Stewardship” seems to be a big word in church circles these days. “Time, talent, and treasure.” Those are things we can give to God. But we have to give those things. We do not use those things to pay for God’s love.

Paying versus gift. That was the big issue for Paul in his move away from the Pharisees. They wanted to earn God’s good will by doing all 613 precepts of the Law. Paul learned that observing precepts will not do the trick unless we realize that God first loves us, and we do the precepts because we want to love, freely, in return.

As Paul says, by grace you have been saved through faith—this is not from you; it is the gift of God.