22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

We have an interesting set of readings today. In the first reading Moses tells the people “Hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your Fathers, is giving you.”

He goes on to tell them that if they observe the laws carefully, they will give evidence of their wisdom and intelligence to the other nations. This was a tall order. The halakhah, or Jewish law, contains 613 individual laws covering every aspect of life; what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and can’t eat, what you can and can’t wear, how to groom yourself, how to do business, who you can marry, how to observe the holidays and the Sabbath, and how to treat God, other people, and even animals.

The halakhah was a handbook for Jewish life and Jews were expected to observe it, as Moses tells them today. These laws are still in effect and many, but not all, Jews follow at least some of them. Whether a Jew eating a ham sandwich is destined for eternal damnation is a question that’s open to debate. But probably not, any more than you and I are going to hell for eating that same ham sandwich on a Friday during Lent.

As Christians, we believe in both Testaments, Old and New. Obviously we wouldn’t have an Old Testament reading as part of most masses if we didn’t believe it. But, look at today’s Gospel. Jesus contradicts Moses! He and His disciples didn’t follow Jewish dietary law. They were eating without purifying their hands, among other things that the scribes and Pharisees are more than anxious to point out.

Jesus responds by calling them “hypocrites”.

Jesus was a faithful Jew. He knew the Scriptures and the halakhah, all 613 laws of it. What’s the deal? What happened between Deuteronomy and Mark’s Gospel? What changed?

Maybe I can clear it up a little bit. When we were children we had to follow a lot of rules. We couldn’t cross the street without holding Mom or Dad’s hand. We didn’t have the experience or the maturity to make good decisions to keep from getting hurt or killed.

We had rules about when we got up and when we went to bed; when to clean our rooms and when to take a bath and brush our teeth. It’s a parent’s job to teach us how to live our lives. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I had more than 613 rules to follow as a kid.

But as we grow and mature, we have fewer rules. We learn to look both ways before we cross the street. We don’t have to hold Mom or Dad’s hand anymore. We learn that if we want to have friends, there are certain rules of hygiene that we have to follow.

Don’t get me wrong. If you leave here today and head up Lafayette Avenue and the light is red, you’d better stop. Not so much because it’s the law, but because there’s liable to be a car coming up Tucker that’s going to cream you if you don’t stop because he has the green light. Traffic laws are there for a reason and we should all follow them to protect ourselves and others.

So, what’s that got to do with today’s readings? The people of Moses’ time were spiritually immature. They needed a lot of rules. But after a few thousand years, God decided that we needed something else. We needed a Savior. He sent us His Son.

Rather than insisting that we wash our hands before meals, Jesus came to offer us something much simpler, and at the same time, much more difficult. He said that nothing that enters us from the outside can defile us. What defiles us is what comes from within. “Evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within.” Get rid of those things and you’ll be pure whether you wash your hands or not.

So, what happened between Deuteronomy and Mark? Jesus happened. He came to form a new covenant. Love God. Love your neighbor. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What would Jesus do? “Greater love has no man than to lay down His life for his friends.”

Instead of a giant book of laws, we have wall hangings and bumper stickers. It’s all very simple. But in many ways it’s harder than the original Jewish law. Under the old covenant, you could look at the laws and know what you had to do. If you could follow instructions, you could be a loyal and faithful Jew.

You and I have to make decisions. What does “love your neighbor” mean. Does it mean I have to be his best friend? Or does it mean that I just have to tolerate him? When I see a beggar in the street, do I have to give him all my money, or just some of it? Or can I just pass him by, knowing that he’ll probably spend any money I give him on booze or drugs? Is it up to me to make that call? It’s just all so confusing.

But, if we’re going to have freedom, we have to make choices. Sometimes they’re easy choices. Sometimes they’re hard. But the New Covenant gives us free will. We can eat that ham sandwich without a guilty conscience, even though a salad might be a better choice.

Of course, we still have laws. We have those pesky traffic laws. But a speeding ticket isn’t going to send you to hell.

We have Jesus’ words in Sacred Scripture and that’s all we really need. There are thousands of books that have been written trying to tell us how to be good Christians. But one book is all we really need. Hopefully we all have one. It’s called the Bible. A friend of mine calls it B-I-B-L-E; Basic Information Before Leaving Earth.

Also, don’t forget that Moses told the people that they must follow the law to “take possession of the land”. Jesus wasn’t interested in land. He was interested in saving our eternal souls. He gave us a very simple code to follow. “Love God. Love thy neighbor.” That’s it.

He left us with one very important decision to make. Do we want to be Pharisees or do we want to be disciples? It’s up to us.

40 Myths About the Catholic Church–Salvation

“Catholics think they’re the only ones going to heaven.”

There’s an old joke that a protestant arrives in heaven and Saint Peter is giving him a tour.  They pass through many beautiful places both inside and out.  Finally, they’re walking along a long corridor with a door at the end.  The new arrival asks Peter, “What’s behind that door.”  Peter answers, “Oh, that’s where we keep the Catholics.  Thek think they’re the only ones here”

Funny?  Maybe.  True.  Not at all.  In fact nothing could be further from the truth.

First let me point out that there more protestant denominations than I can count that teach that Catholics are all going to hell.  Here are a couple of choice examples.  Here’s a guy named David A. Stewart whose web site is called “Jesus-is-Savior.com.”  There is nothing on the site to indicate what church he is speaking for, where he’s located or anything else about him.  But here’s one of my favorite quotes from his site, “Billions of lost sinners are dying in their sins and plunging into Hell because of the lying Popes and priests who deceive them.”  

This guy seems to have a particular problem with our veneration of the Blessed Mother, but that’s a subject for another day.

Here’s another interesting site called A True Church.  A guy named Darwin Fish (really!) is the author and he’s much more ecumenical.  Apparently he thinks he’s the only one with the answers.  I quote, “All of the world religions (e.g. Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Atheism, MormonismJW’sCatholicism,Protestantism, Seventh Day Adventism, etc.) lead to nowhere but hell.”  The site even condemns Billy Graham.  I thought everyone loved BG, even John Paul II.  On another page he condemns James Dodson.  Who doesn’t like James Dodson?

The words in the quotation appearing as links conncect to pages condemning specific churches.(Fish also has a blog but the last entry was in 2011.  Been busy, I guess.) Anyway, from the “Catholicism” page, “Masses of people are in the grip of the Roman Catholic Church. This is a death grip. If it is not broken by coming “to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), it will lead them to unending torture in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone where unbelieving idolaters go (Revelation 21:8).”

Unbelieving idolators, that’s you.  I could go on with more examples but I think you get the point.  I’ll give you more examples at the end of the post.

But what about the Catholics?  Do they really think they’re the only ones going to heaven.  For an authoritative answer, let’s look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“The Church of Christ is really present in all legitimately organized local groups of the faithful, which, in so far as they are united to their pastors, are also quite appropriately called Churches in the New Testament…. In them the faithful are gathered together through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, and the mystery of the Lord’s Supper is celebrated…. In these communities, though they may often be small and poor, or existing in the diaspora, Christ is present, through whose power and influence the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church is constituted.” CCC 832

Without getting too theological, no, we don’t think we’re going to be the only ones in heaven.  Heaven is available to all Christians, to Jews and Muslims, and even people who have never heard of God or Jesus.  God doesn’t want to punish anyone who doesn’t know Him.  The CCC goes on to explain why non-Christians can and do go to heaven.  (CCC839-845)

The whole thing is a little tricky and hard to explain but I’ll give it a shot.  As the Church teaches, all salvation is through the Catholic Church.  The Roman Church was founded by Jesus himself and has all seven sacraments.  The modern Church likes to say the fullness of the faith is found in Catholicism.  Other churches have truth too.  They also have sacraments, but not all seven.   I guess the simplest way to say it is that if you’re a good Methodist, or a good Presbyterian, or a good Baptist you have just as much chance of getting into heaven as a good Catholic.  It’s between you and Jesus.  But Jesus founded the Catholic Church.  She has the power to interpret Scripture.  One day all the churches will be reunited in “one holy, catholic, apostolic church.”  Meanwhile, Saint Peter, you can open that door.

Links:  (A google search for “anti catholicism” returns nearly 3 million hits.  Obviously this is not a representative sample.)

Jack Chick; for many years Chick has been publishing anti-Catholic comic books.  He calls the Eucharist the “Jesus Cookie”

Wikipedia:  Anti-Catholicism in literature and media.  (Remember, it’s Wikipedia.  Take it with a grain of salt but there are some good links.

New York Times:  Is Anti-Catholicism Dead?

Easter Miracle–The Power of God

This isn’t the message I’d planned to post for Easter.  As I’ve learned more times than I can count, if you want to hear God laugh, show him your long-range plan.  Last night, a massive storm system blasted its way through the Saint Louis area.  The system included at least two tornados.

Here’s what we do know, the alleged tornados leveled dozens, maybe even hundreds, of homes and businesses.  Lambert International Airport sustained major damage and is closed until further notice.  One local Catholic church had it’s steeple blown off during Good Friday services.  As someone has said, future generations will speak of the Good Friday tornado of 2011.

Others, myself included, are calling it the Good Friday Miracle of 2011.  Why?  Despite the millions of dollars of damage not a single person died or even sustained a serious injury.  One half of all the windows at the airport were blown out, and if you’ve never been to our airport, that’s a lot of glass blowing around yet only a handful of people sustained minor injuries.

An American Airlines plane sitting on the tarmac was impaled by a piece of sheet metal.  The metal penetrated the skin of the plane’s tail.  If it had hit ten feet to the left, someone would have been seriously hurt, maybe killed.

Cars were picked up, spun around, and flipped over, yet their occupants survived with, at worst, minor cuts and bruises.

It’s as if God was saying, “On the day when you killed my Son, I spared your life.  I AM God.  I AM stronger than the strongest forces of nature.  Trust in me.”

And how has the community responded?  As I write this, emergency management officials are telling us to stay home.  Too many people are showing up to help.  At this stage in the recovery there are major jobs to be done.  Power must be restored.  Roads must be reopened.  Damaged homes must be repaired, at least temporarily, as the meteorologists are predicting rain, and possibly more storms, for the next several days.  Well-meaning volunteers are actually getting in the way.  We’re being told that there will be plenty of work in the days ahead.  Right now, all they need is our money.

I would add that they also need our prayers.  We need to pray for the victims’ recovery and also to thank God that the only damage is to things that can be repaired or replaced.

Tonight and tomorrow we celebrate the greatest miracle of all; the day when Jesus Christ overcame death and saved us all.  You’d think that would be all the miracle we need.  But human creatures have short memories.  One of our favorite questions is “What have you done for me lately?”  We celebrate Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Season of Easter, to remind ourselves of what God and His Son did for us.  I think that sometimes God looks at us and says, “I think it’s time to remind them again.”

Yesterday we prayed for non-Christians and nonbelievers in the Good Friday petitions.  It seems like God answered our prayers by giving them a graphic demonstration of His power to save.

Have a joyous and blessed Easter!

9th Sunday of Ordinary Time–Love One Another

It seems like there’s a big difference between the words of Saint Paul and the words of Jesus in today’s readings.  Paul writes to the Romans “a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  Sola Fide.  Faith alone.  Once saved; always saved.  Many of our protestant brothers and sisters believe this passage justifies their belief that all we have to do to be saved is to accept Jesus Christ as our savior.

But then we have Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel.  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  So what’s the deal?

There’s more than one answer to this question, but take a close look at what Paul said.  “For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.” What are these works of the Law?

In the Jewish faith there are 613 laws which are taken from the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament.  Included in these 613 laws are the Ten Commandments.  But the Jewish religion has rules on every aspect of life;  what to eat, what to where, how to worship, how to speak.  You name it and the Jewish Law, the Halakhah, has a rule for it.

Now, at the time, there was a dispute among the early Christians about whether you had to be a Jew to be a Christian.  Did you have to follow the Halakhah to follow Christ?  The biggest issue was circumcision.  Remember, there was no such thing as anesthesia and circumcision was kind of a deal-breaker for adult men.  Scripture doesn’t say, but I imagine the women of the time didn’t think it was such a big deal.

Anyway, when Paul writes that a person is justified by faith, “apart from works of the Law”, that’s what he was talking about.  You could be a Christian without having to observe all 613 of the Laws.  The Ten Commandments were still in, but a lot of the other things were out.  Around the year 50 the Church held it’s first Council meeting, which we call the Council of Jerusalem to settle the issue.So, our protestant friends ask, wasn’t Jesus’ death on the cross enough?  Do we human beings really think we can add anything to that?  Why aren’t we justified by faith alone?

I think Jesus gives a pretty good answer in today’s Gospel reading.  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  Yes, Jesus’ death was enough, but we have to complete the work He started.

I think if I had to choose one passage in the New Testament that’s my favorite, it would be John 15:14.  It’s part of Jesus’ story of the vine and the branches.  “I am the vine and my Father is the vine grower.” He goes on to tell the Apostles that they must remain on the vine lest they wither and die.  The Father will cut away the vines that don’t bear fruit.  In verse 14, right in the middle of his monologue, he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” What is His command?  “Love one another as I have loved you.”

That’s it!  Our whole faith is summed up in that one thought.  “Do what I tell you.  Love one another.  Then you’ll be my friend.”

So, how do we reconcile the idea of “faith alone” with doing good works?  Do we not need to run Catholic hospitals, and Catholic schools, and Catholic Charities, and Saint Vincent de Paul?  Should we bring all our missionaries home?  Of course not.  We know we’re saved by our faith in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But we also know that our faith requires us to do what Jesus tells us.  To be his friend, to stay on the vine, we’re called to love one another.  And we fulfill that love by doing good things.  We feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless, and visit the sick, and a thousand other works of mercy, not because we have to, but because we want to be Jesus’ friends.

That’s all there is to it.  Love one another.  Eat pork if you want to.  Eat shellfish if you want to.  If you like your steak rare, that’s ok.  And circumcision is definitely optional.

Now, you may be thinking, “wait a minute, deacon.  Lent starts next week.  We’re not supposed to eat meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent.  How’s that different from Jewish Law?  The difference is this.  We abstain from meat as a form of penance.  It’s a way of sharing in Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  We do it because we’re Jesus’ friends.  But it’s not a law.  You’re not going to hell if you eat a hamburger on Ash Wednesday where the consequences for a Jew who eats a pork chop is a whole different matter.

We observe the Lenten traditions because we want to, not because we have to, in spite of what your mom may have told you forty years ago.  Think about it.  How big a sacrifice is it to skip meat for eight days each year?  I mentioned in this week’s bulletin that “fish fry season” is my favorite time of the year.  I’m already working on my Friday dinner schedule for March and part of April.  It’s not a sacrifice.  It’s not penance.  But the Church asks us to do it, so we do.  What I’m suggesting this morning is that we all find some other form of penance for the next six weeks, something we either add or take away from our normal routine that requires a little effort, or maybe a lot of effort.  And, hopefully something that makes you a better person; a better version of yourself.

The Church today has gotten away from a lot of the “must dos” and I think it’s a shame.  No one in the history of the world has done more for us than Jesus of Nazareth.  He gave up His life for us and all He wants in return is for us to love one another as He’s loved us.  It seems like a very, very small price to pay.