Monday, February 1, 2016

Wretches Wrule

Acts 22:3-5
         Paul addressed the people in these words: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city. At the feet of Gamaliel I was educated strictly in our ancestral law and was zealous for God, just as all of you are today. I persecuted this Way to death, binding both men and women and delivering them to prison. Even the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify on my behalf. For from them I even received letters to the brothers and set out for Damascus to bring back to Jerusalem in chains for punishment those there as well.
         One of the most popular Christian songs is "Amazing Grace."  It is especially haunting when heard on bagpipes, and at the funeral of a loved one.  But lately people have tinkered with the opening lines.  Do you recall the original version?  It read: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me."  Recently, however, in an effort to soften the harsh tones of suggesting someone is a "wretch," a modern version reads: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a soul like me."  It's much more comforting to be considered a soul in need of saving rather than a sinner.  Do you want to be called a wretch??  But notice what happens to God's grace when we diminish our sinfulness: grace no longer looks so "amazing."  Compare the grace you need to save a "soul" versus the grace you need to save a "wretch."  Catch the difference?  In other words, what makes grace so “amazing” is precisely that it saves wretches, not just souls.   The worse the sinner, the more amazing the grace.
          This is why in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles St. Paul doesn't pull any punches about his former life as a persecutor of the nascent Church.  Listen to his self-incrimination: "I persecuted this Way [meaning Christians] to death, binding both men and women and delivering them to prison."  Can you say "wretched sinner"?  But Paul is not just "beating himself up" in a flight of neurotic fancy.  He ultimately wants to highlight how great God's grace has been in him, and he does this by contrasting that grace to his own wretched sinfulness.  In one of my favorite passages of all Scripture, St. Paul proclaims: "where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more" (Romans 5:20).  And as “exhibit A,” Paul says, “look at me!”  St. Paul is proof positive that the worse the sinner, the more amazing the grace.
          Pope Francis has called all Christians to celebrate a “Year of Mercy” from December 2015 through December 2016.  Now, let me ask you: who needs mercy?  Well, only sinners need mercy.  But who are the sinners?  Well, I know one sinner: Pope Francis.  In one of the first interviews he gave after being elected pope, the reporter asked him, “So, who is Pope Francis?”  Without hesitation, he replied, “I am a sinner.”  Those words stir something deep inside me every time I think of them.  Why?  Because I know I am a sinner, too.  In other words, this Year of Mercy is not just for terrorists and mass murders and drug lords and gang leaders; it is also for me, and for you, and for Pope Francis.  My friends, this year, stop white-washing your sins like those redactors of the song “Amazing Grace” white-washed the first lines: you are not just a soul, but a sinner.  In those rare moments of grace when we are truly and brutally honest with ourselves, we see we are not the righteous but the wretched.  And that’s not such a bad thing.  Why?  Well, because the more wretched the sinner, the more amazing the grace.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

God’s Heart

1 Samuel 24:3-21
           Saul took three thousand picked men from all Israel and went in search of David and his men in the direction of the wild goat crags. When he came to the sheepfolds along the way, he found a cave, which he entered to relieve himself. David and his men were occupying the inmost recesses of the cave. David’s servants said to him, “This is the day of which the LORD said to you, ‘I will deliver your enemy into your grasp; do with him as you see fit.’” So David moved up and stealthily cut off an end of Saul’s mantle. Afterward, however, David regretted that he had cut off an end of Saul’s mantle. He said to his men, “The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the LORD’s anointed, as to lay a hand on him, for he is the LORD’s anointed.” With these words David restrained his men and would not permit them to attack Saul. Saul then left the cave and went on his way. David also stepped out of the cave, calling to Saul, “My lord the king!” When Saul looked back, David bowed to the ground in homage and asked Saul: “Why do you listen to those who say, ‘David is trying to harm you’? You see for yourself today that the LORD just now delivered you into my grasp in the cave. I had some thought of killing you, but I took pity on you instead. I decided, ‘I will not raise a hand against my lord, for he is the LORD’s anointed and a father to me.’
          You’ve no doubt heard before one of our nation’s most cherished slogans, “the separation of church and state.”  Maybe you’ve had occasion to utter those sublime syllables yourself.  Believe it or not, those precise words are nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution, but their spirit certainly pervades the entire document, especially the First Amendment.  Indeed, our “Declaration of Independence” from the British monarchy was partly a reaction to the lack of such separation in that country.  You’ll remember that in the 16th century King Henry VIII had declared himself the head of the Church of England, consolidating in himself both political and religious power.  Here on the other side of “the pond,” we wanted no part of that, hence our separation of Church and state.
          But what does that slogan mean for us today, on a practical level, on a daily basis?  Well, it means that we Catholic Christians live under two sets of laws. On the one hand, we obey the Constitution and other civil laws; while on the other hand, we obey the Church’s laws, such as the 10 Commandments, the 8 Beatitudes and the 5 Precepts of the Church.  For instance, if you get pulled over for speeding, the police officer will not ask if you have received the sacrament of Confirmation.  Or, if you arrive late at your wedding, the priest will not ask if you have been speeding.  Police officers enforce civil laws; priests enforce church laws.  But American Catholics have to obey both sets of laws: lucky us!
          In the first reading today, we see that this separation of church and state did not exist in the Old Testament, a fact that was not lost on young David.  King Saul is seeking to kill David -- who at that time was still a simple soldier in the king’s army -- out of jealousy.   David sees an opportunity to save his own life by taking the king’s life.  So what does David do?  Does he channel Thomas Jefferson and invoke “the separation of church and state”?  No.  He says to his men: “The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the LORD’s anointed, as to lay a hand on him, for he is the LORD’s anointed.”  David understood that God had anointed Saul as king (he had not been elected by the people), thereby endowing Saul with both political power as well as a divine blessing.  As a result, raising David’s sword against the king was tantamount to raising his sword against God.  David would not do that because he was “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14).  Because David had God’s heart, he would not harm God’s anointed.
          Now, I’m not suggesting that the separation of church and state is the best form of church-state relations, nor do I desire to take sides on the debate between democracy and theocracy.  (Incidentally, separation of church and state is precisely what’s at state between Western democracy and Middle Eastern Islam.)   All that aside, I do believe we need to acknowledge that God continues to anoint and choose leaders today, to whom we must demonstrate the same deference as David did toward Saul.  Who are these people?  For Catholic Christians, these are our bishops.  Jesus hand picked his 12 apostles, and he continues to hand-pick their successors, our modern bishops.  They are God’s anointed.  So, let me ask you: how do you relate to your bishop, and to our pope?  Do you see them as David saw King Saul, as the Lord’s anointed, and never dare to raise your hand, or your sword, or your voice against them?  A priest-friend of mine said, “I wouldn’t wish the bishopric on my worst enemy.”  Maybe not, but that doesn’t change the fact that a bishop is “God’s anointed” -- bishops alone have received the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders -- a person endowed with divine authority and sacramental power for the purpose of leading and healing and teaching God’s people.
          Today, pray for our bishops, men with human weaknesses but with a divine mandate.  Learn from their teachings, because Jesus told the first bishops, “he who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16).  And embrace their priorities, like Pope Francis’ call to celebrate a “Jubilee Year of Mercy.”  That way, we, too, will be like David, who honored the Lord’s anointed, and perhaps we, too, may become men and woman “after God’s own heart.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!