Respect Life Sunday

Today’s readings

Today is Respect Life Sunday, and so I want to do more of a sermon than a homily. A sermon speaks about an issue, while a homily is based on the readings. Even so, I would like to begin this reflection with these beautiful words from today’s second reading: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” We can be so distracted by things that seem good that really aren’t all that good, things that seem important that are really just sweating the small stuff, and God would have us look instead at what is lovely, gracious, excellent and worthy of praise – in short, God would have us reflect on what he has created and know that this is the greatest gift, the most important thing we could be busied about.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: “The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists, it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.” (CCC, 27; cf. Gaudium et Spes 19.1) Life is the greatest good we have because it is God who created life, every life, from the tiniest embryo to the elderly person in the final stages of life. We reverence life, respect life, reaffirm life, because human life is the best thing there is on this whole big earth, the most magnificent of all God’s wonderful creation.

The basis for the movement to respect life, of course, is the fifth commandment: You shall not kill (Ex 20:13). The Catechism is very specific: “Scripture specifies the prohibition contained in the fifth commandment: ‘Do not slay the innocent and the righteous.’ The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.” (CCC 2261) And that would seem simple enough, don’t you think? God said not to kill another human being, and so refraining from doing so reverences his gift of life and obeys his commandment.

But life isn’t that simple. Life is a deeply complex issue involving a right to life, a quality of life, a reverence for life, and sanctity of life. Jesus himself stirs up the waters of complexity with his own take on the commandment. In Matthew’s Gospel, he tells us: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill: and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” (Mt 5:21-22)

Our Savior’s instruction on life calls us to make an examination of conscience. We may proclaim ourselves as exemplary witnesses to the sanctity of life because we have never murdered anyone nor participated in an abortion. And those are good starts. But if we let it stop there, then the words of Jesus that I just quoted are our condemnation. The church teaches that true respect for life revolves around faithfulness to the spirit of the fifth commandment. The Catechism tells us, “Every human life, from the moment of conception until death, is sacred because the human person has been willed for its own sake in the image and likeness of the living and holy God.” (CCC 2319)

The issues that present themselves under the heading of respecting life are many. We are called to put aside racism and stereotyping, to reach out to the homeless, to advocate for health care for all people, to put an end – once and for all! – to abortion, capital punishment, war, terrorism and genocide, to recognize that euthanasia is not the same thing as mercy, to promote the strength of family life and the education of all young people, to provide food for those who hunger. We Catholics must accept the totality of the Church’s teaching of respecting life, or we can never hope for a world that is beautiful or grace filled.

We pro-life Catholics are called to go above and beyond what seems comfortable in order to defend life. And so we must all ask ourselves, are there lives that we have not treated as sacred? Have we harbored anger in our hearts against our brothers and sisters? What have we done to fight poverty, hunger and homelessness? Have we insisted that those who govern us treat war as morally repugnant, only to be used in the most severe cases and as a last resort? Have we engaged in stereotypes or harbored thoughts based on racism and prejudice? Have we insisted that legislators ban the production of human fetuses to be used as biological material? Have we been horrified that a nation with our resources still regularly executes its citizens as a way of fighting crime? Have we done everything in our power to be certain that no young woman should ever have to think of abortion as her only choice when she is facing hard times? Have we given adequate care to elder members of our family and our society so that they would not face their final days in loneliness, nor come to an early death for the sake of convenience? Have we avoided scandal so as to prevent others from being led to evil?

Every one of these issues is a life issue, brothers and sisters, and we who would be known to be respecters of life are on for every single one of them, bar none. The Church’s teaching on the right to life is not something that we can approach like we’re in a cafeteria. We must accept and reverence and live the whole of the teaching, or be held liable for every breach of it. If we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. On this day of prayer for the sanctity of life, our prayer must perhaps be first for ourselves that we might live the Church’s teaching with absolute integrity in every moment of our lives.

Our God has known us and formed us from our mother’s womb, from that very first moment of conception. Our God will be with us and will sustain us until our dying breath. In life and in death, we belong to the Lord … Every part of our lives belongs to the Lord. Our call is a clear one. We must constantly and consistently bear witness to the sanctity of life at every stage. We must be people who lead the world to a whole new reality, in the presence of the One who has made all things new.

Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time [B] – Respect Life Sunday

Today’s readings

If you’ve been to any number of Church weddings, you have probably heard today’s first reading, and part of the Gospel proclaimed.  Obviously we usually leave out the part about divorce, but these readings are quite popular for weddings.  The reason, of course, is that the story is about how man and woman were created for each other.  The totality of the readings we have today, though, are challenging.  We do have that piece about divorce there, and it does present a challenge in these days when so many marriages fail.

Apparently, the people of Israel were unable to accept the fullness of the teaching of marriage – not unlike today, obviously – Moses gave the men permission to divorce when necessary.  In that society, a woman’s reproductive rights belonged first to her father, and later to her husband.  So adultery could only be committed against the husband whose rights had been violated.  Our modern sensibilities see this as completely wrong, and Jesus seems to agree.  Jesus says that the man who remarries is committing adultery against his first wife, because she has rights in the marriage too.  Jesus levels the playing field here by giving both spouses rights in the relationship, but also the responsibility of not committing adultery against one another.

In our society, we have to contend with this painful reality still.  Each spouse has rights and also responsibilities, and while we are all ready to accept our rights in just about any circumstance, we are hardly ever ready to accept our responsibilities.  That has led us not only to the problems we have with divorce, but in so many areas as well.  We are a people very unaccustomed to the demands of faithfulness, not just in marriage but also in our work and our communities, just to name a couple.

Today’s Liturgy of the Word rejects this lack of faithfulness.  Christian disciples are to be marked by their faithfulness to each other, to God, and to their communities.  Faithfulness is hard and very often inconvenient.  But for us, brothers and sisters in Christ, faithfulness is not optional.

In wedding liturgies I always tell the bride and groom that faithfulness will make demands of them.  They will have to make a decision every day to be faithful to the promises they make at their wedding.  They will have to make a decision every day to love one another.  And sometimes this is easy, but sometimes it is hard to do, but either way, it’s still their calling.  The same is true for me as a priest.  I have to renew my ordination promises every day.  I have to make a decision every day to be faithful to my God, be faithful to my ministry, be faithful to my promises, be faithful to my own spouse which is the Church, and my own family which is the people I serve.  Sometimes that’s a joy and the easiest thing in the world.  But, just like anyone else, I have rough days, and on those rough days, I’m still called to be faithful.

We are all of us called to be faithful citizens.  That is easy when our candidate wins the election or legislation we’ve been hoping for passes.  It’s not such a joy when he or she loses the election, or our interests aren’t being met, or the economy is plunging.  It’s very difficult when we see so many abuses of power or the seeming triumph of evil.  But we still are called to be faithful, doing our best to make things right, witnessing to the sanctity of life, standing up for the poor, needy, and most vulnerable members of society, building the kingdom of God on earth whenever and however we can.

One of the biggest challenges of our time is something of which we are mindful in a special way this month, and by that of course, I mean the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.  It’s easy to remain faithful to that call when we don’t have to make the decision, but harder to remain faithful when someone we know is having a difficult pregnancy, or has been raped.  It’s hard to defend life to natural death when a loved one is suffering, clinging rather tenaciously to life even when they’re unable to live it.  It’s hard to defend life when someone in our community has been murdered and the death penalty is on the table.  But we disciples don’t get to pick and choose the occasions during which we will be faithful.  If our witness to life is to mean anything to the watching world – and now more than ever before it absolutely has to! – we’re going to have to be faithful always, even when it’s hard, even when it stretches us.

The little vignette at the end of the Gospel reading today almost seems out of place.  I use this story at every baptism I do, and it’s easy to see why.  But I also think it relates to our call to faithfulness today.  Jesus promises the Kingdom of God to those who are like children.  Obviously he isn’t extolling the virtues of being childish here.  He is getting at, as he often does, something much deeper.  He notes that children are dependent on their parents or guardians for everything – they need their parents.  They don’t yet have rights in the society, they are unable to provide for themselves.  So they depend on the adults who care for them for all of their needs for safety and care.

This is the kind of faithfulness Jesus asks of us.  We need to approach our relationship with God with childlike faith, acknowledging our dependence on God’s grace and mercy.  We need to be faithful to God in good times and in bad, even when we cannot see the big picture.

Faithfulness makes demands on us.  The disciple is the one who is ready to accept those demands.  The disciple makes a decision to love God and the people in his life every day.  The disciple makes a decision to be faithful to his or her vocation, whatever that vocation is, every day.  The disciple defends the sanctity of every human life, from the moment of conception, to the moment of natural death.  The disciple makes a decision to be faithful to God and the teachings of God’s Church every day.  Some days those decisions are easy, and some days they are more than challenging.  But the faithful disciple, the one who accepts the Kingdom of God like a child, has the promise of entering into it.

Labor Day

Today’s readings:  Genesis 1:26-2:3; Psalm 90; Matthew 25:14-30

One of the things that I remember vividly about my childhood is how hard my parents worked.  My Dad worked more than one job at a time for several years.  And in his main job, he was with the company for well over forty years, finally retiring from the company he worked for since his late teens.  My mother, too, worked outside the home, and still does on a part-time basis.  They encouraged me to work as well, and the experience of the work I did in my late teens is something that I carried with me throughout my pre-seminary work years, and continue, really, to benefit from to this very day.  And that’s how work is supposed to be: participation in God’s creation, enhancing our human dignity, bringing forth our gifts, and helping us to be better people.  Work should also help us to sustain our lives and our families, and to provide for their needs, including health care and retirement.  The Church has consistently and loudly taught these truths about work ever since Pope Leo XIII’s ground-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum, published in 1891.

As we observe Labor Day this year, though, I think those principles are in jeopardy.  Our economy is a broken one, and far too many don’t have the resources that work provides.  The bishops of our nation publish a yearly Labor Day statement, and this year they write about the hard statistics our economy presents:

“Officially over 12 million workers are looking for work but cannot find a job and millions more have actually given up seeking employment.  Millions more are underemployed; they are willing and able to work full time, but there are not enough jobs available.  Over ten million families are “working poor”–they work hard, but their jobs do not pay enough to meet their basic needs.  The sad fact is that over 46 million people live in poverty and, most disturbingly, over 16 million children grow up poor in our nation.  The link between joblessness and poverty is undeniable, as Pope Benedict points out:

“’In many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work, either because work opportunities are limited (through unemployment or underemployment), or “because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family” (Caritas in Veritate, no. 63).’”

The bishops then go on to call for a more just economy, beginning with fixing the broken economy in which we find ourselves.  No easy task!  They do point out that they find a lack of concern for the poor and lack of support for workers among all political candidates right now to be ominous and disturbing.  It is then, our task to hold them accountable for that as we vote, one of many important issues that demand our attention in the upcoming election.  It is also, of course, our job to pray for that reality.  The bishops write:

This Labor Day, our country continues to struggle with a broken economy that is not producing enough decent jobs. Millions of Americans suffer from unemployment, underemployment or are living in poverty as their basic needs too often go unmet. This represents a serious economic and moral failure for our nation. As people of faith, we are called to stand with those left behind, offer our solidarity, and join forces with “the least of these” to help meet their basic needs. We seek national economic renewal that places working people and their families at the center of economic life.

This Labor Day reminds us that we don’t have permission to write off human labor as some kind of necessary evil or a commodity to be bought and sold.   We are reminded that the economy exists for the good of people, not the other way around.  We must truly venerate all labor, that of our own efforts as well as that of others. We must vigorously defend the rights and dignity of workers, particularly of the poor and marginalized. And we must always offer all of this back to our God who created us to be co-creators with him. May we pray with the Psalmist this day and every day, “Lord give success to the work of our hands!”

Saint Joseph the Worker

Today’s readings

In his encyclical, Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II said, echoing the sentiments of the Second Vatican Council, “The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that humankind, created in the image of God, shares by their work in the activity of the Creator and that, within the limits of their own human capabilities, they in a sense continue to develop that activity, and perfect it as they advance further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation.” (25)

The Christian idea of work is that through the toil of work, the Christian joins her or himself to the cross of Christ, and through the effects of work, the Christian participates in the creative activity of our Creator God.  Today we celebrate the feast day for all Christian workers, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker.  This feast recalls that Jesus himself was a worker, schooled in the drudgeries and the joys of the vocation of carpentry by his father, St. Joseph, who worked hard, as many do today, to support his family.

In today’s first reading, Saint Paul, newly Christian, works hard at the task of proclaiming the Gospel.  But we also know that, in order not to be a burden to those to whom he was preaching, and thus not to be an obstacle to their faith, he worked at the trade of tentmaking.  In other places, St. Paul elevates human labor to a virtue, demanding that those who do not work should not eat, and decrying the inactivity of those who are idle, and busybodies.  If work is a share in the activity of the creator and a share in the cross of Christ, woe to those who turn away from it!

Sometimes, it is true, work is far from blessed.  There is, of course, a responsibility of the employer to provide a workplace that upholds human dignity.  But often work seems less than redemptive.  To that, Pope John Paul said, “Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves in the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do.  This work of salvation came about through suffering and death on a Cross.  By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, humankind in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity.  They show themselves true disciples of Christ by carrying the cross in their turn every day in the activity that they is called upon to perform.” (Laborem Exercens, 27)

And so we all forge ahead in our daily work, whether that be as a carpenter, a tentmaker, a homemaker, a mother or father, a laborer, a white collar worker, a consecrated religious or ordained person, or whatever it may be.  We forge ahead with the joy of bringing all the world to redemption through creation, through the cross and Resurrection of Christ, and through our daily work.  Let us pray.

Almighty God,
maker of heaven and earth,
we praise you for your glory
and the splendor of all your creation.

Bless us as we continue to do our work,
and bless all that we do for you.
Help us to carry out all our activities
for your honor and glory
and for the salvation of your people.

Through the intercession of Saint Joseph the Worker,
guide us in all we do,
and help us build your kingdom
and one day, come together to eternal life.
Through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Monday of the Third Week of Ordinary Time: Respect Life

Yesterday was the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that in effect legalized abortion in the United States.  The Church teaches us that abortion is a violation of the fifth commandment, which states: “Thou shall not kill.”  Participation in an abortion – which includes having one, paying for one, encouraging one, performing one, and helping in the performance of one – is a mortal sin.  Because we oppose abortion, we as a Church are committed to making alternatives to abortion more available, including adoption, financial assistance to parents and especially mothers in need, and education about the sanctity of life.

Since 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, our society has tumbled down the slippery slope of devaluing life and we are seeing the rotten fruits of it all over. War, violence, hatred, lack of concern for the poor and needy, lack of respect for the elderly and terminally ill, all of these things are symptoms of the culture of death that surrounds us. Far from liberating women and giving them choice over the use of their bodies, the legalization of abortion has driven many women to have an abortion simply because they thought that was their only option or because it was more convenient for family or the father.

And respecting life goes beyond merely opposing abortion.  Our Church teaches us that we cannot claim to be Pro Life if we are in fact only anti-abortion. Our claim to righteousness has to be based on more than never having had the disastrous occasion of having to choose to participate in an abortion, or it’s not really righteousness at all. If we pray to end abortion and then do not attend to our obligation to the poor, or if we choose to support the death penalty, or if we feel like it’s okay to help a person die if they are sick, or if we engage in racial bigotry, then we are not in fact Pro Life. Every single life is sacred, no matter what we may think of it, purely because God created each life after his very own image and likeness.

And I say this not because I don’t think that abortion is anything short of a disaster: it most certainly is.  Abortion ends the life of a child, it ruins the lives of everyone involved, it damages society in ways we may never fully know.  I say this because it’s way too easy for us to oppose abortion and then call ourselves Pro Life and then go out and violate life in some other circumstance. We must be very careful of doing that, because not being completely Pro Life weakens our witness to the sanctity of life.  The world is watching us closely.  And we absolutely cannot be at all weak in our witness for life: our society needs our strength and passion for life so that there can be conversion and change and unity and peace.

And so today we pray for the sanctity of life, we pray for all whose lives are in danger, we pray for those who are in the sad position of ending human life.  And most of all, we pray for an end to the culture of death that surrounds us.