Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Cost of Discipleship

Homily, 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle C
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr. (St. Joseph's, 6/26/2010)

In the Gospel today, our Lord reminds us of the cost of discipleship. On his last journey to Jerusalem, where he will take up his Cross and offer himself for our salvation, he encounters three men who could be disciples. While their motivations may have been good, our Lord wanted to help them understand exactly what discipleship means.

To the first, he says, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Discipleship is costly. You will not find rest or security, but only hardship and the Cross.

The second, invited by Jesus personally, responds to the invitation with a condition, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” Caring for ones parents is a noble vocation, a fulfillment of the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother.” But perhaps this duty would take many years in which this potential disciple could revisit the opportunity Jesus is offering. The invitation was now, and trust was required. “Let the bed bury the dead. But you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” The beautiful thing about saying “yes” now is that “all these things will be given you besides.” Following Christ doesn't mean abandoning one's obligations, but that God will supply for your needs. One of the first duties I had as a priest was to bury my Father, who died of cancer nine months after I was ordained. The Archbishop was kind enough to ordain me early so that my father could be present before his cancer made it difficult for him. And I was able to begin my ministry and care for my father together. His death was all the more beautiful because as a family, we were able to see it in the context of our vocations as disciples of Christ.

To the third, who wants to say goodbye to his family, Jesus says, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.” Like the second, God will carry your family and loved ones along with you on the journey of discipleship. Like the farmer who begins plowing and cannot take his eyes off his goal, else the line will turn out crooked, you cannot divert your eyes from Christ. The disciple does not ask “what if?”, but “what now?” We have a goal that we can reach through faithfulness to our vocations.

One good example of the Cost of Discipleship in the modern era was a Lutheran pastor who wrote a book with that title. He not only wrote it, he lived it.

[The following story is redacted from several common stories summarizing Bonhoeffer's life, and much information is available on the Internet. Here is the book, The Cost of Discipleship, and here is an outline of Bonhoeffer's life.]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor, theologian, and teacher. A German, he lived during the rise of Nazi Germany and saw the terrible tragedy that was approaching Europe. Interestingly, the pastor had safely escaped the troubles in Europe and gone to teach in New York in June, 1939. He abruptly returned less than a month later saying: “I have had time to think and to pray about my situation, and that of my nation, and to have God's will for me clarified. I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of the Christian life in Germany after the war if I did not share in the trials of this time with my people. Christians in Germany face the terrible alternative of willing the defeat of their nation in order that civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose. But I cannot make that choice in security.

On his return, pastor Bonhoeffer was involved in the German underground, or resistance to Hitler and the Nazis. He was condemned for his involvement in “Operation 7”, a rescue mission that had helped a small group of Jews over the German border and into Switzerland. The 39-year-old theologian had also been involved in planning an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler. His participation in the murder plot obviously conflicts with Bonhoeffer's position as a pacifist. His sister-in-law, Emmi Bonhoeffer, cited his reasoning. He told her: “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can't, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” His vocation called him to action.

Bonhoeffer, even while in prison, maintained his pastoral role. Those who were with him spoke of the guidance and spiritual inspiration he gave not only to fellow inmates but to prison guards as well. He didn't look back, but remained faithful to his vocation. In a letter smuggled out of prison Bonhoeffer showed no bitterness but rather explained how, “We in the resistance have learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the excluded, the ill treated, the powerless, the oppressed and despised... so that personal suffering has become a more useful key for understanding the world than personal happiness.

Bonhoeffer went calmly to his death. The morning as he was led out of his cell, he was observed by the prison doctor who said: “Through the half-open door I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer still in his prison clothes, kneeling in fervent prayer to the Lord his God. The devotion and evident conviction of being heard that I saw in the prayer of this intensely captivating man moved me to the depths.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, pastor Bonhoeffer coins a term that is used commonly in the Christian world today as a wake-up call to authentic discipleship, he calls it “Cheap Grace” versus “Costly Grace.

He explains it this way, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market … Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner... [In other words, excusing sin but not recognizing the Gospel's transformative power.] Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

He definies Costly rgace this way, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies [makes new] the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “you were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Those words are particularly important: “God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life...” Echoing St. John, pastor Bonhoeffer reminds us that God loves each of us individually and uniquely, beyond measure. So much so that he gave his only Son for our sakes, so that we might share in the “only true life” that Christ came to give us.

He concludes, “Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: 'My yoke is easy and my burden is light.'

The invitation to live our vocation is given by Christ, “Follow me” and explained simply by St. Paul, “the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” This love is costly. As true disciples, we respond with our whole hearts, embracing God's will for our lives, and going forth to “proclaim the Kingdom of God” in today's world.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day and St. Joseph

Father's Day Meditation
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr.

In our lives, we often find that God does the unexpected, and when he does so, wonderful things happen. On this Father's Day, I thought it would be good to look at St. Joseph as model for husbands and fathers and how God works in our lives.

The first thing to note about St. Joseph is his dilemma. God not only does the unexpected, but he puts Joseph in a tough situation. His wife was pregnant, and he did not yet know that she had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit after the annunciation by Gabriel. Yet certainly he could not believe that she could have done something wrong. So how does he handle his dilemma? Since he is an “upright man, unwilling to expose her to the law”, he chooses to divorce her quietly because that will cause her the least harm. He was not interested in what would benefit him the most, but instead, he thought only of what was best for her. In fact, the shame would have fallen on him, because he would have been seen as a deadbeat who abandoned his fiancé. He was not only a just man, but he was a charitable man, willing to make sacrifices for the sake of others, and to give of himself.

Perhaps God was testing him, to see if he was worthy to be the foster father of Jesus, to see if he would have the qualities necessary to be a father to the Savior. But finally, the Lord sends an angel to tell him the rest of the story, to tell him what he must do. And that is the next thing to note about St. Joseph: when he awoke, the scriptures say, “he did as the angel of the Lord had directed him.” He did not question the Lord’s will; he did not second-guess what he had been told; he simply submitted himself to God’s will and went about his duty as he was told.

Again, God had acted in an unexpected way, and for St. Joseph, that meant that his life from that moment onwards was radically changed. Through the tradition of the Church, in the writings of the saints, and in a lot of Christian art, St. Joseph is pictured as an old man. Since he was the guardian and protector of Mary’s virginity, many in the church, in their excess of piety, thought that he must certainly be an old man. But, this attitude, this image, as Fulton Sheen once said, “betrays a lack of confidence in the ability of young people to live chaste lives, as if the condition for living holy purity is that one be old.” So isn’t it much more beautiful to picture St. Joseph as a young man who immediately said “yes” to God when he called. St. Joseph was a chaste man. Not all husbands are called to live perfect continence within marriage as he did, but all husbands are called to live and act chastely, not treating their wives or other women as objects, but instead treating them with respect and dignity.

And I do not find it too hard to believe that he would so joyfully accept God’s will for his life for he was already a just man who knew the joys of keeping the commandments and loving God and our neighbor as himself. After all, he was being called to participate in the greatest wonder in human history - the birth of the God-man, Immanuel, God is with us; he was being called to be the guardian and protector of this divine child, and he had the privilege to be the husband of the most marvelous woman who has ever existed, Mary.

And to top it all off, St. Joseph, at the command of the angel, had the privilege of giving that child the name of Jesus, “he who saves his people from their sins”, the name above every other name, the name at which every knee should bend, in the heavens and on the earth, the name that every tongue must confess as Lord.

There is a beautiful prayer in the tradition of the Church asking for St. Joseph's intercession:

O blessed Joseph, happy man whose privilege it was,
not only to see and hear that God
whom many a king has longed to see, yet saw not,
longed to hear, yet heard not;
but also to carry him in your arms and kiss him,
to clothe him and watch over him!
Pray for us, Blessed Joseph.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

All the Rest of Life is Expendable

Homily Corpus Christi, C
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr. St. Joseph's, Dalton, GA

I’m sure most of you are familiar with Flannery O'Connor, well-known Southern author, a native of Milledgeville Georgia, and a Catholic who belonged to the parish there. In one of her letters, she recalls a visit she made to another well-known author, who had been raised Catholic, but no longer believed. Flannery's friend said that "when she was a child and received the Host [the Blessed Sacrament], she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, he being the 'most portable' Person of the Trinity; now, she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one." In the letter, Flannery tells us her response: "I then said, in a very shaky voice, 'Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it!' [She goes on...] That was all the defense I was capable of, but I realize now that this is all I ever will be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it [the eucharist] is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."

When I look at the world today, it becomes pretty obvious that Jesus is the center of existence for fewer and fewer people. We have placed so many other things at the center of our lives: money, pleasure, politics, power. Sure, Jesus is a part of some people’s lives, perhaps as an example, a teacher, a friend we turn to as a last resort. Yes, he is all those things, but it seems as if he is no longer the whole, the center, the reason for existence.

And Christ is present to us in so many different ways. According to the teaching of the Church, he is present to us in the Word, especially the Gospel when it is read and proclaimed. He is present to us when “two or three gather” in his name, which is especially true when we gather to worship together in sacrifice of the Mass. He is present to us in the Church itself, which is his Mystical Body, in its people, ministers and authority. He is present in the sacraments, when he heals us, forgives our sins, and gives us grace for our various states in life. We know all of that, if only we would live it.

But there is another presence which I would like to talk about. Jesus said, “(Matthew 25:40) whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” So, in a special way, the Church has always taught, Jesus is present among us in the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the lonely, the suffering, those in need.

Mother Teresa illustrates this well with a story she would tell a lot. She begins the story this way, “I remember one of our Sisters, who had just graduated from the university. She came from a well-to-do family that lived outside of India. [she was assigned on her first day] to the Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta. Before this Sister went, I told her, ‘You saw the priest during Mass, with what love, with what delicate care he touched the body of Christ [in the Eucharist]. Make sure you do the same thing when you get to the home, because Jesus is there in a distressing disguise.’ So she went, and after three hours, she came back. That girl from the university, who had seen and understood so many things, came to my room with such a beautiful smile on her face. She said, ‘For three hours I’ve been touching the body of Christ!’ And [Mother Teresa] said, ‘What did you do? What happened?’ She said, ‘They brought a man from the street who had fallen into a drain and had been there for some time. He was covered with maggots and dirt and wounds. And though I found it difficult, I cleaned him, and I knew I was touching the body of Christ!’ [Mother Teresa goes on] She knew! Do we know? Do we recognize Jesus under the appearance of bread [in the Eucharist]? If we recognize him under the appearance of bread, we will have no difficulty recognizing him in the disguise of the suffering poor, and the suffering in our family, in our own community.”

And that is the final, most perfect, and fullest way in which Christ is present to us. In the Eucharist. For “in the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” (CCC 1374)

And that truth is what has guided, inspired, and given life to the Church. Throughout the ages, saints and the faithful would attest to this great mystery.

St. Paul would recall the institution of this great sacrament, when Jesus said, “This is my body, which is for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” For Jesus desired to give us a memorial of his death, so that we could always have access to him and this great mystery.

And Vatican II would say this about the institution of the Eucharist, “At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet in which Christ s consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.” (SC 47)

Because of this, Vatican II would call the Eucharist “the source and summit of Christian life.” (LG 11)

And our very own Flannery O’Connor would call the Eucharist the “center of her existence.” And if we want to do the same, to make Jesus in the Eucharist the center of our existence, then we need to recognize his presence in the Blessed Sacrament, and from there we can see his presence in the Word, when we gather for prayer and worship, in the sacraments, the Mass, the Church, and in the poor and needy. Ultimately, we need only follow the advice of Mother Teresa, “If we recognize him under the appearance of bread, we will have no difficulty recognizing him in the disguise of the suffering poor, and the suffering in our family, in our own community.”

And if we can recognize him in the Eucharist, then perhaps it would be easy to make him the center of our existence. If he is, then perhaps we will have some small affect on the world around us. Is Jesus in the Eucharist the center of your life? Come and receive him today at communion and give him the answer. Come and receive the real body and blood, soul and divinity of our Lord. Come and adore him in the tabernacle and on the altar and see the one who befriends us, refreshes us, defends us, and gives us life eternal - our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.