Greetings from Durham, NC! As it is spring break for Catholic University, I’m here at Immaculate Conception Church with my classmate Dennis Bennett, learning about one of our friars’ ministries and enjoying the southern weather! When we get back to D.C. in a few days, I would like to offer a post on the trip itself, but for now, here is the reflection I gave at the masses this morning. As usual, this is based on the readings for the day found here.
This morning I have the pleasure of talking to you about what I’m sure is everyone’s favorite topic: rules. We all have them. Don’t do this! Don’t do that! No ice cream until you finish your vegetables. Only one hour of television a day. No juggling chainsaws in the house. (There’s always that one person that ruins the fun for everyone, am I right?) Rules are everywhere: at home, at work, at school, even here at church. But like it or not, rules are very important in our lives because they remind us of what matters most; when we identify a value that is close to our hearts (safety, equality, health, justice) rules keep us on the right path to honoring them. If we want to grow up big and strong, we make a rule to eat our vegetables; if we don’t want to be couch potatoes, we make a rule to limit how much we watch t.v.; if we want to keep all of our limbs and fingers we make a rule not to throw and catch dangerous things. In this way, the rules we make and the ones we continue to follow say a lot about who we are.
So what do the ten commandments say about God? For the Israelites, it reminded them that they were special in God’s eyes, the “chosen people,” rescued from slavery in Egypt, given a land all to themselves, and entrusted with something given to no other nation on earth: the law of God. By giving them the law, God was calling them to a special relationship with himself. Essentially, he told them the way he wanted to be loved. If they wanted to be close to God, all they had to do was obey to what made him happy. It’s like that person that not-so-subtly hints at what they want for Christmas: “If only someone would buy me that watch… what a good friend.” In a less superficial way, it’s how all of our relationships work. When we want to show someone our love, we go out of our way to do what makes them happy; we set up rules in our lives to enable relationships: no cell phones at the table so we can talk with another; Wednesday night is family night so we can spend time together; on Sunday, we go to mass so we can give glory to God.
But sometimes, rules make no sense. Sometimes we forget why the rule is there in the first place and we end up following them for no good reason. “You can’t change that”— “Why not?”— “Because that’s the rule.”— “Why is that the rule?”— “No, that’s the way it’s always been done!” Have you ever experience this in your life?
Unfortunately, that is where the people of Israel have found themselves in our Gospel today. At some point along the way, many of them forgot why God gave them the law in the first place; they forgot that what God really wanted was to be in relationship with them. Sure, they kept the Sabbath and went to temple, but they turned it [from a place of worship for all people] to a place for making money. Sure, they said prayers to God and gave him reverence, but when he walked right before them, preaching, teaching, and performing miracles, they ridiculed him and kicked him out. Sure, they didn’t carve any false idols, but they became so attached to the temple building that they weren’t able to see the temple of Jesus’ body that God was going to raise up on the third day. Jesus, God himself, the reason for the law in the first place was in their presence… looking them in the eye…touching them…offering them eternity in heaven. A relationship with God was right in front of them, but they preferred to cling to a hallow shell of misunderstood rules than to follow him.
What I find so interesting about this situation is that, like us, these were generally good people. Like us, they wanted what was best for their families, went to a religious gathering every week, and really just tried to do what they thought was right. The law was what was right, and they had grown comfortable with it over the years, even if it didn’t make much sense or bring them joy or fulfillment. They did it because they knew they were supposed to. Like many of us, they had grown so comfortable in “the ways things have always been done,” that they forgot that God was calling them to an intimate relationship with himself; God wants more than rules and obligations, he wants love, worship, joy.
It’s easy for us to sit here two thousand years later and criticize them for failing to see God among them. “Brother, if Jesus were standing here right now, I would worship him and do anything he said. How could they have been so blind?” May-be. But here’s the thing: Jesus is here. His presence is as alive as it ever has been. He is here, right now, holding all of creation together and animating all to life. Can you see him in your life? Can you feel his presence here, in each other? Can you hear him calling you by name?
For much of my life, I couldn’t. Maybe you struggle with this too. I always believed in God, I went to Church, fasted during lent, said my prayers, you know, all the “rules” we follow, but I always wondered, “Why doesn’t God speak to the world today like he does in the Bible? Why doesn’t Jesus reveal himself to me?” Like many people, I went to mass but didn’t get much out of it. Maybe it was the music, maybe the homily could have been a little better, or at least shorter. These things could have certainly helped, but for me, the problem was much deeper. I went to church to experience God. Isn’t that why we go to church, you ask? The problem was that it was the only place I experienced Gpd. You see, my experience of God, like the Jews, was entirely tied up in a building, in a ritual, in a set of rules. This did not work for me. If we do not have an experience of Jesus outside of these walls, if we don’t really know who Jesus is, personally, we cannot bring anything to this worship. And if we can’t bring anything from our lives, any lived experience, how are we anything but a people following rules we don’t understand? St. John Chrysostom once said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” Since I struggled to see God in my everyday life, I struggled to understand what I was doing when I came to mass.
This began to change in college when I spent the summer in Philadelphia at the soup kitchen run by the friars. There I was, twenty years old, living in a row home without air conditioning in the inner city, eating whatever the kitchen was making that day, and spending my entire time with the poor, I was far from home. Where am I? What am I doing here? Like the tables in the temple flipped over by Jesus, my world was completely upside down. I was uncomfortable, I was vulnerable. It was there that I experienced God truly in my life. On the inside door of the soup kitchen there is a sign that says, “Smile, Jesus is at the door.” And on the other side is a homeless person, broken, desperate, and probably wreaking to high heaven. At first, I thought, “That’s good to remember. Treat everyone with respect like you would treat Jesus.” But it was more than that. What I came to realize was that Jesus was at the door. In those men and women, I experienced Jesus’ weakness, his pain on the cross, his humiliation before us. In those men and women, I felt Jesus himself in my presence: speaking, touching, performing miracles before my eyes. I felt him calling me to a different life, a life in him.
In our life in this church, we have many rules. Stand here. Sit there. Pray this. These rules are important. They unite us in prayer and give us a way to glory to God together in a beautiful way and enable us to show what is important in our lives, a relationship with God. Because ultimately, that’s what really matters. Without that encounter, without the eyes to see and the ears to hear the presence of our Lord among us, we are simply a people going through the motions, following rules we don’t understand because “that’s what we’ve always done.” Instead, may we be a people that loves our God so much that we see him in everything we do and every person we meet; that this Eucharist we celebrate may not be yet another rule we follow, but a celebration of the God who is truly present in our lives, and wants nothing more than to love us. Today, may you know this with all your heart, that God truly loves you and wants to be in relationship with you.