Saturday, January 21, 2017

“That they may be one.” - A Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Portland Peninsula and Island Parishes

Homily for the
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle A

Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
January 22, 2017

“Christians, like snowflakes, are frail...but when they stick together they can stop traffic.” These words were first penned by the American author and preacher Vance Havner nearly half a century ago, but given the current climate in our country, in the world, and in the Church, and given the rather funny modern re-appropriation of the term “snowflake,” I believe that they are timely enough to repeat. Anyone with eyes to see, ears to hear, a mind to think, and a heart to feel can say, undoubtedly, that there is a tremendous amount of division among us in our own day. Not just differences, not just distinctions, but real division: separateness, discord, and rupture. And while five minutes on Facebook or Twitter will reveal how true this is globally, five more minutes looking into our own lives will probably reveal divisions even more painful: divided families, broken marriages, severed relationships, etc. Everywhere we go, inside and outside our homes, we encounter person against person and heart against heart. The more self-righteous among us will be tempted to respond to this division by angrily pointing fingers, trying to find the first cause of it all and then seeking some kind of unattainable retribution from the presumed guilty party. The more defeatist among us will be tempted to respond by throwing in the towel and giving up on humanity. Both of these are inadequate responses to the pain caused by division. Division hurts...and it hurts because, in our guts, we know that we’re made for more. We know that discord in humanity was not and is not the Creator’s plan...He made us in His image and likeness, desiring us to be as truly and really united amongst ourselves as He is in Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And what’s more, He created us, both individually and collectively, to be united with Him. And yet our self-love, time and again, has thwarted all of this, resulting in an abundance of sin in this world of ours, tearing us apart from God and from each other. But instead of getting angry or depressed over this, we can take refuge in the reality that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. That’s what Havner is hinting at with his words, offering us both a truth and a challenge. The truth is that Christ has come into our broken, fractured world and has given to us the means by which to become whole and united again: in Him, in His Body, the Church. The challenge for us is to use our own free wills with the grace we have received to unite ourselves more and more to the Mystical Body of Christ. The solution to the division we see in the world is not just to boost up our tolerance and to become more accepting and “open,” but rather to become more like Christ, more one with Him. This is what gives us the power to put the brakes on the speeding train of sin and division and, as Havner says, to stop traffic.

In our second reading today, St. Paul is exhorting the early Christians in Corinth to accept and to conform their lives to this truth...the truth that Jesus Christ – and He alone – is the source of any hoped for unity in this broken world. He gets a little tough with them, calling them out for their rivalries and disagreements, and beckons them to keep their eyes and hearts focused on Christ Crucified. Paradoxically, it is the division of Christ’s body and blood on the Cross, the tearing apart of God-in-the-Flesh, the complete and utter sacrifice of His own self, that gives birth to a new and everlasting reality for mankind: a way to be united, a way to be one, a way to be whole with God, and with each other, in Christ. The sacrifice of His body on the Cross brings about the new life of His body, the Church, and offers to the entire world the reconciliation it hungers and thirsts for. St. Paul wants to make sure that the Corinthians, and we by extension, understand this reality and embrace it, but he also wants us to be aware of the great cost of the unity offered to the world in Christ: sacrifice, the laying down of one’s own life. Those of us who wish to be made one in Christ’s body, those of us who truly wish to be united to our God and our neighbor, must follow where the Master Himself has gone...we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves, to lay down our self-love, and offer our lives as a sacrifice of love for God and for one another.

In the last year of his life, St. Thomas Aquinas went to the city of Naples to preach a series of sermons during Lent. One of these sermons focused entirely on the Apostle’s Creed and St. Thomas, systematically, went through each of the articles. While reflecting on the article concerning the Church, he devoted a good bit of time to speaking about the unity of the Church: how this unity is caused in the first place and how it continues to cause greater unity. He posited that the unity of the Church arises from the three-fold virtues of faith, hope, and love, each of which is a participation in the sacrifice of Christ’s Cross. Faith, he says, is the first thing that binds the Church together, because “all Christians who are of the body of Christ believe the same doctrine.” This requires the sacrifice of our egos and the ability to subject our intellects to the truths of Divine Revelation. Hope, he says, is the second thing that binds the Church together, because all Christians who are of the body of Christ share in the joyful expectation of eternal life. This requires us to sacrifice our pessimism and our attachment to purely worldly things. And finally, St. Thomas says that love is the third thing that binds the Church together, because all Christians should see that the love God has for them individually is a love that extends to all people without exception, and that this love – a sacrificial love indeed – is the truest sign of a person’s new life in Christ. But this requires the sacrifice of our whole selves, willingly and even joyfully putting the love of God and the love of our neighbor before the love of our selves. These three virtues, lived out perfectly by Christ, keep the Church united and one. And when we, who are the members of the Body of Christ, can live them out in our own day and time, we further and expand the Church’s unity, eliminating the division and discord in our world one heart at a time.

Before ascending onto the altar of His Cross, Jesus cried out in prayer to His Father, “Keep them in Your name that You have given Me, so that they may be one just as We are one.” My friends, these are the words we are called to live by. These are the words that give our world the hope it so desperately needs. If you and I do our part, if we sacrifice ourselves daily to excel by grace in the virtues of faith, hope, and love, for the sake of God and our neighbor, then what is separated can become whole again, what is divided can become one. At this Holy Mass today, let us pray for the strength to lay down our lives, to conform ourselves to Christ Crucified, and pray, with Him, that we may all be one. Fragile as we may be, together we can stop traffic.

Friday, January 13, 2017

“Love, and then do what you will.” - A Homily for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Portland Peninsula and Island Parishes

Homily for the
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle A

Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
January 15, 2017

There’s a story that has been told by some that, during the Civil War, a group of ministers had invited Abraham Lincoln to join them at a prayer breakfast. Of course the realities of the war were weighing on everyone’s minds, and so it happened during the course of the event that one of the ministers purportedly said to him, “Mr. President, let us pray that God is on our side.” The President was silent for a moment...perhaps to think, perhaps caught up in the seriousness of the situation, perhaps even to pray...but then, breaking his silence, he said candidly, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”

Whether or not this conversation actually took place is neither here nor there, but it certainly puts into words one of the great struggles that does plague the human soul: how do we know if we’re actually serving God or really just serving ourselves? How do we know if we’re on “God’s side” as opposed to just setting up a side of our own? How do we know if what we will is truly what God wills? The temptation for us here, as people of faith, is to spend our whole lives trying to figure out what’s going on in the divine mind of God, trying to figure out His will as if it were some cosmic puzzle for us to put together. 99.9999% of the time this will prove to be fruitless...we will just end up frustrated and discouraged, and our spiritual lives will become stagnant as we hesitate to do anything unless we know for sure that God’s wills it: I won’t go to the seminary unless I know for sure God wants me to be a priest; I won’t marry this man unless I know for sure God’s wills it to be; I won’t go on that mission trip, or take that new job, or do anything of importance unless God makes it perfectly and abundantly clear that it’s His will. Certainly the goal of the Christian life is to place ourselves before the presence of God in radical openness and cry out as we did in our Psalm today, “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will!” but how can we do what so easily evades or is unknown to us?

It was St. Augustine who, in my opinion, gave the best piece of advice to those struggling with knowing and doing the will of God. In one of his great sermons, he said: “Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and then do what you will.” It seems like a reckless thing to say, doesn’t it? It’s as if Augustine is giving permission for us to shirk the will of God and to simply run off into the sunset doing whatever we want. But far from doing this, Augustine is bringing us to understand that knowledge of God’s will doesn’t come from trying to get into His mind, but rather by allowing Him to get into our hearts. Jesus Christ boiled down the whole of God’s law to two commandments: that we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. Now of course there is a lot contained in these commandments – our adherence to the natural moral law, the teachings of the Church, the avoidance of sin, living a life of virtue, etc. – but what Augustine is getting at here is that if we have fulfilled these commandments, if we have loved, then it follows necessarily that we have both known and accomplished the will of God. God’s absolute and perfect will has been made known to us by means of revelation – through Holy Scripture and though Sacred Tradition – and thus if we can live our lives in accordance with these realities and thus enter into true love for God and neighbor, God’s will for us – a will that ultimately is ordered towards our salvation – has been accomplished. And it is from this, and only from this, that Augustine can tell us, “and then do what you will.” Think of the amazing freedom we have here: so long as our lives are conformed to these two commandments and all they contain, you and I are radically free to choose how we will live! Thus discerning God’s will has less to do with trying to figure out His plan, and more about figuring out whether we are truly living in the freedom that comes from loving Him. And that’s where the real work of the Christian life is to be found: getting very serious about true and real love.

God created us in freedom and He created us with a will that is free, and His permissive will allows us to exercise this freedom for good or for evil. And He wants us to exercise our free will to grow closer to Him, to love and know what is true, and good, and beautiful...but He doesn’t want us to do so according to some master plan He’s mapped out that we’ve somehow figured out. He wants us to be radically free, and as long as we have truly loved Him and our neighbor, we can indeed do whatever else we will. We can climb Mt. Everest, open a business, become a priest, marry the person of our dreams, and on and on and on. “Let the root of love be in you,” Augustine goes on to say, “nothing can spring from it but good.”

God cares about every second of your life, and every little detail of it. And He knows perfectly and absolutely the best way for you to spend every moment. His particular plan for you, the only plan He has, is that you will take every moment as an opportunity to love Him and your neighbor as fully as possible. The best decisions in life for us, the right way to go, fulfilling God’s plan for us, will always be those things that lead us to deeper and greater love. That’s where the work of discernment takes place...and this is how we know if we’re doing the will of God. Let us pray at this Holy Mass for the grace to see how very free we are and then for the strength to use this freedom to become one of will with our good God.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Christ is Truth and He has made Himself Known - A Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord

The Portland Peninsula and Island Parishes

Homily for the
Epiphany of the Lord

Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
January 8, 2017

Truth. What do you think of when you hear this word? In our world today it has, ironically, become a word that can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. For some, truth is correctness, being in accord with fact: two plus two equals four and this is always and undeniably true. For others, truth is authenticity, being in accord with one’s own self: I know who I am and I am going to be true to that. And still for others, truth is simply whatever a person perceives or experiences or wishes to experience in this life. A lot of ink has been spilt on this for thousands of years...from philosophers to farmers, from theologians to scientists, from kings to peasants, humankind has grappled with what truth is, if it is, how it can be known, and if it can be known. It is good and noble and pleasing for us to pursue these questions with vigor, but it is not for us to do right now. Here, during this Holy Mass, as the Church celebrates the great Epiphany of the Lord, we are reminded that truth is more than a word to ponder or a concept to explore. Truth is a Person to love...and His name is Jesus, Who is the Christ. 

The theological and spiritual significance of this feast is simply that God has been made manifest, He has appeared to us in the flesh of the Babe of Bethlehem, the Child of Nazareth, the One Who is called Jesus. In Christ, God is immediately accessible to His own creation: He is touchable, seeable, knowable, and lovable. And this manifestation is not simply available to a select few, but for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear, for anyone who is ready and willing to have their minds and hearts expanded beyond their wildest dreams. At first He was known only to the meek and poor of the House of Israel: a maiden from Nazareth, her carpenter husband, and a handful of shepherds. But today we celebrate that God-in-the-flesh desires to make Himself known by all people of every land and nation. The Magi – who tradition has called Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar – have arrived at the Christmas crib on bended knee. Coming from the East, they have not heard of the God of Israel, the God Who had revealed Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; they have not received the law from Moses nor have they received the words of the Prophets nor have they longed for the coming of a Messiah as the people of Israel have. They have come to the Christ Child not because they saw in Him the fulfillment of prophecy, but because He called them to Himself. The all-pervading presence of God in the world was increasingly becoming so overwhelmingly obvious to them that these wise men from afar couldn’t stay away. Deep in their souls they knew – they just knew – that every bit of wisdom they had pursued in the past and every bit of truth they had desired to grasp could be found fulfilled, in its entirety, in the fragile flesh of a small Child cradled in His mother’s arms. And so they came, crying out with humble joy that they were ready to receive and to accept and to embrace – on behalf of peoples everywhere – the One Who had made Himself manifest. And through their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they offered Him the greater gift of their loving acceptance of His kingship, His divinity, and His humanity. These Magi remind us today, by means of their humility, their journey, and the homage they paid to the Christ Child, that truth is more accessible in this life than we can imagine, and that the reason we desire it so much is because it – He – desires us.

Moments before sending Christ off to His death, Pontius Pilate looked into His eyes and asked Him, “What is truth?” O the irony of ironies! Truth was looking straight at him and Pilate was blind to it. His eyes were opened and yet he couldn’t see...his ears were opened and yet he couldn’t hear. If Pilate had even an ounce more of humility, He would have realized that his soul was stirring before its Creator...but he was stubborn, and afraid, and proud. He couldn’t let go at that moment of whatever it was that he was holding on to and so He missed the opportunity given to Him to see the Truth, to be seen by the Truth, to love the Truth, and to be loved by the Truth.

Every person on the face of this earth is given the same opportunity to encounter Jesus Christ Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We can be like Pilate if we choose and turn a blind eye to Him. We can reject His teachings in our own arrogance; we can reject His love in our own love of self; we can reject His goodness in our own sin. Or we can be like the Magi and dare to see Him as He is. We can allow Him to reveal Himself to us – which He does through His Church – and so expand our minds and our hearts, and grant us the precious gift of His salvation. The choice is ours.

On this great feast of the Epiphany, as we find ourselves struggling to stay afloat in the difficulties and complexities of this life, let us take refuge in the reality that God is with us, that He has taken on flesh, that He has made Himself known, and that nothing we do in this life matters more than our response to Him. We could be poor, sick, lonely, and abandoned, and yet if we give in to the amazing simplicity of God’s love for us in Christ, we will have everything we have ever desired.