Living Sacramentally.

I am back to readings reflections. In the first reading yesterday we hear from St. Paul, who is speaking about the “collection for the saints,” which is the collection for the suffering Church in Jerusalem. This is his reminder to the churches that we are part of a greater Church, the Church of Jesus Christ. We are His body, and as such, we are called to nourish every part of it. Everything we have and everything we are comes from the Lord. It is fitting to give back to Him in gratitude.

St. Paul is adept at using old proverbs to teach the lesson of generosity: “…whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor 9:6b; cf. Prov 22:9). Jesus, of course, is the original teacher of this lesson, (whether as the Word who has spoken from eternity or the Incarnate Word who dwells among us!) St. Paul speaks of giving according to the heart, and out of the love that we have for one another.

What (or Who) is the Source of this love?

It is the unending love by which all creation exists, and only one part of Creation is capable of returning this love in gratitude — man. The love of God freely flows into the hearts of His people for the purpose of freely flowing forward into life and abundance. For Jesus said, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). St. Paul is reminding the Corinthians, and us, that all we have is from God in the first place! There is nothing…nothing…that is good, true, and beautiful…that is not foreseen or given by the Father. Paul quotes Psalm 112 to make this point: “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever” (Ps 112:9). He further makes the point and tells us of the necessary response of gratitude: “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (2 Cor 9:13). Charity, ultimately, is giving back the gifts we have already been given. It is by grace that these gifts multiply.

The idea of “many thanksgivings” should cause us to think of the Sacraments, and in particular, the Eucharist. As we receive the Sacraments we receive the life of God — His grace — in abundance, and we continue to grow in grace upon grace. “For from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16).

I once asked a young person in my life, “Why do you think I go to Mass?”

“Because you have to; it is a rule that you choose to follow,” he said.

“Oh no,” I said. “It is because I want to. What we are doing when we go to Mass is giving of ourselves, our life, our time that has been given to us, back to the Lord, and He, in turn, gives us Himself in His Word and in His holy food. This food sustains me. It gives me life!”

Grace upon grace. That is what it is all about. A gift of the heart — given from the heart and received in the heart.

God continues to give Himself through the Sacraments (but not exclusively so), so that we can live in the freedom to truly love. When Jesus gave us the Great Commission to unleash the Gospel (cf. Mt 28:19), He called us to do the same. We are called to give of ourselves, sacramentally, to others. We are to be a visible sign of an invisible reality: Christ living within us. There are the actual Sacraments of the Church, through which God gives us life and love, and it is by this life and love that we, too, give others life and love. Our sacramental giving and receiving with Jesus is His means of sharing His life and love with the whole world, resulting in joy-filled gratitude!

This is the Sacramental worldview that we so need today. The Good News is that God has planted Himself into the hearts of His people, by our creation. We are made in His image and likeness, which means that His goodness is within us. If this were not true, then no one would ever turn back to Him. God is asking each one of us to share His love with others, that by our example, we can be a sacrament to others — a sign of His eternal love for the entire world.

He tell us this through the prophet Isaiah: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is 55:10-11).

See this adorable film clip from the movie, Hook. See how the little boys search carefully for the Peter Pan they once knew — the spark of innocence and joy. (Be like little children). We are to search for Christ in others the same way the little boys search for Peter Pan in Robin Williams’ character, Peter. (May he rest in peace in the arms of the Lord Jesus!)

What is God’s Plumb Line?

A meditation on what Amos the prophet might say to the people of our time.

A plumb line is a wonderful tool.  It is a string with a weight on it, and when placed by a wall and the weight is allowed to hang down, it is readily apparent whether the wall is vertical or not.  If not, eventually the wall will come tumbling down due to the force of gravity.  As we all know and sense, gravity is an invisible force in nature that engineers account for when building structures. Many people might even curse it when they step on the scale in the morning.  There is no denying it, for when we do, the consequences can be disastrous.  Indeed, the brain does the calculus of gravity whether it knows it or not, or at least tries. (If you do not believe me, go shoot a basketball into a hoop, or putt a golf ball into the cup.  Even a cat can do the calculus required to always land on its feet). In the realm of the senses, humans are capable of discovering and accounting for the material forces in the universe.  When we do this, good things can happen.

There is another invisible force (if you will) in the universe that human persons are able to discern.  In examining ourselves and our powers, we recognize that there has to be something (or someone) greater than ourselves.  Just as the invisible forces and visible materials in the universe are discovered and measured through the disciplines of science, the invisible God who created all things is discovered by faith through revelation.  To the human mind and brain the workings of the universe are revealed to us, and to the human spirit the workings of the God who created it are revealed and discerned.  In both realms — sensory and spiritual — discerning what is revealed first requires a decision to receive the truth about it.  It is through this openness of heart that we receive the truth about God’s plumb line.

Throughout history God has spoken to prophets to reveal His good and noble purposes for His creation, and we encounter these stories in Sacred Scripture.  The concept of a plumb line was presented in the book of Amos.  Amos was a lowly herdsman when God called him to prophesy to his people (cf. Amos 7:18).  Israel and Judah were in a time of prosperity. Though they were at odds with each other, both were doing quite well in terms of wealth and peace with their surrounding neighbors.  If we were to think of Israel and Judah in terms of western society today, we might consider the United States and Russia.  Certainly there are differences.  The primary similarity to consider is that both powers consider themselves righteous and powerful.

Amos was from Judah, but God called him to speak to the northern kingdom of Israel. He was to warn the people that what they were doing was not according to the will of God — they were forgetting about His plumb line.  Amos was not to be an echo chamber of doom and gloom, but to reveal the consequences of deaf ears and inaction.  

This is what he showed me: behold, the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass by them; the high places of Isaac will be made desolate…” (Amos 7:7-9a).

Amos is warning the people that their behavior is not in accordance with God’s laws, though they may think that it is. Both Judah and Israel considered themselves God-fearing and just. They were enjoying so much prosperity, after all.  Unfortunately though, we are sometimes fooled in our fallen human nature, and we think that we are the reason for our prosperity.  We think that we deserve this prosperity, because we are chosen, or we work hard, or we are smart, or we are virtuous.  This list goes on and on. We forget that it is all a gift.  It is God who gives us our lives and our sustenance…along with His plumb line that keeps us safe and at peace with Him and with each other.  He gives, and then He says, “Here you go!  Enjoy!” (cf. Gen 2:1-24).

What could Israel have been doing that was so bad that God called Amos out of his blue-collar herdsman job in the south to go have a talk with the powers-that-be in the north? It is in chapter five of Amos that we get an idea of what was going on.  The entire social system is out of order.  Here are some examples that Amos gives: you trample on the poor (5:11a), you have built houses of hewn stone (5:11b), you have planted pleasant vineyards (5:11c). In summary, the Lord accuses Israel of neglecting those who are vulnerable: “you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:12b).

Building houses of hewn stone and planting pleasant vineyards are certainly great things to do, but as we see in the verses that follow, it was done on the backs of the poor and downtrodden.  It was done from the standpoint of one person’s (or group of persons’) power and wealth over another.  They kept things for themselves, and were even violent in doing so.  “’They do not know how to do right,’ declares the Lord, ‘those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds’” (Amos 3:10a). The consequence for this injustice is: “your strongholds shall be plundered” (Amos 3:10c).

The Lord wanted social justice.  He concludes the chapter five oracle, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). The Lord’s plumb line for justice, then and now, is the Inviolable Dignity of the Human Person. The way we treat others, (their personhood and livelihood), the way we use our wealth, and the policies we live by in our families, and that we create in our communities and governments, must be in accordance with God’s will for individual persons and for the common good.  But where do we draw the line, practically?  Should we draw lines that are plumb to “walls” such as economic or social considerations?  Political considerations?  In our pluralistic society, where does any person of good will draw the line?  An even more important question, in my mind, is where does a God-fearing person draw the line?

The truth of dignity tells us that this line is the person in front of us.  This is the simple truth that is known in the hearts of all people.  This truth is as true as the gravitational pull between bodies. Who could see someone hurting in front of them and not help them? “Who is my neighbor?” the expert in the law asked Jesus (cf. Luke 10:29).  Jesus proceeds to tell him the parable of the Good Samaritan. What would Jesus say to us today?  What would Amos say to us today? 

Today there are many unjust lines being drawn.  In our country there are persons who are trying to support their families and give them a better life, but are considered felons just by existing.  There are elderly or disabled persons who cannot get basic healthcare because of their age or disability.  There are families and children living in the slums around the world who have toxic homes because of environmental policies that are not enforced on those who have power or money.  There are babies in the womb, who are literally not only in front of us, but whom God has known before conception (cf. Jer 1:5), who have absolutely no right to live according to many in our society.  Have we, as a prosperous society, lost sight of all these persons?  

Perhaps as you read this you wish to place me, the author, ‘in the box’ of a particular political party.  This would be missing the point entirely.  There is a greater and more important box to be in — that of truth and justice and the will of our Creator.

Amos is speaking to all of us today.  As human persons who have been created in the image and likeness of God we have the capacity to look inside at our own action or inaction, our own prejudices and selfish desires.  Amos is challenging us to consider God’s plumb line, rather than the ones created by political parties.  The truth that another person’s dignity is fundamental is known in the hearts of all people of good will, and again, is as true as the immaterial laws of the universe.  The question is, are our hearts open enough to receive this truth?  Once received, are we open to the changes necessary, both personal and societal, to make God’s plumb line our own? 

Finally, how many of our high places will be made desolate before we decide to take action?

Here is a great video by Bishop Barron on Martin Luther King’s ideas of justice: