Sunday, June 27, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time - June 27, 2010

Readings: 1 Kgs 19-16-21; Gal 5:13-18; Lk 9:51-62

One of the key themes in today’s readings is freedom. Ideally they should have had this reading next weekend when we celebrate the 4th of July holiday. But, alas, this isn’t a perfect world and so we have the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians this week. And Paul makes freedom into a main Christian belief: "For freedom Christ has set us free. .... You were called to freedom, brothers and serve one another through love."

For those of us who can remember back to the days before the Second Vatican Council in the 1950s and 1960s, we can recall that freedom was not a big issue in the Catholic Church. There was a lot more emphasis on obedience—obeying the laws of God and obeying the laws of the Church. But the Council made a strong statement about the importance of freedom in the Christian vision: "It is only in freedom that human beings can turn toward what is good. .... That which is truly freedom is an exceptional sign of the image of God in human beings." (G & S, #17) This declaration put freedom at the very center of Catholic morality and spirituality. Freedom is a sign of the image of God in us.

But I think that we should note that there are several different meanings of freedom in our common language usage, and it’s important that we understand which of them is being referred to in both St. Paul’s letter and the Council document. First, there’s a common understanding of freedom that sees it as the "simple ability to choose between options" (without specifying any objects of choice). We go to the grocery store with the freedom to choose whatever variety of breakfast cereal we would like. This freedom is the simple ability to choose between options. But that’s not the particular meaning of freedom that St. Paul or the Council intends.

There’s a second meaning of freedom, which is "the ability and action of choosing what is right and good." Notice that Paul said, "You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, so serve one another through love." And the Council declares: " freedom human beings can turn toward what is good." This meaning of freedom includes a necessary object, the good and the loving. In my homily last week I noted that Jesus wanted us to think about other people’s needs and lives. We are to think about how we can help them to make their lives a little easier or a little more enjoyable. True Christian freedom is the power to actually do that. It’s not just thinking about it; it’s doing it. That’s the freedom that St. Paul and the Vatican Council document are intending.

There’s a third meaning of freedom, but it’s much less well-known than the first two. I came across an example of it in a book entitled, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. The book is by a Presbyterian minister, Belden Lane. One of the things he writes about in the book is the time he spent with his mother as she was dying from cancer in a nursing home over a three-year period. As he tells it, she was not an easy person to live with at any time, and she did not like being confined in a nursing home room. But gradually she came to accept it....with a struggle. I’d like to read you some lines from that book about his mother’s adjustment: "My mother’s acceptance of the room gave her, for the first time in her life, a quiet space for the healing of memories. She was able to pour a lifetime of anxieties and compulsions into that suffocatingly quiet room. As a place she could not leave, it became ironically a source of the highest freedom she ever attained. ... To freely choose what one cannot change may be the highest exercise of the will, and its deepest freedom." (p. 206) There’s a lot to think about there.

Next weekend we will celebrate the 4th of July and the achievement of freedom. But let’s not forget that there are several different kinds of freedom. We want to celebrate our Christian freedom. Again, as St. Paul writes, "You were called to freedom, so serve one another with love."

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