Hydrate or Die

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 17C

A few different times this summer, I’ve seen lemonade stands set up on the side of the road. The heat of this past week brings them to mind, although I’ve become a bit wary of buying lemonade on the sidewalk after seeing a policeman lecturing a group of kids about not having the proper permits. Still, I remember from my earlier summers of mowing lawns and working in cornfields just how refreshing a cold beverage can be while working in the sun and heat of a summer day in South Dakota. My recent hike in northern Minnesota on the Superior Hiking Trail saw us drinking any water we could find through a pretty ingenious straw filter. The trips I took to Mexico and Belize were also punctuated by the motto, “Hydrate or die.”

When I was learning about our metabolism and homeostasis in school, it seemed like water didn’t actually do very much. The food we eat is broken down to produce energy, and proteins and other nutrients are rearranged to provide structure, growth, and healing for our bodies. Even the oxygen we use undergoes a chemical change when it becomes carbon dioxide. Water itself doesn’t really change all that much inside our bodies, and as we sweat to maintain a stable temperature, the water only evaporates and undergoes a physical change. The basic structure of H2O doesn’t change.

Of course, we know that water is actually essential in all the most crucial processes of biology. I just came across the survival rules of three, which state that human beings in extreme situations can survive for 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, or 3 weeks without food. Water is a necessity of life. Because it allows so many other substances to dissolve in it, water is the necessary context in which a countless number of life’s most important processes take place, even though the water itself doesn’t change much.

Water has always been a symbol of purity, and this makes good sense if we think about how we are still using the very same water as in pre-historic times. No matter what it goes through (or what goes through it), it remains essentially the same water that is constantly renewed and recycled through evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. Scripture speaks of wisdom in similar terms: “Although she is one, she can do all things, and she renews everything while herself perduring. Passing into holy souls from age to age, she produces friends of God and prophets” (Wisdom 7:27).

Using the same symbol of water, Jesus invites us to drink of God’s own life: “‘Let anyone who thirsts come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as Scripture says: Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’ He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in Him were to receive” (John 7:37-39). God does not change as He pours Himself into our hearts, but His grace is the necessary context for so many of the changes that need to take place in our lives. For our spiritual life and health, we need God even more than we need water. Hydrate or die. Drink deeply of God’s life, or thirst for eternity. The choice is simple; make it a good one.

Tolerance is Not Enough

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 15C

I give you a new commandment: tolerate one another. As I have tolerated you, so you also should tolerate one another. As I say this, I usually think of house cats, because most cats that I’ve met don’t seem to actually love humans but merely to tolerate their presence and existence as providers of food and shelter. Now you might disagree about cats, but I find it somewhat helpful in thinking of the difference between tolerance and love. In our modern society, tolerance is often presented as the highest ideal, that merely putting up with one another is the best that we can hope for, and that to offend or challenge one another is the greatest of sins. Jesus presents us with a very different message. Love one another. As He has loved us, so we are to love one another. 

What does this love of Jesus look like? It includes His love for the poor, his healing of many who were sick, his reaching out and forgiving sinners, but he also challenges those that He encounters to “go, and sin no more.” A pretty tall order. Jesus does not just leave the sinner in his sin but challenges him to turn his life around, and Jesus provides the grace for him to do this. Jesus also offends many of His contemporaries by performing most of his healings on the Sabbath, the day of sacred rest. He often challenges their understanding of God’s Law, what it means to be holy, and what the Messiah or Christ would be. He is not very tolerant of the errors and pride of many of the scribes and Pharisees. Even in our Gospel today, he probably offended many priests and Levites by depicting them as indifferent to the sufferings of the man in need in the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

Now, I’m not saying that tolerance does not have a role to play in our lives as Christians, but I am saying that mere tolerance is not enough. What is tolerance? Tolerance is the acceptance or allowance of something that we perceive as an evil. So some sort of evil is always the object of our tolerance. This evil might be a sickness or suffering like the condition of the man beset by robbers in today’s parable, or it might be a lifestyle that detracts from someone’s health or wholeness like a dependence on drugs or alcohol, or it can be an error of judgment and belief of something that is not in line with reality. And there are countless other evils that might be objects of our tolerance, but we are called to love people, not just tolerate them. Fundamentally, every person is created by God with dignity, and their existence is good. We should not see the people around us as an evil that we must tolerate but as beings made in the image of God.

When we see someone in need, we should be moved with compassion as the Good Samaritan was. We can tolerate certain evils temporarily, to give people room to grow and to come to the knowledge of the truth, but we should not remain indifferent or silent in the face of the sufferings of those around us, whether those sufferings are inflicted by robbers or self-inflicted. When we share the Gospel with someone in need, with someone who could benefit from the Truth that sets us free, with someone imprisoned by the lies of this world, we might risk offending and challenging their understanding of things, but this is our call as followers of Christ. 

And going out of our way like the Good Samaritan to help a neighbor in need, to help a stranger or even an enemy, is the only thing powerful enough to fight against the great distrust and suspicion seeping into our society, to fight against the random acts of violence and terrorism that plague us today. Only the love of Jesus Christ is powerful enough to overcome the evils that we watch on the news. No policy changes, no guidelines, nothing short of the conversion of our own hearts and the escape from our own little worlds can begin to repair the rifts and resentments in our society. Tolerance is not enough, especially since tolerance has such a tendency to turn into indifference. In the strength of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, poured out in love for us upon this altar, we are called to reach out in love and compassion to the needs of our neighbor. I give you a new commandment that the world does not give: love one another as Christ has loved us.  

Loved without Deserving

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 14C

As I was growing up, I was always proud to be living in the greatest country in the world. I also assumed that everyone who grew up in other countries really aspired in their heart of hearts to become American as well. The United States of America is the Promised Land, the land of opportunity, abundance and plenty, the land of the free and the home of the brave. Later in life, as I traveled through other countries and found out that there actually are some people who claim that they’re not interested in living in the United States, I still remained convinced myself, that there is no other country in the world that I would rather call my home. But what did I ever do, what did any of us do, to deserve being born here and being made a citizen of these United States?

In our modern society, there’s a lot of emphasis on what we do, what kind of job we have, different skill sets and areas of expertise, even on what we do as a hobby or when we go on vacation. These tend to be some of the first questions we ask someone that we’ve just met, where do you work, what do you do, what do you like to do in your free time? This emphasis on action and productivity is not necessarily a bad thing, but if that becomes the only thing we look at for our own sense of identity and self-worth—what we can earn, what we can acquire for ourselves—then what happens to us when we lose a job or fail an exam, or when we start to get older and lose the ability to do some of the things we used to? Do we still know who we are, behind and beyond anything that we can or cannot do?

At the end of our Gospel today, as the disciples return from their mission, they express their delight and amazement that they were even able to perform exorcisms, to cast out demons in the Name of Jesus. But Jesus is very quick to remind them not to rejoice so much in the power he has given them, in what they are able to do, but to rejoice instead that God has chosen them for salvation. Jesus still gives the same reminder to us today, “Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” At the very foundation of our existence and of our true value, before we can do anything or earn anything, God chooses to give us life, not only at the beginning of our lives, but every day that we wake up still breathing is a gift from God who sustains us, who continues to say yes to our life in every moment. Most of us did absolutely nothing to become citizens of this greatest of nations. And we became Catholics and Christians, citizens of our heavenly homeland, only by the free, unmerited gift of God’s grace, “that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” and by his Resurrection “purchased for us the rewards of eternal salvation.”

The most important things in this life and in the life to come are the things that we cannot earn for ourselves. Membership in our own families, in our own country, and in the family of God is not something that we can earn. We gather together for Mass to focus not so much on what we can do for God but to give thanks for all that God has done and continues to do for us. Pride is usually what keeps us from recognizing that all that we are and everything that we can do is a gift to us from almighty God. We often think that we need to be punished for our sins—and we often punish ourselves—to be humbled and cured of our pride, but the most humbling experiences by far are those times when we recognize that someone really loves us, even though we’ve done nothing to deserve it. In his great mercy, may God humble us by continuing to pour out his blessings upon us sinners, that we might be transformed by his unending and unconditional love.