Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Sermon For An American Catholic Situation

I heard a very bland, nondescript sermon last night at Christmas Eve Mass. I know I could have given a better sermon to a community of American Catholics, many of them being the once- or twice-a-year congregants who come only at Christmas and/or Easter. This is the sermon I would have given to them, but it's a sermon that speaks to the global human family in just about any faith (or non-faith) perspective as well:

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What is my Christmas wish for all of you, for all of us? What is it that the Catholic Church should want for all its people? Let's get one thing straight: Following Church teaching and obeying Church doctrine have their place. There is a purpose, a reason, for engaging in spiritual discipline - to become a better person. More specifically, it is to become more like the One whose birth is being celebrated today. That, in short, is why we're here -- to publicly acknowledge that we're trying to become more like Jesus, the Christ, and that being more like Christ is our highest aspiration as human persons. This forms the heart of everything, and I don't think any of you would disagree.

So, in trying to be like Christ, what can we gain from this Christmas celebration in this American situation in 2012? We gather in the wake of an awful event in Newtown, Connecticut, an event in which children - just like the ones who participated in the pageant during the Gospel reading; just like the child in a manger whose birth is celebrated today - had their lives so tragically snuffed out. Our hearts are heavy and a part of us is scared. We realize anew that this life is so tenuous, which makes it that much more important to make it count. It is for that reason that Christians around the world worship today. We want to be more like Christ, to be more like the human person who modeled a Godly life for all people. We are here because we want to be more like the man who showed us, in living form and flesh, the ways of God the creator. 

One of the foremost ways in which Jesus showed us how to follow the path of God is to model a nonviolent way of being, to not injure others in any way, shape or form. Jesus, though being persecuted and killed, told Peter to put away his sword. He did not lash out in vengeance at Pontius Pilate or the Jewish religious leaders. He said from the cross, "Father, forgive them." He accepted the death penalty though being entirely innocent. As Philippians 2 verse 6 says, Jesus, though being in very nature God, did not deem equality with God something to be clung to. Jesus, living his one human life, showed the world for all time that nonviolence is a paramount virtue, a core part of what it means to live like God, to live as God wants His children to live. In the book of the prophet Isaiah, we are reminded that "God's ways are not our ways." This is, in many ways, the toughest thing to remember about our lives of faith. We have so many instincts and longings as human beings, but our goal is to be more like the God and author of all life, of all creation. It is not meant to be easy. It is not meant to be a quick fix. It is not meant to be something that comes naturally.

So it is with our relationship to nonviolence. It is easy to want revenge. It is easy to snap in five seconds, 10 seconds, or 15 seconds, and say something we instantly regret. During these stressful and emotional times of the holidays, it is easy to do something that causes injury to another person. It is easy to lose control in a brief period of time. We know this. We're human. We - like the lives we live - are frail.

My friends, it is not my place nor the place of the church to say anything about what any government or law enforcement agency should do about guns. That's not meant for this night and this place. What I can say, and what the Church should promote, is the path for all of us to take as individuals, as believers, as people yearning for meaning after a tragedy that has shattered us and shaken us to the core as Americans. Nonviolence is what we can do to respond to what happened in Newtown. Nonviolence is what we can take away from this Christmas, the gift of the baby Jesus that can nourish us and sustain us for the road ahead. Nonviolence is what we can do to live in a way that's closer to Jesus, a way that's more like the God whose ways are not our ways.

Doctrinal purity and correct religious expression have their place, but remember -- they are only meant as guideposts to the only real goal that matters: being more like Jesus, living a life that is faithful to God. Many of you, as visitors, might be coming to mass for the first time in a long time. This does not make you bad Catholics. Anything but. You're here because you want to be more like Jesus. You're here because you want to find something that will lift you up and give you hope. 

You've come to the right place, and you should know that Jesus - who reached out to people in all sorts of situations - accepts you just as you are. That's more than enough for Him, and that's more than enough for the Church today. You are welcomed and embraced in the fullness of love... the same love that is quick to forgive and rich in compassion.

For you, special visitors, as well as our regulars here at the Franciscan Renewal Center, the attempt to be more like Jesus is why we're all here. With the shadow of Newtown lingering over us, may this celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord - the baby in a manger, with no crib for a bed - may we renew our practice of nonviolence, to be more like the One who did not injure anyone else despite having very legitimate reasons for doing so.

May the Prince of Peace bless our broken world with peace, and let that peace being inside each and every one of us, with a commitment to nonviolence that the Son of God so powerfully manifested on this planet in his one and only human life.

Let there be peace on earth this Christmas, and let it begin with me.

Merry Christmas from all of us here at the Franciscan Renewal Center.... in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.