Three summers ago I spent the summer in Omaha, NE at Creighton University attending a program called the Institute for Priestly formation. It was a summer devoted to growing in my spiritual life and deepening my relationship with the Lord. I took some spirituality classes and was also involved in pastoral work. I spent two days a week ministering at a place called “On With Life,” which is a rehabilitation center for those people who have suffered a severe brain trauma. I was terrified when I first went there because the question I kept asking was, “How am I supposed to minister to these people, who many of them cannot even acknowledge my presence because they’re in a coma or non-responsive? How can I reveal God’s love to them?” I was scared and didn’t know what to do. In our culture our worth is defined by how much we can “do” or how much we can “accomplish.” I had to face the reality that I couldn’t “do” anything for them, rather I was forced to learn what it meant to just “be” with them. The experience was full of blessings for me. I learned how to just be with them, and did things like sing karaoke and play the Nintendo Wii with them and they, in turn, would respond with a smile or a squeeze of their hand. I found that as I was ministering to them, they were also ministering to me. As I was revealing their dignity and worth as human persons, they were showing me my worth as a human person too. They loved me for being me, and I learned how to love them for being them. The experience revealed to me profoundly the deep worth and dignity that all human persons have, no matter what their state in life: the unborn child, the boy with autism, the teenage girl who is struggling with bullying, the brain coma patient, the elderly… all are supremely important because each and every one of us is made in the image and likeness of God.
This weekend we celebrate Respect Life Sunday, which reminds us this year to reflect in a particular way that “Every Life is Worth Living.” Every life, no matter the circumstance of the person, is a life worth living, having received the great dignity from God by being made in His image and likeness. Every human being is worthy of love. The Scripture readings today affirm this fundamental truth in our lives. I always love this part of the book of Genesis because this is the first time God says that something is “not good” after the creation of the world. He says that it is not good for man to be alone. And then we hear about the creation of Eve from the rib of Adam. This story reveals to us something fundamental about our human nature. We are created for relationship. We are created for love. We are created to love and be loved in return, no matter who we are. God created mankind this way. Adam was, in a sense, not complete until he met Eve. This is why Adam exclaims, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called woman for out of man this one has been taken.” Eve not only completed Adam but revealed the destiny of love that they were created for. They were to be so united that they became one body, one flesh. This one flesh union has a deep meaning: the Jewish meaning of flesh encompassed the whole person, not just the physical body and so for Adam and Eve to become one flesh meant that they had a complete sharing of life together in every single aspect, not just a physical reference to the marital act. This is the vocation of all married couples and this text of Genesis provides the very foundation of the sacrament of marriage, but it also does more; this text also reveals to us our vocations of love in union with God. While not all of us are called to marriage, I am a celibate deacon and soon to be priest, all of us are called to the vocation of love. The book of Genesis shows us that Adam was not meant to be alone, but that he was to walk with God and Eve, in a community, in love. We too are called to not be alone, but rather we are called to love God and each other within a community, within the community that Jesus Christ Himself established, the Catholic Church as we continue on our journey to God Himself in heaven.
Jesus affirms this vocation of love in today’s Gospel. Jesus reminds the Pharisees that love is the fundamental vocation of each human. When the Pharisee’s try to test Jesus by asking about divorce, Jesus is quick to state that divorce was never part of the original plan for marriage, Moses only allowed it because of the hardness their hearts. Divorce is contrary to love and the union that God desires for each and every one of us and the vocation of love was there from the very beginning. This is why we, as Catholics, know marriage to be a sacrament with an unbreakable bond between husband and wife, uniting them and allowing them to bear children and raise them in the faith. Authentic unbreakable love is the call in marriage, as Jesus affirms, and also is the vocation of all us, whether it is within the context of marriage or not.
This means for us that in everything we do, we are called to love first. And not just love in the generic, feel good, sense, but in the self-sacrificial sense that is found within marriage and is revealed to us by Jesus when he said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Love means that I would lay down my life for the one I love. We are called to love by laying down our lives for God and for our neighbors. We are called to love those who it may be hard to love. Not just those who annoy or irritate us, but also those who aren’t capable of loving us back in a human way, much like those people whom I ministered to in Omaha who were in comas because of brain injuries. These are the people the world would claim don’t have a purpose in the society anymore because they can no longer “contribute” to it, and there is a push for euthanasia or even physician-assisted suicide in some cases. Those options are attacks against the very dignity of the person who is made to love and be loved. Even though the people at On With Life couldn’t love me back on a human level, I loved them and affirmed their dignity and worth and their vocation of love by being with them in love and in a very real sense they showed me love by revealing my worth and dignity too.
My younger brother points this out to me as well. My brother, Paul, has autism and isn’t capable of doing great things in the eyes of the society, but he is capable of doing great things with love. In fact he probably knows how to love better than I do, because he truly has the heart of a child and knows love the best. I can learn how to love better by loving my brother, by loving those who can’t love, by loving those whom I don’t want to love. It is in loving without counting the cost that we acquire the heart of a child and can accept the kingdom of God as Jesus reveals to us today. Closely following our vocation of love will lead us into the kingdom of heaven and eternal life.
So practically, out of the many ways in which we love God in union with our community, one of the ways by tithing. Tithing comes from the Old Testament where the Jewish people gave the first 10% of their crops and produce back to God in thanksgiving and love for the many blessing God gave them throughout the year (Leviticus 27:32, Deuteronomy 14:22,29). In the Old Testament time period, this usually meant offering a tenth of one’s produce or livestock because that was the only part of their livelihood that they could offer back to God. Today tithing is typically not in the form of animals or produce, but in money. The same practice is part of our Christian life today, although Jesus actually calls us to do more; He calls us to give up everything to follow him out of love. And so we each do that in the way we can that is appropriate to our state in life; some give of their lives in responding to the call to be a priest or a religious nun while others respond by living their vocation faithfully within their family and supporting their local community financially and with their time, talent, and prayers. For me personally, I am, of course, devoting my entire life to be a priest, I will be ordained a priest on May 20, 2016, so mark your calendars and pray for me! But I, too, am called to give financially. I am not part of a religious order where I took a vow of poverty and don’t own anything personally. Rather, I receive a stipend from the Diocese each month and have a source of income and I am called to tithe out of my vocation of love. At first I struggled with that truth because I thought I was already giving up everything to be a priest and God slowly revealed to me that even in my vocation, I could be selfish with the money that I did have. So I decided to begin tithing to FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, because I have experienced the good that comes from evangelization on college campuses and I know personally a few FOCUS missionaries whom I have decided to support financially with my tithe to the Church. This is one of the ways in which I am responding to God’s blessings and love in my life, by giving back to Him in the form of tithing. In the vocation of love that each of us is called to as pointed out by Adam and Eve and Jesus himself today, each of us must respond to God’s great love for us by loving Him back with everything we have and tithing is a one of many practical ways of living out our vocation of love.
Lastly this evening, I have one final point for you. This weekend, along with being Respect Life Sunday where we reaffirm in a specific way each and every human being’s dignity from conception until natural death, is also the beginning of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome; it actually begins tomorrow on Sunday. This is a crucial time for the Church in our modern culture. The bishops are gathering in Rome to discuss and continue the work of determining the best pastoral approaches to the issues the family faces in our world today, from legal divorce and remarriage (which, as Jesus points out today, is not part of the plan for marriage) to pastoral approaches to those who struggle with same sex attraction all within the context of the family. Please join the Church in offering prayers and sacrifices for the outcome of the Synod. Pray that the Holy Spirit may guide the bishops within the Synod to follow their vocation of love perfectly as they discuss the issues attacking the family today. Pray, too, that each and every one of us may follow the vocation of love within our lives so that we can acquire the heart of a child and enter the kingdom of heaven.