St. Paul in the Letter to the Galatians declares “You were made for freedom, brothers and sisters, but do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh but rather serve one another through love.” That is an important reminder as we Catholics in the United States raise up the issue of preserving religious freedom as we do each year around the 4th of July.
Each year we recall when our forefathers with courage and conscience declared that “we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” which are now under attack by many in the media, freedom from religion proponents, and others in governments at all levels. Fortunately here in South Dakota that movement is not strong but it is growing.
Jesus in the Gospel reading sets forth what the freedom we were made for ought to be. It is not the license to do whatever we want regardless of the impact on others or the wider community. It is the personal choice to do what is the right thing to do.
Jesus present four scenarios we can learn from. Luke tells us that Jesus “turned his face toward Jerusalem.” Waiting in Jerusalem were his passion and cross, and also the empty tomb. By His example he showed what we ought to do with our freedom. That is to do the will of the Father, even when seemingly hard for the Father knows what is best for us. He gives us the grace to do so but we must first open our hearts to receive it and Him even when we wonder or doubt.
To go to Jerusalem Jesus and his followers had to pass through Samaritan territory where they were not well received. In response to their unfriendly reception James and John wanted to violently confront them with fire from heaven. Jesus rebuked them, a clear message that violence was not to be inflicted on those who have differing beliefs. Conversion is the better way.
Also in the Gospel reading Jesus encounters three prospective disciples. First Jesus is approached by one who wants to become a disciple. “I will follow you wherever you go”, he says. Jesus on his way to the cross for our salvation essentially asks him if he knows what he is saying. Before we casually pledge to follow him we better have some idea about what we are committing to. It means putting God first. It means living lives worthy of being called Christians often to the disappointment of family and friends. It means opening ourselves to God’s will above our own preferences. It means practicing what we preach. Jesus is straightforward and honest about it: to follow me will be a challenge, you do not know where it will lead, it may involve a cross, but it will be worth it. I wonder if sometimes people drift away from the Church because we have become casual about the challenge of discipleship and the reward of remaining true so that when the hard times come or the hard choices are before us we are unprepared. The serious threat to religious liberty today is such a hard time.
Next Jesus invites someone to follow him. The response is “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” That seems a bit harsh, surely Jesus would be respectful of the dead. To bury the dead is a corporal work of mercy. Some scholars suggest that the father was not yet dead, or even sick and the person meant that sometime, someday, later, after my father dies, whenever that is, I will follow you. Perhaps Jesus was telling the man and us that there are crucial moments in life when if missed they are gone forever. How many of us have had opportunities when as we look back we think if only we had seized that moment our lives would be different, and we regret our hesitation. To be a disciple means to seize the moments God presents to us to follow him each in our unique ways. Standing up for religious liberty now is such a moment.
Finally a man said, “I will follow you Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” Jesus responded, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” Again this seems a strange answer. Perhaps Jesus was telling him and us not that we must break relationships from our past, but that we cannot live in the past and follow him at the same time. I have never plowed a field, but I have mowed lawns and shoveled snow and can relate to the idea that looking back while trying to move forward produces some pretty strange paths.
A boy and his grandfather encountered an elderly man who complained about having suffered from sunstroke, how awful he felt, how unfair it was, how uncaring others were about him. The grandson misunderstood and thought the man said he suffered not from sunstroke but from “sunset”. After they parted, the boy said, “Grandpa, I sure hope you never get sunset.” We cannot effectively follow Christ looking only at the sunsets, wistfully looking back to what was or what we had or thought we had. As we grow older and are not able to do all we used to or when we lose a loved one and things just do not seem the same anymore, we need to honestly admit they aren’t, we aren’t the same. I certainly have experienced that since my mini-stroke a few months ago. But we still can use what gifts God has given us to spread the power of His love for the good of others, perhaps by simply coping with change well. We are called to follow Christ in the now, respecting and learning from the past, but looking forward to the promise of what will be, what can be. To follow Christ is to be a realist about this world and an optimist about the next.
The story is told that Satan was frustrated by so many entering to heaven despite his temptations to sin and fall away. He asked his cohorts what he might do to stem the tide. One suggested that he plant the seed that there is no heaven. I’ve done that all along. It is not enough. Another suggested that he plant the seed that there is no hell. That too I have done Satan replied. A third suggestion was that he plant the seed that there is no hurry. “Ah that is the new way” Satan agreed. But we never know the day or the hour.
As we as a nation once again recall with gratitude the courage of those who at the first 4th of July took the leap of faith for freedom deciding the time was now, let us seize this moment to accept the invitation of Christ today to more fully follow him and to pursue the goal of the founders to protect our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as God defines them. We must do so not solely for ourselves but for the generations to come. Time is of the essence.