Living as a People of Hope

What kind of faith are we called to embrace?

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine  September 2, 2018

We are going through difficult times in our world: we have only to switch on the TV or go on line, and we are assaulted by reports of war, of natural disasters (forest fires, volcanoes, tropical storms), of displaced peoples and refugees seeking a safe haven, of political corruption and corporate mismanagement. (I won’t even talk about minor things like traffic and the sorry state of our roads!) Within our own church, our peace has been shaken: first by news reports charting a history of clergy sexual abuse and ecclesiastical coverups, and this week by reports of deep divisions within the Church’s governing authority: hostility and finger-pointing, blaming and scapegoating, half-truths and leaked reports. 

In other words, even in the face of violence and death, even in the faith of imperfection and corruption, we are confronted with the gift and challenge of hope.  What does it mean to live as people of hope?  What is the basis of our hope?  How do we sustain hope, keep hope alive, when inevitably, many of our “hopes” fail to be realized, when those in whom we placed our hope disappoint us? Or when even the things we hope for that happen fail to truly satisfy us?   Most importantly – how can we allow ourselves to be drawn into a deeper relationship with the One in whom we place our ultimate hope: the loving God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, dwelling within us through the Holy Spirit? 

Hope is not just a matter of having an optimistic outlook, of practicing “the power of positive thinking”, of being more inclined to see the glass “half-full” than “half-empty.”  Hope is fundamentally connected to its two sister virtues, faith and love; it is a profound attitude of trust, rooted in our belonging to a community of faith, united in love – love of God, love of one another, love for all God’s creation.  St. Paul expresses the connection beautifully:

“Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through the Lord Jesus, who gives us the hope of sharing in the glory of God.  We can even boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us.” (Rom 5:1-5)

So hope is not just a disposition, something we fall into. Hope is a choice, a state of being we embrace in freedom; it is not a fantasy, a way of escaping or avoiding the harsher realities of life. 

We all have choices to make.  Last Sunday, Joshua asked the people of Israel: whom do you intend to serve?  Will you remain faithful to the Lord, who delivered you from slavery in Egypt, who sustained you in the desert, or will you now turn and follow new gods? In the Gospel, abandoned by many of his disciples who could not accept that Jesus was himself the Bread of Life, Jesus invited his inner circle to make a choice. He asks them: “What about you – will you also leave me?”  And we know Peter’s response: “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  In other words: we believe in you.  We trust you.  We hope in you.  We love you.  We want to remain part of you, stay connected to you.

Indeed, we too may be tempted to just walk away from it all, ask to have our baptismal certificates revoked, create some new, pure, perfect church untainted by the past.  But if Peter is right, then we too need to be able to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of everlasting life.” 

As I discuss with friends and colleagues and parishioners all that has been happening in our church, this is what I am hearing. Yes, terrible things have happened, terrible abuses have been committed and covered up, and we need to do everything we can to make sure that this is never allowed to happen again. We need to embrace individual conversion, but also structural change, especially transparency, clear structures of accountability, an end to the culture of clerical privilege, an expanded role for the laity in church governance and decision-making. But we are not leaving.  We are not going to throw out the baby with the bath water. We want Christ, present in his church, in his word, in his Sacraments, in the pain of those who suffer, at the heart of our lives.   

Today’s readings also place us in a situation of choice. If we have already made the choice to believe, to follow Christ, we also ask ourselves: what kind of faith are we called to embrace? Are there two “brands” of faith - a religion of the law, or a religion of the heart – and if so, which one do we choose?  We see this dilemma played out in today's Gospel, as Jesus is involved in a controversy with the Scribes and Pharisees, initially over the importance of external observance of religious rituals connected to food.

Because Mark introduces the Pharisees by focusing on their obsession with ritual purity and the observance of the most minute prescriptions of the law, our natural tendency is to experience it as oppressive. What kind of religion is that! We don’t need all these rules and regulations.  Just follow your hearts! 

At first glance, we might think this is what Jesus is saying. But if we pay closer attention, we see that it cuts deeper. It would be nice to think that our hearts – our passions, feelings, intuitions, inner voice, call it what you like – provide us with some kind of infallible guide to right conduct and wise decision-making. As long as you follow your heart, you’ll be OK.

But deep down, we know that is not the case. A wise Jesuit who directed me on a retreat said to me: “The problem is that people are addicted to their feelings. Without discernment, we react to our feelings and impulses, rather than taking the time and energy to become more aware, attentive, responsible, and loving. The discerning person takes feelings seriously, but only as one part of the data necessary to make wise decisions.  If we let our feelings rule us completely, we cannot truly follow God.” 

So today's Gospel is not only a criticism of religious legalism and hypocrisy, as personified by the scribes and Pharisees, and as reflected in different ways by groups in the Catholic Church, in other Christian churches, in other faith traditions, or in the many secular ideologies and “political correctness” which compete for our attention in the world today.   

It is true that God desires mercy more than sacrifice, worship “in spirit and in truth” more than external forms.  That God looks not merely to external observance, but to our internal assent, to the deeper levels of transformation and commitment in the heart.   But as St. James reminds us in today’s second reading, we must be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive ourselves.”  If works without faith are empty, then faith without works is counterfeit: a cheap imitation of the real thing.  If we claim to love God, that love must be made visible: through the way we treat the poor, needy and marginalized in our midst; in a life marked by faithfulness in our relationships and trustworthiness in our responsibilities. Otherwise, then we too become like those Jesus describes as “hypocrites”.

Jesus never criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for their observance of the Law.  What upsets him is the betrayal of the deeper Law – justice, mercy, compassion, repentance, love – behind the smokescreen of "human" precepts at best loosely connected to the divine plan. “Torah” is far more than an external set of rules and observances, 613 do’s and don’ts. Torah is God’s living word, the expression of his covenant love.  It was meant to give hope. Under the Pharisees, the Law was becoming a tool of oppression, a burden the people could never carry adequately; it crushed their hope, instead of restoring it.  It imaged a demanding God of scarcity, not the One who came to give abundant life.

What can we take away from this?  Because God is faithful and loving, we too are called to live our lives in ways that are faithful and loving.  Laws, rules, commandments are there not to supplant our freedom, to oppress our consciences, but to help us exercise our freedom in the context of the respect and love we owe to God and neighbour.  The commitment of the heart, the way in which God reaches out to us, touches us, loves us into being, and calls us to follow him – remains primordial.  Moral norms, both secular and religious in origin, are there to support us, to challenge us, to provide a structure to guide us through difficult choices, to remind us that there are certain boundaries which should not be crossed. They also remind me that I am, in the end, accountable to something higher than my own whims or feelings.

Jesus was a shrewd judge of human character.  He knew the tremendous capacity for love, tenderness, compassion, and virtue present in each of us.  But Jesus also knew what any addict or alcoholic knows:  what goes into us can damage or defile us.  Yes, the deeper problem comes from within; in spite of our natural inclination for the good, evil intentions also spring up within the human heart: pride, envy, wrath, lust, laziness, greed, deceit.  

The human heart is divided, a battleground where the continual tension between good and evil is present. This battle is played out in our individual places, in our families and workplaces, and yes, even in our church. Therefore, we are in need of ongoing discernment – not reacting instinctively to our feelings, not blindly following external laws and regulations, but responding to the complex situations in which our life places us, with intellect and emotion, with law and with the Love in which it is rooted.  

We need hearts that think and minds that feel; we need integration, not splintering.  Feelings, thoughts, knowledge, customs, traditions, devotions, moral laws, political allegiances: all are important, but they are not God.  They are part of what God uses to draw us, external manifestations of the inner mystery drawing us to deeper union with our Creator.  No one of these can become an absolute.  For only God is absolute. God alone can save.  The God who is love calls us to integrity of heart and to the full integration of our faith and our daily lives. 

Shortly before his assassination 50 years ago, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, spoke these words:  "Men without hope, resigned to despair and oppression, do not bring about real change. When expectation replaces submission, when despair is touched with the awareness of possibility, the forces of human desire and the passion for justice are unloosed. There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were, and ask ‘why not?’"

Indeed, never has the need been greater for people willing to live this integrity personally, but also to build a better world, a holier church, whose inner structures make it easier for men and women to live in this way, rather than becoming a source of scandal.  

So let us pledge to be people of hope.  Let us avoid the traps of sterile legalism and self-indulgent emotionalism, and choose the way of integrity, freedom, and love.  For love is a decision, a commitment engaging every part of us: body and spirit, intellect and emotion, mind and heart.  Then we will become "a wise and discerning people, knowing that the Lord is near whenever we call on him."  We will be "doers of the word, and not merely hearers." We will put on the mind and heart of Jesus, our brother and Saviour, whose Spirit is at work in us, for he is the One in whom we have placed our hope.