Bottom line: Bottom line: True freedom involves submission to the Spirit, then putting ones hand to plow and never looking back.
This week many orators will quote the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Those words continue to echo in people's hearts. This Sunday I will focus on the word, Liberty. I would like to ask the question: What is liberty? What does freedom mean?
Sometimes we think that freedom means doing what one wants, when one wants. That's OK as far as it goes. None of us should unnecessarily burden the other person. On the contrary, we should respect others and give them room to maneuver. But that's not the deepest meaning of freedom. Today St. Paul talks about real freedom: "You were called for freedom, brothers and sisters." Then he adds, "But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh."
Freedom involves something different than doing what I want, when I want. A guy can think, "I am free. If I want to get a six-pack and drink it, that's my business. I'm free to do what I want." That guy is not free. Little by little he is becoming a slave.
Something similar happens with pornography. Many people consider that pornography is not that big of a deal. However, it can have terrible consequences. Let me give you an example from early twentieth century. At that time pornography was much milder than it is today, but it still did damage. A nineteen-year-old man named Alessandro (Alexander) Serenelli had become a regular user of pornography. It affected the way he looked at girls in his small Italian village. Wanting to act out his fantasies, he approached an eleven-year-old girl. She said to him, "No! No Alexander! It is a sin. God forbids it. You will go to hell, Alexander. You will go to hell if you do it!" The young man flew into a rage, took a knife and stabbed her. The girl was taken to the hospital, where she lived long enough to receive Communion as Viaticum. The priest asked her if she forgave Alessandro. She said, "Yes, for the love of Jesus, I forgive Alessandro. I want him to be with me in Paradise." You may have heard of this girl. She is represented in one of our church windows. Her name is St. Maria Goretti. Now, Alessandro's life had a good ending. While he was in prison, Maria appeared to him in a dream. The dream led him to a profound conversion. Alessandro was present in St. Peter's Square when Maria was canonized. I believe that Alessandro is now in heaven with Maria - and that those who are troubled by pornography can ask his intercession. Pornography always does harm, sometimes terrible harm, but with God's help, liberation - true freedom - is possible.
I am sure you can see that real freedom does not mean following ones impulses. That ends in slavery. True freedom involves self-domination. St. Paul tells us how to achieve self-mastery. It's not a program of do's and don'ts. Paul offers us something simpler, but much more profound: "Live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desires of the flesh."*
At this point we come to one of the great paradoxes of Christianity. A paradox is a seeming contradiction. The paradox is that in order to achieve self-mastery, a person must submit to a power greater than himself. Those who participate in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous know the truth of that paradox. They begin their meeting by reviewing the Twelve Steps. The first step says: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable". After admitting their powerlessness, they then say that they "came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." That power has different names, but you and I know that the higher power is the Holy Spirit.
Archbishop Hunthausen once gave a talk on what it means to become a disciple of Jesus. He underlines something very basic and it bears repeating: The word disciple is almost the same as the word, discipline. You cannot be a disciple without discipline, without self-mastery. The person who does not master himself has no self to offer the Lord. Self-mastery involves submission to the Holy Spirit - allowing God to master one's life. That is true freedom.
In today's Gospel Jesus talks about the freedom involved in becoming a disciple. He tells that once we have put our hand to the plow, we must never look back. This is very practical advice.
Once a man was struggling with a gambling addiction. It had nearly ruined him and his family. Like a person enslaved to alcohol, his life had become unmanageable. He recognized that only a higher power, God's Spirit, could restore him to sanity. Still, when got near a casino, he heard a little voice, "Why don't you in? You don't have to gamble. Just have some food. Salmon and Chips for two dollars. It's the best buy in town. Then take a look around. It won't hurt you." But he was smart enough to know that once he got inside he could never resist his favorite game. It required a superhuman effort for that man to not turn into the parking lot. By the grace of God, he firmly held the steering wheel. He kept his hand to plow. He did not look back.
That can apply to any form of addiction or enslavement. Maybe you do not have such an obvious addiction as alcohol, gambling or pornography. But we all have areas where we are not free. Bursts of anger, indolence, gluttony, envy, self-importance, desire for revenge - those tendencies can enslave a person. Sure, when someone gives in to those tendencies, it offers momentary relief. But it is an illusion. In the end they only bring isolation, rage, impotence and misery - which lead to another cycle of self-indulgence. There is, thanks be to God, a way to freedom: Accept God's Holy Spirit. Allow Him to direct your soul. By submitting to God, you will attain self-mastery. You will have a self to offer to God - and to those you love. Do not look back. The way ahead will bring power, satisfaction, inner peace and family. Keep your hand to the plow. That is the path to true freedom.
*It is important to remember that, when St. Paul speaks about the desires of the flesh, he is not only thinking about physical cravings such as a wrongful indulgence in food, sex, alcohol and relaxation. The works of the flesh includes idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, dissension, party spirit and envy. (Gal 5:19ff.)
From Archives (Homilies for Thirteenth Sunday, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
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Fr. Brad's Homilies
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Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
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My bulletin column
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Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Bulletin (Shakespeare Festival, Annual Report, Three Concerns, Fr. Pavone - Fourth of July)
Preaching Schedule (June 17 - Sept 30, 2007)
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
A Homilist's Prayer
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