Homily, 29 January 2017: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
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Homily, 29 January 2017Fourth Sunday in Ordinary TimeZephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13; Psalms 146:6-7,8-9,9-10; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12a- - - - - - - Two hundred years ago – in the first decades of the 1800s – if you asked any young American adult what was the first sentence he ever read, he would say: “No man may put off the law of God: My joy is in his law all the day.”That was the first sentence in Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book. It was the best selling book in the United States after the Bible. Everyone learned to read using “Webster’s Speller.”Before the advent of the McGuffey Readers, all reading was taught using the “spelling” method. That first sentence is found some forty pages into the book. The pages preceding it were filled with tables of words progressing from ‘easy words of one syllable’ through ‘easy words of four syllables, accented on the second.’ There were no phonics, no whole language, just lists of words to memorize and spell. You can understand why ‘spelling bees’ were so popular. But the spelling method did not teach comprehension.At the end of the school year the members of the School Board would examine the students and the better spellers would show what they had learned. But from time to time, some wise member of the Board would ask, “You have spelled connubial correctly, but can you tell me what it means?” The students could read the words, but they didn’t understand them – certainly not those they hadn’t heard in daily life.- - - - - - - Webster’s Speller did include many types of short readings scattered throughout the second half of the book: fables, histories, essays on farming, etc. It was a reading book after all.It even included a section called “A Moral Catechism,” which was constructed as a series of questions and answers. These were, of course, to be memorized by the student.Question: “What rules have we to direct us in our moral conduct?”Answer: “God’s word, contained in the Bible, has furnished all necessary rules to direct our conduct.”Question: “In what part of the Bible are these rules to be found?”Answer: “In almost every part; but the most important duties between men are summed up in the beginning of Matthew in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.”Did the student, knowing the correct answer, go one step further and actually learn what was said in the Sermon on the Mount? Did he read it for himself?- - - - - - - The Sermon on the Mount is the greatest collection of Jesus’ teachings in the scriptures. It spans three chapters in Matthew and contains over twenty-five teachings. It’s a critical piece of scripture for Christian discipleship.Yet I don’t think too much has changed since the early 1800s. We have all heard of the Sermon on the Mount, and most of us know that it begins with the Beatitudes, but beyond that everything else is pretty fuzzy. Recall that answer from the Moral Catechism: “The most important duties between men … are summed up in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.”So what are those duties? How many can you name?Although Mr. Webster refers to these teachings as duties between men, they are much more than that. They dispositions that govern our relationships with others and which govern our relationship with God. Furthermore, these dispositions are not natural to us, yet Jesus expects us to cultivate them and live them. Thus, if we want to develop them until they become habitual, we must be very intentional about it: by reading and reviewing them, praying with them, and confessing when we fail to follow them.How many of you have told yourselves that you really ought to read through the Bible, or perhaps just the New Testament, or maybe just the Gospels and then failed to follow through? Maybe you are too ambitious. Perhaps you just need to start with something smaller. I’d like to suggest that you begin with the Sermon on the Mount. Take your time with it. Give it a careful, thoughtful reading. Over the next five Sundays we will read through the Sermon on the Mount at mass. Each week you could reread the Sunday Gospel passage at home. Read it several times during the week. After each reading sit quietly and mull it over. Maybe God will help you understand it in a deeper way.Maybe the next time you go to confession, use these teaching to examine your conscience. But whatever you do, don’t let the teachings of Jesus be just words on page. Understand what they mean and how they apply to your life.It says in Webster’s Speller: “My joy is in his law all the day.” Those are good words, but only if we make them true.