17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 28, 2019
St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138:1-3, 6-8; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13
Our readings today are a beautiful exposition of prayer. From Abraham asking God to spare the people of Gomorrah, all the way to the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to pray. And what we see is that prayer, by its very nature, begins to expand the heart, it expands our desire. We ask, “Why doesn’t God give us immediately what we ask for?” And St. Augustine responded, “The Lord doesn’t always give us immediately what we ask for because he wants to stretch us, he wants to expand our desire, expand our heart—so as to receive the gift he truly wants to give us” (c.f., Letter to Proba).
I mean, just look to your experience. When you were a child, you prayed for a new toy, a later bedtime, to have cake for dinner. When you got a little older, you prayed that that girl would like you, that you would win the lottery. Later you prayed for a good job. As you get older, you pray for your children, for their health, for their happiness; you pray for a happy death. Your prayer expands, your desire expands. Look at our first reading with Abraham! Look how his audacity expands, how his desire expands. “Lord, if there are fifty innocent people, will you spare the city? Lord, if there are forty-five?” Forty, thirty, twenty, ten. Little by little, Abraham’s request, his desire expands. The disciples have been praying their whole life, but when they see Jesus pray, when they see his intimacy with the Father, they want that for themselves! They have gone from good Jews who follow the Law to seeing Jesus and wanting to call God their Father, to be children of God, to belong to the Father in the same way they see Jesus belong to the Father. Their desire expands, their heart expands.
Go back to that line from St. Augustine: “The Lord doesn’t always give us immediately what we ask for because he wants to stretch us, he wants to expand our desire, expand our heart—so as to receive the gift he truly wants to give us.” And the gift he truly wants to give us is nothing more than his life, a life of love, a life of complete selflessness, a life of unconditional love. Over and over again, the Lord is helping us to expand our capacity to love. His reckless love toward us, even when we were dead in our sins (Col. 2)—he expands our desire for love.
But sometimes we reject the plan of God, we don’t like how he made us, we don’t like waiting—the expansion of the heart and of our desire, the expansion of our capacity for love can be incredibly painful and difficult. With human love, especially the love between husbands and wives—the problem is rarely that we love too much, it’s that we don’t love enough. We have all seen relationships that we admire, a love so pure—we want that. But this takes an expansion of our capacity for love. And so especially today as we celebrate the national awareness week for Natural Family Planning, I want to focus on this love between husband and wife. Why? Because the Church’s teaching on contraception and its promotion of Natural Family Planning is not about a restriction of freedom, or love, or affection, no. Rather, the Church’s teaching is about the expansion of freedom, an expansion of affection, an expansion of desire—an expansion of love.
Sometimes we can think that the Church teaches that contraception is wrong because She wants us to have a ton of children, or because She is old-fashioned and doesn’t accept the advances in medical technology. But that’s not it! The Church teaching is not a rule to control people, but a teaching to help spouses understand more truly and fully the love they professed and vowed to one another. Married love is fully human and not just physical; love which is free and grows so that the man and woman truly become of one heart and soul; love which is total, and not selfish or self-seeking; love which is faithful and exclusive; love which is fruitful, bringing new life into the world (c.f., Humanae Vitae 9). In the marital embrace, in the marital act, the husband and wife are making flesh their wedding vows. On your wedding day, you promised to love one another freely: you don’t owe them anything, they don’t owe you anything, but you freely give yourselves to one another. You vowed a love which is total: you gave them everything, even your fatherhood or motherhood. You promised a love which is faithful: you gave yourself to them and no one else, in your body and even your imagination. And you vowed a love which is fruitful and open to life: a love that bears fruit in your relationship with each other, yes, but also bears the fruit of children. And here’s the point! If you destroy, or corrupt, or change the nature of the marital act, if you use sexual relations for your own purpose—if you destroy the nature of the act, you begin to destroy the nature of this love. It’s like changing your vows to one another: “I promise to be faithful to you…most of the time. I promise to love you…when I feel like it.”
And not until you have truly been in love does this make sense. If you truly love someone, and if you are going to embody that love—when you love someone with a love too deep for words, all of this begins to flow naturally. When you truly love someone, making sacrifices for them becomes easy. You take delight in loving them for their sake, not for anything they can do for you. Life is about them, not you.
With Natural Family Planning, men and women, but especially men, have to learn to love in a way that is more than just physical. You learn to love in a fuller way. Men have to learn more about their wives, they have to learn to communicate with their wives. Couples have to learn to make sacrifices, to wait, to love one other for who they are and not what they can give you.
You know, I have never met one woman who likes using contraception, who likes her IUD. Not one. In fact, I will be so bold as to say that I do not believe there is one woman on the face of the planet that wants to use contraception, or take artificial birth control pills, or have an IUD, or anything. Avoid pregnancy? Sure. But fill her body with chemicals? Have devices implanted? No. Not one.
And you know, I have met a lot of men and women who feel that contraception is hurting their marriage. Women feel like they have to be available to their husbands all the time, they feel used, like they are just a body to satisfy their husband’s need, that their husband has no self control, that their husband doesn’t really love them for who they are. They feel used, like an object. Men: Natural Family Planning teaches you to love your wives for who they are; that she is more than just an object; that she freely gives herself to you, and you freely give yourself to her—holding nothing back.
And I get it! A lot of married couples are not confident with Natural Family Planning, the pill is easier. I get it! Sometimes there is a real fear of pregnancy for certain reasons, maybe the doctor has told you that it is incredibly dangerous for you be to be pregnant. But again, true love is patient, it is kind. True love does not insist on its own way, true love is not selfish (c.f., 1 Cor. 13:4-8). Yes, Natural Family Planning can be difficult, but it also teaches you to love, to truly love. And in the end, that won’t fail you.
And what’s more, when you live this, you gain credibility to talk to your children about this. You know, how can you expect your children to follow the Church’s teaching on sexuality outside of marriage if you and your spouse can’t follow the Church’s teaching inside of marriage? How can you expect your daughter’s boyfriends to respect them if you cannot respect their mother?
In all of this, again, it is not about a rule the Church gives to control us! No. This teaching is here to help us, to help us to love, to help us to truly love. It is not about a restriction of freedom, or love, or affection, no. Rather, the Church’s teaching is about the expansion of freedom, an expansion of affection, an expansion of desire—an expansion of love. And the love between a husband and wife is meant to reflect the love between Christ and His bride the Church, to reflect the love of Christ on the cross. That is why the Eucharist has to be the center of your marriage if you ever hope to live this. It is in the Eucharist that we receive the grace to live this love. Because that is what the Eucharist is: Love itself.