Sunday, September 10, 2017

Who Am I to Judge?

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle A

Who Am I to Judge?

That seems to be the theme of our civilization today. Who am I to judge?

The media and a lot of people have taken part of a quote from Pope Francis and have turned it into an excuse for tolerating any type of behavior. Whatever the crisis of the day is, whatever moral norms are being turned upside down, it doesn’t matter, because we are not to judge, are we? It’s a wonderful, all-encompassing excuse for not taking any responsibility for our actions or the actions of other people. It’s not my fault, it’s not your fault, it’s not anyone’s fault. We must be open and welcome and accept, even celebrate, any behavior in anyone, because to do otherwise is to be judgmental, and that’s bad.

It’s not only bad, it’s really hard to do sometimes, because if we are seen as judgmental we risk a lot. We risk ridicule, usually on social media, loss of friends, our jobs, and sometimes outright violence. Nobody wants to be seen as judgmental. As long as what you do doesn’t infringe on my rights, go ahead. It doesn’t affect me.

But is that true? Am I really my brother’s keeper?

What do we hear in today’s readings? The people of the prophet Ezekial’s time believed that the consequences of offending God was often death, physical death. They didn’t have the same concept of the afterlife that we do. Therefore, the worst that could happen to someone was for them to die. We have a similar understanding of the consequences of sin, however, ours is based upon our understanding of eternal life. If we live a life of sin without repenting, and die in that state, then we will suffer not only physical death but spiritual death as well, separated from God forever.

So, as St. Paul says, the wages of sin is death. The stakes are really high. The Lord tells Ezekial that it is his responsibility as a prophet to warn people about those consequences, and try to turn them away from their sin, so they will not die. If he does not, then not only will the person die anyway, but Ezekial will be held responsible. That’s a high price to pay for not being judgmental.

And Jesus builds upon this understanding of responsibility in the gospel. He lays out a detailed process for dealing with people who sin. If someone does something wrong that you are personally aware of, you have a responsibility to talk to them about it. Sometimes people are unaware that they have hurt you or that what they did was wrong. A young person asked me once if something is a sin if she didn’t think it was a sin. At first I thought that yes, there are some actions that are always sinful, in and of themselves. Then after a while I came to the conclusion that that may be so, but there’s a difference between thinking something is a sin and knowing it is a sin, and doing it anyway. I think we have raised entire generations that have no awareness that some things they think are natural and good are actually wrong. It is our responsibility to inform them of reality, as we have been taught by Jesus and his church. And, as Jesus tells us today, not just the responsibility but the authority to do so.

But what if they don’t listen, or outright reject our message? Jesus says we are to bring in backup. Take a couple of witnesses with us and try again. In Jewish law, all it took to establish a case was to have the collaborating testimony of two or three witnesses. If even that fails, take it to the church. To the church? What have they got to do with it?

Jesus clearly states here that the church has both the responsibility and the authority to judge questions of faith and morals. When we sin, it affects not only our relationship with God and with those we hurt, it affects everyone. It affects the church, the people of God. It affects the entire world. Wow, when I steal that candy bar from the 7 Eleven it hurts people in China? In a way, yes. Sin, especially unrepentant and unforgiven sin, does hurt everyone. Like George Lucas said, there’s a disturbance in the force. If only we could feel something when somebody else sinned, maybe we would be more aware of the seriousness of sin.

There are sins that individuals do not commit that affect their lives profoundly. When someone hurts us, it obviously affects us personally. But how can what one person does to another that we are not even aware of affect us personally? Well, how many of you own slaves? How many of you are sexual offenders? None of us own slaves, but we are all affected by the sin of slavery in this country that was ended over 150 years ago. Every day we see the effects of racism, and it hurts us all and paints entire populations with the same brush, because of the actions of others. And as Catholics, we are all affected by the actions of a few clergy, aren’t we, even though we would never dream of acting that way ourselves.

And if we are all affected by the sins of others, we are also responsible for trying to correct and forgive those sins.

When he told his apostles, “whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven” he gave them the authority to judge actions and establish laws that apply here on earth that are backed by the authority of God himself.

Finally, Jesus proclaims judgment on the unrepentant sinner. Treat them as you would treat a gentile or tax collector. And we know how the Jews treated those folks. They had no contact with gentiles and they ostracized and abused tax collectors. That’s pretty harsh, and doesn’t really paint a picture of a merciful Jesus.

But it’s not judgmental to give someone a chance to repent. Several chances, in fact. And how did Jesus treat tax collectors? He ate with them. One of them was actually an apostle. The door was always open, but Jesus never pulled any punches with sinners. He always called them to repentance and always forgave and welcomed them back into relationship with him.

That’s what people do when they love each other. Jesus wasn’t laying out a legalistic process for judging sinners. He was giving them a lot of chances. He was telling us to be persistent and gentle in calling people back into relationship. And most of all, he is telling us to try, at least try. I think that many of us don’t even take that first step when someone hurts us. We don’t have the courage to tell the person how we feel and reach out to them. Most of us would just let it go and write them off.

We must always treat sinners with compassion, because we are all sinners who need and want compassion ourselves. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means we treat them as we want to be treated, and nobody wants to feel condemned and outcast. We correct our children all the time when they do something wrong. We also punish them when necessary. We do that out of love for them because we do not want them to suffer any long term harmful consequences. That is not being judgmental, that is being responsible parents.

We are our brother’s keeper. We are all responsible for one another. Remember that admonishing the sinner is one of the spiritual works of mercy, along with instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, and bearing patiently those who wrong us.

We are all just beggars looking to be fed. And so we must be there for one another. Just as we provide for the physical needs of people we must also look out for one another’s spiritual needs. We do it out of love. We do it because we want to be loved. The most loving thing you can do for someone is help them get to heaven, to be with the God who created them. To correct someone who sins is to show them the ultimate compassion.

It is to lead them to the thing that will bring them the greatest happiness.

Happiness does not come from doing whatever we want to do. Happiness comes from living as we were created to live, according to the commandments of the Lord. Those commandments are not just a set of arbitrary or oppressive rules. God set them up for us to guide us to him. Jesus said that we are his friends if we keep his commandments. He then gave us the responsibility and authority to help one another keep them.

That’s not being judgmental. Only God will judge us. One day each and every one of us will stand before the Lord, alone, and there will be judgment. That is the moment when we will feel the effects of the gentle corrections we had received during our lives here on Earth. How we reacted to those corrections will make all the difference. At that moment we will also experience the consequences of how we responded to those times we were called to be loving to our neighbor. And that includes when we were called to show mercy to the sinner.

For we will be shown mercy to the extent that we show mercy.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Transfigure Me

Feast of the Transfiguration

Cycle B

It really depends upon your point of view, doesn’t it?

Have you ever had your life changed because you suddenly saw things a bit differently? Many times we get caught up in the ordinary of our everyday lives and miss the truth of what’s going on around us.

Dr. Steven R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, tells in his book of an experience he had on a New York subway one Sunday morning. He says that people were sitting quietly. Some were reading newspapers, some were dozing, others were simply sitting with their eyes closed. It was a rather peaceful, calm scene. At one stop a man and his children entered the car. The children were soon yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s newspapers. It was all very disturbing and yet the father just sat there next to him and did nothing. It was not difficult to feel irritated. Steven could not believe the man could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild and do nothing about it. It was easy to see that everyone else in the car was annoyed as well. So finally, with what he thought was admirable restraint and patience, Steven said to the man, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little bit more?” The man lifted his gaze as if coming out of a dream and said, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to do and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

Dr. Covey said, “Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? Suddenly I saw things differently. Because I saw differently, I felt differently. I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior. My heart was filled with this man’s pain. Feelings of compassion and sympathy flowed freely. ‘Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?’”

That was Steven Covey’s moment of transfiguration, a moment of revelation that sustained him in a difficult situation. Peter, James and John had the vision of Jesus’ transfiguration to sustain them during the difficult times to come. The next time Jesus took the three of them off with him by themselves was in the Garden of Gethsemanie. But what about us? After all, we could put up with an awful lot if we had a remembered moment of glory to sustain us, a clear indication of who Jesus really is, some sign that when it was all over, everything would be all right. What’s our transfiguration moment?

To be transformed is to be changed. To be transfigured is to see things differently, as they really are. Peter couldn’t see clearly up there on the mountain. But over time, with a lot of prayer, pondering, suffering and preaching the good news, he came to see Jesus for who he really is. Jesus didn’t change. Peter’s understanding did. Because he saw differently, he felt differently, and because he felt differently, he behaved differently.

And how Peter had changed from the time of this gospel account until he wrote his letters decades later! In the gospel, he’s really scared. He falls down to the ground in fear, and says some pretty silly things. Like the man on the train, Peter didn’t really know what to say or do; he didn’t understand what was happening before him.

The Peter we hear in his second letter is very different. Gone is the simple fisherman from Capernaum. Gone is the rough man unsure of himself. He is calm, confident, and collected. He is no longer the frightened disciple, he has become the leader. He has been bringing others to knowledge of Jesus, and he is reassuring them that his message is true. Something happened to him, and James and John as well, after they saw Jesus differently, after they saw him in his glory, that changed the very direction of their lives.

And if you thought it scared Peter to see Jesus as he really was, how do you think it made him feel as he himself was transfigured? It can be frightening to learn who you really are, who you are called to be for the world. Peter had come to know what it means to be truly human. To be truly human is to be like God. And Peter saw what that God was doing. He was teaching, preaching, working tirelessly to bring the gospel to the people. Desperate to have his children truly know him for who he was. He was putting his life on the line daily, and he finally lost that life in a horrible way.

Is that what was in store for Peter if he lived out his true humanity? Is that what’s in store for all of us? Peter didn’t know. But he, James and John had a decision to make. They could take their newfound knowledge of Jesus and continue to follow him, or they could go away, back to their livelihoods. Or worse yet, they could drift off to the fringes of his followers, simply tagging along without taking on any of the responsibilities of discipleship.

We all have the same decision to make that the apostles did. Sooner or later we’ll be hit with the realization of who Jesus really is in our lives, and we’ll have to decide what to do next. That realization might be found in a passage of scripture, it may be found here at Mass, or during a serious illness or family crisis. It may be a simple acceptance that grows out of many years of quietly walking with the Lord. But our lives will transfigured. And we can either continue in our old ways of living, we can drift off to the fringes of the community without taking on the added responsibilities that discipleship brings, or we can embrace those responsibilities and reach out to others as the Master did.

Our greatest hope is to someday see Jesus in all his glory. We can catch glimpses of it at times here on earth. Maybe not as dramatically as the apostles did, but perhaps it comes in a flash of inspiration, or the deep affection we have for those we love, or maybe in the glint of hope in a dying person’s eyes. The apostles were overcome with fear, but Jesus allayed their fears. Jesus’ glory can seem terrible to us now, because we live sinful lives in a sinful world. But our hope is that ultimately Jesus’ glory will be our glory. We too will be touched by Him and take our place at his side in heaven, where there is no fear.

Then we will be as we were truly created to be.



Sunday, July 16, 2017

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle A

Farming in Jesus’ time was very difficult. The soil in the middle east can be very hard and required hard work to break up, using rudimentary plows, really just sharp sticks that were dragged across the surface by a team of oxen. Back breaking work. The sower would then simply grab a handful of seed from a sack and throw it out over the field. He didn’t dig a hole, drop in a seed, and then put in some fertilizer. He didn’t tend the field after planting it. He relied upon the rains to water it, and as you know, there wasn’t a lot of rain. He didn’t weed it. He basically left the seed where it landed and hoped for the best. It was up to the field itself to determine if anything grew or not.

The ancient farmers saw everything they received as a gift from God. They trusted that God would provide the rain and snow to water the plants to create seed and wheat for bread. They were totally reliant upon the whims of nature, or, as they saw it, the pleasure of the creator. Whether the farmer’s family ate or starved was at the mercy of God.

So the people listening to Jesus that day could really relate to the story. They understood the seriousness of the situation because they experienced it first hand. They just had a hard time relating themselves to the story. The did not understand how it applied to them. What could they do to affect the harvest when it was really all in God’s hand?

This is not a passive parable. There are two actors working together in this parable: the sower and the field. Each has an active role in whether or not the seed bears fruit.

The sower firstly chooses to sow. The sower prepares the field. It’s the same field, but with different conditions in different areas of the field. It receives the same water and sunlight, and the sower scatters seed to the entire field. He does not discriminate or play favorites.

The field also has a choice in the matter. The conditions of the field can change if the field wants them to. We are the field. If we want we can move to a better part of the field. I think we are always moving around the field. Sometimes we are the rocky soil, sometimes we are among the thorns, other times we are the good soil. Heck, I’ve been in all three areas just in one day!

This parable is all about the choices we make. We can choose to let the seed fall on the hard ground, or we can cultivate the hard ground to receive it. Are our hearts open to the seed? Do we want to truly understand? Have we hardened ourselves to the word of God, to Jesus? We prepare the ground of our own hearts and we accept the cultivation and sustenance we are given.

Some seed fell on the path and the birds ate it before it could take root. There was no understanding, and so the devil came and took it away. To take root and flourish, the word of God must be received with understanding. That requires that we seek to understand. We receive understanding first from the Holy Spirit revealing the word to us in scripture and in the teaching of Jesus that has come down to us from the Apostles. Understanding is how we prepare the soil of our hearts. We break up the hardness to allow the seed to penetrate deeper, where it can take root.

Knowledge leads to understanding, understanding leads to decision, and decision leads to action.

Some seed fell on shallow rocky ground. It sprang up quickly but had no depth so it soon withered in the hot sun. Sometimes people base their faith upon emotion or self-centeredness only, and so once the excitement wears off and trouble comes, the faith dies. They are attracted by the externals of religion, or by a charismatic preacher or teacher or the music they like, or by the feeling they get in a certain community. But they never really go deeper, never seek to truly understand, and so they don’t stay long. They don’t study their faith. They don’t seek God in service to others. They just want to be fed themselves. They hop from congregation to congregation, always looking for that one experience that will make it all click. That is not a faith that survives adversity and suffering.

Some seed fell among the thorns, and when those thorns also grew up alongside them, they overwhelmed the good plants and choked them out. Worldly desires and worries choke them out. We can choose to let the world choke out the word, or we can clear the path of all the things that distract us and cause us to turn away. We are all planted in the same field, however, we are in the world but should not be of the world.

Oftentimes those thorns are on rosebushes; they are really attractive and beautiful. We are drawn to their beauty and don’t see the thorns underneath. Sometimes the thorns seem so tall and so strong that they overwhelm us, and we lose hope. The thorns are all around us. The key is to not let the thorns be the focus, but the word. Letting go of worldly desires and anxieties is a choice we have the power to make, and it can be liberating.  

But Jesus says that the seed that falls on good ground not only grows but yields so abundantly that it makes up for all the seed that did not produce anything. The field will therefore be plentiful, even though only a small part of the seed took root and flourished. Because in God’s plan everything he does bears fruit. His word will not return to him until it produces exactly what he sent it to do.

God has a choice and he chooses to send us his word to give us life. He offers that life to everyone he has ever created and will create, without favor. It is the same life for everyone. He doesn’t plant good seed in one field and poor seed in another. His will is that the seed take root and accomplish what he sent it to do. It will accomplish that because God cannot fail. However, when and where His will is accomplished requires a decision and action on the part of the recipient. We have the ultimate say in the matter.

We are not passive actors in this play. We are not simply receptors of the message, but active searchers and cultivators. We are active participants in the growth of the seed. God will do his part. He will send his word to us like he sends the rain to the earth, and that word will give life to the world, whether we as individuals accept and cultivate it or not.

God will not be denied, but we can deny God. It is our choice. We choose what to do with the word and with the life it can give us. The seed has been planted in you. What will you choose to do with it?