Monday, November 13, 2017

Disappointment or Hope

Here in Richmond we are sill without a bishop, and it has been fascinating over the last few months to read and listen as we all express our wish list regarding the new Bishop of Richmond. Even Jesus himself couldn’t fulfill everyone’s list of hopes and in some cases demands. What we can be guaranteed is that the Pope will name a new bishop who is a fragile, sinful human being like all of his predecessors. In short, the new bishop will be just like all of us. 

In today’s gospel Jesus instructs us that

if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.

We Christians are quick to say, “We are all sinner”, and yet we want to pretend that our leaders are not. We want to pretend that our Popes, bishops, or pastors are somehow immune from the normal human experience. Some of the young ones who seek to build their “careers,” expend great amounts of energy on the appearance of sinkessness And then, when their fragility comes to light we are at least disappointed and at most scandalized. 

This is not to say, that we should simply except whatever behavior comes. It is important to note that today’s gospel does not say that we are to forgive the unrepentant. Elsewhere we are told the process for dealing with them which may include what we call excommunication (“treat them as you would a tax collector”). 

Today’s gospel reflects Jesus’s perfect understanding of human nature. His understanding that people can change but it does not happen in an instant. The    truly repentant person may have sincere contrition, and may with a true intention to change confess their sin and ask for forgiveness, and then fall into the sin multiple times before, with the help of God’s grace they are able to overcome the sin. And as often as they pick themselves up and start over we are required to forgive, in the same way we hope to be forgiven. 

Pope Francis has more than once, and to the chagrin of some, said of himself, “I am a sinner.”  There are not a few who find this pope too human. The fact that we pray in a particular way at every mass for the Pope, the bishops, and all the clergy is not a mere formality. Our Church has always recognized that our leaders stand in need of prayer.  When we speak of papal infallibility it is only in connection with certain matters of faith and morals, it is not in regard to sinlessness. Jesus and Mary are the only two who can claim that title. 

Not a one of the original twelve was perfect. The gospels do not even attempt to gloss over their flaws. St. Paul boasts of his frailty as a basis for his utter dependence on grace.  

Every week around the world, sadly, there are people who walk away from their church because they didn’t like something their pastor said or did. And often they are justified in feeling offended because the pastor did something stupid. But walking away is not the Christian response. The Church never walks away from ome of its members and we never walk away from the Church. We forgive and we keep moving forward toward the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Invited to the banquet, sorta

In today’s gospel the pharisees are told,

when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind

It has been 2000 years, and while the poor may have achieved full participation, in far too much of our church the disabled still enjoy only a sort of invitation. 

Here in the Diocese of Richmond we have begun preparations to celebrate our 200th anniversary. And in those 200 years, I am the only person with a visible disability ever ordained to the priesthood. Since then we have imported a blind priest. That’s two in 200 years. This is in large part due to the fact that until St. John Paul II promulgated the current code of canon law, those with “corporal” disabilities were irregular for orders ex defectu, by reason of defect. The law was based in a focus on Jesus as the lamb without spot or blemish. 

Now before anyone’s screams about the Church being antiquated, we should remember that the ADA was not passed by Congress and signed into law until 1990, seven years after the Church changed its law, and religious organizations are still exempt. 

Sadly, one is hard pressed to find a Church, Catholic or Protestant, with a Pastor who has a disability. You can become disabled due to war, old age or infirmity; but if you are born with a disability, unless you can entertain like Stevie Wonder you are likely to be disuaded long before you reach the doors of a seminary or get ordained. 

It starts at the local level. . Look around your church/parish. How many people with disabilities are involved in ministries or much less leadership? At best many parishes will have a special mass once a year at which the disabled are allowed to participate. Imagine if we did that with a racial or ethnic group.

In some ways all forms of discrimination are harder to confront in the 21st century. They  tend to be more subtle, and wrapped in plausible deniability, so that if someone complains they are accused of being hyper-sensitive. And if that doesn’t shut them down those who discriminate move to the indignation attack, “How dare you accuse me of discrimination?”  And yes, sometimes it is so deeply engrained in a culture or a person that it can be almost subconscious. 

At my age I have learned to laugh at some of it because of the ignorance it represents. And personally, I see no great benefit in spending energy getting worked up over the use of “crippled” or “lame” in the lectionary. The greater issues are things like equal dignity, opportunity/pay. 

As Christians we can and should do better. We should be better than the surrounding culture not simply reflect it. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Personal Law

I cannot hear today’s gospel with the line “call no one on earth father...” without flashing back to childhood and hearing the voice of preachers attacking the Catholic Church. They never saw the logical problem with them condemn Catholics and yet calling the man married to their mother “father.”  After all the text says “call no one.”  As I got older I realized the text was merely being used as an excuse to attack Catholics. 

 No less ridiculous are those who try and find in this gospel an attack on rules, as if they believe all we should say is “Love one another” and a Church should not have all those rules. Even Catholics fall into this without realizing how silly it is. 

Firstly there is the textuaL problem. Jesus says the opposite. He commands the people to do everything the scribes and the Pharisees tell them. What he tells them not to do is follow their example. 

Second and more importantly, there seems to be this erroneous notion that “rules and regulations” are bad. Truth is: every person has them.  Even the people who say they hate rules has them. If you want to know what your rules are, ask what makes you angry. When we get angry with others it is usually because they have violated some rule of ours, our personal law. We all have one. 

Some rules are spoken and some are unspoken. With married couples the conflict often is cuase by conflicting rules. If one has the rule, “You pay bills on time” and the other does not there is going to be a problem. 

In raising children, parents often have to repeat the rules over and over. The hope is that in time the rules become internalized. When they are so internalize we don’t have to think about it, we call it habit. 

Harmonious relationship are not those without rules, but those in which the rules are agreed upon and internalized, whether we are taking about children playing together, a team of co-workers, a family, or a Church. The goal is not to live without rules but to make sure that our personal law and our communal laws, conform to the law of God. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Location, location, location

We have of course all heard the expression with regard to business, but we are also well of it with regard to events. 

It is easy for us to read in the gospel how we should not seek places of honor, but in real life we become products of our culture. Which of us does not feel the sting if we are told to, as the expression goes, “sit in the back of the bus?”  Where we are seated is a statement about our worth. And even though we know better and  without thinking, even churches can fall into this behavior. Someone recently read me something from a church fund-raising brochure that promised special seating to larger donors. I’m sure the person who wrote it didn’t even realize the irony of a church organization offering to sell places of honor. Why do we do it? Because it works. Rare is the person, even the Christian, who is willing to give and receive absolutely nothing in return. 

And yet, that is exactly what Jesus did. The story of the passion is the story of total self-sacrifice with no personal gain. It is the perfect expression of charity. 

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t at some point felt unappreciated.In those moments in life when we feel unappreciated or at least under-appreciated, how do we respond? There are of course the normal human emotional responses. But the gospel reminds us that when those feeling arise in us, we are called as followers of Christ to rise above them. Few of the saints who we now celebrate were celebrated during their earthly life. Many were ridiculed even by church leaders. They remained faithful to their mission with no earthly reward in sight. And so we are all called to be. 

If we want true peace, the peace of Christ, then we must abandon all desire for human recognition or reward, and strive only for what is above. 
Location, location, location. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Another Form of Greed

Most of us, when we think of greed, we think of the accumulation of money, and we are quick to absolve ourselves of that particular vice. None of us wants to think of ourselves as either rich or greedy. The man who piles up wealth for himself in today’s gospel is far removed from us. 

But greed can take many forms and use many doors to weasel its way into our lives. Somehow, it seems, over the last few years greed has managed to subvert patriotism. Patriotism is a natural and virtuous thing and any of us who have had the opportunity to travel much can’t help but return home thankful for the many blessings we have received. But patriotism like any other good thing can become distorted by sin. 

Greed is an inordinate longing for the unnecessary. When we fall prey to greed, in its simplest form, we place what we want ahead of what others need. Greed is the antithesis of the instruction we receive from St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “regard others as more important than yourselves.”(2:3) When greed creeps in, legitimate patriotism is transformed into what President Bush recently described as “nativism”,us above all.

We tell ourselves that it isn’t greed by convincing ourselves that we are entitled to a certain life, for many this is the romanticized America of the 1950’s. 

As Christians we must be very careful. We must fearlessly examine our consciences for any and all signs of the presence of greed in our hearts. Greed loves to his behind love: love of family, love of country. The good news is that with the grace of God we can root it out. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

The only acceptable slavery

Today the Church begins her reading of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. And the first words alone are worth reflection for all of of.  He introduces himself as Paul, slave of Jesus Christ - not follower, friend or brother; but slave. 

If we examine the Greek word for slave, we discover that it comes from the verb to bind. It is the paradox of the Gospel.  True freedom only comes from surrendering ourselves to Jesus and allowing ourselves to be bound by Him, to be bound to Him.

Of course this means that the opposite is also true. If we search for freedom as the world defines it (the ability to do what we want), the we end of in other kinds of slavery, most commonly slavery to our feelings. We begin to loose the freedom that is characteristic of humans, and begin to act more like animals. We react to stimuli. One of the best examples is the entry of the verb " to troll."  To troll someone on the internet refers to intentionally posting something offensive or provocative with the goal of eliciting a response.  People who are free in the true sense can't be trolled.  People who are free are not slaves to their phones. 

St. Paul who declares himself a slave in his opening today, is the same person who elsewhere proclaims that he has learned to be content in any circumstance. St Paul is bound so tightly to Jesus that he is not tossed around by life, by circumstance, by his emotions. He is free to think, to choose, to act. His true humanity shines forth because he is a slave.

The difficulty is that this surrender is not something done once. The surrender to Jesus Christ must be constantly renenewed by each of us. Because of original sin, the urge to pull away is strong in all of us, the urge toward so-called independence. This is where prayer comes in. It is in the quiet time alone with that we can renew our surrender, check the bindings, allow the Holy Spirit to pull them tight. Even just a few moments here and there throughout the day can help us remain tightly bound. 

Perhaps today is a good time for each of us to examine our lives for signs of slavery. Are we slaves to our work, our feelings, our technology; or are we, like Paul, slaves of Jesus Christ. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Another kind of conversion

At the end of today’s gospel reference is made to those who did not change their mind. In fact, the text suggest a more nuanced change. The word used in Matthew’s gospel is not about a general change of mind (meta-noia) , but change of what you care about (meta-melo). This, of course, calls us to ask ourselves: what are the things I truly care about? And, how is the list of things I care about different for the lists of people who are not Christian or religious.?  

St. Paul gives us some important guidance in the matter in the second reading..

Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.

Which of us is really willing to consider others more important than ourselves? When we are having the debates of our day about taxes, immigration, the economy or eveen civil war statues; how many Christians are willing to put others’ interests ahead of their own?  All too often, we are indistinguishable from society in general. We get sucked into asking the same self question. How does this benefit me and mine?

Because or original sin, we all have that tendency to turn inward, to look to the self. The Gospel challenges us to turn outward to look to God, to look toward the needs and concerns of others. Today we are reminded that it is not enough to say, “I consider that person my equal.” To be Christian, I am required to take the extra step, and consider that person more important than me.