Sunday, March 15, 2015

Light and Darkness

4th Sunday of Lent
Cycle B

I think one of the main reasons people reject Christianity is because they think that we’re all about condemnation. That we sit up on our high horse and judge people’s behavior against some sort of unreasonable, out-of-date standard. A standard that we ourselves cannot even uphold. We don’t change with the world, we try to change the world, and that can be painful. Painful not because we have the power to condemn or force people to behave as we’d like them to, but because deep down most folks realize that they’re not living as they should, and they may need to change their thinking and their behavior.
It is the struggle of the ages, isn’t it? We read today the story of the Jewish people’s exile to Babylon and subsequent return to Jerusalem 70 years later. The people and their leaders had turned away from God and rejected Him. They practiced all sorts of immorality and didn’t think the God of their fathers was good enough or applicable for them anymore. They stopped listening to the prophets and the word of God. Sound familiar?

In the Old Testament God works his will through people, often through the actions of the leaders. The scripture writers interpreted the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as just punishment for the sins of the people. They were just getting what they deserved. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzer was doing God’s will when he carried the Jews off into slavery, and the Emperor Cyrus was doing the same when he allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. I don’t know if those kings actually saw it that way, but the Jews did, and that’s what counts.

There is a definite cause and effect relationship throughout the scriptures. If you do God’s will you will be rewarded; if you don’t you will be punished. God will show you mercy after you have paid for your sins. He will allow you to come back to him. That’s an incomplete and unsatisfying understanding. Jesus doesn’t see things that way, does he? Jesus is not about judgment, he’s all about mercy and forgiveness. Mercy before you have paid. He says so today in his conversation with Nicodemus.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, 
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned.

The way Jesus sees it, God is not the one who condemns; we condemn ourselves. God does not choose pain and separation for us, we choose it for ourselves. Jesus does not say there is no condemnation, only that it is not God who will condemn us. God is all about mercy, and He will do everything possible to call us back to Him and welcome us home into his presence. He will show us the way, even going so far as to send His only Son to us to show us the way, to be our light and guide.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, 
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish 
but might have eternal life.
Light and darkness are such strong images for us. We equate darkness with evil. We call Satan the Prince of Darkness, and we fear the dark. We feel uncomfortable in the dark. We fear the unknown, we fear what we cannot control. We’re afraid we’ll stumble and fall in the dark. Darkness is frightening for us only because we know the difference between light and darkness. We fear the darkness because that’s where bad things can happen. But sometimes we prefer the darkness because that’s where we can hide.

The light came into the world, 
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light, 
so that his works might not be exposed.

The ironic thing about Nicodemus is that he was attracted to Jesus, but he only wanted to meet him at night. He didn’t want his friends and neighbors to know that he was a disciple of Jesus, because he was a high ranking Pharisee. He should have known better. And so he wanted to hide it. Jesus didn’t mind. He met him where he was in his faith and came to him. It wasn’t about who Nicodemus was now. It was about who he could become. Jesus knew that eventually Nicodemus would come out into the light.
The saddest thing about living in the darkness is that we feel less about ourselves and alienate ourselves from God and his community. We can beat ourselves up so much that we actually stay away from God. How wretched you must feel to keep yourself from God. Have you ever not come to Mass because you felt unworthy? Or stayed away because you were not in the “right frame of mind” to receive the Eucharist; that you just didn’t think you could come to Mass with all those people there and try to pretend that everything was ok? Why just go through the motions?

Do you think that you shouldn’t come to Mass if you haven’t exactly been living a perfect Christian life lately? I mean, why add one more hypocrite to the mix? Do you think that you have to have it all together in order to worship the Lord? I’m not perfect, so I’ll stay away. Does Jesus really only call the righteous? If that were the case there’d be no one here. It’s sort of like saying that I’m starving, so I really shouldn’t come to the banquet. The very thing you think you should avoid is the thing you really need. Sometimes we blind ourselves to what we’re really doing here.

It’s ironic that the best way to become worthy of the Eucharist is to experience the Eucharist. None of us can ever make ourselves worthy of being here. Only God can make us worthy, just by willing it so. So we have a choice, to beat ourselves up for not being worthy or to accept the grace of God that allows us to see. To exclude ourselves from the banquet or to humbly accept the invitation.

You see, it’s not cause and effect. It’s all mercy. It’s not darkness. It’s light. No matter how long we have stumbled around in the dark, we can change and come into the light. As long as we sincerely seek the truth we will never remain in the darkness. It is our choice.

But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, 
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.




Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Shamers

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle B

Last Thursday, the New York Times published an article by Jon Ronson entitled “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”.  In it he talks about a 30 year old public relations executive who, while traveling from New York to South Africa for the Christmas holidays in 2013, fired off a series of tweets about the indignities of international travel. Most were just harmless complaining, but the last one completely changed her life. On December 20, just before boarding the plane for an 11 hour flight to Cape Town she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Little did she know that her inappropriate statement would go viral far beyond her 170 twitter followers to almost immediately become the number one trending tweet in the entire world. And she was completely oblivious to what was going on as she slept on the flight. By the time she arrived in Cape Town, there were tens of thousands of angry tweets in response to her comment, all calling for her head. But it went beyond that to become a form of entertainment, as thousands of people anticipated what Justine’s reaction would be when she got off the plane and turned on her phone to see what had happened. Someone even went to the airport to tweet to the world about what she was like as she deplaned.

Justine’s entire life since then has been a living hell. She lost her job and received hate mail and death threats. She has been mocked virtually the world over. She cannot date because any potential suitor runs away after Googling her. Her family in South Africa has been hiding in shame. She eventually took a job at a Non-Governmental Organization in Africa, trying to hide from her detractors, but as one of her friends tweeted, “Sorry, your tweet lives on forever.”

Ronson goes on to chronicle many more instances of public shaming today, usually because someone posted something stupid or insensitive on social media, or because a post was taken completely out of context. It is a sad reality of our times that the practice of shaming has become so widespread and vicious.

It was the same for the early Jews. We hear today Moses’ prescription for the treatment of lepers by the community. Lepers were to be treated as outcasts from the community. Even the suspicion of leprosy meant exile. There were two reasons for this; first, it was a public health issue. Leprosy is extremely contagious, so it made sense to isolate those suffering from it. However, it was also a question of morality. The ancient Jews believed that the sick suffered because they were sinners. If you pleased the Lord He would bless you with good health, wealth, long life and children. If you were poor, sickly or barren it was because you or your parents had done something sinful, and God was punishing you for it. Lepers had to actually take the posture of the penitent - rending their clothes and uncovering their heads – not because they were sick but because their sin had made them impure. They were unclean and to have contact with them not only exposed you to their illness but to their sin. To touch the unclean made you unclean.

And people would be very cruel to the unclean. They would drive them away, throw rocks at them, and cut them off from everything they loved. They would be publicly humiliated and shunned. Like poor Justine Sacco, they would lose everything and live in desperation. All because of ignorance and a mob mentality. Look! There’s the evil one. Not me. You!

And so Jesus’ compassion towards the leper in the gospel today has several meanings. Of course the leper wanted to be returned to health. He did not want to suffer and eventually die all alone. But he really wanted to have his dignity restored. He wanted to be clean again, both in body and soul. He also believed that he was suffering because of something he or his parents had done. His self-guilt was probably worse pain than his physical suffering. And he wanted the shaming to stop.

It was easy for Jesus to heal him physically. But what about the emotional scars? What about his family and neighbors? Would they really believe that he had been made whole? And even if they believed the evidence of his cure, would they ever think of him as more than a sinner? Would his tweet live on forever?

The leper came to Jesus out of desperation. He had nothing to lose. He fell at Jesus’ feet and groveled in the dirt. And he said basically, “You are the only one who can make me clean. You are the only one I trust not to judge me. You are the last person I can turn to and I desperately hope you won’t turn me away. Please make me clean. Please see me as a person of value. Please don’t join in the shaming but accept me.”

And Jesus did. What else could he do? He didn’t see before him a sinner being punished for what he had done. He saw him as a complete human being. He returned his dignity to him. And he made him feel that he was free from the effects of sin. It’s as if all had been wiped clean.

But what about the cultural norms of the day? Jesus was also telling Jewish society that this poor leper was a human being and should no longer be cut off from the community. Instead of joining in shunning him, he accepted him and gave the example of how to treat people with illness. Jesus did this often. “Which is easier to say, your sins are forgiven, or rise, pick up your mat, and walk?”

We fall into the same prejudices today against the sick, the poor, the elderly and the infirm. We often see them as unproductive, worthless, people to be shunned. Our hospitals and nursing homes are filled with people who suffer all alone. We visit folks every week here in Park City whose family and friends have abandoned them. They wait to die alone. All they want is to be made clean.

We look back on the public humiliations of the Middle Ages and think them to be ignorant and cruel. But we do the same thing today all over social media. We sit here in Church on Sunday yet tomorrow will revel in the vitriol that is hurled all over the internet against those who do not share our political beliefs, our nationality, our sports teams, or who simply make a mistake. Just ask Brian Williams. The only difference between now and a thousand years ago is that we can do it anonymously. The mob has only gotten bigger and meaner and crosses international boundaries.

With four simple words Jesus can change things. “I do will it.” God’s will is what is what matters, and he does will that we be clean. And he wants us to see those around us who are hurting as clean also. He wants us to step out from the mob and not join in the shaming of the vulnerable.

Because you know, some day that vulnerable, suffering, worthless-feeling person will be you.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Love Story

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle B

It’s one of those serendipities of the liturgical reading cycle that we hear today the story of the calling of the prophet Jonah and the first apostles, since yesterday was the 11th anniversary of my ordination. And while I am no way in the same league as a prophet or an apostle, it has caused me to reflect on my experiences the past eleven years and see some similarities.

I often wonder at the power of Jesus’ word and presence when people encountered him in their daily lives. How magnetic and disruptive his personality must have been. He had enormous influence in order to shake people from their former lives in such a short period of time. I guess that’s why we describe people with magnetic personalities as being charismatic today.

What was it about that moment in the apostles’ lives that caused them to leave their families and friends and their livelihoods in order to follow someone just because he called them to? We don’t know if the apostles had met or heard about Jesus before that day. Perhaps they knew him by reputation. Perhaps he had spoken to them before and it was finally time for them to act. Remember that Jesus himself had to be prodded into his public ministry by his own mother at the wedding feast at Cana. Maybe Jesus had been preparing Andrew, Peter, James and John for a while before calling them to leave that day.

Isn’t that more plausible? Isn’t that more in keeping with our own experiences? I know it is with mine. I don’t believe in love at first sight. Falling in love is a process, whether it is with God or with one another. There is an initial attraction, whether physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually. Then there is a period of self-revelation with that person, where we get to know one another. With that slow revelation we come to understand what we’re all about, and the revelation gets deeper and more personal. Out of that understanding comes trust, and only with trust can love blossom.

I can see that happening with the apostles. They were men searching for something. Like most Jews of the first century, they were looking for a messiah. Actively looking. Maybe they had checked out other charismatic personalities who were wandering around Galilee. We know from the scriptures that there were many such messiahs popping up and disappearing around that time. Maybe they were disciples of John the Baptist. The gospel of John says they were. And we know that Jesus also followed John around the Jordan. Maybe the apostles had met and gotten to know Jesus there, in community with other searchers.

That’s what happened to me. I am a cradle to grave Catholic; some have called me TurboCatholic. And my love for Jesus did not come about from some earth shattering event or revelation, like with St. Paul. No, just as Peter was led to Jesus by his brother, I was led to Jesus by my dad. I gained knowledge of Jesus throughout my sixteen years in Catholic schools, but I didn’t fall in love with Jesus through study. I was attracted to the Jesus my father knew and loved. Dad never had a lot of book learning, he had a personal relationship with Jesus. And I wanted that same relationship.

You see, you can know everything about a person and not love them. A lot of folks go to bible studies and retreats and study everything they can find about Jesus, but never really fall in love with him. Unless you have a personal experience of the risen Lord, just as the apostles did, you can never truly grow to love him.

Now don’t get me wrong, the way to find Jesus, know him and then love him is often through bible study, retreats, and the sacraments, and that’s why we do them. But there will always come that moment when you have to make the decision to follow him. There will always come that time when you have to choose to switch your focus off your family and friends, your job and your interests and onto being a disciple. Some people will actually be called to leave all those things and enter a life of service as a priest, religious, activist or whatever. But most of us won’t. Most of us will just make the mental and spiritual switch. And I think that’s often harder to live than if we just left everything and entered a monastery.

Remember the story of the rich young man? He asked Jesus what he had to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus told him to obey the commandments, and the man said he always had. Then Jesus asked him to make that choice to switch his focus from his life of possessions and onto Jesus. And the man went away dejected because that was just too much to ask. He hadn’t had time to fall in love with Jesus yet. Perhaps later on he did, but we cannot know.

Whether it was spur of the moment or the result of time, at one point the apostles had to choose whether or not to follow Jesus. At a specific point in time Jesus called them to act. Preparation time was over. Time to get a move on.

As a deacon I’m often caught in the middle. I’m neither fish nor fowl. I am clergy but I exercise my ministry in the world and the marketplace. A priest is a priest, and maybe a son and a friend. I am husband and father, friend and brother, businessman and deacon. Like you, I struggle to keep my priorities straight. I have to constantly remind myself that a deacon is what I am, not what I do. I am supposed to be servant, and that service extends to my roles as husband and father, friend and brother and businessman. And my wife and children, friends and sister all know that I never live up to being servant, and never will.

I can really relate to poor Jonah in today’s first reading. We get the middle of the story here, but need to know the beginning and the end. Jonah was called by God to be a prophet, and he really didn’t want to. In fact, he told God no and then ran away and hid. You see, God wanted Jonah to go to the capital of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh, and tell them that God was going to destroy them all in three days. That’s all. He didn’t have to preach to them or try to convert them. All he had to do was tell them they were going to all be killed. And Jonah didn’t think that was fair. And he was scared.

The Assyrians were one of the most barbarous and brutal civilizations the world has ever known. The Assyrian empire had conquered virtually all the Middle East, and they treated the conquered people horribly. They wiped out the Northern kingdom of Israel and carried thousands of people off to slavery. It’s understandable that Jonah hated the Assyrians and feared what they would do to him if he was caught yelling in the streets.

Jonah didn’t want to warn the Assyrians. He wanted them to all die. And he didn’t want to die trying. So he ran away from his calling. You know the story. He was swallowed by the big fish, was belched up on the beach, and finally got to walking through Ninevah with his message of destruction. And you know what? They all repented. They all gave up their evil ways and God chose not to destroy them. And this made Jonah even angrier, so angry that he asked God to kill him there and then. God’s sense of justice just didn’t make sense, and it just wasn’t fair.

Now, I don’t ever want God to destroy my enemies, but maybe he could chastise them a little sometimes. Like Jonah, there are some people I don’t think deserve mercy. They’ve hurt me and they deserve to be hurt in return. There have been many times when I have wanted to or tried to run away. Sometimes I just don’t want to go do that hospital visit or make that phone call to the chronic complainer. Sometimes I see the evil and indifference in the world and just want to give up a losing battle. Sometimes I am so frustrated that people just don’t get it.

And that’s when I have to stop, take a deep breath, and try to remember why I’m doing this in the first place. I have to remember who I’m doing this for. I have to strip away all the rules and regulations, pressures and responsibilities, and focus on my love for Jesus. More so, I need to focus on his love for me. I need to experience Jesus in my life personally. I have to feel Jesus. I have to have an emotional response. I have to remember all the times I have experienced the loving hand of God in my life and in the lives of those I serve.

And I have to pray.

I have witnessed some amazing things, some deeply personal conversions in peoples’ lives, the past eleven years. I have to remember them and let them humble me. And it is humbling to see how God’s ways are not my ways, his idea of justice is not the same as mine, and his mercy always triumphs over judgment. Because if God can relent in punishing the Assyrians, if Jesus can forgive the betrayal of his closest friends, then what does God have in store for you and me, servants just trying to get along in the world?