20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Nice, sweet, cuddly Jesus has left the building. Love your neighbor has just turned into pyrotechnics.
The paradox of Jesus Christ is that his message is one of unity and yet he causes division. He calls all his disciples to live in unity with him just as he is in unity with the Father and the Spirit, yet that very call is what will cause us to be divided. Because his message and his demand to follow him have always gone against the wisdom of the world.
This is nothing new. Jesus not only acknowledged that this is the case, he embraced it. He knew that if people were truly living their discipleship they would be rejected by the world. He knew his very being would ignite a firestorm in the world. And that’s what he so desperately wanted.
Being a Christian is to live in tension. We speak of love of neighbor, yet sometimes that love has to be tough love. Sometimes we show our love of our neighbor by opposing what they believe. Love is not acceptance and tolerance of bad behavior. But that is what’s so difficult for us as Christians, because that is where the divisions happen. It’s easy to just live and let live, even when we know that a person’s actions will lead to their ultimate and eternal death. Live and let live means I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to stick my neck out and make a stand for what is good and right. I can just hide behind my “good example” and “good intentions” and claim I’m a Christian. I won’t be attacked. Jesus demands more than that.
Jesus Christ demands a choice. Of all the religions of the world, Christianity is fundamentally different. We do not follow a philosophy, we follow a person. And that person demands something from us that we are usually reluctant to give. Our entire selves. You cannot be a part time or a partial disciple. St. John says in his first letter that if we love God we will keep his commandments.
Jesus doesn’t demand our allegiance because he wants to enslave us. On the contrary, if we follow his commands we will be living as we were created to be. If we are free from sin we are truly free.
In my lifetime, I cannot remember a time where there has been so much division along moral lines both within the Church and without. In the past, it seemed that there were one or two big issues that caused people to turn to their consciences. In the 60s it was the anti-war movement. In the 80’s it was the nuclear freeze. In the 2000s it was the Iraq war. Today, it seems there are dozens of issues we can disagree on. Abortion and euthanasia and same sex marriage and terrorism and religious liberty and sexual morality and immigration reform, all being debated at the same time. It seems to be coming at us in a frenzy and from all directions. As soon as one crisis is over another one springs up.
Maybe it’s because we all have instantaneous access to news from around the world. And we are bombarded with thousands of opinions on everything, most completely uninformed. It is harder than ever to discern the truth about issues, and everybody is an expert.
When I was growing up, there were three things that were never allowed to be discussed at extended family gatherings. Politics, religion and sex. It seems that today that’s all we talk about. Well, at least the politics and sex. It seems the more we talk about those two things the more the religion stuff gets pushed to the side.
Today all sides of an issue claim to be following the commandments of God, and that their cause is the righteous one. They change the language of the argument, calling good evil and evil good. Heck, Nancy Pelosi even says her Catholic faith demands she be pro abortion, calling abortion a sacred right. All sides are sincere in their beliefs, even if some of them are sincerely wrong.
The divisions that will naturally spring up if we are true disciples run very deep. Jesus says they will hit our most basic relationships, those within our families. The choices Jesus demands of us are the most basic of all, cutting to the very heart of who we are as persons, so of course they would affect the most basic building blocks of society. We will face these issues whether we like it or not. Society is also demanding we make a choice.
We all see it within our own families. Jesus didn’t say he came to sow division among political parties, or nations, or ethnic groups. He said he’s going to hit us at the most basic level. And yes, those same divisions will spill over from the family to politics and nationalism and ethnic struggles. Because it’s the age-old struggle between good and evil. We’re in a war and we always have been and we always seem to be losing.
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. Is that what we will be ultimately called to do, shed our blood?
Just this week in Yemen, 50 Christians were locked in a church and then the church was burned to the ground. Today, Islamists in Egypt are hunting down and attacking and killing Coptic Christians. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says at least 25 churches were torched on Wednesday and Thursday, and that attackers also targeted Christian schools, shops and homes across all 27 provinces. Last year alone, the Vatican estimates that over 100,000 Christians were martyred for their faith.
And it’s not just blood being shed. In England, two men are suing the Church over the right to have a church wedding, not because they consider it to be their right as Christians but because they want all the pomp and circumstance surrounding a big church wedding. In Canada, you can be prosecuted for a hate crime if you speak out in public against certain lifestyle choices. The same applies in the Netherlands.
That’s other countries, you say. We have laws and it won’t happen here. Just last week, a federal judge in Texas ruled that Catholic hospitals that take federal funding of any kind have to give privileges to abortionists. And we all have been following the battle over the Health and Human Services mandate that religious institutions such as hospitals and universities provide for contraception and abortion services in their employee health plans, even if those services are contrary to the very foundational beliefs of those institutions.
In the court of public opinion last year, the Susan B. Komen Foundation was viciously attacked in the press by Planned Parenthood and their surrogates and the founder was ultimately forced out simply for wanting to redirect funding away from the abortion provider.
I take these attacks of religious liberty very personally and seriously, because if we go the way of other Western nations, I may stand to lose a lot if I simply live up to the teachings of my church. I am a bit unique. I am a clergyman who’s also a small businessman. I have assets to go after that are not protected by the Church. I am not an employee of the parish or the diocese. I am a volunteer. Therefore, I am not protected as an employee would be from lawsuits. Once same sex marriage becomes the law of the land, do you think people would sue the big institutional churches that have the resources to fight back? Do you think they'll go after the poor priests who make $25,000 a year? I think probably they’d go after someone like me.
Don’t think it can’t happen? Am I being alarmist? What prophet isn’t an alarmist? Well, the state of Washington is currently suing a small flower shop because they didn’t want to provide flowers for a same sex wedding. And in Vermont, a gay couple sued a bed and breakfast for not wanting to hold their wedding reception there, and settled for $30,000. The laws they’re using to prosecute these people are equal access and anti-discrimination laws. Everybody wants equal access and is against discrimination, right?
I don’t know about you, but $30,000 would put a bit of a dent in my finances. It’d bankrupt me. And what about my government contracts? Do I stand to lose one half of my business because I don’t comply with some policy? Military chaplains are not being allowed to read letters to Catholic soldiers from the Archbishop for the Military regarding their Church’s position on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or the Defense of Marriage Act. Right now, no furniture in any military chapel can have any Christian symbols on it. I know, I build it.
And you know the saddest thing for me? It’s that many of you would think that I would be getting what I deserved, for denying people their God-given civil rights. Many of my closest friends would interpret my position as being against the teachings of Jesus to love our neighbor. You would be full of righteous indignation because you have God on your side. You not only wouldn’t support me, you’d condemn me. You’d throw me down the well.
Why would you be any different from members of my own family who believe that now? I have come to establish division. A father will be divided against his son, and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter, and a daughter against her mother.
I don’t know how we fix it. Maybe it all comes down to how you view your church. Is the church just one of many equally good ways to find God; just a bunch of teachings and stuff that you can agree with or not, based upon your politics? Or is the Church the truth as taught by the Son of God and passed down through the Apostles unbroken for 2000 years? Ask yourself what Pilate asked Jesus; “what is truth?” And then remember how Jesus replied. Is the Church truly Jesus Christ in the world today?
Jesus is demanding a choice. He is calling you to stand up and be counted. He wants you to put your faith into action. Do something! Light the fire! That’s what a prophet does. That’s what Jeremiah did. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what your Church does today.
Make your choice!