Sunday, September 7, 2014

When Your Brother Hammers with a Light-Bulb - Homily Notes for the 23rd Sunday in OT

One of my earliest childhood memories was dad finishing the basement. Dad loved his tools and he was pretty good at building things. One day, he was working downstairs and so I went downstairs to help him. I was about five. I saw him working with a hammer, so I was going to hammer too. So I looked for something to hammer with. And instead of finding a hammer, I found a light-bulb.

There’s a principle in life that I learned that day: things must be used in accordance with their nature and the purpose for which they were made. Hammers are for hammering, light-bulbs are for lamps.

Dad taught me that lesson in two very important ways: On the one hand, he had to grab the light bulb and tell me to stop breaking light bulbs, but then he also talked to me about what light bulbs do and how when we use them in the way for which they were made, they can do pretty awesome things—like lighting rooms for trains. So, there was the negative lesson—“don’t break this”—and the positive lesson—“because this is pretty awesome.” Both lessons are important when we are teaching about how things must be used in accordance with their nature and the purpose for which they are made.

This isn’t a religious lesson. You don’t have to be religious to grasp this. Any carpenter, doctor, lawyer, teacher, or parent knows this lesson.

But as Catholics, so many of the culture’s hot-button issues against us boil down to this very simple principle: that things must be used in accordance with the nature and with the purpose for which they were made. Yet, our culture knows this principle—for even they correct their children. What is odd is that, while they know that hammers should hammer and that light bulbs shouldn’t be, they do not know the nature and purpose for which THEY (themselves) were made. This has resulted in our culture breaking itself like a child hammering with a light-bulb.

Someone has to be the father and help this child out.

And we owe it to our culture. We owe them the Truth. This is why Paul says “owe no one anything.” When the culture comes before the pearly gates, they shouldn’t look at us and say, “Hey, why didn’t you tell us?”

Hear the words of today’s first reading:

You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from this way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.”

Ouch. I feel convicted. This is the negative side of the lesson: the consequence of our silence is that we will be judged severely. And if the culture is breaking apart, it is because we have done nothing about it.

But there is a positive side to the lesson too.

Paul says: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the positive side that points out what we are made for. How so?

Since we want the very best for our neighbor (because we love our neighbor as ourselves), then to love our neighbor means to put our neighbor into communion with God—which means to teach our neighbor about how God has beautifully and wonderfully made all of us and to teach our neighbor about the purpose for which God has made us. It is not enough to point out the brokenness, we must also point out the beauty—and by doing so, we participate in the very redemption of our culture.

This is the beauty of today’s readings: God could have done this all by himself. But he gives us a radically intimate and personal involvement in his plan of salvation. This is what it means to love your neighbor. It means to bring them to heaven. It means to sometimes have to point out the negative, the breaking; sometimes it means we have to point out the positive, the beauty, and what we are made for—and that we are made for more!

To co-operate in God's plan of salvation: this is what we are made for!

Now we are ready to hear Jesus’ words. He says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” … “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you.”… “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.”

I will admit: when I hear these words, I cringe because I am afraid of confrontation. It makes me uncomfortable; it is often painful; and I’m not good at it.

But beneath these initial fears, there is actually something incredibly beautiful about Jesus’ words. Jesus gives us a beautiful method of bringing people back to the faith. So, let’s unpack it.

The first thing that is incredibly beautiful is how much charity there is in this process. When Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone,” I hear a great challenge for charity; first, because Jesus calls us to man-up and sit down with the one who has sinned. This requires vulnerability on our part (which makes sense, because the one we are correcting is vulnerable). This is also a challenge for charity because sitting-down keeps us from doing “drive-by corrections” or nagging. Those kinds of methods usually focus on the negative, on how a person is bad, and thus fail to orient a person to the greater beauty that they are missing in their life. Sitting down with our brother gives the whole conversation a certain “gravitas”—a seriousness that allows for the opening up of dialogue and possibly conversion. In other words, it is easy to point out that something is bad-- it is much harder to point out The Good to which our brother is called. It's not enough to say, "It's wrong to skip Mass"-- we have to present to our brother why Mass is so good.

So, when Jesus calls us to speak with our brother alone, he is giving us a way to love our neighbor: if the issue is worth the correction, then it is worth the gravitas of being vulnerable. And if it isn’t worth the gravitas of being vulnerable, then we shouldn’t issue a correction. In other words: we cannot love our neighbor and also throw stones. And since we are to speak with him alone, we certainly must not gossip.

This charity extends to the second exhortation: if our brother doesn’t listen to us, then we are to bring others. This allows testimony to be brought forward. But it also allows for the one doing the correction to be corrected too: when the group comes forward, it may be discovered that I was the one who messed up. Maybe I needed the correction.

There is another dimension to this. We are told to bring two or three witnesses. We’ve heard this before, but in terms of prayer: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” You see, if the sinner won’t listen to you, maybe they will listen to Jesus in the group. And if the sinner doesn’t listen to Jesus in the group, then Jesus tells us: “bring him to the Church”—the Church who is the very mystical body of Jesus Christ himself.

Do we see how generous and patient this method is? Jesus could have just told us to dismiss the sinner once the sinner stopped listening to us. Jesus could have told us to marginalize the sinner. But instead, we are told to give the sinner chance after chance. Notice how different this is than the culture! How does the culture treat its sinners-- those that stand up on the Church's side on the hot-button topics of the day? How does the culture treat its sinners? By marginalizing, isolating, name-calling, and incivility. They claim that they are loving their neighbor, but they are far from it!

What does Jesus say to this?

“If [the sinner] refuses to listen to them, tell the church.” This does not mean that we should run to our parish priest and beg him to bring down fire and brimstone upon a sinner. Rather, what it means is that we bring to this person the entirety of the Church: the witness of the saints, the power of the holy angels, and the perennial teachings which have been taught for over 2,000 years. After all, the Church is not just men in pointy hats, nor is She just those people here on earth—She includes all who have come before and who are in heaven. This is why when people say the people should vote on a church teaching, I must laugh because such a vote would have to include all the angels and saints—and the martyrs too, martyrs who have died for such teachings that our culture is rebelling against.

Notice, then: Jesus has given the Church as the last guard and messenger of truth, but, strangely, the Church is the first one who is dismissed by the culture.

What then?

“If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”

What does this mean? The Jews hated Gentiles and tax collectors. All this time we have seen an increase in personalism and charity—and now it comes to an end? Are we to hate? Actually, no.

We return to that principle of teaching: that we point out both the brokenness and the beauty, the law and the love, the negative and the positive. Jesus calls His church to do both.

So, just like a mother who says to her child, “you have broken this,” the Church must sometimes excommunicate and sometimes refuse holy communion—not out of hate, but as a Mother who points out that something has been broken. It is a negative side, but sometimes that must be done. This is one side of the phrase: “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” This is why Jesus talks about binding and loosing in today's Gospel. The Church is to loose-- forgive-- those who repent. But she is to bind-- hold bound-- those who refuse.

Jesus doesn’t leave it there. If we say, “you have broken this,” Jesus then says, “And I will fix it.” This is the positive side. Jesus reaches out to the Gentiles and to the tax-collectors: he enters into Matthew’s tax office and calls him out. Jesus eats with sinners, but he doesn’t support their lifestyle. He enters in precisely to pull them out. This requires a radical hopefulness. If our brother won’t listen to us or the Church, Jesus is now saying, “Then leave him to me.”

Leaving our brother to Jesus is not passive, but requires us to sacrifice with and to Jesus and to beg God for mercy. We pray. This is why Jesus finishes this discourse about forgiveness and prayer.

I hope what we see here, brothers and sisters, is a profoundly generous and hopeful and patient way of fraternal correction. It is the way in which God himself has invited us to participate in His very work of salvation. Sometimes this means we have to point out the brokenness. But most of all, it means pointing out the beauty and orienting us towards the greater purpose for which we are made.

I hope I have done this in this homily: to point out some of the brokenness, but also to point out how much more we are made for: how much more “loving your neighbor” means.

Again, God could have called down fire and brimstone. Instead, He has called down the fires of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of charity, which He has given to us. His plan is to place your brother’s salvation in your hands. Will you bring your brother home?