Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Argument Clinic - Homily for the 23rd Sunday in OT (A)

First, as we enjoy the blessing of fine weather, let us remember in our prayers the people of Florida, Houston, and the Caribbean who are suffering the effects of the hurricanes. Lord, look kindly upon them.

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We've all been in an argument. And sometimes its a big argument. An argument about religion or politics-- or even bigger: about marriage or getting sober or you name it. Jesus knows that we argue. And part of the reason why we argue is because we care. We care about people and we care about the Truth. Jesus knows this and He knows that sometimes in those arguments our pride can get in the way. The pride of having to be right. Or, if we are on the receiving end, the pride of not wanting to be wrong.

Enter today's Gospel.

Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”

So Jesus is concerned about sin. And He tells us that we are to talk to people about this. “Son of Man,” he says in the first reading from Ezekiel, “I have appointed you watchman for the house of Israel; … you shall warn them for me. … If you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.”

In other words, when Cain killed Abel, God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?” And Cain responded by saying, “What, am I my brother's keeper?”

Yes. Yes you are. So, yes, if you are a person of love (are we are all trying to be), then you want more for your neighbor than the wages of sin. You want eternal life for them. That means that we must tell people about the Truth, no matter what. We must live our faith out loud. Jesus died publicly on the Cross-- not privately. Christianity must be lived publicly, not privately.

If there is anything that should be private, it is that we are to “tell him his fault between you and him alone.” Alone. No gossip. (Isn't that interesting? When someone hurts us, we like to tell everyone about it. But when it comes to the Truth of Jesus, it's so easy to tell no one about it). Jesus knows this, so He tells us that, if we have been hurt, tell only the one. No facebook. Don't write anonymous reviews or write anonymous letters.

If it is important to say anything about it, then you must talk with the person, personally and gently, face to face. This is loving. Do it over a cup of coffee or a beer. Be relaxed and courteous, show them somehow that you love them. But be firm. “This is important. And I love you. That's why I'm saying this.”

And maybe they don't listen to you. And that's humbling-- nothing pricks our pride more than someone not caring what we say. (Welcome to the club). But don't get angry. You're just passing on what you are supposed to be passing on. It's not about you. It's about Jesus coming to meet your brother. That's what this is all about.

And so, Jesus promises: “If [your brother] listens to you, you have won over your brother.” Thanks be to God!

* * *

Now, here's the thing: sometimes we're wrong. Sometimes we think we have a good grasp on the truth, but maybe we don't. Maybe we have misjudged. Or maybe we have spent all our capital by being nagging or prideful in our approaches. Sometimes our neighbor doesn't seem to have any reason to listen to us because we've been a stranger or we've been scandalous in the way we have lived.

Jesus knows about that, too. So, He says: “If [your brother] does not listen [to you], take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.'” So, if your neighbor has no reason to believe you, maybe he'll believe the others. Maybe they are more trustworthy.

See, Jesus is trying to give your neighbor every chance to believe. This is the way that you prove to your neighbor that this is not a personal vendetta, that you aren't coming with a personal agenda.

And it's also humbling for us because, when we bring this issue to two others, we are submitting our judgment to theirs-- it's humble to say: “Maybe I am in the wrong. Maybe, before I go any further in calling my brother on to holiness, maybe I need to make sure that I'm not in the wrong here.” So we ask two others about it. And if the say, “yeah, you're right,” ok, now go with them and talk to your brother again.

After all, our Lord promises: “Whenever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” … See? This is all about Jesus coming to your neighbor.

* * *

Now, let's be brutally honest: very few like to hear how they are supposed to become better. Yet, for as much as we don't like to hear that, we all know that we all have room to grow. Pride is dumb like that because even if it admits that it needs to change, it still won't listen to anybody. The result is that the prideful person becomes alienated, bitter, and lonely.

Jesus is saying: “Won't you listen to me?”

In my own life, I have found that when someone comes to me with the courage to say, “Hey, Father Gerber, have you ever thought about doing such and such?” Or, a friend who calls me out for not being joyful enough or faithful enough-- that's gold in my book. I want to become a saint. And I know the courage it has taken them to give me constructive criticism.

So, if two or more people would come to me and talk humbly to me about a problem-- woah!-- I know it is best for me to listen!

* * *

But even then, some people don't. So, Jesus gives a third chance: “If [your brother] refuses to listen to them, then tell the church.”

The heavy artillery. This is the final authority. This goes back to the past two weeks' conversation about Peter. About how he has the keys and how he is the servant that opens and shuts.

So, when Jesus says “Tell the Church,” He's saying: this is the last chance.

That's amazing, isn't it? How many people think that, when the Church speaks, that is the last chance for conversion? So many people simply dismiss what “the Church” says as if she was just another voice in the public square. But that's the thing: she isn't just another voice. All of these points of advice from Jesus-- about coming as a loving individual, about coming as a group and so on-- all of this is about Jesus coming to the person. The Church is not just another voice-- it IS Jesus' voice.

But I know: one of the reasons why people simply dismiss what the Church says is because some bishops and priests have spoken out of turn. What I mean by that is, too many priests and bishops (and I count myself as guilty in this, too) have spoken from ambos just like this one and declared something to be absolutely true and dogmatic when, in reality, it wasn't. And people sense that error and they lose trust in their clergy.

Priests and bishops, therefore, need to be exceedingly aware of this great trust, this great stewardship of actual doctrine and the treasure of souls, and the essential requirement to be measured in their speech and absolutely certain that what they say is true. If the Church is the final voice of Christ, then wow! We priests and deacons and bishops must be very measured indeed. We must present the entire Truth in all its height and breadth and length and depth, in all its rigor and vigor. (Catechesi tradendae 5 and 30, citing Eph 3:18).

Take the situation of immigration. There have been some that have come out with zealous opinions on current decisions regarding immigration. But the issue is multifaceted and quite complex: even the Catechism notes that immigrants have the duty to “obey [the] laws” of the land and to “assist in carrying civic burdens” (#2241) like paying taxes and so on. So, while we are called to “welcome the foreigner” and the “stranger”-- as Jesus and the same Catechism paragraph notes-- the Church also recognizes that countries have rights and immigrants have duties. Have we heard both sides of this coin? Indeed, failure to express this whole message is a failure to express the Truth. And people sense that. And they lose trust. And they don't listen-- and in that case, rightly so.

This is why we must especially pray for bishops and priests and deacons-- those who are entrusted as the final say in the whole line of Jesus' gospel here. Because if they are ignorant or blinded by the pride of a false compassion-- then... God help us-- who are we supposed to listen to?

Humility and wisdom are essential for the clergy; likewise, a sense of self-critique and self-analysis too.

* * *

And lest we become hypocritical: while we expect it of the clergy, do we then also expect it of ourselves? Am I open to critique? Am I offended or get defensive if someone challenges me? Have I learned to see challenge and correction as a blessing from God? In it, can I see Jesus coming to me, loving me so as to purify me and make me stronger than gold seven times refined, a greater instrument of His grace?

Hear Jesus' last words on the matter: “If [they] refuse to listen even to the church, then treat [them] as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”

In other words: If the person is so prideful that they will not listen to Jesus in you-- if they are so prideful that they will not listen to Jesus in the group-- if they are so prideful that they will not trust Jesus in the Church … well, what can you do?

Write them off? No.

What did Jesus do for Gentiles and tax collectors? He lived for them; He died for them; He prayed and He sacrificed for them. That is what we are to do-- for our fallen away; for our clergy; for one another.

And, when you realize that people have done the same for you-- as people have done for me-- when someone comes to you with a heart full of love and says, “Hey, I want more for you. Come walk this path instead of that”-- know that it's Jesus. Don't get defensive. Welcome him. And say thank you. He loves you and He is leading you to the holy life.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Greatest Achievement - Homily for the 22nd Sunday in OT (A)

There is an oddity in nature (and I take this from Peter Kreeft). When it comes to rocks or grass or animals, they don't have to achieve or arrive at their nature. What I mean by that is, rocks are just naturally rocky. They don't have to “do” anything-- they just are. Grass is grassy. Cats are cat-like and so on. But here's the oddity: when it comes to humans, we have the dignity of human nature, but we may or may not achieve or arrive at it. By that I mean, a lady may or may not be lady-like. A man may or may not be manly. So, we are in flux-- we are between becoming who we are and becoming who we are not.

CS Lewis puts this very nicely: “Every time you make a decision, you are turning the central part of you... into something a little different than it was before.” So, for example, in the Lord of the Rings, Smeagol becomes-- by small or large choices each day-- Gollum; he devolves. He wasn't supposed to become that. Frodo, on the other hand, becomes more of who he is deep down: a hero. And it all hinges not on whether they give their lives away (for both give their lives away one way or another)-- but it hinges on what or to whom they give their lives away. More on that in a bit.

For now, we can say that, in the Gospel, Simon faces similar choices. And who will he become? Will he be the man he is supposed to be-- that is, Peter-- or even less than Simon?

* * *

In the Incarnation, we arrive at a very stark reality: God is concerned with the choices that we make. He becomes one of us and so enters into the drama of decision-making. In this, Jesus shows us what the achievement looks like (He is The Way). And the achievement-- what human nature is supposed to arrive at-- is the glory of the Resurrection. Paradoxically, that achievement comes by way of the Cross: “No greater love does a man have than this.” The more we embrace the Cross, the more we become who we are.

To this, Peter responds: no. Peter has different thoughts about what man and the Messiah are supposed to be. The Messiah is supposed to be a man of power, not the weakness of the Cross-- “forbid it happen, Lord!” Peter sees the Cross as failure; he doesn't see the paradox: that death will conquer death, that Love will conquer evil. Jesus has been a Messiah of paradoxes when we think about it, really: “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” comes to mind. Here, the paradox is: “Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

In other words, Jesus is showing us that humanity arrives at what it is supposed to be when humanity gives itself away as a loving gift. Until we give ourselves away to God, until we waste our time and our money on Him, until we say as St. Ignatius did: “Take, Lord, receive all my liberty”-- until we join with Jesus-- the ultimate God-man-- on the Cross, then we have not become who we are.

Rocks are rocky, grass is grassy-- but humans are only arrive at the fullness of their reality when they finally pick up and do what God did in the fullness of humanity. God shows us who we are and what we are to do.

* * *

This is why Paul says: “Do not be conformed to this age...” and “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” In other words, today's culture is not taking on the ways of Jesus. We must be different. Indeed, oftentimes you can look at the culture and discover what you are to do by simply doing the opposite of the culture. Think about it. Is our culture today very committed? Shoot, what is the biggest commitment of many peoples' lives? Their phone contract. Or children: does our children embrace children? Oh sure, have a couple-- but God forbid you have more than that! Even in parish churches, people give young parents the evil eye if the child is being child-like.

Yes, we must be the opposite! Do not be afraid of commitment! Young men and women, say yes to marriage or to the priesthood or to religious life. Eventually, discernment must end in commitment. Give your life to Jesus. You are not wasting your life!

And have children. Be generous. Yeah, you may say, “gosh, I can't carry this.” Right: that's the weight of the Cross-- and our Lord is going to help you. You need to reach that point where you are totally dependent on Him.

Those who are a little older: give your stuff away. Go ahead and die poor. While all your friends are hoarding and living it up in retirement, you be the one that leaves a legacy to the Church and to your family and charities. Give it all away and don't look back. Enter into heaven with empty hands so as to receive the real riches that await the saints.

And when everyone else is busy and enslaved to Pharoah, waste time with God.

See: that's the paradox: what the world thinks is a waste is actually the greatest treasure. The Cross is the glory. And when Peter denies it, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” That's how important this is. “What does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

See, this is the reality: we become possessed by what we possess. And it's either going to be God or not God. All of us are going to give ourselves away-- but it's either going to be to the world or to God. And only one of those will actually last and bring you eternal joy. (Hint: it's God).

* * *

And, I know: you're afraid. Who isn't? Even Jesus sweat blood before His crucifixion. But remember: how many times Jesus has told us: “Be not afraid.” Be not afraid of entering into the commitment of marriage or priesthood or religious life. Be not afraid of having many kids. Be not afraid of giving your life away to God and to neighbor in charity and generosity. Be not afraid!

Because, as you lose your life for Him, you will find that you will have gained it. You will have arrived at who you are supposed to be: Jesus Christ. This is the greatest achievement-- of God and man. Let us pray now for this grace.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.