Sunday, October 7, 2012

I Shouldn't Second Guess Jesus--Even When It Comes to Preaching Difficult Things

Last Sunday, the Gospel concerned avoiding scandal and sin.  The Lord said it would be better for a millstone to be tied around your neck and to be cast into the sea than to cause scandal.  And, he said that it would be better to enter into eternal life maimed than to go to Hell intact.  It was a tough reading to preach.  When it was all over and it was time to prepare for the next Sunday's readings, I found it was not easier.  In this Sunday's Gospel, Jesus says that whoever divorces his wife or husband and marries another commits adultery.  I was kind of hoping for a "Blessed are the poor in spirit" weekend.

During the week, I talked to several priest friends about that Gospel and I also spoke to some parishioners.  It is a tough one.  In fact, one night I kept waking up thinking about that Gospel.  I know my people fairly well.  I knew that when I would be preaching about that Gospel I would be talking to the divorced and civilly remarried, the happily married, the same-sex attracted person, the children of divorced parents, the person who had betrayed their vows, the person who had been betrayed, the person who mourns the loss of his marriage, and the list goes on.  And here is Jesus sounding fairly tough on this point.  Marriage is between a man and a woman.  It is permanent and indissoluble.

As I thought about this Gospel during the week, something struck me.  When Jesus spoke these words two thousand years ago, he was speaking them already to the people in my congregation.  He loved them then.  These words are for their benefit, no matter what their present state or disposition.  These words--even though they sound harsh--are good news to each of them.

To the faithful spouse, they are words of affirmation that they are living according to God's plan.  To the spouse that has been discarded and abandoned, they are a consolation and an affirmation that they have been treated unjustly.  To the couple that is growing in hatred towards each other, they are a call to repentance.  To the person who finds himself or herself in some illicit union, the words are a call to find some way to order their life in a manner most fitting to the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus reminds us in the Gospel of what marriage is according to God's eternal plan.  This plan is the only way that marriage works.  Sin seeks to thwart God's plan.  When spouses are unfaithful, bitter, hateful etc, they are succumbing to sin.  The solution is to open themselves to God's grace and be reconciled.  There are, of course, instances where a couple must separate because of particular circumstances.  But, this is a tragedy.  And it is a tragedy because it means that God's plan for marriage is being interrupted in this particular instance. 

We have become so accustomed to saying, "Oh, their marriage didn't work out" that it has become the new normal.  That is the real tragedy.  Jesus' words in the Gospel are a huge help to us because they call us back to living the true meaning of marriage.  When I was first a pastor, the bottom line of my parish budget said that there were more expenses than there was income.  That was bad news.  And, that news seemed kind of paralyzing.  It seemed an impossible situation to which we had to resign ourselves.  But, the lay people on my finance board taught me that the bottom line was determined by all of the details in the rest of the budget.  So, we went through the detail and began cutting things.  Soon, the bottom line was a lot better.

When Jesus teaches about the nature of marriage, he draws our attention to the details.  We have become so accustomed to looking at the bottom line in our culture (a bottom line where marriage is in total disaster) and thinking, "That's just the way things are."  But, we need to return to looking to what the detail of what marriage really is: it is a union between a man and a woman that is permanent, exclusive, indissoluble, and open to new life. When we keep that as our focus, then the bottom line will turn out much better.

Admittedly, today I was a bit nervous about preaching because I didn't want to burden people who already feel the weight of their marital problems.  But, it occurred to me that it was Jesus who spoke thsese words.  And, in the proclamation of the Gospel at Mass, it was Jesus who was speaking them to my flock.  Jesus certainly loves these people and the only reason that he would speak these words is because he loves them. 

At the end of the day, I can't say that everyone heard these words as good news.  I just don't know.  But I do know that some did.  There were some whose lives have been turned upside down because of infidelity and betrayals.  What really amazed me was that it was these people--people that I most feared would be most hurt by these words--who found them most healing.  Among my people, some who were most happily receptive of these words were those who have betrayed their spouses or who have been betrayed.  Jesus really is something else isn't he?  He spoke those words two thousand years ago.  Today, he spoke them again to the people in my parish and those words--that seem so hard to those without faith--were a source of healing and peace to many.  I don't know why I continue to be surprised by this, but I am:  The Gospel really works.  Jesus suffered and died for the people he addresses in the Gospels.  He has proven his love for them.  We should trust that his words carry with them the power to heal and to bind.

The success of the New Evangelization will depend upon preachers willing to trust in the power of the Gospel. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Bad Priests, Scandal, Suicide: The Gospel Is What We Need

When David had sinned, he was still the king.  When the Israelites turned away from the Lord, they were still the Chosen People.  When Jeremiah felt like a fool, he was still the prophet. When Peter denied the Lord, he was still the rock upon whom Jesus intended to build his Church.  When Christians sin, they are still Christians. When the priests have committed gross and evil abominations, the Church is still the Church.

One of the fallouts from the revelations of priests who abused children is the widespread condemnation that follows anytime the Church attempts to speak authoritatively on moral issues.  Not unsurprisingly, the minute the Church speaks on controversial moral issues now, the inevitable is said: "How can the Church say what is good or evil after all those children were harmed?"  That children were cruelly harmed, that it is despicable, and that it is grossly evil is undeniable.  And, it is also undeniable that the Church's presumption of being looked upon as a good and authoritative teacher has been undermined by these depraved and evil acts.  It is one of the many effects of these evil acts.

What is surprising, however, is how easily many have cowered and succumbed to the temptation to remain silent until we have "earned" the right to speak again.  If the authority of the Church to speak on matters of Faith and morals was of human origin, then it is true that we would have to wait to preach and to teach.  Actually, we'd probably have to wait for a billion years to say anything.  But we are a divinely constituted Church and our mandate comes from God Himself: "Go and teach all the nations!"  To fall silent before the great moral issues of our day because we are ashamed of the sins committed by members of the Church (and specifically, the clergy) would be to perpetuate a great evil.  It would be to allow the Gospel to be silenced and for souls to be sacrificed upon the altar of some false propriety or some political schema.  To boldly preach after all that has occurred is not to ignore the evil.  But it is to act with Faith in the Gospel.

I'm sure that I am not the only priest (or preacher) who has ever climbed the pulpit knowing that he did not live up to the words that he was about to preach.  But preach we must.  To allow my own human weaknesses, faults, and sins to prevent me from proclaiming the Gospel would be to give those faults greater weight than the authority of Christ.  When the Gospel on a particular day says that we must love our enemies and I know that I haven't been doing that, the proper response is not to fall silent about our Lord's command.  The answer is to preach wholeheartedly on the command to love enemies and then for me to be convicted by the word and to go and do it.  That is not to let priests--or any Christian for that matter--off the hook.  The fact is that our sins do make it more difficult for us to be convincing witnesses in proclaiming the Gospel.  But, the answer to that is not to stop preaching.  The answer to that is to stop sinning!

In Massachusetts these days, there is a question on the upcoming ballot concerning Doctor Prescribed Suicide.  There have been many--including some in the Church, I'm afraid--who have said, "Alas, we really can't speak on this issue because we have lost our credibility."  To that I would say that we may have lost our credibility, but the Gospel has not lost it's authority.  Taking the life of a human being in this way is a violation of the Fifth Commandment.  I know a lot of time and effort is being spent talking about how this particular law is poorly written and has many problematic features.  There are questions concerning whether an heir could pressure somebody into doing this.  There are questions about lying on the death certificate, the fact that nobody ever knows for certain what happens to prescriptions that are filled but never taken by the person in whose name they were written etc.  Yes, I know there are many criticisms of this being a "badly written law."

But this is not just a badly written law.  It is a bad law in terms of it being an evil law.  Taking your own life is contrary to the moral law.  No human being has the right to take his own life.  This is fundamental Christian teaching.  Now, some are of the mind that the Church should not say stuff like that because the counter-strategy will be to say, "The Church has no moral authority left to preach on these topics."  Well, thanks be to God, the Church's moral authority is not dependent upon the morality of any members of the Church.  The moral authority of the Church is dependent upon the person of Jesus Christ.  Taking the life of the innocent--even if it is your own life--is not morally licit.  No Christian can support such a thing and to do so is to cooperate in the violation of one of the most serious commandments--thou shalt not kill.

Since being ordained, I have presided over the funerals of persons who tragically ended their lives.  Some of them I knew personally and grieve personally.  I'm certain that each one had what they thought were good reasons for ending their lives.  The day they ended their lives was the day they inflicted the worst possible pain on those around them.  The last thing they ever did in this world was to take the life of a person that others loved.  The pain that they caused to countless others is substantial and never ending.

Jesus commands that we comfort the sick and the dying.  We do not kill them.  As a society, when we adopt a method whereby the sick can kill themselves with the assistance of doctors, pharmacists, and the state, we are turning suicide into more than just an acceptable thing.  We are making it a preferential method of "treatment."  For a Christian to support such a thing would be an abomination and to embrace evil.

To those who stand outside of the Church, there are plenty of other arguments as to why this is a bad bill.  I agree that we should use every means and argument possible to defeat it.  But, to those who are in the Church, it should be sufficient to explain to them that to kill the sick or to assist the sick to kill themselves is a grave evil forbidden by the commandments and by the Gospel.

There may have been a day when there were politically savvy members of the Church who knew how to manipulate the inner-workings of the political and media world.  We don't seem quite so good at that anymore.  We are abysmal failures at influencing the political and cultural landscape through the methods determined by politics and media.  Maybe someday we might get good at it again.  Until then, we should probably risk everything on the Gospel.  Maybe we need to depend less on ourselves and more on the power of the Word.

Adopting the, "We really can't preach anymore," approach is to fall into the hands of our Enemy.  Not preaching the full truth of the Gospel, not engaging in serious evangelization, and not naming and condemning evil would be completely to abandon our apostolic mission. Might we look like fools for taking a stand this early in the game?  Yes, we might look like fools.  Perhaps the humiliation would be good for us.  But, the Gospel has the power to transform the world.  Jesus entrusted that Gospel to a bunch of sinners and he told them to go preach it.  Trusting him is not foolish.  Trusting any method other than his is to be the biggest fools of all.