Seeing Reality

25th Sunday in O.T. (A); Sept. 24, 2017

Is 55:6-9   Ps 145   Phil 1:20c-24   Mt 20:1-16a

Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison

        

Sometimes Jesus just doesn’t seem fair. The parable of the Day Laborers evokes the sense of getting ripped off. That’s why is it probably the least liked parable that Jesus ever told because it really offends our sense of justice. Those who work at the beginning, middle, and end of the day all get the same pay. More to it, the guys who were hired last, not only get paid what those who worked all day, but they get to go to the head of the line. This does not make any sense!

Many years ago I used to umpire baseball—anywhere from Little League, high school ball, to adult leagues. On weekends, I’d often work double-headers, which during the months of July and August could be brutal. If someone appeared in the last inning of the second game and collected the same payment that I did who toiled in the heat all day and got paid first (!), I’d be really peeved. My gut response would be this is outrageously unfair.

So, this parable really bothers me, which is a very good indication that it is working on me and, I suspect, on most of us. Jesus is trying to assault our senses—what our sense of justice and righteousness are. Then we hearken to the first reading from the prophet Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Is 55:8).

Ouch! Our thoughts are not God’s because we act out of prejudices and assumptions that are getting in God’s way. So, we ask ourselves “Why does this parable get under our skin?” We look around the world and we ask, “Why do the wicked, self-absorbed people seem to prosper?” On the other hand, “Why do good descent people seem to suffer?” Emerging from the Great Recession of 2008, for example, many people lost their homes and had their retirement funds gutted. We asked ourselves “Why were those responsible for the debacle not punished, but instead bailed out and even rewarded with bonuses!?” Given these complaints, sometimes we catch ourselves thinking, “God, if I were you, I’d so things a lot differently.” Why? Things just seem so unfair and aren’t you a God of justice?

The rejoinder to our grievance is contained in the second punchline: What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous”(Mt 20:16-17). Truth be told, yes, we are envious because “your thoughts are not my thoughts.” This parable bothers us because we are upset by God’s magnamnity, his abundant generosity, which seems so naïve and so unrealistic.

Brothers,   God is operating out of a higher sense of justice than we’re accustomed.   Rather than focus on a tit-for-tat sense of justice “you do this for me, I’ll do that for you,”   let us keep our focus on the Great Giver who presides over the whole cosmos, who knows every hair of your head, who knows when you sit and stand. And, who knows how to apportion his gifts properly. All that Jesus wants for you is for your joy be full. And, that happens when you open your heart to his merciful love and forgiveness. Unlike us, God is not going to wait for you to get your act together, he’s not going to demand that you work in the vineyard all day long before you get renumerated. No, He just want to give you all that He is right here and now and it doesn’t matter to Him whether you just arrived in the vineyard. The key is whether you are willing to accept what God wants to give you right here and now. And, to do that, you’re called to surrender your whole heart and soul to the Lord.

We struggle to do so because we have a warped sense of justice which is based on the false claim that we can really save ourselves–that we are the architects of our own happiness. If we work hard, play by the rules, then God will be compelled to reward us. Brothers, that is not holiness. We may feel great about ourselves when we work hard and are successful, but that’s more about us and not about God.   Rather, it is those who trust with the most vulnerable heart, those who become the little ones who can enter into communion and fellowship because they operate as God does: they live according to self-gifting love. That’s what the Kingdom of God is about.

So, is the Lord acting unjustly? Yeah, from our narrow perspective, He is. But, as high as the heavens are above the earth, so high is God’s vision above our vision. The idea is to die to our old, self-justifying consciousness and to lean into God’s vision so that we can see reality from his perspective. And, then we will have a revolutionized sense of what true justice is. And, then we will live out of gratitude and not resentment. Out of all the relationships we have, Who is the one who is relating to us 24/7 out of immeasurable love, generosity, and fairness? The One Whose image were made. Let us do the same. Amen.

 

 

 

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Forgiving Others

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A); 9-17-17

Sir 27:30-28:7; Ps 103:1-4,9-12; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35

Deacon Jim McFadden; St. John the Baptist C.C.

 

            Last week’s readings spoke of reconciliation. This week we consider the same theme, but from the perspective of forgiveness. We all know how difficult it is to swallow our pride and to say that we’re sorry when we have offended another. But, it may be even harder to forgive when we have been offended personally or as a nation as we remember 9-11.   And yet, we pledge to do exactly this everyday when we say the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Some would say that forgiveness is the distinguishing feature of Christianity. But, today’s reaching from Sirach shows that may not be true. Jesus admonition to forgive others comes from his Jewish tradition which is based on mercy: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice: then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven…Should a man refuse mercy to his fellows, yet seek pardon for his own sins? (Sir 28:2,4).

Sirach knew that wrath and vengeance can erode the spirit of the one harboring them. When we’ve been deeply hurt, when trust has been broken, when expectations have been dashed, when someone failed to come to our help or defense, when we’ve been abandoned, when our reputation has been assaulted, anger may be the starting point as we seek to forgive others. This anger may express itself in an explosive reaction: it can plan some form of revenge.   This anger may express itself in a seething reaction: it can go underground and hold its breath and become calcified in the form of resentment. It can transform into more complex emotions of anxiety, stress, or depression which we try to escape through various kinds of obsessions and addictions; many engage in self-medication, resulting in drug or alcohol dependency. It can make it very difficult to have healthy relationships with anyone. Unchecked, it can effect our bio-psycho-social-spiritual makeup, which makes it very difficult to be genuinely present to others.

If we do not forgive those who have hurt us, then we are allowing ourselves to be possessed by an inner tyrant of rage. Failure to say, “I forgive you” holds us frozen in the past. Dante, in The Divine Comedy, described those in Hell as being frozen for all eternity. An old Chinese proverb says that if a person cannot forgive, and opts for revenge, he should dig two graves—one for the offender and one for himself.

An incredible model of forgiveness is given by Phyllis Rodriguez, whose son died in the attack on the World Trade Center, and Aicha el-Wafi, whose son was convicted for his rolel in planning the attacks. The two women met when Aicha el-Wafi came to the United States for her son’s indictment and asked to meet family members of the victims. She connected immediately with Phyllis, the only mother in the group. They both had lost a son; they both were suffering. Walking through her grief, Phyllis came to see that “forgiveness is being able to accept another person for being human and fallible. I don’t forgive the act, but trying to understand why someone has acted in the way he has is part of the process of forgiving.” To this day, the two women together speak out against violence and speak of understanding and tolerance.

Instead of denial/repression and anger/resentment, Jesus offers us the Third Way. From the Christian perspective, emotional and spiritual health is found in a different kind of attitude: the movement “toward people,” who are our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. This entails forgiveness as necessary and reconciliation if possible. It is making a choice today based upon a past grievance, so that I can have a future relationship with the offending person. This Way, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God is a movement towards quality relationships that are mirrored in Trinitarian love of giving and receiving.   Brothers and sisters, I believe that we can’t enjoy quality relationships with anyone, if we’re stuck in a relationship in which we are embittered, resentful, and unforgiving.

But how does one forgive a pedophile whose behavior robs children of their innocence, possibly their faith in God, and undermines their chances for healthy intimacy? How does one forgive a murderer who has snuffed out the life of a loved one? And, will we ever be able to forgive the terrorists who blow up innocent people?

Left to ourselves, we can’t.   The bottom line is that we need to pray for the courage and grace to engage in the process of forgiving someone who has hurt us. The healing act of forgiveness is not possible without the saving grace of the Risen Christ. His love prevents us from falling into the chasm of the darkness of stunted emotional death, or the raging fire of unresolved anger and hatred. So, we go to Him and ask for the strength and courage to pray for the ones we need to forgive. As we abide in Christ, our prayer changes our hearts.

Our Lord Jesus, Whom we are about to receive in the Eucharist, describes himself as “The Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:5-6). He challenges us to the way of forgiveness, the truth of repentance, and the life or reconciliation. We need to do so for our well-being and that of our society. An act of forgiveness is immediately an act of compassion for ourselves and for the one who has harmed us.   Even the world of science and medicine are discovering the therapeutic benefit of people making peace where there has been hurt and resentment. As the People of God at St. John the Baptist, let us pray that we live out the deep riches and wisdom of this Way of Jesus, the Way of forgiveness. Amen.

 

 

God’s Great Gamble

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time; August 27, 2017

Is 22:19-23; Ps 138; Rom 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison

 

         St. Paul reminds us, in case we should ever forget, that “How inscrutable are (God’s) judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11: 33b) And, he underscores that truth with an exclamation point. This assessment is illustrated perfectly when Jesus confers religious leadership, involving sacred trust, to Simon called Peter. Peter, the impetuous one! Peter, the one given to braggadaccio! Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times! Peter, who was so afraid, that he took a pass on Jesus’ crucifixion! Of all the people Jesus could have selected to be the foundation of his Church, why did he choose the most unlikely person?

Such “inscrutable judgments” certainly have a long pedigree, beginning in the Old Testament as God made Israel his Chosen People, though it was the smallest and weakest of nations. He chose David to be his king par excellence, though David was the youngest of Jesse’s brood. God relates to us in this way so that there can be no doubt that the One Who is bringing about fruitful outcomes is God not us. God is the Doer; we’re the instruments.

            So, the Lord gives incredible trust and authority to Peter (and his successors) as a person. Put simply, Jesus believes in the person of Peter. Peter does not “deserve” this sacred trust; but, the personal dynamic of Jesus believing in Peter (and us) draws the very best out of Peter. Jesus believes in those whom He calls. He is calling you, which is why you are participating in Catholic services this Sunday, and He trusts in you. He is giving to you His very Being: His soul and His divinity. He trusts that you will receive His life, which is eternal and that you will share it with others. As images of the triune, relational God, we are challenged to give and receive life.   As you come to know Jesus at a deeper level of friendship and loving commitment, you will live your life rooted in Him. And, as you do that you will give to others what you have received in abundance.

As flawed as Peter was, he never stopped being in relationship with the Lord. Recognizing that Peter and his successors would bring to governance their frailty and sinfulness, Jesus reassures us that “the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it” (Mt 16: 18c). Jesus will not allow His Church to die! We make mistakes, but we will not turn ourselves over to death; though we sin, we will never totally go against the Gospel. The People of God, despite our flaws, will believe in Life and will proclaim the Gospel of the Lord. We may not always be faithful to the Lord but we believe that the Lord will always be faithful to the Church. And, through our baptism, we are a members of the Church, the Body of Christ.   That’s why He will never give up on us.

Having given that reassurance, Jesus then states that “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (v. 19), which is God’s great gamble. God trusts the human gathering, called Church, to such a degree that he places it in our hands; he believes we will treasure it. He unconditionally gives us the “keys to the Kingdom!” All He asks us to do is to proclaim the Good News and share the Kingdom with others.

Why would God take this great gamble? While his “ways are inscrutable,” His trust in Peter and the Church should give us the faith to do the same with others: to entrust ourselves to feeble flesh, to broken people; to make ourselves accountable to brothers and sisters. If Jesus, the Son of the living God, can put himself in relationship to human flesh and entrust himself to broken humanity, then why can’t we?   We can’t wait for perfect situations before we commit. Our pride contrasts sharply with Jesus who identifies with imperfect, often maddening humanity. Jesus gives Himself to an imperfect Church. As Bishop Quinn (emeritus) once said, “The Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital of sinners.” Unfortunately, in the history of Christianity, we have resisted this truth as we tend to move away from imperfect groups. We want others to get their act together before we commit.

Jesus, on the other hand, gives remarkable trust and power to unworthy men and women. We tend to think that imperfect persons aren’t loveable; so, we use that as excuse never to love them. We never surrender ourselves to imperfect beings because the only One who is perfect is God. But, Church, love is a dynamic reality and at the human level, it only applies to imperfect beings. That’s why God does not adore us (adoration only applies to a perfect Being), but he loves us unconditionally. So, he calls us to do the same love/trust relationship with one another, with the Church, with the People of God. Look around this assembly: this is whom you’ve got; there is no Plan B. Go love and trust your brothers in Faith!