Sunday, September 25, 2011

Be Real: The Parable of the Two Sons

28 “What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’29 He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. 30 The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. 32 When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him. Matthew 21:28–32 (NAB)

The first and most important requirement before God is to be real. It is more important to BE real than to TALK about being righteous. 

Talk is cheap. This also reminds me of a story, one I am sure you have all heard. If you do, just admire the way I tell it!

There was this game warden who was trying to catch a guy in the act of poaching.  This poacher always had a limit of fish and the warden was suspicious of how he was “catching” them, but whatever he did he could not catch him in the act.  One day the guy invited the warden to go fishing with him.  Of course, the warden thought that was a great idea as he might be able to figure out what the guy was doing if he went fishing with him.  The warden met the guy at the boat ramp, jumped in his boat with him and headed to the fishing spot.  The warden thought it was strange that there was nothing but a cooler in the boat, no fishing poles, no tackle box, no bait, nothing.  When they got to the fishing spot the poacher opens up the cooler, takes out a stick of dynamite, lights it and throws it in the water.  BOOM!  Dead fish.  The warden starts spitting and sputtering and telling the guy he cannot do that.  The poacher opens up the cooler, takes out another stick of dynamite, lights it and hands it to the warden.  The warden is sitting there holding a stick of dynamite with the fuse burning and wondering what to do when the poacher looks at him and asks, “So what are you going to do?  Are you going to talk or are you going to fish?”

So talk is cheap…in fishing, and at the vineyard.

Lou Holtz, the famous former coach of Notre Dame, once said, “when all is said and done, more is said than done.”

Someone else said, “Talk is cheap - except when Congress does it.”

I’m not sure if it was Plato or Rodney Dangerfield who said “Anybody who thinks talk is cheap should get some legal advice.”

When he was president, Calvin Coolidge was known for his reluctance to make big speeches.  A woman bet her friend that she could get Coolidge to speak to her, which was something he was reluctant to do.  She went up to him and said: "Hello, Mr. President, I bet my friend that I could get you to say three words to me."  "You lose," Coolidge replied dryly, and walked away.

In our story today, “which one”, Jesus asks, “did the will of his father?” The answer is one that the Pharisees cannot wriggle out of. The answer is obvious – the first son. Even though he initially said “no,” he later regretted his refusal, and he entered the vineyard. But, the second son, though his words were “yes,” his actions were “no.” Jesus inquired who DID the father’s will, not who SAID he was going to do it.

So, the Pharisees give the only answer that is possible: they admit that the first son was the one who did the Father’s will. And then, Jesus clobbers them.

“Tax collectors and prostitutes will go (literally, prosagoge “they are already entering”) into the Kingdom of Heaven before you.” Why? Well, they are like the first son – their words and deeds say NO to God’s will, but when John comes preaching, they repent. The Pharisees and Sadducees, on the other hand, they’re always insisting that they were serving God. And, to make matters worse, when they see those whom they think are the worst of sinners repenting at the preaching of John the Baptist – they STILL won’t repent themselves.

Let’s look at these two sons…we are in this story somewhere.

Dad says, “it’s time for chores.” First son says , “I will not”.
I don't know about you, but when I was growing up, that was not one of the options I had with my dad. This answer is rude, curt, and disrespectful, such a one as would naturally issue from the lips of a person who was selfishly wrapped in his own pleasures, and caring nothing for the Father, who in this parable stands for God. But he repents. Repentance always precedes the doing of the will of God. The bold, self-willed rebel is the first son to yield and obey.

Maybe we have loved ones who have refused to obey God, or who have left the faith. Don’t despair for the restoration of the disobedient—maybe there is a son or daughter who has boldly left the faith, and don’t give up hope for the conversion of the defiant skeptic. I would much rather talk to a skeptic or an atheist or someone who has left their faith than a person who has just enough religion to know how to talk about it, but not live it.
This first son changes his mind, literally, he repented, and went” ; i.e. into the vineyard to work. The worst sinners, when converted, often make great saints.

The first prerequisite is to be real. Before anything else, live out what you believe. Life is too short for pretending—either pretending to be a Christian, or pretending to not be a believer.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes we think we need to be a wretched sinner to really have a conversion. Not everyone is going to be St. Augustine. I think of some cradle Christians, and how they are a powerful example
In 2 Timothy 3:14–17 (NAB), we read14 But you, remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, 15 and that from infancy you have known (the) sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

We can grow up grateful, we don’t have to fall into great sin to have great my daddy said, “you don’t have to go to Hell to preach on it.”

The second son said "I go, sir," and did not go. In the final analysis, all who ‘don’t go’ at God’s command into the field of service for Him are disobedient and rebellious, no matter how nicely they may talk about “the Lord’s work.” Talking about church and religion is not working for God any more than talking about wine is the same as gathering grapes.

Matthew 7 says, Not every one that says, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom, but only he who does the will of My Father.

Ver. 30.— “I go, sir”, Ἐγὼ, κύριε: Eo, domine, literally, "I go, Lord." This son is outwardly respectful and dutiful; his answer is in marked contrast to the rough “I will not” of his brother. He has the words down. "I go, sir." Do your kids ever say that, except when they want the car keys" If I ever said that to my dad, he would wonder what I was up to.

At the end of the day who talked, and who picked grapes? Who made a difference, who just sounded good at the beginning, in the meeting in the morning in front of the other brother and the father?

The last implication for us from Jesus’ parable I want to mention is this: it is always the right time to repent. Because God is patient, because he is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance, he waits. And that means for you, if you have let your mouth make promises to God that your life is not keeping, the time to repent is today. That’s why the scriptures teach “today is the day of salvation.”

God grant that we may be like those tax collectors and prostitutes who hear the Word of God and repent.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sky Full of Holes: The Parables of 9/11

Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.'  Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” Matthew 18:21–35 (NAB)

It is fitting that the readings today occur on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on New York City, the Pentagon, and the crash of United Airlines flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Our nation remembers the deaths at New York City’s World Trade Center terrorist attacks that left 2,606 people dead; from the crash of American Airlines flight 11, which killed 87; from United Airlines flight 175, which took the lives of 60; from the crash at Pentagon, which claimed 125 souls; from American Airlines flight 77, which saw 59 others lose their lives, and from the crash of United Fight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, which killed 40 others. A total of 2,977 died that day, not counting the 19 hijackers who also perished.

Placed before the altar today is a New York City fireman’s helmet, given me by my uncle George; although he was not one of the 343 fireman killed in the 9/11 attacks that day, because of his rescue work and clean-up participation at Ground Zero in the days and months ensuing, he would later die of respiratory failure. Along with cousins and uncles who are or were NYC fireman and policeman on that day, he and they are special heroes to me. 

There are no words I can offer, and nothing could ever match the heroism and service of these brave souls; nothing said that would further hallow the heroism of those who sacrificed, on that fateful day or later on foreign sands as we struck back to protect our nation from the further onslaught of terror; only borrowed words can bring remembrance and honor also to those who daily provide security and emergency response in our cities, states, and for our nation. Their sacrifices, and those of their families, can never be calculated by others, and can barely be understood. We can but only say “thank you” in appreciation for their incalculable sacrifices.

Good fortune and an opportunity by my employer allowed me to work a bit with the Wounded Warrior Project at Fort Carson, tutoring our wounded warriors in technology. Far exceeding any slight service I could offer them, they have provided me the clearest insight into the horrific costs of armed conflict, the terrible price often demanded for the freedoms and liberties we enjoy, the ennobling faith that these men and women have in our nation, and our commitment to pay any price to see that they receive every opportunity at training and a career when they return to civilian life. Last year we lost more of our armed forces to suicide than from combat wounds; surely they deserve our prayers and encouragement at every turn.     

It is for those far wiser to offer insights and lessons about the meaning of 9/11, and no doubt on this weekend we will also have our own private reflections. I am reminded of a reality all recognized that terrible day—that it was love that caused those firefighters and rescue workers to race into burning buildings to rescue others. “That’s what we do,” my uncle said, but he really meant, “that’s who we are.” “Greater love hath no man than he lay down his life for his friends”, were the words of the Master in the Upper Room, and it was that same greater, higher love that lifted those heroes up flights of stairs into those “upper rooms” of the World Trade Center that day as well.

In the horrors of New York, Arlington, and Shanksville, it was as if God was giving us a living parable—God as the loving First Responder. God like the firefighter who rushes into a burning building to save someone—and only God knowing that a sacrifice for the rescued will soon be paid in death and blood. That's how much God loves us. He knows that hatred and intolerance will always destroy; He knows that human sin will always devastate ourselves and others; yet we are not left alone in the crumbling towers of our own self-destroying sins and weaknesses. The Word becomes flesh not only in Bethlehem’s manger, not only on Golgotha’s hill, not only—if we find faith—at Ground Zero’s utter senseless devastation—but God is there to provide hope, salvation, comfort, and forgiveness in our lives as well. He can become flesh in our flesh through our conversion, through the sacraments, and through His many untold graces. And He can become real as we forgive.

Which brings us to our second lesson this morning, one drawn from Jesus’ parable about the one forgiven who could not forgive.  The Apostle Peter asks Jesus if he should forgive seven times (a biblical number for perfection); Jesus responds by multiplying that number by orders of magnitude. Jesus’ response, “Seventy times seven”, is not a finite limit, either; the forgiveness we extend to others should reflect the extent to which we have been forgiven by our Master. Oftentimes we would rather preserve our grievance than seek to forgive, and yet in Jesus’ words we see that forgiveness needs to issue forth from the one sinned against even before the one who sins ever realizes the magnitude of the offense. It is how we can forgive the absolutely unforgivable, as we can pray the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Those who offend may never come to their senses and realize what they have done, but there is remaining the danger that if we hold on to an offense against us it will fester and grow by our failure to release it in forgiveness and by endlessly recounting it to others.

In this parable of Jesus, we should not try to tease out a neat solution for reconciliation and forgiveness in every situation; we should not infer that in cycles of domestic violence or sexual abuse forgiveness without repentance and the creation of safety is acceptable. These are complex matters that cannot be reduced to a single simple formula or parable. Jesus does teach here that there should be no limit to the number of times one must try to forgive. In our lifetimes this means there will be endless hurts that require endless offers of forgiveness and endless acts of repentance. We must always be ready to do the difficult work of repairing and reconciling.  

But our cry may still go out, “you don’t understand how much I have been hurt,” and invariably an attempt is then made to further clarify and magnify the offense, the wrongness of the wrong, the hurtfulness of the hurt, the utter sinfulness of the sin. We finally realize that none of this provides lasting comfort, and will absolutely be a cancer upon our spirits.

And so, we must forgive from the heart. On this commemoration of the terrorist attacks ten years ago, we must learn to understand and accept those who are different in their dress, in their skin color, or in their beliefs from us. Sadly, there are those who would condemn all Muslims for the events of 9/11; I would offer to you today that such a prejudice would be like blaming all Catholic clergy, or even all Catholics, for the actions of a few pedophile priests….as we seek to understand, we learn to recognize the evils of overgeneralizing, or of overreacting to violence with more violence.

The experience of 9/11 changed us as a nation. Has it made us more helpful, more willing to lend a hand? Has it given us greater respect for the sacrifices of our first responders and our military?  A visit to Ground Zero a few months after the attacks, late one evening, during a cold and misty February’s rain, gave me a change to weep and sob like I had not been able to previously. This tragedy made me reflect on the precious gift of life, on the tie of relationships, on making every day good in some way and using the opportunities and gifts God pours out upon us. It made me be more conscious of trying “not to sweat the small stuff” as much as I used to. Life is so precious and yet so fragile. A hug, a smile, an embrace, a kind word, a strong or even a gentle handshake –all took on new meaning for me. We never know how long life will be; every time I fly I call my wife before the flight, and after when I land…even on the connecting flights…you just don’t know. It’s also made me try to be swift to reconcile problems.

Perhaps you know someone today whom you have not forgiven. We cannot force reconciliation, we cannot by dint of prayer or ardor of affection cause godly sorrow in the hearts of others, but we can release our feelings of hurt and offense that have us in their death grip this day. I pray you spend time today, spend time soon in the confessional, spend time with that person if you can and if the circumstances allow—if not for their sakes, then for your own.

Some say they saw the face of Hell at Ground Zero, and the face of the devil in the smoke of the wreckage of the Pentagon and in Shanksville. But if we look again with faith’s eye, we also saw the face of God in the people working, caring, sweating, crying, rescuing, recovering and reflecting God’s image and likeness in their very humanness. We made decisions to be united when hatred sought to divide; we would bind up the wounds when others sought our destruction, we would protect and defend when others assumed we were helpless; and finally, we should extend love and forgiveness over life’s comparatively minor hurts and offenses, and in the light of such grave devastation and hatred, we would pray the prayer of Saint Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

Friday, September 9, 2011

Discipling & Hypocrisy: Homily for September 9, 2011

And he told them a parable, “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? No disciple is superior to the teacher; but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’ when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye. Luke 6:39–42 (NAB)
Jesus passes along to us this morning some insights about influence and about spirituality in the context of discipling. Jesus is the master in leading and training men, and he is talking about the need for people in our lives who can give us good spiritual direction. And just as importantly, about the people in our lives who cannot give us spiritual direction.

He says the person who is blind is by definition not a good guide. In the immediate context, he is probably addressing the Pharisees. His
thought in addressing his disciples about this problem runs like this: The disciple of a rabbi dedicates himself to his master’s teachings and way of life. Thus he cannot be expected to be different from, or better than, his master (v. 40). If the rabbi who is a Pharisee lacks a proper view of life, his student will be also misled (v. 39). Let’s keep in mind that not all Pharisees were grouped together for criticism by Jesus, but there were groups of Pharisaical teachers whom Jesus was addressing here.

There are two illustrations here—the blind guide, and the hypocritical and hypercritical splinter-hunter, and some people think these two observations were just dumped together randomly, as if Luke is just remembering a lot of folksy wisdom sayings of Jesus. But these two illustrations are perfectly situated together in Jesus observations. Jesus is talking about Pharisaical, hypocritical splinter-hunting (the King James version, which was the one used by the Apostle Paul), says “mote”…..Jesus is dealing with leaders who are blind to their own massive flaws, hypocritically trying to lead others when they are compromised, hypercritically concerned about little nits and small things when they have massive problems, and the end product is just more people like them.
The hypercritical criticism and hypocritical lifestyle and hostility already apparent in the Pharisees may unfortunately crop up in their disciples, but it must never find a place among Jesus’ disciples.

Whenever I see legalism, Pharisaical mote-hunting, people more concerned with little issues than big ones, I look around for the source. This is a particular occupational hazard for religious leaders. It is a particular religious hazard for people who are in “the right church.” I know. I was in “the right church” for a long time…until I found out how wrong I was. But for a long time I spent a lot of time pointing out how everyone else was wrong. A steady diet of that is not good for you, or for the people around you. There are circles in the Catholic Church where all you get is a steady diet of this junk food—where someone is wrong, why the Pope is off base, why the Bishop is a dope, why Father A should do something else, where the deacon blew it in the homily—it is going to affect you. That’s the context of the second illustration (v. 41) of the “speck” (karphos) and the “plank” (dokon); you miss the religious implication if you don’t see when the person who casually calls the person he is criticizing “brother” (v. 42); the reality is jarring when he suddenly hears himself called “hypocrite” by the Lord.

It's almost comical--they got all the religious terminology, but there is this massive plank in his eye. As my daddy always says, “when the dog’s got you by the leg, you can’t holler ‘sic ‘em.’” There’s another point here—there are big issues, and there are little issues. Sometimes people with big issues get all wrapped around the axle about the little issues in other’s lives.

There are two warnings here—be careful who you listen to or imitate, and be careful when you correct others, and about what you are correcting them.

It’s important that we don’t get all “American” here….comes across like “well, I don’t listen to anybody, I don’t let anyone influence me, I just do what God tells me.” We are going to influence others, and we are going to be influenced by others.

Our first grandson, Avery, was born in very frail shape, almost premature, and for weeks he was not gaining weight, his color was really off, somewhat jaundiced, and folks were really concerned. I asked my son for a paternity test, because a Bauer who could not gain weight must not have our DNA—man, I can look at one of those donuts after Mass and I get stuffed, not the bulletin.

People who are negative are influenced by negative people. People who are critical and fault-finding listen to critical and fault-finding people. People who are positive and faithful will have positive and faithful children. You can’t have it the opposite way. You can’t subject your children to a steady diet of negativity, fault-finding, and “brother, let me remove that” (most of the time these folks talk about how someone else should remove the speck, without even the courage to confront the one with the supposed fault)…but you can’t expect people to be positive and encouraging if they are not hanging around positive and encouraging people. The reason why my children are not faithful Christians today has to be, in a major way, is that they were exposed to a steady diet of what I call "church crap" when I was in ministry.

Be careful about your influence—you are going to have some! And if you find yourself being this way, check your influences—and change the channel. Daddy also said, “if you lay down with the dogs, you’re gonna get up with the fleas.”

The other wrong response here is “well, there are so many hypocrites in the church”, so I am leaving. Someone said, well, church is the best place for hypocrites—presumably because they can get the help they need to change. Jesus is not talking about ignoring problems—he gives us really clear guidance how to fix them, in the gospels a few weeks ago—Matthew 18 (individual confrontation, confrontation with witnesses, telling it to the church—most problems in the church can be solved that way)…but he is talking about someone trying to correct others when there are massive issues in the first individual’s life.

James said, “not many of us should presume to teach, my brothers, because we who teach will be judged more severely.”

So, what kind of influence will we have, and how will we have a positive impact on others? Jesus words are cautionary this morning—people are going to imitate what they see. Let’s close with more wisdom from one who heard these words of Jesus, James the Apostle:

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. Wisdom of this kind does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace. James 3:13–18 (NAB)