Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Binding and Loosing

I gave this homily during a Eucharistic Exposition and Solemn Benediction this evening.
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Matthew 18:15–20

The gospel reading this evening is easy to misinterpret because of the translation we use. So it’s always helpful in such circumstances to go back to the early Church Fathers and see how they read these passages. I want to focus on two themes that appear in this passage. The first is the matter of fraternal correction. The second is the apostolic authority granted here to bind and loose sin.
            In the first instance, we have the opening sentence of the passage: “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” Now, because of the translation, most of us take this to mean that someone has actually committed an offense against us individually, but many of the early Church Fathers read it differently. They interpret “sin against” as sinning in the presence of someone. So rather than having someone who sins against us, we are talking about someone who sins in front of us—someone who causes scandal. It has become very popular for us to talk of tolerance, which really these days means endorsement. If we don’t endorse someone else’s sinful behavior, we’re considered intolerant, and we can come under all kinds of abuse from the tyranny of toleration. But the Fathers and the Church have always believed in fraternal correction. We get our first instance of it with St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, correcting St. Peter, of all people. So we should not fear to provide fraternal correction when we can do so charitably and to good effect. Giving fraternal correction when it is likely to do damage doesn’t help, so we must always do so judiciously.
            The second point has to do with the power of binding and loosing. In Matthew 16: 17–18, Jesus grants Peter the keys to the gates of the Kingdom and the authority to bind and loose. In our reading tonight, he expands that authority to all of the Twelve. Peter holds the keys, but the Twelve have the power to bind and loose.
What is this power, and how does it relate to us now? This question is debated among non-Catholics, who would like to think that somehow all Christians have this authority. But this is because they again are interpreting the passage solely on the English translation they are given, without considering the context. We have to go back to Jesus’ time to understand it properly. And in that time, priests in the temple and rabbis in the synagogue had the power to bind and loose—to include or exclude people from membership in the community. This power did not devolve to just anyone but to those in whom authority was vested. So it makes perfect sense for Jesus to invest His priests with the same authority.
Because of this decree in today’s gospel, we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation—or the Sacrament of Penance, or just simply Confession. These passages are the scriptural foundation for this sacrament.
That’s your sacramental theology lesson for this evening, but I want to take this a bit further and talk about why this sacrament is so important.
We human beings have an extraordinary ability to fool ourselves, to plaster over our errors, to minimize our responsibility, and to ignore the negative impact of our actions, if we never have to confront our failures. This problem is multiplied when it accompanies a cultural mindset that downplays or ignores the reality of sin. We forget that sin wounds us all—not just me when I commit sin; not just you when you are on the receiving end of my sin. Sin by its very nature wounds the body of Christ and wounds society.
So if I commit sin and am able to remain blissfully unaware, I have that festering wound on my soul. Those whom I offend are walking wounded in our world. And our wounds fester and kill the soul. We need to be healed. We need to be reconnected to the source of life. We need to be reconciled, and the first step of reconciliation is to recognize that we’re wounded.
            Christ knew what he was about when He gave us sacraments—these visible signs He instituted to affect invisible grace. He knew that we had to be taught to recognize our wounds. Heck, he went so far to be wounded for our sins in the hope that we would see them and open our eyes. So he gave us visible, sensible means for our sacraments. In the sacrament of reconciliation, part of the sensible means is our own voice, our own words, acknowledging our sins. We are no longer carrying them around inside as a hidden festering mass, but pulling that out between ourselves and our confessor. We’re looking at sin in its ugliness and saying, “That’s it right there. That was what I did.” We are owning our wounds.
            And then we get to hear some of the most beautiful words in the sacramental language of our faith:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins.
There are times when I want to weep at the beauty of those words: “May God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you.”

            My job as a deacon is to encourage you to take the gospel out. Don’t be afraid to mention how wonderful this sacrament is, and what a blessing it is. So many people need to hear that message, and it’s your job as Catholics to spread the word. Take the message out to your friends. Tell them that this sacrament is not about shame but about healing. Glorify the Lord with your life in this one simple way.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Faith Can Take Us Deeper—Sunday: Nineteenth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

1 Kings 19:9a, 11–13a; Romans 9:1–5; Matthew 14:22–33

            How much do we really want to see God face to face? How much do we really trust God to take care of us? And if we did see God face to face, would we recognize Him? These questions are at the root of our Old Testament and Gospel readings today.
Elijah has just completed the longest marathon on record—a forty-day run fueled by some heart cakes and a jug of water given to him by an angel. Wouldn’t you just love to be able to drop into 7-11 for a 960-hour energy hearth cake when you need to get through a difficult month?
Elijah is hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb, and God asks him why he’s there. We don’t get the whole story in our reading today, but Elijah is a bit put out because he’s done everything that God has asked, and now the rulers and the people of Israel want to kill him for it. He was expecting a bit more gratitude from them for ridding them of false prophets.
There’s no clear explanation of why he runs to Mt. Horeb, but it’s not hard to guess why. He fled to this place to hide. He knew that God had revealed himself to Moses here. He wants God to protect him, but he didn’t so much come seeking God as much as to hide until God came to seek him.
That can be our dilemma as Christians. We don’t as much trust God to walk with us but to come and rescue us. And the when he does, we cower. He lower our heads and grovel. Now, sometimes we should grovel. Sometimes we make mistakes, and our only reasonable response is to bow our heads and say, “Oh Lord, that was such a stupid thing I did. Please prevent my bad decisions from hurting other people.”
Does that prayer sound familiar? It sounds really familiar to me, because I’ve prayed it more times in my life than I’d like to admit.
But Elijah hasn’t done anything wrong, and yet he still feels defeated, and he cowers in this cave—waiting for God to come to him. And when God does come to Him, he cowers and hides his face.
We can’t really blame Elijah for cowering. The Jewish understanding was that no one could look God in the face and live. But Judaism also always had a notion of God who is merciful and loving—and most of all, generous.
What is it about God’s generosity that makes us want to cower? When you give your children or grandchildren a gift, do they shrink from you… or do they run, wrap their arms around you, and bury their faces in your belly? Why don’t we run and launch ourselves into God’s arms? We’re afraid of something—maybe afraid of what it will cost us to abandon ourselves completely to God. Maybe that fear isn’t unfounded. Our faith can cost us everything in this life.
But maybe that’s the point.
Faith should cost us something. Faith does cost us something. But we forget why we have faith. We don’t have faith simply so we’ll be grateful for what we already have. We wouldn’t be here experiencing anything without God’s gift of life to us. We need faith to help us weather the waves and storms. We need faith so that we will trust to go to those dangerous places where God sometimes calls us.
In our gospel reading, Peter asks Jesus to call him out on the water, and Jesus does so. Peter asks Jesus to prove himself, but even as Peter walks on the waves, the tumult of the sea causes him to doubt.
“Why did you doubt?” Jesus asks Peter.
How many times do we ask God to prove Himself, only to doubt and lose faith when things don’t go exactly as we planned? What is faith for if we always lose it when we need it? We don’t need faith when everything is hunky dory. We don’t need faith when we’ve got that great job, the nice car, and the cozy north-end bungalow. We need faith when our health fails us; when the job prospects have evaporated and our savings are gone; when our children decide that this religion stuff just isn’t for them; when it looks like we are going to lose everything.
We need faith in our worst times, but it’s so often in those worst times when we let our faith falter, like Peter sinking in the waves.
But what happens when your faith has carried you through those storms? When you look back and see in those moments the hand of God holding you up? When you look back on the messy, twisted road that has led you to this point? Our faith is borne not in triumph but in those moments of adversity and struggle. When our faith is exercised and challenged, that is when it and we have the most potential for spiritual growth.
There’s a song titled “Oceans” that is very popular on Christian music charts right now, and it takes its imagery from this gospel reading. There’s a line in it that goes like this:
“Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander and my faith will be made stronger in the presence of my savior.”
Our faith is made stronger when we are taken deeper than we could ever go on our own. When we’ve been thrown into the deep end and have to thrash our way out. Our faith can take us deeper, or when we’re in too deep, it can be that lifeline that pulls us back out.
Many of us have had very interesting spiritual journeys with all kinds of twists and turns, on rocky roads and barren paths that have nonetheless led them here back to the Church. My own life path took me away from the Church for twenty years, and then led me right back here, much to my surprise and joy: right back to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and then to the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which we will celebrate shortly. Like the Prodigal Son, many of us prodigal sons and daughters stand here now and marvel how God brought us back to this table. But here we are, with our faith not only intact, but far stronger than if we had never faced the barren path. We have faith because we have encountered God’s generosity deeply. We come here to the Eucharist like children racing to bury themselves in the arms of their Father, as we all should every Sunday.
There’s a Spanish proverb, sometimes attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola. The origin isn’t important, but the sentiment is: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

God can take the most broken road—your worst mistakes and all of your bad decisions—and lead you back to him; and that broken road may be just what you needed to recognize your need for God and your need for faith.