Sunday, September 10, 2017

Fences: Twenty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time—Cycle A


Ezekiel 33:7–9; Romans 13:8–10; Matthew 18:15–20
            So when I looked at the readings for this weekend, I immediately thought, "Oh this is going to be one of those homilies." I will try to let the Holy Spirit do the talking for me, if you will let the Holy Spirit do the listening for you.
            I want you to imagine a scenario. You are in a tall building that has a playground on the roof. It's a great playground: swings, slides, things that kids can climb on and fall down and break arms and legs—just like in the old days. I apologize to all of you who are under 25 and have only encountered wood chips or the rubberized material on your playground floor. It really was much more fun when there was some adventure to it.
            So it's a great playground. You're the person on duty to make sure the kids play safely. There's just one problem. There's no fence around the perimeter of the building. Get to running too far, too fast, and without paying attention, and someone will plunge over the side to their doom.
            Look, don't get mad at me. I didn't design this thing.
            Great playground, no boundaries, clear consequence for going too far. How long do you think it will take before the kids learn that playing safely is a sketchy proposition without a fence around the edges of the building? How free do you think they will be to play with the kind of abandon that real play requires? They'll probably spend their recess huddling pretty close to the person who's there to monitor safe play, and little actual play will get done.
            So this is a pretty outrageous example, but it turns out that it has some purchase in the real world. Bishop Robert Barron mentioned in one of his many videos—it might've been in the Catholicism series or in one of his many Word on Fire videos—that school designers had studied the effects of open versus fenced playgrounds. As he explained, when a school's playground had no fence, the children tended to huddle close to the buildings and play with restraint. Only when a clear boundary was established were the children free to play without fear, to run and chase each other, to fall off of jungle gyms, and bounce harmlessly off of the rubberized asphalt.
            This was a 21st century school playground.
            That's the value of a boundary. It tells you where it's safe to play and where the danger begins. Ask anyone who has skied off of a Black Diamond run and out of the boundary of a ski area which side of the boundary feels safer. If seeking danger is the intent, ignoring the boundaries is goal #1.
            In our first reading, the Lord tells Ezekiel in no uncertain terms that he is responsible for the souls of people when he does not warn them of the dangers of their wickedness. "The wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death." That sounds unjust to modern ears, where we consider someone else's sins none of our business, so long as the sinner isn't hurting anyone else.
            "Who am I to judge?" is the new rallying cry of people who want Catholics to shut up about the moral teachings of the Church, based on a statement by Pope Francis. Never mind that the statement was taken completely out of context and also contradicts just about everything the Holy Father has ever uttered regarding Catholic moral teaching. The truth is that there is no such thing as purely personal sin. All sin is both personal and corporate—that is, it affects both the sinner and the whole community.
            I want to interject here a realization I had just a few minutes ago as I was preparing for Mass. You might have heard people say, "I love humanity. It's people I can't stand." Well, that sort of misses the point. I am commanded to love you, and you, and you, individually. Jesus love me individually, and you individually, and that's how we are supposed to love each other. And it's really not that hard, as I tell people. Loving another doesn't mean that we have warm and fuzzy feelings toward them. It simply means that we will what is truly good for another, even if they don't know what that is. And I realized a few minutes ago, that when I will what is best for someone, I'm actually willing what is best for me and for everyone. And that is effortless. I can will what's best for my worst enemy. So love, too, is corporate.
            Now, it is true that we must not judge people's hearts. None of us could possibly escape that judgment. We all fall short. We all fail. But that does not mean we should not identify sin for what it is. To do so is to fail in one of the primary spiritual works of mercy: admonishing the sinner. Yes, that's right. It is a work of spiritual mercy to help people recognize when their actions are not in line with the truth, with the teachings of the faith—even the most unpopular teachings.
            Why is it mercy rather than condemnation? Because it is merciful to tell people where the boundaries are, where the danger lies. If we allow people to run headlong into danger, we are not merciful. We can only call such attitudes callous. Yet that's what people so often expect of Catholics. "Just shut up about your moral teachings. Stop judging."
            We celebrated a dubious anniversary a few weeks ago: the anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae, absolutely one of the most controversial papal encyclicals of the modern era. When Pope Paul VI promulgated this letter, he was roundly castigated by the elite theologians of the US, Canada, and Europe. Many priests and theologians openly dissented, and many Catholics were told that the use of contraception was solely a matter of private judgment. But Pope Paul was not condemning anyone. He was warning of the danger. He was setting a boundary, as any good father should do. That is precisely what the Church does when it proposes moral teaching. It is setting a boundary—a fence, if you will—where it is safe to play on this fantastic playground that God has given us. And Pope Paul was right about so many of his predictions. Humanae Vitae is perhaps the most prophetic papal writing of the last 50 years. So like any other prophet, like Ezekiel, Pope Paul VI has been vilified.
            But he, like anyone who teaches the moral doctrines of the Church without apology, does so out of love. When I preach about a moral danger to you—whether about sexual sin of any stripe or persuasion, or of greed, of ignoring the poor or the immigrant, or of any number of temptations we all face, I am warning you out of love, not out of a desire to condemn. When Jesus Himself admonished the Pharisees, it was out of love to help them see the boundaries clearly. When someone points out the fences to you, it is not to punish but to point out to you the boundary that is dangerous to cross.

            Very few of us bother to correct others concerning sin these days. But sometimes it's necessary to provide fraternal correction, to admonish the sinner, to warn our brothers and sisters of danger—spiritual or other. Always we should do so out of love: love the sinner, and hate the sin. Cardinal Robert Sarah recently said in an article in the Wall Street Journal that “to love someone as Christ loves us means to love that person in the truth.” We should always strive to love in the spirit of truth and serve truth in the spirit of love.