Saturday, September 9, 2017

Homily for 10 Sep 2017

10 Sep 2017
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

As I drive around and see the animals out in the fields, it makes me think of the Church.  And it isn’t so much because of the animals, but because of the fence around the fields, and how the animals stay inside that boundary.  They’re free to roam anywhere they want—as long as it’s within that field, within that fence.

And it makes me think of the Church because that’s how it is with us, too.  We’re free to roam and live however we want—as long as it’s within the parameters God lays out for us.  If we stay within those parameters, we’re part of the Church.  But if we step outside those limits, we take ourselves out of the Church; we separate ourselves from the flock.

I’m sure the farmers probably see something else when look at their herds and their flocks, but for me, the image of the Church comes to mind.  And this is what Scripture brings to mind today as well.

The Prophet Ezekiel talks about those who are appointed “watchman over the house of Israel.”  A watchman was somebody stationed atop the walls of the city.  And his job was to make sure the city was kept safe, and to sound the alarm if there was any threat to the citizens.  God speaks of his people as a city, a “holy city,” with walls built of “living stones”—where the faithful themselves are the defensive wall of the city, the “fence around the field.”

And then in the Gospel, Jesus describes the process of making things right within that holy city.  But if someone refuses to live by the law of God (that is, the law of love), then, Jesus says, “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”  In other words, treat that person as an outsider—with love, of course, but keeping him at a distance.  And we know what Jesus is getting at here. 

When somebody has the flu or they have a cold, we tend to keep a distance.  We love them, but we don’t want to get too close.  And that’s only the wise thing to do; after all, we could get sick, and we don’t want that.  When a child is sick, we don’t send him or her off to school.  Instead, we keep them home, not only so they can get better, but also to keep the other kids at school from getting sick. 

Again, it’s just the wise and prudent thing to do.  And that’s why Jesus says what he says with regard to those around us who refuse to live according to the law of God, the law of love.  “Love them,” Jesus says, “but keep them at a distance so you aren’t affected in a bad way.”

The underlying idea in all this is that the Church has a protective wall around it, and those who live within that “holy city” are expected to live within certain standards; standards of belief, standards of worship, standards of conduct with each other (that’s what Saint Paul gets at today in his letter to the Romans when he writes: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”).

The Church has a protective wall, it has a “code of conduct,” it has expectations of those who are its citizens.  And people are free to live and roam anywhere they want, as long as it’s within those parameters—within that fence of Christ the Good Shepherd.  And this can be a challenge for some people.

You know, it’s a great privilege to be an American; to have individual liberties, to have the freedom to pursue happiness and to fulfill our wishes and desires.  And, really, the philosophy of American freedom fits very nicely with the idea of the Church and her “fences and expectations.”  Just because I’m a free American doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want.  It means I’m free to do what I long as it does no harm to me or my neighbor, as long as it respects the freedom of others, as long as it contributes to the good of the society, as long as it’s respectful of legitimate authority, and so on.

In the Church there’s the often heard phrase, “all are welcome.”  And it’s true: all are welcome in the Catholic Church.  No one is turned away...except those who don’t believe what we believe, or those who have no desire to be a disciple of Christ, or those who have no interest in contributing to the life of the Church.  Those are all non-negotiable aspects of what it means to be the Church.  They’re part of the definition of the Church.

And so that phrase, “all are welcome,” really needs to be expanded.  It should be something like: “All are welcome to be a disciple of Christ, and to have their lives changed by committing themselves to live as a citizen of his holy city, the Church.”  All are welcome to do that.  But, of course, not everyone accepts the invitation.  Some would even find that invitation distasteful includes expectations and limits.

One of the blessings of the Second Vatican Council is that it reinstituted the “Rites of Christian Initiation.”  They’ve always been there—Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist—but the Council made their context more obvious again; the context being “initiation.”  We’re baptized into the Church, then the faith of the Church is confirmed, and finally we receive the Eucharist as persons who’ve been fully initiated into the life of Christ and the Church.  They’re not only sacraments; they’re also major milestones toward initiation into the Church.

And this idea of initiation goes back to biblical times.  Jesus walked around and preached.  And crowds of people were drawn to him and followed him, including his many disciples and the twelve Apostles.  But as time went on, the numbers got smaller and smaller.  There’s the one scene (John 6:22-29) where Jesus is trying to tell people that “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”  And we read that “many of his disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’  As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”

Jesus was trying to initiate them with the truth, but they couldn’t accept it.  So their initiation ended there.  Jesus was trying to bring them inside the “fence” of his pasture, inside the “walls” of the holy city, the early Church.  But they chose not to go with him.  They remained outside.  And so, even if some find the idea of expectations and limits to be distasteful, they are nonetheless, essential to the reality of the Church.

Pope Francis is known for saying many things, one of which is the phrase, “Who am I to judge?”  “If someone seeks Christ with a sincere heart, who am I to judge?”  And he’s absolutely correct.  God alone is our judge, our merciful and endlessly forgiving judge.  And yet, at the same time, Christ put into the hands of the Church the ability to bind and to loose: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  We don’t judge people, but the Church does have expectations of its members, and those expectations are binding.

But, really, the expectations aren’t anything we can’t handle.  God lays them out in the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God; have no other gods before me; worship no graven images; do not take the Lord’s name in vain; remember the Sabbath; honor your father and mother; do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not lie about your neighbor; do not covet what others have.” 

Of course, Jesus sums that all up in the Two Great Commandments: “Love the Lord you God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus gives the model for right worship; namely, the gift of self for the good of the other.  He teaches a great deal about how to live with one another, in the home, in the Church.  He emphasizes the importance of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for members of the Church.  And so and so on.  The Church has some clearly defined “walls” around itself.  And we’re each one of the “living stones” in that wall, which means we each have a responsibility not only to God, but to one another in upholding those expectations.

When I was growing up—and even today—whenever we’d play Monopoly (the board game), the rule was that if you landed on “Free Parking” you got all the money that was in the middle of the board.  Of course, it doesn’t actually say that in the rules.  And every now and then there’d be a disagreement about what the rule was for the “Free Parking” space.  And that’s just an example of how the game isn’t so much about the board and the pieces and such—it’s about the rules.  The game is the rules and how to play within them.

The Church isn’t so much about this style of worship or that style of worship, or what “I think” and what “you think”—it’s about the “rules.”  The Church is our set of beliefs, and our commitment to Christ, and our adherence to God’s law of self-sacrificing love.  Those are the “rules” we play by.  And if someone doesn’t want to play by those rules, then we’d have to question if they really want to be part of the Church.

Our role as “living stones” in the defending wall of the Church is to play by the “rules” God has given us—to live and to roam freely within the “fence” the Good Shepherd has set up for us.  But our role is also to question when we or others seem to be playing by a different set of rules, or trampling down the fence.

For example, gossip has no place in the Church.  It doesn’t serve any good purpose.  And so we should call it out when we hear it.  If that other person refuses to stop, then they put themselves outside the Church; they “excommunicate” themselves, because in the Church we have a rule that we don’t gossip.  In the meantime, it’s wise to distance ourselves from that person, so his or her “sickness” doesn’t infect us in a bad way.

Or we can take unforgiveness which, again, has no place in the Church.  Forgiveness is part and parcel of neighborly love; it’s one of the “rules” we commit ourselves to.  It doesn’t mean we have to be best friends with everybody; but it does mean that we shouldn’t harbor a grudge and refuse God’s mercy to someone.

And, in all this of course, we know very well that none of us lives these “rules” perfectly.  None of us is a saint…yet.  And that’s okay.  The important thing is that we aspire to be a saint, to live by the standards and expectations God has given us.  That’s what makes us each a part of the Church.  The intent in our hearts is most important.

It’s part of our common role as members of the Church, and as “watchmen” of the holy city: to adhere to God’s law of love ourselves, and to guard against anything that threatens the well-being of the flock.  All are welcome into the life of the Church, and the pastures of the Good Shepherd are wide and green with plenty of room to live and roam.  But we enter the gates of the Church—and remain in her walls—only by choice.  May God give us the grace to live well as members of his Body, the Church.

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