The Fruits of Vulnerability
September 8, 2002
The message that God gives to Ezekiel in today’s first reading could not be more blunt. God appoints Ezekiel to listen for the word of God and then speak it to Israel. God says that if Ezekiel speaks the word, he will live, and if he does not speak the word, he will die. The simple crudeness of this message emphasizes the importance of hearing the word of God and proclaiming it to others. We could not live or grow as a Christian community if we lost the ability to hear what God is saying to us in the events of our time and discern what response God is calling us to make. The more significant those events are, the more it is important for us to ask, what God is saying to us within them.
This truth has special relevance this week as our nation recalls the tragic events that happened a year ago on September 11th. Over the next few days there will be memorials, concerts, analyses and television specials that mark this anniversary. But what you and I are called to do is the same thing that Ezekiel was called to do, and that is to ask ourselves, “What is God saying to us in these tragic events that happened now almost a year ago?” To discover that, I think there are two questions we must address:, “How has our life changed since September 11th?” and “What is God telling us in that change?”
The first question can be answered rather simply. How has our life changed over the last year? We all now recognize how vulnerable we are. We now recognize that there are forces in the world intent upon harming us on our own soil. We think twice before boarding a plane; we feel less safe in large public gatherings; we worry more about the people we love. Vulnerability is the common denominator that ties us together in light of September 11th. We recognize that we are not as safe as we’d like to be and that we must live our life with more exposure, more risk.
Now, different people take different approaches to this vulnerability. Politicians want to pass laws that they say will make us safer. Military experts devise strategies that are meant to neutralize those who would attack us. Entrepreneurs create products that play upon our insecurities. But what you and I as believers in Christ are called to ask is this: “What is God telling us in this vulnerability that we now experience together?”
That, of course, is the second question. What is God telling us and calling us to do in the vulnerability which now characterizes our society? I would suggest that God is calling us to sympathy and to sacrifice. When we feel vulnerable, a common reaction is to pull back in fear. When we feel less safe, we’re inclined to close ourselves down, to shrink the experiences we’re willing to risk, to live less and less. The word of God calls us in a different direction: Rather than calling us to fear, it calls us to sympathy.
We more clearly now all know the fragility of life. We saw lives of thousands end in a few moments on our television screens. That vulnerability can lead us to a deeper compassion for all who suffer. That vulnerability can allow pain of others to touch us. Whenever we allow our vulnerability to connect us to others and identify us with those who suffer, we are allowing the word of God to speak to us in the aftermath of September 11th.
God’s word calls us to sympathy, but it also calls us to sacrifice. In light of September 11th we know now the preciousness of life in a new way, and we are more aware that if life is going to continue, it needs committed people who are dedicated to preserve it and promote it. “All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” [Edmund Burke]
It is true that our vulnerability can paralyze us and deflate us. It can also lead us to sacrifice — to the willingness to give ourselves to others. If our world is less safe, we need now, more than ever, parents willing to sacrifice for their children, friends willing to sacrifice for each other, citizens willing to give of themselves for their neighbor. Vulnerability can lead to paralysis. It can also lead to commitment. Whenever we allow our vulnerability to lead us to sacrifice for the people we love and the principles we believe in, we are responding to the word of God speaking to us in the aftermath of September 11th.
As we join with other Americans this week in remembering what happened a year ago, we as Christians must remind ourselves what God is telling us through this common tragedy. You and I are indeed more vulnerable than we were before; but if we can allow that vulnerability to lead us to sympathy and sacrifice, we will take something that is evil and allow God to bring goodness out of it.
Yes, the World Trade Towers have fallen, and yes, we are not as safe as we wish we were. But if we hear God’s word in these tragic events and proclaim it to one another, we will know that we are not alone. Moreover, we can claim for ourselves a place within that blunt promised made to Ezekiel, believing that God will not lead us to death but to life.
Preparing for the Hurricanes to Come
September 4, 2005
Matthew 18:15 – 20
If you are like me, over the last week your usual routine has been disrupted by thoughts of the victims of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Perhaps as you have been out enjoying our beautiful weather, or sitting down to a meal, or appreciating the comfort of your own home, you suddenly stop and reflect upon the thousands of people without food or water, stranded on their rooftops in one-hundred-degree heat. These thoughts are disturbing, and the reason is clear. In one tremendous blow the hurricane in New Orleans has dispelled the illusion that our lives are secure. To watch as the great city of New Orleans was reduced in a few hours to a toxic swamp is a frightening reminder that there are powerful forces in our world over which we have no control—destructive forces which have the potential of ruining our lives.
Of course I am talking here about something much broader than the weather. For although there are no hurricanes in Northern Ohio, all of us remain vulnerable to personal hurricanes that can rob our lives of peace and joy. Much like Katrina, these personal hurricanes arrive without warning and cannot be controlled or stopped. Our usual lives can be torn apart as we experience the death of someone we love, or the diagnosis of a serious illness, or the reality of divorce within our family, or a hurt that we cannot heal. Suddenly these storms turn our lives inside out, and we have no choice but to endure them.
Now as Christians we believe that we can survive such tragedies with God’s help. We believe that Christ is with us and that we will not carry our crosses alone. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says where two or three are gathered, he is there in the midst of them. So in faith we believe that we can survive the upheavals of our life.
But Katrina suggests that we approach these upheavals from a slightly different angle. It suggests that we ask not how we as believers can survive the tragedies of our lives but rather is there anything we can do to prepare for them? If you have been following the commentary on the hurricane in the media, you know that the discussion centers not only on helping New Orleans through this crisis, but also on identifying what can be done so that the city is better prepared next time. Katrina suggests that we ask ourselves whether it possible to prepare for the personal hurricanes of our lives?
Now this at first might seem like an foolish question. After all, how can we prepare when we do not know what is going to happen? We do not know if we will be diagnosed with cancer or lose our spouse or undergo some family upheaval. Like real hurricanes, personal hurricanes come without warning and in way we cannot predict. So it seems impossible to prepare for them. Yet there is one step that we can take to make a difference. There is one thing we can do to prepare for these personal storms in our lives. We can be thankful today. The tragedy of any loss is compounded when we realize that we never appreciated or enjoyed what we had while it was still ours. A personal loss is doubled when we have to admit that we took the things in our life for granted, and now they are gone.
Therefore if we want to prepare for the tragedies of life we must begin by being thankful: thankful for our health, thankful for our homes, thankful for our families, thankful for all the blessings in our lives. Of course thankfulness usually flows into generosity. After mass today we are accepting donations for the victims of New Orleans. I encourage you to be generous. But it is very important to know that this hurricane is not only about the victims in New Orleans. It is also about us, and how we chose to live our lives. None of us will be able to live our life without eventually having to face some terrible personal storm. That storm will bring losses—losses we cannot control, losses we cannot stop. But what we can do is prepare. We can be ready so that when those storms do their worst we will be able to say, “I never took my health for granted. I was always thankful for my home and for my lifestyle. I always made sure that the people who I loved knew it.”
Hurricanes will come, but we can prepare. Be thankful today.
Walking Like a Pigeon
September 4, 2011
The pigeon is an awkward bird. We all know the unusual way in which a pigeon walks: taking a few steps, stopping, moving his head forward and backward and then taking a few more steps. As unattractive as this mode of locomotion is, it happens for a reason. A pigeon, you see, is unable to focus his eye when in motion. Therefore, every few steps he needs to stop and refocus in order to see. Without this starting and stopping, pigeons would be unable to know where they are going.
This pattern of stopping and refocusing might serve as a helpful reminder to us. Often we are so thoroughly in motion that we do not stop to see some of the important possibilities in our lives.
Jesus points to one of these possibilities in today’s Gospel. He says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” This is a tremendous promise because Jesus promises to be with us when we gather in his name. But what does it mean to gather in Jesus’ name? It means to encounter another person consciously aware that Jesus will be present in the meeting. This is why we need to stop and refocus. If we simply busy ourselves through all the hours of our day without any stopping and reflecting, we will indeed gather with other people but we might well miss the presence of Christ in our midst.
It is one thing to help your son or daughter with homework. But it is another thing to consciously bring Christ into that meeting, to realize that Christ is with you as you help. When we know that Christ is with us, it is easier to be patient and attentive to the needs of our child.
It is one thing to listen to a friend or a coworker as they go through a difficult patch, hearing the pain as they break up with their boyfriend or lose their job or grieve the death of a parent. But it is another thing to listen consciously aware that Christ is with us. When we carry Christ into that meeting, we are more likely to be compassionate and helpful to the person in need.
It is one thing to decide to go out with our friends to relax, to get a bite to eat and see a movie. But it is another thing to go out aware that Christ is with us. Bringing Christ with us allows us to laugh more deeply and to be more thankful for the opportunities and the relationships that have been given to us.
Every time that we encounter another person, Christ can be present with us. The way that we live at home, at work, or at school can be deeper when we enter those situations in the name of Christ. Unless a pigeon stops every few steps and refocuses, it is unable to see. The same is true for us. In this upcoming week we will connect with all kinds of people. Let us remember that as we encounter them, we can bring Christ into that meeting. And if we do so, we will not be disappointed. Bringing Christ with us allows us to live with more awareness and more life. It permits us to see how Christ is present in every person we meet.
Ready to Forgive
September 7, 2014
It might seem that the beginning and ending of today’s gospel address different issues. But they don’t. The beginning offers a specific process for reconciling with a brother or sister who has offended you. The ending is Jesus’ beautiful promise, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” The beginning is about forgiveness, and the ending concerns Jesus’ presence. But when we place these two parts together, we realize that the gospel is telling us that it is in the presence of Christ that we become able to forgive.
Tommy, Marty, and Sam were brothers. They were close to each other in age. Tommy was seven; Marty was eight; and Sam was nine. They were generally good brothers to each other, but they had their moments. One day they had a fierce argument over a video game. There were shouts and accusations over whose game it was, who was able to play it, and who could get lost. Their parents did their best to calm the situation, but the three boys went to sleep that night still angry at each other. Around two in the morning a huge storm passed through the area. The house was repeatedly shaken by loud peals of thunder. The boys’ father came to check on them. But when he opened their bedroom door, they were not to be seen. Somewhat concerned, he called out, “Boys, where are you?” A small voice responded, “We are all in the closet, forgiving each other.”
When something shakes us, we become ready to forgive. When we have been hurt, it hardens us. The pain and anger which comes from the offense becomes a focus in our lives. “How could she have said that to me? How could he treat me that way after all I did for him? Who does she think she is?” We lose sleep. We plan how to get even. Our hurt controls us. Forgiveness is out of the question. But when thunder strikes, when something shakes us, we become able to see that there are more important things than our hurt. People who realize that death is near want to get things in order. They often reach out to make peace with those who have hurt them. People who experience deep loss or failure often lose the energy to hold onto a grudge. The blow they receive softens them for forgiveness. When life humbles us, we become ready to reconcile with those who have offended us.
Today’s gospel tells us that we can be humbled not only by tragedy and loss but also by Christ’s love. We can be shaken not only by thunder but by the enormity of God’s grace. If we become aware of how much we have been given, how deeply we have been blessed, it humbles us. When we remember how fortunate we are to have our health, our children, our job, our friends, it can loosen our hurt and our grievance towards others.
Christ’s love for us can shake us. When we are gathered in his name and he is with us, that love is deep enough and strong enough to change us. Yes, we have been hurt. Yes, we still bear the wounds of ingratitude and rejection. But when we gather in Christ’s presence, his love is greater than our pain. When we are shaken by what he has done for us, it is not time to hold a grudge. It is time to huddle together and start forgiving each other.
Knowing the Song
September 10, 2017
Ezekiel 33:7-9; Matthew 18:15-20
Both today’s first reading from Ezekiel and the gospel remind us that we have an obligation to confront those who are doing wrong. Jesus tells us that if a brother or sister sins against us we are first to go to that person alone and resolve the matter. That is easy to say, but difficult to accomplish. How often have we tried to point out to someone we love that they are making a mistake or doing something that could hurt someone else only to find that they blow us off. They will not listen. So if we have an obligation to confront a wrongdoer, how can we do this in a way that is successful?
We could learn from a tradition common among some African tribes. When a young woman of those tribes discovers that she is pregnant, she goes out into the wilderness with some friends to pray and listen. They listen to hear the song of the child who is about to be born. These tribes believe that every person has a song that captures his or her unique beauty and worth. Once the women hear the song, they start to sing it aloud. Then they return to the village and teach it to everyone else. At the birth of the child they sing the song. When the child becomes an adult, the song is sung again. It is also sung at marriage and at death. But there is one other time when the song is sung. When a member of the community falls, commits a crime, or hurts someone in a deep way, then the village gathers around that person and again sings his or her song. This is done because the tribe believes that antisocial behavior is not corrected through punishment, but when people again claim their own true self and dignity. They are convinced that if a person can hear his or her own song and its goodness, there will no longer be the need or desire to hurt anyone else.
Here is what we might learn from this African tradition. If we see someone who is doing wrong, someone who needs correction, we might not be the person to turn that person around. But we could ask, who is? Who is the person who knows that persons heart, and could speak to that person’s true self? We all respond to correction better if it comes from someone who knows us: someone who can reflect our beauty when we feel ugly, someone who can reflect our innocence when we feel guilty, someone who can remind us of our wholeness when we feel broken or of our purpose when we are confused. When we see someone who needs to be corrected, we should ask, “Who has the authority to speak? It might be a grandfather, a favorite aunt, or a childhood friend. We might go to that person and say, “You really need to talk to Charlie. You know his heart, and he needs to find it again.”
Jesus calls us to correct those who do wrong. But correction is not laying down the law. It is surrounding a person with love. Therefore, sometimes the best way to follow Jesus’ command is to find the person who knows another person’s heart, who knows the person’s song and can sing it. Then it may become possible for the wrongdoer to reclaim his or her true self and choose life again.
September 6, 2020
Ezekiel 33: 7-9
The prophet Ezekiel receives a difficult command from God in today’s first reading. God calls him to speak out against what is wrong, to speak out for what is right. Ezekiel cannot remain silent. If he does, God will hold him responsible. The difficult command of Ezekiel also applies to us because we, as Catholics, are required to speak out about the moral issues of our day. We are expected to use our influence to move the world a step closer to conforming to God’s will. This responsibility has special significant this year as we prepare for the November election. In a democracy, voting is a moral responsibility. It is our way of speaking out as God commanded Ezekiel to do. We clearly have a moral responsibility to vote, but how to vote is not as easy to determine.
In an ideal world, we would vote for the candidate whose positions conform to the moral teachings of our church. But there is no candidate on the ballot this fall who conforms to Catholic moral teaching adequately. It is for this reason that the United States bishops have issued a document called Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. You can find it on their website [https://www.usccb.org]. In this document, they do not mention or endorse any particular candidate. What they call Catholics to do is to enter into a formation of conscience regarding the upcoming election. They ask us to form our consciences in a way that conforms to God’s truth.
The bishops go through a wide range of moral issues that we should consider as we prepare to vote. The life issues top the list. Abortion and euthanasia are singled out as prime examples of evil because they directly attack innocent life. But other life issues also need to be considered: racism, treating the poor as expendable; redefining marriage; supporting capital punishment. Along with these issues, there are goods that the U.S. bishops place before us that candidates hopefully endorse: the support of religious freedom, adequate access to healthcare, respect for the right to immigrate, caring for our planet by opposing global warming. Now, when you look at this list of moral issues, it is clear that we have no candidates that adequately represent all of Catholic teaching. Anyone who tells you that there is a “Catholic candidate” is making a claim with which the U.S. bishops would not agree. What we are called to do is to form our consciences in a way that prepares us for responsible voting. This includes surveying the issues, considering the character of the candidates, judging his or her integrity or the lack of it, and determining whether a candidate really has influence over the issues of concern.
Since all the candidates are in some way compromised, it becomes likely that you and I will end up having to vote for a candidate who is less flawed, less likely to do harm. The U.S. bishops see this as a real possibility. In their document, Faithful Citizenship, Section 1; par. 36: they state: a Catholic “may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.” That is quite a sentence, so let me repeat it. A Catholic “may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.”
So you can see that you and I have a difficult responsibility this fall. But it is a responsibility nevertheless. Like Ezekiel, we are called to speak out against what is wrong and for what is right. That is why all of us should set aside some time in the next couple of weeks to reflect upon accurate information on the candidates and their policies and spend time in prayer reflecting upon how we will vote. Our ultimate choice may not be perfect. But we have confidence that God will accept our best effort to vote responsibly, an effort that strives to move our country closer to the kingdom of God.