September 10, 2017 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Sep 102017
 

Ezekiel 33:7-9

Thus says the LORD: You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die, ” and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.

Romans 13:8-10

Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet, ” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

 

St. Paul lays it out for us right here in today’s Epistle lesson:  Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.( Romans 13:9) 

Paul is intentionally using the metaphor of debt to make his point that there is an obligation which is owed by everyone. It’s the extension of Christ’s loving gift of himself on the Cross, and our fullest and most proper response, in fact, our only response is to love others as a sign and symbol of Christ’s love for us.

Paul was reinforcing the point that Jesus made. To refresh your memories, we read in the 12th chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel that Jesus had a particular encounter with a scribe who wanted to know about the greatest law. There are 613 laws in the OT and it was common to debate which one was supreme. Jesus quotes Dt.6:4-5 (Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is one!) This passage goes on to tell us that we are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and all our strength. The implication is that a love for God does not arise spontaneously but by conscious commitment that stems from every ounce of our energy and aspect of our being.

Again to remind you, the second part of Jesus’ response to this scribe quotes Lev. 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus finishes by saying that “There is no other commandment greater than these.” St. Paul is picking up on this theme.

As we know, the Greek term for this love is Agape, and this emphasis on Agape love is foundational for all the Faith of the Church. We read much about this throughout the New Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers. Perhaps the most famous passage is found in the 13th Chapter of First Corinthians where Paul writes that “faith, hope, love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”

What does agape love mean?  My New Testament professor in seminary defined agape love as “unconditional positive regard.” This means that we need to love with no reservation. But neither Jesus nor Paul were naïve in making this requirement. So in the chapter before today’s Epistle lesson, Chapter 12 of Romans, St. Paul emphasizes that love must be “genuine.” (Rom. 12:9) The actual Greek translation tells us that love must not be “hypocritical.”

So how do we do this? Here’s how. If we treat someone we thoroughly dislike and mistrust as if we hold them close to our hearts with the deepest of affection. if we do everything we can to imagine and remember all the difficult things that have happened in their lives that made them so very hard to love, then it may well happen that authentic sympathy and even affection may arise.  And with God’s Grace it will be sincere, not hypocritical, something truly loving that stems from our hearts. It’s the practical implementation of that old statement from 12 step programs that we see so often on bumper stickers: Fake it ‘til you make it. Often times acting as if we are loving is sufficient; the actions will bring along the sincerity.

This love is tough; not simply in the sense of the “tough love” that is sometimes needed when dealing with a recalcitrant teen who has succumbed completely to addiction and rebellion. Rather, this love springs not from the emotions but from the will. This love grits its teeth and sets its jaw and behaves in loving ways, no matter the feelings, all the while trusting that eventually the feeling will come trotting along at the appropriate time and place. If we reduce this holy love to our emotions and feelings, we lose not only consistency but any kind of true piety.

Perhaps no one knew this better that Saint Theresa of Calcutta. To remind you her feast day is September 5th and we’ve just celebrated the 20th anniversary of her death. As you know, it came out after her demise that she suffered terribly from a profound darkness, perhaps a clinical depression. Much of the time she did not feel loving, but she chose to act in a loving manner. This was conveyed both by her actions and the words she wrote. For example:

“I realized that I had the call to take care of the sick and the dying, the hungry, the naked, the homeless…to be God’s love in action to the poorest of the poor.” That was the beginning of the Missionaries of Charity [the religious order she founded.]”

She continued: “I see God in every human being. To God there is nothing small. The moment we have given it to God, it becomes infinite. When He was dying on the cross, Jesus said, ‘I thirst.’  Jesus is thirsting for our love, and this is the thirst of everyone, poor or rich alike. We all thirst for the love of others, that they will go out of their way to avoid harming us and to do good to us.”

What a remarkable woman! As I reflected on her statement “I see God in every human being,” I immediately made a mental list of people in which I have a lot of trouble seeing God…terrorists, abortionists, child molesters, the guy who cut me off in traffic, and then I realized that St. Theresa, Mother Theresa, would have no trouble seeing God in these people and I am chagrinned.

She had amazing vision. Not only did she see God in despicable people, she saw God even in the rich and the powerful who turn a blind eye to the perils of the poor and the helpless. Amazing.  As her reputation grew, she was a perennial guest of the most powerful leaders in the world, largely, I think because these leaders needed to be seen with her for political reasons more than she needed to be seen with them for economic support.

In many ways, Mother Theresa was like the appointed Watchman mentioned in today’s lesson from Ezekiel. His job was to warn the inhabitants of Jerusalem of impending danger. The citizenry had the right to exercise free will in ignoring the warnings, but they did so at the risk of their own jeopardy. From the passage today we hear:

…if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.

These are pretty uncomfortable words, but I think, in many ways Mother Theresa embraced them…and we are the recipients of her warnings.

One of her favorite themes was this: “We are called to be faithful; we are not called to be successful.” We may fail in the eyes of the world; we may not have the well paying job, the perfect smile, the attentive spouse. But if we are faithful to God by loving others, then that is enough. Being faithful is more important than accumulating material wealth.

That was a message not well received by many here in the United States. So, rather than backing off, Mother Theresa pushed it.  She said, for example, that on the streets of Calcutta, the dying were suffering only from material poverty. In fact, she said, these street people were far richer than most Americans.  For the street people, in all their misery, loved one another. They tended one another as best they could. And they did it day in, day out, week in, week out. It was the way they lived. They tended one another.

In contrast to this, she said, the individual competitive drive is so intense here in the States that we will be supportive for the short term, but we get weary and even annoyed with giving long term support because there doesn’t seem to be much return on our investment of time and perhaps other resources. In our system things are supposed to get fixed quickly; if they are not, then something is really wrong and we need to back off.

Mother Theresa said that we do things well for the short term, but how many are excluded because they cannot meet our expectations for the long run?  With very few exceptions, we are good at dealing with crises; we are not so good at dealing with chronic, long term problems. Think about Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.  We’re willing to give storm relief, but we continue to build on flood plains and we are reluctant to spend the money to fortify the infrastructure of dikes and so forth that would lessen the damage of such terrible storms.

Among other things, the result of our attitude is that there is a myriad of very lonely people here in the states. Prophetically a Watchman like Mother Theresa pointed out something obvious: loneliness in America is epidemic. Just think of the number of people who live alone or who are institutionalized and have no one to really love them, and who, in turn, are not encouraged to love others. You see, love is about the long haul, not just the short term.

This was the theme of her life, and she would be fierce about it. And she took it to places that made many of us really uncomfortable. Her eyes would blaze as she talked of what she called the holocaust of abortion.  At the National Prayer Breakfast, shortly before her death, she made her point crystal clear. Here she was at her prophetic, watchmanlike best:

She said:“A nation that destroys the life of an unborn child, who has been created for living and loving, who has been created in the image of God, is in tremendous poverty.” She pulled no punches as she continued:

“I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion because it is a direct killing of the innocent child. Abortion is murder in the womb. A child is a gift from God. America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe V. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men.  It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships.  It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society.  It has portrayed the greatest of gifts…a child…as a competitor, an intrusion and an inconvenience.’

“It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the dependent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters. And in granting this unconscionable power, it has exposed many women to unjust and selfish demands from their husbands or other sexual partners.”

“Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his [or her] humanity.  The right to life does not depend, and must not be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent…You must weep that your own government seems blind to this truth.”

As an aside, Oregon House Bill 3391, signed into law by Governor Kate Brown, requires all insurance companies to provide free abortions, and provides free, taxpayer- funded abortion for undocumented residents. 117,000 valid signatures are required to qualify our pro-life measure for the next statewide ballot, to reverse the expansion of taxpayer-funded abortion mandated by HB 3391. After mass there will be opportunities to sign a petition to have this horrendous law overturned. If you are a registered voter, and have not signed this petition, we implore you to do so.

It is one thing to have this intense, some would say pushy, little nun doing unpleasant things with unpleasant people over in that unpleasant country on those most unpleasant streets. It’s quite another to have her come over here to the land of the free and the home of the brave and the incredibly generous and tell us that those wretchedly impoverished people are richer than we are and that we should be weeping for our sins. She told us what it is really like to be loving. She said: “Keep the joy of loving God in your heart and share this joy with all you meet, especially in your family. Be holy…” We are indebted to St. Theresa of Calcutta and we owe it to her to love and protect these little ones in particular.