Father Dennis

to let others know a bit of insight into the mind of a Midwestern Catholic priest.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Love and Mercy - Trinity Sunday

My Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

The grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you. The last time I celebrated Mass here, I talked about my experiences on retreat at Conception Abbey in Missouri. As you may remember, it was a beautiful experience of praying with and working with Archbishop Hanus, who is retired there, as well as the other monks living there. In fact, it was such a good retreat experience, that I continue to reflect upon some of the things I read and prayed while there. The monks have a very regimented, predictable routine of prayer and work and part of what I love is being folded into their this lifestyle. It starts promptly at 6:00 am with 35-40 minutes of quiet, peaceful praying of the psalms and listening to sacred scripture and the fathers of the church. Then, we get some time to go off and pray silently by ourselves before we gather again at 7:15 for morning prayer, which lasts about 20-25 minutes. On Tuesday at morning prayer, I was starting to feel like I was getting back in the rhythm of prayer. At one point, we stand, fold up our chairs, and then step forward, rest our books on the top of the chair ahead of us, and chant a part of the gospel. They had a slightly different wording of the gospel than the one I have memorized so, on top of holding a prayer binder, I had to hold an extra piece of paper balanced on the binder. Now, picture this, me holding a binder balanced on the back of a chair and balanced on top of that is a piece of paper at 7:30 in the morning. I closed my eyes in order to soak in the beauty of the prayer and really hear what I was praying and then I started to feel the piece of paper falling forward. So, I adjusted my hands on the binder to try and secure the paper but, instead, I lost control of the binder and it fell forward onto the ground making an extremely loud, echoing crash. And then, in true cartoon fashion, I looked down in frozen horror unable to prevent the plummeting wooden chair, which had been nudged by my falling book just enough so that cruel gravity could act upon it. “SLAM, BAM, CRASH, BOOM!” The entire monastic community quickly looked up at me and I realized I had brought the entire prayer to a virtual stand-still. It felt hours but was, in reality, seconds for the monks to recover and finish the prayer. As I exited the chapel, I fully expected either the Abbot or Archbishop Hanus to take me aside and ask me to leave and never return, both actions I felt they would have been completely justified in taking.

Today is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. As we transition from the Easter Season to Ordinary Time, we focus first upon this central mystery of our faith. We believe in one God who has manifested himself as three divine persons. They are distinct but not separate nor confused. They are of the same substance and all three are eternal. The most common image that is used to try to understand the trinity is love. We heard this most explicitly today in the Gospel from St. John, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” The church has consistently taught that we were created out of love. The Father loves the Son and the Holy Spirit is the love between Father and Son. But, real love cannot be contained or limited. So, the love of God overflowed Father and Son with such intensity and grandeur that it created humanity. While on my retreat, I had an opportunity to read a book by Cardinal Walter Kasper called “Mercy” in which Cardinal Kasper says the love of God needs to be intimately connected with divine mercy. Why create humanity? Why make something that you know will hurt you, blame you, hate you, deny you exist, and, ultimately, sacrifice you so they don’t have to suffer the punishment they deserve? Only because God is much more merciful than our created minds can grasp and because this mercy is at the very essence of God’s being, in other words it is his love.

After the incident at morning prayer, as we left the chapel, neither Abbott Gregory nor Archbishop Hanus said anything to me. That afternoon, I had an opportunity to work with some of the monks weeding a flower garden. I fully expected one of them to say something, but none of them did. In fact, it seemed like they went out of their way to be gracious to me, as though they knew I was embarrassed about what had happened. At first, I thought I had dodged a bullet but then it became clear that, actually, they do that with each other all the time. They forgive each other because they want the other monks to forgive them when they make a mistake. They live out the meaning of the phrase from the Our Father, “…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I started to think about all the times that I have been angry and frustrated by someone else’s mistakes long after those mistakes were made. I thought about the times when I have gossiped about other people’s mistakes instead of helping them learn. And, I thought about how hurt I’ve been when I’ve become aware of people, especially parishioners, complaining about something I’ve said or done when they haven’t talked to me personally or when we simply disagree about something. Love and mercy are two sides of the same substance at the heart of Trinitarian love. Being loving and merciful, therefore, is also how we are called to live our lives, especially to those hardest to love. What is one grudge that God is calling you to let go today?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Finding the prophetic love of God

My Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Peace be with you. On July 28th of last year, Pope Francis was on his way back from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro when he was asked a question about a controversial Italian priest who was being accused of having inappropriate relationships with men. The Pope answered the questioned very thoroughly but there was one part of his answer that has absolutely captivated the media. The Pope said

“If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?

I imagine most of you have heard about this quote…or at least part of this quote. The problem is that five words out of this answer became the entirety of what the Pope said, namely, “who am I to judge.” The media made it sound like the Pope was changing church teaching in this off-hand comment. They treated him like he was a president deciding that he was no longer going to enforce laws that are on the books. In truth, as you just heard, Pope Francis was simply attempting to articulate the old teaching using new words. He was trying to be a prophet.

Our readings today invite us to listen to two great Prophets. First, we hear the Prophet Isaiah say that from his Mother’s womb the Lord challenged him to reach out to the ends of the earth. The message of God isn’t intended to be hoarded by a few people, a privileged minority. God wants his message to reach out to all parts of this world, to everyone. This is echoed in the Gospel when John the Baptist says that Jesus is the very embodiment of this message, the one who will take away the sin of the entire world.

The challenge, of course, in today’s world is that, for many, the message isn’t all that new and doesn’t seem to affect their daily lives. Many have written it off and no longer follow the teachings of the church in lieu of their own teachings. And, oftentimes, when the media sets the context for the debate, it does so by asking questions intended to make the church’s teachings untenable. For instance, this week we will remember the horrific Supreme Court decision of Roe V. Wade. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will protest this decision in Washington DC and will be either completely ignored by the media or will get equal time with the hand full of pro abortion protestors present. And, if any media outlets do dare to go deeper, they will focus on the topics of rape and incest and will use phrases like “a woman’s right to choose” and “women’s reproductive health” instead of “infanticide” or “murder of innocent children.” Pro lifers will be painted as a group of old, sexist men determined to make women second-class citizens instead of focusing on the actual participants in the March who are overwhelmingly women.

The problem is that we see abortion through a political prism with Democrats and Republicans putting their own political spin on it. However, abortion is a justice issue. It is an issue at the core of human dignity. It calls for prophets to stand up and remind people that life has dignity, that a fetus doesn’t get dignity because of the desire of parents but has it because of its nature as human life. We need prophets to listen to the voice of God and preach respect of human life to the ends of the earth. That’s our job as Christians: to remind people that the important thing in life is the respect for the dignity of the human person from natural conception until natural death.

The message that we hear from the prophets and, in the end, are invited to profess, is that God loves us and that God loves us so much that he wants to enter into a profound relationship with us. We are not his pets. Earth is not his ant farm. We are his sons and daughters in dignity. He not only knit us together in his image and likeness in the womb, but he set us up to have a special place in this world. God loves us so much that he wants to be in a relationship with us throughout the entirety of our lives. He walks with us and invites us to get to know him and love him, not as a fickle god that punishes us when we don’t do what he wants. But as a God that freely offers himself to us in this Eucharist, in the sacraments, and in our personal prayers. There are so many people who don’t know of the love God has for them. This week, make it a point to let other people know how much God loves us.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

A Hunger Games post

I've now seen the Hunger Games: Catching Fire a couple of times and have also seen the first movie a couple of times in the year (or so) since it was released. It has managed to tap into my imagination and made me think deeply about what they are trying to get across. Please let me give a little back story as I understand it and then offer a comment about what I see happening in the state of Iowa.

The Hunger games begins 74 years after a violent war in North America resulting in the nation of Panem divided into the capital and 12 surrounding districts. The capital is clearly the winner of the war as its residents have opulent lives of leisure and pleasure. The districts, on the other hand, each provide an important service to the capital, whether that be protection or some kind of material such as coal or wood. The residents of the districts are impoverished and must submit their name to a lottery each time they have to ask for food or medicine from the capital. Each year, two people (one girl and one boy) are chosen by that same lottery to enter into a game in which they try to be the last person surviving. The point of the game on the surface is to punish the 12 districts for their rebellion against the powerful capital. It also serves as entertainment for the people of the capital as they throw parties and parades surrounding the games. The victors of each game get to return to their districts and live in a special area where their needs would be met for the rest of their lives. However, it has become obvious that everyone who survives is also deeply psychologically wounded by their experience in the games.

Obviously, there is a lot more to these games than just this summary but please allow me to be brief for the sake of making my point. The books and the movie point out that one of the ways the capitol maintains its control is by getting the people in the different districts to see each other as enemies. Sure, the capitol seems like it's the ultimate enemy but none of the residents of the capitol are in the arena when the killing starts. Instead, you fight people who could grow up to be miners or police officers or soldiers or lumberjacks. The key is to see the other districts as just that: other. They are the people who get to have their children back while yours are dead. They are the ones who get the food while you have to beg, cheat, and steal yours. Power needs divisions to maintain control and, as we see in the hunger games, it cannot handle unity because it threatens their dominance.

So, how does this have anything to do with the State of Iowa? Let me begin by saying (thank goodness!) it's not because Des Moines forces us to provide 2 "tributes" to die in a sporting arena. However, we are divided. Perhaps most effectively, we are divided by towns and school districts. Especially in rural areas, where the population is declining, there are fierce town/school rivalries that are taught to children at a young age, oftentimes involving actions that took place fifty or a hundred years ago, between "our school" and that "other" school. We wait all year long for the football, basketball, or baseball game between our schools and the whole town turns up even if you don't have a kid in school. Yet, who is the real enemy in all of this? Is Garner, Hayfield, Ventura really the enemy of West Hancock and vice versa? Is Lake Mills really the enemy of Forest City and vice versa? I don't think so. I drive down the main streets of these small towns all the time and see empty buildings where there once was a clothing store or a bank. I hear people bragging about driving to Mason City and getting a deal on clothes or shoes or groceries and then hear about local shoe stores, clothing stores, and grocery stores struggling to stay open. We are our own worst enemies. Rather than encouraging young people to move into rural areas and dedicating their life to farming, too many farmers pay top price for the farm next door so that they can have the biggest farm in the county...not that son-of-a-gun from that other town. Rather than purchasing things locally or in the small town next door, we'll thirty, forty, or fifty miles to the closest big city. Why should the town next door get your money, right? We don't need Des Moines, Washingtown DC, or any other capitol to kill our towns. We'll do it ourselves. When will we learn that the human race will only flourish when none of us is seen as somehow less important or less dignified than anyone else?

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Who knows? Jesus may be right in front of you.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Peace be with you. Have you ever been talking to someone who very obviously had someone else far more important to whom they were waiting to talk. Sometimes while talking to someone, their cell phone rings and they take it out of their pocket, answer it, say, “just one minute” and walk away. Or, sometimes I visit homebound folks and they have the TV or the radio on and seem to be farm more interested in that than in talking to me. In a previous assignment, I had a pastor who was very good at raising money. He was very attuned to whether someone was paying attention to him. He would vent frustrations to me on car rides about someone who answered their cell phone in the middle of a conversation or someone who told him after five minutes of conversation that they had to leave. Yet, in a large group of people, he was notorious for talking to you while constantly looking around you. You had the feeling that he was looking for someone else more interesting or more important to talk to. One time, when I asked him about why he did that, he said to me, “Well, I can talk to you any time. I wanted to make sure there wasn’t someone out there that was only going to be around for a short time.

Today’s gospel is often referred to as the sending of the disciples. There’s a difference between a disciple and an apostle. The apostles were 12 men called by Jesus to play a key leadership role among the crowds. A disciple, on the other hand, was anyone who believed in the teachings of Jesus Christ. We are, in some ways, the descendants to the disciples. In today’s gospel, Jesus sends out 72 disciples to begin evangelizing. So that means that Jesus intended evangelization to not be restricted to those in holy orders. All of us are responsible to spread the good news of Jesus. So, we need to pay close attention to the advice Jesus gives us on how we are to evangelize.

Jesus begins by sounding a lot like Pope Francis with all his humility. He says, “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals;” Jesus doesn’t want concerns for material possessions to get in the way of evangelization. Yet, the next thing that he said was, “greet no one along the way.” At first, I was kind of perplexed about that part. Some scriptural writers suggested that Jesus might have been trying to protect his flock against thieves who would have been on the byroads. I don’t buy that explanation because I think Jesus would have said, “Don’t get robbed.” Instead, he says that they shouldn’t greet people along the way. Instead, I think Jesus wanted them to have a focus that wasn’t based upon evangelizing everyone along the way, just the ones that he sends us to.

When we start evangelizing, Jesus tells us to eat whatever is put before us. I think I’ve preached before that I find these kinds of commandments difficult because I tend to be kind of a picky eater. So, I think part of what Jesus is saying is that Fr. Miller needs to be grateful with whatever is set before him. However, there’s something profound that I also hear being proclaimed here. When I used to teach Faith Formation, I was often amazed at how much I learned because I was researching a question the students would ask. I often felt that I learned more than they did. Similarly, when we evangelize other people, when we share with people how Jesus has loved us and given us hope, we may find that we are evangelized.

So, think of one person who you know has been poorly evangelized or hasn’t been evangelized at all. How can you reach out to that person to let them know of the love and hope you have been given by Our Lord. Because, who knows, you may just see Jesus in them also.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Atheism isn't a religion

Fr. Robert Barron, rector of Mundelein Seminary, has spen a lot of time debunking the arguments of the modern atheists. I think he quite correctly says that one of the problems is that they aren't really all that new. All they're doing is rehashing arguments put forth by Frederich Nietzsche (God is used by the powerful to keep the powerless from becoming self actualized) and Karl Marx (God is useful like a kind of drug: it's a delusion that stops people from realizing the horror of alienation).

Recently, atheists in Florida erected a bench with some of the more shallow religious criticisms on it. Many atheists want their views to be recognized as a religious perspective so that it can be taught in religious studies departments. The problem is that it's really not a religion inasmuch as a reaction to religion. If there were no religions, there would be no atheism. That's why you can read this story on NBCnews.com about a little boy who was killed when he fell off a float in a parade and read HORRIFIC comments from atheists. They react, oftentimes exceedingly pessimistically, cynically, and derogatorily, towards people who do believe. And, in the US, their voice seems to be getting louder and louder.

But, I don't think atheism should be considered a religion specifically because it doesn't contribute something positively to the conversation. Take the issue with the bench. This is a reaction to a 10 commandments monument that was allowed on a part of public soil. Say what you want about them but the 10 commandments are a positive statement of a way of life. Love God with your whole heart. Don't kill. Don't steal. Don't covet your neighbors goods. The bench doesn't provide a positive way of living life. It's just a reaction. Its statements are all about how God and religion shouldn't have anything to do in the world. Okay, so what should? Atheists can't tell us what they believe because they have no set of core beliefs. They only thing that unites them is not believing in something. Should we take care of the poor (Marx) or is the loss of a poor person simply part of survival of the fittest (Darwin)? Atheists can't agree. Is life essentially meaningless suffering (Sartre) or are we supposed to craft our own meaning (de Beauvoir)? Atheists are split. Should atheism erect a bench with anti-religious statements on it (those who won the lawsuit) or should they just try to get the 10 commandment monument taken off (those now critical of the "bench")? Atheists cannot agree. I could keep going but you get the point.

Ultimately, I personally believe atheism's downfall is that it is inherently pessimistic because of it's reactionary underpinnings. Atheism either says nothing to people who have lost a child or says that they are fools for seeking comfort. Religion offers hope that, despite all the chaos and apparent hopelessness, there is hope because there is something rather than nothing. Life will never be the same on earth for these parents and they deserve time to mourn and support from family and friends. But I hope these folks find comfort in the fact that the same God who made everything visible can also make something that is currently invisible where all pain and suffering is gone.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Priority to Christ

My Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Peace be with you. What’s the first thing you do in the morning? What about the last thing you do at night? For most of us, we turn on the radio or television to see what’s happening in the world while we wake up a little. If you’re a little younger, you might unplug your smartphone and check facebook or Twitter and see who said what overnight. One of the hardest things we have to learn in our lives is how to set and honor priorities. Parents need to teach their children that they can’t spend all day watching TV or playing video games when there are other important things that need to get done like chores. A couple of weeks ago, I got an email that required a carefuly, well thought out response. I started working on it in the late afternoon and four hours later I was finally ready to push send. Now, I was glad that it wasn’t a phone call or a face to face meeting but I did have to question my use of time when it took four hours to complete. And the worst thing as I was thinking about it was that I knew it would demand another complex email the next day which ended up taking another three hours. I had to ask myself, in the end, if the responses deserved the priority that I was willing to give them.

Our readings today challenge us to reflect on this issue of priorities. In the first reading, it’s Elijah who is choosing his successor Elisha because God told him to. Now, I like the story of Elisha a lot. I like him partially because he was bald. But, I also like him because he was a person who made mistakes and learned from them. For instance, when called by Elijah to be the Prophet of the Lord, Elisha wants to say goodbye to his family. Now you might ask: What’s wrong with that? A similar thing happened in the Gospel. Someone felt called by God to follow Jesus but implied that he wanted to end up in some physical building in the end. Jesus assures him, as we know all too well in our cluster, that Jesus isn’t contained in buildings. “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The next person wants to bury his father and receives the rather abrupt and, seemingly callous response to let the dead bury their dead. The last person, like Elisha, simply wants to say goodbye to his family. In all these situations, we may be tempted to think that either Elijah or Jesus wasn’t being fair in not allowing the person to take care of something that is high priority. But, think of it like this: imagine if you’re sitting there in your living room when the last number of the lottery is listed and you realize you just won a hundred million dollars. Would your first reaction be to call up a friend and say hello? Or call that friend who is sick and hope they feel better. Of course not. That lottery ticket would become your sole priority and everything else would become secondary. That’s the reaction that the Lord has in each of these situations.

A couple of weeks ago, the priests of this Archdiocese gathered with our Archbishop to learn about the issue of internet addiction and, in particular, addiction to pornography. I was very surprised to learn that 50% of marriages end, in part, because of one of the spouses involvement with pornography. It has a way of drawing people deeper and deeper into it searching for that next, better “high.” Technology has made setting priorities difficult. Now don’t get me wrong. Technology can be used for good things like taking the time to give a thoughtful response to a question that demands it. But it also has a tendency to want to take over our entire life. So, how about giving the first hour of the day over to the Lord? Don’t turn on the radio or television and just leave that smart phone on the charger. Instead, take some time to read sacred scripture or pick up those beads and pray a rosary or take out your favorite prayer book and pray those treasured prayers. Now, I know what you’re going to say. You’re thinking that you’re just not a morning person and, trust me when I tell you that I have nothing but sympathy for you. Anyone who has gone to 7:30 mass on Friday morning in Britt knows that I tend to show up at 7:27 or so just giving myself enough time to throw on my vestments before mass. I don’t like mornings. So, give the Lord the LAST hour of your day. Shut off the computer and television and do all that I suggested the others do in the morning. Give the Lord priority in your day to remind yourself what we all can’t do without.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why I think the time wasn't right for an American Pope

What you are about to read is my opinion. I am not speaking on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church (as if I have the right to do that anyway) or anyone else for that matter other than myself.

I was laying under a blanket this last Wednesday afternoon with a case of stomach flu. However, I did have EWTN on the TV expecting to await the disappointment of black smoke. As I lay there, the commentators covered several of the rumors that were out there as to who would be the next Pope. I was relieved to find a station that didn't analyze things in terms of "liberal" and "conservative" so I kept listening. Shortly before the unexpectedly white smoke emerged, the announcers took up their own skepticism that it would be an American Pope. I listened intently as they said that, historically, the biggest concern has been the ideology of Americanism that was an ideology of some American bishops whereby certain they seemed to be pushing towards greater democratization in the church. I found it fascinating when they said that in the past there were some who were concerned that, by electing an American, the president could have undue influence on the Pope. Sort of the inverse of what President Kennedy felt when people worried that, by electing a Catholic President, he would be beholden to the Pope. Nonetheless, the commentators felt that this had largely been overcome by the USCCB opposition to the Obama HHS contraception mandate led, primarily, by Cardinal Dolan but supported by all the American bishops.

In any case, the second point EWTN commentators made was just as fascinating. They said that if they elected an American Pope, we would send a deeply detrimental message to the Islamic world. It was thought by the commentators that Islam would see this as the Catholic Church siding with America in its foreign policy decisions. I thought this was an interesting insight but, in my opinion, probably not the nail in the coffin of an American Papacy.

The more I think about it, the more I think it has to do with the state of the Catholic Church in America. Let's face it, folks. We're in a mess. Not even 24 hours after the election of Pope Francis, several liberal websites posted a story that alleged that Pope Francis deliberately removed Jesuit protection from two priests who were abducted and held captive by the Argentinian government in 1976. Shortly thereafter, it moved from left-wing websites like Slate.com and huffingtonpost.com to more moderate sites like cnn.com and msnbc.com. The transition also meant that it moved from internet to television. Now, you may say that this is really a world-wide story that the Pope had to explain and move past and you may be right. Plus, some of you will say that they are all liberal websites and you can't trust them for news about the church. And that's precisely my point. I don't believe it's going too far to say right now that, in general, the Democratic Party is openly hostile to the Catholic Church. I frequently listen to MSNBC on my way from parish to parish and I cannot tell you the last time I heard anything positive about the Catholic Church on it. Well, let me take that back. When the news of Pope Francis first hit, the Catholic commentators seemed ecstatic to have a real "Dorothy Day style Pope". However, when it became clear that this Pope is not for gay rights or abortion, even Chris Matthews seemed to be losing his excitement for the social justice pope in favor of "the best that we can get." Now today they're all about how the Pope abducted and tortured two priests in 1976...I mean how he encouraged the government to abduct and torture two priests...I mean how he removed magic albino Jesuit protection from two priests who were abducted and interrogated by the government.

Sarcasm aside, you may be asking: So what? The problem is that many of our Catholic lay people agree more with everything that the media preaches than what any Pope preaches. This is the party of John F. Kennedy after all. Many lay people feel completely conflicted when Father preaches on Sunday what is labeled as hate-speech on Monday. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons that American Catholics have stopped coming to mass, moreso than distrust of the church because of sexual abuse. At least, when I talk to my college friends who no longer go to church they acknowledge that this is one of the reasons why.

And so, what do many younger clergy say is the solution: If the liberals hate us then we should become conservative! After all, we agree on abortion and abortion is really the only thing that's important, right? Let's all listen to Fox News and read breitbart.com! Let's demonize media by calling it all "liberal media" and tell our people that they can only watch Fox News or EWTN. That's great until you remember the strong objections that Pope John Paul II had with the Bush administration with regard to the two middle-eastern wars and, in particular, the war in Iraq. Remember Pope John Paul pleading with the Bush Administration to not invade Iraq and further weaken the area? If your answer to that is no, it may be because you only listened to Fox News, which was (arguably) one of the best propaganda devices for the war the Bush Administration had at its disposal. I'm pretty sure Fox News is the only network that still to this day believes weapons of mass destruction were hauled out of Iraq at the beginning of the war and that President Bush was perfectly justified in invading. Everyone else knows that the war was an inevitable oedipal war that has done nothing but anger the Islamic world...and made an American Papacy seem inconceivable to some commentators.

So, where do we go from here? One side is openly hostile toward us and the other uses us when we agree with them and ignores us when we don't. The animosity and hatred is just too deep on the one hand and the roots of anti-intellectual, anti-catholic Know-Nothing evangelicalism too present in the other. How do we become a moral voice again in a culture that seems increasingly only to accept the moral voice of the dominant political party in their life? What if we took seriously the model of an Argentinian Cardinal who seeks to remove the "pomp" of the job in favor of humble service? What if, instead of looking at Pope Francis as the exception to the rule, if we, clergy, tried to model our life after his? What if we clergy first and foremost wanted to be people of prayer and study and left nice rectories and cars to the concerns of the CEO. What if we became THE place that people went to in order to feel closer to God? Let me pause there for a day or two and come back to what that might mean. Your comments are welcome.

Go and sin no more

My Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Grace and peace to you in God, our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ whose life and death have set us free. One rather effective way of praying is to read a passage of sacred scripture and then ask God to send the Holy Spirit down upon you to help, through your imagination, to enter into what’s happening in the story. So, you could imagine from last week that you’re the younger son being embraced by a loving Father who forgives you after you squandered your inheritance on a life of dissipation. Or, from the week before, you can imagine yourself standing on a mountain when you notice a bush on fire. When you investigate a little closer, you hear the voice of God revealing a part of himself to you, speaking his name with love. If you’ve never tried this type of prayer before, I’d encourage you to do so especially if you have a good imagination. However, let me provide one caution from today’s gospel before you begin.

Today’s Gospel passage carries with it much baggage. It is used by many self-styled theologians, secular humanists, and politicians to attempt to suppress the moral voice of the church. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” people generally say at the end of this story, though that’s actually from a completely different part of a completely different book of the Bible. In this story, we know that Jesus was afraid to come to Jerusalem because the Jewish leadership was trying to kill him. He comes in secret with his disciples and immediately goes to the Temple. You’d think he’d want to avoid this place so filled with the very people who want to kill him but, as we heard a few weeks ago when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple, he wants to be in his Father’s house. While he’s in the Temple, he has several interactions with the Jewish leaders who were responsible for it, the scribes and Pharisees. This is just one of them.

Imagine, for a second, being the woman caught in the act of adultery. You’re probably not completely dressed and certainly not dressed well enough to be standing on the Temple. You’ve been caught in an incredibly embarrassing act cheating or your husband, helping someone else cheat on his wife, or both. In the back of your mind you knew this could happen but you decided that the chances of anyone caring were pretty slim. I mean, everyone does this, right? It’s not like your murdering someone, after all. Suddenly the doors are ripped open and you are hauled to the Temple Mount while your co-conspirator gets off scot-free. Maybe he ran away. More likely the men know that it would be less controversial to simply kill a woman because of her status in society. You crouch on the ground covering your head only allowing one eye to be open as you anticipate the pain from the first rock. The only man who can save you from this torture is an unknown Rabbi who seems totally disconnected, almost as though he doesn’t care about the world. But, then you hear the words this man says. He doesn’t say, as Moses did, “Let the one who witnessed the crime be the one to cast the first stone.” No. Instead, he says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, in your crouched position from the one eye you have opened, you watch as the last set of feet drops the stones they had brought with them and walks away. Lastly, it is just you and Jesus. You look up at him as he remains drawing in the dust and hear the incredible words of freedom that you never imagined you’d ever hear, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

There is nothing wrong with entering into prayer like that. However, if I may, I’d like to suggest that most of us are putting ourselves in the wrong character if we do that. The woman is a sinner caught in the act of sinning. She sits completely quiet awaiting her sentence until she is freed and then is given a fresh start, a choice as to whether she will sin from now on or not. I don’t believe this applies to most of us. I think most of us, if we are honest, are the scribes and Pharisees. Now, before you walk out, give me a chance to explain.

These people are perfectly justified in doing what they’re doing. We may be tempted to think that they’re just over-judgmental busybodies who are condemning people in what is essentially a private act. But, adultery is never a private act. At minimum, this affected three people: the two people involved and the spouse. It probably affected children, parents, friends, and a whole host of other people and it violated the sacred quality of marriage. The penalty was clear, stoning. The scribes and Pharisees want to force Jesus to have to make an unpopular decision: Either sit by and watch a woman be stoned to death by your declaration or change the law and diminish the importance of marriage. Jesus, instead, offers a third route. And, in my opinion, this is where I find myself especially entering in as one of the chief Pharisees.

Jesus sits on the ground and starts to scribble. At first, it doesn’t seem like he’s writing anything but then you can see that he is slowly writing the word “adultery” on the ground. Right when he is finished, he takes the palm of his hand and wipes it out. Then, he writes the word “hatred” on the ground and wipes it out. Then he writes the word “gossip” on the ground and wipes it out. What’s he saying? What does this mean? I don’t understand. So, he stands up and looks at us with those eyes that knew this woman was adulterous even before she set foot on the Temple and says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And we finally understand that when he was writing those sins on the ground, he knew not only her sin but the sins of each one of us. He wants to forgive us for what we’ve done. What stops us from forgiving each other? What stops us from putting down our rocks, going, and sinning no more?