Sunday, September 18, 2011

We Don't Get What We Deserve

25 Sunday A #133

Is 55, 6-9
Ps 145
Phil 1, 20c-24. 27a
Mt 20, 1-16

St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
September 18, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

It’s been a year since I’ve been able to speak to you from this spot. It was shingles, a severe case of shingles. And after the shingles cleared up, neuralgia set in, nerve pain where the shingles had been. The pain is enough to leave anyone limp. It’s still there, but not as bad. There’s a vaccine now to prevent shingles. It costs a couple of hundred dollars. Medicare will pick up much of the cost. You don’t want to go through this. I shouldn’t complain, really. I was young for a long time, 76 years. Now, all of a sudden, I’m old. At 77 I suppose it’s time. Get that shot! Now let’s take a look at today’s readings.

Today’s Gospel reading is not a recommendation for the reform of labor law. (By the way, have you noticed that politicians use the word “reform” when they really mean “weaken” or “destroy” in talking about Social Security or Medicare? But that’s another matter.) Here in today’s Gospel we have a parable of Jesus about the kingdom of heaven.

The owner of the vineyard stands for God. The laborers are all of us. God keeps looking for more laborers all through the day. Some of us came to the vineyard early. Or rather, we were brought to baptism as infants and grew up and were confirmed in the Faith and never abandoned it. Others, though baptized, never really appropriated the Faith until later in life. They were baptized but not evangelized. Still others sought baptism as adults or even as old folks at the verge of death, coming to belief literally only at the last. I think of an old uncle of mine, long gone, Uncle Lawrence, Zio Laurienz’. He went to church three times in his life, and twice they had to carry him in, for his baptism and his funeral. He made it on his own for his wedding, at age 14! He was a skeptic and a cynic; he mocked the Church and the priests and all of us faithful who supported them. But at the last I pray that he held his hand out to Jesus, as Peter did when he was sinking, and asked for mercy. Did he get it? Let us hope so.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found,” Isaiah warns. While he may be found! We must not presume.

“He is near to all who call upon him,” sings our Psalm. “He is kind and merciful… compassionate to all his works… near to all who call upon him.”

Paul was touched by God mightily on the Road to Damascus, thrown from his horse. Then he was so filled with energy and enthusiasm for the Faith that he, more than any of the other Apostles, spread the Faith throughout the Mediterranean world. And yet he so yearned for the kingdom that he could write, “I long to be freed from this life and to be with Christ… . Yet it is more important that I live for your sakes. Conduct yourselves, then, in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

In today’s parable all the workers get the same wage no matter how long they worked. This is a metaphor for entrance into God’s kingdom. Is that fair? In God’s economy it is! Where would any of us be if God treated us as we deserve? Would any of us be jealous or complain if we, who have born the heat of the day, faithful all our lives, were to find Uncle Lawrence at the Lord’s banquet table in heaven? I’d be overjoyed to see the old rascal! So we pray for our dead, that at the last they held out their hand to the Lord. We can pray now for them then because with God there is no time.

There is one startling sentence in this reading that deserves a closer look. “I am free to do as I please with my money, am I not?” says the master of the vineyard. No, my friends, he is not. Remember this is a parable, a metaphorical teaching device. Jesus was not giving a lesson in social justice in this story but a lesson in the infinite mercy of God. But it poses an important question. I have heard it said many times, “It’s my money. I earned it by my own hard work. I can do with it what I please! Can’t I?”

You can, brother, yes you certainly can, but you may not! Not if you wish to conduct yourself in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Catholic Social Teaching for over one hundred and ten years has been strong and clear on this. On the one hand, all God’s creation is meant for the benefit of all God’s children. On the other hand, the Church defends the right to private property. That seems like a contradiction. How are these principles to be harmonized? By the principle of the common good. We have a right to own property, not just our toothbrushes but productive property as well, our farms and factories and shops, most definitely, and we have a right to the fruits of our labor. “Property is proper to man” (Peter Maurin). But that right is not absolute. It is limited by the requirements of the common good (cf. Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII, 1891). As individuals we deal with balancing our rights and our needs with the rights and needs of others in the privacy of our own consciences. As a community we determine tax law and regulations democratically, whether to have them and how much.

One of the functions of government is the redistribution of wealth (cf. Mater et Magistra, Pope Paul John XXIII, 1961). We’ve all played the board game Monopoly. How many winners are there at the end? One! Unregulated capitalism results in money and power funneling up into fewer and fewer hands. The game Monopoly was invented by a pious Quaker lady to teach that very lesson. The problem with unregulated capitalism is that “ it doesn’t get enough capital to enough people” (G.K. Chesterton).

A just, not to say a Christian society will not allow the defenseless to fend for themselves. Twenty-five years ago, our bishops declared that all economic and social policy initiatives should take into account first their effect upon the most vulnerable among us, the poor, the young, the sick, the elderly and the unborn. Not as an after-thought, but first and above all (cf. Economic Justice for All, USCC, 1986).

God will not be outdone in generosity, and man will not be outdone in greed and selfishness, or so it would seem. But then we see acts of self-sacrificing generosity as at the Twin Towers ten years ago and our hope is renewed in the Spirit, for still “the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods, with warm breast and with ah, bright wings.” (God’s Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins). He is near to all who call upon him.

It’s so good to be back. Twenty-three years ago, when I was ordained a deacon, I didn’t realize how much it would mean to me to proclaim the Gospel and to break open the word of God with you. It is a great privilege, one I don’t deserve. But neither does anyone else. There are others in this congregation who might hear the call to diaconate or to priesthood, or to the religious life as a sister or brother. Pray for them. None of us is worthy. But God’s grace and mercy are infinite. We don’t get what we deserve. Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

As We Forgive

September 11, 2011

24 Sunday A #130

Sir 27, 30. 28,9
Rom 14, 7-9
Mt 18, 21-35

Deacon Tom Cornell

It was unimaginable yet we saw it with our own eyes. My fellow Catholic Workers in New York City went to our roof only a mile and a half north of the World Trade Center when the first plane struck. Most of us saw it on TV, over and over and over again. They came down, the Twin Towers, they just came down, in smoke and ash and flame, and nearly three thousand souls. It was unimaginable, unforgettable, horrible. We all felt it, an insult to our nation, to our pride, as it was meant to be. Can we forgive such a crime against our people, a crime against our country, a crime against humanity itself, a crime against God? A crime! Not an act of war! When we refer to a “war” against terrorism, remember that the word “war” is used as a metaphor, as in the war against polio or the war against small-pox. To combat crime, we call upon our police and courts, not upon the army!

It does not dishonor the dead or excuse this crime in any degree to ask why they hate us so much. It isn’t our freedoms they hate in the Arab and Muslim worlds. That’s silly. They don’t give a hoot in hell about how we order our lives, unless it impinges on how they must live their lives. This is not the time or place for a history lesson, but the gross injuries the West, especially France and England and this country have inflicted upon the Arab and Muslim worlds have been egregious, going back to World War I. We may choose to ignore or forget them but they do not! They don’t care about our freedoms. But we care. We have to care. And about our maimed and dead.

First of all we care about the dead and injured and their families, the workers in the Towers and the firemen and police who lost their lives trying to save others. These people put their lives on the line every day for us. Here in Marlboro we know our police and firefighters. They are our neighbors and friends. That’s not often the case in the City, where I live also. There was a moment in the City when people came together and actually talked to one another on the subways and the street. It didn’t last long, but that loss brought us all together, for a week or so. As we recovered our equilibrium, feelings of anger, resentment, revenge began to surface. It’s only natural. But then the words of today’s readings from the Book of Sirach hit us: I didn’t choose these readings. They are assigned by the Church for the Latin rite throughout the world. They are assigned for this day in the Common Lectionary that many Protestants use as well. They are Providential for our condition this day of remembrance.

“Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance…. Should a man nourish anger against his neighbor and expect healing from the Lord?”

The Psalm verse is, “The Lord is kind and merciful; slow to anger and rich in compassion.”

Then in today’s Gospel we have the parable of the official who was shown mercy but did not show mercy and Peter’s question to Jesus, “How often must I forgive, seven times?” “No,” Jesus replied, “not seven times but seventy times seven.”

And just before Communion we recite that most dangerous of prayers, the Our Father. Dangerous? Yes! Why? Because we beg God to forgive us as we forgive, that is, the same way, to the same degree that we forgive those who trespass against us. Do we really mean it?

To forgive is not to say, “that’s all right!” It can never be right to kill innocent human beings, never! Cardinal Egan gave us a clue when he preached at St. Patrick’s Cathedral the Sunday after the attack, that we must not give way to fear and hatred. All right! But to forgive? To forgive such a crime?

Forgiveness is hard, very hard. I thought I had forgiven someone who once tried, and failed, to hurt me very badly. I had prayed for her, over and over again. But a few nights ago I dreamt of her for the first, and I hope only time. I cursed her up and down and to hell and back in that dream! So I have to pray some more.

In the immediate aftermath of an attack, it’s natural for us to lose balance, to sink into confusion. Not everyone was confused that day. Those in high places seized an opportunity they had been waiting for, an excuse to attack and invade Iraq. They had planned, determined to do so months if not years before. Iraq had nothing to do with the attack of 10/11, but that didn’t matter. The people were confused and angry. They could get away with it. We now know without any doubt that the nation was led to war by a concert of deliberate lies. We have been paying the price for it ever since, not only monetarily. We have lost twice the number of our fellow citizens in war as we lost in the Twin Towers and many times more maimed, and we have caused at least 100,000 Iraqis and Afghans to die. They tell us we are broke, so we borrowed the money for the war! We pay the price in the loss of the good will of the international community as well.

A friend of mine was attending a wedding in Serbia when the news of 9/11 broke there. It wasn’t long after the US bombed Belgrade. My friend thoroughly expected that at least some in the wedding party would reproach him as an American and say something like, “Now you know what it feels like to be under the bomb!” But no, quite the contrary. Everyone sympathized and offered words of comfort. That would not happen today.

This is not the place to analyze the political, social and economic causes and effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now Libya. But this is the place to examine the spiritual roots of this insanity. Our problems are at root spiritual and must be met with the weapons of the spirit: prayer, fasting and the works of mercy. What pride and arrogance has blinded us to our self-justification in destroying Iraq and pursuing a useless, immoral and unwinnable war in Afghanistan? There is justifiable pride, to be sure, in our American traditions, even as they are being eroded by these very wars. Sinful pride, it is a deadly sin, puts us above the law of nations and above the law of God. “Thou shalt not murder the innocent!” Not even to avenge the innocent.

Is there another way? Let me tell you emphatically that the best thing you can do for your country is to be the best Catholic Christian you can be. And take a lesson from a good Muslim man, named Rais Bhuiyan. He is an immigrant living in Texas, from Pakistan, but he could pass for an Arab. He was in a convenience store with two Pakistani friends when a man came in, pulled a gun and shot two of them dead. He shot Rais in the face, blinding him permanently in one eye. It was to avenge 9/11, the shooter cried, saying that he was an “Arab slayer.” The man, Mark Stroman, was tried for murder in a Texas court, convicted and sentenced to death. Rais spent years in rehab, but when he was strong enough he campaigned vigorously to save Mr. Stroman’s life. In that he failed. It was Texas, after all. Mark Stroman met his fate in the Texas electric chair.

“I have had many years to grow spiritually,” Rais said. He pledged that he will spend the rest of his life knocking on every door, trying to do the best he can to see that not another human life be lost needlessly and, in his words, “trying to teach people about the healing power of forgiveness.” Forgiveness, mind you, in the name and spirit of 9/11, “the healing power of forgiveness.”

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, let us learn from our good Muslim brother. Have mercy on us and let us be healed. Amen.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Burning Coal

22 Sunday A #124
Jer 20, 7-9
Ps 63
Rom 12, 1-2
Mt 16, 21-27

August 28, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

In our first reading today we hear, “You duped me, Lord….” Another translation, the Jerusalem Bible has, “You seduced me Lord, and I let myself be seduced.” I was a grown man, 31 years old before I heard these words from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, in November 1964. Thomas Merton read them to a small group he had called to his monastery, the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Merton was then and remains now, 43 years after his death, the most widely read spiritual writer in the English language. He gathered leaders of the growing peace movement (A.J. Muste, Dan Berrigan, Jim Forest, John Howard Yoder, W.H Ferry, Tony Walsh and three or four others. Phil Berrigan showed up on the last day, with a case of beer.) American military involvement in the Viet Nam war was just beginning to heat up with US Army “advisors” on the ground. The public still supported the war but some of us felt very differently.

Merton called us to answer this question: By what right can we raise our voices against this war? Merton answered the question himself through the words of Jeremiah we just heard. To paraphrase: “You tricked me, Lord. I didn’t know what I was getting into speaking your word. I don’t want to do it anymore Lord. You’ve made me a laughing-stock. I make up my mind that I will speak for you no longer. But then it’s like a coal burning in my chest and I have to speak, to let it out.”

We did it because we had to. It was uncomfortable, even dangerous, given the temper of the times. A young friend of mine, a nineteen year old boy, had just been beaten to death on a street in Rochester for wearing the peace symbol, that’s all, the same symbol that you see everywhere now. (Graham Carey carved Ivan Johnson’s headstone. It's in a cemetery on a hill in Truro, Cape Cod, overlooking the spot where his ancestors first made landfall on the Mayflower, in 1620.) Soldiers in Viet Nam would be painting it on their helmets just three years later, when they and public opinion changed. But then, in 1965, it was another story.

We took comfort in Saint Paul’s advice we also just heard. “Do not be conformed to this age.” Don’t fall in step. March to a different drummer. “Be transformed by the renewal of your understanding so that you may judge what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfect.”

In today’s Gospel reading we find Jesus making clear to his disciples what is before him as they approach Jerusalem, his passion and death. Peter takes Jesus aside and says no. “God forbid that any such thing should happen to you.” Jesus answers, “Get you behind me, Satan. You are blocking my way.” This to Peter! He had just entrusted the keys to the kingdom to Peter, the Rock!

Then Jesus’ instruction: “If anyone wants to come after me, let that one take up his cross and follow in my footsteps. Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What does it profit anyone to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

More than once in the Gospel we are told to take up our cross. I used to think you have to look for your cross. No, just try to live an honest life and your cross will find you, don’t worry!

In a few moments we will pray for our men and women in the armed services, especially those overseas and those who have been killed or injured in action, and for their families. Indeed, we should, and not just today but every day. And for all victims of war and for those of our soldiers who have taken their own lives. For the second year in a row now, more active-duty troops committed suicide than were killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, (in 2010, 468, this year 462 so far) the Pentagon reports. Nearly twenty percent of the troops returned from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression, according to a Rand Corporation study. Men deployed over and over again, as often as seven and eight times to a war they don’t believe in! Every poll of public opinion says the American people want out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and no sector of our population is more against these wars than our men and women in uniform. God bless them! Support our troops! Bring them home!

Is this something we should talk about in church? Yes, because it is a matter of justice! “What it is the Lord requires of you? Only this: do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6,8). Every killing in an unjust and unnecessary war is a grave sin, and in a democracy we are all responsible. God help us!

We have to say so or that word will be as a coal burning in our hearts. We can not hold it in. 