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TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME- SEPTEMBER 11, 2011

Sirach 27:30-28:7

Romans 14:7-9

Matthew 18:21-35

How did you feel as you listened to the readings in today’s Liturgy of the Word?  What emotions surged as you heard Sirach denounce the vengeful spirit, and heard him say that wrath and anger are hateful things?  Did you resent the gospel proclamation telling us that we need to forgive even huge debts if we are to expect forgiveness from the Lord for our debts, and this is on the anniversary of 9/11?  Most people can remember where they were that day as they heard the first announcement of the terrible events that caused such destruction and the loss of so many lives.  Mention the date and sadness at least will well up in the hearer’s consciousness.  Some may even weep if the hearers are reminded of someone they lost as the towers crumbled.

Certainly justice needs to be brought to bear against those who perpetrated the terror.  But if we hear the readings, we have to recognize that there is no wiggle room for us to escape the implications put down before us by Sirach and Jesus.  Those who believe in this God and those who claim to be disciples of the Lord Jesus must be about mercy and forgiveness.  To be otherwise is to court disaster, the disaster that is God’s final displeasure, the horror of final separation from Jesus.

We celebrate our faith in worship as we assemble with those who believe as we do and with us are baptized into the same Christ.  But we live that faith in the world and our decisions and actions there are to be affected by that faith.  Today’s first reading and gospel speak to us about forgiveness.  It is quite possible to hear the readings and nod and not realize the implications for us in our daily life.  To move in the direction that will awaken in us the sense of challenge that might prompt us to ask, “Who can do this?” we have to think of someone who has offended us.  You have to think of someone who has offended you.  That comes way before you start thinking about seeking your own forgiveness.  The readings seem to say that you won’t appreciate the latter until you have forgiven someone who has offended you.  The bigger the offense you forgive the more you will be grateful for the forgiveness that comes to you.

I believe it was ten years ago that I read the story in People magazine.  Strange where you can find a challenge to grow in your faith response and be helped to remember that conversion is a life-long process.  A man was convicted and sent to prison for murdering a young woman.  The woman’s parents were committed Christians who tried to live their faith each day.  One Sunday, they heard a sermon about forgiveness and that Jesus commands his disciples to forgive those who sin against them.  After church that Sunday, they went home and as they sat at their kitchen table, the wife asked her husband if he thought what they had heard that morning had implications for them.  And he suggested they pray about it.

Not long afterwards, they concluded that if they were going to continue being Christians, they had to forgive the man who had killed their daughter.  Their first step was to journey to the prison and meet with the killer.  Over a period of time they came to know the man and his story.  They told him that it was a matter of faith for them to forgive him for what he had done.  The day came when they could tell him that they had indeed forgiven him and come to love him, even as he had by that time told them how sorry he was for what he had done and that he loved them, too.

When the time came for the man to be paroled, the parents invited him to come and live with them until he felt secure enough to live on his own and go forward with his life.  That is what happened.  The article in the magazine talked about the man’s successes, his marriage, his children, his work, and his on-going relationship ship with the couple that have become like parents to him.

There is another important aspect to the challenge in these readings that is not in evidence in the story.  Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.  Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?  It takes a degree of courage, but for these readings to have their full impact, we have to dare to be vulnerable to them.  By that I mean we have to face the reality of sin in our own lives.  What sin have I committed?  Of what are you guilty that offended your neighbor?  Have you ever done anything that had major negative consequences for another?  Was your conscience pricked to the point that you wondered if you could ever be forgiven?  There is no need for specifics here.  Each one has to look into the secrets and sorrows that burden the heart.

Peter’s question of Jesus about how many times he had to forgive his neighbor, even seven times, brought him a stunning answer.  Peter thought forgiving seven times would be magnanimous on his part.  Who could expect more?  He heard Jesus tell him that when he had forgiven seven times, he had only just begun on the path of forgiving.  There is no end to the demands to forgive because God never stops forgiving.

The parable Jesus told begins with the Lord’s forgiving in the tale of the king whose servant owed him a huge amount and had no way to clear the debt.  Putting him into debtor’s prison was an option.  But when the servant pled for mercy and patience, the king forgave the debt.  If we put ourselves in the position of the servant, that is, if we are in the position of knowing our own sinfulness and ask forgiveness, it is always forthcoming.  Apparently there is nothing that God loves to do more than to forgive.  God is not like the person who might say, “I’ll forgive, but I will never forget what you have done.”  Nor is he like the other one who would say, “I’ll forgive, but God help you the next time it happens.”  God’s forgiveness wipes the slate clean.  That’s what God’s love compels God to do.

The sad part of the parable comes when the servant of whom much was forgiven, throttles and puts into prison a fellow servant of his who owed him a very small amount and who also had no means at hand to clear the debt.  The forgiven servant had lost all perspective as will we if, when we brood over someone who has offended us, we forget that we have been forgiven and refuse to extend that forgiveness to another.  Of course our own sins never have the magnitude of those that offend us.  Aren’t our own sins much easier to understand than those committed by someone else?

There is an implied caution in the gospel parable.  A case can be made that unless we forgive we will not be forgiven.  Look where the servant winds up – handed () over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.  A number of years ago there was a popular bumper sticker that read: Christians aren’t different; they’re just forgiven.  We are challenged by these readings to always remember that we are forgiven and therefore we must love much.

We come together to Eucharist as a forgiven people who extend forgiveness.  Sometimes that forgiveness is extended even to someone who has not sought it, someone who is not even aware of the pain he has caused you – or doesn’t care.  Jesus said from the cross, Father, forgive them.  They do not know what they are doing.  Forgive and you will know the freedom that forgiving brings.

As Catholic Christians, we ought to be known as a people who rejoice in forgiveness.  That does not mean that we take sin and its significance lightly, but we refuse to dwell there.  We would rather be prompted to deeds of love because we have been forgiven.  There was a time when the third form of the rite of reconciliation could be celebrated.  We have individual confession and absolution.  We have group preparation and individual confession and absolution.  The third form is communal penance and absolution.  The people of God come together mindful of their sinfulness, avow their sorrow for their sins, and experience absolution as a community of faith.  The use of that form has been greatly restricted and can be used only in times of great emergency as in a time of disaster.

Any time I was privileged to be part of such a celebration the emotional impact was incredible.  I never saw anyone take the matter lightly.  Tears frequently washed down the faces of the penitents.  But some thought that made confession and absolution too easy.  Perhaps.  But I think I witnessed many hearts being changed by the abundance of God’s love experienced in those celebrations.

Do we need to be convinced again that God rejoices in forgiving?  And when we are, then we can be Eucharistic People.  Remember, the word means Thanksgiving.  And Alleluia will be our song.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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MY NAME IS JOHN KAISER

Note:  Father John Kaiser, a native of Minnesota, served as a missionary priest in Kenya for 36 years.  He had prepared a dossier that exposed some in political power in Kenya as abusers of girls in his parish.  His intent was to bring the documents to The Hague when he was murdered on Aug 24, 2000.

My name is John Kaiser.  Sometimes I was called Father Kaiser.  But many of my people had trouble pronouncing my surname and they called me Father John.

For 36 years I had been a Kenyan when, on August 24, 2000, powerful people ambushed my car, dragged me out and blew the back of my head off with a shotgun blast.

Excuse the gore that clings to me.  It is a reminder of how I died.  I bear it in testimony against those who slew me and those who have colluded in Kenya and in my native country to spread the story that I died by my own hand.  The blood and gaping wound will not be washed away and healed until the world knows the truth.

The encounter on that lonely road was inevitable.  For months I knew my life was in danger, that I had offended influential people who wanted me dead.  Some days, depression almost paralyzed me, not because I was afraid to die but because I wanted to go on living and working for the dignity and freedom of my people.

They used my sufferings against me and said that depression was why I committed suicide.  They said I couldn’t live with the sadness any longer.  I can only tell you that I was never a suicidal person.  I loved my life and always thought of it as God’s great gift.

Strange, isn’t it, that thousands of people have been to that fork in the road where I died, and thousands of people, even bishops and cardinals, have celebrated funeral Masses for my eternal repose.  The site has become a place of pilgrimage.  That realization humbles me even as it must outrage those who lifted the hands against me.

It is as if I am able to speak louder now than I was able to when I was alive.  That is why I am telling you not to listen to the stories about suicide.  For some, that would get in the way of my message; that would cast a shadow over all my 36 years of service.  It’s bad enough that people know I battled depression.  Some can’t deal with human weakness and psychological imperfections.

As God is my witness, I witnessed to Jesus’ Gospel and wanted my people to live in the freedom of the children of God.  A powerful government official raped a young girl who was a parishioner of mine.  How could I remain silent about that?  I spoke out and that official was prosecuted for his crime.

I gathered documentation proving atrocities against my people that bordered on systematized ethnic cleansing.  There were nights when I herded my people into our church and locked them inside.  I slept on the doorstep so that if soldiers were going to try to take my people away they would have to step over me to do it.  I had those accusing documents with me when they killed me.  I would have gone all the way to The Hague with those papers to get justice for my brothers and sisters.

All I ever wanted to do from my earliest memories as a boy in Maine Township in Minnesota, all I ever wanted to do was to be a missionary priest.  I wanted to witness to Jesus and help people hear the Good News and come to know Jesus.

No one could have told me that witnessing to Jesus to the Kenyan people whom I love would have led to others hating me so much that they would blow my brains out and spill my blood on Kenyan soil.  But then loving Jesus and them as I do, the warning probably wouldn’t have mattered.

Thank you for listening to me.  I won’t keep you much longer.  My real purpose in speaking to you is to ask for your prayers.  Pray for the church in Kenya.  I am not the lonely priest who has died there.  More notoriety surrounds my death at the present time.  Keep the story alive if you can.  But pray for the Kenyans and pray that others will follow where I went and continue to talk about Jesus.  Pray that there will be those more powerful than I ever was who will tell the tyrants they must stop raping and murdering these brothers and sisters of the Lord.

And if you dare to go to Kenya, stop at what was my parish church and say a prayer at my grave.  You can’t miss it.  It’s very near the church.  You’ll pass it on your way in.  Pray therefore me.  For my vindication.  And for the hastening of the day of the Lord that will happen when my people can live in Freedom and the peace of the children of God.

THE TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – September 04, 2011

Ezekiel 33:7-9

Romans 13:8-10

Matthew 18:15-20

There are two ways of hearing the proclamation of the Word – as an individual and as a member of a community.  The Word challenges and confronts the individual heart.  It challenges and confronts the body that is the church.  The prophet Ezekiel this Sunday speaks out because God commands it.  There are dire consequences if he does not.  The call is always to conversion, be it to the House of Israel or to the wicked one as we hear in today’s first reading.  Israel in exile during the Babylonian captivity needs to be renewed in fidelity to God’s law and must be weaned from pagan practices that weakened them and resulted in Israel’s downfall and Jerusalem’s destruction.  The conversion happens one person at a time.  God holds the prophet responsible for the proclamation and the hearer for responding to the challenge and returning to God’s ways or not.

Conversion is a lifelong process both for the individual and for the church.  When the faithful gather at the Table of the Word it is to listen, to be challenged, and to be transformed by the proclamation.  What effect does the Spirit prompt in my heart as I hear the Word?  What effect does the Spirit prompt in this community of which I am a part?  I am so used to standing behind defenses, masked and clad in armor that deflects the message and shields my heart lest the Word penetrate.

I gather regularly with this community of individuals all coming as we do from the same neighborhood and class of society with our accepted ways of acting.  We have causes that we support in common.  We can be insular in the comfort of our pew.  I was unnerved last Sunday when someone with whom I was unfamiliar was in my place.  Granted I was a few minutes later than when I usually arrive.  It took me until after the preparation of the gifts to relax, take a couple of deep breaths, swallow three times and let go of my resentment.  I’m not alone in liking the older hymns that the choir sings.  Usually the readings are well read and the sermons are comforting.  I shared these observations with a pew mate and her retort was to ask me if I thought that was what was supposed to happen during the Liturgy of the Word.  She said she had heard the experience might be more confrontational.

The readings this week gave me pause.  It’s one thing to think of other people who could benefit from the lesson.  What unsettled me was the question that pierced through a chink in my armor and entered my consciousness:  Could Ezekiel be speaking to me?  And if the prophet were speaking to me, what response would be expected?  A fortiori, could the prophet be speaking to this parish community?  If that were true, how should the community respond?  To what would I and we have to die in order to rise to the life that Jesus would have us live?

At first there was something in what I heard that appealed to the judgmental in me.  These readings would seem to call for that ability.  I would have to know who the wicked are before I could warn them for the Lord.  Knowing their wickedness and confronting it, as difficult as that might be, would be better than my silence warranting my being responsible for their receiving God’s wrath.

I liked the gospel’s approach even better.  If I recognized that someone sinned against me, at least the process of confrontation could begin between just the two of us.  That’s what Jesus said.  If the conversation did not bring about reform, then I could garner support for my cause from a few of my friends.  And if that didn’t work, I would have to put the matter before the whole parish.  There would be some consolation if the offender failed to listen to the whole parish because then the sinner could be shunned.  There would be satisfaction in that, in knowing that I was right and the other was wrong.  Treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector, Jesus said.

No sooner was I satisfied with my interpretation of the message than I began to feel uneasy.  Was that the Spirit moving in me?  To shun means to avoid deliberately and habitually.  That’s what the community did to Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.  There are, after all, some faith communities that endorse shunning.  Something gnaws at me.  Why do I think that the Church ought not do that?  It is one thing for an individual to decide that s/he wants to leave the community, but excommunication is quite another matter.  To be honest, I winced at the stories about certain political figures during the last campaign for election being denied Eucharist for stands they took on certain issues, for example, freedom of choice regarding abortion.  But other politicians whose stands seemed to be in opposition to the Church’s social gospel and our consequent responsibility to care for the poor suffered no such denial.  That struck me as odd.  Besides, I am convinced that it is not the minister’s right to make that determination.  That decision is the prerogative of the one presenting self in the Communion Procession.

Treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.  Then I thought about the example set by Jesus’ own table fellowship practice.  One of the accusations made against him in the case for his crucifixion was: This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.  Among those sinners were tax collectors.  The judgers knew that he shared his table with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other people of ill repute.  He was known even to converse with lepers and Gentiles.  How can I reconcile Jesus’ attitude with shunning?  I was tempted to think that Jesus statement about Gentiles and tax collectors warranted my shunning of one deemed by me or the community with me to be a sinner.  Then I remembered that Jesus’ own first attitude toward Gentiles had to change.  His mission and message once thought to be only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel expanded to include Gentiles when the Canaanite woman reminded him that even the dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.  And Matthew was a tax collector.

So, what impact ought these readings have on me?  How should my attitude and behavior be affected?  Certainly the desired response is not to be blind or indifferent to evils being perpetrated.  The Church’s social Gospel, the universal call for justice and peace, attests to that.  So does the Church’s proclamation supporting primacy of place for the poor, a fundamental option for the poor, attest.  In the face of social evils it is not enough for me to shrug my shoulders, convinced, as I am that I would never do such things, and conclude that such evils will always go on.  Do I really agree with some of those televangelists who say if the poor would just work harder they wouldn’t be poor any longer, absolving the wealthy of responsibility for them.  Or, their poverty is a sign of God’s disfavor with them and is a punishment for their sins – theirs or their parents’.

This is where my on-going conversion comes into play.  The judgment scene at the end of Matthew’s gospel ought to root out any indifference in me, that is, unless I won’t mind being banished with the goats that failed to recognize Jesus and respond to his needs evidenced in the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the naked.  Ah, but that is for a discussion of another Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word.

My call is to live the Gospel that for Paul is summed up in this injunction: Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.  The commandments tell me all the things I should not do to my brothers and sisters.  Such deeds ought not be part of my life.  But not doing is not enough.  What I must do is love.  And that means loving in imitation of the way Jesus loved.  That means forgiving, too.  I must love even those I deem unlovable.  It will be amazing what I will find out in the process.

What I recognize as my call as an individual translates into a call for the community with which I gather.  After all, we will move together from the Table of the Word where we received the call to conversion to the Table of the Eucharist where the Spirit will accomplish the transformation of the Bread and Wine and of us.  Love demands the proclamation: All are welcome here.  Those who approach to celebrate Eucharist and to receive worthily must accept forgiveness in their own lives in order that having eaten and drunk they may be sent to proclaim that forgiveness and hope to all they meet.

Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.  That’s what Paul said.  That’s what we must believe and put into practice.

Sincerely,

Didymus