Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19 | 1 Corinthians 12:31 – 13:13 | Luke 4:21-30
Grant us, oh, Lord, our God, that we may honor you with all our minds. Love everyone in truth of heart. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
Every time I sit here in front of this microphone, my intention, my prayer is always the same. Help me tell the truth. I just want to tell the truth, and one of the things that is going on right now, if you are in Dallas, Texas this weekend and you get The Dallas Morning News or listen to the news, we have a moment in the history of the church in Dallas, an unprecedented moment where the church itself has chosen to publicize, make public, a list of priests who have been accused of some kind of unhealthy, destructive, sexual relationships with minors. The list is telling us their names, but it doesn’t tell us a whole lot more. We don’t know anything about the situation, who it was, not that we need to know who it was, but what happened. Was it a one-time thing with a 17-year-old, or was it a horrible predator man seeking 12-year-olds, and wherever he found them he would abuse them? It’s that whole spectrum. So in a way, the list isn’t that effective as to who these men are, but the list is something so much more than that. And it’s unprecedented for the church to come out and say to its people that its priests sin.
When I was a child, the thought of a priest sinning was completely out of — I couldn’t imagine it. The nuns, those beautiful women that just seemed to glide along the floor, and they didn’t walk, and they didn’t do what normal people do, these humans were held up for me as models of holiness. That claim that they were free of all sin gave them a certain authority, which I believed they had, and one of the things that clergy do to their people is they try to guide them in their actions and in what they believe. And that is their position. That’s their power, and power is always such a risky thing for human beings. But it seems clear to me that the shadow of the church that is there — it’s always been there, but it’s being exposed now that the church has this ability to see itself as the one that can tell you how to act, how to make love or who to make love to, what to believe, what things you have to do in order to be pleasing to God. And it comes across not as these are the signs of a loving, caring person. No, it comes across as control, and there’s a resentment inside of people when the church ends up being one who is simply controlling their actions. And then if the very one controlling your actions is guilty of doing the very things, some of the worst things that you would know not to do, even without the church saying it, there’s a crisis, a real crisis.
So how can we read this? How can I say something about this? And please, there could be some phrases I use that I wouldn’t mean them maybe as literally as they sound, but please stay with me, because two things I want you to know about me. I love the Catholic Church. I see the potential in her that is absolutely mindboggling, a gathering of believing people in a community guided by a pastor whose job is primarily to teach us how to love, how to forgive, and it’s made up primarily of the body, not the clergy. The priest doesn’t make the church. He’s a necessary part, but no, the people — if anything the Vatican did is they made it clear that the church is the laity. The hierarchy are servants to the laity. The laity is the focus, not the clergy.
So how’s this all come about? Why is this happening now? Well, you know it’s happening everywhere, but here’s the thing I’d like to say. If I look at the readings that we have today, the first one, the prophet, the prophet’s role is so important. He’s the speaker of the truth. When he goes into a situation, he tells the truth. It’s not likely that they are going to be welcomed, and so God says, “I’ll make you a pillar of iron, a wall of brass so that no one can stop you.” The truth cannot be stopped. So Jesus has now told the truth in his native land, his hometown. It’s interesting. He’s telling them there’s something really wrong. He’s saying, “I’ve come to you who are following God through the temple and through the leaders of the temple. I’m telling you there’s something wrong here, and what’s wrong is you’re in prison. You don’t even know it. You’re imprisoned, and you’re also burdened, heavily burdened by these rules and these laws and this control of this institution called Judaism. And I want to free you from all of that.” That’s why they got angry. He was eloquent. He was personable. He had a magnetism, and they were attracted to that at first. But then when they said, “Wait a minute. You’re telling us we’re not really who we’re supposed to be? You’re telling us we’re not who we are?” That’s when they want to kill him. You want to silence the truth, and I love the image, Jesus, the truth incarnate, walks straight through the crowd. No one can stop him.
The second reading is amazing. It’s on love. It’s always read at weddings, and the most interesting thing about that reading, if you read it, it is anything but just a description of romantic love. It’s a call to live the gospel. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is never jealous. It does not delight in wrongdoing but only wants the truth. That’s love.
So I want to go back to what’s happening in the diocese, and it’s happening everywhere. There were some brave people who were victims of child abuse, and somehow God’s spirit filled them, and they came forward and made it clear to the church, the image of the perfect priest, the image of the pure celibate without sin is not necessarily the case. And they wanted to say, “The truth is priests are capable of this type of action, and they’ve robbed something of me that I can’t get back.” And I don’t know that they realized that they were not asking for justice, though that’s not a bad thing to ask for, but what they were asking for was the truth to be revealed, for the church to own it. That’s all. Will the church simply own that its ministers are sometimes doing things that are so destructive, the opposite of what they’re intended to be? Own it. Because they never did. They hid it, and instead, the hierarchy hiding is, in a way, almost worse than the perpetrator. But that has not yet been addressed fully. The list of people in Dallas that were accused of this should have included, perhaps, a bishop that, in a trial, was exposed as someone who basically did not report those situations when necessary. That’s another level that has to be broken open, and all I’m asking is that you own the reality of what is. That’s what love demands, and in an amazing way, that’s what forgiveness is all about.
Let me see if I can explain. The men and women who have come forward and accused the church took a risk. In the beginning, they were always told, “It never happened. We have no record of anything.” And many walked away until finally there was enough evidence, there was enough proof. The church had to own this side of itself. You know how horrible it is when a human being refuses to look at what’s wrong with them, when a family won’t face the elephant in the room, all the dysfunction? It’s all hidden. It’s hidden, and that’s where it does all its damage. The truth is light. Shame is darkness, and I would say the church was ashamed of this part of themselves, and they would not reveal it to anyone. Well, that day is over. Now it’s been forced, not on its own, but it’s been forced to admit this is true. This is true. So again, I go to those brave men and women who came forward, who are prophets who went back to the church and simply said, “You keep saying this hasn’t happened, but we know it’s happened, and we are breaking the wall down, and we’re coming in.” And they did, and as painful as it is to look at, there’s something so essential about that having taken place for the church’s wellbeing and definitely for the wellbeing of its members. Stop acting like you’re perfect and therefore claiming you can tell me everything I can and cannot do when it comes to sexuality, when it comes to love. It’s somehow hypocritical, and people know that. And when it happens, when the church is accused, if you happen to be one of those people like I was and so many Catholics, we take so much pride in the perfection of our leaders. That’s our claim for their authenticity, their authority. What do you feel like when you’ve defended them always? I know parents whose children told them they were being abused, and they said, “That’s ridiculous. Father would never do that. You’re wrong.” That kind of blind reverence is wrong. So these prophets have come forward to ask the church to own its stuff, and that is the most exciting thing. The church is not a bunch of perfect, celibate men. It’s a group of sinners just like you and me, and in many ways, they don’t have the final word about your moral decisions. You do and your conscience. That’s the church teaching.
So then we look at, well, how do we, now that we know the church is who she is — what do we do? Well, the most common thing is you’re ashamed, because you stood behind them. You backed them up, and shame leads to anger, and anger can go in two ways: go in the direction of hate — I want to destroy. I want justice. And the other, more loving way goes in the direction of this must be healed. This must be transformed, and I must survive this if I’m a victim. I have a good friend who I’ve been talking to today, just saying, “Give me some insight. Give me some insight so I can say something. What’s it like to be a victim?” He said, “Don, something happened to me, and it was this. I looked at this. I’ve been carrying the burden of it. I’ve been through therapy. I’ve been through all that, and what I found out is there is no justice. There’s nothing I can get back from a person who’s robbed me of all that that I had lost in my innocence. There’s nothing they can — no amount of money, nothing, not if you tortured him the rest of his life. It’s not going to give me back what I lost. I lost it.” Like anything in life, the thing you can’t change, you can hate it. You can try to destroy it, and the church seemed to almost encourage that, or you can do what Christ would do. He would look at it. He would say, “Please, can you suffer this for me?” Suffer? Yeah, I’m in pain. No, suffer, accept. Can you accept this? It saddens God. It saddens every parent. It saddens everybody that loves a child that’s been molested, but at the same time, if that is directed to hatred for the church or hatred for the perpetrator, it doesn’t go anywhere. But if you forgive it — you don’t forgive the action of the person. You don’t say, “He didn’t do anything wrong.” You say, “Okay, I accept this.” And that’s what forgiveness is, acceptance.
Look at Jesus on the cross. There he was, being ridiculed, the church itself claiming that he was not what he was. They were the truth. He, the truth incarnate, the God, was not playing the game, was not doing what he was supposed to. So they had to get rid of him, and when Jesus was on the cross, and he looked out and saw all this taking place, he did say the most amazing thing. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” It sounds in a way like, “It’s okay. They didn’t know it. They’re good people. They just did the wrong —” No. What he was saying is, “I’m not a victim any longer. I’m not going to be a victim. I’m going to forgive all of this. I’m going to forgive it. I accept that this happened to me.” And then what happened to him? The most amazing transformation, resurrection that’s ever happened in the world, that God has promised to all of us if we can love in the form of forgiveness.
Father, sin is a part of our life, and your call to perfection is not that we never sin but that we learn how to deal with it. We learn that it has a power within it to transform, to change. All it requires of us is that we own it and we regret it, and we’re deeply sorry, and we’ll do anything to change. I pray for my church. I pray for its leadership, and I pray for its members, and most especially I pray for the day when these things have found — achieved their effectiveness and to bring us to a place of light, truth and peace. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.