5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

Readings
“A Model of Christian Charity”
Statement by Cardinal Blaise Cupich
Statement by Archbishop Peter Sartain
Statement by Archbishop Charles Chaput

I have to apologize…hmmm…apologize…it’s like I am using that word on purpose, to shamelessly promote a presentation I am giving tomorrow. But I do have to apologize, because today we are going to talk about politics. I know, the Church should be a refuge, and we are all exhausted from Facebook and Twitter and the news, but it would be a grave dereliction of duty if the Church ignored what was happening outside of her walls.

In case you were unaware, these last two weeks have been a mixed bag for Catholics in the United States. On the one hand, this new administration seems to be very serious about limiting abortion funding, and the Supreme Court nominee looks to be solidly pro-life and pro-religious freedom. On the other hand, the President has signed Executive Orders that follow through on his campaign promises to build a wall with Mexico, accelerate deportations, make it much more difficult for refugees to enter this country, and to cut off Syrian refugees altogether. Many Catholic bishops in the United States have condemned these Executive Orders, including our own Archbishop here in Chicago, and so I feel compelled to talk about them, because I am just a deacon, and our bishops are our leaders.

Now, as a pastoral minister, my job is not to comment on policy. My job is to comment on values, and it is the job of the laity to turn those values into policies. My concern, and the concern of the United States bishops, is that these new policies towards immigrants and refugees represent an abandonment of the very values that make our country so special.

First, let me state this unequivocally: our nation has every right to regulate our borders and to protect our national security. How we do this is a matter of policy, and good Catholics can legitimately disagree about policy. Whether you support or oppose these Executive Orders as matters of policy, you are still a good Catholic, and God still loves you. Okay? Can we all agree on that?

Now, I want to start with a story. In 1625 Charles I became king of England. This was important because almost 100 years before, King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, but not really with Catholic theology, and since then the English throne had been caught between Catholic theology on the one hand and radical Protestantism, like Calvinism and Puritanism on the other. When Charles became king, he looked too Catholic. He was not Catholic, because he liked being in charge of the Church of England, but he started persecuting the Protestants as much as Catholic had been persecuted previously. Because of this, between 1630 and 1640, 80,000 Puritans fled England, 20,000 of which ended up in the New World, mostly in New England. An important leader of this movement was John Winthrop, a well-to-do lawyer and leading Puritan who in 1630 started the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop knew the dangers. It was a two-month journey from England to the New World, and any number of things could happen in that time, including running out of provisions are being shipwrecked. He also knew that, only 10 years before, half, half of the settlers that came over on the Mayflower died during the first winter. And yet, Winthrop endured these dangers because he thought that the situation back in England was even more dangerous. Now, Winthrop knew he and his settlers had been given a fresh start, away from the arguments and politics and wars of Europe, so on the journey he wrote a sermon where he tried to lay out the rule of life for his new community. By what standard would they live? He decided that Christian Charity, that is, generosity, was the measure they should live up to. In Winthrop’s eyes, the Massachusetts Bay colony, blessed with a fresh start, was called to be a perfect society of love and support. Famously, he concluded his sermon by alluding to today’s Gospel passage. “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” he wrote. “The eyes of all people are upon us.In other words, the world would watch his noble experiment in Christian living: if they succeeded, they would bring glory to God; if they failed, the world would mock all who tried to live out God’s commands.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, I have no love for the Puritans. For one, I had to study them, like, every year in middle school social studies, which was no fun. And for two, they mercilessly persecuted Catholics during the colonial period. And yet, I deeply believe was Winthrop said. I absolutely agree that America is called to be a light to the nations, a city on a hill, a beacon of hope and inspiration for all people.

But if we are going to think of ourselves as exception, we have to remember why we are exceptional. We are not exceptional because of the size of our army, because the size of our army does not matter if we do not use it to protect the oppressed. We are not exceptional because of the size of our economy, because our economy does not matter if we do not use our wealth to serve the poor. We are not exceptional because of the many liberties we can count for ourselves, because those liberties do not matter unless we use them to show forth the dignity of humanity. And we are not exceptional because of our beautiful landscapes, because our landscapes do not matter if our society becomes ugly?

So what does make us exceptional? Look to our first reading:

Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them… Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.

And again,

If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness.

It is through love, through charity, through generosity that we will shine forth, that we will set an example for the world. And listen further:

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer.

What does this mean except that, if we look after those in need, then the Lord will look after us when we are in need?

We are an incredibly generous nation. Our government and our private citizens send more money overseas to those in need than all of the other countries combined. We have sent our brave men and women to die for the freedom of other people. There is nothing more generous than this.

So the question is not about the policies. Our country not only has the right, it has the obligation to regulate our boarders and protect our national security. The question is, when we make these policies, what is the spirit that motivates them? Are we motivated by a spirit of fear? A spirit that forgets that all of our blessings come from God? A spirit that believes that we must hoard our blessings to protect that, and that we cannot share them lest they be taken from us? Or are we motivated by a spirit of generosity? A spirit that remembers that every blessing comes from God? A spirit that remembers that every blessing that comes from God must be shared? A spirit that knows that only by sharing our blessings will they be multiplied, will we begin to be again, and remain, a city on a hill?

One thought on “5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

  1. Magnificent! Courageous! Absolutely necessary! I wish more clergy would not shy away from these admittedly controversial but important topics. After all, we lay people do live in the real world, and how chaotic and deeply troublesome it has become with the rise to power of our new president. To ignore it in the pulpit, I believe, is a dereliction of the sacred duty that ordination requires. I, along with those in your congregation who applauded your effort, admire your courage to speak, as if it is more acceptable or appropriate not to. If the truth offends someone, so be it. Maybe that person should reexamine his conscience about matters of social justice and the Christian imperative. Pope Pius XII himself remained silent for too long during Hitler’s rise to power, and look how that turned out.

    Yours was a carefully prepared reminder of Jesus’ message in the midst of an increasingly hostile and divisive environment everywhere. Bravo, Jeff. I don’t mean to sound condescending but … I’m proud of you. You’re one of Jesus’ chosen disciples, and I know you are making Him proud of you, too. . God bless you

    Sincerely yours,

    Steve Lequire

    P.S. I am sending along a journal piece I wrote a couple weeks ago. It will be cynical to your taste, but no matter how old I get, I still wrestle with matters of faith and hope.

    The Sound of Inevitability

    “Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.” (The Matrix)

    If you push the capitalist form of economy to its ultimate, unbridled extreme, everything gives way to greed, particularly the fundamental tenet of the Christian faith — to love one another. Ours is a system in which the greedy will even use a perverted notion of Christianity to their own ends. This, I believe, is what we are witnessing in America today. Donald Trump is the epitome of a capitalist system run amok. His wealth and his means of acquiring it, his cheating of investors, creditors, building suppliers and workmen on his projects, his many bankruptcies, all are matters of public record. Like the system itself, Trump is a selfish entity without voluntary or imposed self-restraint, who blatantly uses whatever legal and frequently unethical means his lawyers can devise to make money. Is he America’s new Superman? Forget about truth and justice. Has his way of doing business become the new American way?

    1938 was a dark time for America, crime and economic collapse spread over the land as war loomed in the distance. Men sought diligently for work to support their families, the Mob seized their claws on whatever they could, and in Washington the President worked long hours to repair the critical state our fractured country was in. Yet, Americans managed to hold firm to hope, setting aside the worries of the day – we found peace of mind and joy at the movies, on the radio, and in the printed page.

    In June of that year the first issue of the comic book series featuring Superman appeared.
    Superman was an alien from the planet Krypton with extraordinary abilities far above mortal men. He possessed superhuman strength, speed, and hearing. He had X-ray, microscopic, telescopic, infrared, and heat vision. Bullets bounced off him. He could fly. But it wasn’t just his super powers that made him a great man. He was not a mutant, like the X-men. Superman looked like us. He captured the American imagination because he cared for humans, even fell in love with one. He radiated decency and integrity.

    Jonathan and Martha Kent raised their foundling adopted son Clark in a wholesome environment in a small town in the Kansas heartland. Their careful and loving upbringing made Superman a gentle being filled with warmth, kindness, and innocence with honest values and a big heart. He dedicated himself to “the never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.”
    What is “the American Way?” I know what it used to be — the unique lifestyle, real or imagined, of the people living in the United States that purported to adhere to principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” three of the “unalienable rights” which the Declaration of Independence says have been given to all human beings by their Creator, and which governments are created to protect. At the center of the American Way is the “American Dream,” the idea that upward mobility is achievable by any American through hard work.

    This idea is the cornerstone of the mythology that has permeated the American ethos since the Declaration was written 260 years ago. Working hard to make that dream real has made America great for many people. It became the land of opportunity for immigrants from all over the world. Americans are the most prosperous people in the world.
    When I was a young man in the 1960’s, Americans were filled with optimism. Education was affordable, families could live comfortably on a single adult income, and even alongside the tragic chaos of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, the country seemed to be on an endless upward trajectory of prosperity. We were rapidly expanding in every way, even into outer space and the moon, so rapidly that Alvin Toffler wrote about the changes in his landmark 1970 book Future Shock. Nothing seemed able to contain the people we were about to become.
    In recent years, however, our relentless pursuit of success and prosperity has unleashed an avalanche of the seven deadly sins with avarice leading the way. The love of money for money’s sake is the social disease of our time. And it is leading us astray from the Christian principles we claim to believe in. We see it all around us: in the celebration of ill-gotten stock gains, public admiration for the heads of criminal banks, in the commercialization of charity and even spirituality.
    We are more infatuated with the fruits of unproductive greed today than ever. For one thing, there is no public shame in profiting off Wall Street fraud, and what’s astonishing is the bank executives’ lack of shame for their part in the financial crises of 2008 or investment analysts, who openly celebrate those crimes as an opportunity to make money at society’s expense. Ironically, we’re preached to by those same corporate men and their politician cronies, who lecture us on the selfishness of expecting a livable Social Security income in our old age. Or a living wage in our working years. Or an affordable education, so our children can live a better life economically than we did.
    I do not understand why greedy CEOs enjoy credibility in the media. They try to shatter the middle class through their accumulation of wealth; they inflict harm on the global economy; they mistreat their employees’ pension funds, and yet Wall Street CEOs apparently still have enough credibility to be treated as experts in fiscal responsibility. Not only that, but they use that credibility to suggest that the American middle-class should accept cuts to Social Security and Medicare, two of the few programs left to protect us from the effects of runaway corporate greed.

    Then there are those who lead defense contracting firms who earn excessive profits from the US taxpayer because the Pentagon has an open checkbook in order to “keep America safe.”
    Even spiritual traditions are being commercialized, co-mingled with idealized visions of what it means to be a faithful Christian and a millionaire. Take, for example, Joel Osteen, perhaps the most popular preacher and televangelist in America today, who is the Senior Pastor of Lakewood Church, in Houston, Texas. Osteen’s televised sermons are seen by over 7 million viewers weekly and over 20 million monthly in over 100 countries. His home in the upscale River Oaks area of Houston is valued at $10.5 million. The Osteens have kept a former residence valued at $2.9 million while listing a vacant lot near their former home for $1.1. million. Rev. Osteen’s Church is a16,000-seat arena, home to the nation’s largest congregation (43,000 members). In 2005 it underwent $95 million in renovations. Like many new evangelical churches, the building has no cross, no stained glass, no other religious iconography. Instead, it has a cafe with wireless Internet access, 32 video game kiosks and a vault to store the offering. We’re a long way away from Billy Graham, folks.
    Now there’s nothing wrong with being wealthy per se. But isn’t there something improper about a pastor and his ministry getting rich by selling Jesus? I recall Jesus had some pretty strong words about people’s pursuit of money. He denied that wealth is a sign of God’s favor or that poverty is God’s punishment for sin. His Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) shows this quite clearly. Part of the reason the rich man ended up in hell was because of his hard-heartedness toward the beggar Lazarus. His great wealth was obviously not a sign of God’s favor. The beggar Lazarus ended up in heaven although he was about as impoverished as a man could be. His poverty was obviously not a sign of sinfulness or foolishness. There is no promise in the Bible that being a Christian will lead to a good job, wealth, freedom from debt, etc. as Rev. Osteen would have us believe.
    What exactly is Rev. Osteen’s message? He believes God is blessing his faith and his ministry. And he teaches that giving and faith are ways to be blessed materially by God. If we open ourselves to God, we will reap a reward from Him. This is called the Prosperity Gospel, and it is extraordinarily popular. You can have it all, it seems to say, IF you have faith. You can gain peace of mind, unlock the mysteries of the Bible, and become wealthy at the same time. There is an entire class of evangelical ministers, mostly from the South, who preach this “prosperity gospel” today in America. It plays a part in redefining the new “American Way.”
    It seems to me that there is a line to how much money church leaders should spend on themselves. I don’t know where the line is, but it is somewhere before the ministers purchase million dollar homes for themselves and their families. That line is somewhere before purchasing a $10 million private jet. I just cannot picture Jesus enjoying such lavish comforts.
    Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21)
    Even Old Testament Proverbs says, “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” (Proverbs 23:4-5)
    I believe this “prosperity gospel” has created a tremendous amount of envy, jealousy, frustration and anger among many people who don’t have enough money to make ends meet. The level of bitterness and resentment that the rest of the nation feels toward the very wealthy has risen to an unprecedented level, feelings that were tapped heavily in Bernie Sanders’ ill-fated campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. It has become readily apparent that our capitalist system is being misused now to funnel wealth to the very top 1%, and many of those at the bottom of the food chain have become extremely upset about this. Stagnant pay (except among the super-rich), soaring health care costs, college tuition expenses, the diminished expectations found in both the young and old alike – all these things are frightening Americans. Even as the stock market reaches over 20,000, the middle class is suffering. On a global scale, the wealthiest 1% now have 65 times more wealth than the entire poorest half of the global population does. That is an astounding figure.

    Despite the Bible’s many warnings against it, the idea that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and that the poor have done something to deserve their condition persists today. It is an undercurrent sometimes used to justify a callous, unchristian attitude toward those who are poor.

    My point is that American culture’s emphasis on material success and comfort has led us astray from the true spirit of Jesus’ teachings. The “American Way” has devolved into a national culture of greed. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indian nation once said of the invading white man, “The love of possessions is a sickness with them.”
    We can’t afford to live in a world where our primary aspiration is to accumulate wealth by whatever means while ignoring the basic needs of others. It’s more terrifying than ever to try to survive on a middle-class income. Most people live one or two paychecks away from disaster. Very few of us feel that we have any real control over our own fate.

    One false supposition in this country is that people of wealth have all worked hard to earn their money. I am sure some of them have done so. But there are more of them who have inherited their money and who have made a lot of money off the backs of people who work for little pay, often not enough to live well. They will give their employees less than 40 hours per week so they don’t have to pay medical insurance, then they’ll complain when someone in government promotes any kind of national health insurance program.
    The wealthy have PLENTY of money, which they have legally protected from fair taxation that everyone else is subject to. Billions of dollars. You mean to tell me they have all worked so-o hard that they deserve everything they can get and more and more and more with little regard at all for the poor, who through no fault of their own have not had the same good fortune that wealthy people take for granted. Too bad for them. What kind of a Christian attitude is that?

    I find it disgusting that both our political parties have allowed our country to be divided so sharply into rich vs. poor. Congress’ ineffectiveness has raised the spectre of publicity-hound Donald Trump — a loose cannon whose election to the Presidency, rather than enriching the political process, has undermined it in order to boost his supersized ego and the fortunes of already-wealthy people. President Trump is no Christian. He has no record of professing faith, but he will use the religion card whenever it suits his purpose. Although he identifies as a religious person when he panders to his audience, other times he has bragged about serial adultery and says he has never asked God for forgiveness. While his supporters in the religious right have called Trump a “baby Christian,” there is no evidence of authentic Christian faith in his life. If the President truly wants to “make America great again,” he could start by treating all people with respect, as Jesus did.
    We look to our leaders to lead by example, to be men and women of integrity, to behave in an ethical manner in their dealings with others. President Trump is a vulgar man, who does not lead in this way. He governs using fear and intimidation and coercion tactics.
    For a long time now, the two parties have not believed that politics is the art of compromise, and so they are stuck with a president who personifies that belief and prefers to dictate via executive orders. Trump’s election shows exactly how far the GOP was willing to go to put forward anybody who it thought could win the election and further its agenda.

    There is an enormous difference in this country between what each party, and by extension what all Americans, believe in. We are at odds over every important issue you can think of – tax rates, military spending, food stamps, student loans, infrastructure, immigration, moral rights – the list goes on. It is more imperative than ever that Congress sit down and discuss seriously fundamental values that they will act upon. Maybe we can’t get there from here. Maybe when President Obama said months ago, “It may be our differences are just too wide,” sadly he spoke the truth for both parties and for the country.
    Which brings me back to my main point that our culture is not nearly as Christian as it purports to be. What is Christian about so many people who are making such a concerted effort in this country to protect their own interests and exclude others less fortunate from even basic services? Alas, both parties are in the hands of people who misinform with “alternative facts” to pervert and undermine our confidence in our institutions. For a long time now they have not devised a sound fiscal policy for this country, and they impede anyone else who tries to do so.
    For years the matrix of the military-industrial-political complex has appropriated massive amounts of money, and if anyone questions it or demands an accounting, they are labeled disloyal and unpatriotic. Politicians have sent thousands of young men and women into war on the flimsiest of reasons, and if they are killed, their deaths are noble and they are pronounced heroes because they died for their country. It would be anathema to suggest that these soldiers were sacrificed by fools, and their deaths did nothing to keep our country safe and free from enemies. When they are not in power, they will do anything to subvert what other good men and women try to accomplish. The only things they are really good at are harangue, disinformation, and obstructionist behavior.
    Is this the new “American Way of Life?” Is Donald Trump the new Superman? Has the insatiable desire for wealth in our country rendered us to be no longer a Christian nation, guided by leaders who embrace the teachings of Jesus Christ? It is a question worth pondering because without a vibrant and vital Christian ethos, America is doomed. Perhaps what terrifies me most is the possibility of true American Christianity caving in.

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