Homily from the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012
Every once in a while I touch base with a friend of mine. We met in college – she was so interested in faith at that time, going to Mass often, in the choir, involved… But she’s not been practicing her faith for years. She just kind of slipped away.
Often fallen away Catholics bring up as their reasons for leaving the big teachings about sexuality or gender issues. Or sometimes they talk about scandal and corruption. And often I have gotten involved in big long conversations, defending the Church’s teachings. And I have all kinds of well articulated and thought out responses – all kinds of ways of defending why we believe what we do. But I have left countless conversations simply feeling like I could never say enough, that there was something deeper that was keeping them away.
I am more and more convinced that, though sometimes the teachings of our faith are an obstacle, the true difficulty for many of my friends is that either they feel labeled “unclean” or sometimes they are very close to someone who they feel has been labeled “unclean.”
For example, I have begun to wonder to myself how many of these friends of mine care deeply for someone who has had an abortion?
How many of these friends of mine have a close friend or relative who has made it known that they are gay? How many of these friends are living with someone outside of marriage? How many come from divorced families and have parents or good friends who are remarried outside of the church and no longer able to receive the sacraments?
Now we must discuss and articulate the Church’s teachings, but in the end what is becoming more clear to me is that the problem isn’t an intellectual one, it is personal – it has to do with people and messy situations.
So many people are directly caught up in or affected by a way of life which is increasingly at odds with gospel values. Theoretical conversations accomplish very little because we’re not talking about theories or theology, we’re talking about people’s lives, their brothers and sisters and parents and friends.
A temptation I think we all face in these situations is to say “jeepers, well don’t take things so seriously.” “Sure that’s what the official church teaches, what the Vatican teaches (we can always blame the Vatican, right?) but look, God accepts you as you are, and so as long as you’re doing what makes you happy and being good, everything’s fine.” “You’re not unclean.” And that might make us feel better, kind of. Or it might just be the polite thing to say. But if a vague spirituality is fine like it is, why come to church? If everything is just peachy keen and we don’t need Jesus’ healing or redemption that come through the scripture and sacraments, then what are we here for? Stripped of its teaching on sin and evil, Christianity really becomes nothing more than a bunch of washed out, superficial mumbo jumbo about loving the inner you and stuff like that.
But you don’t need to go to church to love the inner you. And that’s not the gospel, that’s not what Jesus taught. And that’s not what people really need to hear, what will really speaks to their hearts. No, people know the truth when they hear it. And the truth is that often they or those they love are really in messy situations – situations that are in need of healing.
But so is everyone! We are all sinned and fallen short of the grace of God, St. Paul says in one place. And Jesus says in another place that the Pharisees who say they are not sinners are in sin because of their failure to admit their guilt. The admission of sin, the admission of that we ourselves and those we love are in need of God’s grace: is a prerequisite for Christian faith. Otherwise the sacraments and the scriptures and teachings of the Church will make no sense to us. God entered into time and space because he loves us and wants to lead us from death to life, from sickness to health, from darkness into the light.
I am convinced that many friends of ours who don’t feel welcome in our midst often have just no sense of that. They often know they’re in need of healing, but they don’t think healing is to be found here. They think this is where you’re supposed to go if you’re already healed, if you’ve already got it all together. For healing they go to counselors, to doctors, to wherever – but not here. They think that church is only about your ‘Sunday best,’ not your Monday worst. They think that what they will find here is a group who condemn them and make them walk through the streets shouting ‘unclean.’
And look – there have been plenty of people who have used the teachings of Christ as an excuse to act in horrendously unchristian ways. Who have justified their bigotry and hate by distorting the truth to suit their purposes. We have work to do.
But that work is not to mask problems and pretend that there is nothing to be healed. It is to make it clear that the Church is a place for spiritual healing and redemption, it is a place where those who are struggling to live a good life can find refuge from the critical and judgmental eyes of others.
How do we reach out to these friends and family members who are in need of healing and help them to see that true healing is to be found here? How do we reach out to those who feel that they through their actions they have been ostracized, that they have been rejected – not just by us, but by God himself? How do we help them to see that messiness does not preclude holiness?
Our gospel today shows us how Christ did. He did not gloss things over, he did not say “Oh well that’s not really leprosy, just dress normal and walk around like everyone else.” No. But neither did he condemn or distance himself. Notice how when he looked upon the leper he was not repulsed, did not keep his distance, did not belittle or act superior in any way. He saw the man’s suffering and he reached out to him, as a fellow man. He treated him with dignity, with respect.
He communicated his love of that man – he showed that he empathized with him, that he wanted him to be at peace, that he wanted him to be healed. And he reached out his hand and healed him.
Now we may not be healers like Christ. But we can walk with those who need healing and we can beg Christ to heal them. We can say with Christ “I do want you to be clean, I do want what is best for you.” And we can hope and pray and fast and offer Masses and alms and all kinds of other things in the hope that Christ will heal whatever afflicts those who have fallen away or are struggling. In fact, that is our job – that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.
The Christian is a healer in the sense that through his or her prayer and through the sacraments he or she is united to the healing work of Christ. As Christians we have been given the task and the joy of cooperating with the divine physician, with God’s grace, so that those we know can find the healing they need.
We do not share in Christ’s work as final judge – that’s where we often get things wrong. We share in his work of preaching, offering sacrifices, and of service to those in need. And we must preach the truth, in season and out of season – that is not judging, it is teaching, and there is a difference. Helping someone to realize that they are not well is the a first and essential step in helping them find healing. It is an act of love. Judging, on the other hand, is a first step in condemnation, leading to ostracization.
And so we never, ever turn our backs on someone, never shut the door in their face, never tell them that our love is contingent on their being well. True love descends even to the pit of hell in search of the broken – we know this because Christ went there out of love for each of us. Christ continues to bring his healing love into the darkness of sin and suffering – and he has charged us to go there with him, to be a part of his work. In the mystery of his great love, he wants us to be vessels of his healing love, bringing that love gently and with compassion to those entrusted to our care.