Sunday, September 7, 2014

Don't Be Nice

Gemma's 5 Months old today!
Readings for Sunday, September 7/ 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Ezekiel 33:7-9
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9
Romans 13:8-10
Matthew 18:15-20

Well, as you all know, we got a couple of cats for the rectory a few weeks back and the good news is they’re getting along great, they’ve adjusted well, and they’re absolutely adorable still. The unfortunate news, though, is that they’ve both gotten a little illness. Earlier this week I was sitting with Gemma and noticed a spot on her leg that I knew needed a vet’s eyes to check over. So we went for our first official non-check up at the vet’s office and learned that Gemma seems to have ringworm. So that means I had the joy of trying to hold down a cat with 20 razor-sharp claws and administer a nice little cream to her leg and foot twice a day. Apparently Dominic was a bit jealous and developed something on his ear, so now I get to hold down TWO cats with 20 razor-sharp claws and administer medicine twice a day. If I didn’t have my long-sleeves on you’d think I’d been rolling in barbed wire as a new hobby because the simple reality is that while I’m trying to do something that expresses care for them, they are struggling to receive it well, and I’m suffering because I know that it is what is best for them. And that is what we hear in the Scriptures this weekend: that sometimes when we show love to someone, it hurts them and it can hurt us as well.

This message of love sometimes being a bit painful isn’t usually well received by the world around us because love is synonymous with ‘be nice.’ Love is not hurting feelings, not saying things that are hard to handle, and certainly not telling someone they’re wrong or they need to change something. Love is simply be nice and let them be. But the reailty is that not one time in the Gospel did Jesus say ‘Be nice’ - He said love others.

Today the Scriptures speak specifically to the aspect of love that is traditionally known as fraternal correction. It is the practice of pointing out to a brother or sister in the Lord that something they’re doing or not doing isn’t what God desires for them. Our culture says to avoid this at all cost and some of us struggle with conflict just because of our personality’s tendency to be peacemakers. But our faith demands it of us. Ezekiel shows us that it is the desire of the Lord that we speak to others when we see them in sin and that if we fail to do so we share the guilt of their fault. There’s a tendency to just let people be to themselves and think ‘they’re not hurting anyone but the truth is that all the members of the Church are part of the same body and we are all interconnected. If one part suffers, the whole body suffers. Just getting a sinus infection can knock my whole body to the couch for a day and the Church isn’t so different.

So it is clear that we should do some fraternal correction from time to time, but the important question is: How do I do that? First, we have to be people of prayer. That is always the basic starting point. We have to have a living relationship with God where we can speak and listen to Him, because He is the one who puts on our hearts the call to speak up. Once we are sure we are in a relationship of prayer, then we have to make sure we have the right person, place, and time.

It’s easy to critique others and bring it to the wrong people. How often are we tempted and sometimes fall into the trap of seeing a fault in someone and rather than addressing it with them we take it to a few other people who know that person and start to complain or gossip about them. It’s easy because it means we can address the fault but we don’t have to risk getting hurt by their response, but it is spiritually catastrophic for several reasons. 1- it leaves the person in the same path with nobody to help direct them out 2- it makes us puffed up in pride 3- it leads other people into sin with us, which only increases the pride of the individuals and malice of the group.

It’s also easy for critique someone at the wrong place and time. We were pros at this in seminary. Anytime a brother seminarian dropped a bowl in the refectory (cafeteria), there was almost always a round of applause to highlight the fault. Or even better those unfortunate days when you’d accidentally sleep through morning prayer and show up late for morning class looking and smelling like death and a brother greets you ‘Well, look who decided to come to class today!’ in front of everyone to emphasize what everyone already knew. This is certainly not Christian charity.

True Christian charity is what we see in the Gospel: pulling the person aside and speaking one on one, with humility, charity, and a spirit of perseverance.

Fraternal Correction: He's doing it wrong...
We have to begin with humility. Anytime we approach someone to speak to them of a fault of their own, what is the likely response? Lashing back. ‘Who are you to tell me my faults, with all of the faults that you have!?’ or some similar response. This is why when we enter into a conversation of fraternal correction we have to go into it not trying to make ourselves look better or to make the other look worse, but simply to speak out of love and concern for them. It’s saying, “Hey, I know I’m not perfect and I have my faults as well, but I noticed this about you and because I care for you, I wanted to bring it up to you and let you know that if you want to work on that I’m willing to help you.” Humility in recognizing we aren’t perfect, charity in emphasizing that it is out of concern for them, and perseverance in the willingness to help them. Sometimes this changes hearts right away. But, as the Lord shows us, sometimes it doesn't. If they refuse to hear it from you, take a couple of others who are close to them and have witness - something like a modern day intervention for an addict. And if they don't respond, bring it to the Church, which would still have been a smaller community, so that the community could support them and lift them up in prayer as the Lord encourages. And if they don't respond, then treat them as a Gentile or tax-collector. That seems harsh, like we just gave up the fight and cut the line and leave them to their own devices, but what does Jesus' example show us? He ate with them and spoke with them in hopes that they would one day be ready to receive the Gospel message. We never give up hope on people who may be straying from the Lord's path, but we keep showing love and keep welcoming them in hopes that one day the Spirit will finally be able to speak to them. In the end, it's about humility, charity, perseverance because while it seems the hard part is having the courage to speak fraternal correction, the truth is that it is even harder when it is spoken to us by someone else. And that day will come.

About 9 nine years ago, my first summer assignment as a seminarian was to a boys wilderness camp in North Carolina. I went there not knowing a single person and was petrified because I was MUCH more quiet and shy than I am now and it was a large group. I made it through orientation and then went to go for my caving instructor certification, since I was in charge of caving for the summer. I went with a co-counselor who would be helping from time to time and met a group of others from various local camps to go tours the caves on a three-day trip. At the end of the first day my co-counselor had to head back to the camp for another meeting, but right before he left he said, “Hey, Brent, can we talk for a minute?’ I said yes and we went off from the group. He paused then looked at me and said, “So, I know that I’ve only known you for like four days and you’re a seminarian, which means you’ll be a priest one day, and that’s awesome. But I feel like I have to tell you this. Brent, you are the most negative [person] I have ever met in my life.” I was stunned and this anger came up in my heart – who is he to say that? He’s known me for less than a week! All of this stuff came up but it didn’t come out of my mouth. I simply said, “Okay” and walked away. For a couple of days it stewed in my heart, those words that he spoke that pierced me like nothing ever had before. When I got back to camp a few days later I took him aside and thanked him. Those words hurt something fierce when he spoke them, but 9 years later he still stands for me as one of the greatest witnesses of Christian charity I’ve ever experienced and his words still rings in my heart and make me think even today about how I speak, how I respond, how I view the world around me. He helped me to see the course I was on and change course and I can’t be thankful enough for it.


Love isn’t being nice to people. Love is about willing what is best for them, and what is best for every person on this earth is getting to Heaven. It is our job to help other see the way when they are blinded to it, and sometimes to be directed ourselves. Humility, charity, perseverance. May God grant us these gifts today and ever-increase them, that we might enter into eternal glory accompanied by many brothers and sisters who have journeyed with us on the way.