Every morning as a kid, I can remember waking up in my home in Kokomo to the smell of Folgers coffee brewing in our kitchen and the sight of my mother and father, sitting at the kitchen table, my father leaning back in his chair, resting his lower calf on the table, and my mother opposite him, nursing a coffee cup as if she was using it to warm her hands. Both of them for years would, every morning, read from our small town newspaper, the Kokomo Tribune. In it were the local happenings, crimes, opinions, and obituaries most necessary for someone to function living in our small little corner of the world. Occasionally, something of import from a big city like Indy or maybe even Chicago was mentioned. But for my parents, like their mothers and fathers before them and like so many across the nation, what happened in your local neighborhood seemed to matter a whole lot more than whatever news you might hear about from halfway across the world. As I’ve grown older and as the world moves more firmly into the Information Age, the safety and stability of one newspaper keeping locals attuned to the events impacting them the most is quickly going by the wayside. Today, events that historically would never have been heard about by anyone outside of where they occurred, can now be transmitted, received, and argued by those all over the world. Today, people may even hold in contempt those who don't have an opinion concerning the most popular issues of the day, let alone the right one. Yesterday, I was also conscious of the fact that, with all the developments happening because of the coronavirus, news that was more than 3 hours old I figured just simply wasn’t worth reading. The very concept of a morning or evening newspaper providing the latest scoop is, like the information it contains, relics of a bygone era. Unfortunately, as the popularity of handheld personal devices has surged along with increased Internet access and the meteoric rise of social media platforms, the distinction between respectable and yellow journalism has become increasingly difficult to navigate. I had the personal misfortune of seeing a story posted by a brother in another religious order, much like our own. The title of his story instantly grabbed my attention, but for all the wrong reasons. In front of this picture of a grey-clothed friar with a long beard appeared the title of the video “CORONAVIRUS IS THE RESULT OF SIN”. Now, I don’t know about you, but the moment I start hearing theories saying that natural phenomena are the result of sin is the moment I shut off. Just like the attacks of September 11 or natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina are not the results of America’s acceptance of homosexuality (which is to say nothing of the nearly 40,000 people killed in 2017 alone due to gun violence--over half of which were suicides; or the 1 in 7 children who the Centers for Disease Control predicts suffer from abuse and/or neglect in the past year; or the 146 officers and public safety officials killed in the line of duty in 2019; or the dozens of school shootings that occur in this country every year made infinitely easier by powerful interests groups who press Congress and the States to ease access to firearms); coronavirus is not, we can confidently conclude, the result of sin. But, speaking from what little knowledge I have studying and teaching basic economics, the worldwide effects of this coronavirus is, I believe, the set of unintended consequences of our present-day way of life. This virus and our present situation is not the day of wrath and doom impending that’s finally arrived. Rather, for us who particularly live in the United States, Western Europe, and in parts of East Asia, we are experiencing in a more personal way than before the effects our way of life has on the world, effects that we have until recently, been able to keep at arm’s length. It is like our issue with our dishwasher here at the friary just a few weeks ago. Yes, we could and often did put the dishes in the washer without rinsing the excess food particles off of them. As a result, we saved time. We saved our own personal energy, not having to brush the dishes and all. But, over time, our actions caught up to us. The dishwasher broke and fixing it cost us a bit of money--money that we could have saved had we just taken a few extra moments and done what should have been done in the first place. During this whole crisis, we are quickly realizing as Americans and Britons, what life is like living in a country where scarcity is a real thing, where jobs cannot be taken for granted, where national emergencies are declared and impressive government powers invoked, where economic and financial security is not guaranteed, where everything that’s not a basic good for survival seems almost a form of conspicuous consumption. The current situation we find ourselves in is not the result of sin, but is, in part, the result of our insistence on maintaining our standard of living, often at the expense of others. We simply cannot imagine a world where we do not have a smartphone, a computer, toilet paper, new books, new altar missals, multiple salad dressings, reliable Internet connections, or a constant supply of flavored soda waters. Perhaps, in our goodwill, we believe everyone in the world should have such joys. And, why not? Particularly for those living in the United States--with its unparalleled economic, political, and military power--at no other point in history has so much been available to so many different sorts of people. Even as we approach an economic recession, we still have plenty of reasons to see why there exists a strong ethos in this country insisting the hand of Divine Providence guides our young Republic. But now that much of the world’s largest economies have come to a complete stop, and over 87,000 people are dead and over 1.5 million reportedly with the virus, is it even possible or desirable to go back to the way it all was before? Does not this time afford us the opportunity to reexamine our personal and national values? Chapters 5 through 7 in St. Matthew’s Gospel provides us with some of the richest and most memorable of our Lord’s teachings. At present, I think one particular passage from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is very relevant to our present situation, particularly to us gathered here for this Liturgy of Reconciliation. At the beginning of the 7th Chapter in St. Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord teaches us:
Do not judge, and you will not be judged; because the judgements you give are the judgements you will get, and the standard you use will be the standard used for you. Why do you observe the splinter in your brother's eye and never notice the great log in your own? And will you say to your brother, “Let me take that splinter out of your eye," when, see, there is a log in your own? Hypocrite! Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother's eye" (Matthew 7:1-5). If we were teaching a similar idea to a modern audience, we might incorporate the familiar airline motif, “In the event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop from above. Secure your own mask first before assisting others." In both cases, we know we cannot save others (that is, lead others to God and away from sin) unless we first save ourselves. We cannot bring others to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord unless we have first made a similar confession. We cannot stress the importance of being involved in a church community unless we ourselves have first done so. Saint Francis understood that the Church cannot realistically talk about poverty unless it first practiced it. We cannot and should not preach one thing but practice another. In the old 1928 American Book of Common Prayer, during the Ordination of a Priest, the Bishop would warn the Ordinand, The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his Spouse, and his Body. And if it shall happen that the same Church, or any Member thereof, do take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. (BCP 1928, p. 540) Today, we are experiencing firsthand the results of our negligence. The same technologies that have allowed us to traverse the oceans, power our cities, bring communities and nations closer together than ever before has, at the same time, helped spread this virus causing major disruptions and questions about our future. What does our collective future look like when we no longer have access to the things we once considered essential? What happens when the countries who believed themselves to be strong are suddenly brought to their knees? What happens when we start recognizing that, particularly in democratic nations, the greatest threat to our democracy is not its poor leaders but a poor electorate?
Yes, our world leaders can be selfish. Yes, they can be stupid. Yes, they can be irresponsible. But so are we. As members of the developed world, our selfishness has become essential to our economic growth. Does one seriously think that the entire United States GDP is a result of only necessary purchases? Do we not glorify excess and stupidity in television or on the Internet? Are we any more environmentally responsible than our world leaders when we personally produce an absurd amount of waste, pillaging our own natural resources and making our world, in the words of Pope Francis, “look[ing] more and more like an immense pile of filth”? (Laudato Si’, §21) Are we any more financially responsible when the amount of debt and financial responsibilities we take on as a nation to preserve our present standard of living is only that much more future generations will not be able to enjoy? How many times have we lied, like them, to avoid the consequences of our actions? How many times have we acted inappropriately towards members of the opposite- or same-sex, disrespecting their personal dignity? How many times have we, like them, promised to do one thing, only to never follow through? Before we open our mouth to criticize others, let us first recall our Lord’s words, spoken to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees who brought in a woman caught in adultery, hoping to stone her. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” says our God (John 8:7). But where do we go from here? That is the big question. It may sound trite and unhelpful, but to help the world-at-large, we may first need to make our own personal world small. We may ask ourselves, “What in my life am I able to control? What am I able to change about myself or my situation?” I cannot control what world leaders do during this crisis. To get angry or to lash out at others because of what a world leader does or doesn’t do or what one says or doesn’t say is not helpful and does nothing to change our own life for the better. Like Jesus, we may ask ourselves what log can we take out from our own eye before condemning the specks we find in others? As a child, my priests growing up would teach us students that before we went about criticizing someone, we must first pray for them. I always remembered this lesson and commend it to us all today. We certainly have a lot to confess before God. Our confession, however, cannot be a simple dusting off of dirty clothes. As a good confessor may tell his penitent, a good confession is marked by a sincere sorrow for one’s sins and a firm resolve to amend one’s life. As Christians, every time we seek reconciliation with God and each other, we begin the serious undertaking of living out Jesus’ call to be his disciples. Ask ourselves, ‘What would our world be like if we took our discipleship seriously? ‘ What would our society be like, where, knowing the great psychological and physical dangers unchecked greed causes society, Americans were as quick to categorize exhibitions of excess and extravagant wealth alongside violence, profanity, and nudity as material not suitable for children? As the late Pope Paul VI observed in his 1967 encyclical, Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples), it is avarice, he says, which is the “most evident form of moral underdevelopment” (Populorum Progressio, §19). How can we seek a greater development of morals and right action in our multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-cultural, and multi-religious society? How can we instill good morals in our citizens without infringing on the rights of parents and families to live and practice their own faith and morals? How can our Christian religion, particularly within our Catholic tradition, craft and strengthen the goodness inherent in all God’s people? Without hesitation, our religion can say to each individual, “You are of inexpressible value and are known personally and intimately by God, your Creator.” Henri Nouwan, one of the most prolific and renowned spiritual writers of the 20th century summed up what he experienced as the very center of his inner spiritual life as the voice that says to him, “I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, p. 30). Instead of retreating to the fringes of society, the Christian religion and, in particular our Catholic faith, deserves to be heard and proclaimed in the public square. What would a society look like where every new law was scrutinized concerning its effects on the well being of the most vulnerable in society--namely the poor, the aged, the infirm--as closely as its effects on tax revenue is scrutinized? What would our country look like if the word “enough” came to be used with greater frequency than the words “more”..”more”...”more”. All of us are here today because of the almost infinite number of little or big decisions we made throughout our life. And each of us is the result of all the decisions made by the thousands of generations preceding ourselves. This crisis is only the latest in the long history of human struggle. How will we respond? With fear? With anxiety? With anger? Or will our choice today be to acknowledge the pitfalls that came before us, the pitfalls we have personally encouraged and the pitfalls we have done nothing to prevent? Will we repent of all that takes us away from God and seek to return to the throne of grace? Today, it is simply not sufficient to say “our sins caused our present situation”. That’s far too easy and far too incomplete to offer any real explanation. But the Church herself, to which religious leaders like Pope Francis have referred to as a field hospital, ought always at all times and all places to offer the mercy of God made present in Jesus Christ. Our Holy Week services remind us there is joy that comes when the evening of our despair is over. The story of Christianity is one of resurrection, of new life springing forth from sadness and despair. “Christ once raised from the dead will never die again” writes St. Paul. “Death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died, he died to sin, and the life he lives, he lives to God.” (Romans 6:9-10). We too, says St. Paul, must live as if we, like Christ, are dead to sin and alive to God (see Romans 6:11). For that is what we are. The Easter morning awaiting us is our resurrection morning as well. We know that when he appears, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2).
May we, his people, not shrink from him in shame but have confidence that he abides with us, now and forever. Amen.
Liturgy of Reconciliation Wednesday in Holy Week San Damiano Friary April 8, 2020