30 Ordinary Time
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Walking into Church
For many of us, it is difficult to walk into a Church, even our own parish Church. We enter, and we look at the tabernacle. Perhaps the thought comes into our minds: God is looking at me. How does he see me this week. Was I better? Was I worse? Some of us may have been away from Church for a few weeks, or months, or years. Maybe we need to talk to Him about our absence. For some of us that might mean our absence from practicing the faith on Sundays, and receiving communion. For others, perhaps for most of us, that might mean our absence from practicing the faith in our daily lives. Sometimes it is scary to look at the tabernacle. Sometimes we want to join the Tax Collector and sit in the back and say, "Lord, have mercy on me a sinner."
When I came here as pastor nearly 28 years ago, I was surprised to see that at some of the Masses sections of the Church were roped off so the congregation would be forced into the front and middle sections of the Church. I put an end to that immediately. There were several reasons why I was and am still against this. First of all, I do not want people to be confronted with do's and don't's as soon as they walk into Church. Second, there are some people who need to be in the back for health reasons. There are some people who cannot handle crowds and need to sit away from others. Some doctors and emergency workers may be on call and need to sit close to a door to step out and answer their cell phones if they start to vibrate. But my main reason for getting rid of the ropes was something a man once said to me after I tried to convince people to sit closer to the altar. He said, "Father, I just recently returned to Church. I've made the big step to walk through the door, but you've got to let me ease my way up into being in the middle of the congregation. There are a whole lot of things that the Lord and I need to deal with first."
For some of us it is difficult to walk into the Church. We are concerned: Are other people looking at me? Maybe there are people here who have seen me at my worse. Maybe some have heard stories that I cannot deny. There are some people here who are so serious about the faith, far more than I have been. Do I belong here with them? Am I treading on their turf? The priest often talks about each of us being a different member of the Body of Christ, but, honestly, sometimes I think I might be a toenail.
For some of us it can be difficult to walk into a Church because we may fear that we are joining those who are "holier than thou." Thoughts fly through our heads that so many others are ignoring God this Sunday, but we are here. We think, "How many members of my extended family will not worship this weekend? How many kids in my school, or people at work, will not worship this weekend? When I get up early to go to Mass, I drive by house after house full of people that wouldn't think of disturbing their Sunday sleep-in with community worship." And the thought flashes quickly into our minds: That must make me better than them. Then we realize that we are judging others, and acting like that Pharisee who went to the Temple to remind God of how much better he was than others.
For some of us it was difficult to walk into Church today. But we need to be here. The relationship with God that each of us has been gifted with flows through the Church, the Saved Community. It is through the Saved Community that we offer Christ on the Cross to our Heavenly Father. It is through the Saved Community that we receive Jesus' Body and Blood. We need to nurture our role in this Community.
At the same time, our relationship with God is unique. We are individuals. In the eyes of God no one is fundamentally better or worse than another person. He created us to be ourselves, our best selves. That's how He sees us. Our God really is a Good, Good Father. Good parents do not view their children as better or worse than each other. They see them as different from each other. "This child struggles in math but is a great reader. His brother is the exact opposite." Good parents see both children as unique and care for them for whom each is, not in comparison to their brother or sister. We are God's children. God sees us as individuals. He loves each of us as unique individuals. Yes, He sees our sinfulness, but He forgives each of us for the times we have not returned his love. None of us are fundamentally better than any other person. We all live under the Mercy of God.
Catholicism is often accused of putting people on guilt trips. This is not true. Catholicism puts people on reality trips. Catholicism dares to speak about unpopular topics like sin. Catholicism dares to invite people to consider their own participation in sin and seek forgiveness. It asserts that our salvation is a process we are engaged in. We are being saved. Catholicism recognizes that as human beings we are continually tempted to sin. Sometimes we give in to temptation. Our Church reminds us that the Lord was one of us. He experienced temptation, and, though He did not give in to temptation, He understands our need for mercy. He gives us the Sacrament of Mercy, Penance, because He wants His Mercy not our guilt to direct our lives.
Catholicism is not concerned with guilt. It is concerned with mercy. People are continually telling their priests how much they need the Mercy of God. They are realists. We all need the mercy of God. As we come to a deeper understanding of all that God has done for us, we also come to a deeper understanding of how much we need His mercy and forgiveness. Sometimes we read about great saints like St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and we are shocked that they and all the saints saw themselves as great sinners. The saints had a profound realization of the extent of God's love for them and the many times they have not returned His love. We are all called to be saints. We are called to holiness. If we strive to respond to the call to holiness, to sanctity, then we also must realize how much we need God's mercy.
Today the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee leads us to the Pilgrim's Prayer. The pilgrim's prayer is both simple and profound. It is the prayer of the man in the back of the Temple who realized that he is totally dependent on God's love, a love that he had often rejected. The pilgrim's prayer is the prayer that we all need to say with our hearts throughout our day. The Pilgrim's Prayer is: Lord Jesus , have mercy on me a sinner.
A pharisee and a tax collector go into the Temple. Only one prays. Only one is a humble enough to recognize his need for the Healing Hand of God. And that one leaves in the embrace of the Lord's love.
For some of us, it is difficult to walk into a Church. But God is here. We need Him. We need His Mercy. We need the strength of His sacraments. We need to walk into the Church because we need the strength and the courage He provides. We need His grace so we can walk out of the Church with Him.