What do we tell our children? What do we tell ourselves?
By REV. MSGR. JAMES A. CARTER, V.G.
Editor’s Note: The following is a homily given by Msgr. James A. Carter, pastor of Christ Our King Church in Mount Pleasant and Vicar General of the Diocese of Charleston, at the Sept. 13 Masses at his parish.
Despite all the advances in building materials and our better understanding of ergonomics and physics, one of the greatest challenges that still confronts designers is how to build a comfortable dining chair. The problem that won’t stop harassing designers is how to make a chair that won’t splinter when a 200-pound diner does the inevitable “tip-back,” rocking all his weight onto the back two legs of the chair, as the front legs rise into the air. Style after style of chair has been instantly rendered into kindling by this universal need of diners to turn straight chairs into recliners.
When chairs are finally too fractured to salvage, we get rid of them and invest in a new set. But what do we do if it’s our reputations that are broken? What do we do if the public reading of our characters has been reduced to splinters by the repeated bashings and abuse they have received? There is no easy way to replace a reputation. There is no quick fix for a critically cracked character.
We have a tendency to make the Gospel into something abstract, academic. But the Gospel hits the pavement where people live in fallenness, seediness and messiness. It’s important to speak clearly and carefully here. How do we respond as Christians; what do we say to our children, for instance, when they ask questions about the current crisis in the White House?
To begin with, don’t waste time on dread, anxiety and worry about what to say. Be a parent. Take charge of your child’s moral development. Tell the truth to your kids, even if it may humble and make you vulnerable. Or, more accurately, tell the truths to your children. Among the truths you tell (in age-appropriate terms) you may wish to include:
(1.) Don’t Rush to Judgment: Give others the benefit of the doubt. God is the ultimate judge. We should “judge not lest we be judged.” Whenever we gloat over someone else’s sin (whether real or only asserted), we ourselves are sinning.
(2.) There Are Many Temptations In Life: We must mention our own struggle with being tried, tested, tempted. Sometimes we take wrong paths with drugs, alcohol and sex, just to mention a few, and we have to pay the consequences. There are right paths, and there are wrong paths. You could say in a way that life is “truth or consequences.” Behaviors have consequences, and those consequences are not just paid by us as individuals, but they are paid as well by those who love us and surround us.
(3.) We Have All Sinned: Sacred Scripture tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short in the Glory of God.” Paul said it best when he said, the good that I would do, I do not, and the evil I would not do, unfortunately I do.
(4.) This Family Has Standards: We expect all of the members to measure up. Promiscuity, permissiveness are bad. Adultery is wrong; illegitimacy is irresponsibility. Adultery is mentioned 40 times in the Bible, 17 times in the Old Testament and 23 times in the New Testament.
(5.) Don’t Spend Time Looking For the Faults Of Others: Spend four years and $40 million in investigative agencies, and you could dig up grime on just about anyone. In the course of this past week, as a matter of fact it was Friday’s Gospel, Jesus said, “Don’t look for the speck in someone else’s eye — get the plank out of your own eye.”
(6.) Don’t Spread Rumors: Christians condemn sexual misconduct. But we also condemn the spreading of rumors and innuendoes about sexual misconduct. In fact, one reason Christians ought to be cautious about embracing allegations against others is that the story of the Bible is the story of God’s prophets and priests being falsely accused and condemned and frequently killed. Christians believe the best of people, while fully prepared to acknowledge the worst people can do. If anything, we err on the side of naiveness, innocence — with a faith like little children, if you will. We hope for the best, but we are not confounded by the worst.
(7.) Live Christ’s Command Not Only to Love Your Neighbor, and to Fear God, but Also to Honor the Emperor: In the Old Testament book of Proverbs we read (24:21) “My child fears the Lord and the King” and of course we recall the words of Jesus; “Give to God the things that are God’s and render to the Emperor those things that are his.” Note that neither admonition makes any reference to the character of the Leader. Honor the King. Period. It’s like feed the hungry, whether we think they deserve it or not.
Does that mean condoning wrong behavior in a leader? Absolutely not. But it does remind us that while a person is our leader, honor is due before judgement. We should be as quick to assign praise as blame.
(8.) Don’t Make Light of Sin: In our obsession with self-esteem, we have sugar-coated sin. What makes our second reading of St. Paul to Timothy so timely is that it demonstrates how the doctrine of grace is impossible unless we accept as real the doctrine of sin. We must admit our sinfulness, our fallenness, if you will. And we Catholics have a real advantage here. We have the Sacrament of Reconciliation in which we admit our sinfulness, our wrongness, and the fact that we don’t like ourselves in such a state. We wish to change and we accept the responsibility to do just that with God’s help. Doesn’t the Bible say that “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us?” Again, none of us is without sin. Paul admits that he was among the greatest of all sinners. He names himself a “blasphemer” and a “person of violence.” He persecuted Christians with vehemence and vigor. His goal was to wipe out entirely that strange new sect called “The Way.” But even this mean-machine, this terrorizer, was completely and utterly forgiven by Christ’s mercy and forgiveness. Paul the Terminator rejoices that God’s “super-abundance” of grace was enough to transform even him, the “foremost” among sinners.
No character is too crushed for it not to be redeemed by Christ’s cross. No reputation is too smashed to be beyond repair by an outpouring of the love of Christ. Humans, created in the image of God, are not like repeatedly broken chairs that ultimately move from furniture to fire starters. God has given our poor broken, sinful selves “an end.” But it is not the end, the conclusion the world expects. The wood of Christ’s cross is able to splint any flaw or fracture. The blood shed by Christ is able to glue any weakness or failure. That is why Paul the “foremost sinner” celebrates “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
(9.) We Must be Forgiving: We must forgive much in others because we have much in ourselves to forgive and for which to be forgiven. This is especially true when the offending person acknowledges the guilt. It may not be breaking marriage vows, but it may be breaking other kinds of sacred vows; promises to God, to our friends, to our families, to our children. In Sacred Scripture those who refused to acknowledge their sins and shortcomings; those who allowed arrogance, pride and self-delusion to keep them from bowing in repentance before God, those have names that are synonymous with tragedy. Let God be the judge!
(10.) Finally, Be a Part of the Solution: When someone was living out of sync with God’s plan and purpose for them, Jesus’ response was not to beat them up, but to heal them. In fact, Jesus was less interested in other people’s sex lives than in their openness to fresh outpourings of God’s grace and love. The Samaritan woman at the well is a prime example. She had multiple husbands and the one with whom she was currently living was not her husband. Was she truly sorry? We don’t know. Jesus didn’t ask. Did she change her lifestyle? We don’t know. Jesus didn’t ask. He seemed simply to forgive. We must get the plank out of our own eye.
There was more mercy than judgement in Jesus’ moral sensibility. That’s why the best way you can end your conversation with your children is to pray with them for you, for themselves, for our president, for his family and victims, and for our country.
I conclude with our Second Reading, a passage of St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy:
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, that he has made me his servant and judged me faithful. I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance; but because I did not know what I was doing in my unbelief, I have been treated mercifully, and the grace of our Lord has been granted me in overflowing measure, along with the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I myself am the worst. But on that very account I was dealt with mercifully, so that in me, as an extreme case, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, and that I might become an example to those who would later have faith in him and gain everlasting life. To the King of ages, the immortal, the invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen.