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Friday, September 9, 2011

If Today You Hear His Voice, Harden Not Your Hearts

Reflection – 23rd Sunday, 4th September, 2011 – De Boismenu College
By Fr. John Aneo, MSC
In 2006, five Amish children in Pennsylvania were murdered at their school by a man who then took his own life. Whilst this tragedy was newsworthy in itself, what followed also hit the news. The Amish community, despite its deep loss and grief, urged forgiveness for the killer. This extraordinary gesture stunned many people around the world. The Amish people’s explanation for their behaviour was reported in USA Today (October 5, 2006): ‘They believe their calling is to accept and absorb hostility without fighting back or falling apart.” The paper also reported that one of the Armish went to the home of the killer’s father embracing him and saying, ‘We all forgive you.’’ Another explained to the media, “We’re really strongly taught to forgive the way Christ forgives us.” We see here that being a Christian isn’t a luck but a serious commitment to a radical new way of life.
We hear a lot about ‘watching out for Number One.’ An Episcopalian priest [USA] who served for many years in Nicaragua always wrote and spoke of his country – USA- as the ‘Me-First World’. Both views here emerge from the egocentric declarations that is; íf you don’t take care of yourself, who will?’
Paul and Mathew divert us in another direction. For them ‘watching out for Number One; can no longer be oneself but is an invitation to look at one another with new eyes, to listen to the other with new ears and to feel for the other with new hearts. Paul calls us to rise above laws that negatively state out responsibilities for one another – not to kill, not to steal, or covet, not to commit adultery – into something positive and proactive. Our debt to one another, our responsibility for one another, can be put into one powerful word: Love. Love reverences and wateches out for the other as Number One. The other readings explain how far love must go in order to be genuine. It must look out for the other so much so that this love will risk pointing out to another where they may be wrong.
Ezekiel presents us with an awesome and often scary responsibility, as does the gospel today: ‘speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways’. He is not referring merely to personal morality but social responsibility, injustice, and death-dealing. It offers the hope of liberation and the prospect of forgiveness to those who harm others. Even the oppressor has a right to his/her liberation! But as the late poet Audre Lorde said: Óur silence will not protect us’.
Other minorities have felt the burden to educate and challenge others to accept them and embrace differences as assets for community-building and exhibiting an unquenchable passion for justice. This is very clear in ethnic communities, women’s groups, the gay community and indigenous groups. Taking Ezekiel’s words to heart involves calling into question gender, racism, revenge, violence, corruption and damage to the environment etc. For those of us who live in a predominantly religious and Catholic community background, it might also cause us to reflect and to call into question unearned privileges’ which we take for granted: privileges such as our social power whether of gender, race, class, religion or nationality. We must be that ‘watchman/woman’Ezekiel refers to – who speak up for justice on behalf of a just God.
Paul’s view of Christian community is simple: ‘Love does no evil to the neighbour; hence, love is the fulfilment of the law.’ He concretises this by referring to vengeance. How relevant still today as we continue to face the world and society that is torn by violence, corruption, greed and payback.
Recently, in the deaths of about 30 military personnel in Afghanistan, Barack Obama said what has been heard many times: ‘Their deaths are a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices made by the men and women of our military and their families.’ At unfortunate death of one of our soldiers, we also hear the prime minister, defense minister, chief of the defence forces or the corporate media offering their canned responses and sentiments for military deaths with the ongoing platitudes to justify continuations of shamefully wrong actions. The world mourned the deaths of over 3000 people on September 11, 2001 but aim to perpetuate myths not only to enthuse nationalism, but of extraordinary sacrifice, threats to our way of life and freedom. We cannot know the toll that revenge which we as a nation have participated in on people whose lives, livelihoods and country has been destroyed. A million dead? Two million? Including children.
Our call is to embrace a way of life that is distinct from that of the prevailing culture of revenge, violence, and me-first. Paul is calling us to embrace a way of life distinctly different from the prevailing death-dealing culture where retaliation, grudges, feuds, the évil eye ‘and curses were the order of the day. The love we are called to not only stops violence but tries to be proactive.
The gospel offers a complementary process for avoiding the practise of vengeance. The process is presented in three parts, but ultimately the community of believers has a role in helping to restore broken relationships. ‘I am there among them ‘says Jesus. It is through the power of solidarity with others, however, even just two or three others, that we achieve peace with Justice (Mathew 18:19-20).
John Donne, the Anglican priest and poet reminded us that, ‘no [man] is an island, entire unto himself’. Despite our dense populations, loneliness is a chronic, debilitating, and common condition. As social animals, solidarity experience is contrary to our nature. We have lived our lives in the context of one community or another – some good and others not so good where we recognise that much of human history has been one of war and conflict; of finding it difficult to get on with one another. There is a negative side of community life, but we do not give in to the dark side. We make peace where there is division and isolation because we also realise that our lives in the context of community must be mutually supportive. ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ We do gather in Jesus’name; re-call him to presence with us which makes him a part of us and what we do. Jesus makes it clear how important we are one to another. Our connectedness gives us a power; gives strength to our values; enables us to be an effective healing force among others. This connectedness was clearly evident in times of tragedy.
The Asian tsunami; Hurricane Katrina, Cyclone Larry, Cylone Mitch; the devastating cyclone in Burma. People reached out to help and in big ways. As Charles Dickens said, Ít was the best of times. It was the worst of times’(from A Tale of Two Cities). And the gospel today calls us to be connected’ everyday to those we would sometimes not choose to be with.
As we come to the 10th anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, can we ask when will come the time for the vengeance end, when will be the time for reconciliation to take, when will we see that many more people have suffered that the initial casualties, how much more innocent blood will continue to be spilt by people who were not even alive at the time?
The German Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), who protested Hitler’s anti-Semitic measures which resulted in imprisonment at Sachsenhausen and Dachau (1937-1945), confessed , Ít took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of His enemies.” On September 11 we might pray that despite the pain and horror experienced we might also learn the lesson of Niemöller and act the way the Amish community responded in one, united voice to both of the families of the victims, the perpetrator and his family.
Reflections on readings....
Though we belong to a community of brothers and sisters, many Christians behave as if Christianity is a private or purely personal affair. The scriptures always call us to be on the lookout for one another. God’s call to Cain, “Where is your brother?” Is constantly before us. Our relationship with Jesus depends on our relationship with other people: family, neighbours and strangers. “By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:35) and Ás often as you did/did not do it to me”(Mathew 25:40,45). And clearly, our attitudes and behaviour towards those who are most at risk, most defenceless and most vulnerable must be of utmost concern: the aged, children, people living with mental illness or some disability, asylum seekers.
More often than not it is religion that is exclusive. The Gospel is never exclusive. The gospel today tries to deal with divisions, conflicts, and unacceptable behaviour in the community – yet its primary concern is reconciliation, not punishment. This is relevant at all levels of the church community. It seems rather strong/harsh to suggest that one should be treated like a pagan or tax collector, i.e., an outsider – but it is a matter of last resort. This drastic step is not to be taken lightly or in a spirit of revenge or vindictiveness. It is done out of real concern for the wellbeing of the whole community. Too often it has not been the welfare of the community that has led people to be treated as an outsider but because the power of leaders is threatened when truths all should hear are suppressed. If not treated as an outsider, but certainly dismissed, there are numerous, e.g., Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Bishop William Morris, Sister Joan Chittister. All have in their own way tried to enhance the mission of the church and witness to the Gospel.
When Jesus says, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Mathew 18:20)’he is reminding us that a handful of people can make a difference but the fact is that ‘where two or more are gathered’ the group also consists of rough diamonds. It does not always mean they are right either! Nevertheless, it can be rather daunting, when the Gospel tells us, that we ought to ‘go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone’ with someone who is causing division in the community. How do we know that one is right and the other is wrong? Individuals can take positions in the community that we may be totally opposed to but who still have the well being of all at heart. Support for gay rights can become divisive within the community. People can express spiteful, belittling and other very rude comments and some may confront these with one’s own superior viewpoint and many premeditated facts and arguments. Even taking the issue to tow or more others is not necessarily of the spirit. Though one knows that one is right. What matters is being open to God’s loving spirit and that we invite a Christ-like presence of humility and tenderness into the conversation. Again, treating someone like an outsider or pagan is a ‘terrible’ thing – and should be last and not used often.
The psalmist has much to offer. Íf today you hear his voice, harden not your heart’. We know that the absence of rain, even on good ground, can mean that the arrival of rain can lead to flooding because the ground has become so hard that it cannot penetrate the soil. This may also be the situation of our hearts. Hard-heartedness can protect us from hearing, feeling, seeing the point of view of, and responding to another’s pain. A stubborn heart or closed heart cuts us off from others and keeps others at a distance. This can be just as present in the group as in an individual. In recent years people in the church, in politics and the media, has disparaged others as bleeding hearts because of their advocacy and support of asylum seekers, respect for people of other ethnic or sexual groups.
The psalmist and the gospel call is to open our hearts to the other, to be open to reconciliation. Íf today you hear his voice, harden not your heart’. Can you hear the voices of the poor who seek to be treated with respect? Can you hear voices of women who seek to be treated with equality? Can you hear the voice of the spirit of God in you when you feel angry and enraged at any injustice? It is truly the voice of God calling us to act. Íf today you hear his voice, harden not your heart’. God’s call to us is to listen to the cries of our sisters and brothers near and far; it is another way of God calling out to us and asking us ‘Where is your brother/sister?’ The psalm and the gospel connect today. It is important that we do not harden our hearts against our sister or brother. This is especially if we remember that where two or three are gathered there Jesus is (am I) in the midst of them.

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