Sunday, September 6, 2015

Open Up

Fair warning: there will be no homily for you next Sunday, as I will be paddling again in the Adirondack Canoe Classic (the "90-Miler"). If you're at the finish line in Saranac Lake on Sunday afternoon, I'll be the one in the big red hat...

   Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

The news the other day reported on the latest survey 
about the place of religion in American life.
Have you ever noticed how such surveys
almost always single out Catholics?
I don’t recall ever hearing about an analysis
on what modern Methodists feel about Martin Luther…
…but if there’s been a study of Catholics somewhere
on how they feel about the Pope or Church teaching,
the media seems to make sure everybody knows all about it.

This survey, predictably, was about Catholics, too,
in anticipation of Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States.
And what, pray tell, was this survey’s great, newsworthy revelation?
That U.S. Catholics are pretty much like other Americans.
According to the survey results,
Catholics in this country are increasingly accepting
of non-traditional family arrangements,
and less and less likely to view contraception,
remarriage after divorce, or homosexual acts as sinful.
(The report also pointed out—imagine!
that Catholics who regularly go to Mass
are more likely to align what they believe
with what the Church actually teaches.)

Of course, that’s not exactly what I’d consider a “news flash!”
Such a shift isn’t very surprising at all.
America has long functioned as a “melting pot”:
spend enough time in this country,
and you’ll become more and more like those around you—
whether it’s the language you speak, the food you eat,
the clothes you wear, or the doctrines you hold to be true.
We human beings have a natural desire to fit in—a need to belong—
and so we’re often willing to sacrifice those things
that would make us stand out from the surrounding crowd.

Why then does the press still consider such a survey to be “news”?
Because non-Catholic, even non-religious America,
still expects us Catholics to be different from the rest.
And they’re exactly right to do so.

In the gospel reading this Sunday,
Jesus says to the deaf-mute man, “Ephphatha!  Be opened!”
This healing word of Jesus can sound an awful lot
like the message we get from the surrounding culture:
Be open!
Be open to new experiences!
Be open to other people!
Be open to ways of thinking that are different from your own!
It’s kind of hard to argue with any of that:
such openness to the world
and the rest of the people who inhabit it
is generally rather enriching.

But such an attitude of openness without a firm foundation—
keeping an open mind without first possessing a sure set of values—
can be a recipe for spiritual disaster
because not every new experience is healthy for our souls,
and not every other person is looking out for our eternal welfare,
and not every different way of thinking is good or true.

How are we to know the difference?
And what difference should that make?

Jesus instructs those who witnessed his miracle
not to tell anyone about it.
It’s not that his mission was top-secret;
it’s that the healing Jesus came to work in the world
has a lot less to do with our outward senses,
and much more to do with the openness of our hearts—
and that’s something the crowd wasn’t quite ready to understand.

The openness of the heart to which Jesus calls you and me
is by no means an uncritical one.
We see this rather clearly in the Rite of Baptism.
Going back to at least the fourth century,
it’s been standard practice in some parts of the Church
to do as Jesus did with the deaf-mute man:
to touch the ears and the mouth of the one being baptized.
(Thankfully, we do so without the groaning and spitting!)
This visible sign points to an invisible grace
as the priest or deacon says,
“The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. 
May he soon touch your ears to receive his word,
and your mouth to proclaim his faith,
to the praise and glory of God the Father.”
Jesus is still touching us
so that we won’t be spiritually deaf or mute;
and Jesus is still praying that we’ll be opened—
but not open to just anything:
open to hearing and speaking the Word of God.

Now, that’s not to say
we ought to be closed-minded to everything else.
While there’s certainly evil present and at work in the world,
it can only harm us if we allow it to penetrate our hearts.
Recall what Jesus said last Sunday:
What defiles us isn’t what enters from outside,
but what emerges from within (Mk 7:14-15).
At the same time, 
neither can this openness be an excuse for indifference.
God gave you a mind and a conscience on purpose;
he expects you to form them both well and use them both wisely,
so that you’ll be able to flee from all that’s evil
and cling to whatever is genuinely good (Rm 12:9).

You see, when the Word of God
has already entered and filled your heart or mine,
we can be open to the world without condoning what’s wrong in it.
It helps no one to call bad good,
or to be casually accepting of anything immoral.
Nor is it up to us mere mortals to redefine what is sinful.
Ours is the delicate task of hating sin while loving sinners.
Spending too much of our time
loudly denouncing the evils around us
tends, paradoxically, only to strengthen them.
Instead, we need to constantly encourage true goodness—
particularly by being and doing good ourselves.

As G. K. Chesterton once said,
“The point of having an open mind, like having an open mouth,
is to close it on something solid.”
What most forms your thoughts and opinions,
your deep feelings and beliefs?
Is it the surrounding culture?  The expectations of modern society?
The unspoken pressure to be “like everybody else”?
Or are you actively open to the Word of God—
as it is read in the Scriptures, and enfleshed in the Sacraments,
and applied by the Church’s official teachers and her Saints?
What steps have you taken
to inform your mind and form your conscience
from an authentically Catholic point of view?

The rest of the world expects us Catholics to be different.
So let’s be sure not to disappoint them!
Be more open than they ever imagined you’d be:
open to receiving and proclaiming the Word of the Lord.

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