Monday, September 5, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Ez 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20

Years ago there was a phrase that was often used in the diagnosis of alcoholism, "an elephant on the sofa." It referred to the strange scene of a family living room, which had an elephant lying on the sofa. The children would play around it each day, and bounce balls off of it, and the mother would regularly dust off the elephant and keep it clean. But nobody ever asked the obvious question: why in the world is there an elephant on our sofa in the living room? The elephant, of course, stands for the father of the family who is an alcoholic and is frequently passed out on the sofa. This little story dramatizes how hard it is for people to speak up about something that is harmful and painful and obviously known, but which some people don’t want to hear about or face up to. And that extends to many, many things beyond the diagnosis of alcoholism.

We, as members of religious communities should know all about the difficulties of standing up and saying something that some people will not like to hear. One incident stands out especially in my memory. One time in our community at St. Meinrad there was some issue (I don’t remember what the issue was; I just remember the dynamics of how it was handled). But the community was going to have to make a decision about it and there were lots of differing viewpoints, many directly opposed to other viewpoints. The Abbot knew this and decided to have an open session of the community. He appointed one of the monks to lead the meeting and neither he nor the prior would be present, so people could speak freely. We all gathered in one of the large classrooms for the meeting. The appointed leader got up and laid out the situation and the decision which needed to be made. Then he opened the floor for comments. He stood looking around the room for several minutes. No one raised their hand. Finally he said, "Well, we might as well close the meeting. Let’s all go over to the coffee room, where we can sit in our own little groups and talk about the issue." Which is precisely what we did.

It is not easy to speak up and say something that some others don’t want to hear or face up to. And yet that’s one of the main messages in today’s readings from Scripture. The passage from the prophet Ezekiel says, "I appointed you to be my spokesman. If you don’t deliver my message, you will be as responsible as the wrongdoer." And in the gospel passage Jesus says, "If your brother or sister sins against you, you need to go and confront them." You need to speak up and let them know what they are doing wrong. Anyone who finds themselves in a position of leadership knows the weight and the difficulty of this task. When I was in administrative positions in the seminary, I felt the weight of this often, and it’s not easy. You have to tell people things they don’t want to hear and you are never sure how they are going to react—angrily, remorsefully or denying everything and calling you a liar or worse.

The real issue here is, of course, saying something to someone we care about that their behavior is unhealthy or even dangerous to themselves or others. "You are drinking too much." "Your actions are becoming abusive to your wife, to your husband, to your children." "You need to spend more time and effort looking for a job." These things are never easy to say. But Jesus tells us that it’s the Christian thing to do. And even though the other person may ignore or even blame you, it’s still the right thing to do. All of us face times like this. Let’s use the rest of this mass to pray that we may have the courage to say the right thing at the right time.

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