Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sin matters, but God's mercy matters more


Today’s Scripture calls to mind a poignant story from the life of St. Jerome, the great 5th century Biblical scholar. St. Jerome was praying one day and felt overwhelmed with the need to offer something worthwhile to God. “Lord,” he prayed, “I offer you my life.” The voice of God responded back to him, “It was I who gave you your life. It is not yours to give.” Jerome prayed some more, “Lord, I offer you my heart, my love.” Again, the voice of God spoke, “It was I who gave you those as well.” Jerome didn’t know what he could offer when the voice of God spoke again, “Jerome?” “Yes,” the saint responded. “Why don’t you give me your sins? Your sins are all your own.”

Our Scriptures today direct us to reflect on something that we typically prefer to avoid – sin, and specifically our own sin. We live in a world that has become increasingly desensitized to sin; one that tries to make it trivial and unimportant. We treat sin as something as commonplace as the air we breathe, the water we drink. And so, anything so commonplace couldn’t possibly be that bad. It is as regular as the common cold – we don’t want it, but we can certainly live with it. We’re only human after all.

Let me give you just a few simple examples of what I mean. Fifty years ago in this country, Sunday Mass attendance averaged at about 75% of Catholics going to Mass each week. Today that number is 36%. When I ask Catholics about why they don’t attend Mass regularly, they say, “Do you think God really cares if I’m there every Sunday? I’m a good person” Well, He said He cares in those things we call the Commandments – or were they merely suggestions? You’ll get a similar response when talking to young people about things like living together before being married. “Do you think God cares? I mean, we love each other after all? We’re both good people.” Again, I do think God cares.

We have created a religion of the Good Person that says as long as you’re a good person, the rest doesn’t matter; God doesn’t care. I always remind people, though, that God isn’t looking for good people; He is looking for holy people. Good will be a part of holy; holy isn’t always a part of good. There are a lot of “good” atheists out there. We’ve all heard the saying that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

God calls each of us to be holy; and so the simple but direct message of our Scriptures today is this: sin matters. In our Second Reading, St. James graphically explains that if someone spends their earthly life exploiting and using other people, lying and cheating and hoarding wealth, they may enjoy the fruits of their crimes for a little while, but they can’t escape justice for ever. He writes that they will “weep and wail over their miseries.”

Jesus is just as clear. He explains that un-repented sin has consequences; it leads to damnation, it leads to hell. It leads to eternal separation of a soul from God. According to Jesus, that’s what un-repented sin leads us to. Now, these words of St. James and Jesus are not meant to scare us into feeling guilty - it’s not some psychological manipulation technique. Rather, they are simply informing us about the facts: sin, willfully turning away from God and his moral law, has consequences, and they are not good, and we should strive to avoid them.

But, if the road to Hell is paved with good intentions; then never forget that the road to Heaven is paved with holy actions. If today’s message is that sin matters – it is also this: God’s mercy matters more! God’s mercy and generosity will be the source of a lot of surprises on Judgment Day. When we think of Judgment, we tend to focus on only the negative. In other words, we tend to think of God pulling out a list of our sins, shortcomings, and stubborn selfish actions. And it is true, in the light of Christ’s gaze, we see more clearly than ever those sinful things.

But, Jesus points out that the Judgment will also have another part to it. He says, “Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.” Think about what that means. It means, every act of forgiveness, every donation to a worthy cause, every penny put in the collection basket, every piece of clothing given to the poor, every kind letter or visit paid to someone who was sick, in prison, or alone, every prayer offered up for those in need, every word of comfort, instruction, and guidance, every single action that we perform in our Christian efforts to love God and neighbor is noticed, is remembered, and is delighted in by our Lord. And He is storing up rewards for all of these holy actions in Heaven – because our God is merciful and generous. And this generosity is present today, right here. God’s will exercise that generosity and mercy powerfully right here in this Holy Mass, by giving us His very self, in Holy Communion.

My friends, sin matters - the Church is reminding us of that today. But in this Mass the Church reminds us of something else too, that God’s mercy matters more. Sin is destructive, terrible, diabolical. But Jesus has conquered sin, which is why we call Him our Savior. The Catechism tells us: “The victory that Christ won over sin has given us greater blessings than those which sin had taken from us.” The destruction that sin causes in our lives is not the end of the story. God can forgive us - it is never too late. God can redeem us. God can take the ruins that sin causes and build them into something more magnificent than we ever could have imagined. We just have to give Him the chance.

And we do that so simply by taking the first step and going to Confession. God already knows our sins. He knows how much they obstruct our spiritual progress and wound our souls, and how much we need His grace to overcome them. That’s why He gave us confession in the first place. To give us a chance to start over, as many times as we need to. Many of us already know this, and we use the great gift of confession frequently. But we also know plenty of people who don’t - and they are suffering deeply on the inside because of it, experiencing the effects of sin. Maybe a word of encouragement, an invitation, a sharing of experiences from us is all God needs to bring them back and give them that fresh start.

My friends, sin matters, but God’s infinite, redemptive mercy matters more. That’s the message of today’s Mass, and of every Mass. This week, let’s take that message outside of Mass, let’s bring it into the world around us, and let God’s grace win some new victories.

Let us give Him our sins. He will forgive them and turn them into glory.

May the Lord give you peace.

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