Meeting People Where They Are


Homily of the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Do you remember being invited to sign our Parish Covenant Agreement last November? On the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday in November, parishioners of St. Joseph Parish were presented with a list of expectations to help us grow as an engaged and spiritually committed parish. The Agreement spelled out what we should expect from our parish, and what our parish should expect from us.

In addition to signing the Agreement, parishioners were given  an opportunity to set some personal goals for the upcoming year. This was a way to respond to our individual call to exercise stewardship of the gifts God has given each of us.

One of the goals I set for myself centered around the expectation “Embracing opportunities to participate in spiritual growth programs and retreats.” One way I am accomplishing that is by reading more. I’m trying to take more time reading and reflecting on scripture (the Lectio Divina workshops the parish has conducted have been a great help in that area). And I’m trying to read more contemporary works to better understand differing opinions and to better understand some of the contemporary challenges we face in our Church.

I have observed that the people I admire as “spiritual gurus” and great teachers have a common practice: they never stop reading and never stop learning. I’m trying to take that practice to heart in my spiritual life.

Last month, I came across an interesting article in the National Catholic Reporter. It was an interview with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. What caught my attention was the headline of the article: “Teach truth from pulpit, then meet people where they are.” The article was a roadmap on how to work with Catholics who love the Church, but may have dissenting views.

Now, some will criticize the Church for having too many rules. They will say that these rules are “man-made,” that they are not Bible-based, or that some of the rules  are too restrictive to their personal freedom. I, however, tend to look at Church doctrine and teaching as gifts of wisdom and insight.

The difference between appreciating and hating Church doctrine and Tradition often centers on our true understanding of what the Church teaches. Here’s how Cardinal Wuerl addressed this:

“We sometimes get caught up in one or another aspect of Church teaching, and we forget that if a person hasn’t been introduced to Christ, if a person hasn’t embraced the risen Lord and the Church that’s an expression of that experience, what we’re saying sounds like a bunch of rules or negative statements limiting their personal freedom.”

To me, that speaks to what we sometimes witness when people leave the church: They try to “go wide” to find a different church that better matches their view point or that makes them feel good about the choices they have made My suggestion is to not “go wide” but to “go deep.” Dig deep into the richness and wisdom that is the Catholic Church. Understand the theology, the teachings, the doctrine. It’s not always easy. It takes some study, it takes some work.

Think about some of the current “hot-button” topics in the Church and in society: Abortion, the Death Penalty, Immigration, Contraception, Same-Sex Marriage, Religious Liberty. These are often complex, emotional issues to deal with. So just spouting the rules isn’t enough. “Because I said so” theology is often difficult for the well-developed mind to absorb. The truth needs to be taught. More importantly the truth needs to be understood (there’s a difference between teaching and learning).

When Cardinal Wuerl was asked how to engage Catholics with contrasting views in conversation rather than telling them to get out, he said:

“Our job is to bring people to Christ, to hold them as close to the church as we can. That means working with people who are making their way, hopefully in the same direction. We have to work with people. In the pulpit we’re supposed to present the teaching with all of its unvarnished clarity, but when you step out of the pulpit you have to meet people where they are and try to walk with them.”

We are not a Church of “love it or leave it.” We are a Church of “learn it, live it, and love it.” Pope Francis appears to be a supporter of this same approach. When the new Pope met with a group of reporters this week. He told them:

“The church exists to communicate this: truth, goodness and beauty personified. We are all called not to communicate ourselves but this essential trio.”

You might say that the Pope was quoting his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi:

“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

That’s what we witnessed in today’s Gospel. The Scribes and Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus. Jesus knows that if he supports the Jewish Law that prescribes the death penalty for those who are caught in adultery he will be acting against Roman law. Israel, an occupied country, did not have the authority to give anyone the death penalty. So if Jesus supported the Jewish law, he would antagonize the Romans. If Jesus did not support the Jewish law, he would antagonize the Jews. So Jesus played it cool and met the people “where they were.” Jesus taught them (through patience) to not be so judgmental of others and to love your neighbor

Some suggest that the two times Jesus wrote in the sand, he was writing down the names of the people in the crowd and their sins. What he wrote, we’re not sure. But whatever he wrote, it had some effect on quieting the crowd.

Then Jesus gave the crowd that had assembled an “out.” He said, “Let the one among you without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one her accusers left and Jesus was left alone with the woman.

Jesus does not minimize the woman’s sin (the truth is the truth; the law is the law). But Jesus took a pastoral approach (meeting her where she is). He offered the woman forgiveness, not punishment. And then he gave the directive “Go, and do not sin any more.”

Why did Jesus do this? Because he is teaching us a lesson: Hate the sin in our world, but love the sinner.

Remember another run-in Jesus had with the Pharisees? When asked which is the greatest commandment, Jesus replied:

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it:You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mark 12:30-31)

Again, Jesus is trying to teach us that love, and a pastoral approach, is a better way than just living in a black and white, judgmental world.

Just as we heard in our First Reading: God made a way for the Israelites – a path to freedom. God has made a way for our own freedom from sin (that path is forgiveness, not punishment). For the Israelites, God was doing something new. Through Jesus, God also gives us something new – truth made richer with compassion and love.

I pray this week that you will reflect on these three Gospel themes:

  1. Hate the sin, but love the sinner
  2. Don’t be judgmental of others, be compassionate
  3. Proclaim the truth, then meet people where they are

Copyright © Deacon Dan Donnelly. All rights reserved.

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