Preached at Holy Sepulcher Parish on September 1, 2018 at 6:00pm Mass and September 2, 2018 at the 8:00am and 10:30am Masses
Why do you not see elephants hiding in trees? Because they are really good at it.
But seriously, today I am going to talk about the elephant in the room, or the elephant in the Church, I guess you might say. Not the grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Church of Pittsburgh and other dioceses of Pennsylvania, although it is part of it. Today’s subject is sin.
Jesus mentions several sins in today’s gospel, “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness (and in case you don’t know what that means, the grand jury report on sexual abuse was full of it), envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.” This list is by no means complete. Jesus was just calling out the sins he wanted to bring to the attention of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus’ list is missing three of the classics: pride, gluttony, and sloth. It’s missing sins that are big in today’s world like racism, sexism, terrorism, harassment, bullying, cyber-bullying, bad drivers on the highway, and parking in the deacon’s parking space at church.
Sin is a very big and broad subject, not only because of how many things it covers, but also because it is everywhere. It’s in the murders, stealing, drug dealing, and other crimes on the news. It’s in the lying and backstabbing of politics. It’s in the fraud and embezzlement of business. Most importantly, sin is a big part of our lives. It’s in our relationships with our spouses, family, friends, and coworkers. It’s in our social media posts and in our browsing history. It’s in our drive to work and our walk back to our car. Sin is a giant herd of elephants because it is so big and it is everywhere.
I have the Confession app on my phone. It keeps track of the exact number of days since I last went to confession. It has multiple Acts of Contrition, including a Latin version if you want bonus points from the priest. But most importantly, it has an examination of conscience that allows to check a box if you have committed a given sin and enter the number of times you have committed that sin. There are so many sins listed that they group them into various categories for you. You can even add your own custom sins because “driving like a complete idiot” is not in the default sin list provided. After you are done examining your sins, it makes a summary of the sins you have committed so you can quickly go down the list with the priest without pausing to think about them or forgetting any of them. Although sometimes I have so many sins I wish it would make a summary of the summary of my sins for the sake of those behind me in line.
Despite all this talk about sins, the large number of them available to us to commit and the large number of sins that we actually commit (so many that we need an app to track them), today’s readings, and especially the gospel, give us direction and offer us hope in regard to our sins.
In today’s first reading, Moses not only tells the Israelites to observe the commandments, but he also explains to them how their lives will be a different if they do so. They will become an example to other nations, showing themselves to be a people of wisdom and intelligence, to be looked up to and admired. In fact, other nations will change to become like the Israelites and follow their ways. God will also bless the people with gifts and their lives will become better. When we follow God’s commandments and his will for our lives, we are blessed, we bless those around us, and the world becomes a better place.
In today’s second reading, James is telling his readers to not just be hearers of the word, but to be doers of the word, as well. He tells them this, not just because their lives will be better, but for a much more important reason. To quote James, “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.” When we truly embrace the word of God, not just knowing it, but actually following God’s word and doing God’s will, our souls saved for everlasting life.
The most important parts about sin in today’s readings come from what our Lord says in today’s gospel. Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites because they were worried about human rituals and external appearances, rather than what is truly important, God’s commandments and what is in their hearts. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” This is important because most of the sins that we commit are not the external sins like murder, robbery, committing acts of terrorism, or the licentiousness in the grand jury report, but our sins are interior sins, sins of the heart and mind: resentment, hatred, jealousy, envy, holding grudges, being unforgiving, and other seemingly minor sins. Sins that our neighbors probably do not know about us because we keep them hidden inside of us. They are like elephants in the trees because we hide them so well from others.
But we can’t hide them from our Lord. To him they are like elephants in the room. Obvious and plain as day. Jesus warns us about interior sins in today’s gospel. Before he lists the sins of the scribes and Pharisees, he states that these sins come “from within people, from their hearts” and from “evil thoughts.” The long list of items in the grand jury report also started in the hearts and minds of people long before they became the horrible external sins that have recently come to light. All sin starts from somewhere deep within us.
Jesus is speaking to us today about the importance of having a good interior life. Our Lord was human, so he knows our internal struggles with sin and the frustrations we have living in the world. While never committing a sin, he knows sin, because he spent his entire ministry hanging out with sinners. He knows we do not like to think about our sins and that we would like to keep them hidden from others. But as we have heard in today’s gospel, and see so often in our world, by ignoring our faults and our troubles, it often leads to even graver sins.
Our Lord does not judge us when we ask for forgiveness. He simply wants us to be honest about our sins and our weakness. Thomas Merton said, “We become saints not by overcoming our weakness, but by letting the Lord give us the strength.” That is what the interior life is all about. You open your heart and soul to God, all the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the Lord draws close to you and heals whatever is broken. That is what needed to happen, and has just started to happen, for individuals and the Church in regards to the findings of the grand jury report. To admit and acknowledge the sin and brokenness, and allow the Lord to come in and do his healing. So often people are looking for God outside of themselves, but you are much more likely to find him inside yourself, next to all your hurts and brokenness. Our Lord does his best work in hurts and brokenness. It’s not easy to become vulnerable before God and expose to our Lord the elephants we think we have hidden in the trees, but to him they are the elephants in the room. He sees them very clearly. Let him clear them out of your heart and mind for you.
Let me repeat what James said in today’s second reading, “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.” Our Lord is the word made flesh. Welcome him into heart, into your room full of elephants, and he will heal you and your soul will be saved.
Rejoice and be glad!