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Deacon Tony Conti - Year of Mercy Talk - October 2015

Deacon Tony Conti

October 2015

Be Merciful as your Heavenly Father is Merciful

 

  •  
  • This evening we’re going to focus in on two commands given by Jesus in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew…
  • Specifically – Luke 6:36 and Matthew 5:48…
  • These Gospels deal with Jesus’ discourse on love of one’s enemies, but what’s truly remarkable about these teachings, are the words that Jesus uses to end each one…
  • Matthew’s version ends with the words: “So be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect.
  • Luke’s version ends quite differently as we will see…

 

What Does it Mean to be Perfect?

  • We can often misinterpret Mathew’s version of this teaching… and this can have a dramatic impact on how we see our faith, and how live our lives…
  • St. Luke (6:36) ends this same teaching, with the words: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
  • What a difference... We may not be able to be perfect... But we have little excuse for not being merciful...
  • Jesus gives us many tall orders in the Gospels, but this command to be perfect is perhaps the most difficult of all for each of us to live up to…
  • We’re all broken in many and varied ways, so how can God call us to a state of perfection?
  • Perhaps the real question here, is what we visualize as perfection in this life
  • First we need to appreciate that there are two types of perfection… Physical perfection, and Spiritual perfection…
  • Physical perfection involves the material world… It generally involves how proficient we can become at some endeavor…
  • God calls each of us to develop and use our talents and our gifts to the full…
  • Striving for this type of perfection is admirable, as long as we don’t take it to such extremes that we neglect or hurt others in the process of striving for excellence…
  • The perfection that we’re going to focus on this evening however, is “Spiritual” perfection…
  • What many might refer to as “holiness…”
  • If we see spiritual perfection as living a “sinless life,” or as living a perfectly holy life… than we’re bound to become frustrated… disheartened… and even be tempted to give up altogether…
  • None of us are up to that challenge…
  • But is this really what Jesus is calling us to?

 

What is Spiritual Perfection (Holiness)

  • Someone once observed that holiness is not the absence of sin, but rather the presence of God
  • Perhaps the same can be said of perfection
  • Spiritual perfection exists not in the absence of sin, but rather in the presence of God
  • Therefore in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus commands us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect… He’s really commanding us to love
  • Because perfection can only be found in God, Who is Love……
  • When we are merciful… We therefore imitate God Who is perfect

 

  • To strive for perfection in this life is a worthy goal, but to expect perfection from ourselves, or from others, is a cruel lie...
  • Unfortunately, we often measure ourselves and others against the world’s definition of perfection, leading us to the inevitable “let down,” when either we, or they, fail to measure up ...
  • We sometimes put human beings on pedestals, and then we’re shocked when they fall from grace...
  • We can even use perfection (or the lack of perfection) as a way to feel superior to others…
  • It seems at times, that in today’s society, the first one to identify the flaw in the other wins...
  • It seems that we’ve lost all tolerance for human frailty and weakness.... That we’ve come to expect ‘computer-like precision’ and ‘super-human functioning’ from human beings, who are not machines and who are not perfect...

Learning to Embrace Who We Are

  • When will we feel secure enough in our faith, and in God’s love for us, to admit, and even to embrace, our human condition?
  • Many of us have misinterpreted Jesus’ message in Matthew’s Gospel
  • Brennan Manning wrote the following: “The Good News means we can stop lying to ourselves.  The sweet sound of Amazing Grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception.  It keeps us from denying that the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us.  As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with those closest to me.  When I go to church I can leave my white hat at home and admit that I have failed.  God not only loves me as I am, but also knows me as I am.  Because of this I don’t need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to Him.  I can accept ownership of my poverty and powerlessness and neediness.”  (The Ragamuffin Gospel, Pg. 23).
  • Isn’t that what our Christian walk is all about – To take the promises of Christ at face value and to dare to live each day as forgiven men and women?
  • Yet – How many of us instead, prefer to dwell on our imperfections?
  • In the Gospel of John, Jesus returned to the Apostles to show Himself to Thomas – So that Thomas might come to believe...
    • Jesus does the same for each of us... He returns to us over and over... repeating His words to Thomas: “...do not be unbelieving, but believe...”
      • First and foremost Jesus wants us to believe that we are each God’s Beloved...
      • He wants us to believe that we are redeemed and forgiven, and most importantly, He wants us to live As forgiven sons and daughters of God...

 

Facing and Accepting Our Brokenness

  • In 2nd Corinthians, Chapter 12 - St. Paul laments about his “thorn in the flesh,” which he begged God to take from him...
  • We all suffer from thorns in the flesh... Perhaps they’re habitual sins that we too may have begged God to take from us...
  • We all struggle with our humanity... We struggle to hide our brokenness, and so we work hard most of our lives to never allow ourselves to become vulnerable...
  • We tend to hide behind walls that we’ve built around our hearts to protect us from the hurts of the world…
  • We often wear masks to hide our true selves in order to “Fit in”……
  • Somewhere along the line we were taught that we needed to be perfect – That our self-worth was dependent upon how well we “performed”...
  • And this false belief can often be reinforced by misinterpreting Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew…
  • Fr. Robert Barron who wrote: “The Holy life is not primarily about moral excellence or spiritual athleticism or any sort of human achievement; it is about being drawn, by Grace, into a dignity, infinitely beyond our merits or expectations”… Bridging The Great Divide.
  • As St. Paul came to realize through his own trials, it is only in our weakness that we can come to acknowledge the truth that we are totally dependent upon God for everything; and that left to our own devices, we are all prone to sin...
  • When will we finally learn to accept our brokenness, as St. Paul did... and come to accept that we are not God, and that we don’t need to pretend to be...
  • We should never need to apologize to God for our humanity
  • God understands our human condition far better than we do...
  • God knows our struggles, and our woundedness, and our weaknesses...
  • God knows it all... But God is able to see through it all, to the beauty that lies within us... The beauty of His Creation – The beauty that is you...
  • And God calls each of us, with His Grace and Mercy, to do the same... First with ourselves, and then with others...
  • With this gift of acceptance of who we are, and Whose we are... Comes the wisdom to realize that we are incapable of changing ourselvesThat only God can change us... and that God is in charge of our sanctification – He’s not asking us to do it ourselves...
    • On the journey of life - We need to learn to stop asking God: “Are we there yet?”
  • None of this means that we stop working to better ourselves, or do our best to avoid bad habits – This struggle is an integral part of our journey...
  • What it means; is that with this struggle, we also learn to accept ourselves wherever we are on the journey... As God accepts us... That we learn to stop beating ourselves up for our failures, and trust in God’s mercy and compassion...
  • In essence - We slowly learn to show ourselves, and others; the same unconditional love that God shows us...
  • Our journey on this earth is intended to teach us how to become fully human... as Jesus was fully human...
    • We honor God by learning to become who He made us to be – By becoming fully human…
    • And we imitate God, being merciful…First to ourselves, and then to those around us

 

Perfection is Not the Answer

  • From the Gospel of Mark (5:25-34) we hear Jesus tell the woman who had touched
    His Cloak for healing - "Daughter, your faith has saved you.  Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.”
    • He didn’t say – Daughter, your perfection has saved you...
    • He didn’t say – Daughter, your willpower has saved you...
    • He didn’t say – Daughter, your strength against temptation has saved you...
  • He said – Daughter, your faith has saved you...
  • Our salivation does not hinge on our ability and strength to resist temptation – It hinges upon our Faith – Our belief in Christ – Our conviction of God’s unconditional love for us...
  • As long as we depend upon our accomplishments and upon the love of the world to define our self-worth – We will never be able to find true peace or happiness in this world...
  • And we will continue to seek perfection in all the wrong ways, and in all the wrong places…
  • It sometimes takes a lifetime to begin to internalize God’s deep love for us... A lifetime of struggle and pain, only to learn that we never needed to earn God’s love in the first place.... That it was there all along...
  • God isn’t asking for our worship – He’s asking for our imitation...
  • And the most perfect imitation of God is to love...
  • We imitate God by being merciful… not by trying or pretending to be perfect

 

What Does Mercy Look Like to Us

  • We can’t appreciate mercy if we’ve never needed it…
  • In last month’s introduction I quoted Father Richard Rohr who wrote: (Radical Grace; July-Sept 2008): “You don’t know mercy until you’ve really needed it.  As Thomas Merton once said – ‘Mercy within mercy, within mercy.’  It’s as if we collapse into deeper nets of acceptance, deeper nets of being enclosed, and finally find we’re in a net we can’t fall out of.  We are captured by Grace.  Only after much mistrust and resting do we accept that we are accepted.”

 

  • It’s only in our vulnerabilities, in our weaknesses, and in our brokenness that we can appreciate mercy…
  • It’s only in our need for, and our experience of mercy in our own lives that we can learn to become merciful…
  • Jesus’ whole life teaches us one endless lesson – He teaches us the indisputable power of love...
  • Many years ago, as a young man just starting out on my own, I had a small apartment with a loft above the living room. 
  • Being full of energy in those days, as I bounded down the ladder from the loft, I would skip the last step and jump to the living room floor below...
  • At this particular time in my life, I was struggling with an issue that left me somewhat depressed and sullen – I was not myself emotionally...
  • One night, there was a knock at the door, and it was my neighbor from the apartment below mine...
  • He immediately went into a rage about how disturbing it was to him to hear the thump on his ceiling every time my feet landed on the floor...
  • He went on for several minutes, as I stood quietly, not uttering a single word...
  • After he was through, I told him that I was very sorry; that I had no idea that I was disturbing him; and that it wouldn’t happen again... At that he left...
  • I was able to stand in silence, because I was too distraught emotionally, to even try to defend myself...
  • On that night, I learned like St. Paul, that sometimes our weaknesses and our brokenness can be our greatest strengths...
  • A few weeks later, there was another knock at the door...
  • When I opened the door, it was my neighbor again, and my first thought was, “Oh God, what now?”
  • This time however, he was very calm, and he told me that he came to apologize to me for his behavior a few weeks earlier...  We parted as friends... And I learned a very valuable lesson...
  • God uses the weak and the wounded to heal others...
  • Because it’s the weak and the wounded, the battered and the broken, the haggard and the weary souls of this world who know best of our need for God’s compassion and mercy...
  • And we can only know of God’s compassion and mercy, if we have hungered for it in our own brokenness and weakness...
  • And once we know mercy… We can begin to show mercy to ourselves and others…
  • It’s only in our ability to receive and to give love that mercy becomes possible for us…
  • The illusion of perfection can often be a curse rather than a blessing…
  • When we begin to believe in our own righteousness, and start comparing ourselves to others, mercy can seem unnecessary in our lives…
  • We can begin to believe that mercy is only for the weak, for those who can’t seem to cope with life
  • And when we delude ourselves in this way… that’s when we’re often headed for a fall in life
  • It always seems to come back to St. Paul’s paradoxical statement in 2nd Corinthians… “…for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
  • It’s only in recognizing and admitting both to ourselves and to God; our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities, that we can allow Christ to fully enter our hearts…

Humility is the Key to Sanctity

  • It’s been said that humility is truth…
  • It’s simply acknowledging who we are, and who Whose we are…
  • When we believe that spiritual perfection is the key to sanctity, we fool ourselves into believing that we need to earn God’s love…
  • We fool ourselves into believing that we must perform for God…
  • Essentially, we buy into the world’s wisdom that there’s no free lunch... That God’s unconditional love isn’t really unconditional at all
  • And when we do that… We buy into the lie that God demands sacrifice rather than mercy
  • When we begin to think this way, we’re essentially creating God in our own image…
  • And in doing so, we do a great disservice to both God, and to ourselves…
  • The Prophet Hosea tells us in Chapter 6: “for it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts...”
  • And Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 9: “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
  • We each need to take time to dwell on these words and let them sink in, because they may be totally contrary to what many of us have come to believe about God... and when we can truly internalize these words... our whole worldview of what it means to be a Christian will change...
  • It’s often much easier for us to view our faith as a series of rules and obligations that need to be met, rather than try to meet the challenges put before us by the Prophet Hosea, and by Jesus...

 

God Asks Only One Thing of Us

  • In the Gospel of Matthew, (Chapter 22:15-21)… As the Pharisees continued to test Jesus one of them asked: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?  He said to him, ‘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 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.’”
  • That’s what we’re expected to give back to God… Our love of God and of neighbor
  • And this love is manifested through our compassion and mercy toward others…
  • Christianity isn’t difficult to understand… But it can be difficult to practice
  • We can often complicate and distort Jesus’ message, rather than try to live it
  • It’s much easier to worship Christ than it is to follow Him
  • Jesus says nothing about trying to make ourselves worthy of salvation
  • He says nothing about trying to fix our inherent brokenness
  • He says nothing about trying to earn God’s love
  • He asks only that we love God and neighbor
  • Our transformation into God’s very image can only occur by learning to love as Jesus lovesby learning to become merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful
  • Christianity isn’t about getting everything right in our lives…
  • It’s not about working our way into heaven through our good works…
  • And… It’s not about having all of the answers to all of the hard questions in life…
  • Christianity is about living and proclaiming the Good News that we are Redeemed Sons and Daughters of a most merciful and loving Creator
  • The Good News of a God Who says to each of us:
    • I know that you’re incapable of getting everything right – But I still love you
    • I know that your willpower and strength are limited and weak at times – But I understand
    • I know that you’re incapable of grasping the mystery that is God – But that’s not necessary
  • This is the message of Christianity that we all too soon forget
  • This is the message of Christianity that can all too easily become distorted…

 

  • It’s much easier for us to believe that God demands that we “get our acts together” before He’ll open the gates of heaven to us… After all - Isn’t that what we would demand?
  • The really good news however, is that God doesn’t see or think or act like we do…

What’s Holding Us Back

  • Our human frailties, our imperfections and our weaknesses are not our greatest obstacles…
  • Our greatest obstacle is ourselves
    • Our inability to accept God’s unconditional love…
    • Our constant fears…
    • Our negative outlook on life…
    • Our rigidity to allowing the Spirit to work in and through us…
  • Our usefulness as God’s instruments has nothing to do with our weaknesses or our faults…
  • It has everything to do with how well we’re learning to love
  • Learning to love first ourselves… and then others

 

  • Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was an object lesson for all of humanity on the power of love to overcome all adversity…
  • In the book The Spirituality of Imperfection the authors wrote: “Spirituality begins with this first insight: We are all imperfect.  Such a vision not only invites but requires Tolerance: (an) active appreciation of the richness and variety of human beings on this earth, along with the understanding that we all struggle with the same demons, we all share the same fears and sorrows, (and) we all do the best we can with what we have.” (Pg. 199).
  • Perhaps that last line is the key… That we all do the best we can with what we have
  • That’s all God ever asks of us…

We Are Enough – Just As We Are

  • What is it in us that makes us feel that we must change ourselves... that makes us feel inadequate?  
  • Why do we find it so difficult to accept ourselves just as we are... as God accepts us?  
  • When we go through life constantly dissatisfied with who we are, we dishonor God, who made us this way with all of our faults and all of our weaknesses…  
  • This doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to overcome our weaknesses and our faults...
  • We're all called to be the best us that we can be... But it also means that we’re to be accepting of our faults and weaknesses, trusting that God can bring good from weakness, and that God wants us to enjoy and cherish our lives, not ruminate constantly on what we might think is lacking in us… 
  • None of us will ever walk the perfect walk through this life… and we’re not expected to
  • Although sin, and our failings in life are not to be encouraged or glorified… God can and will use our weaknesses to sanctify us…
  • Only God can write straight with crooked lines…
  • God wastes nothing… Everything in our lives… the good, the bad, and the ugly are used by God to shape and transform us into the image of His resurrected Son…
  • Everything is redemptive
  • We need to eventually come to the realization that we are enough just as we are… not as we wish we could be
  • Brene’ Brown calls this “Wholehearted Living,” and she wrote the following… “Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness.  It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.  It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”  (Daring Greatly, Pg. 10).

 

  • That’s the essence of living the abundant life that Jesus wants for each of us…
  • God didn’t send us here to mark time, or to hide in the corner until it was all over…
  • God sent us here to live fully, to learn how to become fully human, and to show others how to live wholeheartedly
  • We’re all called to wholehearted living…
  • And we cannot live wholeheartedly until we can finally come to believe that we are enough, just as we are… and that we lack nothing
  • It’s often the illusion of scarcity perpetuated by this world, that tempts us to believe the lie that we are not enough
  • That we’re not good enough… that we’re not smart enough… that we’re not attractive enough… that we’re not wealthy enoughWe each have our own lists
  • We need to constantly remind ourselves that we are all works in progress…. God is not finished with any of us…
  • God doesn’t expect, nor does God demand spiritual or physical perfection from us
  • God asks only one thing from us throughout the Gospels… That we learn to love unconditionally, as the Father loves unconditionally…
  • And in order to do this, we must strive to become merciful in all aspects of our lives…
  • Mercy, compassion, kindness, and love are what make us human
  • They are the key distinguishing characteristics that separate us from rest of the animal kingdom…
  • The perfection referenced by Jesus in the Gospel of Mathew is not the perfection that the world understands…
  • Like the Gospels themselves… It is a contrarian interpretation of perfection which has little to do with being sinless, and everything to do with our ability to give and receive love
  • The whole of Christ’s teachings, the true nature of God, and our vocations as Baptized Christians are all encapsulated in this one line from the Gospel of Luke...
    • Be merciful, just as (also) your Father is merciful...
  • None of this is possible when we declare ourselves unworthy of love
  • None of this is possible when we declare ourselves deficient in some way, shape, or form
  • When you’re afraid, when you’re unsure of yourself, when you’re ready to condemn yourself… when you feel that you have no love to share… Remember these words: Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ:  I AM ENOUGH

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