27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

FAITH!  All of our readings today speak of faith.  But what exactly is “faith”?  The dictionary definition is the belief in something that can’t be proven.  We can’t prove that Jesus rose from the dead, so if we believe it that means we have faith.  But, there are other kinds of faith.  Even atheists have faith in something, even if it’s misplaced faith that there is no God.

 

I have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow in the eastern sky.  I can’t prove it.  But my experience of almost 65 years is that it rises every day so it must surely rise tomorrow.  But there are a lot of crazy people in this world who have the capability of blowing up the planet if they decide to, so there’s at least a small possibility that there won’t be a tomorrow, let alone a sun rise, at least here on earth.

 

It could also be cloudy and overcast tomorrow so we can’t see the sun.  But even under the heaviest clouds, some light gets through so we know the sun’s up there somewhere.

 

Closer to home, I have faith that when I leave here today and head down Highway 55 toward home that someone won’t be coming the wrong way and hit me head on.  That faith is a little weaker, because I know it does happen.  I’m having faith in my fellow motorists which isn’t quite as strong as my faith in God or the cycles of the universe.

 

Even animals have some faith.  If you feed your dog everyday at 8 in the morning, you know he’s going to be waiting for you at 7:59 tomorrow.  As far as your pet is concerned, you’re god in his world and he has faith in you.

 

So, what’s Jesus telling us today.  If we have faith the size of a mustard seed we can move trees with just our voices.  A mustard seed is pretty small.  If I were to hold one up even you people in the front row probably couldn’t see it.  But this teeny-small seed can produce a fairly large tree; one tall enough for you to sit under it and enjoy the shade.

 

I’d like to think my faith is bigger than that little seed, but frankly I don’t believe that I can tell a tree to move and that it will obey.  Of course we live in modern times.  I guess if I had a friend with a bulldozer and I told him to move a tree, technically I’d be moving the tree with my voice, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.  After all, He did like to speak in parables and use examples.

 

I believe what he’s telling us is that He can move trees with just a command.  And, if we have enough faith in Him, He will hear our prayers and move the big things in our lives.  Maybe not trees, but there are a lot of other obstacles that seem just as stubborn that He can move for us if we ask.  But, if we don’t believe that He answers our prayers, there’s a pretty good chance that He won’t.

Look at our own church as an example.  In 1870 I think most people around here gave the Bohemian founders of Saint John’s zero chance of building a magnificent house of worship.  Frankly the locals weren’t crazy about the new immigrants.  Some of them probably secretly hoped that the Czechs would fail.  The odds were against them.  What did they know about building a church?  They didn’t have a lot of money.  But they did build it.  And their neighbors were amazed!  The day it was dedicated was a HUGE celebration.  They had done something that seemed to be impossible.  They had moved the sycamore tree.

 

Then just 26 years later a tornado destroyed their beautiful church.  They could have given up, but they didn’t.  They rebuilt it bigger and better than ever. And I’m as sure as I’m standing here that their faith, and their prayers, were just as important, if not more important than the skill of the builders who did the actual labor.

 

That’s what’s lacking today.  It’s no secret that our country is in a mess.  Unemployment is high.  Terrorists are running wild. Crime is a huge problem. Politicians on both sides of the aisle find it impossible to sit down and come up with workable solutions to these problems.  What went wrong?  I believe it’s a lack of faith.  If every Christian in America, whether they’re Catholics, or main-stream protestants, or fundamentalists, would forget our differences and get down on our knees to pray for our country, there would be a miracle.  And let’s not leave out the Jews and the Muslims and everybody else who believes in the Almighty.  Right now our churches, regardless of faith tradition, should be standing-room-only.

 

But so many people have lost their faith in God that they don’t have faith in anything else either.  Who really believes that our present government, and I’m talking about both parties, can solve our problems?    If we don’t have faith in God, how can we have faith in men?

 

Our politicians are so busy trying to blame the other guys, that nothing gets done.  We’re about to elect a new President. Frankly, neither candidate is very good. It’s going to come down to which one the fewest people don’t like and the majority of people don’t trust either one of them. The same is true right down the line all the way to the local races. Neither side wants to admit that they’re part of the problem.  It’s all about blaming somebody else.

 

We all have to take a look in the mirror on this one.  How often have we said, “it’s not my fault.” ….when it really is?

 

We all know about Adam and Eve.  They sinned.  You ask somebody what they did and they’ll say they sinned.  How did they sin?  They ate the apple.  Everybody knows that.  God told them not to eat the apple but they ate it anyway.  But that wasn’t the real sin.

 

What did Adam say to God when He caught him red-handed with the apple core in his hand?  He said, “It’s not my fault.  That woman you gave me made me do it.”  Then God confronted Eve, standing there with apple juice running down her chin.  What did she say?  “It’s not my fault.  That serpent that you made, tricked me.”

 

Eating the apple, disobeying God, may have been sinful.  But what do we know about God?  He forgives sins.  If Adam had said, “Lord, I’m sorry I disobeyed you.  I shouldn’t have eaten that fruit.”, he might still living in the garden.  If Eve had admitted her sin and that she had talked Adam into eating the apple with her, and then asked for forgiveness, she might still be in the garden with him.

 

No the worst sin was refusing to take responsibility for their own actions.  That’s what got them thrown out of paradise.  And yet, so many people today think they’re going to get INTO paradise after committing the same sin, not just once, but over and over again.

 

God will forgive our sins if we ask Him to, and if we have faith, even faith as small as a mustard seed, He will.

 

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26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

the-good-placeThere’s a new show on NBC called “The Good Place”.   I don’t think it’s ever going to be called great television, but it’s kind of cute. The idea is that this young woman, Eleanor, played by Kristen Bell, has died and gone to the “good place”. But there’s been a mistake. In life Eleanor was kind of a jerk and doesn’t deserve to be in the “good place”,

 

Her presence in the good place is causing some kind of a disturbance in the atmosphere and Eleanor has to clean up her act before anyone finds out what’s happened and she gets sent to the “bad place”.

 

Like I said, the show is cute, but besides not being great television, it’s also not great theology. No one ever mentions God and the words “heaven” and “hell” are never used. In fact, they don’t talk a lot about the “bad place” except to play a sound bite where there’s a lot of screaming and wailing. Eleanor is told that that’s what’s happening right now in the bad place.

 

There are some good things about this show. One is Kristen Bell and Ted Danson are very good. Another thing is that it’s a show about morality, which is rare today in prime-time television. As hard as Eleanor tries, it’s impossible to curse in “the good place”. Her mentor and “soul mate” is trying to educate her on ethics and morality so she can stay. And, even though the show isn’t very good theology, it’s kind of Catholic in it’s approach to heaven and hell. Overall, it’s a better use of thirty minutes than a lot of other things on television. It’s only been on twice so we’ll have to see how it develops and if it can get and hold an audience with it’s morality message.

 

Eleanor’s story is a little bit like the story of the rich man in today’s Gospel though Luke’s story is much more disturbing. Here we have a rich man who lived high on the hog when he was alive and would have nothing to do with Lazurus, the poor man who was lying at his door. Now they’ve both died and Lazurus has been carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham while the rich man is in torment in the netherworld. Luke tells us he is suffering in the flames.

 

The image is disturbing because it’s a very graphic description of what could happen to us. lazarusIt’s one of the few times in the New Testament when hell is described in such graphic detail. Yes, I said the h-word. Hell. The netherworld. The bad place. It’s something we don’t like to think about. But, here it is in black and white. It IS a possibility.

 

So what does the rich man do? He tries to use Lazurus. “Send him to dip his finger in water and cool my tongue.” Even now he doesn’t get it. Then, when Abraham tells him that it’s not going to happen, he wants Lazurus sent to his father and brothers to warn them of what could happen to them, again taking advantage of the poor man. But Abraham tells the rich man, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to THEM.”

 

This is another disturbing thought for us. We also have Moses and the prophets. The first reading today is from Amos, one of the greatest of all the prophets, telling us “Woe to the complacent.” Are you complacent? Or do you take eternity seriously? The readings today are meant to shake us out of our complacency. How much more warning do we need? The reading ends with the very ominous passage, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

 

One thing about today’s Gospel story that I find interesting is that after 2,000 years we know the poor man’s name; Lazurus. But we don’t know the rich man’s name. He must have been important in this life, otherwise he wouldn’t have been rich. But today we have no idea who he was. His story is important to us but his identity isn’t.

Palm Sunday

“Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!”  That’s what you just said, isn’t it?  How does that make you feel?  Do you feel like you’re just playing a part in a play?  Does the fact that you’re surrounded by other people saying the same thing make it feel better?  Is it just something you say because it’s in the misallette?

 

It’s no accident that we say these words on Palm Sunday.  This is the day when we recreate the events that led to Jesus’ death.  And you and I are just as guilty of His execution as the people who cried out for His death twenty centuries ago.  In fact, we’re more guilty.

 

Those Jews who called for Jesus to die only did it that one time; just for one day.  You and I cry out for His crucifixion every time we commit a sin.  Oh, we may not think it’s such a big deal to sin.  After all, everybody else does it too.  What’s a little lie?  What’s the big deal if we take home office supplies from work?  What difference does it make if I spend a couple of hours every day at work surfing the Internet.  Who are we hurting?

 

I’ll tell you who.  First, we hurt ourselves.  Every time we commit a sin we’re separating ourselves from God.  Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I tell you.” Logic tells us that the inverse of that statement is also true.  “You aren’t my friends if you don’t do what I tell you.”  We hurt ourselves when we move away from Jesus’ love.

Second, when we sin we hurt others.  Stealing, lying, and cheating are sins because they harm our fellow human beings.  We’re supposed to love one another, not hurt them.

 

If you feel even the least bit guilty yelling “Crucify Him!”, I’m suggesting that we all do exactly that every single day.  Every time we take advantage, every time we bend the rules, every time we do something wrong because we think we’re not going to get caught, or because we think we’re entitled, we’re saying “Crucify Him!”  Every time we look the other way when someone else sins, we’re saying “Crucify Him!”  Every time we fail to do something to help our fellow man, we’re saying “Crucify Him!” Every time we fail to speak out against abortion, we yell “Crucify Him!”

 

And every time we hide our Catholic light under a bushel basket we’re saying “Crucify Him!”  Every time we don’t try to bring people to Christ, every time we don’t tell the world about what a great and wonderful faith we have, even when we eat out and fail to say grace because we don’t want to be embarrassed, you guessed it, we’re saying“Crucify Him!”

 

We live in a time of great materialism.  Furniture store commercials scream out “I want it all!”  And you and I are watching it happen.  One week from today is Easter Sunday, the day when we celebrate Jesus Christ’s glorious resurrection.  It’s the biggie.  For many of our brothers and sisters, it’s one of two days of the year when they actually come to mass.

 

What do they do the other fifty Sundays of the year.  I have no idea, but I do know that they’re adding their voices to the multitudes who never miss a chance to say “Crucify Him!”

 

Good Friday

Yesterday morning, I was at the Cathedral Basilica for the annual Chrism mass. It’s the mass where the Archbishop blesses the holy oils for the coming year and it’s the mass where the priests renew their priestly vows. As you can imagine, there are a lot of priests and deacons at the Chrism mass.

Seating at the Cathedral is priests in front, deacons in the back, which is as it should be.  The only problem with the setup is that during the Consecration of the Eucharist, the priests stand while the deacons kneel. All the deacons can see is the backs of chasubles and a lot of bald heads.

As I knelt there yesterday morning, I wondered, as I often do, just what I was doing there. I know a lot of priests and deacons and most of them are good, holy men. The deacon who was sitting next to me is one of the holiest people I know. Then there was me, a sinner of the first order. Why would God choose me to be in this group?

But, you know what? I do belong in that group and here’s why. I don’t and can’t know what’s in someone else’s heart. I believe most of the men sitting around me at the Cathedral yesterday are more holy than I am, but I can’t know for sure. We’ve learned in the past few years that a lot of men we all believed were saints are actually pretty serious sinners. We don’t know. Only God knows.

Could it be that they have the same doubts and fears that I do?

Scripture tells us not to judge others. Is judging someone else to be good just as dangerous as judging them to be bad? Maybe so.

Think about what failures the Apostles were?  Judas sold Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver.  Peter denied he knew Him three times.  The other ten ran off and left Him when He needed them the most.  The only ones who stood by Him were the women.  You don’t have to be perfect to serve Jesus.

If Jesus only called perfect men to be clergy, think how frustrating that would be for everyone else.  They’d think they didn’t have a prayer (prayer, get it?  Jesus does have a sense of humor.) Plus, there wouldn’t be very many priests and deacons. Maybe none.

I think Jesus wants His clergy to let people see that they’re sinners, just like they are.  Judas didn’t have to turn Jesus over to the Jews, but somebody had to fulfill the words of the prophets.  Jesus knew He’d do it, even before he chose him to be an apostle.

Peter didn’t have to deny him three times, but He did, just as He knew he would. He even told him he would do it.  He knew the others would run away.  But he chose them anyway, just like He chose you and me, sinners that we are.

So, today we mark the day when He died a painful death on the cross for you and for me.  If we were sinless He wouldn’t have had to do that.  But we aren’t and He did.  In effect He told us that He’d like us to live a sinless life, but He knew that we couldn’t.  So, He let Himself be crucified so that we might be forgiven.

As painful as that was for Him, He knew it would be even more painful to sit back and watch us destroy ourselves.

Without Good Friday, that’s exactly what we’d do.

Exaltation of the Holy Cross

 

The world-famous high wire walker stood on the banks of Niagara Falls. A steel cable was strung from one side to the other and a huge crowd had gathered. He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, today I am going to walk this thin cable across these mighty falls. But, in order for me to do it, I must know that you believe I can. Do you believe??”

 

The crowd yelled out, “WE BELIEVE! WE BELIEVE!”

 

So he jumped up on the cable and began to walk. Slowly he proceeded to the other side and when he reached the other side, the crowd went wild. Then he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, now I’m going to perform an even greater feat. I’m going to cross the falls on this thin cable blind-folded. The crowd gasped and he said again, “In order to accomplish this amazing feat, I need to know that you believe I can do it. I draw my strength from your belief in me.” Again the crowd went wild. “WE BELIEVE! WE BELIEVE!” they yelled, even louder than before.

 

With that, the daredevil put on his blind-fold and proceeded to cross the falls again and again the crowd went wild!

 

Then he said, for my third and final act today, I’m going to cross these mighty falls on this thin cable, blind-folded and pushing this wheelbarrow with someone sitting in it. Once again, I must ask, do you believe I can do it?” Again the crowd yelled, “WE BELIEVE! WE BELIEVE!”

 

Then the daredevil said, “I need a volunteer from the crowd to sit in the wheelbarrow.” And they all started walking away. The only sound was the roar of the falls.

 

See, there’s a big difference between saying you believe and actually believing. Saint John tells us in today’s Gospel, possibly one of the most famous of all the scriptural passages, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” You might say to me, “Deacon, I believe in Jesus so I’m going to go to heaven when I die.” But hold on. Do you believe like the crowd at Niagra Falls? Do you believe as long as there’s no personal risk? Or are you willing to risk your earthly life to gain eternal life?

 

This is where a lot of us get it wrong. We say, “of course I believe. I go to mass every weekend.” That’s all well and good, but what else do we do? We may never be called on to actually risk martyrdom, but how do we act when someone challenges us? Do we risk embarrassment by defending the Church? Are we willing to do something as simple as making the sign of the cross and saying grace in a restaurant with our friends? Are we willing to call out a friend or family member when we see that they’re doing something sinful? Will we even do something as simple as inviting a friend or family member to come to mass with us?

 

You tell me you believe. PROVE IT! Get in the wheelbarrow. Turn your life over to Jesus, not just for one hour out of 168 each week, but every minute of every day!

 

A lot of us who wear this Roman collar are even more guilty of this phony belief stuff than any of you are. We’ve been called to preach the Gospel but when push comes to shove, we’re afraid to get in your face and ask the hard questions because we don’t want to make you mad. We want everybody to like us. We don’t want to hurt your feelings. And, God forbid, you should stop giving money because of something we said. So, we don’t challenge you. We don’t stand up here and point out your sins or warn you of what might happen. We’re happy with the status quo.

 

But, where would we be if Jesus had been happy with the status quo? If He avoided hurting people’s feelings? I think you know where we’d be. Jesus let Himself be hung on the cross that we exult today, to save us from our sins; to save us from ourselves. But we have to do our part.
I started my sales career selling life insurance more than 40 years ago. Believe me, that’s a tough sell. For one thing, nobody wants to think about their own death. And they definitely aren’t inclined to give up money today for something that’s going to come in the future, especially when they don’t know when that future date is. No young father wants to think that he’s not going to be around to see his kids grow up. He thinks he’ll always be here to provide for his family. It’s just human nature. But the fact is, we’re all going to die sometime. And we have to prepare for that day.

 

Here it is, 2014, and I’m still trying to convince you to prepare for that day that will come. I’m selling eternal life insurance.

 

Here’s the thing. When you and I stand before Jesus for that final judgment, He’s not going to ask us how many friends we had. He’s not going to ask us how much money we made. He’s not even going to ask us how many times we went to mass. He’s going to ask us how many people we helped get into heaven.

 

He’s not going to care how many years we were an altar server, or how many years we sang in the choir. He’s not going to ask me if the people I served liked me or not. All He’s going to look at is how we served Him. Whatever He asks us, He already knows the answer.

 

In the first reading today, the people complained against God and against Moses. He had brought them out of captivity. He had saved them from slavery. What were they saying. They didn’t like the “wretched” food. And the Lord punished them by sending snakes. Then they changed their tune. “Wait a minute, Moses. We’ve sinned by complaining. Take away the snakes and we’ll be good.”

 

Does that sound familiar? How often have we been ungrateful to God? Some of you, not many, but a few, sound just like those Israelites. You know who you are. Things may not always go the way we want them to go. Sometimes we have to look at the big picture. Maybe the food isn’t great, but it’s better than what Pharaoh gave us in Egypt and we’re free! Maybe Saint John’s isn’t a parish anymore, maybe we don’t have a resident priest, maybe you don’t like me, but we’re still open!

 

If we’re going to stay open, maybe we have to do some things differently. Take a look around at all the empty seats. Obviously what we’ve been doing isn’t working. Change is hard. It makes us uncomfortable. But it’s also inevitable. Like any organism, if we don’t grow we die. In 1896 this church, which the people had built with their own hands just 26 years ago was destroyed by a tornado. I’m sure there were people who were angry. I’m sure there were some who cursed God for their misfortune. Some of them probably even blamed the pastor. But the majority of them rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt this church, bigger and better than it was before. Those were the people who got into the wheelbarrow.

 

Today, we’re faced with an even bigger challenge. It’s hard work, but rebuilding a physical church is not nearly as hard as rebuilding a church community. That’s what you and I are called to do. Like the daredevil at the Falls, I’m asking you, “do you believe?” Are you willing to trust God to do what’s best for all of us and to sacrifice your own ego to gain eternal life?

 

Jesus died on the cross but He also asked us to take up OUR crosses and follow Him. Are we willing to get into the wheelbarrow? It’s a question we all have to answer.

 

 

30 pieces of silver

I don’t do this often, but on this Good Friday I’ve decided to repost something I wrote back in 2011.  One thing has changed in three years.  Today the price of silver is about $20.00 an ounce.  That makes to price Judas was paid, in 2014 dollars about $600.00, a pathetically small amount for the life of the son of God. [mb]

30 pieces of silver; that’s what they thought Jesus was worth.  It’s the price that the Jewish leaders paid Judas to betray our Savior.  Silver is worth about $45.00 an ounce as of today, so if the pieces used to buy Jesus were about an ounce each, then Judas got a whopping $1,350.00 for turning Jesus in.  Seems like a bargain to me, especially when Judas gave the silver back when he realized what he’d done.

That raises a question.  I wonder what Judas thought they were going to do to Jesus?  Surely he didn’t think they were going to throw him a party?  Or maybe ask Him to join their little club?  Jesus had been telling the twelve that bad things were coming, did Judas not listen?  I guess we’ll never know.

But, back to the 30 pieces of silver.  It seems like small change to betray the son of God.  But, at what price do we betray Jesus today?  Will we give Him up in exchange for a night of drinking and hitting on the neighbors’ wives?  Will we give Him up for a couple of hours looking at a porn movie?  Maybe we give Him up for a few office supplies?  Or, maybe we give Him up for the pleasure of talking about our friends behind their backs?  Maybe Judas’ $1,350.00 wasn’t such a cheap price after all.

I know people who give Jesus up so they can sleep in on Sunday morning.  I also know people who give up Jesus so they can play golf on Sunday.  Maybe a good parking spot for the Cardinal’s game is enough to tempt some people to pass by church on their way downtown.

Today is Holy Thursday, the day we remember the Lord’s Last Supper and Judas’ betrayal.  Many of us will go to mass (some of us will go three times, but that’s another story) but most of us won’t.  It’s Thursday night.  Some folks are willing to trade an hour with Jesus for an hour of CSI.  That’s too bad.

Living in a very secular world, where devout Christians are looked on with scorn by many of our brothers and sisters, we need to be reminded once in a while of what Jesus did for us.  The holy trifecta of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday is just the place for us.  An annual reminder of what actually happened twenty centuries ago doesn’t hurt.  In fact it’s good for us.  Yes, I know these liturgies can get a little long some times.  So what!  Three or four hours, once a year is a small price to pay.  Trust me.  You’ll get more than thirty pieces of silver worth of peace and blessings in return.

 

Why does the Catholic Church exclude homosexuals?

As I was driving home from work yesterday, the topic under discussion on the radio was “Why does the Catholic Church exclude homosexuals?”  It reminded me of the recent kerfuffle when Phil Robertson’s comments on the sin of homosexual behavior caused him to come under attack for being “anti-gay”.

This misunderstanding of Church teaching happens far too often so I thought I’d address it here.  First and foremost, GOD LOVES EVERYBODY!  It doesn’t matter if you’re a sinner or a saint, God loves you.  That certainly applies no matter what your sexual orientation might be.  You’ve heard it said, “Hate the sin.  Love the sinner.”  That, in a nutshell, is the Church’s teaching.   During Jesus’ time on earth  He was constantly under fire for hanging out with sinners.

To really understand this, I recommend Christopher West‘s excellent series on the Theology of the Body.  But, here’s the short version of what the Church teaches

The sex act is a gift from God, when it’s used as He intended it.  Sexual activity is to be between a man and a woman, married to each other, and open to the possibility of children.  Anything else is a mortal sin.  If any one of these three things is missing, then ia beautiful gift from God becomes sinful.  (Including homosexual sex, premarital sex, extramarital sex, bestiality, sex with children, and any sex where artificial means are used to prevent pregnancy).

“Be fruitful and multiply”, He told Adam and Eve.  It can’t be much clearer than that.  Married love is part of God’s plan.  Anything we do to mock God’s plan is mortally sinful.

The radio talkers also talked about the Church’s position on artificial birth control.  They said that some large percentage of Catholic women use it.  That may be true.  But, and this is a big but, the use of artificial means of birth control means that the couple is not open to having children.  The sex act changes from a blessing from God to a sin against God.  How sad.

The important thing for us to remember is this.  The Church didn’t make this stuff up.  People say that we Catholics have too many rules.  The reality is that the Church has no rules when it comes to membership.  You’re not going to be thrown out of the Roman Catholic Church for being gay; for living with your boy (or girl) friend; and you’re not going to be thrown out for taking “the pill.”  The Church has no way of knowing what you’re doing and even if she did, “Hate the sin.  Love the sinner.” still applies.

At least half of the couples who come to me for a Catholic wedding are living together.  Do I still marry them?  Of course I do.  But I also council them to stop.  Obviously, if they don’t get hit by a train between now and their wedding day, they always have a chance to go to confession at the last possible minute.  And the good news is that if they do go to confession right before their wedding, cohabiting is a sin that they won’t commit again.

The thing is, we don’t sin against the Church.  We sin against God.  The Church doesn’t exist to condemn sinners.  She exists to help us avoid sin.  She teaches us what’s sinful and what isn’t.  If we choose to ignore a particular teaching, we don’t hurt the Church, we hurt ourselves.  If our hypothetical engaged couple does get hit by a train, they’re going to have to stand before Jesus and explain why they chose to ignore His will.  That won’t be pretty.