Divine Sanitation

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“Hurry, the Garbage Man is coming!” I can still hear my mother’s voice as we raced to take out the last bag of trash in time for the weekly pickup. She heard the squeal of the truck’s brakes up the block and sent us into motion so we wouldn’t miss the opportunity to get rid of that last bit of garbage.

These days I still sometimes rush to put the garbage out at the curb in time, and after dragging a couple of 32 gallon cans to the street or after putting out bundles of shrub prunings I feel temporarily exhausted. This makes me appreciate the work the “Garbage Men” do each day. They don’t only pick up my trash, but everyone else’s as well. They must be in great physical shape to repeatedly lift the curbside cans and bags throughout their route. And they must be in great psychological state as they do this despite the extreme heat and cold, despite rain and despite the stench.

I sometimes see complaints online about failures to pick up the garbage properly but for the most part, the garbage pickup is so good and so regular that it’s almost invisible and often taken for granted. And yes I know that we pay taxes to have our garbage taken away, but that takes nothing away from the hard and sometimes disgusting conditions the sanitation workers face.

So here’s a shout out to those who do this difficult work and who keep our neighborhoods safe and clean!

I got to thinking about who takes our personal “garbage” away — our losing our tempers, our gossips, our lies, our failure to worship God in our churches and synagogues, our infidelities, our laziness, our abusive behaviors, our prejudices, etc. These things stink as much or even more than the rancid meat and moldy vegetables that we send to the curb. Who is it is that takes away our sins?

God does! And while we say this over and over, I believe that a lot of people live as if God looks with distain on our personal garbage and that somehow we are defined by our unloving choices. It’s as if we want to avoid God’s judgmental eye as we crawl around in the piled up failures of our past days. It’s as if we haven’t dragged any of this to curb and we’ve got it hoarded in our hearts.

I sometimes encounter this in people who haven’t been to church in a while. They really want to come to pray with the rest of the community. They always get feelings of peace and strength when they’re here. But because of a sense of guilt, they aren’t going to church this coming weekend. It’s as if God will be there at the church steps “tisking” as they attempt to return. (And if not God, maybe they think their pastors will be judging them as they show up.) But to paraphrase Jesus, there is more joy in one returning person than in ninety-nine who are always showing up!

So too it is with the other “garbage” of our lives. God does not desire to condemn us. Rather God wants to help us get rid of the garbage in our lives. Forgiveness, healing and freedom are the hallmarks of the divine sanitation department.

The Catholic religious tradition actually provides for a celebration of this forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is more popularly known as “confession.” Notice I used the word “celebration.” That’s not what comes to mind at first. Often people think “dread.” But let’s face it, what’s more dread-full: knowing that our garbage is gone and we’re forgiven, or carrying the guilt around each day?

Whether you’re a confession-type of person or not, be open to encountering the love of God which is filled with mercy and complete forgiveness.

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Pastor of St. Bernard's since 2013 and known for his engaging homilies and community presence, Father Ralph Sommer is also a treasured columnist for the Levittown Tribune.

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