Sunday, September 7, 2014

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

Imagine this scenario:
I do something—let’s say gossiping—
that causes harm to Sam,
who is a fellow parishioner at Corpus Christi,
and so one night, over a few beers,
he confronts me with what I have done
and asks me to change my ways.
I refuse:
maybe I don’t believe that talking about him
really is gossip,
or I think that my gossiping
has not really caused him any harm.
So, he gets a couple of fellow parishioners
to come with him to talk with me again.
After hearing both our sides of the story, they agree
that I really am in the wrong
and must change my ways and apologize.
Still I refuse,
so Sam presents his complaint to all of you,
during the announcements at Mass,
and everyone, after some prayer and reflection,
agrees that I have done wrong
and need to change my ways.
I, however, remain recalcitrant,
so Fr. Marty tells me
that I can no longer participate
in our community’s celebration of the Eucharist
because I have shown such little regard
for the peace and unity
that is at the heart of that Eucharist.

It seems hard to imagine this scenario actually happening.
In part, it seems hard to imagine
that Sam would bother confronting me in the first place,
rather than simply trying to avoid or ignore me.
We are a small parish,
but with some effort Sam could limit our contact,
or maybe simply find another parish to go to.
Either would be easier than that confronting me.
It also seems hard to imagine that,
if his initial efforts failed,
Sam would then bring in other parishioners
to help settle the dispute.
What business is it of theirs?
No need to air such dirty laundry
in front of others;
it might prove to be embarrassing.
Even if Sam asked, they would likely say,
“What does this dispute between the two of you
have to do with us?
Besides, who are we to judge?”
Finally, even if Sam were embarrassment-proof enough
to stand up at Mass and air his complaint against me,
it seems hard to imagine that the rest of you
would appreciate Sam’s interruption
of your weekly prayer time.
It is also hard to imagine
that people would be willing to tell me
that I could not participate in the Eucharist
since, after all,
religion is such a personal and private thing.
As difficult as it might be to imagine, however,
this is more or less
what is described in our Gospel reading.

Behind Jesus’s teaching in our Gospel
is a picture of human beings and of the Church
that runs somewhat counter to many of the assumptions
of 21st-century American culture.
Whereas we Americans tend to love our freedom—
the idea that we belong to ourselves and no one else—
Jesus seems to be saying that we belong
not first and foremost to ourselves,
but to one another.
St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans,
“Owe nothing to anyone,
except to love one another.”
Yes, I am free;
except that I owe you, all of you, one thing: love.
The one thing I am not free to do
is to withhold my love,
because we are bound together in Christ.
My conflict with Sam
is not simply between him and me
but affects the entire Body of Christ:
if Sam avoids me by declining to participate
in a ministry I am in charge of,
then the Body of Christ
suffers the loss of his ministry;
if he switches parishes rather than confront me,
then our community loses the gifts
that the Spirit has given to Sam.
Sam owes it to me and to all of you
not to leave our conflict unaddressed.
Our freedom is not a freedom from obligation,
but a freedom for love,
even if that love will involve conflict.

the idea that we would bring our conflicts
to the Church to be settled
presumes a different picture of the Church
than most 21st-century Americans have.
The Church that our Gospel envisions
is not simply a place
where I come for personal renewal and strength,
or a large organization
providing spiritual goods and services.
Rather, it is the Body of Christ,
the living sign of God’s reconciling love.
For what we hear proposed in today’s Gospel
to be imaginable
we cannot be a community of strangers or acquaintances,
but must truly know and love one another
as brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Church would have to be
the kind of community that could engender trust,
trust that even so drastic an action
as excluding me from the Eucharist
was done out of love for me
and for the sake of my ultimate salvation,
something intended to bring me to my senses
and heal the communal body.

Let’s be honest: this is not the Church we have.
This is not what the Universal Church is
and this is not what we as a parish are.
The larger structures of the Church
often do not engender our trust,
precisely because they seem more caught up
in bureaucratic self-preservation
than in seeking the lost,
healing the broken,
and reconciling the sinful.
Even here at Corpus Christi,
we often do not seize the opportunity
to come to know each other better,
so that we could trust each other more.
We too often treat our community as, at best,
an hour-long obligation
that we try to fit
into an overly-busy schedule.

My point is not to scold
or to make you feel guilty;
I am as guilty of these things as anyone,
and what we hear in our Gospel
has been an enduring challenge
to the Church and her people
at all times and in all places.
The challenge remains,
but God’s grace is strong.
We are an imperfect Church,
an imperfect parish,
imperfect people,
but we are also filled with God’s Holy Spirit,
and Christ has promised,
“where two or three
are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.”
We should be filled with hope,
because Christ is present here,
in word
and in sacrament
and in each other,
healing and transforming us
in great and small ways,
calling us to be a community
of ever greater trust and reconciliation,
making us an ever truer sign
of God’s love for the world.