Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2023
I am blessed to be back, with you, to continue our holy journey together. Thank you for the generous gift of a time of sabbatical. I do not take for granted how much of a privilege it is.
As most of you know, I departed late June. And, while in Brussels (Belgium!), I had the honor of living with a community of Jesuit priests and of working in the community of l’Arche (French for “the ark”, as in Noah), founded in 1964 in France, now international in scope, whose mission is home-life and work with mentally-challenged adults.
Such persons can be disarming: limited verbal ability, perplexing exchange; and the childlike-ness of many of them cuts across many lines. Displays of affection, for example, are not uncommon. A 30-something Muslim fellow with Down’s Syndrome, Fouad, would come behind me during coffee break at the activity centre, massage my shoulders lightly, then kiss my neck. His concern was not personal space and the protocol of polite society, but rather connection.
There was something very church, in the deep sense, about the experience. We are, of course, in the world, and so there is personal space and rightful protocol of polite society. But we are not of the world. We are blessed with a connection in Christ that cuts across all lines: of ancestry and affinity, of politics and prose—you name it. And we are here, drawn by this Christ, to allow Him to deepen the connection, expressing our willingness to live into it.
I think today’s gospel speaks to this.
But, first, it may help to admit that this is an un-comfortable gospel!
Especially for the confrontation-averse!
Any members of that club?!?
What exactly is Jesus suggesting?
That we morally police one another
and, if necessary, add layers of enforcement?
Isn’t church hard enough?!?
Unclear and challenging—for many reasons.
Challenging in that this seems to be a commandment,
not simply a suggested option.
Jesus doesn’t say, “If another member of the church sins against you, perhaps go and point out the fault, if you’re feeling it,
if chances are good the other person will be receptive, if the benefits are obvious...
If another member of the church sins against you, go…
Challenging in that we can straddle others’ visible disruptive behaviours
and, at times, invisible ill-intentions of the heart,
both of which converge to sin.
Challenging in that Jesus doesn’t always tell us
exactly how to discern who has sinned against us.
Challenging in the unclarity of what Jesus means by
let the church member who refuses to listen
be to us as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Regarding this last challenge, by the way,
note Peter’s bewilderment in the verses that follow:
Lord, if another member of the church sins against me,
how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?
To which Jesus responds, not seven times…seventy-seven times.
To forgive or not to forgive, that is the question.
Treat the member of the church who sins against me like an outsider
or with unconditional love?
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in December of 1964, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. says:
Man must evolve for all human conflict a method
which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.
The foundation of such a method is love.
Saint Augustine (+430), in a sermon on this passage, says:
Our Lord admonishes us not to overlook one another’s faults,
yet not so as seeking for matter of blame,
but watching what one may amend.
For our rebuke should be in love,
not eager to wound, but anxious to amend. (Sermon 82, 1)
Bear in mind that this follows the parable of the lost sheep,
in which the shepherd risks the ninety-nine sheep on the mountains
to go in search of the one that went astray.
This is indeed understood in love, in the greatest love.
As disciples of Christ, we participate in the Shepherd’s search
for the one that went astray or
for that which went astray—in ourselves and in one another.
Jesus is speaking to us, eternally bound to one another in divine love,
beyond questions of ancestry or affinity, politics or prose,
mystery of the Church that we are,
at the service of whom are the structure, leadership, and the sacraments,
whose origin and end are Jesus’ heart.
Wonderful—and weird, for this is not our spontaneous framework.
We have indeed been entrusted one another’s hearts.
Thus, although we must address the wrong that we see,
visible disruptive behaviours,
(note: this gospel is not a practical manual for how to do this,
which is why the Church sometimes does this very poorly),
this is not about policing; this is about loving, about being instruments
of deep healing for one another: a-mending hearts.
Jesus gives this as a commandment
because this is not our spontaneous framework,
because this divine love, given to us, surpasses understanding.
It’s a BIG deal!
When we sin, we act against this love, and thus damage everlasting bonds.
It’s a BIG deal!
Hence, it crystalizes in the limitless forgiveness asked of Saint Peter.
As St. John Chrysostom (+407), in commenting on this passage, says,
The Lord bids us who have suffered the wrong to forgive our neighbor.
Gathered in His name, Christ is present.
Compelling, transformative love
that moves us to awe and surrender and forgiveness.