Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Bernard Jean Delcourt, OHC
RCL – Proper 18 A – Sunday 07 September 2008
Lord, you desire that we turn back from our evil ways. Help us to put on Jesus Christ.
Help us not to be driven by the desires of our flesh.
You endlessly welcome our repentance and You forgive us. May we likewise do to others.
Hopefully, what holds an assembly of Christians together is their common love for God and their love for one another. And this love is not meant as “liking” one another; although that too may be involved.
The love that God calls for, in us, is a pre-eminent concern, a preoccupation, for the greater good of the whole community. This is the love that is called “agape” in the original Greek version of the New Testament. It is the glue that holds the assembly of the faithful together.
The good of the community is to be achieved through the well-being of all of its members; no one is to be left behind or sacrificed, not even a sinner. Thank God for that, or we would all be alone in the rain.
Today’s scriptures enjoin us to mind the Christian community’s business. We are encouraged to break the social taboo that we should “mind our own business”.
Too often we see sin as something individual that we have sole responsibility for. What about the sin of closing our eyes on wrong-doing around us and letting it slide?
Of course, we can say that we have no leverage on sin committed in communities so remote or so much larger than our own. We can argue that we cannot see how to do something about that.
But what about shortcomings in our own community though? What about sin in our own friends?
Today’s scriptures ask us to start in our own backyards, in our own communities. Do we see a behavior that hurts the greater good of the community? Do we see a manner of being that hurts one or more of our members?
Call it out says the prophet Ezekiel or you may bear the burden of the sin together with the ones who fall short.
Matthew’s gospel passage was probably written to help his Jesus movement community to manage conflicts in cases where one person’s behavior needed amendment for the good of the community. It sets out a procedure for the in-group, the community, to be reconciled with itself.
Now, I have two warnings to sound about Matthew’s reconciliation process.
First, before engaging in a similar reconciliation process in your own community, I enjoin you to do a bit of homework.
What is at stake? Is this a pet peeve of mine or is this something truly disruptive of community? What are my personal feelings about this? Do I own these feelings? Can I separate them from the needs of the community?
Remember that justice is for God to render, your objective here is reconciliation from the heart.
Second, the community reconciliation process that Matthew writes about does not address sin committed by outsiders towards me as an individual. In this latter case, when a stranger hurts me, I’m still called to love the one who hates me and to turn the other cheek.
Matthew in his gospel exposes a dual response to hurts we may encounter in life. There is one reaction to hurts we may endure from outsiders. And there is another to hurts we may endure from insiders, members of our Christian community.
So today, we are not talking about “lumping it” when a stranger hurts you. That is enough for another sermon, on another day.
For an offense I received at the hand of a member of my own community there is a progressive, three-step procedure of face-to-face interaction.
First, there is Confrontation one-on-one. If that fails, second, there is Negotiation in the presence of third parties. If negotiation fails, Adjudication in the presence of the wider community is called for.
At each stage, mutual love may win the day and help us recognize our fault, repent from it, and turn back to one another and to God. We only progress to the next stage in the absence of repentance.
Let me build an example inspired by a theme touched upon by Brother Randy in his sermon of two weeks ago.
I may confront Brother Cadfael (not his real name) on once more wolfing down the whole cherry pie that was left from lunch. If he recognizes that was a selfish way to provide for the desire of his flesh and he commits to be more thoughtful of others’ needs and desires in the future, we’re done.
Because mutual love and concern is the engine of this process and the objective is reconciliation, each side may be led to come to see its shortcomings and repent from them. Mutual listening with the ear of the heart is called for.
Unfortunately, the gospel text is written as if it describes a unilateral judicial proceeding. Historically, the church often interpreted this passage as a power she had to judge rather than as a duty she had to reconcile.
There is even a temptation to read excommunication in the phrase “…let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector…” But then we have to remember that Matthew who writes this was previously a tax collector himself and so was Zaccheus.
So maybe, we can read that phrase as meaning that for obdurate offenders, we need even more patience and start ministering to them back from square one.
The broader gospel message of Jesus’ ministry must call us to attention that the accusers also might come to recognize the injustice of their own conviction.
And then also, the lectionary unhelpfully deprives us today of the next 2 verses, where Jesus teaches Peter that forgiveness towards a brother knows no limit.
“…Forgive…Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times”.
As I read Paul’s passage of his letter to the Jesus movement community in Rome, I’m reminded that there is no time to play “sin police” in my community. But at the same time, there is urgency in being the corporate body we are called to be.
“…Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near…”
Each one of us are growing one day older today and one day closer to our salvation. This is the time to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and that includes not letting her fall without help, support or advice (even if that means a friendly rebuke).
Don’t be a “sin vigilante” but be a friend of good support along the path of love even if that involves tough love.
Let us pray.
Lord of all life, help us to care enough about each other to offer friendly rebuke where it is needed and to receive such rebuke graciously when we are the one in need of it. Help us always turn our hearts back to you and to one another that we may truly put on Christ and deserve our baptismal name as Christians.