|For the last two
or three Sundays, you may recall, we have been reminding ourselves that
as the church we are the community of the disciples of Jesus bound together
by the faith that we share--the rock on which the church is built.
But every community,
as well as our own community or any community, will find itself at times
struggling because there’s always the danger that some in the community
will disrupt the harmony and the unity and the peace that should be there.
Certainly, in the last few months, we’ve seen how the body of Christ, our
church, the community of the disciples of Jesus, has been hurt so grievously
by those who are called to minister in a very special way within the community--by
priests and bishops.
But this isn’t something
new that the community of the disciples of Jesus finds itself disrupted
at times and the harmony and the peace torn apart. In the very beginning,
as the church began to be established, they discovered that at times someone
within the membership, someone from the community or maybe a group would
be disruptive, be evil, or do things that are hurtful to the community
and to people at large.
And so if you notice
in the Gospel of Matthew, and it might not be too easy to notice this,
it is divided into five very important sections. Today, with the beginning
of the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, we begin the fourth section, which
is called a sermon on the church. By the time Matthew was writing this
gospel, the community had begun to be structured and organized. They also
found that there were those who were, at times, were disruptive, people
who were publicly harming the body of Christ.
What do you do?
Matthew in today’s gospel
lays out a process of how you deal with this. He says, “If someone has
done evil, another in the church must go to that person and confront them,
ask questions, raise issues. And if that does not resolve the problem,
then you go and get two or three people to join in this confronting. And
if that doesn’t solve the problem, then you take it to the whole assembled
community, the whole church. And if the person still doesn’t repent, treat
that person like a publican or a gentile, one who isn’t part of the community.”
Now that’s the process that’s laid out here and it sounds perhaps a bit
harsh. And sometimes people have taken it to the point where they have
developed what they call shunning; you drive the person away in order to
keep the church with its integrity.
But we have to notice
that in Matthew’s gospel, even though he gives us this process and it’s
laid out very clearly, he wants us to realize that this is a process that
you carry out within the context of everything that Jesus teaches. And
so just before this part of the gospel, we have the parable that Jesus
tells about the sheep, the one that is lost and the shepherd that goes
after it. He leaves the ninety-nine and goes to look for the one that is
Jesus told this parable
precisely because he was being accused of spending too much time with the
publicans and the sinners. So he wanted people to know that he never gives
up on anyone. So there is mercy in a sense that if you’re a publican or
a sinner or a pagan or a tax collector, Jesus will still come looking for
you--and so must the church.
And right after this
passage, as we’ll hear next Sunday, Peter says to Jesus, “Well, how many
times do you forgive, seven times?” And Jesus says, “No, not seven times.
Seven times seven times, without limit.”
And so even though you
have this very clear process of how to try to heal disruption within the
church and people who are disruptive, we must never forget that there’s
always going to be a kind of a tension as you try to deal with it in an
objective and maybe almost a legalistic way. You also must keep in mind
that Jesus went after that one lost sheep because he never gave up. And
that Jesus says, “Forgive without limit; unconditional love.”
So you have to try to
balance the way we act toward those who disrupt our community by their
evil action. And, perhaps, if we had done this as the church, not
just in the past six months or year, but over the past few years our church
would be healed.
And one of the parts
of that process that has been neglected is the last part. The whole
church needs to be dealing with this. And that’s why it so troubling that,
even now, when there are people in the church who are speaking up and saying,
“We need to be involved,” and yet bishops are saying you can’t meet in
the Catholic Church. There’s a whole group called the Voices of the Faithful.
It’s as if the people don’t have a call from Jesus in this gospel lesson
to deal with these problems. All of us must be involved in trying to say
how we handle the problems that have brought such hurt to our church.
The least that anyone
of us can do of course is to try to maintain that spirit, dealing with
problems when they happen, confronting evil when it’s there, confronting
the person who does evil. But also, we must do so always with the remembrance
that Jesus went after that lost sheep. Jesus says, “Forgive, seven times
seven.” He never says anything about zero tolerance. It would be unimaginable
to Jesus. You have to forgive, you have to try to draw back, and you have
This of course will require
great skill, but not skill so much, I think, as it has to happen out of
deep faith. That’s why Jesus says, “Gather together in prayer and where
two or three of you are there, where the whole community is assembled,
I will be there in your midst to guide you, to lead you, to help you and
our church can be healed.”
The first lesson today
reminds us of how important it is that we work for this healing in the
church. Ezekiel reminds us that everyone of us has to be a prophet and
that our church has to be prophetic. Ezekiel was ready to give up prophesying.
He had been preaching and the people paid no attention. Jeremiah had been
preaching and they paid no attention. And Jeremiah, as we learned in the
lesson last Sunday, wanted to give up but the word of God was burning in
his heart and he couldn’t proclaim it. And Ezekiel wanted to give up, but
God tells him, “No, you must be the watchman. You must keep proclaiming
the message.” And our church has to be that prophetic church. And that’s
why it’s so important for us to be healed, so that we can proclaim God’s
word. We are at a point in our history as a nation, this is so clear, where
our church must be a prophetic church.
This week we celebrate,
not celebrate so much as simply try to remember in sorrow and pain, what
happened last year on September 11. And our nation has responded to that,
but mostly with the response of violence. What if we had really taken seriously
what Pope John Paul put in his Peace Day statement at the beginning of
this year, and if as a whole church we were proclaiming this message to
ourselves and to our nation? John Paul says, “You are not going to end
terrorism through more terrorism, through violence. The only way you will
build peace in our world is if you build it on the pillars of justice and
that special kind of love we call forgiveness.”
We haven’t heard that
message this year, and so now our nation is ready to go to war again. Kill
more, thousands and tens of thousands of innocent people. Will that solve
our problem? Will that end terrorism? Will that bring peace to the world?
Not if you look back
in history. War has never brought peace. The war to end all wars did not
end all wars. As John Paul said about the first Persian Gulf War, “When
you go to war, you only make it more difficult to solve the very problems
that provoked the dispute in the first place.” War doesn’t bring peace.
Yet, if you read the papers and listen to our president and our other leaders,
we’re determined to go to war.
We ought to have a church
prophetically proclaiming the message of Jesus. Our whole church must be
doing that and each one of us too.
You know when you were
baptized you were signed with holy chrism as priest, prophet and king.
Each of us has a responsibility to be that prophet, to live that message
of Jesus in such a way that we proclaim the only way to peace in the world
will be to give up war and turn to instead to those pillars that can build
peace, justice and that special kind of love we call forgiveness.
I suggest that as each
of us tries to be converted to this message of Jesus, and all of us need
that conversion because it isn’t very easy to accept how Jesus says you
bring peace into the world, we have to stand up against the majority of
the people in our nation in proclaiming this message. Maybe we have to,
each of us, be more deeply converted in our own hearts in order to become
that healed and prophetic church that we must be.
And so I suggest that
maybe if you haven’t been doing this, each day, begin to pray that prayer
in time of terrorism that you will find in today’s bulletin.
Oh God, I do not know
where to turn in the time of terrorism. I have no easy answers or solutions
to acts of terror against the innocent. When buildings explode without
warning, when the defenseless are murdered without reason, I am tempted
to retaliate with vengeance. I am tempted to place the flag above the cross
and put my faith in the state rather than the Sermon on the Mount. I am
afraid to face my deepest fears of suffering and death, both for myself
and those I love. Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner, and understand my
weakness, my lack of trust. I lift my heart to a God of forgiveness, of
compassion, of peace. I believe that you are not present in any act of
violence. I believe that every human being is a child of God and that all
nations and religions are embraced by you. I believe that violence ignites
greater violence and that in the long line of history our only lasting
legacy is love. And so I recommit myself to nonviolence as a witness of
your love. I will embrace the sufferings of others and wipe every tear
from their eyes. I will devote my days to works of mercy and justice, not
to deeds of death and destruction. I will give my passion to kindness,
beauty and imagination. I commit to hope and the children of tomorrow.
If each of us says that
prayer every day, it will begin to change our hearts and perhaps we will
become, each of us individually and all of us as a community of the disciples
of Jesus, the prophetic people that we are called to be.
In the name of the Father and
of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.