August 27, 2017
The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
No matter how you twist and turn your tablet or smartphone, the images manage to move right with you. Thanks to a nifty little thing called a gyroscope, everything stays "right-side up." Don't you wish relationships had a gyroscope? Wouldn't it be nice, if, no matter how turned around things got, there was always a way to get right-side up?
Chances are, the first time you encountered this feature -- now standard on just about every piece of mobile technology -- it made you smile, or maybe even laugh out loud. We're not used to things righting themselves. Typically, if something's out of whack in life, we notice it and try to make it right. Maybe that's what makes the screen on your smartphone so interesting. It's does the fixing itself.
Of course, it isn't magic that keeps our precious screens in sync with us. It's science. Inside your favorite device is a gyroscope, which -- when coupled with an accelerometer -- senses precise motion along six axes: up/down, left/right, forward/backward. It even keeps tabs on the speed with which you move. The result is a phone that not only keeps your pictures facing the right direction, but a phone that can track the number of steps you take while power-walking at the mall, or play some truly immersive video games. It’s amazing how science has evolved with gadgets which would have been science fiction during my youth.
In today's Gospel reading, we hear Jesus urging us to keep our relationships right-side up. The only problem is that, unlike our smartphones and iPads, we don't have a built-in gyroscope making it automatic and easy. However, God has given us something we might call "gyroscopic grace" that unfailingly, and without any merit of our own, rights us back up with God. (It kind of comes with the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation – hint hint to the Baptismal person here today.)
But getting right with each other, that's another story.
In the family of God, people get sideways with one another. Sometimes, it's over trivial things. There are snarky comments made at board meetings and disagreements about just how the youth should fund their upcoming ski trip. And sometimes, we get sideways with one another over truly sinful and downright evil things.
Lies get told. Power gets protected. Promises get broken. Affairs take place. Factions form. Just to name a few possible examples. We’ve all been there.
The picture is turned upside down and, no matter how vigorously we shake the relationship, it's not going to fix itself. We have to take action.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus lays out a basic outline for how we should go about making things right when we sin against one another. What's interesting about his words is the urgency they convey. His first word to us, when sinned against, is to "go". There's no call to let the offense sit for a bit, or to gather advice from a gaggle of others before actually addressing the issue with our brother or sister in Christ.
No, Jesus is pretty clear. If someone has sinned -- done something to offend the heart of God and harm his or her relationship with you -- then you must go. We all know the passage where Jesus speaks about how if someone strikes you on one cheek; let them strike you on the other. However, in this instance Jesus is speaking about a matter that has damaged the Church and its members. He is speaking about breaking the “laws” of the church. We know this, because of Jesus’ statement, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
To put it another way, Jesus wants the church to be a community of individuals who refuse to ignore destructive behavior. This contrasts with how most churches deal with conflict. Let's just say that the greatest spiritual gift at work in many congregations is passive aggressiveness. We pretend problems don't exist and hope they go away. Fear of making things worse, or of hurting someone's feelings, leaves us paralyzed.
The problem seems to stem from a false belief that love equals a lack of conflict; that if love is truly in the air, then there will never be awkwardness or confrontation. But, in fact, the opposite is true. When love is at work, confrontation -- and the residual awkwardness or momentary ugliness -- is inevitable. Love, especially among Christians, is not just a heartfelt affection for one another. It is a passionate championing of the will of God for one another.
Therefore, when we see each other struggling or feel the sting of one's sin, we must go, we must speak up. And yes, it will likely hurt. But all that hurts is not harmful. We should keep in mind the Mercy of Christ, and deal with the problem with openness, compassion, helpfulness and mercy, not with arrogance or “holier-than-thou” type of attitudes. We are ALL flawed, and we must keep that in mind when assisting others.
It's only as a last resort that we widen the circle in order to get things right-side-up with our fellow Christians. And even then Jesus tells us to do so progressively, first with "two or three witnesses," and only after that, to the church at large. It's clear that Jesus' goal for us, at every turn, is to mitigate the amount of damage done to offenders, thus making it as easy as possible when they repent, to return to a joyful life in the community of believers.
Sadly, however, it won't always work that way. Which is why Jesus lays out one final way to get things "right-side up." If the offender refuses to respond to the individual or to the group, then they must be given the opportunity to respond to the church as a whole. Churches and denominations differ on just how and when this type of thing happens. But no matter the form it takes, what Jesus lays out is pretty clear. In extreme circumstances, a boundary needs to be set. And that boundary for acceptable, God-glorifying behavior, although delivered by the church, is to be seen as set by God. Thus, the declaration that "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven". In Catholic churches, this is referred to as “excommunication.” Fortunately, because we are a church that believes in freedom of thought, I have only had to do this once – it is quite rare in our branch of the Catholic Church; it is meant for the most extreme cases like Jesus describes in the final way.
The idea is that, in calling the sinful brother or sister to repentance, the church is simply communicating a standard, an expectation, for joyful, forgiven and productive life in God's family, and doing so on God's behalf. We set standards as a church on how we are expected love God and our neighbor, and when one breaks that, we must help to “right-side up” again.
Therefore, if the offender chooses not to embrace that standard, it's not the church kicking someone to the curb. It's the offender choosing to walk away from health. The opportunity for relationship was there and still remains, but sadly, sometimes people take a pass. Sometimes they choose to live sideways to God and upside-down with the church.
Lest we get caught up in the details of just how to do this whole thing well, perhaps it's best to end by surveying the context of these words.
Matthew 18 is not a chapter about church discipline. It's a chapter about the danger of sin and the beauty of God's amazing grace. Jesus has already talked about the lost sheep and of a Shepherd who will gladly forsake 99 to locate the one that got lost. We then hear about the servant who was forgiven a huge debt and how the debts we're called to forgive pale in comparison.
This is a God who relentlessly and generously "rights" the image. God is a gyroscope of grace and goodness constantly offering to us an undeserved place at the table.
God shows us our sin, but does so with compassion.
God does not whisper our infidelities to our neighbors, but invites us to return and be restored in full. That’s why we have the Sacrament of Confession. No church should seek to intentionally embarrass someone, but we should mercifully encourage them to release the sin. That is what the priests of the church are here for; to help with the sanctifying grace of God.
It's like magic. No matter how many times we turn or twist our lives away from God's will, God brings us right-side-up, without fail.
These words in Matthew 18 are not a clinical prescription for how we deal with the undesirables in our church. They're merely a call for us to deal with one another the very same way God in Christ deals with us, i.e., with a relentless, gracious pursuit to make things right.
It would be really great if relationships fixed themselves. But they don't without help sometimes. Nothing is so hard, ugly or sinful that it cannot be helped and rectified.
In our relationship with God, it's Christ who turns things around.
Let us pray.
That the church will act as mediator that the church will act as mediator in problems affecting peace, social harmony, in human and civil rights. We pray to the Lord. (Lord hear our prayer.)
For Christian husbands and wives; that the Lord will assist them in their struggles and make them witnesses of Christ’s love. We pray to the Lord.
That our parish will re-dedicate itself to going to the periphery in serving the poor and those in most need. We pray to the Lord.
For those who are unemployed; the God will keep them from discouragement and enable them to find good jobs. We pray to the Lord.
For the family members of our parish members who are ill or in need that they may receive healing and peace. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for healing within this country that is now struggling with racial tensions. We pray to the Lord.
For those who have been in the path of hurricane Harvey; that they may find safety, help and comfort in this time of tragedy. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to confess Jesus as our Savior to all those whom we meet and to even offer information about our humble parish so that people will feel comfortable and welcome to come worship here. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, help us to face the challenges of daily life with confidence in Your love and protection. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.