Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
There’s an old Jewish story
about a man who attended synagogue regularly:
Sabbath after Sabbath, year after year, always in the same seat.
Then, one winter, he simply stopped going.
“I can pray just as well at home,” he thought.
Now, in the Jewish tradition,
a quorum of ten is required to hold the Sabbath service;
without this one member, the synagogue often had only nine.
After a few weeks, the rabbi decided to pay him a visit.
When the man saw it was the rabbi at his door that chilly evening,
he was pretty sure he knew what this would be about.
The man welcomed his distinguished guest
and gave him a seat right next to the roaring fire.
The rabbi did not say a single word.
When the two men had sat in silence a while, both gazing at the fire,
the rabbi took the fireplace tongs
and picked up a single, glowing ember,
placing it apart from the others, all alone on the hearth.
As the rest of the fire continued to blaze,
the lonely coal slowly faded
until--with a final flicker--it went completely out.
Still having said nothing, the rabbi made ready to leave
but first took up the tongs again
and placed the cold, black ember in the middle of the others.
Immediately it began to glow once more.
The man understood the rabbi’s message.
The very next Sabbath, he returned to the synagogue,
taking his usual seat among the rest
and completing the number needed for prayer.
Jesus’ words to us this Sunday
are about the importance of community--
about the particular community we call the Church.
The wise preacher, Billy Graham, once said,
“If you find a perfect church, by all means join it!
Then it will no longer be perfect.”
The Church is a society of sinners.
Jesus may indeed be present in our midst, as he promised,
but church people are still people:
we lie and we lust; we covet and we steal; we fail in loving; we sin.
The sin of any one member necessarily affects all the rest,
and so Jesus gives us direction
on how to deal with this sad side-effect of our fallen human nature.
The purpose of the process Jesus lays for us out this Sunday
is not about pointing out another’s failures--
whether in public or in private.
Neither is it about assigning blame or taking revenge.
It’s ultimate purpose is reconciliation:
to save our sinful brother or sister, not to send them away;
to put the pieces back together again.
The difficult part, of course,
is that sin must be acknowledged for it to be forgiven.
Thus we’re told that when there’s resistance,
when we encounter a hardened heart,
we are to treat the offender as “a Gentile or tax collector”…
…but aren’t those some of the very folks
to whom Jesus reached out most consistently and compassionately?
We’re not allowed to give up on those who seem lost…
…even (especially!) if they seem to have given up on themselves.
In the community of believers, in the family of God,
I am my brother’s keeper.
We are accountable to each other.
We are responsible for one another.
As Pope John XXIII wrote,
“We humans are saved and sanctified in clusters, like grapes.”
I must love my neighbor
because my salvation, my holiness, is intertwined with his.
Now, Jesus makes some pretty incredible promises
to those who will form a community in his name:
what they bind or loose on earth
will be bound or loosed in heaven;
that for which they agree to ask in prayer
will be granted by the Father;
whenever and wherever they gather together,
Jesus himself will be right there among them.
And yet we know that this being in community--this being Church--
isn’t all warm and fuzzy, isn’t all coffee and donuts.
Sometimes it means correcting;
sometimes it means being corrected.
Sometimes it means pursuing one who has wandered;
sometimes it means cutting off what holds us back and keeps us down.
But this hard and constant work of reconciliation is so important
because we need one another.
Christianity--by Christ’s design--is a communal religion,
not simply a matter of individual belief.
We need each other for effectiveness in our prayer.
We need each other to experience the presence of Jesus.
We need each other to bear our burdens and share our joys.
In the face of America’s rugged individualism
and our increasingly secular culture,
we need each other to keep the faith alive,
burning bright and warm in our hearts.
We need the Church, and the Church needs us.
Although it seems like strange advice
on this warm Labor Day Weekend--
always sit close to the fire!
There’s just too much to lose by trying to go it alone.