Unseen Obstacles

Sirach 27: 30–28:7; Matthew 18: 21-35

When I was out at Notre Dame back in July, I had asked the priest who was kind of leading us through the week what he thought was one of the greatest obstacles we faced as a Church.  Now, I can name many already.  We know there are less priests.  We are certainly aware that there are less people coming.  We also know that there is a lack of trust with all institutions but also a feeling that the institution is out of touch with what’s going on.  Again, the list can go on and on as to what kind of obstacles we face, all of which we can see with our own eyes.  But he wasn’t thinking about what we can see.  He was thinking about something much deeper and so I was taken back when he responded to me.  He said he felt the greatest obstacle we face is resentment.  I got to tell you, it has pushed me to look at my own self and where it may be simmering underneath for me.  We’ve all faced it towards the institution but also with priests and people.  So many examples of how it hasn’t gone as planned or it’s not what we thought it would be or should be.  We have somehow been treated unfairly and we deserved better.  All along as it simmers underneath the surface, resentment.

And, boy, do we as Sirach tells us today, love to cling to it.  I don’t know why we hold on as tightly as we do.  If anything, over time it really acts as a cancer in our lives, feeding on itself, and taking a toll on our hearts.  Now Sirach is speaking specifically to friendships that have gone awry.  This isn’t just something that the Church must face, but we see it in marriages, in families, and in our communities that we’re a part of, simmering underneath as we cling for dear life.  Maybe we tell ourselves that we’ll hold the injustice over the other.  Or somehow it gives me power and domination over the other who has wronged me in some way.  I’m going to dangle it over them, holding a grudge, as if that’s somehow going to bring justice.  Any maybe that’s are problem.  We want justice despite Sirach telling us we even have to forgive our neighbor’s injustice.  Justice without mercy and forgiveness only leads to greater anger and resentment simmering underneath. 

Both Sirach and Matthew write to communities that often faced division.  This who section of Matthew that we’ve been listening to for the past few weeks has been on what it means to be community and the necessary tools for a community to grow.  Today we hear this outlandish parable by Jesus about a servant who was given forgiveness but never quite penetrates his being.  He remains a tyrant and unchanged by the king’s gift.  The servant simply feeds the king a line that he wants to hear, that somehow he’ll repay this outrageous amount of money, knowing full well that it will never come to pass.  He simply reacts to the situation to get what he wants and yet is unable to receive the gift.  How do we know?  See how he immediately goes and reacts to his fellow servant.  He does exactly what Sirach tells us today.  He clings to his sin and begins to choke the guy.  His own anger that simmers underneath gets the best of him, unchanged by the king’s mercy.  Whether we like it or not, it’s our story.  We like to do the same thing.  We’ll play nice to get what we want.  We’ll go along with something even if it upsets us for the sake of keeping “the peace”.  Yet, all along, just as it is with the servant, just below the surface anger is feeding itself on resentment.  It has destroyed relationships and communities alike when we don’t allow it to come to the surface, to the light, in order to be transformed.  We’d not only prefer to cling to it but also transmit it to anyone who happens to set us off at the moment.  The king doesn’t need to send him to the tortures.  We do that to ourselves by holding on.

These two readings provide us two images and leave us with a choice.  Sirach gives us the clinched fist and grinding teeth, holding on to what eats away at us from within.  Then there’s Jesus, the freedom that comes with forgiveness.  The thing about forgiveness, though, and I have said this before, I cannot do it myself and nor can you.  It is truly a grace given to us from God, freely given.  We do not have the ability to forget how we have hurt and have been hurt and so through this grace we are set free from what binds our hearts and what it is we cling to.  The other is this.  There must be a mutuality.  There must be an openness on our part and a receptivity on our part to receive that grace otherwise it simply deflects off of us, unable to penetrate our own hurt.  The servant is the perfect example.  If he were able to receive that grace, that gift from the king, he would have in turn shown mercy to his fellow servant.  When we open ourselves to the grace we in turn give the gift away.  That’s grace.

We all cling to things in our lives, unable to be free.  It may be fear, resentment, anger, so often causing depression in people’s lives.  It can be towards the Church, towards me, towards a spouse, and even towards God when we feel we have been wronged and unjustly treated for whatever reason.  In those moments, though, we are invited into a choice as to what we do with it.  Do we allow it to simmer underneath the surface, creating a wedge between us and the other and God or do we surrender it to the Lord?  It’s hard stuff as individuals and hard stuff as a community to deal with the real issues.  It’s easy to speak about the obvious issues and problems we face as Church and community.  It’s a whole other ballgame to talk about the real issue simmering underneath that prevents us from growing as individuals and as community into the grace of God that is being offered us at this very moment.  Cling or be set free.

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You Are God’s Building

Ezekiel 47: 1-2, 8-9, 12; 1Corinth 3: 9-11, 16-17; John 2: 13-22

Since the beginning of salvation history, as read in Scripture, there is an ongoing tension of where one praises, thanks, worships, God. There is this tension that it must happen in a specific place, such as this church or that that temple or some synagogue. Certainly there is some significance to that and we continue to do it today. But God is not simply found in this structure. Jesus breaks that mold by moving around and ministering and being present in so many different places and leads us to finding God in all things.

In this day and age, when churches are closed and merged in many different ways, it too is challenging us to see and view church in new ways. I know my home parish up in Pennsylvania is no longer open and functioning. It’s hard for people because we become attached to the structures. They mean something to us throughout our lives but so often can no longer be sustained. The readings this weekend provide us the opportunity to look and see beyond church as a building and a specific place. As a matter of fact, Paul says today in his letter to Corinth, “You are God’s building.” It is you, me, we that make up this church beyond the building. If the building were to be fall today, church would still be because we would still gather and pray. It would still be a living body, growing, changing, and seeking conversion to newness of life.

Paul wanted that for the people of Corinth. He eventually works his way up to the many challenges facing the community but begins with this ongoing dialogue of what church and community are and can be. He has high expectations for the people. Yet, he is aware that there is divisions in the community. He realizes that some are being excluded from the eucharistic celebration of the community. Some are being singled out by others, and so he reminds them of their foundation in Christ. Christ was not one to exclude from the body but found ways to be inclusive, even when others thought they should be excluded. If they are to become the body, with Christ as the foundation, then they must build from that in including, especially those who are hurting, exiled, banished, and being pushed away and judged and deemed unworthy by the community.

Ezekiel, in the beautiful first reading we hear today reminds us that that life comes and flows from within each of us, building on what Paul says as we being the church, the building, we are mindful that we too must seek conversion and change in our lives, as individuals and as a community. If life isn’t flowing and we’re not being moved to change within, then we become a stagnant water, drying up, lacking fruit. We begin to age and the building begins to fall down and away from us, in need of repair. It can happen to us and it can happen to community. At times, we become an obstacle for others being church.

Jesus addresses that in today’s gospel from John. John wants to send a message loud and clear that there is something different about Jesus. In the other gospels this episode happens near the end of his time but John places it right at the beginning. This is a God that is going to disrupt the natural flow and stagnant water. The sellers and money exchangers become an obstacle to those seeking God, even at their holiest time of year. They prey on the weakness of the people. That’s why Jesus gets angry with them; they too are making the choice who to exclude, and as usual, it is those who truly desire and seek conversion and the living presence of God.

Although this feast doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot to our daily lives, I do think it and the readings today provide us the opportunity to reflect on church and what it means in this day and age and how we can continue to become God’s building, ever-present, ever-changing, a community of conversion. Yes, the building, structure, institution has its place, but it is also more. That is why we come here as a body. Not to exclude or judge or anything else. Yes, it’s important for us to come as our whole, not just what we have deemed holy in our lives, but our darkness and shadow as well because that is where we seek conversion. As the body of Christ, we come not just to receive something; that makes us consumers. We come in order to continue to become what it is that lies before us, here on this table; the body of Christ becoming the Body of Christ, broken, seeking wholeness, seeking conversion, seeking to become God’s building, the living body of Christ in the church and in the Church.