23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

  You may have heard the story about the preacher of a “religious revival” who was feuding with his choir director.  

The first hint of trouble came when the preacher spoke about “Dedicating Yourselves to Service.”  The choir director chose the hymn:  “I Shall Not Be Moved.”

The preacher dismissed this as a mere coincidence.  The next Sunday, he talked about “Giving.”  Afterwards, the choir director led the hymn:  “Jesus Paid It All.”  Now the preacher was annoyed.

The following Sunday, the preacher spoke about “The Sin of Gossiping”.  And would you believe it, the choir director selected the song:  “I Love To Tell The Story.”

On the fourth Sunday, the preacher told the congregation that unless something changed, he would consider resigning.  Then the entire congregation gasped when the choir director led them in the hymn:  “Why Not Tonight?”

No one was surprised when the preacher did resign a week later, explaining that Jesus had led him to this congregation, and now Jesus was leading him away from it.  The choir director could not resist and sang:  “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.”  

The moral of this story is: preachers had better work with their choir directors or face the music.

The Word of God proclaimed today takes us back to the 6th century before Jesus (the 500s) to a prophet by the name of Ezekiel. Now the 6th century, as we know, was a catastrophe for the Hebrews. Ancient Babylonia conquered the southern kingdom, razed Jerusalem to the ground, destroyed the Temple, executed many and deported others to Babylonia.  And here God calls Ezekiel to be a “watchman”, answerable to God for the spiritual well-being of the Hebrews.  Ezekiel’s job is to exhort the Hebrews to do what is right, to live up to the demands of the covenant.   

And the author challenges you and me to do the same: yes, always try to stand up for what is right, to live up to the demands of discipleship with Jesus.

How relevant here are the words of the great 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing."

Paul, in his letter to the Christian community in Rome, simply says: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Yes, we love God to the extent we care for one another. And who is our neighbor? The person right next to us: at home, in the workplace, in the shopping mall, in the parish community.  If we want to know who our neighbor is, we simply have to look around us.

And in the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus challenges us to settle our differences, not by complaining to everyone else about the people whose misbehavior angers or annoys us, but by going directly to them first to resolve our differences or conflicts.  Conflicts are inevitable in human relationships but if these conflicts are dealt with constructively, they can create even better, life-long friendships.  

And so I can imagine Jesus saying to us in light of this Gospel passage: always focus on the behavior, not the personality; avoid negative name calling. Seek common ground.

Manage your own emotions.  And always stay positive; never go negative.  And be trustworthy, open, fair and calm.  

St. Paul wrote centuries ago: “Love does not brood over injuries.” All of us must be willing to forgive so-called “injuries” done to us and work together to create positive relationships with one another.

Forgiveness is a primary characteristic of discipleship with Jesus. There’s a folk wisdom that says: “forgive and forget.” But sometimes we can’t  forgive deep hurts unless we remember!  A once happy relationship.  An injury done.  A shattered relationship. Perhaps we may even have contributed to that broken relationship. In moments like these, we have to forgive ourselves as well as the people who injured us so that we can move forward with our own lives.  Let me illustrate this point with one example..

In a favorite book of mine, “The Hiding Place,” the author describes how her family in Holland hid some Jewish people from the Nazis during the 2nd World War. She tells about the sufferings of people in a particular Nazi concentration camp.   

And after the liberation of that death camp where her own sister perished, Corrie ten Boom lectured throughout Europe about the need to forgive one another.

Following one of her talks, a man came up to her.  He didn’t recognize her, but she recognized him immediately—he had been an SS guard at the concentration camp.  She wrote about this encounter in her book.  

The SS guard said, “How grateful I am for your message.” “To think that, as you say, Jesus Christ has forgiven me!”  

Suddenly, she recalled the so-called shower room at that concentration camp: the laughing guards, the heaps of clothes on the floor, the frightened face of her own sister.

This former SS guard extended his hand to shake hers.  And she, who had lectured about forgiveness, kept her hand at her side as she began to have angry, raging and vengeful thoughts about him.  And then she realized: Jesus Christ died for this repentant man; and forgives this repentant man for his wrongdoing. Was I going to ask for more?  Lord Jesus, she prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.

She tried to smile, to raise her hand.  But she couldn’t.  And so again she breathed a silent prayer.  Jesus, I can’t forgive him for what he did to my sister and so many other people.  Give me your forgiveness.   

Corrie Ten Boom went on to say in her book that as she took his hand, an incredible thing happened to her.   She felt an “electric current” pass from her shoulder along her arm and through her hand into the hand of this SS guard and she felt a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed her.  She discovered that forgiveness depended, not upon her, but upon God’s grace.   When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he also gives us the grace to love, to forgive. To forgive as Christ forgives is sometimes impossible to do on our own.  It calls for a grace, a generosity, a spirit of compassion that is beyond many people.   But Christ doesn’t ask us to forgive on our own.   He simply asks that we participate in his gift or grace of forgiveness.  God has already forgiven those who are truly sorry for past misbehavior—and all he asks us to do is to participate in his forgiveness.   
Forgiveness is possible, not when we try to forgive on our own, but when we trust in God’s grace to bring about healing and forgiveness and reconciliation in our broken relationships. God is never satisfied with broken relationships, and neither should we; and as God constantly searches out the lost, so should we; and as God always welcomes back the stranger, so should we.

“Not to forgive is to be imprisoned by the past, by old grievances that do not permit us to move forward with our own lives.  Not to forgive is to give oneself to another’s control…to be locked into a sequence of act and response, of outrage and revenge, tit for tat. The present becomes endlessly devoured by the past.    But forgiveness frees the forgiver to move forward with his or her life.”   Did you ever wonder why the windshield is so big and the rear view mirror so small?  Focus on the future, not the past.

Today, the Word of God invites us to stand up for what is right; to love one another; to forgive.  God asks us to forgive ourselves and to forgive others, to participate in his gift of forgiveness.  And I pray that God will give all of us the grace to participate in the forgiveness of Christ, as Corrie Ten Boom describes in her book The Hiding Place, so that we can be at peace with ourselves and one another, as true disciples of Jesus.  

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