Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time Our Brothers’ Keepers
Do you you remember studying in American History about rugged individualism? The early pioneers- like Daniel Boone wanted to live apart from everyone, dealing with nature and life alone. They didn’t like it if someone moved in a mere ten miles away. They wanted more elbow room.
All this made for good reading, but it was more poetic than reality. The early pioneers needed each other for protection, for help, and for support. When the Native Americans attacked, the settlers had to unite for their own protection. When Mrs. Boone was about to have a baby, she needed Mrs. Crockett’s help.
We are communal. We depend on each other for support, for help, for strength. This is obvious as we respond to each other’s natural needs and crises. We also need each other for our spiritual lives. Jesus did not establish a federation of individuals. He established a Church. He called upon us to unite as one person, one body, the Body of Christ. He knew that we would be infinitely stronger united. He promised He would be with us.
The Gospel reading for this week is sometimes called the Dissertation on the Church. It is quite realistic. It talks about the way we deal with people whose sinful ways are destroying themselves and hurting the community. “If your brother sins against you, go to him and tell him. If that doesn’t work, go again with friends to support you. If that doesn’t work, ask the whole Church for help with him, and so forth.”
Here’s my favorite example of how this might work. Let’s make believe you sing in the choir here at St. Ignatius, and so does your next door neighbor, Simon Snodgrass. Now Simon is a single man, and that’s a good thing because he really doesn’t like children. He’s often grumpy around them, even when they come to his door selling girl scout cookies or what have you. Well, maybe you can live with that. You certainly don’t need to have your children going to his house on Halloween. What you can’t live with is when your ten year old daughter tells you that Mr. Snodgrass called her a bad name after she tried to get your dog from his front lawn. So you go over to Snodgrass and you tell him that it is unacceptable for him to use bad language around your daughter and even more to direct it to her. You tell him that you are sorry about the dog and will do you best to make sure that doesn’t happen again, but you add that if something your children do upsets him, he should just give you a call and you’ll take care of it. Snodgrass, now calls you a few choice ones.
The next Sunday, there he is at Mass, singing in the choir, all holy and spiritual.
A week or so later, your son’s football lands in his backyard. Your son, rings his doorbell and politely asks if he can get the football. Snodgrass is enraged and lets the boy know it. He also teaches him a few words you really didn’t want your son to learn. So, you call a few of the other guys in the choir and you all go over to his house, and you say, “Listen, Snoddy, I know children can bother you, but you can’t be losing your temper with them and calling them names. We’re sure you work hard and have a bit of stress, but you have to learn how to control it.” Snodgrass’s reaction is even worst. But you let it go hoping he’ll reconsider his actions.
Then there is a third incident, and again Snodgrass goes ballistic on the children.
You and the other guys decide to ask Msgr. Joe to intervene. When you approach him, Msgr. Joe says, “I really think Fr. Brian needs this experience.” Anyway, after the choir Mass, Fr. Brian says to Snodgrass, “I heard that there are some problems between you and your neighbors. Everybody is here now. Let’s get together in my office and hash this out.” After everyone has their say, Fr. Brian tells Snodgrass that he hopes he will do a better job controlling his temper. Sadly, Snodgrass tells everyone where to go and how to get there. The result is that Father has to say, “Look, you can’t be coming here, singing in the choir, acting all holy and then be verbally attacking little children. It’s wrong, and not the behavior we can condone among the members of our Church. Can’t you just try to get your temper under control.” Maybe this will all lead to Snodgrass’s changing his life because he wants to be a true member of the Church. If it doesn’t, well, then we need to pray for him. The doors of the Church are always open. If he’s ready to re-consider his ways, he certainly will be welcome back. The bottom line is that we need to remember that the words, “I am not my brother’s keeper,” were spoken by a sinful man, Cain. People of God recognize their responsibility towards each other.
The readings also tell us that as members of a faith community we are accountable to each other. Quite often, we miss this. We might consider ourselves accountable to God, but we don’t consider the effect our actions have on each other. What we are overlooking is that God is present in the community. The Church is the Body of Christ. When we sin, we are sinning against the Body of Christ. If we hurt another person, we are offending Christ within that other person as well as offending the entire Christian community. If we claim we are Christian, we have a responsibility to all other Christians to behave in a Christian way. We are accountable to each other, and to all others in the Church.
We are better people when we sense the deep responsibility we have towards each other. You husbands and wives are better people because you treasure each other and choose your actions based on your love for your spouse. You parents don’t let bad things into your homes because you are raising God’s children. You Teens keep the garbage out of your lives because you are in love with Love, with God, and are looking forward to the future He is preparing for you. And all of us in ministry continually change our behavior for the sake of those to whom we minister, as well as the Ultimate One we serve.
Our parish church is has a large roof held up by massive beams. They were produced in North Carolina. I remember when they were brought to Tarpon Springs in 1981. They were so large that they had to be sent by train in huge open box cars. (By the way, that was last train trip up to Tarpon Springs on what is now the Pinellas trail.) The architect, Charlie Partin, who designed our Church conceived a very heavy roof. Can you imagine how much weight those beams hold? Now here’s the thing: the beams are made of small pieces of wood. The small pieces of wood are laminated into a powerful structure, capable of holding an immense weight.
This is a good analogy of the importance each of us have in the Body of Christ, the Church. We are those little pieces of wood. We can each hold only a little weight, not all that much. But when we are united together, and united with Jesus, we can hold the weight of the world.
We come to Church every Sunday to form a community of prayer. None of us can form a community alone. We need each other to form this community. We come and pray as a community to the One who is our head and our heart. And we ask Him to protect us from the evils of the world, outside us and within us. We pray to God to bind us together into the community of love.
We need each other, and we need Jesus. And we have each other. And we have Jesus. We are the Body of Christ. We are the Church.