Homily: Not Punishment, But Restoration

A127OT23_1_cf03_4cWe can be easily misled by the tone of today’s Gospel into thinking that the focus of Jesus teaching of the disciples today is about punishment. After all, it is about a brother (or sister) who sins against you. What do you do? You point out his or her fault to them. If they do not listen, you take them before a continuously growing group of judges until, ultimately you treat them as you would the Gentile or the tax collector. But this passage is not about punishment, but about methodical, respectful, earnest, always hopeful, restoration.

We are reading here about a marvelously humane and even compassionate process that translates something of Jesus’ teaching into the workings of the life of the church in a way that we can use today, and yet seldom do. So much of the language of the Gospels is about lilies of the field, shepherds and lost sheep, transfiguration and resurrection (all good, of course), yet here is remarkably ordinary, almost mundane language about the ‘mechanism’ that invites the most graceful experience of all, healing and reconciliation.

How much of the conflict in our lives is not open hostility and outward anger, but rather is an undercurrent, a river or stream flowing beneath the ordinary life in our family or our workplace, that flows beneath our genuine service toward one another and the world, an undercurrent bubbling up here and there in shared glances, careful avoidance, unspoken words but simmering feelings, the “hidden histories” that shape or distort our decisions or direction as a people of faith? Or perhaps they are instead conflicts lying on the surface in pools, in puddles, or ugly potholes that everyone tries to step around?

It becomes a minefield through which we struggle to continue to do good and to carry out the work of the Lord in our everyday life, but it only undermines everything we do. Too often we carry about our hurts and resentments or even injuries as personal burdens to be lugged about or, worse, as badges of righteousness entitling us to our resentments. These personal hurts, real or imagined, longstanding or not, tear in ways both great and small at the fabric of our life and the communities in which we live.

You and I must confront such injuries so that healing and greater health can be experienced by all involved? The line “let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector” strikes you and all members of the church in a unique and different way than is seems at first blush. When you consider how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors, the ultimate vision of this process should be to say “Forgive them.”

If, like Jesus, we are searching for the lost coin, the lost sheep, the prodigal son, for all that is lost and for an extravagance to exercise forgiveness, this teachable moment in the flow of the Gospel embodies God’s own grace and tenacity. It speaks to us of the importance of such restoration and such tenacious longing for being reconciled and whole.

There has been a movement in recent years to declare September 21 ‘Peace Day’, a time to specify things, small or large, to bring healing and peace to our personal relationships and international relations as well. It could give us a real beginning as we struggle with the all-too-human experiences of hurt and anger, injury and pardon, discipline and restoration. Above all, restoration.

Henri Nouwen, the 20th century spiritual writer and philosopher once said, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”     Kathryn Matthews Huey


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