Sunday 29 August 2021
Trinity 13, Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 17
God calls us to serve him notwithstanding our brokenness
Deuteronomy 4: 1-2,6-8; James 1:17-18, 21-22,27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Context: Parish Sunday Eucharist, with a largely white congregation within a not very prosperous area; a good number of them older people
Aim: to encourage parishioners to be unafraid of their brokenness and to press on as disciples of Jesus
As I was getting out of my car the other afternoon, an older man stopped and asked if I was a priest. Upon my saying that I was, he proceeded to list instances of clerical sexual abuse that he had heard about in the news recently. He spoke with some vehemence for several minutes and then asked me what I thought. Rather taken aback, I said that I was sorry that some priests had acted as they had and that it was good that the civil authorities had caught up with them. ‘And that’s it? And you’re just going to carry on now? That just shows what a hypocrite you are.’
His words echoed in my mind. I was shaken and I couldn’t think straight. I know through long experience however that there is often something important to glean from an unpleasant moment like this.
DARE TO BE FLAWED WITNESSES
The next day, I knew what the Lord was saying to me through this confrontation. The first and most obvious thing was that I should take safeguarding issues with renewed seriousness. But there was something else. The man evidently thought that the evil which he had mentioned was just one instance of the rottenness of the Church. He was pointing to the general ongoing scandal that Christians fall short of the standards they commend to others. God gave the Commandments to the Israelites, as we heard in our first reading, and in lesser and greater ways Christians disobey them.
All of us who espouse the gospel are aware of a disparity between who we are and whom we wish to be. Increasingly, each of us is being called to engage with the people of our secularised society as witnesses who proclaim in word and deed our hope in Jesus, our Risen Savour. Being a witness necessarily involves us drawing attention to ourselves. And it is in that moment that we can wince because of our awareness of our chequered personal history and because of patterns of actual sin which we have not found the courage to address.
I sometimes seek solace through thinking to myself ‘Well, I may be bad, but I’m not as bad as so-and-so’ and then I recall ways in which this other may have erred. But that won’t do. In those moments I am aligning myself with the Pharisees whom Jesus admonishes so strongly in today’s gospel. And I know why I fall into being judgmental: for as long as I concentrate on others’ faults, I don’t need to address my own. I am sure that in the past I have been severe with people as a priest because I have been insufficiently severe with myself beforehand.
RUN TO THE MERCY OF JESUS!
So, what are we to do? Run to Jesus and experience his mercy! That’s what takes away our fear and enables us to act as witnesses in this generation. Jesus does not attack us for our shortcomings such that we feel demeaned. Rather he always wishes to encourage us. The best way that I can think of exercising my pastoral care of you, my fellow disciples, is to remind you of this.
When, in today’s gospel, Jesus lists all those aspects of the darkness of our hearts which rob us of joy, we have to remember that he is on our side. He is inviting us to identify which are the false avenues which we have gone down in our search for happiness. He allows us to name them for ourselves and then to turn to him so that we may acknowledge in an informed way that we are indeed sinners standing in need of the forgiveness of our Father in heaven. And we know in faith that it is sufficient for us to ask for pardon for pardon quickly to be granted to us.
WORD AND SPIRIT DWELLING IN OUR HEARTS
There’s something more. When we go inside of ourselves in this way and courageously confront our vices, we rediscover the Holy Spirit who is always dwelling in our depths. The presence of the Spirit means that the words of God commandments are never merely a set of external rules to which we have to conform. Rather in the words of St Peter in our second reading the word has been ‘planted’ in us. As Christians we are engaged in the life-long learning process of being attentive to the interior prompting of the Holy Spirit.
Realising this brings us the joy which is so perfectly expressed by Moses in our first reading. God is ‘near’ to us. Or, in the words of the psalm, we ‘live in the presence of the Lord.’ Our Father is aware of our many insufficiencies. Yet he has still called us to do his will as a member of his holy people. His confidence in us should give us confidence in ourselves.
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