Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Welcoming Community

About half of the New Testament is made up of the letters of Saint Paul. Unlike those written by Saint James, Saint John and Saint Peter, Saint Paul's letters are addressed to specific Christian communities in the areas that are now Turkey, Greece and Italy. In effect, the letters to the Romans, the Galatians, the Corinthians and others are written to communities which we today would call "parishes" to instruct them on the mystery of Christ and how they might live the faith they have received in a fuller and richer way.

Our second reading today is taken from Saint Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus was an important seaport city with a rich diversity of people, and like the city, the church there was made up of people of very different backgrounds. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that Ephesus was one of the earliest Christian communities to be established after Pentecost and that there were even disciples of John the Baptist there. Nonetheless, like the parishes of our own day, it was a church that suffered many divisions, a community torn apart by conflict among its different groups. We can tell by the words Saint Paul uses in today's reading that their gatherings were marked by shouting, fury and anger. Someone looking in from the outside would not recognize them to be a church marked by the love of Christ. And so one of the purposes of Paul's letter is to remind them that loving Christ means also loving our neighbor and that our worship of the living God is useless if it is not making us kind, compassionate and mutually forgiving.

Today's reading gives us as a parish an opportunity to ask ourselves whether we are a community marked by the love of Christ. Are we a reflection of the compassion of God or are we here to meet our obligation and go home? These are important questions because our success as a parish depends not on how much money we raise or on how many children we graduate from our religious education program but on how we imitate the love, compassion and forgiveness of the God we worship.

Every parish, like every family, suffers from infighting, jealousy and gossiping. We cannot claim to be any different. To the extent that each of us participates in it or allows others to participate in it, we are all to blame. The root cause of any divisions in our parish is really our unwillingness to forgive. We work closely together as a parish community, and it is inevitable that someone is going to say something unthoughtful which will hurt our feelings. There are times when we will feel that our work is taken for granted and not appreciated. Or there are people who for whatever reason just get under our skin. As long as we are a parish made up of human beings, we will offend each other from time to time. By holding on to our grudges, however, we are only allowing bitterness to take hold of our hearts and poison our community. When we are unwilling to forgive, we give the person who hurt us power to steal our inner peace and hinder our relationship with God. It is imperative that each one of us forgive one other from the heart for our own sakes and for the sake of our parish community. Only then will our worship be pleasing to our heavenly Father who has so richly forgiven us in Christ.

If we are to grow as a community which models the love and compassion of Jesus, then we must also be a welcoming community. Everyone should feel as though they have a place at the table with us - the poor man, the homeless, the immigrant, the sinner and the saint. Jesus tells us in today's gospel that no one comes to him unless he is drawn by the Father. Do we accept and welcome those who are drawn to our community by the Spirit? Do we martial their gifts and talents in service of the gospel? Can we look around this church and recognize God at work in each of us so that we are not just a nameless bunch of people but a community of faith and love called together by the Spirit? Our answer to these questions will determine just how effectively we are living the gospel message.

The story is told of a priest stationed at a parish in a popular beach resort area. There was a strong community of year round parishioners who served the parish well. However, during the summer months, the number of parishioners would swell with those who had seasonal residences in the area and tourists. One Saturday afternoon, a young man walked into the church for Mass straight off the beach with just a bathing suit on and a towel draped over his shoulder - no shirt, no shoes and his long, dirty blond hair still dripping wet. He walked straight up the center aisle and sat on the floor in front of the first row of pews. Everyone looked at each other, not knowing what to do. The priest was about to send an altar boy over to invite him to at least sit in a pew, when one of the oldest members of the parish got up to approach the young man. Everyone in the church started to tense up as they expected the older man to scold the young man for being inappropriately dressed for Mass. But instead, the older man walked over and sat on the floor next to the younger man. The whole church burst into applause and laughter at what was so obvious a display of the all-embracing love of our heavenly Father.

I'm not suggesting that we should encourage people to come to Mass in bathing suits! But just such a welcoming spirit is required of us if we are to grow as a community marked by the presence of Christ.

We gather in this place today to worship a God who sent his only Son to die for us. We gather at this table to receive the living bread come down from heaven. Each of us is drawn hear by our heavenly Father and called to be a reflection of his love, compassion and forgiveness. By putting away our bitterness, jealousy and grudges we can become a community of believers wherein each person feels welcomed and challenged by the gospel message. It is the life that we are called to as followers of Christ.

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