23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 10, 2017

Regarding Hurricane Irma

Bishop Parkes has dispensed all Catholics in the Diocese of St. Petersburg from the obligation to attend Mass on the weekend of September 9 and 10.

I plan to have the 4:00 p.m. Saturday Vigil Mass as scheduled. Sunday morning Masses will be cancelled if Tropical Storm force winds, or higher, are affecting our area.

If our area is under a Tropical Storm Watch/Warning or a Hurricane Watch/Warning, I urge all parishioners to remain in their homes or a public shelter. The high winds associated with tropical cyclones make driving a car extremely dangerous.

Everyone in Florida should be deeply concerned about what will befall us this weekend. At the same time, no amount of worry or fear will alter the outcome. Despite the outcome of the storm, we can remain faithful to God and one another.

I will be praying for all of the residents of our State this weekend. I ask you to join me in doing so. My most fervent prayer will be that no one loses faith in God or loving concern for their neighbor.

One evening, before the Sunday night Mass at the Catholic campus ministry center at USF, I overheard unintentionally a conversation between two students, a young man and a young woman. The young man thought he was having a private conversation with his girlfriend, but he was having it in the hallway outside the chapel.

Evidently, the young lady had some misgivings about attending Catholic liturgy. The young man tried to assuage her fears. He said, “You’ll like this priest. He’s cool – not cool the way I am, but he’s cool.”

At first, I was flattered to be described as “cool.” Then I felt a little sorry for the young lady; she might have made a poor choice for a boyfriend. “Cool” might not be sufficient foundation for a meaningful relationship. At the very least, the young man was inviting a non-Catholic to experience Catholic worship. He deserves credit for his effort.

Unfortunately, the young man didn’t realize that he was speaking a little too loudly in a public place. If he had been aware that he could be overheard, he might have been more circumspect. I think this offers a very helpful perspective on today’s Gospel reading.

Jesus’ words, “for where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20), are most often understood to be a promise of the Divine presence when and where the Church gathers for prayer.

This interpretation is based on two assumptions, one of which is certainly valid and the other of which is rather suspect. It is certainly valid to assume that the Lord is present when the Church gathers, especially when the Church gathers for Liturgy. Even “two or three” (Matthew 18:20), are sufficient numbers to give adequate public witness to faith in the Resurrection.

The second common assumption about this saying is less virtuous and less believable. I don’t think it’s valid to assume that the Lord’s presence in our assembly is granted for purpose of satisfying our wants and needs. Rather than being a promise that Jesus will remain near enough to grant our wishes, these words of Jesus should be understood as a warning about our behavior.

The author of Matthew’s Gospel spent a great deal of time addressing the pressing issue of divisions that grew in his congregation as a result of strong differences of opinion. We see a reflection of those divisions in today’s passage from the Gospel. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” (Matthew 18:15) This sort of instruction, and the instructions about escalating attempts at fraternal correction, are a direct reference to on-going tensions in Matthew’s congregation. Jesus’ teaching about reconciliation was re-framed by the Gospel author as teaching about Church unity. (Matthew 18:18)

Throughout the Christian Scriptures, Church unity is considered to be a direct reflection of the authenticity of the faith of individuals and congregations. This passage of Matthew’s Gospel gives detailed instruction about how to repair rifts in the Church community. The step-by-step process of calling sinful church members to repentance protects both the dignity of the individual and the faith of the congregation.

It is within this context of addressing conflict within the Church community that Matthew situates Jesus’ words, “for where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) The statement about his presence among believers sounds a very great deal like a warning about the effect our behavior can have on the wider Church community.

The young man talking to his girlfriend before Mass might have chosen his words more carefully if he was aware that he had an audience. These words of Jesus are, I think, a warning to choose our words and actions carefully when dealing with our fellow church members.

Does it matter how you act here at Mass? Does it matter how you treat your fellow parishioners, even though you might not know their names? Does it matter how you participate in the Liturgy? Does it matter how you respond to the approaching hurricane, and the impending needs of those injured and displaced by the storm?

Jesus seems to say that all of the above matter a very great deal. It matters so much that he is present here, a witness to everything we say and do. (Matthew 18:20) The Lord’s presence is an expression of God’s own faithfulness toward us. Our words and actions should be guided by the knowledge that the Lord is present among us. Specifically, our behavior should always give witness to our vocation to imitate God’s fidelity.

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