23rd Sunday, Year A
US president Harry Truman had a card on his desk which read:
‘The buck stops here’.
Somehow I don’t imagine the current occupant of that exalted office will have carried on that tradition.
Truman was simply saying – as much to himself as anyone else – ‘I am responsible.’
It’s something which isn’t always easy for us to face up to – responsibility for our own actions OR responsibility for the actions of those in our charge.
In the first reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel, God warns his chosen spokesman about his responsibility to point out to sinners both the error of their ways and the consequences of those errors should they fail to repent of them.
It’s a heavy charge which Ezekiel bears, one which any priest who takes seriously the obligation placed upon him by Christ to ‘bind or loose’ (as today’s gospel has it) seriously will be very familiar with.
Those whom God places in charge of his flock have to not only look to their own sins but also the sins of those in their charge - which is why we keep banging on about sin and repentance.
If we don’t warn you of the consequences of unrepented sins we will be held responsible.
The situation Jesus is addressing in today’s gospel is the sin of one individual in a church community.
He outlines a three-step procedure at the end of which, should the offender continue unrepentant, he or she is to be expelled from the community.
This may seem a little harsh, given Jesus own preference for the company of sinners and tax-collectors, but we need to bear in mind that Jesus message when he began his ministry of the need for the people to repent and turn back to God.
In the early church a system similar to the one Jesus describes was in operation.
This was prior to the development of individual, private, one-to-one confession between a penitent and a priest which the Church offers today.
Sinners would be hauled out in front of the congregation, their sins described (no doubt in lurid detail) and then the offenders would be expelled from the community for a spell.
We have no plans to introduce that system here!
What we do offer is the sacrament of reconciliation (confession).
A much under-used means of shedding the intolerable burden of your sins (a burden which people seem strangely reluctant to let go of).
The Church offers this sacrament because we are compelled by Christ to do so.
As he said to Peter after the apostle’s confession of faith, and as he repeats here in today’s Gospel:
‘Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.’
The Church is charged with the responsibility under God to loose or bind, to forgive or retain sins.
An awesome responsibility, one for which we will be held accountable by God.
Thinking back to that card sitting on president Truman’s desk , the one with the words ‘The buck stops here’, perhaps all parish clergy should have the same words on the desk in their studies.
Indeed., why not go further and say every Christian household should have a post-it note with those words on it stuck to the fridge door.
We need to learn to take responsibility.
Not just responsibility for our own sins, that goes without saying, but for leading our brothers and sisters back the right path.
We are not Christians in isolation. We all part of the Church, members of His Body.
At the beginning of mass, in the penitential rite, we all say together words of the Confiteor.
Confiteor is a Latin word meaning ‘I confess’.
In that penitential prayer we say:
‘I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters that I have greatly sinned …
again, later in the same prayer we say:
‘ …I ask blessed Mary ever-virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.
We both acknowledge to one another that we have sinned and ask one another’s help in securing God’s forgiveness.
We are acknowledging our collective responsibility for our own and one another’s sins.
Now, I am not saying that it is your fault that the person next to you has sinned.
But we are all aware that we are all sinners, and we are all responsible to one another and to God for leading each other away from sin and temptation and back to God.
That is all part and parcel of living in a Christian community.
And that is why you cannot be a Christian in isolation, you cannot separate yourself from the vine; a body needs all its members in order to function.
It’s no good saying ‘I believe in God but I don’t need the Church.’
You do need the Church and what is more the Church needs you!
We need one another to remind us firstly to try to avoid sin and temptation and of God’s endless mercy for those who truly repent.
‘O that today you would listen to His voice! Harden not your hearts.’
Those words are addressed to each of us in today’s liturgy.
God is calling us from the error of our ways back to a closer relationship with him – and with those around us - who are also dependent on His grace and mercy and who, like us, long to taste His promised His salvation.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.