27th Sunday of Ordinary Time (2023)

Good relationships are essential for living the fullness of life. They are so indispensable that according to Matthew’s Gospel, while on the way to Jerusalem to suffer His Passion and Death, Jesus took the time to instruct the disciples on how to develop good Christian relationships. Bible scholars call this instruction Jesus’ Community Discourse. Over the last several weeks, our gospel readings have come from this discourse and, along with readings from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, have guided us on how to learn to improve our relationships. If we are going to experience worthwhile friendships, we have to align them with Jesus’ guidelines. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been preaching my homilies on how to do that.


This theme has resonated with quite a few parishioners. On Tuesday morning, I got a call from one. She told me she was new in the parish and had been attending Mass for the last few weeks. She wanted me to know she appreciated this homily series. I was very grateful. It was Tuesday morning, and she remembered what I preached about Sunday! Sometimes, I have difficulty remembering my own topic by Tuesday. I’ve also gotten a few nice notes in the mail. One parishioner said she felt spiritually fed by the homily last week. I always appreciate constructive feedback.


The parish posts my homilies on the parish website, www.holyredeemerchatham.org. They are usually there by Wednesday if you missed one or would like to reread what I previously preached. Until we transfer to Our Lady of Grace, we will live-stream our Masses. The 4 p.m. Saturday Mass is archived and available throughout the week on our website. That will be interrupted while we are at Our Lady of Grace but will resume after the completion of renovations here at Holy Redeemer.


We have included the results of the recent parish survey in today’s bulletin. Please look them over and be encouraged. Responses to two questions particularly heartened me. One was the response to the question, Would you recommend Holy Redeemer Parish to your family and friends? A positive reply to that question went up by 27%, from 50% in our 2019 survey to 77% in this one. A similar increase of 25% came to our question: Do you feel a strong sense of community here at Holy Redeemer? It rose from 46% in 2019 to 71% today. Last summer, the parish surveyed our visitors during the July 4th weekend. We asked visitors to tell us if they felt welcomed at Holy Redeemer. Over 90% answered yes. That is astonishing. We’ve come a long way!


I don’t intend to open old wounds, but that wasn’t the case when I came to Holy Redeemer. Holy Redeemer could have been characterized that first year as a toxic community. A small number of members were resistant to necessary changes and made a point of trying to force the issue. I’m very thankful to the vast majority of parishioners who have worked together to transform this parish. We have reason to be proud.


The problem of transforming a toxic community is a theme in today’s readings. All three readings refer to the difficulties of a poisonous community. Isaiah the Prophet tells of a friend who planted a vineyard. The farmer built a wall and watchtower. He skillfully prepared the soil, chose good vines, and planted them. He made all the necessary preparations, but a toxic vineyard came forth instead of a productive one with good fruit. The farmer ended up abandoning his vineyard and letting it go to ruin.


Jesus also tells a parable about a toxic community. Like the farmer in Isaiah’s story, Jesus’ vintner took great care in developing a fertile vineyard. It had all the makings of a productive endeavor. All it needed to produce for years was caring and watchful tenants. Jesus says that the tenants became a toxic community instead of productive occupants. They denied the vineyard holder his rightful share of the products of his land. When he tried to work with the tenants, they abused and killed the emissaries. The community of tenants became so lethal the landowner would need to destroy them.


St. Paul, in his Letter to the Phillippians, also must tackle the issue of a toxic community. As I told you last week, Phillippi was a city on the Greek coast but a Roman colony. Most inhabitants were retired Roman soldiers and their families. On one of his missionary journeys, Paul visited the community and founded a group of Christians. They turned into Paul’s favorite church. They provided Paul with material and spiritual support during his imprisonment. The Letter to the Philippians is a thank-you note from Paul to them. Despite their closeness to Paul, they were becoming a toxic community. The community was separating into factions along economic, cultural, and other divisions. They were in danger of becoming a toxic community.


What was causing this problem? What was disrupting life in Philippi and causing tension in the community? Paul assigns it to anxiety. He doesn’t mean a mental health disorder but feeling stressed out and worried. Anxiety is caused by fear of danger, misfortune, and the uncertainty of the future. It comes from worrying about what others might say or do that affects us and the wisdom of our choices.


Paul tells the Philippians that anxiety is a choice they make. They don’t have to live that way. It comes about because of other’s actions over which we have no control. It is always destructive to our well-being. Paul says the simple solution to overcoming anxiety and harmonious living is to pray and petition God’s favor. They should give thanksgiving to God. Rather than trying to control our situation, we must let God have control. We must surrender our worries and fears to God.


It’s a simple solution but not an easy one. If it were that easy, we would all be world-class pray-ers. We would be as tranquil as doves. If it were easy, we would not feel anxious because we would pray for those who cause us anxiety. We would ask God to help them change and make better choices. If we thought first to pray for those who drive our anxiousness, we would ask God to draw them closer to God. We would be more thankful than anxious. We would be praying in thanksgiving for what God will do for them, more easily recognizing we aren’t in control but surrender to God. If we were more inclined to turn to God in prayer at times of fear and concern, we would trust God makes all things work for the love of God.


Church is meant to be where we give our anxiety over to God to feel freer. Even in a parish our size, we aren’t that good at that. Almost a third of those who responded to our survey felt we could do better at being a supportive community. How can the church get smaller so members feel a stronger sense of belonging and support in their anxiousness?  


As we move along with the physical renovations to our church building, I’ve told you I also want to foster a spiritual renovation of Holy Redeemer. I feel developing small Christian groups of six to ten members who would meet regularly to reflect on the scriptures and offer prayer and support for each other would enhance our sense of community. Small groups of parishioners would serve as a safe place to find help carrying our burdens and the encouragement to release ourselves from those we don’t need to have. A small group can be a place to learn more about our faith from others and where they can learn from us.


To some of us, this might sound pretty novel and new. We might feel intimidated about sharing faith with others and concerned that we don’t know enough about it to be part of a group. Don’t worry; everyone else feels the same way. We all have inadequacies we will need to overcome, but that is what the group is for. We all are walking this journey of faith at different paces. We will all be there to help each other along the way.


To help as a springboard for the organization of small groups, I’ve organized a committee to advise and help me. It is an energetic group, and we have started formulating plans. During next Lent 2024, we plan for a Day of Reflection with an animated speaker to help us review our faith and stimulate enthusiasm for participation in small groups. When the call to sign up goes out, make the move even if you have never done something like this before. Embrace your faith and allow it to grow.


Don’t feel left out if you are a seasonal resident, and don’t expect to be in the parish over the winter. We’ll plan to catch up with you when you return in the summer. Small groups won’t be a one-and-done sort of thing.


Holy Redeemer is no longer in danger of becoming a toxic community that is the victim of division and discord but a parish of faithful Christians anxious to help each other. We are here to be living in faith, growing in faith, and sharing in faith with everyone who seeks a relationship with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit here on the Lower Cape.