Sunday, September 10, 2017

Fourteenth after Pentecost

Proper 18A2  Matthew 18: 15-20
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Good morning.  Wonderful to see you—always a fun day.  I’ve been enjoying your Facebook updates and Instagram snapshots all summer, from Maine to California, Canada to Florida, even England and Europe and beyond.   St. Andrew’s always kind of a “free-range” congregation, wandering hither and yon over the global landscape.  But especially so in summer.  Now that vacations are mostly past and the kids in school things seem to settle down a little, and the routine patterns of our more ordinary life give us a chance to settle in.  Time to “Round Up” the herd.   Len Wiegand gave me this hat to wear at my first “Round up” back in 1994, and every year when I put it on now there’s a very tender association of memory both with him and with all the St. Andreans we have known over the years who are joining us this morning on another shore, in the heavenly picnic grounds.  Our extended family, you might say. As I just said as well, our Vestry has also designated this Round Up Sunday as something of a “soft opening” kick-off for our 2018 stewardship Campaign, and with an invitation this year for us to respond with gratitude for all the ways this particular congregation and parish family has been and continues to be a blessing in our lives.  An overarching theme of gratitude, that’s the key word, and actually perfect for our gospel reading this morning.   In any  case I do hope it has been a good summer for you, whether you were galavanting around the world or simply sipping an iced tea and reading a novel on the porch.  And it’s great to be here today.

In this section of Matthew’s gospel, as Jesus and his disciples are drawing near to Jerusalem, Jesus is thinking about the future, talking to his disciples about his church-- how they are to live together in the new reality that is about to dawn upon them after Holy Week and Easter and Pentecost and in years and centuries to come.  A lot here to think about appropriately as we think about our own church family on a Stewardship Kick Off and Round Up Sunday .  How to be “the Church.”  “His Church.”  We remember just a couple of weeks ago at Caesarea Philippi with the Confession of Peter Jesus had declared, “on this rock I will build my church.”  That’s what Jesus is doing here.    Jesus  knows and has promised that through the gift of the Holy Spirit he would never be far away.  But even so he wants to plant seeds now, so that in the days to come they and we will find the resources to live faithfully and to await with a confident eagerness  his triumphant return.   Jesus with care and love accomplishing that work, to build a church of supernatural character and strength.  Beginning with as motley an assortment of unlikely characters as you’ll see anywhere.  Reminds me of what I like to say about St. Andrew’s.  If you’re trying to find your way here from across town for the first time, just follow the signs to the Zoo!

So the passage this morning has two connected parts.  First, some straightforward practical pastoral directions for how to manage conflict in the congregation.  How to deal with the kinds of stresses and strains that will inevitably arise and still maintain a wholesome common life capable of witnessing to the gospel.  And the second a reminder of the spiritual character and spiritual authority that is and will be truly present in the church that Jesus is building, to accomplish this--to bring about true communion and fellowship, securely rooted in the knowledge and love of Christ.  To know that this is no ordinary human society, but something more, something higher.

So to begin in verse 15 this morning, with the practical and pastoral note, (page 9 of the leaflet) --“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”  This seems to be the simplest thing, perhaps we even think it seems obvious, to go without saying--yet I think it shows actually extraordinary care both for the dignity of the individual and for the care of the larger community.  All too easy at times to think about occasions when an offense has been given, and when the first response of the person offended has been to broadcast the news far and wide.  Sometimes at high volume.  Or maybe the response, to whisper in a dark corner.  Either way.   “Do you know what she said to me?  Can you imagine anyone doing what he did to me?”  “I hate the way he did that.”  And on and on.   A kind of gossip.  Bellowing a grievance, or subversive backchannel murmuring.  What someone has called the “parking lot” conversation.  We don’t have a parking lot at St. Andrew’s, of course, so this sort of thing could never happen here.  But I’m sure at least hypothetically someone could figure out some alternative venue at one time or another for the after service or after meeting conclave.  And the fact that Jesus didn’t mention e-mail and Facebook here doesn’t mean they don’t fit in.  I’m not a psychologist, but I suppose when I do this it’s some kind of an effort to reward myself and ease my own pain by garnering sympathy, or perhaps to recruit an ally, create some spin, find somebody who will take my side, see things from my point of view, in whatever the difference or dispute may be.   An opportunity to build myself up at the expense of another.  Wherever that comes from.  And it also can be somewhere on the range of sociopathology:  to hit back, to hurt the other, to damage her reputation, to shame him in front of others.  To score points.  It raises the stakes anyway, insists that there will need to be both a winner and a loser.  A line in the sand: allies and enemies. “You’re on my side, right?”   And the point is, of course, that no matter who is in the right or who is in the wrong, however those would be measured, the result is a stain in the fabric of the common life of the community, the fellowship.   All this toxic business about “taking sides.”  When it gets to be something about winners and losers, ultimately everybody ends up losing, at least in the big picture.  Sometimes a stain that will take a long time to fade away, and sometimes an indelible mark.  

When a lot of this stuff goes on in a business office or a PTA meeting or for sure in church newcomers can usually pick it up about 30 seconds after they enter, even if nobody says anything to them about it.  Body language, maybe, or just a kind of shadowy atmosphere.  It will be in the air.  This is just what Jesus is talking about.  If you are offended, Jesus says, if you have a problem with someone in the fellowship, a disagreement, a grievance—don’t take it to Twitter or Facebook or the coffee klatch. Instead, first go quietly, privately, before saying anything to anybody else, and make every effort to see if you can’t work it out between just the two you.   To say that reconciliation is important, that it is of high importance that both of us continue to live and flourish in a good way in our relationship with each other, and that we both will be able to contribute together, together,  to the good life of the congregation.  Let’s not start off by forcing others to choose between us or have their focus and lives and ministries disrupted by our disagreement.  Even small cracks like that in the pavement over time can become huge and dangerous fissures of division. 

But then, Pastor Jesus says, if that initial one-to-one initiative doesn’t bring peace and reconciliation and a renewal of friendship, the next step is to bring in a small circle of respected fellow church members, and offer to submit yourself with the one who has offended you to their judgment and discipline.  Not to bring in your  allies to gang up on the other, but we might say to say in modern judicial terminology, to submit your concern to third party binding arbitration.  You can explain what has gone wrong, from your point of view, and the other then can explain in full his or her perspective.  And then, without reservation, you agree to accept whatever judgment these “arbitrators” provide.   No matter how certain I am that I am in the right, if these witnesses tell me that I am on the wrong track, I agree in advance to set the grievance aside forever.

And only then, finally, if your grievance is with one who will not settle things with you one-on-one, and who will not submit him or herself to the discernment of the neutral witnesses—then and only then open the issue to the congregation.  Jesus doesn’t give us a specific mechanism for this, but it is clearly to be the case that none of us are free to continue to hold a grievance privately or secretly, or to attempt some kind of “retaliation” of our own design.  We must find a way to speak it honestly and with clarity, transparently, and then to let it go freely into the church.  The church will decide in its common mind and common life, guided by the Holy Spirit, and then the consequences of the offense will be up to the church as a body to determine.  I don’t get to decide those consequences.  Maybe I’ll be happy with the result, or maybe not.  It’s not about me anymore.  Because at this point the offense has become one that is shared by the whole body, and now must be responded to by the whole body.

So theses first few verses, a specific set of instructions about conflict resolution and interpersonal relationships, framed by the overriding value of care for the well-being of the whole body.  If I win, but the congregation is harmed, then I really don’t win anything at all but instead bring dishonor and discord to everyone, dishonor to Christ himself. 

Then briefly, in the second part of this reading, Jesus steps back and reminds his disciples that as his living body, the church, the spiritual gift of discernment , the authority of divine justice and divine mercy, rests in them together.   The binding and loosing of sins.  We heard before in scripture that only God could forgive sins, but now in this miraculous new life, Jesus shares this sacred ministry of judgment and mercy and grace with those who are to be his new Body.  This church isn’t just a random collection of people who happen to share some common space for an hour or two a week.   You may have 100 people in a movie theater to see the latest Hollywood feature, or gathered at the Giant Eagle in the Waterworks to buy groceries, but that’s not what the church is like. A bunch of people in the same place at the same time.  The church instead  is a sacramental and supernatural and precious mystery, in which many different individuals, different sizes and shapes and ages and backgrounds, every breed of cat in the zoo,  are drawn together through the proclamation of the word and the sharing of the sacraments to be one Body, Christ’s body.  Even a little group like the first 12, even a little place like St. Andrew’s Highland Park:  a precious mystery.  Jesus cared enough for this Body the church, to go to the cross for it, for us.  To pay the highest price that could be paid for our redemption, that through his life we might have life. 

Be very careful with this church, Jesus is telling his disciples.   Take care of it.  That’s the Stewardship Sunday, Round Up Sunday take-away.  There’s nothing else that we have—not the porcelain vase grandfather brought back from China, not heirloom jewelry, not anything else in all creation that is more valuable than this precious Body.  Even a little place in an out of the way neighborhood like St. Andrew’s.  For all our eccentricities.  Treasure it.  Love it with all our heart.  Because in loving it, we are loving him.  And be thankful for it every day.  Overflowing gratitude.

So, again—Blessings on the day, friends here.  Something about the spirit of gratitude that our vestry is inviting us to reflect on in the fall campaign.  Whether this is our first Round Up, or whether we’ve been around so long we’ve begun to feel like somebody might post a historical plaque on the front of our shirt.  Just enjoy the service, the music, hear our choir now sing this wonderful Vaughan Williams setting of the 84th psalm,  reflecting together on the Word of life, and have fun watching the kids play out on the lawn at the picnic, and consider for a minute along the way how much Jesus loves this place, you and me and all of us together, so precious to him—each of us individually, all of us together, with his prayer, his prayer, that we would never for a minute take any of it for granted.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

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