Sermon: September 6, 2020
In her reflections on the Gospel text for the week, Audrey West wrote: “Whenever two or more are gathered . . . It can be really hard to get along.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4558)
No doubt. A lot of times I have heard people say, and I add myself to this list, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
But, of course, it is not easy to ‘get along,’ and it seems to be getting harder and harder by the day.
There is a song by the The Eagles that goes, “Every morning, I wake up and worry, what’s going to happen today. You see it your way, and I see it mine, and we both see it slipping away.”
You see it your way, and I see it mine; that sums up what our world is like right now. And gathering, is not only difficult, it is dangerous. Due to the pandemic, we take a risk when we gather.
And then, there is so much hatred, and anger, and fear when people gather together these days. We have never, in this country, been a people completely ‘of the same mind,’ or the same cause, or the same background. But now, these differences have become flash-points of actions and reactions that are hard to see and believe.
And then, what about the church, what about us who call ourselves ‘Christian?’ After all, Jesus says, whenever two or more are gathered in my name . . .” Even in the body of Christ, there is division, there is conflict.
Conflict is part of life, and really conflict is of itself, not a bad thing. New things, new life-giving and affirming things can be birthed in conflict, but this is becoming harder and harder to see and experience. I think that Audrey West gets it right:
“Conflicts fester (or explode) thanks to fear or misplaced loyalty, and people talk more about one another than they talk with one another. Stir into the congregational mix divided loyalties and power dynamics—and it is tempting to throw one’s hands in the air about prospects for resolution . . .”
Many churches use this text from Matthew as a process for discipline or a way to handle conflict. In fact, you can find it in our constitution. And the procedure is something like this: If a person sins or does something wrong, one person or leader in the church confronts the person, if nothing good happens, then a group of leaders talk to the person, and then the whole church gets involved. If there is no resolution or repentance, then the person can be removed from the congregation.
I am not sure that this is what Jesus has in mind. It is not so much a procedure, but a process. And of course there is the outcome: Jesus says that the person is to be treated as a tax collector or a gentile, an outsider. And you might be thinking, how did Jesus treat tax collectors and gentiles? Well, he ate with them, he welcomed them.
It kind of seems like there is some circular thinking going on, and not a linear approach. And I am convinced that this is exactly what Jesus is getting at. We, are always to be in touch with each other, speaking honestly, and, listening honestly.
Listening is key to working through situations of conflict.
But it is so hard. To open one’s self up to truly listen to what a person says instead just hearing what we think they are saying, or what we want them to be saying is hard. It entails a lot of risk, including the risk that we might have to come to terms that we might just be wrong.
But, check out what Jesus says, hearing or listening are at every step of the process. Four times in the first three verses, Jesus makes reference to listening or refusing to listen. Jesus seems to say that the call to hear one another, to listen closely to the truth of the other, is a huge and vital part of the community grounded in the ways of Jesus.
Audrey West says that “Jesus encourages the church to be a community that nurtures honest dialogue and refuses to keep silent in the face of behavior that harms others.”
And if we look at what is happening in the gospel right before this reading, Jesus is giving us a way to walk alongside and protect those who are being disempowered or made vulnerable and enabling them to speak and to be heard.
In Matthew 18.1-9 Jesus takes a child, a little one, and places the child in the middle, giving the little one center stage,
drawing the attention of the disciples and us to one, who at that time, would have had little significance.
And then, in verses 10-14, Jesus tells the parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for the one who is lost. No one person is outside the loving protection of Jesus.
We are called to listen, to look to the least and lost; this is what Jesus calls us to be and do. And this is what the world needs from us, who follow Jesus, right now.
In an editorial in the Wall Street Journal from a few days ago, John Danforth and Matt Malone wrote this:
"It is essential that people of faith take responsibility for healing the divisions caused by polarization, and that we bear witness to the solution and not add to the problem. Americans generally, and Christians specifically, have a duty to act civilly, to will the good of others—or, in Christian terms, to bear witness to that divine love that knows no borders; to the God for whom love, mercy and justice are the only standards of human action.” -- John Danforth and Matt Malone, Wall Street Journal
Love, mercy, justice—we come back to that word, love, again and again.
Paul writes in the reading from Romans:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder;
You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, really gets what it means to love each other as followers of Jesus living into the Commandments Pauls lists:
Regarding murder, Luther teaches that
“We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”
About adultery, he says,
“We are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse.
About stealing, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income.
Here is a tough one, about bearing false witness: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
About coveting, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not try to trick our neighbors out of their inheritance or property or try to get it for ourselves by claiming to have a legal right to it and the like, but instead be of help and service to them in keeping what is theirs.
Dear friends, we do indeed need to speak up; about racism, about so many other things we see going on around us that are counter to the Kingdom of God. But we need to listen as well. And above all, we are called to love.
And as Paul says, may the peace of Christ, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds (and I would add ears) in Christ Jesus. Amen.