Sunday, September 10, 2017

"God Is With Us". A Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"God Is With Us"

Matthew 18:15-20

Today as we’re gathered together as a congregation, we hear Jesus  remind us that where there are two or three are gathered in his name, he  is here with us.  Jesus’ words of God-with-us are words we need to hear. We’ve been watching the news and praying for the victims of Hurricane Harvey and now Hurricane Irma. A powerful earthquake has caused devastation in Mexico. The list goes on and on.  In the midst of all this, sometimes we need to be reminded that we are not alone.
            There can be great comfort in the promise of Jesus’ presence, in knowing that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” But sometimes, if we’ve been busy trying to do things our own way, we might not be so comfortable having Jesus so close.
            Life together in Christian community isn’t easy. Sometimes we might think it would be easier to carry on as if Jesus weren’t in the room. If we believe what the scriptures tell us about what Jesus taught, we might need to think twice about some of the things we say or do.
            Immanuel-- God-with-us-- isn’t always the God we wish for--a convenient God we can pin down and control, a God who approves our agendas and priorities.
            When we come together in Jesus’ name for church meetings or fellowship time or Bible study or worship, Jesus is here among us. When we’re making decisions about how the church will spend its money or whom the church will welcome, Jesus is here among us. When the church looks around at what’s going on in the world and questions whether it should speak up or stay silent, Jesus is here among us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, guiding and encouraging us and urging us further into God’s beloved community.
            In the day-to-day dealings we have with one another, Jesus is here among us. And that can be a real challenge, because churches are full of troublesome people,  like the rest of the world.  
            Sometimes people join a church thinking that they’ve entered some holy community where everyone is good and kind and loving all the time and nobody ever gossips or spreads rumors or disagrees on anything. If somebody does have this kind of naïve expectation, all it would take is serving on a committee or doing something for the church, before they realize this isn’t a perfect church made up of “perfect” people-- because there isn’t such a thing.
            In contemporary North American church life, it’s not uncommon for people to respond to hurt or conflict by losing enthusiasm or leaving the church in anger or disappointment.  Maybe they decide it’s time to do some church hopping or shopping, hoping they’ll find a more perfect church somewhere else. Maybe they give up on church altogether.    When this happens, the congregation and those involved may carry scars for years to come, and there’s no resolution or healing. Among the very people called to extend God’s grace and reconciliation to the world, God’s will is thwarted.

            Clearly, Jesus wasn’t naïve . He knew there were going to be disagreements and misunderstandings and conflicts when well-meaning people come together in his name.  Conflict is inevitable.  People will fight, disagree, or wound one another.  The issue is how we go about addressing and resolving these issues when we have them.
            Jesus knew it wouldn’t be easy. In the ancient world and in the church today, we have a terrible time handling confrontation, disagreement, and mutual accountability. We have to keep learning how to live together, how to fight fairly and constructively, and how to stay together in healthy community.
            So Matthew gives us this instruction to help us handle our sin and its consequences within Christian community.  I like the way David Lose summarizes what the passage teaches us:  “People sin. Communities are made up of these sinning people. When that happens and you’re involved, do something about it;  namely, go talk to the other person directly like a mature adult, rather than behind his or her back. If that doesn’t work, involve some others of the community” as a way of involving and preserving the larger community that is affected by the dispute. [1]
            The wisdom of our scriptures teaches us that we are not to deal with conflict like the world often does, through yelling, slandering, gossiping, or humiliating one another. But we’re also not to sweep things under the rug as if the conflict doesn’t exist, because that won’t lead to resolution and reconciliation.

            So, what should the church do if resurrection seems impossible because an offending person insists on his or her own way? 
            Jesus’ answer isn’t as simple as it may seem: “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”   What does that mean?

            Some church communities have seen this as an instruction to excommunicate, exile, or shun the person. That might seem like common sense. It may feel satisfying for a while.  But I don’t think this is consistent with Jesus’ teachings.
            Jesus often interacted with Gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes, and other outsiders, so we need to be careful to interpret this faithfully.
            Far from shunning people, Jesus commands us not to give up on people, never to stop reaching out in love to them-- to yearn for grace to restore what has been broken.
            I think context can help us understand what this passage is saying.
            In the verses that lead into today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep. “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.
            What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the nine-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.  So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”[2]

            In the verses that follow today’s lesson, Peter needs to make sure he has heard correctly. “Lord, if a brother sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Jesus tells him “seventy times seven”-- or, I think, as long as it takes.[3]

            Authentic community is hard to come by. It’s work, and it can be messy at times.  But living in Christian community can also give us a taste of heaven on earth, when we experience the reality of God’s fellowship and presence in our midst. When we gather in Christ’s name, with honesty and integrity, even when it’s hard, amazing things can happen because Jesus is with us, in our midst, as we are formed by our life together.

            As Barbara Brown Taylor says, Jesus is letting his disciples know that they need each other-- not only for practical reasons, but for spiritual ones as well. “They need each other because two heads are better than one; they need each other because they can accomplish more together than they can apart. They need each other like brothers and sisters need each other, to remind themselves that they belong to one family.”
            “When families work right, they are God’s way of teaching us important things, like how to share and how to work together and how to take care of one another. A healthy family has a way of smoothing our rough edges by making us rub up against each other, like tumbling pebbles in a jar. Living with other people, we learn that we cannot have everything our own way. We learn to compromise, giving up some of the things we want so that other people can have some of the things they want, and while it is never easy, learning this give and take is part of learning how to be fully human.”[4]

            Now, some of us didn’t learn these healthy ways to fight and make up and forgive each other in our families. Some of us may have learned that rules are more important than people. Some of us may have learned things like, “if you can’t say something nice, _________.” [I paused to let people finish this sentence, and, apparently, many people had learned this: “Don’t say anything at all.”] 
            Some of us may have been taught that if we have a problem with someone, we should keep it to ourselves, because harmony--even the illusion of harmony-- is the most important thing, more important than telling the truth. More important than your feelings. More important than you.
            The problem with these unhealthy, unholy ways of dealing with conflict and hurt feelings is that-- if we don’t have good ways of resolving them and working to reconciliation, we end up collecting hurt feelings and resentment. We nurse grudges. We can feel sorry for ourselves. And we can feel hopeless about ever changing things for the better.
            I think that’s very sad. 

            In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis paints a haunting picture of hell.  Hell, Lewis says, is like a vast, gray city that’s inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle-- empty because everyone who once lived in them has quarreled with the neighbors and moved, and quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving empty streets full of empty houses behind them.
            That, Lewis says, is how hell got so large-- empty at the center and inhabited only on the fringes--because everyone in it chose distance instead of confrontation as the solution to a fight.[5] 

            If you look up “confrontation” in the dictionary, you find it’s about bringing two people face to face, front to front, to sort out what is going on between them. I think that’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel lesson.
            We are gathered here in Christian community, as disciples of Jesus Christ, to learn to live in the way of Jesus-- the way of love. We have been entrusted with a ministry of reconciliation.
            Today’s gospel lesson challenges us to work toward reconciliation when someone sins against us.  In order to do that, we need to decide what’s important to us.  What do I want most?  Do I want more than anything to be right? Do I want the other person to feel bad before I would want to be reconciled to them?  Or can I accept that we have some differences but that we are brothers and sisters in Christ and that the relationships are more important than rules and reconciliation is more important than retribution?

            We are called to witness to the world Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, which overcomes all divisions. There is so much in our world that troubles and challenges us-- hurricanes and earthquakes and fires, displays of hatred, and injustice. The world desperately needs us to be the Body of Christ.
            When we live together in Christian community, there will be conflict, but it is precisely through conflict that we can model for the world how to bind and loose one another in healthy and holy ways. This is how we can witness to the world Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, which overcomes divisions through the power of Christ’s self-giving love. This is how we show through our lives that goodness is stronger than evil, that love is stronger than hate, and that life is stronger than death.

            May it be so among us and through us!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
September 10, 2017

[1] David Lose, “What Kind of Community Will We Be?”

[2] Matthew 18:10-14.
[3] Matthew 18:21-22.
[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Family Fights: Matthew 18:15-20” in The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew. (Westminster), 2004.
[5] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce. (1945).  This fictional work is a theological dream vision in which he reflects on Christian understandings of Heaven and Hell.