Thanks to all who have been following this blog. You can find additional sermons and blogs, as well as information on my recent books at www.markwhittall.com. ReInvention: Stories from an Urban Church was published in 2016 and can be purchased from Wood Lake Publishing. ReImagine: Preaching from Real Life will be released in September 2017.
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Homily: Yr A Proper 23, Sept 10 2017, St. Albans Church
Readings: Exodus 12.1-14; Ps 149; Romans 13.8-14, Matthew 18.15-20
I have to admit, when I first looked at the gospel reading for this Sunday, the text from Matthew that we just heard, I wasn’t very happy. Here we are, on the Sunday we call Welcome Back Sunday. Our whole focus is supposed to be on welcoming students and others who have just arrived in our neighbourhood, and what do we get? A gospel text that gives us the rules for kicking people out of the church. A three step, rules-based procedure for excommunication. Thanks a lot, lectionary. Welcome back!
Is that really what we’ve got here? Is this text really about rules and procedures? Sometimes, it helps to read what comes before and what comes after. And so, after I read today’s gospel selection, I had a look at the whole of chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel, both the stuff that comes before and the stuff that comes after. And I discovered that Chapter 18 is a bit like a sandwich.
You’re all familiar with sandwiches, right? There’s the bread on the bottom, then there’s the filling in the middle, and then there’s another piece of bread on top. And sandwiches are great. But here’s the problem. If you take away the bread on the top, and then you take away the bread on the bottom, what are you left with?
The filling! Now, the filling may be good. But without the bread, sometimes you’re left with a mess.
And that’s kind of what happens with today’s gospel. Pulled out of context, without the bread on top and the bread on the bottom, it can become a real mess. Because over the years, over the centuries, these middle verses have been used to justify a rules-based approach to resolving conflicts and kicking people out of the church. From the inquisitions of the middle ages, to the excommunication of Galileo and scores of others, to the Nashville Statement of two weeks ago, when people, especially people with power in the church get a hold of this passage and use it the wrong way, we get a mess.
So at this point you might be wondering what the bread is like on either side? What does Jesus have to say in the rest of Chapter 18?
Well it all starts when the disciples ask Jesus a question. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And Jesus, he can see the problem starting already. The disciples, those who are closest to him think that they’ll be the ones who get to be the bosses in the new community that’s forming around Jesus. That would make sense, they’ve had the training, they’ve been there from the start, they’ve made the sacrifices. They deserve to be the greatest, they deserve to have power and privilege, maybe they’ll even get the corner offices.
And so when they ask that question, in response Jesus does some pre-emptive damage control. Jesus is all about building community – but it’s a particular kind of community that he wants to build, one that is to be different from so many other forms of human organization. So he takes a child into his arms and says to his disciples, you need to become like this child or you will never even enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Example by example, story by story, Jesus starts to lay out his vision for the community that he is trying to build, a community which is concerned for those who are vulnerable and powerless and marginalized, a community whose focus is on searching for the one who has gone astray, the one who is lost rather than the 99 that are doing okay. That’s what comes before today’s gospel reading
And then, the section that comes immediately after is all about forgiveness. Peter asks how many times do I need to forgive someone who sins against me, and Jesus’ answer is that you just keep on forgiving, more times than you can possibly imagine. Finally, to drive home his point, Jesus tells a story about a man who is condemned because he insists on enforcing the rules with one of his debtors rather than forgiving the debt. You are to forgive others, just as God has forgiven you.
That’s what comes before and after today’s gospel: humility, concern for the vulnerable, searching for lost sheep, forgiveness beyond our imagination, and a pointed reminder that forgiveness is more important than following the rules.
So maybe today’s gospel really is about more than rules.
Maybe it’s about building community, about the kind of community that Jesus wants us to build together. A caring community, where even the most vulnerable feel safe. A loving community to which we can really belong. A welcoming community in which we go out of our way to make new members feel at home. A forgiving community that practices reconciliation.
An authentic community where we can talk honestly about things that matter, things that are important to us. Even if that means that there will be conflict.
OK, let’s not kid ourselves by saying “if”. There will be conflict, we know that. So does Jesus, he can see it coming a mile away, he sees it as soon as the disciples to start asking questions like “who will be the greatest?”
The problem is that when conflict arises in communities, we tend to avoid it. We try to ignore it. We don’t talk about it. But it’s hard to build authentic community if we can’t talk about the things that matter most to us, the things that we’re passionate about, that have hurt us.
So in today’s gospel, in this middle part of the sandwich, I think that Jesus is trying to help us with the difficult but incredibly important task of building community together by pointing out three things:
Conflict will occur in Christian communities. We won’t always agree. Each one of us is both saint and sinner. Stuff will happen and people will be hurt.
When this happens, Jesus want us to stay in relationship. To talk to each other, even if it’s hard. Because that’s how we build authentic community.
And Jesus gives us a promise: when you do this, when two or three of you gather together to talk about things that are hard, I will be there with you.
Today’s gospel is given to us to help us build authentic community and stay in relationship with each other by offering a structured approach for having difficult conversations and dealing with conflict, so that we don’t simply take the easy way out by ignoring and avoiding our challenges.
It’s all about relationship. Our primary responsibility as a church is to build community together, authentic, loving Christian community that will be the body of Christ in this world.
A community based on concern for the vulnerable. A community where we are humble in our dealings with one another. A community where we practice forgiveness, over and over again. A community where we speak truth, confess our sins, share our joys, encourage each other, and when there is pain and hurt and conflict, we draw closer together, not farther apart.
Now I don’t want to mislead you. Being the body of Christ, being the community that Jesus is calling us to be will be hard. There may even be situations where we don’t get resolution. Where people leave. Where people are asked to leave. In today’s gospel Jesus anticipates this: “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.”
But didn’t Jesus come for Gentiles and tax collectors? Didn’t Jesus himself receive condemnation because he consorted with Gentiles and ate in the homes of tax collectors? In fact, didn’t he say somewhere that tax-collectors would enter the kingdom of heaven before the rest of us? Wasn’t Jesus all about reaching out to those who are estranged and bringing them back into community?
Today’s gospel isn’t really about rules for asking people to leave. Today’s gospel, put back into context, the whole sandwich if you like, is about how to be in relationship with each other so that we can build community together, even when there is conflict or other challenges. As the church, as followers of Jesus, we are called to do the hard work needed to build authentic Christian community, a caring, loving, welcoming, forgiving, truthful, engaged community with a real concern for the most vulnerable in our midst.
Why is this so important? Two reasons,
First, because we need it. Each one of us has a need to belong. We need a community like this to belong to, a community where we can share our hopes and our fears, our hurts and our dreams.
Second, because Jesus needs it. Jesus needs us to be his body in the world. It is in and through communities such as ours, flawed though we are, that God is present and active in the world.
Because no matter whether we’re celebrating or fighting, whether we’re laughing or crying, Jesus has made us a promise: where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among you.