The challenge of community… the comfort of friends

September 4, 2011

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20, given while serving as seminarian

Proper 18 – Year A (RCL) – Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

About 10 days ago, anticipating the arrival of Hurricane Irene, the Borowitz Report stated:

As Hurricane Irene prepared to batter the East Coast of the United States, federal disaster officials warned that Internet outages caused by the storm could force people to interact with other people for the first time in years.

News of the possible interpersonal interactions created panic up and down the coast as residents braced themselves for the horror of awkward silences and unwanted eye contact.

And as officials warned people in the hurricane zone to stay indoors, residents feared the worst: conversations with members of their immediate family.

At the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA chief Craig Fugate offered these words of advice for those who may be forced into direct contact with other human beings: “Be prepared. Write down possible topics to talk about in advance. Sports is a good one, and of course the weather. Remember, a conversation is basically a series of Facebook updates strung together.”

If you are an introvert like me, this might also be good advice on any given Sunday morning as you prepare to come to church. I used to negotiate where to sit to make sure I could slip out the side aisle before being caught in a face-to-face conversation with anyone. Or if I was brave enough to go to the Parish Hall for a cup of coffee after the service, I quickly found where the back stairs were, or in the case of Christ Church, the exit through the kitchen, so I could make my escape.

Now, as a child and into my early twenties, this wasn’t how I was at all. The church was my family and I was an integral part of almost everything that went on there. But as a young adult in my mid-twenties, I began to realize that my theological sense of who God is and what it means to follow Jesus’ example, wasn’t matching up with what I was hearing from the pulpit or what I was experiencing in my faith community. So, I stopped going to church.

For the next decade or so, I did church on my own terms. I had my own copy of the Prayer Book… I knew how to use the Lectionary in the back… I knew how to find the appropriate Collect for the day… and when I felt the need for the sacrament of Holy Communion, I would attend a church service… not at the parish of my youth, but at one with a similar theological point of view as mine.

And when I had been fed with the spiritual food, I’d quickly make my exit… out the side door.

I wasn’t interested in becoming part of the community. I liked having my spiritual experiences on my own terms. I was in control. And if I didn’t know anyone, or not very well, I sure wasn’t going to be asked to teach Sunday School, or even worse, be part of the Stewardship committee.

And yet, when I was at home, alone, and would pull out my Prayer Book and open to Morning Prayer, I couldn’t help but notice that the prayers were communal. Even the Lord’s Prayer set forth in Jesus’ teaching starts with OUR Father, and then says… Give US this day OUR daily bread… not Give ME this day MY daily bread.

Even so, I’d try to change the prayers to first person when I was doing them by myself, but I was always tripped up by the Prayer of St. Chrysostom that concludes Morning Prayer. This prayer reminds us that when two or three are gathered together in God’s Name, that God is in the midst of them. We heard that in today’s gospel lesson.

You see, “doing church alone” is an oxymoron. The Greek word used for church is ἐκκλησίας, and it means assembly. The word assembly still sounds a little formal to me – I like to think of it as a family, or perhaps a circle of firends.

And, like a family or close friends, not everyone is going to get along all the time. And, if you spend enough time together, someone is going to get their feelings hurt by someone else, or get mad about a decision that has been made, or whatever… it just happens. We’re not perfect. Sometimes we don’t even know we’ve done it.

And we also know that when there is a strained relationship within the family, even if only between two members of the family, it puts a strain on the entire group. Dinner table conversation becomes awkward. We avoid certain topics. There’s a tension… when all we really want to do is watch the football game together and enjoy each other’s company.

What today’s gospel is talking about is how to deal with these types of situations within the faith community we call Church. It says,

“If another member of the church sins against you go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

This is not a Facebook moment when you air your frustration to others. It’s also not a time to squirrel away in the church-parlor and tell others members of the church about this misdeed.

Instead, it’s a time to be vulnerable by letting the other person know that something they did or said hurt you. Now, I don’t want to minimize the courage this takes and I believe it also calls for compassion.

The other person will not always know that they have done something that hurt you. Sometimes they will. Either way, we are called to be in conversation with them. If this person doesn’t listen or understand, the circle to whom we take the conversation gets larger, but it stays within the faith community. The hope is to restore wholeness to the community.

But the next part of the gospel lesson confused me when I read it…

“if the offender refuses to listen even to the church,” that is, the faith family, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Now, that’s confusing. I thought we were supposed to welcome the Gentile and tax collector. In Matthew Chapter 9, when the Pharisees challenge Jesus about dining with sinners and tax-collectors, Jesus explains that he is there to help sinners not the righteous.

So, although at first glance it seems like we’re being told to treat those who won’t listen to us as “outsiders,” perhaps it’s really saying to continue to care for them and show compassion, as Jesus did. Because when we continue to be in community together, when two or three are gathered together, in God’s name, God is in our midst. Even when we don’t agree. Even when there is tension.

And when we step back and see where today’s lesson is placed within the Gospel of Matthew, it’s interesting that it comes immediately after the parable of the lost sheep, when the shepherd will leave the ninety-nine sheep to find the one that is lost, and the shepherd will rejoice when it is found! (Matt. 18:10-14 NRSV)

And then, looking at the passage that follows today’s lesson, Peter asks Jesus,

“‘If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ and Jesus replies ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:21-22 NRSV).

I don’t know about you, but this is very comforting to me. First off, that when I am lost, someone is going to come looking for me until they find me. And even more comforting, is that when I make a mistake, and hurt someone, they will help me see it, and forgive me.

So, within this church family we have mutual obligation, and also abundant generosity. And although this isn’t reserved only for times when someone has done something wrong, the hope is that if we can be compassionate in those difficult times, when we have been hurt, it allows our relationship with one another to grow stronger.

When there is a sense of mutual trust … of faithfulness to one another, we can lift each other up through difficult times and we can also celebrate the joys of our lives together.

In the book Resurrecting Excellence, it speaks of those who walk with us on this faith journey, and calls them Holy Friends. In answering the question “How do holy friends shape us in our discernment, and in our growth?” it says

Holy friends are those who, over time, get to know us well enough that they can challenge sins we have come to love, affirm gifts we are afraid to claim, and dream dreams about how we can bear witness to God’s kingdom that we otherwise would not have dreamed.(1)

I hope we can each be a Holy Friend to those around us – not just within these walls, but in the whole Christian community, and in the world. And if you are like I have been in the past, quick to take the side-aisle-exit, consider what you might be missing by not living into the community, the family, which is the Body of Christ.

(1) Jones, L. Gregory and Kevin R. Armstrong. Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2006), 65.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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