Pulling Together

September 10, 2017

Church of the Servant, Wilmington, NC
Proper 18, Year A
Exodus 12:1-14; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Listen here, or read below:

One of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is our use of the 3-year lectionary. Each Sunday it provides the scripture readings that will be heard across all Episcopal churches and the preacher, ideally, is supposed to preach on one or more of these texts. It keeps us in line, I guess.

What I’ve found remarkable is how often, when something momentous happens in our world, that at least one of the passages seems to fit perfectly. Like after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in 2012 – it was during Lent, Year B – and John’s gospel lesson included the verse “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” What an amazing invitation to preach about not letting this one soul die in vain, but for his death to serve a greater purpose for change.

Or after the horrific event in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine were shot during their Bible study at a Black church in June of 2015. The gospel lesson was the story of the frantic disciples and a sleeping Jesus on a boat in a storm. Most versions of this story have the disciples waking Jesus so he could save them, but the lectionary provided for that Sunday, had Mark’s version of the story. This is the one where the disciples cry out, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” echoing the current-day frustration of our Black brothers and sisters, asking their White neighbors to wake up to what’s going on around them. 

And just a few weeks ago, after the march and violence caused by White Supremacists in Charlottesville, the lectionary served up Matthew’s story about Peter getting out of the boat to walk toward Jesus – a perfect metaphor to us, that we must be willing to step out of the comfort of a safe boat and navigate the turbulent waters, with Jesus in our sight, if we hope to face and overcome the unrest and racial inequity still at hand.

So with all these perfectly aligned gospel texts in mind, anticipating my first Sunday as your new rector here at Church of the Servant, I eagerly opened the lectionary to see what I might find. What perfect text would await me to deliver a compelling message as we embark together on the next stage of our journey, doing God’s work together. So I pulled up the Lectionary selections for Proper 18, Year A – and what did I get? A gospel lesson on how to deal with fellow church members who sin against one another.

(Looking skyward) THANKS A LOT!!

Yet the more I thought about it, I realized this is probably the BEST time to get this passage in the lectionary. I mean really. Surely in the four days I’ve been here so far, I haven’t done anything yet to cause great offense. And I don’t know enough about any of you, and your relationships with one another, for you to hear my words today and wonder: “Is she talkin’ about ME?”

What’s more, when you look at the passage, it’s actually a very helpful and astute guide for working together as a community. Matthew’s gospel is the only one that has it! The other gospels have the bit about forgiveness that we’ll tackle next week – OH BOY!! – but this particular formula for dealing with church conflict is unique to Matthew’s telling of the Jesus story. And while the text specifically talks about the church community, I’d argue that it applies to any relationship with others. Let’s take a look. It starts like this:

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

Okay, that’s good advice. If you notice that someone has done something that seems out of line or inappropriate, no need to go telling a bunch of other people about it – instead, go directly to the person. Now, I realize our culture doesn’t exactly encourage this – we’d rather stew about it, sulk a little, tell others about how someone’s done us wrong, even post it on Facebook. Heaven forbid we actually go and talk with the person directly. It challenges the advice of our parents – “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” And it isn’t easy. But when has Jesus ever settled for easy?

It reminds me of a time about ten years ago. I was in the midst of a life-transition, and had just moved into a 1 bedroom apartment in a huge apartment complex. About a month into my time there, I started smelling cigarette smoke every time I walked into the kitchen. I finally realized that it was coming from the apartment next door. A new tenant had just moved in and was a smoker – to be clear, not a sin, just not pleasant for me, a non-smoker. The plumbing between our kitchens seemed to allow the smoke was coming into my space.

I wondered what I should do. Should I contact the leasing office and complain? Why would they put a smoker next to me? Do I need to move to another apartment? I just got settled in!

And as I took time to discern what to do, this particular passage came to mind. It told me that I don’t need to go around the smoker – I need to talk with them. He or she is my neighbor – literally. They have every right to smoke in their own home. I thought about the fact that my aunt was a life-long smoker who lived in an apartment and wondered how I would want someone to treat her in a similar situation.

So, I mustered up my courage and knocked. A man opened the door. I introduced myself and matter-of-factly explained the situation. I asked if he might be willing to try and avoid smoking in the kitchen. I went a bit further, since it was Fall and cooler outside, to suggest he might open a window to provide an escape route for the smoke. In response, he apologized, even though it really wasn’t his fault, and was agreeable to try and mitigate it – and he did.

I learned a lot from that encounter. And having successfully navigated that situation, it’s given me courage to do it again and again, when circumstances of potential conflict arise. I learned first-hand that this Jesus stuff really works if we DO the work! When we treat one another with respect, when we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, its GOLDEN!

Now, in my personal story, the outcome was good. Yet, in the passage from the gospel, it goes on to spell out what steps should be taken if things don’t go so well. Step two – include a couple of others in the conversation, and if that doesn’t work, step three is to bring it before the whole community.

Why would the author of Matthew’s gospel be doing this?

Well, let’s remember that he has a predominately Hebrew audience. For Jews, Jerusalem was their holy city. The temple was where God resided. Even though they were under Roman rule, the Jewish people had their own governance, under King Herod. They resolved their own conflicts within their community.

But by the time Matthew’s gospel was written, the temple had been destroyed. The Jews had been banished from Jerusalem. They were no longer isolated in their own community, but had to figure out how to live in the midst of people who believed, ate, and lived differently than they did. This affected not only Jews, but the early Christian community, too. So, Matthew’s gospel is establishing a way for this community to cope. So, it was important to adopt their own system of self-governance, so they can stay together.

Imagine the community, our community, as rowing a boat. Not a single person kayak, but a multi-person rowing team – with Jesus as the coxswain – guiding us. To make the best progress, it’s pretty important that everyone in the boat is facing the same direction, and that we’re keeping our eyes and ears tuned to the coxswain, Jesus. If something gets out of sync, say the person nearest us decides to turn and face the other way, the person closest to them gets to take the first crack at helping them get turned back around – one-on-one. If that doesn’t work, others may get involved to correct it so we can keep going forward – all together.

With that in mind, the gospel then says:  if the offender refuses to listen even to the church [or in our case, the whole rowing team], let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Well that’s confusing. Didn’t Jesus hang out with Gentiles and tax collectors? Wasn’t Matthew, himself, identified as a tax collector?

Okay, let’s step back a minute. While the lectionary is great, it does have limitations. We get scripture in snippets, so we can lose sight of the broader context.

The central message of Matthew’s gospel is the importance of these people, having been cast out of Jerusalem, to figure out how to live in the midst of others. They get this new directive that they are to love their enemy – that is, love the Gentile and the tax collector. At the same time, this early Christian community is directed to stay faithful to God. To stay focused on their own stuff, and not get distracted by the actions of others.

But now Matthew seems to be othering those who don’t row in our boat. Perhaps it was a mis-step by the author. Perhaps he fell back into the kind of thinking that results in othering those who don’t agree with us. That pushes them aside and calls them names. I contend there’s something else going on.

Instead, maybe he’s saying that not everyone is made for the same boat. Not all boats go in the same direction. Matthew’s gospel is making room for folks to find a boat that works best for them, and allow those who have a common goal to keep rowing together. The formula provided for dealing with differences honors and respects the dignity of all involved. It lives into the command to love our neighbor. And even those in different boats, even Gentiles and tax collectors, are loved by Jesus, and we are to love them, too.

At the same time, it upholds the gospel message to stay faithful to what God is calling us to do. In calm or turbulent seas, we keep pulling together. And most importantly, we keep our eyes and ears on Jesus, our ever-present coxswain. I’m excited to join this team of Jesus-followers as we row, row, row into new waters together.

And to the marvel of the lectionary, and the living Word of God, I say anew, THANKS A LOT!

Photo: Jody Greenwood, 09/09/17


Gospel Text:

Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18:15-20)


One Response to “Pulling Together”

  1. A gr8 beginning❣️God bless you.💞

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