12th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 23
September 4, 2011
Matthew 18:15-20, Ezekiel 33: 7-11, Romans 13:8-14
In case any of you wanted to romanticize what it means to be the church, today’s readings ought to wake you up. The word to the prophet says that if you don’t speak the truth to those who need to be warned, their destruction at God’s hands is on your head. Those who recognize what God sees as sin are called to speak out, so that those who have wandered from God’s ways will return and live.
Paul tells us that the time is up. We can’t waste our lives in satisfying our own cravings, but we are compelled as God’s people to live out of love for others. Jesus, too, has some hard truths for us. He recognizes that in a community as diverse as those called to be the church, people will do things that upset their brothers and sisters. Earlier he has warned us that we have a tendency to see others’ faults much more clearly than our own, and that we need to take care of our own errors before jumping in to correct the errors of other people.
It is at the beginning of this chapter, Chapter 18, that Jesus sets a child in the midst of the developing leadership of the church he is training up. They have been wondering who will be the greatest when the kingdom finally comes. And Jesus tells them that the greatest must be as humble as a child.
It has always seemed like one of God’s ironies that the presence of Jesus is left to us, the Church. You would think that here would be the one place that is safe from conflict, safe from spiritual injury, safe from self-centered agendas and power trips. But it seems that it is just the opposite. The church by its very nature is the place where we are the most vulnerable to being deeply wounded by carelessness, by grumbling and complaint, and by judgmentalism. And once the damage is done, there is virtually no going back.
What can possibly heal the wounds that we inflict on each other? How hard it is to rebuild trust. Sometimes it just isn’t possible. I wonder sometimes if Matthew shared this particular teaching of Jesus’ because of what was happening even then in his community. Were people’s hearts broken by heavy-handed leadership? Was gossip and mean-spiritedness destroying community? Were disagreements about what to believe pitting good-hearted people against each other and causing people to say things they would later regret? The strategy to fix this all seems so simple, just go and talk, Jesus says. But when feelings are crushed, when hopes are dashed and everything seems to fall apart, it is no easy thing to go and say, “You hurt me.” Or to say, “I think what you did was wrong.” And no easy thing to say, “I am sorry.” Or “I was wrong.” Our humanity is a double-edged sword. It is the very thing that makes us so quick to judge and quick to be offended, while at the same time it is the thing that makes us compassionate and understanding of other’s flaws.
But when conflict occurs, the most important thing to remember is who we are and why we are here. We are the Church, and we are Jesus to each other and the world. As imperfect as we are, we are called to be here. None of us has any right to be part of God’s family, but we are. Each one of us is called to be here by God’s love. Each one of us is forgiven and healed and given new life through the love of Jesus. He opened his arms to the whole world on the cross, offering forgiveness to all. His resurrection is the guarantee that sin and death no longer have any power over us. And so each one of us has responded to that call in the best way we can. We bring ourselves as the only gifts we have; we come empty, unloving and unlovely. And God makes of us what the world needs to hear the news of new life in Jesus. We are lifted up in order to lift up others. When we act to prohibit or to permit, we are connecting heaven and earth. And we know that heaven is always on the side of mercy and restoration. So how we treat each other is much bigger then what happens between us, but what happens between us acts out who we have been called to be. It is only through the presence of Jesus among us that we can truly rise to be the people that God has called us to be, and so we have the promise that when we agree to ask for anything God is listening. And when we are together in Jesus’ name, he truly is among us. It is Jesus’ power in us that makes forgiveness and healing possible and gives us the ability to be the ministry we are gathered to become.
And so I pray that in our life together, we will continue to grow in our call to be God’s people in this place. I pray that we will not forget the wounds caused by division and polarization and that we will continue to ask for mercy for any fault of our own that caused such wounds. I pray that we will remember our own call to be here by God’s grace alone, and that we will promise to do what we can to hold each other up as we hold each other in love in our work together to change the world. May it be so.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and keep them in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.