14 Pentecost—18-A, September 10, 2017
Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
You know the old story: man shipwrecked on a desert island for 20 years. Finally, rescuers arrive. They ask, “How’d you survive all alone on this tiny island?” He says, Follow me! So he shows them the little hut where he lived. Then the he shows them a bigger structure and says, with great pride, this is my church! The rescuer looks across the way and says, “what’s that building over there?” “Oh, that’s the church I used to belong to, but I couldn’t stand the people!”
It’s sad to say, but one of the reasons there are so many different churches is church conflict: In its simplest form may go something like this: two members have an uncomfortable disagreement at a church meeting. One or both get their feelings hurt, which they keep it hidden until they’re in the parking lot where they huddle with their friends to talk about how horribly they were treated by ole so-and-so. Then, after a bad night’s sleep, he’ll call a few more friends in the church to tell them the horror show.
If the other person has been doing the same thing, then come Sunday you’ve got half the church involved in this mess. If it persists, there will be a power struggle and the losing group will leave the church and either join another church or start their own church.
I’ve seen this happen over small things: like an argument over a flower arrangement on the altar or over big things, like when churches split over the leadership of the rector.
What also happens, though less often, is what Jesus commands in today’s gospel: when a person gets offended she goes to the other person before she talks to anyone else and lay out her grievance. The two have a private conversation to air their differences and if possible to understand what happened and kiss and make up, before they poison the Body of Christ with their anger.
Others, of course, thinking Jesus values a calm church above everything, hide their true feelings when someone hurts them.
This doesn’t create a calm church, only an unconscious one.
Young woman named Natalie yesterday at the diocesan stewardship conference told us that her father always had trouble keeping a job, so it was easy for her to tell Emily, in fourth grade, that her dad had lost his job. That night she was in the living room doing her homework when her mother walks in talking on the phone with a red angry face and yells at her daughter: Did you tell Emily that Dad lost his job?! We don’t ever share that information with anyone.”
So she took that message to heart and stopped sharing personal information along with her feelings and fears. She said, “This meant I couldn’t bring myself to church”. Church became a boring routine, so she left.
One priest describes this kind of “you can’t bring your true self to church” as a “Chip, Dip, and Fellowship” Church!
Many folks have told me they feel much freer to be who they really are at an AA meeting than at church.
One day Natalie stumbled into a church where people wanted to know who she really is and what she really thinks and feel, so that she could, as she said, “Bring myself to church.”
This is a good description of what Jesus is trying to create: a place where you can bring yourself.
We see this early in the Book of Acts:
Luke describes the newborn church this way:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds[a] to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home[b]and ate their food with glad and generous[c] hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
….the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul….”
But this idealistic picture would be sorely tested when Paul meets with the Jerusalem leadership, Peter, James, and John to tell them how he is taking the gospel to the Gentiles without requiring them to become circumcised first. But when Peter comes to Antioch he goes back on this agreement, so Paul writes: “When Peter came to Antioch I opposed him to his face for he was clearly in the wrong.” Galatians 2:11
These two leaders with big egos and outsized personalities survive this encounter because they are being held by a Master and Savior who forgives and heals them every day. Clearly they are doing what Paul tells us to do today: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Jesus isn’t looking for a calm church, but a church where you don’t have to leave your Self at home. And this only happens when we know our True Self, sins and all, is loved and accepted by Christ from the beginning and forever and we seek to share that love.
This creates a community of people who no longer seek to protect themselves, but who live with an open, vulnerable, heart.
I wrote recently in the eBulletin about an encounter years ago with a young woman from Westboro Baptist Church, which is a small family church in Topeka Kansas, that goes across the country carrying signs and yelling slogans of hate. This woman got in my face about how much God hates gays. In that moment I hated her as much as she seemed to hate me.
I was not sufficiently clothed with the Lord Jesus Christ to be a spiritual grown-up for this sister in Christ.
In our hyper-reactive culture all we seem to know how to do is to throw at others what throw at us—like a Middle School food fight.
But behind the scenes our Master Jesus keeps working in amazing ways. Recently I saw this woman (or her sister) giving a TED talk:
The woman’s name is Megan Phelps-Roper. She says she was a chubby-faced five year old when she showed up on the picket line for the first time, clutching a hate sign she couldn’t read. For the next twenty years this was a weekly occurrence with her ten siblings. She pursued this hate fueled agenda with a special zeal going to rallies and disrupting military funerals around the country. She believed her family and church were the good people, while everyone else had been co-opted by Satan. She says it gave her a special sense of identity to be able to label the rest of the world as bad and evil.
After 25 years in this church of hate and bigotry she was slowly led to a new place—not by people yelling back at her, but by open-hearted people who engaged with her on social media, not to slam her, but to connect with her by asking genuine questions about her beliefs and she began to answer in the same civil way the questions they asked.
Once a Jewish man with whom she had been having civil arguments on-line came out to see her at a rally. He brought her a dessert from Jerusalem. She gave him kosher chocolates while holding a sign that read “God hates Jews”.
She said after a while these conversations began to plant seeds of doubt in her as they gently pointed out contradictions in her positions.
After all, if God hates Jews how can God love Jesus?
“The good news”, Megan says “is that the solution is simple. The bad news is that it is hard.” Here is the link: https://www.facebook.com/TEDWiseGuide/videos/176289356250411/
It is hard to listen to the other with an open heart but Jesus says the reward is huge, for he says: “And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.”