This is the sermon on MT.18:15-20 that I will likely preach at St. Christopher's tomorrow morning.
Sometimes, in preparing sermons, I will go back and see what I wrote in the past – something that is hard to do since I often don’t use a text. In any case, the sermon from six years ago, before I got here, actually used the word shunning. Somehow – I confess I stopped reading at about that point – I went on to suggest that shunning can be a good thing. I’ll bet a lot of people were confused that day!
No one likes confrontation. It happens and, if we do it well, it clears the air. Most of the time we don’t do it well, though, so we avoid it and hope we will eventually forget whatever is causing the conflict. That rarely happens, either.
In her sermon on this gospel text, Barbara Brown Taylor creates this fanciful story*:
Fred, a fellow parishioner, asks you one Sunday if he can borrow your lawn mower after church. His is in the shop. You’ve known Fred for a number of years and worked with him on several projects so you agree. Well, a week goes by and then another and Fred hasn’t returned the lawn mower. So you go over to his house and ask to have it back. “Oh,” says Fred. “My neighbor borrowed it from me and left it in his driveway. He forgot it was there and backed out over it and there’s no lawn mower left. Sorry about that.”
Well, you are really steamed. So you tell Fred that it was his responsibility to take care of the mower and get it back to you in one piece and you suggest that he give you a check for half the cost of a new one. Fred tells you it’s not his responsibility and too bad for you!
So you go get a few other members of the church who know Fred and go back to ask for the check. Fred won’t even open the door but shouts some unkind remarks through the door.
Then you call the parish together and tell them what happened. They get busy making signs encouraging Fred to help pay for the mower and you all head back to Fred’s house. No one answers the door when you ring the bell and all the blinds are closed. But everyone waves their signs and smiles, waving any time the curtains flicker.
Finally, Fred comes out, looking quite sheepish, and hands you a check for half the cost of a new mower.
And I suppose this is where someone says, “They all lived happily ever after.” Except I don’t think we would. Fred will likely leave the parish because he is embarrassed. Others will wonder why they went along with this crazy scheme and will probably not speak to you for a few weeks at least. And, while you have gotten the check, I would imagine you don’t feel too good about this, either. This just doesn’t work.
Let’s put the gospel passage in context. The disciples have come to Jesus to ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And Jesus says that unless we become like children, we will never enter the kingdom. He’s talking about humility and probably curiosity and trust. Jesus goes on to say that the one who causes a child to stumble would be better off tossed in the sea with a great huge millstone around her neck. And then comes that awful part about cutting off an offending hand or foot and tearing out an eye that has caused you to stumble.
Just before our reading, Jesus talks about the lost sheep, how the shepherd leaves the 99 to go and find it, what rejoicing there is over that one sheep. “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost,” says Jesus.
With that last line in particular in mind, hear again what Jesus says today.
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 – why? Well, not so you can be vindicated or the other be castigated, but rather so rumors have no chance of being spread about what was said. 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.
And, once again, that last line is the kicker. It sounds exactly like we should shun the greatest sinners – recognizing, of course, that we are all sinners of one sort or another, I’m sure. But who is writing this gospel? A tax-collector! And who did Jesus eat with more than the righteous? You have it. Gentiles, tax-collectors and all the heinous sinners those two words represent.
I have to admit it never occurred to me that Jesus goes through that long instruction about how to deal with conflict and then tells us to have dinner together. Jesus always seemed to be enjoying himself at those dinners, too.
This entire chapter of Matthew is about how we treat each other. And how we treat each other says a lot about how we are a community.
What kind of community do we want to be? I asked this question yesterday on Facebook. David Lose, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, asked it first. He says there are all sorts of communities all over the place and we are probably part of several – work-related ones, social-media ones, communities based on specific activities like running or watching our kids play soccer. But, asks Lose, “What kind of community do we want from our congregation – largely social, somewhat superficial (which is, of course, safe)? Do we want something more meaningful or intimate (which is riskier and harder)? Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Do we want somewhere we can just blend in or are we looking for a place we can really make a difference?”
That is a huge question. It is the foundation for the work I hope we will do at our parish retreat in a few weeks. Think about it. Write down some answers and share them with someone else, maybe two or three someones. And then come share those answers with the church at the retreat. I, for one, am hungry for your answers. I am dying to listen. I guarantee you that the Holy Spirit will be there to help us take all of our answers and forge a vision for our future together. This is Kingdom work and it will take every single one of us sinners to do it.
*story is paraphrased