Sermon text: Matthew 18: 15-20
This week I had a few conversations about how life feels right now, mainly that life feels disjointed, that the disruptions in our lives are making us feel disconnected. I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about if life will go back to normal, if the church will ever go back to normal.
I get it. No matter what strategies we put in place right now, life feels fractured and disjointed. There are parts of life that I am missing, and I realize it’s the pieces that bring about an intimate sense of connection and unity—the things that bring us together.
Perhaps I’m just feeling the strain of Covid, all the pressure points that have been brought to the forefront of our society concerning health, emergency response, race relations, and elections; these different centrifugal forces that are pulling us apart on top of the added distance and extra barriers we’re coping with.
I asked myself a question: When will we feel like one again? When will we ever be united again? When will we see the best in humanity? I pondered those questions for quite some time. Ultimately, it led me to think about the last time I felt completely unified with the people around me, feeling like we were completely meshed together as a single unit.
My mind was transported back to November 1, 2018. That was my very first day on the job here at Zion, and that night about 400 men, women, and children, people of all faiths, politics, and backgrounds, filled our sanctuary for a prayer vigil honoring the 11 Jewish people killed at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. It took a truly inhumane and violent act to bind us together in our humanity, but that night we felt the power of solidarity, the power of unity. People have this odd trait where the most hateful and tragic events bind us together. Think Sandy Hook and Columbine. Think 9/11. Think the Challenger. Think Pearl Harbor.
Even though those moments are heavy, they bring about a renewed spirit of fellowship. It’s unfortunate that’s what it takes to get us all on the same page, but it demonstrates to us that unity is hard to come by. That’s because we’re human, and our humanness often gets in the way and causes problems…fracture.
People disagree all the time. That’s fine. That can even be healthy if it strengthens our thought processes. But recently it feels like we’re all living in a bad episode of Judge Judy. In our current culture there is simply too much injury. Reckless insults are hurled with abandon. There are times when I truly feel we’ve given up on morality, dignity, and honor. The common course of action is to first offend and then never reconcile. That’s the pattern of behavior we have witnessed on a national level.
The danger is that that pattern of behavior can trickle down to the relationships with our families, friends, and churches. I’m right, you’re wrong. I don’t care about the facts, I only care about my feelings. There is no such thing as compromise. Every situation is a win-lose scenario, and if I can’t win then we are all going to lose.
Is that an oversimplification? Absolutely. And yet, is it? Isn’t it easier to just live with a grudge? Isn’t it easier to ignore conflict instead of engaging in it? Isn’t it easier to pack up and leave the church if you’re angry and find another one rather than to reconcile and forgive?
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…What was Jesus getting at when he spoke those words? Do you think he was giving the church rules, or was he giving the church relationships? Is this passage a bunch of rules to live by, or is Jesus privileging the gift of relationship over everything else?
If this is about rules, then Matthew is writing down the Christian playbook. Offended? Confront. Doesn’t work? Have a small intervention. Still nothing? Go to the congregation. You’re not heard? Cut them off, kick them out. It’s a blunt instrument for handling conflict, but at least it’s straightforward.
However, if Jesus is prioritizing relationships, then we have a whole new ball game. What if Jesus is trying to build up the Christian community rather than making a new HR manual? What if regaining a sibling in Christ is more important than a code of conduct? What if Jesus is less concerned about settling the score and more concerned about fostering an environment of joy, healing, and forgiveness?
Just before this teaching Jesus talks about how God delights in gathering sheep who have strayed and he tells us to beware of despising others. After this teaching we get the famous line to forgive not seven times, but seven times seventy times—to forgive beyond our imaginations. And again, I remind you of our Lord’s Prayer, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.
Armed with this info, it appears that Jesus is saying that relationships are important and they take work to maintain. Community is hard to forge, harder still to nurture.
It is much easier to gossip than it is to dialogue. It is much easier to post passive-aggressive posts on Social Media than it is to listen closely to your neighbor. It is easier to break apart than it is to put back together.
Jesus cares about our relationships. The idea of binding and loosing may not be about unlimited power, but instead it is an invitation to exercise caution before setting anything in stone. The way we regard others on earth may have cosmic significance.
Also, when we seek agreement as a community and discern God’s will we will see that nothing is out of reach. When Jesus says when two or three are gathered in my name there I am also, it’s a reminder that everything we do together as Church is done in the presence of our risen Lord. We have a promise that our hard work isn’t done alone, but with Christ’s presence and assistance.
Make no mistake, authentic community is difficult to form, but it is powerful. It is healing. It is a witness. Just remember how you felt at that vigil or any other time when you were bound together with other people in an extraordinary moment.
Remember that we are a community of hope, joy, courage, compassion, and forgiveness. We are bound together by the peace and presence of God.
Right now, the world stinks. Humanity is falling on its face. Hate groups, the virus, politics, natural disasters, the economy, racism, the list goes on…this year is for the birds. 2020 has been a slurry of disappointment and heartache. The world needs us to be the Body of Christ. We need each other to be this gift from God. We must care for each other in this community.
This Church thing, this community thing, it is hard. It looks nothing like the world around us. But it is powerful, it heals, and it is a witness for God’s good intentions. It’s a whole lot of work, to live peaceably with one another, but you are worth it. We are worth it. So may the Holy Spirit bind us together as one. AMEN