Sunday, September 4, 2011

Where two or three are gathered...Sermon for Year A Proper 18

Where two or three are gathered...

Where two or three are gathered in my name,
I am among them.

That is what Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel today.

Where two or three are gathered.
That seems like a really small number of people
to merit Jesus showing up, doesn’t it?
Two or three?

But we need to look at this gospel in the context of the time period.
A huge church in the time when this gospel was written,
near the end of the first century
would have been about 50 people.
That would have been an enormous Christian church.

Just think---St. John’s in the first century---
we would have been a mega church!!

Jesus wants to be clear that he will be with us.
But isn’t it interesting--
he says when TWO or THREE
are gathered
in my name.
He is telling us something about being in community with one another.
It doesn’t take a crowd
but it does take more than just one of us.
He is telling us that we need each other.

Both the Gospel and the verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans
offer guidance about how we can get along together. TOGETHER.
As a community of God’s people.

We are given guidelines for how to work out conflicts and disagreements.

I heard a story this week
that reminded me of my "Episcopal Moment" from last week
when I spoke about the rubrics
as to when you stand and when you sit during a worship service.
Here’s the story.:

A young rabbi found a serious problem in his new congregation.
During the Friday service,
half the congregation stood for the prayers
and half remained seated,
and each side shouted at the other,
insisting that theirs was the true tradition.

Nothing the rabbi said or did
moved toward solving the impasse.

Finally, in desperation,
the young rabbi sought out
the synagogue's 99-year-old founder.

He met the old rabbi in the nursing home
and poured out his troubles.

"So tell me," he pleaded,
"was it the tradition
for the congregation to stand during the prayers?"
"No," answered the old rabbi.

" Ah," responded the younger man,
"then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?"

"No," answered the old rabbi.

"Well," the young rabbi responded,
"what we have now is complete chaos! 
Half the people stand and shout,
and the other half sit and scream."

Ah," said the old man, "that was the tradition."

You see--conflict crosses all boundaries.
Boundaries of religions, traditions, cultures and time.

Even in the early church--even in it’s earliest days--
there was conflict.

The reality is that conflict is part of life.
Conflict in organizations and in families
keeps consultants and therapists employed and busy.
Conflict in the church keeps many churches bound up,
unable to loose what God calls us to do and to give in this world.

Most of us hate conflict.
Yes, there are a few that like to stir things up
and then either watch from the sidelines as others battle it out
or else, jump right into the drama.
(That’s probablynot a healthy or happy person.)

Most of us find conflict at least uncomfortable.
You know how toddlers sometimes, when they are feeling shy,
will close their eyes.
They think that if they close their eyes and they can’t see you,
then you can’t see them.

That’s how we often treat conflict.
We turn away or try to ignore the situation--
metaphorically closing our eyes--thinking if we can pretend we don't see the conflict
then it won’t be there.

We might consider Jesus a first century conflict resolution consultant.
Jesus knew that conflict exists. He was often right in the middle of conflict.
He also knew do that conflict does not just magically disappear.

Jesus gives very specific advice on what we are to do
Jesus isn’t just telling us how to resolve conflict--
he is really telling us how to live in community together.
But he knows that whenever human beings come together,
there will be disagreements. We are diverse people with diverse opinions.
Our challenge is to work out those disagreements
and to do so while still loving
and remaining in relationship with one another.

Jesus has a three step process:

First, go directly to the person.
That’s right--go right to the person--just you and that person--and confront the problem directly.
Confronting and naming a problem is not the same as blaming someone.
Jesus is not saying,
go to that person and give them in a piece of your mind.
Jesus is saying go to the person and tell the truth--
that you feel hurt.
Or if you are the one who has hurt someone,
go to that person and say you’re sorry and ask their forgiveness.
Talk with the person and find ways together
to restore the broken relationship.

Go to the person
before you have talked ABOUT the person
to one or two or twenty-two other people.

This is not easy.
When we have been hurt, we want to hurt back!
For most of us to resist that “hurting back,”
we choose to just avoid the person.
Or to turn a cold shoulder to the person.

The temptation is to seek revenge--either aggressively or passively--
but Jesus offers a different way, a better way.
Go directly to the person, tell the truth, confess that you feel hurt,
or that you are responsible for their hurt--
then work towards reconciliation.

This is what Jesus means and what Paul affirms
over and over in the letter to the Romans, when they proclaim:
Love one another. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Lay aside the works of darkness.
And make no mistake--acts of revenge are works of darkness.

Gandhi got it right when he said,
“An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.”

So that is step one.
Go directly to the person,
tell them how you feel,
work things out.

Jesus was a wise man.
He knew that not every conflict could be resolved in that way.

So he has a Step Two.
If the person won’t listen to you--or won’t even talk with you--
try going to them with two or three other people.

Now this is not for the purpose of out numbering someone.
Because, remember--this is not about revenge--
this is not even about wanting the person to admit they were wrong--
because the truth is,
YOU may be the person who is at fault.

The purpose of taking a few others with you
is to surround this person with love.
Surround them with love
so they might listen and hear what you want to say
and desire, as you do, to work things out.

But Jesus is a realist. He knows that even this second try might not work,
so he moves on to Step Three.
Jesus calls for the church to try to reach the person.
The whole community should reach out to this person,
hold them accountable but love them still.

Now this sounds scary.
It sounds like the church could go off on a witch hunt.
The truth is---and we all know it--
the church HAS gone on more than one witch hunt.
Some of us have horrible images of people being shunned
or made to stand up in church and being humiliated.

But the key to what Jesus is saying is in the next line:
...if the offender refuses to listen even to the church,
let such a one be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.

We need to remember that Jesus sat and broke bread and talked
to both Gentiles and tax collectors.
He did not exclude them, he did not reject them.
Jesus tried to respect the dignity of every human being--
even when he did not agree with them,
even when they did not agree with him.

Jesus is telling us that REGARDLESS--
and this is not about legal action this is about human interaction--
regardless, we are to love one another.

This is hard stuff.
Because essentially Jesus is saying,
your last resort people is to just keep on loving this person no matter what.

In his book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner says
that love is the most powerful and powerless of all powers.

He writes:

“It is the most powerful
because it alone can conquer
that final and most impregnable stronghold
which is the human heart.
It is the most powerless
because it can do nothing except by consent.”

We cannot force reconciliation.
We cannot make someone love us
just because we love them.
We cannot force forgiveness
even when we beg for it.

But we can keep working to love someone--regardless.

American poet Edward Markam wrote:

He drew a circle that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win,

We drew a circle that took him in.  

Sometimes we will find ourselves on the outside of someone’s circle.
We will try steps one and two and three and three hundred and three--
to no avail.

There is only one thing left at that point.
To hold that person within our circle of love.
They don’t have to love us back
but we can still love them.
And Jesus will be right there beside us.

As Christians our primary call is to love.

Aristides, a philosopher in the Second Century
noticed there was something different about those Christians.
He wrote:

"Christians love one another.
They never fail to help widows;
they save orphans from those who would hurt them.
If a man has something, he gives freely to man who has nothing.
If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy,
as though he were a real brother...
If one of the is poor and there isn’t enough food to go around,
they fast several days to give him the food he needs...
This is really a new kind of person.
There is something divine in them."

Christians love one another.
As our own St. John said, over and over,
Little children, love one another.

Please understand that this call to love one another
does not mean
Jesus is asking us to remain in a situation or with a person
who is hurting us or abusing us.
But Jesus is telling us that revenge will not make the situation better
nor will it change the person.
Loving one another means we choose
to not return that hurt and abuse and hate.
We choose a different way.

There is a highway that is filled with bickering and jealousy,
violence and revenge, hate and fear--
and this highway is often very crowded.
It is usually about eight lanes wide on both sides and smoothly paved.

Jesus shows us a more difficult path to travel.
Not so wide, no so easy,
but it is the path
that leads us to the essence of all Love.

...where two or three are gathered in my name,
I am there among them.

We never walk the path of love by ourselves.


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