Little intro: I had the chance to give the sermon yesterday (September 7) at Ashland. Here’s what I shared…
Here we are, back to 11 o’clock. Now feeling officially called home from the beach, the mountains, wherever we have wandered and roamed this summer. We return to church with the memory of watermelon, ice cream, and sweet corn still alive on our taste buds. Tanner and more freckled we come to begin a new season together. And, appropriately, we’re starting the year off with a reminder from Matthew of what it means to be a church.
For better or for worse when I think about what it means to be church I remember the children’s rhyme
The church is not a building
The church is not a steeple
The church is not a resting place
The church is the people…
And when the people gather
There’s singing and there’s praying
There’s laughing and there’s crying, sometimes.
All of this is saying…
I am the church.
You are the church.
We are the church together.
All who follow Jesus
All around the world.
YES! We’re the church together.
What a lovely picture of a very nice, manageable, church. A first glance it might look like our reading from Matthew today supports this Church of Minimal Chaos and Crying. In these verses we are clearly instructed to confront members of the church one-on-one if they sin against us. If that doesn’t work, we are to take one or two others along to try again. If they are not willing to turn from their sin, then we bring the issue to the entire church. If they still won’t listen, then we’re to treat these people as we would tax collectors or Gentiles.
It kind of looks like we’re smoking out the bad guy, putting him on public trial, and sending him off if he refuses to see the error of his ways. But this vindictive version of the story just doesn’t hold water, does it? If it did, it would contradict both what we profess and witness in our faith: the unimaginable grace and the immeasurable love that creates the core of God’s relationship with humanity. So let’s look at this a little closer.
For me, at least, it isn’t hard to imagine Jesus thinking, “If another member of the church sins against you…HA! IF!! Right…” Because those who sin are not what get in the way of the church; they- we are part and parcel of this imperfect community we are called to.
Now, sinning against another is not the same thing as offending someone by not noticing her new hair style, failing to ask about the recent move, or not saying “hello” in the frozen foods section at Wegmans last week. Sin refers to a breaking of the commandments, or in essence, a breaking of the covenant we are invited into by God. Sin is when we act out of anything but this original goodness of our creation.
Sin feels heavy, ugly, and vile so often, our first instinct is to hide it away, to leave it in the dark. We all know that at times the church has done a wonderful job of perpetuating this reaction within its flock. Perhaps without even preaching it from the pulpit, some churches place their priority on being “nice” rather than being bearers of light and truth in dark places. And maybe this a part of the problem Jesus is warning against here…
“If? Ha! When, because this will be a church that is in the world. This will be a place where we will let the beautiful, tired, bed-headed, angry, hungry, hungover, and hyperactive children come. This will be a community of saints and sinners and suburbanites. This will be where God shall dwell among the overworked, the unemployed, the anxious, and the addicted. Because I am the way, the niceness, and the light? No. Because I am the way, the truth, and the light.”
The cornerstone of our faith is built on a God who along with our joy, praise, and thanksgivingbegs us to bring our suffering, struggle, and sin into this light so that it may be transformed. God calls to us, stirs us, comes to us in our aloneness and he brings us into communion with one another where we are reminded of the resurrection that carries us from darkness into light.
The community or “church member” that Matthew is writing about is more accurately translated as “brother”: “if a brother sins against you…” And doesn’t this makes the entire context a much more personal matter? This is no longer the guy who sits seven rows back from you and who you once spoke with at a coffee hour but rather the person you have lived and worked with. The person with whom you have endured hardship. The person who has shared in your celebrations. This “member of the church” is someone who you are deeply connected to and therefore, affected by.
Last week we talked about forgiving our enemies. Who comes to mind when you think of your enemies? Is it someone who was raised differently than you were? Is it someone who votes differently than you? Is it someone who picks on your kid? Is it someone who picked on you? Is it someone who has deeply hurt you? What is it like to imagine forgiving them?
Does this person live on a different side of town? Out of state? Across an ocean?
Or does this person live with you? Work with you? Worship with you? What is it like to imagine forgiving them now.
(Mister) Fred Rogers shared what many people in pain have come to discover when he wrote that, “Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends.” Yes. It can be so much harder to face and grow through the hurt caused by those closest to us, those whom we have trusted.
At our teacher’s retreat in August, our Sunday School leaders discussed how forgiveness in light of broken trust is often watered down for our kids. We teach our children to say “I’m sorry” when offending and to quickly respond “It’s OK” when offended. Instead of opening them to a wider range of feelings, thoughts, and responses, we tend to emphasize the importance of fixing things up in a timely manner. But forgiveness is so much more than an “I’m sorry”, whether it be half-hearted or heavy-laden with guilt. The complexity of this concept is reflected in the fact that when we turn to the Hebrew Bible we find several different meanings for the word “forgive.”
In the Old Testament there is salach, which most of us would understand as pardoning or freeing from the constraints of guilt. Salach is the forgiveness that God offers as it is exclusively used in instances where God is the subject. Kipper or atonement is related to the journey from sin to forgiveness, again usually between a person or people and God. And then there’s nasa’, which is used in the context of expelling sin from the individual, usually by way of communal sacrifice. Did we catch that? Individual sin, communal sacrifice. The remedy for one person’s wrongdoing is reconciled within community
This linguistic differentiation between God’s forgiveness and interpersonal forgiveness is also critical to where we are in the continuing story of our faith today. In a world of score-keeping, it reminds us that we have been made in the likeness and image of a God who can first and foremost be described as forgiving. For as the Psalm says, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.”
Knowing this, we can turn to our instructions in Matthew and add to them the knowledge and experience of a God who in everything He does, through all of His work in the world, strives to bind and bring us closer to Him. And what does God as of us? That we do the same, that we bind ourselves to one another in love, forgiveness, and grace rather than loosening our bond in ignorance, fear, and greed.
At each stage of reconciliation, we are reminded of the God who created us in goodness, who comes to us in the depths of our sorrow, who surrounds us with love, who brings us closer to Him through true communion with others. I am not the church. You are not the church. But we ARE the church together.
As we join each other in our joys and sorrows, we are invited to grow in understanding and we are called to keep every brother and sister, sins and all, assured in the love of God. And in the end if this assurance is met with resistance, we are to treat these members as a Gentiles or a tax collectors. Just the kind of people Jesus chose to be associated with.
So it turns out that this is not a story about putting sinners on trial. It is not a story about how to shame a person into good behavior, commitment to a church, or even a faith. And it is definitely not a cautionary tale about what will happen to the troublemakers among us if they dare to stir up more than the allowed amount of chaos. This is a story about reconciling the lost, lonely, and suffering to our compassionate Creator. It is a story about responding in love rather than reacting in fear. It’s a story about how to be a church, the living body of Christ, in the world.
Our passage from Matthew again reminds us that God’s economy of love, grace, and forgiveness stands in stark contrast to the rules of the world around us. When the world enlists shame and fear to create the illusion of a “lesser people”, God places himself in the midst of the oppressed. As the world glorifies the success of the individual, God magnifies our inherent interconnectedness, whether we be bound or loosened together. Where the world tells us we must hide our weakness, God invites us to bring our darkness into the light. And as the world cries for revenge, God calls for reconciliation.
Through this reconciliation we are brought back to our being in and through God. Our state as beloved children. Our original goodness. We move from simply being manageable to living in harmony. From minimal chaos to eternal peace. In these imperfect communities with one another, we are given the chance to remember the grace that is offered to us freely and to extend this grace to each other. Because yes, we’re the church together.
Thanks be to God.