September 13, 2023

Sunday, September 10, 2023, The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 10, 2023, The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost


The holy gospel according to Matthew the 18th chapter.

Jesus offers practical advice to his disciples on how individuals—and the church as a whole—should go about restoring relationships when one member has sinned against another.

[Jesus said to the disciples:] 15“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. 16But 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. 17If 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. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”



Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost                                               September 10, 2023

In my very first church, my first month in, we had some sort of big fellowship event.  This is literally my first rodeo.  As a planner, I was concerned.   I was hoping that things would go smoothly.  I don’t really know these folks yet, and there was a fellowship committee, but they never said a word to me about what they were planning or if they needed anything.  And I didn’t ask, I guess.  I just stressed about it.

The day of the event was awesome. The hall was decorated beautifully, everything was set out immaculately, chairs and tables were taken out of storage, cleaned, and set up.  The food was abundant, and things were going great.   I was going to make a few announcements towards the end of the event and wanted to thank the committee.  I said to the congregation, “Wow! I was here yesterday, and the hall did not look like this!  I don’t know who did this or when or how long it took then, but under the cover of darkness, the fellowship committee worked their magic and I’m just so impressed.  Let’s give them a hand…”

Good right?  I’m appreciative of their work and showed my appreciation publicly.  Nope.  The rest of my call at that parish, there were several members who actively worked against me and never liked me or talked to me because at that first event I had called them evil witches who worked magic in the dark.

I found that out a year later, and even in my attempted apology and reconciliation, I was not heard, because the patterns of unhealthy conflict had grown too hard to break out of.  Jesus gives these instructions for the church – his followers.   Jesus expects conflict.  And conflict is not bad.   Not addressing conflict is bad.  Because too often conflict leads to sin.

A difference of opinion over paint colors for the hallway leads to assumptions, gossip and defamation of the person who “wouldn’t know the difference between eggshell and satin, because she’s never washed a wall in her life.  She’s got people who do that for her, I hear.  Must be nice, wish she’d share some of that wealth with the church.  Did you hear she’s going to Europe next week?  She must not even care about the church harvest festival.  She even told me that she was sure I could handle it on my own.  With that attitude, no wonder her siblings don’t get along with her.  I can’t believe she’d deliberately plan a vacation in the middle of our committee’s work, how dare she.”   See how easy that was?  What began as a conflict over paint, twists into something wholly other, in which love, mercy, and inclusion are absent.

Our life together matters.  The way we treat each other matters.  The church is not solely built on spiritual thoughts and good intentions, but on concrete relationships between people.   Neither is the church solely built on a bunch of individuals praying in their own private devotional lives – but it is a community endeavor, built on our life together.  Church is something that happens when even 2 or 3 people gather.  That is when Christ promises to be in their midst, not when they are off by themselves feeling holy.

However, when two or three people are gathered, there are 2 or 3 different opinions, 2 or 3 personalities, 2 or 3 ways of being in this world, all of which could bump up against each other wrong or be interpreted wrong or misheard or misunderstood.  And likely the way you deal with conflict was the way you grew up watching your grown-ups deal with conflict.  Careful grace and mercy are necessary.

Our hands, voices, and whole selves are to be involved in the work that God has begun and continues.    Jesuswhole ministry is one of reconciliation, liberation, justice, healing, and tikkun olam (Hebrew for repair of the world”).   The cross reconciles people to God and shows us the way to reconcile with one another.

Viewed through this lens, conflicts are nothing less than opportunities to participate in Gods reconciling, reparative work. If we take this seriously, we can even learn to look forward to conflicts — imagine that! — as occasions to pattern our life together according to the cross, the deeper ways of being in this world, of love and grace and mercy,  with which God made and remakes the world.  This is gospel work.  Good News for those who are hurting and isolated.    Good News for those who feel guilty and ashamed.  Good news for the angry and frustrated.

Relationships are where this work starts.  Working together.  Truly knowing and trusting each other.   Developing these bonds is Gospel work.  Because is these relationships where we live out God’s commandments, God’s love and mercy, and God’s commitment to reconciliation.  We gather, to break bread and scoop ice cream.  We build healthy relationships in classes and serving together in the food pantry.  We work together to accomplish our ministry and care for this community, and solid relationships form.

But so many times instead of seeing conflict as an opportunity to live out reconciliation, Conflict is used as a wedge. And an opportunity to win.   Then one party can get what they want and the other can go kick rocks.  That’s way easier.  You simply hold your ground long enough till the other party gives up and continue to build up your argument with more people and opinions.  You demonize the other and make them take the blame for everything, as you are now the victim of everything.

But conflict can be used as an opportunity for growth.  This is the harder, slower way.  This is the way that feels painful, but it is wound healing pain, as opposed to wound festering pain.   It is slow and intense; you can’t get there overnight.  Jesus is honest about the number of steps along the way we need to pay attention to, and the number of conversations that should be happening.  And even in the end, if there cannot be the sort of reconciliation that was originally hoped for, we are to treat them as gentile or a tax collector.  Treat them as the sort of people who Jesus loves and has dinner with.  You are not obligated to restore a relationship with someone who has wronged you – but neither are you free to hate and demonize.

As Christians we are called to break cycles of abuse, patterns of unhealthy conflict. To live a way that may appear different from the norm, which includes loving our enemies and seeking reconciliation.  To put in the work of relationships, using conflict as opportunities for repair and restoration – which is God’s work in this world, that we are called to be about.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Pastor Erin

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