Entering the Mess

September 10, 2017
14th Sunday after Pentecost

Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon here:

[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.” – Matthew 18:15-20

ELCA Pastor Delmer Chilton tells a story [check out the link to his post here] about a local church in the rural Georgia community where he grew up. “Every spring, when the farmers in the church planted tobacco, the “preacher” would go and see them and read them the section in the church Book of Discipline forbidding involvement in “the tobacco trade,” followed by a recitation of Matthew 18. Then he would inform them that in obedience to Scripture and the discipline he was warning them to cease their sinful behavior. A few weeks later he would bring two elders with him and do it again. And some time before Memorial Day, the women and children of the congregation would gather in solemn assembly to excommunicate their fathers and husbands and brothers, etc. Then everyone would go home to a nice Sunday dinner. Sometime in October, after everyone had harvested their crop and sold their tobacco, the women and children would gather again and vote their menfolk back in, just in time, my father would add with a wink, for the church to collect a tithe on the proceeds of the tobacco sale. Though they followed the Bible literally and carefully,” Chilton says, “the folks at the holiness church managed to miss the entire point of Jesus’ teaching in this matter. They used this text to eliminate sinful messiness from their midst while Jesus meant it as a way to bring messy, sinful people back into the community of faith.”

In other words the people of God, living together in Christian community aren’t called to expunge the “bad” people so that we can live a nice, separate holy life – which is good because there wouldn’t be anybody left if we did that – but rather we Christians are called into the messiness of human community, the messiness of broken people trying and failing and trying again to form relationships of mutual support, relationships that communicate the love and grace of God to one another.

And so Jesus gives us a process, and puts the weight of heaven behind it. He tells us to try to work it out, then bring in the wisdom of other trusted members of the community, then, if all else fails, give everyone some time and space to figure out how to come back together in a new kind of relationship. Which is some of the soundest advice I know for handling conflict, but some of the hardest advice to follow when the stuff really hits the fan. Because what we’d mostly rather do when we feel we’ve been hurt is talk about it to other people, throw verbal or physical punches, kick people out first and figure the rest out later. Or on the other end of the spectrum, we bottle it up, put on a happy face, and pretend everything is perfect. This process instead calls us to deep engagement with others in ways that force us to bare our own weaknesses and place ourselves in vulnerable space. So Jesus calls us to dig deep, to draw on the underlying power of God’s Spirit within us and work hard to build that messy Christian community.

But let’s be especially clear that this isn’t a passage that suggests we just sit back and make nice, especially when the relationships that need to be mended involve systemic oppression. The other model we have before us today for dealing with conflict is the one hinted at in the first reading. This troubling story of God’s last ditch effort to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is the culmination of chapter after chapter of a somewhat reluctant Moses standing up in the halls of power proclaiming, “Let my people go!” God’s people are called to go boldly into the halls of power to address injustice and oppression. We are to take Jesus’ words about handling conflict head on not only as guidance for living into messy Christian community, but also as guidance for standing up to the abuse of power and the perpetuation of injustice. To go out and seek reconciliation isn’t about everyone shaking hands and agreeing to live in a tense and uneasy ceasefire, and it’s certainly not about standing in judgment of others waving our Bibles around, but rather about digging in to the hard work of engaging one another in ways that help each of us to dismantle in ourselves the things that stand in the way of living together in peace and justice.

As we begin another academic year in this community, another year of living into messy human community together as a church, as classrooms, as college communities, we do so in the midst of a great deal of conflict and trouble in the world around us. As we engage the work of reconciliation and liberation in our own little corners, we are also called to join with other faith leaders who have stepped up to respond to white supremacists and to racism in its many more subtle forms. We are called to join undocumented immigrants as they stand open and vulnerable, awaiting in fear the day they will be rounded up and separated from family and home. We are called to cross the political aisle to open dialogue and conversation with those who disagree with us. We are called out of our comfort zones to stand in the storm, literally and figuratively, with those whose lives and livelihoods are being destroyed by wind and water in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean, called to work with them in this case not to resolve conflict but to restore wholeness in the face of disaster. And all of that work is going to be hard and it’s going to be messy, just like the individual work of conflict resolution, forgiveness, and living together in community.

Yet, the good news for us is that we do not enter that messy and challenging work alone – we cannot enter it on our own. Because Christ enters it with us, enters our broken human community. Christ enters the vulnerable place with us for the sake of reconciliation and liberation. Christ enters the vulnerable place with us so that we no longer stand behind self-created barriers against God’s love and mercy and justice, but are rather drawn into the place where we experience God at work in us. So that we are empowered by God’s Spirit to step forward into the places other fear to go, so that with the power of heaven behind us we are made a part of that boundary-breaking work to bring us together into one body. Not a perfect community, not one that has tidied up all its conflicts, disagreements, and tensions, but one that lives into the messy in-between spaces together.

We began our worship this morning with words of God’s forgiveness in response to our naming the brokenness of our lives. We began with God’s stepping out to become vulnerable to us, to be a part of our messy human community, to engage that work of creating a lasting and just peace through forgiveness and reconciliation. Though we ultimately fail to live out that same uncompromising forgiveness, God continues to be at work in us shaping us into the body of Christ and calling us again through font and table to be God’s holy, boundary crossing people to go out into the world to share the good news, so that we might be surprised over and over again at what God can do in and through us. Thanks be to God.

-Pastor Steven Wilco