Sunday Night Worship – 9/7/08

Communal Living

Matthew 18: 15-20

I have two stories about dating. Names and some facts have been changed to protect the innocent.

There was once a woman who was set up by a colleague on a blind date. After the date, which was not particularly amusing or spark-worthy, she wondered what the colleague had seen in each of them that had caused her to think they might be a good match. The woman found nothing in common with the man and mused that her colleague might as well have said when introducing them, “He breathes. And so do you!”

This particular dating woman hated conflict and uncomfortable conversation so much that she was afraid each time her phone rang after that date – afraid it might be the man asking for another date and that she would have to “be mean” and say “no.” A friend of hers noted this conflict aversion and decided to help the woman out by role-playing the potential phone call from the man. They sat together holding their hands up with imaginary telephones in them, practicing how to compassionately but firmly tell the man that she was not interested in any further contact.

You may find this funny – the people whose identities are protected do – but you may find it surprising that this was not an inexperienced young adult or high school student just beginning to date. This was a woman in her 30s.

Similar situation, different people: There was once a man in his 20s who had been on a couple of dates with a woman in his graduate program. The woman was perfectly nice and they had had some fun on the dates but he knew he wasn’t interested and wanted to stop seeing her. He had some anxiety about The Talk but knew it was the right thing to do. He didn’t need to practice with a friend but he did decide to think carefully about what he wanted to say.

Well this guy happened to be in seminary at the time and he was studying all about pastoral care and how to use “I” statements when you are expressing how you feel. You know, instead of saying “You make me feel like a fat, lazy slob” you say, “When you look at me in disgust, I feel like a fat, lazy, slob.”

So one night as this man was talking with his roommate about the upcoming Talk and the two of them were joking a bit about the situation, he decided to concoct the perfect I-statement way of breaking up with the woman. After a lot of laughter and a beer or two and some trial and error – it can be hard to speak entirely in “I” statements – he had it. The completely I-statement break-up line. Here it is: “I like the way my body feels when you’re not touching it.”

Well, he didn’t actually end up using that well-crafted line but I think you can see some common ground in these tales from the dating world. It is hard to express difficult, uncomfortable, potentially unflattering feelings or thoughts to another person. It is hard to say something in a forthright and compassionate way when we assume that the one we’re saying it to may be hurt or mad or surprised by what we say.

In our culture we hate direct, “clean” conflict – but we love lurid details! Ooooh, how some of us twittered as the various news reports about Sarah Palin and her family came out during the last week. No matter your political persuasion it’s easy to see how the country gave itself over to titillation and speculation with only the scantest bits of information and well before Palin’s acceptance speech. What if, instead of turning one family’s issues into national fodder for conversation those with the most to say had turned to their own families? What if, when confronted with joining in the fray, spouting opinions, and escalating misunderstanding and gossip, we had taken the occasion to talk to those in our own lives and to pray for the difficulties the Palin family faces? What if?

What if we had chosen another road after the attacks of September 11th, 2001? That horrible anniversary comes around again this week. After our initial period of shock, what if we had kept praying for those attacked and also included those we now feared? What if, instead of going overseas with guns we had gone over to talk and to listen? What if?

I do understand that acting and reacting as a group or a country is a different thing than acting or reacting as an individual. And I do think that the scripture we read tonight from Matthew has valuable information for individuals. But I also notice that Jesus is very clearly giving instructions about how individuals behave in community, how the members of the body of Christ are to go about actually being and behaving like the body of Christ we are called to be. It’s clear that the way individuals behave changes the whole body.

What does Jesus instruct us to do as individuals living in Christian community? For something that gets talked about so seldom in our church, it’s astoundingly simple, direct, and easy-to-follow. If someone in the church sins against you, go to that person and point out the problem. If she hears you, great. But if she doesn’t, then go back again and this time take two or three other church members along so that they can witness the conversation and make sure both of you are listening and not misrepresenting the other. If this doesn’t work either, then take the matter to the whole congregation. And if even that doesn’t work, “let [that] one be [like] a Gentile and a tax collector [to you]” (Matthew 18: 15-17).   How could we possibly be confused about this process? But when’s the last time you witnessed this in any faith community you have been a part of? Why do you think we don’t do this? Surely it’s not because there are no grievances and no church members sinning against one another.

A few years back there was a tiff between a couple of folks here at Wesley. This was in the heyday of blogging and before Facebook was widely used and the way I found out about the tiff was that the involved parties (along with several others) were blogging about it. It was quite clear from the blog entries that there had been no face-to-face conversations and that the “sinned against” party had never gone alone to the other party to bring up the offense. Instead, both parties and everyone else who ended up reading their blogs joined in the fray, anonymously badmouthing one another. I say “anonymously” because even if you knew whose blog you were reading, the other party’s name was never mentioned directly – though everyone in the community knew exactly who was who and what was what. It was hurtful and cowardly because they were willing to spout off in a public forum but were unwilling to come face-to-face within the community. And, in light of our passage from Matthew, we can see it is also not the way Christians are to behave.

I suppose you could make a case for using technology to help you confront a brother or sister of the faith but this episode was not even that. They just skipped right over the direct, clean confrontation of their conflict and went right for the jugular of public opinion and rumors and gossip. It is hard to come face-to-face with someone who’s wronged you, especially if you are feeling vulnerable. It’s hard to stand there and tell him what he did and how it hurt you. It’s hard but Jesus doesn’t give us any other options in the matter.

One of the things I find most interesting about these instructions is the two different ways the church has read verse 17 over the centuries. This is the point, after you have tried the one-on-one conversation and after you have brought witnesses and after you have brought him to the gathered church when, if he’s still not listening to you, then “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The New Interpreter’s Study Bible has this comment about verse 17: “Treating someone ‘as a Gentile and a tax collector’ is often interpreted as exclusion and shunning. But in the Gospel they are objects of mission. Disciples are to include them in the assembly” (NIB Bible, p. 1779).

The church has used this passage as its instruction sheet for excommunicating members and you can see how we could reach that conclusion. But we’ve also read it differently and it seems to be that if we’re paying attention to Jesus then we have to read it as a challenge to our boundaries and our desire to circle the wagons.

Who are Gentiles and tax collectors to Jesus? Who did Jesus eat and travel and hang out with? Who did Jesus get in trouble for befriending? Who does Jesus go out of his way to seek out? Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector. Hmmm. Do you think that instead of this being an instruction to abandon that one it might be the opposite? Do you think Jesus might be instructing us to keep at it and to make that one the object of our mission?

In a culture ready to strike back when we’re hurt and ready to speak unkindly about someone else’s mistakes, we are called to be a church that lives together differently. We are meant to treat each other not just as church members but as brothers and sisters. We are called to live as family, “to be bound together in community [where] to pray is to say ‘our Father,’ even in the privacy of our own room” (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII, p. 379).

In a few minutes we will share our family meal around God’s table and as part of our prayers we will offer up the Lord’s Prayer, starting with “Our Father….” It’s a reminder each time we gather for this feast that our faith is not about each one of us “getting right with God” but about a way of living in community as the children and family of God. There is no such thing as a solo Christian.

We don’t get the option of “getting right” and then going on about our business and looking just like the rest of the culture. We get to live in a quirky community and follow a difficult savior. We get to chase after even those who have wronged us, always looking out for our family — the one God has created for us.

Another way we get to practice this is in how we approach the Table, our family meal. Earlier in Matthew Jesus says that when we are making our offerings in worship, if we have not tried to reconcile with someone we are to put down the offerings, leave worship to go and see that person before we come back to give our gifts to God. “First be reconciled to your brother [or sister] and then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5: 23-24). God is not pleased with our worship for an hour a week in church only. God wants our whole lives and God has some specifics about how we are to live them out.

John Wesley wrote some specifics about this same text in one of his sermons. They are a good elaboration on Jesus’ instructions for reconciliation. Our churches, our relationships, our political races, and maybe even our adventures in dating will be entirely different experiences if we take them to heart. Here’s what he said:

“But see that the manner also wherein you speak be according to the Gospel of Christ. Avoid everything in look, gesture, word, and tone of voice, that savors of pride or self-sufficiency. Studiously avoid everything magisterial or dogmatical, everything that looks like arrogance or assuming. Beware of the most distant approach to disdain, overbearing, or contempt. With equal care avoid all appearance of anger; and though you use great plainness of speech, yet let there be no reproach, no railing accusation, no token of any warmth but that of love. Above all, let there be no shadow of hate or ill-will, no bitterness or sourness of expression; but use the air and language of sweetness, as well as gentleness, that all may appear to flow from love in the heart. And yet this sweetness need not hinder your speaking in the most serious and solemn manner; as far as may be, in the very words of the oracles of God (for there are none like them,) and as under the eye of Him who is coming to judge the quick and dead” (John Wesley’s Sermons, “The Cure of Evil Speaking,” cited from: ).

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah E. Lewis 2008

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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