Sunday, September 04, 2011
Sermon for Sunday, September 4, 2011 Matthew 18:15-20 “Preserving the Body”
What happens when the process of working out our differences gets unraveled?
What happens when we forget how to talk to each other?
What happens when we decide to take over God’s job of judging?
It isn’t pretty. The Body of Christ becomes damaged when some of its members are at war with each other.
Let me tell you a little story about what happens when we forget.
Many years ago, I was a member of a church that had a very unusual rector. An artist by training, he was a strong personality. People either loved him or hated him, but most of the people in the parish did indeed love him in all his quirky creativity. Those who didn’t love him were usually generally satisfied with his ministry, but would gravitate toward the long string of assistant rectors he hired over the years. The assistants were a mixed bag…some were wonderful, some were not so wonderful. But in total, the parishioners were happy with their ordained leaders.
One year, a beloved assistant left to become rector of another church, and the rector hired a new assistant, someone who was suggested by one of the bishops.
The assistant had a strong personality, too, just like the rector, and had strengths in different things than the rector did. It should have been a recipe for a good time in the life of this parish.
When the rector didn’t like what the assistant suggested, he ignored her rather than saying he didn’t like it. This happened a number of times, and she was frustrated.
But she didn’t say to him, “I don’t particularly like it when I suggest something and you ignore me. If you don’t like my idea, please tell me so directly.”
Instead, she went and sighed to several parishioners who liked her very much, and didn’t particularly like the rector. They patted her on the back and said, “Poor thing! He’s so disrespectful to you!”
That only made her feel more like someone who had been wronged by a passive-aggressive superior, and certainly didn’t encourage her to work things out with him.
Meanwhile, the rector began referring to her as a “royal pain” to parishioners who liked him very much. And instead of saying “Gee, why don’t you talk to her about what you see as her role and how you’d like her to bring you any new ideas?” they said “She’s so difficult! Doesn’t she have any respect for you? Why did that bishop suggest her in the first place?”
That only made him feel more like someone who had been wronged by an insubordinate assistant, and certainly didn’t encourage him to work things out with her.
And the people who felt they were her advocates started to look for ways to get rid of the rector.
They didn’t address the issue of the bad communications between the rector and the assistant. They didn’t take her to him and say, “We understand there have been some problems here. Let’s sit down together and work this out.”
No, they waited for the rector to make a mistake, and then tried to use that mistake to demand that he be fired. And when the first attack didn’t work, they waited for the next mistake, and tried to use that.
They started to use language to describe him that would curl your hair, and
inevitably, people who felt they were HIS advocates decided they needed to strike back, saying the assistant’s friends were crazy and that SHE was crazy and needed to go. They didn’t take him to her and say “We understand there have been some problems here. Let’s sit down and work this out.”
And so the battle of words began. Much of the church didn’t even realize this was going on – only the parties with an interest in winning seemed to be paying attention – but it caused much pain. The assistant quit in a huff. Several parishioners left, less than one might have expected in such a situation, but still, it was a loss. The rector hung on for another year and then retired, worn out by it all and no longer effective in his ministry.
What would Jesus have to say about all this mess?
Our Gospel gives us a pretty good idea. Jesus does something very unusual in this passage. In his teaching, instead of simply saying what he hopes for as the outcome, like “love God and each other,” or “feed the hungry,” Jesus gives a recipe for a process, something he almost never does, because generally he wants us to figure it out ourselves.
It’s not a process that starts off with “choose a side in the battle and load your guns.”
No, it starts off with respectful and honest conversation. You go to the person who has offended you – one on one, not with a platoon of parishioners waving flaming torches – and you say, “Listen, that thing you said hurt me. That thing you did caused me harm. I am hurting because of it.”
You name it privately. And you wait. The person may say, “I never realized that was hurtful. I’m so sorry. How can I make it right?” And as Jesus says, “you have regained that one.” The Body of Christ is restored.
But what if the person says, “You’re wrong, I’m right. Leave me alone.”
Do you get to have the parishioners come marching up to the door with flaming torches?
Perhaps there were a couple of others there when the person said or did the thing that offended you. You bring them along.
No screaming, no yelling, “You’re a miserable excuse for a human being.” No calling up five friends on the phone and saying, “You’ll never believe what that person did! Isn’t he awful?” No grumbling about it in the parking lot after church.
No, you sit down and say, “I know you said I was wrong, so I talked with our mutual friends here, because they were there when it happened. I wanted to make sure my recollection was right.” And one of the friends says, “It really was a hard thing that you said. I could see that this one is hurt because of it. Can’t you acknowledge what you did was wrong so we can all move forward?”
And perhaps then the person says, “I’ve had time to think about it, and I guess I was out of line. I’m sorry.” And Jesus says, “great! You’ve regained another lost soul.” The Body of Christ is restored. Not, “You’ve won!” because it isn’t about winning, no matter what Charlie Sheen may say. It’s about the Body of Christ being made whole again.
But let’s say this person says, “I don’t care what any of you say. I was right and you were wrong and you can all go and say whatever you want, you won’t change my mind.”
And then if he won’t listen to anybody about this, then you let him go. He’s not your friend anymore. He’s not a part of the Body of Christ. You gave it a good shot, and now you release it and leave it in God’s hands.
You don’t continue to gossip about him and say you’ve heard his wife is ready to divorce him over his bad behavior. You don’t give him the cold shoulder at Martin’s. You don’t lead a group of parishioners with flaming torches to burn down his house.
You follow the process that Jesus suggests, because the goal here – let me repeat this again – is not winning, it’s preserving the wholeness of the Body of Christ, and the person with whom you are in conversation is another part of the Body of Christ. If someone deliberately chooses to separate him or herself from the Body of Christ, that’s between the person and God. It’s not our job to be in the judging business.
What would have happened if the people in my little story had followed the process that Jesus suggests?
Perhaps early in the relationship between the rector and his assistant, when she felt rebuffed, she might have said, “I’m feeling like every time I come up with a new idea, you rebuff me. What’s going on here?”
And he might have said, “You know, all these ideas you’re coming up with aren’t new. They’re all things I tried in the past, or that I know wouldn’t fit here. I’m sorry you’re feeling bad. Maybe there’s another way we can brainstorm together that would be more productive.”
That might have been the beginning of a much more Christ-like dialogue, wouldn’t it?
But let’s say he says “I don’t know what you’re talking about” and storms off.
And she says to a couple of people on one of the committees she works with, “You may have noticed that the ideas we came up with don’t seem to come to fruition. I’m having trouble getting the rector to talk about implementing them. Could you come with me to have that conversation?”
I guarantee the rector would have been paying more attention then. And maybe that would have broken through the impasse between these two strong people.
Or perhaps the senior warden could sense the tension and would talk with them about it…
Because it isn’t about winning, it’s about preserving the Body of Christ. And when we do that, we are blessed. Jesus tells us that in the final words of this passage: “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
Why does Jesus choose to focus this time on laying out a detailed process, when in his other teachings he usually just says what the outcome should be?
Perhaps because he knows that this is the place where we are most subject to the temptation to take control – to win – and it is where we need the most detailed guidance. And in our world today, we are constantly assailed by voices who tell us we should focus on winning above all, that we deserve to win, and somebody else deserves to lose. This is a recipe for withering your soul. Just two chapters earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says “What do you benefit if you win the whole world but lose your immortal soul?”
What happens when the process of working out our differences gets unraveled? We degenerate into people who only care about winning, not about each other as parts of the Body of Christ.
What happens when we forget how to talk to each other? We treat each other with less than the respect that Christ treats us. We become less than he asks us to be.
What happens when we decide to take over God’s job of judging? We lose our understanding of the grace that God has shown us in giving us Jesus to redeem us from our sins.
This is why the process of working through our disagreements and our hurting of each other matters so much. It’s not because it’s a guidebook for winning and argument. It’s a guidebook for something much more important: preserving the Body of Christ. That is what will keep your soul and your relationships whole.