Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, September 25, 2011 Exodus 17:1-7 and Matthew 21: 23-32 “Presenting Problem”

In the medical world, people go to the doctor because something is bothering them. They may have an upset stomach or a spot on their neck that is making them nervous, or a bad headache. When they go to the doctor, they tell her about the problem, and sometimes the doctor does what is necessary to solve this obvious problem – what is called the presenting problem – but often the doctor will ask a lot of questions or order some tests to see if the presenting problem is all that is wrong, or if there is something more complicated, an underlying disease of some sort that is causing the presenting problem.

It’s the same in counseling, as my husband will tell you. A husband and wife will come in for counseling because they’re fighting all the time. The counselor might address the ways they communicate with each other and teach them ways of interacting that will defuse the moment, but more often than not, there is something else that is under the surface, bubbling away, that is the real source of the conflict. And until the counselor guides them in conversation to that unseen thing that is causing the symptoms – the fights – all the communications coaching in the world won’t fix the warring couple.

It seems like we’ve got two good examples of this presenting problem vs underlying disease in our readings today.

Poor Moses! He’s been guiding the Israelites through the desert toward the promised land, and it has not been an easy journey. They complained about food, and now they’re complaining about water, or the lack of it.

They’re stuck somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Rephidim, to be exact. They whine and complain, not surprisingly, because there is no water for them or their livestock to drink. They tell Moses that he is a failure as a leader, they quarrel with him and with each other. Is this difficult journey what they are supposed to be doing? Is Moses really the right guy to be leading this trek? Is God really among them?

The presenting problem is the lack of water. It makes sense that they are upset. People and their livestock are trudging through the desert. It is hot and dry. They are thirsty, and there is no water to be found. They could have said to Moses, “Hey, guy, we’ve got to keep moving and find an oasis somewhere, because we’re really thirsty.” But that’s not what they say. They moan and complain and turn into the ancient version of drama queens, flopping all over the place saying “Why did we follow you?”

And that’s the clue that the presenting problem – their thirst – masks their real problem.

It is a problem of faith. Do these people really believe that God is talking to Moses? Do they believe that Moses is conveying God’s wishes to them correctly? Are they starting to believe that this was all a great big foolish mistake?

And Moses feels that underlying doubt. The whining about the water is the symptom. The real problem is that they are starting to doubt that the Lord is among them and guiding them, keeping them safe on the journey.

The immediate symptom needs to be addressed of course. They need water. But the underlying root of the disease also needs to be treated. Fortunately, God takes pity on poor Moses, the object of all that complaining, and directs him to solve the immediate symptom by doing something that attacks the underlying disease. Moses is to use that staff that had shown God’s might and will by parting the Red Sea when they left Egypt. He is to strike a particular rock, and water will flow out of it.

Certainly, the people would be glad for the water, but they would also be reminded that the solution to their thirst came from Moses transmitting God’s power and concern for them through that staff. He was striking the rock, but he was also striking their doubts at the same time. God works that way sometimes, showing us in surprising ways that God is right there with us, helping us when we get weak and afraid.

In the gospel, we hear another story of presenting symptom and underlying disease.

Jesus is in the temple, teaching. This is what rabbis do: they are teachers, and Jesus was an extraordinary rabbi. But he wasn’t part of the system of the temple – he was like a lay preacher walking into a big cathedral with no credentials. No surprise, then, that the religious leaders in the temple came up to him and said, “What gives you the right to come here and do your preaching and teaching?”

If you asked the chief priests and the elders, they would say that in that moment, the presenting problem was that someone who had no credentials walked in and started preaching without checking in with the leadership. It’s like when a husband and wife are fighting, and the husband tells the counselor, “Well, she always goes shopping and buys all sorts of expensive things we can’t afford.” And the counselor thinks to himself, “It’s not about the shopping, friend.” But they can’t face the fact that it is not about credentials. They want to address that symptom because they can handle that one…it’s the area in which they have the power and the law on their side.

So they ask him that question. “What gives you the right to come here and do your preaching and teaching?” “By whose authority do you do these things?”

And Jesus knows that it isn’t about credentials, so he turns it back to them in another question: “When John baptized people, was it from heaven or was it just his own personal thing, and it didn’t really mean much at all?”

Now the leaders are boxed into a corner. If they say that John’s baptisms come from heaven, they’ll look like fools or worse for not believing what John said about the coming Messiah. They let Herod kill him without saying a word. If they say John’s baptisms aren’t from heaven, they will incur the wrath of the people, who certainly believe that John was a prophet. They flocked to him for baptism.

So, unable to come up with an answer that saves face, they simply say, “We don’t know.” And Jesus says, “If you don’t know the answer to that question, where John’s authority comes from, you cannot possibly understand where my authority comes from.”

Jesus knows that their challenge to him isn’t about credentials, it’s about fear of losing power in the current system. If Jesus is the Messiah, they think, the religious leadership’s power is diminished. They like their lives. They don’t want things to change, and Jesus is nothing if he isn’t about changing the status quo.

So the presenting symptom may be Jesus’ authority, his credentials, but the underlying disease is that they don’t want to recognize his authority. They don’t want to see who he is. They are afraid that he really is who he appears to be – the Messiah, the Anointed One – and they don’t know what to do with it.

And that’s why Jesus’ parable is so interesting. He frames it as a story about obedience. A father asks his son to do something. He sounds like a teenager “Yeah, yeah, dad, I’ll get to it.” And then he promptly goes back to playing the 1st century equivalent of Xbox and forgets his promise. The father asks his second son to do something. The youngster says, “Sure, right on it,’ and gets it done immediately. He is the more obedient one.

Jesus says the true underlying disease is whether or not we respond when God says to do something – to follow Jesus. It’s not about credentials. It’s about opening one’s eyes to see that the Messiah is right in front of us, and we are supposed to get up and follow him.

And then he adds the kicker. The ones who are truly obedient are not the ones who know the law and spend all their time reading and studying Torah – it might as well be an Xbox for the amount of good it does. They should recognize who he is without thinking twice – after all, isn’t he the fulfillment in every way of all those prophecies in Torah about the Messiah? No, the obedient ones are the ones who just get up and follow. They don’t check the credentials first. They simply hear and respond. The symptom of trying to disbelieve because it challenges their status quo is a clue to the real disease: they don’t want to follow, because it feels like they’ll lose something if they do.

If any of you are fans of the TV show “House,” you’ll remember that House and the doctors on the team spend most of every show trying to figure out what is a symptom and what is the underlying disease. Sometimes they wander down a wrong pathway, and the medical solution they offer doesn’t fix the problem. Sometimes there are so many symptoms that it’s hard to figure out what is really going on under it all.

But the very realistic premise of those stories hold: the presenting problem is not what really needs fixing – it’s the underlying disease. And for us as followers of Christ, most of the time it is about faith, about believing that God is really present among us. Perhaps we resist believing that he is really present and really Lord of our lives, because that requires that we change our lives. Perhaps we’ve become accustomed to emptiness in what St Augustine called “the God-shaped hole” in our souls, that place where we hunger for relationship with the divine. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we know God, God will know us, and will not like what he sees.

Nevertheless, the underlying disease must be treated for the symptoms to go away.

That’s what House would tell us. We’ve got to get to the root of the problem to make it go away.

That’s what St Augustine would tell us. We long for relationship with God, we crave it, and when we don’t have it, we feel an emptiness.

And that’s what Paul tells us in the reading from Phillippians today. How do we heal? We recognize and obediently follow Christ, because “ it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

We are not our own physicians or counselors. God is the one who gives us the tools, like a staff to strike a rock and make water gush out. God is the one who gives us prophets to point the way. God is the one who has given us his own son who teaches and preaches and heals. If we want to be healed, not just the symptoms but deep in our souls, we can do it – just follow him, along with all the other struggling people through the centuries have done. God will help us out of our disbelief if we follow.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

The concrete and the tactile

Some days are hard. Yesterday was one of them. Much important pastoral work, none of it easy. It is a gift to do this kind of work, but it sits with you at night like a bad toothache.

So last night, I made a fairly complicated dinner that is one of the favorites chez Mibi - shrimp, asparagus, and red peppers with a tangerine/soy/ginger sauce. Lots of chopping things into strips and such. Steps to follow and stirring and such.

I often turn to cooking and other similar tasks when I have a hard day. It's comforting to do something tactile that unhooks the brain when it wants to run over and over again through the work of the day. It's also comforting to do something that will be completed, something finite, something concrete, when you are working in a world of the eternally unfinished and difficult to measure. It helps that it tastes good, too.

Today was a calmer day, with some good conversations and visits. No time to cook, because of a regional meeting. I brought a salad to the potluck supper that preceded the actual meeting.

No chance to work off the day with serious cooking. But I got out for a half hour to the fabric store to get material for the living room drapes. A rich, beautiful jacquard in wine and mustard and sage and cobalt. It will work well in our Tudor revival house, in a living room with arched doorways, mullioned casement windows, rough cream walls, and a window seat.

It will take several days to cut and sew them...another concrete and tactile and finite task that reminds me that there are some things that I do that I can complete, and then there are somethings I cannot. That's the hard part, figuring that out, and leaving to God the things that only God can complete.

In the meantime, the shrimp was good. The drapes will be good. Not perfect, of course. They never are. But they will be done, and having a few things that are done in the midst of all that cannot be done is, after all, a good thing.

It doesn't all have to be done, but it's good when some of it is.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, September 18, 2011 Matt 20:1-16 “Shut Up and Say Thank You.”

My father was a Teamster shop steward. He was passionate about the importance of his union to protect the rights of workers. I suspect he wouldn’t have been too fond of the landowner in the parable we just heard in the Gospel. For him, it was critical that workers be treated fairly, that they should be compensated appropriately for their work. The idea that someone who worked eight or ten hours would get the same wage as someone who worked just a couple of hours would cause him to say some harsh words about a boss whose actions seemed, at best, capricious. My father believed that workers should be able to know what they would get for their labor. He would probably say, in his usual brusque way, that the landowner should shut and play fair and pay fair. Fairness – an appropriate compensation for one’s labor – was at the heart of his belief system.

But Jesus’ story isn’t about fairness between workers and landowners, is it? It’s about something much larger.

Let’s look at the story through another lens. Imagine Steven Spielberg hires a bunch of people to serve as extras in that new “Lincoln” movie he’ll be shooting here in Richmond next month. He doesn’t know exactly how many extras he will need, nor does he know if he’ll use them all – it’s a function of how things flow during the shoot. They are to come to the set and wait. If he needs them, he’ll call them. He tells them they’ll get a fee of $150 dollars to be there for the day, whether he uses them or not. Midway through the day’s shoot, he realizes he’d like another two dozen people as extras, so the casting director phones the next group on the call list and says “get over here now.” Again, they don’t know if they will actually be used, but union scale says an extra gets $150, so whether an extra shows up at 7 am or 2 pm, they all get the same $150.

For some reason, the second scenario doesn’t bother us as much. Maybe it’s because the extras sit around and wait, and aren’t doing manual labor like the workers in the parable, or because the movie business is all about fantasy anyway, so it doesn’t seem quite as unrealistic to pay a flat fee no matter how hard the person works that day…

…working that day. That’s the key, isn’t it?

The workers in the parable are unhappy because they think, as my father the shop steward might have thought, that their compensation should be geared to what they deliver, to how many hours they work.

But the landowner says it is not about their work, it is about his generosity. He’s met his obligation – he told the workers at the beginning of the day what they would get paid, and he has given them what he said he would. He isn’t shorting them on their compensation. He is, however, being very generous to the latecomers…and that is his right. As long as he doesn’t short anyone from the first group, it doesn’t much matter what he gives the later group. But the morning group are unhappy with that generosity. Shouldn’t they, then get more? Wouldn’t that be fair?

But perhaps the work of the last group was better – perhaps they were more productive, perhaps they were gentler on the vines, causing less damage that would require pruning after the harvest. Who knows why the landowner has done what he did?

In my father’s warehouse, there was usually grousing about bonuses at Christmas time. Some people got them. Some people didn’t. It was the prerogative of management who got them, and for how much – it wasn’t something that was part of the union contract negotiations. And invariably when the bonuses were handed out, some folks who come to my father and say “How come John got a big check and I didn’t? It’s not fair. I only got a little check.” And my father would say “Shut up and say thank you. Anything you got in a bonus check, it’s just that, a bonus. A gift. It’s not guaranteed. Be happy. You could have gotten nothing.”

In a way, in this parable, Jesus is saying “Shut up and say thank you.”

We find it easy to grouse about what we perceive as unfairness in our lives. We can find ourselves wondering why good things happen to others when we have tried to be faithful disciples. We can think, “Why would God be so generous to that person when I’ve been plugging along doing the right thing my whole life?”

We might think it’s not fair somehow, that God is capricious in what gifts he bestows on whom.

And then it’s time to stop and think about it a little harder.

What does God give us? Life, a whole beautiful world. Family, friends, a great community in which to live. He gives us an understanding of who he is, through his son Jesus. He gives us his word, written down by faithful people who heard his voice. Most of all, he gives us second chance after second chance when we go astray, when we say cruel or petty things, when we are jealous or unfaithful or greedy. He gives us eternal life if we simply believe in him and love him and try hard to be faithful to him.

Eternal life. That’s a heck of a Christmas bonus, isn’t it? Too big to measure. Too extraordinary to ever deserve. And yet this generous God does this, simply because each of us, every one of us, is the object of God’s love.

This is not about hourly wages. If God paid us back in divine love in an hourly wage for each hour we were truly his faithful ones, we wouldn’t have earned that eternal life…we’d get maybe a small percentage of eternity. But God gives us the whole wildly extravagant gift of eternal life. Not because we’ve earned it, because he just loves us so very, very much.

If Steven Spielberg only paid the extras for the time they were actually doing something during filming, some folks would get $150 and some would get bus fare. If the landowner looked closely and carefully at what each worker was doing, some of the ones who worked all day would get $5 because they slacked off and didn’t work hard at all, and some of the ones who worked the last two hours would deserve $50 because they gathered many more bunches of grapes. That would be fair, wouldn’t it?

And if God gave us what we earned, if we used that measure of fairness, I suspect it wouldn’t be eternal life.

But God isn’t about what’s fair. God is about love and generosity and redemption.

And that isn’t about measuring what we perceive as gifts we’ve received from God here on earth. That isn’t about who gets the most toys or jobs or recognition or any of those things that we mistakenly use as measures of God’s generosity in our lives. And it also isn’t about what we may perceive as punishments: sadness or disease or lack of success. Those aren’t a measure of God’s lack of generosity in our lives.

No, this parable that Jesus shares is not about life being fair or unfair. It’s about the ultimate unfairness: God loves us so much that he treats us in a way that is inherently unfair – he gives us infinitely more than we have earned. God gives us eternal life. A gift of pure love and generosity we could never earn.

So it’s time to forget about measuring whether we are treated fairly by God in terms of what life has brought us. The only measure that counts is not here. It is not now. It is what awaits us, because a God who is as capriciously generous as the landowner in the parable has decided to give us well beyond what we have earned in the life that is to come.

It’s time to be grateful for that.

It’s time, as my father would say, to “Shut up and say thank you.”


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Random Dots of Thursday

  • a friend and former parishioner who had recently been ordained to the vocational diaconate died this morning after a long and difficult battle with metastatic breast cancer. I'm glad she is no longer in pain and that she is with her Lord, but I will miss her.
  • another friend died suddenly of cardiac arrest in a triathlon - he had raised money for the past decade for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Foundation at such events, in honor of his son, a lymphoma survivor. My heart aches for his family.
  • on Saturday we laid to rest a parishioner who had been ill for a long time and was longing to be with God and her late husband.
  • another parishioner is terribly ill with a brain cancer. He is one of the stalwart faithful of this parish, and many of his family attend (four generations worth). So hard to see him struggle with this illness, and so hard to see his family try to make meaning of all this.
and yet...

  • last Sunday we baptized five children, in a service full of joy and music and the power of the Holy Spirit among us.
  • on Saturday, PH will be presiding at a wedding at a beautiful inn on the bay a few hours from here and he and I get a free mini-vacation there tomorrow and Saturday. Well, a busman's holiday vacation, but a vacation nonetheless.
  • our vestry meeting - the first of the program year - was wonderful. Such great people, with humor and passion and love of God. I am blessed to serve here.
  • our various summer mission projects (housing the homeless, taking out teens to work on home rehab for needy people out in coal country) were transformative moments for all.
  • our Committee on the Diaconate meeting today was full of those moments that remind us that God pushes us through our limitations and grows God's church in spite of us and sometimes through us. A good thing, indeed.
And now, a prayer for nighttime, one of my favorites from the New Zealand Prayer Book:

Lord, it is night.

The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.

It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done.

Let it be.

The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives rest in you.

The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all dear to us, and all who have no peace.

The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities.

In your name we pray.


True that.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, September 11, 2011 Matt 18:21-35 “Remembrance and Promises”

One of my professors in seminary told us, “It’s a remarkable thing. Every Sunday, our readings for the day are defined in the calendar of readings called the lectionary. Sometimes, you may think you are constrained by the lectionary, which tells you what readings you must do each Sunday, but the gift of the Holy Spirit is that the lectionary readings for a given Sunday will have exactly what you need in that moment, whatever it may be.”

I was reminded of that when I looked at the appointed readings for this Sunday, especially the Gospel reading, where Jesus instructs Peter and the other disciples that they are to forgive others that wrong them not once, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Forgiveness. Complete forgiveness. A radical thought to Peter and the disciples, who had been brought up believing “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” was the proper way to repay an offense. A radical thought even today, when “giving as good as you got” continues that same kind of response.

And here we are on this, the tenth anniversary of 9/11, that day when our belief in our safety and security was shaken to its core, and we’re supposed to think about forgiveness. Acceptance that we all are both victims and offenders.

Those who devised the lectionary many years ago could not have predicted that these texts would fall on this day. My professor was right. The Holy Spirit works in remarkable ways to get our attention, doesn’t she?

When I told a friend of mine, someone who was in downtown Washington DC as I was on 9/11, that we were having five baptisms today, she was shocked. “You’re kidding me. It’s the 10th anniversary of 9/11. How can you do that on that day? Aren’t you going to do something in remembrance of the attacks?”

All I could say was “I can think of no better remembrance of that day, and our faith, and the hope that is part and parcel of our baptismal promises, than to celebrate the sacrament of baptism.”

Because that is the heart of what these children and their parents and godparents will promise today...remembrance and hope. The same words that each of us promised as part of our baptismal covenant.

We remember the gracious God who has given us life, who has given us to our families and to the world. We remember the gift of Jesus, who redeemed us from our sins, and how he will help us. We remember that the Holy Spirit is with us always. And then we promise what we commit to do in our lives as Christians. We promise to avoid sin, to live in a way that proclaims the Gospel, to serve others, to fight for justice for all and dignity for all. And each time we make a promise, we say “We will, with God’s help.” Why? Because we are human, and we cannot do it alone.

And in each of those promises is ingrained a corollary: because we are human, we may fail, and others may fail, in keeping these promises, even with God’s help. We all make mistakes. And when we do, we seek forgiveness.

The remarkable thing is that God always forgives us. God always has. That’s what Jesus is about: the ultimate expression of loving forgiveness, in human form.

And that is the heart of what becoming a Christian is about. That’s what baptism is about. When we are baptized, we choose to embrace values that make no sense to a world bent on revenge and greed and power. We choose to commit to a belief that our relationship with God and with each other is most important.

The world says that we should do whatever it takes to come out on top, to make more money and amass more goodies than the next person, because we are supposed to want to be number one in riches.

But we know that the true riches are the love that we get from our heavenly Father, and that material things don’t satisfy the soul the way that love does.

The world says that having the most power is important, so you can be in control of your world.

But we know that God is the one in power, not us. We see it every day, in the rising of the sun, in the turning of the seasons, in new life like these youngsters who will be baptized.

The world says when bad thing happen – bad things like people calling you names, like stealing things from you, or even like terrorist attacks – you should poke ‘em in the eye. Get revenge. Show ‘em who’s boss.

But we know that we’re not the boss, God is. We know that only God gets to judge others. We know that revenge poisons our hearts and our souls. We know that we are supposed to forgive, because that heals us in a way that getting even can never do.

Being baptized as a follower of Christ means that as we are adopted as God’s children, we adopt God and God’s values. We live in a way that the rest of the world might not understand, because we are not about revenge and greed and power. We live in a way that puts love and forgiveness first, and that puts us at odds with the world around us.

But we remember what is important. We remember that sometimes terrible things happen: planes flying into tall buildings, people dying in wars and in refugee camps and in hospital beds, Jesus crucified on the cross. And then we promise that ridiculous promise that sets us apart from this troubled world.

We believe.

We hope.

We love.

We forgive.

Not once, but seventy-seven times and more, because that is what belief and love demands.

May these children and all the children, our hope for the future, be blessed, and may we be a part of their blessing.


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Still Here

Even though I haven't blogged much lately, I am indeed still here.

We had some family challenges that needed attention, then I had two weeks of vacation, then I came back in time for the hurricane. We had an earthquake in the middle of it, too. And almost as soon as I got back, a parishioner died.

Yeah, yeah, no excuses, I know.

Here's the good news: the first week of vacation was a fix-up-the-house staycation. PH and I each had projects to do. I refinished four nightstands and did some cleaning and organizing. I also read a lot of not-for-work books. Sweet! The second week of vacation was away, in the mountains of western North Carolina, really at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Forest. It was very quiet, beautiful, and I found a wonderful new rocking chair for our sun porch.

One day we drove to the Biltmore Estate, a huge mansion with extensive grounds in Asheville, to see how the rich used to live before they couldn't afford to live that way anymore and turned their houses into museums that you have to pay big bucks to see. It was gorgeous, albeit ridiculous, and the Biltmore folks are excellent at upselling. You're thirsty? Buy $5 Biltmore bottled water. Got a craving for a sweet? Spend $5 for a cookie. Want to live in that Biltmore style? Get reproduction tchochkes for large sums of money. Still, it was amazing.

We then drove into Asheville for a late lunch. We were sitting in the restaurant at about 2 pm when StrongOpinions called up - she was in CT - and said "Are you home? Are you alright?" This was how we found out there had been an earthquake. I think we were in the car when it happened and we probably thought we had just driven over some railroad tracks or something. In any case, we didn't notice it. Fortunately, the church and our house were spared any real damage, and the cat was fine too.

When we got back, we were running ahead of Hurricane Irene. We were glad for the tree work PH and his cousin had done the prior week - not much in the way of fragile limbs that might come down in the storm. It was fierce - the rain was bad, but not as bad as it might have been, but the wind was wild. We sat in the sunroom most of Saturday (after filling the cars and the gas can with fuel, getting cash from the ATM, and adding to the food supply), watching the trees go this way and that and listening to transformers explode in the area. Power - that was the challenge, because the parish was hosting thirty homeless people through the CARITAS program. The evening started out well - at that point we still had power at church, although we had already lost it at home - but soon enough it was lights out there, too. The folks we hosted were good about it, though, despite the muggy air in the parish hall and no lights...thank goodness for flashlights.

At home, we had a little generator that we had bought earlier in the year in anticipation of this...we needed to keep the basement sump pumps running or we would be swimming to the washer and dryer. We also wanted to keep the fridge running. All was well, and we were grateful when the power came on Monday evening. It took another day for the church to get power, and a few days more to get internet/cable back.

Not all our neighbors were so lucky. The house pictured above is a mile from us - it was bisected by a tree. There are lots of trees still being chainsawed into manageable chunks, but most of the area now has power back again.

So we're grateful, all in all. And this coming Sunday, this ten-year anniversary of 9/11, we will baptize five children, ranging in age from two months to twelve years, and we will revel in the strange and wonderful hope that is born in us as children of God, even when bad stuff happens, and the earth shakes, and trees crush houses, and water swamps bridges, and planes fly into buildings. God is still with us and in us.

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.

It wasn’t.

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.