September 4, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20 Psalm 119:33-40
1st Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-11 2nd Reading: Romans 13:8-14
“Wherever two or three are gathered…” has become a joke that we use to refer to dwindling church attendance, so how apt that it comes on Labor Day weekend. It has the feeling of resignation about it, because it has a piece of the truth, that church attendance isn’t what it was in the ‘50s or ‘70s. And it helps us to remember that God is still with us, so all is not lost. It is a good thing if we can laugh at ourselves, or else we might cry!
“Wherever two or three are gathered…” there is the potential for great love. There is opportunity to work together, to have companionship and understanding, to learn about yourself and the world, to give of yourself, to be in relationship, to listen and be listened to. The benefits of love go on and on. Love is the highest good, wanting the best for another person, looking beyond yourself and having compassion, putting the best spin on another’s actions. Love is the ultimate blessing. Love is an experience of God. We can experience God/love in our family relationships, in marriage, in domestic partnerships, at work, in our neighborhoods, in our volunteering, and in our church.
And “Wherever two or three are gathered…” there is the chance for arguments. That’s what the lessons are focused on today. There are a million things that can go wrong in a relationship that can lead us away from love.
The reading from Ezekiel doesn’t lay out what the house of Israel has done, but God is heartbroken and angry because they’ve broken their relationship with God. If you read the book of Ezekiel, you can see that Israel has worshipped other Gods and not followed God’s commandments. Israel has ignored the widows and orphans and not cared for the poor. God is letting Israel know that God is displeased, hoping that they will listen and change their ways. Of course they keep right on the same path, despite all warnings and eventually are taken as slaves into Babylon and the temple destroyed.
Paul writes the Roman Christians who argue and can’t agree on much of anything. He gives some examples of what happens when love breaks down: Adultery, murder, theft, envy, reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy. “Why can’t we all just get along?!” Instead he tells them to put on the armor of light and to put on Jesus Christ—to put on love, compassion, justice and so on.
Now isn’t it too bad that we’ve now found a community of peace and we never disagree so we can’t use these words of Jesus anymore? Sometimes churches pretend to be places of peace when they aren’t or we pretend to agree with someone when we don’t. I’ve been guilty of it plenty of times before, too. It is a fine line between putting a good spin on something someone does or says and shoving it aside while still holding anger deep down inside that someday is going to need to get out.
Martin Luther reminded us to put a good spin on other people’s “bad” behavior. We say to ourselves, “They are just having a bad day,” or “They must be driving like that because they are trying to get to a hospital in a hurry,” or “They didn’t really mean that.” But thinking the best of others can become a game of make-believe that as time goes on and these encounters stack up, we may not be able to play so easily anymore. To love is not only to think the best of others, but to build relationship with that person, to go to them and apologize for unkind thoughts, to find out what is going on with them. It becomes easier to be kind and compassionate when we learn what people are really going through and share our feelings with them before they are bottled up so long that they start leaking out in gossip or passive aggressive behavior. There is another scripture that says “Live peaceably with all, so far as it depends on you” Romans 12:18. There are times when you try to make peace and build relationships with those you disagree with and they won’t participate. The way to love in that instance has to be to let them go and let it go, maybe until the timing is better or maybe forever.
Especially at church we tend to gloss over our differences and pretend that we all get along, but is that really love? We want people to like us. I want people to think that I am a nice pastor so they will come to me with their troubles and concerns and trust me to be there with them in their time of crisis. Don’t we want a nice Jesus to tell us what we want to hear, that we’re doing mostly ok and just keep up the good work? Wouldn’t we rather pretend to be at peace than deal with conflicts out in the open?
Sandy and I went to seminary together. I didn’t like Sandy very much. She was kind of a flirt. She was living together with a man about 20 years older than her and talked about her relationship openly. I thought she ought to be ashamed of herself. Seminarians are expected to live a certain life and she was not meeting the requirements and she didn’t think she was doing anything wrong, plus she flaunted it in front of everyone. Sandy and I ended up in the same year-long chaplaincy program. I pretended to be her friend. I fed her cat when she was out of town. We had lunch together. We supported each other. And yet I was still judging her. I was not being real with her. Chaplaincy is all about knowing yourself and being real with each other so at some point during the year, my supervisor encouraged me to tell Sandy what I thought of her behavior. It really hurt Sandy. And I then had to confront all the ways I am also a hypocrite and break the rules, just like her, because that was what my anger toward her was really all about. As hurt as she was, Sandy didn’t give up on me. We met for lunch once a week to work out our mess. We started sharing on a deeper level. We got real with one another. And now that is one of the relationships I treasure most in my life. We can share anything with each other after that.
In church, too, we can have fake relationships and gloss over our differences, put on a smile when someone hurts our feelings, hold our judgments deep inside hoping the other person will change. Or we can love. I think this is one of the major complaints that outsiders have about church—people aren’t real with each other. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can engage each other and learn their point of view. We can look for our own responsibility within the situation. We can ask ourselves, “What am I doing to contribute to this problem and what can I do to be part of the solution.” We can take responsibility for our own feelings rather than believing that someone else made us feel that way. We go to someone and say, “You really puzzle me sometimes, I’d like to know you better. Would you like to have lunch?” We can go to someone and say we’re sorry or that there is something we don’t understand in their words or actions. If both people are willing to be adults about it, love can blossom that makes for deep friendships that can withstand anything.
As the body of Christ, our unity can’t be based on what we agree on, because we will always disagree and have different opinions. It has to be based on love, relationship, compassion, because that is the only thing that lasts. It has to based in love, because God is love and God must be the basis for everything we do as the body of Christ.
Many of you have set a good example for me. Here are some ideas I’ve noticed you trying for carrying this idea out. Some newer members have been inviting some longtime members over to their homes to build relationships. Some of you have invited neighbors over who are full of negativity and don’t have very many friends as a consequence to make friends with them and learn to love them. Some of you have thought of leaving this congregation because some things didn’t sit right with you, and instead you came and talked to me and helped me understand what you needed. Many of you have worked to make this place one that is comfortable for to worship, for instance purchasing new microphones or making artwork that has enhanced the worship space. Some of you have started sitting somewhere besides your usual spot during worship or coffee hour, even coming to the front row, in order to meet new people and build new relationships. You’ve stretched and challenged yourself to be on council or on committees here to learn more about each other and yourself and your church. Some of you have invited your friends and neighbors and family members to attend church or provide special music here. Some of you have reached out to someone you know was having a similar difficulty that you’ve faced before, for instance reaching out to someone who has an adult child with a mental illness or who is facing addiction.
You’re already doing this love work that Jesus invites us to do. You’re already reaping the rewards, feeling that satisfaction when you’ve made a real connection. I’d encourage you to keep up that good work until God’s love is obvious to all around us and we truly experience God with us.