Sermon: “Where two or three________.” September 7, 2014
St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Matthew 18:15-20 MSG
15-17 “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell her—work it out between the two of you. If she listens, you’ve made a friend. If she won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If she still won’t listen, tell the church. If she won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront her with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.
18-20 “Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, our Creator in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.”
Creator of all worlds, we lift up our souls to you. All the earth is yours; all who dwell here are your children. We seek once more to experience your truth, to receive your blessing, to ascend above the limitations we have known. You are strong and mighty beyond our imagining. We aspire to become more than we have believed ourselves to be, individually and together. Amen.
I begin with a statement that will shock and amaze some of you: The church is full of troublesome people. I once offered to teach a seminar for our presbytery on “Dealing with Difficult People.” My work with the Mary Magdalene Project had convinced me that seminary did not prepare us for this particular fact of church life. David Meekhof who was our General Presbyter at the time looked at me rather startled and then said something to the effect that it would be futile because no pastor would ever be willing to concede that some of his or her parishioners were troublemakers. In other words I was wading into dangerous territory and the workshop never happened.
Speaking of dangerous words, Ann Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, talks about drive-by shootings of the mouth, words by which, in the course of an ordinary day, we take one another down. Friends, strangers, family members, we are all survivors of these, and we are, when we least expect it, shooters. 1
Relating, reacting, refuting, reporting, rehearsing, redefining: these are the uses of words; and these are the spiritual exercises we daily practice. Jesus trusts us to be honest and tender in the words we use perhaps for no other reason than we may at some point have to eat them. Is it any wonder that Jesus admonishes us, saying it is not what we put into our mouths that pollutes us, but what comes out of our mouths, for he says, what comes out of the mouth comes out of the heart, and reveals to all the condition of the heart? The very idea of this should make us stop and ponder every word we speak.
Our Experience Expanded
I want you to complete the following sentence: Where two or three are gathered. . . . (a) Jesus will be in the midst of them, (b) there will be a church, (3) there will be conflict, (d) all of the above. It seems that Jesus did not have high expectations of us: Where two or three are gathered. . . there he will be, for sure! Where two or three are gathered. . . there will be a church! Where two or three are gathered. . . there will be conflict. As I survey the world we live in I have to surmise that Jesus wasn’t too far off the mark. Just last week there was an article in the LA Times about a Methodist pastor now serving here in Southern California who last year was defrocked for officiating at the marriage of his gay son. This century began with a holy war and we have watched in horror as an angry Brit who has taken on the cause of the infidels we have so easily learned to loath beheaded two American journalists over the past two weeks. During our Pastoral Prayers we will be praying for the people of Queragosh in Northern Iraq. This oldest Christian sect has been the target of extermination by ISIS. And rather than coming together for a common good our politicians can only come up with more rancor and malice, heaping coals of contempt on our President as if there was one simple answer or response to the myriad crisis in the world that would make it all better. . . not that the naysayers have workable solutions to any of these situations, either. Have you noticed? No one is saying to us that everything is going to be alright.
According to Matthew Jesus gave pretty specific instructions about resolving arguments. You sit down and talk about it. And if there is no listening, no hearing, no change of heart or behavior you bring in someone else to sit down with you. And if that doesn’t work, you go back to the beginning and start the conversation all over again. Agreed, this is not as easy as it sounds. Ask the Market Basket cousins, Arthur T. and Arthur S. Endless boardroom meetings seem only to make it worse and their boycotting employees certainly know whom they like the best. They have brought this company to its knees. Ask Congress. Ask any couple getting a divorce if they tried talking, and many will say talking was what ended the marriage in the first place. Now, there can be no talking without listening. As for listening, well, it depends on how our hearts hear the other person: as an enemy, as a wrong-doer, as someone we need to instruct, as a betrayer . . . or as a friend. And we can take this to the next level. How does a parent forgive the drunk driver who kills their daughter? Frederick Buechner says of forgiveness,
To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something wrong that needs to be forgiven . . . When somebody you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. . .When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride. For both parties forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence. 2
How long we might ask, O God, before this forgiveness will bring peace to the hearts of the rejected and the forbidding? How long before this forgiveness will arrive in the hearts of the pious in their prayers? How long before this forgiveness will allow love to enter the hearts of Christians who are appalled by so many bedrooms, never their own? How long before this forgiveness will arrive to allay the fears that drive Americans to purchase so many guns? How long before we will be at peace inside our white and black and brown and yellow skins, and be glad in each other’s presence? How long before the promise of every Lord’s Supper will become a lived reality?
Re-mything Our Traditions
On my birthday I sometimes splurge and buy a copy of the New York Times, find a quiet corner, get a cup of coffee and devour the paper from beginning to end. This year was no exception. It seems that Jo Nesbo had written an Op Ed piece earlier in the week which I had missed, but I did not miss the import of this response:
To the Editor:
In “Revenge, My Lovely” (Sunday Review, May 4), Jo Nesbo argues that insistence on revenge helps move civilization along. He implies but does not convince that forgiveness does the same thing.
I keep learning about forgiveness from a group of lifers at the huge Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. They have learned that while terrible crimes cannot be forgotten, they can in some mystical way be forgiven. That forgiveness strengthens them to move toward productive lives inside the prison.
Many help younger inmates who will be released learn a marketable trade. Recently, I asked a small group of the lifers how I should respond to an acquaintance who believes that “we should lock ’em all up and throw away the key.”
“He was talking about you,” I said, expecting the men to join me in my anger. But to a man, they said I should forgive my acquaintance:
“We’ve done much worse, and God’s forgiven us.”
“When he knows that he’s forgiven, he’ll want the best for us, too.”
These men were given life sentences partly to satisfy society’s need for revenge. But it is their acceptance of forgiveness and their desire to pass it on that gives them — and us —hope; a civilizing kind of hope.
(Rev.) WILLIAM H. BARNWELL
New Orleans, May 5, 2014 3
We all know of churches that have been totally undone by backbiting and whisper campaigns. It can be devastating and not just to attendance and finances, but it’s devastating to the Christian witness emanating from a body of Christ. When that happens, the church ceases to be a place of forgiveness, grace, mercy and above all else safety. One might say that it ceases to be a church in any discernible fashion. St. Paul’s understands that forgiveness is meant to be at the core of who we are, and we know that if we can’t do it between ourselves in the church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world? Right here, Jesus gives a clear blue-print for how our church can be a holy place in an unholy world where holy relationships can flourish. And, it’s something that we must keep practicing like it is in our DNA and we can’t imagine living any other way. For Jesus, there isn’t another way. Amen.
God of constant mercy, who sent your son to save us: remind us of your goodness, increase your grace within us, that our thankfulness may grow, through Jesus Christ the one who forgives and saves. Amen.
3 New York Times, May 5, 2014 Letters to the Editor