Welcome Back

September 10, 2017

Series: September 2017

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Matthew 18:15-18

These are the words of Jesus:  “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven...”  THIS IS THE WORD OF THE LORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

Welcome Back

Welcome back, those of you who have been traveling for the summer or are perhaps visiting in search of a church home.  We call this Sunday our “Ingathering,” when we kickoff the program year.  It’s particularly special as we mark the 60th anniversary of the congregation. 

It has been some two weeks, hasn’t it?  While some parts of the country are being consumed by wildfire, smoke even permeating Marin, we have watched as others farther away overcome by hurricane and floods, floods across the world for that matter.  Millions in Florida right now await the coming of the sun and the receding of the waters, asking with every peak outside, “Is it here yet?”  How many of you know someone in harm’s way?  If we can’t be with them, it is good to be together to share our common concern and offer our prayers. 

 Unfortunately, it does not seem we have been given the most encouraging Scripture reading in today’s gospel passage from the lectionary, Jesus going into great detail about what to do when people do wrong to one another.  Great.  “Come to church, where we mistreat each other!”  I should admit I didn’t help matters much when I did my worship planning for the year back in June.  I kid you not, in my sermon notes for this week, my first line read in all caps:  “TALK ABOUT WATERGATE!”  Because that will bring them in, McClellan!  What on earth does Watergate have to do with Jesus’ teaching about church, and why would I bring it up on this of all Sundays?  I have no idea.  Let’s put Nixon aside for now and just get back to Jesus, always a safer bet. 

It turns out, Jesus’ teaching here is fascinating on a number of fronts.  First, he says “If another member of the church sins against you…” Here, don’t get bogged down by the word “sin.”  Just think ‘If someone does you wrong,’ “go out and point out the fault,” says Jesus (Mt. 18:15).  He doesn’t say, “Take it,” he says, “go and point out the fault…”  Note the directness of the command.  How easy it is to talk behind others’ backs, to gossip about them, rather than to speak to them. 

How easy it is for us, especially with modern technology, to do the same.  If there’s one regret I have about the time after the election it was that I didn’t offer an explicit caution to avoid talking to people about it on social media, or electronically at all, if possible.  Those platforms are great for sharing pictures of vacations and grandkids.  They are terrible for having thoughtful discussions about contentious issues.  “Whenever possible,” I should have advised, “sit across from one another and say, ‘tell me your perspective and allow me to tell you mine.’ ”  I recognize that writing may be the only safe platform for some.  However, what we also tend to see is a lot of what I call “keyboard courage,” which so quickly becomes plain old cruelty.  I have a theory that if you go to the comments section on any online article, by the second or third comment there will be something hateful.  It could be an article about butterflies or laundry detergent, and within 2-3 comments someone will have something nasty to say.  Turn that stuff off.  It’s poison…just like scented laundry detergent, which is spawn of the devil by the way.  Jesus says if you’ve been wronged, confront the wrongdoer face to face, so the two of you are reminded of the other’s humanity.

Second, notice Jesus says the confrontation should happen, “when the two of you are alone” (Mt. 18:15).  Perhaps Jesus wants it to be a fair fight, but what I wonder if, more than that, Jesus wants to preserve the dignity of the wrongdoer.  I recognize it is not always safe for someone who has been harmed to confront the wrongdoer in private, but insofar as it is safe, we are called to do so in order to spare them embarrassment before their peers.  There is a lot of debate these days about the use of shaming as a way to deter hurtful, anti-social behavior, whether it’s bullying on the playground or marching with white supremacists.  There is something to exposing those aligned with false power.  Doing so merely to return harm for harm is something else altogether.  Jesus’ first interest is in restoring the community, doing what can be done to repair the world, rather than write ever increasing segments off at the first sign of transgression.  Today we call that restorative justice, as opposed to retributive justice, which seeks primarily to punish.  Restorative justice tries to heal individual wounds and mend the fabric of the community, while retributive justice thinks hurting and isolating the perpetrator is the best way to protect the community.  One takes investment up front.  The other is incredibly costly in the long wrong. 

Jesus’ call to spare the perpetrator shame, incidentally, is not just about being forgiving or loving, though it is both of those things.  It is about being strategic.  People are far less likely to change their behavior—I know I am—when the social cost of doing so is high.  If I know I’m going to be publicly embarrassed by my change of direction, I’m far more likely to do everything I can to defend the course I’m on, even if I realize it’s misguided.  Jesus lowers, not raises, the social cost of changing one’s mind or beliefs and correcting one’s behavior.  He wants us to make it easier, not harder, for people to change.

Third, Jesus does not leave us helpless when an attempt to correct a wrong in private is unsuccessful.  He encourages us to send in backup.  Don’t give up, and don’t give up on peaceful intervention.  Take another trusted member of the community with you, not for the purpose of ganging up on the other, but for the purpose of providing evidence.  He is specific about that.  Bearing witness to evidence of what is really going on, and what is causing damage (to the community), is divinely appointed work.  Again, the goal here is not to win; it is to help people recognize how their actions are harmful and to have the opportunity to change, so everyone can win.

Fourth, only when a person refuses to be persuaded by evidence presented by witnesses are they to be expelled, and even that is for the purpose of sustaining the community.  That may seem harsh, but if you think about it, by their refusal to be moved by the witness of the faithful community, the wrongdoer has chosen expulsion.  They have ignored the redress of their neighbor, they have refused to value evidence presented by witnesses to the truth, and they have denied the integrity of the community.  The relationships that hold the community together have already been rendered meaningless.  Community life is always about answering the question, “Do you choose each other?”  When someone in the wrong refuses to be corrected, they are, in effect, answering, “I don’t.”

That’s why Nixon matters.  I remembered it.  Last year, I electronically clipped an interview with Carl Bernstein, famed journalist that helped uncover the scandal that brought down the Nixon administration, and had written the note:  “a healthy community never covers up.”  We all do wrong at times, but to cover up is to refuse to acknowledge our wrongs, and to refuse to be corrected by the truth, and the witness of others. As we all learned from that episode in our history, “The cover up is always worse than the crime.”  You don’t have to be a presidential scholar to understand this.  Anyone who has a child can tell you that it’s not the fact the child has failed to wash their hands or brush their teeth, evidenced by the finger-paint now staining your pants or the blueberry bits in their teeth.  What’s troublesome to the parent is the newfound ability of the child to offer falsehood and not change even when confronted with the truth.  In that moment, the parent recognizes how fragile the fabric that holds a family together is.  A couple wrestling with infidelity or a company struggling with dishonesty can tell you the same thing.  It’s never about what it’s about.  It’s not about the handwashing.  It’s not about the sex.  It’s not about the business transgression.  It’s always, on one level, about the integrity of the relationships. 

Did you know that Jesus almost never talks about the church?  The word is only mentioned four times in the Gospels, all in Matthew, and three of them in this chapter.  I think it’s because Jesus is far more interested in transformation than he is about church.  Whatever the reason, the one thing he wants us to know is that integrity is at the center of communities of faith, not flawlessness, but integrity.  Church, for Jesus, may not be where we live, or spend all our time.  It may not be our primary community.  What it is, is a place where we practice—and it’s always about practice—a way of being and being together with others.  That supersedes our creeds.  That is our creed.

Perhaps the reason Jesus talks so little about church is because he recognizes that we will exist in a much bigger world and there, too, we much answer the question, “Do you choose each other.”  Here, Jesus gives us the encouragement and the tools to say, “I do.  With all that I have, I do.  With all that I am I do.  With all that is in my control, I do.  With all that I face and we face together, I do.  I still believe in you and therefore in our capacity to stay together.” 

This world can be scary.  In the mess of it all, we have a choice about whether we will help each other survive it.  Maybe in doing so we can also find a way to revel a little in its beauty, and maybe, just maybe dare to think that together we could contribute something beautiful to it.  That kind of belonging to one another is far deeper than any membership of a club or a church, as Diana Butler Bass puts it, it’s about living into a whole new world, a new creation.  It’s to that reality to which Jesus Christ is beckoning us to say, “I do.”

A few weeks ago, RuthE., our music director, and Clark said “I do” before God and community in marriage.  They shared this poem with us and I’d like to share it with you.  “Here on a Summer Night,”  by Garrison Keilor:

Here on this summer night in the grass and the lilac smell
drunk on the crickets and the starry sky
oh what fine stories we could tell
with this moonlight to tell them by.
A summer night, and you, and paradise,
So lovely and so full of grace,
Above your head, the universe has hung its lights,
And I reach out my hand to touch your face.
I believe in impulse, in all that is green,
Believe in the foolish vision that comes true,
Believe that all that is essential is unseen,
And for this lifetime I believe in you.
All of the lovers and the love they made:
Nothing that was between them was a mistake.
All that is done for love's sake,
Is not wasted and will never fade.
O love that shines from every star,
Love reflected in the silver moon;
It is not here, but it's not far.
Not yet, but it will be here soon.

It may not be here yet, but it will be here soon.  In the meantime, we can wait out the storm together.  Welcome back.  Welcome home.  Amen.