(click above to listen along)
Yesterday we had an amazing Welcome to House for all Sinners & Saints brunch. About 45 people gathered to get to know each other and the church a little better and to of course, eat breakfast casserole. As is our practice, we all shared what it is about this church that draws us here or keeps us here. And then we tried our best to share with the new folks what House is about, what we do and how it runs. I always have a list printed out in front of me so that I don’t forget to mention things you can be involved in and things you can sign up for. It’s never dawned on my until this morning as I was finishing this sermon on Matthew 18 that I should also add: things you can get excommunicated for.
(if you are unfamiliar -excommunication is a fancy church word for shunning people – for kicking them out)
Only once in my pastorate have I threatened excommunication to a parishioner. And to be honest I can’t remember the exact details, but I’m pretty sure they were in charge of food for a church event and suggested ordering, of all things, Black Jack Pizza. And since cheap dough-y chain-store pizza is an abomination unto the Lord I suggested that excommunicating them would be a better option.
Our Gospel text for today, that passage in Matthew 18 where Jesus gives some instruction for how to deal with someone who has sinned against us, is sometimes called the excommunication text. If someone sins against you Jesus says to go to them directly and if that doesn’t work take a couple other folks with you to talk about the real harm the person has done and if they are still mean and abusive then let the church know and if they still refuse to stop hurting people then treat them as an outsider.
And there’s more than one reason why this passage makes me a little twitchy. For starters, I know many of your stories. I’ve heard of how as a gay person or as a trans person or as a divorced person, you have been shunned or denied communion. I’ve heard about how, when wielded with precision, this text has been used as a tool to eviscerate you and people you love, while some smug, far-superior Christian then gets to stand above you thinking they have “spoken truth in love”.
This text makes me twitchy because Jesus is talking about how to treat someone who has sinned against you but instead it’s been used for how to alienate someone who the nice people think is a sinner and that’s different.
(as a side note: I don’t think there are many people listening who deny communion to or kick out queer folks from church – but just in case you are out there, I want to say this: another person’s difference in gender identity or sexual orientation is not a sin against you. It does not harm you. It actually has nothing to do with you so for the love of all things holy, stop using Jesus as a co-signer on your own hang-ups) ok side-note over.
This text makes me twitchy because I wish like hell that Jesus had said “If someone has sinned against you, then go talk smack about them to a few other people before posting a thinly veiled remark about it on Facebook” But he didn’t, so now I have to think about all the times in my life that I have chosen to triangulate others into a drama about someone else rather than just going to that person privately.
This text makes me twitchy because Jesus is giving instructions for what to do if someone in the church sins against you and I can imagine this being used as an excuse to not take responsibility for our own feelings. Because I imagine it’s really about when someone does you actual harm, not just hurts your feelings by insulting Doctor Who and so you need to confront them about how hurt you are.
This text makes me twitchy because frankly, I just don’t trust us to get this kind of thing right. I have a hard time trusting myself to be clear of my own self-interest and emotional triggers enough to not get this kind of thing wrong.
So, these twitchy places are all easy places to get stuck.
But I’m done staying stuck around this stuff, so after quite a long time perseverating on the problems we have with this text, I started to go back and search for the promises we have in this text.
There is a promise in Matthew 18, but to hear it we might have to read the three verses that precede our text for today.
If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of yourFather in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. (next verse)
‘If another member of the churchsins 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.
This text is about Christ promising to be present in reconciliation because that is simply God’s nature.
Boy, leave it to humans to take something Jesus taught about reconciliation, and his presence in forgiveness and instead use it to judge and exclude others.
But, stay with me, because therein lies the good news, oddly.
Meaning, no matter how much Jesus’ words have been twisted, no matter how badly this text has been used against us or that we have used it against other people, that cannot nullify the promise. There is a promise that God desires to be reconciled to us and we to each other, and that when we seek reconciliation, Christ is present. Here’s some good news: No matter how badly this has been done, douche-baggery is never powerful enough to nullify the promise that God can bind together that which our sin has ripped apart.
I mean, if the church getting things wrong and hurting people and not living up to the Gospel could destroy the Gospel, it would have been destroyed long before it was handed off to us to have our turn at getting it wrong.
We Christians have done our best to kill this thing and yet here it still is. The Church of Jesus Christ has survived papal corruption, the crusades, sectarianism, toothy TV preachers and clown ministry. And it will survive us too. The power of the death and resurrection of Jesus will not be nullified by the church’s inability to live up to the promise of life and life abundant.
Because God’s ability to make things right is always more powerful than our ability to get things wrong. Seriously, if I believed more in the church than I did in God’s ability to redeem our crap I would have gotten out of the game long ago.
Yesterday at that welcome to House brunch after everyone had said what they love about this beautiful church, as is my practice, I said how much I enjoy hearing those things and that I too, love this community but that they need to hear me say something and that is: that this church will let you down. I will say or do something stupid or someone else will hurt you and we will fail to meet your expectations. But that if you leave because we let you down you might miss the way that the destabilizing, gorgeous, shimmering grace of God comes in and fills in the cracks left behind from our brokenness. And it’s just too beautiful to miss.
So please don’t put your trust in this church. Don’t put your trust in your ability to be a good Christian. And definitely don’t put your trust in me. Put your trust in God’s ability to not be stymied by our messes. Put your trust in Jesus who defiantly keeps showing up despite us. Put your trust in Jesus, who says where 2 or more people who get things wrong, where 2 or more people who don’t bother to sign up for jobs or give money to church, where 2 or more people who triangulate and gossip about each other are gathered, I am there. He is here. That’s the promise. He is here with a power that is not our own, He is here with the power of one who has given all for us. He is here with the power of reconciliation for people who don’t deserve it. He is here in bread and wine and water and the stranger sitting next to you. He is here again loving his broken-ass church into being something beautiful.