September 4, 2011 (12th Sunday After Pentecost)
12th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 18)
The Rev. Betsy Tesi, Assistant Priest
Psalm 119: 33-40
Matthew 18: 15-20
In one week’s time, I will ask your prayers for seasonable weather for Washington, DC. I leave on Tuesday for the triathlon, the part of our St. Mary’s Remembrance Project where we have combined liturgy, donations, and an activity like triathlon that is (dare I say, crazy) and quite hard.
Our readings this week were also hard. It seemed to me that they offered a clear but challenging message that I don’t necessarily always want to hear. God calls God’s people to extremes of reconciliation, again and again, insisting that the greatest action we can do is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Appropriate for the week that we send me off as part of our St. Mary’s Remembrance Project, no?
Matthew tells us Jesus says, “if one member of the church sins again you, go and point out the fault”. If that member doesn’t repent, take two or three witnesses. If he still doesn’t repent, bring it up before the whole church. He concludes, “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector”. On one hand, it seems fairly straightforward. Here is a model of conflict resolution in the church, designed to spare the offending party as much embarrassment as possible in the beginning but appropriately and Safe-Church-happily, to engage appropriate community members as the situation progresses.
But let’s pull back. I always want to hear what the author wants me to hear above and beyond what “Jesus” is reputed to be saying. Matthew wrote for a community struggling with internal conflict in the midst of external turmoil. I find it interesting that the strong language of “sin” is used: this is not a conflict resolution for minor transgressions. Leaving your coffee cup in the small kitchen sink is not a sin. Whatever conflict is occurring is large scale and painful. The church is told they can treat an unrepentant offender as a “Gentile and tax collector”. The catch? Jesus loved tax collectors. He ate with them all the time. This is not permission to cut people out of community. After conflict, even a serious one of sin, we are challenged to reconcile.
This is quite hard. I imagine I am not alone in feeling that some relationships are worth severing. Sometimes I hear the language of “in our broken and fallen world” as cliché. I’ve worked as a chaplain for police and for Level 1 trauma centers. Sometimes other human beings want to cause harm to our emotional or physical safety. So I come to a gospel like this with my fighting gloves on- I don’t want to think that this gospel’s conflict resolution is in anyway appropriate when one’s safety is at risk. I can absolutely imagine Jesus sitting at table with the tax collectors. I have a much harder time imagining him being able to sit at table with, say, Pilate or Caiaphas. Don’t both parties have to desire to lay down arms and desire a peace?
Our readings seem to insist that God wants life for all God’s creation. This role of the community member is seriously crippled if we see it as being a person sent to save a few elect. That reduces God to a judgmental tyrant who selects his best friends for paradise and who plans for the rest of the world to suffer. I cannot speak for the rest of you, but I would fight any sentient creature who plans for suffering. A tit-for-tat, my-way-or-the-highway mentality is something I can think of and understand. And if I can mastermind it, it is far too narrow for God. We need to have mysteries and thoughts beyond our thoughts, in order that we might know that this is something beyond our puny selves. God’s plan has got to be broader than mine would be.
No, the work of reconciliation after conflict takes a great deal of integrity. The role of sentinel and of church member is seriously diminished if it’s only a hollow clanging warning bell. That we are all responsible for the well-being of others is essential to bringing us past the injuries and retribution, and into rebuilding.
Our epistle completes that message for us. Paul recites the summary of the law: “love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” And this is, to me, what makes us unique, as a church. All that focus in our gospel on reconciliation, all that focus in the prophecies of Ezekiel on the duties of a sentinel- it all boils down to working to love our neighbor as ourselves. And this is a problem.
It’s a problem because I cannot feel love for every human being in the world. Sometimes I have a hard enough time loving myself. I imagine that there are those of you out there who understand this. Our interactions as a Christian people cannot be based solely on our emotions, but also need to be mitigated and balanced by our actions.
And this is where it gets complicated. You see, we are approaching the 10th anniversary of the attacks on 9/11. I will suggest that this is a polarizing event in terms of how people are choosing to react to it. Ten years ago, Sept. 4 was the last Tuesday we would ever have before our country changed forever. Ten years ago, I was just starting Seminary and was so new to DC that when I helped a friend move into her apartment, I naively drove a U-Haul through Dupont Circle. On 395 she pointed out the Pentagon and asked if that really was the Pentagon, and I said, “No way. No idiot country would ever build a major military institution and a highway smack next to each other.” Welcome to America. A week later, I would know for certain it was the Pentagon as I could watch it burn from the highway for over a week. Military aircraft would wake me up for weeks afterwards, patrolling the skies. A friend and I would sit up late into the night, a few months later, watching the opening salvos of the war on a green-screened TV. A number of officer friends have special badges given to those who were first on the scene. Believe me, as we approach the tenth anniversary, the temptation is to get caught up in the emotion, the sorrow or adrenaline or patriotism or the frustration. The other temptation is to look at these readings and to think our job is to determine whether pacifism or military power is the appropriate reaction to real, credible threats to our comfort and national security. But you know what? We’re not being asked to determine rightness or wrongness. As a people of God, we are being asked to love our neighbors and to strive to return all people to communion.
The unique gift we have as a church- the thing that we have the power to do that no one else in this world can do- is to live the actions of God’s church. After the fires are out, after the floods have receded, even as the wars are still being fought, our focus must always be on the reconciliation, on the rebuilding, on helping others make a new normal out of a shattered life. Regardless of the emotions, those are the actions of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Starting with these actions is sufficient. The funds we raise for ER-D and COPS help people in some very real ways, whether or not you know them well enough to love them. Victims of Irene in Vermont will be helped. Nets for Life will keep a kid from contracting malaria. A police officer’s family from here in Eugene will go to DC next spring to be comforted after a tragic loss. I think this is what we do that is our “boots to the ground” moment.
Someone asked me earlier this summer why I was bothering to do this tri this year. For me, it’s a catalyst to do an activity that hopefully inspires others to support some good causes, but it also takes me back “home” after ten years. Northern Virginia is the place that feels like home to me. After ten years, it feels right to go back to a scarred city where I can race my bike under peaceful skies once again. I hope I can express enough gratitude to this community for your sending me out into the world in this way, to this place, on this weekend.
In addition, doing this together, a project with you… it’s an undertaking of our whole community. In our actions and our liturgy, we do actions of love for each other and our neighbors.
And you know what? Our gospel ends with the promise that where a few of us are gathered, God is in the midst of us. In this project, we gather here together and next week from coast to coast to engaged in this work together. I can’t help but wonder and hope that God is present, here in the midst of us, too.