Relationships, Reconciliation, & Community – September 10, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 10, 2017

Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Think about that. That’s powerful. If we take him at his word, if we believe it when he says it, then Jesus is here – now – among us who gather in his name. And in his own words he just spoke to us about the challenge and the wonder of being here in community.

The early church experienced themselves as “brothers and sisters” in the faith. They believed that everybody has been adopted into the family of God in Christ. And as we all know – and many of us have experienced – sisters and brothers and brothers and brothers and sisters and sisters disagree, argue, and even hold grudges that interrupt any communication between them. We sisters and brothers in this family of God are no different. Sadly, disagreement can cause hurt feelings and the fracturing of relationships.

Being a Christian doesn’t mean avoiding conflict but dissension should not be allowed to fester and infect the entire community or family. So Jesus teaches us about how to live together. What we also know about when two or three gather is that four or five or more opinions may surface and people can feel very strongly about their opinions. Jesus saw it first hand in the way some of his disciples challenged each other and argued, like who was the greatest among them. The early church communities experienced discord over all sorts of issues like circumcision and the care of widows. The councils of the Church that codified doctrine –what we will say in the Nicene Creed today –were rife with hostility and disagreement. My patron, St. Nicholas, is reported to have slugged another bishop in a heated debate. (I do not take after him!)

Humans are just susceptible to opposition. It has ever been thus and you and I now live in a time where strong and divergent political, ethical and religious ideologies have created great tension and even resulted in the ending of friendships and severing of family ties.

In the Gospel of Matthew today we get a glimpse of how the earliest communities dealt with the difficult issues of determining when dissent becomes a disruption that requires action. Jesus sees the harmony and peace of the community as an essential building block of our life in the church because the primary work of the church is about reconciliation and healing.

The remarkable Taizè Community in Burgundy, France, was born from one of history’s darkest chapters. Brother Roger began this community in 1940 after Germany defeated and occupied France, leaving his native Switzerland for a small, impoverished village just south of the demarcated occupation line, with the intent of helping victims of the war. Word spread quickly that the community was a safe haven and took in refugees of all kinds. There were some Christians among them, but many of those sheltered there were Jews, atheists, and others escaping danger.

The signature worship style of Taizè in its simplicity, silence, and short hymns – we’ve been singing one over the summer right before the time of Communion – as well as its ethos of peace, reconciliation and social justice has attracted thousands, especially the youth of the world, to spend time there week after week. It is a model for the life of a faith community.

We have just seen the large scale devastation of several communities in our hemisphere because of two catastrophic hurricanes and a major earthquake. People are hurting and in dire need. They feel lost and even hopeless. It has made me profoundly grateful for what we have here—holy space, a sense of belonging, the biblical stories, deeply touching worship, the substance of the sacraments, the awesome invitation to putting our faith to work in the world, and much, much holy mystery. In the end, when crisis strikes us at our core, what do we have if not each other and our life in community?

The process described in the Gospel tells us that we need to do everything possible to maintain community, avoid divisions within our midst, and deal honestly and directly with disagreement. When we offend someone, do we seek to reconcile with them? When we are the one offended, how to we respond to overtures of reconciliation?

When we have a gripe about something in the church are we honest and direct with our clergy or do we register our dissatisfaction in an anonymous letter that doesn’t allow for resolution? Do we triangulate others by grousing to them in the expectation that they will be carry our complaint to a higher authority? Or do we talk openly, honestly, and graciously to our leaders in the hope of achieving reconciliation and of finding a solution to our issue?

Do we use social media to air our winter of discontent and denigrate others in such a public forum like Facebook? How do we live into the way of life that Jesus – here in our midst right now – has given us to emulate? Start small. Invite someone with whom you have some difficulty to have a cup of coffee. Sit down, just the two of you, and don’t delve right into the source of your conflict. Instead, tell your story and listen to the other’s story. You’ll discover how much you have in common rather than how much separates you and in that simple conversation you may find the grace of forgiveness and understanding.

The Gospel today is a lesson in the building and maintaining of a functional, resilient and healthy community taught by the One who is the best teacher. While very helpful as a guide to reconciliation with others, we know that, as much as we might try to follow the prescription Jesus offers us, some prefer negative attention and like to soak in a tub of bickering and complaint. That’s why Jesus includes the piece about needing to walk away and give the other a time out, a sabbatical.

The power of Jesus to work in the Church is promised to any group of his followers, large or small, that is aware of his presence and receptive to his leading. Our relationships with each other are both fragile and holy. Graceful cooperation and growth can maintain the bond of affection within our fellowship.

Episcopal Priest Barbara Brown Taylor says it well: “Our life together is the chief means God has chosen for being with us, and it is of ultimate importance to God. Our life together is the place where we are confronted, tested, and redeemed by God through one another. It is the place where we come to know God or flee from God’s presence, depending upon how we come to know or flee from one another.”