A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock on 2023.0910.A.Pr 18.Fair Fight Exodus 12:1-14; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
One of the most telling examples of the reality of the God-life comes from what Jesus says at the end of today’s gospel. You heard it, and I bet you recognized it: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” The impact of this promise – and that is exactly what this statement is – the impact of this promise means that in our relationships with one another there is nothing less than Christ, God’s Incarnate self, between us. The issue, then, is this: To what extent are we willing to remember this promise as a central reality of our lives? Which brings me to another point of emphasis. In all honesty, what also needs to be said in this vein is not exactly from the mouth of Jesus, but I do believe that history has shown its veracity. It is this: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there most likely will be a fight!” [The gospel of the Lord. Thanks be to God!]. So it is that (yet again) today I preach about relationships, and this time I want to focus precisely on what the early part of Matthew 18 recognizes, which is to point out what Jesus recognizes about the reality of our human connections: namely, that God (recognized or not) is what is between us all. This fact, it seems, is hard for us to remember. So, given this dichotomy, how do we fight with each other – fight with and from love? The first thing I want to point out is that biblically speaking the nitty-gritty of relationship issues is central. Think Covenant. For in both today’s Old Testament lesson and gospel, a significant amount of concrete direction is explicitly given about how life together works in the lives of God’s people. For instance, in the Exodus reading, very precise, almost miniscule descriptions are given about how the Passover is to be celebrated. Even the poor are accounted for. Within these unabashed details, the message is clear: In remembering the Exodus of God’s deliverance, this is not only what must be done; but also this: No one is to be left out of the meal’s experience of God’s liberation and life . Correspondingly, in Matthew’s presentation, Jesus gives very clear, very precise instructions on how to deal with relationships among his followers that are conflicted. (O gee, you mean that even in Jesus’ time the “church” (that is, those who followed Jesus) weren’t always singing “Cum by rah”!) The point is that both lessons are steeped in the required (not voluntary) “how to’s” over relationship issues -- issues of new life and issues of how to keep that life resilient and shared. If what is between us is of God (and it is), then knowing how to tend our connections is paramount and necessary to what it means to have life. I say this because it is my experience that most of us do not know how to fight well in a relationship, in a relationship with Christ at the center. This is to say that most of us don’t know how to fight within the confines of love, the love of God. Let me express this point bluntly. While most folks like us may not know how to fight faithfully, the deeper truth is that we don’t fight at all. We just divorce unobtrusively and leave. But what about the God who is between us? What is the impact, the cost of ignoring God’s connecting presence among us? The answer is that ignoring or dismissing the God-between-us is like a knee joint that has lost its cushioning cartilage. The result of any movement is a debilitating and bare bone-on-bone grinding. How many of our relationships fall into this descriptive category because the connecting tissue of God’s presence has been neglected or dishonored or unknown? In my first parish as rector, I once very consciously attempted to apply Matthew 18 to a conflicted Vestry situation. It was so long ago that I no longer remember the details of the conflict, save for the fact that the Vestry member’s name was “Bruce”, and I liked him. He was a divorced man in his forties, working in a competitive business situation; and like so many men of that context, he had secret scars on his soul from that combative arena, scars whose pain would unrecognizably ooze out on the Vestry stage. Another fact that I remember is that the parish was located in an area where the traditional domination of American, corporate business manufacturing was just starting to collapse; and with this, the white and blue collar layoffs began. My guess is that something like this occurred in Easthampton in the 1970’s when the factories began to shut down. Not a time of stability; nor a time of gentleness. Usually unnamed, the anxiety and fear from this upheaval functioned like the acrid smoke from a distant wildfire. My own instincts were to deal with Bruce one-on-one. So, following them and in keeping with Matthew 18’s admonition, I set up a meeting with Bruce and spoke to him about his Vestry participation and the surrounding conflict. And you see, this is the place where I got a rude awakening. Having responded to this situation with integrity and with reference to the parameters of Matthew 18, guess what? My efforts did not result in a “thank you very much” resolution. Gratitude was not, of course, the goal or purpose of the meeting; but whatever naivete I possessed in “doing the right thing” in hopes of reconciling this relationship were unceremonially dashed. I was unnerved by the resistance and reactivity that came from Bruce. In spite of my best and well-intentioned efforts, he acted as if he were on trial and was his own attorney. Relationships that convey and support life are meant to produce trustworthiness and reliability. I’ll say this again: life-giving relationships are about the work of producing trustworthiness and reliability; and such work is not a matter of “doing it yourself”. Yet, this is not everyone’s experience. This is not everyone’s default position. It was evidently not Bruce’s, as he became defensive and angry to the point where I felt it was necessary to move to the second stage of Matthew 18’s model. So, with Bruce’s acquiescence, I asked the wardens to join us in this conversation and set a follow up meeting for that purpose. That meeting did not go well either, to the extent that Bruce unilaterally jump-shifted to the third stage of Matthew 18’s example and excommunicated himself from the church. He left the parish and our life together. Is there something between us, in our connections as fellow human beings, as members of Christ’s Body – is there something between us that is larger than our own desires, our own fears, our own hurts? Yes, part of the Matthew 18 model presumes that we are already cognizant of the Christ between us. It presumes that we are aware of what I call my “Oreo Cookie Theology of Relationships”: namely, that you and I are the cookies, but what joins us to make something special is the icing in the middle. In case this image is too dazzling to be readily absorbed, the icing in our relationships is Jesus, God Incarnate; and all cookie lovers know that it is the icing that makes the cookie worthwhile. But here is the rub. What if we are dealing with another who has no interest in recognizing the icing in the middle? What if the only thing the other recognizes as connecting us is the other’s expectations, desires, or fears? And this is the point of Matthew 18 at which Jesus’ instructions sound antithetically harsh and inappropriately exclusive. Jesus charges us to regard these as a “Gentile or tax collector”. So much for “love thy neighbor” … or maybe not. I recall the words of William Sloan Coffin, who fifty years ago was the noted (some would say, notorious) Chaplain at Yale. He came to the Divinity School for a weeknight gathering and presentation, at which he lamented something I have never forgotten. Coffin said that Christians are especially called to be “hard-headed and soft-hearted”. But alas, he bemoaned, so often the opposite is the case. When Jesus instructs us to treat folks who cannot or will not regard our connections with one another as an expression of something larger than individual agendas – not to mention the God-life, then we are not to be so soft-headed as to let them define and determine our common life. They need to be put outside, until or unless they discover through God’s creative Spirit -- or perhaps even by the way the likes of you and I live -- that there is something missing in their connections and in their lives. Then, folks like us could ask them if they would be willing to explore the possibilities and the mysteries of the “Oreo” cookie. So, far from Jesus’ last direction being exclusive – “elitist” in the popular dismissal of our day, we must remember that Jesus spent a good deal of public time with the unsavory Gentiles and the blood-sucking tax collectors. Rather and to the point, his door was always open to them, but they also had to walk through that door and willingly enter into Jesus’ presence. "...Where two or three are gathered in [Jesus’] name, the Risen One is in the midst of them – in the midst of us.” It’s the God between us that both calls us and challenges us. I will close with an open book, pop quiz. It is a quiz that our Eucharistic liturgy provides at the “Peace”. Instead of viewing the “Peace” and the activity it entails as a halftime break or as a casual spreading of one’s first two fingers or a time for quick, personal chit-chat, rather listen to the words of the “Peace” and begin to acknowledge the Christ who is between us – as the Lord has promised us. Amen.
1 Matthew 18:20