[Against you]

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My friend and colleague Evan Garner wrote this morning about the importance of reading lectionary passages within their larger context.  This is an important rule for preachers, and one that I often, in haste, ignore.  Reading his post this morning inspired me to look around within the context of Matthew 18 to see what Jesus is up to that would bring about this teaching on discipline within the Church.  (For those following along, this is that third usage of this word in Matthew, but the Greek actually lacks ekklesia here.  The NRSV’s commitment to inclusive language created the situation in which the Greek word for “brother” is translated as “a member of the church.”)  This lesson follows on the heels of the Parable of the lost sheep. There Jesus shows just how ridiculous and extravagant God’s desire for reconciliation really is.

“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?”  Well, actually no, Jesus, that seems like a really good way to lose 100 sheep instead of one.  And yet, this is what the Kingdom of God is like.  God desires the restoration of every human being into right relationship that in Christ, God set forth to find every stray soul wandering the countryside.  Immediately after this parable, Jesus begins our lesson for Sunday.  It is helpful, as Evan points out, to note that this story about disciple comes withing a larger context of forgiveness.

It is also helpful to take note of content as well.  Many Christians are familiar with this text, especially the first line, “If another member of the church sins against you,” but how many of us pay attention to the footnotes?  In my HarperCollins Study Bible, footnote n comes right after the word you and reads, “Other ancient authorities lack against you.”  Isn’t that interesting?  Perhaps this isn’t a lesson in how to deal with one-to-one interactions, but a more general rule about how the church should handle sin.  Digging deeper, I pulled out Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed. and found that the United Bible Society, as it put together its fourth edition of a Greek New Testament, chose to put the Greek words translated as “against you” in brackets, denoting that they are unsure of their place in the original text.

So what? You might rightfully ask, and I’m glad you did.  This lesson has long been used in unhelpful ways, usually as the result of the words “against you.”  Rather than being a tool for one church member to take issue with another, this lesson, when it lacks “against you” becomes a call to the whole church to a) be honest about sin, b) name it when we see it, but yet c) to offer grace continually.  Recalling that Matthew was a tax collector, who was invited by Jesus into his inner circle, those who followed in his tradition and finally put this Gospel to parchment would have taken note that the culmination of Jesus teaching on church discipline was to treat the unrepentant sinner like a Gentile and a tax collector.  The call here isn’t to harsh excommunication of one who has sinned against you, but a loving invitation to repentance for all who continue to live in sin.  Thanks be to God that we are treated as Gentiles and tax collectors in need of forgiveness and lost sheep in need of being found.

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Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

I’ve had Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic “Sixteen Tons” stuck in my head all week.  I’m not really sure why my mind is replaying this old song.  It may be because of my profound sadness at the latest Taylor Swift offering.  It might be the rash of “Feed the Pig” ads on ESPN radio that decry a 2005(!) statistic about American’s spending more than they are saving.  Most likely, it is the result of Sunday’s portion of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which Paul admonishes his hearers that they “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

Biblical thoughts on usury and indebtedness aside, this is helpful advice from Paul.  As I’ve said before, one of the best definitions of sin that I’ve heard came from an early elementary aged child who said that we sin when we aren’t loving.  I know this is true in my life.  Relationships, be they between me and another person or me and God, sour when my focus falls away from love.  Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets by commanding us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When we fail to live by that code of love, barriers go up, relationships break down, and violence and fear enter our world.

The trouble is, as Tennessee Ernie made famous, every one of us is “another day older and deeper in debt.”  So how do we change?  How do we work toward being more loving?  How do we avoid Saint Peter calling while we still owe our souls, not to the company store, but to the love of neighbor, enemy, family, or friend?  First, we have to admit that this just isn’t possible.  Sin is a universal human condition, no matter where we find our names in the book of life, all fall short of the glory of God.  Rather than trying to muster up, by our own strength, the ability to love our neighbor perfectly, instead we must rely on God and the perfect love that God offers us.  When we live in God’s grace, nourished by the body and blood of Christ, renewed through prayer and study, then, as Psalm 23 says, our cup will overflow with love for all through generosity and service.  Simply put, the way to stay out of a debt of love is to stay in relationship with God, and the way to deepen our relationship with God is through discipleship.  With God’s grace, we can take on the debt of love for the up-building of the Kingdom of God.

Gentiles, Tax Collectors, and the Unity of the Church – a sermon

Today’s sermon is available to download on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read on.

        In the pew rack right in front of you there is a book.  It is red and it has a cross on the front, but it is not the Bible.  It is The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with The Psalter or Psalms of David which is more commonly called the Prayer Book.  The particular version you have was approved at the 66th General Convention of The Episcopal Church held in Denver, Colorado in 1979, and so many lovingly refer to it as the ‘79 Prayer Book to distinguish it from the versions approved in 1928, 1892, 1789, 1662, 1559, 1552, or 1549.  We rarely open that book on Sunday mornings, but almost everything you find in the bulletin comes from it.  It really is a treasure trove of spiritual resources and hopefully you’ll come to my Saint Paul’s 101 class and learn more about it.

        If you would, please take the Prayer Book and open it almost to the very back.  On page 845 you’ll find the beginning of “An Outline of the Faith commonly called the Catechism.”  The Catechism is, as the title suggests, merely an outline.  It doesn’t give us the full understanding of the Church’s teaching on any particular issue, but it is a starting place.  Honestly, it is pretty Busch League to begin a sermon with a quote from the Catechism, so I’ve given you this brief history lesson to start with instead.

        Now, turn with me to page 855. At the top of the page, you’ll see a question that has plagued Christians for 2,000 years.  “What is the mission of the Church?”  Ask one hundred church members that question and you’ll get at least a hundred different answers.  Conflicting ideas of what the Church should be about have caused most of the divisions in the Church, and it is probably part of what Jesus had in mind here in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel when he looked at his disciples and said, “If another member of the Church sins against you…”  If we’re honest with ourselves, we sin against one another with shocking regularity.  Saint Paul’s in Foley is certainly better than most, but even the best of us fails to live fully into the lofty mission of the Church “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”  Even the most faithful church members have their own ideas of what the Church should be about: who it should serve, what the preaching should be like, how strong the coffee should be and whether we need sprinkles on our donuts.  When those concerns begin to get in the way of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, we have sinned, against one another and against God by falling into disunity and discord.

        I’m reminded of a story I once heard about a man who had been shipwrecked on a deserted island.  Finally, after almost twenty years he was discovered by a passing ship.  As the rescue boat landed on the beach, the man was thrilled to see another human being.  Hugs and tears were followed by a quick tour of the island that the man had lived on for so long.  There were three buildings.  As they approached the first building, the man pointed to it and proudly said, “This is my home.”  The second building he showed them was his church.  At the third building he stopped, shook his head, and said, “This is the church I used to go to.”

        The Church is full of people and therefore it is full of sinners, but we are sinners who have been redeemed through Christ; sinners who, ideally, seek out the Kingdom of God.  Jesus knew our sinfulness and wanted to ensure that God’s Kingdom would continue to be built even in his absence, and so he gave his disciples a few suggestions on how to deal with the inevitability of church conflict.  Woven into each of the steps, from confronting the one who has sinned against you alone to bringing him before the whole congregation, is the underlying mission of the Church: “to restore all people to unity with God and each other.”  And then, “When all else fails,” Jesus says, “when the one who has sinned against you won’t even listen to the whole Church, then treat that one as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

        It would be easy to read this as Jesus giving us permission to excommunicate everyone who disagrees with us.  After all, Gentiles and tax collectors were the worst of the worst.  Gentiles were bad enough, outsiders who didn’t follow the laws of Moses and who worshiped false gods, but tax collectors were even worse.  They were Jewish men who conspired with the pagan, Gentile, Roman occupiers to take taxes from God’s chosen people, paid in coins with the Emperor’s face on them, and who often took a couple of extra coins for themselves while they were at it.  You couldn’t be worse than a two-faced, traitor, tax collector, and Jesus said to treat the unreconciled Church member like one of them.

        Problem is, before he became one of the original twelve disciples of Christ, Matthew was a tax collector: one of those very same two-faced, traitors.  In chapter nine, we hear the story of Jesus meeting Matthew for the first time.  Matthew was in his tax booth, minding his own business, when Jesus came up to him and said, “Follow me.”  In an instant, he left everything to follow Jesus. That night, they had dinner at Matthew’s house surrounded by other sinners and tax collectors.  The Pharisees got wind of this motley crew of a dinner party and confronted the disciples about it.  “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?”[1] they asked.  Jesus replied, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, only those who are sick… I have come to call sinners, not those who think they are already good enough.”[2] [scratches head]

        “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.”  This doesn’t seem quite so cut and dry does it?  Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors pretty well.  He healed them.  He ate with them.  He called them to follow him.  In short, he loved them.  When all else fails, when we’ve hurt each other and reconciliation seems far away, Jesus tells us to love, for it is only through love that unity, with God and with one another, is possible.

        Fortunately, this sermon doesn’t come at a time in our church life that is full of conflict.  Instead, I stand here this morning very proud to be a part of the Saint Paul’s family.  It has been five weeks since we were first informed of Father Keith’s health issues.  Some congregations would have freaked out when they heard that their Rector had been put on pseudo-isolation or that he had a mass on his lung or that he was having a biopsy and maybe major surgery or that he’d be out for six weeks.  Y’all have handled it remarkably well.  Even in the midst of a lot of uncertainty, the rumor mill has been fairly quiet.  People have given Keith space to deal with it all.  Person after person has volunteered to help do whatever they can to keep this place running smoothly.  Instead of falling into disunity and discord, you have modeled what it means to live in unity and love one another.  Thank you for that.  Thank you for continuing to live into the mission of Saint Paul’s by reaching up in worship, reaching in to serve, and reaching out in love and thank you for living into the mission of the Church by seeking unity with one another and with God every step of the way.  Thank you for your faithfulness, for you witness, and for your love.

[1] 9:11 NLT

[2] 9:12-13 NLT

Reading Matthew 18 through the lens of Matthew 5

“Let your light so shine before others that they might see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  From 1549 until 1979, this was the first of several sentences of scripture which were read during the Offertory in Anglican/Episcopal congregations.  Growing up in the early days of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, I can remember my childhood Rector saying those words at the offertory, but it wasn’t until about five minutes ago that I realized that it isn’t one of the suggested Sentences in the “new book.”  In fact, Marion Hatchett (Commentary, p. 397) tells me that our latest revision only kept two of the sentences from the tradition.  Hebrews 13:15-16 has been included since the very beginning and 1 Chronicles (another favorite in the post-1928 Prayer Book days) was added in 1892.  All of the other 8 biddings are new to this Book.  Some, like Pslam 96.8 and Ephesians 5.2 get used with regularity.  There is one, however, that I have never heard used in a congregation.

“If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother (or sister) has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother (or sister), and then come and offer your gift.” – Matthew 5:23, 24

Since all of us can think of a wrong we’ve committed against someone in any given week and since the Church can’t really afford to tell people to hold off on giving their gifts until reconciliation has occurred, this hard word from Jesus in Matthew 5 rarely gets uttered on Sunday morning, but as I listened to the Sermon Brainwave Podcast this week, it got a shout out.  Someone argued that we can’t read the rules of congregational strife in Matthew 18 without hearkening back to Matthew 5.  There is a natural inclination in humanity to look at the speck in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in our own (Matthew 7).  This human proclivity makes Matthew 18 very appealing.  I’d much rather deal with those who have hurt me, and hopefully shun them like a Gentile or a tax collector, than to seek out those who I have hurt and seek reconciliation.

Reading Matthew 18 in isolation is tempting, but we can’t ignore that Jesus was very clear in Matthew 5.  The crux of authentic community, as we’ll hear clearly next week, is forgiveness which can not be only a one-way street.  Those who wish to live together in mutual affection and model their lives after the Kingdom of God have to both offer and seek forgiveness.  Paul sets a lofty ideal in this week’s Romans lesson, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  But the fact of the matter is that none of us can live in perfect love and so we seek to restore relationships through forgiveness and reconciliation by reading Matthew 18 through the lens of Matthew 5.  Seek to be forgiven.  Seek to forgive.

Two or Three in the Age of Social Media

Today has been a long day, and it is not yet over.  It has been a long day, but it has been a good day.  This morning, my Rector, mentor, colleague, and friend, TKT underwent surgery to remove a mass on his right lung.  At the beginning of the day, there was much uncertainty: would the initial biopsy show cancer; could the mass be removed; would they find anything else once they were in here; was he healthy enough to withstand a lobectomy or would they have to do a full pneumonectomy?

In the five weeks since the initial realization that something was in his lung that should be, there have been a lot of people praying for TKT, but last night, when he posted on Facebook about today’s events, thanks to the power of social media hundreds and thousands of people were praying.  And to think, Jesus set the bar at only two or three.  As we gathered in the pre-op waiting room this morning, the family and I recounted where the prayers were coming from: Alabama, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Texas, South Carolina, Kentucky, even California and everywhere in between.  Despite all of the uncertainty this morning, there was a peace in that room, the sort of peace which “surpasses all understanding.”  The sort of peace that comes when two or three are gathered with a whole cloud of witnesses around the globe and Jesus is in their midst.

The surgery turned out better than expected.  No cancer in the initial biopsy allowed them to go for the more invasive surgery.  Only the top lobe of the right lung had to be removed, and by 3 o’clock he was sitting up, awake and alert with morphine pump in hand.  Thanks be to God for a long, but good day; for faithful friends; for ongoing prayers; and that Jesus keeps his promise to be present when 2 or 3 or 300 or 3000 are gathered together.

Binding and Loosing

I had breakfast this morning with a parishioner and friend, WEV.  During the course of our conversation, he mentioned how much he’s enjoyed our journey through Romans 12 over the past two weeks.  At one point he said something to the effect of, “I get the idea of an Acts 2 or and Acts 8 church, but I really want to be part of a Romans 12 church.”  I’m sure he’ll comment here if I ask him what he thinks of being a Matthew 18 church?

The lesson for Sunday is a profoundly dangerous one, which has, as you might expect, been utilized by less than scrupulous religious leaders to oppress and victimize the faithful.  Because of that, many will suggest that we just ignore Matthew 18:15-20, which is, I suspect, precisely why the RCL has decided to include it in the three year lectionary.  This whole notion of binding and loosing, a power which was given exclusively to Peter in Matthew 16:19 is now being given to all of the disciples in 18:18.  Taken with the “If two of you agree on anything, it will be done for you,” the preacher is presented with a particular challenge this Sunday.

  • Some Christians forbid dancing, so is dancing forbidden in heaven?  And if so, how come both of my children have been dancing since before they could walk?

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  • Some Christians forbid alcohol, so is alcohol forbidden in heaven?  And if so, why did Jesus use wine for his Last Supper and command us to “do this in remembrance” of him?
  • Some Christians allow for same-sex marriage, so are same-sex relationships allowed for in heaven? And if so, why do so many others agree that they aren’t?
  • Some Christians take Mark 16:9-20 literally, so is snake handling cool in heaven?  And if so, why do so many others think the long ending of Mark is a late addition?

The list of these questions goes on and on.  In the end, they are all quite unhelpful because the Church has been shifting the list of what is bound and what is loosed since the very beginning: from circumcision and the Law of Moses to whether priests can get married to whether women can be ordained to whether Jesus can be manifest gluten free bread.  What is helpful, however, is that Matthew 18:15-20 reminds that we are part of something much larger than our own congregational context.  As Christians, we take our place in a long history of people who have struggled with how best to be disciples of Jesus.  From Peter and Paul to you and me, we do our best to follow Jesus, but each of us fails from time to time.  Each of us needs to seek forgiveness and be restored to right relationship with God and one another.  The good news is that we aren’t making it all up as we go along.  Instead, we have 2,000 years of examples of those who have done it well and those who have failed miserably to try to figure out how we, in our place and time, can follow Jesus as faithfully as possible.