"I'm fine. You?"
The Rev. Amy Hodges Morehous
Proper 18, Year A
Church of the Ascension
September 4, 2011
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” So, I have a list, and I’d like to see the following people after church....”
We laugh, but that’s one of our worst fears, isn’t it? That someone is going to point at us, to point out our shortcomings, and laugh. I think, most of the time, we’re all too aware these days of the places where we fall short. We’re constantly surrounded by advertising that makes sure that we spend a large part of our lives feeling inadequate. We’re judging by external appearances, and according to what I see on TV, we’re not pretty enough, not young enough, not skinny enough. Our teeth always could be whiter, our stomach flatter, our clothes more stylish. Thanks to magazines and television, we know our houses don’t quite measure up, either. So, we are surrounded by things that tell us that appearance is everything, that we don’t look quite right, our homes don’t look quite right. We probably left home this morning with some sense that we just don’t measure up. Now we’ve come to church, only to hear that someone should call us out on our bad behavior. Swell.
There’s plenty not to like in this passage from Matthew. On the face of it, it appears harsh and judgemental - a lot of the things that have driven people away from Christianity. I don’t know about you, but I've known way too many Christians who are more than eager to "go and point out the fault" of someone who has sinned.
When I get over myself and my own sense of inadequacy and read the passage carefully, what I hear is Matthew's deep concern for community -- honest, authentic Christian community. The community Matthew is speaking to, largely Jewish, had a very deep sense of how much they were loved and valued and chosen by God. I would argue that we’ve lost that today. I think we’ve developed such a deeply ingrained sense of our own inadequacies that we find it hard to believe that we can be loved unconditionally, as Matthew’s audience knew to the depths of their bones. We’ve held onto the ideas of God’s harsh judgement and our own sense of shortcoming and sin, but without balancing that with belonging and love and grace.
So how do we form community, today? And why should we? Community, after all, can be one of those feel-good words. It pulls us into the ideal -- we imagine something out of Cheers, or Friends - a place where you're accepted for who you are, where you're never lonely, and where everyone knows your name. But you know what the problem with community is? It’s made up of people. And people -- not you and me, of course, but most people -- can be difficult, challenging, selfish, and unreliable. When we're daydreaming about community, it’s usually because we don't particularly like the actual community already surrounding us.
Jesus speaks forthrightly to us today, and reminds us that we are not always kind to ourselves, or to our neighbors. Our communities are made up of all kinds of people. People sin against one another. Jesus instructs us, when that happens and you're involved, it’s important to do something about it; to go talk to the other person directly, like a mature adult, rather than behind his or her back. If that doesn't work, involve a few members of the community. If that doesn't work, then you may need to be honest with everyone, because the whole community may be at risk. I'm not totally sure what treating the offender "as a Gentile and tax collector" means. Church tradition tells us that Matthew himself was...a tax collector. And what did Jesus do with Gentiles and tax collectors? He sat with them. He taught them. He had dinner with them. He certainly didn’t ostracize them. He chose them to be his disciples. He intentionally reached out to them, and invited them into the community.
Along with that call to being accountable to one another in community, we are reminded by Paul that honest community doesn’t happen in a vacuum. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” For there to be a Christian community, there must be love - enough love that there is respect and honesty. Honesty without love can sound harsh - judgemental - holier than thou. It sounds great to say that we should be honest with one another, doesn’t it? But in all reality, almost nothing is harder. Loving honesty is difficult. I’ll give you an example. What’s one of the largest lies you’ll ever hear in church? I know I’ve even said it myself. I’ll give you a hint - it’s two words - “I’m fine.”
In a loving, Christian community, we should be able to be daring enough to be honest. To be not fine, when that’s the honest truth. I’m not suggesting that we aren’t all fine, but I do assert that we aren’t fine at all times, and in all places, and with all people. The world around us certainly spends a lot of time and money trying to convince us that we aren’t fine. In the midst of a loving community, that we are healthier people if we are honest people. Honest with ourselves, and with each other.
So we’ve established that authentic community is hard to come by. It's work. It’s risky. But it's worth it. God did not intend for us to go through life without holy community. And I’ll tell you, when you find it, it's like discovering a little bit of heaven on earth; it is the reality of God's communal fellowship right here, in our midst. Jesus promises, when we gather in this way -- with honesty and integrity, even when it's hard -- that amazing things can happen because Jesus is with us, right there, in our very midst.
We may belong to lots of different groups -- our neighborhoods, our kids' play groups, or a book club, or the folks we eat lunch with at work. All of these communities are different, with different characteristics. So what kind of community do we want here from Church of the Ascension. Are we a superficial social club? Because that’s a lot safer. No chance of real honesty or relationship there, but on the other hand, no risk either. We aren’t making fools of ourselves by being honest. Or are we looking for something more meaningful?
Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place where we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Are we looking for a place we can really make a difference? Because we get to decide what kind of community this is together. We’re the ones who do the work, who have the conversations, who open our hearts to Christ and to one another. We are Christ’s church, here. The church is not the building - as beautiful as it is - the church is the community, the people. All the people.
As we struggle to be together here in Christ, to be a community of loving honesty, remember that it is Christ who has called us here together around his message and cross. We are more than two or three gathered together, today, and Jesus Christ is here, is right there, in the midst of us, always, calling us into honest, loving community with one another. All we have to do is to answer that call, to take that step forward, and to risk speaking the truth in love to one another. When we do that, God will always meet us there with His all-encompassing love and grace.