In the Mean Time

Matthew 18:15-20 & Romans 13:8-14 September 10, 2017


In a way this feels like the start of a new year.  Certainly school starting Tuesday for preschoolers up through college students is a new start.  We are very fortunate here because we have two first days of school.  On Tuesday we welcomed the 2/1/2-3 yearold class.  They were so excited!  On Wednesday we welcomed the 3-4 year old class.  And this year, we had only one crier—a mother!

And in my preaching I’m going to be doing something a little different than I have through the summer.  I’m going to be preaching the texts from Matthew’s gospel that are the basis for the curriculum we’re using in Kids’ Power Hour this fall.  My hope is that families will talk about the sermon and the lesson from Power Hour.  I remember some rich conversations in the car on the way home from church and around the dinner table when I was growing up.  It’s never too early to talk about faith, and it’s especially important that parents integrate their faith into everyday life.  Kids pay attention and your example is more important than words.

While I’m on the subject of integrating faith into life, I want to promote Brown Bag Bible Exploration.  We meet twice a month at lunch time on Tuesday.  We eat lunch together and read Bible passages that are the bases for future sermons.  I find that I benefit from hearing the words out loud, and then we start talking about what we don’t understand, or how we have faced a situation like the one we just read about.  We really speak from our own experience, and every opinion is taken seriously and sometimes we just conclude that we disagree with what the Bible says…and no one gets struck by lightning.  At least not yet. 

The last time we met we talked about this lesson from Matthew, and about how hard it can be to go to someone and point out that they have sinned against you.  It takes courage to do that.  Usually, isn’t it just easier to ignore it?  And what if the other person does not think it’s up to you to judge him? 

And then, after you’ve gotten the courage to confront someone and they don’t listen…ooh, Jesus says to get another person or two to go along and observe the conversation.  And then, if they still haven’t changed, bring that person before the whole church…and if this person still doesn’t change, Jesus says, consider them to be a Gentile—that is an outsider—or a tax collector—that is someone who uses his position to exploit powerless people. 

As always I benefited from the conversation we had around the lunch table, but then I noticed something a week later…everyone around the table had taken the perspective of the one who has been the victim of another’s sin.  None of us saw us as the one who would receive first another church member, then two or three church members, then be presented to the entire congregation.  We did not even imagine that this might apply to us!  The Pharisees were like that, and they drove Jesus crazy! 

I have been on the receiving end of this sort of situation.  It is not pleasant.  My initial reaction is almost always, “I’m not at fault here,”  or “Maybe I’m at fault, but it’s certainly not you’re job, ‘Mr. Holier than Thou,’ to tell me about it!”  After that, I might go on the offensive, pointing out to this person the ways they have harmed me, “that I didn’t feel like bringing up until right now—because you started it!”

Yet I can think of occasions when I have recognized I was wrong.  And even realized, perhaps much later, that it was a gift to me that someone had taken the time to show me how I was wrong, how I had hurt someone else.

I remember one time in particular, a few years after moving to Oshkosh, I was really upset about a raw deal I had gotten.  It wasn’t fair!  I was being victimized.  I told the story repeatedly to people close to me…and about the eighth time I told the story—each version a little better and more dramatic than the others…I realized that the one thing that would explain this situation is that if I were in the wrong, and had been the whole time.  My being in the wrong simply made the most sense.  The elaborate story, conspiracy theory I had gotten myself to believe was simply crazy.  I was simply crazy. 

And I was reminded of a song by Dan Fogelberg that goes          

          Your conscience awakes

         And you see your mistakes

         And you wish someone would buy your confessions.

Yep, that’s me. I’ve been that guy.  I don’t like being that guy, but usually I’m a better person, in about five minutes, in my opinion.

We can get distracted by Jesus’ instructions to confront another church member—and the process a Christian should follow when appropriate.  But, again, we miss something that is quite important.  The whole reason Jesus makes a big deal about confronting sin honestly is to keep the community, that is, the Body of Christ, strong.  It is never Jesus’ purpose to punish, but rather to restore, to make the body whole and healthy again.  

The goal is restoration, it’s about getting everyone together, on the same team. It is a difficult idea to get one’s head around.  When I think about times when I’ve been harmed by someone else, I practically feel entitled to hurt the other person.  To punish that person.  Or better yet: to teach him a lesson!  Jesus doesn’t go in for any of that.  And neither should the church which claims to be the body of Christ—well, which strives to be the Body of Christ.  We fall short.

Everything I’ve said about being together is true, but it’s not complete.  Because it is also true that those who call themselves the Body of Christ, and try to be the Body of Christ, are forever falling short of God’s vision for our life together.  Because each of us is imperfect and vulnerable and each of us stands in need of the grace of Jesus Christ.  And so, sometimes the church stands accused of—at best, not looking much like the Body of Christ, or—at worst hypocrisy.  Because we are better at preaching than practicing our faith.  

The church should be held accountable for what it does in the name of God—and it should not be expected to be perfect.  We, as individuals, should be held accountable for what we do as part of the Body of Christ—and we should not expect ourselves to be perfect.

The question for us today is how to deal with imperfection, disagreement, conflict and friction as the Body of Christ?  

First of all, conflict in the church, disagreement between church members, should come as no surprise.  Most of Paul’s letters were written to churches that had basic disagreement about how Christians should live together.  The appearance of harmony is no indication of God’s favor.  Rather, God’s presence is shown in how people live with one another in disagreement. 

Rushing too quickly to ‘forgive and forget” is not the goal.  The goal is a united, strong church and that comes at a cost.  As Richard Lischer wrote, (The End of Words)

                      “...[F]orgiveness always costs someone something. It cost God his son.

                     It costs those who practice it the risk of further injury. We dare to use such language

                     only because these words have been paid for."

This kind of reconciliation is costly, difficult, uncommon and uncomfortable.  It means someone loses something.  Everyone loses something.  But the motivation is what makes this reconciliation distinctly Christian.  Imagine what it would look and feel like in this congregation—after one member has shown another his sin, then taken two others to show that person his sin, then been brought before the entire congregation…all motivated and driven by seeking the urgent good of that person.  Not shame, not punishment, not ostracism, but the good of the other person—and the health of the whole body. 

That sounds hard, and noble…but does it really reflect what Jesus meant?  Remember, if all attempts at restoration fail the one is to be regarded as a Gentile or tax collector.  As I said before, an outsider and a sinner.  That sounds like excommunication, not reconciliation!  Except, except…when you look back to an earlier passage in Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus is eating with tax collectors, his disciples and some assorted sinners.  The Pharisees point out whom he’s associating with and says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”  Maybe Jesus means that unrepentant sinners are exactly the people Jesus should be with.  Maybe even those who consider themselves righteous, that is the Pharisees, are the ones who should work to include them. 

Because including them, loving them, is how the law is fulfilled, that is how anyone becomes righteous.  Those old ten commandments that are so familiar to the Christians in Rome—and us, I  hope—are how we care for, and love our neighbors.  They’re the road map for our walk with Christ, and they’re the road map for the church’s walk with Christ. 

Did you notice the very end of the lesson from Romans?  There’s an urgency to what Paul is writing to the Romans, because the end of time is imminent.  This notion appears several times in Paul’s writing—don’t worry about the needs of your body he tells them, just as he tells the Corinthians not to marry, unless they are enflamed with desire—it just isn’t worth the trouble, because Christ’s return is so near. 

I called this sermon “In the Mean Time” because Paul makes it clear that Christians are living between two ages, and we are awaiting Christ’s return…but also, we need to take ourselves out of the time of being mean.  That we should approach those who have harmed us, or sinned against us with profound caring, and a desire that our community be restored, fully restored.  Not to be driven by a desire for revenge, to put aside being mean in the mean time, and instead turn into the age of grace.  Amen.