A sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 18:15-20 [Proper 18A]
“Jesus said, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them… but sometimes it’s going to be really, really awkward.”
Of course, Jesus didn’t say that last part, but it’s always what we’re bound to feel whenever we show up for worship or for a church meeting and there is only one other person there. Or two others. You had expected more, in most cases, and you each glance around wondering and waiting if this, in fact, will be all there is. Awkward.
That’s what happened last Sunday, in fact, at our 5:30 pm service. The attendance at that service has been rather low through the course of the summer, which puzzles us, to be honest, but last Sunday only one person showed up. And so, together with Ben Droste, who was serving as the usher/communion assistant, and the musician, Kevin Barger, there was a total of four of us. Ben, who had already attended worship in the morning and therefore had heard the sermon, was sitting in the chair nearest to the door waiting on possible latecomers. Kevin was sitting back behind the piano, and he had already been to both morning services and had heard the sermon twice, poor guy. That left good ol’ Rob Hamlin to sit by himself on the front row, just two seats down from where I was, so when it came time to preach, I just basically ended up standing up, turning around, and talking right to Rob, like he was getting his own private sermon. I’ll be honest: it was a little awkward. I felt like I didn’t really know where to look. For a moment I thought about trying to make it a bit of a dialog where I asked questions and got him to respond, but I quickly felt like that would make it even worse. Like an interrogation.
Overall it went fine, I think, but I discovered I was comforting myself throughout the entire thing with these words of Jesus from Matthew 18, that even though everyone else was off doing Labor Day weekend things, Jesus was with us there because there were at least two or three.
That’s how this verse often gets used, I find. It’s become like a lowest-common-denominator for what constitutes a worship service. Are there two of us here? Check. OK, we’re good. Then we can count Jesus present too. In some respects, that is an accurate understanding or use of this passage. In this era of megachurches and arena-sized worship services, it is especially comforting to know that Jesus assured his presence with the small and seemingly insignificant. For years the comfort from these words sustained the small, demoralized congregations that were behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Germany as the Communist Party tried to strangle out communities of faith.
However, to use this statement only as some kind of quorum for attendance at worship or other church events is not doing it justice. As you can see, Jesus doesn’t say this during some long passage about building a church. This doesn’t come in the context of a discussion about going out and spreading the good news. He says it in a discussion about church discipline. He says this in the midst of a very long and detailed passage about forgiveness and resolving conflict in the church.
As if that’s ever going to happen, right? Conflict? In the church?? Why, yes. In fact, we could just as easily re-word this reassuring statement to say “For whenever two or three are gathered, there’s eventually going to be an argument about something.”
The truth is that nowhere in the gospels does Jesus get as detailed about a specific subject as he does when he’s talking about forgiveness in the community of believers. Nowhere else in the gospels does Jesus issue such precise instructions about something. As we know, most of the time Jesus gives very open-ended commands, allowing us to dream and imagine how we might fulfill them and embody his love out in the world. But when it comes to sin and how it can break and harm his community, Jesus lays things out very nicely: first, try this. Then, if that doesn’t work, try this. It’s like the process of carefully gluing back together the pieces of some valuable heirloom or, better yet, watching people put their lives back together after the destruction from a hurricane.
And, in many ways, it is just that. The church is God’s prized possession. It is the body of his own Son, the men and women and the children God has redeemed through Jesus’ suffering and death. Brothers and sisters, we are precious to God, and it makes sense, then, that God would want to protect us against the harm that comes from conflict and to ensure that our community can be healed when it is hurt by the wrongful things we can still do and say to one another.
The process for repairing these relationships may be very methodical, but notice how in each step the word “listen” is central. Jesus knows the way to healing hinges on people taking time to hear one another out. Repentance, that change of mind and heart which allows reconciliation to take place, is most likely to happen when people stop and have dialogue. Communication consultant Nate Regier, who is an expert at guiding different groups through conflict, says that resolving conflict is most successful when people who are at odds temporarily suspend their own agenda and listen to the other’s agenda. “You’d be amazed,” he says, “how flexible another person can become when they feel heard.” Besides that, how many times do we find out that a conflict is actually due to a simple miscommunication between people, and not because of real intended hurtfulness?
In the end, if all the listening in the world doesn’t solve the problem and repentance does not come, then Jesus says to handle the person involved like you would a tax collector or a Gentile. At first blush, that sounds very demeaning and distancing, until you realize how Jesus himself deals with tax collectors and Gentiles. He extends mercy to them. He eats with them and reaches out to them in lovingkindness, not heavy-handed judgment or condescension. Even in the midst of harm, Jesus’ call is one of suffering for the sake the other, of seeking to pull someone in rather than push them farther away. Jesus himself dies on the cross in order to extend God’s love to us, even, as the apostle Paul says in Romans, while we were still sinners.
Yes, Jesus is very specific about these instructions in dealing with sin because we are precious to him but there’s another reason. In the church, how we conduct our human resources is our best P.R. Our most effective form of evangelism—that is, telling others the good news about Jesus and receiving them into his body—is being able to model repentance and forgiveness with one another. By the same token, one of the top ways the church drives people away is by being a terrible laboratory for handling interpersonal conflict. The world already does a pretty terrible job of equipping people in the face of conflict. If Jesus’ followers can’t offer a loving, practical way of healing relationships, then why bother being here? If the members of the church are content with just letting unresolved grievances slowly corrode the quality of our community, why be a part of it?
Forgiveness, the often painstaking path of reconciliation binding people into repentance and loosing them in grace, is the crux of Jesus’ whole life. And so whenever that kind of life-giving work is going on—even when’s just among two or three people who are patching things up—Jesus promises us he’s going to be there. Therefore, to say that “Christ is here with us”’ is not a remark about some warm fuzzy feeling of the presence of God in the room that we’re supposed to get. It is a comment about the character of life among the people of that community. It is that notion that forgiveness is valued, that mercy to the sinner is treasured.
I recently came across an article about a robot that has been designed to perform funeral ceremonies in Japan. As it turns out, they were funeral ceremonies of another faith tradition, but I took it as just one more example of how computers and what they call “artificial intelligence” are slowly pushing aside the role of humans in the world. I always thought my job as a pastor would be safe against the coming robot onslaught. I guess I need to think again! I suppose I’m just as replaceable as any other function out there, and having a robot lead worship on Labor Day weekend when attendance is down might actually have its benefits for everyone. (Robotic voice: “The Lord be with you.”) I mean, people get daily devotions through email, which is essentially a computer, right?
And yet, the ability to be hurt, to have a relationship broken, to have emotions wounded—those are things unique to human beings. The brain can’t simply be re-programmed when things like that go wrong. The work of truly listening and responding in kindness and understanding will never be something we can outsource to anyone or anything.
St. Francis of Assisi, the author of our Gathering Hymn this morning, words it so well. He was a renowned lover of nature, and his hymn reflects that, including all the different aspects of creation and how they praise their Creator. Animals with their voices, clouds and rain as they grow things, fire and water, earth and even death. But notice when we get to the verse about humans how they are to praise the God Most High. It’s not by how they create things or display their ingenuity and innovation. It is not as they celebrate their diversity. Rather, St. Francis writes, “All who for love of God forgive, all who in pain or sorrow grieve. Christ bears your burdens and your fears. Still make your song amid the tears. Alleluia! Alleluia! Allelu-u-uia!” I especially liked the translation of this hymn in the old green book: “O, everyone with tender heart, forgiving others, take your part.” The chief way that humans can take part in returning praise to their Maker by reflecting Christ in their forgiveness and mercy.
For he has borne our burdens and our fears…and all the mean things we can do and say to one another, and all the ways we’ve tried to embody compassion and kindness for one another and had it go unrequited. He has borne all the ways the cross of suffering is shared between you and me. He is there. Even with just two or three, he is there. He lives for that stuff, repairing that which has been broken because he loves us and he wants us together.
As it turns out, there is really nothing awkward about that at all. Alleluia! Alleluia! Allelu-u-ia!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 Christian Century. August 30, 2017 pg 9