September 10, 2017
Matthew 18:15-20, Exodus 3:1-15
Today and in the coming weeks, our scriptures that will help us grapple with what it means to be a community of faith or to use the words of Paul, the body of Christ. The Exodus reading allows us to witness Moses’ profound encounter with God. We talk about Moses as a Biblical hero, but remember he had a record. He murdered a man and fled. It is good to remember that so many of the people in the Bible that we regard highly did some bad stuff. Yet, God chose them. We talked in text study about being qualified for leadership positions. Moses’ qualifications were lacking. Not only was he a murderer, he stuttered. He would not be counted on for inspiring speeches. When people like Moses questioned God’s judgment for choosing them, God replied by saying more or less, “I didn’t choose you for your impressive resume or your flawless character. In fact, this isn’t about you at all. It’s about what I am going to do through you. I need you to say yes and show up and I’ll take it from there.”
The story from Exodus will take a turn in the coming weeks. Moses will be present throughout the difficult journey through the wilderness, but our focus will shift to the community who don’t cope so well with adversity and with God who shows up for them when they want to quit. Footnote - it is hard to quit once they set out. They may want to quit, but you can’t just quit the wilderness.
How many times in our lives have we said yes to something only to realize it wasn’t what we signed up for, and then we have to decide what to do next?
On July 23rd, we voted to provide sanctuary to Kadhim. There have been many comments and feelings expressed throughout the process. It has challenged us all. I have heard the comment more than once in the last few months from all sides of the decision that “this isn’t the church I thought it was” or something like that. What we have seen is the other side of human beings and that has not always been easy.
This happens to us. We are in a friendship, a marriage, a work relationship and we think things are going well. Then something happens and we encounter the other side of someone. It rocks our foundations and forces us to look at things again. One of the things I have learned in my life is that I want to be in relationship more than I want to be right.
The reading from Matthew today teaches us how to be in relationship as a community. Jesus says that when someone sins against you, you should go and talk with them about it. That is not our first choice. Why should the one who has been hurt have to take the initiative? Why do we have to talk to the one who hurt us?
Notice that Jesus just assumes there will be conflict. He assumes there will be hurt and anger. The absence of conflict is not a sign that we are Christian. Christians fight and hurt one another. The question is how we heal and resolve our conflicts. The question for me now is how we move forward and how we show up for one another when we are struggling. Jesus is asking that we do show up for one another.
In his book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis, draws a stark picture of hell. Hell is like a great, vast city, Lewis says, a city inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle. These houses in the middle are empty because everyone who once lived there has quarreled with the neighbors and moved. Then, they quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving the streets and the houses of their old neighborhoods empty and barren.
That, Lewis says, is how hell has gotten so large. It is empty at its center and inhabited only at the outer edges, because everyone chose distance instead of honest confrontation when it came to dealing with their relationships.
Jesus ends with the promise that he is with us when we gather. When we show up for one another, Jesus is there. I want to ask you to make that commitment: to show up for each other. Jesus keeps calling us outside ourselves into relationship with each other and with the people on the margins.
Parker Palmer defines community as that place where the person you least want to live with always lives. We are a community that values our diversity. We don’t all think the same way and that is not our goal. Let us take great care to not let our diverse thoughts keep us from being a community.
The text goes on to say that if our efforts don’t work out, to treat those who have sinned against us as Gentiles or tax collectors. It is easy to trip up on the words Gentile and tax collector, but remember who said the words. Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors as people to be welcomed in and he didn’t give up on them even when others did. It sounds like he is telling us not to give up on each other. We continue to hold the door open and care for each other.
Once upon a time, two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in their 40 years of working together. It began with a small misunderstanding and grew into a major difference. Eventually, the disagreement exploded into an exchange of bitter words, followed by weeks of silence.
One morning, there was a knock on the older brother’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter's toolbox. "I'm looking for a few days' work," he said. "Perhaps you would have some small jobs here and there that I could help with?”
“Yes," said the older brother. "As a matter of fact, I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That's my younger brother’s place. Last week, there was a meadow between us, but he took his bulldozer and dug a small river there. Well, I'm going to do him one better. See that pile of old lumber? I want you to build an 8-foot-high fence between our properties. Then I won't need to see his place or his face anymore."
The carpenter said, "Show me the nails and the tools, and I'll do a good job for you."
The older brother had business in town, so he left for the day, and the carpenter went to work. At sunset, when the brother returned, he went out to check the progress on the fence, but his jaw dropped in surprise at what he saw. There was no fence there at all. Instead, the carpenter had built a bridge that stretched from one side of the river to the other, complete with handrails and all!
The younger brother was coming across the bridge toward them, his hand outstretched. "You're quite the guy," he said to his brother, "after all I've said and done."
The two brothers met in the middle, shook hands, and then embraced. When they turned to speak to the carpenter, they saw that he was leaving.
"No, wait!” said the older brother. “Stay a few days. I've got a lot of other projects for you."
"I'd love to," the carpenter said, "but I have many more bridges to build."
Jesus is calling us to be bridge builders. If this sounds too hard, it may be. The good news is that we can look to Moses and know that it isn’t about what we are capable of doing; it is about what we are willing to allow God to do through us. Jesus calls us to do hard things, but he also promises to be with us. We don’t have to do this alone. In the coming weeks, you are invited to participate in small group conversations. I am inviting you into conversation with me and with each other. Let us listen our way through this. Our work is before us. Let’s start building bridges.