Today is the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. I am covering today at Christ Church, Rochdale for the priest-in-charge, who is on maternity leave.
I think I’ve been to Christ Church more Sundays than any other congregation in our diocese since I accepted this position on Bishop Fisher’s staff four years ago. It’s an honor to be back here with you all today and I look forward to being back here again in October as well before Aileen returns from her maternity leave.
There is a lot going on in the world. We will and we should keep the folks in Charlottesville and Houston and in Cuba and Florida in our prayers today. All of these places represent opportunities for the Church to be the Church: for us to be light and salt and yeast and to bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. I am going to go in a different direction today, but please don’t read that as suggesting these prayer concerns are not on my mind and heart. They are…
I want to say something that I hope is not news to anyone here, but it’s so important from time to time to step back and remember it. Here goes: behind every Biblical text that we hear in church each week is a particular context, a unique place and time where the living God was experienced. Someone wrote it down later, but the Bible didn’t just “plop down” from heaven.
Let me say this again another way. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John aren’t running around with clip-boards like vestry clerks taking notes on everything Jesus said and did contemporaneously. Rather, communities remembered the stories, over decades. They told them at coffee hour and when they gathered to break the bread and share the cup and around campfires. They remembered the stories and then forty and even fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, someone said “hey, we should write this stuff down so that we can share it with our children and our children’s children.” The earliest of the four gospels (Mark) didn’t get written down until around 70 – nearly four decades after Jesus’ crucifixion. So the Bible is more like a library than a single narrative and in that library are the recollected experiences of God’s people through time and in different places.
Now this is a sermon, not a Bible study. But if you are still with me, then let me push this just a little bit further before I move along. We heard from Paul’s letter today to the Church in Rome. Paul’s letters were actually written before the gospels. This one was written to those first-century followers of Jesus in Rome, the hub of the Roman Empire, far from the Sea of Galilee and the holy city of Jerusalem. The word had spread that far about Jesus who was crucified, dead and buried and on the third day rose from the dead. They didn’t have church buildings; they gathered in homes. But they did something like what we do. They read from Scripture, although as already mentioned, at that point it was just the Old Testament. They sang psalms. The reflected on how that Word of the Lord related to them. And then they broke the bread and shared the cup.
When Paul writes those words to them he is trying to help them to think about what it means to be the Church, and only later does the Church decide his words might be helpful to future generations, so they become part of what we call the New Testament. Are you with me? I know this is heavy lifting for “welcome back Sunday!”
I think most of us recognize all that I’ve said about Paul’s Letters as true but we’re more prone to forget that the same is true of the four gospels, which are not documentaries on the life of Jesus but more like four plays. In other words and this is an important place to come back even if I’ve lost you a bit in taking the scenic route to get here: Christian communities exist before the New Testament does. The New Testament – the gospels, Acts, Paul’s Letters, the other epistles, Revelation – all of it emerges in the latter part of the first-century as they reflect on what it means to be the Church.
We sometimes forget that, but as I said, nothing I’ve said is controversial. (At least not yet!) It’s just helpful to remember that these readings we hear have a context. So even though Jesus is speaking in today’s gospel reading, it’s important to remember that Matthew is remembering these words within a community that claims Jesus as the Christ – a community that gathers around Word and Sacrament week after week. When he explains how communities ought to deal with conflict you can bet that he’s speaking to people who have some experience with that and who probably have faced some challenges.
It’s pretty simple really, and wise. And hard to do. Hard to do in families, in church, and at work. If you have an issue with someone, take it to them and try to work it out face-to-face. Don’t tell somebody else about the issue you have with so-and-so. That is called “triangulation:” you tell Jane about the problem you are having with Joe and the thing is, Jane can’t do anything to help you that problem and Joe can’t do anything because you aren’t talking to him. Take it to the person directly and see if you can’t work it out. And don’t send an angry email after a glass of wine either. Meet up for a cup of coffee and see if you can work it out. Easy stuff, right? Maybe not.
In families, in congregations, and in work places it turns out this is much easier said than done. But always it should be the first step and one might even go so far as to say that we are meant to practice these conflict management skills in congregations like this one so that we get better at it. In vestry meetings and in the altar guild and with conflicts over a sermon the pastor or the Canon to the Ordinary preached, to deal with our concerns face to face. To try to practice honest speaking and lean-in listening.
A lot of times it works. I am here to tell you, it really does. We clear up a lot of misunderstandings when we take the risk of speaking honestly with one another, in love. But sometimes it does not work. Step two: find someone who can be objective and hear you both out. Someone you both trust. See if you can’t work it out that way. That’s not a triangle – you aren’t gossiping to that other person. You are asking them to be a kind of mediator; to hear both sides.
The point here (and it seems to me the experience of Matthew’s community that seeks to follow the risen Christ) is that conflict cannot be ignored or buried under a carpet. That helps no one. Neither does escalating things! If you insult me and I punch you in the nose we are not moving toward reconciliation. So as baptized persons, we practice direct honest open healthy communication. We covenant to work things out…
In my work as a member of the Bishop’s staff, I see way too much conflict avoidance, however. Clergy are sometimes the worst. I see a lot of clergy profiles of people who are looking to work in congregations in this diocese. Someone has clued them in that avoidance is not a great conflict strategy, so they know it in their heads. But it’s a lot harder to put into practice because somewhere along the line, people have been taught to think that think their job in Church is to be nice, which is not exactly the same as showing love. Sometimes love is hard. It takes work. And when we don’t deal with conflict in healthy ways, at home or at work or in church, it goes underground. But eventually it catches up with us.
So that is the word of the Lord Matthew has for us today. And ditto with Paul. His message is the same whether he is writing to the Church in Corinth or Galatia or Rome or Ephesus. God is love. Love God. Love one another. Those who claim hate in the name of God are taking the Lord’s name in vain. It’s that simple. Hate is not of God. If we choose to scapegoat other people because of our own projected fears, well that’s on us! That’s not of God. God is love.
Paul has to remind Christian congregations of this for the same reason that Matthew has to remind his folks of it: because we are prone to amnesia. Because we can get complacent. Wake up, St. Paul says! You know what time it is! It’s time to live what we profess with our lips. It’s time to walk the walk. And what is that walk? It’s about love. Love of God and love of neighbor. Love strong enough to face conflicts in the hope of reconciliation; not substituting cheap grace for the hard work of real grace.
Pretty much everything you need to know how about how to be the Church is found in today’s two readings from the New Testament, rooted in two first-century communities, but still relevant here in Rochdale in 2017. I think these texts made it into the Bible because we all know they are true. They are a Word of the Lord and it’s easy to say “thanks be to God” when they are read aloud. They aren’t really very hard to understand. But they are very hard to live. I think this is because people can get under our skin.
For a long time now, I think about sixteen years, I’ve been part of the Fellowship of St. John the Evangelist. I take retreat time at the monastery in Cambridge and out at Emery House on the north shore. I meet with a spiritual director regularly, one of the brothers. This summer my spiritual director shared with me that when a novice comes to their community, they tell him that he’ll get a teacher who will help him to grow in faith. Not one who is assigned as a mentor, but an unofficial one. They are excited about this, “oh good, a spiritual teacher!” But then they are told that the teacher will be the brother who most gets on their nerves, the one who most annoys them. Why is this? Because that is the brother who has something to teach them because usually when someone annoys us it’s less about them than it is about us. It’s about how we react to them and how we react tells us something about ourselves.
What if I were to tell you as you gather yourselves up again at the start of a new program year that you all get a teacher here too. That yes, congregations can be like families, as I am told in every single parish in this diocese. But most Thanksgiving Dinners I’ve been too are, at best, “complicated.” Sometimes people get on one another’s nerves in families. But what if we see these as teachable moments? As opportunities to learn something about ourselves? As means toward reconciliation and healing and growing into the full stature of Christ and therefore of building authentic Christian community, not something fake but very real.
As you begin a new year here at Christ Church, I invite you to practice these things together. Continue to be patient and kind and gentle with yourselves and with your still-new priest and with one another. Keep at it. Do not lose heart. Stay awake. Because the world needs for us to learn how to be the Church, now more than ever: in Charlottesville, and in Houston, and in Florida, and right here in Rochdale too.