Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 10, 2017

Central United Methodist Church
Jesus is in the Room
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 18: 15 – 20
September 10, 2017

Come together

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” – Matthew 18: 15 – 20, the New Revised Standard Version

Today, after the two services of summer, our congregation is together again. While multiple worship options are a good thing, it is also good to have the congregation together. No more saying, “I haven’t seen so-and-so in awhile,” with me answering, “O, he/she was at the early service today.”  It’s good for people to worship together, eat together, and be together, to ask how we are doing and take note of those who are missing.

Two who are missing this morning are Jaz and JoAnn Faber. They are – unfortunately – on the west coast of Florida (near St. Petersburg), with JoAnn’s stepmother. When I expressed my concern on Facebook, JoAnn’s answer did not comfort me: “Don’t worry, Jaz is good with duct tape!” I fear it’s going to take more than duct tape to withstand Hurricane Irma, so are prayers are with them – and all of those today – in the path of Hurricane Irma.

Inevitably when people attend Central for the first time, they express surprise that we are so diverse. Make no mistake, our diversity is a blessing, but for those not accustomed to it, it can be intimidating. Sometimes we are a little shy, because we feel like we know so little about who people are and where they have come from. So we fall short of true Christian community, and remain a group of strangers, with the only thing uniting us being our faith and our worship, not to mention that we are all facing in the same direction. (Except the choir, facing the opposite way. Welcome back, choir!)

The truth is – in any church, whether megachurch or small church, whether a church is diverse or homogeneous, whether United Methodist or untied Methodists (the most common typo), people are people, and sometimes we don’t get along.

This is what Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel: the perils and promises of Christian community. It actually begins on a discordant note: as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message, “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him — work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” The NRSV is even more blunt, saying, “Treat them like a Gentile or tax collector.” I dunno, how do YOU treat Gentiles and tax collectors, especially considering that we are Gentiles; if not tax collectors.)

To me, such words sound suspect coming from the lips of Jesus, for multiple reasons. First, they sound like they come from later in Christian history, when Jews and Gentiles quickly discovered this love stuff only goes so far; sooner or later problems must be named and dealt with. Second, it is contradictory, of that which precedes and follows it. Just before, Jesus talks about the shepherd that has the ninety and nine sheep, but risks everything to go after the one sheep that is missing: wouldn’t that apply here? Just afterward, when Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive, Jesus says: “Not 7 times, but 70 x 7, in other words, infinitely. Third, really, Jesus was good to tax collectors and Gentiles, making a tax collector an apostle (named Matthew at that) and healing whoever was in need, whether Jew or Gentile. So what Jesus says here doesn’t seem to fit. We must remember that the Gospels began as collections of Jesus’ sayings, and sometimes it is hard to tell which are authentic, and which they put in Jesus’ mouth.

Practically, there are problems too; I wouldn’t run out too quickly to point out another’s faults unless you have good insurance. In my experience, sometimes it is those eager to “point out another’s faults” as much as it is those who refuse to listen. My grandfather, for example, was once kicked out of the Baptist Church because he was attending church with my grandmother, a Methodist. People can and do misinterpret Jesus’ words and use them in hurtful ways. I do agree with Jesus, however, that it is ALWAYS better within the church to talk TO people rather than to talk ABOUT people, behind their backs; that always only causes more trouble.

And it should be acknowledged, from time to time there are serious problems. Because, as I said earlier, people are people, and sometimes the neediest of them come to church and cause problems. Some people are antagonists, who cause trouble wherever they go. What about gossips, or inveterate liars; sadly, I’ve known a few of those. What about sexual offenders: some congregations have had known sex offenders show up and ask, “Can I worship here?” What would we say to that? While churches and denominations and congregations are wise to think about such things beforehand and develop plans of action, their application always both requires the love of Jesus and the wisdom of Solomon, the key principle being no one should get hurt: physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

While there are perils in Christian community, thankfully there are also great promises. “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Well, we know that’s out, because any two of us rarely agree about anything, sometimes even how and what to pray for. In fact, as the old saying goes, “Where two or three are gathered together, you’re have five opinions.”

But the best promise is Jesus’ final word here: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” What an amazing promise, that – even when we are not alike and can’t agree – Jesus is in the house.

Every time our congregation comes together – whether there are 2 or 20 or 200, Jesus is here. And not just in the worship service or Bible study or prayer group, but when we eat and when we meet. And not just in church rooms, but in disaster zones and hospital rooms. Especially this weekend, as the victims of Hurricane Harvey and Irma face what’s left and take care of the homeless and hold funerals for those killed, how comforting to believe that Jesus is still with us – even in times of disaster. At such times, through Jesus we believe God knows the depths of our suffering.

But while for most the thought of Jesus’ presence is comforting, for others it is challenging. Depending upon what we say or do, the way we talk or treat others, the thought of Jesus’ presence might be embarrassing, even disturbing.

These days, by what they say and do, it appears that some church committees and congregations and even denominations might prefer Jesus not be in the room, because should he overhear their discussions and decisions, he would be appalled. For example, that recent declaration of evangelical leaders out of Nashville who condemned LGBTQ people, could have possibly imagined Jesus was sitting at the table with them, when they came up with such a harsh and hurtful declaration?

And what about us, do we remember? When we are in worship or at a potluck; when we are in committee meetings or Council Boards, do we remember that Jesus is there with us? When we are making decisions about where our money will go or whom we will welcome, Jesus is there among us. When we question – on controversial issues – whether we should speak or stay silent, Jesus is there among us. When we are discussing our mission statement, our vision, our future, Jesus is there among us. (With thanks to Karoline Lewis, “God Is With us,” at Dear Working Preacher, September 03, 2017)

It was so important he even reiterated it again at the end of the Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Exactly how is he with us? I don’t know. But it really doesn’t matter how, if we believe it is true.

Grapes of WrathI have always loved those wonderful lines from John Steinbeck’s book, The Grapes of Wrath, spoken by Tom Joad, especially as played by Henry Fonda in the 1940 movie of the same name, words that have inspired artists from Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen. Like Jesus, Tom Joad promises to be with those who need him, even after he is gone. And so he tells Ma:

“Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.  Whenever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there . . . . I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready.  An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.”

​So it is that the God in whom we believe, and Jesus – God’s incarnation on earth – is an immanent God, Emmanuel, who has promised to be with us. “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, “I am there among them”

Gathered back together, despite our difficulties, whether we are different or alike, whether or not we agree, Jesus is in the room. May all that we say and do be pleasing to him. Amen.

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