Matthew 18:15-20 – 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for September 4, 2011
“If another member of the church sins against you…” (Matthew 18:15
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Matthew 18:20) has been a source of great strength for me. It reassures that a handful of people can make a difference.
When I attended seminary in the mid-1970s, I never heard the term “megachurch.” By the 1990s, it seemed commonplace, a go-to description for congregations with 2,000 or more in weekly worship attendance. Megachurches were likened to shopping malls. Size matters. Choice matters. The bigger the better.
The bigger are better. Really?
Nearly every pastor I’ve known would love to preach to thousands on a Sunday morning. However, for many it doesn’t matter how open they are to God’s guidance, their church won’t become a booming megachurch. Often the reason’s as simple as the old real estate mantra: location, location, location. Some churches were once perfectly positioned in a neighborhood . . . then a new freeway made access a maze of wrong turns and dead ends.
But nearly every pastor I’ve known—whether preaching to twenty or two thousand—relishes moments in a hospital room or a supermarket aisle that become a transformational encounter with another. Christ is present! In the hospital, hands are held and prayers are whispered and honest fears are shared. In that supermarket aisle, a pastor learns from a woman about her miscarriage. It was her secret until that moment. Both had their shopping lists of juice and a loaf of bread and then, because two or three have gathered, God’s grace allows for a private hurt to become a burden shared and a hope to be glimpsed.
And yet there’s a raggedy edge to “where two or more are gathered.” The verses leading to Matthew 18:20 also trouble me. They are sharp fingernails on the chalkboard of the soul. When Jesus speaks in the 18th chapter, the Nazarene cautions about one person sinning against another. What you must do, so says Matthew’s Jesus, is “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
Frankly, this suggestion scares the ______ out of me. (Every day I clean up something my dog deposits in the backyard and it’s an awful lot like that blank space . . . see, I can be polite.)
It’s one thing to sit beside others and prayerfully support them. To listen to them, guessing they’ve rarely had anyone take the time to hear their story. To speak with them, giving them the simple gifts of honest praise and trusting support.
Where are you so “right” that it’s hard for you to learn from and listen to another?
But how can I confront another when they’ve “sinned” against me?
After all, if we don’t have anything nice to say we should be quiet.
After all, I’m a guy with public failures and private disappointments. So how can I tell another they’ve sinned against me when that’s like—here comes a truthful cliché!—the pot calling the kettle black.
However, I have told others they are sinners. I’ve met with persons, believing I’m right and they’re wrong. But (and here’s the anguished truth), I often dislike myself after these encounters . . .
Just one example* . . . I am a long-time supporter of gay rights. People in congregations I’ve served have expressed spiteful, belittling, and yes sinful comments about homosexuals. I have confronted them. But so often, I arrive with my premeditated facts and arguments. One of my favorites, when I’ve challenged homophobes, is to bluntly tell them homosexuality is not in the Bible. The word “homosexual” didn’t exist until the 1800s. Therefore, any Bible using “homosexual” is an inaccurate and misleading translation. So there!
And yet, so filled with my superior viewpoint, I barely listen to the “sinful” person.*
Should I choose instead to be silent if I have nothing good to say to another? Should I avoid confrontation, even when I know I AM RIGHT?
I have no simple, easy answer. Not for you. Not for me.
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them . . . how I love this verse. Doesn’t matter if the sanctuary bursts with 10,000 people and you have fancy high tech gear supporting your brilliant ideas. Doesn’t matter if you’re in a rickety church with a faulty sound system and ten people dozing in the pews. Doesn’t matter if you’re not in a church building or don’t care about church in any form. What matters is being open to God’s loving spirit, of inviting the Christ-like presence of humility and tenderness into a conversation.
I don’t do that enough. I am so full of ______ . . . myself.
But I keep trying.
*Above is another example, a minute-and-a-half clip of a confrontation in Iowa (summer, 2011) between several Tea Party members and President Obama. Two or three are gathered! Pay attention to the blonde woman with glasses. At one point she confronted the president with: “You do realize that 90% of the domestic terrorists acts are done by left wing environmental radicals . . .” Really! I suspect she planned to say that spiffy factoid long before she left home. She had no interest in dialog or learning, but wanted to convey her agenda.
Why do I think that? She is me.