It has been interesting preparing for worship tonight, because I have also been planning for a wedding I am doing on Sunday morning for a friend. So I found it ironic and almost painful to consider today’s texts, particularly the Gospel reading, which I’ve read most often in the context of church constitutions. You may or may not know that this passage from Matthew is the guideline for matters of church discipline both in the ELCA constitution and in Trinity’s own constitution. So here I am, reading about how to handle your relationships when they fall apart as I ponder what to say to and about a starry-eyed couple in love.
And this is just one reason I am grateful for our Wednesday Bible study group. That group always looks at the Scripture readings for the upcoming weekend, so I mentioned to them my dual focus on preaching this weekend. One very wise person at the table said that she thought these texts might apply very well to a couple beginning their wedded life. It is, after all, about repenting when we do something wrong, about calling one another to notice when they have done something wrong, and then, ultimately, about God’s presence even in—maybe especially in—a broken community.
The Gospel lesson begins with Jesus presenting an all-too-likely situation to be considered: “IF your brother sins against you…” and a second hypothetical, “IF you brother refuses to listen….” Anyone who has a sister and/or brother knows that these two things are not IF’s but WHEN’s, and that would apply to other relationships too. In fact, the closer the relationship is, the more likely such moments are likely to occur.
What should we do IF (and realistically, when) our loved ones sin against us? The first step is to approach the person who hurt us. This is sometimes very hard to do. It is easier to talk to someone ELSE about how we have been offended than to actually speak to the offender, isn’t it? Easier, however, does not mean acceptable. As we talked about last week, being a follower of Jesus means taking up our cross and following him. And sometimes the weight of that cross is talking directly, face-to-face, to the person you are least inclined to talk to.
IF that person doesn’t listen (as we all know is sometimes the case), there is a procedure to follow. It isn’t to sit and pout, nor to complain to someone else. No, the next step involves bringing in someone else to help facilitate the conversation. And if that fails, the problem has to be taken to the whole community of the faithful. No relationship—in its beauty or its dysfunction—is just about the two people in it. This is one of the reasons we do weddings in a communal setting. Because relationships have a ripple effect—tensions and trials in part of the community cannot fail to affect the whole community. It is also the reason we have congregations.
Yes, we can worship God when taking a quiet walk in the woods, or watching the sun set over the mountains. But there is more to being in relationship with God than having spiritual highs, just as there is more to marriage than candlelit dinners and Valentines cards. Sometimes, to take a page from our friends in AA: sometimes you have to fake it till you make it. Whether you feel like it or not, whether you mean it or not, sometimes love is about doing the right thing. ACTING like we love God and our neighbors, when we don’t feel it at all. Which would look like what, exactly?
To love God sometimes means listening to God’s stories by reading the Bible or hearing about other people’s spiritual ideas or experiences. It might mean pouring out your heart in a song or in colors or in tears. And, as is the case with a really good friend, one way of connecting with God is simply by basking in one another’s presence, not needing to say anything, just being together. Why is it so hard to honor God by just sitting quietly and letting God love us? These are the routine, small actions that nurture a relationship, and build it up into a deep strong love, so that it’s in shape for those tough times that really shake our foundations.
Sometimes loving God is just beyond our capacity. There are days, maybe months, or years when going to church or praying or studying the Bible feel hollow and like a drudgery. Sometimes God seems very far off and disconnected from what is of importance in our lives. Sometimes we are angry with God, and would rather NOT talk to or spend time with God.
And sometimes we feel cut off from our neighbors. Perhaps some of this is self-preservation. If we truly grasped the horror of the devastation wreaked by the famine in Somalia, or the effects of Hurricane Irene on the East Coast, or the wars in the Middle East, how could we get up in the morning? And those are neighbors we DON’T know. It is even harder to love the neighbors who are closest to us—our sisters and brothers and spouses and friends. I think it was Tolstoy who said, “It’s much easier to love people in general than to love people in specific.”
When we fail to love God, ourselves, and our neighbors, we call that SIN. And on an average day, we are knee deep in one or more of those sins. Sin separates us from God, from each other, and from our own true selves. And it is not just our behavior, it is our inescapable condition. We are frail human beings.
And that is why we have Matthew 18 in our church constitutions. And that is why we have the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
Our God, who cannot exist except in community—the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is always striving to reestablish community, to close the gaps that separate us from God, from ourselves, and from each other. Where two or three gather in Jesus’ name, Jesus is in their midst. Not two or three who gather in perfect harmony or even in partial agreement or even two or three on speaking terms. Just two or three who gather as a community in the company of Jesus.
Lutherans say that in Holy Communion we experience the REAL presence of God, and this is why. Because where two or three meet in Jesus name, we encounter GOD-With-Us (Emmanuel). We are invited to touch and taste, as well as to hear and see, how God is among us, both in our harmonious living and in our sinfulness.
In an essay by the theologian Paul Tillich called “You Are Accepted,” he talks about the unfathomable gift of God’s companionship in the face of our inadequacies. He writes:
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain or restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes, at that moment, a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying, “You are accepted. You are accepted….” After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.
We will never be able to navigate our relationships without struggle, but by God’s grace, our Lord Jesus is with us even in the most challenging times. Where two or three gather, God is present. The real presence, in body and in blood, is offered to us whether we feel loving or not. The real presence of God is in our midst when we are charitable and open, and when we need to repent. The real presence of God is not withheld from people who are sinners, but is extended to all in order to create healing where there is only hurt. We may not be perfect, but we are accepted. We are accepted. We are accepted. Thanks be to God.
~Pastor Susan Schneider