Sunday, September 10, 2017

Matthew 18: 15-20


Recently I saw a post online of kids from a few decades ago, riding in the back of a station wagon, facing the back window, and I thought for a second, maybe our parents really didn’t like us that much. Think about it, it wasn’t very safe. For my family, there were four of children in the station wagon, with a dog, and two parents, and being the youngest, I was like a tote bag, carefully placed between the dog and a suitcase. The dog often looked at me like look I’ve got a collar and leash, but you can make a run for it kid. Then my dad would turn on the circulating air and light up a backwoods cigar as we all turned various shades of green before we made it out of the driveway. I mean if you really think about, in the age before all kinds of rules were put in place, being a child was sort of like growing up in the wild west, you sort of had to figure out how to survive. My wife Shannon often reminds me when we talk about our childhood and growing up in that era of the 1970’s, all anyone needs to know is ‘that our parents bought us lawn darts for a game’ – let that sink in for a moment.

So there were four of us, I have 2 older brothers, Matt who is 7 years my senior, Michael, who is here today to field questions after worship, 6 years older, and my sister, Michelle who was 3 years older than I am. There was a time maybe around 1977, 78, when my parents thought that my older siblings were old enough as they hit the teen years, to leave us all alone in the house together with adult supervision. As the youngest, I tried to convince my parents otherwise, because where they were looking for a fun night out, this was going to be my own personal Lord of the Flies. So Sunday night was bowling night for my parents, and they would go out for a league bowling night, leaving us home with no adult supervision.

We would line up like a row of angels as they were about to go out the door, and they would leave us with instructions that often began with a lot of ‘NO’s’ – no rough housing, no horsing around, no cooking, no fighting, no kicking, no pulling of hair, I want to see a clean fight tonight guys, now touch your gloves, go back to your corner and your mother and I will be home at 10. Gulp.

The front door would shut, we would hear the car start, and then all heck would break loose, rough housing, horsing around, every no became a full on, oh yeah... Now before I go on, I want to describe for just a brief moment the house in Carteret New Jersey, which was a bi-level house like many in that era, but as the family was expanding, my parents in an effort to separate themselves from the children, they renovated the garage into a bedroom and a rec room with a t.v., parents on the ground floor kids two floors above them. Oh yeah, and on the ceiling in the rec room was a big wooden wagon wheel chandelier with four light globes on top of it. Below the chandelier is all of the rough housing, which then breaks out in to a full on couch pillow fight. We are talking hurling pillows as hard as you could at one another, it was like dodgeball only in a 15 ft by 15 ft box…Well, as the pillows are flying, one of them soars in an arc upward, I’m not sure who threw it, (cough-my brother Michael) – and in slow motion we all watched it arc towards the wagon wheel and the pillow hits the wagon wheel, and the chandelier starts to rock back and forth (we start to rock back and forth), until what felt like an eternity and moving in slow motion, then the chandelier came out of the ceiling and crashed on the ground. The four of us stood around the broken remains of wood and glass for a moment stunned, and then the heard the clock ticking closer to 10 p.m. when my parents would arrive home, we glanced at each other, looked at my brother Michael and said, you’re in trouble!!! and we all bolted upstairs to bed, running, jumping under the covers, with one ear and eye open listening and looking for my parents, pretending to make sleeping noises, snore…wheeze...

Parents came home and it probably seemed a little strange to them as the house was quiet, and we could hear them making their way downstairs…And my father would make up words to cover for curse words, Mother of Pearl! What in the hooziewhatsits!!! Yelling for all of us to come out of bed, Matthew, Michael, Michelle, Happy, John (Happy was the dog who got top billing over me often) and get downstairs right now!!! We had to face the music. Accept the punishment, and as I told of my father’s epic baseball speeches, his do right lectures, were just as epically long. My parents desired to leave us with instructions on how to behave in their absence.

You see it is not easy to live in community with family, with friends, classroom, work, to live with one another is not easy, and whether it is our parents trying to give us instructions before they go out, or teachers trying to instill in us a certain ethic of how to conduct ourselves with each other, and be successful citizens in the world, we struggle at times to figure out what is the right thing to do.

When this Gospel is written, the church is just forming, so before this new community of faith leaves the world in a mess of broken pieces, Jesus tries to give the disciples and the community a way to conduct themselves. Jesus knows that his time is short so he wants the disciples to know how important this work is for the sake of the world. What Jesus tells them is to do the hard stuff, face the music, talk to one another, speak honestly, but do it in a way that is loving, and beneficial for our neighbors.

Now the struggle here is that Jesus wants to teach us how to do this to lead us towards reconciliation with one another. And if we can’t resolve the disagreements with each other, if we refuse to listen to one another, the Scripture says, ‘let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.’ Now in Jesus’ day, those 2 very groups of people were considered people you would want to avoid, ostracize, people who you would shun from you community both for their activity and who they were…That’s sounds good, if we disagree, just shun those people, or gather with others who agree with you. Sort of like today.

But what is fascinating about these two groups of people and the voice of the one who is instructing the community and how to live, when Jesus says, ‘let such a one be to you as Gentile and tax collector’ – at first that might sound like Jesus wants us to leave them alone, but what confounds that is the way Jesus treated those very people. Jesus never gave up on these people. Where the community shunned them, Jesus embraced them.

Levi, later named Matthew, was a tax collector, and he called him to follow him and became one of Jesus closest allies in mission. He went to Levi’s home and ate with him, associating himself with this tax collector and sinners when others said it was unclean to do so. Zachaeus was another tax collector, short in stature, who climbed a tree to see Jesus, Jesus called him out of the tree, and said, tonight I will eat in your house, crossing the boundaries. Gentiles, he engaged the Samaritan Woman at the well, crossing what was once taboo, he lifted up stories like the Good Samaritan shining light on the Gentiles as the ones of great faith and heart. Where others were putting down, Jesus was embracing.

Jesus calls us into the difficult work of being community with people we don’t agree with all the time, to cross the boundaries of disagreement and reconcile with one another. Be a community of forgiveness, patience, and love for our fellow human being. Be a place where we are uncomfortable for the sake of the Gospel, because we love all people as God has loved us.  

Across the world, churches often say that we are a place that welcomes all people, but the truth is that when that becomes a reality, and people start coming, we struggle to live together in community. Who are we embracing that shakes up the community, that begins to push at the boundaries of helping us to figure out the ethic and the message that we want to share with the world around us.

Now if we were to say ten different topics, heck we could name ten different politicians from the pulpit, we could divide this church up instantly, heck, I know there are Cowboy fans among the Giants fans. But God’s desire is not for us to be separated, but Jesus is pushing us towards love. Not just with some, but all people. Truth is, as we commemorate 9/11 tomorrow, as we see the devastations of the storms hit Texas, the Caribbean, and now the Gulf Coast and Florida, we are reminded of our humanity, and we draw on our better selves to know that we need each other. Jesus knew that it was not good for us to be alone, we need community, family, friends, not just now but always. Like my brothers and sisters stood around the broken chandelier, we face this fragile broken world, but we are not called to lay blame, we are called to love one another through the difficulties. Let us begin today looking at our neighbors as if God is in the midst of us, and love one another as God has loved us. Amen.