Sermon 9/4/11

Sermon for Proper 18 A
September 4, 2011
Michael Coffey

Text: Matthew 18:15-20 

What kind of community would you want to join?  
Being a part of a community in one form or another 
is a part of our lives.  
Church community.  
Civic community.  
High school class.  
Ethnic group.  
Political group.
We live in these various communities as part of our lives and identities.  
Some of them we are born into.  
Some of them we choose.  
What kind would you choose to join?  
How do you pick?  
Do you wonder if they are conservative or liberal?  
Exclusive or inclusive?  
A group of folks who are clones of each other, 
or a mixed bag with contentious discussions?  
Maybe you would follow the old adage of Groucho Marx, 
and not join any group that would have you as a member.

As I thought about these questions, 
I realized that the whole notion of community 
has become rather fragile for us.  
What does it mean anymore to be part of a group?  
What does it mean to live life with others, 
instead of only with yourself?  
The idea of community has lost some meaning for us 
in our subdivided, 
cell phone talking and texting,
internet surfing, 
politically contentious,
privatized world.

I have to bring up this question about joining communities 
because Matthew’s Gospel is largely about what it means 
to be a part of one particular community.  
He uses a word that no other Gospel writer uses, 
and we hear it in today’s reading: church.  
Now, church is probably not the best translation
	of the Greek work ekklesia.
We might get a better sense of the word
	if it were translated assembly or gathering.
		It is a word about community,
		not about institution or religion,
		as church often connotes.
Matthew tells us more about what it means 
to be a part of a community called church 
than does any other.  
And Matthew seems to be describing a community of disciples 
who walk a fine line between two extemes.  
Those two extremes are something like this.

Let’s say you like cycling.  
You want to join a group of cyclists.  
You decided to join Club Excellence.  
They have high expectations of each member.  
They set goals for themselves that seem unattainable, 
and yet they have gone very far.  
They go to races to win, 
and win they do.  
They have the best average race time per member of any club.  
The problem is, they have little room for mistakes.  
They don’t accept low achievers.  
They don’t let you stay long if you roll in at the end of the race.  
They even got rid of someone for getting a flat tire during a race, 
because he couldn’t fix it fast enough.  
They went far and did great things.  
But there was little grace or room for forgiveness
	for the inevitable failures and faults of real people.  
You decide if it sounds too harsh for you.

Then there is this other group.  
They’re the laid back kind of folks.  
They go to races to have fun.  
They’re the ones who bring all the beer.  
They let anyone in, and kick no one out.  
They have a great time together just being together.  
They have no goals, 
and have achieved little, 
except a certain kind of notoriety.  
They have plenty of room for error, 
because there are no expectations.
You decide if they would help you achieve your goals.

Neither one of these hypothetical communities
is the kind of community in Matthew’s Gospel,
	the church or assembly or gathering.  
In fact, Matthew is showing us the community of Jesus’ disciples 
as walking a fine line between the two.  
At first reading, Matthew’s Gospel sounds harsh.  
Jesus has high expectations of his followers, 
the highest, 
higher than the Pharisees had of others.  
They were to seek the highest kind of human living, 
righteousness as Jesus himself lived it.  
I used to read Matthew’s Gospel and get really depressed.  
I was sure I would get kicked out of the club.
I was sure if I got a flat tire or crashed
there would be little room 
among the Jesus’ band of over-achievers for me.

But then you get to Matthew’s chapter 18.  
The one we hear part of today, 
and part of next week.  
Surprisingly and unlike any community we might experience,
In the midst of a community with high expectations, 
there is an abundance of forgiveness.  
Jesus tells us that when someone in the church sins, 
well, now wait a minute.  
That right there tells you something.  
This was never supposed to be an ideal community.  
It was never about everyone getting it right all of the time.  
It was always about real folks, 
real problems, real struggle,
real faults and failures. 
So there is built into the structure of the whole thing a lifestyle of grace.  
If someone in the church, 
the Jesus community of high expectations for human living, 
if someone there sins, you must forgive.  
Oh, wow.  
You can get a flat tire and get back in the race.  
You can have a bad day and come back next week.  
You can really miss the mark, and be made new again.

To be sure, Matthew won’t let us think the church 
is about cheap grace and low expectations.  
As the people who gather in Jesus’ name, 
we have a calling in that holy name that is staggering.  
Live with his kind of righteous integrity.  
Strive for the highest form of human living.  
Go for gold in our lives of service, faith, love, and relationships.  
But all of that would be too much to take 
if it weren’t for the built-in understanding 
that what makes us most of all like Jesus, 
is our ability to forgive, 
to accept one another as we are today.

Today’s Gospel reading can easily be misread.  
It could be taken as a strict, three-strikes and you’re out 
kind of forgiveness.  
It could seem like a wooden, constitutional process 
for handling grievances and people’s problems.
It has often been used that way in the church.  
But that is a mistake.  
It does mean we take sin and repentance seriously, 
but it also means we are always to be about forgiveness, 
not rigid moralism, 
about grace, 
not impossible expectations, 
about acceptance of one another, 
because we know we are all on the same mysterious journey.  

All of this is true and possible because of whose name we gather in.  
We gather in the name of Jesus, 
and where we do that, 
he is present and risen and abounding in mercy.  
He is present not only as we gather in prayer and worship, 
but in how we seek God’s righteousness together, 
and in how we forgive on another.
Where Jesus is, there is grace and mercy.

This all assumes something as yet unsaid: 
That this community is terribly important,
that this gathering of folks is about something so central to our lives 
that we are willing to forgive one another to make it work.
Too often, many of the relationships we have today
	are not deep and abiding,
	many of our communities are fragile and short-lived.
We might get connected on Facebook
		or in a political group,
		or in a shared interest activity,
	but as soon as things get difficult,
		or someone offends, it’s all too easy to walk away or disband.
To be honest,
	much of the time,
	church community doesn’t mean that much to people.
It is surprisingly and disappointingly easy
	to just come and go,
	have a scuffle and move on,
	dislike someone or something and pick another franchise.
But to deal with problems,
	to seek reconciliation where pain was inflicted,
	to ask for and seek forgiveness,
	to grant such grace to one another,
	to grow and change together….
		To go to all that trouble
		would mean it must actually matter to be a part
		of church, of this church,
			of this community.
And this is true of all of our relationships
	that really matter, that we value,
	that give us life and meaning,
	that we would never just lightly toss aside.
I sense, too, for many of us,
	even if we aren’t always living up to it,
	this community actually does matter.
We sacrifice for it, we dedicate time and energy to it,
	we love one another and forgive one another for it,
	we sense that we are better human beings within it,
	and better connected to God through it.

What kind of community would you want to join?  
How about one that can call you to your highest level of human living, 
and one that can pick you up when you fall?  
How about this one, 
where God is calling us to this kind of living, 
and where Jesus is here offering us the trustworthy word
		of God’s grace and forgiveness,
	and where the Spirit is empowering and celebrating 
all that is excellent and faithful about us.


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