St. Paul’s Congregational Church, UCC
September 6, 2020, Proper 18A
Matthew 18: 15 – 20 Remember, Restore, Renew
I love being at the ocean – it has to be one of the most beautiful of all God’s creations – watching the water coming in, going out – a rhythm that never stops – as I sit there looking out to the horizon, it’s almost like looking out into eternity – we can’t see where the ocean ends. If you’re there at high tide, the waves come crashing into the shoreline – love the noise of that – and if there’s a violent storm offshore like a hurricane, the view and the sounds are even more dramatic. I remember driving home from Maine once, taking a route along the Massachusetts shoreline when there was such a storm – looking back, it probably wasn’t smart of us to be there, but the water crashing high and onto the road was quite a sight…. we did, however, come to our senses and left the shoreline route as soon as we could!
At high tide, the ocean is loud and roaring – its natural movement is beautiful but can be dangerous. If you’re in the water, you’ll be pushed and nudged around – and in stormy times, there’s nothing more frightening than being caught in a rip tide.
On the other hand, at low tide, the ocean is usually calm as the waves come in quietly, softly, still majestically. These are times when we can be lulled into moments of quiet and perhaps deep reflection.
2020 has been a year of an incredibly long, dangerous, high tide - waves have been crashing at our shoreline for most of the year. We have been pushed into our shelters. We have found new life in connections through our computer screens. For way too many people, though, the waves have overtaken them, creating major loss of life due to pandemic-related illnesses and fears for the safety of our children returning to school. For others, the waves have crashed at the shoreline of unemployment, food insecurity and the bigger questions of social inequality, social injustice – cracks on our systems have been dramatically exposed. And the rhetoric of a presidential campaign creates chaos over and above and among all these issues – the deafening noise of crashing waves.
As we wait for the return to whatever normal is, though, God is extending an invitation for us through all that noise to respond to those things which we can change – those things over which we do have some control. We may not know when we can fully return to in-person worship nationwide or our workplaces, but we can attend to other urgent matters that are screaming for our attention.
Many folks are searching for a roadmap leading to becoming the Beloved Community, that vision where “all people may experience dignity and abundant life and see themselves and others as beloved children of God.” There’s no easy path - so much talking, discernment, and action are required to get to that Promised Land. There are times when conversations are difficult to have. People struggle in the most intimate interpersonal relationships to say when they have been hurt or how they have been offended. Sometimes, people just walk away without ever expressing true feelings about the pain they have suffered because of the actions of others. When the conversation doesn’t yield the desired result the very first time, there is a tendency to shrug it off and to simply give up. The challenge is that when we avoid those conversations, over time we’re left with a toxic culture, a depressed culture, that permeates a community. But eventually, something will trigger the crashing of waves once again at the shoreline.
Our gospel passage today deals with community – standards for behavior in community. About listening and accountability and about a larger vision of God’s realm. And in the context of where our concerns are today – not oust in the world around us, but also right here in this church as we continue to ponder what our mission and ministry will look like in the future - in these contexts, maybe this passage has some profound insights for us.
Matthew’s Gospel challenges us to become involved in tough conversations. We are called to bravely stand up for what is right and against what is wrong and to raise our voices. The message here is central to an understanding of how to stay in conversation at the most challenging times – for such a time as this.
Many congregations are continuing the struggle to design programs that will lead to the world that Jesus preached about throughout his ministry. It is a daunting task; were it easy, the work would have been completed years ago. Truly, it takes a lot of sheer will and great intentionality. It also requires a willingness to both talk and listen. Neither practice is easy and yet, it is possible to get closer to the goal with every attempt.
Amid a national pandemic, we are called to gather our courage to address systemic racism, look at the root causes, and find solutions that will reorder how we live together in a harmonious and loving community that celebrates the depth and breadth of our beautiful communion. The church and its leaders are perfectly poised to spearhead this mission. This is a remarkable moment in what we call the ordinary time of the church to model for the secular society what brave conversations that lead to healing look like. Jesus understood that healing involves taking some risks. Every time he dined with tax collectors and Gentiles, people were enraged: it was unseemly for him to fraternize with “the others,” they thought. But Jesus continued to preach about love for one another and modeled that behavior.
People of color, LGBTQ, for instance, have been members of churches for hundreds of years. In many segregated churches, there were endless conversations about what full inclusion would look like if all church doors were open to everyone. But the reality is this: while most doors are now opened, full inclusion is still elusive in some places.
In such a time as this when many of the old societal norms are being challenged, the church is also called to confront its own struggles for equality and defining today’s ministry. Truth telling creates vulnerability and sometimes leads to confrontations, perhaps “care-frontations” where we act with love to continue the dialogue. And this can be done even at a time when in-person gatherings are conducted at a minimum. We must not give up. If we are ever going to arrive at low tide where we love our neighbors as ourselves, we must all be willing to risk pain and suffering to get there. In an earlier chapter of Matthew, Jesus bids Peter step out in faith into the rocky seas and to come to him. Although the waves were crashing, Jesus beckoned Peter. He beckons us, his contemporary disciples, to step out in faith too. And offers the same promise, “Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, I am there among you.”
The gospel theme has everything to do with right relationship – the pattern Jesus lays out for dealing with disagreements and hurt feelings among those who share a faith community could not be simpler or more straightforward. And how rarely this pattern is followed in families, workplaces, churches! What a profoundly alternative way of being we could witness to if we were willing to commit ourselves to honest and compassionate dialogue from the belief that the vast majority of those around us would prefer to live in harmony. That doesn’t mean not talking, not complaining, not having a different opinion, one from another – it means instead of letting feelings and thoughts fester, we deal with each other openly rather than covertly. Matthew’s gospel encourages us to enter into an ongoing conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with what it means to live faithfully in relationship, in community, and to look beyond themselves. Sure can be a tough thing to do, can’t it.
But we’re called beyond the tokenism of inclusivenss to a radical inclusivity where we take each other seriously, listen to each other, and dare trust that we all belong in God’s love as much as we do. We as church are called to be something different from the rest of the world – and wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all lived that out wherever we spend our time and energy.
What does Beloved Community look like for us here at St. Paul’s? What will be our legacy for future generations? May God nudge us all to the shore where we can find the energy to listen to each other, care for each other and come together in ministry and mission today and into the future. Amen.