The Rev. Elaine H. Breckenridge
Sermon from September 7, Proper 18A 2014
Listen to this…Sermon 2014.09.07 EHB
Once upon a time, there was a Jewish synagogue that had a conflict. And the conflict centered around the SHEMA, the sacred moment in the Hebrew liturgy when the congregation says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is One God and you shall love the Lord God with all your heart, mind and soul.” There was one group in the synagogue that said, “When we hear the SHEMA, we should stand in respect and reverence. But there was another group that said, “ We should sit in the posture of learning, as a symbol that we are being taught.” These two groups continued to argue about it until one day, the rabbi said, “The only solution to this conflict is to visit Mr. Finkelstein, the oldest living member of the original congregation. Let us go to him and ask him what the practice was when they started this synagogue.” So the rabbi took three standers and three sitters and went to see Mr. Finkelstein. One of the standers said, “Now Mr. Finkelstein, surely when they heard the SHEMA in those early days of the synagogue, you stood. Can you remember? Tell us and help us out of this impasse.” Mr. Finkelstein, said, “I can’t remember.” Then a person representing the sitters said, “Surely when that great moment of instruction came you sat down to hear the SHEMA, “Hear O Israel.”
Mr. Finkelstein said, “I can’t remember.”
Then the rabbi said, “Now Mr. Finkelstein , you’ve got to put your mind to this question. Tell us what it was like in those old traditional days. Members of our congregation are now fighting each other, tearing each other apart. The congregation is divided. “That,” Mr. Finkelstein said,
Conflict. You know what it is like. I know that this congregation has had its share of conflict. Now conflict is natural and normal. Some say conflict is necessary for a community to evolve and grow. Such conflict doesn’t have to be painful, hostile or lead to community splits. And yet that happens. This morning both Matthew and Jesus present us with a better way to avoid and deal with conflict.
First, we are told that we should use direct and respectful communication. If we are struggling with something a church member has said or done, we are not to talk behind his or her back.
Full stop. We are not to talk behind his or her back. Did you hear that? That is the hard part isn’t it? It’s much easier to talk about someone than to talk to someone, isn’t it? Yet, nothing will lead to a conflict in a congregation faster than people talking about one another instead of to one another. So here it is–a helpful Gospel imperative– always dialogue one-on-one with the person who caused you grief. Not new advice, but surely good advice.
Now as we continue to unpack the Gospel reading, we are offered a couple of other steps, such as engaging witnesses to confront the offending member, then bringing the offense into the awareness of the larger community.
At this point Matthew loses me. I am not sure how such behavior translates into Episcopal parish life as we know it– unless of course you are dealing with a drug or alcohol intervention or some other serious misconduct.
Then the use of witnesses is indeed necessary. But as we think of the petty and I am sorry to say normal quibbles that befuddle parish life, the whole process that Matthew describes is one sided–favoring the accuser.
Am I suggesting we ignore this text? Not at all, because the words of Jesus ring out loud and clear, “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Wow. What does that mean? Excommunication, practicing emotional cut-off, unfriending on Facebook? Nope, because look who’s talking. Jesus. And how did Jesus treat gentiles and tax collectors?
Immediately, the story of the centurion in the Gospel of Luke comes to mind. The centurion seeks Jesus out, seeking healing for his slave, yet he admits that he is not worthy to ask Jesus for such help. But he says that he knows that if Jesus says the word, his servant will be healed. Jesus immediately extends healing to the servant, and marvels at the depth and purity of the centurion’s faith. “Never have I seen such faith among my own people!” said Jesus. That is just one example of how Jesus treated gentiles.
As for the tax collectors, remember Zaccheus? He is so eager to see Jesus that he climbs a tree to get a better view of him. Jesus calls Zaccheus down from the tree and invites himself to dinner at Zaccheus’ home. That is how Jesus treated tax collectors – with friendship and table fellowship.
We have on one hand the words of Matthew, and on the other hand the works of Jesus. Matthew loves to write about the letter of the law. But Jesus lived the Spirit of the law– the call to respect, love and be open to friendship with everyone and especially with those with whom we are in conflict.
To translate that message to our times, paraphrasing, St. Paul, “Love your fellow pew mates as yourself, even when you have a problem with them.” St. Paul states it clearly, love does no wrong to neighbors, therefore love is the fulfilling of law.
So what might the Spirit of the law, love, look like in a real live church setting? Instead of focusing on Matthew’s Handbook of Church Conduct, perhaps we should look for examples of health, love and reconciliation in action. What’s missing from the church is story telling about those individuals who have modeled love to others and thereby made a church community a better place. What’s missing is a genuine celebration of individuals and congregations who have discovered the grace to live by the Spirit of the law–love.
And so I have a story about a church bake sale. Once, there was an eleven year old girl who wanted to make a contribution to the church’ s bake sale by baking her very first cake. And so she did, on the Saturday evening before the Sunday sale.
But, I am sorry to say, that the cake was a disaster. It leaned, rather slumped to one side. It looked like it had been assaulted with salt and pepper, because its white frosting was speckled with chocolate cake. Who knew one was supposed to let the cake cool before turning it out of the pans and certainly before frosting it.
The child felt bad because she had failed in her project. Her parents were out for the evening, so before going to bed, she left little notes of apologies around the cake for her parents to see when they returned home. “I am so sorry for this failure” said one note. “This cake was washed with my tears” said another note.
The biggest note said, “This cake is not worthy of the bake sale!”
Sunday morning came and the cake was not on the table where she had left it. “ Mom, did you throw the cake away?” “Certainly not, replied the mother. “I wrapped it up for our dessert for later this evening. That cake might not be ready for a bake sale but I am sure it will be delicious.”
And so off they went to church. After the service, walking into the fellowship hall, the girl turned white. Her heart started pounding, her palms began to sweat, because there was her disaster of a cake standing, rather, really slouching in a long line of beautiful, perfect works of baked art. And what was worse, her cake had those silly little melodramatic notes surrounding it. And even worse there was a little sign in front of her cake that said 50 cents. All the Martha Stewart cakes were priced at a dollar.
Her face, beet red with humiliation, the girl headed for the church parking lot where she planned to hide until it was time to go home.
But on the way past the table she heard the loud, clear voice of Miss Dorothy Martin, the parish matriarch saying, “That cake is certainly not worth fifty cents. I will buy that cake, but I won’t pay anything less than five dollars for it!”
O.K. so obviously the little girl was me. Truly, Miss Martin redeemed my cake, but she also redeemed the self esteem of an eleven year child.
Now I know that on the surface it might sound like she just did a nice thing. And yet when I look back on that act– I say she was acting as a true agent of reconciliation in a congregation. I was both angry and embarrassed and on my way out the door of the church until Miss Martin spotted me.
Her little act of random kindness allowed me to hold my head up high amidst all the Betty Crockers, Julia Childs, and Martha Stewarts in the room. Her act allowed me to stay with and in the community.
Now that would have been enough. But do you know what else she did? She froze that cake and invited me over to afternoon tea to enjoy that very same cake one year later. And one year later, I was a more mature 12 year old who had a great laugh and a blessed afternoon with Dorothy Martin. So what does this have to do with Matthew’s Handbook on Church Conduct. Not much. But it has everything to do with Jesus. Because maybe if our churches were filled with the likes of people who go out of their way to help where they can, churches with people who can spend a little time to nurse and nourish someone with hurt feelings– just maybe that church will look more like the kingdom of God.
The great religious teacher Huston Smith puts it this way, “Jesus tried to convey God’s absolute love for every single human being. To perceive this love and to let it penetrate one’s very marrow was to respond in the only way that was possible–in profound and total gratitude for the wonder of God’s grace.”
I know that St. John’s is a congregation that lives by the Spirit of the law of love and not by the letter of the law. The bulletin board in the narthex is papered with stories about how this church has blessed many of you and others who have gone before us. This church is committed to blessing and loving others. So let us continue to live that way, practicing the heart of Christianity–loving one another and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.