Glad to Be in Matthew’s Church

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2017 by timtrue

Delivered on Sunday, October 15, 2017

Matthew 22:1-14

1.

I wish we were in the Church of St. Luke today.

The way Luke tells it, this parable is delivered in the house of a Pharisee who’d invited Jesus to dine with him on the Sabbath.

A person desires to throw a great feast, Jesus says. But one by one the invitees give excuses as to why they cannot attend.

“I just bought a field,” one says, “and must tend to it.”

“I just got married,” another says, “and you know how that is.”

“My father just died,” says a third; “I must go and bury him.”

And so on.

These excuses makes the host upset. He tells his servants to go out into the city and invite everyone—the poor, blind, lame, and so on. For that is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

“Let us fill these halls!” he exclaims.

God is merciful. And who in their right mind would want to pass that up?

Luke’s message to his Church is mercy.

But we’re not in the Church of St. Luke today. Instead, we’re in the Church of St. Matthew.

And here in Matthew’s Church the message doesn’t feel very merciful. With Matthew, instead, the message feels more like judgment.

Not only do the invitees reject the king’s invitation, some of them are also violent in their rejection. They beat and even kill some of the king’s servants!

And there’s that poor guy toward the end. What do we do with him?

The king sees him and says, “Friend”—seems a happy enough beginning—but then continues less affably, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”

And then, as we all know, it continues from bad to worse. This wedding-robe-non-wearer is bound hand and foot and thrown out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!

Really? Is Matthew’s God about judgment?

Where’s the mercy? Where’s the love? Why can’t we be in the Church of St. Luke today?

2.

Okay, okay, surely, Matthew isn’t all judgment! Surely for Matthew there’s mercy and love too! Right?

Remember the beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount? Blessed are the poor in spirit and all that? Well, that’s from Matthew.

Remember the feeding of the 5,000? That’s from Matthew too.

And remember the healing of the two blind men? They followed Jesus shouting, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” And so Jesus touched their eyes and said, “Let it be done to you according to your faith.” And they were healed. There’s mercy there! And this story shows up only in Matthew’s Gospel.

So, yeah, there is mercy for Matthew.

But why not here? Why does the message from today’s parable feel more like judgment?

3.

Good question. Let’s take a closer look.

Recall from the last few weeks that Jesus is addressing the temple leaders.

The temple leaders were settled and inflexible; they’d established for themselves a religion of control, manipulating the Jewish people often by means of fear and—especially noteworthy for today’s purposes—judgment.

The common folk were judged by how often they made or didn’t make pilgrimages to the temple.

The common folk were judged by whether or not they could afford a sacrificial animal without blemish.

The common folk were judged by how well or not they kept the 613 commandments.

And now, today, Jesus is addressing not the common folk but the leaders who seat themselves in judgment over the common folk.

They—these temple leaders—are the ones in the parable who find excuses not to attend the wedding feast.

They are the ones who rose up against the king’s messengers, prophets such as Ezekiel and Amos and John the Baptist; who beat or even killed them.

They are the ones who, when they do show up to the wedding feast, wear their own robes and not God’s.

So, is that it? Is Matthew saying what goes around comes around—that the temple leaders will be judged with the same manner of judgment they themselves pour out on others?

4.

But there’s another matter that lies beneath the surface of today’s parable: historical context. Let’s take a step back and consider it.

Matthew penned the words we hear today more than a generation after Jesus’ death.

More than a generation!

That’s a lot of time, enough for stories about Jesus to develop, circulate, and percolate.

By this time, communities of disciples had congregated—each with its own personality and peculiarities—communities like the Church of St. Luke and the Church of St. Matthew.

And thus, though these communities told more or less the same old stories, Luke’s main point might in fact be quite different than Matthew’s.

The specific community of Matthew was a lot like our congregation today: a group of people which shared a common life in Jesus Christ, a faith that Jesus’ message and mission would bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

But at the same time Matthew’s Church was much different than our congregation because of its specific cultural and historical context.

More to the point, when Matthew penned his version of the old story, I’m sure the destruction of Jerusalem was on his mind.

In 70CE, under orders of Caesar, the Roman military commander Titus razed the city, including and especially the Temple—the emperor’s special focus. You can read about this horrific event in Josephus.

My point for today is that Matthew wrote today’s parable in hindsight; and his hindsight told him a couple of things.

First, it told him that Jesus had been right so long ago. He’d been right to confront the temple leaders. He’d been right to challenge the status quo. And he’d been right in his mission to topple unjust systems.

The second thing Matthew’s hindsight told him is that God is looking for transformation. God invites all to the wedding feast. It’s only those who are unwilling to be transformed—only those who come up with excuses or are found not to have put on God’s clothes—who find themselves outside the doors of the banquet hall at the end of the day.

And, surely, Matthew cannot help but wonder if things would have turned out differently if those temple leaders had instead listened to Jesus, if they had put on his robes instead of their own.

If only they hadn’t continued to control and manipulate the Jewish common folk by means of fear and judgment!

If only they hadn’t continued to aggravate, frustrate, and rebel against the Roman rulers, thereby provoking Caesar to an act of war!

Then Jerusalem wouldn’t have been destroyed at all!

Then no one would have been cast outside into the darkness, where there was, among so many other horrors, weeping and gnashing of teeth!

5.

I’m not sure, then, that Matthew’s message is so much judgment as it is lament.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37)

Whatever the case, whether destruction or judgment, in it and through it Matthew offers consolation to us today.

Matthew’s Church endured and survived nothing short of a massacre.

The temple leaders and the Jewish people had faced the horrors of war. Many of them were killed when Jerusalem fell. Many others—those who lived elsewhere and those who fled the coming destruction—survived but were dispersed.

Matthew’s Church managed to gather itself together in the aftermath of the destruction.

And today, magnificently, the Evangelist tells us the story of a wedding feast, a lavish table set for anybody and everybody—“for both good and bad,” he says—for both temple leader and commoner—for both Jew and Gentile—for both rich and poor—to come to and be transformed; a transforming banquet rising gloriously out of the ashes of the ruined city!

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad we are in Matthew’s Church today. For today Matthew reminds us:

Even in hardships; even when everything around feels like judgment; even in the midst of destruction, Jesus is there, inviting us all to his lavish banquet table.

Will you come to it and allow yourself to be transformed?

Advertisements

Fear Blights

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2017 by timtrue

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21:33-46

1.

I begin today with a kind of parlor trick. Feel free to pass it along to your friends and family, especially the younger set.

<How to remember the Ten Commandments with your ten fingers.>

So, there it is. With this parlor trick, not only are you able to remember all ten commandments, but also you can remember which is which.

Now, before turning to today’s Gospel, I’d like to offer a couple remarks on this passage from Exodus:

  • Moses had recently freed the people of God from oppression: the oppressive hand of Pharaoh.
  • This new people was wandering in the wilderness, groping as if blind, not knowing their way forward.
  • As such, they were a new society in need of new rules. In addition to questions about religious worship, how were they to live together in relative harmony?
  • And notice Moses’ message: “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” In other words, Moses said: Do not be afraid; but be afraid of God.

Okay. . . .

2.

Now, over in today’s Gospel we find some interesting parallels.

  • Jesus is seeking to free people from oppression.
  • This new Jesus movement is just that: new. And as such his followers feel much like they are wandering in the wilderness, not sure of a way forward.
  • Many questions surface about how to worship and otherwise understand corporate life.
  • And—while not specifically stated in today’s Gospel but most definitely a part of the larger context of his mission and ministry—Jesus shares a similar message: “Do not be afraid.”

But, unlike in Moses’ day, now it is not a political oppression that the people find themselves under but a spiritual oppression; and, ironically, it’s an oppression brought on by certain followers of Moses, the very agent of freedom we just heard about.

Back then, under Moses, the people wandered a little while longer, forging a path ahead, not knowing where God would lead. Their place of worship was a tabernacle: a large but flexible tent of worship, made so that in a day’s notice it could be packed up and moved to the next location.

Now, however, the corporate place of worship for the Jewish people is an inflexible, fixed, permanent temple.

The message under Moses was to fear God and obey his commandments—all ten of them.

The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, however, declare that there aren’t just ten; but 613. Now the people are called on not just to fear God, but also to fear those who on earth bear God’s special authority; namely, the leaders of the temple.

And so, like Moses, Jesus comes along and upsets the status quo.

He enters Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey amidst the shouts of throngs of people.

He goes to the temple courts and overturns tables.

He tells tricky parables that impugn the religious leaders.

And he suggests it’s actually not 613 commandments; not even 10; but really only one—in two varieties—love.

Do not be afraid, he says, like Moses; but, unlike Moses, his message is not to fear but to love. Love God; love neighbor.

And I cannot help but notice this detail: at the end of today’s Gospel, the religious leaders, who run their whole operation by means of fear—keeping the people fearful of God and of themselves—are themselves fearful: they do nothing to stop Jesus because they fear the people, who hold Jesus to be a prophet.

3.

So, let’s carry this comparison-and-contrast exercise one step further.

Pharaoh was oppressive; Moses liberated the people and started something new.

Many generations later, the Jewish religious leaders were oppressive, keeping the Jewish laity under clouds of fear; Jesus sought to liberate the people and begin something new.

Now—one step further—here we are today, many generations later again, having established and maintained the mission and movement that this man Jesus began.

And where are we?

Have we listened to his message? Are we loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind? Are we loving our neighbor as ourselves? Are we “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”? Are we bearing fruits of love?

Or do we see God as someone to fear? Are we keeping ourselves and our neighbors under clouds of fear?

4.

Now, I’m not going to deny it: there is in fact much to fear in our day.

Just this week we heard about a tragic and senseless act of gun violence. Why is this sort of thing happening more and more frequently, we ask? And why isn’t more being done to stop it? We could have been one of the victims, we know.

And, rightly so, we fear.

Then there’s the seemingly increasing threat of nuclear war. What if North Korea doesn’t back down? What if our president does something rash?

Again, we fear.

And then there’s that nagging question of the environment. Science is warning us that the globe is warming at an alarming rate. There’s a great plastic patch in the Pacific, choking and otherwise killing off the life that teems there. How can we leave a healthy and thriving planet to future generations?

We fear.

Cancer hits close to home for all of us. What if I’m its next victim, we agonize?

And what of earthquakes, hurricanes, and other so-called acts of God?

Yes, there is much to fear in our world!—just as there was much to fear in the world of Jesus’ day; and in the world of Moses’ day.

But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid!”

To live under fear—and it doesn’t matter whether its source is human or divine—to live under fear is to live under oppression.

And Jesus came to free us from oppression.

5.

But haven’t we been going down a rabbit trail?

This parable calls us to bear fruit. In the end, that’s who the landowner is counting on; that’s who will be called on to tend and keep the vineyard: those who are already demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in their lives; those who walk in love as Christ loved us.

Bearing fruit is the point of this parable; and so what does fear have to do with it?

Just this: it’s how we bear fruit.

As he delivered this parable, Jesus was speaking directly to the religious leaders of his day. For our day, just like then, this is a message directly to church leaders.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were running the established religious institution by means of fear, not by means of love. They bore some fruit, sure; yet the little fruit they bore was sour and difficult—like 613 times more sour and difficult than it had to be!

Fear proved a blight on their harvest.

Part of Jesus’ mission was to change this, to take the religious leadership out of the hands of the few who led and controlled by fear and put it into the hands of those who would lead as servants, by means of love, and thereby bear truckloads more fruit; tasty and productive fruit.

This is a message for today’s church leaders. And so, as a leader of today’s church, I want you to know: I am committed to lead by love, not fear; and thus bear fruits of love, not fear.

But, at the same time, this is not just a message for today’s church leaders. It is also a message for the church as a whole—bishops, priests, deacons, and laity. For who else is going to offer spiritual leadership to society today?

Jesus’ message is to all of us, particularly this corporate body we call St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School.

In and around the Temecula Valley, and in fact throughout the world; in this day and age characterized by fear, Jesus calls us to fear not; and to bear fruits of love.

Authority’s Paradox

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2017 by timtrue

Matthew 21:23-32

1.

Why did Jesus pick John?

In response to their question, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders about John the Baptist’s authority—whether it is from the people or from God.

But why did Jesus pick John?

Why didn’t he pick, say, the emperor?

This was always a question on the minds of the people: did the emperor’s authority come from the people or from God? The emperors themselves maintained their authority came from the heavens—divine right, they called it.

Yet others, probably most of the common people of the empire, and certainly the temple leaders, disagreed: the emperor’s authority was purely human.

The Jews worshiped the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Whereas the emperor was a pagan; he worshiped a different god—a whole pantheon of false gods in fact. Jewish tradition would have said absolutely and unapologetically no, the emperor’s authority is not divine.

And so I suppose this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of an emperor. He was addressing Jewish leaders, after all.

Still, John was a relatively minor figure in the history of the Jewish people. He was an eccentric person, off doing some obscure work in the wilderness, proclaiming some sort of convoluted message about repentance. And besides, didn’t he eat bugs and wear uncomfortable clothes?

Most of the people of the day, if they’d even heard about this guy named John who baptized people for repentance in the waters of the Jordan River out beyond the edge of the city in the wilderness—even if they’d heard of him, he was weird. Why did Jesus use him as an example?

Why didn’t he use someone like Judas Maccabeus? Yeah! Remember him? He was a true Jewish hero. He took a stand and defied the oppressive hand of the Romans, much like Moses had with Pharaoh. He was fresh in the people’s memory as a messianic figure, held in high esteem by both Jewish leaders and the common people. He was certainly viewed as having authority.

So why didn’t Jesus use him? Why didn’t Jesus ask the Jewish leaders: “Tell me, was Judas Maccabeus’s authority from God or from the people?”

But, then again, Judas Maccabeus’s rebellion had come to nothing. He was killed by the Romans, his army was dispersed, and eventually the whole thing blew over. In the end, I suppose, his authority had not been from God; his mission and movement came to nothing.

And so I suppose this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of Judas Maccabeus.

But, still, couldn’t Jesus have used many other, better known examples to make his point? Why did he use John—obscure, eccentric, weird John?

2.

We’ll come back to this question. But first, let’s look at the real issue: authority. This is the question the temple leaders raise. How can Jesus do the things he is doing? Who does he think he is? What right does he have?

I can’t help but identify with the chief priests and elders in this story, at least to some extent.

They understand their tradition; they’re leaders in their religion; they know how spiritually to direct a congregation of people. For them, a lot of ecclesiastical kinks have been long worked out. They’ve got their bylaws, their articles of incorporation, their canons, and their policy manuals. Their experience in these matters allows them to be efficient and smooth as they run their religious organization.

They place a lot of value in having a codified methodology (to which I—and perhaps every Episcopalian on the planet—can relate).

And so, justifiably, they ask, “By what authority are you doing these things? And by whose authority are you doing them?”

Of course, it helps to know what “things” they’re referring to. This is a very important detail—one we skip over entirely, unfortunately, in Lectionary Year A.

The most recent thing Jesus did, just yesterday as Matthew tells it, was to overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the temple courts.

So, imagine if someone were to come into our building, fresh off the street—we don’t know him; he may have been here a time or two before, I suppose, but a lot of people pass through these doors so it’s hard to tell—and he randomly starts tipping over chairs and other pieces of furniture, maybe even the baptismal font, maybe even the altar! I’m sure we’d have a thing or two to say to this character. Who does he think he is, after all? What right does he have? And, beyond these questions, why even do it in the first place?

No doubt this is something like what the temple leaders in today’s Gospel feel. After all, it is their established policy to allow moneychangers to sell sacrificial animals in the temple courts. They’ve come to this policy after many a long and difficult vestry meeting. So who is this rebel to upset the status quo?

But, actually, come to think of it, they have seen this character a time or two before, or maybe even several. He’s that guy who blasphemed, telling the paralytic that his sins are forgiven. He’s that guy who eats meals with tax collectors and sinners. He’s that guy who casts out demons by the power of the chief demon. He’s that guy who healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath! He’s that guy who supposedly fed five thousand people with only some loaves of bread and a few small fish.

So, rather than simply call the temple police and confront him, the temple leaders formulate a question about authority: By whose authority are you doing these things, Jesus?

3.

But here’s where I hope we’re different than the temple leaders: they approach Jesus with their minds already made up.

Their question isn’t genuine: it isn’t asked from a teachable spirit with the hope of truly learning something. Instead, their question is designed to trap Jesus.

They reason that there are only two possible answers. If Jesus answers, “By human authority,” then he will be acting in rebellion against the authority of divinely inspired tradition. But if he answers, “By divine authority,” he will be blaspheming. Either way, he will be guilty.

They have him cornered—or so they think.

But Jesus turns the tables on them again—mental tables this time.

He doesn’t provide an answer. Instead, he asks them a question: Tell me, John’s authority, was it human or from heaven? And he assures them that if they answer his question, he will answer theirs.

Well, the temple leaders mull it over.

They cannot answer that John’s authority is from heaven, for they do not believe John. How could they? For they had to jump through all sorts of hoops to get where they are today—a discernment process, postulancy, seminary, etc.; but John hadn’t done any of that!

But, on the other hand, they cannot answer that John’s authority is human, for the people believe him to be a prophet; and they don’t want to provoke a violent mob.

Thus, they refuse to answer Jesus. Or, maybe, because their minds are already made up, they cannot answer Jesus.

Whatever the case, Jesus responds: Fine! Then neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

4.

Nevertheless, an answer has risen to the surface. And it’s an answer that, among other things, explains why Jesus referred to John in the first place.

A father has two sons. He asks them both to do some chores. One says, “No, Dad, I don’t want to”; and the other says, “Sure thing, Dad.” But in reality the son who first said no in fact goes and does what his dad asked; whereas the second son, the one who originally said yes, does not.

The first son, Jesus says, is like the tax collectors and prostitutes; the second is like the temple leaders.

And isn’t this an amazing thing!

On the one hand we have tax collectors and prostitutes—sinners.

On the other hand we have temple leaders—the keepers of the religious tradition.

Then there’s John, who came in the way of righteousness—with a divine authority.

Now, put these together: the so-called sinners recognized John’s divine authority; yet the keepers of the religious tradition did not!

And this is why Jesus uses John as his example.

John came with a divine authority. His authority is recognized by the common people, even the lowest rung on society’s ladder. We might call this the work of the Holy Spirit. And yet, ironically, those who proclaim themselves as possessing a God-given authority fail to see the divine nature of John’s authority.

And thus Jesus actually answers his opponents’ question. His authority, like John’s, is divine, whether or not the religious establishment recognizes it; the proof that the HS is at work is seen in the consensus of the people.

Jesus is not like an emperor, a tyrant whom we all obey or else! Neither is Jesus like a Judas Maccabeus, a revolutionary who rose to power from and for the people but whose mission and movement fizzled out.

Jesus is God Incarnate. And we know this from the consensus of the people—throughout all ages, from the earliest beginnings of the Jesus movement right on down through today.

The Holy Spirit works and moves not through the religious establishment but through faithful people.

5.

The Holy Spirit is like that. It goes where it chooses—hovering as a wind over the waters at creation, descending as a dove on Jesus’ baptism, overwhelming like tongues of fire at Pentecost. We cannot bottle it up. We cannot codify it, define it in bylaws, or capture it in any kind of methodology.

It’s not that the Holy Spirit won’t work through the religious establishment. It will if it wants to. But the Holy Spirit will not be contained by the religious establishment.

Look at the temple leaders. Their minds were already made up. Their methodology was fixed and rigid. If something or someone came along and didn’t fit within their rigid scheme, it was all too easy for them to conclude that God wasn’t present.

The Holy Spirit could have worked through them; but why?

To have bylaws and policy manuals in place is helpful, sure. And, yes, there’s authoritative weight behind a priest who has been to seminary. Yet the Holy Spirit is infinitely larger than these human-made structures.

John the Baptist shows us this. He heralded Christ’s coming and called the people to repentance not within the confines of the temple, abiding by the temple leaders’ methodologies and otherwise conforming to society’s expectations; but by going out into the wilderness. And there the Holy Spirit blessed his ministry beyond measure.

So, beyond all this, how are we supposed to discern the Holy Spirit?

Granted, this is a tricky arena to jump into. Some people will go to Cursillo, for instance, and declare that the Holy Spirit was most definitely moving through the place. Others will decide that, no, it felt like my emotions were being manipulated. Who is right?

Maybe neither! Maybe both! Maybe each is partly right and partly wrong! Who can say for sure?

But I think that’s the point. With the Holy Spirit, maybe we aren’t really supposed to come to the discussion with our minds already made up.

Practicing the Common Good

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

USCurrency_Federal_Reserve

Matthew 20:1-16

1.

The Acts of the Apostles relates that members of the newly formed Christian church shared all things in common:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).

Similarly, other groups in and around early Christian Palestine—and the Jewish sect known today as the Qumran Community—attempted to live a communal life together.

People in these communities worked. At the end of the day they’d return and the community’s resources were pooled. Regardless of how much or how little each individual member of the community brought in, from this pool the community members were able to live lives of relative equality. Each member drew from the pool as he or she needed.

Discussing these communities one day in seminary, and referring to today’s Gospel, my church history professor posited this question:

“Was Jesus’ vision for his new realm one of communism? That’s what this sounds like to me—or something very much like it. Of course, we’ve seen that communism as a political ideal has failed. But the world’s twentieth-century experiments in communism were atheistic, largely devoid of God. What if God were central? Could a kind of Christian communism work?”

I shot my hand up in the air, along with several other classmates. After a few had shared their affirming thoughts—a few younger, idealistic classmates—it was my turn.

“Try raising five kids,” I said, “and you’ll see right away that communism doesn’t work.”

I was thinking of dishes, for example. Nobody in my family wants to do the dishes; everyone sees them as a chore. When it’s their turn, the family members with a lazier disposition (not to mention any names) don’t do a good job, or don’t do them at all, leaving the more industrious family members to clean up after them. Sharing the chore is supposed to be for the common good; and yet the result is guilt, frustration, and resentment. Christian communism is a nice ideal; but the reality just doesn’t work.

Later that week, at a community picnic, my young professor, whose wife was expecting their first child, pulled me aside and said, “You know, Tim, that was a really profound statement: ‘Try raising five kids; communism can’t work.’”

And I said thank you and smiled politely; and silently wished him good luck.

2.

Now, we can bag on communism all we want; for we live in a culture that values free speech and other liberties that are self-evident. But, at the same time, I’m pretty sure Jesus’ vision wasn’t western capitalism either.

Just look at the parable:

First, early in the day, a wealthy land owner hires some workers. The mutual monetary agreement between them is a denarius, a day’s wage for a laborer. It’s not much; but it is enough for daily bread.

Next, three times more, every few hours, the land owner hires another batch of laborers. Each time a wage is not specifically stated; but it will be a just wage, the land owner assures.

Finally, at the eleventh hour, an hour before the sun sets, the land owner hires additional laborers one last time. This time there is no mention at all of a wage.

So, when the workday is done, the land owner has the laborers line up, the last to be hired at the front of the line. When he pays them each a denarius—same as the agreed wage for those hired early in the day—naturally, some expectations in the back of the line surface: the laborers hired last worked only one hour; it seems only fair then that we who worked the entire day should be compensated more for our troubles.

But when those hired in the middle of the day come forward and are given a denarius and no more, these expectations turn to feelings of entitlement: we who were hired early on did so much more for the land owner; don’t we deserve more compensation?

At last, when those hired first are paid a denarius just like everyone else, there is frustration and resentment. They grumble against the land owner. They feel themselves superior. They voice their complaints. “You have made them equal to us,” they say (v. 12)—as if equality is a negative value.

The land owner wonders out loud if these first hirees might be envious at his generosity.

Envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

Now, the point of this parable is God’s generosity. God treats all people equally, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, or whatever other category we want to place people in. God is generous, benevolent, and good.

Nevertheless, for many of us this parable is unsettling. Dissolved boundary lines aside, it feels unfair; maybe even unjust—like when I end up doing someone else’s dishes.

But I wonder how much of this unsettling feeling has to do with the ideal of western capitalism.

Capitalism teaches us from birth to compete against others, excel, and distinguish ourselves. If we go to the right college, earn the right degree, and work for the right company, why, aren’t we then entitled to receive a higher income than the person who didn’t? And when someone seems better off with fewer credentials, aren’t we prone toward frustration and resentment? Even envy?

And envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

3.

But there’s another option that stands between the human ideals of communism and capitalism: the Christian practice of the common good.

This phrase, the common good, shows up in many places in our Book of Common Prayer. A few examples:

  • In the Good Friday Liturgy, we pray for those who serve the common good, including the President of our country, Congress, and members and representatives of the United Nations.
  • In the Collect for Vocation in Daily Work, we pray, “Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good.”
  • In the Prayers of the People, Form IV, we pray, “Guide the people of this land, and of all the nations, in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good.”
  • And in the Great Litany, we pray, “That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good.”

I’ve said it before: our calling in Christ is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus. Christ’s mission and ministry are for the common good; or, in other words, the best quality of life we can experience together, as a community.

And while our community starts with you and me as individuals, it flows outward, like circles after dropping a rock into the still waters of a pond, to our church, city, state, nation, and the world; from Jerusalem to Judea and all Samaria, even to the ends of the earth.

That’s the idea of the common good. Which is a big part of our calling as followers of Christ.

But, of course, our reality is modern-day America, a highly individualized culture. Ideas about the common good are seemingly lost in a vast sea of individualism.

So then, how do we practice the common good in our cultural context?

4.

Well, I’m glad you asked. Our annual Pledge Drive affords us a wonderful, tangible example.

We will be launching our Pledge Drive soon.

All too often, financial stewardship is addressed from a very individual perspective. We’re asked to be introspective, to look at our personal budgets, to pray individual prayers about what we can reasonably afford to give to God, and figure out a way to give from what is rightfully yours.

But in our financial stewardship, God doesn’t call us just to be individuals, as if stewardship is merely a personal exercise just between me and Jesus.

Yes, personal introspection is a very real part of faithful stewardship; but it is not the complete picture. God also calls us to consider the common good.

Thus, when we pledge, in addition to our introspective, personal considerations, we also need to consider the bigger picture of this church body, its unique and particular makeup; its unique and particular needs.

And we need to consider the biggest picture of all: God is generous, benevolent, and good.

In pledging to the common good, then, we are merely managing what is already God’s: our pledges are acts of love to the Lord our God; and to our neighbor.

And what happens when we pool our resources together for the glory of God? We enable ourselves to live into our common life: we enable ourselves to work together as equals—no competition, no distinctions, no status; no frustration, no resentment, no envy—in order to accomplish Christ’s ministry and mission in Temecula and the world.

Reconciliation’s Fabric

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

Delivered Sept. 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

1.

The church, a lot like broader society, is a community made up of individual persons called to live together in harmony; to dwell with one another in unity, regardless of whatever differences those individual persons may share. Favorite sports teams, alma maters, political parties, Fox News or CNN—as individual persons within this community we are expected to lay all disagreements aside and live with one another happily.

Well, okay, maybe not lay them aside. And maybe not always happily. But we are expected to work through our differences.

Unlike broader society, however, it is easy simply to walk away. When something doesn’t go the way we want, it’s not that difficult for most of us simply to find another church that suits us, in another part of town; or just to quit going to church altogether. In other words, in the church it’s easy not to work through our individual differences.

In broader society, to walk away isn’t so easy. If you have a difference with your next door neighbor, for instance, it’s not that easy just to pack up and move. You have to work through your differences. If your neighbor owes you a debt and won’t pay, why, you can seek restitution through a court of law. And you probably will, especially if the debt owed you is substantial.

But the church is a nice society. When our neighbor in the pew wrongs us, we don’t seek restitution, like we might in broader society. For the church is called to turn the other cheek.

But neither do we want to seek reconciliation.

Someone has wronged us and we’re hurt. So, we simply walk away.

2.

Remember last week? In the church, conflicts will arise. (And, again, to be clear, I’m referring to conflicts outside of the context of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and so on.) And when they do, individuals in this community are not to seek swift restitution; but neither are they to walk away. Rather, first, they are to seek reconciliation with one another.

Continual reconciliation, it turns out, is the key to living a harmonious life together in this community we call church.

But before reconciliation is even possible, something else needs to be in place. And that something else is what we find in today’s Gospel: forgiveness.

Hearing Jesus’ vision for a ministry of reconciliation, Peter wonders how many times we are to forgive church members who sin against us. “Seven?” he asks.

Seven is the perfect number. And so, probably thinking he’s being generous, and maybe showing off a little to the other disciples that he’s got the perfect Sunday-school answer, Peter asks, “Should I forgive the one who sins against me seven times?”

But how do you quantify, calculate, or measure forgiveness? True forgiveness is absolute. And absolute means infinite: it’s immeasurable.

Someone sins against you once. To forgive their sin absolutely is just as if you’ve cancelled their debt completely and entirely. The account is zeroed out! The file is forever deleted!

If that same person sins against you a second time—maybe even committing the very same sin—why, the first record is nowhere to be found; and so—as far as forgiveness is concerned anyway—the second debt is really now the first.

Similarly, a third debt—if the first two have been absolutely forgiven—should be viewed as merely the first.

True forgiveness is infinite; absolute forgiveness cannot be measured.

And thus Jesus answers Peter with, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” or, as some translations say, “seventy times seven”—and, if you’re like Peter, you want to ask, “You mean 490 times then?”

Oh, Peter, how you miss the point!

Forgiveness is the church community’s foundation for a continual ministry of reconciliation; and the point Jesus is making is that true forgiveness is absolute and infinite.

3.

So, what about the master in the parable?

At the end, after he forgives the slave who owes him an absurd amount of wealth; and after that same slave turns around and doesn’t forgive a fellow slave for a trivial amount, the master says he will not forgive the first slave after all.

And the clincher? Jesus says, “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So my heavenly Father? Is there a limit to God’s forgiveness?

Well, that is one of the great questions of all time: it gets into the topics of heaven and hell, grace, mercy, and judgment.

On the one hand, if there’s not a limit to God’s forgiveness, then salvation has already come to the ends of the earth.

God is love. Love keeps no record of wrongs. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

And so, if God is love, doesn’t this mean that God’s forgiveness is absolute and infinite? For forgiveness is simply love applied.

But absolute and infinite forgiveness on God’s part would mean that Pharaoh and his army are forgiven. It would mean that Adolph Hitler is forgiven. It would mean no less than universalism: that salvation has already come to the ends of the earth. Why then would Jesus have needed to die? Why would the church be necessary at all?

But on the other hand, if there is a limit to God’s forgiveness, then Pharaoh and his army deserve what they got; then maybe all that stuff I heard about hell fire and damnation when I was younger is true; then maybe God is nothing more than a harsh slave-master.

Does God really call us to have an attitude of absolute forgiveness; yet God himself has to act in no such way?

Obviously, there aren’t easy answers to these questions. But the parable offers insights.

Jesus, remember, sets out to answer Peter’s question: how many times should I forgive my neighbor when he or she sins against me?

So, first, this is a question about personal forgiveness, one human individual forgiving another; not about divine forgiveness—not about God forgiving humanity.

Second, this parable is about forgiveness within the church (Peter says, “If another member of the church sins against me”), Christ’s divine community on earth.

And, third, the parable is filled with absurd hyperbole.

The slave owes his master an absurd amount of wealth—an impossible amount, really. The master forgives him absolutely and entirely out of mere pity—something an earthly slave-master would never do. Then the slave turns around and asks a fellow slave to repay a petty debt, showing absolutely no pity when he is unable—also an extremely unlikely result.

The point Jesus is making seems to be that our heavenly Father has forgiven us a great debt, a greater debt than we can ever repay; so it really is absurd when we cannot find room in our own hearts to forgive our neighbors of a relatively small debt against us.

4.

But this brings up a good point about forgiveness. For reconciliation to work; for our church community to be characterized by a ministry of reconciliation, forgiveness has to be a two-way street.

Going back to the parable, the forgiven slave’s real issue was that he couldn’t find it in his heart to forgive the other slave of a relatively petty offense after he himself had been forgiven a great debt. That obstinacy caused a stir in the slave community, so much so that other slaves went and reported his obstinacy to the master.

If we don’t forgive those who sin against us, just as God has forgiven us our sins, we become like Pharaoh: people will cry out to God to deliver them from the shackles we put on them. And we all know what happened to P!

When we forgive those who sin against us; and those whom we sin against forgive us, the fabric of reconciliation remains intact. On the other hand, when one person refuses to forgive another, a thread is snagged and the knitting begins to unravel.

But what if I forgive my neighbor but my neighbor is unwilling to forgive me?

We can’t control our neighbor. So how can forgiveness be a two-way street?

Think of driving. We have lots of two-lane roads around here.

When you’re heading up Highway 79 toward Warner Springs, and Ken and Barbie are coming at you in their shiny new Corvette at an absurd speed, can you control Ken? No! No matter how much you’d like to say, “Hey, buddy, slow down! Hey, my 8yo is in the car with me! Hey, this is a daytime headlight section and your lights aren’t even on!”—no matter what you’d like to say or do—no matter how much you want to control him—you can’t.

Two-lane roads are a kind of dance. You do your part; and the car coming at you becomes your momentary partner, who does his part too. And most of the time it works out beautifully. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, there’s no way you’re going to control your partner. You simply have to let go of your desire to control the other person. You have to trust that the person coming at you at an absurd speed will do the right thing.

Ultimately, the only person you can control is yourself.

It’s the same with forgiveness. The call forgiveness is ultimately a call to you as an individual. The call for forgiveness is a call not to control other people, but to control your self: it is a call for self-control.

5.

Now, over the past few weeks we’ve learned a lot about the church.

Jesus delegated his authority over his mission and ministry to Peter; but not only to Peter but also to his disciples—to all of us. The church’s authority is corporate.

For the church’s authority to work harmoniously, we are called to cooperate through reconciliation.

And the church community’s commitment to reconciliation contrasts with broader society, which cooperates through retribution.

Today, we saw that the core of reconciliation is forgiveness, which ultimately is a call to individual self-control.

So, we began with the general and have come to the specific; from creation to the corporate people of God; to the community of the church; to two or three gathered; to you and to me.

And so I conclude by going back outward, from the specific—you and me—to the general—all of creation.

Forgiveness begins with the individual; an individual attitude of absolute forgiveness expands to mutual forgiveness between two or three individuals; and mutual forgiveness between two or three expands to form an entire community of reconciliation, a. k. a. the church.

When it works, then, a community of reconciliation paints a beautiful picture for broader society; a picture that encourages moving away from restitution towards reconciliation.

So, imagine if every individual follower of Christ were faithful in self-control and absolute forgiveness. Wouldn’t we see everywhere around the world church bodies cooperating through reconciliation?

And imagine if broader society did in fact follow the church’s lead.

Imagine: the entire globe reconciled to one another!

This picture is nothing short of salvation to the ends of the earth.

And that begins with you—not your neighbor but you—possessing and maintaining an attitude of absolute forgiveness toward your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Navigating the Mess

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

Delivered on Sept. 3, 2017.

Matthew 16:21-28

1.

Why is there evil in our world? If God is good, then why do bad things happen to good people?

Of course, this question has been debated for thousands of years, since before even the time of Christ. And, while there have been many attempts at providing answers to this question, at the end of the day we don’t really find incontrovertible evidence pointing us one way or another.

The short answer is, we don’t know.

On the one hand, this not-knowing is enough for some people to give up on faith.

I have a Jewish friend, for instance, named Shay. His is an interesting story that includes growing up in Israel, moving to the US, and being prematurely promoted to CFO of his company because his boss died as a passenger on Flight 11 as it slammed into one of the Twin Towers on that terrible Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

“I am a Jew by heritage,” Shay once told me, “not by belief. With all the horrible things that have happened to my people throughout the ages, how could there be such a thing as ‘God’s people’? How could there be a God?”

Shay has given up his faith because he cannot answer the question of the existence of evil.

But on the other hand, evil in the world is the reason many people of faith turned to God in the first place. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and wars are devastating and leave us feeling desperate. Faith gives us back hope.

Why is there evil in our world? Is it because of Satan? Sin? Global warming?

Why are there wars? How does one person get into a high enough position of power to start a war? Why are some people seemingly predisposed to being jerks? Why can’t we all just get along?

Really, can we answer any of these hard questions?

But here’s the thing: We don’t know the answer to the question of the existence of evil and we never will; but Jesus did become incarnate.

Jesus left the dwelling place of God—where there are no wars and natural disasters; where there is only perfect love expressed in perfect community always—in order to dwell with us, here on earth, where things are messy; where there isn’t always perfect love; where there isn’t always perfect community; where there are wars and natural disasters; where people are predisposed to being jerks; where there is global warming.

Why is there evil in the world? Why are there hurricanes? Why are there wars?

Why did Jesus himself have to face opposition, trial, condemnation, and crucifixion?

None of us, humanly speaking, wants any of these things.

2.

Peter, of course, was very human.

Just prior to today’s Gospel passage—in the passage we heard last week—Jesus hands the keys of the kingdom to Peter; and along with them the authority to bind and to loose: Jesus commissions Peter to carry on the work of his mission; and delegates his authority to Peter to lead it.

Yet then, in the next breath, today’s passage, we see Peter’s first attempt to exercise his new-found authority foiled—by binding Jesus!

Jesus explains that his mission involves standing up to opposition from religious and civic leaders, facing trial, and enduring execution; and Peter reacts, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

Peter’s response is very human. He hears of impending doom. But he sees a way it might be avoided. He thinks what Jesus is predicting doesn’t really have to come about. Does he really have to suffer and die in order for God’s will to come about? Surely there’s got to be another way. Surely God’s will isn’t for Jesus to die!

And so Peter’s first act of authority, to bind Jesus, a very human response, elicits a rebuke from Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan!”

And, dripping with irony, Jesus points out that Peter, the rock of faith upon whom he will build his church, has just become another kind of rock, a rock of stumbling. For Peter, the very leader of the new church, has been setting his mind on earthly things, not on divine things.

And thus the church’s very first authoritative act, to bind Jesus, was a mistake.

And the church and its leaders have been making mistakes and erroneous pronouncements ever since.

3.

Thanks to journalist Kimberly Winston,[i] here are some such erroneous pronouncements I read about just this week:

After Hurricane Katrina struck, well-known evangelical leaders pronounced that the natural disaster was God’s wrath being poured out on the sinful city New Orleans; that it was “divine retribution” due to New Orleans’ acceptance of homosexuality.

Similarly, after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc up and down the eastern seaboard, striking New York and New Jersey particularly hard, a well-known conservative evangelical church leader pronounced, “God is systematically destroying America” because of “the homosexual agenda.”

But with Harvey the rhetoric has been a little different. The pronouncements are of a different sort.

Texas has its sins too, after all: selfishness is more a virtue than a vice; there’s careless stewardship of the earth with practices like fracking; and as for corporate greed! Ever hear of the companies Waste Management and Enron? They’re known for only the two biggest-dollar corporate scandals in US history; and they’re both Houston-based companies.

Could this be divine retribution too, left-leaning pundits have asked?

Yet conservative evangelical leaders have been silent with respect to Harvey being a display of God’s anger. And, thus, isn’t this effectively another pronouncement? Isn’t their silence a loud and clear message? New Orleans and New York, well, that was obviously God’s wrath; for these are modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. But Houston? C’mon! That’s God’s country!

Why do we do this? Like Peter, why do we humans tend to make pronouncements about God’s will? Why are our actions so often misguided?

Really, how could we humans ever presume to know the mind of God?

4.

The question we need to be asking is not, “Why is there evil in the world?” but, “How are we to respond when evil strikes?”

More specifically for today, what does it look like in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to set our minds on things divine, not human?

Well, I don’t think it looks like sitting around in committees or Bible study groups to discuss it. Imagine this exchange:

  • “How should we respond to Hurricane Harvey?”
  • “Um, well, let’s make sure to get that on the agenda for next month’s Bishop’s Committee meeting.”

And I’m pretty sure it doesn’t look like making pronouncements of divine wrath, confidently asserting that we have a handle on the truth—the mind of God—that others do not.

Instead, it looks like action. It looks like providing food, clothing, and shelter for those in need.

And out here in California, 1,500 miles away from the disaster zone, I know, very few of us are able to get out there and do something about it in person. (By the way, if you are able, please let me know. I have a few friends out there, Episcopal priests mostly, who are in great need at the moment; I’d love to get you in touch with them.) For the rest of us, how do we provide food, clothing, and shelter to those in need?

The best way is to send cash to a trusted organization. Episcopal Relief and Development is one such organization; and has people there, on the ground, as I speak. See p. 12 of your bulletin for more information.

And, of course, the other thing we can do about it is pray. For prayer, above all things, aligns us with the mind of God.

Our world is messy. There are many trials and challenges that come our way—that come the church’s way. Christ left us with a mission: to navigate our way through these messy waters, not to know why they happen, but always to seek his mind and heart as we do so.

 

[i]               Cf. http://religionnews.com/2017/08/29/where-are-the-condemnations-of-harvey-as-gods-punishment/

Dealing with the Drama

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

Delivered on Sept. 10, 2017

Matthew 18:15-20

1.

A couple weeks ago we encountered Jesus telling Peter that he was handing the keys of his kingdom over to him. In this statement, Jesus delegated the authority over his mission to Peter, the rock, upon whom he would build his church.

“And,” Jesus told Peter, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

In today’s Gospel, a few chapters later (in case you’re wondering), Jesus tells his gathered disciples, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Huh. This sounds familiar. Like, verbatim familiar!

But this time Jesus is not talking just to one man, namely Peter. This time Jesus says you; and the you here is translated in the south as y’all; or in the deep south as all y’all. In other words, it’s plural!

And just in case you’re dubious, Jesus goes on to illustrate the plurality of his teaching by clarifying:

“Again, truly I tell you, if two of you” (two is plural) “agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three” (again, plural) “are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Jesus delegated his authority to carry on his mission not just to Peter, but to Peter and the disciples. Jesus’ authority is a collective authority.

And so, as I argued two weeks ago, the church is the only place on earth wherein we find Christ’s inherent authority.

Jesus didn’t leave his authority with parachurch organizations. He didn’t leave it with a political party. He didn’t leave it with individuals—with you or me or your favorite author or musician or Christian leader.

Jesus left his authority with the collective body of believers around the world, also known as the church.

Like it or not, Christianity is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus. Like it or not, Christianity is a community effort.

2.

But, Father Tim, what if I’m one of those people who likes to be by myself? What if I’m an introvert? What if I’m a little, well, socially awkward? What if I don’t like to make small talk? What if I don’t really need other people? What if I’ve learned how to be an island—a self-sufficient and independent person who stays out of everyone else’s way just as long as they stay out of mine?

To which I say: Yeah, so, you’re independent. You probably wake up most days to an alarm clock on your phone—a phone made by someone else. You then use electricity to charge your phone, turn on your lights, and keep food chilled in your refrigerator—electricity provided by someone else. Then you get in your car—made by someone else—and drive on smooth, paved roads—again, made by someone else—fill up your gas tank with clean, highly refined fuel; and on to the grocery store, where you buy fruit and vegetables, meat, cheese, and eggs—all harvested, butchered, aged, and collected by other people. So what’s your point?

We all know the old story. In the beginning, God created Adam. Adam was given stewardship over all creation. He named the animals, he worked the land, and he dwelled with God. But, the Bible tells us, it was not good for the man to be alone.

It was not good for Adam to live by himself, in solidarity, as a ruggedly independent island of a man. He needed community. For he was created in the image of God; and God has always dwelt in Trinitarian community.

So God created Eve.

And the first couple then dwelled together in community.

But then—and here is where the hang up regarding community seems to be for a lot of people—drama entered the scene.

The crafty serpent tempted. Eve listened. She tempted. Adam listened. And together the community of Adam and Eve shared the forbidden fruit. Next, God confronted. The community shuffled their feet and shifted the blame. And so their once enjoyable work became all manner of toil and labor and sweat; and their children argued and fought, until one day their angry and angst-filled son Cain reached out his hand and struck down his own flesh and blood, dead.

Yes, drama entered the scene!

Nevertheless, the community of Adam and Eve continued on. And God worked his good will through this community. Soon a new son, Seth, was born, from whose line would come the Savior of the world.

God created us for community. And, despite all the drama that comes along with it, the community of Christ is God’s only authoritative means of spreading salvation through Christ to the ends of the earth.

3.

But this brings up a very good point: What about the drama?

First off, let me just put something out on the table: In the church there will be drama.

If you’re tempted to romanticize and idealize, to say that, of all organizations out there, the church ought to be the shining, drama-free example to the world, forget it. That’s a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream.

The church is a community that is both divine and human. It has been divinely established by Jesus Christ, upon whose authority we stand. But at the same time it is being maintained by humans.

And it’s the human part of that equation that means there will be drama in the church. We are human. We will make mistakes. Disagreements will surface. Conflict is not a matter of if, but when.

Okay. Now that that’s out there—now that we’re being realistic about our life in community together—secondly, let me offer a qualification.

There are times when it is necessary to circumvent the method of confrontation Jesus sets forth in today’s Gospel. I mentioned abuse, neglect, or abandonment in my sermon two weeks ago. And, sadly, the reality is that there have been cases of abuse, neglect, and abandonment by the church.

If you ever experience something traumatic along these lines—in the church or anywhere else—I urge you, go straight to the authorities who are able to help you confront and conquer the situation.

But, as serious as these matters are, my focus today is to go where the Gospel takes us. Jesus knows there will be conflicts in his church. And these conflicts, by and large, are really quite petty: they have to do with one person offending another; and usually without even knowing it.

One person says something impulsively and another person overhears it and takes offense. Or one person loves a particular ministry—feels a kind of ownership over the ministry—and another with an interest in the same ministry comes along and frustrates the first person’s plans.

One person steps on another’s toes, probably unknowingly, and thus a conflict arises between two persons, the offender and the offended.

And in today’s Gospel Jesus tells us very plainly just how to deal with the drama.

“If another member of the church sins against you”—then what does he say?

  • Wait until she’s out of earshot and then call your best friend to gossip about her.
  • Take it straight to the priest.
  • Or, even better, forget the priest; take it straight to the bishop!

No!

“If another member of the church sins against you,” Jesus says, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Jesus tells us that when someone has offended you—and here he is talking about you as an individual—you (singular), the offended, are not to take it to other people. That’s called triangulation. And triangulation is messy, so messy that the people who get caught in its webs sometimes decide to leave the church altogether.

Don’t triangulate! Instead, you are to go alone to the other, the offender, and point out how and why you are offended.

And if it works out—if the two of you are reconciled to each other—well, that’s as it should be, isn’t it? You’ve communicated with each other. The mission and ministry of Christ will continue to go forward, with the added benefit that you two can now work together in greater harmony than before. And whatever passed between you two will forever remain your little secret. End of story!

Oh, but, Father Tim, what if it’s such a small matter that I don’t feel comfortable pointing it out to the person who has sinned against me?

Well, that’s part of the deal. If you feel it’s too small a matter to bring to the offender’s attention, then it’s time to examine your own heart. Maybe you’re actually the one in the wrong here. If it’s too small a matter to mention, then why is it a big enough matter to bother you in the first place? And, certainly, if it’s too small a matter to bring to the offender’s attention, then it’s certainly too small a matter to bring to someone else’s attention!

Only when the two of you, the offended and the offender, are not able to reconcile—only then do you bring in others.

But even here, when others are involved, it is an exercise in humility. For bringing other, objective minds and hearts into the conflict means opening oneself to the possibility of being told by others to drop it, to move on already.

Do you see what Jesus is asking us to do here? We are to dwell in community with each other in humility, seeking to live in harmony with one another, being gracious to one another, and giving one another the benefit of the doubt. Incidentally, some people call this “The Golden Rule.”

4.

Now, prior to my ordination, my spiritual journey meandered significantly. I spent some time in a church that interpreted today’s Gospel passage not for reconciliation but as a guideline for discipline. And, in case you don’t know, this is not a unique interpretation. In fact, it’s quite common.

The church, the pastor said, has been given the authority to bind and loose. Obviously, he said, this refers to membership and excommunication.

And so, when a young woman began dating a young man who was not a church member, several people took it upon themselves to go to her in private, one-to-one, and point out her fault.

Sometime later, when she became pregnant, well, since some of the church members had already gone to her individually, why, the matter of her unrepentant sinful choices was brought before the elders. Meanwhile, the young man, who was feeling in over his head, skipped town.

So, since the matter was already public, the elders presented this young woman with a choice. She could either stand before the entire congregation during a Sunday worship service and publicly apologize to the offended congregation; or face excommunication, i. e., be treated as “a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Well, she chose the public apology; and made it on a Sunday morning with a tear-stained face; and I’ve recalled with sorrow the scene in my mind’s eye many times since.

But doesn’t this interpretation miss the whole point?

This young woman didn’t need discipline and the threat of excommunication. She needed a community who would love her through the tough times ahead.

Jesus in fact sought out Gentiles and tax collectors. If we, the church, are to treat an obstinate offender as a Gentile or tax collector, it seems to me we shouldn’t ban them from the assembly but rather seek them out, like the good shepherd does when one sheep wanders away from the ninety-nine.

Jesus has not called us to a ministry of discipline—of who’s in and who’s out—of us vs. them. Jesus has called us to a ministry of reconciliation. As the church—the heavenly community here on earth—we seek not to be divided from but reconciled to one another.

Jesus says that when two or three are gathered, whatever we bind or loose on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven. Well, there are two or three (and more) of us here. So I say let’s loosen up on discipline and bind ourselves instead to the ministry of reconciliation.