Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sermon, Proper 18A, Matthew 18:15-20

If you look hard, you can begin to see the end of the journey. We are just past the halfway point in this long, green Season after Pentecost, and things are slowly changing. Last week the weather turned and you knew it was football season. It snowed in Anaconda. I changed the calendar in VC and saw the First Sunday of Advent. And in the Gospel of Matthew, we are moving closer to the crucifixion.

This 18th chapter of our gospel is a pause, a time to catch our breath. The chapter falls between the end of Jesus' ministry in and around Galilee and his push towards Jerusalem and his crucifixion. So, poised as he is between the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end, what does Jesus focus on? He focuses on the Church.

This whole chapter is pretty much what we might call canon law for church polity and behavior. Jesus discusses the nature of leadership, caring for the community, and conflict management. He talks about this here because, as I said, we are between his ministry and his crucifixion. He's sort of recapping what he has taught up to now and prepping the disciples for what is yet to come. Besides church polity and behavior, Jesus also discusses sin and repentance.

And it is with this that our gospel lesson for today, and much of Chapter 18 for that matter, is focused on -- sin and repentance.

"If a member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when you are alone." In other words, don't go talking about the incident to everyone EXCEPT the person who sinned against you. If I borrow your car, damage it, and return it without mentioning the damage, then I have sinned against you. You should come to me and discuss it, rather than tell everyone about this awful thing I've done and that it's not a good idea to let me borrow things.

This process continues, first individually and then with a few more people involved and then, finally, involving the whole church. If this process of reconciliation fails to work, then we are left with the act of last resort -- excommunication.

These steps are essentially the same ones laid out in the disciplinary rubrics of the BCP over on page 409. If the priest knows someone is living a notoriously evil life, then the priest meets with that person privately. If it involves multiple people of the congregation, then all parties are involved in the attempted reconciliation. And if no progress is made, they are excommunicated, refused Communion, and the bishop is notified.

This whole process is based on reconciliation. Jesus and our BCP are concerned with restoring the community to wholeness. And this is why we do not have a rite of confession. Instead, we have what is called The Reconciliation of a Penitent. Confession is a part of that rite, but the overall goal is not simply to confess our sins, but to return us to a place of wholeness and restoration within the community.

And yet, there are times when none of this works. Some people don't see their actions as sinful. Some people may know their actions are sinful, but continue on anyway. Some people will say they are simply responding in kind. When all attempts at reconciliation have failed, only then can the person be excommunicated. Whether it is by my refusing to administer Communion to them, or whether it is by members of the church following Jesus' command to let the offender be as a Gentile or tax collector to them.

Gentiles and tax collectors. You really couldn't get much lower on the scale here. Gentiles are the dirty foreigners. They are those people from out of town with strange customs. They worship false gods. They have odd diets. They are unclean, impure and not to be associated with.

And tax collectors, remember, were even worse. They were Jews who worked for the Romans. They were traitors and thieves. They fixed prices, gouged the taxpaying public, and skimmed money off the top for their own benefit.

It's hard to say which was worse, the Gentiles or the tax collectors. And good, upstanding Jews simply did not associate with THOSE people. Because by associating with THOSE people, you might contaminate yourself or, worse, fall astray from God. So when faced with excommunication, we are to treat those people as Gentiles and tax collectors; we are to treat them as THOSE people.

But notice something here: Jesus is asking us to treat the excommunicated as Gentiles and tax collectors. Who did Jesus hang out with a lot of the times? Gentiles and tax collectors.

Jesus called Matthew, the tax collector, to discipleship. He ate with tax collectors and sinners. He was called a drunkard and friend of tax collectors and sinners. He claimed tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom of heaven before the priests of his day. And he welcomed tax collectors into his presence.

Let them be as Gentiles and tax collectors to you. We need to understand something here. The Church is not simply another social institution. We are not here simply to raise money and influence people. We do not simply invite the "right" kinds of people, or remove difficult people from our presence.

The Church is the icon of Christ. The Church represents the kingdom of heaven here on earth. We are a house of worship. We are the place where leaders serve, not swagger. We are the place where the weak are fed, not thrown away. And we are the place where the lost are sought out, found and restored.

Let them be as Gentiles and tax collectors to you. If people refuse, through any manner of actions, to be a part of the community of faith, if they have excommunicated themselves, then we are called to see them as Gentiles and tax collectors. Not as people to be avoided, but as people who need to be found and as people who need to hear about forgiveness and reconciliation. We need to see them as people who God himself pursues until all people are at home in the kingdom.

So . . . how do you see Gentiles and tax collectors?


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