Sermon for September 7th, 2014 || Proper 18, Year A || Exodus 12: 1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20|| The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Sometimes I really wonder about the folks who put together the lectionary—the schedule of Sunday readings that most churches, including this one, follow each week. How intentional were these experts about some of the choices they made, or did they just have a collectively bizarre sense of humor?
First there’s today’s Old Testament lesson, which has God declaring in deep solemnity (and I imagine here a booming James Earl Jones sort of voice): “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.”
Well, yeah, September is the first month of the academic calendar and of the church’s program year. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what God had in mind –and I just wish I were a little more sure it wasn’t what the lectionary team had in mind either. God was instituting the deeply sacred celebration of the Passover meal and the journey of His people from bondage to freedom—a truly pivotal, hinge moment in the life of the Jewish people. So, the beginning of the school year and our “Ice Cream Sundae Sunday”? Well, as exciting as they are, they kind of pale by comparison…
Then there’s today’s gospel reading—which, no matter how you cut it (and believe me I’ve tried every which way but sideways) is all about church conflict! Who in their right mind wants to preach about church conflict on the first Sunday of the new program year, when everyone’s back from vacation, visitors are here to see if they might like to make St. Stephen’s their church home, and we’re all together for the first time– with so much to celebrate and even more to look forward to?
Not this preacher, I can assure you. But there it is.
So I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that churches are notoriously conflict-laden places. I know, I know—that’s wrong on so many levels—but just do an Amazon search with the words “church conflict” and you’ll find more than 14 thousand books with titles like “Preaching Through A Storm,” “When Sheep Attack” and “Managing Conflict in the Local Church.” There’s an entire industry that focuses on nothing but church conflict. In fact, the proverbial wisdom is that at any given time, even in a healthy congregation, about 20% of a church’s members will be unhappy. How sad is that? So not even our little slice of heaven called St Stephen’s can expect to be entirely conflict-free. Especially when we’re as theologically and politically diverse as we are.
Now, I know that can be horribly disillusioning to those who come to church expecting a spiritual Shangri-La of near Utopian perfection, instead of a crazy-quilt of characters both blessed and broken, but here’s the good news: Conflict isn’t necessarily bad.
In fact, conflict isn’t at all bad when the crazy quilt of characters that comprise a community are Christians who have committed themselves to the kind of risky relationships that constitute authentic community. Authentic community, rather than what one writer calls “pseudo-community,” where everyone smiles kindly at each other, never lets anyone get more than skin deep, uses gossip as a shortcut for establishing false intimacy, and avoids conflict at all costs.
Conflict isn’t necessarily bad in a church anymore than it is in a marriage. It’s simply a part of living in relationship. Whenever my mentor met with couples for pre-marital counseling, one of the questions he always asked was how the couple dealt with conflict. And to those who answered, “Oh, we never fight!” he would quip, only half joking, “Well you better start now, because for a marriage to work you’ve got to learn to do it well.” Conflict is a part of all worthwhile relationships, including church ones, so Christians have got to learn to do it well.
That’s what both Paul, in his letter to the Romans—and Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, are talking about. How to do conflict well. Conflict in here ought to look a lot different than the kind of conflict we see out there these days. In here, we are standing on Holy Ground. In here, we are God’s Church. In here, we are the Body of Christ. And as the Body of Christ, we have resources for doing conflict well–resources for doing conflict as a community of believers–resources for doing conflict in ways that are life-giving and constructive rather than death-dealing and destructive.
We have resources—as Paul reminds us– like the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, which we so often dismiss as a platitude, as if it were not only unrealistic but also optional—when it is neither. We think that loving our neighbor is about having warm fuzzy feelings for them, when it’s really about committing to a way of behaving well especially when we don’t have those feelings for them…it’s about committing to a way of behaving that is kind and forgiving and generous of spirit, especially when we are feeling neither kind nor forgiving nor generous of spirit. Because behaving in loving ways creates space for God’s grace to do what we can not do—to do more than we could ask or imagine: to soften hearts, heal hurt feelings, and create something entirely new, called authentic community.
We have resources like Christ’s promise that where two or three gather in his name, he will be there among them… right there in the midst of the discord, dissension and damaged relationships. He will be there ready in all of his divine power to use the crazy-quilt of blessed and broken characters like you and me to transform conflict into connection and friction into forgiveness.
And we have resources like the mystery of the Eucharist, our own deeply sacred meal…the celebration of our Christian journey as God’s people from the bondage of sin to the freedom of new life as a people on the Way. A people empowered by baptism to “put on the armor of light,” and face conflict honorably and without fear, and to bless the community by doing so. A people empowered to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and by his grace love each other in ways we could never do if left to our own devices: selflessly, sacrificially, intentionally, for the sake of God’s church.
What freedom in knowing God asks nothing of us that is not possible through His grace! What relief in remembering that when two or three are gathered in his name He is here, among us–like right this very minute! And what joy on this first Sunday of the new program year– when everyone’s back from vacation, visitors are here to see if they might like to make St. Stephen’s their church home, and we’re all together for the first time—to gather on this Holy Ground as a crazy-quilt of characters committed to being and becoming authentic Christian community! Thanks be to God!!! Amen.