Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Matthew 18: 15-20
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 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. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
How Are We Gathered: Matthew 18:15-20
Gathering has been strange lately, hasn’t it? For months now, gathering has been strange. It’s still not safe to be physically close to people we don’t live with or don’t share a socializing pod with for more than a few minutes or without a mask. My colleagues and my wife’s colleagues, preachers and teachers, are spending a lot of time figuring out which masks they can teach and preach in without getting too sweaty or losing their breath. Weddings and funerals, two major lifespan events in our families and communities, are held over the internet and in small, in-person groups. So many of us have figured out which rooms in our homes have the best lighting so that our faces look just a little more lively on camera, because that’s how we’re seeing people most often these days, on camera. On the one hand, gathering over the internet is letting me attend a housewarming party at my friend’s new place in Topeka, Kansas next Friday. On the other, I haven’t seen most of your whole faces, unmediated by technology, in months.
I don’t regret these choices to gather differently over the last five months. We did not make them lightly, but, informed by the best science available, we made them with the intent to do the most good possible... to care for the people at greatest risk if they contract Covid-19. And, I think we’ve fostered a different kind of intimacy. It doesn’t replace gathering in person as we did in the time before this virus spread. But, look how people from our church who live in Maryland and Florida and those who have been traveling around Maine have been able to be with us in worship? Look at how we still pray for each other, every week, if not every day? We even make music with and for one another, passing along recordings of the instruments to the singers who record the voices. For those who have access to technology, technology has helped us gather. It’s not church like before, but it still feels like church, at least to me.
I’ve been thinking about gathering because today’s scripture is about gathering and navigating what it means to be in community with people. Well, actually it is a teaching meant to help followers of Jesus function not just as individuals of faith, but as a community of faith. Relationality is at the core of who Jesus was and what he hoped for humanity. Of course, he would leave them with some wisdom about how to be in relationship... When you tell people that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor, you also have to help people learn what it means to love your neighbor. Sometimes figuring out how to love your neighbor means figuring out how to argue with them.
Jesus, as recorded and interpreted in Matthew, is under no illusion that the people who follow him will no longer disagree or get in arguments or harm one another. Following Jesus doesn’t stop you from being human. Following Jesus does give you a mechanism and guidance for making amends when you do end up hurting someone you care about. One scholar I read, Barbara K. Lundblad, referred to this portion of Matthew as the “church reconciliation manual.” In the chapter just before this one, Jesus shared a parable about a shepherd who lost one sheep leaving the ninety-nine safe sheep behind to go rescue the one who was lost. Lundblad suggests that that story can help read this part about reconciliation. This is a path by which a lost one can be restored.
Notice how this process presumes that there is a place for confrontation in Christian community. If another member sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. Scholar Michael Chan thinks it’s helpful to read this portion as a reminder that following Christ means that you don’t ignore when harm has been done. Instead, Jesus sets out a process by which harm is addressed. The verses outline a process by which the wronged party can seek redress with increasing levels of helpful mediation in cases where the party that has done the harm is not prepared to address it. It is a clear and intentional process with the ultimate goal to restore a right relationship that mirrors the intimacy of the family. Verse 15 says that if the member listens to the harm and makes amends, the one who initiated the conversation has regained a sibling. Dr. Chan puts it this way, “Critique and conflict must be in service of reconciliation and return.” This is about bringing the sheep back in. But that can only come if the harm is addressed.
The things we do right here, right now, have affects that ripple forward. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. The texts and traditions and people we hold tightly leave an impression, like the pale indention under a wedding ring. Some text and traditions and even people need to be held more loosely, adapted, changed, and even let go according to the new movements of the Holy Spirit. We have to discern what is fitting for now, based on the needs of our neighbors and the movement of Christ’s spirit in this moment. This is also a part of the church reconciliation manual: Jesus empowering his people to interpret God’s will for the times and situations in which they live.
We are gathering differently, but this work of discernment and reconciliation remain vital to the mission of the church. How on earth can we function as the Body of Christ, especially now, if we don’t tell the truth about harm, tend to the traditions that have helped us survive, and cultivate new ways to gather that reflect the needs of this group of people in this time and space? This scripture tells us that where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, Jesus is there among them. That means, when the people are gathered, regardless of how, Christ is there. And, if Christ is there, we have the power to do right by one another and by God. In fact, we have the mandate to seek to do right by one another, even if it means that we have to hear how we have done someone else harm. Christ is with us, helping us to listen, and Christ will help us figure out how to respond. This is what it means to be church, even a church that is meeting mostly on the internet and over the phone. May we remain bound to Christ and to one another.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.