Communal Responsibilties

Rev. Andrew Connors

Sep 10, 2023

Sermon Text(s):
Matthew 18:15-20

Welcome to a new Brown Memorial!  Our first normal start to the year since 2019.  The pandemic has finally, officially been pronounced as over (though I know the coronavirus is still very much with us so do what you need to do to stay safe).  Small groups are starting up.  The choir sounds awesome.  Gretchen van Utt is upright and in the house!  Janine preached an awesome sermon last week with very short notice.  “Susan Haugh and I’ve got this” she texted me on Saturday.  It’s a new day indeed!  We’ve sung! We’ve celebrated!  We’re gonna eat and celebrate some more.

So the next thing, obviously, is for us to talk about excommunication.  How to decide when we’re going to kick someone out and how it’s gonna go down if and when we get to that.  It’s important to get the terms of excommunication settled early, since we’re building a community here which is one of the hardest things anyone could try to do in 2023.  Some say it’s impossible.  One or more of us is going to do something really unkind.  One or more of us is going to do or say something mean or foolish.  One or more of us is going to project our expectations onto someone else who is going to turn around and fulfill the disappointment of not meeting those expectations that were unconsciously heaped upon them without their awareness or consent.

I realize it’s a bit jarring to start out the new program year celebrations this way.  We expect church to be different from other communities in the world.  We expect church to be full of ethical people reaching up for their better angels, not degenerating down to their baser nature.  We expect people who come here to be inspired and governed by Paul’s words about loving God and loving each other.  Why put a damper on all that idealism, all this positive energy that we haven’t seen in 5 years by talking about excommunication?

We could just ignore Matthew’s teaching since the scholarly consensus is that the historical Jesus probably didn’t say any of this.  During Jesus’ time there was no church and probably no talk of church as such.  In the Gospels, the word “church” – ekklesia – only appears here in this passage and two chapters ago when Jesus says that he’ll build the church on the rock that is his disciple, Peter.[1]  Ekklesia doesn’t appear anywhere else in this or any other Gospel.  The historical consensus is that this is Matthew’s community concern, not Jesus.

But whether Jesus said these words or they arose from Matthew’s community, they confirm the experience of anyone who has ever spent any time in the church.  You get a bunch of Jesus followers in the room, agitation is bound to occur, disagreements can then take root, factions form, an elbow will be thrown.  Matthew’s community is full of realists who already understand when you build a community around a rabbi who overturns tables in holy places and tells religious leaders that prostitutes and tax collectors are going into heaven ahead of them, you are setting yourself up for conflict.  And not just any kind of conflict, but conflict with people who probably think they are the upright ones and therefore any problems that occur are surely the result of someone else.  

So it’s important that we deal with Matthew’s guidance since it’s this kind of junk that sends people packing and not just lay people by the way.  The pastoral world that I live in has been agitated the last two weeks by the resignation of a head of staff of a large church near Chicago after he published a blog that explored the reasons that he joined that group of departing clergy that has grown so large in the wake of the pandemic that it’s been termed “the great resignation.”  Church life has become too difficult, he said, with unrealistic expectations coming from so many directions that whoever steps into the role is bound to fail.

Janine’s sermon last week sought to deal with the question “what’s the use in trying?” when it comes to being a different kind of witness in the world.  That question is also being applied by lots of people as they reconsider their participation in church.  What’s the use in trying to build community when this person doesn’t do this or that person doesn’t do that making the whole experience less than ideal for lots of us?  What’s the use in trying to build community when someone’s hostility, criticism from the couch, or their gendered or racialized bias wounds without an awareness or willingness to change?  What’s the use in trying to build community when the very people who are supposed to be loving their neighbor do the opposite?

One solution is to seek community elsewhere.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  I have friends outside of church.  I take a class unaffiliated with the church.  I serve on a board that is completely secular in nature.  I find community in all of those places.  You can too.  Yet none of those places seek to orient my total life around the holy project that is following Jesus in the world.  None of those places offer guidance on the basic human disciplines of offering forgiveness, extending grace, loving my neighbor, practicing nonviolence, honoring all people as made in the image of God.  None of those places offer the possibility of multigenerational relationships outside of blood relatives where mutual care and learning can occur.  And none of those places make the audacious claim that the people I work alongside are not just colleagues or friends but siblings in the family of God.

You can find lots of community outside of church but usually only to a certain depth.  Those who try to go deeper often fail.  A few years ago, a bar opened over here in Mt. Vernon. The bar called itself “church bar.”  Here we would find “kin,” the website promised.  “Parktake and imbibe.  A sanctuary.  A place of generosity.”  I thought it was a really cool idea.  Take the best of church and bring it to the bar scene.   “Church without all the baggage,” I thought.  Show up when you want it.  No other strings attached.  Then a bunch of bad stuff happened.  Accusations about staff not being paid fairly or at all.  And then bigger accusations that led to the sale of the bar to new owners.  The new owners ran with the same concept but they had already been been branded as problematic even with a vision of hospitality for everyone, a place where everyone is seen, heard and cared for.  “A place where anyone who walks through the doors leaves better than when they came,” as one of the new owners put it.  Last week they closed saying that they were losing thousands of dollars a week and fighting untrue accusations that they just couldn’t get ahead of.[2]

“It’s just like real church,” I thought to myself.  What I really thought is that if a bar with none of the baggage of the institutional church can’t make it work for more than a few years, then we had better figure this out because the culture is desperate for community that more or less works.  The country is desperate for community that more or less works.  Help isn’t coming from anywhere else.  It’s not coming from the business sector.  It’s not coming from government or the political system that undergirds it. It’s not coming from neighborhoods alone who need a vision of the whole to guard against the nimbyism that so often characterizes their main concerns.  We had better figure out how to make community – not perfect – just make it work.

Figuring it out for Matthew means learning again that the church is not some voluntary association, but the family of God.  “If a church member sins against you” really should be translated, “if a brother or sister – or a sibling sins against you.”  It’s not some choice to be part of the family of God, according to Jesus.  It’s a fact of our faith.  A fact so important that when someone sins against you, you’re supposed to go talk to them about it.  You talk to them privately because unlike our social media shaming culture of the moment, the purpose of calling someone out is to call them back into relationship.  It’s private because we’re not looking to score political points by shaming someone into silence.  We meet each other eye to eye and try to hash it out.  There’s a sustained effort to restore relationship – that’s why the text recommends bringing two or three others if the first conversation doesn’t work.  Light is the best disinfectant.  It’s not good to hide behind anonymity.  We have to own our actions and our words and subject them to the scrutiny of others.  And finally there is the recognition that sometimes people put themselves out of fellowship.  Sometimes individuals are not willing to be accountable to anyone other than themselves.  Even then, the text says, treat them as a Gentile or a tax collector.  Sounds harsh except that Jesus spent a fair amount of time with Gentiles and tax collectors.  They were outside the fold for Matthew’s community, but always related to, and frankly eligible to come on back in.

Now if that all this sounds a little uncomfortable to you, impinges a little too much on your sense of individualism, raises your anxiety about being named a problem by a group of religious insiders, well let me share a little experience of a sort of excommunication that I experienced shortly after coming here to Brown.  Some of you will recall that we were on the forefront of seeking marriage equality with a lot of others in the state of Maryland back in like 2006 or 2007.  And as part of that struggle our congregation sponsored an effort to get our presbytery to go on the public record in favor of marriage equality.  That enraged some leaders in our presbytery, one of whom reached out to me and setup a meeting to express his sense that I had sinned in the eyes of the Lord and needed to repent.  I patiently explained that the only sinning I saw was the church of Jesus Christ discriminating against LGBTQ baptized Christians who simply wanted to serve Jesus Christ in their own churches and the sinning against congregations like mine who wished to recognize God’s claim and call on their lives.  The only sinning was not being able to gain the protections of marriage afforded to straight couples.  My new friend responded by seeking another meeting with two or three more supporters from their congregation.  He explained that he was following the instructions given by Matthew’s Gospel.  I was being Matthew 18’ed!  

You can predict what happened.  They concluded that I was outside the bounds.  Charges were filed against our congregation and others supporting these efforts.  Those charges were eventually dismissed but not before I and some of you got treated as Gentiles and tax collectors.  And truth be told, we were treating them the same.  But here’s the thing, our congregation is still in relationship with their congregation.  They’ve stayed in the Presbytery despite the fact that LGBTQ Christians are leading all over our congregations in every ordained position in the church and marriage equality with none of the disasters predicted by the way. I daresay God’s grace and love and justice has asked more of each of us than any of us wanted to give, and reconciliation is closer today than it was when I got judged as the sinner outside the bounds.  Matthew 18 worked in a way even if it didn’t work the way any of us had imagined.

So let’s start the year with a direct reminder that we’re in a community that’s pledged itself to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.  Part of fulfilling that pledge is interpreting what that means.  That’s what Jesus is talking about when he says whatever you loose on earth and will be loosed in heaven. It’s the word used by rabbis for interpreting the law.  Our communal interpretation of what it means to love in the world is holy work that Jesus gives us.  It often involves difference and disagreement.  We should expect it.  Count on it.  Even celebrate it.  And learn how to work through those differences gently, directly, relationally with a sense of openness that can lead to adventure and joy.  That work, my sisters & my brothers, my siblings, is way more significant to the world than we imagine.

It’s not hard to see right now that the country is in trouble.  We are in desperate need of political solutions to enormous problems like unwinding systemic racism that determines where we live, our life expectancies, our incomes and wealth, our children’s success, and the depth of our welcome in all public places including church.  We are in desperate need of political solutions to climate change that is marching forward now in fires and floods and heat waves and water shortages that are just the cusp of what is to come.  We are in desperate need for solutions to gun violence and mental health challenges, and educational setbacks from the pandemic.  The solutions to these problems will only come if we find ways to create authentic community across difference of every kind.  I know our church doesn’t have difference of every kind.  But we’ve got enough differences to make us a laboratory of growth to get better at loving each other in the full prophetic sense of what love across difference means.  

I got my lab coat on and I’m ready to listen, learn and speak.  It’s a new day at Brown Memorial.  There’s so much we can do together.  The Spirit’s here.  I’m fired up.  Are you fired up?  Let’s call on the Spirit and make this the best year we’ve had in the last 20 together.  We won’t have to excommunicate if we learn how to pro-communicate.  Call on the Spirit!

[1] Note that the updated edition (2022) of the New Revised Standard Version (1989) correctly changed “If another member of the church sins against you” to “if your brother or sister sins against you.” (Matthew 18:15).  “Ekklesia” only appears in 18:17 and earlier in 16:18.

[2] “Church Bar Closes After Difficult Start Under New Ownership,” The Baltimore Banner, September 3, 2023,