September 7, 2014
13th Sunday after Pentecost
“If God Is There, and We Agree…”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Since it’s been a while since I’ve used this one, and since it sort of fits today’s message, Mahatma Gandhi, as many of you know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him...a super calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.
As I was doing research for this morning’s message, I came across a new website that just sucked me right it. It’s called “The Moonshine Jesus Show” with - Mark Sandlin and David Henson. This is going to go up on my favorite list, along with desperate preacher.com, not only because of the title, but the content.
I knew that I was going to like this - blog, actually - after my initial reading of our scripture passage and the opening lines of The Moonshine Jesus Show. Mark asked David, “So how are you this week?” David said, “I’d be better if we were doing a different text.” I’d have had a better week without this passage, too. Well, maybe not. Maybe the struggle of it has helped me be just a little better person, and maybe that will be passed on to you.
As the book of Matthew has 28 total chapters, the passage we will look at from chapter 18 is a little over halfway. Matthew, a Jew, writes to the Jewish people, trying to get them to embrace Jesus as The long-awaited Messiah. Matthew starts this chapter with a reminder that the greatest in the kingdom are not high government or religious officials, the great intellectuals or the rich and famous. He says, “whoever takes the lowly position of a (this) child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus then goes on to talk about not causing anyone to stumble, and gives them that little parable about the lost sheep and the shepherd leaving the ninety nine to find the one that got lost.
Matthew 18:15-20 NIV
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “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.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Thank you, Al. I’ll admit that I thought - a lot - about doing another passage. But like so many things in life, we can learn from what is good, and the not so good.
Maybe my biggest reluctance of using this passage comes from what I perceive as the low level of situations in this church family that resemble the “sins” that need such resolving. Sure, every so often, things happen, situations arise. But by and large, most especially in light of the wide variances of opinions and endearments that are held by those that call this place home, we haven’t had the big brew-ha-ha’s that have demoralized and torn other churches - for a long while. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
In the original Greek the word that has been translated as brother suggests a close relationship, as in church membership. So if you aren’t an official member of a church, does that mean you are outside the ‘circle of accountability?’ How big is this “membership?” Does it apply to just this church or all Congregationalists? All Christians? And just who has to keep the record books on that sort of thing? Who has time for all these siblings and what they do right or wrong?
Another reason I was so loathe to deal with this passage is because it says that if “sinners” don’t “repent” after all doing all these steps, then the “sinner” is to be treated like a “pagan or tax collector.” It seems, again, like Jesus is sorting people into the good ones and the bad ones. But Jesus also said, “"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (Jn. 13:34) Some might call this a “tough love” passage, but I’m not so sure.
So we need to remember that tax collectors in Jesus’ day were often Jewish people, who collected taxes from Jewish people for the Roman government - or whatever non-Jewish government. The approved practice was to collect what the government required, plus a little extra for one’s self. If the tax was - let’s say - $25, a tax collector could charge an additional $5-$10 - for their trouble/own income. The problem was that there were no set rules about this collection method, so sometimes greed interfered and the tax collector would charge $15-$25 on top of the regular tax. Their despised status was not about the original taxes or even the collectors’ need to make a living, but the fact that they took advantage of their own people.
Besides that, wasn’t Jesus forever eating with the “wrong people,” speaking to women, hanging out with people of different ethnic backgrounds? Wasn’t that behavior precisely what got under the saddles of the scribes and Pharisees to begin with? Sadly, this passage - more specifically - verses 15, 16, 17 and 18 have caused more heart-ache than good, even within the history of this church family. Excluding “sins” that break actual laws, it seems that praying for the offender seems - at least to my small mind - the higher road. Even if the prayer starts with, “Lord, help me to want to pray for this situation or person,” I think we do more good than harm. When we get to the place where our prayer (genuinely) becomes “Lord, give this person a really good day,” I think we get closer to “loving one another” than we have ever thought possible, not to mention that we significantly lower the gossip potential.
And maybe that was Jesus’ point. Even after all that rig-a-marole of Step One, Step Two and Step Three, in the end, we’re still supposed to love them as Christ has loved us. Being the lazy sort that I am, I’d just rather side-step all the meetings and deal with my own heart and what is driving the need to make a big deal of something that may be outside my purview. Chances are, there’s a lot more on the table than my own - our - sense of injustice. Chances are, most true offenses are more misunderstandings and miscommunication than true sins.
So we get to verse 19, the one about two people agreeing on something and asking God for it and it will be done for them. This verse is a two-edged sword if ever there was one. One edge seems to be a support for a church movement called Prosperity Theology. The idea is that God rewards faith with health and wealth. That theology first appealed to those described as “the dispossessed” — the very poor. It’s how some of the very poor became even poorer at the hand of a preacher or minister - one of the many offenses under the umbrella of spiritual abuse. Now, its updated version appeals to the aspirational class of the suburbs. Whereas the early devotees of Prosperity Theology prayed for a roof over their heads that did not leak, adherents of prosperity theology pray for ever bigger houses for the sake of having bigger houses and moving up that very unsteady social ladder.
Another reason passages like this one make me squirm is that just as soon as I say something about a way of life, I will, in reflection, realize once again just how close Murphy - of Murphy’s Law - lives next to me. Believe me, my heart-felt intent behind this morning’s passage is not about what any one of us may or may not have. It is, I think, a good reminder to keep reviewing our motivations, so that we don’t end up saying things like, “If I had only listened to Dinah…” Kidding. So we don’t end up with regret.
The other side of the sword of agreeing about anything and asking God for it is - pick out any headline in any newspaper, website or newscast. Pick one: Ferguson, Missouri, ISIS, Ukraine, Kelli Stapleton, fracking, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party, you name it, we could find two people who agree about the topic, and have them pray about it, and we can find two other people who hold the opposite view on the topic and ask them to do the same. And in the end, has anything, will anything change? It sure makes a case for those who say that prayer is useless.
So maybe, again, the surface reading of this verse isn’t the greater issue. Perhaps the greater issue is about talking to other people, to cultivate an interest in understanding how other people believe, that is more important. We can make guesses about people, and maybe we’re right more often than not. But how often have you been talking to someone, and you realize that what they really felt was not what you thought they would think?
So we get to our last verse: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” As you prepare to eat your dinner with at least one other person, and you say grace, and notice I didn’t say “if” you say grace, but in that act, you acknowledge the truth of this verse 20. Sitting downstairs after church for a little cup and bite of something is not as much about the elements as it is about the extension of being present with Christ. Being with someone else is an opportunity to be mindful of God and acknowledge God’s presence with you. Even without the presence of another person, the Holy Spirit is hovering around, making every moment holy. How many places and instances have you realized that you are standing or sitting or swinging or teeter-tottering on holy ground? Presbyterian minister, author and theologian, Frederick Buechner once said, “Wherever people love each other and are true to each other and take risks for each other, God is with them and they are doing God’s will.” So let’s pray before we go and do more loving and being true and risk taking for God!
Great God, we are all aware that life can be hard and sometimes it’s easy to roll around in that bog of quick judgment. But we are aware, too, that you forgive each of us our sins, so help us to not be pejorative, but kind, and compassionate and loving - as you love us. We are also well aware that those are big shoes, God, but help us to rise to the moments when we can be the best that you created your church to be - in ones, twos or more. Help us to make sure our motives are good, and that we learn to relish contentment and the richness of the blessings with which you surround us. For all the blessings of the guidance of your Holy Spirit, all your people say, Amen.