First United Methodist Church
September 10th, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
The World we Live in: The Church Responds with Community
Take a moment and think back to a time when you may have been a guest in another person’s home. Perhaps you were offered a drink. Depending on the time of day, the offer might vary between coffee, or tea, or lemonade or sweet tea, but it doesn’t really matter what goes in the cup, does it? When the offer is extended the one making the offer is inviting the other person to stay for more than just a few minutes. “I like you enough to invite you into my house to spend some time with me and share a portion of who I am.” In accepting the offer, the guest acknowledges this time commitment and willingly enters into a covenant of sorts. “I am willing to stay for awhile and learn more about you while we share this time in conversation.” It’s basic hospitality – something that each one of us has experienced at one time or another.
Fifty years ago this type of hospitality occurred more frequently than it does now, as neighbors would “call on” each other regularly, while in today’s world, one generally waits for an invitation before going to another person’s home. At least that’s what we did before Covid. Now, rather than entering another person’s home, we might respond to a Zoom invitation. The hospitality is included in the invitation, and therefore the guest arrives expecting to stay for awhile, but even virtually, the covenant between the two parties is still present in the sending and in the accepting of the invitation.
Whenever we read scripture, we are being invited by God to enter into God’s house, or the Kingdom of God, and stay for awhile. And what we learn about God from the scriptures we read is that relationships are important. Throughout Genesis and Exodus, we witness the growing relationship between God and the Israelites as we encounter Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons, and then Moses and the Israelite nation. God’s love covers the ancient Israelites as they are led through the wilderness, beginning with the Passover and continuing beyond their entrance into the promised land. In the gospels Jesus reveals to us the great lengths to which God will go to so that we can experience this love. And Paul reminds us in his letters that we are so indebted to Christ because of his love for us, that we will always have the obligation to love, or be in right relationship with one another.
But here’s the thing. God doesn’t simply invite us into the Kingdom of God. God offers us a drink and that is the cup of salvation, or the opportunity to live and love as Christ did. We are called to be in right relationship with God and with others, but as humans living in the 21st century, we tend to minimize the importance of relationships. We often think it really doesn’t matter how we relate to the person sitting next to us on the bus, or in the desk next to ours at work or even in pew behind us. All that really matters is that we do our job well, get home, feed the kids dinner, help with homework, watch a little television and then go to bed to start the day all over again tomorrow. Low on the list of priorities is the bitter relationship that seems to never get mended at the office. Who has the time to ponder the harsh words that were said between you and a former friend or a church member that resulted in a cold awkward silence between you both? Most of the time, we are much too busy to take the time to repair our broken relationships. But according to the teachings of Christ, we cannot leave them alone.
In Matthew, we see that Jesus believed that relationships were too important to ignore. He gives detailed instructions on what to do in the event that a relationship turns sour. If someone sins against you or treats you unjustly, then you are instructed to go and confront the person. If this meeting goes well, then you have gained a true friendship. If it doesn’t, then you are to go again, this time taking one or two others as witnesses. I think most of us would be ok with these two steps. But the third step, speaking about the issue in front of the whole church, is a bit of a stretch. Nobody want to make something public that should be worked out in private, right?
Jesus is suggesting a pretty intense process for resolving conflict. But instead of reading this passage as the universal approach to conflict resolution, what if we read it as a genuine concern for the struggles people face when trying to live in community? All of us know that conflict can hurt. When members of our community show little regard for others, everyone suffers.
So, Matthew decides to include a passage in his gospel about the great lengths we should go in order to reconnect with someone who has “gone astray” or even those who have “sinned against you.” When it comes to ruptures in the community, you just don’t give up. Or least you try everything you can think of before letting someone be bound to the consequences of their sin.
Do you think there is a reason Jesus cared so much about relationships between human beings? It would be so much easier to just let bad relationships slip away and not worry about them. We could just ignore each other and make sure we travel separate paths. The problem with that is that Jesus says that how we live together in this life has eternal consequences.
Once upon a time, there were two brothers. Their father had a large farm and when he became too old to work, he called his sons to him. "I am too old to work anymore," he said. "I will divide my farm in half and give each of you one half. I know that you will always work together and will be good friends."
When the brothers first started farming on their adjoining farms, they were the best of friends and would share everything together. Then, one day there was an argument between the two brothers and they stopped speaking to one another. For many years, not a word was spoken between them.
One day, one of the brothers was at his house when a carpenter came to his door and said, "I would like to do some work. Do you have any work that I can do?" The brother thought for a moment and then replied, "I would like for you to build a fence on my property. Build it down near the stream there that separates my farm from my brother’s. I don’t want to see my brother any more and I would like for you to build a high fence there please. I’m going into town and I’ll be back this evening.
When he came back that evening, he was shocked to see that the carpenter had not followed his instructions. Instead of building a high fence there, he had built a bridge over the stream. The man walked down to take a look at the bridge, and as he did, his brother walked toward him from the other side. His brother said, "After all the terrible things I’ve done to you over the years, I can't believe that you would build a bridge and welcome me back." He reached out to his brother and gave him a big hug.
The brother then walked back up to his farmhouse to talk to the carpenter. "Can you stay?" he asked. "I have more work for you to do." The carpenter answered, "I’m sorry but I can’t stay. I have to go, for I have many other bridges to build."
We are called to live as citizens of heaven, not with special privileges, but with special responsibilities for spreading God’s love throughout the world. When we give attention to mending broken relationships, there is a possibility that one of the two conflicting parties will be introduced to Kingdom life. The human hurt and pain that are released may actually prepare a person to receive the heavenly forgiveness and redemption of God. When you think about it, it is through these relationships that we can see the power of God and find redemption.
Think about the last words of Jesus in today’s passage. Rather than reading these verses as a magical formula for reconciliation – perhaps instead it’s a promise that the outcome of reconciliation is nothing short of incredible potential and possibility. When we heal our divisions and come together, God is powerfully at work and nothing is impossible. Moreover, Jesus promises that when we take on this work – that is when we come together as a community to address our differences, resolve our disputes, seek to end conflict, and repair relationships – he is there. Always. Supporting, encouraging, blessing our efforts. We are not alone and that’s why we don’t give up.
Let us pray…
Gracious God, amidst our songs of joy, our hearts are touched by fear. Sin plagues our world, even as we strive to build your realm. Sorrow enters our lives, even as we put on false smiles and engage in empty conversations. Death lurks around every corner, even as we struggle against our own mortality. Reconcile us with your love and compassion, and bless us with your compassionate presence, that we may be filled with joy, love, and hope this day. Amen.
Invitation to Discipleship:
Just as God has called us here, God now sends us forth. Go with the power of God to love and serve the world.