September 7, 2014 – The 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18A
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermons can be heard here.
One of the things we tell our acolytes is that, if they’re doing a good job, they will more or less disappear. And the same is true for the clergy—especially the one who is standing at the altar saying the words of the Eucharistic Prayer. Our job is to get out of the way. All of us—priests, acolytes, choir, ushers, and every one sitting in a pew—we are all here to experience God’s presence, and, if any one of us is drawing attention to himself, the rest of us have a harder time staying focused on the one who meets us here—the Word made flesh.
That’s one of my favorite things about the way we do church. Although there is plenty of time for the preacher to shine (or not), most of our service has less to do with us and more to do with Jesus. When we come to the altar rail to receive the bread and wine, we come to meet our Lord—to commune with God, not with our priest. Yes, some of you like to look the clergy in the eye and feel a gentle squeeze as the bread is placed into your palm, but, when we’re at our best, what transpires up there is an unmediated encounter between worshipper and God. The ministers disappear, and all that’s left is you and Jesus.
But sometimes that isn’t possible.
A few times in my ministry, I have noticed when one of you has crossed over the aisle to take Communion on the other side. Sometimes clergy disappoint their parishioners. And, once or twice, I have hurt one of you enough that you didn’t want me to be the one who handed you the Communion bread. What you may not know is that sometimes those roles are reversed. Sometimes parishioners disappoint their clergy. And, once or twice, one of you has hurt me enough that I didn’t want to be the one to hand you the “body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” I’ve never swapped sides or skipped over anyone, but I’ve thought about it once or twice because the truth is, whether parishioner or priest, it’s hard sharing this holy encounter with someone who has wounded you deeply.
There’s a page in the prayer book that outlines the procedure for withholding Communion from “a person who is living a notoriously evil life” or “those who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation” (BCP 409). Excommunication is the harshest punishment the church can bestow on its members, but it seems that there are times when it really does come to that. It’s not very well known, and I’ve never heard of anyone using it, but I think it’s important to put that procedure in there—not because I ever expect to need it but because all of us are supposed to remember that we cannot be the body of Christ if there is an unreconciled brokenness among us.
Today’s gospel lesson is recorded in a chapter that deals almost exclusively with forgiveness. After telling his disciples the parable of the lost sheep—the story of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one who has gone astray—Jesus tells them what to do when a fellow disciple sins against them. First, go and point out the wrong when the two of you are alone. If that doesn’t work, bring one or two witnesses with you and see if you can regain that one. If that still doesn’t work, tell the whole church. And, if the hardhearted one refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. In other words, cut him off completely—from your worshipping community, from your social circle, from your business, and from every aspect of your life. That seems pretty harsh coming from the one who spent most of his time with tax collectors and prostitutes, but, given the enormity of God’s forgiveness, it makes sense.
God is the one who leaves everything behind in search of the one who is lost. God is the one who sees the magnitude of our sin and loves us anyway. God is the one who knows that we will always turn our back on him, yet he sent his son to show us that he will always be willing to welcome us back. If we allow our sin against one another to linger and fester in our community, the power of God’s forgiveness will never be real to us. We cannot be the body of Christ and sit across the aisle from someone who has hurt us. We cannot exist as the forgiven people of God if we refuse to seek forgiveness among ourselves. We cannot know heaven’s forgiveness if we cannot find forgiveness here on earth.
Then what should we do? Jesus said, “If another member of the church has sinned against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Notice where he places the burden of reconciliation—not on the one who has done the wrong but on the one who has been hurt. The truth is that it’s easier simply to avoid the one who has hurt us. It’s easier to sit on our side of the aisle and look with hatred at the one who has caused us such pain. But we cannot know what it means to be forgiven by God until we are willing to bear the cost of going to that person in search of reconciliation. God’s forgiveness might be free, but living as the body of Christ sometimes costs us everything.
Who is that person whom you cannot seem to forgive? Who is the one who makes you cross the aisle in order to avoid encountering that person at the altar rail? Who is it that has hurt you so badly that you cannot encounter the fullness of God’s forgiveness until you seek reconciliation with that person? We are the body of Christ. We are the forgiven people of God. But that cannot be true unless we are willing to forgive just as we have been forgiven. God’s forgiveness must fill us so completely that we become willing to sacrifice our own woundedness on the altar of reconciliation. Let go of your hurt. Seek out the one who has wronged you. Pursue that person in the name of forgiveness. Only then can God’s grace reign among us. Amen.