Sunday, September 6, 2020

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

"The Beloved Community"

Rev. Dr. Scott Landis

Matthew 18:15-20

In her commentary on this passage, New Testament scholar Dr. Audrey West has stated, “Wherever two or three are gathered … it can be really hard to get along.” When I first read that I have to admit, I laughed out loud. But, upon further reflection, I began to appreciate the truth of that statement. It is, indeed, a testament to the sober reality of living with others.

We take great solace when we hear Jesus’ words, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” But how often is that NOT the case. Communities of any size – be it family, condo association, town, state or nation are challenging. Even supposed like-minded affinity groups like hiking clubs, teams, or even political parties – find harmony a challenge. And the church, I’m sad to say, is one of the biggest culprits. Now, I’m sure that is NOT the case at Keawala`i, but those “OTHER” churches. Hummmmm.

It’s the challenge of being human – and it’s why, I believe, Jesus addressed it up front. The church was only beginning to form. In fact, at this point, it had not yet taken shape at all. But disciples were gathering. Folks were getting together on a regular basis and Jesus tried to teach them the importance of community – all the way down to spelling out a model for conflict resolution. He wanted his disciples to do everything they could to engender peace, harmony, and cooperation since there were so many forces that would be working against them.

It’s also very important to note what is NOT said in this passage – that is, what comes right before it and right after help further to define the “beloved community” Jesus was hoping to create.

Just before these words Jesus tells a parable that describes the peril of the least – the little ones – the most vulnerable. He asks, “What shepherd, upon realizing one of his sheep has gone astray, would NOT leave all the others behind to search for the one who is lost?” So is the will of God, if one among you is lost.

In other words, the majority will be fine. It’s the one who has lost her voice that needs to be sought, brought home, and celebrated.

And in the passage immediately following today’s lesson, we hear from a frustrated Peter who argues, “So if a member of the church is out of line and continues to sin against me, how many times must I forgive – 7 times?”

“Not 7 times,” Jesus responded, “but 70 times 7.”

Interestingly, Peter’s response to that idea is not recorded.

So, how do we do this? The church cannot be a place where anything goes, right? There have to be some parameters – some guidelines. There are expectations, right?

I’m not sure that’s the emphasis Jesus intended in these words – but they are, by no means, any less difficult.

Hard as it might be for some of us to believe, I’m pretty sure God sees each one of us as a child of God. [Pause] Now, as soon as I say that, I bet you have already thought of 2 or 3 or 50 folks that don’t meet the criterion, right? But, stay with me for a moment. God has created each one of us in God’s image. We each house a piece of the Divine right here (point to heart). That can never be taken away.

Some (perhaps even we) – from time to time – have gone a little off course, well, maybe … a lot off course – gone astray – gotten lost – and in the process have made some very bad decisions – decisions that may have been costly to others and to ourself. But that doesn’t mean that God has stopped loving or caring for us. In fact, God will do whatever is necessary to bring us home – may even leave all the others behind in order to do so.

Think about that. God has nothing but love for each and every one of us and will stop at nothing in order to love us back into the fold – for GOD IS LOVE. And God desires nothing more than for us to be restored to community. Even if that may take forgiving 70 X 7 times! [Pause]

Some of you know I have been reading the wonderful new book, His Truth is Marching On” by presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize winning author Jon Meacham. The book chronicles the life of Georgia Congressman John Lewis who recently died of pancreatic cancer. The events of his life are amazing. His courage insisting on the rights of African Americans in our nation were remarkable and compelling. He put his life on the line – time and again – that justice might prevail.

Growing up in the home of an Alabama sharecropper, John wanted nothing more than to become a preacher – practicing on the family chickens who seemed like the only ones willing to listen at the time. But God put a deeper burden in his life. His destiny was to go way beyond the church whose teachings he never left behind – and to do everything he could – nearly getting himself killed – to inaugurate the “beloved community.” This was the hope that inspired him, drove him, yet in the end he failed to realize. In his words, “America has only put a down payment on the beloved community.” In other words, this is going to take a lot of hard work.

John Lewis insisted that every demonstration, every protest, every sit-in, every speech, everything encounter with the perceived enemy be steeped in love. In his words, “If I cannot look the Ku Klux Klansmen in the eye and love him even when he is attacking me – I cannot build a relationship with him. My motivation is love.”

But what does any of that have to do with the church? Well, nothing – and everything. We ought to be better than the state. Our ethos, our mission, our mandate is based ON and steeped IN LOVE. [Pause]

We may not feel called to follow in the footsteps of John Lewis or Dr. King – but as Christians we are called to follow a man named Jesus who sought to establish a beloved community long before Civil Rights became a necessary concept.

We follow a man who said, “Here is my body. Take it. It is broken for you. Here is my blood. Take it. It is shed for you. Do this – and remember me.”

The beloved community begins with and is sustained through sacrifice. That is something both Lewis and King new a lot about, and it is something we will need to become very familiar with if our faith is going to make a difference in a nation sorely divided AND in any challenging relationships – including those in our own families. Our challenge – our mandate – is to love.

Look carefully at this passage again. Notice, what underlies the technique outlined by Jesus to try and bring about reconciliation with the one we are at odds is NOT to insist on our way. No, Jesus reminds us to begin by listening. We must love the other enough in order to listen – with an open heart – for there to be any hope of reconciliation.

It will not always work. We may need to come to that conclusion. But it should never be for lack of trying. As we celebrate Holy Communion today, let us be keenly aware of the sacrifice upon which that grace meal is given. It is both a gift and an invitation to join Jesus in forming a beloved community – in all aspects of our lives.


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