Sunday 23 • 10 Sep 2017

Exodus 12:1-14
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:10-22

Rev. Prof. Clive Pearson

Some years ago I received a request out of the blue from a minister in ‘the Bush’. Let’s just say it was west of Sydney. The timing was around the rather fraught discussions surrounding same-sex relationships. The talk was all about Resolution 84. The minister who made contact was asking me to come to his town, his congregation, and facilitate a workshop around the themes. He was neither the first, nor the last to do that. It was a very busy time.

With the benefit of hindsight I think I was a mite naïve. I simply said yes. Back in Christchurch New Zealand I had been the minister of a congregation which had done a lot of homework in this territory. We had set up a working group from members within the church; and every Friday afternoon for several months we met in order to devise a congregational resource – full of stories, biblical studies, liturgies and hymns, theological reflections.

Our number had included folk from all points on the spectrum: there was someone, an older man, who had been led to believe that such relationships were, in true Leviticus fashion, an abomination. There was a young man, sporting a unruly pigtail, a student who was gay. There was a mother whose daughter is lesbian; the mother would say in our midst that this was most important issue in their family life and, it seemed to be the one thing they could not talk about in church.

When our task was complete the little book we devised sold about 4000 copies; the World Council of Churches got hold of it – and they did so because it came not from an assembly working group, or a synod committee, but came out of the life and witness of a congregation. One of our members was then invited to Geneva to facilitate discussions in the World Council of Churches offices.

And so off I headed west with a bit of a track record under my belt –but, with the benefit of hindsight, I was a mite naïve. It hadn’t occurred to me to enquire more closely as to why this minister wanted me to come – and why he should say, I can come in one day and leave the next while he had to remain. The warning lights were flashing but I did not see them.

The workshop was spread over two days. On the evening of the first day, now back in the solitude of the hotel, I checked my wounds. Were they still bleeding? It had been a torrid couple of sessions. There were clearly some dynamics at work that were beyond the usual – and I was an innocent abroad. The next day was a little easier: some folk had voted with their feet; they had made their points, they did not feel the need for a second dose. Those who remained were probably relieved that the others had taken their leave.

And of course that experience was not especially unique. It was replicated in many other places but this was the episode which stood out in my mind. Emotions were fever pitch; the debate was polarised; a friend of mine was president of the Assembly at that time. This was the first occasion when a divisive controversy in the life of the church was being played out on the internet.

Facebook and Instagram had not yet arrived, but an email was but a touch a way and it was possible to say things in this new form and do so in robust way which might not have been so easy to do if the conversation had been face to face. Being anonymous can be so empowering, it seems, while lacking in relationship and responsibility. So much for the body of Christ, the community of Christ, being a place of reconciliation, love of neighbour, a fellowship of the forgiven and the forgiving.

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Thinking about that reading from Matthew this morning made me think about this visit out west some years before. I didn’t think about it primarily because of some of the language that is now being used in public concerning the postal survey and the possible redefinition of marriage – though some of the comments being made in the echo chambers of Facebook by dedicated followers of Christ does leave something to be desired.
Nor was I thinking of Matthew because of the troubles the world is facing – on the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and between Kim Jon Un and North Korea, on the one hand, and Donald Trump, on the other, though I did think it was time for a civil conversation.

Those were not the reasons that I made a connection between this reading from Matthew and my expedition out west. The real reason lay in the kind of church we seek to be. What kind of community is the body of Christ called to be? Why did it stand out in its way of living and become so attractive for some in the ancient world – before it became the Christian faith became the religion of the Roman empire? Why does it raise such high expectations about life together in Christ and then, if and when things fail to match up to those expectations, why can the disappointment be so great?

For this Sunday the lectionary only included the middle portion of our reading. It left to one side the parable of the lost sheep. It did not include the parable where the shepherd with 100 sheep does the unthinkable and leaves behind the 99 and goes off in search of the one that has gone astray; there is no hint of the rejoicing that parable ends with; and, nor did the lectionary include those verses to do with Peter’s question: how many times should I forgive another member of the church if they sin against me. That is left to one side for the sake of next week.

All of which is a pity: it means that we end up with a reading that sounds like it has come to us from a code of ethics, a book of regulations, a committee for discipline. It almost feels like we have fallen into some formal procedures: of course, it is not easy counsel. If someone has hurt us, if someone has offended us, we are often thrown into a kind of personal turmoil: should we say something? What should we say? Will the words come out right? How will be received? Will the other person dismiss us and say something like, “that’s your problem, not mine”.

So many of us shy away from confrontation and conflict; and yet here we have a process whereby we first seek out the person who has caused offence; and, if they do not respond in a way that is appropriate, then the encounter step by step escalates into degrees of greater seriousness. Following the legal pattern of the day, the complainant takes a couple of witnesses along – and then, if there is still no proper, no adequate response, no recognition of sin, then the respondent is ostracized:

Or so it seems. So often when there is trouble and conflict the one who is the soure of difficulties is cast aside. They can be made to feel as if they don’t belong within the two or three gathered in Christ’s name. And yet is that what the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel is actually saying. Listen again: “If the member refuses to listen to them [that is the one or two others you have taken along with you], then “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”. It sounds like they are beyond the pale – and especially so, since the reading then continues on in a way which seems to rule out any possible appeal. Mishearing, or miscarriage of action. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”.

Sometimes we need to take a step back from the text before us. Sometimes we need to get a bigger picture. The way in which the gospels organised their material is not haphazard; it’s not an accident. There are some deliberate, intentional decisions being made along the way. And each one of the gospels is likely to emphasize some particular themes at the expense of others.

In the case of Matthew we have noted over the last few weeks this gospel alone speaks about the church. In the case of Matthew there is also an emphasis placed upon wisdom: Jesus will say: each of those who hears these my words and does them is like the wise man who built his house on rock. In the case of Matthew there is a greater emphasis upon words like righteousness and justice than there is in the other gospels.

Our task can become one of setting the text before us inside these more pervasive themes. And what might this mean in this case of the hearing of complaints. It comes, of course, after the parable of the lost sheep. The parable begins with a question, “what do you think?”. In the midst of uncertainty, when it seems as if someone has strayed fold the fold, there is no immediate recourse to rule books and regulation. In the way of wisdom you are asked for your opinion. Here you may not be the sheep that is lost; you might be one of the ninety nine who, to all intents and purposes, is safe and sound – except that, in this case here, the shepherd does something that no normal, self-respecting shepherd would do: he leaves behind the ninety-nine in order to seek out the ‘little one’ that has lost its way

On the other side of the complaint is an exchange between Jesus and Peter: How often should I forgive? This awkward business of confronting is set between the lost being found and a sinner being forgiven. What then are we to make of this story of escalating complaint where the one who has done wrong appears not be aware, or sufficiently, affair of what he or she has done?

What are we to make of this series of texts when we know that sometimes the act of a rather soft forgiving can lead to excuses being made for inappropriate behaviour that in no way be sanctioned? I once worked in the field of alcohol and drug dependency and saw what damage could be done to family life when threatening behaviour was forgiven, only for variations of the same to be repeated some time later.

Our verses to do with complaint are clearly presupposing that there are limits; that there are boundaries that a necessary for becoming a safe space – but there is a twist and a turn in the way the story unfolds. Jesus does not say: let the offender rot; let him lie in the mess he has made for himself. That is not what is said. Instead Jesus says “Let such a one be to you as a tax collector and a Gentile”. And, there , of course is the surprise and the challenge.

Jesus himself mingles with tax collectors and sinners – so much so that he is criticized and condemned. He should know better. And, again, Jesus does not shy away from the Gentiles; it looks like he might push the Syro-Phoenician woman away, for instance: is she not one of the dogs? – but her persistence leads him to change his mind and he is amazed at her faith. “Let such a one be to you as a tax collector and a Gentile”. It isn’t a case of giving up on the other so much as seeking them out again – for Christ’s sake, for the gospel’s sake

And let us not forget that all of Paul’s epistles, all of which were written before the gospel of Matthew was, were sent to churches in Gentile lands; not let us forget that the Matthew spoken about Matthew’s gospel, was himself a tax collector.

“Let such a one be to you as a tax collector and a Gentile”. It isn’t a case of giving up on the other so much as seeking them out again – for Christ’s sake, for the gospel’s sake

It reminds me a little of the wise work of a Christian thinker named Lewis Mudge. Some years ago now he wrote a book about the church as a particular kind of community. He reckoned it was a community called to be a moral community by which he did not mean that it should become self-righteous, holier than thou, or judgemental in an assertive sort of way. It is true that the church often feels obliged to make comment upon moral and ethical issues in the name of religious freedom, in the service of speaking for those who are vulnerable or have no voice of their own.

Mudge doesn’t want to play down that calling. It has its place – but what he was really angling at was something a little different. For him the church was itself called to be a moral community, where people dealt with one another fairly, wisely, justly, in a spirit of one many virtues. Mudge was aware that sometimes that does not happen – and indeed I could have sent him my expedition out west as a case study to illustrate that very point.

Mudge went one step further. For him that call to be a moral community meant that the church should be seeking to imitate the way of Christ. And, so he argued, that attention needs to be given to how local congregations not only consider the upkeep of their buildings, who the next minister will be, who uses the premises and how will be pay for this and when we can do that. These things have a place – but Mudge was wanting to say something more.

How do we craft communities of forgiveness? How do we nurture and nourish communities of justice and compassion? How do we go about the business of creating and sustaining communities worthy of the name the body of Christ? Where is that wisdom to be found? How is that hope to be built upon and sustained?

Mudge was not asking the kind of questions we normally find in a congregational profile that goes to ACOMP, complete with statistics, trends and preferences. He did not use the language of inclusion – rather, he was enquiring about how we sow the seeds and grow particular kinds of spiritual gifts that animate the life of the church within and, at the same time, represent Christ to the life of the neighbourhoods in which we are set. The focus was not on persons and programmes, but on the virtues and dispositions that enable us to be communities of forgiveness, justice, wisdom, compassion – and, by extension, communities that do not give up on the one who causes offence.

Let them be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.