Sermon for September 4, 2011

Matthew 18:15-20

“Taking Care Of Business”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris

Listen to this sermon podcast HERE:  110904SermonPodcast

I was recently reading an article about interfaith dialogue and discussion that was titled, “With All Due Respect.” (1) That heading caught my attention.  It seemed so formal, so old fashioned.  Like a scene from an old movie or book, the lawyer or the statesman prepares for a rebuttal, clasps his hand to his lapel and breaths deeply.  “With all due respect…” and then launches into a soliloquy.

Yet, as I thought about it, I realized how sad it was that I saw such a phrase as archaic or outdated.  It’s a perfectly good expression that, if acted upon with sincerity by the speaker, makes a world of difference in a conversation.  That was the point of the article, actually.  Quoting 1 Peter 2:17, “Honor everyone,” the commentary’s writer was making the point that we can honor and respect people, even though we might disagree completely and utterly with what they are saying, or even what they believe.  Respecting someone is different from agreeing with them.

Unfortunately, civil discourse has not just fallen into disuse in our culture, but has been demonized.  It is almost impossible to have a reasonable, rational debate in our nation, indeed throughout most of the world in 2011, without being forced to choose one extreme or another.  Much has been made of the fact that moderate Republicans and independent Democrats are castigated by their own party leaders.  The are shunned to the point of having other, more hard-line candidates put in nomination against them by their own party’s leaders  if they dare to vote with the other party on a particular bill, or even amendment or motion.

But the streets of our city are no better.  There is a sense, more palpable now than ever in my lifetime, that one has to name, claim, and defend one’s position, sometimes to the death.  Rather than 1 Peter’s “Honor Everyone” it is Polonius from Shakespeare’s Hamlet declaring, “To thine own self be true.”  How can I possibly respect and honor you, and even respect and honor what you have to say even if I don’t agree one whit with what you are saying, if everyone around me is watching to see what “side” I am going to take, and are prepared to extract vengeance should I seemingly choose the “other” side.  And these aren’t just gangs I’m talking about, I’m talking about schools, businesses, and churches.

This brings to mind the plaintive cry of Rodney King following the announcement of the verdict in the trial of the police officers whose beating of him was caught on camera.  “Can we all get along?” (2)  Such an honest, gut-wrenching, soul-searing question has now become the butt of jokes.  No, I agree with you, Rodney.  I do believe, with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, that the intended order of life is for us all to just “get along” with each other.

And Jesus did, too.  Unequivocally.  And Matthew 18:15-20 makes it as clear as a sunny fall day on the shores of Lake Erie.  Speaking to the community of believers, both those he had already gathered and those he knew would join by the throngs in the millennia to come, throughout the entire creation, Jesus gave a word of advice on a very mundane and specific human issue.  What if someone in the group offends you?  Whaddya do?

Now, if the disciples had listened to the voices around them, they would have understood exactly what to do.  If they listened to the Essene community, they would break off into their own, radically separate, deeply pietistic community, making sure they had their own Essene schools, only doing business with their own Essene stores and services, and communicating only with others who were “just like them.”  If the disciples listened to the Pharisees, they would dive deeper into their religion, studying the Torah day and night so that they could recite the verses extemporaneously and argue amongst themselves every jot and tittle of the law, and communicating only with others who were “just like them.”    And, if Jesus’ followers listened to the Zealots, they would understand themselves as the “righteous remnant” of the faith, with only one option, to fight the infidels of the Roman Empire, as well as any within their own faith who dared to compromise by speaking with, or, God forbid, collaborating with the enemy, and communicating only with others who were “just like them.”

If the disciples listened to the voice of the world around them, they would pretty much be in a situation much like us.  But Jesus offered a different way.

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”

This is the way of Christ.  It’s actually called “The Rule of Christ.”  Google or Bing that, will you?  It’s another way, and it is the only way to bring health and wholeness to each and every one of us in this church, Franklin Circle Christian Church, to the Church universal, and, indeed, to the world.  The Elders of this church, as its spiritual leaders, are charged with the task of hearing such grievances and being a safe and unbiased place for the second or third step to take place.

But what I absolutely LOVE about this text is the very next line: “and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  If we are reading this line too fast, or with our own biases and prejudices unchecked, then we might think, “Ah!  Even Jesus has a breaking point.  If you can’t get the person with whom you have the conflict to come to some agreement or understanding, THEN you can shun them, THEN you can treat them as if they don’t exist!”  Well, not exactly.  Because, you see, if we treat someone as a gentile, then we would treat them as Jesus treated the centurion when he healed his servant or Paul treated the church members as he spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.  If we treat someone like a tax collector we would treat them as Jesus treated Matthew when he called him to be a disciple or Zaccheaus when he went to his house for dinner.

It reminds me of the almost painful realization I had when I was in college.  I was given a poster as part of my work with the Disciples Peace Fellowship.  I couldn’t understand it at first.  I had always focused exclusively on the entire world when I worked for peace: all wars must cease, all people must get along.  But this poster, with a simple scene of two people hugging, had the caption, “A modest proposal for peace: that all Christians should stop killing each other.”  Wow.  The poster made a point.  It would be a huge move toward world peace if we Christians simply stopped fighting one another, stopped our own bitterness and carnage.  If we would just follow Jesus, that would be a huge first step.  Then, and only then, we might look outside and see how we treat others.

My beloved, no one said it would be easy.  This listening to one another, this getting along with one another has never been a picnic, and it won’t ever be.  But it is the right way.  The old fashioned orators of old had it right, we should converse with one another “with all due respect.”  Rodney King had it right, we should “all get along” with one another.  But, more to the point for us, Jesus had it right, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This is hard work, but this is good news!


(1) “All Due Respect” by Miroslav Volf, Christian Century, August 9, 2011, pp. 10-11.

(2) The entire quote is: People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids?…It’s just not right. It’s not right. It’s not, it’s not going to change anything. We’ll, we’ll get our justice….They won the battle, but they haven’t won the war….Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to work it out.

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