SERMON 9/6/20 Labor Day Service – Diocese of Oklahoma

Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

            “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.”  Have you noticed how maybe this scripture should be a part of the user agreement for all social media accounts?  It seems like today our divisions seem to fueled by this mindset instead. “If another person sins against you, tell everyone except that person, post it on your Facebook page, and never sit down and talk to them about it.”   Matthew 18 is the earliest and best model for the church to use, when we are dealing with any type of conflict, unfortunate misunderstandings, or little squabbles.  If you think that conflict does not happen in church, just wait around a little bit and it please know, it will happen.  

            However, healthy and helpful conflict is not a bad thing.  Opposing ideas presented in a loving way can move people and organizations forward is a fact of life.  As a matter of fact, it is the conflict between your tires and road that helped you travel down the road today.  However, no matter our age or situation, we all at some time, have in the past, or maybe are right now, or will in the future, enabled unhealthy conflict to hurt someone, or you have been hurt by someone else.  Even the best of friends disagrees and we mishandle disagreements.  Our own saintly superheroes the Apostle Paul and Barnabas had a little tiff and “they had such a sharp disagreement (so heated) that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left.”

            We are human and fragile, because we are fallible creatures and like our favorite saints or superheroes, we succumb to the sin of strife and unhealthy conflict.   Many of us have experienced the community life of church in many different places.  I am sure you or someone you know has been on the receiving end of a conversation like this, “Hey, I have to tell you what so and so is saying about you.”  Maybe the conversation was more like this one, “Can you believe that Bill would do something like that to me,” or “have you heard the latest rumor about so and so?”  Conflict, strife, and dissension is normal, but the problem we have is unhealthy conflict devolves into undermining our Lord’s command to “love our neighbor.” When that happens, people get hurt and we risk losing our grace-filled witness in the world. 

Gospel Witnesses

            Our holy mission as the church is to proclaim to the world our loving bond with God, and by our shared baptismal identity in Christ, we proclaim our mutual love, peace and support for each other.  The way of the Body of Christ is different from the way of the world, because we are called to invite and restore folks back to the flock; we are set apart so we can be about the business of reconciliation.  

            Do you remember the story of the young man who took his inheritance and left his family behind. He squandered it all and found himself broken, alone, and living in a feed trough with the pigs.  He decided to come home, hoping for a job as a hired hand, but upon his arrival he was surprised at the welcome her received. He expected a trial and judgment for his failures, but that was not to be on that day.  His father received the young man, not with condemnation, but with open arms and a party thrown in his honor.  This story is our story of God’s reconciling love in action. This story is what Jesus means when he commands us to find the lost sheep and bring them home.  

Steps to Biblical Conflict Resolution

            Forgiving, making amends, and restoring is complex, but Jesus gives us some sound and simple advice on how to go about it.  First, he recommends when we hurt one another that we take the initiative to talk about it one on one.  This step avoids the unhealthy human drama associated with spreading rumors, backbiting, and the behind-the-back sin of tearing each other down.  Now, if that move does not work, Jesus suggests we go return to the person who caused the hurt, but this time bring a friend along. Partnering with another brother or is sister to deal with a third party sometimes can become unhealthy triangulation, by which we might go to a third person and say, “do you know what so and so did to me?” No, this model is a move to bring a sister or brother along with you, and one who lovingly works with both parties to try to heal the broken relationship. It is kind of like spiritual mediation, but without all the attorney’s fees.  

            Now, if that does not work, Jesus offers us third option, which is to bring this before the church.  In other words, Jesus suggests that we bring someone in authority into the conversation. Notice that is not the first thing Our Lord recommends when we have disagreements, but only after we have tried to work it out together, and only then should we consider going to this step.  

Gentiles and Tax Collectors

            Then, when all else fails and we have exhausted all other options, we are admonished to “treat the offender like Gentiles and Tax Collectors.”  Some folks hear this and might say, “Oh I like that one, let’s start there and post this on the Gentiles and Tax Collector’s Group page.”  In other words, people think Jesus is telling us to say,  “I did my best, I tried everything, and I just couldn’t get them to see my side of the story, so I’m writing them off my list.”  

            Hang on there a minute and listen closely to what Our Lord is really saying.  Ask yourself, how did Jesus treat those old Gentiles and Tax Collectors?  Let’s see, He showed favor to a Centurion soldier, he healed a Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed, and he healed a Gentile demonic in Gennesaret.  That doesn’t sound like “writing someone off” to me.   

            What about those old crooked tax collectors?  Let’s see Matthew was at his tax booth and Jesus invited himself to go to his Matthew’s house for dinner.  Now that was a scandal fit for social media!  That doesn’t sound like he “wrote Matthew off.”   By the way, today’s Gospel we heard today was the one recorded according to a faithful, forgiven, and restored Tax Collector; Matthew. 

            This little phrase, “treat them like Gentiles and tax collectors sounds more like a little twist on words. Jesus was not advocating for mistreatment; he was promoting an attitude of “don’t give up on them.”  Treating those hardheaded folks like Gentiles and tax Collectors (those who refuse to reconcile), is not a permission slip to write someone off, nor is it a mandate to remain in an abusive situation either.  

Keys to Reconciliation

            Some broken relationships may never be reconciled, at least not in our lifetime.  However, writing folks is just not something we do  s followers of the one who never abandoned any of the sheep.  Jesus never gave up hope of the possibility of reconciliation with those on the outskirts of the community nor should we.  To restore our sisters and brothers who have fallen away, requires God’s grace of course, but it requires our obedience to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”  This reconciliation work is thorny and complex.  It is not a ministry of sentimental words of temporary forgiveness, and then go right back to the rumor mill.  It is difficult work, but its work we must do, and it is work that requires honesty, humility, courage, and gentleness.  

            Open and direct loving honesty is vital to reconciliation because it requires us to set our egos aside when we hurt one another.  We must be willing to take a risk and be authentic and vulnerable in order to participate in God’s desire to restore relationships when broken.   Humility is crucial because it requires putting away our desire for power over one another, in order to participate in God’s desire to restore relationships when broken.  

            Courage is needed as well, because it may require us to go to someone who has hurt us, and reveal our painful emotions.  If an abusive or unhealthy relationship is the case, we may just have “let go and let God,” in order to participate in God’s desire to restore relationships when broken. Gentleness is fundamental because it may require us to put on Christ’s meekness even in the face of persecution, so that we might love those who may not love us. 

            The ministry of reconciliation is essentially the mission of God, and it is essential for the church and our common life together.  If we are to remain a lighthouse of love and restoration in the world, if we are to fulfill this mission of grace given to us by God, we must love and restore each other when we fall.  We must recognize that we all are broken and we all will fail each other at some time.  All of us.  No one was perfect except Our Lord Jesus Christ.  So, the drama of common life is messy, it is complex, but it is also joyful, enriching, Spirit-filled, and it is the life to which have been given.  It is the life we live together as one family.  In these uncertain and complex days, I believe our prayer should be that God will give each of us a new opportunity, to be strengthened by the Spirit, so that we can have open our arms of love.  Maybe we too can offer the same kind of welcome that the Prodigal one received, who just like us had to admit the he was a lost sheep of the flock.

SERMON 8/9/20 Pentecost 10A St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, Oklahoma City, OK

1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13;  Romans 10:5-15;  Matthew 14:22-33

 Caught in a Storm

“Lord save me!”  In today’s Gospel reading, we hear the miraculous account of the time Jesus’ disciples were crossing a body of water in a small boat and out in the middle of a terrible storm.  Suddenly, as the storm begins to achieve its full strength and fear fills their hearts, a figure is seen, walking on the water.  The group misidentified the figure, thinking that they were seeing an unknown spirit, a ghost per se.  Then bold, brazen, overconfident Peter takes a chance, and with the power of a little faith, or arrogance says, “If it is you Lord, command me to come out there with you.”  Then Peter gets out of the boat and starts literally treading water, that is until the water gets rough.

One interesting point about this story is that it represents how we many of us deal with our own storms; our own fears. The story shows us how we struggle to trust God in ominous times, and how sometimes we will step out in faith in the middle of the chaos, only to find ourselves still in the storm sinking in despair.  Despite being first-hand witnesses to Jesus’ miraculous feeding of 5000+ people, and all the other miracles of healing enacted by Our Lord, most of the disciples were paralyzed by fear in the midst of a squall.  Peter on the other hand was like us, who step out and trust, but when the waves still crash around us, we lose faith and believe we can do it all alone.

Do you live in fear today and want to cry out, “Lord are you really are here with us in this stormy pandemic? If so, I will walk with you in this storm!”  Then the waves start to crash and with every evening newscast, every Zoom meeting, and the ever-present face covering we all wear, we realize the entire planet is in the midst of a storm.  Fear sets in and then despair, paralyzed struggling to face the day.  “Save me, Jesus,” Peter cried.  The Lord did just that and pulled him from the depths of despair.  Beverly Gaventa in her Christian Century article Doubt and Fear writes, “Not only does Jesus have the power to control the turbulent waters and even to walk on them, but he can bestow that power on others and rescue those in distress.” (3) These crashing waves and clapping thunder crashes is just noise that challenges us to take courage, to be willing with great caution and mitigating protective measures, to step out in faith again, to step out and walk toward Our Lord.  We need to face this storm, trust God is with us, and reject paralyzing fear.   At some point, our faith needs to lead us to realize who, in this situation, is really in control.

Takeoffs and Landings – Moments of Terror

Psychology Today describes fear as “a vital response to physical and emotional danger that has been pivotal throughout evolution. If people didn’t feel fear, they wouldn’t be able to protect themselves from legitimate threats—which often had life-or-death consequences in the ancestral world.”(1) Fear is a natural emotional, physical, and psychological reaction to a threat, which results in actions that facilitate our ability to survive.

As an FAA Flight Instructor, I have been teaching people to fly airplanes for nearly 20 years.  Some student’s fear of flying, especially during certain training maneuvers can bring moments of sheer terror.  Sometimes a student forgets their training, they freeze up, and with little time for reaction, the instructor has to take the controls in order to save the aircraft and occupants.

When I teach someone to fly, there is a sacred safety rule we follow. When the student is of control and needs some help, I merely call out, “I have the controls.”  The student responds, “You have the controls.”  And just to be certain there is a clear understanding who is flying the craft, I repeat, “I have the controls.” This rule is non-negotiable, because a misunderstanding at that moment, can result in a life or death choice.  Fear of flying can keep you on your toes and facilitate reactions that can save your life.  Fear of flying can also paralyze you and keep you from reaching your dreams.

Corona Anxiety

Fear can move us forward and cause us to make survival choices.  Fear though, when experienced without hope, without being grounded in love, with an overconfidence of self-sufficiency, without recognizing that God really is in control, it can lead not to survival, but death.  Like learning to fly, when fear strikes, when we face ominous times, there comes a time when we need to let go and let God take the controls.

Life is so different now, and what has been comfortable and normal seems to be a fleeting memory.  We long for interaction beyond the video screens that we live behind today.  We long for a hug, a handshake, a dinner out, a movie, an extended hand to receive bread and wine, body and blood.  We may ask, “Where is our hope in the future?” We may even find ourselves in “doubt, a sense of loneliness, as well as fear of failure before God, (which seems to be) left to fester and grow into a difficult form of unfaith. (2). We are in a new kind of storm and like the apostles that came before us, we too cry “out in fear.” But just like them, “Jesus speaks to us like he spoke to his first disciples in the middle of their storm, and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

With Jesus’ comforting words of hope, he is not offering some sentimental encouragement, “don’t be afraid, just take heart.” Just be happy is certainly not helpful in the midst of a global pandemic, but maybe what he is saying to us really is what we all need right now.  Maybe we need to accept that right now, we are not in charge and we are not in control.  Maybe we need to admit that we are afraid and then, know that our fear is not a failure, but it is a part of the nature of being a follower of Jesus. Like Peter, we all cycle between bold hubris and cowering denial, but neither reaction is a sign of our inability, to be lifted from the depths by our loving Lord, Emmanuel, who is with us in all things.

Even now, when fear grips us all, when life is not what it was only a few months ago, we need to be drawn now more than ever, to trust the true Son of God.  Even in the midst of all the noise, where the wind, the chaos, and uncertain fear threatens us each and every day, we still need to trust God.  We can with assurance know that nothing comes between us and the love and God, not even this tempest all around us, not even death.  “All will be well, and all will be well,” said Julian of Norwich.  “All will be well,” even for we people “of little faith.” The Psalmist also offers us encouragement now when we need to he hear it most, but we must listen to, ” what the Lord God is saying, * for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him.”  Maybe it is time for us to turn off the noise for a few minutes today, and listen then closely, so we might hear what Jesus is trying to say to us right now, “Don’t be afraid.  It’s ok, I have the controls.”

REFERENCES

(1) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/smashing-the-brainblocks/201511/7-things-you-need-know-about-fear

(2) Raj, A. R.Victor, et al. “Homiletical Helps on LW Series C–Old Testament.” Concordia Journal, vol. 33, no. 2, Apr. 2007, pp. 185–212.

(3) Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. “Doubt and Fear.” The Christian Century, vol. 110, no. 21, July 1993, p. 709.