Sermon from September 4, 2011
(Pentecost 12 – Year A)
Matthew 18: 15-20
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas
When I was a boy in school, I really did love school work.
I was eager to learn and diligent in doing my homework.
I got especially energized by school projects.
I enjoyed delivering book reports about Tom Sawyer or about the life of Thomas Jefferson.
In science, I remember a project on the respiratory system where I used two plastic baggies to simulate the work of human lungs.
In social studies, I used scrap plywood to construct a map of Washington, DC, using blue paint for water and green paint for land.
I really liked it when my teacher would exclaim:
“Class, I have a wonderful project for you to work on all by yourself!”
Yet I did not like it when my teacher would proclaim:
“I have a very special project for you to work on.
And this project - is to be a group project!”
At the mention of a group project, the classroom would erupt in with squeals of delight.
Yet I remained stoic and skeptical.
Now I hope that by now you know that I do love people.
But I did not like working on group school projects.
In group school projects, I always felt like I ended up doing the majority of the work - without getting the majority of the credit.
Invariably, there was kid in my group who figured out that he could just coast by and do nothing.
Invariably, there was kid in my group who thought that her ideas were better than mine.
In the midst of those group projects, in my mind, I wanted to kick out the non-productive kid.
I wanted to kick out the bossy kid.
I wanted to kick out the kid who got on my nerves.
I just did not like group school projects.
Yet living in Christian community is much like a group school project.
And Jesus teaches us how to handle when we have a problem with someone in our group.
Jesus says that if we have a problem with someone,
Before kicking them out, we should have a one-on-one conversation with them.
Then if that doesn’t work, bring others into the conversation.
And if that doesn’t work, then bring the whole classroom into the conversation.
Since I am a person who enjoys clear directions on projects, I am really liking Jesus’ methodical and clear cut ways of dealing with conflict.
As I listen to Jesus’ directions, I am just itching for a good reason for the ax to fall and to get rid of the problem children.
Yet Jesus then gets a big grin on his face.
He looks into the self-righteous eyes of his students, students who are looking for an honorable way to get rid of people.
And Jesus says:
“If all of those steps do not work, then treat the other kids in your group as Gentiles and tax collectors.”
My heart sinks.
For how does Jesus treat lazy Gentiles and know-it-all tax collectors?
Jesus does the exact opposite of kicking out the Gentiles and tax collectors.
Instead, Jesus treats Gentiles and tax collectors with extra grace and extra care.
So now it sounds like I must learn to work on the group science project with the girl who smacks her bubble gum and twists her hair.
And it sounds like I must learn to work with the boy who is dyslexic and has trouble reading the textbook.
It sounds like I must learn to work together on the group project of the Christian journey – instead of kicking anyone out.
It sounds like we are stuck with each other.
Our concept of church is different than the concept of the Christian community in the first century.
We tend to think of church as an activity on Sundays, maybe with some worship and education during the week in the St. Alban’s community.
In this 21st century, we have the option of keeping our church relationships and our everyday relationships separate.
However, church in the first century was not separate from the community that you lived in.
In the early days, church was where you cooked together, prayed together, worked in the fields together, shared wine over dinner together and blew out the candles at the end of a long day together.
Most likely, the church community that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew was addressing was more like a group school project on steroids.
And Jesus says to this faith community:
“To those who offend you, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
To those who offend you, show them extra grace and extra care.
For truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in eternity.”
We are bound to each other on earth.
We are stuck with each other for eternity.
Today we are baptizing James Lane Hughes.
We are binding another person into our faith community, a person whom we will give extra grace and care to.
And Jamie is being assigned a group project.
In this group project of love, Jamie is to work with us to love God and to love his neighbors.
Jamie is making a covenant.
And we are making a covenant.
This baptismal covenant will bind him to us and will bind us to him, on this earth and into eternity.
Jamie doesn’t know it yet, but he is stuck with us.
And as Jamie grows up, he will learn how to walk the Christian journey, yet not as his own private project.
Instead Jamie will walk the Christian journey together with us, as a group.
Because when we get tired of each other and disputes get heated, we have bound ourselves to Jesus and to each other.
When we get on each other’s nerves, we have promised to treat each other as Gentiles and tax collectors.
We have promised to show extra grace and care to each other, in God’s grand group project of love.
I would imagine that there are people in your life whom you might like to kick out of your group project:
The lazy co-worker who always comes in late to work and who always leaves work 15 minutes early.
The strange cousin who overstays his welcome and never says thank you for anything.
The old friend who is always asking to borrow money from you and yet who never repays a dime.
And Jesus says that if a brother or sister offends you, then have a conversation.
And if that doesn’t work, don’t kick them out, but treat them as a Gentile or a tax collector, with extra grace and love.
You see, the Christian faith and life is not lived and practiced as our own individual project.
In our Baptism, we are bound together.
We are stuck with each other.
For Jesus, our teacher, does not say:
“I have a wonderful project for you to work on all by yourself!”
But Jesus proclaims:
“I have a special project for you to work on.
And this project - is a group project.”