4 September 2011/Proper 18 - Matthew 18:15-20 The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
Take Arms Against A Sea of Troubles
In the end, it seems that Jesus wants our prayers to be answered. Jesus promises to be in our midst when we pray together. Just what does he mean? Because right now we have a lot for which we might pray: an earthquake and a hurricane all in one week. Add to that three funerals, power outages, building inspectors, school openings (or Not!), street closings and a partridge in a pear tree! It all reminds me of this prayer from Stanley Hauerwas following Hurricane Hugo in 1996:
OK God, Job-like we feel enough is enough. Is a hurricane a Behmoth? What are we to say to you: Are you in a hurricane? We fear acknowledging that you may be. We want to protect you. We want to think you and your creation are benign. The result, of course, is to rob you of your creation. The hurricane becomes “just nature,’ but “just nature” cannot be your creation. Do we dare believe that Christ could still the winds? We want our world regular, predictable, not subject to disorder or chaos. So if you are in the hurricane, please just butt out. We confess that we have lost the skill to see you in your creation. We pray to you to care for the injured, those in shock, those without housing, those in despair, but how can you do so if you are not in the hurricane? We confess we do not know how to put this together. We want you to heal our hurts, but we really do not want to think you can. We want to think you make it possible for us to help one another, but it is not clear why we think we need your help. Help us to call for help. Amen. (Stanley Hauerwas,Prayers Plainly Spoken (Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL:1999)
We might notice that Jesus speaks about prayer while talking about something with which we are all too familiar: conflict in the church, conflict in the community of faith. He lists what we might call Category 1, 2 ,3 and 4 disputes - each causing greater and greater destruction within the community.
For Category 4 – the offender refuses to listen to anyone – he seems to commend shunning or excommunication. That’s how one would treat Gentiles and tax collectors.
Is this the same Jesus who was rendered repentant by the Canaanite woman? Is this the Jesus who stands accused of sharing meals with Gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners? Is Jesus advocating shunning and excommunication? Or shared meals with our adversaries? How do we know? Can he mean both?
Then comes all this binding and loosing business again. This was a system whereby the rabbis would look at each case individually and render a verdict. How do we apply a Torah law – the Bible – to a particular case? When do we enforce the rules? When do we suspend them? Can you harvest wheat on the Sabbath? If people are hungry? Just for fun? Just for profit?
Once upon a time in the 1970’s an Episcopal Priest, Joseph Fletcher, tried to introduce this binding and loosing as a way to do Christian moral ethics and decision making. He called it Situation Ethics. This seems to be what Jesus was talking about. Fletcher, however, was treated like a Gentile and a tax collector. He was vilified. Mocked. Derided. Shunned. Not invited to the dinner table.
Jesus says where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there. So go ahead and ask whatever you want. Note, however, the caveat: at least two people on earth must agree on something – the same something! Anything! Ah, there’s the rub, reminds the Bard of Avon!
Now this phrase, “two or three” had meaning back then. This meant you were gathered with others to study Torah and later Talmud so you could discuss when to enforce and when to suspend certain rules. If one were to look at a page from Talmud, it is like peeling an onion: layer upon layer of meaning, interpretation and debate. Who is right? Is anyone wrong? It generally goes, “Rabbi X said this, Rabbi Y said this, Rabbi Z said this and then they all had dinner and went home!” We pause to consider: must there be winners and losers to be faithful to Jesus?
He seems to be saying, the community that pays due diligence to scripture, prayer, study, Sabbath time, tithing and regular worship has its prayers answered. Because God in Christ is there, God is engaged in our struggle to find meaning in moments like this. God is in the midst of the hurricane AND the earthquake much the same way we are – as a companion on the way, even in the midst of our suffering. Remember, Jesus has just told the disciples what will happen in Jerusalem, and invited them to pick up their crosses and follow him! The question is not, “Is God in the hurricane?” The question is, “Are we with God in the hurricane?” Are we gathered, in twos and threes, with God at moments like those we faced last week? Are we gathered in twos and threes with God in the midst of every moment?
We need to be prepared, however, for the answers to our prayers to surprise us – shock us really – stretch us to new ways of knowing, meaning, seeing and being. The past two weeks have already resulted in conflict, disagreement, frustration, and great sadness – lives were lost, towns destroyed, was there too much hype, did the hype save lives, is the power being restored quickly enough? Oh, not to mention the debt ceiling debacle, and can the President address a joint session of Congress when he wishes to do so?
Some tell us that God sends us hurricanes and earthquakes to punish us or get our attention. I don’t think so. It is more likely that when we are already paying attention to God – together in prayer and study and worship - a crisis like this takes on meaning, and we begin to see where God is in it, and where we should be with God and with others.
Perhaps we begin to see that out of our time together in study and prayer emerges a time for action – being precedes doing – prayer is action, action is prayer. We might even see that there really is no time for conflict stages one, two, three and four in the community if we were to be about doing the things God is calling us to do. To be, or not to be. Begging the questions: Where are we? Where are we in the kind of life Jesus calls us to live?
A rabbi who lived at the time of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, said the following:
If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself alone, who am I?
If not now when?
When, indeed? Ah, that is the question! Be all our sins remembered!