Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 8, 2002
The Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
Sermon: "I Am Not Going to Take my Ball and Go Home"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Jesus said, "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; 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. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
I Am Not Going to Take my Ball and Go Home
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost - September 8, 2002
Do you remember as a child what would happen when someone got a new ball or game in your neighborhood? Everybody would come out to play. Most of the time the game went along very well. However, sometimes somebody's feelings would get hurt. It was really bad when that person was the one who owned the new game or the ball. Everybody would stand and watch as the person would proclaim, "I'm taking my ball and going home, so there." I even remember times when nobody was sure why the person was upset. Nobody knew what was said or done to hurt the other person's feelings.
Today we see this kind of behavior in the church. On a large scale we see new denominations form. Look at what happened to the church during the Reformation. A host of denominations developed over issues and problems plaguing the Roman Catholic Church. On a slightly smaller scale we have seen this behavior in the Episcopal Church over the last fifty years. In 1979, the Reformed Episcopal Church developed. This group did not like the changes in the 1979 Prayer Book. They believed the only proper and true prayer book was the 1928 version. As a result of their convictions they took copies of the 1928 Prayer Book, bought property, and severed their relationship with the Episcopal Church of the USA. Today we are seeing another group forming. This group is called the AMiA, the American Missionary Association. They have two bishops in the United States at this time. These two men were consecrated in Singapore without due process of election by any diocese or group in the United States. They speak out strongly on the issues of homosexuality and ordaining women to the priesthood. Their views are very conservative. Currently, these two men go and talk to churches who disagree with the policies or positions of the Episcopal Church in America. They encourage churches who profess to agree with their views to join them and sever their ties with their own diocese and with the National Church. They are encouraging division and schism in the church.
On a local and smaller scale we still see this behavior of separation and schism. We all know of events where people have had their feelings hurt either at church or by someone in the church. I have heard of people leaving over issues of youth ministry, where the money is spent, and over the personal views of the priest. People have been hurt over the seating arrangement in the choir. People have argued over who is sitting where in the church, where the candles are placed on the altar, and whether the flowers on the altar should be shorter than the cross. Probably one of the silliest arguments I recently heard was over the length of time the collection plates should be elevated at the offertory. The saddest part of some of these disputes is that people leave the church over them. Often times they leave and the other people don't know why. They don't know what happened to hurt the other person's feelings. In many cases the clergy person is the last one to know.
As I implied earlier the issue of division and separation in the church is not new to this age. The problem began with the first organized religion. We have a streak of independence about us. We also can get our feelings hurt easily. We are emotional and strong-willed people. Yet, we are also people of community. Here is the source of the conflict. We are created as individuals. We are trained especially in this country to be independent and yet we are called into community by God. We are called by God to be a covenant people. We are called to worship together, to pray together, to work together. The reading from Matthew reminds us of the importance of the covenantal relationship we have with God and with one another.
In today's reading we are given some instructions on how to handle disputes in the Christian community. When we have an issue with someone in the community we are called to go to that person and try to work it out. We are called to take every effort to maintain the integrity of the community. We go to the person as an individual first. If there is still separation and enmity we arrange to meet again. This time we take along witnesses to hear every word. The witnesses are not there to support one side of the argument. They are there to hear both sides of the discussion. In other words they don't take sides. Finally, if the issue is still resulting in separation, the entire community is called forward to assist in reconciling the dispute. Please notice what is happening here. Nowhere in the passage does it say the discussion must result in one side being right and one side being wrong. Nowhere do we see that the two disputing parties must leave with the exact same thought on the subject. We might hope the two parties might finally agree on the issue. The reality may be that they agree to disagree. The hope is they will agree the issue isn't so important that it results in division. For division is not of God, unity is of God. The only thing we are asked to agree on is that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, the Son of the Living, One True God. Every other practice of the church will result in a wide variety of opinions. In the worldwide Christian Church we have a wide variety of beliefs on any given topic. Just because we may fail to agree on how we baptize, distribute communion, pay the bills, or adorn our churches does not mean we fail to agree on the most important issue.
Our concern, like Matthew's, should be on the development of and maintenance of the Christian community. The development is evangelism. The maintenance is the way we continue to worship, pray, and work together as the community of the faithful. Even in our differences it is important for us to constantly remember whose we are and what we are about. I guess we could say that being a Christian requires us to be team players. We are no longer children who can take our ball and go home because we disagree. Instead we stay present, connected, participating in the life of the community. For Christ has given us his promise. When two or three are gathered in His name, Jesus is among us. Our life in Jesus can bind us together through easy times and hard times. There is a hymn I would like to share with you.
"Bind us together, Lord, Bind us together with bonds that cannot be broken. Bind us together, Lord, bind us together. Bind us together in love."