September 10, 2017, Pentecost 14, RCL Year A The Rev. Anne Abdy Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
“One of the unintended consequences of providing the Sunday liturgy in an easy-to-use leaflet or booklet form is that congregations become increasingly unfamiliar with the contents of the Book of Common Prayer. Taken as a whole, the prayer book is the ritual celebration of the seasons of our lives from birth to death in the light of the gospel and the daily, weekly, and annual cycles that shape and determine our existence.”
The quote is from the former Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold taken from the Forward of the text: Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions by Julia Gatta and Martin L. Smith.
What the Presiding Bishop is suggesting is that there is so much wonderful “stuff” in the Book of Common Prayer. From collects to prayers to services. But he is also subtly saying that we don’t spend enough time flipping through it’s pages. Tucked in amongst it’s many pastoral services is the Rite of Reconciliation. Reconciliation is what keeps us in the right relationship with one another and with God.
The gospel theme today is about conflict resolution. Upon first reading the lessons one might wonder if this gospel is better suited for the Season of Lent. Why is it located on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost? Almost half way through the green season—and this year there are 29 Sundays in the Season of Ordinary Time.
It is placed in this season because Jesus is teaching forgiveness, repentance, and what it really means to love one another. That although there might be trepidation and anxiety about approaching some who has wronged you, the outcome of the act of reconciliation and resolving conflict is a release of joy—one could almost call it a new birth.
I remember working for a boss who was a micro-manager. It was difficult because I prefer some autonomy which in turn spurs my creativity. This interaction occurred soon after I was hired and was a foretaste of what was to come as we headed together down the path of disunity, lost respect, and anger [these are all my feelings by the way.] I was working at a computer. The group home had just opened and it was the first month of wading through weekly progress summaries as required by the state. They had to be written a certain way and it became long arduous task when I would have preferred to have been engaging with the clients. On this particular day, my boss swooped into my office flinging the door wide open and announced: “You’re fired!” Totally taken aback I calmly asked: “What did I do wrong?” “You’re sitting at the desk all the time and you are not with the clients.” Upon which I explained that I was concerned about not meeting the standards of care required by the state for the completion of our clinical documentation. Plus, I was completing another staff member’s clients paperwork because he was in scheduled meetings with her and unable to complete his paperwork in a timely manner. Needless-to-say she stumbled over her words and retreated out the door. Over the next five years, my duties expanded, my role multiplied, her micromanagement continued, and by the time I gave my notice, I was living in hatred. I loathed coming to work and the sight of my boss just ignited that smoldering flame deep in my heart.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul provides sage advice about financial responsibility. “Owe no one anything.” (Rom. 13:8) If you’re going to give someone money do not consider it a loan, but a gift. At the same agency about six months after our official opening, members of the state group home oversight board provided us with a friendly “just checking in to see how you’re doing and if there is anything we can help you” kinda visit. We did well but had to terminate one exceptional employee because she did not have a high school diploma or GED. I am not sure how this was overlooked but we offered to tutor her so that she could get her GED. For what ever reason, she chose the alternative option. This was a woman who did not have much, nor did she have much saved but she had a terrific rapport with our teenage girls. The staff were devastated as were the girls. After she left our employment, I provided her with some funds, not much, but enough that she could possible get by for a week or so. I learned from that experience exactly what Paul meant. If I had loaned her the money, I may or may never have seen a penny returned, but I knew this was a gift—it was the gift of love that Paul writes about. It was that love your neighbor as yourself kind of love.
As much as these two stories seem oddly divergent and seemingly part from a common point like the “Y” in the road—they are related. They relate because Jesus gives us a road map on how to manage difficult relationships. We are not to ostracize our fellow man. Exclusion will just make life that much more difficult and painful for both parties. I am sad to say that the church has been that source of hurt for so many. From wars planned and implemented in the name of God to fostering a non-welcoming atmosphere at church. I learned just recently that there is a parish in this diocese where conversations cannot be had about our current political climate because one side does not feel welcome to share their thoughts. They feel that they will not be heard nor will they be given the time of day to speak their thoughts through civil interactions. As you know, I have always valued our denomination for being an open, welcoming church and where one felt they could share their inner most thoughts, so this was an eye opener for me.
In order to be part of this Jesus Movement, Jesus gives us the road map of what to do. Three phases. First, make an earnest attempt to engage in dialog with the individual. To do this you are to listen rather than count the number of sins or accusations leveled against you.
Then in the second attempt, you are to bring someone as a witness to the conversation. But bear in mind, that in some circumstances, both parties may have to humbly acknowledge the error of their ways.
The third attempt is an effort is to seek counsel of the church—the larger group of faithful. Take it to the family, if you will. If that fails, don’t show the person the door. Be responsible, like the your financial love gift given to another and take on the values of being Christian: the values of our Lord Jesus Christ. To paraphrase Paul: Put on the armor of Light. Put on the armor of Love.
Jesus never gave up on the sinners, the tax collectors, or the unclean. We are called to not give up on each other either.
I have a colleague who related this story about how he came to the Episcopal Church. He is gay and had experienced the harshness of the church. At that time his family was not supportive either so he wandered aimlessly through through his young adult life seeking refuge. Seeking acceptance. Seeking love. He lived in a big city and was drawn to the singing emitting from a large inner city church. One evening he opened the doors and sat in the back pew while the evensong continued up front with a small band of faithful. In time he was a regular attendee but only from the back pew. He never stepped forward. On this evening he took his regular “assigned seat” at the back of the church and settled in ready to listen to the heavenly sounds as he closed his eyes. A little while later, he heard footsteps that got louder and louder, and upon opening his eyes, he found himself surrounded by the faithful members attending this daily prayer. Although Aelred never verbally injured anyone in that group, the group did what Jesus commanded. They showered him with love by welcoming him into the fold. Jesus never gave up on my friend Aelred either. He is now an ordained Episcopal priest.
For me, while I never had the courage to confront my boss, but I did have the courage to engage in the Rite of Reconciliation. And it takes courage because through a thorough process of self examination you are squarely at all the evil thoughts and feelings carried in your heart. The Rite of Reconciliation allows you to engage the personal house-keeping and dusting of the heart and soul that needs to be done so that the vacant space left behind is filled with joy. I was reconciled that day with my God, but more importantly, I no longer harbored hate in my heart for my boss. Today we are great friends and she never knew how I felt.
In giving us the road map for conflict resolution that includes listening, truly listening, forgiveness, and reconciliation, we welcome our neighbor at our door. We are to love our enemy and shower then with love. For as Paul reminds us: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom.13:9)
 Julia Gatta and Martin L. Smith, Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions (Harrisburg: Morehouse Pub., 2012), vii.