I speak to you in the name of one God, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The last nursing job I had before going to seminary was as a nurse manager of a recovery room. When I started my job, I had no clue how to “manage” people but thankfully, my hospital sent me to “manager school” for about a month. There I learned the basics…budget, finance, scheduling, transformational leadership, and my favorite, conflict management. Throughout the training, we learned the importance of cultivating a positive culture, and understanding the importance of “fit”, as in, “is your new employee “fitting” in with the culture, and if not, helping that employee understand the culture of our unit and then influencing them to change in order to “fit” in, or help them realize that this isn’t a good “fit” and they need to find some other place to work. Often times, these conversations would stem from staff not getting along. Manager 101- have the two who are having the grievance speak one-on-one to resolve their differences. If that doesn’t what, there can be a mediated conversation. If the issue still exists, the problem can be brought to staff, but ultimately, there will have to be a decision on the part of the community or the employee in question—are they a good “fit” or not.
When we hear our Gospel from Matthew this morning, on the surface, it sounds like Jesus went to the same “manager school” that I went to, especially since the church as often used this as a blueprint on how to deal with difference. We hear Jesus say that if another member of the church sins against you (other translations would be if they hurt you, or disagree with you), speak with them directly in a private place. If they listen to you, everything is all good, but if not, invite a couple others to hear your case. If there is still no resolution, bring it to the whole church, and if there is still no understanding, then treat them as if they were a Gentile and a tax collector. Basically, this church isn’t the right “fit” for you, so be gone with you and go be with the rest of the outsiders—those whom society deems worthy of disapproval.
Unfortunately, this is how this passage has been interpreted by many within the Christian church. “If you can’t agree with our beliefs and conform to our ways, you are not welcome. You’re not a good fit.” In some ways, it is nice to operate in such a clear-cut manner— “things are either black and white, right and wrong. Let’s keep things simple and easy, and that way everyone will know their place.”
Thank God this isn’t way we operate as a church and thank God that we believe God doesn’t either. But if that is the case, what is Jesus saying in this passage? The key is understanding who Jesus has been up until now in the narrative and looking at how he chooses to be in relationship with others. In this passage, when all other attempts are made to reconcile, Jesus says treat them like a Gentile and tax collector, and as followers of Jesus, we should hear this as treat them like I treat Gentiles and tax collectors. Treat them like I treated the woman at the well. Treat them like I treated Zacchaeus, the tax collector, with whom I chose to be a guest and break bread.
Jesus is not in the business of severing ties. Instead, Jesus invites us to maintain relationships, even those with whom we disagree or have wronged us in some way. The Gospel message this morning is one of understanding, compassion, and love, but it is also serving as a reminder to us that being a follower a Jesus—being a member of this church—is not easy. It is not clear-cut, and it is not black and white. If we proclaim that “all are welcome,” that means welcoming everyone, even those with whom we disagree.
Sometimes it is easy to forget just how bold and audacious it is to claim we are Christian. By doing so, we pronounce beliefs and actions that are so counter-cultural, many deem us out of touch with reality. As Paul reminded us in Romans today, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves—extending love to all who are made in the image of God—showing love to everyone, even the Gentile and tax collector. To be clear, as one theologian puts it, “love for a neighbor can be misinterpreted as “love for the likeminded” person who is congenial to me; but love is Christian only if it can include love for the one who differs from me.”
I don’t think this message could come at a better time. I don’t know about you, but in the midst of what seems like chaos, in a world so divided by difference, I need to be reminded that I proclaim a God that calls me toward relationship instead of division, a God that calls me to love and not hate, a God that calls me to view everyone the way my Creator views them. This doesn’t mean that can’t disagree, or fight for what is right and true, but what it does mean is that we can’t give up on people. No one is hopeless and we are all in need of love. This world is hurting, and it doesn’t need more division. It needs more love. Love is always a good place to start.
God’s creation is not to treated like someone who attended a month of manager school. In God’s eyes, we are all a good “fit”. Each of us make up a part of the Body of Christ, none of us being better than anyone else, and Jesus is calling us to remember that when one member is hurting, we all hurt, and that we need to do everything in our power to make them “fit” once again. Amen.
Sunday, September 6, 2020–preached by the Rev. Andrew Rutledge
Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost