Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Seventeen years ago, during my freshman year at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, IL, I was one of nine tuba players in the Marian Catholic High School Marching Band.
It was a bit of a rough start.
I wasn’t like the other kids in the tuba section. We did not have the same interests. We did not have the same approach to music. We did not have the same way of thinking about high school. And it led to friction.
Marching band is a delicate thing. It is the definition of a team sport. You can have 99 people lined up in a perfectly straight line, but if 1 person is a half-step out of line, it doesn’t matter what the other 99 are doing—it’s not a straight line, and you lose points.
The whole band can be playing the same part in unison, all together. But if one person comes in a half-beat too early, the whole part is ruined, and you lose points.
The entire band must work together, and it must work together well if the band is going to succeed. You have to rely on each other to do your parts, and to do them well. You have to trust that the person in front of you or to the side of you will hit their mark, and they are trusting that you are going to hit yours as well.
This is such an important and difficult task that to this day, even within the last month, I have had nightmares about being back in marching band, on the field and ready to start a show, and I suddenly realize I don’t know my part at all. I don’t know a note of the music or a single step. It is the scariest nightmare I’ve ever had.
In order for all of this marching band stuff to work, there needs to be a certain level of trust. And in the tuba section, we didn’t have that trust. We fought with each other, we got mad at each other, and we found it very difficult to work with each other.
One day after school, when the tuba section showed up for our sectional (our weekly rehearsal just for our instrument), the assistant band director, Marc Whitlock, called all nine of us over and led us into the big storage room at the back of the band room. He then, in a tone of voice that allowed no argument, told us that we’d better not dare come out until we’d worked through our crap. And then he slammed the door and walked away, leaving us by ourselves.
The next two hours were… well, let’s just say that they were heated. I don’t remember much of that afternoon. There was a lot of shouting and a lot of blaming. There were a lot of arguments and frustrations aired out in the open. There was a lot of brutal honesty, feelings expressed that we’d kept bottled up for weeks. It was an incredibly awkward, painful experience for a shy, introverted freshman.
I wish I could say that after those two hours, when we emerged from the storage room, all of our problems were solved. That’s not the case. Some of the upper classmen were still the same egotistical jerks they always were. I was still going to be the annoying Little Princess in their eyes. However, we did emerge with a better understanding of one another. We knew each other better. We knew what to expect. And we knew that no matter what happened, we were the tuba section. We were going to work together to make the best show we possibly could. We weren’t going to let our personal disagreements get in the way of our mission.
I will say that by the end of the year, we were closer. Not perfect, closer. Maybe we even respected each other just a little bit. But the work that began in that storage room was never quite finished. Most of us never became friends, and the friendships I did manage to cultivate in my section didn’t last beyond graduation.
Living intentionally in community with people is really, really hard. Personalities clash. People get upset. People get angry. Sometimes relationships are broken to the point that they can’t be salvaged anymore. Sometimes people leave. Keeping a community together, especially a voluntary community like, say, a church, is really, really hard.
And this is not a sermon on how we all need to come together, put aside our differences, and all get along. I wish it were that simple. But we know it’s not. We know that our community has suffered. We know that some relationships have been broken that we may never mend not matter how hard we try. I know that I’m the reason for some of them. It would be rather insincere of me to then come up here and say “We all just need to come together.” It doesn’t work in our country, and it doesn’t work in the church.
Nor is this a sermon about following the “rules” of Matthew 18 when it comes to resolving disputes, as if Jesus is providing a ready-made blueprint for approaching conflicts. I’m not sure that’s the right approach. Even though our own church constitution uses Matthew 18:15-20 as a model for conflict resolution, I’ve never been in a congregation that used it effectively. Because living in a community, where people will come into conflict, is really, really hard.
Instead, this sermon is about God.
Take a look at Matthew 18 as a whole. Remember, chapter divisions in the Bible are completely arbitrary because the original authors didn’t divide their writings up that way, but look at the rest of Matthew 18. It begins with a story of the disciples wanting to know how to be truly GREAT, and instead of telling them what they or we might expect makes one great, Jesus instead picks up a child, those unruly humans who get scoffed at in church, and tells the disciples that if they want to be great, they need to be like children; and that protecting the children was more important than almost anything.
Next, he tells the parable of the Lost Sheep, in which he explains that God would and does sacrifice anything and everything in order to find the one sheep, the one lost person, who has wandered away; that God would go to whatever lengths necessary to bring someone back into community.
And then we get today’s reading about how to handle conflict, in which extraordinary effort is made to repair a broken relationship.
That’s followed by Peter asking how many time’s he’s supposed to forgive someone, and Jesus gives him an absurd number that translates into, “As many times as it takes for you to fix your relationships, dummy.”
And that’s followed by a story that emphasizes that forgiveness is of paramount importance in how we relate to one another.
It’s almost as if God knows how hard it is to live in community with one another. And of course, that’s because… God knows how hard it is to live in community with one another.
Jesus Christ, God as a human being, lived in community with other human beings. He experienced disappointment from his parents. He had to flee for his life as a refugee when the leader of his country actively hunted him out to kill him. He was kicked out of his home town’s synagogue when he preached; in one story, the townspeople try to throw him off a cliff!
He ticked off the Roman authorities and he terrified the temple leaders. He was criticized for hanging out with all the wrong people and breaking some of the most cherished and strictest rules. His relationships with others deteriorated so much that they eventually arrested him, put him through a show trial in a kangaroo court, sentenced him to death, and murdered him.
God knows that living in community with each other is really, really hard.
It’s why God came as a human being in the first place—because living together as human beings with each other and as human beings with God is really, really hard. It takes a lot of work.
And the truly amazing thing is that God is willing to put in that work. God proved that when Jesus Christ was willing to endure torture and death, and then rise again, just so we would know that God was in this community business for the long haul, willing to do whatever it took to work out our differences.
That God was willing to be locked in a storage room with a bunch of people who didn’t get along, and work it out until their relationship improved.
That God was willing to come back again and again and again and again, slowly improving our relationship with God, banking on the fact that eventually, we and God will better understand each other and better live with each other in community, even though it’s really, really hard.
God is willing to endure really, really hard, just to be closer to us. That’s how important we are to God. That’s how important you are to God.
It’s why “when two or three are gathered” in Christ’s name, God is there too—not as a threat, but as a promise, because where two people are gathered you’ll have three different opinions and there’s going to be conflict, and God is there too to keep the community going despite the conflict.
Sometimes, we emulate this community-building devotion well. Today is “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Sunday, a Sunday dedicated in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to being our in the community and helping one another—this Sunday, a group of us are traveling to Weston, WI, to participate in a Feed My Starving Children Mobile Food Pack to help feed the hungry and strengthen our community.
We see it in the amazing work being done by ELCA’s Lutheran Disaster Response and other agencies in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and the preparations they are making to go into Florida and the Caribbean after Hurricane Irma hits.
We see it whenever two communities of any time, religious, political, ideological, put aside their differences, even temporarily, for something greater than themselves, because it’s the right thing to do.
Sometimes, we aren’t so good at building or keeping communities and relationships together. It is really, really hard after all. Maybe we’ll make some progress along the way. Maybe we won’t.
But our relationship with God; that’s something that, no matter how difficult it gets, God will always keep working on. God will always keep forgiving. God will always keep working to make it new, to make it alive. God doesn’t give up on us.
And who knows? Maybe in the process of working out this relationship with God we may very well find that, together, we’ve come to understand ourselves and each other just a little bit better.