Sermon, September 10, 2017

“Rules for the Church to Live By”
Rev. Jeff Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC

Matthew 18:18
September 10, 2017

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.”

Pretty heavy stuff – loosed on earth, loosed in heaven. Do we even believe it? Let’s be honest. Most of the time the church seems a marginalized institution. There was a time when what the religious order proclaimed mattered. Now it is science that claims truth as its purview. And do you know of any church without its problems? I don’t. I have been at this for nearly forty years and served four churches. None of them was without sin. Do you know why?
Because the people were not without sin and although I am loath to admit it, neither was I!

I mention this because it is the first lesson I take from this passage in Matthew 18. Jesus talks about troubles among the faithful because there was trouble among the faithful. You don’t outline how to handle conflict if you never have any. Jesus knew of the need to speak of this  from the very beginning of His ministry. Remember how often the disciples seemed clueless?

There was the time they asked Jesus to rain down fire from heaven on a town that had been less than hospitable. (Luke 9:54) There was the time they argued as to who was the greatest among them. (Luke 9:46) There was the time when they walked past a man born blind and instead of seeing his need, they asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:1 f.f.) There was the time when they turned the children away. (Luke 18:16) There was the time they
abandoned Jesus to the caprice of the Roman state. I’m not going very far out a limb when I say they failed to understand Jesus’ mission far more often than they got it right.

And then there’s the church. You and I have seen the church at its best and at its worst. Right? There are times when the nobility of our calling is lived out in our institutional life. When churches stood in solidarity and offered sanctuary to those fleeing violence in Central
America. When churches served the cause of civil rights. When churches offered food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless and hope in the midst of destruction. I have seen it.

But let’s make it more personal and move away from the global scene of injustice. Let us talk about one church’s response to the needs of an undocumented single mother from Nigeria. Many within
the church immediately saw her plight and found themselves moved to help. But not all. There was one gentlemen in particular who was gifted in the world of finances, a stickler for detail and the rule of law, who rightfully contended the law was meant to be followed. Yet he found himself being asked to help this woman develop a budget. He worked with her, came to know her struggle and her two sons. God’s Spirit was at work on his heart and he became one of her
protectors. I have seen it. I have seen the church at its noble best. I have known the body of Christ living and breathing in my midst. Have you? If you have not, then open your eyes to the goodness that surrounds you this morning, the champions of compassion who are seated near you. The church at its noble best is Satan’s greatest fear. May what is loosed on earth be loosed in heaven.

But I have seen the other side of the church. I have seen when pettiness, power and self-righteousness have grown like cancers in the body of Christ. I know of a church so divided over some petty issue long ago forgotten may have to close their doors for lack of membership and finances. I grew up in a church my father pastured. It was huge with a membership of over a thousand – every one of them was white. The neighborhood around the church was changing
and one Sunday morning a young black woman walked down the isle, stood at the front and by so doing declared her desire to become a member of this all white church. Now this was Kansas
City, Missouri, a very racially divided city, and when it came time to discuss and take action on her membership, my father had to endure the racist comments of his church’s membership.

I have struggled against those who claim to know the Truth and sought to silence my voice. We are living through a time when those who claim the mantel of Christian preach hate and exclusion, of those who pronounce sexual minorities as unfit for the Kingdom of God. You, too, know of what I speak. Like any body, the body of Christ can become diseased. Our task is to bring it back to health and deny Satan the greatest victory of all – spiritual indifference. We must be mindful that what we bind of earth is bound in heaven. May it never be a weakened body of Christ unable to live out the mandate of God’s boundless love.

What we need today is a new way of perceiving the church. M. Scott Peck tells the story of the “Rabbi’s Visit.” It is the story of a monastery that had fallen on hard times. So dire was their situation that only five monks remained. One of the remaining five monks was the abbot who fretted over the monastery’s closing. The town’s rabbi was a man of deep wisdom and keen insight. The abbot had tried everything he knew to turn the situation around; perhaps a different set of eyes might offer a new way to go. There was a cottage deep in the woods surrounding the monastery’s grounds and the rabbi would, occasionally stay at the cottage. As it so happened, the rabbi was in residence at that very moment. The abbot decided that he would go to the cottage and seek the rabbi’s
advice. When the abbot came to door, he knocked and the rabbi greeted him warmly and invited him in. The two old men sat by the fire and shared their lived experiences as religious leaders.
They had much in common. The laughed and lamented and as the hours passed, the abbot told the rabbi about the dire situation facing the monastery. The abbot asked if the rabbi had any suggestions that might help turn the monastery around. “’No, I am sorry,’ the rabbi responded. ‘I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.’ When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving –it was something cryptic– was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might
have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost
mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did?

Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I? As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still
occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought
their friends. Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then
another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.”

Let the church loose such a way of living. May we bind ourselves to the image of God that is in each of us. Share this truth with the world and let the church bind and loose the gift of God’s redeeming grace and let that be the rule the church lives by.

Let us pray…..