Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Our Gospel lesson is about relationships in the Church.  
That’s also the main subject of all the Epistles.
The new Church had not mastered playing well with others.
So Paul spent about 10% of his adult life converting people to Jesus,
         and 90% keeping the followers of Jesus from killing each other.

So what can we learn from today’s Gospel lesson?
The first thing is that people rubbing up against each other
         in unpleasant ways is nothing new.
It was right there at the beginning.
Even good God-loving people don’t tend to get along.

The second thing is that working with those conflicts
         is not a sideshow in the mission.
It’s the main action.
Most of the New Testament is about how to be a community,
how to weave our differences, our quirks, and out idiosyncrasies
into the Body of Christ.
Going off by ourselves to study, pray, or meditate
         can help us calm down and get some perspective.
We need to do that once in awhile.
But the main action in Christian spirituality is a group process.
We shape our souls in the process of working out our relationships
         with each other.

This is for my money the best quote in the history of Christian spirituality.
It’s from St. John of the Cross, one of the greatest mystics of all time.
We think of mystics off on a hill all by themselves,
talking to Jesus all the livelong day.
But listen to what St. John said:
         “God has so ordained to sanctify us
through the frail instrumentality of each other.”//
We don’t become holy through fasting and prayer alone, 
not even primarily.
The main place our souls get reshaped to look like Jesus, is right here
in our relationships with each other.

That’s why our central act of worship is Holy Communion.
No one can do Holy Communion by himself.
I can do the whole worship service by myself
         right up to the point where I step behind the altar and say,
         “The Lord be with you.”
Then if nobody says “And also with you,” that’s as far as I can go.
I can’t make Jesus out of bread and wine by myself -- it takes you.

The New Testament is first and foremost about how to live
         and grow in holiness together.
If we actually try to live the New Testament in our relationships,
         it will hurt like hell but create a little bit of heaven in each day.
That hymn to love in First Corinthians isn’t about romance.
It’s about our relationships right here in the Church.

But let’s start with the basics in today’s Gospel lesson.
Somebody in the Church is doing you wrong.
They’ve said something or done something that hurts you,
         makes you mad, makes you feel ashamed.
Something about them is a burr under your saddle.
So what are you likely to do about that?
The way of the world is to tell a third party about it,
         get somebody on your side, gossip about your enemy,
         form an alliance, undercut their position in the group.
All very strategic, all very sneaky, all very destructive to the community.
I’ve done it – and I bet some of you have too.

But look what the Bible says.
If someone has sinned against you,
         talk to him about it – face-to-face – eyeball-to-eyeball.
I tell you folks, this Christianity ain’t easy.
Bad mouthing people behind their backs is so much easier.

But the Bible says,
“Don’t talk about somebody before you talk to him.”
If you are going to blow hot steam on somebody,
         at least blow it on the person you’re mad at
         instead of some innocent bystander.
Just imagine living by the rule:
         I won’t say anything about somebody
         that I haven’t already said to his face.

I don’t know that I could keep to that all the time.
But if I tried, if I managed to do it even half the time,
         it would make two big changes in my language.
It would make me say a lot less bad stuff about people
         and it would make me say more hard honest stuff to people.
I’d have to grow myself a backbone to do that.
And I’d wind up looking considerably more like Jesus.

But it doesn’t stop there.
Suppose I talk to this person and we don’t patch it up.
Suppose they push back and we wind up mad as ever.
What’s the way of the world?
We pull back to our own corner to sulk and fume,
         and probably now we start lining people up,
         telling them our side of the story, getting allies.

But what does the Bible say?
We don’t go line up allies.
We line up a mediator.
We get someone to go with us to help us have
         the conversation with our enemy.

Now that’s risky.
It’s risky because the mediator is going to hear both sides.
We don’t know what they’ll think.
And their goal isn’t to vindicate us.
It’s to patch up the relationship, and that almost always takes
         some bending on both sides.
We might have to bend a bit.

You see what I’m saying.
This Christian relationship business takes a stronger character
         than most of us have to start out with.
But Church exists to give us a chance to practice,
         to exercise our characters until they grow strong.
In the Church, we practice this kind of relationship
         so we can learn to treat everyone that way.
We act differently in the world and that’s how we change it.
Changing the world starts with the spiritual discipline of Christian
         behavior right here in Church.

But friends, in my line of work, I see a lot of Church  
         and I gotta tell you: a some folks don’t use
                  even the basic social skills with each other in Church
                  that they’d use in business.
 A lot of folks regress when they come to Church.
That means they act worse here than they would on the street.

Maybe they think they can get away with more here
         because we’re supposed to forgive them.
But if Church is a place
         where any sort of self-centered infantile nonsense is allowed,
         then the Church doesn’t make us people better.
It’s makes us worse.
If we wanted the Episcopal Church in Nevada
         to seriously go about the business of changing lives,
         the very best thing we could do is for each congregation
                  to spend a couple of evenings or a weekend
                  hammering out the ground rules
for how they are going to treat each other.
The Alban Institute provides a handy little booklet 
             (Rendle, Behavioral Covenants In Congregations) on how to do it.

But if that’s too much, we could start with just step one
         in today’s Gospel lesson.
If we’ve got a beef with somebody in the Church,
         we talk to him before we talk about him.
That means talk to him face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball.
Don’t send him an e-mail.
I can’t tell you how much damage I see done by Church e-mails.
E-mail is for practical details, not relationship issues.

Don’t leave him a hit and run voice mail message.
You got something hard to say, say it the hard way – in person.
Christian communication is up close and personal.
It’s like Communion. It is Communion.

It ain’t easy. Not by a long shot.
It’s the way of the cross.
But it’s the only way to holiness.
It’s the only way because
         “God has so ordained to sanctify us

         through the frail instrumentality of each other.”