A sermon preached (remotely) by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 6 September 2020 [Proper 18]: Exodus 12:1-14; Matthew 18:15-20

The God Between Us

This morning’s gospel lesson ends with what I view as one of the most profoundly important statements that Jesus ever makes.  It is (among other things) a statement about what life with God is like, how that God-life is manifest in our relationships, and what tending this life among us requires.

The headline of this morning’s gospel emerges as the Lord states a bold fact: namely, that whenever two or three of us gather in his name, the Risen One is in our midst.  This is to say that as essential and unavoidably basic as our relationships are to our lives, fruitful relationships consist of allowing God to be between us.

Yet, there is also a second part to this gospel lesson, one that acknowledges that keeping God between us is more difficult than it sounds.  So it is that Jesus instructs us in how to work at reconciliation because the human shadow-truth of this gospel is that whenever two or three of us gather, there’s likely to be a fight! Consequently, Jesus describes the sobering process of reconciling our differences and healing the brokenness that so easily occurs between and among us.

The God between us: It is both a stunning and a grounding reality, a realization that stands to mark the difference between life on God’s terms and life on our own terms.  For to recognize and honor that the Holy One is in our midst not only means that our lives are much more than we make of them; it also means that in allowing God to be between us we have a taste of what the divine life is like — now.

This is to say that in our relationships, God is the yeast to our dough, the cream filling between our  two chocolate cookies, the collagen amongst the cells.  With God in between us, connecting us together , new life emerges, a life that is not defined by our egos, agendas, and certainly not by our fears.  With God in between us, what we experience is holiness in our midst, and our relationships can be containers and vehicles of what we call Communion.

But of course, making room for God’s presence and allowing the Creator of heaven and earth to be in between us in our relationships is not – shall we say – our natural resting place.  The blunt truth is that no one I know enjoys having our wills crossed, certainly not me.  Disappointment is not what attracts us to our connections with one another.  Yet, disappointment in our relationships is part and parcel to human experience.  The temptation is great to have our own presence and desires fill the space between us.  Just because we strive to keep God between us doesn’t mean that we won’t hurt, offend, or let one another down.  And in our jagged disappointment, we are prone to tear what holds us together.  We even have the capacity to ruin our relationships and our experience of what it means to have life.

So it is in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, that Jesus outlines what his followers are to do when there is a rupturing of our connections, one with another.  His guidance seeks to deal concretely with the brokenness that seems always to go along with human affairs, just as it also seeks to restore Communion in our relationships with God, with our neighbor, and with ourselves.  To this end, Jesus names three steps toward reconciliation.  They are offered in graduating intensity, depending on the involved parties’ willingness to make room for God in the in-between-ness.

The first step is the essential step.  Jesus instructs that if we have a beef with another, we are to go directly to the other; and in a face-to-face encounter, speak our truth and also listen to the other’s truth.  This step is not about a power play to “win” an argument.  It is about seeing the problem in the context of belonging to God and not simply to ourselves.

I find that most of us are not very good at handling these direct, face-to-face moments.  I think this is largely due to the fact that we are so used to encountering disagreements in a “win-lose” context, where the one who is the most intimidating by virtue of physical presence, or vocabulary, or the one with the loudest voice prevails.  When our conflicts with one another are limited to such a “win-lose” perception, we are faced with two, stark propositions: Either go to war and seek victory over the other; or we face personal defeat and surrender. 

However, what Jesus is suggesting here is a direct and personal exchange of grievances, putting the raw stuff on the table, and then listening to the other in the context of remembering that our relationship is rooted in something larger than ourselves.  This doesn’t mean that we let things go in order to diminish the threatening reality of our separation.  It means that we take the responsibility of stating our hurts and our grievances clearly and then listen to the other’s hurts and grievances so that our common humanity is noted — in the presence of God.

When I meet with newcomers to the parish, toward the end of our “meet and greet”, I always stress the reality that we are in relationship with one another as members of Christ’s Body.  And then I confess that I will disappoint them in this relationship, at which point one of two things is going on – both of which reflect what Jesus is saying in Matthew 18.

The first thing that might be going on to cause separation between us is that I may have made a mistake.  And if they do not care enough about the connection that our relationship provides, if they do not care enough about the reality of Communion in our midst to come to me and tell me of their hurt, then I will never be able to make amends; nor will I have the benefit of their help to grow more into the maturity of Christ. 

This gets to my initial statement that with God between us, we get a taste of what life is like on God’s terms.  I say this because, especially in our culture, we are consistently trained to be customers, when it comes to our basic outlook on relationship.  And the thing about being a customer is that a customer is always looking for a good deal.  However, our baptismal vows stand in stark contrast to this perspective.  For in baptism, God-in-Christ makes us partners with the Maker of all that is and with one another; and the thing about partners is that partners invest.

If our relationships are grounded in the common commercial experience of our culture, then our connections will be about what you can do for me.  It is a “you-scratch my back, and I will be do the same for you”– until I want something else.  Put more bluntly, a customer-life orientation is about “what have you done for me lately?”

In distinction to this perspective, our baptisms are our entrée into the God-life; and the God-life is grounded in our awareness that our connections always include God’s presence between us.  From this awareness, a basic level of trust emerges that can  create our default position in times when push comes to shove.  I call this default position one of holding a “charitable assumption”.

A charitable assumption states that when we disappoint or hurt one another that we remember that we are connected by God and committed to the God-life.  This is to say that, as hurtful as we can be to one another, reverting to a charitable assumption as our default position reinstates that we are not trying to destroy or dominate one another.  Rather, holding a charitable assumption allows us to respond from a position of Communion’s reconciliation rather than vengeful retribution.

In my newcomer example, your coming to me with your grievance allows me the opportunity to recognize my error.  It also allows me to make amends; and your example of presence allows me to take additional steps toward being more Christ-like.  Yet, in this example I have offered, there is another possibility for your “outchiness” with me.  The fact is that you may have needed to be disappointed. 

If, for instance, you are committed to believing that the earth is flat, because I care about you and care about who and what we are together in relationship, I will need to disappoint you precisely because God is between us and calling us together to learn and to grow “into the full stature of Christ” (as our baptismal vows put it[1]).

But as I said, we are reticent to risk this confrontation, this “face-to-face” encounter.  Either our pride gets in the way; or our fear of losing again prevents the reconciliation and the growth we both need.  So, in Matthew 18, Jesus names a second step: Solicit the witness of two or three others in an honest attempt to gain reconciliation’s renewing clarity.

In the Old Testament context, the Law required the witness of two or three, if evidence were to be secured.  The thing that strikes me about this second step in reconciliation is that Jesus does not allow gossip or behind-the-back rhetoric to be included in the argument between us.  No parking lot yammering or ganging up is allowed in the process of reconciliation and forgiveness.  This is not about a “he said/she said” stalemate, where one opinion is as good as another or (worse than this) damning anonymous indictments are mounted as substantiation.  No!  Witnesses – reliable witnesses from the community – are called in to sift through what might be the acrimony and hurt in order to get at the facts of what happened.  The purpose of the witnesses is to hear and listen to what the aggrieved parties are saying; and in so doing to provide a larger perspective not only on what happened but also what it all means, especially to God.  In this instruction to overcome what the two protagonists cannot resolve on their own, a pathway surfaces that has the capacity to lead beyond resentment and into the new life of forgiveness.

Again, the witnesses are not included politically to aid one party or the other.  They participate as honest partnership-brokers, umpires of the God-between-us.  Their judgments are meant to reflect the obstacles to reconciliation and the way beyond resentments to redeeming forgiveness.

Then again, if being “right” is utmost in our attitudes, if any truth that is larger than what our egos can handle is simply too threatening to a sense of self, then Jesus names a third step.  The entire affair needs to be brought before the entire community, the ‘church”; and if this perspective is still unacceptable, then the hard reality is what used to be called “excommunication”, what, in fact, is a matter of separation, a “go to your room” until … until the reality of the God-between-us can be recognized and shared.

The truth nowadays is that the “church” does not excommunicate nearly as much or as frequently as individuals excommunicate themselves.  From our consumer mentality, relationships are disposable like any other commodity.  But Jesus begs to differ and to call us soberly and joyfully to the realities of life on God’s terms.

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
[Matthew 18:20]

This is to say when we do not show up in these hard, disappointing times of relationship, then we rob one another twice.  The first theft is that we rob each other of our presence.  (How much amputation can the Body stand?)  The second theft is that we take away the God we bring to each other.

Like all things, relationships can die.  In spite of our best efforts to live into Jesus’ instructions that Matthew 18 conveys, we fail at some point at embodying Communion.  Yet, with God-in-Christ we know that death is not the last word and that our lives need not recycle old, hurtful  deaths.  Even in those circumstances where we have experienced failure in our relationships, we can, nonetheless, still receive for ourselves the forgiveness and healing that transforms us so that our lives can be carriers of Christ’s presence, healing, and hope.

Communion -life, relationships are not a “do-it-yourself” project.  A big part of the Good News is that we have help in this.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Book of Common Prayer, page 302.
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