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Sunday, September 07, 2014

What you say to one another is eternal.

 

Pentecost 18A – September 7, 2014 
St. George’s Chapel, Harbeson, DE
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton 
Track 1

Exodus 12:1-14

Psalm 149

Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20


So, let me put this morning’s gospel into context for you.

Jesus and his disciples have been traveling all over Israel. They’ve been up to the very northern part of the country, way up in Caesarea Philippi – an area known for pagan worship where, interestingly enough, Peter made his confession that he thought Jesus was the Messiah (we heard that story last Sunday). It's also where Jesus took a few of the disciples alone to a mountain top and he was Transfigured.

After that, they returned south to the region of Galilee, stopping at Capernum. All along, Jesus is teaching his disciples by parable and ‘ground rules’, about what it means to be his disciple.

They are now back in Judea, making their way beyond the Jordan, on their way to Jerusalem, and Jesus gives them the ground rules for resolving conflicts among church members.  This is so important to hear, I want you to listen to this passage again, this time in Eugene Petersen’s translation which we find in The Message:
Matthew 18:15-20 (The Message)

   15 "If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you've made a friend. 16 If he won't listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. 17 If he still won't listen, tell the church. If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love.

   18 "Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. 19 When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. 20 And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I'll be there."
So, this passage is important because it provides the ground rules for resolving conflicts among members of the same community of faith. The Body of Christ. The Church.

Wait a minute! Hang on!  Church members have conflicts?!?!

Get out of town! Church members don’t’ have conflicts! Right? That’s just for people on Soap Operas or SitComs or Reality TV like The Kardashians, or the Atlanta or New Jersey or LA (or wherever) Housewives, right?

Any actual, true, followers of Jesus have so much love in their heart and peace like a river flowing in their soul and the sweet song of Kumbya on their lips that there are no conflicts in church!!! 

There's no conflict in church, just like there’s no crying in baseball!!!

Right?

Ahem! WRONG! (Especially if you're a Red Sox fan but we'll talk about that later.)

For some reason, people - even people in the church - think that following Jesus is easy.

Everything Jesus ever taught is easily understood by one and all; easily agreed on by one and all; and all the consequences and specific actions are easily followed by one and all. Right?

And our individuality is washed away at baptism and we leave our intelligence on the church steps and we all think alike and act alike and walk alike and talk alike and become cookie cutter clones of one another.  Right?

Ahem! Not so! Well, maybe in a cult somewhere, but clearly not in The Episcopal Church..

Here’s a newsflash: Real churches have - or should have, actually - real conflicts.

Partly these will arise from individual human faults and failings that need to be confronted for the sake of the well-being of the community.

And partly these will arise from good people simply disagreeing about exactly what following Jesus requires of them in their particular context.

The only real harm that will come to a church community is to refuse to deal with conflicts.

UMC pastor and writer David Ewart writes “Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflict kills churches. And, in fact, Jesus knows this, and gives specific instructions for dealing with conflict and offensive behavior - including telling members to leave as a last resort.”

This is an especially important ground rule because, as I mentioned, Jesus is coming from the northern parts of Israel down to Judea on his way to Jerusalem. And, we know what is going to happen in Jerusalem, right? There will be conflict of major proportion. Indeed, the disciples will squabble amongst themselves and abandon Jesus in his hour of need, Judas will betray him and Peter, who we heard last week confess Jesus as Messiah will deny him, not once, but three times.

Jesus will be charged with blasphemy by the religious leaders of his day and trumped up charges of treason by the political leaders of his day. He will be beaten, mocked and tortured, paraded through the streets of Jerusalem while being whipped and made to carry the cross on which he will be crucified and on which he will die.

Conflict? In the church? The Body of Christ? 

It’s in our DNA.

As Pastor Ewart says, “Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflict kills churches.”

As many of you know, I’m a Hospice Chaplain. When someone asks me what I do, I often find myself offering a list of activities.

Well, I have lots of patients - most, actually - who aren't Christians, or who disavow themselves of any denomination or set of beliefs. Lots of "former Roman Catholics". Or, "Well, I was baptized in a non denominational evangelical church and I love the Lord, but I don't go to any church."

And, why is that so? Mostly they've left the church because - you guessed it - conflict.

What I hear myself say for those who are Christians, and for those who request them, is that I administer the sacraments, I anoint dying persons and hold prayer vigils at their bedside with family members.

But, you know, I have found that, for lots of Christians – even some who have gone to church all their life, including some Episcopalians – it’s not the “activities” of the church – the sacraments and anointing or even the prayers, that bring comfort and lead them to a peaceful death.

I have found that what people want most – for themselves and for others – is precisely what Jesus is talking about this morning. It’s all about forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Dr. Ira Byock, in his book, “Dying Well," writes that there are five key things that people need to say before they die. They are:
I love you.

Please forgive me.

I forgive you.

Thank you.

Goodbye.

Saying “I love you,” is, not surprisingly, the easy part for most people. Which is good, because that’s an important place to begin. It’s the next two – the, “Please forgive me” and the “I forgive you,” – that often provide the most difficult terrain and landscape to travel in the last days of our earthly journey. They are important, however, if a person – the one with the terminal illness, is, as well as the people who are left behind are – to get to a place of gratitude for what has been in order to find the strength and courage to say “Goodbye”.

Last year, I was visiting a patient, an elderly man with cancer, who was very near death. He had stopped eating and was sleeping a great deal, but was having moments of being awake and alert. His wife had called me because, she said, her husband wanted to talk with me and it seemed important.

When I arrived, he had been sleeping, but, after a few moments, he was awake and smiling. He asked his wife if he could have a cup of tea – and one for the chaplain and you, please. His wife smiled at me sadly, knowingly. Clearly, whatever the man wanted to tell me, he didn’t want his wife to hear. She left the room quietly, and I could hear her putting the kettle on and fixing a tray with the tea pot and china.

The man looked at me and said, “I want you to promise me something.”

I smiled and said, ‘You know, I learned long ago never to make promises I know I can’t keep. So, why don’t you tell me what you need to tell me and I’ll let you know if I can promise it.”

“Well,” he said, “I want you to tell my wife that I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry. You see, about 25 years ago, I had an affair with someone in my office. My wife never knew about it. It didn’t last long. It was just . . .something stupid . .. .but, I’ve felt guilty about it all these years and I want to tell her how very sorry I am that I did that and betrayed her and my marriage vows to her.”

I looked at him sadly and said, “You know, that’s not my story to tell your wife. It’s not my confession. It’s not my place to ask her for her forgiveness for you. You still have time to tell her and ask for her forgiveness. But, you know, I suspect that, if she knew of your affair, she already has forgiven you. She obviously loves you and has taken such very good care of you these past few months. That wouldn't have happened if she were hurt or feeling betrayed.”

“Do you really think so?” he asked.

“From what I've come to know about your wife, she's a very loving, very forgiving woman,” I answered, “But you really need to tell her what's on your heart, so you can be at peace and leave this earth with a heart filled with gratitude for the life you’ve been given to live.”

“Here’s the one thing I can promise,” I said, “You have expressed remorse for your deeds. God has already forgiven you for what you did. That’s a promise you can take to heaven with you. I have every confidence that one of the first things that Jesus will do when you get there is to open his arms widely and say, “I love you. All is forgiven.”

Just then, I heard his wife coming back into the room. She was having a bit of trouble juggling all the things on the tray so I got up to help her. It only took a few minutes but when we got back to the bedside, it was clear that her husband was taking his last few breaths.”

We stood there, she and I, each holding one of his hands while we held each other’s hand. His wife wept softly, said, “I love you,” a few times while she brushed away the tears. Then, she sighed deeply and said, “Oh, I wish I had told him that, long ago, I forgave him for that silly affair he had with that woman in his office.”

I smiled at her and said, “You know, the nurses I work with say that the ability to hear is the last sense to leave the body. Why don’t you tell him yourself?”

She looked at me a bit quizzically but then she turned to her husband and told him that she knew about the affair.  And, she said, “I forgive you.” And, she said, “I love you.” And, she said, ‘I’m so grateful for everything we had together – the good stuff always outweighed the bad.”

And then, he took his last few breaths and died. And, we said goodbye.

After she composed herself, she said to me, "Do you think he heard me?"

"Well," I said, "we'll never know for certain, but I just love the thought that the last thing he heard before he left this earth was your voice saying, 'I love you. I forgive you.' And, the first thing he heard when he got into heaven was the voice of Jesus saying, 'I love you. I forgive you.'".

"I love that, too," she said, as she squeezed my hand and dried her tears.

This morning, Jesus offers us some ground rules for living together as a beloved community of his disciples. He doesn’t promise us nirvana. He doesn’t promise us paradise – not while we’re on this side of Eden.  

 Because Jesus understands our humanity, and understands that there will always be conflict among us, he offers us a way to find forgiveness and reconciliation.

And, because he understand that we all have a divine spark within us, he reminds us that ”Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.”

Or: “A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal.”

There’s still time. Don’t wait till the last minute. Make sure you seek forgiveness of any wrong you have done. Make sure you offer forgiveness for any wrong done to you.

Jesus has given us the structure – shown us the way – to find the gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation, which are pathways to gratitude. And, a heart filled with gratitude is a heart that which understands a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” which is the very heart of Eucharist..

It is in that heart-breaking place of praise and thanksgiving and Eucharist that we are able to have a foretaste of the banquet that awaits us in heaven where, we are promised, we will find forgiveness and reconciliation and feast on Divine Love for eternity.

Yes, we all believe that are still many miles left to our earthly journey. It’s also true that yesterday is gone and tomorrow is promised to no one. All we really have is today. This day. The present. Which is why it is such a gift.

All we get is this one life, here on this earth, before we complete our earthly pilgrimage and return to the One who loved us into being, loves us unto death, and will love us for eternity.

It’s not too late. You still have time. You don’t have to have a diagnosis with a terminal implication to say the Five Key Things everyone needs to say before they die.

I love you.

Please forgive me.

I forgive you.

Thank you.

Goodbye.

If you can't remember all that, remember the words of Jesus: “A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal.”

Amen.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You're welcome.

I don't usually publish anonymous comments. Next time, please leave your name.

Muthah+ said...

As usual, you speak the Gospel, Sistah. I need that.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks!

8thday said...

I am all about atonement and reconciliation. Not ususally to get back what once was, but mostly to allow a wound to heal properly. But for the first time in my life another person has ignored my efforts. No response whatsoever. And I have to admit, it has left me very sad that instead of just a scar, the wound will now fester. And I am having a difficult time forgiving that. *sigh*

Can you tell me where in the Bible that last Jesus quote is from? I'd love to read the context.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

8th Day - Ouch. I'm so sorry. I don't know ho long you've had to endure the silence. I'm just thinking there's more than one way to interpret it.

Here's the scripture. Matthew 18:15-20

8thday said...

I have no doubt there are many ways to interpret silence. But as a trained mediator I also know that the only conflict that is impossible to begin to heal is when one side refuses to even come to the table. Frustrating, but life goes on.

Thank you for the Bible reference.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, I guess, as a priest who has listened to many, many stories over the years, I've learned that, while the conflict between two people may never be resolved, healing the heart and mind and soul can still happen once one person refuses to carry the burden of the conflict, lays it down, walks away, and gets on with her life.

No, that doesn't resolve the conflict. Yes, that means that the person with whom I am in conflict is, in effect, out of my life. It simply means that I can begin to heal. Which, for me, becomes more important than the conflict or its resolution.

I don't know the particulars of your situation and I am not speaking to them. I am simply speaking in generalizations from my experience as a priest. FWIW.

8thday said...

Oh, I absolutely agree with you. In my life I have forgiven the unforgivable, if only for my own soul's health. Sometimes you just have to let go of the balloon.

I guess I was speaking more to your example of forgiveness and reconciliation, being able to say - “I love you, please forgive me, I forgive you, thank you, goodbye.” It may work well if the other person is willing to hear it. If they refuse to be in the room, forgiveness can still occur. It probably has to occur to be able to move on and heal. But it makes resolution and reconciliation near impossible. And I am an idealist in that regard. I think we should all be able to find some level to get along - after all we do share a common humanity.

What you say to one another may be eternal, but also what you don’t say to one another is probably also eternal. My opinion.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for that clarification, 8th day. Don't know that I agree with you. Sometimes, silence is better and more healing than what might be - or have been - said. I'm thinking I'd rather take that benign silence to eternity than the alternative.

Just a thought. Just my opinion.