Over the summer Melissa and I laughed ourselves silly watching the comedian Robin Williams performing on an HBO television special. The range of his humor was amazing, he cracked jokes about every subject imaginable. At some point during his routine we were amazed to discover that Williams claims himself to be an Episcopalian. Although I am not sure how serious this claim was because he called himself an “Episcopal.” However, he did give some wonderful reasons to be an Episcopalian: 10 – no snake handling, 9 – you can believe in dinosaurs, 8 – male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them, 7 – You don’t have to check your brains at the door, 6 – pew aerobics, 5 – church year is color coded, 4 – free wine on Sunday, 3 – all of the pageantry and none of the guilt, 2 – you don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized, and 1 – no matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.
Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone”. Our Lord makes it clear that conflict is as old as the church itself and he gives his followers some practical advice for dealing with the conflicts that arise among members of the Christian community. On first glance, this advice might appear to be quite obvious. If you have a problem with someone, or if someone has a problem with you, of course you go to that person and try and fix the problem. But Jesus was not simply referring to minor disagreements. He was addressing major conflicts as well. Conflicts that can tear a community, a friendship or a family apart. He was teaching his disciples what to do when confronted by sin, “Sin” with a capital “S”.
Now Episcopalians do not like to talk about sin. The word sounds so harsh, so judgmental. We don’t mind talking about being unhealthy, we may describe an individual or family as troubled or dysfunctional, but we hardly use ever use the word sin. In fact, you could add to Robin Williams list an 11th reason to be an Episcopalian – “sin is optional.”
In the language of ancient Greek, there is a word used to denote the special kind of relationship that Christian’s are meant to have with one another. That word is “Koinonia”, and a community with “Koinonia” is a community of deep relationships. A community where members are not afraid to be vulnerable with one another; not afraid to share weaknesses and faults as well as accomplishments and strengths. It is a community of shared lives, not a community of superficial alliances. M. Scott Peck the author of The Road Less Traveled, tells a story about a woman who came to one of his workshops on building community. He divided the group up into several small groups and asked them to share among themselves information of substance. He asked them in a setting of safety and security to be vulnerable with one another, to be supportive of one another, to share their stories of life’s ups and downs, in order for them to better understand what real community is like. At the end of the workshop the woman came to him and began to share with the author a terrible situation she was experiencing in her marriage. When Peck asked the woman why she had not shared all of this in her group since it was exactly the kind of vulnerability he was suggesting, the woman responded – “Oh, I couldn’t do that, there were members from my church in the group.”
When Jesus shared with his disciples his advice about dealing with conflict, Jesus was talking about communities that can be honest with one another. He was not talking about relationships that exist on a purely social level, where no matter what is going on we smile at each other and proclaim that life is wonderful.
Wherever a sense of community exists we have a responsibility to maintain that community. A responsibility to confront and deal with conflict, and a responsibility to confront the presence of sin. It has a lot to do with the opening words of Paul in our lesson from Romans, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast what is good”. To love another genuinely means to be willing to address the painful things that lie between us.
Now, I am not talking about an attitude where we simply judge one another or gossip about each other. I am not talking about an attitude where our perception of rightness shames what we perceive as another person’s wrongness. There is an old joke about a man stumbling drunk who came upon a preacher baptizing people in the river. The drunk wandered right into the water and bumped into the pastor. The preacher turned around saw that the man was drunk and asked, “Are you ready to find Jesus?” The drunk answered, “Yes I am.” The preacher grabbed the man and dunked him in the water. When he pulled him up he asked, “Brother have you found Jesus?” The drunk replied, “No, I haven’t found Jesus.” The preacher shocked at the answer, dunked the man into the water again but this time he held him under a little longer. Again he pulled the man out of the water and asked, “Have you found Jesus, my brother?” Once more the drunk responded, “No, I haven’t found Jesus.” By this time the preacher was angry, so he dunked the man again but this time he held him under for thirty seconds. When the man began kicking his arms and legs the preacher pulled him up. The preacher then asked for the third time, “For the love of God, have you found Jesus?” The drunk wiped his eyes, caught his breath and said to the preacher, “Are you sure this is where he fell in?”
Unlike that story, meanness has no place in the Gospel. Jesus’ words to us today are not a license for us to hold one another under the waters of judgement. The gospel was never intended to be a stick with which to pound one each other, a tool to force conformity. The phrase, “But for the grace of God go I”, should underlie all of our actions. Restoration of relationships should be the goal whenever there is conflict. However, on the other hand, I am also not talking about an attitude I see quite often in today’s world. An attitude that takes the notion “I’m O.K. your O.K.” to an extreme. The temptation within North American churches is to err at one of those two extremes: either exercising discipline in a way that is self righteous and only seeks retribution, or tacitly endorsing all kinds of ungodliness in the name of inclusivity, in the name of replicating Jesus’ unconditional love.
How many times has someone in this room known about the sin of a friend in an adulterous relationship and yet failed to approach that friend in love and concern? How many people have we seen silently cover for their spouse who abuses alcohol or drugs and then tacitly endorse that silence by our failure to speak the truth? Over the years, how many children struggling with adolescence in this community have sunk into a self destructive life while we remain silent, thinking only about how relieved we are not to have to parent a child in such a condition, worried only about keeping our child away from that child.
When Paul said – “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good,” he didn’t say -“let love be convenient, ignore what is evil, it’s none of your business, and anyway who am I to call something evil”. Genuine love implies genuine care about the welfare of others. It requires that we strive to be honest. It is not that we always know what is right and must impose that sense of rightness on others. It is rather that to ignore what is wrong means to ignore the responsibilities of love.
Too often in today’s society we are asked to think of everyone as having their own life “style”. As if how we live was no more important than a style choice, as if how we live was as simple as picking shoes. However, Christians are not called to a life “style” but to a life commitment. A life committed to, and surrounded by, a deep sense of justice as exemplified by the life of Christ. A life committed to a God who recognizes that there is a real right and wrong in this world, no matter how hard that ethic may be to define at times. Because the truth of the matter is, unless and until we can live with ourselves, we cannot live with other people. But equally, unless and until we have learned to live fully and creatively with other people we cannot hope to live with ourselves.” Amen.