“Life Together’s Not Easy… Even With Your Own Bathroom”
A Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Preached September 7, 2014, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, senior minister
Most of you remember the hit sitcom series The Cosby Show. I grew up watching it as a kid, as I suspect most of you who are around my age did, and of course a whole lot of you who are older than me had to have been watching to make The Cosby Show as popular as it was—it’s one of only three TV shows in history to have topped the Nielsen ratings for 5 consecutive seasons. Even if you’re a bit younger, it’s not hard to come across reruns, and while we might cringe a bit at some of the fashion choices those Huxtable kids made, the show’s still pretty funny today.
Anyway, in the very first episode, the series pilot, of The Cosby Show, there’s a brief scene that plays on the old stereotype of girls competing for time in the bathroom. Little Rudy, who’s maybe only a kindergartener at this point, and middle-sister Vanessa are standing out in the upstairs hallway, having been pushed out of the bathroom mid-shower by their older sister Denise. Suds still foaming in Rudy’s hair, Vanessa decries the injustice to her father, claiming that Rudy might just go blind—and “if she does, can we get a dog?” Vanessa asks. Dr. Huxtable invites them to go down to the bathroom inside the master bedroom and waits in the hall for Denise to emerge. Denise, the popular high schooler, ever cool and always marching to her own drummer, finally emerges, having needed the bathroom time in order to get ready for a date. Cliff doesn’t confront Denise about how she pushed aside her sisters, but then again, you can imagine this probably wasn’t the first time they’d all struggled to co-exist together.
I myself have two older sisters, but neither of them lived too much into that old stereotype of hogging the bathroom and needing hours on end to get ready. But that doesn’t mean that sibling relationships among the three of us were always easy. I mean, not that I would have ever been at fault, of course… well, I suppose there was the time I recorded over a beloved audio track of my oldest sister’s with my own preschool age voice singing a song I’d made up about pineapples… or the time I broke my mom’s old mechanical typewriter and wouldn’t fess up, so that all three of us got reprimanded…
Ok, so I guess I had my own hand in things there, didn’t I? I was probably just as much a “sinner” against them as they were against me, I suppose. As many of us know, living together with siblings, and with other people in general… it just isn’t easy.
But being in relationship and community with others challenges us even when you don’t have to share a bathroom. You see, relationship and community, no matter where or how it happens, inevitably involves people. There’s an old quip that church would be great if it weren’t for all the people… but, of course, “all of the people” includes you and me. The face in the mirror is the same face that’s in the pew. And as much as we might like to complain about other people, any one of us is just as broken, just as self-interested and greedy, just as cowardly and complacent as anyone else. That is true whether you’re here in church, or at home with your family, or in your dorm with that suitemate that seems to get weirder as the semester rolls, on or really just about anywhere. It’s been seventy years since famous American theologian and ethicist wrote about how this reality infects even our hallowed systems of democracy. “For Niebuhr, secular theories of democracy flounder because they assume that individuals are basically harmless, with the result that they cannot effectively address movements and institutions that emerge from human self-interest and greed. He argues that democracy represents the best social system, but one that [still] requires the chastening wisdom of the Christian doctrine of sin: we are social creatures, and need each other for a fulfilling life, yet we have a tendency to promote our own self-interest at the expense of others, and to dominate others.” Anywhere you look, it holds true: from the bathroom to the boardroom, life together just is not easy.
For the people who first heard or read this morning’s passage from the gospel of Matthew, though, they would have just heard a lot that points to God’s forgiveness. “In the verses just before those we read this week, Jesus tells a brief parable […] to get at how much God wants to draw us into God’s rich embrace of forgiveness and mercy. God is like a shepherd who will leave ninety-nine sheep to themselves, Jesus says, in order to find the one that has gone astray.” God knows that we screw up, but being in relationship with us is so important to God that God will go to any length to bring us back into the fold, to restore relationship, to do what is needed so that the breach doesn’t still stand between us.
In the context of this good news about God’s relentless pursuit of us, we hear the words of our reading this morning. “If another member of the church sins against you…” In reality, a closer translation of this would say “If a sister or brother sins against you…”, because there really is the sense in this passage that we are bound to one another like family. Anyway, we hear Jesus go on to talk about what to do if another “sins against you,” if another has ‘wronged’ you in some way. Go to them talk with them directly about it, but make sure it’s privately first. But don’t give up if your relationship isn’t reconciled at that point. Bring in a couple of others from the community. But even then, don’t give up yet. Wrestle with it among the whole community… although remember, you should have already tried one-on-one private reconciliation and further reconciliation work with a small group first. Then, after the whole community has taken up the matter, Jesus tells us to “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” Which is an interesting thing for him to say, when you stop to think about how Jesus dealt with Gentiles and tax-collectors: they were people he kept reaching out to, to bring them into the fold.
In other words, Jesus lines out a process that comes down simply to this: never give up on a relationship. You do have to actually deal with a breach, tend to a break, and do so with maturity and direct communication. And, a broken relationship isn’t just about those two people, but it affects who we are as a whole community.
In a way, though, this sort of deep and radical relationship and community is a challenge to the way we tend to think and operate in our times. Especially here in America, we cling to things like rugged individualism and autonomy and self-sufficiency. As pastor and professor Marguerite Schuster points out, “We in our society seem to be lonely and isolated and speak a great deal of the need for community, yet there is real question of whether we are willing to face the constraints on our own behavior, or to engage in the persistent care for others, that the whole of Matthew 18 would suggest that community requires.” Even here in our Congregationalist tradition, we have too often come to replace true Congregationalism with American individualism… in other words, instead of being about a local church body freely discerning together—as a body—God’s call for it, we’ve too often adopted this notion that Congregationalism is about democracy and every individual getting to have their say and their vote—and even their veto—over everything.
The sort of community that Jesus points to, though, isn’t about that. It’s about a radical responsibility one to another and together as a body. It’s about caring enough about each other that we don’t give up on anyone. Ultimately, it’s about who we are as church. God’s dream for the church is not only that we be an ethical community—doing the works of mercy and justice that Jesus would do and showing a life of holiness that demonstrates the Spirit’s presence among us. God’s dream is also that we are a reconciling community, a place where all are invited into relationships of reconciliation, and not superficially so, but reconciliation that fully recognizes our brokenness and sin. God’s dream isn’t about us being a community that gets rid of the wrong-doers, but a community that extends its arms so that no sheep becomes lost. Or, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “This is a people who are to love one another so intensely that they refuse to risk the loss of the one who has gone astray—or the loss of ourselves in harboring resentments.”
None of this is easy work, of course. “After all, it takes guts to talk to someone you feel is in the wrong without judging them, putting them down, or taking responsibility for their actions. And it takes guts to listen when someone else tries to do the same thing for you.” Breaches can’t be glossed over and treated as unimportant. Forgiveness never happens by default; it occurs in the risky encounter. But in the end, “The key is to put being in relationship above being right, and to take incredibly seriously how much God wants us all to be in good relationship with each other and with God.”
Indeed, the good news in all of this is that we are only being invited into a way of life that God has already made possible. In fact, it’s a way of being and a life of relationship that God has already extended to you and to us all. The hard work of human community spoken of in this reading mirrors the hard work of God’s reconciliation and God’s divine love for us. God has written a long history of coming back to us, time and time again, even when we break that relationship. We rehearse that salvation history each time we gather here at this table, remembering how God came in covenant when sin had scarred the world, remembering how God came among us in Jesus, celebrating how God comes among us now, still making Christ present to us, in a loaf of bread and in a community of the Spirit.
As it turns out, God knows that life together with us is not easy. But God has also judged it the only life worth leading, it would seem. And I suspect that when we have the courage, the maturity, the love, and the grace, and the God-given spirit to truly engage it, we will too.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 Quote from Alyda Faber, commentary on Matthew 18:15-20 for 7 September 2014, in Lectionary Homiletics 25:5 (August-September 2014), 38; emphasis added. Faber is referencing Reinhold Niebuhr, Children of Light and Children of Darkness (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944).
 David Lose, “Pentecost 14 A: The Essential Ingredient”, … in the Meantime (DavidLose.net), 1 September 2014, accessed 6 September 2014 at http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-14-a-forgiveness-community/.
 Marguerite Schuster, commentary on Matthew 18:15-20, in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, vol. 3 – The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 107-108.
 Stanley Hauwerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapdis, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 165.
 Lose, ibid.
 Lose, ibid.