Sermons

In the Event of…

A sermon for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost  Exodus 12:1-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Fire alarm
In the event of an emergency, break glass.

I remember seeing the glass box with the lever inside. I wondered if I could reach it in an emergency; I wondered if I would know when it WAS an emergency! It must have been a fire alarm; I remember that it was bright red. In case of fire, break glass and help will come, be assured.

When I was in seminary, trying to be mother to three young children and write papers at the same time, I would put #1 Son in charge and close the door to my room. He knew the drill. I was to be interrupted only for an emergency, and that category included fire, bleeding or a bone sticking through. Fortunately we never had to face those catastrophes.

“In the event of something happening to me,” sang the BeeGees, in a song about a group of miners caught and losing hope for rescue, certainly an emergency.

In the event of a water landing…that is probably my worst airplane nightmare.

Safety_oxygen_mask
In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from above. This is a popular metaphor among pastors and mothers who are encouraging each other to do a better job of self-care. The flight attendant reminds us every time that if we are traveling with someone who needs our help, we need to put our own mask on first. It goes against the grain, but it makes sense. If you can’t breathe, you can’t help.

The Domestic Goddess arrived this week wearing a t-shirt that said:

Let me drop everything and work on *your* problem.

It’s a little strange to be the person on the other side of that transaction, the one who is waiting for help with the mask instead of giving it, if you are a helping type person or pride yourself on being independent or competent.

This week there has been a lot of discussion in the media about teen pregnancy, and one teen pregnancy in particular. Oddly, the very same people who usually say “in the event of teen pregnancy, blame the parents,” don’t seem to be saying it this time.

In the event of bankruptcy, fire, flood, flat tire—we have our expectations and our definitions. We know what we can do and perhaps what we cannot. I cannot change a tire by myself, for instance, and my incapacity in that area made me a little crazy on a hot summer day when I was picking Light Princess up from music camp last year. I hit a curb, and I heard a loud pop and the dramatic sound of air escaping, and I had a completely flat, destroyed tire. I wish I could say I had a sense of humor about it, but I got upset. I felt helpless, and that is not a way I like to feel.

My hero that day, the person who dropped everything to help me with my problem, was a campus policeman. He worked up quite a sweat getting the tire off and attaching the spare. I know I thanked him, but it didn’t feel like enough. I can’t explain why it upset me so much that day. It wasn’t the first flat tire I’ve ever had! It likely won’t be the last. That day, when it was so clearly my own fault, for misjudging the curb, I felt angry and disappointed, and I had no one to blame but myself.

In the event of inner conflict, break self?

That seemed to be my approach that day. For some of us that’s the default setting, the place we go when things go wrong: we blame ourselves.

But most of the world, and I include myself in this category, too, looks for someone else to blame.

I am pretty sure that right now you are dividing yourselves into self-blamers and other-blamers, whether you mean to do it or not. How we approach emergency, disappointment and disagreement depends on where we see ourselves in the responsibility department.

I’m going to be honest with you and say I like most of this gospel lesson about as much as a flat tire. Scholars wonder if Jesus even said most of these words. The first few verses are framed as a set of solutions for church conflict, but there wasn’t even a church when Jesus lived! The first few verses lay out a plan of action that sounds great if you are the person in power, the person making the judgments, but that sounds absolutely awful if you are in the minority, if you are the person being judged.

In the event of conflict—when is it time to break the glass?

I’ve been with you long enough now to see how conflict plays out here.
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We take actions without
talking to the people who need to know what we’re doing, we complain to third
parties instead of communicating where it would really help and we leap to
conclusions that put the worst light on things.
I wonder what it takes to break through these patterns, and I suspect they are patterns of historic depth, because in almost every church, the personality of the membership is set in the early years.

It’s hard to break out of our family patterns, and in that sense a church is like a family, too.

In our Exodus passage, we heard the pattern being laid down that has been remembered and memorialized for thousands of years in the celebration of Passover. We understand our Sacrament of Holy Communion to have a relationship to Passover; Jesus’ Last Supper with his friends likely took place during Passover. In our churches, we celebrate the sacrament, whether weekly or monthly or quarterly, in ways we understand to be faithful, even if we don’t remember why, and even if we don’t have any idea of the beginning of a certain tradition.

Communion trays
In my first church, a Deacon complained when we had people come forward for Communion. He said, “That’s not the way Jesus did it.” He preferred the trays of bread and cups; they were familiar to him and had meaning for him, and I respected that, but I hope we can all agree that Jesus did not distribute the bread in cubes or the wine in individual cups. No, this way of serving communion came out of the hygiene movement a century ago, when people began to understand germs and the way illness is passed from one person to another.

How we understand the world depends on our context. Without paying attention to the rest of Jesus’ story, we might listen too literally to his advice about how to treat those who have offended in our congregations. “Treat them like the Gentiles and the tax collectors,” these verses tell us.

Faithful Jews considered Gentiles to be unclean, unfit to be friends or companions. Tax collectors served the occupying Romans and by definition were traitors. If you know that much, you might think Jesus wanted us to keep away from them and therefore to shun those who create dissension in the church, according to these verses.

But if you’ve read the gospels through, you’ll know that Jesus himself got into trouble with the religious authorities for his treatment of Gentiles and tax collectors and other assorted sinners: he ate with them. He sat at table and shared food with them. They broke bread together.

That’s harder than calling someone out, then gathering your supporters to humiliate them somehow. It’s much harder to break bread, especially communion bread, with people you fear or resent or simply do not trust. As a pastor, I’ve been in the position of handing the broken bread to people who disagreed with me, to people who disappointed me, even to people who actively disliked me. There is only one way to do that with a clean heart and a clear conscience: I pray.

In this church, there are people who don’t feel so good about each other, and those feelings and the actions that follow upon them have hampered the church in being faithful and will continue to do so unless we confess the urgency. This time of transition, this interim, is the time to break the glass that separates us, the glass that prevents us from truly gathering together to discover what God would have us do as the people of God in this time and place.

Bread and cup big
If we will gather, with open hearts and minds, even in groups as small as two or three, Jesus promises to be with us, as he is with us in the broken bread and the out poured cup.

In the event of emergency, gather. In the event of emergency, pray.

In the event of emergency, break bread. Amen.

(Fire alarm image from Flickr. Communion table courtesy of Cheesehead, brilliantly photographed on Worldwide Communion Sunday using her phone!)

22 thoughts on “In the Event of…”

  1. SB!!! OMG, this is SO good. I lovelovelove it!!!!!! I will say prayers for you as you deliver words that might not be entirely welcomed ones – and prayers that those words get through!

  2. as usual, you’re awesome. I too will pray for you and the congregation as together you face some hard truth.
    peace, friend!

  3. Twice now I have taken calls for churches in which I followed an interim who served the parish after a long term rector. I can only say that this is a fabulous sermon – and their next minister will thank you for it. I imagine they will need to hear it more than once, though…blessings for you tomorrow as you share these words with them.

  4. Neither of us is taking prisoners tomorrow! (I have a small snippet of mine on my blog.)
    Great Job!
    And I still marvel at how that photo turned out…

  5. Wow! Awesome sermon. Prayers that there are ears to hear (sure wish you had been interim before me in my previous call!)

  6. Beautiful, honest and direct but as “hearable” as possible I think because of the way you say it. Prayers for all of you tomorrow.

  7. You are one brave preacher. Kudos.
    Can some of this be modified for your newspaper column as we journey through this election season?

  8. Songbird, that is brilliantly done, tells it like it is without banging people over the head, great mix of exegesis and truth-telling in the now. WOW. Preach it!

  9. Good work here. Just for those with slow ears, will you add a bit to the “unilateral” phrase? I’m not sure everyone will understand it immediately. I don’t want anyone to miss what you are saying!
    Wish I could pew sit to hear you preach tomorrow.

  10. Thank you, St. C!! I took out that sentence and substituted the following:
    “We take actions without talking to the people who need to know what we’re doing, we complain to third parties instead of communicating where it would really help and we leap to conclusions that put the worst light on things.”

  11. You are, dear songbird, in all respects, the cat’s little furry behinder, and this is a marvelous, marvelous, marvelous sermon….

  12. “cat’s little furry behinder”?
    I hope you aren’t saying that she is a catastrophe. That would be mean.

  13. I join all those who exhaled saying, “Wow”!!!
    The truth, spoken in love. It’s a rare thing, and beautiful to see.

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