Matthew 18:15-20, Proper 18A, Sermons

The Way We Do the Things We Do

(A sermon for Proper 18A — September 4, 2011 — Matthew 18:15-20)

The kind of dishwasher I remember from early childhood.

My mother taught me how to load a dishwasher. Well, maybe I mean I learned how to load a dishwasher by copying what she did so I wouldn’t get in trouble for loading the dishwasher the wrong way. And since then I’ve learned that her fierce attachment to putting the silverware in handles up is no less fervent than other people’s attachment to putting the silverware in handles down. You see, my mother felt that when unloading clean dishes, we ought not touch the parts that would go into people’s mouths. It sounded perfectly reasonable to me. And even though my personal rule is that I never tell anyone actually willing to load the dishwasher HOW to do it, silverware the wrong way around has been known to give me a bad moment.

Every family has rules, mostly unwritten, and every church does, too. Some of them are written down in by-laws, or a procedures manual, but most of the time we operate on a de facto basis, relying on the way we’ve always done things in the past. Somewhere, sometime, beyond our living memory, a group of people gathered here to worship God, and the ways they organized themselves two hundred years ago still play out in the ways we relate to one another today.

Now, some things have changed. 200 years ago, the Congregational church in any small town held authority over the moral lives of the members. When you joined the church, you gave yourself over, and if you broke the code of the time, you could find yourself brought up on charges of drunkenness, or stealing, or even failing to attend church!

And when the church held the trial, if you didn’t appear, people would be sent out to talk with you. Even after a flagrant error, the church made a heroic effort to bring back the sinner. If the matter seemed too complicated for the local congregation to handle, other Congregational churches in the wider area would be called on to help, holding an Ecclesiastical Council to decide what to do about the problem.

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:18, NRSV)

Jesus gives us the authority to hold each other accountable, and to establish the ways in which we will live and work together. He empowers us to make our own rules.

One of my other rules was passed along to me by another woman pastor, who advised me never to learn how to run the dishwasher at church. I’ve lived by that rule in five different church buildings now, because as Jeanne can tell you, once you know how, you never stop running it.

It’s one of the inevitabilities of church life. When you get a job, it seems to be yours for life. Some people thrive on that sense of responsibility and, occasionally, power, but when they go on to their reward, whether that’s heaven or Florida, the rest of the congregation may not know how to do the things they’ve always done. And for other people, the job that they took on willingly and enthusiastically becomes drudgery, at the same time it’s unimaginable that anyone else could take the burden away from them.

But it seems to me that if whatever we bind will be bound in heaven, and whatever we loose will be loosed in heaven, we ought to be able to shift the responsibilities around among us. Don’t you think?

Last year, my dishwasher, after 12 years of faithful service, made a horrible grinding noise and died. When I got my most recent dishwasher, I quickly discovered that putting the silverware in business end down meant I would need to re-wash it. So now at my house we have a new rule. The silverware goes in handle side down, unless there is a sharp blade involved.

I still have to remind myself to do this. I had to turn around a whole load’s worth just yesterday morning. Old habits die hard. But I want clean silverware more than I want to do it the way my mother always did. So I make sure I wash my hands right before I unload the dishwasher.

Change is possible, if we will open our minds to what’s really going on around us and develop the will to adapt.

How to load a dishwasher correctly.”

In the movie, “Rachel Getting Married,” two families come together for a wedding at the home of the bride’s father and stepmother, and in a very funny scene, there is a competition to see who can load the dishwasher the fastest. The father of the bride and her future husband take turns loading a full dishwasher while being timed. It’s all in the technique, isn’t it, what sorts of things you put on the top or the bottom rack?

The movie scene was inspired by a true life story. The screenwriter, Jenny Lumet, once saw her father, director Sidney Lumet, and his friend the choreographer and director, Bob Fosse, have a similar competition.

Lumet’s basic problem was that he thought the upper rack was mainly for cups and glasses and that the lower rack was for plates and bowls. Fosse’s revelation was that you can also place any shallow, bowl-like item in the upper rack, thereby creating more vertical space in the lower racks for plates, platters and so on to be washed on their sides.

DISHWASHERS were far less complex in those days. Now, a major epiphany for many dishwasher geeks is that they can reconfigure their racks to completely violate whatever alleged loading wisdom they may have received.

“Adjustability and flexibility are things that consumers respond to,” said Paul Riley, GE’s marketing manager for dishwashers. There are a lot of dishwasher choices out there, and Riley indicated that manufacturers like GE are constantly checking customer preferences and needs. “We’re evaluating our designs all the time.”*

Next Saturday, we’ll gather to begin discerning God’s vision and ours for this church. During a morning retreat, we’ll take a look at the things we’re doing and begin to assess whether they’re working or not, whether we need new ways or new leadership or new ministries or… We’ll ask God to help us get clear about what to bind and what to loose, trusting that where two or three or twelve or twenty-five gather, the Spirit will be present to guide us.

We’ll gather around the table, just as we will this morning, to break bread and share the cup, a reminder of the One whose love makes us a community.

Will we open our minds and hearts to each other and let someone else load the dishwasher for a change, even if it’s not done “perfectly,” which is to say “our way?” Will we consider the possibility that things might work better if we turn our expectations upside down, just like the silverware?

May we be loose, not bound to the way we’ve always done things before. Amen.

*(from “That dishwasher scene in ‘Rachel Getting Married?’ Inspired by real life.” Matthew DeBord, Los Angeles Times – October 18, 2008)