Sunday, September 07, 2014

Back to School

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 7, 2014

Year A, Proper 18: The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Back to School
            Well, it’s back to school time.
            I guess by now every teacher and kid has been back in the classroom. For some this is exciting. For others it’s depressing to say good-bye to summer. I’d guess for most it’s somewhere in-between.
            We’ll mark the start of the school year in a little while with our second annual blessing of the backpacks.
            Back to school.
            Most of you know that before I got into the priest business, I was a teacher.
            Over the years I taught all different levels from grammar school to college and lots of different subjects though mostly high school history.
            It’s been ten years since I left the classroom.
            Sometimes it feels that long – or even longer. Other times it feels like I just wiped the chalk dust off my fingers or went looking for another red pen so I could correct student essays.
            Thanks especially to facebook, I’ve been able to keep up with a lot of former students. It’s fun – and sometimes frightening – to see them more than grown up, out making lives for themselves, now sending their own kids to school.
            And sometimes it’s sad when I learn how a former student’s life has gone off the rails. And a few of them have even died, which is always hard to accept.
            Especially being back in Jersey City, every once in a while I’ll run into a former student.
            This happened on Friday night when I was down at the Park Tavern supporting Ace Case and his JC Friday gig.
            This familiar-looking twenty-something guy came over to me and said, “Are you Mr. Murphy?”
            I said, “I used to be…”
            We laughed and spent a few minutes catching up on our lives.
            This time of year I think back a lot to those days.
            And sometimes, especially this time of year, people will ask me if I miss teaching.
            And, I do, at least sometimes.
            I miss the company of lots of people, especially colleagues. I miss the excitement when I would see the proverbial light-bulb go off when a student learned something new, or had his or her assumptions challenged.
            And, I’ll admit, I do miss the clear lines of authority in the classroom.
            I was the teacher. They were the students.
            In my very early days as a teacher I used to yell a lot. I used to yell because I was young and insecure, not really sure how to teach, and not really sure how to manage a classroom.
            And sometimes I got so mad that I’d throw kids out of my class.
            I guess all that yelling and throwing out made me feel better for a few minutes, but it was not a very effective way to teach – and it was a terrible way to build relationships with my students, to forge a community in my classroom.
            With time and experience I realized the key to teaching was to somehow let my students know that I genuinely cared about their learning – about their future – cared about them – loved them.
            Often I did that through humor.
            Sometimes it was developing a sense when something was wrong in a kid’s life and quietly reaching out.
            But, once my classes knew that I genuinely cared about them, that I loved them, I found there was rarely any need to yell.
            Unfortunately, things are a little more complicated outside the classroom, out in the world – at work or at home – and, yes, even in the church.
            The lines of authority aren’t quite as clear as they are in the classroom.
            But, the same principle applies: love has to be our foundation.
            Which brings us to today’s lessons.
            I haven’t always preached on them but each Sunday we’ve been hearing excerpts from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Most scholars think that that this letter was written towards the end of Paul’s life, after years of preaching and teaching – after years of reflecting on the Good News of Jesus Christ.
            And what Paul has come to understand is that love has to be our foundation.
            In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
            But, even if love is our foundation…there will still be conflicts, even in – maybe especially in – the church.
            We’re a pretty happy bunch here at St. Paul’s, but obviously sometimes we hurt each other – usually unintentionally but since we’re humans I’m sure occasionally we hurt each other on purpose with an unkind comment or somehow pushing others out of our way for what we want.
            Maybe we hurt each other by failing to express gratitude.
            Maybe we hurt each other by judging based on looks or age or even, God help us, race or nationality.
            We might think that these kinds of hurts – this kind of sin – wasn’t a problem in the early church.
            And we’d be wrong.
            We know we’d be wrong because we have plenty of evidence that there were strong disagreements – even fights – in the early church about all sorts of things that maybe don’t seems so important to us but were a big deal at the time.
            And we know for sure that the very earliest Christians hurt each other – sinned against each other – because of the gospel passage we heard today.
            In fact, the Evangelist Matthew tells us that Jesus gave very specific instructions on how we should handle conflict – how we should deal with sin – in the church.
            Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
            A private discussion. If the other listens to you, then we’re done and everything’s fine. But, if not then Jesus says step two is to bring one or two witnesses to confirm your grievance.
            And, if that doesn’t work then tell it to the whole church. And if the offender still doesn’t listen and change his or her ways, Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
            Which sounds like we’re done, doesn’t it?
            The offender is gone – cast out – “thrown out of class” for good.
            Except that’s not God’s way – that’s not the way of Jesus.
            Love is the foundation.
            God loves us and never gives up on us and never casts us out – no matter what we do or don’t do.
            God doesn’t throw us out of the classroom.
            Only we can cast ourselves out.
            So, when Jesus says that the offender should be as “a Gentile or tax collector” that means the offender is exactly the kind of person Jesus reached out to and hung out with – the offender is the kind of person we as Christians must continue to reach out to, over and over and over again – never giving up no matter how long it takes.
            And just in case we miss that point, in the very next section of the gospel, which we will hear in church next Sunday, Matthew gives us this:
            Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
            And Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you seventy-seven times.”
            Seventy-seven times of forgiveness is a lot of forgiveness but Jesus really means even more than that - infinite forgiveness.
            Because love is our foundation we are called to offer infinite forgiveness, no matter what.
            God doesn’t throw anyone out of the classroom.
            And, neither should we.
            It’s very difficult – it’s much easier to yell and to throw people out of our church, to throw people out of our lives.
            It’s very difficult to love and forgive no matter what. In fact, it’s so hard that we need to learn it over and over in throughout our lives.
            So, let’s all head back to school and learn and re-learn the way of Jesus.
            Let’s go back to school and learn again that love is the foundation.