The Third Option?

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 10, 2023

Jesus said, “For where two of three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.”  (Matthew 18:20)

Earlier this year, I was participating in one of our Saturday outreach projects at the Red Door Place.  As you may know, the Red Door Place is the local feeding and clothing ministry that we support financially and with volunteer hours.  The volunteer days are great, and let me tell you why.  The Red Door Place is close by, located just over on 7th Avenue at 13th St.  You don’t need help from a satellite in outer space to find it.  You work side-by-side with fellow parishioners, and get to know them in a different setting.  Perhaps best of all, you can sign up for the morning or the afternoon shift – or both if you really want to make a difference.  As for me, a night owl who likes to sleep in on Saturdays, I’ll take the afternoon shift every time! 

On the day in question, when I arrived lunch preparations for over 200 people were well underway.  I immediately joined a vegetable chopping station.  At length I noticed that the refuse bin was overflowing with avocado pits and peels, broccoli stalks, onion skins, celery leaves, and all manner of compostables.  This, I learned, was bound for the garbage unless someone were to take it to the green market at Union Square.  But whom should we send, and who would go for us?  Then said I, “Here am I.  Send me.”  I loaded up the bags on a cart and began the trek.  I must confess that along the way I was feeling insufferably pleased with myself.  I was feeding the hungry, saving the planet, and increasing the steps on my Fitbit – all at the same time, and all without having to get up early that morning.  It was a great day to be me. 

Also, I was anticipating that the compost people were either going to love me or hate me.  They might love me because of all the compost I was bringing, but hate me because I knew from other visits that their bins are usually full.  Where were they going to put my enormous offering?  When I reached the compost station I found a young man seated comfortably in a lawn chair.  I said to him, “You’re either going to love me or hate me.”  He took one look at the overflowing bags I had brought and knew exactly what I meant.  But this guy was the epitome of chill.  He replied, “Actually, there’s a third option.  I don’t care.”  Then he pointed to an empty bin behind the tent and said, “there’s plenty of room there.”  All the way back to the Red Door Place I pondered the merits of his wit and wisdom: “Actually, there’s a third option.  I don’t care.” 

Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.  If the member listens to you, you, you have regained that one.  But it you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you so that every word my be confirmed the evidence of two or three witnesses (Matthew 18:15-16).  In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we’ve heard how Jesus laid out an active, orderly plan for conflict resolution and possibly discipline in the church.  Normally, we take these words of Jesus merely as good, sound advice for any organization of people.  In fact, they are.  If Person A has a problem with Person B, Person A should go directly and privately to Person B, instead of talking it up with Persons C, D, E, F, and G.  If a low-level, face-to-face meeting fails to bring about reconciliation, only then should more people be involved.  Try to avoid escalation, and work diligently to mend the broken relationship.  Such good advice.  Imagine the peace and harmony that would prevail if we took it. 

Nevertheless, the gospel isn’t merely good advice, it is primarily good news.  Thus, we need to probe beneath the words to discover the good news that precedes and follows the good advice.  The first thing we might ask is: to whom, specifically, were these words addressed?  The answer is clear: to the members of the church.  But who are the members of the church?  Well, the church is not just any gathering of people.  It is not a social club, not a service organization, not a therapeutic institute.  True, while you’ll find all of these elements in the church, they are not at the core.  At the core is the presence of God, as Jesus taught and lived it.  The church is the community of people who are committed to a promise, and a goal: experiencing the presence of God, through Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  So Jesus was speaking to not generally to everyone, but specifically to members of the church, who by virtue of their baptism, were engaged in a specific vocation. 

A second question to ask is: are these, actually, the words of Jesus?  Some say no, they could not be.  The words presume the operation of a fully organized church, but the church did not yet exist during the ministry of Jesus in Galilee.  The church only came into being after his death, resurrection, and giving of the Spirit.  Thus, some conclude that these are the words of later Christians, decades into the business of being the church.  It’s true that the words reflect development in the Christian movement, and in their current form cannot be exactly what Jesus said.  Yet it’s also clear that the words are true to the mind of Christ, and that their meaning goes back to him.  They are consistent with the parables he told about seeking the lost, and the sayings he spoke about God’s care for those who have gone astray.  Let this mind be in you, which as also in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).  What these words ultimately challenge members of the church to do is leave no stone unturned in the effort to reconcile, and stay in fellowship with each other.  In other words, for us the third option cannot be an option.  When it comes to the welfare of another member of the church, lounging in a lawn chair and declaring, “I don’t care,” is not a way that is open to followers of Jesus. 

Ah, but the third option always tempts us into inaction.  If you read between the lines of what we heard today in Matthew, it’s likely that some members of the church were living egregiously sinful lives and unrepentant about it.  Today we would say it’s none of our business how other people live their lives.  As long as they don’t hurt anyone else, who are you to point out the fault when the two of you are alone?  Perhaps we should find ways to applaud the behavior of those who challenge ethical norms.  Last month The New York Times (8/27/23) ran an opinion piece entitled, “The Case Against Being a Good Person.”  The gist of the article seems to suggest that moral codes and commandments inhibit us from discovering our true selves.  To support the theme, other columnists admitted to and commended their vices, the list of which includes doing drugs, lying, shoplifting, gossiping, sleeping around, even wearing polyester. 

What do we do when we encounter people whose values differ sharply from our own?  Suppose within Grace Church a vocal faction were to arise composed of people who refuse to compost their compostables.  God forbid!  What would we do?  Ghost them?  Shun them?  Would we dare follow Matthew’s plan for a painstaking process of mutual understanding and reconciliation?  I’m not saying it never happens, but usually we choose a variation on the third option, which is not to care.  I think of an old Doris Day song from the 1950s movie musical, Calamity Jane:

 In the summer you’re the winter,
in the finger you’re the splinter,
in the banquet you’re the stew. 
Say, I can do without you. 

I think also of the book by CS Lewis called The Great Divorce, in which he describes hell as a city that is forever expanding in every direction.  Why?  Because the residents keep moving further and further away from each other.  It’s as if a minute or two after meeting, they all conclude, “Say, I can do without you,” and away they go in every direction. 

For those who insist on reading today’s passage from Matthew as good advice, it can be just that: good advice for staying off the road to hell.  But again, the gospel is good news, not just good advice.  The good news that precedes and follows the good advice is that God does not want anyone to go to hell.  The third option is never an option for God, even when it comes to the most notorious of sinners.  The heart of God is not to be aloof and dispassionate.  The Spirit of God is to care.  The mind that was in Christ is the mind of God.  In the Word God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, we heard today (33:7-11): As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? 

 To save Israel, God engaged in a ceaseless rescue effort.  God sent Ezekiel and the other prophets to be sentinels, to warn them against the ways that would carry them away from his presence.  Finally, the same Word of God became flesh in Jesus, to deliver us from evil, and make us worthy to stand in God’s presence.  To be sure, people experience the presence of God in numerous ways: in nature, through the sacraments, in music and worship, through art and beauty.  But what we hear today is the sure promise of Jesus that by committing to care deeply for other believers, we connect with him.  Jesus said, “For where two are or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” 

 The church is a unique organization.  Yes, like any family or association of persons, the church is filled with all sorts and conditions of people: from the wise to the foolish, from the saintly to the sinful, from the workers to the watchers.  What is more, the church is hardly exempt from the unattractive dynamics of human behavior that afflict other assemblies.  Yet, the difference is that in all the messiness of our togetherness, the Spirit of Christ is in our midst.  When we gather in groups of two or three, twenty or thirty, or two-hundred to three-hundred, whether it’s in worship, fellowship, a committee meeting, or an outreach project, we do so intentionally in the name of Jesus.  We gather not because we don’t have anything else to do, but to take Jesus at his word when he promises to be in the midst of us.  The presence of Jesus is our promise.  To experience the living God is our goal. 

So here we are on a another Welcome Back Sunday.  The church awakens from our summer slumber.  You’ll see lots of activity, and you may wonder what is the point of it all.  Well, believe it or not, we do have a goal.  One evening this summer I was out on a walk with my son Luke, the purpose of which was, of course, to enjoy time together, but also to increase the steps on my Fitbit.  We were making our way up Greenwich Street, towards the meat packing district.  From a block or so away I heard the sound of a bouncing basketball.  Sure enough, at King Street we came upon a man shooting baskets.  He was agile and quick, with a spring in his step.  He dribbled well, and pulled up into some fine looking jump shots.  Out there alone by himself, he was anything but lethargic and dispassionate. 

The problem was, he never made a single basket.  Not one time did I hear or see the ball go swoosh through the net.  Why not?  The reason is simple.  There was no net.  There was no rim.  There was no backboard.  He was playing against the blank wall of a building.  The man had no goal. 

We do have a goal.  Our goal is to experience the living God.  Our promise is the presence of Jesus, who said, “For where two of three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.”