Leaving Margaritaville

Proper 18A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It was a smash hit in 1977. I learned every word sitting in the back seat of my family’s big yellow AMC Matador on a summer road trip from Colorado to Washington D.C., to Chincoteague Island, Williamsburg, and Monticello, Virginia and back again. Wherever we went, Jimmy Buffet was on the radio wasting away again in Margaritaville and always searching for his lost shaker of salt.

Jimmy Buffet died the week before las at age 76. His fans called, ‘Parrot heads,’ flocked to his tropical rock music vibe and a lifestyle they called “island escapism.”  That song spawned an entire industry. The first Margaritaville restaurant opened in Key West, Florida in 1985.  Today the franchise includes restaurants, retail stores, hotels, and casinos with locations in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, six island throughout the Caribbean as well as in Sydney, Australia.  Margaritaville sells.  It sounds like a place we all want to be and a life we wish we could be living.

By contrast, Jesus points today to a lifestyle that is all-too real and not nearly so sexy.  He provides instruction for how to be the church. Living sanctuary and building community can be hard work.  Today’s lesson on conflict resolution and spiritual discernment is case in point.  The early church Matthew belonged to handed down guidance for living the Way of Christ Jesus, gleaned from their own mistakes as a Christian community.

Let’s face it.  Community and belonging are something we all say we want and yet, usually, have no idea how to come by.  Modern conveniences make it so much easier and more comfortable to cocoon ourselves in isolation.  Rather than live community, we watch it on tv or click on it in social media. But, of course, life is not a tv show. It’s just easier to head to Margaritaville where I don’t have to talk to anyone, where I can just try to have fun, wrapped in an alcoholic haze.

One of the things I like about Jimmy Buffet songs is that, ultimately, they are songs of lament. Margaritaville is about a good man feeling bad, or maybe, he’s just stuck in self-pity. He’s not having fun at all and wishing he could be anywhere else.  Who’s to blame? Ultimately, he says, it’s his own damn fault.

The problem and promise of authentic community is that it involves 100% real people!  And people—not you and me (of course) but many people—can be sort of difficult, challenging, selfish, boring, or unreliable (David Lose, Working Preacher). So, what can we do about it?

Jesus outlined a process. Before you block that number or unfriend that person, or drop into that recliner clutching the tv remote, here’s what you do; talk “irl,” in real life, 1-1 like a mature adult rather than behind each other’s back. Avoid embarrassing your siblings in public. Don’t make a scene. Try your best not to react defensively. Speak the truth (as you know it) in love (Ephesians 4:15).  Listen more than you speak.  Instead trying to win or persuade, let your aim be mutual understanding more than mutual agreement. Remember, Christ is with you (Matthew 18:20 & 28:20).

 Most of the time, this is all that’s necessary.  But if it doesn’t work, Matthew provides additional advice.  Invite trusted others to sit down with you and try again, not to gain allies, to triangulate, or to add pressure.  Do this because it helps you gain a wider perspective.  Do this because interpersonal conflict in community always affects more than just yourself and the other party.  It affects everyone else around you too.  If necessary, involve the whole community in your dispute.

Of course, this doesn’t always work. The last step in Jesus’ list is quite interesting.  Matthew says Jesus advised us to let those who will not hear you to become like “a Gentile and a tax collector”(Matthew 18:17).  It sounds to us like a justification for some sort of Christian cancel culture. No. We do not have authorization to tell our enemies to go to hell –as much as we might want to.  But rather, remember, Matthew himself was once a tax collector, and because Jesus regularly spoke to sinners and ate with them. In God’s kingdom no one is expendable. Pray for those with whom you have a chronic dispute for any opportunity to make things better between you.

This process works for the Church and in the real world.  I want to put a plug in here for mediation. Years ago, I worked for the Center for Conflict Resolution as field work for my graduate study. Right here in Cook County, people offered mediation find their own solution more than 60% of the time rather than have their case decided by a judge. What’s more, the result is proven to be more lasting and satisfying than court ordered resolutions. People aren’t forced to limit themselves to narrow legal definitions of the conflicts they carry into court. They’re in control.  They set the terms –both for what they receive, and for what they pledge to give.  Parties in mediation often say they feel like someone finally listened to them.  They’re more ready to move on and put the dispute behind them.

This should not surprise us, but somehow, it does.  Remember, Jesus said, ‘wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of you’ (Matthew 18:20).  In the Christian community, two becomes more than two, and three becomes more than three. The sum of our individual ideas, resources, and abilities is multiplied through the synergies that God’s presence provides (Rev. Ken Kesselus).

Sometimes, in the church, we strive to keep the peace rather than to be peacemakers.  But this is a short-term strategy that short-circuits the kind of community we all long for.  Have courage. Be of good cheer. Steer into conflict. Don’t be afraid to learn from your mistakes. Again, strive to listen more than you speak. In authentic community it is less important that all of us agree, but it is critical that all of us feel heard. Open, honest communication is not only how we build community. This is how we learn. This is how we innovate and create. This is how healthy families, neighborhoods, and good government’s function.

This is how we finally leave Margaritaville. God has called the Christian community into being out of nothingness, to become a community of healers and reconcilers (Brueggemann). St. Paul writes that ‘we have become ambassadors for Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:20). As we mark the 22nd anniversary of 9/11 it’s time to be reconciled with the natural world, to make peace with each other, and let Jesus build us into a living sanctuary of hope and grace. We must show even our enemies God’s shalom. The German pastor Martin Niemoeller who was imprisoned by Hitler for eight years (1937–1945), reminded us that when you imagine that God hates all the people you hate, that’s when you can be sure you’ve created God in your own image.  No, he said “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies; he’s not even the enemy of his own enemies.” Thanks be to God.

So, we ask God to bless our hands as we work together in Jesus’ name, building a future, repairing the world, raising up homes, planting new gardens, feeding the hungry and sheltering the cold, sharing the good news of the gospel’ (ACS #1000).