Sermon for 14th Sunday after Pentecost 2020
Ezekiel 33:7-11 Psalms 119:33-40 Romans 13:8-14 Matthew 18:15-20 Proper 18
A customer was complaining to the store supervisor about the employees. He was spouting off about how terrible they all were and insisting the company only hired idiots. That was when the boss looked him in the eye and asked, “Would you like an application?” Life in community. The Old Testament reading from Ezekiel proclaims the importance of individual responsibility. The portion of Psalm 119 expresses the psalmist’s willingness to accept instruction for God. In the Epistle, we see how importantly the demands of the Torah to love one another shape Christian behavior, but we also find a call to vigilance and moral purity, we are to practice what we preach. In the Gospel, Jesus discusses how broken relationships can be handled.
These are Jesus’ guidelines for dealing with those who sin against us. They were meant for (1) Christians, and not unbelievers, (2) sins committed against you and not others, and (3) conflict resolution in the context of the church, not the community at large. Jesus’ words are not a license for a frontal attack on every person who hurts or slights us. They are not a license to start a destructive gossip campaign or to call for a church trial. They are a call for the offended one to take the initiative. There is no room in the teaching of Jesus or in the conduct of the Christian life for sitting around, licking our wounds, and sighing. Jesus’ teaching is designed to reconcile those who disagree so that all Christians can live in harmony.
Jesus looked ahead to a new day when he would be present with his followers not in body, but through the Holy Spirit. In the body of believers (the Church), the sincere agreement of two people is more powerful than the superficial agreement of thousands, because Christ’s Holy Spirit is with them. Two or more believers, filled with the Holy Spirit, will pray according to God’s will, not their own; thus, their requests will be granted.
Throughout the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, and in these six verses in particular, Jesus underscores the importance of Christian community. Speaking to his disciples, he lets them know that their faith is not a private matter, something they go off by themselves and enjoy all alone under a tree, or on a golf course. Their life in Christ is a community affair, something that happens when two or three are gathered together in his name. That is when he promises to be in the midst of them, not when they are off by themselves.
Jesus lets them know that they need each other, not only for practical reasons, but for spiritual ones as well. They need each other because they can accomplish more together than apart. They need each other like brothers and sisters need each other, to remind themselves that they belong to one family.
Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that when families work together, work right, they are God’s way of teaching us important things, like how to share and how to care for each other. A healthy family has a way of smoothing our rough edges by making us rub up against each other, like pebbles in a tumbling cylinder. I’ve heard it described as sandpaper people – rubbing off our outer exterior to get to the heart. Living with other people, we learn that we cannot have everything our own way. We learn to compromise, giving up some of the things we want so that other people can have some of the things they want, and while it is never easy, learning to give and take is part of learning how to be fully human. There are always opportunities to forgive, be forgiven and to reconcile.
In today’s reading, Jesus lets us know that the Christian family does not work in the illusion of harmony, but strives to work together. When your brother sins against you, you must go and talk to him, and if that does not work you must keep going back – taking other people with you next time – doing everything in your power to get your brother back.
There are two curious things about Jesus’ advice. First, he puts the burden on the victim, on the person who has been sinned against. Second, he seems much less interested in who is right and who is wrong than he is in getting the family back together again. The important thing is that we listen to each other, he says, but if a member of the family refuses to listen over and over again – if the doors to communication stay firmly shut – then we are not to pretend that nothing has happened. We are to recognize that one of the members has left the family, because the only thing worse than losing a brother or sister is pretending that you have not and letting that person fester in your midst like an untended wound.
It is hard but honest advice, one of those pieces of advice that we know is right, that we know we should take, but one that is very hard to act upon. Can you imagine doing exactly as Jesus suggests?
If you belong to a church community, it is not hard to see what Jesus is talking about. You sit next to Pete week after week, pass the peace, ask about his job and his family. One day, Pete asks to borrow your hedge trimmer. Sure, you say, full of good Christian love and cheer, and Pete assures you that he will have it back within a week. The week passes and then the next week, until finally you call Pete to ask for your hedge trimmer back. Then he tells you that he loaned it to a friend and his friend backed over it with his truck. Pete considers this a piece of bad luck, but does not offer anything in return. You feel like you have been wronged.
So, first you go over to Pete’s house by yourself and talk to him, offering to take half of the value of the hedge trimmer, discounting the sentimental value that it belonged to your father and each time you use it you feel connected to him. Pete is offended at the thought of paying for the hedge trimmer. It was not his fault that his friend ran over it. So you leave, grab the church directory and select two names at random, call and ask them to go back to Pete’s with you to help work things out.
The next day, the three of you go knocking on Pete’s door. He is surprised that you are back and angry when you tell him why you are there. What are you trying to do, gang up on me? Besmirch my name? Standing on his porch, you look at your feet and try to tell him that you have reconsidered, that you are willing to report the loss of your sooper dooper hedge trimmer to your insurance company, if Pete will write a statement about what happened. While all these thoughts are ricocheting around in your head, and before you voice your plan, Pete tells you to get off of his property before he calls the police. The door closes in your face.
What do you do next? According to Jesus, you guessed it, you call everyone in the church and ask them to meet you at Pete’s house next Saturday. You are pretty sure from the last encounter, that he will not readily open the door to you, so you print up signs for folks to carry: “Forget the hedge trimmer, Pete” and “We are your friends” or “Come out and talk, “We love you” or “We are in this together.” On Saturday, everyone is there, milling around, carrying their signs and watching the house for activity. It is still and dark. After about twenty minutes of milling around and waiting for something to happen, the curtains part a little and you see Pete’s face. You wave and smile and call for him to come out. The curtain is jerked back into place and nothing happens for another twenty minutes. People continue walking around and asking what else they need to do. Then you look up and see Pete standing on the front porch, looking sheepishly around. Clutched in his hand is a check for the hedge trimmer. The crowd cheers, you and Pete embrace and everyone goes home happy. The end.
I know what you are thinking, “Maybe or maybe not.” It may work, I’ve never tried anything like this – it would work in the movies. Usually, when someone crosses us, we do several things. The first may be – act like nothing happened – ignorance is bliss. Meanwhile, there is an awkwardness, an elephant in the room between us. Ignore it and it will go away.
A second response may be to use the old cold shoulder, silent treatment. You never tell the person what is wrong because that would be impolite, so you just shun the offender. It never occurs to ask him what really happened between the two of you because you are sure you already know. They were in the wrong; let them figure it out.
A third response may be revenge – the silent deadly kind – where you never admit ill will towards them but you let it leak out all over town, never missing an opportunity to question the other person’s character or tell a little joke at his expense. You undertake a private smear campaign, telling yourself that it makes you feel better, telling yourself that over and over and over again because the truth is that you do not really feel any better.
The dictionary says that confrontation means: to bring two people face to face, front to front, to sort out what is going on between them. That is what today’s reading recommends and it is also what most of us would like to avoid. The excuses quickly rush to our lips. Who am I to Judge? What is it to me? I go to her? She is the sinner; let her come to me. Tell him my feelings are hurt? What if he just hurts them again? I wouldn’t know what to say, how to act. I would feel so foolish. What’s the use, anyway?
For us in Christian community, there is something more important than being right or wrong, and that something is keeping the family together. For us the real problem is not the brother or sister who sins against us but our own fierce wish to defend ourselves against them regardless of the cost. The real problem is the speed with which most of us are ready to forsake our relationships in favor of nursing our hurt feelings, our wounded pride. We fail to ask ourselves: “What am I afraid of?” and “Is the relationship worth the risk, worth the effort?”
Our goal is to reconciliation not retribution, remembering that being right is less important than being in relationship. It can be a real nuisance to belong to a family. It would be easier to be just a bunch of individuals, loosely bound by similar beliefs, but having our business remain private. Jesus says that there is no such thing as privacy in the family of God. Our life together is the chief means God has chosen for being with us, and it is of ultimate importance to God. Our life together is the place where we are comforted, confronted, tested, and redeemed by God through one another. It is the place where we come to know God or to flee from God’s presence, depending on how we come to know or flee from one another.
When someone crosses us, we are called to be the first to reach out, even when we are the ones who have been hurt, even when God knows we have done nothing wrong, even when everything in us wants to fight back – still we are called to community with one another, to act like the family we are. That is how we know God and how God knows us. That is what we are called to do: to confront and make up, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to heal and be healed.
This weekend we celebrate Labor Day. In 1894, Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a holiday. It is meant to pay tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. So what if we labor for those in Texas and Louisiana who have lost their homes and belongings and family. What if we write a check or send a text or go online and make a contribution to Episcopal Relief and Development to help those folks. The stories of neighbor helping neighbor or stranger helping stranger during the hurricanes have been so sweet. They are the actions, the labors that define who we are as a country, not the petty fussing and physical fighting. We grew out of a melting pot of immigrants and as a melting pot we offer flavor and inspiration to others. So let’s make this Labor Day a day of love.
Among believers, there is no court of appeals beyond the church. Ideally, the church’s decisions should be God-guided and based on the discernment of God’s Word. Believers have the responsibility, therefore to bring their problems to the church, and the church has the responsibility to use God’s guidance in seeking to resolve conflicts. Handling problems God’s way will have an impact on all of our lives. Thanks be to God for the grace and mercy to live in community. Amen.