By The Rev. Sherry Deets
13 Pentecost, Proper 18 – September 7, 2014
Community and connections. Today’s gospel reading from Matthew has everything to do with community and connections. And community and connections are all about truth-telling and reconciliation. Community and connections demand both accountability and autonomy, both responsibility and individuality, both answerability and self-identity.
We, as human beings, make mistakes. We mess up. We wind up hurting others. Who hasn’t been hurt or wound up hurting someone else? That’s just life in this world. We screw up. Which means that forgiveness is perhaps the essential ingredient in our relationships at home, work, school, church, and all the rest.
All of which brings us back to the troublesome verses we’ve heard this week. You see, without keeping the centrality of forgiveness in our relationships firmly in mind, it’s easy to hear the verses in this week’s reading as a divine recipe for dealing with troublesome Christians. Step one, take the offender aside and show him/her the error of their ways. Step two, bring a group to confront said offender. Step three, shun and/or banish unrepentant offender. Repeat as necessary.
Read all by itself, this counsel is wide open to abuse, as (probably) well-meaning people decide to have Christian con-friend-tation with someone they fear is “backsliding.” But read in light of the larger context of forgiveness and relationship, what Matthew’s chapter 18 is about, everything changes. The primary goal is no longer to change someone’s behavior, or demonstrate how he or she is wrong, or even to invite him or her to repentance. Rather, the goal is to restore a damaged relationship by speaking truthfully about the breach or hurt you are experiencing, taking responsibility for your feelings and your actions and inviting the other person to do the same, and inviting dialogue and conversation that you might find a way forward together.
Read this way, these verses are remarkably counter-cultural. For we live in a culture of digital dehumanization, where we can accuse or complain about someone else at the safe distance of the comments to a post, trash someone’s reputation via social media, or share difficult news via an email rather than through face-to-face conversation. In each case, we have failed to take seriously the humanity of the person with whom we are in relationship, hiding ourselves in the digital forest of 24/7 messaging. Jesus, however, invites a different way. He invites us to love each other enough to speak not just to but also with each other, holding each other accountable through vulnerability rather than by force. After all, it takes guts to talk to someone you feel is in the wrong without judging them, putting them down, or taking responsibility for their actions. And it takes guts to listen when someone else tries to do the same thing for you. In this way of relating, the key is to put being in relationship above being right, and to take incredibly seriously how much God wants us all to be in good relationship with each other and with God.
Some people have an amazing ability to remember the slightest offense done to them, the less-than-redemptive remark, the tiniest snub. They let it fester in their souls until it just gnaws away at their hearts and little is left but resentment and anger and a really terrible case of heartburn. But in the end, especially as far as the kingdom of heaven is concerned, the only thing that matters is not what’s been said or who got the short end of the stick. The only thing of consequence is relationship.
In his book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis, draws a stark picture of hell. Hell is like a great, vast city, Lewis says, a city inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle. These houses in the middle are empty because everyone who once lived there has quarreled with the neighbors and moved. Then, they quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving the streets and the houses of their old neighborhoods empty and barren.
That, Lewis says, is how hell has gotten so large. It is empty at its center and inhabited only at the outer edges, because everyone chose distance instead of honest confrontation when it came to dealing with their relationships.
“Look, she’s the one who said that about me. Let her come and apologize!”
“We may go to the same church, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got to share a pew with that so-and-so!”
“It’ll be a cold day in July before I accept his apology.”
That’s all well and good, I suppose… if you don’t mind living in hell.
Are we really so willing to give up our relationships with others – relationships that have come about and been forged by our desire to follow Jesus? Nowhere, and I do mean nowhere, in the gospels will you find Jesus saying that the first order of things is always to be right. But he does have a great deal to say about forgiveness, about relationship, about reconciliation, about service and humility and vulnerability.
I read an article by Lillian Daniel, a pastor in the UCC tradition. Her story is about sitting next to someone on a plane who discovered she was a minister and he told her that was spiritual, but not religious. I smiled when I read this, because I’ve heard that many times – “I’m spiritual, but not religious”. Lillian Daniel has, in part, this to say: Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name,” he says, “I am there among them.” So when it comes right down to it, where do you prefer to be? Father, you’ve called us to be family. That means, from time-to-time, we’re going to hurt one another. Squabbles are going to break out, and we won’t exactly be getting along. But help us to see the bigger picture, that relationship is more important than anything else. Dear God, thank you for creating us in your image and not the other way around. Amen.
The text of this sermon is the property of the author and may not be duplicated or used without permission.