By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
September 7, 2008
Read: Matthew 18:15-20
Throughout Matthew’s eighteenth chapter, Jesus underscores the importance of Christian community. Faith winds up being much more than a private affair, it becomes a community affair…something that happens when two or three are gathered together in His name. That is when he promised to be in our midst…when two or three are gathered together…not when we are off by ourselves feeling holy.
Jesus is offering us a model of reconciliation today. A model for living together in community, as a family bound together by the love of Christ. He acknowledges that, like any family, there will be times when we misunderstand each other, become offended by what a brother or sister says or does. It goes with the territory—it goes with being human.
It is important for us to deal with offenses in the right way, or else they can become like a chain around our feet and slow our every step—cause us to stumble. God gives us a choice. The choice is that we can either be caught up in an offense cycle or we can stand up and break the offense cycle. In a sense we can learn how to deal with offenses in a constructive and healthy way–for you and your relationships.
We all get offended, but there is a healthy way of dealing with it and then there is an unhealthy way of staying in the offense. Being wounded is staying in the offense, it’s like staying in the pit. You know, there are people who are stuck in an offense that happened 10 or 20 years ago, and if you get them in a vulnerable moment they will tell you about the offense that happened 20 years ago as though it just happened yesterday.
If we get stuck in hurt and woundedness, we can get to a point where we get so bitter that it becomes part of our very life. When we live in this kind of woundedness, we will loose the love, the passion for life itself and become bitter and dull inside.
Today’s message is about positively confronting offenses and the offender before they turn into the poison of woundedness and bitterness. I believe that God wants us to adopt a pattern of behavior in which we continually deal with offenses in a positive and reconciliatory way.
There will always be issues, there always will be offenses by something some brother or sister says or does. Offenses that cause us to stumble are all around us, because our pride is so easily offended. Offenses happen in families, at the work place, on the playground and even at church. I can guarantee you that sooner or later people will say something or do something that will offend you, that will cause you to stumble.
So how do we usually react or respond when we are offended? There are several common strategies. Pretend that nothing has happened. Just let it go and no one will get upset, no one will be uncomfortable. A second strategy is the cold shoulder. We never tell the other person what is wrong because that would be impolite and shouldn’t they already know what they did wrong? It’s their problem, not yours. Yet another strategy is revenge—the silent, deadly kind—where you never admit any ill will toward someone but you let it leak out all over the place, never missing an opportunity to question the other person’s character or tell a little joke at his expense. It becomes a private smear campaign. And I know that you all know what I’m talking about!
In his book, The Great Divorce, the British writer C.S. Lewis paints a picture of hell that is haunting. It bears such resemblance to where so many human beings live. Hell is like a vast gray city, Lewis says, a city inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle—empty because everyone who once lived in them has quarreled with the neighbors and moved, and quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving empty streets full of empty houses behind them. That, Lewis says, is how hell got so large—empty at the center and inhabited only on the fringes—because everyone in it chose distance instead of confrontation as the solution to a fight.
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 gospel reading recommends, and it is also what most of us would do just about anything to avoid. It is so darn uncomfortable. What if I share that I am hurt? That might mean that he will continue to hurt me. I would feel foolish and what’s the use anyway? Things will never change.
And these are fine excuses if we don’t mind living on the outskirts of hell, but for those of us called to Christian community, we need to do something different. There is something more important than being right or wrong. The real problem is not the brother or sister who sins against us, but our own fierce wish to defend ourselves against them whatever 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. In old-fashioned language, the problem is how eager we are to repay sin with more sin. And the wound festers and grows.
So often the basis of a fight is a bad assumption and misunderstanding. Jesus’ way is to take the initiative, even if it’s uncomfortable, and tell the other person what is wrong. The other person may not even know they offended you! Some questions to be asked: Am I sure I know what I am talking about? Have I given the other person the benefit of the doubt? What am I afraid of? Is the relationship worth the risk?
Sometimes, we need to have a little faith in people, and trust that they don’t really want to offend us personally. Some would call it: “the benefit of the doubt.” Give people the benefit of the doubt. Have a little faith in them. Yes, they offended us, they sinned against us, but perhaps they did it inadvertently.
So share your feelings with them and see what happens. Most likely they will apologize and will say that they did not realize what they were saying or doing was hurtful toward you.
If the offense does not stop; if the relationship becomes hostile, we need to take it one step further, Jesus suggests; we need to utilize Christian brothers and sisters that act as mediators.
Christian conflict resolution and counseling is a powerful way toward reconciliation in the Spirit of Jesus’ teaching. Of course, it takes both parties to agree on this method and if one party refuses to see a counselor or if they refuse to reconcile, then Jesus asks us to take the matter to the congregation.
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—to throw a block party smack in the deserted center of hell and fill the space with such music and laughter, such merriment and mutual affection that all the far-flung residents come creeping in from their distant outposts to see what the fuss, the light, the JOY is all about. Amen.
The text of this sermon is the property of the author and may not be duplicated or used without permission.