McFarland

14th Sunday of Pentecost September 6, 2020

Readings

First Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Second Reading: Romans 13:8-14
Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20

Prayer of the Day:

O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

 

Hymns of the Day

If you don’t have hymnals at home,
look up the hymns on YouTube or other websites.

All Creatures, Worship God Most High! – ELW #835
Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether – ELW #470
Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee – ELW #836
Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation – ELW #645

Reflection on Matthew 18:15-20

by Pastor Kellli Schmit

“If a member of the church sins against you, talk about them behind their back and post it on social media.”  This is from the Gospel of Holy Resentments.[1]

Thank you to scholars Rolf Jacobson and Matt Skinner for that little bit of levity.  I needed to start with something lighter because – woo boy – is this a heavy text…especially these days.

Our Gospel reading today is about community relationships that have been damaged.  It’s about conflict and discord and, honestly, I’d rather have a great feeding story or a healing or some walking on water because disagreements and hurts seem to be everywhere these days.  If it can be argued about, it will be.  If it’s something obvious that all people should agree on, human ingenuity will find a way to see it differently.  Usually it’s based on the person who brought it to their attention.  For example: everyone loves petting puppies, but since Bill Nobody suggested it, and Bill Nobody and I had a falling out years ago that we never resolved, now I’m anti-puppy.  (That’s ridiculous – who could be anti-puppy?  But anyway…)

Everywhere we turn there are people who are hurt and afraid and in pain and there are disagreements aplenty.  Between the coronavirus and wearing masks, to school meeting in person or virtually, to the responses to Jacob Blake being shot, to the upcoming election – there is a lot of conflict.  There are a lot of relationships being damaged.  So when I started working on my sermon, I was bummed because I didn’t want to marinate or ruminate on strained communities anymore.  But this is the assigned text for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost every three years.  We heard this in the fall of 2017 and we will again in 2023.  If I had my choice, I would just preach on the Gospel of John every week, but here we are…talking about relationships that have been damaged and how the community responds to that pain, and we will dig into this story every three years.  It’s almost like Jesus wants us to talk about how we handle reconciling and restoring the connections between people.

So maybe, while we’re up to our eyeballs in strained relationships, maybe this is the perfect time for 1) for the church to be a place where we can talk about the realities of the world, and for 2) to see if Jesus has some guidance or insight for how we can move forward as his disciples in this time and place.

First of all, our story starts with Jesus acknowledging that conflicts and hurt and strained relationships among community members – all of this is just going to happen.  That’s his starting point.  Disagreements aren’t inherently bad, it just means that more than one person is occupying the same space.  Jesus cares about the health and vitality of a community, and he gives us a framework – some guiding principles – for how to move forward when the inevitable happens.

Each interaction between the one who was hurt and the one who inflicted pain, the conversations are done privately.  No one is being drawn out into the public square to be humiliated or shamed.  Our gut instinct is to tell everyone how we’ve been wronged and let them wither on the vine of public opinion, but Jesus outlines slow increments that keep the fractured relationship contained.  Even when initial attempts at repair don’t work and we pull in other people, Karl Jacobson pointed out that the purpose of the witness is not to “testify against but to the exchange.”[2]  This isn’t me pulling in my best friend to pile on the other person – the ringer in my contact list who will always have my back.  This is someone who can mediate the dialogue and bear witness to what was shared between the two parties.  It is someone who can help guide the conversation towards reconciliation.

While we would prefer to smear others on social media or whisper about their misdeeds over coffee or Zoom, we also need to remember that we’re not just the ones who have been hurt, but we have the capacity to hurt others.  Jesus is cautioning us to be aware of the moments when we are the ones who have hurt someone else, and to listen to their experience.  This includes individual actions and our participation in larger systems.[3]  Are we open to listening to a friend, neighbor, or stranger tell us about their painful experience, and hearing how our participation in that moment or in that system damaged our relationship?  Are we willing to listen to their story?

This process isn’t intended to be applied in every situation or without nuance or modification, but the bedrock purpose to these direct, private, contained conversations is all about reconciliation and the restoration of relationship.  It is to repair what was damaged and to prevent the virus of malcontent festering and spreading through the whole community.  Jesus knows that unresolved hurts in any group may be small at first, but can spread like a spiderweb in a windshield.  This unattended to pain can fester, escalate, and lead to more violence and more connections being strained.  In the words of Audrey West, “Jesus encourages the church to be a community that nurtures honest dialogue and refuses to keep silent in the face of behavior that harms others.”[4]  So the basic goal and intention of Jesus’ framework is to promote listening to those who have been hurt, to encourage relationships to be restored, and to prevent the unnecessary increase and spread of strained connections.  And Jesus even offers a contingency plan when that doesn’t work. 

When neither direct nor mediated conversations are successful, when the relationship is beyond repair, Jesus instructs his followers to treat those people like tax collectors and Gentiles.  Finally!  Jesus allows me to tap into my gut instincts and tell that person where to go and how to get there!  We get to treat those who have hurt us like tax collectors and Gentiles…but how did Jesus treat tax collectors and gentiles?  He called them to follow him as disciples, he ate dinner with them, and he was in hot water for being friends with them.[5]

If the relationship is beyond repair, we may not able to dine or be friends with the person who hurt us.  Jesus did but then again, he is Jesus.  So even though this may be an unsuccessfully tall order for us, even in the worst-case scenario, when reconciliation isn’t possible, Jesus still urges us to recognize the humanity in the other person.  Rejection, dehumanization, and exile are not an option, but neither is bypassing the healthy boundaries we establish around those who have hurt us.  Even when the relationship is beyond repair, acknowledging the humanity of the other is the very least we are called to do as disciples of Christ.

In case you thought the only thing contained in the assigned reading is some HR handbook guidelines for how to deal with someone who hurts us, Jesus has more for us today.  He promises that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them.  What is often mistaken for a bumper sticker platitude actually holds incredibly good news.  Remember the context in which Jesus spoke this – helping communities guide bruised relationships toward wholeness and repair.[6]

When conversation happens between the person who was hurt and the one who harmed, there are two people, Jesus is there.  When witnesses and leadership are drawn in, Jesus is there.[7]  In the midst of teaching us how to respond to community division and conflict, Jesus promises to be with us, even when we’re not getting along.

Jesus knows that living in community isn’t easy.  He knows that there are plenty of opportunities for feelings to be hurt and for relationships to be damaged, but he promises that we’re not doing this alone.  He is with us when we gather “in his name, a name that means ‘God with us’”.[8]  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Rolf Jacobson and Matt Skinner from: Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, Joy J. Moore, and Matt Skinner, “Sermon Brainwave: #741 – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost,” Working Preacher from Luther Seminary, online podcast, https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1291.

[2] Karl Jacobson, “Preach This Week, September 4, 2011, Gospel Reading, Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20,” Working Preacher from Luther Seminary https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1039 (accessed August 30, 2020).

[3] Audrey West, “Preach This Week, September 6, 2020, Gospel Reading, Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20,” Working Preacher from Luther Seminary https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4558 (accessed August 30, 2020).

[4] West.

[5] Matthew 9:9, 9:10, 11:19, respectively.

[6] Karoline Lewis from: Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, Joy J. Moore, and Matt Skinner, “Sermon Brainwave: #741 – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost,” Working Preacher from Luther Seminary, online podcast, https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1291.

[7] Karl Jacobson.

[8] West.

Let Us Pray

Let us pray: God of life, you strive for justice and peace in your creation.  You nurture and protect healthy lives of both individuals and communities.  Help us repair relationships that have been damaged – give us courage to speak our truth and give us compassion to hear when we have wronged others.  May the power and renewal of your Spirit move over and transform the chaos of our lives.  In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.