September 6, 2020, The 14th Sunday After Pentecost

The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost - September 6, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings:  Exodus: 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

From the Gospel according to Matthew, (Jesus said), “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

    There is an old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

I think most of us, if not all of us, have heard that saying at some point in our lives. In fact, we probably heard it from the mouth of a parent when we came home crying that someone had called us a “bad” name. And while the intention of that saying is to encourage us to shrug off mean-spirited words – whether name calling or any other derogatory remark – the truth is, names, words, can hurt not only for the moment, but for a lifetime.

     Jesus understood the power of words to heal and to destroy. He spoke of the power of the tongue which can both build up and tear down in a matter of sentences. Thus, in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, our Lord says that rather than speak ill of someone with whom we disagree or even write them off as a jerk, those who follow Jesus speak directly to a person whose words or conduct is offensive, and do so in private. And then he goes on to advise what to do and how to respond if someone ignores our counsel or concern.

     Sadly, Jesus’ words here have been misused throughout Church history. They are often understood as a four-point blueprint for addressing everything that is wrong in someone else, and quite frankly, more often than not, most people tend to skip the first two steps that encourage direct discussion and, instead, jump to the third step: accuse someone from the midst and comfort of a crowd of one’s friends. Some people, some churches, just jump ahead to the fourth step and outright shun that person with whom they disagree or don’t like altogether. It’s easier to do so. After all, “They don’t belong here; they don’t belong in the Episcopal Church.” When this text is used as a blueprint we miss the whole point of the entire 18th chapter of Matthew.

See, the heart of Matthew 18 is forgiveness: how important forgiveness is to God, how important forgiveness is to us, and how hard it can be to actually extend it, let alone admit that we need to receive forgiveness after we have hurt someone. Look carefully at this passage: Immediately prior to today’s reading, (vs 10-14) Jesus offered the parable of the lost sheep. In that parable, Jesus describes God as a shepherd who will leave ninety-nine sheep in order to find the one that is lost and then shower that lost soul with what? Forgiveness and mercy. And right before that parable (vs 6-9) Jesus said that we must always exercise care in how we live, what words we use, lest our lifestyle, our choices, our words, lead someone else to stumble or outright walk away from the Church. And right after today’s reading (vs 21-22), Peter asks Jesus, “How many times must I forgive someone? Seven times like the Law of Moses says?” Jesus replies, “Seventy times seven.” In other words, there should be no limit to forgiveness. True people of God forgive, forgive again, and keep on forgiving until we are fully reconciled to one another. “Oh, but that’s so hard to do, Father. You know, they really hurt my feelings, and I need to wallow in that self-righteous place for now.” Jesus says, “No way! That is not what true community, what real Church, is about.”

See, Jesus understood human nature. So much so, that he told his followers that no matter how hard we might try to follow God’s ways, to always take the high road, to pray and try to avoid temptation, we are all going to mess up. Let’s face it: people sin. And the church, for all her talk and desire to be a wonderfully holy and loving community, is made up of sinners – everyday imperfect people like you and me. So, conflict is inevitable. At some point, someone is going to say something that hurts, or we hurt them. It is human nature. And so Jesus says, when that happens, talk directly to one another, not someone else, but directly to the person who has hurt you. But there’s a risk in doing so because we might just learn that we have hurt them, too.

     If we read Matthew 18 without understanding the overall theme of forgiveness and mercy, then it does become a blueprint for pointing out someone else’s faults; it divides the Church. It becomes an “us vs. them” situation – you know, those who don’t do like we do, or do things our way. But, when read in the larger context of forgiveness and, therefore, relationship, everything about today’s gospel lesson changes! The primary goal of this passage shifts from a desire to change someone else’s behavior, or demonstrate that she or he is wrong, or even invite them to repentance and, instead, the goal becomes to restore a damaged relationship. How? By speaking truthfully about the breach or hurt we are experiencing, taking responsibility for our feelings and our actions, and inviting the other person to do the same so that together, we might find a way forward together.

    I find Jesus’ words incredibly counter-cultural and timely. We live in a digital age that dehumanizes people, where we can complain about someone from a safe distance or even under an assumed identity. We can trash someone’s reputation, or share something really juicy about them simply with the press of a button via email, a tweet, on our cellphones, or any other form of social media, rather than face to face. In so doing, we deny the humanity of the other person, we violate our baptismal promises to seek and serve Christ in every person we meet. And it is destroying not only communities and churches, but our nation as well. Jesus invites us to do differently. Jesus says if something is troubling you, speak up and speak directly. It takes courage to do so, especially when even a gentle discussion can seem like a judgment or putting down one another. (Our culture today does tend to see civil and courteous disagreement as somehow disrespectful and hurtful.) But the gospel tells us that if our focus is to restore relationships, to find and offer forgiveness, Jesus says something even more wonderful and amazing will take place. When we nurture that kind of caring, honest and authentic discussion, a sense of community emerges – a community marked by faith, love, hope, mercy and forgiveness – and when two or three gather like that – when they “gather in my Name,” Jesus says, “There I am among them.” Oh, but it is hard to speak face to face and even harder, sometimes, to forgive not once, but seventy times seven. (Trust me, I know!)

    In today’s reading from his Letter to the Romans, Paul suggests that the Ten Commandments boil down to two things: Loving God and loving our neighbor. Theologian, The Rev. Dr. Robert Hughes, in his book “Beloved Dust” offers that if my neighbor is, indeed, created in the image of God, then I cannot possibly love God without loving my neighbor just as much. I think we tend to love God one way and our neighbor a little less because they aren’t God and I understand that line of thinking. Yet, Dr. Hughes suggests that loving our neighbor less means we don’t love God, that try as hard as we wish, we aren’t following the commandments, God’s ways. Now, that is food for thought. Do we love those with whom we disagree enough, love our neighbor enough, to do all that we can to be in a wholesome, merciful, loving and forgiving relationship with them? Do we love them enough to speak face to face, one on one, privately and from the heart, to speak up and then be willing to listen to them, listen to their story? Oh, that is a struggle. But, that is God’s way.

     Now, Jesus’ demands of his followers – demands echoed by St. Paul - may seem unrealistic. I mean, have you ever tried to talk directly to so and so? The gospel, the Ten Commandments, compel us to try – and to try not so that theywill change, but in order to love them and be reconciled. But, what if they don’t listen? Then try again, seventy times seven. See, we don’t pray, “God forgive us not as we’d like to but just can’t forgive others,” but rather, we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” I know this is difficult and may not make sense especially when we have been wronged, when we are hurting; when we really are owed an apology. But sometimes God’s ways don’t always make sense to us.

     You know, the Israelites most likely thought Moses’ words made no sense. I mean think about it: in today’s reading from Exodus, Moses tells everyone to dress up, pack their bags, scarf down a meal of roast lamb, oh, and by the way, smear some of that lamb’s blood on the door posts and lintel. Does that make any sense? Not at all! I picture Moses hearing God’s instructions and thinking, “Oy! Here we go again.” So, imagine the response when he told the people to do this stuff. (“I think Moses has been drinking out of the Nile again!”) Let’s be honest: it makes no sense at all. But everyone who did so was spared.  The same applies to our gospel. Jesus asks that we trust him enough to realize that when we speak to one another in love, when we forgive and forgive again, when we do the hard work of reconciliation, “I am there among them” and community is born: A community that basks in the real presence of God our redeemer, a community that offers real hope, an honest religion so palpable that it changes lives – even our own - and makes a difference in this world.

   Beloved, by God’s grace, may this be true for us, about us, and in us. Amen.