9/6/2020 Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 18: 15-20.
15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sadly, it seems to be our human nature to react in fairly predictable ways when we feel we have been wronged by another. We tend to lean toward resentment, victimhood, anger, self-righteous indignation. More often than not, we dig our heels in and refuse to budge in any way toward discussion, forgiveness, and especially, reconciliation. And, more increasingly these days many of us resort to social media so we can post to the world that we have been ill-treated. I was in my late teens when the war in Viet Nam was raging. Some of you may remember the divisions that split the country at that time. Anti-war protests, returning servicemen being spit on and called “baby killers”. Body counts being broadcast on the evening news programs. It was a time of great division in our country. I would never have guessed that things could degenerate to be any worse than those troubling times.
Fast forward to 2020; this year makes the Viet Nam era look like a picnic by the lake on a sunny summer day. I can’t recall a time when there has been this much division, angst, and conflict. We remain in the throes of a global pandemic, so far resulting in 870,000 deaths among the over 25 million people afflicted with the virus. No matter what your political leaning or affiliation, the political climate is divisive, destructive, and I fear shows no sign of getting better any time soon. I’ve heard stories of people whose close friends or family members have abandoned them because of comments they have posted on Facebook, that they didn’t agree with. You would think that in the midst of the fear, worry, and isolation that the virus has brought about, that people would be drawn more closely together, and that everyone would be going out of their way to find common ground. Embracing that which binds us together, rather than focusing on those things that promote dissention among us.
Matthew tells us this morning that Jesus seeks wholeness in the church and that when there is agreement and harmony that the Father listens, and will grant what is asked. We know that Jesus doesn’t think small and that his pronouncements are not limited in their scope. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”, he states. This promise extends beyond the petty disagreements that might arise among church members; Jesus’ presence is among God’s people wherever they may be, and in whatever circumstances they are found. Jesus admonishes the early church to avoid confrontation and disagreement; it is God’s will that there be communal harmony among Jesus’ followers. In this sense these early Christian communities are directed to work to be supportive of one another and to avoid disagreements. This, in order that individual offenses might not interfere with the spread of the Gospel. If and when disagreements arise the goal is to work toward, not only agreement; but forgiveness, and most importantly reconciliation.
This command to avoid conflict and seek reconciliation didn’t end at the door of the ancient synagogue, nor does it dismissed when we exit the narthex of the church today.
Which rather brings us back to this pesky proclivity we humans have toward sinfulness. If we’re honest, we would rather resort to our feelings of resentment, victimhood, anger, and self-righteous indignation when we are wronged. It’s easier right? And it requires a lot less work than making the effort toward reconciling with those who have distressed us. Shakespeare said, “aye, but there’s the rub!” Even if the conflict exists only between two, Jesus is present. I once heard a Confirmation teacher tell the students that every time they made an important decision, that they should imagine that Jesus is in the room there with them. I’m not sure how the confirmands processed this, but it had a deep impact on me. Although, this might have something to do with my Irish grandmother telling me every time I misbehaved, and I quote; “God will get you for that, laddie!” There is no monopoly on using guilt to coercing a teenager to behave properly.
So, if Jesus is with us when we gather in his name to accomplish positive things in a spirit of agreement, it follows that he is present when there is negativity, dissension or disagreement. It is his will that his followers seek to offer forgiveness when one is wronged. And more importantly, reconciliation is what is even more deeply sought. As we know, this road is generally the more difficult one to travel. But forgive we must, if reconciliation is to happen. And getting to that point is certainly made easier if we too imagine that Jesus is standing by in the corner of the room; and he set the ultimate example for us in this process. His death and resurrection made possible God’s forgiveness of the sins of all the world; and the restored, reconciled relationship with the Father.
We are all sinners, each of us has wronged another; sometimes with purpose, often unknowingly. Seeking forgiveness for our actions and pursuing reconciliation with those we have wronged ought to be our paramount goal once the offense is made known. Matthew speaks of the need for one-on-one confrontation, then to bring a couple of witnesses along if no satisfaction. And eventually, gather the whole gang with you to get an apology and repentance from the offender.
And if all this fails, we are to turn our back on the one who started the trouble. All this and then Jesus reminds us of his presence. A sense of self-righteousness or refusal to respond and repent should never be the option. Again, as sinners redeemed by Christ, how could we possibly feel righteous or unapologetic for our actions? Our very own right relationship with God and the forgiveness we have been granted by the Father was brought about by the actions of the very Jesus who promises he is present with us as we act in unworthy ways with those around us. Remember he is in the room as we hurt one another with self-righteous judgement or damaging indifference.
Perhaps if we acknowledge that Jesus is observing how we behave we might alter the ways we interact with our fellow creatures. Note that in Matthew this morning it’s not that the one causing offense needs to “hear” what is being said. Very specifically Jesus says that the person is not lost if they “listen” to you, or the two-or-three witness, and if needed, the entire church. We all “hear” one another all day long, but there is a big difference between “hearing” and “listening”. If we truly listen to the other and acknowledge that they just might have a point, even if their opinion differs from ours; this is the first step toward reconciliation. And this intention to check our egos, adopt a nonjudgmental attitude, and truly “listen” to the viewpoint of others with the goal of harmony and understanding has never been more important, or necessary. In today’s climate of conflict on so many fronts with seemingly everyone divided into opposing camps, perhaps the time has come to really “listen” to the other side. And most importantly, maybe we ought to “listen” to what the divine presence is saying to us. For we know, Jesus is right there in the room, whenever two or three are gathered.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, you forgive us for the sake of your Son. Bless us with the ability to forgive others. By the work of Christ on the cross we have been restored to a right relationship with you. Help us to “listen” to the other, that we might return to reconciliation with those around us. And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, the One who is always present. Amen. God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.