SERMON A Pentecost L.23 2017 King of Kings, New Windsor August 19-20, 2017
In chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel, we hear a series of Jesus’ sayings. Each of these sayings offers some sort of guidance about how to live together in the church. Did you notice the common topic in these sayings? It’s the topic of sin and forgiveness. Maybe the lesson of Matthew 18 is that, wherever the church is, there is sin, but there is also forgiveness.
Maybe you know this reality firsthand. Maybe someone in a church—maybe even this church, right here at King of Kings—has sinned against you. Maybe someone spread a rumor about you or said something hurtful to you; maybe the pastor said something that just made you mad. Or maybe there was a time when you perpetrated a sin. Maybe you made a mistake or talked about another committee member behind her back or said something you now regret or did something that hurt someone else. Maybe, in either case, if the conflict was resolved, you were able to offer forgiveness—or receive forgiveness—from the other party. Maybe you have already experienced sin and forgiveness in the church.
In this chapter, Jesus teaches us two things about living in relationship, particularly in the church. First, we can’t live together without making mistakes, without hurting each other, without sinning against one another. And second, when we mess things up, when we hurt someone, when we sin, we can resolve the situation only through forgiveness.
You know this in your own life, don’t you? You can’t live with a roommate or spouse or child or parent without sinning against each other—and then forgiving each other. Sometimes, in this scenario, you’re the sinner, and sometimes you are the one sinned against. You can’t play in an orchestra or be on a soccer team or join a club without encountering some sort of conflict with your fellow members. You can’t work with someone without experiencing difficulty, with your boss or your employees or your co-workers or your customers or clients. Nor can you escape from hurting someone or being hurt by someone in the church. Whether you sin or are sinned against, in whatever relationships you have, forgiveness is necessary for reconciliation, for being restored into right relationship.
Jesus took this issue about sin in the church head on. He didn’t ignore it or sweep it under the rug. He knew that perfect churches would never exist, because perfect relationships don’t exist, and that perfect relationships don’t exist because perfect people don’t exist. So he acknowledged that there would be conflict in the church, that sometimes one member of the church would sin against another. He said that out loud, teaching his disciples first to expect conflict rather than ignoring it or denying it; and then to forgive each other.
Recognizing that people in the church who are estranged from one another need to find a way back together, Jesus recommended four steps toward reconciliation. We could call them a “prescription for reconciliation”. You can find them in today’s gospel, verses 15-17.
- When there is trouble between you and another member of the church, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.
- If the member does not listen to you, take someone else with you and go to him again.
- If he doesn’t listen, tell the whole church.
- And finally, if he still does not listen to you, then what? What does Jesus say to do? “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
We’ll come back to that in a moment.
First, let’s paraphrase Jesus’ four steps for reconciliation. When a wrong has occurred in the church, Jesus wants us to invite the offender back into relationship. Here’s how:
- Don’t bottle up trouble between you and another church member; let’s say this person who offended you is a woman. Don’t stuff your feelings toward her inside you, or you will suffer. And don’t run off to other people to get them on your side, or you’ll make a bigger mess. The first step is to talk to the woman privately. Tell her how you were hurt and what you need from her.
- If she doesn’t listen to you, take someone else with you and go to her again. Don’t involve any extra people in your conflict; limit awareness of the trouble to as few people as possible.
- If she does not listen to you and your advocate, tell the whole congregation.
- And if she still does not listen to you… Well, what does Jesus say to do in this case? “To let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Well, what does Jesus mean by this? In general, Jews in the first century lumped Gentiles and tax-collectors in the same category as prostitutes; they were sinners, people who did not keep the Jewish law, who were to be treated with contempt. Is that what Jesus is instructing his disciples to do, to treat the offender with contempt? Does he want you to despise that woman in the church who wronged you? To give up on her and cast her out of the community? No, of course not.
So, when Jesus told his disciples to treat someone who had offended them as a Gentile or a tax collector, what was he expecting them to do? Well, how did Jesus himself treat Gentiles and tax collectors? He treated them with love and respect. Rather than judging them for breaking Jewish law or condemning them for sinning against God, he forgave them. He listened to them. He healed them. He ate meals with them.
Why? Why did Jesus treat people who were sinners with love and respect? Why did he forgive them—and listen to them—and heal them—and eat with them? Jesus, like his father, God, knew that people, even good, upright, moral church people, sometimes wander off or make mistakes or go astray. You and I are among those church people, and each of us, at times, does those very things: we wander off; we makes mistakes; we go astray. When that happens, God is ready! God is ready to receive sinners, to welcome wanderers back, to forgive offenders and to restore broken relationships.
But why is God so ready to forgive? The prophet Ezekiel, in today’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, knows the answer: “because God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” God forgives because God wants to be reconciled with us. God is not interested in punishing us, but in giving us life! God wants to be in relationship.
When you turn away from God or hurt someone else or don’t take care of yourself, you sin. In my preferred definition of sin, you are “tearing the fabric of your existence”; you’re ripping a hole in your life—and maybe in someone else’s life as well. When you sin, something goes wrong, and it needs to be made right, but you can’t fix it. If we use the metaphor of fabric, the fabric is torn, and it needs to be mended. Or something is broken, and it needs to be fixed. A broken dish needs to be glued. A broken fan needs a new part. An occluded artery needs a stent. The thing which is mended or fixed or repaired may not look like it did originally, but we often say, “It’s as good as new”.
In the case of fabric, a tailor can do the mending. In the case of a broken dish or a broken fan or a broken-down car, we can try to fix it ourselves or pay someone else to do it. But when you and I sin, there’s no forgiveness store or forgiveness website or forgiveness app. When you do something wrong, something that hurts others or hurts yourself, you cause a rift or a tear or a hole in your relationship, and you can’t fix it yourself. The same thing happens when people sin against you; they do things to you that are wrong, that hurt you. Their sin causes a rift or a tear or a hole in your relationship. No matter how hard you try on your own, you can’t fix these rifts, these tears, these holes, whether the sin that causes the tear is yours or someone else’s.
So what to do? We can’t fix it on our own. Can we google a professional who will deliver forgiveness at a price? Johannes Tetzel tried this in the 16th century with indulgences, and that didn’t work. Can the tears in the fabric of our existence ever be mended? Here’s the good news, my friends. Our God is a God of forgiveness. When you sin, God forgives you. When I sin, God forgives me. God has no interest in punishing us, since God “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but [desires] that the wicked turn from their ways and live”. God wants to be in relationship with you, when you are good—and when you are wicked. So God gives you a chance to begin anew—and another and another and another—not just seven chances or even “seventy times seven” chances, but as many as you need. Whenever there is a rift in your relationship with God, God restores you into relationship and invites you to start over.
God mends the tear in the fabric of your existence. God takes all the pieces of your life and puts them back together. When something in your life is broken, God glues it back together and makes it all right. God forgives you, not a measly seven times or even “seventy times seven”, but as often as you seek forgiveness. God heals your broken heart. God makes all things new with a brand new start. God forgives you. AMEN