Sniffing Out the Good News

A sermon for September 10, 2017 on Matthew 18:15-20

  • To listen to the sermon, click play:

 

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

At a church I used to pastor, we had these big log books where we would record important events in the life of the community – baptisms, marriages, and deaths. The first time I baptized someone, the church’s administrative assistant got the books out of the safe for me to update. In a world where almost everything is computerized, I was fascinated by these big old volumes so I decided to spend a little bit of time flipping through the pages, reading the names and running my fingers along the dates and the details.

Jane Doe, baptized, July 23, 1952.   John Smith, baptized, August 15th, 1952 and so on.

And then I found a section where the pages began to tell a different kind of story. John Doe, baptized November 2nd, excommunicated May 18th. Jane Smith, baptized, October 9th, excommunicated, January 16th.      As I ran my fingers over the names and the word “excommunicated” next to entry after entry I couldn’t help but think, there is a story behind each one of these entries. A difficult story. Stories that are still impacting the life of this church, even if we never talk about them.

Theologian and pastor Nadia Bolz Weber says that excommunication is just a fancy way of talking about kicking people out of the church and my former church’s record book told the story of people who were welcomed into the community through baptism, and people who had been kicked out of that community through excommunication.

A person whose story includes being kicked out of a church or having a loved one kicked out of a church is going to bring that experience to this passage – whether it was a formal excommunication process, or the strong sense that because of who they are they are no longer welcome or would never be welcome. That experience impacts how they hear this gospel passage. No one comes to a text as a blank slate.

Context matters. Experience matters. Our story matters.

But despite the diverse nature of this congregation and the wealth of experiences you all bring with you, I believe that this passage contains good news for all of us, and that part of my job is to try and help us to see it.

So where is the good news in this passage for this community? For you as an individual? For myself?

What I’d like to do tonight is offer a few hunches. I spent the week acting like a dog hunting for a bone, sniffing out the good news. And I hope you will do the same tonight. Give each of these ideas the sniff test. Do they smell like good news to you?[1]

[1] Thanks to Kalyn Falk for this image.

I hope so, but it’s OK if they don’t.  And I’m open to further conversation with any of you about any of these things throughout the week, just get in touch with me.

I believe that the first piece of good news in Matthew 18:15-20 is this: sin and conflict exist. They are a natural part of life, and while we shouldn’t run headlong into these sorts of behaviours, we can’t pretend that we will never experience them.

So when you sin, and when you find yourself in conflict with another person you can say to yourself, “Hallelujah! I’m totally normal!”

Which is good news right?

I think it would be great news if we could all lean into having a more positive attitude towards conflict because a lot of what can get weird when we are in conflict with someone else comes from our sense that it is wrong to simply be in conflict.  If we view conflict as abnormal, the fact that a conflict exists means we are already doing something wrong and that makes us uncomfortable.

But the presence of conflict doesn’t mean we’re abnormal, it means we’re human.

The second piece of good news in this passage is that when sin and conflict occur, there are things we can do about them. We aren’t helpless. We don’t just have to suffer under their weight; we can act, change, and grow.

Matthew 18 is not directly applicable to every form of conflict, and it has been misused, but it does provide us with a framework for handling situations when someone in the church has hurt us.  

But does this framework contain any good news for us today?

Verse 15 says, “ “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

So a couple of things to note here. First of all, this is a plan that has a context, the context of Christian community. Although these steps may be applicable to other situations and relationships, this plan assumes that the people involved have a relationship, that they care about each other, and that their relationship is based in part on their shared membership in the church.  There is a base upon which to build.

A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to figure out just what the phrase, “sinned against you” means, but I think it is less important to make a list of sins or to work to define what exactly it means to be “sinned against,” then it is to note that this text is showing us that the result of sin is a breach in relationship. There is a breach in the relationship, there is a wound, and that wound needs to be healed. This particular passage is not focussed on every consequence of sin, it is focussed on the way sin impacts human relationships.

So if someone has sinned against you, if a breach has been created in the relationship, then Jesus is telling us to go and talk to the person about it in private.  Choosing to deal with the matter one on one in private allows the person to hear what you have to say with minimal shame. Which is a good thing, because shame makes us behave in weird and unhelpful ways.

Jesus is setting up a process that focuses not on the sin itself, but on the impact of that sin on the relationship.  Jesus is aware that we will tend to experience shame in these kinds of situations and is sensitive enough to minimize that potential. That sounds like good news to me too.  

The passage is also saying that when someone hurts you, you shouldn’t simply ignore it.  Which also means that Jesus is acknowledging that sin hurts us and that hurt should be taken seriously.   I don’t know about you but too often in my life I’ve been encouraged to minimize situations where I have been hurt, or to ignore them entirely.  Today it feels like good news to imagine Jesus standing before me and saying,  “No, that did hurt you, and that hurt has impacted your life. You don’t have to pretend that it didn’t just to make other people feel more comfortable.”

So let’s review the process: If someone sins against you, the hurt is real. The wound is real. It may be a small scratch or something life threatening, but it exists.   And when that happens, you need to acknowledge the wound and go and talk to the person who hurt you in private, and if they hear you, if they realize they have indeed wounded you and they seek to repair that wound, great! The two of you can continue to work together to heal that wound and deepen your relationship.

But if they don’t, bring a second person with you, and if that doesn’t work, bring another member of the community, and if that doesn’t work, involve the rest of the community. Involve the church. And if that doesn’t work, treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector.

Now I have had some really good experiences with this process. Experiences where someone has come to me and let me know that I hurt them and how that impacted them and I was able to apologise and correct my mistake and we remain in relationship. And I’m grateful that they didn’t just cut me out of their life or complain about me for hours to their friends but instead gave me a chance to make it right.

These positive experiences have become a part of my story, and they have helped me to develop the confidence to engage in bigger, more challenging conflicts because they taught me that engaging in a challenging conversation can have good results. Even if it’s really hard at the time.

I’ve also had some harder experiences with this process. Experiences where people used the form of the process to tell me they were unhappy with something I’d done without also using the spirit of the process – with its focus on healing a relationship.  They came, quoted these verses, informed me I had “sinned against them,” dropped the mic, and walked away. There was no dialogue, no chance to process, no chance to heal the breach in the relationship. In these experiences Matthew 18 felt more like a weapon than a tool of reconciliation.  

And I’ve also had the experience of going to someone and saying, “You have hurt me,” and they weren’t wiling to listen. And so I brought someone else with me and again I said, “You have hurt me,” and … nothing. And I have gone all the way to the end of this Matthew 18 process and still there was no movement on their part. So now, this person is to me like “a Gentile or a tax collector.”   

And I grieved that, and I’m still grieving that.

And I don’t think it is sugar coating things in any way to say that in that grief there is also good news.

Because while it is painful and it is not a learning process I would wish on anyone else, I think my grief is teaching me what is means to treat someone as a Gentile or a tax collector. I think it is teaching me how God wants us to think about people that we can’t be in a healthy relationship with. I think there is some good news in there, even if I don’t always see it.

And I’m going to unpack that a little bit more in a minute, but there is something I want to say first.

It is really important for me to emphasize that there is an essential first step that you have to practice if you’re ever going to engage someone in a Matthew 18 style conversation, and it’s a step that is often missed.  It’s also the essential first step if you want to practice forgiveness, which is a related, but different practice we don’t have time to get into in detail tonight.

Sometimes when someone hurts us it’s a tiny scratch. Sometimes it’s a bite, and sometimes it can be life threatening. Sin always hurts, but some of the ways that we sin against each other are more damaging than others.

So if you want to, on one hand, work through a process of healing a relationship or forgiving someone who has hurt you.[2] If your right hand is going to walk through these steps, then before you can do that, your left hand needs to go up and say, “No more abuse.” Sometimes, because the hurt is minor and the relationship strong, that’s an easy thing to do. You can hold up your left hand and say “No more abuse,” freeing your right hand to work through the steps of the Matthew 18 process. But sometimes, it may take all of your strength just to hold up that one hand that says, “No more abuse,” and that will be all you can handle. And that’s OK. The other hand can wait.

[2] Thanks to Fr. Matt Linn for this illustration.

Sometimes, holding up that hand that says, “No more abuse,” will be even more than you can handle and that’s OK too. You may need to enlist the help of friends you trust, or the authorities, or both.

To often verses like Matthew 18 have been used to send people back into abusive situations and I want to say as clearly as I possible can that that is wrong.

So step one: No more abuse.

That is the starting point. And I hope that sounds like good news.

There is one final piece of good news I’d like to highlight from this passage tonight.  I think it is good news that we are supposed to treat people that we can’t be in a healthy relationship with as if they are Gentile and tax collectors.

So with the hand of “no more abuse” always firmly in place, what does it mean to treat someone like a Gentile or a tax collector?

Too often, I think we have made the mistake of treating these sorts of people the way the world treats Gentiles and tax collectors.   We’ve shunned them, reviled them, ridiculed them. We have declared that they are not welcome.

But that’s not how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. And Matthew, who this gospel is named after knew that all too well because before Jesus chose him to be a disciple Matthew was a tax collector. [3]  And it seems to me that Matthew was never able to shake the fact that Jesus chose him, a tax collector, to be a disciple.

[3] This explanation of the gospel of Matthew’s view of tax collectors comes from Timothy J. Geddert’s book “Double Take: New Meanings From Old Stories.”

And I think that’ s the point.  I don’t think tax collectors are used as an example here by accident.

The book of Matthew places a unique emphasis on tax collectors. In chapter 9, we hear the story of Matthew’s decision to leave his work as a tax collector, when Jesus asks Matthew to follow him. In chapter 10 Matthew lists the names of all 12 disciples but he only includes the profession of one of them, “Simon, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Mathew, the tax collector, and so on…  It’s like he still can’t quite believe that he has been included in Jesus’ inner circle.

In chapter 11 Matthew Jesus responds to his critics who accuse him of being a  “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Of course they think they are discrediting Jesus but Jesus quotes them as if to say, “Yes! You’ve got it! That’s exactly who I am!” And Matthew records the incident as if to say, “A friend to sinners and tax collectors? You bet he is!”

So what does it mean to treat someone like a tax collector?  Well, if Jesus is our guide in this, it means to love them, to care for them, to want to be in relationship with them.  And, if a relationship isn’t possible at this time, to hope and work for a day when one might be possible in the future.   

It means to make sure we always keep up the hand that says, “No more abuse,” while also working to avoid turning our other hand into a fist. It means resisting the temptation to wound as we have been wounded. It means keeping our hand open to the possibility of reconciliation in the future.

And because I just can’t resist, here is some more good news. You are God’s beloved, no matter who you are, no matter what you have done, no matter how much money you have in your pockets, no matter what colour your skin is, no matter who you love.  You are God’s beloved even if you are a Gentile or a tax collector.

You are beloved.

And you are welcome.  God always stands with open arms of welcome waiting to embrace you.

And in a few minutes we’re going to move to the communion table, to Christ’s table, and you are welcome there too. You are always welcome.

You are beloved, and you are welcome.

And that’s good news. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.