Sunday, September 4, 2011

"When You're Sinned Against" (Matthew 18:15-20)

Labor Day weekend marks the traditional end of summer in North America. Folks are coming back from vacation, although some are taking this 3-day weekend to get one last summer adventure in. Kids are going back to school. The NFL regular season begins later this week. And activities for the fall are starting to kick in.

For some time now, I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do with our youth. We have four new 6th grade youth this fall, all boys. That pretty much doubles the size of our youth group, and if you happen to be familiar with those 6th grade boys, you know it has the potential to change the group’s dynamics.

Our first big youth group event is in two weeks. I’ve planned a superhero party for our youth. Each youth is invited to come dressed as a superhero, but it has to be a superhero of their own making. I don’t want to see any spiderman or batman costumes. I want the kids to invent their own superhero. And I want them to be able to explain what their super-strength is.

I don’t know what my own costume for this youth event will be. I’m afraid that whatever I come up with will end up looking really silly. Maybe I’ll just make a cape out of a beach towel.

But I do know what my superpower will be. And even though I have been keeping this a secret from the youth, I can tell you, because they aren’t paying any attention to the sermon.

If I could have any superpower, I’d want the ability to see into people’s hearts. It’s kind of like x-ray vision, but for emotions and feelings. It would give me the ability to see what motivates people to do what they do, and explain why they act the way they act.

I’d want this power, because for one thing, it’s not always easy for me to read people’s emotions. This is a challenge for everyone, I think, but some people are much better at reading emotions than I am.

For example, I’ve learned over the years that one reason why people lash out at others is because they are actually anxious, fearful, or insecure. Their anger is just a symptom of their fear. If only I could be aware of their fear in the moment that they lash out; if only I could understand the cause of their anger, it would make it a lot easier to respond in a way that is helpful, a way that eases their suffering, instead of lashing out at them in return and increasing their suffering.

Yes, this would be a very, very helpful superpower to have.

I remember kids in school who were bullies, or who went around campus all full of themselves. I wish I had understood then the fear and insecurity that drove them to act the way they acted.

The ability to see into people’s hearts would have been helpful to me some years ago when a parishioner of a church I once served got offended by something I did – or, in this case, didn’t do. She became upset when I failed to mention the death of someone in the community during the worship announcements one Sunday.

Now, this wasn’t a member of the church, this person who died. It wasn’t even somebody I knew or had ever met. No one had asked me to mention this person’s name during worship, or even informed me about his passing. I knew nothing.

But apparently, I should have, at least in this one parishioner’s opinion. She stopped attending worship. She stopped speaking to me. And she began to spread the word all over town about what a terrible pastor and person I was.

None of this really made sense. I wish I could have seen into her heart, to find out what was going on there.

This parishioner had a sister who lived nearby. A small field separated their two houses. They could look out their back windows and wave to each other. Unfortunately, there was animosity between them, and they didn’t speak to one another.

When this parishioner stopped attending worship and stopped speaking to me, a friend said to me, “Well, now she’s treating you like one of the family.”

Obviously this was a troubled woman. It would have been helpful to be able to see into her heart, to know what was going on.

This superpower would have been helpful to some of my ancestors.

In my office I have a Bible that belonged to my great-grandmother, Octa Terrell. In it is an old newspaper clipping, the obituary of her husband Charles Terrell. Among Charles’ survivors the obituary lists his sister, Mrs. Cora Hatfield. I’m not exactly sure how it can all be traced, but somewhere through all this there is a connection to the Hatfields of western Virginia, who got into that famous feud with the McCoys many years ago.

Several events led up to this decades-long feud. One was an affair. Another was the alleged theft of a pig. A number of folks on both sides of the feud were shot, and some were killed.

Oh, if only some of my ancestors had this superpower, to see what emotions, fears and anxieties were behind the actions of the McCoys, and vice versa; the power to be able to see into another’s heart.

Well, we don’t have this power. And honestly, maybe that’s just as well. Having a power like that would make us “super-human.” But we’re not super-human. We’re human.

And being human is, as Genesis points out, very good.

So maybe it is also very good that we have to communicate with one another not as super-humans, but as humans.

I’ve attended a number of clergy conferences over the years, and when I arrive, the first thing that happens is that I am given a badge to wear that lists my name and city.

There are clergy at these conferences from all over North America. Most of them don’t know each other. Conversations with people you don’t know usually begin with “What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do?” Well, at these conferences, the first two questions are answered by the name badges, and the third question – “What do you do?” – is useless since we all pretty much do the same thing.

So, how do you start a conversation if the usual conversation starters don’t work? If you already know the answers?

So maybe it’s good that we don’t have the power to see into other people’s hearts. Conversations are good, and conversations usually start with questions. Conversations are more difficult if the questions are already answered.

Now, sometimes, we intentionally – or, more often, I think, unintentionally – offend someone. We sin against one another. And the development of good relationships with one another, the movement toward unity and peace, hits a speedbump.

The scripture we heard this morning gives some guidance on what to do when one of these speedbumps is encountered. Now, it sounds at first like an encouragement to pass judgment and even cast out one who has sinned against you, as long as you follow the proper process. Talk to the offender in person, and if that doesn’t work, take one or two elders or witnesses, and if that doesn’t work, go ahead and turn your back on them. Treat them as an outcast, an unwanted, unwelcome companion.

But is this passage really meant to be interpreted that way, as giving permission for us to exercise such harsh judgment? We stopped reading at verse 20, which is where the lectionary for today stops, but if we were to keep reading, we’d immediately hear Peter ask Jesus how many times one is to forgive a person who has sinned against you. Should such a person be forgiven as many as seven times?

No, Jesus says. Not seven times, but 77 times! Or maybe it’s 70 times 7, the translators aren’t sure. But it might as well be a million. Jesus is using hyperbole to say: don’t ever stop forgiving. Don’t ever stop searching for a way to restore a relationship. Don’t ever stop working for reconciliation.

Now, go back, and read the passage about how to handle the situation of being sinned against, keeping in mind the discussion on forgiveness which immediately follows. Now, it seems that Jesus is trying to get you to talk to the person, to start a conversation. One-on-one is best. If that doesn’t work, talk with a small group – 2 or 3 at most – of trusted, wise elders. Do this, and really work at it, before you give up on the relationship.

Last week, our scripture in worship focused on Moses and the burning bush, highlighting God’s passion for liberation and freedom. People who are in relationships that are strained, where grudges are held, where anger is held on to, and where there is no forgiveness … people in situations like that are in captivity. They aren’t free. They are captive to anger and fear and resentment. Both the person in need of forgiveness and the person who needs to forgive are broken because of it. They’re not whole.

It is God’s desire, God’s passion, that people find wholeness. It is God’s passion that people find release. It is God’s passion that people find freedom from whatever captivity they are in.

According to Marcus Borg, both sinners and those who are sinned against need “liberation, reconnection, healing, wholeness, and a world of justice and peace…. This is central to God’s passion in the Bible as revealed decisively in Jesus.”

If there is someone who has sinned against you, who has offended you in some way: Pray that God will help you understand what is in their heart. Look for every opportunity to make peace with that person. Maybe they have offended you, and are suffering in their need to be forgiven. Maybe you have not worked as hard as you could to offer forgiveness, to listen to them and understand what is going on inside of them. Both of you are suffering, and though it may be difficult, uncomfortable work, only through reconciliation will the suffering both of you are in be relieved. Only through reconciliation will you be restored to wholeness. Only through reconciliation will you be free.

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