St. Mary Nanoose Bay

September 6, 2020

Matthew 18:15-20  

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Amen.              

In today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus instructs his disciples what to do in the case of a conflict within his community followers. He’s pretty direct. He tells them to confront the problem directly. Not to gossip about someone, not to go around involving others and building a case against them. No, he says to go and speak to them directly and personally.

In reading up on the translation of several of the words and phrases I was helped in my understanding of this passage. For starters, scholars seem to agree that the phrase “against you” is optional in the opening sentence. It reads “If another member of the church sins against you….”  So if we take out “against you,” the meaning would change to “if someone sins,”…. period. The situation of concern needn’t be directed at you. But if you see someone doing something that is hurtful to themselves and/or to others, as a member of the church, you may feel called to speak to that person.

This builds on the idea we’ve explored repeatedly, Paul’s idea of the body of Christ. If Christ’s body is made up of all its members, everyone in the community; and if each person matters, then the health of the whole body is contingent on the health of the individual parts. So it is everyone’s concern that each part is supported and cared for.

Back to the scripture passage: The word “member” used here is better translated as “brother” or “sister,” which makes it more urgent that we care for each other, because we are family.            

Jesus is saying, family is important, and if a member is doing something that doesn’t serve the well being of the whole family, we need to address that. And he tells us how to do it. Go on your own and speak to them. The words are “point out” but in the Greek, the word is intended to mean: “speak in a spirit of gentleness,” with the goal of restoring that person to right relationship. This is different than judging or condemning the person – taking sides or saying that a person is wrong or bad. Rather, it means telling the person that we care and are concerned. And wondering out loud if they are aware of the effect of their behaviour.            

What is also helpful to know, when reflecting on this passage, is that it is directly preceded by the parable of the lost sheep where we learn that every single person is precious to God. And it is followed by the passage on forgiveness, where Peter asks, “How many times do we need to forgive?” and Jesus replies that there is no end to the need for forgiveness.            

Being in community involves self reflection, honesty, humility and the giving and receiving of forgiveness. We get plenty of opportunity to practice all these in a church community because we’re constantly stepping on each others’ toes. Sometimes consciously, but often without any inkling.            

I am a person who was constantly earning brownie points. It’s how I got attention as a child. I’ve worked hard to outgrow this unhelpful strategy. And my husband Jim has given me feedback that has helped me let go of this behaviour. I did things to try and make myself feel worthy. Although it may have looked like I was contributing, it wasn’t my real motivation. 

This is how it worked. When I was annoyed with Jim because I didn’t feel he was pulling his weight around the house, instead of talking to him about my frustrations, I would do a chore that was his. He would either be confused and ask me what I was doing, or worse, he wouldn’t even notice. The tension on my end would build and he would be clueless about what was going on until I exploded.

I felt so right, and I felt wronged. And we’d talk it out and I’d realize I was being underhanded by doing the chore. I wasn’t trying to not support him. I was trying to shame him. And the whole situation would shift and I’d see my part in it.  And I would apologize. That was my part. Jim had his own stuff. But that’s his story to tell!

Early on in our marriage, when this happened, I would beat myself up. But now, I thank Jim and I thank God for showing me where I need to grow. And I’m thankful for their honesty and support. In any relationship, there are so many opportunities to learn the nuances of honesty and forgiveness! It can be hard, but it’s good!

And in the church, it’s the same. We rub up against each other. It can be uncomfortable. But as someone once said, “You don’t get rid of your hard edges unless you bump up against others regularly.” When I spend a day on my own, it’s easy to feel good about myself. It’s when I’m around others, that the real learning begins!            

We need to be a forgiving people. Because each one of us is stumbling around. If we focused on our own footing and getting that steady and grounded, we wouldn’t be so focused on others’ behaviours. With daily prayer and open hearts, God will show us where we need to correct our own behaviour. 

Recently I read the following testimonial: 

I have been praying for God’s guidance for 5 months now and each day I am a different person. God lets me look at myself a little deeper. I know this is what is meant by – God doesn’t give us more than we can bear. God lets me see just so much of myself as I’m able to live with comfortably. When I’m adjusted to this picture of myself, God opens the door a little wider and shows me a few more of my faults. The Serenity Prayer, (which I prayed at the beginning of this sermon) helps me change or accept them. I have come to discover that I am not the sweet, kind, loving and generous person I honestly thought I was and led people to believe I was. I was a phony. Helpfully, I will grow into that kind of person. So every morning, I ask God to show me His way, and at night I thank Him for His help. And I’ve become a much happier person.   

Every Sunday we confess our sins. Not because we need to see ourselves as bad or wrong or sinful. But for the simple fact that we need to be reminded that we sin without knowing, we hurt others without knowing, we hurt others even with our good intentions. And so we need to be reminded that our best intentions are not necessarily God’s will. They are our idea of what is needed. We need to slow down and listen for God’s guidance. We need to spend time owning our own stuff and not worrying so much about other people’s behaviour.            

Once we’ve asked God to show us our part in a conflict, we will be clear about what is ours to do.  Maybe our part is simply to tell another person about our concern. Maybe we have to own up to our part in the conflict. The important point here is to do this without judgment; of ourselves or the other person.         

When someone comes to tell me how what I’ve done has hurt them, I get a chance to either clear up a misunderstanding, or to make an apology. But someone goes behind my back and says things that are either true or untrue, I don’t have the chance to clear the air and make things right. I don’t get the chance to learn and grow.            

And most of us are doing the best we know how. Right? We all fall down and make mistakes and it would be nice to be acknowledged for both making mistakes and doing our best.            

Back to the gospel reading and the time in which it was written.  When Matthew was writing his gospel account, the followers of Jesus were facing persecution. It was of paramount importance that they stay healthy as a community in order to survive. Matthew is challenging them to do their work, to build themselves up through prayer and good works – as a community! Personal salvation wasn’t going to cut it. They had to stay together and if they were going to stay together, they had to work out their differences and hold each other to account.            

But if a person isn’t willing to engage, isn’t willing to listen, Jesus spells it out. They are an outsider. I’m not sure if this is a judgment or more of a illustration of what happens when someone refuses to listen. They distance themselves by refusing to look at their own behaviour and how it is impacting the community. They stand alone in their conviction that they are right and have nothing to change.            

Today this message is still vitally important. We need to be willing to engage with others; to be open and honest. It’s the journey that counts. We will always have rough edges that need smoothing. But we aren’t alone with our struggles. We have the best helper imaginable. Jesus tells us: “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”            

We are in community with the Master of love and forgiveness who journeys with us, gently revealing our sins to us so we can grow in wisdom and love in order to serve and ease the pain of a world in which we are all, hopefully, learning how to get along.