The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 18:15-20

Confrontation is really a very difficult thing. few us do it well (and some of us avoid it at all costs, and we can,) because there are so many ways to escape it. Either we gunny-sack our feelings until we explode or we nag constantly. Sometimes we tell everyone we know about a problem, except the one we need to be dealing with. It is a rare person indeed who can open a tender subject, discuss it reasonably, thoroughly, completely, and then leave it alone.

The problem with confrontation (or carefrontation) as I think Jesus would call it or what he had in mind for his church) seems to be two-fold: too much fear; & not enough hope–not enough faith–in our brothers and sisters, in ourselves, in God’s continuing work of reconciliation & help & healing. We are afraid of anger, rejection, another blow from the offender. –We can’t arouse enough hope to believe that we can be reconciled.

A wise teacher once told me that to cease to expect anything from a person was the same as writing that person out of our lives. The person from whom I expect nothing might as well be a sign post on the side of the road.

Today’s readings demand from us expectation when it is most difficult. They demand that we expect goodness from one who has wronged us. Ezekiel shows us a God who is willing to wait till the last minute before judging, -who is willing to value the present moment of righteousness more than any and all previous moments of wrongdoing. He shows us a God who demands perseverance from a prophet, who demands that a prophet never give up, never cease to warn a stubborn, rebellious, God-loved people. –Ezekiel shows us a God of hope, & that it is the hope of God that makes possible the forgiveness of God.

The gospel makes the same demand of us. When we suffer wrong, first we must seek reconciliation without proclaiming to the world our own righteousness or the wickedness–the “wrongness” of the other. We must expect goodness–a good response–from the other.

If that attempt fails, we can’t stop there. We have to go back, but still privately, only with one or two others, to try again. It’s only on the third try that we may involve the whole community of the church (for some sort of judgment on the issue). But even then, we still cannot give up. Still we must expect and hope for the goodness of the other.

It’s only after our third attempt at reconciliation fails that we’re allowed to write the situation or the relationship off as irreconcilable; -to say we tried our best and to move on with the business of making the best of the rest of our lives -to concentrate on the rest of our relationships, –disappointed but confident that we have taken responsibility and done our Christian duty.

However even then we mustn’t forget the passage that immediately follows this gospel lesson. Peter asks Jesus, “How many times must I forgive?” Jesus answers, “Seventy times seven.” Now Jesus didn’t mean for Peter–or us–to translate that answer literally. In other words, he didn’t mean we are to forgive exactly 490 times. He was telling us we are to forgive infinitely–always. Even if reconciliation is impossible, forgiveness is not. Forgive and then move on in peace.

The lesson from Romans tells us the same thing. –You know, one of my pet peeves about the Church and Christians is how we misuse and abuse the Scriptures. Instead of using them for the purposes for which they were written and intended–as a tool for growth–self growth, community growth–and as a means for showing and proclaiming love, –we use the Bible instead as a weapon to point out our neighbor’s faults, a tool of condemnation or to promote our own personal point of view.

It’s the same with the “What would Jesus do?” question. I get so tired of people using that question as an accusation or a scolding of others. The question, as it was originally posed, was to be asked INWARDLY to oneself, not outwardly to another as a way of saying, “I’m right and your wrong!” But how seldom is that question turned inward when the same people are contemplating and measuring their own decisions?

We search the entire Bible to find 1 or 2 or 3 verses that we can use to condemn some action or some person we don’t agree with, when there are whole paragraphs, parables, chapters, –an entire Gospel that speaks out against the very type of self- righteous behavior we’re engaging in when we do that sort of thing.

How, in the reflection of the mirror the Bible gives us, we–as the church and as Christians–continue to miss ourselves in the self-righteousness of the Pharisee is beyond me.

Why, instead of prooftexting for the other guy’s sins, aren’t we looking for own proper Christian response to those situations. Why don’t we ever dig for this type of Scripture, –for Paul’s advice to the Romans in last week’s epistle:

Let love be genuine; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor….Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them….Live in Harmony with one another; do not be haughty [self-righteous], but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all….If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink….Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The Scripture’s message is to hope! To have the greatness of heart to hope even in the one who wrongs us. That is Paul’s message; it is Ezekiel’s; it is Matthew’s; it is God’s. That love is the ultimate debt we owe one another, because God loved us first, –always has and always will, no matter what we do. It is, in the last analysis, love (and hope) that expects goodness even from and enemy.

If to cease to expect anything from another is to write that person out of our lives, then to continue to hope in another, even in the face of direct odds, is to gift that person with life. The meaning of our redemption is precisely that God, in the face of all odds, continued to hope in us. & God’s hope went to such lengths that Christ gave his life that we might be reconciled to God.

I had someone in my office just this week who said God must have this big old bruise mark on his forehead from going, “Ah! They still don’t get it!” But, you know what? As big as that place on God’s forehead must be, God has an even bigger place for us in his heart.

Sinners that we are, God never gives up on us, -never loses hope in us, never checks his love for us. –And this is the same love God expects from us–toward him and toward one another. It is the love that expects everything and gives all. It is the love that we owe one another.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.