Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 4, 2005
The Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
Sermon: "The Forgiving Community of God"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Jesus said, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
The Forgiving Community of God
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost - September 4, 2005
Years ago in an Episcopal Church in the United States an argument occurred. This argument occurred between the rector and members of the parish. Stories, true and false, were shared. Members of the vestry became involved. The rector agreed to leave and then changed his mind. Letters started to appear in the local newspaper. No names were used but the descriptions of the people left little doubt to people in the small town as to the identities of those involved. Of course, those described in the letters were not described in a positive light.
As you can see this church fight was awful. Everyone became involved and it lasted well beyond the day the rector finally left town. In fact, the new rector had to stop the senior warden and the newly elected junior warden from having a fist fight in the front of the church during his first Sunday service. Resolution only occurred when the two men were forced to sit down together with the rector. At this meeting, the junior warden learned all of the details concerning the fight from all sides. At the end of the meeting, the junior warden stood and apologized to the senior warden. He said, "I'm sorry. I didn't know."
Church fights are always awful, ugly things. They bring out the worst in the Christian community. Often sides are drawn when a large number of the congregation do not have all the details.
In addition to big church fights, there can be little things between members. Somebody wants to do or try something. Someone does a job but they don't do it the way it was done before. Someone just offers an opinion about God, the church, the color of the carpet, or the type of bread used for communion. Someone else responds to the work or their comment and unknowingly or knowingly hurts the other person's feelings. Even though it is just the two, the pain is real.
One of the reasons these big fights and little hurts are so deadly to the church is because of the way the Christian community reacts. We don't act as a community of God's people. We react in the manner of the world around us. Our response mirrors the responses we see in our corporate and social world. Some people respond by making comments behind others backs. They are not forward enough to face the individual. Still others will come to church, but they will refuse to use their gifts because they are afraid they will be hurt again. Some will come and be active, but never speak to the person who hurt them again. Still others will never return to the church. They leave with plans never to return. These are all ways the world handles dealing with hurts. These are all ways we have dealt with hurts. Some of these methods we learned in our childhood. I'd wager we have all responded to someone in one of these ways in the last five years, or the past year, or the past six months, or maybe even as soon as yesterday. These hurts are difficult to handle.
However, there are ways to handle these kinds of transgressions that we cause or that others do to us. The scripture reading today is a good example of how the Christian community is to handle hurts within the community. The first thing Jesus says is to go to the person one on one. Choose a time to talk to that person individually and see if the two of you can work it out. In this manner, the two people can have a good conversation without worrying about others being drawn into the conversation. How many of us actually talk to someone who has hurt us first? We tend to talk to others about it before we talk to that person. We could probably handle things more easily if we would just use this method.
But suppose the person does not respond, the scripture says two others are invited to join them in the discussion. Now, it is obvious, we are not discussing some small issue. This is a larger issue and the discussion needs the assistance of the community. If the transgressor then sees the mistake and makes amends then all is forgiven. However, if this step does not bring amendment then the whole church becomes involved. Excommunication could be the response for refusal by the transgressor to amend their ways. We are talking about very serious issues at this point. For the whole community to be involved we are not talking about little things. Almost all of the little things would be resolved at the first level.
Now, resolution at all of these levels requires the practice of two things. They go together hand in glove. They are repentance and forgiveness. Repentance is admitting when we have done something wrong and saying we are sorry. Forgiveness is taking the other person back in when true repentance is offered. Now, we have a problem within our societal framework. We are taught to be individualistic. As individuals we are taught never to admit mistakes because it shows weakness. How many of us were taught not to cry as we grew up? How many of us heard the words to keep your chin up or don't let them see you cry? From the time we are children we are taught that it is weak to admit mistakes. We are also given bad advice concerning forgiveness. We are taught to trust in ourselves. Don't trust anyone else. If someone hurts you, hurt them back. My favorite line was when I heard someone say, "I don't get even; I get back." Yes, we are taught awful lessons about forgiveness.
Yet, repentance and forgiveness are absolutely necessary in the community of God. They are the opposite of the way the world works. When we hurt someone and we know it, we are bound by our own belief to go and admit our wrong. We are not given a choice here. We are supposed to go and ask for forgiveness. It is part of the second great commandment which says to love others as you love yourself. We would want someone to come to us. If we want them to come to us then we have to be willing to go to them.
Forgiveness is definitely necessary for our own spiritual welfare. Sometimes people don't know they have hurt us. We have to decide if we are willing to forgive them even though they don't know or if we are going to tell them first. Then if we tell them and they are sorry we have to be willing to forgive them then. Either way forgiveness is key. Holding onto the hurts only hurts us. Hurts that are not dealt with are like a cancer. A cancer starts out very small. If not dealt with, it becomes larger as it eats away at our physical body. The result is physical pain and ultimately death. Hurts that are not dealt with appropriately sit inside us. As they sit inside us they fester and grow. Our feelings for the individual who hurt us become more negative. Then we look at who that person has in their family, friends and business partners. Soon, we won't have anything to do with them. Finally, we see that person as the most destructive force in our lives. The hurt feelings have grown to mammoth proportions that consume our spirits and make fellowship with others and with God impossible. And all the while, the person does not know a thing because they have never been told. Forgiveness is the only way to keep our lives spiritually focused and clear. It is the only way we can ultimately live into both commandments to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Furthermore, we see a community where people will come and be ministered to and loved. People do not want to come where they will be hurt. There is enough hurt in the world already. They want a place where they can be loved, where they can practice repentance and forgive and be forgiven. The Christian community offers such a place if we try and follow the teachings of Jesus. We won't be perfect, but we can try to care, to love, to repent and to forgive.
There is a story about another church. In this church the new minister had only been present a few months. He noticed the town, the community and the little church had trouble with forgiveness. He preached on the topic regularly but he noticed the message was not being received. He could tell by peoples' posture from the moment they came through the church doors. One Sunday the minister had quite enough. He went to the back of the church, locked the doors, and held onto the keys. He turned to the congregation and shared his observations Today, no matter what it cost they weren't leaving the church until they started to practice forgiveness. Everybody sat there for a while. One man got up. He walked across the aisle to his own brother. He took his hand, asked for forgiveness and forgave him for an old family hurt. The two men had not spoken in years. They sat across from each other in the pews on Sunday and carried the hurts from long ago. On that day they forgave one another and began to restore their relationship. Others in the congregation soon followed their example. As a result, the community began to heal and to grow in their love for God and for one another.
Where are we this day? Are we repenting and forgiving people? Do we go to others we have hurt? Do we go to others who hurt us? Do we practice forgiveness? We all have to struggle with these questions as the community of God's people.