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The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 7, 2014
The Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
Sermon: "Getting Righted"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
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."
We’ve all noticed this; maybe even commented on it. No matter how many times we turn or twist that smartphone or tablet of ours, the screen turns and twists right along with us. The screen keeps itself right-side-up, no matter what.
Chances are, for most of us, the first time we encountered this now standard piece of mobile technology, we either smiled at its handiness, or got frustrated as we chased it. We're not used to things righting themselves. Typically, if something's out of whack in life, we notice it and try to make it right. Perhaps that's what makes the screen on our smartphones so interesting. It does the fixing itself.
What keeps our precious screens in sync with us is something we may not have known was there. Inside our favorite devices is a gyroscope, which, when coupled with an accelerometer, senses precise motion along six axes: up/down, left/right, forward/backward. It even keeps tabs on the speed with which we move. The result is a device that not only keeps our pictures facing the right direction, but one that can track our steps while walking.
Wouldn’t it be great if some other things in life could just right themselves? In this morning’s reading from The Gospel According to Matthew, we hear Jesus urging us to keep our relationships right-side up. The only problem is that, unlike our smartphones and tablets, we don't have a built-in gyroscope making it automatic and easy. Instead, our Lord gives us gyroscopic instructions that will get us righted with God and each other.
So, let’s begin, first, by admitting that sometimes we need such relationship righting, even in the church. In the family of God, people can get sideways with one another. Sometimes, it's over trivial things. Snarky comments get made at a board meeting, or disagreements happen at a gathering or work party. Then again, sometimes, we can get sideways with one another over truly harsh things: lies get told, power gets protected, promises get broken, factions form. The relationship picture gets turned upside down and, no matter how we might hope otherwise, it's not going to right itself. Action will be required; notably, putting responsibility for healing a relationship on the injured party. So, Jesus gives us the actions to take to get-righted.
Here’s the first action: GO! What's interesting about Jesus’ words is the urgency they convey. There's no call to let the offense just sit. There’s no stewing about it for a bit before actually addressing the issue personally with our brother or sister in Christ. We can’t pretend that a problem doesn’t exist and hope it’ll just go away. Neither can we let fear of making things worse, or of hurting someone's feelings, leave us paralyzed.
If we feel that anyone has wronged us, we are to put our complaint into words. The worst thing we can do is to brood about it. That can poison our whole mind and life, until we can’t think of anything else but our sense of personal injury. Something else about speaking our hurt is how often that’s all it takes to put things right. So often, when we honestly admit our feelings, the very act of stating out loud makes clear how unimportant and trivial the whole thing is, and suddenly we are freed to let go of the hurt we harbored. So that’s the first action: go.
Here’s the second action: Go alone and personally! Jesus urges us not only to go to our Christian brother or sister when we feel that they have hurt us, but to do so by ourselves. We're to be a community of people who protect and respect the privacy and reputation of others, even when we're the victim. It's incredibly tempting to make others aware of how someone else has wronged us. It's clear, though, that Jesus' intent here is, at every turn, to mitigate the amount of damage done even to offenders. The point here is to put a relationship right again, not satisfy a grudge; and to make it as easy as possible for both the offender and the offended to reconcile.
And let’s emphasis that business of the personally spoken word again. Note that Jesus doesn’t suggest sending written correspondence. More trouble can be done with a letter, note, email or text than just about anything else. A written text can be misread and misunderstood; it can quite unconsciously convey a tone that we never meant to convey. No, if we have a difference with someone, it will only get truly settled face to face. The spoken word will so often ease the settling of a difference that the written word would only inflame. So, second, go alone and personally.
Here’s the third action: Go with help! I want to take some real care with this next action. I cannot begin to tell of the number of times I’ve seen this action used in a completely different spirit than Jesus would ever intend. The point here is not that, if we’re not satisfied with the other person’s response to our personal entreaties, we are to involve a bunch of other folks so as to really nail them. Nor is it to gather evidence of recalcitrance so as to destroy their reputation with everyone else. Again, the point here is reconciliation, not vindictiveness. The involving of two or three wise people here is meant to advance the process of healing.
Something that we may not have considered in our pursuit of the offender, is that we may also be offenders. Wise counsel may reveal that it isn’t even the other person who is at fault, but ourselves. But even when it is clearly the other person who is at fault, that person may not be able to hear us. They may be so angry with us that they cannot bear whatever we say. Or they hear a different message in us than we intend; say one of accusation and blame, rather than love and a hoped for healing between us. It is in just such moments that the counsel of a wise mutual friend can really triumph. For so very often, the speaking of nearly the exact same words as we would say, but instead spoken by an emotionally non-invested and trusted third person will be heard as intended and headed. Talking matters over with some wise and kindly and gracious mutual friends present creates a new atmosphere; one where we can see ourselves as others see us, and healing can really happen. That is Jesus intent when he tells us to go with help.
Now we come to the difficult part of this passage; the fourth action: What to do next. Sadly, sometimes, healing doesn’t result even with all the effort expended as directed. So what are we to do then? Well, simply put, we do next what Jesus would do next; and that is not what this passage has so often been taken to suggest. You see, this particular passage in Matthew is one of the most disagreed over and most struggled over to translate in this whole Gospel. But this is not a pericope on internal Church discipline.
Here’s the problem. Here in verse 17, the call to “take it to the Church”, is simply impossible for Jesus to have said in that exact form, as the “Church” did not yet exist. Because of this textual problem, many scholars and translators have come to accept that a bit of later adaptation in Jesus’ original wording has probably taken place here. Within the Generation immediately following Jesus’ earthly ministry, the body of believers, now known as the church, was struggling to codify a way of living by Jesus’ principles among believers. We see those struggles throughout Paul’s writings, including our reading from Romans this morning where Paul tells the church to “Owe no one anything but love…” and, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.”
So where does that leave us? Closer to Jesus! Jesus would never have suggested that there is a limit to forgiveness; that there comes a time when a fellow believer should be abandoned as beyond hope. Remember Jesus’ standard for forgiveness; “seventy times seven”? Just in the verses immediately preceding these, Jesus tells us that the good shepherd will abandon the 99 in order to bring back the one lost sheep. Then following these verses he tells us of the servant whose huge debt was forgiven, and how other’s debts owed him were trivial by comparison.
Jesus never found tax-gatherers and Gentiles to be hopeless sinners. One such tax-gatherer was Matthew himself. Even if a fellow believer has harmed us, and has come to behave as only an uncaring outsider would to us personally, like a Gentile and tax-gatherer, Jesus tells us by his teaching and his actions that they can still be won back. Remember, Jesus’ love for us took him to the Cross to win us back, rather than leave us forsaken and abandoned.
Matthew 18, then, is not a chapter about church discipline. Rather than an injunction to abandon an offender as lost, it is a challenge to win that person back with a love that will touch even the hardest heart. This is not, then, a statement that some folks are hopeless; it is a statement that Jesus Christ has found no one hopeless, and neither must we.
Consider our own Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. He has been a driving force behind that country's healing. As the Afrikaner regime handed power over to leaders elected by all the people, there arose a need for special tribunals to heal the wounds caused by decades of racial hatred. Tutu has confessed his astonishment at the ability of South Africans to achieve reconciliation, even after terrible crimes. Here is what he has said about it.
"I have found breathtaking and, in fact, exhilarating, the magnanimity of people, the incredible nobility of spirit of people who have suffered as much as they have suffered. So many of them are ready to forgive, which sometimes makes you feel as though you should take your shoes off because you are stepping on holy ground."
Here is a Bishop, one of us, who is a living example of what Jesus would do; indeed what Jesus does in fractured and torn relationships.
Like our modern device screens, Jesus relentlessly and generously "rights" the image in our hearts. Jesus is the gyroscope at work in us, constantly getting us “righted.” No matter how many times you and I may turn or twist our lives from God's will, Jesus brings us right-side-up, without fail. May we always seek to show the same grace in getting righted with others.