Sermon for Proper 18, Year A, September 6, 2020

Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14,  Matthew 18:15-20

“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end,” our psalm for today begins.  “Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; I shall keep it with all my heart. Make me go in the path of your commandments, *
for that is my desire,” it continues.  The psalm speaks of a desire to understand God’s commandments and to keep them. 

Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome, speaks of loving our neighbor as being the path to fulfilling God’s law.  This Sunday, we are using the Rite I liturgy for our worship and one the things I like most about it is how we begin.  After the opening prayer (known as our collect for purity), I read the two great commandments taught to us by Jesus: 

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

Love God, love our neighbors, love ourselves and we are on the path to following God’s commandments. 

          Easier said than done, especially when we consider what Jesus, in today’s gospel, is teaching us to do.  “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”  He goes on to tell us that if the person does not listen to us, take someone with us and try again.  And if that doesn’t work, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” Jesus says.  Gentiles and tax collectors, during this time in history, are treated as “outsiders” by faithful Jews.  Faithful Jews surround themselves with people who believe as they do, who worship as they do, because this helps them remain faithful to their God. 

          Elsewhere in the scriptures, Jesus challenges this, but here he uses this custom to teach us we are to try to reconcile our problems with one another – then move on if we can’t.  For most of us, both are difficult.  We tend to avoid conflict; it is much easier to complain to a third party when we feel someone has wronged us than it is to confront them.  Some of us would rather bury our feelings than admit to someone that they hurt our feelings.  Confronting someone who we feel has wronged us makes us vulnerable.  If they do not respond by asking our forgiveness, we may be left feeling slighted yet again. 

          On the other hand, if we pretend nothing is wrong our relationship with that person, our relationship with them is insincere and lacks the depth of true friendship.  We treat them as we would a Gentile or a tax collector.  We may be polite, but we don’t really love them as Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

          The word confrontation has a negative connotation for many of us.  We think of confrontation as hostile – it can be, but it does not have to be.  As Jesus is speaking of it here, it is an act of love.  Going directly to the person you feel has wronged you and sharing your feelings opens the door to a deeper relationship.  Unresolved conflicts can destroy trust and prevent us from being authentic with one another.

          So, this is a lesson about authentic love.  Jesus says to go to the person and speak in private which makes us vulnerable.  We are to share our feelings, let them know what they did hurt us.  This is not be done aggressively which leads to defensiveness, but calmly with a goal of resolving our differences.  If this does not work, Jesus says to “take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” 

          Why involve others?  This is not necessary in every situation – but it was necessary to resolve legal matters within the community of faith – not secular courts.  Jewish law is about faith, not legalism – and since conflicts affect all members of the faith community, the community needs be a part of resolving conflicts among its members. 

          We see how conflicts between parents affect the whole family.  In fact, this concept is at the heart of Family Systems Theory which teaches us that addictions, mental illnesses, and emotional distancing affects the whole family.  This theory speaks of dysfunctional families and how its members adapt their own behaviors in response to the one who is ill or acting out.  They blame this family member for their own unhappiness.  Yet, they avoid direct confrontation and family members speak about each other rather than to one another. 

This theory implies there are functional families, but in my experience, no family is fully functional all the time.  Every family is dysfunctional at times.  Sin and illness challenges us all and we don’t always handle it in the healthiest way.  A healthy family; however, is one in which its members take responsibility for themselves and don’t blame someone else for their dissatisfaction in life. 

As I said, we all struggle with blaming others from time to time, but in a healthy family there is forgiveness and an ability to be supportive without feeling guilty or somehow responsible when someone else has a problem.  We can be loving and supportive and we can care without becoming enmeshed in their problems.  In other words, we can be happy and fulfilled, and concerned and caring at the same time. 

Family Systems Theory can be very helpful in understanding family and community dynamics, especially when we recognize there are various degrees of functional and dysfunctional.  It is also helpful to remember that sin and conflict affects the whole community and that the work we do to resolve conflicts is needed to restore the balance of our lives together. 

Unfortunately restoring the balance requires both parties to work to do so – and if only one person is willing to try, and if getting help from others fails to work, separation may be necessary.  We see this in marriages and in cases of addiction and mental illness in which a person is unwilling to consent to treatment.  

There does come a time when we need to “move on.”  We need accept that a relationship is unhealthy and being together is not supportive of one another, but destructive.  This is especially true in abusive relationships where even efforts to resolve problems require separation and intervention. 

In our society today, we tend to be more legalistic and less focused one our community.  People are reluctant to get others involved and turn instead to the legal system or suffer in silence.  Or, we just talk behind each other’s back about how we have been wronged. 

Jesus teaches us to take responsibility for ourselves and our own happiness.  He teaches us to go directly to the person who has wronged us and try to resolve our differences.  If that doesn’t work, he teaches us to get help – whether that is a counselor, a priest, family or friends.  And, to be clear, Jesus says to take someone with us – not just tell them what happened and how we were wronged – seek help to resolve our conflict.  Finally, Jesus says to “move on” if none of this works.  Do not continue to be in a relationship that is harmful to our mental and spiritual health.  

The path of love is not easy, it takes courage and a commitment to do what needs to be done.  The path of love led Jesus to the cross.  Our path requires us to be genuine with one another, to be vulnerable, and to share our feelings – not knowing whether or not the other person will response in kind.  The path of love is not easy, life is messy, but we are not to do it alone.  When we need help, we are taught to turn to our community of faith where we know God is present.

Let us pray. 

          Loving God, help us, we pray to walk the path of love and to seek to restore broken relationships with others that together we may grow in faith and love.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.