Sermon for Sunday, September 10, 2017
A few years ago, our Lenten Series was about forgiveness. We watched a DVD each week and followed a study guide. In one of the sessions, the leader, a woman named Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, told a story about two ladies in one of her congregations. Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Day were both leaders of the church women’s group. They each had major roles in the annual women’s dinner and rummage sale. The sad thing was that they never spoke with each other. It seems that some disagreement had occurred when they were both young. One lady may have done something she wasn’t proud of and the other lady spoke disparagingly about her in a public setting. They both remained in the church and some 40 years later, still did not speak to one another. Of course, the point of the story was that we are called to forgive one another and to seek to be brought back into relationship with each other.
Disputes within the church are not new. Every generation in the 2000 year history of Christianity has had some type of disagreement. Many times a problem arises between two people and sometimes it is about our theology or beliefs.
The apostles had their own set of disagreements. Matthew describes a time when the mother of the two sons of Zebedee went to Jesus and asked for a favor. When Jesus responded with the question, “What do you want?’ she answered that she wanted one of her sons to be on his left hand and one on his right hand when he reached his heavenly throne. Jesus tells their mother that he doesn’t have the authority to grant her request. Well, the other apostles are furious. Who do these brothers think they are? Jesus realized the problem, brought them together and told them that those who wish to be great must first realize that they are servants to others. Only in this way can they achieve the recognition they all must have desired. Apparently the words of Jesus calmed every one down and no more is said about their conflict.
Another early battle among the disciples was the dispute that arose about Paul’s teaching. Paul and Barnabas had been out converting the Gentiles. But Paul did not require the Gentiles to be circumsized when they were converted. This didn’t sit well with some of the leaders. So, Paul and Barnabas went to the council in Jerusalem and told their story about the many good deeds that had been done through their ministry. The debate continued. At a certain point, James, perhaps the brother of Jesus, got up and said, Jesus did not come just for the Jewish people but he came to bring everyone to God, including the Gentiles. “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God”. They worked out their differences.
Isn’t it the same for us as well? I believe and have been reminded that this is a friendly congregation. We tend to treat each other well. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have disagreements. It would be naive to suggest that we don’t have spats every once in a while. People bump into each other as they do ministry and they don’t always agree. How might we resolve our disagreements
It is easy to read the gospel of Matthew today and think that Jesus explained how we get revenge when we have been wronged. It is easy to imagine that you could get so much revenge that you would be able to “send” your adversary out of the church. Have them excommunicated. It is easy to imagine how good you will feel when you are vindicated. If not some punishment then at least we will get the other person to change, to treat us better. But that is not what this passage is about. It is truly about ourselves and how we are called to act.
The first thing Jesus tells us is that we are to take our concerns to the one we think has caused the problem. We are not to go complain to others about how we have been mistreated or tell others about how wrong the other person has been. When Jesus told this story, he was harkening back to a passage in Leviticus, “ You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Lev 19:18).
The process Jesus described in this effort is one that is still in use today. When I worked in business, the complaint procedure worked very similarly to what Jesus described here. Try first by meeting with your colleague individually and see if you can work things out. Then, you can take your concerns to others, working your way to the leaders of the organization.
Jesus addressed his comments to those who feel that they have been wronged, the so called victims. I would say he is encouraging us not to be victims, not to hold our anger or sadness inside but rather to go and work out our problems with the other person. Jesus knew that we would have disputes. He wanted us to address them in a respectful manner with the other person.
A short form of this process is found each week in the peace. We offer each other a sign of peace when we say the peace of the Lord be with you. We sometimes get confused during the peace, thinking it is a time to go say hi to our neighbors and to find out what happened in their lives last week or even to plan our lunch during the week. It really isn’t so. The peace is always a risky time for me. It can show that we are a loving community but it can cause those who visit to think that they are not welcome. More importantly, peace some times is achieved through relationships. Our peace is also a time to seek reconciliation with someone in our congregation with whom we have a disagreement or feel that we have been wronged. The peace is a time to show our love for one another. Perhaps one time you will say to another person, please forgive me if I have caused you any pain. Let us be friends in Christ.
I think this same advice may apply to relationships in our family. I know that spouses can have disagreements as well. Jan and I have had disagreements in our married life and we occasionally find time to sit and work things out just between the two of us. This past week we were with a couple that has been married over forty years and they are happy together. But they seem to have disagreements about little things. They blamed each other for causing the problem. So, one spouse complained to the other about being late for the bus. The offended spouse responded by saying that you were the one who made us late because I had to clean up after you. I think this couple just needs to confront some long-standing feud that exists between the two of them.
When I was a child I remember reading about a technique used by a spouse during an argument. This individual reached out and held the ring on the partner’s finger and said I am on your side. Perhaps that is what we need, a little more of seeing that we are really on the same side.
There are times, however, when our best efforts at reconciliation do not work. When that happens, we are told that the best answer is separation. If after meeting individually and with a small group of the community does not end the division, then the only option is to ask the offending party to leave the community. Jesus wants us to live in harmony in our Christian faith. He understood that if an effort to bring people back together does not work, then there is only one answer remaining.
Resolving a difference between two Christians who live in community requires action. Jesus told us that we are not to let a painful hurt be kept inside where it will fester and cause us continued pain. We are not to be arrogant and simply tell the other person that he or she is wrong. Rather, we are asked to approach the other in humility, trying to understand their point of view while also being willing to articulate our own. Hopefully we can resolve our differences individually or with only a few people involved. For then the community can continue to live in harmony and good will.
Today, Jesus asks us to look inside. Let us examine ourselves to see if we are harboring some resentment against another. If we find that to be so, let us choose action rather than sulking, let us go out and seek reconciliation for that is how we live the Christian life, loving one another. Amen.