Monday, September 05, 2011

When Your Sibling Sins Against You: Reflections on Proper 18, Year A

This sermon or something like it was preached September 4, 2011, at St. Mary Magdalene Church, Kansas City.

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God'll cut you down
Sooner or later God'll cut you down

If you were paying attention to the lesson from Ezekiel, you can understand why this song came to mind.  “I have appointed you,” says God, “if I have sent a word through you, you are to proclaim it. If you proclaim it, and they don’t pay attention, they’re still accountable, but you are not. But if you fail to proclaim it, they are still accountable, but so are you.”

And you know that all around us, and all across the world, that is the subject of the sermon. I bet you could throw a rock, and hit a church where this is being preached: “Tell them that God’s going to cut them down!” And any of us who have heard that sermon – and who among us hasn’t heard that sermon? – know that they have a laundry list. They have a guidebook to give them the list of sings to talk about.

Go tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler, the gambler, the back biter
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut 'em down
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut 'em down

And I have a problem with that. I don’t them they’re on the right track. I don’t think they’re paying attention to what Jesus said.

That’s not to say that we couldn’t talk about sin. I thought about preaching about sin. The thing is, I don’t really think there’s that much to say. Paul gave us the important handle on sin when he quoted Jesus, who quoted Leviticus. Paul said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. All the other commandments are covered if you love your neighbor as yourself.” And that’s the point. We could actually talk for a long time about sin. We could talk about original sin, or about sin as part of the environment we live in, or about the fallenness of creation. But at some point it comes down to this loving neighbor as self. The point where we experience sin is when someone fails to love us as we think they would love themselves – or when we fail to love someone as we would love ourselves.

And so we come to the Gospel. Jesus is talking to the disciples, to the gathered community. “When a brother sins against you…” – note that the word here is “brother.” Jesus is talking about siblings in the community, in the Church. I think we need to hold these things together. The word in Greek is “brother;” and while we think of it as a sibling in Christ, we need to appreciate that is applies when our relationships are at their most intimate. That’s when our sins are most difficult. It is when those closest to us fail us that we are most hurt; and when we fail those closest to us that we are most guilty.

And in that moment, Jesus tells us to do something difficult: “When a brother sins against you, go to that person individually; because if you can reconcile at that point, you’re saved the relationship.” Of course, our reaction is, “Lord, do I have to? Can’t I just let this slide? After all, it wasn’t that bad. That person isn’t that bad. Can’t we just let that pass?”

But, Jesus says to go, to reach that person, to save that relationship. It’s important to see this in context. The paragraph before this Gospel lesson is Jesus telling the parable of the lost sheep. “Don’t lose any of these little ones,” he says. “If you have a hundred sheep, and one goes missing, you leave the ninety nine and go looking for that one, however hard it is. And if a brother sins against you, go to him individually to try to save the relationship.” It’s about saving the relationship, about reconciling with that sibling in Christ. And if it doesn’t work one on one, take two witnesses with you – but not as witnesses about how God’s going to – well you know the song. Take two persons to witness how committed you are to saving the relationship. Take them for consultation to show how far you’ll go, even to the point of hearing about yourself. And if it still doesn’t work, take it before the whole congregation. And if you still can’t reconcile, then treat that person like a Gentile or a tax collector.

Now, once again this is a place where I think folks go wrong. There are Christian communities that take this very seriously – Anabaptists and others. It is important to involve the congregation. Confession is before the whole congregation. And if the person won’t confess, then the congregation treats them “ as a Gentile and a tax collector:” they cut them off. We call that shunning.

But as much as I respect their commitment to the faith, I think once again they’ve missed the point. Specifically, they’ve missed just how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. Like the tax collector that Jesus called to be one of the Twelve. Like the Gentile woman who taught Jesus that messiahship went beyond the people of Israel. Jesus didn’t cut off Gentiles and tax collectors. He reached out to them. He partied with folks that others wouldn’t be seen with, tax collectors and prostitutes, and said his mission was especially for them. He didn’t cut them off. He continually went after them.

And so it is for us. If we are to treat them as Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors, then we can’t cut them off. Even if with the support and consultation of the entire congregation the relationship can’t be reconciled, you don’t just give up. You keep trying, you keep hoping, you keep praying. No, it may not work. But like Jesus, you don’t give up. And he has promised us that, even when it isn’t working, Jesus will be with us.

Now, we are surrounded these days by folks that seem more interested in who God will cut down, or at least who must be cut off, than in bringing folks together. It has become a part of our political discourse. It has infected the debates among some Christians. It is all around us, and so many for one reason or another want to work out, not how to reconcile, but who to shun.

And we know that reconciliation can be difficult. Every one of us has someone around that each of us considers the most stubborn person in the world. (I won’t give the list of those who think that of me!) Sometimes it can seem easier to just give up.

But, that is not how Jesus has instructed to us. When your sibling in Christ, however close, sins against you, do what you can to reconcile. Try it in person. Get consultation. Get consultation even from the whole congregation. And if after all of that you can’t reconcile, don’t give up. Keep trying, keep hoping, keep praying. And trust that Jesus wll be with you. Whenever two or three are gathered, Jesus will be with you. Even when it isn’t working, even when you can’t reconcile, even when you’re the one who did the sinning, remember that he said he would be there whenever two or three are gathered. So, when your sibling sins against you – and certainly when you sin against your sibling – work to reconcile. Keep trying, keep hoping, keep praying; and trust that, even when it doesn’t seem to be working, know that Jesus will always be with you.

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