Sermon for September 7, 2014 at The Clare
Proper 18 Year A
Ezekiel 33:7-11, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
We have in our lessons today two concepts that may appear, at first, to be in contradiction with one another: love and conflict.
In his letter, Paul tells the church in Rome that it is now the moment for them to wake from sleep. They are called to love one another with a love that fulfills the law that they know from their Israelite heritage.
Love does no wrong to a neighbor, and so one who loves another does not commit adultery, murder, steal, or covet.
This love is a love that lays aside the works of darkness and puts on the armor of light–adorned in this love, Paul claims, is to be adorned in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our reading from the Prophet Ezekiel discusses another matter: testifying to the wicked.
Here, Ezekiel outlines his role as the Sentinel for the House of Israel, one who speaks to warn the wicked to turn from their ways. Ezekiel has a task: to warn the people of Israel about the wrongs and the sins they have done, and how they waste away under them. He brings news that God does not wish for them to suffer, but rather, to turn back towards life.
Ezekiel calls the people of Israel to testify to the wicked, to cause conflict in the complacent ways of wickedness that weigh heavily on the souls of God’s people.
Likewise, our reading from the Gospel of Matthew is also about conflict–but not a call to cause conflict. This is a teaching about what we are to do when we, members of Christ’s body, have conflict with one another. Here, Jesus teaches his disciples how to react when one member of the community sins against another. Yet, a teaching that begins with the tools for conflict resolution, ends in an abrupt statement: if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
A conflict that escalates until a member of a community must be made an outsider–this does not seem to reflect the love that does no wrong to a neighbor. A large portion of the Christian faith is forgiveness of sins–it is in our central prayer: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Is not the love that we have for one another also calling us to forgive sins so that we do not have conflict among each other? Do these two concepts belong together?
Many of us were raised in a worldview that saw conflict as the opposite of love: if we loved someone, we did not cause trouble for them, and conflict is to be seen as trouble. If we had enough love for someone, we would forgive sins without any conflict, or we would bear–as loving people do–their wrongs in our own strong hearts.
However, I think the key sentence in these passages–the key sentence that ties these two ideas together–is found in Romans: It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.
Paul is calling his congregants in Rome to a new kind of love: a love that fulfills the law, but is more than the law, a love that is characterized by an awakeness. The love that Paul calls his church to live into is a love that goes beyond expectation and formula: it is a love beyond what we might originally perceive love to be. Perhaps, it is a love with room for conflict.
In that way, the Matthew and Ezekiel passages help us to imagine what loving conflict can be. These are both teachings on how one confronts sin and wickedness in a community–in a community of God’s People. Ezekiel calls the people of God to recognize where their sins hurt them, where the burdens of their wickedness causes pain upon their own hearts. Ezekiel calls the people to testify against the wickedness that causes this pain, and weighs so heavily on their own souls.
In Matthew, Jesus describes to us how we are to have conflict with someone who causes us hurt. This is a part of being Christians in community: our communities rely on this kind of conflict, a conflict undertaken in love, a conflict where an awake love is the desired outcome.
Most important, I think, and perhaps the most difficult–is that first part. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
Jesus does not say–ask your friend, “Is it okay for me to be upset about this?” Jesus does not say, “Shame them right away infront of everyone.” Jesus does not say, “Ignore it and forgive them.” Jesus says: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
Jesus calls Christians to speak to one another about the hurts and worries that they cause each other–directly, to the person who has hurt them, first and foremost–when they are alone.
This can be incredibly difficult to do. It takes a great deal of courage, not only to confront those who have hurt you, but even to understand that hurt in the first place.
It can be an even more difficult thing to receive such criticism with an open heart.
Conflict is a frightening thing–conversations about pain and wrongdoing are frightening things. But, when we are engaged in a loving community, this is what we are called to do: to speak the truth, when we are alone, and to have a conversation with the person who has hurt us.
This means that we must not only have difficult conversations with others, but also know ourselves well enough to truly understand our relationships, and ourselves within these relationships.
The point, however, is not just to have conflict. The point here is that those who hurt us deserve to know what they have done wrong, and deserve to be a part of the conversation, because we are in Christian community together. That community is built on love, a love that is awake. In that community, we are whole people, and others are whole people, and it is our charge and our call to hold one another in loving community: awake to each other as full people in community.
And humans–full humans–hurt each other: they sin against one another. Someone has done it to me, and I have done it to someone else–many, many times–and so have all of us. Christian community and Christian love call us to speak to each other about these hurts, to hold each other in community as we work through conflicts.
The first step is merely to be truthful with one another, when we are in each other’s company. The second step is to discuss in a small group with witnesses. The third step is to bring an issue before the community as a whole. And the fourth, a last resort, is to let that person go, and be in the hands of God.
This part is difficult. I want to be careful, here. It sounds very harsh, and it is. It sounds like it’s not love at all: Let that one be as a Gentile and a Tax Collector to you. However, Jesus himself chose Gentiles and Tax Collectors to be among his closest. This does not say that God abandons the people that we cannot reconcile with. It merely says that we ought to eventually just let it go, and leave it up to God.
When held together, all three of these passages call us into Christian community, and teach us what that community looks like, and how we are to engage one another within it. Here in Romans, Ezekiel, and Matthew, we are taught one of many aspects of how the Christian community looks and acts in conflict. We are told that a full Christian love includes conflict, and engages in conflict when necessary.
This is what it means to be awake to Christian love. Instead of remaining in complacent, sleepy patterns of ignoring pain and frustration, or perpetrating pain and frustration, we as awake Christians, are prepared to have conflicts with one another in order to be better people. We are called to awaken ourselves to a love that goes beyond mere existence, a love that goes beyond our previous understanding of love, and to embrace a love that clothes us in the Lord Jesus Christ.
To avoid addressing sin in our communities–the sin that we perpetuate, the sin that we suffer, the sin that is lodged into the community with no single resting place–to avoid addressing these sins is to avoid whole love, to live in a weak love, that does not challenge and does not conflict with sin. This love has room only to preserve itself, and not to grow the community. It is the love of sleep, as Paul calls it–and now it is time to wake up, and love as though we have woken into a fully-whole world.
What might awakening to full Christian love reveal to us in our own lives? About our relationships, our selves, our communities and our world? To be awake is not an easy thing. It is hard, and it produces difficult conflicts, but when we gather in the name of Jesus–when we gather together in our communities and work together in mind of God, to put on the clothing of awakeness, the clothing of light, the clothing of God’s love–this work of awakeness ensures that God’s presence will be among us. So, we go into difficult waters, frightening territory, daring to love one another as truthfully as possible–because this is the way that God desires for us to live.