Vicar David Sivecz
Matthew 18:15-20 “Renewed in Reconciled Relationships”
There were so many people. We were there to witness this glorious moment. As family, friends, and church members waited in the sanctuary, the choir, acolytes, twenty pastors and two bishops lined up in the hallway ready to proceed in. I could feel the presence of Christ as everyone just waited with anticipation. After we did the confession and forgiveness, it began - the opening hymn.
Now, I’ve heard from some people say that Lutherans are not the most expressive people during worship. We don’t raise our hands. We don’t clap. We don’t shout “Amen”. I’m happy to see a smile or hear a laugh. But if those same people were there their minds would’ve been changed.
From the top of everyone’s lungs, the whole congregation sang. Not a single person held back as they sang in melody. With each verse, the song got louder and louder. No one could resist singing with such joy. It sounded like a choir of angels. It sounded like the gates of heaven were opening. If there was ever a moment when a person could feel the presence of Christ - it was then. It wasn’t manufactured. It wasn’t fake. It was authentic.
That’s what I got to experience last Saturday when I was in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I saw my friend, Chris, finally become ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. After years of preparation, studying, and training he finally became a pastor. It’s one of those moments a pastor doesn’t forget. They get to feel the presence of Christ.
Nothing went wrong. In that moment the church, the community of believers, was everything Christ wanted. One couldn’t help but feel the joy and excitement especially when it came to the sermon. The visiting pastor shared my friend's incredible journey. Then, right in the middle, he said something that shocked everyone. He looked at my friend and said, “Chris, you will be a great pastor… except when you’re not.”
In the middle of this joyous day, it was a bit of a cold water treatment. It brought all of us back to reality. It reminded us that being a pastor, being a Christian, being the church is not always perfect. As a matter of fact, conflicts arise, disagreements occur, furthermore people - both outside and even inside the church - hurt each other.
For as much as we don’t like it, or want to deny it, conflicts happen. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, knew it. He anticipated it. He expected conflicts among the disciples. So, we hear Jesus offer some instructions. However, these instructions really bother me. Perhaps it bothers some of you.
First, I hate being wrong. Those are strong words. But I can’t stand it. Being wrong means I’m either incompetent, ignorant, or inexperienced. I feel this brings into question my character, integrity, and knowledge. So, I will do everything in my power to make sure I learn everything, which isn’t possible.
Second, the reason why this Gospel bothers me is that it’s often taken as a neat little formula for confronting someone who is wrong. The only thing I dislike more than being wrong is when someone points it out. Sometimes others do this for my sake. They care enough to point out a mistake, misinformation, or miseducation. Regardless, I feel humiliated when someone approaches and tells me. Just to save face, I will listen as best I can, then go do research to prove the other person wrong. It’s as though the unholy Trinity comes out. It’s all about “me, myself, and I.”
Other times others will use this formula as a legalistic way to keep people, such as myself, in line. It’s pretty simple. If someone offends you, confront them. If that doesn’t work, try an intervention. If that fails, cut them off and kick them out. Perhaps this has happened to you or someone you know.
I will admit this is what happened to me when I was part of an intentional community long ago. An intentional community is where a group of people, anywhere from five to fifteen, live together in a house or apartment. We ate together, prayed together, worshipped together, served together and confided in each other. As part of our convent, or contract, this passage was brought in as a way to resolve a conflict.
It might sound great in theory, but there is one important variable we missed - the people. People come from different experiences, backgrounds, and cultures. In other words, when people are involved we have to deal with relationships. That’s what Jesus was getting to in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus wasn’t giving us a simple set of instructions to deal with problems; rather he was giving us a guide to building relationships.
Relationships aren’t like other aspects of our lives. We can’t simply control them like our money, our school work, our jobs, or our homes. Although we can establish rules and regulations for those areas, we can’t in our relationships. Instead, our relationships involve giving of one’s time, being attentive, and focused. This is so counter to our culture. Often we might say that we don’t have the time, or we are just too busy. Basically, it means that our relationships aren’t a priority or important.
That’s third reason why this Scripture passage bothers me. It’s so much easier to blame someone else for our mistakes rather than meet face-to-face. It’s easier to air out our grievances on social media, than to ask for help resolving a conflict. It’s easier to tell everyone else about our disputes and pass judgments than to have a discussion. I will confess that I’ve taken the easy way out at times.
It’s a more difficult path because that means we are giving up power. But we can’t forget that the power isn’t in our hands. As Matthew writes, “Wherever two or more are gathered in (Christ’s) name (he is) present.” So, the power is actually in Christ’s hands. Christ is also there guiding, helping, and healing us; instead of trying to pressure or control others. Christ is there to give us the strength to reconcile, or restore, the relationship that we or someone else has broken.
You're probably wondering, “That’s all great Vicar David, but what do we do when we’ve done everything possible to mend the relationship.” “What do we do when the other person is stubborn and refuses to listen to us?” “Or, what if the impartial third party or group help can’t help mend the brokenness?” “Or, what do we do when all options are exhausted?”
The very last option, “Is to go back to square one.” If all else fails, that last option is to part ways. We continue to be open, welcoming, and listen to the way we would with people we don’t know. We continue to reach out, as Jesus said, to the tax collectors and Gentiles. This might be the healthiest option. We part ways and trust that God will restore us or the other person in another community.
Just because we part ways doesn’t mean we wish the other person ill will or pain. We can continue to pray, think about it, and be reconciled to others from afar. It might be with that distance when we or the other person has had time and space to reflect. Sometimes it’s within another community where we, or they, will receive impartial insight. This is only capable because Christ is with us. It’s only capable to restore broken relationships because Christ is present. But how far are we willing to go to bring about reconciliation?
This is what Ian experienced one day when he was walking down the street. Ian, a young college student, saw in a glistening window a sign that read, “The Church of the Second Chance.” He almost kept walking, but the music he heard stopped him.
He quietly entered the church, and slipped into a back pew, hoping not to draw too much attention to himself. After the service was over, the pastor, Pastor Emmett, saw him and introduced himself to Ian. As they talked, all the emotions Ian had been holding inside the past few weeks flooded to the surface. He began to confess to Pastor Emmett.
“What’s wrong, Ian,” Pastor Emmett asked? “Everything has happened so quickly,” Ian said. “It started when I told my brother his wife was cheating on him. And then later that night…he drove into a wall. Then a few days later his wife overdosed on sleeping pills. I helped cause that too. I guess I shouldn’t have told him. But I was really mad. I was babysitting for them and they made me miss a really important date with my girlfriend.”
“Now I’m not even sure she was cheating on him. It looks as if my parents are going to have to raise the children. My sister’s busy with her own kids and I’m away at college most of the time. I don’t think they're up to it. I don’t think anyone will ever be the same after this. I’ve prayed to God for forgiveness. I believe it worked although I didn’t get an answer in plain English. The problem is I just don’t feel forgiven.”
“Ian,” Pastor Emmett said, “You can’t just say, ‘I’m sorry, God.” “Why anyone could do that much. You have to offer reparation. Jesus helps us do what we can’t undo. I know you won’t be able to speak to your brother and his wife, but you, for instance, could begin by raising the children.”
“What?! Raise the children,” Ian exclaimed, “But I’m only a freshman and at college? “Perhaps you should drop out.” “Drop out? Is this some kind of test?” “Ian, I know it’s not that simple. But God does want to know how far you’ll go to undo the harm you’ve done.
“Wait! That’s crazy to give up my education and take on a bunch of kids! I’m nineteen years old! What kind of religion is this,” Ian yell?! It’s the religion of forgiveness and reconciliation.
After this Ian went to his parents and explained what he planned to do. They were skeptical, they didn’t want him to drop out of college, and more importantly, they believed he was an upstanding person.
“Look, I’m not doing this to you! It’s something I have to do for myself… to show I’m forgiven to restore my relationship with my brother and his wife.”
Ian had thought there would be questions. But they just sat silently, starring at him. After a while Ian rose awkwardly and left the table. So, to support his new family, Ian became a cabinetmaker. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who mentioned this story, reminds us that this career choice is no coincidence. Forgiveness and reconciliation are just like cabinetmaking — they are practices that must be learned slowly and take time.
Being in relationships is difficult. They are learned slowly and take time. It’s hard work to build relationships with our classmates, spouses, friends, or co-workers. We are surrounded by so many challenges in our lives; whether it’s hurricanes to displays of hate, from injustice to intolerance. It’s inevitable that we miss the mark, break our relationships, or sin.
But relationships are worth it. It’s within those relationships where we can share our needs, pain, and hurt. It’s within those relationships where we are able to rely upon each other. This what we as the church can be for the world. This what our communities, our country, our world need. Our society needs reconcilers, menders, or bridge builders. Our world is in need of not us picking sides but to work for the good of all people.
Most importantly, we are not alone in taking on this difficult task. God equips us and is with us. God gives us courage to approach our neighbor face to face. God opens our eyes to their needs. God provides us with the patience and strength when we grow weary.
The only reason we are able to do this is because God intimately gets involved in our lives by coming to us in the flesh through Jesus Christ. Even when we break the relationship; God doesn’t void it. It’s God who loves us so much that God reconcile God’s self to us. That’s the relationship that God, through Jesus Christ, has with all of us.
This is where we get to experience the presence of Christ Jesus. Christ isn’t just in the fanfare of joyous moments and good times. God is with us in the flesh when relationships are reconciled or mended. God is with us in challenges. God is with us as we continually attempt to mend brokenness. And God is with us from now until the end of the age.