Sermon; 14 Pentecost/Proper 18A; Matt. 18:15-20; Rom. 13:8-14
There's a three-letter word . . . begins with “S” . . . that the Church really doesn't like to deal with. That word is . . . . No! Not that one . . . shame on you! ;) The word is, “Sin.”
Oh, we talk about sin a whole lot: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts; you take away the sin of the world; we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins; let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor; when we had fallen into sin; forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. We have a whole penitential season, Lent, devoted to acknowledging and atoning for our sins, and you are encouraged at various times to go and confess your sins to a discrete and understanding priest. But to be honest, we don't really like to deal with sin, because dealing with sin takes effort.
For us to deal with sin, we first have to admit that we have sinned. Remember, there is a difference between accidents, mistakes, and sin. Sin, according to the Catechism, is defined as seeking our own will instead of the will of God. Those sinful acts eventually distort our relationship with God, with other people, and with all of creation. This view of sin, that it distorts relationships, is a good way to look at it.
Sure, we know what the big sins are. As Jesus points out a little later in Matthew, and Paul points out today in Romans, You shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not commit adultery, you shall not bear false witness. But if we put sin in the context of how it distorts relationships, that makes sin a bigger deal than we may have previously thought. Things like focusing solely on company profits while neglecting the welfare of employees or environmental impact is sinful because it distorts those relationships. Treating customer service reps as objects of scorn not worthy of a decent conversation is sinful because it fails to treat others with dignity and distorts our inter-human relationships. Failing to attend worship on a regular basis is sinful because it distorts our relationship with God and convinces us that worship is just one of many Sunday morning options from which to choose.
It's easier for us to label sin as “that which I am personally opposed to,” than to deal with how much we actually sin on a daily basis. It takes effort and a willingness to be honestly self-aware for us to evaluate where we have sinned.
Another reason we don't like dealing with sin is because we don't like admitting we were wrong and being put in a submissive position. It takes courage to admit to another person that we were wrong. It takes courage to put it all on the line and let your fate – job, relationship, credibility – rest in the hands of another person. Maybe that's why we sweep things under the rug and hope they'll just go away.
And maybe a bigger reason than having to ask for forgiveness as to why we don't like dealing with sin is because of what Jesus is saying today. “If another member of the Church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” He goes onto say, “If that doesn't work, take witnesses. And if that doesn't work, tell the Church.”
Jesus lays out a step-by-step process to follow when pursuing reconciliation. But even so, it's not easy. There have been a few times in my life when I've had to go to someone and say, “This is not acceptable.” It's hard. It's uncomfortable. And, in my experience, it's resulted in the other party ending the relationship and going elsewhere.
So let's say another member of the church sins against you and you follow these steps of reconciliation that Jesus lays out: you go and point out their sin, you involve witnesses, you involve the priest and vestry, and still nothing comes of it. What then? How does Jesus recommend we deal with a situation of obstinate refusal to reconcile?
In the words of Jesus, “Let them be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.”
It would seem that Jesus is telling us to shun them. Gentiles were not part of the Jewish community and were to be avoided. Tax collectors were traitors to their people who supported the invading Romans. Neither of those groups were liked or respected; so if someone sins against you and refuses to repent, treat them like those whom we despise.
EXCEPT . . . .
Except that Jesus healed Gentiles, the slave of the centurion and the daughter of the Canaanite woman to be specific. Except that Jesus called a tax collector to be one of the twelve apostles. Except that Jesus ate with tax collectors. Except that Jesus said to love your enemies. Except that Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. Except that Jesus eventually expanded his mission to include the world.
Saint Paul sums up all of this in his letter to the Romans when he writes, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet; and other laws, are summed up in this: Love your neighbor as yourself.” All of the commandments are designed to keep us on track to follow God's will. The commandments are designed to keep us in right relationship with God and others. When we stray from the commandments we begin to seek our will and distort those other relationships.
All of the commandments boil down to two things: Love God, love your neighbor. Those seemingly small things, though, are incredibly difficult to achieve. So instead of letting “Love God, love your neighbor” fall into yet another religious cliché (although I could probably make some coin by marketing LGLYN bracelets to replace WWJD), maybe we could take some time to reflect on our actions.
How is what I'm doing honoring God or my neighbor? Is what I'm doing selfishly motivated? Will my actions distort or be destructive to a relationship with God, neighbor, or creation?
And then we just might find that in examining our own sinful actions we will learn to have compassion on those who have sinned against us. And it just may be that in doing that, we are treating those who have sinned against us exactly as Jesus instructed – like Gentiles and tax collectors. And in doing that, we might find ourselves healing and eating with them.
And in doing those things, we will be following Jesus' command to treat those who have sinned against us like Gentiles and tax collectors.