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Pentecost 14 September 10 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for Sunday, September 10, 2017 | Pentecost 14
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
This past Thursday, the News Tribune reported an interview with Seattle Seahawks lineman, Michael Bennett, who was forced to the ground and handcuffed by a Las Vegas police officer while another officer pointed his gun at Bennett’s head. All this took place in response to an active shooter alarm raised by the casino where Bennett had met friends. “It was a traumatic experience for me,” said Bennett, an African American. “We were told to rush out of the casino and that’s what I did. It sucks that you sometimes get profiled for the color of your skin.” As you may know, this is not an unusual incident but a pattern of racial profiling – a pattern that staff, faculty, administrators, and students of color at the university where I teach confirm repeatedly with their own experience. To say the least, such traumatizing experiences can easily make one skeptical of the courts, of juries and judges, of the police.
Such skepticism of legal institutions was alive in 1st c. Antioch (in modern southeast Turkey) among the community of Christ followers to whom Matthew addressed his gospel. Now: a very short journey in ancient history. The Roman army had destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in response to the Jewish Revolt some 20 years earlier in the year 70. Thus, Jews in the Eastern Mediterranean were held in low regard by Rome. In Matthew’s community – filled with many Jewish followers of Jesus – skepticism of the Roman courts, judges, and military police would have been present. At the same time, the Jewish community devoted to the Law of Moses and Matthew’s assembly of Jewish Christ followers were separating – and it was not a friendly separation.  Perhaps at one time, Jewish followers of Jesus would have sought out the advice of Jewish experts in biblical law but given the growing animosity between the two groups, skepticism regarding such experts would also grow. Thus, Matthew’s beleaguered community could have easily held a double suspicion: of Roman law courts and Jewish religious courts.
But the situation only worsens! For the community of Christ followers to whom Matthew addressed his gospel reading was itself divided into smaller factions. There were Torah-abiding Jewish Christ followers who insisted that one had to become Jewish and abide by the Law of Moses before one could be baptized as a Christian. There were easy going [my term] Jewish Christ followers who welcomed Gentile disciples without insisting that they become Jews. There were Gentile Christ followers and then there were Gentile Christ followers who rejected the Law of Moses, who rejected the very thing so precious to the Torah-loving Jewish Christ followers in their community. Two extremes and the “anybody can join us” crowd in the middle. If I may quote from the Yiddish: Oy-vey! O Woe! What a mess! We thus find this Christian assembly in which the desire to survive together as disciples was imperiled by their pronounced differences. What does Matthew’s Jesus advise?
First, if you are harmed or hurt by another member of the community, go to that person in private and describe your experience of hurt and harm. If the person listens to you and then recognizes the harm done, the one harmed can offer forgiveness and begin the process of reconciliation. But, note that the initiative rests with the person harmed and takes place when the person is ready. And note this, too: meeting in private allows the repentant offender to save face, to forego public embarrassment. Second, if the person does not listen, the person harmed can steadily bring community pressure to bear: bring others with you – the number two or three anchored in the legal tradition of Israel (Deuteronomy 19:15). At this point, every word of the one offended and the offender needs to be confirmed, a warning against false testimony or exaggeration from both parties. And if the offender comes to the recognition of his or her offense and asks for a new start, forgiveness can begin the process of reconciliation. Why a process? For the simple reason that trust or faith is not an object you hold but a capacity that takes time to grow. Indeed, do we not know this from our own experience: that trust does not happen instantaneously but grows over time? And finally, if resistance continues, the entire community is called to meet with the offended and the offender in an exercise of loving, firm, and nonviolent pressure. The point here is to support the one harmed and, at the same time, urge reconciliation with the offender rather than punishment. If the offender persists, then, says Jesus, let him be a tax collector or a gentile to you. This exhortation may direct the community to protect its members from someone who is a predatory offender. After all, there are people in the world whose mission seems to be making life absolutely miserable for others.
But note the terms used of the resisting offender: “a tax collector and a gentile.” Do they ring a bell? Do they ring a bell? Wasn’t Jesus criticized for spending time with, for sharing food and drink with tax collectors and gentiles – persons regarded as so inferior that no decent person would waste their time on them? Wasn’t Jesus viewed as remarkably odd because in keeping company with such alleged losers, he contracted their social status? And did he not say that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before the righteous, before the religiously upstanding and frequently judgmental people of this world? In other words, is his advice not this: keep the offender in some form of relationship? Why? Because the offender is a child of God, is loved by God, and may well have the capacity – perhaps days, or months, or years hence – to come to the recognition of his or her offense and return to the offended one and the community seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.
How is offense engaged in the world today? With harmful gossip … character assassination on social media … spreading exaggerated rumor … shunning; letting the hurt simmer within – because it can be so pleasurable to hold on to the offense and never let it go, a grievance safely guarded … retaliation … litigation, that is, punishment. Perhaps the punitive form of justice is so prevalent in our society, in the air we breathe, in our blood and our bones that this process of reconciliation offered by Jesus seems nothing more than a fairy tale, a whole lot of wishful thinking with nowhere to go. And yet, and yet our conflicts only deepen in this nation and this world.
I wonder: is there still time to practice this minority ethic, this challenging form of reconciliation? What comes to mind is one of most conflicted situations of the 20th c., in apartheid South Africa, in which the entire black majority population was targeted daily and brutally by the white minority police. Within that horrific context, in which retaliation would seem so attractive, we hear these words from one of our Anglican bishops, a Nobel Peace laureate, Desmond Tutu, who suffered incredible bigotry and racial profiling – Tutu himself a black South African.
What did he say, again and again?  There is no future – there is no future without forgiveness.
Might it be so among us?
Fr. Samuel Torvend