sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18A-Trk 2), September 6, 2020
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Charlie Brown says to Snoopy, “I hear you’re writing a book on theology. I hope you have a good title.” Indeed, Snoopy has the perfect title. America's favorite beagle sits down on top of his doghouse with his typewriter and types, Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?
I hate being wrong. Don’t you?
I mean, it’s one thing to buy the wrong kind of toothpaste, or to use incorrect grammar in a school research paper, or to mispronounce somebody’s name. These can be corrected with minimal embarrassment. It’s another thing to have done something so wrong that it’s a blow to our pride and forces us to backtrack. C.S. Lewis once noted that when you find yourself lost in the woods, you have two choices: keep going stubbornly forward against all logic, or swallow your pride and retrace your steps. Sometimes we realize we were so wrong that the only constructive solution is to change deeply held convictions … and maybe also our default behaviors.
But how often do we do that? We’re not likely to be rewarded for it. When politicians change their mind, it’s called “waffling.” For some reason we expect our elected officials to start out perfect and stay that way. As for me, I don’t look for perfection in a leader. I look for the humility to make course corrections and grow in understanding and compassion.
Yet if you’re like most people, including myself, this doesn’t come easily. When you realize you were wrong about something important, maybe you do your best not to let anybody know. Maybe you quietly change your behavior going forward … or maybe not. Maybe you bend over backward to justify not changing your behavior, even though that behavior no longer makes any sense.
In my sophomore year in college, racial tensions between two frat houses on my campus culminated in a sudden brawl involving 70 people in the lobby of my dormitory. One of my former roommates, a black student from Detroit, wound up in the hospital. The incident even made it onto CNN.
In the week following the brawl, I heard that a fellow student named Davonne was preparing a massive sit-in protest and press conference about the unsafe situation for him and his fellow black students. For some reason, I thought I personally needed to fix this. I went to his room to talk him out of it. “C’mon, Davonne!” I said. “You’re not unsafe here! Why would you think that?”
I was wrong to do this. What gave me the right to believe that I knew better than Davonne whether he should feel safe on campus? Though I wouldn’t be able to put words to it for many years, I see now that I was participating in structural racism. And Davonne mustered the strength to be polite to me, and eventually I left his room, and of course, the protest and press conference happened anyway, much to the discomfort of us white students who just wished everything could just fix itself.
It turned out that nearly all the black students felt so unsafe that they went home and completed the semester by correspondence. The resulting protests led to the college’s board of directors passing a vote of no confidence in the president and ousting him. My education about race as a white person ascended to a new level that day. I just didn’t know it yet.
Now let’s go to ancient Judah, the setting for our first reading today. The people cry out, “Society is falling apart around our ears! How can we go on like this?”
God charges the prophet Ezekiel to reply, in essence: “You’re right—our society is falling apart! But this situation is not God’s punishment—it’s the natural consequences of your being wrong. Are you so full of pride that you can’t be corrected, even if it means pulling society back from the brink?”
How do you suppose Ezekiel was received at the time? You’re right—not well. If you’ve ever corrected someone’s spelling or grammar, you know how well that tends to go. What if you loudly told a large group of people that they’ve been sinning for years? Yet this passage has God telling Ezekiel, “If you don’t correct them, their blood is on your hands!”
Likewise, Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep … Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably.” This is sunnier language than Ezekiel’s, but the message is similar: wake up and shape up! Admit you were wrong and correct course. Paul goes on to use one of his favorite metaphors, urging Christians not to live according to the flesh—meaning, according to their base fears and most immediate desires. There is no such thing as a solo Christian. Christians always need to be bigger than themselves. And this means always being prepared to say, “I was wrong. I’m sorry. I’ll do better.”
Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in today’s gospel reading focus on what to do when somebody in your faith community has behaved in a way that is destructive. Speak to the person first one on one, taking care not to publicly shame them. If that doesn’t work, take a couple other folks along and try again. If it still doesn’t work, then it’s time for a large-scale intervention.
This is generally good advice, provided it’s clear that the person was in the wrong. Unfortunately, it’s also possible to use Jesus’ words to manipulate people. It only works if those in power are of good will are honestly doing their best. But even then, it's not guaranteed. Look at my classmate Davonne. The fact that I went to see him one-on-one about the situation did not mean that I was in the right.
Matthew is the only gospel writer to quote Jesus on this matter. We don’t how much he used Jesus’ exact words and how much he editorialized. Because of its specific references to a church that didn’t exist in Jesus’ time, I believe Matthew wrote most of today’s reading. (I could be wrong!) But Matthew’s audience, some fifty years after Jesus’ time, was a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles who were going to need some structure to help them rise above their inevitable conflicts. (And we’ll talk more about that in my class on Matthew that begins this Wednesday night! Shameless plug.)
One piece that’s different in our own day is that we are the product of centuries of individualism. When we’re at our best, we don’t fear diverse opinions and behaviors; we celebrate them and believe that they can make our community stronger, wiser, and more loving. So just because someone is acting differently doesn’t mean the person is acting harmfully. Careful discernment on this matter is crucial.
But today’s reading is from the perspective of those who are clearly in the right, so let’s assume that for a moment. What does it look like from the perspective of the one who is in the wrong? The concern here is to restore the offender while protecting the community. The assumption and the hope is that the offender will wake up and realize, “Oh! I was wrong. I need to confess my sins and make amends to those I’ve hurt.” If this doesn’t happen, more and more people get brought into the situation. The relentlessly stubborn sinner is eventually told, “We’re sorry, but we cannot have people among us who refuse to change and grow.”
Jesus says, “Treat that one like a Gentile or a tax collector.” We might easily hear this as, “Begone from our midst!” But it’s not that simple. How did Jesus want his followers to treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Not as human scum. Not as irredeemable. Rather, I think he means for them to be treated as beginners in the faith. Baptized people who can’t bring themselves to apologize and change cannot be said to be living as Christians. They’re still standing on square one of Christianity.
The church is a community of people, always and forever. It’s not a place to get an individualistic hit of good feeling or a bullet-point program toward salvation. You can’t be in a church without being in community with others. And living in community is not easy. Differing opinions and priorities are a part of human nature. Conflict is inevitable. Life in the church is not about preventing conflict, but about engaging it creatively when it does emerge.
When there is conflict in the church, is it your first inclination to exclude yourself—to say, “Well, I thought this was a good church until I saw people in conflict!”? Or do you find that you can you step forward into the discomfort? Your answer to that question will vary depending on what all is going on in your life right now. We have more bandwidth at certain times than at others. Sometimes we can help carry other people, but at other times, we just need to be carried. As for those who have been hurt by people in the church, today’s gospel passage doesn’t offer much help.
So while this passage gives us a good starting place, it’s not universally applicable. Our purpose is not to check off the procedural boxes that will end conflict, but to live together in love. Because it sums up the entire law, “Love one another” is the only commandment that Christians are responsible for. It’s the execution that’s tricky. We’ll never get it just right. We can only keep returning to humility and course correction.
Over time I’ve learned that it can be a big relief to say, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” That’s not to say it won’t hurt—it will! But a loving, receptive community can help the one who was in the wrong experience confession as a weight lifted. God never condemns us for having been wrong, but embraces us and strengthens us to grow and change. And every day of my life, that’s a huge relief. Amen.
 Charles Schultz, Peanuts comic strip, August 9, 1976.