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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

People of Reconciliation - 09/06/2020

This week I am revising and reusing a sermon I gave three years ago on this text. The topic seemed worthy of consideration again in this unexpected global and national environment we find ourselves in three short years later. And it felt like I needed to hone this reflection on Jesus’ teachings here on reconciliation as a mark of the Christian life. 

I still remember very well the first time I really thought deeply about this teaching. It was in seminary, first year, first term in the widely-feared Biblical Greek class. It was probably a little more than halfway through the term and our instructor came into class visibly shaken. It was obvious she had been crying and was fighting to hold back tears still.

So she explained. She said she had learned that some people from the class had gone directly to the dean to complain about the way she was teaching the class. Now, mind you, this was the first time she had taught Greek. She was working on a doctorate in New Testament and was fulfilling student teaching requirements. She was upfront from the beginning that this was just as much a learning experience for her as it was for us. So feedback was essential for her.

And yet when push came to shove, anxiety and insecurity over a challenging class won out over giving that feedback and resulted in conduct that was hurtful to her and to her relationship with her students.

She reminded us that we were assembled there in Jesus' name, even as we struggled with what was often a difficult class. And she, as part of that assembly, expected to be treated as Jesus taught us to behave in Matthew 18.

And that was the first time I really thought about how much potential for happiness and peace and love was contained within Jesus' teaching on reconciliation here. What could this world be like if we really held to this teaching as radically as Jesus did?

What would our families and friendships, our workplaces and communities be like if when someone wronged us somehow our first instinct was to go to them directly and say how we were affected by whatever did or say? Instead of complaining to someone else or on social media.

I think we can all imagine a few likely responses if we did that. We might find someone just won’t listen. It happens. And whatever the reason, it’s probably more about something they are working out or need to work out in their own journey through this life. In those cases, sometimes all we can do is try to reconcile and not confuse their baggage with ours and vice versa. And also remember that we are sometimes the one who won’t listen.

 It’s very likely we might find out that something else was going on and it changes our perspective on the situation OR we maybe we realize the person had no idea of they way they have trespassed against us and  when they hear what we have to say they repent and ask for forgiveness.

What could the world be like if the myriad of governing bodies that operate around us every day – from board rooms and councils, to legislative bodies in Washington, D.C., and the United Nations – what would it be like if these bodies habitually sought reconciliation and dialog instead of habitual finger pointing and self-interest?  What could the world be like if governing bodies … as a matter of best practice … chose that path of reconciliation rather than escalating threats, making ultimatums and exchanging public insults and jabs on the news and in social media?

I've got to tell you, I see a lot of unleashed potential for happiness and peace and love in these possibilities of that Matthew 18 world.

And so I believe that as children of God who follow Jesus and find a home in the ELCA Lutheran tradition, part of our membership in what Luther called the  Priesthood of All Believers is to model Matthew 18 in our own lives to start.

I have felt very strongly about this since that experience in Greek class. It's not always easy … this hard work of reconciliation and relationship … but I'm convinced it is worth the hard work most of the time – because in general, people are good. That is the way God created us, after all … “and it was very good” is at the very core of our DNA as God's creatures.

Of course, there will always be exceptions when this method of handling conflict doesn't work. Jesus covers that too. “... 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.” (Mt 18.17)

In recent years I have heard this teaching in a new way. In the past when I thought about this teaching, I really didn't go beyond the huge ideas of the first few lines. That alone seemed so life-changing to me. But, as I often say, when it comes to God or Jesus, there's always more … 

You see previously, I had, without really realizing I was even doing it, filed this verse in the same category as Jesus' previous teaching in Chapter 10, as he sends his 12 apostles out into the mission field among the Jewish people to do ministry. He instructed them to be humble, travel poor and be gracious guests.  And then he said, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” (Mt 10.14)

And so that's how I generally understood this verse too. If the one to whom you first went to because they trespassed against you refuses to listen, and then refuses even to work toward reconciliation when you bring your whole community into Gospel-centered conversation about it, then you shake the dust from your feet. There's nothing else you can do, so you move on.

But I think I was wrong. I don't think that's what this passage means at all. Now when I read that verse “... 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...” I questioned it … how would a Gentile or tax collector be to Jesus?

 Suddenly the stories started parading through my imagined world where the Matthew 18-way of addressing conflict was the norm.

First there was the Canaanite mother who Jesus called a dog when they met. But she responded to him directly – even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table. “'Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.' And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Mt.15.28)

And then there was Matthew the tax collector. Jesus saw him as he sat at his tax booth and invited him to follow... invited him to be one of the first called disciples. He accepted. Later they broke bread together. “And as (Jesus) sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.” (Mt.9.10)

Jesus would not shake the dust from his feet. I quickly realized, this is not a call to pull back, this is a call to reach out. 

Now, of course there are exceptions. Where ever two more of us are gathered, Jesus is there AND as some of you have heard me argue before – there will also be drama.

So we must acknowledge there are situations where it is not healthy to seek reconciliation alone, or maybe even as a group, like with someone who is abusive in any way, or has the potential to harm themselves or others in such a situation.

However, for the majority of us and our day-to-day relationships, Matthew 18 and God's Holy Spirit beckons us to work at reconciliation continuously … even when it seems the one who has trespassed against us will refuse to reconcile to the end of days.

And how might we do that? F one thing, it’s in our DNA – we continually seek reconciliation as people who proclaim to have died to their sin and risen anew and redeemed in Christ. We expect habits of reconciliation when we hold tight to the promises we make to pray and nurture one another around the font. We keep our eye on the promise of reconciliation when we avoid gossip that judges and assumes and titillates us, knowing there's probably more to somebody’s story. We keep at the Jesus-commanded work of reconciliation in our inviting and forgiving and repenting and loving.

And when it seems like we continue to do the hard and humbling work of reconciliation with someone who does not seem to listen, we recall that God has already won that reconciliation for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus … a full reconciliation that we will be able to see someday in the fully revealed Kingdom of God.

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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