Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year A
September 6, 2020
Lessons: Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people always seek to restore wholeness and connection in community, even when the work is difficult and demanding.
Key Scripture: If [a fellow believer] won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love. – Matthew 18:17 (The Message)
Good church people should never have a problem with triangulation, back-stabbing, gossip, and lies, right? Well, only if there are no humans involved. Clearly, if Jesus felt a need to teach about these issues, they were prevalent in his context, too. In this week’s gospel passage, Jesus’ aim is restoration of beloved community, to bring all back to the table in good graces with full participation.
Jesus lays out a three-step plan for addressing dissension between believers and within the beloved community. Step one is to address the wrong directly with the one who has wronged you. If that doesn’t work out, take one or two others to serve as witnesses (and perhaps mediators). Still, having issues? Step three is to take it to the church so that everyone can discern, pray, and seek restoration. If that doesn’t work, go back and start all over again at step one. Jesus wants us to work things out, to listen to one another, and to be willing to forgive and seek forgiveness.
Even more amazing, we have the power through the Holy Spirit and prayer to build communities of purpose, full participation, grace, and love. We are not alone. God hears our prayers, and the Christ is with us—even when we are in the midst of the messiness of restoration and healing. When the church takes Jesus’ teachings seriously incredible things can happen within the body of believers. All we have to do is be all-in, willing to work things out, and flexible enough to let the Christ work among us for the common good.
This passage is also one that is ripe for misapplication and misinterpretation. Jesus’ plan for reconciliation and restoration is not designed as a bludgeon or proof text. Let me share a true example with you of how that might happen.
A state senator issued some statements against suggested safety protocols, including wearing masks in public, along with some convenient twisting of scripture (and the words of Martin Luther) to justify his perspective that COVID-19 was being taken way too seriously by the opposition party governor and staff. Some fifty church ministers and leaders took out a full-page letter in a local paper refuting the senator’s claims. The senator immediately took to Facebook with a video, slamming the ministers and calling them cowards, false Christians, and baby-killers (because of the denomination’s stance on abortion). The video was taken down, but the senator’s staff issued a statement blasting the ministers for not following the process in Matthew 18:15-17. A few news reports recounted some of the more base details, and then it was on to the next focus of media frenzy. It would appear that no repentance, reconciliation, or restoration happened. Matthew 18:15-17 seems to have been thrown out as a half-baked defense by the senator with no real intent for deep listening, humility, or desire for change. Perhaps this is, as Pastor Shawna Songer-Gaines writes, “weaponizing the practices of Christian witness for self-righteous purposes.”
Yes, we must be so careful when we take up Jesus’ teachings to ensure that the spirit of the law is there as well as the letter of the law. Jesus is all about the heart, where our commitments really live, where our truth stands (or maybe hides), and how we live every single day. Jesus is about repairing breaches, gathering together, and making a way forward into God’s vision for creation.
It does help to put this teaching in a broader context. Jesus had just been talking about how to care for those new to the faith, the childlike believers. Then he reminds us that the good shepherd will leave the ninety-nine sheep to find and return the one to community. Chapter eighteen closes with Peter asking how many times one must forgive and a parable about forgiveness. Our call is to love and lean in, to do our best to bring all God’s beloved to the table for full participation. Because of Jesus, we are in the work of healing, restoring, and rebuilding.
Can Jesus’ three-step plan work outside the beloved community? Absolutely. It’s simply good practice—if one remembers to listen deeply, talk less, love more. Would it be possible for me or another minister to approach that state senator for a conversation about some of his public discourse and legislation? Yes, of course! And we do so need to have more public conversations like this one and to participate in community listening training such as Krista Tippett’s work and the Civil Conversations Project.
All the good intentions in the world will be for naught, however, if both parties don’t come to the table in faith and trust, leaving hubris, fear, and self-interest outside the door. Remember, it takes two for step one to work because both parties must enter conversation with humility and vulnerability. Even more so, both parties must come with an open heart and open ears and the ability to know when to clap their trap. Listen up, folks! Jesus is speaking and is present all around us and probably wearing a mask. Blessings on your faithful preaching and teaching.
If you are meeting in person using social distancing, consider pairing up worshipers for a listening exercise. You can adapt the question to your context or sermon, but here’s one I like: “Tell me what makes you most fearful right now.” Give each person three minutes to share. Then ask the listener to respond to the speaker, sharing what they heard. The speaker may then have a minute or two to affirm the listener or add some clarifying points. Switch roles and repeat. Afterward, spend some time debriefing about the exercise and how it felt to be really listened to and also to invest oneself fully in listening to another.
What does it mean to “put on” Christ (Romans 13:14)? Does it mean that Christ and our discipleship walk become our identity? Think about it. People try on different identities all the time. Some people do it by choice or thanks to various forms of privilege. Others do it to simply survive, especially Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).
If your youth group is not very racially diverse, consider having your youth screen The Hate U Give. The lead character, a Black teenage girl named Starr, has two very different identities she must manage. A shooting brings the situation to a head and forces her to evaluate her identity in a new way. Many white teens have no significant friendships or relationships with BIPOC. This film allows them to walk a mile in another teen’s life.
This week’s focus verse is Matthew 18:20 – “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
This is one of Jesus’s promises to us, that wherever two or three gather in his name, he is there. So that means that Jesus is right here with all of us right now. How cool is that? Where Jesus is we can feel secure and happy because Jesus loves us so much. This week practice how much you can invite Jesus to be present in your life—at mealtimes, when you’re outside playing, when your family gathers at the end of the day. Jesus shows up a whole lot of places; in fact, you can pretty well say that Jesus is on the job/in the house/everywhere 24/7/365. Amen.
Finish with a simple echo prayer and blessing.
Dear God (Dear God),
Thank you (Thank you) for loving us (for loving us). Thank you for Jesus with us (Thank you for Jesus with us). Help us to love others (Help us to love others), and see Jesus in them (and see Jesus in them). Keep us from fear (Keep us from fear). Keep us hopeful (Keep us hopeful). Make us helpful (Make us helpful). Give us peace (Give us peace.) Amen. (Amen.)
Stewardship Bulletin Insert
Jesus is always in interested in the one sheep that strayed from the ninety-nine. He wants everybody included in the Beloved Community. Are we being good and creative stewards of this very good news? Are we investing our time, talents, and resources to the best of our abilities? What can we celebrate? How can we do better?
Stewardship at Home
This week take a cue from the youth suggestion and watch (or read) The Hate U Give. The book’s/film’s themes are reflected in this week’s lessons, especially Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20. Click here for a faith-based book discussion guide.
2017 Reflection: https://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2017/09/messy-discipleship/ (Had no clue that masks would once again play a role in this week’s lessons!)
2014 Reflection: https://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2014/09/a-debt-of-love-and-loving-covenant/ (Includes both RCL and Narrative Lectionary reflections)
Note: Reprint rights granted to congregations and other church organizations for local, nonprofit use. Just include this note: “Copyright (c) 2020, Rev. Sharron Blezard. Used by Permission.” Other uses, please inquire: firstname.lastname@example.org.