Pentecost 15 A
September 10, 2023
Matthew 18: 15-20
“All violence is the result of people tricking themselves into believing that their pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.”
― Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
Today’s lectionary is focused on new beginnings and how we are called to be in community with one another. The reading from Exodus lays out the detailed and specific process for how God’s people are called to work together as neighbors to protect themselves and their community from God’s own wrath. The instructions clearly explain that taking care of oneself and one’s household is not enough, it must be the collective effort of God’s people. Without community there is no Passover. And without the covenant of Passover there is no community.
The Psalm today keeps the theme of community but takes a violent turn in the middle. We begin with the idea of a new and fresh beginning: “Sing to the Lord a new Song”. The Psalm continues with the celebration of community, congregation and the identity of ‘Israel’ and the “Children of Zion”. The Psalm called the people, the children of God, to dance with joy, to sing praises with music as God delights in the pure and joyful rejoicing of His beloved. And then, suddenly there comes the pivot punctuated with a “double edged sword”. Verses 7, 8 and 9 speak of vengeance, punishment, government take overs, and harsh judgement carried out by God’s rage toward those who would oppress or abuse the ones who dance with loving joy for their God. I think God is saying, “Don’t worry about your enemies, I’ll take care of it. Just keep dancing.”
And Paul, wordy though he may be, speaks a clear message that God has rules for how Christians are expected to treat each other. To paraphrase Paul, “Just be loving”. If you are pure in your intention to be loving, compassionate and being an empathetic presence toward yourself and in your community, you really can’t mess it up too badly. Yes, we have ancient rules for those who don’t already possess the moral core to not be a jerk, such as not taking what is not yours, including someone else’s spouse. Don’t kill anyone. Don’t waste your life obsessing over what you don’t have, but others do.
Paul speaks to Christians in the same way I hear Bernie Sanders speak to Americans today, “You guys, wake up, the time is now, the night has passed, and morning has broken. Stop, look at your life and make the changes you need to make so that we/you can get this right. This is not a gentle nudge. It is a warning. Dare I say it? Yes, I will. Paul is telling us to wake up. Paul is saying, “Get Woke”. He emphatically warns us that our work in the darkness is, and always has been, pointless. It is time to stop protecting ourselves against the emotional and psychological pain of this world with self-protective behaviors such as drunkenness, binging, judging others, arguing with others, self-pity, jealousy and the plethora of conflicts we have with our neighbors, because as Christians these distractions will be our end. If we take Paul at his word, he is telling us, “Do you choose darkness which only leads to the end? Or will you choose to live in light, love and beginning? “
This brings me to the Gospel of Jesus. Just as the scribes documented God’s clear instructions and process for how to receive God’s protection at the Passover, Matthew sets out the steps and process Jesus instructs for how to be acknowledged by God in Heaven. Jesus teaches us that it is all about a new beginning and being in community with our neighbors.
Let’s break down these basic concepts of conflict resolution.
- First go directly to the people/person who violated you and let them know what happened so that they might be given an opportunity to listen and respond to you with grace and you can respond to them with forgiveness transforming the relationship into something new. Excellent!
- If that doesn’t end with a favorable outcome, bring in a third party. Two or more mediators is best (one is okay in a small county with limited resources). Trust that the neutral third party can hear both positions without judgement and will be a guide to help you and the other party share your thoughts and feelings in a productive and meaningful manner resulting in settlement, forgiveness and transformation. Very Good!
- If that doesn’t work, bring the dispute to one in authority: the church or an official of the court. Let the official hear both of your positions and trust the authority to make a wise judgement. And once a judgement is made, go with that decision, be respectful and fulfill your end of the order. Still good.
- And if that doesn’t work, pray for forgiveness and let it go. Land that plane. Move on. Forgive the other party and yourself and stay in, or get back into, the light where you belong. As they say in AA, “keep your side of the road clean”. God has been there the whole time. Your works are noted. Take what you can learn from this worldly experience and live well. It is all good.
Wherever two or more gather in the name of Jesus, Jesus promises to be there. Sometimes I am guilty of forgetting that the Christ who lives in me is the Christ who lives in you. And If I have any means to resolve conflicts and make good my wrongs to you, you too have the same power to receive God’s grace and love me. This is what love in Christ’s name requires. I see Christ in you. And I treat you with that dignity.
This sounds so nice in a sermon, However, here’s the rub. Jesus asks (actually, he demands) that we not limit our respect and love to those for whom we agree and admire. Jesus demands that we, because we are Christians, respect and love the people who offend us, frustrate us and violate us.
Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is an approach to interpersonal communication that is premised on the idea that all forms of human conflict, combative communication and violence stem from unmet emotional and psychological needs. In essence, unresolved human conflict and violent communication between neighbors exists outside the guidance of scripture and grace. Boldly stated, no war is a Godly war.
Nonviolent Communication is a way of interacting with other people, and our own selves, with empathy and compassion. Let’s try a nonviolent communication exercise designed to help you apply the principles of empathy and compassion when you might otherwise choose judgement and conflict.
Making objective observations instead of judgments about people you disagree with is difficult. Practice this skill by starting withjudgments you’ve made.
- Think of a person or group that you’ve made a moralistic judgment about recently. (For example, “My son is so smart” or “The U.S. women’s national soccer team is the best team in history.”) Write that judgment below.
- How can you rephrase that judgment as an observation? (For example, “My son got an A on his spelling test” or “The U.S. women’s soccer team has won four gold medals.”)
- Now, think of a moralistic judgment you’ve made in the past. (For example, “My neighbor is a jerk” or “Gun owners are bad people.”) Write that judgment below.
- How can you rephrase that judgment as an observation? (For example, “My neighbor blew all his leaves into my yard” or “Nonviolence is important to me, so I don’t support owning weapons.”)
“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”. And then it is reiterated for absolute clarity, “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”.
I think this is one Jesus’ most ignored teachings. And we ignore it at the risk of our souls. I think it is ignored because being Christlike is often just so hard. When someone hurts me or does something with which I disagree, Jesus demands that I resist judgement and the temptation to talk behind the other’s back in order to make an honest and informed effort to transcend worldly conflict with my neighbor in the presence of God.
Where two or more are gathered is not simply a qualification for a small turn out; it is a declaration of love, forgiveness and community transcended by a living God in Jesus Christ. Where two or more are gathered speaks to the miraculous truth and the light this is our guide.
Where two or more are gathered is our beginning, identifying us and our community.
Two or more in Christ’s name is the Word. It is the good news for which we are called.