A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on September 7, 2014 (Proper 18, Year A)
Ned Flanders is a lousy Christian. You know Ned Flanders, I hope. The uber religious next door neighbor on The Simpsons. The exceedingly nice pushover whose unfailing good mood can’t be disturbed even by Homer’s most egregious un-neighborly shenanigans. The earnest, Biblical literalist who uses such saccharine catch phrases as “Hey-diddly-ho!” and “okilly dokkily!” (two things I never thought I would ever utter from a pulpit).
It’s not that I have a problem with his theology — although I do. It’s that Ned Flanders embodies the perception that all Christians are nice. And I don’t mean nice in a compassionate, Good Samaritan, justice-seeking way — that’s a good thing! But nice in a way that embraces a spineless “meek and mild” approach to human interaction. A way that turns the power and scandal of the cross of Christ into little more than harmless pleasantries and superficial, friendly conversation. A way that equates being a “good Christian” with turning the other cheek, avoiding conflict, and sweeping any issues that may arise under the rug.
If this morning’s gospel passage tells us anything it’s that Jesus wasn’t interested in being Ned Flanders nice. His recipe for building up a healthy community of faithful disciples — in other words, the church — includes holding people accountable for their actions. If someone wrongs you, Jesus doesn’t say go talk about them behind their back or unfriend them on Facebook or go home and stew about it.
Jesus says, go talk to the person. Pull him or her aside and have a conversation about it. And if that doesn’t work, bring a couple of others to talk about the issue. And if that doesn’t work, confront the issue in front of the whole community. And if that doesn’t work, only then should you wash your hands of the whole situation. So if you have this image of Jesus benignly smiling at everyone or hugging sheep on dinner plates produced by the Franklin Mint, I invite you to rethink your perception of him. Jesus wasn’t about being all warm, fuzzy, timid, and nice. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus boldly called out religious hypocrisy and publicly shamed the self-satisfied for not helping those in need. Jesus was passionate about breaking open the Kingdom of God on earth, which sometimes meant trampling upon the culturally accepted superficialities of niceness. In the end, of course, this is precisely what got him strung up on a cross.
Now, let’s be honest. This isn’t really the message I wanted to share on Homecoming Sunday. I would have much preferred to just welcome everybody back to the fall routine, maybe remind you how much Jesus loves you — even if you haven’t darkened the door of a church for a couple months — or just preach about the joys of jumping in a bounce house. But that really wouldn’t have been faithful to this morning’s gospel and it would have played right into the culture of nice that Jesus warns us against.
Because, let’s face it, confronting others is hard to do. It’s much easier to take the path of least resistance through conflict avoidance. Most of us are world class conflict avoiders — why deal with something that raises your blood pressure when you can ignore it and hope it goes away?The thing is though, many problems never just go away. They eat at us and destroy our souls from the inside out. Now don’t get me wrong. This isn’t some self-help assertiveness training session. I won’t spend the rest of the sermon speaking exclusively in “I” statements. Or command you to all stand up and proclaim, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
This is about creating an environment where the Holy Spirit can be fruitful and thrive in your own life and in the life of the community. In a word, we’re called to be faithful, not nice. And being faithful can lead to some tough conversations with the people in our lives.
But this passage also begs the question about what to do when someone really is indifferent to the harm they’ve caused you. Jesus says, “Let such a one be as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Okay, what does that mean? Well, first century Jews wouldn’t go anywhere near a Gentile — they were considered ritually unclean. Or a tax collector — they viewed these collaborators with the oppressive Roman government as the scum of the earth. Basically, Gentiles and tax collectors were dead to them — unacknowledged, untouchable, unknowable. So on the surface of things, Jesus is saying if anyone treats you badly, cut them out of your life, take them off the Christmas card list, avoid them when you see them in the frozen food section at Stop ‘n Shop, drop them like a bad transmission.
But here’s the thing. Who did Jesus spend much of his ministry hanging out with? That’s right — Gentiles and tax collectors. He takes a lot of flack for it — the religious establishment is always railing against Jesus for eating with and ministering to the ubiquitous tax collectors and sinners. So it could be that when Jesus tells us to treat those who do us wrong as Gentiles and tax collectors, what he’s really telling us to do is to extend them hospitality, to be compassionate, to love them, to forgive them. And that is hard to do because it so goes against our human nature.
But this doesn’t mean Christians are supposed to be door mats, letting people trample over us and abuse us and bully us and then stand meekly by and take it. That’s a terrible reading of Jesus’ message; Jesus doesn’t want us to be Ned Flanders and let Homer’s continuous abuse wash over us simply because we love the Lord.
And that’s because the Christian life isn’t about generic niceness but authentic forgiveness. And there’s a huge chasm between these two concepts. Forgiveness is an act of the heart — it takes intentionality and forbearance and it’s one of the most challenging things about trying to live a faithful life. Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting people off the hook; it means keeping them accountable for their actions, most especially when they hurt us.
Well, maybe this is a better way to start the fall season than I thought. Learning to stand up for what is right and calling people out when they act in ways that are harmful is an important lesson in our family and work lives as well as our communal life here at St. John’s. Perhaps this is the perfect lesson as we re-gather for the coming program year. We’re a healthier, stronger community when we talk out any grievances we may have with one another. Bringing things out into the light rather than keeping things hidden away where they can build and fester and destroy is an important spiritual practice for any community, especially any community of faith.
So, sorry, Ned. You’re a “nice” neighbor — just not the best role model for those of us who actually want to follow Jesus.