A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 10, 2017 (Proper 18A)
Ah, Homecoming Sunday. From my perspective up here in the pulpit, it looks like the Rapture…in reverse. Instead of souls being plucked up into heaven, they seem to have been deposited right back here in our pews.
But whether you’re back from summer vacation, rededicating yourself to your spiritual life, here for the first time, or if you’ve never left, I am delighted you are here this morning. It’s great to get things cranked up again with Sunday School, the choir, and all sorts of opportunities to deepen our relationships with God and one another. So, welcome; or welcome back. I’m glad you’re here.
Open any Psychology 101 textbook — as many college Freshmen are doing right now (well, maybe not exactly now since it’s Sunday morning, but hopefully later today) — and you’ll read about the concept of conflict avoidance. As the name implies, it’s a method of reacting to conflict which attempts to avoid directly confronting the issue at hand. It’s something we all do at times when certain situations arise. Like when your mother puts unreasonable demands on your time during the holidays or your spouse cancels the newspaper without consulting you or a co-worker is slacking off and not pulling his or her weight. We change the subject, we put off the hard conversation, we ignore the matter and hope it just goes away.
The trouble with conflict avoidance — in marriages, in the workplace, in families, in church — is that the problems we ignore generally don’t go away; they fester. And when they fester, the void in the relationship can fill with feelings of resentment and anger and betrayal. We definitely can’t live out our best lives filled with such negative emotions. They tear us down in ways that transcend whatever problem we’re dealing with.
Now, maybe this comes as a surprise, but Jesus was not a conflict avoider. At all. There’s a misperception that Jesus always turned the other cheek or that he was meek and mild; a spiritual doormat. But of course conflict avoiders don’t get themselves crucified.
Look at what he tells the disciples in this morning’s passage from the gospel of Matthew: “If a member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” In other words, deal with it. Confront it. Name it. He did this with Pharisees who put on spiritual airs, with demons he cast out, with disciples who thought they were better than others, and with temporal authorities who questioned his motives.
Jesus didn’t address tough questions about healing on the sabbath or eating with tax collectors and sinners by talking about the weather. He didn’t shy away from telling his disciples exactly what the life of faith would entail — that it wouldn’t be easy; that they, too, would need to pick up their crosses in order to fully and authentically follow him.
Jesus didn’t seek out conflict but neither did he avoid it. He spoke the truth, he stood up for the vulnerable, he worked for justice — all of which brought him into direct conflict with the powers that be. And, let’s face it, it would have been much easier, much safer if Jesus had just kept his mouth shut and his head down; if he had danced around the tough topics and controversial subjects. He probably would have lived a lot longer. But Jesus didn’t come into the world to avoid conflict, but to overcome it. And to overcome conflict, you must confront it. That’s not easy — for any of us — which is why conflict avoidance ends up in textbooks.
Now, when we hear this passage and listen to the very practical prescription for dealing with difficult situations, we usually identify with the person who has been wronged. We can all relate to a situation — either at work or with a family member — where we have felt minimized or demeaned or taken advantage of. In our minds we boldly confront the person to remedy the situation and maintain our own self-respect. We imagine ourselves getting up the courage and resolve to deal with the current situation that’s on our mind. And that’s good. I want you to think about how to address whatever it is that’s festering for you and tearing down your dignity.
But I also want you to flip this whole scenario around and identify, if just for a moment, with the other person. The person who has committed the wrong. The one who is being called out for their actions. Because we all hurt others, intentionally or not. There are others who see your actions as harmful to their dignity. And we see that the process of confronting someone is not done in isolation. Pointing out the fault in another person is a conversation, not a monologue.
So we need to be open to the criticism of others even if our first response may be defensiveness and anger. Constructive criticism helps us grow as individuals and as Christians. Because we can’t possibly see ourselves objectively, we need others who care deeply about our self-worth and who love us to point out our growing edges. Four times in these few sentences, Jesus uses the word “listen.” Being open to the loving, constructive feedback of others is so important in this life — for me, for you, for everyone in this community.
And when we do our best to grow on both sides of the equation, we’re better equipped to follow Jesus’ example of never standing idly by in a world where injustice can feel all pervasive. Which is hard. It flips people’s perceptions not just about Jesus himself but of Christians in general. There’s a deep-rooted fallacy that real Christians never get upset with others. That to be a “good” Christian is to smile a lot and be “nice” to everybody. The problem is this reduces a powerful faith to mere pleasantries; it diminishes a bold gospel of love to insignificant niceties.
Now, I’m not advocating being mean to one another — that wouldn’t exactly set the right tone for the church year. And kindness is a Christian virtue. But, as this passage demonstrates and as Jesus models, we must be honest and truthful with one another, even if that occasionally leads to some discomfort. Paul writes to the Romans that we “owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Having direct conversations, leaning into difficult situations rather than avoiding them, is an act of love. And that’s the broader context here. Love is not always easy; but it is the path of Jesus.
Before I stop talking and sit down and let the service continue I did want to address one more topic. I am aware that many of you have been tracking the path of Hurricane Irma these past few days. Waking up to images of destruction in Florida this morning — despite a beautiful day here in Hingham — has felt incongruous. There is no way to avoid conflict in the form of a hurricane if you’re in its path and I know you join me in praying for the many lives that have been and continue to be affected by the spate of natural disasters that have hit our world in recent weeks: hurricanes, earthquakes, wild fires. It all feels rather apocalyptic.
But I do want to be clear about one thing: none of this is God’s retribution for anything we have done or failed to do. God doesn’t toy with humanity that way. God is present in the midst of any storm — whether emotional or physical. God weeps with those who weep and lovingly wipes away every tear from our eyes. Sometimes we see the best of humanity in the most difficult circumstances. The light of Christ shines most brightly in life’s darkest moments. Hope bursts forth at times when it feels utterly lost. So we pray, we ask for mercy, and we give thanks for the very gift of life.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck