Sermon for 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 6, 2020
Read Pastor Julie's sermon as shared on Facebook Live. Visit https://www.facebook.com/saronstrasburg each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. for a brief live service of scripture, prayer, and a sermon by Pastor Julie.
Ezekiel 33:7–11 | Romans 13:8–14 | Matthew 18:15–20
Maybe you have heard or been told: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Now, this self-check might come in handy if we are having strong feelings and we want to react immediately and maybe badly. As one person said, when we hand a microphone to that voice—it’s not that the voice isn’t legitimate—it's the microphone that’s the problem because we are voicing our hurt—which may very well be legitimate—to cause harm in turn. (If you are currently being harmed, the microphone is indeed appropriate . . . ) In familial and other social relationships where you are navigating interpersonal issues, there are certain ways of responding that will get a better response than a knee-jerk reaction—and can be done in a civil way: First, practice self-awareness and emotional intelligence, and then use good feedback skills: addressing the person in a way that is timely, clear, specific, constructive, and appropriate to the relationship. This sounds a lot like what Jesus recommends—with a second and third try, involving witnesses.
Our lack of “niceness” can also be harder to pinpoint when it’s not between two people. It shows up through Facebook, some bumper stickers, careless driving and cable news. It’s the constant critical voice that we feel justified speaking out loud—really to make ourselves feel better: Putting others down to help us believe we are okay or to help us or the people we support to “win." And this can work! If one person can be made to look bad enough, then the other might win, say, an election: And in our shame-based society that doesn’t tolerate not-good-enough, winning is—in itself—held up to the level of God—aka “idolatry.” And the price is high: Speaking in ways that aren’t “nice” can escalate and harm us as individuals—and certainly as a society. It increases a lack of connectedness with one another (which we need! we are wired for this) and a lack of civility and cooperation in working toward best practices to help with things like pandemics, poverty, and gross inequity in the wealthiest country in the world.
Which means, ironically, that the truth needs to be said. And the truth—when we are missing it—is not going to feel very nice! It’s the whole point of the Prophets! And the prophets job is often to speak in firm and reprimanding words about WHAT GOD WANTS. And if you are “sinning” by oppressing the poor, then the ensuing confrontation will be hard to hear. Also, the prophet is not off the hook. Did you see in Ezekiel how God holds Ezekiel responsible for what goes wrong if he fails to pass this on? The “wickedness” becomes his own problem! Ezekiel, the “sentinel” for the house of Israel is tasked with giving warnings from God about their godlessness and lack of care for the most vulnerable. When Ezekiel speaks what God says, it now becomes Israel’s problem to hear and respond. Whatever else happens, there is no room for being quiet!
Jesus, too—in the beginning of Matthew 18, after just putting a child in the middle of them—talks about things like humility and being like a child to be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven; the non-negotiability of receiving one like this (and now he uses a different word—and he widens it out from just children to “little ones,” meaning anyone who is vulnerable.) He tells about the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to go and find the one, with pointed words for his listeners: “It is the will of [God] that not one of these-should perish” and again “It is God’s will that ‘not one of these should be lost.’”
And now, about confrontation: What happens when people are wronged? Although it seems unfair to make her be the one to speak up instead of the one who wronged her—or others in the community who see and could help—she is at least invited to confront the one who wronged her. Maybe the relationship is healed and she gets her due. But when that doesn’t happen, as Christians and witnesses, we are to walk with her to the place where she can be heard by more than one. And then, we don’t bury it there. If need be, broader transparency key to justice and restoration. The problem both in coming forward and in listening and hearing is often the bugger called shame that makes it hard for the wronged to speak because “who do you think you are?” and the risk of being blamed, put down, ignored; and for the accused and even the witnesses to fully accept the reality of the wrong committed: How am I going to be exposed as “not enough?” Actually, being “nice” can serve as our cover: We want to be perceived as “good” people- and we are!- so we ask, "How could someone like me have offended anyone?” Particularly with systemic issues, we don’t hear the complaint because we didn’t personally say or do anything wrong. In which case, no one has to listen…? What if some witnesses come, too? What if it is announced to the whole community…The tricky thing about shame is that it keeps us from hearing the truth.
Sometimes we need confrontation, which might not seem “nice” and it can be complicated, thinking about if someone has “sinned against us” or if “we have sinned against someone.” I propose that—if we think so or if they think so—it is worth the conversation. Here’s perhaps a better word than “nice”: What we hear about in Romans and also comes straight from Jesus: Love. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love often looks like niceness. But it also might not. In fact, it actually lines right up with the “law”—as Paul says—has expectations- “doing no wrong to a neighbor.” This might be shoveling their driveway- which is nice AND loving—but it is also ensuring that someone 20 miles away is heard and understood—and systems are not set to work against them. Just because you are able to “win” does not mean that everyone is set up to do so. For example, someone who has been imprisoned and served her sentence can’t get a job, housing or other resources because because of her record. “Well, then don’t commit a crime in the first place” you might say. But what if her family life set her up without the emotional, financial and educational resources? And even then, what if we set blame aside? The law has been enacted but she is still a “little one.”
If we are on the receiving end of the feedback process that we hear described today; if someone keeps coming to us saying there’s a problem and we don’t listen—then it’s going to be hard to stay in relationship. Listening and loving are key. And also, if you have something important to say—about how the behavior of others that has hurt you- then it’s important for us all for you to say it: Hard though it is. For you, but for the sake of the community, culture, world. How else will we learn to love? We need to know where there is pain and sin; to have it called out into the light. To repress such truths is to dwell in darkness. Here’s the thing: We know that we are forgiven, so we can accept that and forgive ourselves- which makes it so much easier to hear the truth. We don’t need to repress the strong feelings that come up when we feel accused or when we feel used. That voice is real. And God is real. From there, we can be “nice” and “courageous” and “loving” all at the same time. For when two or more are gathered, there is God! Thanks be to God. Amen.