‘Let’s Talk’: Sermon Matthew 18:15-20 -14th Sunday after Pentecost; September 6th, 2020


As you may know, I recently got back from a three week stay in Germany. And though the primary reason for my trip was to visit with my ailing mom, and I still worked while in Germany, and Germany is dealing with a surge of Corona cases (though I have to say that Germany’s numbers of infections are a mere fraction of infections in the United States) – in other words, it wasn’t a real vacation – my time there felt very relaxing. I could breathe better – quite literally, since California was dealing with all those horrible wildfires and unhealthy air while I was gone – but also in a more allegorical sense.

After my return, I talked to someone who also recently returned to the U.S. from Germany, and they said that their stay in Germany felt detoxifying. Detoxifying. And I was thinking, yes, that’s it, that’s what it felt like!

Right now, the mood here in this country feels very toxic, and it seems to get worse by the day. Protests about racial inequality are continuing because nothing really changes – we continue to hear news about unarmed black people suffering disproportionate police violence.

Protests have turned deadly. Lethal violence is fanned by words of political leaders that are meant to incite. If you don’t agree with me, you deserve to be silenced, by any means. People are blinded by ideology and hatred. And, as I already said, the political leadership in this country doesn’t help – and that goes beyond party lines. The general attitude is, ‘us versus them’. The chasm between people of different races, different nationalities, different socio-economic status, different political opinion, widens more and more.

And I fear the rift has gotten so deep that it will not easily be healed. There are no quick and easy fixes. It will take so much more than kiss and make up. It will take some form of deep and painful therapy to bring the people of this country one the same page – well, maybe not even the same page, but at least into the same narrative.

Just as a footnote: it’s not like Germany is a model of harmony and bliss right now. To a lesser degree, people in Germany deal with the same issues as U.S. Americans: the effects of climate change, which means unusual and extreme weather, the pandemic, economic struggles, a political divide. But just not with the same brazen incivility and disrespect, or even demonization we encounter here on a daily basis. And believe it or not: political parties in Germany still work together to figure things out for the good of all people.

One might pine for better times, for the good old days, when people seemed to get along better. But if we look into today’s Bible lessons, it seems that it’s in our human nature to be at odds with others. Even with our siblings in the faith. We all have our pet peeves, certain things tick us off, and we feel offended quite easily. And, on the flipside, we are quick to respond in kind – or ‘in unkind’.

And sometimes, we have really good reasons to be ticked off, aggravated, angry. When the sin we experience that is directed against us or against others is just too blatant. When things are happening that remind us more of hell than of heaven.

If you think about it, even Jesus isn’t always a model of endless patience and understanding. How many times does he express his impatience with the disciples, ‘Oh ye of little faith?’ Jesus gets really angry when dealing with Satan, with personified temptation, be it in the wilderness or in the form of poor Peter, as we heard in last week’s gospel. And Jesus outright starts a riot in the temple, when he sees how this place of worship has become a place of enterprise, a place where the Golden Calf of economy has become front and center.

Anger happens. Misunderstandings happen. Arguments happen. Sin happens. Sometimes, we have trouble getting along, even as those united in the body of Christ.

The Apostle Paul knew all about that, and we get a taste of that in today’s epistle lesson. Paul is obviously dealing with congregational conflict in Rome. In fact, all of his letters to all different kinds of congregations that have been preserved and made it into the canon of the Bible, were written because of some kind of conflict that Paul needed to address. And he admonishes the followers of Christ in Rome to love one another– and love is not some pie-in-the-sky emotion, but the hard work of seeing a fellow child of God in the other. ‘Let us live honorably as in the day,… not in quarreling and jealousy,’ he implores.

Jesus knew all about anger and misunderstanding and conflict. And that’s why today’s gospel is all about how to deal with a situation where there is an argument. ‘If another member of the church sins against you, try to talk about it. First in private, and if that doesn’t help, with witnesses, and if that still doesn’t resolve the situation, in front of the whole congregation.’

And if that still doesn’t help? ‘Let them be to you like a Gentile or a tax collector.’

Which sounds like, okay, I tried everything, now I can get back at that person. But how does Jesus treat the Gentiles and the tax collectors? He seeks to connect with them, draw them in, he sees and treats them as children of God, he forgives them – in fact, he is admonished by the religious leadership of the day for hanging out with that kind of people. Even if we can’t come to an understanding with others, we are still called to love them, and to regard them with the respect they deserve as those created lovingly by the heavenly father. We are called to forgive as we have been forgiven.

The ultimate goal is reconciliation. And reconciliation doesn’t mean that everything is hunky-dory and harmonious – ‘Friede, Freude Eierkuchen’, as we would say in German – reconciliation is about creating a platform on which we can meet each other with respect, even if we don’t agree with each other. And that’s really tough. Often it seems so much easier to let our resentment fester or gossip or take our indignation to social media instead of talking about it with the person we have a beef with.

Or, as we see with the current situation in this country, it’s so much easier to hurl insults at each other, hurt each other intentionally, be it through words or physically, even kill each other. And even if we personally don’t do these things, it’s so easy for us to justify any of this violence, well, if they had only… I think it’s so sad and discouraging to see all this happening in a country that regards itself as built on Christian principles. Do we really heed the words of Paul, love one another, do we hear the words of Christ himself, try to work it out, by any means? Do we want to hear such words?

I believe we HAVE to hear them, if we want to turn things around. We have to accept the challenge – because we are redeemed, because we are loved by God, because we are forgiven – because we ought to know what it’s like to be embraced despite our shortcomings.

God hasn’t given up on us, although I can imagine that God sometimes – maybe every day? – shakes the head in disappointment about us and how we deal with each other. And our behavior is so unlike God’s vision, a vision for all of humanity, for all of creation: that everyone lives peaceably with one another, and we treat fellow human beings and fellow creation with respect. Can this be our vision as well?

And if it is, why not work hard to live into this vision in the here and now, as much as we can? Why not detoxify our relationships? Why not model what true Christian love is all about? Why not give a foretaste of the ultimate kingdom to come? Do we really believe that one distant day, miraculously everyone will just get along in God’s kingdom, and that we don’t have to do some work – the work of reconciliation – to get there?

It may be hard, no, it is hard to make the effort to reconcile. Especially in times like these. But didn’t Christ say something about taking our cross upon us, for the sake of the world?

As we will sing in a moment: ‘Lord, cleanse the depth within our souls and bid resentment cease; then, by your mercy reconciled, our lives will spread your peace.’


This post is also available in: German