Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Calling Out Sin or Facilitating Forgiveness?
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
If you search the internet for "drunk preacher Easter sermon," you can find an incredibly profane, curse-filled, five-minute audio clip of a made-up Easter Day sermon in which the supposed preacher calls out a dozen congregants for a wide range of sins. From the pulpit, he names a man and woman who have been having an affair. He calls out a Sunday school teacher for neglecting his duties and fires him on the spot. He berates another man for putting a quarter in the offering plate. It's funny because it didn't really happen. It's funny because preachers may think things like that, but we'd never actually say them.
Then again, if you look at the other video clips that YouTube suggests when you're listening to that make-believe sermon, it's not so funny anymore. There are actual preachers in actual churches who find ways to weave specific people and their specific sins into their sermons. It makes me nauseated to imagine being in a congregation while something like that takes place. How can any clergyperson charged with care of a congregation ever berate people in public like that? It's spiritual abuse. That makes the old saying about the pulpit being six feet above contradiction pretty scary. Is there ever a good time for a pastor to call out a congregant for his or her sin?
I'm not good at that. Sure, I have no problem telling people that they are sinners in need of repentance. I have a pretty low anthropology. I believe that human nature is fundamentally sinful. I believe in original sin. When it comes to having a meaningful relationship with our loving God, I believe that the first and most important gesture we can make is one of repentance. But looking someone in the eye and saying, "You've got to stop drinking," or "You need to apologize to your sister," or "You have to end that relationship," or "You must stop posting things like that on Facebook," is incredibly difficult. Who am I to judge? Well, actually, who am I not to? And who are you not to?
In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus says, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when you are alone...If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you...If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and, if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." I must admit I find those words to be a bit of a turn-off. They sounds so mechanical, so hierarchical. Perhaps it's worth noting that there was no ἐκκλησίᾳ in Jesus' day--at least not in the institutional setting. The word translated for us as "church" means "an assembly of the called-out ones," and there were assemblies of faithful ones back then but not in the Christian context. This seems to be Matthew's retrojection of instructions for good church order back onto the words of Jesus. Still, whether Jesus said them or Matthew and his community wrote them, they are a set of instructions give to us? How do we make sense of them?
These verses are chosen for today in a daily Eucharistic lectionary. The implication, I think, is that we would have assembled yesterday to hear the passage that comes right before this and that we would come back again tomorrow to hear what comes after it. Yesterday was the feast of St. Mary the Virgin, so we didn't get to hear the beginning of Matthew 18, and tomorrow is Thursday, when we don't have a service, so we won't get to hear the end. So maybe it's worth taking just a moment and recalling the rest of Matthew 18.
Jesus says, "Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones...What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountain and go in search of the one that went astray?" Later, after Peter asks Jesus how many times he should be willing to forgive his brother, "as many as seven times?" Jesus responds, "Not seven times but seventy-seven times." In other words, these instructions are not about calling out sin but about facilitating forgiveness. I don't like pointing out other people's sins, but I do relish the opportunity to invite people into a reconciled life.
There's been a lot of news lately about calling out sinners. Will the President call the alt-right movement, the KKK, and neo-Nazis the un-American, hate-filled, violence-inspired groups that they are? Is it right to use the same labels for the counter-protesters who claimed to be standing up to hate? Is James Alex Fields a terrorist whose radical ideology led him to drive a car into a crowd of demonstrators? Is Heather Heyer a martyr who was killed because she stood up for her faith? Should we share snapshots of "Unite the Right" demonstrators on Facebook so that they might be shamed by their friends and families and, perhaps, fired from their jobs? If we discover that our own child has fallen into this web of racism and hatred, should we disown him? Is it right to expunge our cityscapes from all statuesque representations of the Confederacy and the slavery it stood for? Should they be left as a symbol of heritage? As a testament to our shameful past? Are those who say that they should remain guilty of sin? Can we have a civil conversation about a legacy of our inhumane history?
It's easy to affix labels like "sinner" and "racist" and "bigot" from a distance. It's easy to preach against the sins that manifest themselves in the headlines and the sinners who stand on what the majority feels is the wrong side of a demonstration. But what happens when that person sits in one of the pews in your church? What happens when that person has a place at your Thanksgiving table? What happens when that person has a bedroom in your house? We don't shy away from calling a sin a sin, but we do so not to make ourselves feel better by declaring our superiority. We approach the sinner as a brother or sister who has lost his or her way. We invite that person to return to our fellowship. We reach out to that person in the name of the church and the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for even a lost sheep like him or her. We yearn for reconciliation. We want to be a path to forgiveness. We are willing to demonstrate the limitless forgiveness of God by forgiving our brother or sister seventy-seven times, which is to say as many times as it takes. As we discuss the sins of our ancestors and decry the sins of our contemporaries, may we never shy away from the totality of that sin, and may we never miss the opportunity to preach forgiveness and reconciliation for all.