Learning to Listen in a Time of Outrage: A Sermon on Matthew 18:10-20

Preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton on Sunday, September 6, 2020. To view the sermon follow this link. The sermon begins at the 16:20 mark. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1384561201917743&extid=C53FUdIgZrw3UMJY

Someone once said, “Whenever two or more are gathered … it can be really hard to get along.”  And that’s especially true in our day and age where everyone is always outraged by everyone else, whether it’s wearing masks or black lives matter or blue lives matter or you name it.  Our mantra seems to be “I’m outraged that you’re not outraged by the things that outrage me!  It’s outrageous!”

I wonder if Jesus is outraged by our constant outrage.  I don’t think so. However, I do think he’s deeply saddened by the despicable things we say about each other and the hardhearted ways that we treat each other.  Jesus weeps over our country and over our hearts. Perhaps we would do better to weep with him than to keep screaming at each other.

In our scripture lesson this morning Jesus teaches us how to live with each other. There is actually more in here than I can unpack in one sermon, so I want to focus on three things

  1. Do not despise anyone.
  2. Talk to others, not about others
  3. Listen when other people confront you.

Do Not Despise Anyone

In verse 10 Jesus says, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.”

Who do you despise? Donald Trump?  Stop it.  Jesus says you are not to despise him.

Who do you despise?  Black Lives Matter advocates? Stop it.  Jesus says you are not to despise them.

Who do you despise? The neighbor who lets her dog do its business in your yard without cleaning up after it?  Stop it.  Jesus says you are not to despise her.

Why? Because Jesus died for these people and their angels behold the face of the Father in heaven. These people are precious in God’s sight even when they are doing things that are awful.  As John 3:17 says, “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

We all know that Jesus is the good shepherd who goes out of his way to seek the one lost sheep.  But in verse 11, Jesus says we are to follow his example.  We are good shepherds who are to seek the lost.  It is not our job to despise people but to bring them back to the Lord.

The next time you are tempted to despise someone, pray for them and ask God to give you an opportunity to show them Jesus’ love.  Nancy Tanis, shared a story with me.  She was having a problem with a co-worker and wanted nothing to do with her.  A Christian friend asked Nancy if she was praying for the co-worker and Nancy had to admit she wasn’t.  She had written the coworker off as just a big pain in neck and tried to cope with her as best as she could.  But once Nancy began to pray for her, Nancy’s attitude began to change.  Her coworker continued to be as problematic as ever, but Nancy was better able to deal with her and to love her with the love of the Lord.

Talk to Others, Not about Others

In verse 15 Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” 

All too often in churches, complaints and dissatisfactions are handled through the grapevine.  Every pastor I know has had someone come to them and say, “Some people are not happy with what you’re doing.”  And when the pastor asks “Who?” they will say, “Oh, I can’t tell you, they told me not to mention their name.”  If you want to make a pastor’s life miserable, this is one of the most effective ways to do it. 

There will always be conflict in the church.  As one pastor told me, “A pastor who never expects to face conflict is like the little boy who decided to play football and was surprised when he got tackled.”  Conflict is inevitable, but unless we are willing to do the hard work of sitting down face to face and speaking the truth in love, we will only rip the body of Christ in pieces.

The same is true of our other relationships. None of us likes conflict but the only way to deal with it is head-on and in private.  Jesus says, “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”  Any good parent knows that you don’t discipline your child in public, but you take them home and correct them in private.  You may have to stop from your child immediately for doing something wrong, but you teach and correct them in the privacy of their own room.  Only then do they learn the lessons you’re trying to teach. 

Jesus says, if the members listens to you, you have regained that one.  The reason to talk to the people who have sinned against you is to restore a relationship.  The only way to do that is to talk to them, not about them.

Learn to Listen When Others Are Confronting You.

Audrey West, a Visiting Associate Professor at Moravian Theological Seminary.  “For many people, it is easier to identify the ways they have been harmed than it is to recognize the ways their actions can harm others, even if unintentionally. Perhaps one of the most difficult truths of this passage is a reminder of the human capacity to cause harm to others—both in the systems in which we participate as well as in our personal actions.”  (Working Preacher, September 6, 2020)

In other words, we always know when someone has sinned against us, but rarely recognize when we sin against someone else.  Therefore, it would be very easy to use these words of Jesus to brow beat people into doing what we think they ought to do. So an important question to ask ourselves is, “Am I reading this passage as the one doing the confronting of the one being confronted.”

Matthew Fray once wrote an article entitled “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink.”  Now on first glance that seems like a pretty petty reason to divorce your husband.  However, as Matthew points out it was only the symptom of a much deeper problem—an unwillingness to earn his wife’s respect by honoring her wishes.  

Matthew notes that he had lots of good reasons for not putting the glass in the dishwasher.  It was just a glass.  He might want to use it again later.  He would certainly put it up if company was coming.  

There is only ONE reason I would ever stop leaving that glass by the sink. A lesson I learned much too late: Because I love and respect my partner, and it REALLY matters to her. I understand that when I leave that glass there, it hurts her— literally causes her pain—because it feels to her like I just said: “Hey. I don’t respect you or value your thoughts and opinions. Not taking four seconds to put my glass in the dishwasher is more important to me than you are.”

All the sudden, it’s not about something as benign and meaningless as a (quasi) dirty dish.

Now, putting it in the dishwasher is a meaningful act of love and sacrifice, and really? Four seconds? That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing too big to do for the person who sacrifices daily for me.

I don’t have to understand WHY she cares so much about that stupid glass.
I just have to understand and respect that she DOES. Then caring about her equals putting the glass in the dishwasher.

Now I share that with you, because Matthew’s ex tried to communicate this lesson to him for years.  But because he was so certain that he was right and was so unable to see things through her eyes, he didn’t listen.  As far as he was concerned, he was right, she was petty and that’s all there was to it.  But as they say, “Hindsight is 20-20” and only after she left him, did the message sink in.

If someone is telling us there is something wrong in our relationship, we must listen.  If we listen, God can use that feedback to help us grow in Christ likeness.  As Christians we do not have to be defensive.  We already know that we are sinners but that we are loved.  And so when someone points out a sin to us, we can take it to heart and allow God to change us.

I have made a decision in my life to be open to any feedback that someone give me.  When someone makes a complaint or criticism, I do three things.

First, I receive the criticism.  Although I may be hurt by their words I don’t get defensive.  Instead I say, “Thank you for sharing that with me.  I’ll have to pray about that.” 

Second, I pray about the criticism. I say, “Lord, is there something here that you want me to know?”  And I may repeat this prayer several times in the day or even over a few days. 

Third, if God doesn’t show me anything then I let it go.  However, more often than not, there is something that I do need to hear and to change.  And so once I recognize it, I make those changes.

The important point, is that this process has allowed me to listen instead of just blowing things off.

I think that we need to do something like this in this time of Black Lives Matter.  Our black brothers and sisters are telling us that for years they have been disrespected and mistreated.  We are as surely blind to our part in this as Matthew was in his relationship to his wife.  We certainly aren’t Aryan Nationalists or members of the Ku Klux Klan, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things in our own life, and in our society, that are harming our black brothers and sisters.  We can react defensively and say “I’m not a racist!”  and you’re not. Or we can listen. We can say, “Tell me more. What can I do to help make things better for you?”

When someone confronts us about our unintentional sins, we need to listen and change.

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