Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Friendship, Confrontation, and the Kingdom of God

Sermon from 9.4.11, St Christopher's by the Sea

If I asked you to summarize the gospel we heard just now with just one word, I wonder if that word would be “friendship.” Somehow, I doubt it.

Matthew’s gospel this morning is about confrontation. Truth-telling. The one-on-one airing of grievances. Maybe most generously, it’s about ‘speaking the truth in love.’ And I suppose how you feel about speaking the truth in love depends on which word you accent the loudest. Truth or love. But then, a part of us wonders: is it always, or even rightly, a tradeoff?

Holy counsel for how to approach someone you believe has sinned against you. What to do next. Not asking forgiveness this time, but asking to be asked for forgiveness. Because you have been hurt.

And a part of us gets queasy at the thought of confrontation like this. It’s not easy to admit you’ve been hurt. It takes courage to name hurt to the very same person who, knowingly or unknowingly, inflicted it. Confrontation like this makes most of us queasy, and the rare people who enjoy confrontation like this are by and large the reasons that the rest of us don’t like confrontation like this. Because some of us feast on being wronged and banging truth on another’s head like a hammer. And others of us avoid conflict at any cost in order to avoid our being feasted on. And on our bad days we call this mix of tolerance and evasion “love.”

You know, on second thought, maybe we should just skip this one. Turn the page and move on. You didn't ask for this. Come back next week. I’m sure there’s a happier gospel coming.

(That’s a joke. It’s not how we roll, and besides, I think there’s more here than just that.)

Jesus said, "If another members of the church sins against you..."

No question, this passage is about how to approach someone you believe has sinned against you, has wronged you. Step by step. But this passage is not about getting even. Jesus makes clear from the get-go that the goal of these steps is to “regain the one”, to be reconciled, to let love move. So not only is the process not about getting even, the process is not even really mostly about you or me. It’s least of all about standing up for yourself and your rights. No, this passage is about how you know what a real friend is, and how you can be a holy friend worth having.

How can I be a holy friend worth having?

If I asked you to summarize this gospel with only one word, I wonder if that word would be “friendship.” That’s the case I believe these scriptures are making.

Because confronting is something we only do for those we really love.
Because confronting is one way of saying: “I refuse to give up on you.”

Not long after the events of 9/11, the theologian Stanley Hauerwas found himself on a panel at the University of Virginia discussing America’s response to the murderous events of that day. He closed with a prayer, asking God for the grace to make us people capable of breaking the chain of violence. To break the chain of violence, he said, would require that we remember that God is God and we are not. He then prayed that we would be given instead to small gestures of beauty and tenderness. Stanley was rejecting war as a Christian response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

A fellow theologian and good friend, Robert Wilkens, was incensed at the perspective presented in Stanley’s talk. Stanley tells the story: “I did not want to lose Robert as a friend, but our differences were deep. Robert wrote soon after the event, asking me if I disdained all “natural loyalties.” He argued that our lives are interwoven with the lives of others whom we rightly use force to protect. We are a better people, he said, because of the sacrifices made in World War II. He was angry that I failed to acknowledge the ways in which our relationships with others bind us to protect them. He was angry that I seemed to be forsaking all forms of patriotism. That Robert wrote to challenge me I regard as a profound act of friendship.”

I share that exchange in part because of our nearness to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but mostly because of that last sentence: "That Robert wrote to challenge me I regard as a profound act of friendship.”

Neither of them changed the other’s mind, by the way.

But later, Stanley writes, “Robert and I remain friends.” The unity that transcends their differences, they both realize, is in their love for Christ and his church.

“If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

Stanley Hauerwas reflects of another time in which he was confronted by a friend. (Stanley has a knack for finding confrontation, I suppose.) He says, “That he came to me directly to call me to task indicated that he thought it still possible I was capable of recognizing the truth.”

I laughed when I saw that one. Do we sometimes hide the truth from each other because we think the other person isn’t smart enough to understand? That is, is our silence a kind of put-down?

Because confronting is something we only do for those we really love.
Because confronting is one way of saying to another person: “I refuse to give up on you.”

It’s not that we’ll talk them out of it. It’s not even that we’re always in the right. It’s just that talking about someone - no matter how many times we say, “Bless his heart” - is not as blessed as the occasion we pull him aside or put our arm around her and say the three words that open up everything: “Can we talk?”

Can we talk?

Can we talk? I don’t know if you know this, but it really hurt me when you did that. Can we talk? It grieves me to see you treat yourself that way. Can we talk? I believe God has more in mind for you than that. Can we talk? You may think that your behavior is not a big deal, but I believe you might be harming your soul. Can we talk?

Because, if your concern that a sister or brother is on the wrong path does not bring you to your sister or brother, then your concern is only in your head. It’s not physical. It’s like love without arms or faith without works. More often than not, it’s worse than dead, it’s gossip.

We might paraphrase Ezekiel along the lines of today’s conversation this way: the wherewithal to see sin without the courage to name it to the person involved is its own kind of sin. It is evil.

A preacher's disclaimer: I’m not speaking just now with a particular person in mind. Except maybe myself. Truly. But if you’re hearing a voice that feels like it’s speaking to you, don’t blow it off. It’s a true voice: the Spirit of God in conversation with your conscience. The Spirit alive in your conscience, your very soul. Listen to it.

How many times have we heard or said something to the effect of: “I could never say that to her face; I love her too much.” But indeed, if you did love her, you could not but say that to her face. Or would you hide the truth, salvation, from the one you claim to love?

Learning to be a holy friend worth having, in whom Christ is present, has everything to do with these words.

One last thought on that note - a thought that makes this whole business so much more than mere moralism:

As he dies for us on the cross, Christ himself confronts the sinful powers of the world; it is, in a sense, the ultimate confrontation. Christ is killed because Jesus’s refusal to join the madness of the world convicts the world, and us, of madness. Because he is who he is, we see ourselves as we are. We don’t like it. But also, in that same moment, in that same breath, the tenderest instruction at the place of confrontation: for there, on the cross, he whispers, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”

“Greater love has no one than this, than that he lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus says. On difficult days, when you are unsure of what it means to call Jesus your friend, remember that it surely means at least this much: that he had the courage to confront us on the cross with the unyielding love of God.

Such a friend we have in Jesus.
Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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