Here is today’s sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost based on Matthew 18:15-20:
Throughout the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, and in these six verses in particular, Jesus underscores the importance of Christian community. Speaking to his disciples, he lets them know that their faith is not a private matter, something they can go off by themselves and enjoy all alone under a tree. Their life in Christ is a community affair, something that happens when two or three of them are gathered in his name. That is he promises to be in their midst, and not when they are off by themselves feeling holy.
He lets them know they need each other, in other words – not only for practical reasons but for spiritual ones as well. They need each other because two heads are better than one; they need each other because they can accomplish more together than they can apart. They need each other like brothers and sisters need each other, to remind themselves that they belong to one family.
When families work right, they are God’s way of teaching us important things, like how to share and how to work together and how to take care of one another. A healthy family has a way of smoothing our rough edges by making us rub up against each other, like tumbling pebbles in a jar. Living with other people, we learn that we cannot have everything our way. We learn to compromise, giving up some of the things we want so that other people can have some of the things they want, and while it is never easy, learning this give and take is part of learning to be fully human.
Not everyone has good memories of growing up, however, because many families do not work right. They are not schools in forbearance and forgiveness bur reformatories where real are more important than people and where the first rule is silence, silence about anything unpleasant or untoward. If you cannot say anything nice do not say anything at all, and if you have a problem with someone, keep it to yourself, because harmony – even the illusion of harmony – is the most important thing, more important than telling the truth, more important than your feelings, and more important, finally, then you.
That is the lesson many families teach and it is a crying shame, but in today’s reading Jesus lets us know that the Christian family does not work that way, that in the household of God, when your brother sins against you, you must go and talk to him, and if that does not work you must keep going back – taking other people with you next time – doing everything in your power to get your brother back again.
There are two curious things about Jesus’ advice. First, he puts the burden on the victim, on the person who has been sinned against. Second, he seems much less interested in who is right and who is wrong than he is in getting the family back together again. The important thing is that we listen to each other, he says, but if a member of the family refuses to listen over and over again – if the doors of communication stay firmly shut – then we are not to pretend that nothing has happened. We are to recognize that one of our members has left the family, because the only thing worse than losing a brother or sister is pretending that you have not and letting that person fester in your midst like an untended wound.
It is hard but honest advice, one of those pieces of advice that we know is right, that we know we should take, but one that is very hard to act upon. Can you imagine doing exactly as Jesus suggests? Let’s pretend for just a moment that you are sitting in a pew next to Joe. You have been sitting next to him for some time and you know him pretty well. One day, he asks if he can borrow your lawnmower since his is broken.
Sure, you say, full of good Christian cheer, and Joe assures you that he will bring it back in a week. But the week passes, and then another week, until finally you call Joe and him if you can have your lawnmower back, which is when he tells you that he has loaned it to someone else who has backed over it in his truck and the lawnmower is no more. Joe considers this a piece of bad luck that the two of you share, after all it wasn’t his lawnmower, but you consider that you have been wronged.
So the first thing you do is go over to Joe’s by yourself and talk it over with him, offering to take half of what the lawnmower was worth for the sake of the friendship, but Joe is offended. Can he help it if the guy ran over the lawnmower with his truck? He says that these things happen, and he is sorry it happened to you, but that does not make it his fault. So you go home, open the church directory at random, and call the first two names you see, asking them to go back to Joe’s with you and help you work things out with him.
Next day after work the three of you knock on Joe’s door. He is surprised to see you and gets mad when you tell him why you are there. What are you trying to do, gang up on him? Drag his name through the mud? Standing there on the porch, you start to tell him that you have reconsidered, that you are willing to report the loss of the lawnmower to your insurance company if Joe will just tell them what happened, but before you can finish your speech, Joe tells you to get off his property before he calls the police, and then he shuts the door in your face.
What do you do next? You guessed it: You call everyone in the church and ask them to meet you at Joe’s house next Saturday morning. Since you doubt that he will answer the door, you make signs he can read through his windows, signs that say, “Forget the mower, Joe” and “We are your friends” or “Come out and talk.” On Saturday, everyone is there, milling around on Joe’s front lawn, carrying their signs and watching the house which is as dark and still as a tomb. Nothing happens for twenty minutes or so, but then you see one slat of the blinds pulled back, and while you cannot see Joe you know that he can see you, so you wave and smile and beckon to him to come out. Then the slat pops back into place and nothing happens for another twenty minutes or, until you look and see Joe standing sheepishly on his front porch, a check for the lawn mower in his hand. The crowd cheers, you and Joe embrace and everyone lives happily ever after. The end.
I know what you are thinking. “Maybe so and maybe not.,” you are thinking, but how would we know? I have tried anything like that, have you? When someone crosses me, my strategies are usually quite different, and my hunch is that yours are too. The first one, the one that comes most naturally, is to pretend that nothing happened. Forget the lawnmower. Just let it go. No need to get upset. Maybe he will bring it back someday; maybe you will not have to ask. Meanwhile, it is awkward to be around him, but that is better than a fight. Ignore it and it will go away, or at least you will not have to think about it as much.
A second strategy is the cold shoulder. You never the other person what is wrong because that would be impolite, so you just shun the offender – not only Joe but also anyone who does something you do not like. You simply X them out of your mind, and when you walk past them it is like no one is there. It never occurs to you to tell them about what really happened between the two of you because you are sure they already know. They were in the wrong; let them figure it out.
Yet a third strategy is revenge – the silent, deadly kind – where you never admit any ill will toward someone but you let it leak out all over the place, never missing an opportunity to question the other person’s character or tell a little joke at his expense. You embark on a private smear campaign, telling yourself that it makes you feel better, telling yourself that over and over and over again because the truth is that you do not really feel any better at all.
In his book The Great Divorce, the British author C.S. Lewis paints a picture of hell that haunts me, because it bears resemblance to where many human beings live. Hell is like a vast, grey city, Lewis writes, a city inhabited only at its outer edges with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle – empty because everyone who once lived in them has quarreled with the neighbors and moved, and quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving empty streets of empty houses behind them. That, Lewis says, is how hell got so large – empty at the center and inhabited only on the edges – because everyone in it chose distance instead of confrontation as the solution to a fight.
By confrontation I mean just what the dictionary says: to bring two people face to face, front to front, to sort out what is going on between them. That is what today’s reading recommends, and it is also what most of us would do just about anything to avoid. The excuses rush to our lips. Who am I to judge? What is it to me? I go to her? She is the sinner; let her come to me. Tell him my feelings are hurt? What if he just hurts them again? I would not know what to say. I would feel so foolish. And what is the use, anyway? Things will never change.
Those are all fine excuses, if you do not mind living on the outskirts of hell, but for those of us who are called to Christian community, they will just not do. For us, there is something more important than being right or wrong, and that something is keeping the family together. For us the real problem is not the brother or sister who sins against us but our own fierce wish to defend ourselves against them regardless of the cost. The real problem is the speed with which most of us are ready to forsake our relationships in favor or nursing our hurt feelings, our wounded pride. In old-fashioned language, the problem is how eager we are to repay sin with more sin.
There is another way, an alternative to putting distance between ourselves and those with whom we are in conflict. We can go to them, Jesus says, and tell them what is wrong, or what we think is wrong, because the best way to end a fight is to admit that we too might be wrong. There are certain questions to be asked, such as: Am I sure I know what I am talking about? Have I given the other person every benefit of the doubt? What are my motives in confronting him with my feelings? Do I want to make her feel bad, or do I really want peace? What am I afraid of? Is the relationship worth the risk?
That last question is a very important one, because the only reason to take Jesus’ advice at all is to win back a relationship that is in danger of being lost. Once you have decided that is what you want, it helps to remember that you are working for the relationship, not against it; that your goal is reconciliation, not retribution; and that being right is less important to you than being in relationship.
In a lot of ways, it is a real nuisance to belong to a family. It would be so much easier if we were just a bunch of individuals, loosely bound by similar beliefs but whose affairs remained an essentially private matter between us and God. But according to Jesus, there is no such thing as privacy in the family of God. Our life together is the chief means God has chosen for being with us, and it is of ultimate importance to God. Our life together is the place where we are comforted, confronted, tested, and redeemed by God through one another. It is the place where we come to know God or to flee from God’s presence, depending upon how we come to know or flee from one another.
Here is today’s worship bulletin.