September 7, 2014
- Proper 23 Year A
- Mary Holmen
Exodus 12:1-14, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote the poet Robert Frost in his poem “Mending Wall”. Frost is charged with uttering the line “Good fences make good neighbours” – wrongly charged, as I discovered when I went back to read the poem again. In fact, it is Frost’s neighbour in the poem who utters those words, the neighbour who insists on putting up a wall where one is not needed, between an apple orchard and a pine wood. The neighbour quotes his own father – “Good fences make good neighbours” – while Frost wonders: Why do they make good neighbours? What are we walling in and walling out? Who would be offended if there was no wall? Or if there was a wall? The neighbour moves in darkness, says Frost, a darkness not of the shade of the woods and trees, but a darkness first put there by his father and stubbornly maintained by those words, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
In today’s Epistle reading, Paul says, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” The eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel is about discipleship. Discipleship is never just an individual matter; to be a disciple of anyone or anything is to be in community with other disciples. Both these readings deal with the reality, the challenges, the responsibilities, the hard work – and the rewards – of being in community. They are about mending fences.
All of the commandments are summed up in one word: “Love your neighbour as yourself. Love is the fulfilling of the law.” But what happens when the love is not there? What happens when our neighbour hurts us instead of loving us? What happens when a brother or sister sins against us, wounding or offending us? What should we do? What do we owe?
Think of a time when an injustice was done to you. Perhaps it was a promotion that someone else got through misrepresenting their qualifications. Perhaps you took the rap for someone else’s deceitful actions. Perhaps you received less than you should have because someone else interfered. Perhaps someone lied or gossiped about you in ways that were untrue and terribly painful. Perhaps it even happened in the church – the place more than any other where we should expect to be treated fairly and lovingly. Remember how that felt? You probably do, perhaps very vividly, because the memories of those hurts linger long after the events. Now ask yourself – as a person of faith, and as a member of the Christian community, how can I, how can we, deal with those kinds of offences? Let’s not be naïve; we do sometimes hurt each other, and even with the best of intentions can unwittingly cause offence.
In today’s gospel passage, Matthew lays out a step by step process for dealing with conflict. These are guidelines for the church, and it’s not hard to imagine how Matthew’s community must have had to deal with similar situations as it adjusted to living as a community for the long term, as it started to develop from a band of followers into the beginnings of an institution.
First, and maybe most importantly – it is the person who has been offended against who bears the responsibility for taking the initiative to seek reconciliation, to make things right again. “If another member of the church sins against you, you go and point out the fault.” Boy, is that ever hard to do! I am a person who does not like confrontation, and I know I’m not alone in that. We prefer to let things go, let them slide, but at the same time we brood over them, turning them over and over in our minds so the hurt stays fresh. Why is that? Well, there is the well-entrenched belief that because we are exhorted to love, that means we have to be “nice”, tolerant, and accepting of everything, even things that quite frankly would get a person fired from their workplace, when in fact sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to let a person know their behaviour is unacceptable and needs to change. Nobody benefits from this mistaken kind of tolerance, not the church, not the individual who has been wronged, and not the offender who has no opportunity to change and perhaps to grow in their own discipleship. Then there’s the equally well-entrenched belief that Christians should not get angry with each other, should not be in conflict with each other, let alone – heaven forbid! – confront the person who has offended them and let them know their anger and pain. So we avoid the person who has hurt us, we turn away rather than dealing with the problem, and relationships suffer. And as Paul said elsewhere, when one member of the body suffers, the whole body is affected. Unresolved conflicts and hurts between members affect the health of the whole community.
Sometimes we avoid taking the initiative because we believe that the person who has sinned, who has caused the offence, is responsible for reaching out to repair the rift in the relationship. Well, that would be nice, but it doesn’t happen very often. Why not? Maybe that person doesn’t realize what they have done. Even if they do, they may not care, they may not realize the depth of the hurt they’ve caused, they may believe that time will bring about healing, or they simply may not know what to do to resolve the hurt. As hard as it is to confront another person with a wrong, it is equally hard to confess and own up to doing something wrong.
So, if we are concerned about a wrong that has been done to us, we are called to take the first step, to take action to heal the relationship. But, says Jesus, do it privately. “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” No one likes to be ambushed. No one likes to be publicly taken to task. No one likes to be corrected in front of others. It’s humiliating, embarrassing, and shameful, and is likely just to put that person on the defensive. And certainly no one likes to be the subject of gossip. I can still remember the hurt and betrayal I felt when I overheard one person telling another about something I had done to make them angry. First, I was angry; it was none of the other person’s business. Then I was hurt; why hadn’t that first person come to me directly? And then I felt ashamed; I was sorry for what I had done but I sure didn’t like the way I found out about it. The situation got resolved, but it was harder than it needed to be if the person I had angered had dealt with me directly and quickly. So, says Jesus, “if the member listens to you, you have regained that person.” Hopefully, sorting out the wrong between the individuals concerned will be enough to bring healing to the relationship and to the body.
But what if that doesn’t happen? What if the person who has done the wrong refuses to listen, or refuses to accept responsibility, or insists that they are in the right, or simply refuses to deal with the conflict at all? Then, says Jesus, “Take one or two others along with you.” Allow the wisdom and perspective of others, who may be more objective than you, to deal with the situation. In this way, you get more than one take on the problem. You avoid the conflict of “he said/she said”. You avoid the problem of hearsay by having witnesses to everything that is said. People tend to be better behaved when there are witnesses around. And the person who has committed the wrong may be convinced when they realize it’s not just you complaining. And, says Jesus, if the person won’t be convinced by the presence of two or three witnesses, take it to the church. Let the community deal with it. There’s been a great deal written lately about the ability of the human body to heal itself of disease, where the role of the medical professions is to create and support the conditions that will allow healing to happen, and I think the same is probably true of a body like the church. The community has the resources, the wisdom, the teachings, and the commitment to seek health and well-being for itself and its members.
Finally, says Jesus, “If the person who has done the wrong refuses to listen even to the church, let that person be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” End of the matter. You’ve done your best; the church has done its best; reconciliation is not possible and you go your separate ways. Even if the first and second steps – taking the initiative, and confronting the individual privately – go against our natural inclinations, the process works. Either you gain that brother or sister back, relationships are healed and the community is restored, or the offender is excluded by his or her choice and with the approval and support of the whole church. No shame, no blame, because we have done all we could.
Except it’s not that simple. Why are we called to take initiative and deal with those who have sinned against us? Is it so that we may be found blameless? Is it to be vindicated or to get our revenge? Is it to get rid of people who are hard to live with? Obviously not. It is so that there may be peace and justice in the body of Christ. It is so that members of the body may know the peace, mercy, and joy of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is so that each of us may know the joy of being in right relationship with others and may have the peace of being freed from anger and hurt. Resolving differences is good for everyone – the sinner, those who are sinned against, and the church itself. It is a matter of salvation, which also means health and wholeness. I said at the beginning that these readings are about not just the responsibilities, but the rewards of being in community, and here they are. The church is a school for the kingdom of God. Here, in this place and with these people, we may practice living the way of love. We may learn and practice living as if the kingdom is already here. And it is – Jesus said, “The kingdom is among you.” And when we learn to live in this way and grow in love, we may become a sign and a means of healing and reconciliation for the world.
So when Jesus says, “Let that person be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”, what exactly does that mean? Let’s remember a few things. Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners, and was judged harshly for it by the righteous. The first people to show up at the birth of Jesus as Matthew tells it were the Magi - Gentiles. The first healing story told by Matthew was of the servant of a Gentile army officer. And Matthew, a tax collector, was called by Jesus to become one of his followers. See where this is headed? If we set ourselves up as judges of those whom we think should be excluded, we are likely to be judged and excluded ourselves. When you point a finger at someone else, where are the other fingers pointed? Right back at you! So we need to be very careful about the decisions, actions, and consequences we impose on others. The words first spoken to Peter alone are now spoken to the church: what we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. It’s a serious and solemn responsibility; God will confirm whatever we decide. And Jesus concludes by saying, “Where two are three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” If we want to be with Jesus, then we need to be among the people with whom he chose to be – sinners, tax collectors, and Gentiles. Not as judges, but as those to whom we owe nothing – except to love.
A rabbi once asked his students how they could tell when the night was over and the day had come. One said, “It’s when you can tell a palm tree from a fig tree.” “No,” said the rabbi. Another student said, “It’s when you can tell a sheep from a goat.” “No,” said the rabbi. Another one said, “It’s when you can tell a rabbit from a dog.” “No,” said the rabbi. The students had no more answers. And the rabbi said, “It is daylight when you can look into the face of another human being and recognize that he or she is your brother or sister. Until then, it is still dark.” Robert Frost’s neighbour moved in darkness, as he built walls where there was no need. Paul says, “The night is far gone, the day is near…let us live honorably as in the day.” And Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” Amen.