Scriptures for today are Here.
It’s great to see you all again! I’ve missed you this summer but I had a wonderful sabbatical! I traveled a bit with family, relaxed, read novels, wrote most of a book, and in my spare time, I went to see movies, which I don’t do very often. Sadly, if you’re not into superheroes or horror or thrillers, your movie choices are limited this year. Because of various friends who wanted to see it, I ended up seeing “The Hundred Foot Journey” three times. I also saw The Giver, based on a classic YA novel I read when my children did, when they were in middle school. The story is set in a dystopian future in which the authorities have done away with all conflict and pain: but in doing away with conflict and pain, they have also eliminated kindness, joy, compassion, and love from the world – even color. In this world, everything is in black and white, every day is the same, and every action is predictable.
Things come to a head for the young hero when he realizes that this society maintains its sameness and colorlessness at a cost: it secretly kills people it doesn’t think will be productive, including babies who are too fussy – and a baby he has come to secretly love as a younger brother is on the list to be “released to elsewhere” – so the hero rebels. He goes on an adventure that will bring the full range of human experience back into the world. It turns out that releasing love, kindness, and compassion back into the world will also mean bringing back pain and conflict – some of it unbearably sad. So the movie leaves you with a question: would you rather live in a literally colorless world, where every day is the same as the one before, all things are predictable, and authorities carefully control your thoughts and emotions and decide when it’s time for you to die because you’re no longer useful? Or would you rather live in a world where people experience the full human world: the heartbreak of suffering and the joy of heartfelt love? The movie leaves no doubt about what it thinks is the right answer: it is better to live in a world where humans experience the full range of emotions, the complete human experience, in all its joy and pain.
For us, in our world, there is no question of preference: we don’t have a choice – we do live in this world of love and suffering – but what I realized on the way home was, we don’t have a choice, but Jesus did. And it turns out that Jesus did not choose to enter, or to leave behind, a perfect, painless world. He chose this world and these people to live among and to love. And because Jesus was intimately familiar with the joys and sufferings of this world, because he knew the human predicament inside and out, because he knew the ordinary human beings who were going to fill this earth after he was gone, he left behind him a church.
The Book of Common Prayer (Catechism, p. 855) says “the mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Or as Paul puts it in today’s Romans reading, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Paul goes on to say, “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”
In other words, the church’s mission of love & reconciliation – restoring all people to unity with one another and God in Christ – this mission is urgent – there is no time to lose. We have to get to work on loving each other, and teaching the world to love, now.
Well, surely if there’s a world that needs to learn how to love, it’s this one. This summer has been full of disturbing conflicts, from Israel and Gaza to Iraq and Syria to Ferguson, Missouri. It’s a world full of people who divide ourselves into “us” and “them” and create sharp lines of conflict between the two sides.
In this world of conflict, the church has a clear vocation – to love, to reconcile, to restore people to unity – yet we have our own trouble, loving. Jesus knew this would be the case: even during his lifetime, long before there was a church, Jesus knew that there would be a church, and that the church would be composed of ordinary human beings, and that those human beings would sometimes disagree.
There’s an old cartoon: a man who has been stranded on a desert island for years is finally rescued. He stands on the deck of the ship that rescued him with the ship captain, and the captain looks at the shore of the desert island and asks about all the buildings the stranded man has built during his years there. Oh, says the man, there’s my house, there’s my recreation center, and there’s my church. Okay, says the ship captain, Well, what about that building over there? Oh, says the man, that’s where I used to go to church.
Yes, sometimes people in church disagree. The church is a human institution like any other – Jesus knows people will disagree – and note, this doesn’t just happen in church, it happens in families, workplaces, friendship, anywhere there are human beings in relationship with each other. Because conflict is part of life, Jesus outlines a model for reconciliation in our gospel today.
This model is important for any of us to pay attention to, because the Christian life is a life of learning to love, to deal with conflict constructively. The fact is that most of the time, when we are in conflict with someone, there are two important viewpoints, and if we can take the best from both, we will end up with a much better solution than either of us could alone. That’s not always true – it’s not true in Iraq and Syria, where there is a clear wrong side – and it’s not true in cases of abuse or crime. But most of the time, where there are two people with two different viewpoints, each has something important to offer the other.
So Jesus outlines a process for how to deal with disagreement. The process is to first go to the person and talk to them directly. You don’t talk to everyone else around you about your disagreement – that’s just gossip. You talk instead to the person you disagree with, one on one. This is hard work because you have to express yourself with kindness and generosity, when we’d sometimes rather keep our hurts hidden – but Jesus says relationships between people are important enough to try to reconcile.
It’s also hard work to talk directly because you can’t just talk – you have to listen too. And not listen so you can figure out the next point you’re going to make to prove that they’re wrong and you’re right. Listen so you can really understand what they are trying to say, and learn from them. You do this because the goal is reconciliation: as Jesus says, if it works, you have regained that person, you have restored your relationship, you have offered forgiveness. This is a requirement of Christian community, a requirement of loving our neighbors – we respect them and we try to understand them, and we learn from them so that the solution we come up with together is better than either of us could have come up with alone.
Well, this is a hard thing to do. Years ago, before I started working in the church, when I was working in the business world, there was a woman in my office who drove me crazy. Every single day she would do something that made me angry, till I didn’t even want to go to work any more. But Lent was coming that year, so I decided to make a special Lenten discipline: to pray for her every day. Now this is hard to do, to pray for someone you don’t like and are furious at – it’s hard to come up with words that are acceptable to you AND to God, if you know what I mean. But I did it – and I am not kidding, only three days after I began praying for her, a miracle happened – we were reconciled, and not only that, we began a friendship that lasted a long time. This, to me, was a miracle, one that wouldn’t have happened if it had been up to me, with my stubbornness and belief that I was always right. It took God, and it took me being willing to approach the conflict in a Christian way, to allow this miracle to happen.
So this first step Jesus gives us makes perfect sense. But I will be honest with you: I have a problem with Jesus’ 2nd and 3rd steps. The second: take 1 or 2 other people with you; third, if they still won’t listen to you, take the whole church, last, if they still won’t listen, treat them as Gentile and tax collector. The process Jesus outlines seems to assume one side is clearly right, one wrong. And I would agree that this process works if that is the case – in cases of abuse or crime, for instance. But our side is not always clearly right. We certainly prefer to assume so, believe that we are entirely in the right.
But I think when reading the Bible, what we have to be careful of is our tendency to seize on one passage at a time and forget the rest of what the Bible says. I don’t think you can read this passage in Matthew 18 without also reading an important passage in Matthew 5: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and then remember that your brother or sister has something against you, first go be reconciled with your brother/sister, then come and offer your gift.” In other words, being able to worship with a clean heart means asking for forgiveness when you have wronged someone else.
Christian life means not just being vigilant to point out the sins of others, much as we enjoy doing this! We love to look at the speck in other people’s eyes while ignoring the log in our own, as Matthew 5 says. Christian life also means being even more vigilant of our own sins, and being ready to ask forgiveness, from God and from other people. As Christians, we both seek forgiveness and offer forgiveness. When these two attitudes of the heart are combined, people can reconcile, true Christian community can flourish, people can understand and learn from each other, people can truly learn to love even those they disagree with.
And when Jesus says, if you can’t reconcile with someone, treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector – well, let’s just remember how Jesus and the earliest church treated gentiles and tax collectors. By the time Matthew’s gospel was written, there were many, many Gentiles in the church – thank God, because most of us here are Gentiles too. The discipline that Jesus gave the church was not to expel people, but to reach out, to keep loving them, to keep inviting them in. And Matthew himself, the author of this gospel, was a tax collector. Jesus called him to leave it all behind follow him. No one is beyond the love of God.
Which highlights what Jesus was all about, in his life and in his death. It wasn’t some conflict-free, colorless world Jesus chose to love and to save. It was THIS world Jesus chose to come into, THIS world that Jesus chose to experience, THIS world of color and love and heartbreak that Jesus immersed himself in, THIS world that subjected Jesus to the ultimate suffering, and THIS world that allowed him to pour out the ultimate love, God’s love for us. And it is THIS world that Jesus still loves today, because right here, where two or three are gathered in his name, he is here in the midst of us – this blessed Christian community.