[Jesus said] “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. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
I love the ocean. I like being there with sand between my toes, the sound of the crashing waves, the birds. I like to watch shows about ocean life, corals, and especially sharks.
Don’t get me wrong I love the mountains too, but I believe the ocean is one of the most beautiful of all God’s creations. If you sit at the shoreline, you can never see where the ocean ends. There is a lot to be learned from sitting and looking at the ocean; if you are present at high tide, the waves come crashing into the shoreline. At high tide, the ocean seems to command your attention and invites you into a conversation. It is loud and roaring. Resistance to its natural movement can be detrimental.
If you are in the water when the tide is at its peak, you will be pushed and nudged back to the shore. Conversely, at low tide, the ocean is generally calm as the waves come in quietly, softly, still majestically. There you are lulled into a moment of quiet and perhaps deep reflection.
2020 has been the year of high tide. The waves have been crashing at our shoreline for the better part of the year. We have been pushed into our shelters. We have found new life in visitations through our computer screens. For way too many, the waves have overtaken them, creating major loss of life due to pandemic-related illnesses. For others, the waves have crashed at the shoreline of social equality in a country that for so long has been determined to only respond during low tide.
As we wait for the return to whatever normal will be, God is extending an invitation for us to respond to those things which we can change—those things over which we do have some control. We may not know when we can fully return to in-person worship or our workplaces, but we can attend to other urgent matters that are screaming for our attention.
In Ezekiel 33, that we heard today, God describes the responsibility of a watchman. If a watchman doesn’t warn the people that a violent army is coming, the subsequent deaths of villagers is the watchman’s responsibility. But if the watchman does warn the people and they choose to ignore him, they are responsible for their own deaths. God compares the prophet to this watchman.
If God pronounces guilt on someone for wickedness and the prophet doesn’t announce it so there’s a chance for repentance, God will hold the prophet responsible for that person’s death (Ezekiel 33:8). But the prophet is absolved of responsibility if he does give a warning and the person chooses to continue sinning.
As is frequently the case in Jesus’ ministry, rather than undermining this rule from the Old Testament, he intensifies it.
The so-called “Matthew 18 rule” is well known but frequently inappropriately applied. The focus of Jesus’ teaching wasn’t about privacy or laying out rules for church discipline as much as it was demonstrating how his followers are to love neighbors who sin against them. This topic of loving others when they sin will be continued next week as well. For this week, the emphasis is on not letting sin that injures others continue, specifically for the sake of the perpetrator. The rule from Ezekiel is that a person must be warned about their wickedness once, but after that there is no more responsibility toward that person. Jesus intensifies our responsibility toward each other and takes it a few steps further.
Now, this passage must be understood in the context of first-century Judaism and Christianity for what follows to make sense and be connected. When Jesus says the matter is to be told to the assembly, he doesn’t mean that the issue should be broadcast to everyone. Instead, it was to be dealt with personally between the two engroused in the dispute, then if necessary, referred to the leaders of the synagogue where three judges (to prevent ties) would sit and hear disagreements between the members of each synagogue.
Paul retains and recommends this practice in his gentile congregations in 1 Corinthians 6:1-6. It was only these judges who could rule as to whether a person was allowed to remain in a congregation or could be thrown out, to be treated as a gentile or tax collector. But we must note that Jesus developed a reputation for eating and drinking with tax collectors and certainly ministered to gentiles as well.
The bottom line is that we are never to give up on helping people stop and repent of sins that hurt others. The assembly of believers is to always stand up for the cause of the injured and take radical action when one member’s sins hurt others—out of overflowing love for both the victim and the perpetrator. Helping restore people who sin and hurt others, which is all of us, is important business. Jesus isn’t willing to let anyone go and died to save the whole world. Our responsibility to the victim is to believe him and defend their cause, and our responsibility to the perpetrator is to love them by ceaselessly working to stop the ways they sinfully hurts others.
What I’m getting at is conflict happens. There are some days when we live in community and convince ourselves that Jesus and his disciples, as well as the whole history of Christianity could not have possibly had the kind of knock down, drag out conflicts like we have today.
- The church of the sixties was perfect, we tell ourselves.
- The relationships between the disciples and members of the early church was flawless, we think.
Jesus’ teaching in our lesson from the Gospel of Matthew brings us back to reality though. There are problems, conflicts, and disagreements that happen in all times and places when it comes to living in community together.
As we run into these kinds of interactions, Jesus gives us a blueprint for how we might wade into these moments together. First, we are to talk to the person directly, then to bring a few folks with us to witness the conversation, and finally we bring the issue to the community. This blueprint sets a beginning framework in which Jesus emphasizes the need to communicate and deal with conflict rather than ignore and run away from it. It also emphasizes the need to support and listen to one another as we wade into this life as community instead of picking sides and battling against one another.
It is not by any coincidence that this reading coincides with the reading from Romans in which Paul emphasizes that the core of the law is love. It is easy to read this blueprint for conflict and say that we need to follow this exact path in a black and white fashion each and every time we encounter any kind of disagreement. Perfect! Problem solved. Wouldn’t it be nice if life in community could be solved with one nice and neat formula? Unfortunately, we have things like uneven power dynamics and corrupt and broken systems that complicate our abilities to follow this exact formula for conflict management.
That doesn’t mean that the passage is useless or that the formula never works, but this as an excellent framework in which Jesus is points us to working through times of hardship with the well being for all and for the community at the center. It also points us again to a framework that is always grounded in love.
- This is not a call to gather a community in hatred or violence.
- It is not a call to gossip or slander.
- It is not a call even to personally attack with the hope of ostracizing one from the community.
Rather, is it a call for accountability. It is a call for love filled responsibility and care-based community in which all might have life.
During this call, communication is mandated, community is necessary, and engagement with one another is what allows the community to overcome disagreements and conflict together.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all could simply get along—at least most of the time? Even the psalmist must have thought so when he wrote “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). The reality is that wherever two or three humans gather for anything, there is bound to be conflict at some point, and the church is certainly no exception.
If you have ever led/served, whether volunteer or vocational in a congregation, you know that you will experience conflict. It might be an argument over worship settings or whether the flag belongs near the altar. The problem could be hurt feelings over something the pastor did or did not do, or it might be a poorly received council decision. Perhaps a major denominational decision divides the congregation into various camps. However it manifests itself, conflict is an unfortunate and very real part of the human experience.
- Could it be that our fading numbers have something to say about the way in which we embody (or fail to embody) Jesus meassage of love by the way people outside our congregations see us act towards one another or a stranger?
- Does the Body of Christ go against the grain of culture or does it seek to blend into the landscape?
- Do we actively work to keep our sisters and brothers from stumbling and work tirelessly to build up one another, or are we too busy and/or fatigued to care beyond occasional pew warming?
- Do we embody the love of God or serve the self as culture would have us do?
Maybe these questions don’t seem fair to ask, but challenging ones rarely do. I hope our community of faith understands that when Jesus says he is with you whenever two or three are gathered in his name, that it isn’t just a way to justify poor worship attendance numbers but rather is reflective of the close-knit discipleship community envisioned by Matthew. I hope and pray that our community has learned to talk honestly, respectfully, and faithfully and that we can listen to each other, and our community, actively and kindly. Perhaps we have put on the armor of light about which Paul speaks and practice love. If not, then I hope we consider changing our spiritual wardrobe.
In seminary I reminded over and over again that ministry is messy. There is no way to be intimately involved in the work of God without getting dirt under our fingernails and confronting the debris of broken lives and dreams. The key is all in how we handle it.
- Do we practice love or do we give in to gossip?
- Do we dare remove our safe masks, no pun intended, and let others see our true and vulnerable selves?
- Are we real, or are we who we “think” we ought to be?
- Are we able to reflect God and God’s love for creation in both our being and our actions?
Think with me for a moment. If our community of faith could be the ideal embodiment of God’s love in this world, what would that really look like? Now ask yourself how far your vision is from the reality. If there is disconnect between practice and passion, what can we do about it?
Dear friends, we have the tools and talents to roll up our sleeves and stride into the muck. If we will do this, perhaps our friends and family members will join us. As they step into the mess, others will follow.
How we interpret scripture in these muddy moments, what we loose and what we bind, makes all the difference in how we function as the beloved community. When love and care of neighbor is the central focus, then we reflect God’s love to the world. We look different; we may stand out like the nerd or the geek or the freak. We may not look like the rest of the world when we wear our ancient Christian “fashion” instead of the latest trends, but in our obvious difference we are beautiful and real. We provide a welcome harbor for all those who are hurting and broken, for all those whom God loves. It is here we will find Christ present—right smack dab in the middle of the mess.
Let me close with a saying that I was told often by family, friends, teachers and coaches growing up:
“You don’t have to like everybody, but you need to love everybody.”