It starts in the crisis: If another member of the church sins against you, Jesus says at the beginning of today’s text, go point out the fault when the two of you are alone. Something has happened. I know it’s hard to imagine nice, pleasant church folk getting upset with each other. But imagine, bear with me, it’s someone else’s church.
In OTHER churches…
…I’ve heard of members who felt slighted years ago who still feel a grudge.
…I’ve heard of members who, on occasion, judge others for their life choices or their opinions, on matters political or theological.
…I’ve heard of members who might even be upset with the clergy or staff for something they did long ago, for a sermon preached, for a decision made in a committee meeting, or for their views – real or perceived – on issues of the day or things within the church.
…I’ve heard of members who wonder why others don’t step up like they do, or give like they do.
…I’ve heard of members who love to come to church but may wrestle with how to live that faith out beyond the walls, who get caught off guard by small things, leap to conclusions, or lash out at others because they are convinced of their own righteous position.
I bet you can make your own list – maybe you already are – because anytime you get more than a person or two together things get tricky, because of the number of ideas and plans and gifts increases exponentially. Doing ANYTHING with anyone else…brings with it…complications…
BUT, Jesus tells us, it also brings something – someone – else. Jesus the Christ, among US. Which is really good news. Chapter 18 begins the fourth of five major teaching sections in Matthew’s gospel. The Galilean ministry is finished; the story of the crucifixion is set to begin. In chapters 18 through 20 – Palm Sunday begins chapter 21 – just before the events of Holy Week, Jesus takes time to speak with his disciples about how they are to live together. What does leadership look like? How do you take into account the fact that people are in different places in their spiritual lives? What do you do when conflict comes?
In one sense this text is quite practical. If someone does something that hurts you, go to them. Don’t complain to your friends, don’t stir others up. I will make a bit of an interpretive leap and say don’t send an email. Find that person and talk with them. We pray that brothers and sisters can speak and listen, admit that there is usually plenty of blame to go around, and find a way to move forward. But if that doesn’t work, the next step is to take someone with you. I tend to really want folks to work things out one-on-one, because in a group people can, even if it’s not intended, feel ganged up on, get defensive, not act as their best self. But, even if bringing a group of people – this feels kind of like an intervention to me – doesn’t work, Jesus says to boot them right out of the church. Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Ostracized. Ignored.
There are a couple of things I find helpful here, both from scholar Tom Long. The first is that this process Jesus outlines, he says, ‘its most impressive feature is how persistent and time consuming it is. In this process, nobody is written off in haste, no one is fired on the spot, no one slams the door in another’s face…to the contrary, a sea of energy is expended trying, time and time again, to make peace.” In contrast, Long continues, “to the attitudes of the prevailing culture (if somebody hassles you, forget them. It’s their problem, not yours), relationships are of precious and enduring value in the church. When a relationship is broken, it is worth going back over and over to work toward reconciliation.” Which is hard. We’ve all got a lot on our plates and much to do. Who has time for this? Again, Jesus says, relationships in the church matter. These are people we all have committed to hang in there with as we try and follow Jesus in this place, which is a big, big deal. We have made promises, around this font and at this table, up here as members and officers, to hang in there together. This feels like a season in our culture that is filled with strife and conflict, with differing views on almost anything, in a particularly divisive political season. I bet many of us have relationships that have been damaged in the past year because of politics or cultural issues or both. Technology doesn’t help. But we are called to keep at it – community is supposed to take time and energy, patience and courage.
The other thing is that the “whole process is focused on restoration of the offender, not revenge for the offended.” Just before this Jesus has told of a shepherd searching for a sheep who has gone astray. The shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep on the mountain to look for the one who is lost. So, Jesus says, it is not the will of your father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. “The point,” Long says, “is to regain the brother or sister, to make the flock whole again, to bring the wandering sheep back into the protection and care of the fold.” We are called to seek after each other because each member of the family matters, whether they are around all the time or not very much, whether they run in your circles or don’t, no matter what they might be struggling with in their lives. We are called to seek each other out, giving grace, assuming each other’s best intentions – this part is huge, I think. Many mistakes and misunderstandings I have seen play out in the church aren’t done on purpose, but we dig ourselves in a deeper hole because we assume that she did it to make me mad, or he did it because he doesn’t care about what we are doing. Now, sometimes folks don’t have the right intentions. Out of our own stuff, own anger, maybe even our own misplaced sense of righteousness, we lash out. You don’t get it! You are wrong. You simply don’t understand like I understand.
I wonder what it would look like if we took time to measure another’s intentions. To seek each other out as that lost sheep. But even if, Jesus says, the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Which is interesting because Jesus gets in a lot of trouble for eating with Gentiles and tax collectors! He turns the tables even on the disciples here, knowing they have been watching him hang out with exactly the folks that ‘good church people’ aren’t supposed to hang out with. Pursue reconciliation, he says, again and again and again.
This text comes up in the lectionary around this time every three years. It’s a bit of an odd text for Rally Day. But I think it’s because the folks who put the lectionary together know, from Jesus, that how we tend to each other matters. Jesus knows – the disciples don’t – how little time he has left with them. He grabs them by the arm and moves them towards each other. How you follow me is reflected in how you live together. Our faithfulness and the ways we treat others are inextricably bound. It’s not ‘the things that are up there in heaven’ and ‘the things that are down here on earth.’ The ways you care, the ways you serve, the ways you spend time, what you do with money. All of these are bound up in the ways we express our love for Christ, who meets us as we pray for Hurricane victims and as we try and find a rhythm these full days. Who knows, maybe the church could show the world something of what it looks like to work hard on building community? Maybe the church can be a model for how people are called to treat each other.
After worship you’ll walk into the courtyard. Greet a friend. If you see someone you don’t know, you should say hi to them. Be gracious if you’ve both been members here forever, it’s okay if you don’t recognize everyone. Ask how their day is. Ask what excites them right now. Maybe, God forbid, ask them what God is doing in their life. And take time and listen to the answer. Maybe after 11 you could throw a pie in my face, which I would be glad to receive for a nice donation to the youth fund. And all the while you can KNOW, that JESUS PROMISES. The Christ of compassion and welcome, of hospitality and hope, PROMISES He is with us. For where two or three are gathered in my name, in that grace that is community, I am among them. And that is good, good news.
All praise be to God. Amen.
 Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), page 202. Long’s outline of these teaching sections that are interspersed in between narrative action, can be found on page 5.
 Long, 210.
 Long, 210. This is good stuff.