Text: Matthew 18: 15-20, Pentecost 13a
“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector…” Harsh stuff for such a festive weekend here at St. James! As we come together as church this weekend for Rally Day and for the God’s Work, Our Hands, Our Voices Event to celebrate the ways we are a unified body as St. James and the ELCA, the revised common lectionary apparently wants us to dwell on how to handle conflict.
When I first read these texts this week, I’ll be honest, for most of the week I thought “Not now, Jesus. Not this weekend.”
But the truth is, as we gather together this weekend in celebration of our unity, we all know that conflict is a part of living together as a diverse community. I bet the majority sitting here today could identify at least 1 person who is not worshiping with us today because of a conflict, disagreement, or hurt feelings that arose –perhaps recently, or perhaps decades ago. Today, in our text from Matthew, Jesus gets real about conflict.
At first glance, it may seem that Jesus is giving us a set of guidelines to follow in cases of conflict which ultimately result in shunning or excommunicating of an offensive brother or sister. At first glance, it may appear that Jesus is fulfilling the hopes and dreams of every legalistic disciple by offering us a blueprint for exclusion. Just how far does forgiveness go? At what point can I say to my brother “I’ve had enough of your sin! Shape up or ship out!” Is Jesus really offering us, today, a simple 3 step plan to excommunicate the annoying in our midst?
Step 1: If a member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. (In other words, face conflict and disagreement head on. Don’t talk behind your brother or sister’s back, complaining to others in the parking lot about how they’ve wronged you. Tell them yourself –in private- with the intention of reconciling and moving forward.)
Step 2: If the offending party refuses to listen to you in private, take 2 or 3 others with you and confront them again. Two or three witnesses will either support the truth of your position or perhaps help you see your own error in assessing the situation. While we’d all like to think we’re in the right, we can’t ALL always be right. Having other –preferably neutral- parties involved can help mediate a heated debate.
Finally, Step 3: If you are still unable to resolve the issue, bring it before the church –call a special meeting, get the church leadership involved- and again dialogue about the problem. If you are STILL not listened to, after these 3 clear and simple steps, THEN let the offender be treated as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Three simple steps to excommunicating the annoying, right?
We hear what we want to hear in this text. In our sinfulness, we hear “gentile and tax collector” and immediately we think “outsider.” It sounds as if Jesus is commissioning us to just give up on the offending party after step 3. Three strikes and you’re out of the church. Done. Cast into the outer darkness with all the other gentiles and tax collectors.
We hear in this text what our human propensity toward exclusion wants us to hear. But… as Christian people, we know that Christ is not about exclusion and that Christ’s Church is not called to be exclusive.
“Let them be to you as Gentiles and Tax Collectors…”
Jesus LOVES Gentiles and Tax Collectors!
It was, in fact, a tax collector named Matthew who wrote the gospel we study in worship today!
Jesus does not offer a simple, 3 step plan for excommunicating the annoying, but rather Jesus calls the Church to RADICAL RECONCILIATION! Jesus calls the church not to excommunication, but to loving dialogue and healthy conflict resolution.
The call to radical reconciliation becomes all the clearer when we take a look at the verses immediately before and immediately after our chunk of gospel for today. Right before today’s reading, Jesus tells the disciples about a Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to pursue the one sheep who went astray. Right after our reading for today, Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive someone who sinned against him and Jesus tells him 70 times 7 times. Unfathomable mercy. Jesus calls us all as Church to carry out his work of endless forgiveness, endless pursuit of the lost. Radical Reconciliation is God’s work in the world, and it’s the work God calls us to engage in today and every day.
This text which sounds so uncomfortably honest about conflict reminds us loud and clear that relationships are precious. It reminds us that people are precious, even those who disagree with us. It reminds us that we as church are called in the example of the Shepherd to do whatever it takes to pursue the lost and forgotten ones.
Jesus doesn’t say “As my followers, you’ll gather together each week to sing Kumbaiah and will never have another disagreement ever.” But rather, tells us honestly “As my followers, you will face conflict, you will hurt one another, you are all sinners, and here’s how you start to repair the damage. (Open Dialogue!)” Jesus doesn’t show us how to get rid of those with whom we disagree, but rather how to work through conflict in a healthy way.
We are called to talk through our conflicts in honest and loving ways, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, to do whatever it takes to restore the precious relationship which has been broken. The world around us tells us that it’s ok to give up on people, especially people who have wronged us (and that sure is tempting when tempers flare and hurtful words fly!). But God tells us to do whatever it takes to pursue the restoration of relationship. God calls us to reconcile with the relentlessness of a Shepherd searching for a beloved lost sheep.
The Church is called out of its walls today and every day to pursue the lost and forgotten, to pursue the excluded, and to remind those who wish to exclude themselves that they are deeply beloved.
That’s our mission field. The lost, the forgotten, the ones we disagree with: Gentiles, Tax Collectors, Democrats, Republicans, Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, Gays, Straights, Rich, Poor, Shrinking Middle Class, Citizens, Immigrants, those too old and those too young, those who read the Bible too legalistically, and those who are far too liberal. In a world that tells us that our dissimilarities should define our relationships, Jesus teaches just the opposite. Jesus said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them.” Where two or three are gathered, there are usually two or three different lifestyles and worldviews represented. Christ’s presence, not our differences, defines our relationship as Church Together. Whether you’re a Gentile, a tax collector, or the one pointing the finger, we’re all brothers and sisters, all alike in our sinfulness, and all gathered in the name of Christ to live in this community together. Amen.