Today’s gospel lesson is about how we, as Christians, choose to reconcile broken relationships. This is something I have a lot of experience with. One of my friends has told me that my dedication to reconciling my relationships borders on pathological. And she might be right. Reconciling broken relationships is of incredibly high value to me.
But it isn’t always easy. Reconciling broken relationships, as outlined in Matthew 18:15-20 demands that we be honest and vulnerable with someone who has hurt us. It demands that we confront their actions and place ourselves at risk for greater injury.
A few years ago, I was hanging out with my best friend. We were standing around in her kitchen talking about a new movie that had just come out. Mama Mia. It’s a musical. She told me that she had gone to see it with a mutual friend of ours. I was rather surprised, as this other person just did not strike me as the type who would be really into musical. Turns out, he is. He loves musicals. And my best friend went on to mention some of the titles he had seen and loved.
1776. A musical based around the story of the Declaration of Independence. It was her mention of this particular musical that immediately left me teary-eyed. The astute observer that she is, she asked why the mention of 1776 had upset me.
See, someone of enormous significance to my life, me mentor, had been a Broadway star. He had been part of the cast of 1776. He had passed away the year before, and the mention of anything that reminded me of him always left me in tears. Because I missed him.
When I mentioned to my best friend that my mentor had once been in the cast of 1776 she immediately responded, “Do you think there will ever come a time when you can think about him without crying?”
Now, immediately, I stopped crying. I was shocked beyond words. And I looked up her and I said, “I would really like to believe that when you said, ‘Do you thing there will ever come a time when you can think about him without crying?’ what you meant to communicate was, ‘MB, I love you. And I want good things for you. And I hope some day you can think back on this person and the impact he’s had on your life, and you’ll remember him with joy, rather than sorrow,” because what I actually heard you communicating was, ‘He’s been dead for 10 months now. Get over it already. You’re grief is an inconvenience to me.’”
Now, my best friend, being the extraordinary woman that she is, listened to me. And when I was done, she said, “You’re right. I didn’t state that well. When you repeated it back to me, I realized exactly how that would sound to you. Of course your grief isn’t a burden or inconvenience to me! I do love you! And I do want good things for you. And I’m so sorry that you’re hurting. And I’m sorry that I hurt you with my words. Will you forgive me?”
And thus, Matthew 18:15 was fulfilled.
To be totally honest, though, not all of my experiences with Matthew 18 have been on occasions where I was the offended party. Believe it or not, and I know this will come as a real shock to most of you, I have actually, on occasion, offended others. I have sinned.
Now, let me start by saying that I am a bit neurotic. I have a very structured way of doing things, and a very structured way of ordering things. This includes who I allow into my living space. So, imagine my surprise when, while in seminary, I come home one day to a common room that has two strangers in it. One I recognize as a fellow student who lives elsewhere. The other is a person I’ve never seen.
This fellow student said to me, “Hey, my boyfriend and I were about to watch a movie. I know I don’t live on this floor, so I hope you don’t mind. But you’re totally welcome to join us.”
To which I responded, “Actually, I mind greatly. You live on another floor. If your floor doesn’t have common living space with a TV and VCR, that’s your problem. Choose more wisely where you live next year. As for tonight, take your movie somewhere else.”
Oh, yes. Definitely not one of my finer moments in life or ministry.
Now, this first year student, who initially appeared quite meek, informed me that I was being petty and mean, and she and her boyfriend were going to watch the movie there that night, and nothing I said was going to change this. And I totally respected her for it.
It took me a few days to finally track her down—having never gotten her name—but when I saw her in the library the next week, I approached her, told her how sorry I was for the way I had treated her and her boyfriend, and extended an open invitation to watch movies in the common room of my dorm floor anytime they wanted. I was met with a rather icy indifference.
This, however, did not deter me. See, remember when I started this sermon, I told you that one of friends believes I have an almost pathological need to reconcile relationships? Well, this is but one example, and an odd one at that, because I had committed the offense upon first meeting this person.
But something happened during that interaction, and I was determined to make things right. After much persistence, I finally won this woman over. By the end the year, we were regularly dining together, she and her boyfriend would hang out with me when he visited her, and we’ve become life-long friends. We still talk on the phone and email as often as we can.
Neither of these examples were easy experiences. It takes a lot of courage to say to someone, “I messed up and I know I hurt you.” I think in some ways it takes even more courage to say to someone, “You’ve hurt me.” In the first, we make ourselves vulnerable to criticism. In the second, we make ourselves vulnerable to further hurt from the person we are confronting.
And, so Jesus tells us, “If they will not listen, take one or two others along.” See, Jesus isn’t interested in us making a single effort at reconciliation. If we get rebuffed, he says, “Get back up and try again.” Now, this actually takes less courage, in my mind, than the initial contact. You’ve got support going in. One or two other people who are committed to listening to both perspectives, and hopefully, sorting through some of the distractions to get at the heart of the matter. One or two others who can skillfully discern what is being communicated rather than what is being said, and who can assist in clarifying intentions, goals, and next steps.
Let me be clear. Jesus not saying, “Hey, grab a posse and start a brawl.” He’s also not saying, “Go to all of your friends and neighbors first, tell them your side of story, and start a witch hunt.” He’s saying, “Have one or two witnesses, preferably neutral individuals, who can clarify things for both parties. And, if the other person listens to you, you’ve won them over.” Be honest. Act with integrity. Be direct. If someone has sinned against you, take it to the person first. If they refuse to listen, take one or two others along, but not your whole book club.
If that doesn’t work? Well, Jesus tells us to take it to the church. If a fellow Christian sins against you, and refuses to hear you, and refuses to hear you with one or two witnesses, bring the matter before the church. Why? Because relational health is foundationally important to the health of the church. Schisms within the church and worse have occurred because one or more people have not been willing to be honest about how another person had wronged them. Or because the other person refused to own up to having wronged the first.
American folklore tells us just such a story—two feuding families, the Hatfields and the McCoys, who lived near one another across the Kentucky-West Virginia border. Neighboring families who declared all out war on one another in the late 1870s.
The feud continued to escalate until, between 1880 and 1891, the feud ended in the deaths of more than a dozen members of both families collectively. It became headline news around the country, and led the governors of both Kentucky and West Virginia to call up their state militias to restore order. What started it all was the question of who owned a pig—those who had marked it as their chattel, or those who had found it wandering in their yard.
Now, it is true that history often sensationalizes stories. And I’m sure that there is much in the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys which has been lost. But what we do know about the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys is that rather than attempt to resolve a dispute between themselves (who owns the pig), they took it to court. The court proceedings were overseen by the only local judge—a member of the Hatfield family, hardly an impartial party.
And it ends in the violent murders of more than twelve people, the sentence of life imprisonment for seven more individuals tried for those murders, and the state sanctioned execution of an eighth individual who was tried. All of this over the question of who owned a pig.
And I wonder if all of it couldn’t have been avoided if the McCoys had simply said, “Hey, I see my pig wandered over to your side of the property line. I sure would appreciate it if you’d send her home first chance you get,” and if the Hatfields had replied, “Oh, this is your pig? I didn’t realize when I found her wandering that she belonged to someone. But now that I take a closer look, I see your mark on her ears. We’ll bring her over right after supper.”
Now, it’s unlikely in our church today that anyone is going to take up arms against their neighbor because of a wandering hog. But how many other hurts and offenses have been committed that have led to people leaving the church? That have led to gossip, slander, infighting, and bickering? How many other hurts and offenses have led to relationships being broken and even ended?
When my best friend said to me, “Do you think there will ever come a time when you can think about him without crying?” I could have walked out of her kitchen. I could have left then and never talked to her again. I had the option.
And when I said to this first year seminarian, “You really are not welcome on this floor,” she could have walked away and never spoken to me again. She had the option.
Both of these stories have a happy ending, though. One relationship was restored because of a mutual commitment to living out healthy conflict resolution based on the tenets presented in Matthew 18. Another relationship was built because of a commitment to living out healthy conflict resolution based on the tenets presented in Matthew 18.
But what happens when you go to someone and they don’t listen to you? And you bring one or two others, and they still refuse to hear? And you bring it to the church and they refuse to listen even to the church? What then?
Jesus says, “Treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” And do you know how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors? He treated them with respect. He treated them with dignity. He acted with integrity. He acted honorably. He treated them with love. Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry hanging out with pagans and tax collectors. It’s one of the reasons the religious elite took issue with him.
In my experience, the root cause of most conflict is a cultural difference. Jesus’s culture, as the Son of God, was different from the religious culture of first century Judaism. And the religious elite killed him for it.
We experience cultural differences every day of our lives. We come across something that is being done differently from how we would do it; we find a stranger in a place we had thought was secured from outsiders; we hear someone’s words through our own filters, while they speak those same words through a filter of their own, and at times it is a vastly different filter than ours. Cultural differences and misunderstandings. And for that, we often punish others, and treat them as something less than human, less than deserving.
But, Jesus never gives us a reason or an excuse to treat any other human being with anything less than the utmost dignity and respect. He never grants us permission to be vindictive, spiteful, or mean. Instead, he invites us to choose to know others better, to engage their culture, to love them regardless of whether we believe they deserve it or not. He invites us to risk big, and he promises that the rewards are big as well—whatever we hold to be true on earth will be held to be true in heaven.
If we are willing to choose to hold love and forgiveness, compassion and grace, kindness and generosity as core values to our Christian faith, then all of heaven will hold to those values as well. And in doing so, we have the ability bring the Kingdom of God here to earth.