Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
1st Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-11
2nd Reading: Romans 13:8-14
Happy Anniversary, King of Kings. We’ve been together 10 years now. I don’t know if we should renew our vows, or buy each other flowers. I’ve never been that good at things like this. It is kinda funny, looking back over these years together—what we each were like when we came together 10 years ago and who we are now, what we’ve learned, how we’ve grown and what we’ve endured and what we’ve enjoyed about each other.
On this day, we get these readings about trust, and rebuilding trust, when needed. They tell a new pastor not to make any big changes for the first year and maybe not even for the first three years. That is so trust can be built. It takes a while for the pastor to get to know the congregational context. It takes the people a while to trust the pastor.
But these readings go way beyond pastor and congregation. They are about how people can live in community or family. We’re social creatures. We need each other. We need rules to help us negotiate that. We need ways of coming back together when we’ve broken the rules. We need each other. And it should make a difference how we handle these situations, if we are Christians. We have a special set of tools. We have a special set of teachings that, hopefully, help us figure that out and do something about it.
Paul, in the book of Romans, has been giving general ethical instructions, but now he moves into a new phase. In case your situation hasn’t been specifically laid out, so far, here’s what it all boils down to: Love.
Now you think that would be easy, but it isn’t. What does it mean to love? Does it mean I have to like someone? When do I use tough love? If I am loving, does that mean I overlook it, if they hurt me? Do I let them keep making the same mistakes, over and over again? Do I have to love absolutely everyone? How about Hitler? How about a child abuser? On the other hand, we throw the word “love” around until it is meaningless. “I love ice cream.” “I love your outfit.” Love becomes something superficial that we never put into action.
Paul reminds people that it isn’t just love, but to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” First, it isn’t about some hypothetical person that you might never meet. It is your neighbor. It is someone you run into now and then and have contact with. It might include your enemy, too, but it is a real life situation you are living in. Next, love them as yourself. It doesn’t mean to let yourself get walked all over. You have to love yourself enough that you have love to give to another. This love is about recognizing God’s handiwork in every person, including yourself. And some have suggested that perhaps trees and squirrels and rivers are our neighbors, too. That how we treat our world matters too and that what we put into the water or air is fundamentally tied to loving our neighbor. So it is even about recognizing God’s handiwork in every creature.
Then Paul goes on and we get to the urgency of it. We probably aren’t going to be convinced to start doing loving things because we are expecting the second coming in the form of angels blowing on trumpets and Jesus descending from heaven. I have heard of some people doing loving works near the end of their lives, feeling their time is short and sorting out their priorities in a new way. We might look at this urgency, though, in terms of a world in need, or a neighbor in need. Yes, maybe our neighbor might be able to wait another day for our love to be shown to them, but do we want to wait another day for this love to be born in our world, to exist between people? I would put it this way, “What are we waiting for?! There is love to go around! Let’s do this!” It’s like having a fresh tray of cookies. The sooner you get them distributed, the better!
Sometimes I think when couples get married, they look at it so cut and dry. “We’ll get married. We’ll always feel this way toward each other. We’ll have some kids. We’ll take vacations. We’ll get a house and good jobs and be happy. The end.” I don’t know if couples really know about marriage, how every day it is a full-time job, you have to work at it, very hard, and you don’t always feel like it. Sometimes you feel close to your partner and sometimes you don’t. And sometimes an argument about how you chop the garlic isn’t really about that at all.
Many other relationships are like marriages. When you join a church, it can be like a marriage. You have all your criteria for what you are looking for in a church and it seems to fit. There might be a little magic sometimes, those goosebumps. Finding the right job can be like a marriage or finding a community to belong to. But, no matter how good it starts out, misunderstandings happen, people sin against you and you sin against them. This Gospel reading shouldn’t say, “If another member of the church sins against you…” It should say, “When another member of the church sins against you…” This is part of what it means to be in a relationship. We step on each other’s toes. But we are a part of the body of Christ. We are committed to this relationship. So Jesus gives us some tips for surviving and rebuilding trust.
The first thing is so essential. Go to that person. Don’t just gloss over it. Don’t pretend you haven’t been hurt. Go and get it out in the open. And don’t wait for them to come to you. If you have a scratch on your arm and it is bleeding, you don’t just look the other way and hope it disappears. Sometimes I think we’ve been so afraid of conflict in a church, that we have caused ourselves a lot more pain and infections and scarring than necessary. Get it out there. There is probably a perfectly reasonable explanation. Chances are the other person has no idea they’ve hurt you and welcome this information. Now they have a chance to make it right. But don’t expect that. We don’t really have a right to get attached to certain outcomes. If the other person listens, you have achieved something pretty extraordinary, and that might even be enough to heal the wound or regain the peace.
And if by chance they are offended by your approach, here is a next step. Don’t think you are the first to have needed this step. That’s why it is here. Get someone to go with you. And it is ok to do that, because this isn’t just about you. When two members are fighting or hurt, it isn’t just affecting them. It affects the whole community. We are the body of Christ. The rest of the body is involved when the pinkies are fighting or injured. Sometimes other parts of the body have experience that will help fight the infection, or have access to bandages and Neosporin. Sometimes they hear something that the two having the original conflict have. This doesn’t say to go to others and gossip and get them to take your side. It says that everyone should listen and put the health of the body before petty differences. Decide what it is worth binding and hanging on to, and what is worth loosing, and letting go of.
And if they still don’t listen, treat them like a Gentile and a tax collector, that is, “Love them like yourself.” What? Forgive them 77 times. Have them over for a barbecue and eat with them. Come to the communion table with them. Be in the body of Christ with them.
We could all do better at this stuff, facing conflict, acting like adults. I’m learning just the same as you are. I have to say there is nothing better than two people who have had their differences and have reconciled, come to a place of love and acceptance of each other, people who have weathered hard times together and have that sticking power that you have to admire. I see it in long marriages. You know every moment has not been a walk in the park. I know that being part of this church is not always a walk in the park. I know that you have put up with each other and yourselves and me and I appreciate your stick-to-itiveness. It is like a mosaic of broken shards of pottery, each beautiful on its own, each formerly a part of something else. Now broken and damaged, but coming together to make a beautiful picture to spark the imagination, to inspire, to uplift, and to catch the light 1000 different ways and send back into the world color and warmth and love.
The good news for this morning is that Jesus is with us. We’ve had good times and not so good times, but Jesus is inviting us into relationship again, to be his children, to be brothers and sisters to each other, to experience extraordinary love, and to share that love.