Wherever Two or More are Gathered – Lectionary 09/06/2020

Matthew 18:15-20

“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.”

Sermon Text

            No one has ever been excited about conflict entering into their life. Even people who love a good argument, even people who go out of their way to cause trouble, ultimately only want to do so if they have nothing to lose in the process. Argumentative people usually exercise their argumentativeness against people who they either have relationships with that allow for this kind of conversation – friends who like to get together and fuss over one thing or another – or else they take out their argumentativeness against people who have no way of stopping them – cashiers, wait-staff, anyone who is required because of their profession to take their abuse. The same largely stands for people who like to cause trouble, as long as they are in a consequence free environment or talking to someone who cannot retaliate, they are fine being ornery.

            Truly, there are not many no-risk situations in our life. When we get into arguments with one another, when someone does something that deeply affects us emotionally, even with just a passing word, when this happens, we are taken aback. Our strength leaves our body, our brow furrows questioningly, we are left wondering how we came to the place we are in. Worse than this, there are moments where we see the same thing happen to someone, we have said something to. Their face suddenly becoming worried, their posture locking up, the outward sign of inward harm shown plainly on their features.

            The burden of being in relationship with other people is that we will inevitably do something that hurts the people we are in relationship with. Our dear loved ones who we say something careless to, our coworker who we make feel slighted, our friend who we unwittingly offend. All these small things, the little pin pricks of mundane violence that we find manifesting between ourselves – they can add up. So many people are on a tightrope, struggling to balance their emotions, their self-worth, the health of their relationships, against the strong wind of conflict.

            It has often been our practice that we respond to conflict through silence. We let the small indecencies we face be met with an apparent indifference. For fear of making too much of a fuss we just let things slide. We do not tell our friend that we would really rather they not joke about the clutter in our living room or confront our coworker who cannot get it through their head that their jokes are in poor taste. Still worse, our family members often are the ones we wish above all to avoid this kind of confrontation with. The cousin who always asks when the single people in the family will go ahead and get married, the sister who is a little too quick to mock her siblings, the husband who says unkind things about his wife or children without a second thought.

            What happens when we do not address these topics? Do we see them disappear? No, in fact they tend to fester. The little pin pricks to our self-esteem, the insults to our dignity, we cannot sit by and take them indefinitely. Eventually, the wounds we sustain will be significant enough to leave us with nothing but shreds of these qualities. More than that, the structures underpinning the relationships we have with others – trust, mutual care, interest in the simple as well as complex aspects of their life – will begin to decay. In silence, in the effort to avoid conflict, we find ourselves smothering the love and connection we share with one another.

            Our scripture today offers us an alternative to avoiding conflict, and that is to engage with it honestly. To let our dissatisfaction be made known. There are moments where that may be uncomfortable, but it is only in naming something that we are able to move beyond it. The little comments that just will not stop, the hurt that has eroded the connection between us and those we know, they will destroy even the strongest relationships if left alone.

            The solution that Christ puts forward in our scripture is that when someone sins, and the implication here is that we are talking about interpersonal sin, then we must be direct in addressing it with the person who has caused the harm. If someone has said something cruel, then they need to be told it was cruel. If someone has hurt our prospects in a work setting, if someone has betrayed our trust, then we cannot just wait until they forget or we forget, we have to proactive in fixing the problem at hand. Not only that, but the discussion has to be one on one, direct and honest in every way.

            Our basic instinct when people mistreat us is to say nothing to them and tell anyone and everyone else about it. “Can you believe he would say that to me?” “What were they thinking acting like that!” We vent our feelings about the problems that face our relationships, but we do not face the problems in themselves. Yet Jesus is clear in telling us, if someone wrongs us, we have to tell them what they have done. The idea here is not just to get context, although certainly that can help us understand why someone acted the way they did, but it is primarily a chance to let the other person realize the wrong they did and try to make amends.

            While we must account for misunderstandings, the majority of conflict is not based in accidents of interpreting circumstances. If someone comes up to me and says something I find insulting, when I go to tell them that it was insulting, they cannot tell me that it was not. The person who is hurt is hurt regardless of the intent of the action. Making amends, repenting of the wrong we do, is not about explaining why we did wrong, it is about stopping the wrong we did. Someone telling us they did not intend to cause harm lets us understand why they said what they did, but it does not change the fact that they did something harmful.

            The escalation of community involvement that follows is done out of necessity. If the person who has been hurt fails to reconcile with the person who hurt them, then we are not asked to abandon them, but to try harder to bring about a just resolution. We call in other friends, preferably ones that are better at getting along with people than we are, and they can mediate the conversation. Maybe there is more than just this one incident that led to the rift between the parties involved. Maybe, the person asking for reconciliation in themself had contributed to the current situation, and only an outside, neutral, observer can identify this.

            The authority given to us by Jesus, to bind and to loose, is given so that we can draw ourselves closer together in community. However, because the relationships we have must be mutually loving, mutually honest, mutually oriented toward reconciliation, there are moments when we must stop our attempts at reconciliation – temporarily at least. If someone cannot see that they have harmed us, if they refuse to follow advise then we may need time apart. We make them, “as a tax collector,” to us – a person distinct from our community, someone we cannot currently productively associate with. However, the promise of Christ is that no one is permanently out of reach.

            Though the relationship that once was may never be restored, something like it can be found again. Even if it is a simple acceptance from both parties that wrong was done, that the best reconciliation they can give one another is to abstain from interacting with one another, even this is better than quietly fomenting our hurt in the dark. The ties that bind us together are not always tightly wound, and though we ideally would see ourselves in close and loving relationships with one another, sometimes this is not possible. However, the work must be put in to preserve what we have, to strive to work to fix rather than throw away. We are given steps to follow toward reconciliation, we cannot deny a single one of them.

            Seek community, seek love, and seek to make amends in the face of all wrongs. – Amen.

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