St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon
Proper 18A RCL 2008
Ex 12:1-14; Ps 149; Rom 13:8-14; Matt 18:15-20
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar
In the Name of Him who treats us like Gentiles and tax collectors! Amen!
“A penny saved is a penny earned.”
“Early to bed and early to wise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
“Too many cooks spoil the broth.”
“Many hands make light work.”“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.”
I could probably go on and on quoting stuff like that. You probably can too with a little thought. Proverbs, maxims, wise sayings – often these elegant little snippets hold a great deal of practical advice. Maybe you have one that is a favorite, or that you find yourself coming back to again and again. I imagine most of us picked up the ones we know from our parents or other relatives, or maybe from reading. Benjamin Franklin wrote a whole series for his Poor Richard’s almanac, and of course the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament contains all sorts of both useful and esoteric sayings.
In fact, I’d venture to say that much of the Bible contains all sorts of both useful and esoteric wisdom, some of it all at the same time! Matthew’s Gospel in particular contains a lot of admonitions about how to live out the Good News that we’ve been given. The Sermon on the Mount with its Beatitudes and all the rest takes up three chapters, and most of Matthew’s parables seem to have distinctly ethical implications. How to live out the Gospel and how to live together are important themes in Matthew’s Gospel. Today’s passage from Chapter 18 is no exception. Today we get some practical advice, some maxims, on living together, on being in community.
Look how it starts. “If another member of the church sins against you.” Jesus is realistic. He understands that even though you and I are already forgiven, we’re still gonna screw up. We’re still going to hurt each other, mostly accidentally, but sometimes deliberately. We’re still going to get angry with one another, especially when one of us may feel the other isn’t living up to expectations. Sometime we say or do things that we don’t think about as being hurtful, when they often are. I’m a perfect example. I used to think I was fairly sensitive about other people when I was growing up, but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve inadvertently hurt someone when that wasn’t my intention at all. Most of the time I was simply trying to do something else entirely, and neglected to consider fully how my actions or words my affect others. And unlike some marvelous people who can read others like a book and know exactly what they’re thinking, I don’t have that gift at all. I have to ask people to please tell me what’s going on with them, because I’m a terrible mind reader. Ask any member of the Executive Committee – it was one of the very first things I said.
So Jesus doesn’t assume that in a Christian community that everything is going to be sweetness and light. His advice - command really, not something as optional as mere advice – is this: “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” He’s reminding us that even when someone neglects to respect us, we have to respect the other person and bring their error to them privately first so as not to embarrass them.
And notice another very important aspect here. Going to someone private and talking with them is the very first thing we’re to do. This is very significant. One of the most destructive tendencies that communities of any kind fall into the habit of is triangulation. That’s when I’m upset with you and I go tell someone else about it and ask them to go to you. It’s a bit different from venting. We all do that. We all go to our friends and say, “Can you believe what that so-and-so just said? I’m speechless!” Most of the time that’s not triangulation. What is triangulation is if I said, “Can you believe what that do-and-so just said? Would you let him know that made my angry?” And what Jesus is counseling us to do is avoid triangulation. He’s telling us quite clearly that if one of us has an issue with another person, the way to handle it Christ-based respect is go to that person directly.
This is so important. Triangulation is deadly. Remember the telephone game? You may have played it in school, and it used to be done at those offsite teambuilding sessions we often had to go to. It’s a bit dated now, because of text messaging and email, but it’s still useful. The leader reads a short statement to somebody privately, and then that person tells the next person privately, and so on, without using paper. Everyone has to do it from memory. And then the last person says out loud what the original message was. When you compare it to the actual message written on the paper, sometimes it’s completely different! And even one iteration of the telephone game can cause the message to be distorted. Triangulating – passing messages through other people to the one intended to receive it – runs the incredible risk of not getting it right. It’s risky for both the sender as well as the receiver. What’s even worse is when it’s anonymous, when the initiator is not named and the receiver doesn’t exactly know who it is, although the person in the middle, the triangulator, sometimes does.
This first step that Jesus advices us to do when we feel hurt is so difficult. It’s really hard to go to another person directly and say that you’ve been hurt. We’re scared to offend the other, or that the relationship will end or that the fallout will be worse than the original hurt. And sometimes that happens. People don’t like being told they’ve hurt others or have screwed up in some way. But the truth of Christian community, although we often forget it, is that since we are already beloved children of God in Christ, then what others say and do ultimately doesn’t matter. Nothing you can say or do to me will affect my relationship with God. Nothing. That fact should free each of to be able to speak the truth to one another in love – always respecting the dignity of the other. But it also frees us to be able to hear what others have to say with equanimity as well.
And one more thing – our mutual relationships can never really be broken as long as we are in real communion with one another. If each of us is willing to continue to come to the Altar, then even when we’re angry or upset with one another, we are still ultimately bothers and sisters in Christ. Communion means “union with.” I’m certainly not suggesting that we just treat each other like dirt and then brush over it as the Communion rail. What I am saying is that the true reality of how and why we are together – because each if us in Christ and therefore brothers and sisters - is far far stronger than any reason in particular why we may feel our relationships are stretched. Of course we’re going to sin. Of course not everything is going to be peachy keen. During this time in the life of St. Thomas’s we are all working hard to help stabilize our common financial situation. There is a lot going on in a very limited timeframe this fall. I am one in particular who can so focus on a task at hand, that I often forget that it takes real people to accomplish things. People have feelings and it’s part of my duty as a Christian to remember that. And in fact, that’s everyone’s duty as followers of Christ. I hope that, when I fall into this old habit, that you will gently call me on it and do so directly, without triangulation. You can expect the same from me.
Ultimately, our relationships with each other are worth far more than the items we set out to accomplish. Of course, that cannot mean we just all sit around basking in Christian joy with each other. There’s work to be done and Good News to be shared, after all. But the Good News actually means is that we can, if we allow it, be free from the guilt and fear that characterize so many others kinds of relationships. Our communites, Jesus says to us, should be different.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t end there by reminding us not to triangulate, although if we remember that, the rest of what he says probably won’t be needed. If the person to whom you go to directly, without triangulating, listens to you, you have regained that person. But if not, take a few people along with and try again. This is important for two reasons. First, it’s possible the person you went to simply didn’t understand what you were saying. Sometimes that happens – we end up speaking past each other, not deliberately but because for whatever reason we just don’t get it. So bringing along someone else who might be able to explain using different language is simply respectful of the hearer. But there’s another reason. It’s possible that the perceived sin isn’t really a sin at all, but a mistake on the part of the one who felt hurt. That happens too. By asking that one or two others be brought along, we’re required to explain our case to others and receive some validation that we really do have a valid concern. It’s possible we don’t, and maybe weren’t able to see it at first. If you ever find yourself in this situation and need someone else to go along with you, feel free to call me. That’s part of why I am here.
See how relationships get continually built up in this process! First there’s the relationship between the one who was hurt and the one who sinned. Then there’s the relationship between the one who was hurt, and the witnesses and the witnesses and the one who sinned. Even in the midst of hurt and pain, if we observe the dignity of each person and keep relationships paramount, the community will continue to get built up! How amazing is that!
Jesus then suggests that, well if there is still an issue, then tell it to the church. Now this is something that in reality I’ve never observed and can’t imagine how often it happens or should happen. For the entire community to get involved is sort of the nuclear option, it seems to me. If I’ve got a beef with Sam, and I’ve gone to him privately and gone to him again with some others, and it’s so serious that it still hasn’t been resolved, to take the matter to the entire group will surely bend if not break some relationship bonds. I might interpret that to mean, in our case, the Executive Council, or something. Frankly, my prayer is that in our relationships with one another it never comes to that.
Finally, notice something else. Jesus says, well if nothing else has worked, then treat such a one as a Gentile and a tax collector. That sounds on its face that this is the means of excommunication. You get three tries and if, after three attempts, after all the validation that it is indeed a real issue, that no, the offender is not going to change or repent, then you get to kick her out, right? Gentiles and tax collectors weren’t part of the community, after all.
But I suggest that’s a bit simplistic. How does Jesus treat Gentiles? He healed the centurion’s slave boy and the Canaanite woman’s daughter after all. How about tax collectors? The very author of this Gospel was a tax collector and now revered as one of the Four Evangelists. How about that? Treating such a one as a Gentile or a tax collector means bringing the very grace and hospitality of Jesus himself to bear. It means eating and drinking and being in community and fellowship. Remember what Matthew told us in Chapter 13 a few Sundays ago in the parable of the weeds and the wheat? It’s not our place to decide ultimately who is a weed and who is wheat – let all grow together, Jesus reminds us, and let God figure it all out.
I have been harping on relationships this summer. Throughout the summer season the Offertory Sentence - that’s the invitation to offer up our gifts of time, talent, treasure in money, bread and wine – has been this: “If you are bringing your gift to the Altar and realize your sister or brother has something against you,, then leave your gift at the altar and go, first be reconciled to your sister or brother and then bring your gift.” For us Christians, walking way – simply breaking off the relationship – is quite frankly, never an option for us. Even after repeated attempts at reconciliation, we’re still to treat one who is unreconciled as a tax collector or a Gentile. Doing otherwise is an offense against the very Holy Communion we celebrate every Sunday. Our relationships one with another are grounded in the relationship each of us has with God first. Since God will never break his relationship with any of us, we are enjoined to the best of our ability to live out that same Good News and not do it either.
My sisters ands brothers, there is, I think, perhaps no harder work than being in Christian community. We’re going to screw up at times, and Jesus knows that. Particularly when much is at stake, like frankly it is right now in the life of our community, we may find ourselves seeing hurt where there is none or hurting others when that’s the last thing on our minds. We screw up, we confess that we have sinned, and we come to the Table to renew our communion with God and with each other. And we try as hard as we can until it happens again. But when we do, we have some maxims, some wise words, some proverbs - a command from the Lord himself really - imbued with a wisdom far greater than that of Poor Richard or any other earthly source:
“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.”
Here's a well-known anthem that goes excellently with today's reading from Romans:
Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.