[Jesus said:] 15 “When 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. 16 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. 17 And 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. 18 “Very 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. 19 Again, very truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by God in heaven. 20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Please pray with me this morning, church:
Help us in the midst of heightened passions,
Of enflamed tensions, and difficult conversations.
Draw us together. Bind us up.
In your love, bind us to one another.
I am not the most graceful individual.
In fact, I’m straight up clumsy.
I run into things, I step on toes, I trip over my own feet…
And it was in one of those less graceful moments that I broke my first bone. It was in undergrad and we were playing sand volleyball. Fun, minimal contact, not a lot of opportunity for injury, you might think…and generally, you’d be right…but this is me we’re talking about…
I got started backpedaling for a ball that was headed over my head, got my feet tangled up, started to fall, and **crack**…
Painful. Searing pain in my foot.
I had a friend drive me over to our med center, got x-rays, saw the doctor.
“So…what happened?” she asked.
“Well, I was backpedaling for a ball that was going over my head. I guess my feet got tangled up, and I jammed my left heel into my right toes.”
“Yep…that would do it,” she said. “I’m sorry to tell you that you have a not very macho injury. The good news is, it’s not broken. The bad news is, it’s fractured. The worse news is that there’s not a whole lot you can do about it except to let it heal.”
“You’ve fractured your right pinky toe. And the only thing you can really do for it is to tape your pinky toe to your ring toe, and over time, it’ll heal back together.”
I told you…not at all grisly or even a tough and cool story. It’s like, the lamest injury ever.
A fractured pinky toe…
So they did what’s called buddy taping, and taped my pinky toe to my ring toe, and I just had to endure through that discomfort for a couple of months. Which kinda sucks when you’re in marching band and having to march games every Saturday with a fractured pinky toe and two toes taped together.
In this case, the best treatment for this injury is to join the two digits together…even forcefully…and let time and persistence heal the injured digit by being joined to a healthy and strong digit.
Enter our Gospel. These verses from Matthew 18 often get lumped together and characterized as Guidelines for Church Discipline. They’re actually in our congregational and the ELCA Model Constitution under that heading: Church Discipline. Essentially saying that these are the steps that should be taken in the event of disagreement in the church, or when, as verse 15 says, when one member of the body of Christ sins against another member of the body of Christ.
Which, as we all know, never happens…right…?
Of course not. The community of faith is no different than our other communities and social spheres in that way. The community of faith is made up of people, the church is the people, and any time you have people involved, there are going to be disagreements, there are going to be strong feelings, and there will be some uncharitable thoughts…and some of those thoughts are certainly within the realm of what we would consider to be sinning against one another, right?
These verses occur in the midst of a whole section of teaching focused on forgiveness. Jesus knows that any time there are people involved there will be disagreements, and strong feelings and emotions, and differing and opposing perspectives, and certainly some uncharitable thoughts. Jesus says, “When this occurs…go to that person 1-on-1. If they won’t listen to you, take another person with you. If they still won’t hear your grievance, take it to the church as a whole.” Run it up the flagpole, essentially.
But notice here that the point is not to expel that person or write them off or cut them out of your life. “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” And even if they won’t listen to the whole church, let them be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector…which sounds a lot like cutting them out of your life…until you remember how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors…
The goal, friends, is retention.
The goal is to live together in unity. Community. Amidst the divisions.
In this way, these verses aren’t about disciplining members of the body of Christ, but rather, what reconciliation looks like in the body of Christ. These verses aren’t a model for reproving one another, but rather how do we retain our relationships with one another amidst our disagreements and differing perspectives, and uncharitable thoughts.
Which is a really important thing in these times we’re in, church.
In the midst of a pandemic. In the midst of an election season. In the midst of so much stress and anxiety and pain…
Friends, you need to know…this is only going to get worse over the next 2 months. This division you’re feeling…that I’m feeling…it’s only going to ramp up. And become stronger. And more divisive.
And so we need to talk about reconciliation. About living together…well…amidst our differences.
Facebook introduced a new feature a few months ago. It’s called the snooze button. You can snooze anyone on your timeline for 30 days, and you don’t see their posts. You can also unfollow someone and you won’t see any of their posts ever. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve used this feature on some of my friends. It’s just good for my mental health. We can have our disagreements, but we need to be able to hold them well. We need to be able to talk about them.
My hope is still for a reconciled relationship, which really only comes through addressing the issues and having difficult conversations, but I’m just not so sure Facebook is the best venue for those. The church, on the other hand…a place where we all agree about a few central tenets…namely, God’s love for all of God’s creation, God’s grace given freely to you and me who are undeserving, and lastly, I firmly believe, we agree about our love for each other. At church, I don’t distrust your motivations or your feelings about me. I hope and I trust that you care for me and you love me and you want what’s best for me…just as I hope you trust those same things for yourself from me.
I believe that church is where we can have these difficult conversations because we trust that our relationships are built on love and care for one another.
We may not agree, but we can still live reconciled to one another amidst our divisions.
And especially in these times, we must always be reminding ourselves that God’s hope and God’s vision is for a reconciled world.
Which does not mean that everyone thinks the same way. But it does mean that God’s justice reigns and our love for one another remains the thing that draws us together amidst our differences.
And I think that’s really important to hear and to learn: The aim of the community of faith is reconciliation amidst differences.
And this is fundamentally different than what we experience in our world. And this makes what happens at church almost entirely opposed to our experiences elsewhere in the world. In every other aspect of our lives we experience division and vitriol and hatred…but the church—the community of faith—seeks to live well together amidst our differences.
The church doesn’t gloss over our differences…we aren’t the same. But the church should seek to find understanding within the myriad issues we’re confronted with.
That said, in some cases, agreeing to disagree is not the answer either. The community of faith is called to find understanding and find common ground. And as much as reconciliation is the goal, agreeing to disagree isn’t what we’re after. We’re seeking understanding.
There are times, particularly instances of injustice, where the church is called, and I believe where the church should, have an opinion and take a stance.
God is not without opinion in situations of injustice.
Check me on that. Read the Scriptures.
Every time, without question.
I want to say that again, and more clearly:
God is not without opinion in situations of injustice.
God is not without opinion on the oppression of God’s people.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God uses the prophets to tell God’s people the difficult truth. God tells Ezekiel this morning, “Your responsibility is to tell my people of their wickedness and unless they change, they will die in their sinfulness.
Imagine how Ezekiel felt. Imagine how many of the prophets felt.
“Prophets are never welcomed in their hometown…” Remember Jesus’ words? Telling the truth isn’t received well. Especially when the truth is difficult to hear.
The prophet’s words are challenging. They make you uncomfortable. You disagree with them. You shut them off and tune them out. You refuse to hear what they want to tell you.
And…as I remember and reflect on my Ordination 4 years ago this past Thursday, I remember that I was charged—as we all are in our baptism—to work and strive for God’s justice in the world. I was called to preach the Gospel and to feed God’s people with God’s word of truth and justice.
God is not without opinion in situations of injustice.
God takes sides.
In situations of injustice, God absolutely takes sides.
This is difficult to hear…I realize…but I want to suggest that following God, following Jesus, isn’t a one way or the other…right? It isn’t a left or a right. It isn’t this way against that way… I believe that following Jesus and following God is a third way…a way that stands apart from the dichotomies we’re so used to.
So often we think that those who don’t believe like us are against us… “If you’re not with me, you’re against me” right? We know that kind of “us” vs. “them” language. We know that kind of divisiveness.
But in Mark and Luke, Jesus says to the disciples, “Whoever isn’t against you is for you.” Jesus rejects this idea of “us” vs. “them” and says, “You have more in common than you seem to think.”
I think the church is a place where we can uncover that commonality.
We’ll have to dig for it…it will take tough work and difficult conversations, but I believe it will be worth it.
I believe the church is a place where our broken and fractured parts can be bound up together in love, and through persistence and difficult work, where healing can happen.
Whatever you bind upon earth is bound up in heaven.
And where 2 or 3—especially broken members—are gathered together in Christ’s name…Christ, the great healer and great physician, is there among us.