Communities of Reconciliation [Proper 18A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 18:15-20

Communities of Reconciliation

It is not uncommon for one to long for an earlier age.  We have all heard it, I'm sure: that sweet nostalgia for the simpler days of the 1950's, for example – with its slower pace of life, rudimentary technology, clean-cut television families, packed churches, and mama's good ol' home cookin'.  And with that earlier age, those kinder, gentler, friendlier people, those Mayberry people.  The good old days. 

There is always some truth in the nostalgia – lazy Sunday afternoons were actually a thing 60 years ago and no one walked around with a computer in their pocket, there were no answering machines or voice mail and it took like a week to send someone a message and maybe week to get a response.  There are days when all of that sounds amazing.  But also the past is seldom as simple as it is remembered.  The 1950's in our country were certainly not the good-old-days for everyone; for black people, or for driven, career-minded women, or for gays and lesbians the 1950's were rough.  It can be easy to forget that for some folks the golden age does not reside in the past.

But this tendency to long for an idealized past is not new to our time.  The people of the 1950's probably longed for the romance of the 20's or the simplicity and innocence that existed before the World Wars.  And it's not just cultural; throughout Church history church people have looked back in time with a certain desperation – longing for those good old days. 

Many mainline churches today, Episcopal Churches, Lutheran Churches, United Methodist Churches, look back to the golden age of the 1950's and 60's.  Folks remember the full pews and the multiple Sunday School classes and the dearly beloved Pastor who led the church through those years of prosperity.  And they sigh.  And they long for what was.  It was the same thing during the Reformation and the Middle Ages and even in those earlier days, when the Church transitioned from persecuted to powerful: folks were always looking back to the time when the Church was something else, something better – when there was more purity, more money, more people, more power, or more freedom.  And always, as with any nostalgic longing, what made the old days better was the people; they were so much better back then – true saints: fitter, healthier, more productive, kinder, gentler, more faithful and more dedicated, than these people.

But of course it is not really that simple.  Unfortunately, in every age, in every situation, the Church has always been a collection of people just like these people – not really better, not really worse.  This, my friends, is as good as it gets.

In fact, if there was the one time in the history of the Church for which nostalgia might be understandable, it would seem that the time of Jesus and his disciples would be that golden age – just so pure and fresh and innocent.  Turns out, however, the disciples: they are just like us too.

We get today's Gospel passage, these instructions from Jesus, because they were necessary.  It is not hard to read between the lines.  This Gospel is the response to an inevitable situation: conflict.  Jesus, and the Gospel writer, are pretty realistic about the early Church.  They were honest.  The people who first followed Jesus, who risked their lives for the Christ and his kingdom, who form the foundation of the Church, upon whose shoulders we still stand, they are people – as flawed and disagreeable and sinful and as prone to conflict as are we.

And so today, we get for our Gospel reading Jesus' practical instructions to his disciples and to the early Church.  We don’t get many practical instructions from Jesus in the Gospel.  And the ones we get, these instructions, do not concern liturgical practice or organizational policies.  Jesus is talking about conflict – conflict in the Church, if you can imagine that.

They are pretty clear step-by-step directions.  In fact, Jesus is not often this straightforward.  Instead of a parable or a story or a complex theological monologue, Jesus gives his disciples a list: First this, then that, if that doesn't work, then do this, and if all else fails, do that.  Step by step.

Now one could argue whether these instructions should still be applied one-size-fits-all to every Church conflict.  A lot has changed over the past 2000 years.  Christianity has grown from being a small Jewish sect looked upon with suspicion by mainstream Judaism and the Roman authorities to the most dominant religion in the world.  During the first century following Jesus was a huge risk; Christians literally took up their crosses and literally died a death like his.  But in our country, Christians occupy the most powerful positions; our religious holy days are national holidays.  In the early Church most towns or cities had one church, one Christian community.  There was nowhere else to go if you didn't like the pastor or had a conflict with another member; you had to work it out.  Now you can church shop until you find a group of Christians that agrees with all of your weird opinions.  Times have changed.

And so Jesus' instructions, like pretty much every 2000 year-old text, should be read thoughtfully, not always literally.  There are times when it is better for the Church to not do what Jesus says in today’s passage – as weird as that sounds.  For example, if a priest has abused a woman or a child, and sadly there are way too many examples of that, the victim should not go to the abuser one on one, should not meet alone, as the text instructs.  Recently it was revealed that a prominent 20th Century Christian theologian had been accused by many women of sexual misconduct over a number of years.  He dismissed the accusations because his victims did not meet to talk with him in private, because they did not take this passage literally.     

Much more important than the actual procedure, is the intent of Jesus' teaching in today’s Gospel.  At the heart of Jesus' teaching is love – love expressed in truth-telling and forgiveness.  The ultimate goal is always reconciliation.    

The Christians who make up this community, who make up St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, are not perfect.  I hope I'm not scaring off any newcomers, but it is true.  These people have their issues.  God still has work to do with us.  And that's OK.  We can be honest about that – honest with ourselves and with each other.  There is anger out there and selfishness and racism and sexism.  There is greed and pride.  Sometimes folks even gossip.  And because we are sinful and imperfect, there is also conflict – conflict in the Church, if you can imagine that. 

Of course, we’re not proud of our flaws.  But our flaws put us in good company – the company of every Christian community that has ever existed, all the way back to the time of Jesus.  In fact, in the passage immediately preceding today’s Gospel, the disciples were in conflict - arguing about which of them was the greatest.  Jesus’ instructions in the Gospel are about telling the truth, bringing the stuff into the light.  When sin is exposed to the light of Christ it loses its power.  When we allow it to hide, sweep it under the rug, then it becomes strong enough to destroy.  Jesus knows that.  That is why we have today's Gospel reading.

But simply confronting sin in the lives of our brothers and sisters, in the life of the larger parish community, is not the answer.  Intention is everything.  Not too many people enjoy conflict, but some do thrive on it.  Jesus is not asking the most aggressive, outspoken members of the Christian community to go around cutting people down to size.  NT Wright rightly says, “[C]onfrontation that does not aim at reconciliation is worse than useless.”[1]  The confrontation can easily become as destructive as the sin being confronted. 

Sin is not healed by accusation.  “Sin is healed by solidarity.”[2]  This Gospel is about healing the Church.  Becoming communities of reconciliation in a broken world.  And it won’t happen because of a good plan or clear instructions.  Only love can make it happen.  It is about loving someone enough to confront them when necessary.  It is about loving someone enough to listen, really listen, when they confront you.  It is about loving someone enough to forgive them, and to receive their forgiveness.  It is about looking honestly at the flaws and choosing love.

There is an old story from the age of the Desert Fathers; it goes like this: “Some men came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘We see some of the brothers falling asleep during divine worship. Should we wake them up?’ He said, ‘As for me, when I see a brother who is falling asleep during the Office, I lay his head on my knees and let him rest.”[3]

It is the Church: two thousand years of imperfect people, leaning on each other.  Looking honestly at the flaws and choosing love. 

[1]   Twelve Months of Sundays, 102.

[2] Where God Happens, 31.
[3] Ibid, 21.