There’s an old joke about church folks—actually, there’s lots of them, in varying degrees of appropriateness for telling from a pulpit…
but the joke about church folks that I’m thinking of goes like this:
There’s a castaway on a deserted island, who is saved by a passing ship. The captain of the ship and the castaway are on the deck, looking at the island one last time as they put to sea, and the captain asks the man, “Say, I thought you were stranded alone- why are there three huts on the beach?”
“Well,” the castaway replies, “that one there is my house, and that one there is where I go to church.”
“And the third one?” asked the skipper.
“Oh, that’s the church I USED to go to, until I got mad and left.”
Now, most jokes are funny because there is a grain of truth in them, and this one particularly so.
Most people who are around churches for any length of time know someone who has left a church in anger, and joined one down the street, or perhaps left church altogether.
Most people who have been in leadership in churches, whether as a clergy leader or a lay leader, even know of people who seem to need to move around a lot, and get angry so they can leave, because it’s easier to leave angry than to just leave.
Our own congregation here knows something about people leaving, having experienced it, both when a large group left in 2010, and when many more left slowly in the decade before that.
It’s a very painful thing, having people leave like that in anger; when I arrived in 2012, we were still reeling from that experience, and it had been two years.
So really, in a way it’s comforting to have Jesus talk about just that subject in today’s Gospel, because at least we get to hear Jesus talk about it; conflict in the church isn’t something new, some new-fangled problem we seem to have stumbled upon. This problem, conflict in the church, and people being hurt by that conflict (and sometimes choosing to leave because of it), is as old as Christianity itself.
In Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus is in the middle of talking about what life in the church is going to be like, talking about putting how we as disciples in the blessed community are meant to behave, not only toward the world, but toward each other. (And as a preview of coming attractions, next week it gets even harder; not only talking about how to deal with conflict, but how many times we are meant to forgive others when they hurt us. Tune in next week to see how our preacher gets out of THIS predicament!)
“If your brother or sister sins against you,” Jesus says, “go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ll have won over your brother or sister.” [i]
There’s a few things to unpack in this little sentence from Jesus: first, if your brother or sister sins against you. Our brothers and sisters in Christ, meaning our siblings in God, through baptism—our fellow members of Christ’s Body, the Church—when they sin against us, we should go to them, and talk to them in private, because if they listen, and we are reconciled, we will have won them over.
Jesus is talking here about sinning against each other, violating the Commandments, actually injuring each other-think, “If someone steals from you, or if someone cheats you out of something,” rather than “If you think that the new drapes in the office should be one color, and your sister or brother think that they should be another color.”
We’re talking about real sin here, when someone sins against you, go talk to them about it.
Some of you will have already heard this before from me, but sin, as it is used in the New Testament, is a term from athletics: when someone throws a javelin at a target and misses, that is “sin.”
The word feels different in that light, doesn’t it? To miss the mark, intentionally or unintentionally, or to use an old word in English, to err, to stray.
“Sin” is a heavy word; it carries a lot of baggage; when “sin” checks in at the hotel, the porters have to do a lot of work, lugging centuries and millennia of preconceived notions, and of defensiveness, and hurt, up to “sin’s” room.
And Jesus is dealing with those centuries of baggage now, too: when someone in the church sins against you, go talk to them, on your own, he says.
And if you don’t get through to them, take someone else with you, so someone (or some folks) can vouch for your story, and see if you can get through to your brother or sister.
Only then, if they STILL won’t listen, should you go to the whole church, and if they STILL WON’T LISTEN, then go to the next level,
treating them like a Gentile or a tax collector, (though he’s not very clear about what that actually means).
This is Jesus talking more about the Reign of God, about what the Kingdom of God looks like, and how the church is supposed to be
more like God’s kingdom now, today.
After all, this is hard, what Jesus asks us to do: When someone sins against you, to talk to them one-on-one, and make yourself vulnerable, and risk being hurt further by bringing it to that person.
This is a very uncomfortable thing; in fact, it’s much more comfortable, in many ways, to just get angry, and to feud with that person,
or fume in private, nursing a grudge that can grow, and grow, and grow; often, that feels much better than taking your hurt to the other person, because we get to feel righteous indignation; and righteous indignation is like bacon; it smells amazing, and can suck you in the minute you smell it-but it’s not great for our health; and if we eat that fatty, delicious treat too often, it will cause problems with our hearts, and can cause flare-ups out gout, so we can’t walk, and we can’t love, all because of bacon, that is, because of righteous indignation.
Instead, Jesus instructs us to talk it out with the other person, which is clearly the right thing to do, when we hear it, it’s obvious, but it’s hard, and it’s not delicious like bacon, it’s like carrots.
And nobody has ever said, “Oh my gosh, I smell carrots steaming! And ooh, what is that, brown rice? That smells AMAZING! I’M SO EXCITED!” (I need to confess that I got that joke from a comedian, Aziz Ansari, on Friday night, lest anyone give me more credit than I’m due, and also in the hopes that somehow he finds out someday that that bit made it into a sermon, which is, at the end of the day, pretty high praise.)
Carrots got nothing in the face of bacon; it’s like the most lopsided showdown ever. But that’s the deal with the Kingdom of God: God is asking us to treat each other differently than we’re used to treating each other.
If humanity had our way, we’d choose bacon every time, but the Church, Jesus tells us, doesn’t work that way.
Instead, we’re supposed to suck it up, and go to the person who hurt us, and love them, as Paul puts it in the letter to the Romans: “Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is what fulfills the law.”[ii]
The Kingdom of God doesn’t work the way the world does, and so the Church isn’t supposed to work the way that other human institutions do, either.
The Church isn’t a volunteer organization made up of like-minded individuals, who all agree on everything; the Church is the Body of Christ, and is a manifestation of the Kingdom of God made real here on earth; we are called today to reconcile when we hurt each other,
not to leave in anger and go find another church, or stop going to church at all.
When someone leaves in anger, it not only hurts them, sowing bitterness and despair in their hearts, but it also hurts the Church, and Christ himself, because death has dominion, and sin has victory: the Church carries the scars of centuries of anger, and hurt, and the people of the Church bear those scars, too, when we don’t acknowledge sin, and offer forgiveness.
Now I’m not suggesting that we should let bullies rule the day,
or that we should beat ourselves up for making mistakes;
I’m saying only that God and Jesus have a vision
for what the Kingdom of God looks like,
and how the Church addresses its problems,
which is different from what we as people
would likely choose given the opportunity.
We are called, as a church,
to reach out in love to everyone,
and to keep reaching out in love,
even when that love hurts,
even when that love is unrequited,
even when loving feels hopeless;
because that is makes room for God,
who can take our most sour and bitter lemons
and make amazing lemonade,
both in the hearts of those who have hurt us,
and in our own hearts, too.
It’s not easy,
loving each other the way Jesus and Paul tell us to
in our readings today,
and it’s frankly against our nature;
like that castaway on the desert island,
we sometimes need to have the church we belong to,
and the church we clearly don’t belong to.
But God has a deeper, fuller, richer life in store for us,
and we are called in that life to reconciliation,
to bringing our hurts to each other,
to risk being hurt further by being vulnerable,
and trusting Christ to be in the midst of it,
because whenever two or three are gathered in his name,
he’s there with them.
[i] Matthew 18:15, Common English Bible.
[ii] Romans 13:8, Common English Bible.