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Why Two or Three are Gathered
Matthew 18:15-20…Proper 18A
Four or five years ago, before the last presidential election, it seemed that the political climate was becoming more divisive than it had been since the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Things got much worse after the election, and they haven’t gotten better.
A colleague and I tried to do something about it in early 2017. We formed a group we called “Knock Knock,” because we wanted to remember that “Who’s there?” is more important than our different opinions. That people matter more than anything else.
It was hard. We laid down ground rules for discussing the issues in our nation. We committed ourselves to listening well to each other’s stories. Sometimes it was excruciating to follow those rules and not start arguing.
Our group is no longer active, but not much has changed in the public square. We are deeply troubled by the divisiveness in our country. Add to that the anxiety of a pandemic, and the needle goes to the red zone.
We feel helpless, unable to see any end to the argument that can even lead to violence. Are there any answers that will help us unite again as a country?
Today’s gospel lesson reminds us that there actually is an answer. It isn’t an easy fix, but the message is clear: here is how you handle broken relationships. You do the hard work of love.
I know that it isn’t that simple, and Congress is not likely to respond to a reading of Matthew 18 with instant remorse and reform.
But we aren’t the Congress.
We are the church.
Jesus knew that we would have trouble getting along and working together as his spiritual body on earth. We find unity difficult to maintain, because we are human, and we naturally say and do things that hurt one another. Our life experiences create different perspectives. Jesus addressed the problem by telling us not to avoid confronting the problems as we want to do. He told us to keep at it, to make our bonds strong even when it is very hard.
In other words, Jesus depended on us to show the world what love looks like. To demonstrate that we truly can work together even after we have mistreated one another. The next part of Matthew 18 has Peter asking Jesus about forgiveness. Jesus explains that our forgiveness for each other can never top God’s mercy toward us. We must not run out of forgiveness for each other.
So, Jesus says that if someone offends us, it is our responsibility to go to them and call them to account. I’ll bet that’s not your first reaction. It’s not mine. Well, I take that back. My instinct is kind of like that. I want to go and tell them off, and I’ll practice five different ways to do it as I’m running my errands or cooking supper. Instinct would have us react by playing that little game of avoiding each other, or ripping each other to shreds in our separate coffee groups.
Jesus teaches us to change the way we respond to offense. His first instinct is restoration. He is describing a community in which the ties that bind us together are stronger than the issues that divide us. Church is a safe place where we are called to be genuine, a place where we will not be ridiculed or ostracized if our real selves are unpolished or broken or repulsive. It is a community of people who encourage us to face our sin and to move beyond it to follow Jesus. Here we do not shrink from the hard work of accountability, and forgiveness, and new beginnings. In the church we hold our pride loosely, and instead use our strength to forge our fellowship, our friendship with one another.
Did you notice? Jesus repeats here those words that he used with Peter about the keys of the kingdom—whatever you bind here will be bound in heaven, and what you loose here, same in heaven. Last week we emphasized the loosing. Let go your hold on your possessions, ambitions and pride, so you can take up your cross and Jesus. Today we need to think of the binding that characterizes the community of faith, the church.
Jesus asks us not to avoid dealing with our conflicts. Avoidance only lets resentment go underground and forces us to pretend all is well. It keeps our relationships shallow, when they are meant to be deep and life-giving.
He reminds us that what we say and do to each other matters, but not in the sense of keeping a tally of wrongs. That never leads to life. We are going to make mistakes, but we face them with love and mercy toward one another, and in doing that we find a much deeper trust and commitment with each other.
Most of us are terrified of confronting someone like this. That is why we need each other’s help. I experienced that encouragement last week.
I was in a Zoom meeting doing work with colleagues from our synod, when someone brought up concerns about our group that she thought we need to address. In her explanation, she used my name. She didn’t make an accusation, but it stung anyway. After the meeting, another colleague checked in with me to see if I was okay. I admitted that I felt hurt, but I knew I would need to contact the other person to discuss her concerns. I was encouraged to wait a few days before making that call.
It reminded me that I have learned not to be hasty in such situations. So I did wait, and pray. I found that the resentment and defensiveness was gradually replaced by curiosity and love. I waited for the right moment when I would feel at peace, ready to call my colleague.
As it turned out, she called me. We had a long, productive, loving conversation. I was able to hear what she had to say, and we ended up making plans for our group that will help us move forward. I realized that she used my name in the group, because I am the one she knows bets, and she felt she could take that risk because we have a history together.
I can avoid conflict as easily as anybody else, and I have had my share of tasting shoe leather from putting my foot in my mouth. But this time, it was an experience of grace, learning the deep wisdom of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18.
This is often called a teaching about church discipline, but it is not as much about disciplining one another as it is disciplining ourselves. Being obedient to Jesus even when it is tough to do. Together we rely on the power of the Holy Spirit, which is another name for that lifeblood of love that we get from Jesus, to be the community that the church was created to be.
“Our life together is the chief means God has chosen for being with us…it is the place where we come to know God or to flee from God’s presence, depending upon how we come to know or flee from one another.”[i] The world needs to see in us that love is possible!
We come to this place, we gather here because this is a sanctuary. It is a safe place, where we know we are deeply loved, and we can’t help but worship the God who loves us like that. It is a place where we can be ourselves and let everyone else be themselves, and extend forgiveness and tolerance to one another because we ourselves are forgiven and loved beyond this life and this space.
We are willing to suffer for that love, and suffer for each other’s sake, because all of us are held in God’s great love shown to us in the cross of Jesus Christ. We are bound together by cords of love that Jesus fashioned. Where two or three are gathered in his name, he is here among us, suffering with us, doing the hard things with us, so that we can know his love fully and spend our lives exploring its dimensions together. Thanks be to God.
[i] Taylor, Barbara Brown, 2004. Seeds of Heaven. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), p. 89