Trinity, Yazoo City, MS—Matthew 18:15-20, Romans 13:8-14, Ezekiel 33:7-11
In these days of sophisticated practices around human resources, when someone quits a job, or sometimes even when they’re fired, they’re often asked to participate in something called an exit interview. The employer wants some feedback. What’s it like to work at that place? What do they do well? What could they do better. That sort of thing.
Now, people leave church congregations all the time, I’m sorry to say. Of course, it’s pretty rare for someone to get “fired” from a church—as a parishioner, that is. But people certainly “resign” in a fairly steady stream, for all sorts of reasons, sometimes loudly and sometimes quietly. Yet, churches don’t do exit interviews, do they? Many would say that we should, but we don’t. But if we did, if churches did do exit interviews, what would we hear from those who are on their way out the back door?
Well, a few would certainly mention stuff like music or preaching or other details of worship. People do leave churches over those kinds of concerns. But thirty years of pastoral ministry tell me that the vast majority would cite a broken relationship—perhaps with the pastor, but more often with a fellow parishioner—as their reason for leaving.
Relationships are important. Having a community to which we know we deeply belong is hugely important. People in our society are hungry for it. And, it’s important for the witness of the gospel to the world; the good news we proclaim is about transcending deep differences of race and ethnicity, deep differences of culture and education, deep differences in economic status. And how do we transcend these profound differences? We don’t, but God does, by making us one in his Son, one in Christ. And this is a really big deal, not only for us, because we get to be made one in Christ, but it’s also a big deal for the world around us, because it’s what establishes our credibility. It is our community life as Christians that makes or breaks our credibility in the world’s eyes. It’s really Job #One for us. If we can’t be reconciled with one another, how can we proclaim to the world that we have been given the ministry of reconciliation?
But maintaining relationships and living in community put us in an emotionally very vulnerable position. We are all flawed, sinful human beings. We say things and do things that hurt other people—sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. We criticize, we judge, we demean, we exploit, we take for granted, we manipulate. All of us are perpetrators of these acts, and all of us are victims of them. Even within the community of the church, the family of the church, we behave this way, and we experience others behaving this way.
Jesus comes to us today with a clear set of instructions about how to deal with this sort of thing, how to deal with the fact that we offend and hurt one another in our life together. If you think someone in the church has behaved badly toward you, don’t just stew about it, don’t just gossip about it, go to that person and tell them. Now, you don’t need to be a jerk; you can be respectful and polite. But say something. It could be that they’ll go, “Thanks, I needed that.” Think how much better you’ll feel then. (I’m paraphrasing a bit, I realize.) But if they blow you off, go back, and this time take a couple of others with you, so that there are witnesses, at least, and maybe one of them will be able to get through where you couldn’t. Well, if they still blow you off, then, and only then, go public. Call them out. Let the entire church community rise to the occasion and have the guts to exercise some discipline toward one among them who is behaving badly.
There’s a famous line from a famous book by an Anglican liturgical scholar about the command of our Lord at the Last Supper to “Do this in remembrance of me.” The author asks, “Was ever another command so obeyed,” and then proceeds, with great eloquence, covering about a half page in one sentence, he proceeds to catalog the various circumstances and ways the Eucharist has been celebrated over the last 2000 years. Whenever I encounter this gospel text from Matthew 18, I feel like turning that quote on its head: “Was ever another command so disobeyed?” I mean, really … honestly … who does this?! Have you ever seen it done that way, with all three steps, resulting in some sort of discipline? I haven’t. Certainly not in the Episcopal Church, at least. I’ve heard about it in groups like the Amish, but not among mainstream Christians.
Why is this? Why do we not follow this clear counsel from the one whom we call Lord? There are probably lots of reasons, but mostly I think it’s because we’re frightened. To obey this command is very risky. It puts us in harm’s way. Not only did we suffer the original offense, but now we subject ourselves to even more offenses as a result of following this process. So, we know what we should do, but we’re afraid to do it. Where can we turn?
Well, no lesser light than St Paul comes to our rescue in the thirteenth chapter of his letter to the Christian community in Rome:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
There’s a song that says, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” right? Well, love is the sugar that makes the medicine of discipline go down. Christian discipline is not Christian discipline apart from the context, the environment, the “operating system,” if you will, of love. It is the bonds of love, and only the bonds of love, that enable us to effectively speak difficult truth in the way that Jesus invites us to. Love is what makes us feel safe in doing so. And love is what makes us effective in doing so.
We’re talking here, certainly, about God’s love for us. God loves each of us individually and infinitely. We are all, whoever we are, as the Sunday School song says, “precious in his sight.” And we love God because God first loved us. God’s love for us precedes our love for anyone else. But we’re also talking about the mutual love that exists among the community of the baptized. In the font, we are marked as Christ’s own forever, and we immediately become siblings—brothers and sisters—with everyone else who bears that mark of Christ. We are to love all people as our neighbors, of course, but it is our particular privilege to love other members of the household of faith.
Love not only liberates and empowers us to do the difficult work of reconciliation and restoration, but, on occasion, constrains us to do so. Did you pay attention to that reading from Ezekiel? It’s a little scary, actually. Translating the Old Testament context to a Christian one: If you see another member of the church engaging in bad behavior, and you warn them, and they go on with it anyway, then the consequences are on them. But if you see it, and you don’t warn them, and they suffer the consequences, then it’s on you. Their blood is on your hands. And if you warn them, and they mend their ways, then you have brought blessing on yourself.
Judgment and discipline are always oriented toward reconciliation and restoration. The process and act of judgment is bogus if it is not bounded on all sides by love, both God’s love and human love that is like God’s love.
Will any of what I’ve said make a difference in the way the people, the community, of Trinity Church in Yazoo City respond when, inevitably, one of you says or does something that is hurtful to another one of you? I don’t know. Like I said, was ever another command so disobeyed? I must confess what is probably a sinful degree of pessimism about this, not just at Trinity Church, of course, but anywhere that Christians congregate. But, it’s all about baby steps, right? If there’s one situation in this parish that gets dealt with in a healthier way because of the time we’ve spent together in Matthew’s gospel, then … praise the Lord! And just imagine the impact it would make in the world if we actually did begin to live this way. Amen.