15 Pentecost, Proper 18 – September 10, 2023
Matthew 18:15-20

         “We need to talk.”  How do you feel when someone says these four words to you?  “We need to talk”.  What happens in your body when you hear them?

Most of the time, if another person approaches us with those words, they’re not saying they want to chat about the weather, or relive highlights from yesterday’s football game, or share the latest celebrity gossip.  They’re saying, “Something is broken between us, and we need to sort it out.”

So rules or relationships? What is more important to you? Rules or relationships? In our gospel today, Jesus speaks to the challenge and the wonder of being in community. He recognizes that being his follower, being part of his body, will not relieve us of brokenness. Jesus is clear that being Christian doesn’t mean avoiding conflict, and that discord should not be allowed to fester and infect the entire body. He lays out a plan that requires his followers to engage a brother or sister who has done harm. His plan is one that seeks to preserve the dignity of the one perceived to have done wrong and to restore his or her relationship with the community.

Debi Thomas shares that she grew up in a Christian community “that was spectacularly bad at handling “We need to talk” moments.  If a conflict arose between members of the church, we did our best to shove it under the rug.  Often, we gossiped about it.  Or played passive-aggressive games to manage our discomfort.  Or took sides in ways that intensified the problem.  Or weaponized our silences to intimidate each other. Sometimes, if all other tactics failed, we abandoned the community altogether, and joined another”.

In our Gospel today, Jesus offers us a radically different path.  In fact, he doesn’t just offer it; he tells us plainly that the way we conduct relationships here and now has direct consequences for God’s coming kingdom: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  In other words, the depth, health, and quality of our relationships within the church really matter.  They matter eternally.

Of course, relationships take work to maintain and community is harder to forge and nurture than we might imagine. Because – think about it – going to someone with your concern or grievance is a lot harder than talking behind his or her back. Bringing others to listen closely to what is said takes a lot more courage than posting something on Facebook. And working out disputes as a community together rather than simply dispensing judgment can be really, really hard.

Jesus’ blueprint for dealing with conflict is an ambitious one. It places a lot of trust in a church’s ability to discern what constitutes a sin and to deal with one another in ways that are both forthright and loving. Can you appreciate that he thought his followers could be this mature?

To engage one another in the way that Jesus describes in today’s gospel poses challenges on several fronts, not the least of which is that we don’t always agree on what constitutes a sin. For another, we each have our own sins to reckon with, and times when we act out of our brokenness rather than our lovingness. It’s often so much easier to point toward what we see as sinful in another’s life than to deal with the ways that we ourselves bring harm to the body of Christ. Jesus knows this, too. It wasn’t so many chapters ago that he said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7.3)

You know, some people have an amazing ability to remember the slightest offense done to them, the less-than-redemptive remark, the tiniest snub. They let it fester in their souls until it just gnaws away at their hearts, and little is left but resentment and anger and a really terrible case of heartburn. But in the end, especially as far as the kingdom of heaven is concerned, “in the light of eternity”, the only thing that matters is not what’s been said or who got the short end of the stick. The only thing of consequence is relationship.

In his book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, draws a stark picture of hell. Hell is like a great, vast city, Lewis says, a city inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle. These houses in the middle are empty because everyone who once lived there has quarreled with the neighbors and moved. Then, they quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving the streets and the houses of their old neighborhoods empty and barren.

That, Lewis says, is how hell has gotten so large. It is empty at its center and inhabited only at the outer edges, because everyone chose distance instead of honest confrontation when it came to dealing with their relationships.

“Look, she’s the one who said that about me. Let her come and apologize!”
“We may go to the same church, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got to share a pew with that so-and-so!”
“It’ll be a cold day in July before I accept his apology.”

That’s all well and good, I suppose… if you don’t mind living in hell.

Are we really so willing to give up our relationships with others – relationships that have come about and been forged by our desire to follow Jesus? Nowhere, and I do mean nowhere, in the New Testament gospels will you find Jesus saying that the first order of things is always to be right. But he does have a great deal to say about forgiveness, about relationship, about reconciliation, about service and humility and vulnerability.

Jesus tells us that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”.  It appears that a lot of what happens goes on without thinking about Jesus’ words at all — either intentionally ignoring them or choosing ambivalence. We assume them rather than rely on them. We take them for granted rather than ask ourselves, what difference does it make that Jesus is in the midst of everything we do as a community of faith? Everything we talk about? Every decision we make? Maybe our mantra should not just be, “What Would Jesus Do?” – remember that one – but  “What Would Jesus Hear?” “What Would Jesus Think?”

Engaging one another around the most difficult challenges of being together means that we have to know each other. It compels us to see one another with a clarity by which we not only recognize one another’s shortcomings but also know each other’s stories. This clarity grows elusive in a culture where face-to-face connections are becoming more difficult to form and maintain. It requires effort and intention to seek and sustain such seeing. Healthy community reminds us what is possible among people who know one another well, who know the questions to ask, who know how to challenge and sustain and accompany and love one another into being.

Jesus recognized the power of this kind of knowing. For all the challenges of conflict in a community, the power of concord is stronger. Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Where we find a place of connection amid conflict, where we gather in the name of the one who calls us to be his body, where we give ourselves to knowing one another: that is not only astounding, it is a miracle that moves heaven and earth.

Jesus underscores this by telling his followers what he has recently told Peter: that what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Jesus’ phrase about binding and loosing come from the rabbinic tradition, in which rabbis had the power to discern whether a questionable action would be permitted under the law. Yet in the context of this passage about our life together as followers of Christ, his words about binding and loosing prompt us to ponder what connects us, those threads that seem so strong and slack by turns. In Jane Hirshfield’s poem “For What Binds Us” she describes the scars that grow from our loving of one another, how those scars become cords that create “a single fabric that nothing can tear or mend.”

So, on this September day, what binds you? What holds you together with others? What do you fashion from the scars you carry? What do you long for in your relationships? What are you willing to do to find or create it? Who can help?

Make no mistake, authentic community is hard. But also powerful. And healing. And a tremendous witness. It’s a lot of work, to be sure, but also worth it. Always.   Amen.