"Whatever you loose on earth"-A Sermon for Proper 18, Matthew 18:15-20
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus sort of lays out for us a game plan, if you will, for dealing with disagreement or conflict between individuals sharing a community…a community of faith in particular. And, indeed, I believe there is much wisdom in the sort of formula that Jesus sets out for us in Matthew. In fact, as this gospel reading remains an enduring part of our Sunday lectionary, which sets out our bible readings for worship each week, we necessarily revisit this teaching of Jesus’ as a church every 3 year…and that is likely good for our own souls and good for our shared-life together. In fact, I have followed Jesus’ advice, the particular advice in this passage, on many an occasion in the past 21 years of lay and ordained ministry. I have entered this process or some form of it even with some of you…when we have been in disagreement or when conflicts have arisen between members of this family of faith. For the one thing, I can say with certainty is that if we are being the church…if we are struggling to live lovingly and faithfully with one another…there will be disagreements…there will be conflict…and, from time to time, we will even hurt each other. I have never been a part of a Christian community that hasn’t had experiences of interpersonal conflict…they are totally normal…just as in friendship and marriage…and often they are even a sign that we care…that we care deeply about each other…care about this community we call St. Julian’s…and care passionately about the things we do together, and, maybe more importantly, the things we stand for and value most dearly. And I say this, just because it’s true, I actually believe we do this important and Godly work well at St. Julian’s…not perfectly…but well. We have as a core value, identified from our very beginning, that says we will negotiate our difference with mutual love and respect…and we often have…which I believe is, in part, why we have thrived.
For I am telling you…that how a community deals with disagreement and conflict…with hurts and wounds…says more about the character of its soul…than just about anything else. Way more so, in my opinion, than say its precision in worship or number of ministries or average Sunday attendance or size of its Sunday school or dollars in the bank…or any other way you might judge the vitality of a community of faith. For I really believe that our love for one another is perhaps most well demonstrated in our willingness and ability to argue well with each other, disagree respectfully with each other, work out our difference with each other, to acknowledge when we have been hurtful…and seek and give forgiveness. I often share with couples becoming married, something a wise priest once said to me…he said the three most important words in any marriage are “I am sorry”. But I always add this addendum…three more words…which are “You are forgiven”. For all six words must be shared and meant…for two people to really reconnect. To move past the hurt and pain into a new life together…that may indeed be different than how the relationship was before…but with healing…with a deeper appreciation and understanding of each other…dare I say…perhaps even more in love with each other…more committed to each other.
I often remind us of our vision statement, which reads, “Growing in relationship, Loving all well, and Seeking Intimacy with Christ”. And I have also often reminded us that this comes from Julian’s own writing in her great mystical work, “Revelations of Divine Love.” Specifically, she asks God for three wounds…which I think in medieval language means three things felt deep within ourselves…felt with our whole selves…hearts, bodies and minds. In particular, she writes, “O God, please give me three wounds: the wound of contrition, and the wound of compassion, and the wound of longing after God. This I ask without condition." And you see that as this becomes our own vision statement that the second and third wounds she requests…we haven’t changed much…the word compassion that she uses becomes in our vision statement love and the word longing becomes seeking intimacy…otherwise they are quite similar…but the first is a little different. The wound Julian requests is contrition. Ours is growing in relationship…and the reason for this shift is that, in my mind, contrition is at the heart of relationship. If we are to grow into the people God is calling us individually to be…if we are to become more and more the community God is calling us to be together…a community full of healthy and ever-growing relationships…we must have contrite hearts. That is hearts that are soft…that really feel…that are vulnerable enough to let the other in…that are self-aware enough to know when we have hurt one another…and that then diligently desire reconciliation…people who will say I am sorry…and you are forgiven…and mean it. In doing so, our own lives and the life we share together begin to look like an Easter life. Resurrection becomes a lived experience…as relationships are restored…brought back to life…a whole new life…a more fully alive sort of life.
For here’s the thing…again I really believe…that conflict…even, usually unintentionally, hurting one another…is a given. We are humans living after Eden…our beauty and giftedness will always be co-mingled with our imperfections and self-interest. We cannot magically choose to always agree and always put others before ourselves…but we can try…we can try to put our best foot forward…we can be intentionally working on ourselves spiritually and emotionally to become just a little more the people God has made us to be…and most importantly…and I suppose this is my point…we can choose what comes next…after the hurt…after the temper has been lost…after the disagreement erupts. And this my friends to badly paraphrase Jesus…this is how the world will know that we are followers of Jesus…in how we love one another…particularly when it’s hard, when it hurts, when we have really made a poor choice.
Now the formula that Jesus lays out today specifically for seeking reconciliation is as I began helpful and instructive…in this good and hard work we are called into together. Nonetheless, I think it is a more of a model for us to explore and adapt than a one size fits all road map for conflict resolution…for no two conflicts, wounds or disagreements are the same. Each requires its own pastoral approach. Confidentiality is a must, respect is essential, vulnerability is required, the truth matters…but it must be spoken in love. So here are two things I think we can take away from Jesus’ process that are always essential. And the first is that conflict and disagreement must be addressed. It is not good enough, no matter how positive our intentions, to sweep things under the rug. The word resentment literally means to feel again. Like a scab continually and painfully ripped off before a wound heals…resentment allows our hurt…our conflicts to fester, to even deepen, and to never fully heal. Unresolved conflict always rears its head in ever more destructive ways…for both the individuals involved and the community in which they live together. So, Jesus is saying to us today when we find ourselves hurt, disagreeing or in conflict…if you want to stick together…if you love the community you are a part of and want to thrive…reconciliation…finding a way forward to respectfully live together…to work together for the greater good…must be entered into…there is no other option…or certainly no better option. The work is hard…but life giving…again Easter-ish sort of work. And your own health and happiness is not all that is on the line here. For our vitality as a community of the whole is built upon a foundation…which is nothing less than the individual relationships we share in this place. How we love each other…matters for everyone. And I think further that we can say that the first step Jesus lays out is at least the first step in any process of meaningful reconciliation and perhaps the hardest…that we pick up the phone or schedule a coffee…or whatever…and get together…and share honestly and lovingly…the very thing on our heart…the pain…the wound…the opinion…whatever it is that wells us…whatever it is that is at the heart of the conflict…and do so lovingly…really listening to the other…assuming the other person is doing the very best that they can…seeking together a Godly way forward…courageously saying and meaning “I am sorry” and “You are forgiven”. I think that at least 90% of all conflict could be utterly and relatively quickly resolved, if only, we are willing to take this very first step Jesus lays out for us. Sometimes a third party is needed, unbiased arbiters, are needed…but most of the time…two well intentioned, Jesus-centered, mature adults can work out their differences…and for the moment Easter has come.
The second thing I would like to point out from Jesus’ teaching is about the whole binding and losing thing that Jesus addresses. Specifically, he says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And I think the point is that we have a part to play in the things that are bound and loosed in our lives, and church, and even the world around us…the world in which Jesus says the kingdom of Heaven has come near. If we want to no longer be bound by the pain that arises from our conflicts, we must set each other and ourselves free, to loose one another, by taking seriously our call to be reconciled…to enter into that good and hard work. If we want our community, St. Julian’s, to thrive, to not be bound up by disagreements that arise among us, we must work hard on our relationships with each other…loose the conflict when it arises that we might together be built up on the healthy and strong building blocks of reconciled relationships. Our shared future depends on it. And maybe most importantly for the sorely divided world in which we live today, we are called let loose on the world a different sort of model of what it means to live together. We are to show those around us what it looks like to really be the reconciled people of God…what it looks like to no longer be bound by our differences and disagreements…but instead to model for the world what a beloved, Easter-like community can really be. Not perfect, and surely not without the occasional conflict, disagreement or hurtful action, but a community that has learned to work out all three with love and mutual respect. I don’t know if there is a greater gift the church, even our own church, can offer the larger world. Perhaps it is even its last best hope.
And know they are watching…our friends are watching and our neighbors notice us…so what do they see…what can they learn from us…how can we birth hope into a world that at times feels so hopeless. Well…I think the answers at least begins with how we choose to live together…what we bind and what we loose…how we grow in our own relationships…how we love each other well…how much we look like the God of love with whom we seek to be intimate. Amen.