A Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Year A – Proper 18 – 07 September 2014
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 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. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” – Matthew 18:15-20
Have you ever had to confront someone – and has it ever been easy? I’ve always found it really difficult to do, and will go to great lengths to avoid it, because someone’s feelings usually get hurt and I don’t like that. Years ago, part of my job as a manager was to confront. There was one person in particular, who was a hard worker, but who had a difficult personality. I had spent a lot of time trying to help her get along with the rest of our employees, but the stress of our working environment overwhelmed her, and she became more disruptive than helpful.
When it became obvious that she wasn’t going to work out, I met with her and explained as gently as I could that she was being let go. She became angry and defensive and was obviously hurt – and eventually left my office in tears. It wasn’t long before she found another job, though – one that suited her personality and was a good use of her talents. When she called to tell me about it, she also told me that she had finally realized that being let go was one of the best things that could have happened to her.
It was then that I realized that something bigger than either of us was at work in that situation; and whatever that “something” was, it had given me the courage to do what needed to be done for the company’s sake, but more importantly, for her sake. In Matthew’s gospel this morning, we heard Jesus giving his listeners a lesson on confrontation – specifically confrontation in a church, which is interesting because neither the word nor the concept of “church” was used until after Jesus had died when the apostle Paul was the first to develop communities of churches.
Nevertheless, Matthew tells us that Jesus addressed confrontation, using the concept of a church community as his example. He explained the process of confrontation with no apparent concern for any of the emotional fallout that usually comes with it. He said, in a matter of fact way, that if someone sins against you, then you should take that person aside and point out their fault in private.
If that person refuses to listen, then you should confront again and again with more and more people supporting you until you have the community of the whole church behind you. If he still refuses to listen then Jesus said that you should treat him like you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
In other words, rebuke him. Well, that sounds harsh, doesn’t it? What happened to patience and forgiveness and reconciliation – everything Jesus taught by his words and actions?
Something seems to be missing here, and when that happens, it helps to look at what comes before and after the passage in question for clues in helping to understand what’s really going on. It’s like looking at a series of dots and seeing what picture emerges when they’re all connected.
What comes before this morning’s lesson on confrontation is the parable of the Lost Sheep. What comes after is the parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. So, in the first parable, a sheep gets lost and gets found again amid much rejoicing when it is returned to the fold.
The other parable is just the reverse. A farmer goes astray or gets lost so to speak, when, having just had his own large debts forgiven, he refuses to extend that same forgiveness for the debt of one of his own workers. When the members of his community hear about what has happened, they become enraged by his lack of mercy and have the farmer tortured.
So, when we do connect the dots, maybe what emerges is a realistic picture of what community life is all about – then and now. Maybe it shows us that life there is not always easy, and that members come and they go on their own accord or not, depending on what’s best for them and for the health of the group.
In thinking about our own church community, how are we supposed to know what’s best for us? For example, aren’t communities organic, meaning changes is inevitable? Yet, isn’t church a place where time-honored traditions are favored over change? And isn’t church a safe community where the door is always open and where just about any behavior is tolerated and forgiven and where reconciliation is expected?
Well, maybe not, because if that’s the case, why was Jesus giving his listeners a lesson on confrontation, using the church as his primary example?
Maybe church should be a community where all members, whether they are clergy or lay, sheep or shepherds, saints or sinners, are free to be honest with each other and free to confront each other when the health of the community is threatened. And maybe church is where the hard work of confrontation is the only way that forgiveness and reconciliation are eventually possible because “something” bigger than any of us is working among us and giving us the courage to do what needs to be done. And just maybe that “something” is the Holy Spirit.
Yet it seems as if the complications of confronting, particularly when they involve hurting someone’s feelings or dealing with difficult personalities or initiating change, keep us stuck in fear, making it easier to do nothing than something. But Jesus wasn’t concerned with such complications. He was concerned with the end result which was the health of the church or any community gathered together in his name.
In the language of group process, the health of any community depends on four necessary stages of development: forming (otherwise known as infancy), storming (otherwise known as adolescence), norming and performing (otherwise known as adulthood). And there is no way to skip over that painful step of storming which always involves conflict and confrontation, if there is any hope of reaching the healthy level of performing. Likewise, there’s no chance of someone successfully becoming an adult without experiencing adolescence.
And there is actually one more level of development in this process and it’s called “transforming”. According to Richard Weber, a contributing author to the Book for Human Relations, “Transforming can take one of two paths: redefinition which is the establishment of a new purpose and/or structure” which leads to continued growth of an organization…”or Disengagement” which leads to loss of momentum and stagnation.
Now, I doubt if Jesus was thinking about these stages of group process when he was giving his lesson on confrontation, but he may have hit on the most difficult part of maintaining healthy community life. As much as I dreaded letting that employee go so many years ago, I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit was at work, giving me the courage to do what needed to be done.
For those living in Jesus’s day, Jesus, himself was at work, encouraging those gathered around him: “For where two or three are gathered in my name” he said, “I am there among you” (Matthew 18:20). What this says to me is that whatever we need to do for the sake of the whole, and no matter how challenging – whether that’s the whole family, the whole church or whatever community we find ourselves, Jesus’s gift of the Holy Spirit is among us, making the best outcome of a difficult situation – or to put it another way, aligning our actions, wayward or otherwise, to God’s will.
Confrontation in the corporate world is thought of as “just business” and we’re warned not to take it too personally. Jesus’s lesson on confrontation seems to take the personal part out of it, too, perhaps because he knew that’s the part he takes care of when two or three are gathered anywhere in his name.
That’s the part that finds Jesus or the Holy Spirit at work – in unpleasant situations, when our fears threaten to overwhelm us or when our own supplies of courage or patience, forgiveness or reconciliation are depleted. That’s the part that surpasses all human understanding, and when it’s best just to let go and let God.