There are times when we might want a quick, easy way to show someone in our church community the door. “Three strikes and you’re out” can sound pretty good. Jesus gives us a healthy way to deal with conflict, but if we look at this conversation more closely, what is Jesus really saying? Let’s explore.
13th Sunday after Pentecost – September 7, 2014
Matthew 18:15-20 – Pastor Evan Davis
13th Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, September 7, 2014 – Matthew 18:15-20
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“Three Strikes and You’re Out? Not So Fast.” – Pastor Evan Davis
Look around….Take a good look at these people all around you here today. Guess what – you have to live with these people. You do! God has lumped you all in together. God has called each of you to this community of faith. You’re generally pretty happy about that, right?
You like these people, don’t ya? Most of ’em? 🙂 You’ve gotten to know them over a long period of time.
I tell ya, yesterday you should have seen all of us out there working – what a community, what a great group of people it was! We cleared ¾ of the old cemetery back there. We did our road cleanup. We had a great lunch. But maybe one of those people, whom you saw out of the corner of your eye, you know, wasn’t working too hard. Maybe she wasn’t pulling her load….
Maybe somewhere along the way somebody here looked at you crossways. Maybe someone said something you didn’t appreciate. And you hear this passage today from Jesus…he starts out “if another member of the church sins against you,” you’re thinking IF?!?! It happens all the time! Alright, Jesus, I’m listening! He gives us what we want: a nice, step-by-step plan of how to deal with that person.
Step One: go and point out the fault while you’re alone. Ok Jesus, but she might just roll her eyes at me or tell me off! But if you are so persuasive and that person just totally gets where you’re coming from when you confront her for taking too many water breaks during the church work day, or saying that horrible thing about you in the parking lot, well, then great! If not, Steee-rike One!
Step Two: Go bring your case along with 2 or 3 witnesses who can confirm your words and how the other person reacts. That way they can’t wiggle out of it! But if that person is so crafty as to say all the right things in front of those two and then keep offending you the same way, or if she is just so bold as to tell them off too, well, then….Steee-rike Two!
Step Three: Now it’s serious. It’s a full count and here comes the heater. Bring that repeat offender before the whole church. And again, if that person with her long rap-sheet, with quite a record, manages to fool the church and keep on sinning, or has the guts, the audacity, to tell off the whole church, after she’s been marched up front with a scarlet letter hung around her neck, what shall we do? Jesus says, “treat her like a Gentile or a tax collector.” And how do we treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Not well, that’s what! They’re the unholy, like that repeat offender over there, so Steeee-rike Three! YOU’RE OUT!
Now, I know none of you would actually have that much enthusiasm or take that much pleasure in kicking someone out of the church… But maybe this process can be a little satisfying to us, deep inside, if there’s that someone who is the persistent thorn in our flesh. If somebody’s relentlessly disturbing the peace, our peace, we would want a nice, orderly, healthy process to deal with that situation, or heaven forbid, to show that person the door. You know, along with most churches, our constitution specifically references this passage as the preferred process for dealing with conflict and bad behavior. It is actually quite healthy. It encourages taking responsibility for our own feelings and expressing them directly to the person who has caused offense, rather than just gossiping about it to someone else. Any counselor will tell you that you have to be able to express your feelings, saying “when you do this, I feel like this…” This process brings disputes out into the open, rather than allowing them to fester behind closed doors.
And it’s so important to be able to deal with conflicts in the Church because it is a holy community. We are the Body of Christ in the world. Christ is present among us, as he promised “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Because Christ is here, because we represent Christ to the world, to quote the Blues Brothers, we’re on a mission from God. We are a holy people who have holy work to do. So that means we cannot allow the Body of Christ to be torn asunder.1 Our calling is just too important for us to allow disagreements, misunderstandings, mistakes, and just downright treating each other badly, as we do sometimes, to tear us apart. That doesn’t mean we ignore conflict or sweep it under the rug. It means we have to deal with it honestly and this process is a healthy way to have a good discussion.
But…that being said…I feel like I’ve been lecturing you on conflict resolution or the church constitution, not preaching a sermon! Because when I read this passage, to me, this just doesn’t sound a whole lot like Jesus. Where’s the Jesus who told the story of the Forgiving Father, who did not exercise his right to step one or two or three, even though his Prodigal Son had struck out and then some, but rather came running down the road to embrace his beloved child before the boy could even try to say, “I’m sorry?” In fact, that Jesus was right there in this same conversation we’re hearing today from Matthew. In the verses right before these, Jesus says this: “12 What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of your1 Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
Why would a shepherd who would leave 99 sheep he has to find the one he has lost, who wills that none of us, not even the most relentless, unapologetic sinners, be lost, then turn around and say, “well, I didn’t mean that, I’d actually like you to give those your sister or brother three strikes and then they’re out, forever.” It doesn’t make sense….what if, as Robert Farrar Capon argues, Jesus was actually trying to be a little “ironic” here?2 What if he was trying to catch the disciples in the trap of their own worldly thinking? By stringing them along with this three-step plan which could lead to a little one being lost forever…exactly what he just said his Father in heaven would never allow. After all, Jesus asks them to treat offenders like “Gentiles and tax collectors”…and what has Jesus been doing this whole time but touching, healing, and sharing tables with Gentiles and tax collectors? What has he been doing but including them in the kingdom of grace?
Next week we’ll hear Jesus springing the trap, but today hear this: in the end, in any community of people from a congregation of 30 or 40, to a nation, there is “no future without forgiveness.”3 That’s what Archbishop Desmond Tutu said about how South Africa recovered from apartheid. Rather than three strikes and you’re out for those who presided over that regime and committed terrible crimes, there was truth and reconciliation. The truth was spoken by victims, as it is in these steps Jesus lays out. But then, forgiveness ruled the day. It was the only way to put the broken pieces of that nation back together. And it is the only way for us to mend and maintain this sacred community of sinners God calls “church.” There is no Body of Christ without somebody finally giving up his right to justice for wrongs committed. And that someone who finally decided not to allow our checkered past to define our future relationship was God. In Jesus Christ, who willingly and faithfully was nailed to a cross in a world-shattering act of mercy and love. When a member of the community sinned against God, as we do every day of our lives, God through his own three-step plan right out the window. And God landed, finally and forever, on forgiveness, without which, there is no Church, no Gospel, no future for the universe. Thank God, that when two or three of us gather in Christ’s name, he is there, and we are all forgiven. I’m sorry, but those three steps just got a little more complicated. Amen.
1Eric Barreto, Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2164 (accessed September 6, 2014). Barreto’s article underlies this whole move of the sermon.
2Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2002), 189-195.
3Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (Doubleday, 1999).