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Things we wish Jesus hadn’t said #2:
Pointing the Finger or Godly Community?

Pentecost 13, Common Lectionary Year A

Matthew 18:15-20

©2014 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Well, this passage has it all, doesn’t it!
It certainly belongs in this sermon mini-series
on things we wish Jesus hadn’t said.
We’re happy enough with the mystically beautiful verse with which we began worship
“Where two or three are gathered in my name….”
I suspect most of us are indifferent to that lofty, but hard to fathom
“Whatever you bind… whatever you loose..”
But we begin to tread on rocky terrain
when Jesus promises
“Whatever two of you agree on in prayer will be granted by God in heaven.”
Too many of us can recall unanswered prayers that cause us to doubt this one.
But it’s the sangfroid with which Jesus,
in most uncharacteristic fashion,
goes all ‘Conflict Resolution Guru’ on us,
and offers up what looks like
a Facebook four-step Ecclesiastical Handbook
for Good Behaviour.

Step One:
Someone messes you up,
call them out on it, tête à tête,
be reconciled with the mutual exchange of apology and forgiveness ,
and bingo! you gain a brother or sister in Christ.
Except, when you stop and think about it,
most of us, in our home or work or church life
can rarely muster up the courage sufficient
to go face to face with the person who has hurt or wronged us.
Many of us, if truth be told,
miss that step altogether
and go to a distorted version of Jesus’ step 2:
Where Jesus wants us to bring in witnesses to the conversation,
we often just go to two or three other people
and talk about the wrongdoer.

So, two strikes so far on the
Jesus Manners Manual.
What about Jesus’ steps three and four?
It looks like an escalation:
“Call in the whole community of the church
to call out the one who wronged you,
and if they still won’t listen,
let them be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.”

As a Church historian,
I can tell you too many horror stories of how Matthew 18:17 has been the biblical sanction for institutional bullying by the church
of anyone who didn’t fit a narrowly prescribed definition of “the good Christian.”
Think witch trials, heresy burnings,
wars of religion,
the practice of shunning,
the proliferation of denominationalism
as churches fracture over the sublime and the ridiculous.
It has become the biblical warrant for removing the ornery, the troublesome,
the willfully stubborn,
the compulsive liar, the single mother,
the gay teenager,
the alcoholic, people of different colour or language,
from the fellowship…
effectively cutting them off from the
bosom of care, the locus of God’s grace,
to be cast to outer darkness.

So, again we ask, what do we do with these things we wish Jesus hadn’t said?
Last week we looked at the options:
we can do the scholastic shuffle;
take the words right out of Jesus’ mouth;
Or dismiss them as Matthew’s community rules of order,
and therefore a mere historical artifact.
Or, we get down and wrestle with them,
refuse to let these words go until they bless us,
until we see grace and truth in them.

In the case of this tough text,
we have wrestled with it before,
as a community of faith,
and found the challenging grace of step 1,
adopting it as part of our Covenant for Harmony,
where we have promised ourselves that we will “speak with honesty”
directly with one another, especially with those with whom we disagree,
in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

But, as for the rest;
what grace is there in pointing the finger,
or worse, getting a whole church, even a whole denomination,
to point fingers?
The biggest problem with this set of verses
is what we’ve done to them;
we’ve lifted this passage out of its
embedded place in the larger Biblical narrative, turning it into some timeless,
context-less dictum about manners when it’s something else entirely.

When we read these verses along with those which precede and follow after it,
we find ourselves in the company of Jesus
as he takes a rag-tag, motley collection of fishermen, tax collector, zealot,
taboo-breaking women,
disciples of the now dead John the Baptist,
– as unlikely a grouping of people as any you’ll find on Cheers, or Big Bang Theory,
and imagines that he can teach them how to become nothing less than the Dream of God
in human flesh and bone.

As soon as we see this,
we realize we’re in upside down territory.
The Dream of God is like nothing else on earth,
it’s a community of creation where the last and least have a place at the head table,
where the broken are valued in their brokenness,
where a little child leads,
and a widow’s nickel is worth millions to the heart of God, where a shepherd will leave 99 safe sheep to go search for the silly, lost one.
where the greatest in the kingdom is the servant, not the king,
where compassion is prized over money
and power.
The Dream of God is where God dwells in company with those who mess up,
fall down, disagree,
fight with one another,
who drop the ball, speak out of turn,
be unkind by design or neglect,
get it wrong umpteen times,
let their prejudices and obsessions
get in the way of justice and freedom.
And if God keeps company with them,…..
well then….

So, we need to re-read this passage,
up-side down, with Dream lenses on.

So Jesus says “When” a brother ticks you off,
when a sister drops the ball, when one of you
messes up. (Not if. When),
then go and be with them.
Don’t follow the natural inclination to run the other way, lick wounds alone,
or worse, natter behind their back to others,
Go to them, stay connected.
Talk, together.
Expect truth to be spoken.
That’s not easy.
Jesus knew it, and so do we,
but it’s Godly community making,
and it’s worth the effort and courage.

And step two is more of the same;
instead of seeing this as a pointing
the finger moment,
what grace opens up if we see Jesus saying
“bring others into the place of wounding”
so that the community can be the place of mending?
For all of us will be the wounded at some time,
and all of us will be the wounder,
we have experience of reconciliation and grace
to bring to our hurting places,
and we’re best if we do it together.
Which brings us up to that bit about the tax collectors and Gentiles.
Turn it upside down. Remember it was Jesus saying it….

Remember what Jesus did with tax collectors,
like Zacchaeus, or Matthew?!
Remember what Jesus did for the Gentile Centurion’s daughter?
For the epileptic from the wrong side of the tracks?
For anyone who has messed up,
fallen down, gotten lost,
God in Jesus Christ has always gone out to find them,
bring them back, speak healing truth,
forgiven, and welcomed them
home into the community of God’s Dream.

We are NOT called to point a finger,
but to be the Dream of God in flesh and bone.
So when we’re told to treat the lost one like a tax collector,
we’re being invited to go out,
seek the lost, and bring them home.

And that is God’s Good News in this tough text.
Thanks be to God.

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