The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
I don’t know if you’ve been listening to our second readings over the past few weeks, but St. Paul has been giving some beautiful advice to the church in Rome - to all of us, really. True, it is mixed in with his usual obsessions, but there have been some gems. Today Paul says The one who loves another has fulfilled the law. All the commandments are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We know this to be true. We are happiest and we create the most harmony around us when we love. When we love, we do fulfill God’s intention, God’s commandments. Now it’s easy to do this at times. But how do we love a person when we’re in conflict with them? What does love look like then? The other two readings today take us into this difficult territory.
In the gospel, Jesus says that when someone sins against us, the first step is to go to them, face to face, and try to communicate. If we don’t get anywhere, he says, well, then, bring in two or three others, and talk together. Maybe they can help you work it out. If that still doesn’t work, widen the circle, bring in more wisdom.
What Jesus is saying is that we are to do everything possible to reconcile ourselves to another when we’re in conflict. That’s what love looks like. It’s the kind of love that the prophet Ezekiel was asked to demonstrate to the nation of Israel.
God had shown Ezekiel how Israel had parted from God’s ways, and now, having this knowledge, it became Ezekiel’s responsibility to speak to the nation about it. In fact, God tells the prophet that if he does not speak out, if he turns away and pretends he doesn’t see, their blood will be on his hands. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. So God demands Ezekiel’s best effort at affecting reconciliation between God and Israel.
Jesus, too, asks his followers to do the same. If we see sin, if we are divided, he says, don’t turn away and pretend it doesn’t exist. Not to act is to act, to participate in the division. We have a responsibility to affect reconciliation. Talk to the person, bring in others if you need to, but do whatever you can to bring about understanding and a restoration of relationship.
That’s what love looks like in conflict: the persistent effort to reconcile. So this gospel is not, as some would have it, a justification for angrily confronting others with our self-righteousness. It’s about a determined attempt to restore community when it is broken. This kind of love is hard work, even a sacrifice.
John Wesley, the 18th century Anglican whose followers founded the Methodist church, understood how we tend to avoid this sacrifice. He knew that in his own community, behind people’s backs, there were complaints and whispered accusations. He also knew that this first step in reconciliation risks a great deal by speaking directly to the other. But he said Do not avoid it so as to shun the cross.
It is a kind of cross. That’s how it feels, like trudging up Calvary hill, going to talk to the other, risking getting hurt again. So sometimes we take the easy way out, and we know what that is. Instead of first speaking to the other directly, first we pretend it didn’t happen - just let it go, we tell ourselves. Then, of course, we feel awkward when we’re in the same room. And so the second step, instead of bringing others in to help, is to avoid the other entirely. Better to just not talk at all. Finally, instead of openly asking the community for its wisdom and guidance, we whisper, we poison the air around the offender.
Do you see how the two approaches head in directly opposite directions? What Jesus advises is a gathering in, an effort to bring back together in a relationship of mutual understanding. The easy way pushes further and further apart, until there is no relationship at all.
This is how the Anglican writer C.S. Lewis portrays hell in his allegorical book The Great Divorce. Hell is a vast city, but with no one living at the center. Everyone has moved out further and further away, because they can’t stand each other and they prefer to be alone. And he wrote this before suburbia was even invented!
Well, all this talk about reconciliation is good, but what do we do when after all our efforts, it doesn’t seem possible? What does love look like then?
Jesus says<em> If the offender refuses to listen, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector</em>. Now I’ve always heard this as a justification to shun the other. “You know, if you’ve given it your best shot and it doesn’t work, then write off the miserable wretch. Cast him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
But wait a minute. Who were Gentiles and tax collectors to Jesus? He may have recognized them as being outside the norms of community, but they were the very ones Jesus gathered, regardless. Matthew, the author of this gospel, was a tax collector, brought by Jesus into the inner circle, and he wrote down today’s story!
And so it can be, by God’s grace, between us and those to whom we cannot be reconciled. We may have talked to the other face to face, even brought in others to help, but still, we remain miles apart in terms of mutual understanding.
Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector, which is to say, recognize that the other is outside the norms of friendship and community. Acknowledge the break that remains. As the old song goes,<em> You can forgive, and you can regret, but you can never, never forget</em>.
But even though you don’t forget, Jesus shows us how to remain in relationship, somehow, if possible. You’ll be a bit guarded, perhaps, but you can be respectful and kind. Do not exclude them from your prayers or your concern; do not poison the air around them. Do not hold on to an exclusively negative judgment about who they are. Even gather them into your circle from time to time. That’s what love, even forgiveness, can look like between those who have never been able to reconcile.
But let’s take it one step further than the gospel went today. What does love look like when the other continues to hurt us, to be unfair? What do we do if they not only refuse to communicate about what is broken between us, but to re-create the brokenness every day?
This is where physical separation is appropriate, even good. The abused wife or daughter must get away. The beleaguered employee should find another job. God does not intend for us to be doormats. That’s not love. But even when we physically separate ourselves from another, there is still something we can do internally to reconcile ourselves to their continuing presence in our memory, in our heart.
Again, the easy thing is to shun, to try to exclude from our thoughts the other who has hurt us. We harden our view of them into one, bad thing, and then try to forget.
But we can never, never forget. Better to invite them into our inner circle, to pray for them, to try to understand our part in things. Better to understand that they would not be so harmful if they were not so wounded themselves, to be humble enough to know that they are a mystery to us. This, too, is a sacrifice, a risk, a kind of cross.
And then we can place them with us in the greatest circle in which we, too, stand - the circle of God’s love for all humankind. Sometimes the only reconciliation that can happen is in God. In God, we are all brothers and sisters in both brokenness and healing. We are no different than anyone else in this regard, even the one with whom we have had to break relationship. And in this great circle, we are always together.