8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet ; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, Love your neighbor as yourself. 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
11Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
15 [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. 16But 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. 17If 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. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, 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. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
Growing up my Dad subscribed to the theory of escalating force…
He said that's what would cause World War III. I have absolutely no
idea whether his argument holds any scientific or sociological weight,
but it was a well worn tale in my family. Most of the time it
manifested among my brothers and sisters when one person was doing
something that the other didn't like… you know the
important kind of things like putting a foot on the part
of the couch that I was sitting on or changing the channel during my
favorite cartoon or something like that… and a threat would get
If you don't move your foot, I'm going to kick it. And
then another threat;
well if you kick my foot I'm going to throw
the remote control at you. And after a couple of such threats, if
my dad was in the room it was almost inevitable…
That's how world war three starts he'd say. It didn't matter
if the context was watching Saturday morning cartoons or having a
water fight at a birthday party, or wrestling on the living room
floor… the theory of escalating force was in effect. We knew
what was coming. In fact it was pretty funny this summer when my
family gathered during vacation and Kaela came running into the living
Natalie hit me and Natalie was right behind her
saying just as loud
Kaela pushed me first and my sister was
sitting there and the first thing out of her mouth was
world war three starts.
Of course it's an exaggeration to think that our little water gun fights and sibling bickering were going to lead to WW3, but if we think about it, we all know about the theory of escalating force… Back in the cold war days our national defense strategy was based on Mutually Assured Destruction… Our country stockpiled countless nuclear weapons so that we could be sure that if we were attacked the other side was also going to be annihilated. Of course the other side were doing the same thing and the whole idea was based on the fact that nobody was insane enough to actually play that game.
More recently in the last decade, after 9/11, the rhetoric has been about taking the fight to the other guy so that it isn't happening on our soil. And it's clear that since that fateful day ten years ago, nationally we've used a strategy of escalating force. And I know it's a little bit of a touchy subject… there are some people who agree with the wars wholeheartedly and others who are adamantly opposed to them. And when it comes right down to it, those wars are just one of the political realities going on in our country that seems to polarize people into camps.
I don't know if it's gotten worse in the last decade, it seems to me that it has but maybe that's just because I'm paying more attention to it now… you who have lived on the outskirts of Washington DC much longer than I have probably have a better perspective on it than I do. But I realize as I listen to the news of the Republican primary race that we have an election coming soon and the polarization of people is likely to get worse before it has a chance of getting any better… and as the polarization gets worse, the rhetoric and the verbal attacks will probably also use this strategy of escalating force; trying to take the other person or other people down, regardless of the cost.
And on one level when we come to our scripture passage today, it would be pretty easy to read it as a sort of study in escalating force. If someone offends you address it with them… if they don't listen bring someone else. If they still don't listen, turn the matter over to the whole church and if they still don't listen, treat them like you would a tax collector or a Gentile, clean your hands of them and be done. It's pretty easy to see this as rules of engagement for conflict, bringing in higher levels of authority, more force, until either the offender sees the error in his ways or is kicked out of the community. In fact these words have been used over and over as a procedural model. There have been churches that have used it literally as a step by step process for dealing with disagreement and conflict in their community…
and I'm not denying that there is some wisdom in the process… I think every modern conflict resolution theory begins with starting at the lowest level possible, addressing the issue directly with the people involved and then there are other steps along the way that are often analogous to what Jesus says in our passage, but I'm not sure this was ever intended to be a step by step process of conflict resolution. I think there was something bigger at stake here and that something bigger is why we engage in conflict in the first place. What do we hope to get out of it?
Conflict isn't anything new and it's not going away any time
soon… It would be nice if it did but I can't imagine it, not on
the personal level, not on the national level… and way too
often, especially when we employ the strategy of escalating force, the
goal of conflict and the way it gets resolved is by convincing
other, in one way or another, that I am (or we are) right.
The goal is to change them. But in this passage, the goal isn't
necessarily to change them; the goal is to be reconciled with the
other after some offense has occurred… In verse 15 the one who
has been wronged is to seek out the other.
If the member listens
to you, you have regained that one… if the other doesn't
listen, the instruction is to persevere… don't give up. And
even when you've tried everything possible and the other just simply
won't be reconciled, the goal is still to reach out to them in love so
that they might be able to be reconciled when and if something shifts.
Coming from many others the idea of treating someone like a tax
collector or Gentile might have meant writing them off entirely. But
Jesus comes from an entirely different perspective. He ate with tax
collectors, he reached out to gentiles, he was often accused of being
a friend of sinners… so coming from Jesus the instruction
let them be like a tax collector to you might just mean
don't ever give up on them… never stop reaching out in love
with the hope of reconciliation. That's what Jesus did with
sinners… And isn't that good news for all of us, because it's
not just words… that's the way God works. From the beginning
of time till the end of time, God is calling out, seeking to reconcile
all things to God-self and the culmination of it is that in Jesus
Christ, God actually became one of us so that we can relate.
And as we seek to be faithful to Christ in our own lives, when we're engaged in conflict, whether it's something large or something small, we would do well to remember that the other person or other people (as the case may be) who are involved in the conflict are also people who have been created in the image of a God who loves them, just as much as that God loves us. We can lament choices that have been made, we can grieve consequences that have come as a result of those choices, we can pray that better decisions get made in the future, we can work for understanding and justice between people so that they might… but we cannot, under any circumstances write off the people who make those choices… because God hasn't written us off as a group or as individuals. God is always there for us reaching out and inviting reconciliation… so If we as followers of Christ cannot offer reconciliation, forgiveness and healing; who can? For it's already been given to us… At our core, we are people who are united to one another because we're united with Christ. At our best we know that we have been forgiven, we know that reconciliation has been opened to us, and we know that we are being healed. So, on this tenth anniversary of 9/11 and on this day when we celebrate coming back together to start another new program year at the church and follow God's lead as best we can, let us be mindful of the ways reconciliation has been offered to us, and then in turn, let's offer that reconciliation to the world. In Jesus name, Amen.
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Dan Holland at the United Parish of Bowie on September 11, 2011.
© 2011 Daniel Holland