Respect and Reconciliation
A Sermon on Matthew 18: 15-20
There is a simple story I'd like to share with you this morning about respect and reconciliation written by an unknown author.
Once upon a time two brothers lived on the family farm with their father. Their father grew old in age and could no longer run the farm. So the father called his sons in and told them he was going to split the farm into two, one half for each brother, since he knew they work well together and will always be friends.
The brothers were delighted and worked joyously next to one another on their farms. Until one day they got into a big fight and stopped speaking to one another. Years went by and the silent grew between them. Then one day a carpenter came to the older brother's door asking for work. The brother replied, "Yes, I would like you to build a high fence around my property. Start down by the river where my little brother's property meets mine, and please build a very high fence I don't ever want to see my brother again!"
The eldest brother left the carpenter to work while he went into town for a while. When he got back he was shocked to see the carpenter had not built a fence at all! Instead the carpenter built bridge over the river connecting the two brothers' farms. In disbelief the older brother ran down to the bridge to get a good look at what the carpenter had done. While he was down at the bridge, the younger brother walked towards him. Then, the younger brother said in amazement, "After all the terrible things I have done to you, I cannot believe you built a bridge to welcome me back." And gave his big brother a huge hug.
The older brother, amazed at all that had happened, went back to his farmhouse to talk to the carpenter. He thanked the carpenter and asked him to stay. But the carpenter replied, "I'm sorry but I must be on my way, there are many other bridges that need to be built."
(Adapted from http://www.sermons4kids.com/)
Just like the brothers in this story, when conflict arises, our human inclination is to put up a wall, a barrier, or even a fence. We try to avoid the person, we don't want to see them or talk to them, and we often end up talking to everyone else but them about the problem. We put up emotional walls in hopes to not get hurt again. We put up walls in hopes to not feel guilty or shameful for what we have done. We put up walls in order to keep others out, yet we often find the walls can trap us in.
Instead of building walls, Jesus tells us to build bridges.
Instead of shutting others out, or talking behind their back, we are challenged to go talk to that person directly. To approach our brother or sister in Christ in person, face to face, and talk with them in a loving and respectful way, all in hopes of reconciliation—of restoration and healing of the relationship. We are to be genuine, honest, loving, and respectful. We are to build bridges instead of building walls.
Did you know that as Christians, we actually vow to do this? Yes, if we look back at our baptism liturgy, we'll see that one of our very own baptismal vows is to "respect the dignity of every human being" (BCP, 305). I ask, are we respecting the dignity of others if we shut them out? Start rumors about them? File our complaints with some else? Are we respecting the other's dignity if we build a wall instead of a bridge?
As the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "We give dignity to each other by the way we listen to each other, in a spirit of trust and of dying to oneself so that the other may live, grow and give."
Now, this may be a forgotten concept for many of us; as we live and breathe in such an individualistic society where finding the "truth" and being "right" seems to be most important in any argument. Self preservation is too often top priority in times of conflict, but when studying Scripture we must be reminded of the Eastern mindset: emphasis lies on upholding the dignity of the other party, especially in times of trouble and conflict.
Think back to Jesus' first recorded miracle: turning water into wine. Now this was not just a party trick or a way to show off. Rather, Jesus turning water into wine was an act of saving the wedding party from shame and disgrace; a way of helping to "save face" or protect the bride and groom. Jesus acted as though the bride and groom were his family, his very own brother or sister, and wanted to protect them from public and societal shame. Jesus was respecting the dignity of the other in that time of crisis.
Today's Gospel reveals that Jesus wants us to behave the same way. Granted, we may not be able to turn water into wine, but we are to live in community and care for one another as though we are family; to live and to care as though we are one unit in which our actions affect one another. Our words and decisions impact one another.
Sometimes when living in community, we may hurt our brother or sister unintentionally. We bump into each other, we disagree, and conflict inevitably arises. But Christ teaches us that when those scenarios arise--and conflicts and disagreement will inevitably arise--Jesus teaches us to be honest, loving, and respectful to each other.
Today's Gospel passage is more than a simple Christian's code of conduct. Actually, many scholars refer to this passage as the "Rule of Christ" because it redefines the reasons for why we as Christians are to act. When we pay close attention to this passage we reveal that the goal of seeking the offender--our brother or sister--is for restoration and reconciliation of our relationships. The intent should not be to bash the other or to take friends to gang up on the offender. Rather, our mission is to approach the person who has harmed you in a loving and direct way. Expressing the truth in love while respecting the dignity of our brother or sister; and as Bonhoeffer says, to "listen to each other, in a spirit of trust and of dying to oneself"--all the while in hope for the relationship to be healed and restored.
Reflect on that for a minute. (pause) Quite the different mindset than trying to figure out the "truth" and who is "right", verses who is "wrong", huh? Remember Jesus invites us to build 'bridges' instead of 'walls.' Christ charges us to respect each other and reconcile our relationships. But we don't have to do this tough work alone.
God is in our midst. In our community, our conflict, our confrontation, God's presence is with us. Jesus says, "for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
This is our saving grace in today's Gospel; the promise and hope of God's presence with us. God is with us during times of disagreement, despair, destruction, and even and especially in times close to death.
May you be challenged and inspired to be a courageous Christian: to follow Christ's desire to respect the dignity of every human being, and seek reconciliation in our relationships--to build bridges instead of building walls.
—The Rev. Jessica T. Knowles