Perhaps you have heard the story about the man who was stranded all alone, shipwrecked on a desert island. He had been there for a number of months, trying to survive, hoping some ship would sail close enough and notice him and rescue him.
Eventually a ship did notice and sent a small boat to check on this man alone on the island. As the small boat from the ship approached the shore, the man ran down to the beach to greet the rescue party. It was such a joyous occasion. He was being rescued!
As those from the rescue party greeted the man, they also noticed all the buildings that had been built on the island. They asked the man: "You are here all alone. And you have so many different small buildings along the shore. Why all these buildings?"
The man responded. "Well, it's been a long time. I had to keep busy. So that building there (pointing) is where I slept. That building over there is where I would spend the day. That building is where I fixed my food. That building is where I went to church." And pointing to another building, he said, "And that is where I used to go to church."
What makes this story humorous is its truthfulness. As long as God's people have known themselves to be called together to be the church, we have had this seemingly inherent tendency to get frustrated, to separate and to move on from each other.
My own denomination continues to experience this anxiety and separation as we have debates about Christ and faithfulness, about marriage and inclusiveness, about social and other issues that threaten to divide us again as God's people.
Maybe it is a good thing that Jesus has no grandiose illusions about the church and how people struggle to get along. Jesus knows the challenges we face to stay connected to one another. He knows the church consists of real people--and real people come with harsh opinions and tensions that lead toward alienation.
We sing, "Blest be the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love," but Christian love does not come easily or automatically.
We say, "We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord," but it doesn't take much before we are bickering or divided into angry factions.
Indeed, in contemporary church life, we see more and more people leaving the church, angry about some issue, worn out by the church's inability to embody the gospel. The church is supposed to be a community of light and hope, peace and joy for the world; yet we may be more known for self-righteousness, judgementalism, and exclusion. We have work to do as the church of Jesus Christ.
Gandhi once said to the Christian community, "I love your Christ. Where I have trouble is with Christians." Indeed, the church is perceived as too often caught up in divisive institutional issues, in purposes that often do not help make sense of the complex, changing world.
And beyond the community of the church, we see signs of alienation all through our society. Certitude has taken center stage in political life. Compromise has become a bad word. Everything seems to be increasingly divided. That phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance--"one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all"--has been covered up in a tsunami of special interests. We are all so good at divisions and seemingly so bad at reconciliation and community.
This is why Jesus' words from Matthew 18 remain so important. We--seeking to be the people God made us to be--have to keep working at moving from the enmities that separate us to the community that sustains us. Jesus invites us NOT to sweep the divisive issues aside. Jesus commands us to deal well with our anger, our alienation, and . . . work for our inherent need for reconciliation.
First, Jesus says, go and see the brother or sister with whom there is a break. This is not just a suggestion. This is really a command--Go and see the person. And this is not just any person-- but a brother, a sister--one with whom you are in community, and that community has been broken. Enmity has taken the forefront. Honor has become dishonor. Separation and alienation have invaded your relationship.
Go and see the person. This takes courage. This takes prayer and humility. This takes grace. It doesn't mean "go with your fingers pointing." It doesn't mean go with your righteous indignation. These words of Jesus to guide us--from enmity to community--follow so many other words of Jesus about how to live: love God and love neighbor, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So a self-righteous or prideful or indignant approach does not appeal to Jesus. Go with grace and prayer and humility and talk through the broken point in private, says Jesus.
Does a person come to mind here . . . for you? One with whom you feel alienated, even angry? This is the hard work of discipleship--going . . . seeking to repair the breach. This is the calling of faithfulness. And when it works--and I can say I have experienced this both as one who has gone to seek to repair the breach and as one who has been rightfully accused for the breach-- when it works, then it can bring such joy and peace and community.
I cannot help but think that if we could practice this better with one another, our common life would be so much more meaningful. And when we do NOT do it, alienation grows, divisions become vast, life gets a long way from the reign of God.
Moreover, when people feel alienated, bad things happen. So many of those committing such atrocities with automatic weapons seem to be alienated young men. When people get lost in their own worlds, alienated and separated from community, enmity seems to multiply. Heartache and harm too often follow. Jesus calls us to more . . . and better life as disciples.
And then, "If the person listens to you," says Jesus, "you have won him back"--back into the community. The whole point is not who is right--but right relationships in the community. The whole point of confrontation is reconciliation, not revenge for the offended, not justification on some principle. Remember--Jesus is all about humility and grace and community toward the kingdom of God.
And third, Jesus continues, "If you are not listened to, take one or two others. And if that does not work, tell it to the church." And then sometimes, nothing may work to bring reconciliation, to restore community; and then Jesus says, "Well, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."
That sounds like--after sincere efforts to reconcile--"let them go," or "get over it."
But let's not forget. Who did Jesus hang around with the most? Jesus ate with tax collectors and showed mercy and grace to Gentiles. Relationships may break. Life in community may be less than whole. But never is anyone beyond the realm of God's love and grace. In some extreme cases, we have to leave reconciliation up to God; and God is the God of reconciliation, love and hope.
Then there appears that lovely line, often quoted and long remembered: "For where two or three are gathered in my name," says Jesus, "I am there among them."
We often use that line when we want to affirm God is present even though not many of us are present, and that is fine. God IS present when even two or three gather "in his name."
BUT the real message in this context celebrates Jesus' extreme emphasis on reconciliation, on building community, even out of enmity. Jesus loves wholesomeness . . . not divisiveness. From the beginning of this passage to these final words, the main point is this: "When you are working hard on reconciliation and community, I am in your midst!" says the Lord.
In the oldest sanctuary from the Old Testament, the holiest item of all the furniture was the ark. The ark, like a box, a container, in the center of the sanctuary, contained the holiest objects, like the tablets on which the law of God was written. Above the ark in the Holy of Holies were two figures, cherubim. In Exodus 25:20, it says that the faces of those cherubs were turned toward each other. The point of this image is to convey the powerful truth--God is most present when people have their faces turned to each other. God speaks where two people turn their faces toward each other in love. God is most present in care and generosity, when people are seeking to move from enmity to community. The cherubim in the ark exemplify that God is most present when faces are turned toward each other.
Jesus likewise invites, no, Jesus commands us, to turn and to keep turning to one another, not in judgment, but in love, striving to overcome alienation with reconciliation, urging faithful devotion from our lives. When we do that, we see God most clearly. Until we do that, we are moving away from God's intentions. (see J. Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, p. 54). Life as God's people is about connections and community, not enmity and alienation.
Imagine if we could really live in this way. It would lead us toward the reign of God.
If not now, when? If not us, then who?
May God's Spirit guide us and bless us to move us--with prayer and humility, grace and courage--from enmity to community, and so promote the reign and the reality of God.
Let us pray. Holy God, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to stand with you, open our lives to you, that is to abide forever. Show us the way of Jesus and keep leading us. Amen.