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Jeremy Troxler: The tie that binds

A divided world does not need a church free of conflict and sin but a church that models how conflict and sin can be transformed into peace.

December 6, 2011

Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. Jeremy Troxler preached this sermon Sept. 7, 2011, in Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School.

Jeremy Troxler will preach during Renewing the Church, Duke Divinity School's 2013 Convocation & Pastors' School, Oct. 14-15. Register online.

Matthew 18:10-22

The psychiatrist Scott Peck wrote that communities often pass through four stages of development. Peck called the most common, initial stage of building community “pseudocommunity.” And sadly, “pseudocommunity” is often the only stage that many communities will know.

In pseudocommunity, everyone pretends that they are already a community and that they really know each other, even though they really know very little about each other. In pseudocommunity, people assure themselves they have only superficial differences and no reason for deep conflict. All the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average. Every sermon is “interesting,” or at least “thought-provoking.” Every paper is at least a B-plus.

In pseudocommunity, people mind their manners no matter what they might be thinking behind a polite smile. Conversation stays general: “How’ve things been goin’ lately?” “Good, busy. And you?” “Yeah, me too.”

In pseudocommunity, pain and conflict are avoided at all costs, and when addressed are referenced only indirectly. What people really feel isn’t shared until the “meeting after the meeting” in the parking lot. The goal of pseudocommunity is a bland world of pretense where no one’s feelings get hurt in public.

When another person sins against you, you take it in silence and seethe later with a friend, or maybe if you’re really upset, you fire off a passive-aggressive email in private. When someone sins against another, you shake your head and lament their sin and mind your own business.

Pseudocommunity is an affable but discontented village of little lies. It accepts the trade-off of some truth for a shallow peace that is boring but at least feels safe.

Matthew 18 is Jesus’ assault on pseudocommunity: “If a brother or sister sins against you, go and tell them to their face. If they won’t listen, bring two others along with you as witnesses. If they still won’t listen, call a meeting of the whole church. And if they won’t listen to the church, treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector.”

Jesus calls us to be more than a pseudocommunity. He calls us to be a forgiven and forgiving people so saturated in grace that we can risk being honest with each other.

We take the risk of loving truthfulness first because of what sin is.

For Jesus, my sin is not a private matter between me and God. It is a public menace to the relationships among God’s people. It is not just my business; it is the business of everyone who knows me -- and that means it is worth having the occasional hard conversation about.

Many of our worst conflicts in the church happen because at some point someone had the opportunity to say, “Can we talk?” to someone they were concerned about -- but they didn’t, and now things are worse.

My mother recently had to have a conversation with my grandmother about how the time has come for her to hand over her car keys and stop driving. Not an easy conversation to have, especially when you consider that my grandmother is a stubborn woman who once chased a thief through the grocery store parking lot after she saw him trying to steal her No. 43 Richard Petty license plate.

But after my cousin had a pulse-racing, NASCAR-like ride with my grandmother to town, my mom decided the time had come for her to hand over the keys.

“Mawmaw, can we talk?” she said. “We’re concerned about you.”

My Mawmaw’s response was to tell the family, “Stay out of my business.”

She didn’t understand that this wasn’t just her business.

It was the family’s business, because we are going to be the ones called to an accident scene one day. And it’s not just our business but the business of every other person behind the wheel and on the road. Do not drive near Reedy Fork in Greensboro until this is resolved. My grandmother with keys in her hand is a ticking time bomb.

So is sin. So are all the ways we refuse to love and to be loved. It’s not just my business. Sometimes someone needs to take us aside and say, “I’m concerned about you. Consider letting go of those keys you are gripping so tight.”

Of course, that hurts.

In that way, sin is like a splinter in your finger that needs to be removed before it becomes infected and makes the whole body sick. It hurts to have somebody poke at a splinter. It hurts even when you are the one doing the poking.

When my five-year-old daughter gets a splinter now, she won’t tell me. She has learned that splinters mean tweezers and scraping and crying and hurt. Better to just pretend there is no splinter: “What splinter?”

Do you know what? Sometimes I want to pretend she doesn’t have a splinter, too, because taking it out is going to hurt me as much as her. I want to look at her finger and say, “What splinter?” And I can almost persuade myself that my looking the other way is called “love.”

But Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this: “Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to ... sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a [sister or a] brother back from the path of sin.”

Point out the splinter, Jesus says. That is called “love.” Blessed be the tie that ... binds.

We take the risk of loving truthfulness because we know that sin is more than my business. It is the community’s business. But we are able to take this risk in the first place because we are a people who know our sins are forgiven and who have pledged to forgive each other.

We often hear Matthew 18:15-20 as a spiritual “three strikes and you’re out” law.

But Matthew 18 is less like “three strikes and you’re out” and more like “you’ve left the playing field, and we’d like to invite you back into the game.” It isn’t about punishment but restoration. It is ultimately about peace, and the kind of forgiveness that makes peace possible.

Jesus’ words on confronting a sister or a brother who has sinned come right after the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus says the return of the one who has drifted away is more precious in the eyes of heaven than the dependable fidelity of the 99 who stayed.

It’s clear that the process Jesus describes isn’t about kicking someone off the island but winning back those who by their words or actions have left the fold, whether they’ve realized it or not.

These words also come just before Jesus’ command to Peter to practice forgiveness without calculation, to forgive 70-times-seven times, and to be nothing like the unforgiving servant who has received enough mercy to cover the mountain of his mistakes yet refuses to forgive the molehill in another.

So Jesus’ command to point out a sister’s or brother’s fault comes literally within what Dale Allison calls a “buffer of grace,” both before and after. It is the peanut butter and jelly in a mercy sandwich. To try to practice this command apart from the mutual forgiveness that surrounds it on both sides is like trying to order a hamburger without the bun.

Loving truthfulness stands upon a foundation of mercy.

Only forgiven sinners who have promised to forgive each other could ever be so honest with each other. The promise of forgiveness assures the future. It creates a safe space for guilty truth to be named and moved past without crippling insecurity and fear. Only forgiven people who do not fear their past can live without fear of their neighbor -- and thus truly love their neighbor.

Jesus calls us to tell the truth in love because sin is not just my business.

Jesus calls us to practice loving truthfulness because forgiveness has prepared a place for our sisters and brothers to help us to be freed not only from the guilt of sin but also from its power. And finally, Jesus calls us to practice Matthew 18 because we can, because he has given the community the discernment and the authority to do so, and because he is with us when we do.

Jesus tells us, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

This has always sounded ominous to me, as if we are to take upon ourselves the authority to decide who is forgiven -- untied and let into the kingdom -- and who is left handcuffed to the consequences of their brokenness.

But scholars like John Howard Yoder and Mark Alan Powell have argued that the language of binding and loosing was used by rabbis to describe whether or not a particular scriptural commandment applies to a specific situation.

“Binding and loosing” is language of ethical discernment, of determining right and wrong in a given case. According to Powell, Jewish rabbis “bound” a law when they determined that a commandment applied to a given situation, and they “loosed” a law when they determined that it, though eternally valid, did not apply under certain circumstances.

Individual people are not bound or loosed. The law is bound or loosed.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus “binds” the law against murder to apply even when we are angry with or want to insult a brother or sister. It applies to the disposition of our heart and not just to the actual commission of the deed.

In other places, Jesus “looses” the law of the Sabbath so that it doesn’t apply to the hungry picking grain or to helping someone who is ill. “Binding and loosing” is shorthand for scriptural interpretation and application to a particular case.

Essentially, Jesus says, “I trust you as a community to decide, together, when to bind and when to loose. I trust you to determine how to apply Scripture, to discern what is sin and what is not, to be able to tell wisely when to call people to account and when to look past their faults. Whatever you bind, heaven will ratify; and whatever you allow, heaven will ratify too. I will have your back. You can do this. You will be able to make these decisions -- prayerfully, not alone but together -- how to seek peace and address sin in wise and gracious ways. You can do this. I trust you.”

We often think, “Who am I to determine these things? Who are we to decide what is wrong or right?” But Jesus says, “You are the church, and I give you the authority to do this. You can do it.”

So knowing that sin is not just my business, knowing that mutual forgiveness is the air we breathe, knowing that Christ gives the community the wisdom it needs to interpret Scripture, when someone wrongs us, we first look in the mirror at the two-by-four of brokenness in our own eye before we examine the toothpick in theirs.

Then, instead of going behind the sister’s or brother’s back and complaining to others of what they have done or said, we meet with the other person directly, privately, face to face.

If our heart is made right through prayer, if what we are seeking is the healing of relationship and not the punishment of a guilt trip, we might start with a simple, “Can we talk?”

The early Methodists made it a point to practice this. Wesley admonished members of the societies not to complain about their leaders behind their backs but to share their concerns or complaints directly, face to face -- something I wish members of staff-parish personnel committees still practiced.

“Can we talk?”

And if that private talk doesn’t create reconciliation or persuade the stray to listen, then Jesus advises that two witnesses be brought along for a second meeting.

The witnesses aren’t meant to be extra muscle to lean on the stubborn one. They are not supposed to be on anyone’s side but are meant to protect both parties. They are an extra set of eyes and ears to help understand what is going on -- maybe even to serve as mediators to help “bind” and “loose,” to help determine the various degrees of right and wrong.

The ultimate goal is peace, right relationship -- not punishment.

And if those two or three discern that the straying one is in the wrong but refuses to make it right, the whole church is brought in to discern and compassionately appeal for restoration.

It is only then, after all this has been tried, that the sister or brother is to be treated like a Gentile or a tax collector. Presumably, this means they are treated as one who needs conversion -- but also that the church will treat them the way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors: giving them food, eating with them, helping their family members, and inviting them to right their wrongs and be a disciple.

“Can we talk? I’m a little concerned about you ...”

It’s not easy to start or hear such conversations.

But toward the end of Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus offers one last promise that makes it possible for us to put his words into practice: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

We often take these words as an assurance that even if there are just a few of us present in the church, Jesus is always there.

But here, Jesus says these words in the context of two or three people who have met to struggle together through issues of sin and conflict, forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus assures us that whenever we wrestle together with these things, whenever we struggle to determine how to apply discipline with graciousness, whenever we attempt to discern where to bind and when to loose, Jesus will be there.

Pastors often say that they would like to learn more about conflict resolution, about managing conflict in the church. And that is a good thing.

But I wonder at times if that is just another way of saying that they want a smooth technique to get rid of conflict altogether, that they long for a church without any disagreements, without sin.

We secretly hope that a foolproof, money-back-guaranteed method will remove the splinter without pain, without hard conversations or Matthew 18. Yet Jesus implies that a church without the pain of conflict may be a church without Jesus -- because it is precisely when people are trying to wrestle with these issues that Jesus promises to be there. What a divided world needs is not a church free of conflict and sin but a church that models how sin and conflict can be transformed into peace.

We were standing in line to receive Communion at the closing worship of the clergy conference I had just directed.

After organizing all the worship services and having them come off without major disaster, I was just relieved that the service was nearly over. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. Behind me was an older pastor with a crew cut, large glasses and a stern look in his eye.

“Young man, can I talk to you for a moment?” he said over the music swelling in the background. (It wasn’t a question but a statement.)

“Over the past few days I have noticed that we haven’t had any of our Native American pastors who are here participate in the leadership of worship. We have had other ethnic groups represented, but many of us who are Lumbee have gone through a lot just to be ordained, and we would like to be recognized and included, too.”

He was right.

In planning the services, my too-monochrome white imagination had left out a group of our brothers and sisters in leadership. I didn’t know what to say, so I said what Jesus’ people had taught me to say. I told the truth. “Brother, you are right. I am sorry, and I ask your forgiveness.”

“You have it,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. “But please remember this in the future.”

We each filed back into line to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, sinners with our hands out for mercy, a hymn of grace in the background.

And even though I was still upset at myself for my mistake, and still smarting from having yet another splinter removed, I was strangely thankful that I was part of a group of people for whom such an exchange is even possible -- people who are unwilling to settle for pseudocommunity but who are after true community in Jesus, because there is nothing else like it.

Jesus was there that day as we went to receive Holy Communion -- and not just in the bread and the wine.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.