Matthew 18:15-20 Listen!
the stop and think chair
The 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Roy W. Howard
School opened last week and I remembered something from one of the teachers. Like all good teachers she has certain expectations – norms of behavior – for her students. The students agree to these community norms for the classroom that are posted in the room. That’s not new. What I still find intriguing in her classroom is the consequence if someone breaks the norm. When a community rule is broken, the offending student is assigned to the clearly labeled Stop and Think chair.
There he sits ruminating upon his actions and considering what he needs to do to return to the classroom community. (It’s almost always a he.) I wonder if that would work in other settings – like Capital Hill, or home and yes, the Church. It’s a silly thought, but still. Imagine if all communities – even, or especially, those where there is so much blood being shed against one another, so much violence flowing out of their lives; imagine they had a public spot designated for the stop and think chair.
You’ve heard of stop, drop and roll in a fire? How about stop, think and pray in a conflict? You don’t have to be humiliated with a dunce cap; just stop and think.
I remember when a friend came to speak to me about something I had done to him. He began speaking firmly and kindly, as a friend not an enemy, which probably helped me to hear him. As he was speaking clearly from his heart, I felt my own heart being pierced. There was nothing to say in defense, for what he said was true. Although I don’t think I would have come to that conclusion on my own. It took a friend, a brother in Christ, to reveal my blind spot. I wish I had a stop and think chair, (and a prayer closet.)
It was a difficult conversation for both of us. Being vulnerable with one another is often that way. But only by stepping into the discomfort can you ever step out of it. Speaking honestly is uncomfortable because you risk missing the log in your own eye while focusing on the splinter in the other’s eye. One can easily slip from a just complaint to being just judgmental. For me it was difficult and uncomfortable to say the least because hearing one’s own offense shatters self-pretensions. Who doesn’t cling to some illusions about the self? So it was difficult and demanding conversation. Truth-telling brings light to every corner of our hearts. Truth shatters illusions. That’s painful.
But, that’s not all. Here is the thing about becoming vulnerable, speaking honestly and listening non-defensively: it is painful, but it is also deeply healing. For some people it can be transformative. It remains so for me. Even though my offense was not large in the grand scale of sins; no adultery, murder, extortion, bribery; not even gossip, innuendo, slander, deception and backbiting: these are the standard sins of our culture.
The scale of the offense doesn’t matter. In Matthew’s gospel, it’s the healing of the heart and transformation of our lives that Jesus is after when he tells his followers to care enough to confront the one who sins against his brother or sister.
That’s why I’m glad my friend spoke to me. He helped me recognize where our relationship had been broken and to set out on a new way. When the truth compels one to begin a new way, the gospel calls it salvation. It is a gift of God, just as repentance is a gift of grace, not some grit-your-teeth penitential exercise. The good news is that God gives this gift to those hear the truth and open their hearts to a new way of life.
Here’s some more good news: my brother in Christ is still my best friend on the planet. We have spoken honestly to one another now for years. That friendship is one of the finest gifts of my life. I doubt I could say that today if he had not spoken so honestly and so kindly years ago.
If we lived in a perfect world, with perfect families, marriages, friendships, communities and congregations there would be no need for such truth telling. But that is not the world we live in, nor was it for Jesus and the early communities of his followers. If it were there would be no need for Matthew to record these guidelines for how Christians are to handle offenses when they occur among us. It’s Matthew’s version of the stop and think chair.
After years of serving the Church in a variety of settings and congregations for nearly twenty five years, I’ve come to the conclusion that we tolerate a whole lot of bad behavior – what the gospel calls sin – rather than taking the hard way of honest speech aimed at repentance and restoration. This tolerance for bad behavior is not because of humility, love and forbearance. It’s because of the failure to care enough to hold one another accountable for our behavior and the failure to agree on community norms. Whenever bad behavior is tolerated, the whole community is mocked. Many people steer a wide path away from churches because of the bad behavior that goes unchecked and unaccounted for by the participants. They don’t want any part of it. They smell a fish.
I think it is similar to other relationships in our lives. A marriage that tolerates abusive behavior has no life. A family that allows bad behavior without a structure for respect and love is bound for disaster. When I was growing up children out-of-control – which means bad behavior unchecked by a stop and think chair – were often called “little monsters.” That is an apt description of the havoc that occurs in families without boundaries or rules of discipline.
Family life is not much different from congregational life. They are remarkably similar. Matthew knows this. He knows that people can and will sin against one another. People will, in fact, act like “little monsters.” Little monsters is a too polite description of the people whose un-checked violence is spilling out all over the world. For the sake of the health of the community – family, friendship, congress, country and congregation – there must to be rules of discipline and people faithful enough to speak honestly. Just as in family life, the goal is not merely punishment much less banishment, but change toward a new way of living. A friend of mine told his out-of-control young adult son that he must leave his home because the family could no longer tolerate his actions. It was the hardest thing he has ever done in his life. He did it in the hope that it will clear a path for a new life yet to be. When honesty leads to a new way of life that is called salvation. And that is the deep hope for us all.
The gospel teaches us that the way of love is hard for the followers of Jesus. Yet, just as in family life or the classroom, tolerating offenses or even rewarding them by silence serves no good purpose. Matthew teaches that tolerating bad behavior, which is a form of reward, actually destroys the health of the whole community. That is true everywhere, in every form of community.
Sometimes the way of love is hard. That’s true. It’s also true that Jesus – the living Christ – promises to be with us every step of the way. That is good news indeed. At the Lord’s Table we see the visible expression of our vulnerable God whose way is reconciliation and peace. Here we see an alternative way; the way of sharing, the way a community learns forgiveness.
Let us come to the feast of forgiveness that the Lord has graciously set for us.