One thing you can count on at least every four years (if not every 2 years) in November is an awkward Thanksgiving dinner. Because, of course, every few years Thanksgiving comes shortly after an election. The memes on social media reveal that this is true in many families. A quick search revealed an image of a pie with a politically oriented catchphrase spelled out in crust on it and the words “when you’re invited to Thanksgiving dinner but asked not to talk about politics.” As in, “I’m not talking about politics, but I am making pastry crusts about politics.” I saw another that says “Be sure to bring up politics during Thanksgiving dinner. It will save you money on Christmas gifts!”
In some families, there doesn’t have to be a special reason for dinner to get weird, it just does one way or the other. So, for many families, folks gather around the table a bit nervous perhaps about whose off-color joke is going to make the table go quiet, or who will show up with a hat or t-shirt that makes others uncomfortable. And maybe in your family the tension has other sources. I saw another meme that had a mom saying to her adult child “Well, at least your turkey isn’t as dry as last year,” and below, the words “Thanksgiving: Keeping therapists in business since 1621.” In my family, there’s always some passive aggressive comment about the time my mom made mashed potatoes despite the fact that my very capable sister had signed up for them on the shared Thanksgiving family Google doc. This was in 2015 and my sister will die mad about it. Nothing is more insulting than not being trusted to follow through on the mashed potatoes, apparently. Similarly, there’s a certain food that we all now rush to sign up for because one person’s version is terrible every single year. (I have to keep that vague since this is streaming and could be used against me in the future.) Whether it’s politics, religion, someone’s boyfriend, if it’s alright to leave the TV on during dinner, or something else, every family can find something to be frustrated about on Thanksgiving. We’re so accustomed to complicated family dynamics, that we can joke about it. Sadly, there’s plenty of complicated church dynamics too; there can be just as much conflict, passive aggressiveness, and unkindness.
So maybe we can relate to what we read in Matthew 18 about what to do when one member of the church family wrongs another. The Gospel of Matthew was written about a generation after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The church itself was still forming, and so of course it was necessary to remember Jesus’ teachings about conflict in the community.
Understanding these five verses begins with understanding their context. Just before this teaching, Jesus speaks very strongly against doing anything that causes harm to new believers, or as he calls them, “little ones.” Matthew’s version of the parable of the lost sheep is a little different than we find it in the other Gospels. The implication in Matthew is that those who follow Christ are compelled to seek those who have gotten lost. That we should leave the 99 to pursue our brothers and sisters who need us. We then come to our reading today, as you heard it just a few moments ago. But immediately following those five verses, we read Jesus telling Peter that if another member of the church sins against us we are to forgive them 77 times, by which, of course, he means forgive them forever, forgive them every time.
So, to back up and understand today’s passage, we have to understand that it is wrapped into this context of forgiveness and community, of going the distance for one another, and not giving up on one another. Another thing to remember is that there’s a little something lost here in translation, and different translations render this passage differently. The Greek says something more like “if your brother sins against you,” implying that these are instructions for those in a close relationship, not just a random person you met at church. Also, the word translated as church, ekklesia, didn’t necessarily mean “church” as we understand it today. That word literally means “called out” and before the Christian church developed, it was used to describe any kind of distinctive group. It’s not just the local congregation, it’s your neighbors, your coworkers, your friend group, and yes, even your family. So, while we may want to apply this only to members of Pocket Presbyterian Church, it really could and should have a wider meaning. “If a close friend in your circle sins against you…” here is a process for moving forward.
Jesus’ advice is pretty straightforward on the surface. There are four steps. First, we are to address the issue privately. There’s no gossip, no analyzing this with your partner and other friends, no vague Facebook statuses- you are to go to your brother or sister and try to talk about the situation. And hopefully you can resolve things and move on. But if not, try again, this time with another friend or two who can help provide some perspective and perhaps some mediation. If that doesn’t work, then you take the issue to the wider community for help. And if even that fails, Matthew tells us “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” I’ll come back to that part.
But first, I want to address the previous steps. The first is the importance of addressing conflict, of facing issues head on. It’s so much easier to ignore issues, right? To pretend that everything is okay and your feelings aren’t hurt or that someone didn’t behave badly? Most of us would prefer to hope that problems will resolve on their own. But the reality is that we can’t count on that. Sometimes we hold on to these hurts until resentment makes us write someone off completely. When it matters, we have to tackle issues directly. We need to respect the other person enough to deal with the issue head on, honestly and openly. Some things can only be healed when they’re brought to light.
But think about this too- why is it worth all this trouble? What would cause someone to push so hard on an issue? I can only think of two reasons- either you hate someone and want to see them publicly embarrassed and shamed, which obviously seems inconsistent with everything we know about Jesus, or you love someone enough to pursue peacemaking wholeheartedly. This process is not about destroying an enemy, it’s about loving someone with whom you’ve experienced conflict. It’s about living with the deep hope of reconciliation.
And then of course we read that if all your efforts fail, you should treat that person like a tax collector or a Gentile. And perhaps Jesus’ audience would have heard that and been like “oh, got it! We get to despise these people, treat them like outcasts, and be done with them forever.” Or would they have? I wonder if Jesus’ audience would have heard these words and thought about how Jesus behaved towards tax collectors and Gentiles. Could it be that the author of Matthew wants us to read verse 17 and be like 'hey, wait a minute. Didn't Jesus eat with tax collectors and heal Gentiles?' Could it be that Matthew’s audience would remember that Matthew himself was a tax-collector who became a disciple? Could it be that the author wants us to know that we may choose to remove those people from our tables, but they will still be at Jesus' table? And if we want to dine with Jesus, we must find a way to be reconciled to their presence.
Who can say exactly what was intended by this passage? But the tension is very clearly there, and I think we are invited to use what we know about Jesus, about God, to determine our response to conflict in our relationships. And there will be conflict in our relationships. It’s unavoidable. Whether you’re upset because someone else made mashed potatoes, or you can’t agree on political or social issues, or you just plain don’t like someone, it’s in moments of strife that we practice loving. Because of course, love is not a feeling so much as it is behavior flowing from a feeling.
So when we think back to today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are reminded that ultimately, avoiding sin and fulfilling the law is done by loving one another. “Owe no one anything,” Paul writes, “except to love one another.” That is the debt we will never pay off. No matter the circumstance, we must always strive to love one another- a lesson Jesus taught at the table. We must be compelled to love one another even more than we love being right.
Sometimes I wonder if you all get tired of hearing me say “love one another” over and over, but I was encouraged by this story about John the Evangelist. Church tradition tells us that John the evangelist wrote the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation, and that he preached in the town of Ephesus until he died in the year 100, well into his nineties. Dan Clendenin tells the ancient story this way:
“At that age, John was so feeble that he had to be carried into the church at Ephesus on a stretcher. Then, when he could no longer preach a normal sermon, he would lean up on one elbow. The only thing he said was, “Little children, love one another.” People would then carry him back out of the church.
This continued for weeks, says Jerome. And every week he repeated his one-sentence sermon: “Little children, love one another.”
Weary of the repetition, the congregation finally asked, "Master, why do you always say this?"
"Because," John replied, "it is the Lord's command, and if this only is done, it is enough."
Little children, love one another. Even when it is hard, even when you are hurt, even when you know you are right, love one another. Feast on love and let it be present at all of your tables. Amen.