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"Why can't we just get along?
Mt 18:15-20
Jim from B.C.

I'm sure you've all heard of Gilbert and Sullivan, who together wrote comic operas like HMS Pinafore, the Pirates of Penzance, and the Mikado. Arthur Sullivan, by the way, wrote the music to the famous hymn "Onward, Christian Soldiers". Well, what you might NOT know is that Gilbert and Sullivan didn't get along well, and one day they got into an argument over the cost of a new carpet for their Savoy theatre. They blew up in anger, and never spoke to each other from then on, as long as they lived. There's a line from a song, that goes: "Why can't we just get along?" Why DO people have such trouble getting along with each other? You'd think it would be easy: I treat you decently and you treat me decently. You be friendly to your next-door neighbour and your next-door neighbour be friendly to you. If a problem comes up, sit down and talk it out. What could be easier? Then again, if we all got along, there'd be nothing for the lawyers and the courts and the mediators to do! We'd put thousands of people out of work, and the economy would go bust! No danger there! BECAUSE of something called "SIN" in the world, which was present right from the get-go, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. You may recall that Adam and Eve began to blame each other for what went wrong, and they began to wear clothes for the first time. That was a sign of the psychological distance that had come between them, a sign that they had something to hide, namely, their own sins. In theology we make a distinction between sin and sins. Sins are the wrongs we do, the trespasses and the deeds of commission and omission. Sin (without the final s) is the evil within us that leads to commit sins. Sin i the propensity for evil in everyone, that St. Augustine called "original sin": the pride, the hubris, the stubborn self-will, the rebellion against our Maker. And an important aspect of this original sin is our unfaith, our fear or refusal to deal with sins once they happen. You see, it isn't our sins that prevent us from getting along, it's our sin. For SINS, God has provided us with resources, to rectify our misdeeds and recover after our bad choices. For sins, there's always repentance. We can admit our sin and seek forgiveness. All this is because Christ has died on the cross, and through him God has provided full remission for our sins and atonement for the sins of the whole world. So it isn't our sins that prevent us from getting along, it's our Sin with a capital ‘S'. When Ramon Navarez, the famous Spanish patriot, was on his death-bed, his priest asked him if he forgave his enemies. He replied, "Father, I have none. I shot them all." That's one way of getting along with other people: eliminate them. Or, the more modern way is to withdraw and isolate ourselves from those we can't get along with. There are hundreds of other ways to deal with sins, other than God's way of repentance and forgiveness. A century or two ago, men would fight duels at sunrise, to settle their differences. They could have settled them some other way, perhaps, but it was a matter of pride, you see. It was preferable to die than to give in and appear to be weak. At the root, choosing these other ways is to playing God. It's trying to be your own God, which is a good definition of original sin. Instead of following God's way of repentance and forgiveness to dealing with everyday sins, we often would rather keep our sins a secret; or blast our accusers and silence them. Or, if our sins are exposed, blame someone else for them, or blame society, or blame unlucky circumstances. Then there's the option of rationalizing our actions, rationalizing our sins away. Or playing the victim: throwing up our hands and saying: "There was nothing I could do. And there's still nothing I can do. It just happened and I have to live with it." There are a thousand and one ways of avoiding the narrow path that GOD has provided to deal with sins, namely repentance and forgiveness. In churches and in congregations, sins are especially difficult to deal with. You'd think we Christians would be so much better off, because we know about God's way. According to last week's Gospel Lesson, we have been given the Keys of the Kingdom, to bind and loose (as Jesus said). In the church, we all have the authority to forgive sins or to retain sins. One major problem is: we expect each other to be better behaved than the average guy on the street. So sins in the church often take us by surprise, or offend us more than they normally would in our work life or family life. We expect sins out there in the world, but not in church life. We're supposed to be holier than normal! Some congregations, as you probably know, become very unevangelical and legalistic, especially regarding sexual sins. For the reasons I mentioned, it's easy to become hyper-critical and judgmental. So in churches you'll often find bluenoses, sin- sniffers who are just waiting to catch someone doing something wrong, so they can blow the whistle. "Aha! I caught you! You're outa here!" Then there are congregations who are quite the opposite: evangelical, caring and loving. Their temptation is to cover up misdeeds, or gloss over them. "Ah, forget about it. It's nothing. Why rock the boat? Keep the peace. Avoid conflict and bad feelings." Uh uh uh uh! That's not God's way. Trespasses MUST be brought to the surface and the consequences squarely faced, so there can be forgiveness, if possible, and the offended parties reconciled. Reconciliation is always the ultimate goal, even in today's Gospel Lesson, with these three steps that Jesus gives on how to deal with sins. Sometimes people get hung up on the third step here (called excommunication), because it looks like alienation, and I suppose it is, penultimately. It's ostracism, or what some denominations have called "shunning". What does this have to do with reconciliation? Well, excommunication is merely a means to jolt an unrepentant sinner into seeing his own sin, and hopefully to repent, so that that person can be welcomed back into the family. The ultimate goal in dealing with sins is always reconciliation. These three steps in today's Gospel Lesson are the simplest way of bringing sins to the surface, into the light. Each step is difficult and can be unpleasant. But if we don't follow these three steps, the offense will fester and poison the atmosphere, damage relationships, and erode trust between people. The first step is the step of honesty and forthrightness. Notice first of all that this step (and all of them) require that the injured party to take the initiative to restore the relationship, and the injured party is to do it right away. The practical effect of that is to cut short brooding and sulking, which poisons the individual, and the whole church. The famous preacher Fred Craddock once said, "One cannot always avoid being a victim, but one can avoid the victim mentality." The person who perceives himself or herself to have been injured must seek out the person who caused that injury, to confess the hurt that it caused, and to bring the issue out onto the table, into the open, in an effort to achieve reconciliation. Sometimes the offending person might not even be aware of the offense, or if they're aware of the offense, not of the effects of it. The second thing that's striking here is that this first initiative takes place at the lowest level: person to person. You don't talk to anyone else about the offence until all avenues of person-to-person reconciliation have been exhausted. If it stays between those two individuals, the injured party and the perpetrator, then there's a minimum of embarrassment, and the maximum opportunity for reconciliation. A United Methodist pastor in the U.S. says that whenever someone in her parish comes to her and says something like, "You wouldn't believe what Mary did to me, etc.", she replies, "Gee, Helen, that's terrible. We better go talk with her about that right now." She says that going directly to the accused immediately, has has two effects: First, some relationships are salvaged that otherwise would not have been salvaged. Second, members no longer expect her to be a part of a chain of negative gossip. Gossip is a real temptation, in all groups, but especially in churches. Jesus' method for resolving differences that's here in Matthew 18 obviates gossip. You don't talk to the pastor first, or a council member, or a friend within the congregation; You talk first to the person who offended you or sinned against you. If all goes well, that will be the end of it, and (as Jesus says) "you have gained your brother". If that initiative fails, the injured party takes the second step. But notice, the injured party TAKES THE INITIATIVE once again. He or she does not just bring into the circle of KNOWLEDGE another person or two, but to actually rounds up two or three people, and takes them along to visit the offender, "so that (as Jesus says) every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses." This is the language of Deut. 19, which says that a single witness is not sufficient to convict anybody of an offense. In Matt. 18, however, the goal is reconciliation rather than conviction. You sit down with a few extra people because a group consensus as to what went wrong and its seriousness carries much more weight that just one person. And so, this second step usually resolves the issue, if the first step did not. Finally, if the second initiative fails, the injured party and the witnesses are to (quote-unquote) "tell it to the church." And if the person still refuses to listen, then, our text says, "let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector;" in other words, excommunicated— no longer allowed membership, or to participate. Each of these three steps is very difficult, especially for us modern Christians, because these steps are so direct and forthright. There's no beating about the bush. There's no easy forgiveness or cheap grace. A sin must be surfaced in the proper context, fully acknowledged, confessed, and repented of. Most of us are inclined to forgive too quickly, or jump too quickly to forgiveness, before the guilty party is confronted and the hurts are fully expressed, before the issue is worked through sufficiently. It's difficult work, but necessary. Secondly, we are inclined to regard a person's sins as personal and to discount the effect of those sins on the community. Some sins, of course, we KNOW have a tremendous effect on a community: such as murder or arson or theft of the church treasury. But lesser sins, that we often think of as personal, ALSO affect the whole community. Pierre Trudeau once said that the State should stay out of the bedrooms of the nation, but now with AIDS and similar diseases, we know that even sexual activity in private between two people has a ripple effect upon the whole community. The New Testament tells us that in the Corinthian congregation, a man was living in a sexual relationship with his step-mother, and Paul urged that congregation not to ignore it, but to confront that person and urge them to repent. With the Thessalonian congregation, Paul urges that they do something about the economic sin of freeloading which was going on there. Congregations in those early days often ate meals together or shared their food with other members, otherwise some of them would have starved. In Thessalonika, however, certain members were refusing to work yet were happy to eat what other people had bought. So Paul encouraged those Christians to confront those sins. These procedures in Matthew 18 might seem harsh, but they were designed to protect both the church and the individual. They protected the church by providing a means of resolving conflict that might otherwise tear the church apart. And they protected the individual against unfair charges brought by another individual. But most of all, they were aimed at dealing with sins in a forthright, thorough, expeditious, and least painful manner, a manner that holds out the greatest chance for GENUINE reconciliation in the end. The process of repentance and forgiveness is never simple, but in Matthew 18 it's about as simplified as you can get. Relationships are precious. And when a relationship is broken, it is worth doing all in your power to restore it, and to come to a reconciliation. Look at the trouble God went to, to reconcile his creation to himself! He came to live in this world as Jesus the man, and St Paul says that by his death he has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, black and white. He died for us all, to atone for the sins of all, to open the door for forgiveness for all, so that relationships, if the parties are willing, can be healed in love, and restored under the cross. Jean Vanier, in his recent book "Becoming Human", says we live in a world full of human beings desperately in need of reconciliation, where people have been deeply hurt not only by wars and crime and racism and all the other "isms", but also by people's own churches and parents and families. Not every relationship is salvageable, but he says we must act as if every relationship has the potential. Let us begin to do that by trying to follow today's Gospel Lesson. Let us take the initiative when we've been wronged, and not sit idly by waiting for someone else to act. Amen.