Matthew 18: 15-22
Immediately after college I served as a volunteer in mission in New Mexico. While I was there the local church music director offered to teach me organ lessons in exchange for working as her piano accompanist for the music and voice classes she taught at the local community college. It was my first experience with the organ but after just a couple weeks, the music director called me one Sunday morning saying she was very ill and would I play for her in church that day. Well, as a very nervous new organist I agreed. The service went fine and afterwards people were very positive about how things had gone. Three days later I received a letter in the mail. The letter was written by Sally, a long term member, the widow of a Presbyterian Minister, and a fellow musician. When I opened the letter the first thing I noticed was that it actually was not addressed to me. Instead, it was a copy of a letter she had written to the pastor, the music director, the worship committee, and every member of the session. She wrote,
“I was appalled on Sunday to hear the abominable organ playing done by Barbara Barkley. She was a disaster. I have rarely heard anything so disgraceful in church. I’m writing to you in the hope that you will see to it that such an atrocity does not again take place.”
She concluded her letter by writing,
“In the future, I would be happy to voluntarily serve as a substitute organist at any time. With love, Sally.”
As you can imagine, I was devastated. Moreover, I was humiliated. I had never before received anything like such a letter, and I was absolutely cut to the quick. For a moment I thought it might be a joke. But that idea was soon banished by a phone call I received from the music director, followed by another from the pastor. They each were kind and reassuring in their own ways. The music director assured me that Sally was just upset that I had been asked to play instead of her. The pastor told me that I should feel I had really made it in their congregation: I wasn’t really part of the in-crowd at the church until I had received a devastating letter from Sally, something he received on a regular basis as well as most of the leadership in the church. He also told me he thought I’d played well. But for all their kind words, I still felt so ashamed that I wondered if I would ever again be able to show my face at the church, let alone continue to study organ. A part of my confidence, my enthusiasm for learning and trying new things, my spirit was broken, a part that it took a long time to heal. Sally sinned against me on that day. She was right to say how she felt. But out of love, she should have talked to me, alone and in person. She was right to express her concerns, but in love, she should have been more careful about the words she chose and how she chose to use them.
But actually, it is not about Sally’s errors that I wish to focus today. Instead, it is my own sin and sins of my cohorts at the church of which I want to speak. It is about the lack of a loving response on my part, on the part of the pastor and music director and yes, on the part of the session. Because we all responded to the letter - by ignoring it. I ignored it, as I ignored Sally from then on, out of fear. She had hurt me once, what would she do or say if I actually spoke to her? The choir director ignored it because, as she said, “Sally is old and set in her ways. She can’t really change at this point.” The session ignored it because they received so many of these kinds of letters from Sally that they discounted them without a second thought. And the pastor ignored it in the name of “forgiveness.” “We need to forgive Sally,” he said, “by just letting it go.”
But in our failure to confront, each of us missed an opportunity for growth, and we failed to heal the wounds. We also failed to prevent future hurtful letters to be written by her hands. Most importantly, we failed to really hear Sally and we missed an opportunity to care for her in one of the truest senses of the word.
It is hard to confront. It is hard to face people who are angry with us or with whom we are angry or upset. And so we often choose to take the easy way out and not deal directly with the hurts and wrongs others have done to us. We justify this in a number of ways, “It wouldn’t do any good to say anything” or “I can just as easily process this with someone else and then let it go.” or my favorite, “I don’t need to confront because I have forgiven them.” But in today’s passage, Jesus does not say, “talk to those who have sinned against you IF you are still angry with them.” He does not say, “Talk to them IF you think it will do any good.” Jesus tells us to confront those in our community who have hurt us. To act in a loving way, to act as a brother or sister to one another necessitates telling people the hard truth about how things affect us, how we feel, how another person’s actions have impacted us.
We confront to let go of our own anger so that we can really see each other as brothers and sisters. We confront to help one another grow and walk together in our Christian journeys. We confront so that other brothers and sisters are not hurt in the same way as we were. Most importantly, we confront as a sign that we think the ones who have hurt us are important enough to deserve our communication, our honesty, even our correction leading to our ultimate forgiveness.
Jesus follows his instructions on confrontation with the command to forgive one another. These two passages flow together: they are part of the same act. Communicating hard truths is a necessary part of forgiveness because it says that I love you enough to not let anything come between us. And I love you enough to want to work with you, together, in our growing.
God does not leave us simply with the difficult direction to lovingly confront. Jesus gives us guidelines on how we are to deal with one another in our pain, how we are to lovingly confront. And yet, the directions that Jesus gives us are not easy. The first direction is perhaps the most difficult of all. When someone has hurt or wronged us, the first thing we are to do is to go to the person themself and face to face express our pain and our opinions. This is difficult. I would much rather write a letter, forget about it, or get someone else to talk to the person for me. We often want, and too often choose, to discuss the problem with other people. Or at least process it with other people first. We want to get our thoughts together, we want another’s opinion, we want support. But whatever our good intentions in talking to others, often our conversations become gossip. Our conversations with others can intensify our judgments of one another, and can bring others into a problem that is not their own. After receiving Sally’s letter, I didn’t want to confront her, so I talked about her instead to the music director, the pastor and anyone else who would listen and care. My words about her expressed my own hurt, but they were also condemning, critical and judging. And through my pain, I incited others’ anger and judgment against her as well. It wasn’t my intention to do this. But in not dealing with Sally directly, these were the consequences.
In the church especially, avoiding loving confrontation can be damaging. We are a close-knit community. And so when there is a problem and it is not dealt with directly, the one hurt can end up bottling the pain. More often I think when someone in the church is upset with something we have done, we will still hear critique. But it will come through a third party. But there are many problems with this. First of all, almost always when we are upset about something it says more about us than it does about whatever we are upset about. The real problems cannot therefore be addressed when issues are spoken about as coming from an anonymous person. Secondly, when a person hears critique out of context, they often are unable to know what exactly they have done to cause the upset and so they can’t really use the criticism to fix the problem or to grow. We can also focus on the other person’s failure to speak directly about the problem and avoid looking at our own part. Also when we do not know exactly where critique has come from we can feel that the church itself is judging us. The anonymous accuser becomes in our minds a menacing group or even the church itself. The church stops feeling safe or a place where we can trust and learn.
James Angell in his book, “Yes is a world” wrote, “Church ought to be a set of moments when we become most expansively, openly and honestly ourselves. Yet it is in the church where we often find it hardest to be ourselves: where we are often the most guarded, the most paranoid, the most unsure of being accepted and understood.” The church is a place in which, every Sunday, we take time to acknowledge our broken-ness and our need for God’s forgiveness to make us whole. But it still remains difficult for us to lovingly speak truth to one another thereby helping one another grow towards wholeness.
In our legal system we have rules that insist that an accused person has the right to see and hear their accuser. Accusations are not admissible in court if they remain anonymous. How much more so should this be the case in our church? We are to be as family to one another. The passage that we read today uses the phrase, “if another member sins against you,” but the word translated here as “another member” is actually “brother” in Greek. With family we don’t have to hide behind anonymity. We are called to be fully who we are, to speak directly, to trust that love will carry us through any conflict. And finally, when we do not want others to know what we are saying, that may be a call for us to actually look at what we are saying, to determine if it is really appropriate, true, and helpful or if it is simply hurtful.
There are times when taking the risk of speaking directly will lead us to nothing, when the person who has hurt us will not listen. It is at that point and only at that point that Jesus asks us to invite others in the church to witness and listen. But the key words here are “witness” and “listen”. The other church members are there to aid in the conversation, but they remain observers. The discussion itself still remains between the one hurt and the one being confronted.
The directions that Jesus gives us for confrontation are not easy. But we alone suffer the consequences of not following Jesus’ words. Because I never confronted Sally, my fear of her and her judgment remained with me. It took me eight years after receiving her letter before I could even mention the story with people who weren’t directly involved in the situation. And while I can share about it now, simply talking to her at the time might have saved me years of shame and insecurity.
Was Sally wrong? Was she unkind? Was she just unnecessarily cruel in her words and manner of addressing this? Of course. We are called to be direct – a letter is not direct. But more importantly, we are called to speak to one another in love. Attacking words, an attacking posture, attacking, angry language is also not okay. We are called to be direct, but still loving. And that must affect how we speak things, how we phrase things, and the posture with which we speak. But recognizing Sally’s fault in this does not, did not give us permission to act in a similarly unloving way. Failing to talk to her, ignoring her unkindness, ignoring her was unkind, and I was the one left scarred by that decision.
Jesus asks a lot of us. And loving confrontation may seem to be one more difficult task for us to take on. But, each of Jesus’ instructions are gifts to the person asked to do them. So today we celebrate the gift that Jesus has given us in this request to lovingly confront one another. We celebrate that we are family to each other and we are called to love each other enough to risk telling the truth, face to face, to our brothers and sisters. We celebrate that as we confront, we ourselves will grow in our ability to care, to understand, to remember that even those who hurt us are human and make mistakes just as we do. We will grow in our ability to forgive and truly love one another.