Sermon for Sept. 7, 2008, Ordinary 23, Matthew 18:15-20

The Hatfield Clan

The Hatfields, the McCoys, and the Christians

The feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys is part of American folk-lore now.  It was just after the Civil War in the back country of West Virginia and Kentucky.  It started – well there are several versions of how it started – perhaps over a pig.

Whose pig is it if it’s on my property?  The issue was really whose property is it?: a land dispute.

The fight over the pig and the property went from the woods to the court house and then back into the woods where the first dead body fell.

Between 1880 and 1891, the feud claimed more than a dozen members of the two families.

How are we supposed to respond when someone sins against us?  Of course the Hatfield and McCoy method is bizarrely extreme, but what are the alternatives?

One summer when I was in college, I had a little house painting  business.  I was giving an estimate to a lady who had a son about 10 years old.

As we walked around the house she complained about the previous painter’s work.  Her son kept saying, “Just sue him mom, sue him for all he’s worth.”

I have read that every law suit is a triumph: it is a victory of civil society over vigilanteism and vengeance.  I agree, but does that mean every suit is justified?

How are we supposed to respond when someone sins against us?  What is at stake in our choice of responses?

And one more question: what is the spiritual relevance of this discussion.  If we are not murdering like the Hatfields and McCoys in our quest to get our needs met, aren’t we on safe grounds with God?

There are several important issues here – and we need this text.  But let me start here.

Christianity puts a lot of emphasis on forgiveness.  Next week we are going to hear Jesus speak strongly on that subject.  But we start the discussion here for an important reason.

This thing that we are a part of together – the church – is not what it appears on the surface at all.  Look at us: we look like we could be having a Rotary meeting or a Town Hall forum.

But something is going on here that is far more significant.  We are a community of people whom God has called into being.  We are not just friends, we are now a family, brothers and sisters of the same Father.

God has brought us together into this family for an enormous reason: we are the point of his spearhead into a world of evil.  We are meant to be demonstrating by our life together what God is able to accomplish.

We are not just people who heard the Good News of the gospel and responded; nor are we simply people who have the Good News to share with others.

Rather, we are the church: the family of God: the people whose relationships with each other are a demonstration of the power of the Spirit of God.

We are not just a community: we are an alternative community, standing out as light does against the darkness, showing what it means that redemption is real.  This is what this text is about.

Let’s look at this text closely:

1.  Bad things happen

First, a reality check:

We start with the fact that in every community, friction happens:

15“If another member of the church sins against you

The “if” can also be translated “whenever” – it happens.

2.  Response can be pro-active

The next word is crucial: “go“.  Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche accused Christianity of being a slave religion because it taught people to forgive and turn the other cheek instead of defending themselves.

Is that what Jesus taught?  Should battered wives just keep silent?  Should victims suffer while perpetrators go free? Forgiveness is a huge topic and Jesus has a lot to say about it, but the conversation starts here:  When someone sins against us, we do not have to remain passive.  We can work to bring justice to the situation.

3.  The goal is restoration, not revenge

So, bad things happen, we do not have to be passive, we can act, so now notice something huge: the goal of our responsive action is always restoration, never revenge.  Listen again:

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.

The goal of our responsive action to being wronged is never to punish for the sake of personal satisfaction – that is called vengeance – and it is just as true whether the method is the Hatfield and McCoy strategy or the legal law suit.

Are we against all lawsuits? No; as we said, they are civil society’s alternative to the vigilantes and the Hatfields.

But the primary function of a lawsuit is to hold people responsible: when they become merely a tool for seeking  vengeance the motivation has become evil.

And this easy evil of revenge in the courts hurts us all.  One of the huge contributing factors to the astronomical rise in health care costs is the price of legal vengeance in the courts – and we all pay for it dearly.

But let’s get back to the point.  The goal is to “regain” the one who wronged us.  The goal is restoration.  Why?

This community called the church  puts a high value on  relationships.  It is not a light thing that there is a conflict in the family.

  • Neither side to the conflict is dispensable.
  • Both are made in the image of God.
  • Both have been redeemed by Jesus Christ.
  • Both have come to know his loving mercy: it is of highest importance that we find a way through our conflicts – for to do otherwise denies far too much of what we believe.

Implication:

  • If God loves you, can I not?
  • If God has forgiven you, can I not?
  • If God has adopted you into his family, you and I are in the same family – neither of us wins if one of us does at the expense of the other.

Can you imagine how a father would feel if two sons fought and the winner came to him and proudly announced his victory? The father would have cause to grieve, not to celebrate.

So, to this point, this text has taught us that yes, conflict happens, and that when it does, we do not have to stay the victim; we can respond, but that our response is always for restoration of family relationships, never for revenge.

4.  The Community is affected

Sometimes it is impossible to accomplish restoration alone.  So the next thing that this text says is that there are times when the community has to get involved.

16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church;

The mechanism for this step is not spelled out in detail, but I want us to see the underlying assumption here: conflict in the family is a concern of the whole family, not just the parties to the conflict.

Conflict happens, and when it does, the community, the family has a stake in the outcome.  There are no disinterested parties.  If the conflict is not resolved, we all loose.

Why?  Because, again, we are the Church.  We are that alternative community in which every one of us has personally been touched by grace and experienced mercy.

Of all people on the earth, we are the ones who have the capacity NOT to be a toxic family of poisoned relationships.

And if we ever fail, the failure is not just of a pair of people to reconcile, it is a failure of our family to be who we are in Christ; and that failure is huge.

5.  There is a limit

So, when conflict happens, it affects the entire community.  But what do we do when the conflict seems to be interminable?  What if one of the parties simply refuses reconciliation?

Pause: life is complex and this small text cannot consider every possible situation.
Is an abused wife supposed to go for more if the church is satisfied that the abuser has repented?  We all know that it is far more complicated than that.

But most human conflicts are about pigs in the woods.  Most of them are about:

  • getting our feelings hurt;
  • feeling snubbed,
  • being insulted,
  • feeling put down.

These are the vast majority of our family fights.

In these cases, the only reason reason a person would have to refuse reconciliation is simply pride.

And here is the problem:

  • if a person has no intention of living as a member of this alternative community;
  • if a person’s pride is so strong that they will not show mercy,
  • if a person is content to live with a permanently poisoned relationship and will not apply the antidote,

then, there is a limit to what the community can take.

Too much is at stake to allow a poisoned person to make the whole family toxic.

17… if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

In other words, an outsider.

There is a deep irony here – and I’m sure Matthew intended it.

Those two terms, tax collector and gentile, are formulaic; they are slang that everyone recognizes for the “bad guys who are not in our group and not like us.”

And yet Matthew has already narrated for us the stories of Jesus accepting tax collectors and gentiles into his new alternative community.  (8:5-13; 9:10-11; 15:21-28)

The irony is that the door is open to this family of radical relationships, but there is a door.

The tax collectors and gentiles are able to receive grace and mercy; they are not excluded; but when they do, when they come in the door, then they must be people of mercy in return.

Jesus prayed a prayer that is as alarming as it gets, that sums up all that we have said today.  In what we call the Lord’s prayer, he says, “Forgive us our debts, AS we forgive our debtors“.

That “as we forgive” scares me.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are never the default position.  But to this we have been called.

And look at the affect of that call.  We have the opportunity to live into a family of radical mercy and reconciliation.  What an alternative to the small, dark, miserable family of Hatfields or McCoys.

Conflicts happen: and because they do, and because resolving them is so crucial, it is in the context of resolving conflicts that we get this promise:

20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

Do you think resolving conflicts is important to our Lord?

He reserved his promise of being present among us to the moment in which he was instructing us about conflicts – those times when he feels the most absent.

Conflicts happen; but God is present in them to teach us how to be god-like: to be a radically alternative family of reconciled relationships: the church!   Praise be to God!

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