Proper 18 / Year A
Jesus said, “When two or three are gathered together in my name I will be in the midst of them.” Gathering has changed a great deal since mid-March. We don’t gather often and when we do we keep our distance and we keep it brief. Physical gathering has given way to on-line gathering. Zooms and live-streams are now the norm. I am grateful these are available to us and in some ways they have expanded our ability to be together. Folks who are homebound and folks who have moved out of town and folks who have left town for the long holiday weekend still can participant in today’s service.
When two or three are gathered... we have been hearing this a lot of late through our regular use of the Prayer of St. Chrysostom. This morning we learn the original context of the saying is not worship, but rather conflict. (As an aside, St. Paul’s great chapter on Love – I Corinthians 13 – is not about marriage, but conflict as well. Paul’s description of love is meant to set the bar for how those who disagree are to treat one another.)
In today’s reading Jesus lays out a strategy for addressing a situation when a person has wronged you. First, go to the person privately and speak privately. If the person hears and sincerely apologizes, the bonds of your friendship will be restored. If the person refuses, then you are to speak with one or two others and the three of you go and meet with the person. It is in this context Jesus promises to be present, working in and through your words and the words of the witnesses. If this does not resolve the matter, it is to be brought before the community – the church – and made public. If the person does not listen to the community, he or she is to be shunned and banished.
In one form or another, over the course of my ministry, I have seen this third phase fail time and again and it is always painful. It may be brought on by political differences, personal differences, or church polity differences. It and involve the priest and a parishioner, or it may involve two parishioners, or it may involve family members. When one goes and one stays no one wins. The one who leaves losses the church. The one who stays losses a friend. And the church losses a bit of itself it will never get back.
Thankfully, more times than not, the first or the second phase of Jesus’ teaching results in resolution. Several years ago Betty Ann Kyle lit into John Rector for coming into church toward the end of the service and receiving communion. I mean she lit into him… in the Narthex… with a dozen people around. It hurt John and he decided to write her a letter explaining the situation and elaborating on his feelings. Good for him. And good for Betty Ann because she read the letter and apologized to John and let it be known in the church she had been in the wrong. Betty Ann, who is now telling the Lord how to run things in heaven, was a wonderful person and a deeply faithful Christian. She turned what was one of her worst moments in her into one of her best. I was grateful for how Jesus was in their midst when they gathered together.
A lot can go wrong at the initial step of speaking in private. If you have been offended, it takes a certain amount of tact to state your case. Years ago, at the end of what had been a wonderful parish retreat, a woman came up to me and said, “Can I tell you something about today’s worship service?” “Yes,” I said (we had held it at Shrine Mont’s outdoor chapel). “You are the least spiritual priest I know and I can’t image why they allowed you to be ordained.” I was devastated, standing in front of this woman while I held my two-year-old by the hand with one hand and her tricycle with the other.
Before the service began I prepared the altar, in part, by filling the chalice with wine and water. Because I had to bring these with me from the church I had to find something to contain them safer than the Altar Guild’s fancy and fragile glass cruets, which were being used in the service back at the church for those not at the retreat. Scrounging around for something that would work, I found some small syrup pitchers in the parish kitchen. Perfect, I thought, but I didn’t want them front and center just prior to the Great Thanksgiving, hence the reason I prepared the altar prior to the service. Well, this woman was sitting on a chapel bench at the time and was insulted by these containers. She also told me she was offended that I did not wear any of the church’s beautiful chasubles. Well, they were the personal property of the previous rector and he took them with him.
“You are the least spiritual priest I know.” I can’t imagine a less helpful way to approach a person in a situation like this. It still hurts when I think about it, but I also had enough experiences with this person to be able to consider the source. The Senior Warden talked with her and she half-heartedly apologized to me, but the damage was done. In hindsight, I recognize this as the moment when my wife began to pull back from church life and began to realize she didn’t enjoy being married to a priest.
So, how you present your case will go a long way in helping or hindering it. It is equally true, should someone come to you with a complaint, how you receive it will go a long way in determining if it will be resolved. When a person comes to me to make me aware of something I have done (or failed to do), I try to calm myself and listen. I want to understand the situation as the other person sees it. I don’t want to be defensive, although this does not mean I can’t put up a defense to explain myself. And I certainly don’t want to go on the attack; you know, “If you are going to accuse me of X, then I am going to accuse you of Y and Z.” Y and Z can wait until another time. Right now the issue is X and I need to understand my role in it. I try to humble myself and keep open the possibility I just might have done something intentionally or unintentionally counter to who I am and what I value. It requires great personal and spiritual discipline to listen openly when another person calls you to task. And, from my experience, it requires strength and courage, rather than weakness and self-loathing, to own up to your fault.
None of us is ever bigger than when we apologize. None of us is more Christ-like than when we forgive.
Bud Bilanich, businessman and career mentor, says this:
It takes a big person to forgive and forget. It takes a bigger person to apologize. Yet, forgiveness and apologies are the marks of interpersonal competence. They help you build strong relationships and to resolve conflict with minimal disruption to your relationships.
When you forgive, forget and apologize you are saying to the other person, “I value you and our relationship. We may have some differences, but our relationship is more important to me than those differences. Let’s go on in spite of them.”
And when two people learn to value their relationship more than their differences they soon discover Christ is in the midst of them. You see Christ is present not just when we are in conflict, but as we live in harmony and, as John Chrysostom said, as we pray.