Checks and Balances

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 6, 2020
Matthew 18:15-20

One of the things you’re not prepared for when you graduate from seminary is the sheer number of meetings that you go to as a priest. No one can say that the Episcopal Church doesn’t have a very thorough organization. Just look at Holy Comforter – we have a Vestry, a Finance Committee, a Property Committee, a Special Gifts Committee, and a staff. The Vestry elects people to represent us at diocesan council, and then council elects even more committees. I’ve been elected to both the Standing Committee and the Executive Board and of course, there are sub-committees. And then we have even more commissions and committees and task forces for just about everything under the sun.

On the face of it, we could scoff at the proliferation of all these groups and their various little tasks. “This is just the sign of a bloated organization.” But at their best, with all these groups working together, this is an image of what Jesus taught his disciples about discipline, checks and balances, authority, and love.

Jesus lays out this system of addressing sin and disagreements when they come up within the church. Notice that it’s “when” not “if.” The offender is to be approached confidentially, then with witnesses, and then in front of the whole assembly if need be. And while that very intimate process might work for a church community of twenty people, it doesn’t really work for a community like ours – either the parish or the diocese. So we have divvied up that work so that issues can be first addressed confidentially, then within a small group, and then, if need be, publicly.

This passage, I think, is not just about how to deal with sin in a church community, it’s how we deal with everything. Because notice the egalitarian principle here in what Jesus says. Jesus assumes that everybody in the church is truly committed to everybody else in the church. See, no one, no one in the church is above the law. In our system, clergy and lay people have voice and authority. Everybody can be held accountable to everybody else. This might make us look weak or ineffectual because we don’t have a strong man or woman at the top; it might mean that things take longer to resolve; but I think it actually shows that we’re trusting and loving.

That’s what this whole system is built upon. That’s what the Church is built upon. Mutual love and mutual trust. Think of this process that Jesus lays out and his vision for the church community. It takes a lot of love on the part of the person making a complaint to speak confidentially to the person that has offended them without gossiping, spreading rumors, or stirring stuff up. It also takes a lot of love on the part of the person receiving the complaint to hear that complaint without digging in their heels. It takes a lot of trust, going every which way, for people to live together like this without quickly descending into back-biting, back-stabbing, or walking away. This whole system, even our parish church, must be built upon mutual love and mutual trust. I think that’s what Jesus had in mind.

Now, there is this modern pressure to streamline things. To make life more efficient, quicker, to get faster results. Sure, in the church and in the world it would be much simpler and efficient to have one person making all the decisions. Yes, results would be produced much quicker if one person settled every dispute. But a world without checks and balances is an autocracy. A church with only one real voice of authority is a cult. And wherever we have seen organizations become autocracies or cults is when those in power choose to love their own power instead of loving their neighbors.

Our world almost seems to praise folks who walk away in anger or who refuse to compromise. We’ve incentivized extremism and stubbornness. That is a deep human sickness, and what Jesus offers us this morning is the salvation from that unhealthy and unholy way of living. It doesn’t have to be that way. Bound together by mutual love and trust, people can and should share with each other the problems they’ve had with the other. Bound together by mutual love and trust, brother and sister Christians can and should speak and listen without fear. 

In short, this is the mission of the church, even with all our boards, committees, and meetings: to show the world that it is possible to live together in peace while at the same time living with disagreement, tension, and even conflict. It is possible to iron out differences and talk through hard things. But that it is only possible if we first love and trust one another. So do not think of this teaching from Jesus simply as a way to address conflict. Think of it as a call to love and to trust.

So I have one practical implication for us. And it’s going to make some of us uncomfortable, but here it goes – spend less time on Facebook. Seriously. Think about it. When you get bogged down in comment thread conversations you are bringing before the whole world what probably should be a loving, trusting conversation between two fellow Christians. What social media encourages us to do is to skip straight to a public conversation where Jesus would have us first speak in love and trust with one another. And what happens? We lose those friendships because we skipped over the process that actually encourages us to build up love and to build up trust.

We’ve learned this the hard way – we’ve lost friends, we’ve lost trust both because we spoke rashly or refused to listen deeply over the internet. We put too much stock in what somebody said on some website. We make opinions before picking up the phone, calling them, and inviting them into a deeper conversation built on mutual love and trust. I confess that sin, I confess the times I have done that very thing, and I want to do better. I want to live like Jesus imagines here, I want to live in a community of love and trust. And I invite you to make this commitment with me. When I need or want to have a real conversation, I won’t get bogged down in the comments. I won’t let the emails go back and forth. I will pick up the phone and talk to my brother or sister. When something tough comes up I know that it’s so much easier to fire off an email or whip up a snappy comment, but I do not see that building the Kingdom of God. I see and I know that I have contributed to the pain and the confusion and the misunderstanding and the breakdown of Christian love.

First and foremost, we are to talk with our brothers and sisters, not just because that’s what Jesus told us to do, but because we know that this will help us become the people Jesus wants us to be. Brothers and sisters, a community, a church, built on love and trust.

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