A sermon preached at Tewin September 2020
I am currently rereading CS Lewis’s wonderful book the Great Divorce. If you haven’t read it – it’s easy, visual, clever and thought provoking. In it Lewis describes a bus trip from the dull, twilight, miserable city of hell up to the realer than real beauty of heaven. But it’s his haunting image of hell that I’d like us to think about today. Hell is like a vast grey city, Lewis says, a city inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle – empty because everyone who once lived in them has quarreled with the neighbours and moved, and quarreled with the new neighbours and moved again, leaving streets of empty houses behind them. That, says Lewis, is how hell got so large – empty at the centre and inhabited only on the fringes, because everyone in it chose distance, rather than confrontation as the solution of the fight.
Confrontation, doesn’t sound appealing. For most of us we’ll do everything to avoid it. Rather we come up with other strategies to cope when there are disputes.
Maybe for many of us our first instinct when there is a problem with another person is to smooth things over. Perhaps pretend nothing is wrong. To say nothing. There’s no need to cause upset. Perhaps the person who is hurting us or others won’t do it again. Except that perhaps they do, and there are occasions in some church communities when the insistence of one person in pursuing their own agenda can cause great damage to others – but no-one wants to challenge it because anything is better than having to speak about difficult things.
Or maybe when someone has rubbed us up the wrong way or hurt our feelings – well there’s another easy way to deal with that, let’s just talk about them behind their backs, moan and gripe to others to get it out of our system. Look for every fault in them and never miss an opportunity to point it out to others. Except that often that doesn’t get it out of our system, rather it just spreads the discontent around a bit. It helps us by getting others to validate how right we are and how wrong the other is, but doesn’t help us see their point of view, or give them the chance to say sorry.
Of course another strategy well used is the cold shoulder. Don’t tell them what is wrong because that would be impolite, but rather just shun the offender. Just try to put them out of your mind, don’t let them spoil your world. We don’t need to tell them what is wrong, rather let them figure it out. They should know after-all they were wrong and we were right. It’s black and white. It’s obvious.
Whatever strategy we choose – the point is let’s not talk to the person directly, because surely that is the worst thing we can do? Confrontation – for a lot of us that is something we really dread.
So, if you are like me, the gospel reading today, is a rather unwelcome and uncomfortable bit of advice:
If another person in the church sins against you, Matthew’s gospel tells us, go and talk it through with them. If the member listens then the problem is solved.
If however that doesn’t bring harmony, then keep going back, taking people with you to try to talk through the wrong and heal the rift.
Now I think we need to treat this passage with care and I guess some of our reticence about this advice, might be well founded. Pointing out faults, involving others, always runs the risk of creating greater hurt, making things messier. Sometimes perhaps time and some distance is wise before things can be challenged in a way that is positive, not always with high emotion that can get in the way of good conversation.
And we don’t know what the sin spoken of in this passage might have been referring to to the listeners at the time. In my experience disputes are often messy, with a less clear cut sense of one party being completely right and another flawlessly wrong.
Importantly the instruction to confront another should not be an excuse for treating people badly, for making them feel alienated.
If we look at the dictionary definition of the word confrontation means meeting face to face, it does not have to be aggressive or destructive rather it is the opposite of Lewis’ picture of hell – where rather we turn our backs and keep our distance. That, according to this reading, is not what we should be about.
Many of you will be aware of the efforts of Desmond Tutu and others when post-apartheid South Africa was attempting to build a new community. Tutu spoke out very strongly about the strategies the ANC government or now recognized black members of the country might take against those who had supported the apartheid system. Of course perhaps the natural thing would be to turn against supporters of the old regime completely, to turn the tables, to endlessly punish, criticize and shun.
Yet the vision for the new society that had been longed for could only be achieved, if people learned anew how to live with one another. But of course this would not work if horrific wrongs of the past were simply ignored. That would just breed more anger and division. And so in the light of this the Truth and Reconciliation commission was set up and those two Christian principles were seen as needing to go hand in hand. Truth, yes – wrongs and sins must be brought out into the open, no longer ignored, or denied – but hand in hand with this intention, must always be the aim of reconciliation. As a Christian principle forgiveness and reconciliation is meant to be at the core of who we are.
What our gospel recognizes is the seriousness of safeguarding the well-being and distinctive presence of the church community.
“Where two or three are gathered together in my name” Jesus continues in our gospel passage – “I am there among them”. Despite our human flaws there is something different, holy, about the church. The importance of how we operate with one another, of how we relate to each other is important because of the name and presence of Jesus when we gather.
Christianity is a not a private affair. It is not just about individual belief, individual prayer, individual piety . Christianity has been from the beginning about living together in community. Baptism is about joining a people. We share bread today and are reminded how we are intimately and intricately woven together in Christ. We are called to witness to the world as many members but as one body.
And that will always be a struggle. I guess our gospel reading might give us some comfort that this struggle is nothing new. But through it also will come, does come much blessing and joy. More than a rule book of how to deal with every situation, or an excuse to go to others and point out their faults as you see them – the reading is really telling us that no matter what, the worst thing we can do is turn our backs on one another, is let things fester and divide us, or turn away, pack our bags and walk out on when things get difficult.
This will only lead us eventually to that grey and endless stretch of empty houses and streets pictured by CS Lewis – division caused by sin and the refusal to forgive – that is hell and is as possible on earth as it is in the spiritual realm.
Wisdom, sensitivity, humility, truth and forgiveness. These are the characteristics that will stand us in good stead when we deal with one another. And through these things may we work always to be reconciled and witness to the God who has called us to live together.