On a brisk spring Saturday morning outside the small country church folks stand in groups talking. There is a buzz as the younger children chase one another, the women catch up with one another, and the men talk about the recent crop planting.
The young pastor arrives looking harried and worn. As he leaves his vehicle he is tucking in his shirt tail, struggling to hold on to his Bible. As he arrives at the steps of the church the folks gathered begin to form a half circle in front of him.
In a wavering voice he asks if all are present while his gaze travels over the group assembled. He has never done this and wonders how often he will need to with this new community of faith he has been called to. Heads nod yes, his deacon gives voice to the attendance.
The pastor opens his Bible and reads,
“Jesus said, "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. But 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. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
After he finishes reading he asks all those present if they have attempted to go to the one causing sin. There is a chorus of “yes pastor.”
He then asks if each one present has gone in pairs to speak with the offenders. The reply is again yes.
He then asks the crowd why they are gathered here. A spokeswoman for the group moves forward and says,
“Pastor, each spring we tell our men folk that planting baccy be against the teachings of the church. Yet each spring they do it again. We stand here today telling you they have sinned.”
The woman moves back into the half circle.
The pastor asks the group if the woman’s statements are true. There is a solid refrain of “yes pastor.”
The pastor asks all those who have planted tobacco to step forward. Most of the men present do so. He then asks if the woman’s allegations are true. As one the men respond, “Yes pastor.”
The pastor, his voice shaky, says, “Each of you leaves me no choice. You are excommunicated from this church. Until you are willing to admit your wrongs and return to a state of grace you may not enter these doors.”
The men respond, “Yes pastor.”
A woman present then asks the young man to bless their food so they may enjoy their picnic.
Fast forward to a fall morning a few months later. The same group stands before the pastor. He asks the purpose of their gathering. The same woman moves to the front and says, “Pastor our men have changed their ways. We would like you to restore them to the church.”
The pastor asks if this is indeed true. A man steps forward and says, “Pastor, the baccy be no longer in our fields and we would be beholden to ya, if ya let us back in the church.”
The pastor then says, “Based on scripture, you are restored to this church.”
A young girl then asks the pastor to bless the food for their picnic.
Somehow I don’t think this scene if one in which Jesus would take much delight. In real estate we talk about location, in scripture we reference context. This incident takes the words of today’s gospel and pulls them out of a portion of Matthew rich in meaning and depth.
What we don’t read today is that right before this portion Jesus reminds his hearers not to lead others into sin and then talks about the shepherd who leaves the ninety nine to go find the one lost. Next week we will hear him be asked how many times one must forgive.
My guess is this little country church, as we often do, has taken these words and made them into rules with no heart. That these tobacco farmers and their families did this every year at planting and harvest times. And, sadly, yes it is based on a true story.
Our call is to not take these words as rules without heart, but rather to live into them in the spirit with which they were meant. They are meant as words of love, of grace, of compassion. They would sound more like, “My beloved, you have done things that have caused great pain to me, to us. Yet we love you dearly and we want to be restored to unity with you. There is a hole without you among us. Will you please return with me to the body of Christ? You are so missed. It is not the same without you with us. Will you walk with me?”
In our tradition we have a way of doing this that often is glossed over. We do it each time we gather for worship. It comes after we hear and respond to the word of God and just before we break bread together.
That’s right; it is our exchange of the peace. In the early church it was meant as a time to have true reconciliation. It was intended as a chance to reach out to those with who we may be in conflict. It was a sign of forgiveness and a promise of reconciliation.
Sadly, we mostly have forgotten that. I myself am guilty using that time to greet others, to catch up on news, and even the occasional sports score. I have also been guilty of hugging another and saying, “Peace,” while holding hardness in my heart. That is also not what our church fathers and mothers meant for this time to be. Nor what we should do with this time.
So, today, may we move to this time with open hearts and open minds. May we remember that even if there is no conflict present, that this is a time to offer blessing to one another. After we confess our sins to God in Christ as a gathered body, may we offer the benefit and blessing of this part of our liturgy to one another.
We need not do so with every person, but rather, go to those to whom you feel the Spirit leading you. It may be the beginning of true healing and love in this place. It may also be a time where the Spirit leads us to a time of joy, hugs, and tears as we great one another in a spirit of love and understanding.
Whatever it may be, let it be unscripted and led by the love of God in Christ as we gather as this part of his body.