The context for our passage is important. Jesus has just been asked who is the greatest in the kingdom of God, responds with the humility of a child. Jesus asks the community to not put stumbling block in one’s path, and finds the one lost sheep out of 100. (After this passage Peter asks Jesus how many times should I forgive?) The context is the community of faith. Listen now for God’s word to you.
I watched All the Presidents Men Revisited this week. It is a documentary by Robert Redford, 40 years after Nixon’s resignation over Watergate. It told of the scandal, of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who investigated a less than honest presidency. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman who portrayed the investigative journalists as well as interviews with these journalists give a unique and inside perspective on how this national tragedy came to be. “Cancer on the Presidency” is a term I had not heard before, because I was not a news junky at the ripe old age of 10. But I do remember watching Nixon’s resignation sitting on the floor in front of the TV, not quite understanding all the implications. John Dean, White House Counsel, said those words first to the president in the Oval office in March of 1973, and then again during the Senate investigation. He used the word cancer to describe the growing problems within the Whitehouse. As you recall, other key players were testifying, defending their actions. But it was Dean’s courage and the oval office tapes that finally revealed the truth. Dean served time for his part in this scandal.
I take us back to this painful time in our corporate history to be reminded that when something is wrong, the first step is to go to the person with whom you have an issue.
Speak to them one on one and let them know the problem. We do not gossip about an issue, we do not exaggerate about what bothers us, we state our case in a way that might bring people together in a solution.
I am sure this has happened to you. Someone takes you aside and shares a concern, one that might not have been easy to hear, and yet if it is done with reconciliation in mind, and you have ears to hear, the process can be beneficial. We all know sometimes this resolves the matter, but often it does not. More people get involved and this can lead to legal matters, or even Senate hearings.
But all of this is playing out in the larger world, not in the world of faith. Both of our passages today are talking about the community of God, the family of faith. Ezekiel is asking us to be a sentinel for God’s word. A sentinel stands watch, guards God’s way, calls others to God’s holiness. I imagine a castle with a large mote around it. The house of Israel is safe within the walls of the castle. The sentinel is the one who watches over the drawbridge, the place of entry of both friend and foe. Our church is inside that castle and we need you to be a sentinel. We as sentinels are to protect our community of faith. But we are not to simply be silent protectors. We are to call out wickedness. John Dean called out wickedness, the cancer on a presidency. Then he turned from his ways, paid his debt to society and went on to lead a productive life. But if no one had called out the wickedness, then there would be no way to have the weight of sins lifted, no way to restore our nation and no way to have reconciliation with God.
God always seeks our reconciliation. God’s wish, purpose and longing are for us to be reunited in God, at home in the presence of God’s holiness. So even if we feel defeated like the people Ezekiel called, the people who know the weight of their sins, there is hope. These people are the ones who watched their Jerusalem fall, whose pride was punctured, whose focus went inward, God always gives us a path back. In a way, the Ezekiel passage sees the glass half empty, while the gospel lesson sees it half full. But both offer the community of faith reconciliation with God.
We all long for reconciliation. Both with God and with neighbor. People often sought help with reconciliation from the Ask Ann Landers column. One trouble soul wrote:
Dear Ann Landers, I’ve suddenly become aware that the years are flying by. Time somehow seems more precious. My parents suddenly seem old. My aunts and uncles are sick. I haven’t seen some of my cousins for several years. I love my family Ann, but we’ve grown apart. Then my thoughts turn to the dark side. I remember the feelings I’ve hurt, and I recall my own hurt feelings the misunderstandings and un-mended fences that separated us and set up barriers.
I think of my mother and her sister, who haven’t spoken to each other in five years. As a result of that argument my cousin and I haven’t spoken either. What a waste of precious time.
Wouldn’t it be terrific if a special day could be set aside to reach out and make amends? We could call it “Reconciliation Day.” Everyone would vow to write a letter or make a phone call and mend a strained or broken relationship. It could also be the day on which we would all agree to accept the olive branch extended by a former friend. This day could be the starting place. We could go on from here to heal the wounds in our hearts and rejoice in a brand-new beginning.
Signed, Van Nuys.
Ann’s response was this: “This is a great idea. I propose that every year at this time we do just that that we celebrate “Reconciliation Day” and pick up the phone or write a letter that will bring joy to someone who might be in pain” (King Duncan, Sermons.com).
The author of the letter, Van Nuys, wanted to regain a brother, a cousin, a friend. That is exactly what Jesus was talking about. The goal of our gospel lesson is reconciliation not punishment. Jesus asks us to have courage and speak to the person you take issue with, to gently share your concern, or maybe simply write a letter or pick up the phone to take the step to come together. Jesus knows this can be challenging. That we have a hard time airing our grievances. That is why he gives us three steps.
One, speak directly to the person. Try to settle the matter one on one.
Two, take a witness, a friend, with you to share. Do this for two reasons. Often a third party can keep the moment calm, and they can attest to what happened should it come to that.
Three, take it up with the community of faith. This is not a common practice today, but it reminds us that we live in community and our actions effect all those around us.
Always remember the point of each one of these communications is to regain a relationship, form reconciliation, and certainly not punishment. The translation reads “church member” but a more accurate translation is “if a brother sins against you.” Yes, Jesus is talking about the community of faith, but that community is thought of as a family, not simply a group you worship with. That is why we are sentinels for our family of faith.
Into the heart of human interactions Jesus promised, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with you.” So often this phrase is lifted out of context and feels more like a Kum By Yah moment, rather than of Jesus being with us in difficult moments within the church family. The promise comes when we need the promise the most. When Jesus came into the world, he was named “Emmanuel, God with us.” When Jesus left the world, he promised to be with us always until the end of the age. And the one other time he promises to be with you is when we are gathered in his name to seek reconciliation with our neighbors, with our family. So when you and I practice Reconciliation Day take Jesus’ promise with you, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with you.” Amen.