I think I probably have these words memorized — I’ve taught them so many times in various congregational contexts.
What Jesus offers here is an antidote to most any problem in most any congregation, work-place, family, neighborhood. And while certainly not a ‘quick fix,’ it all boils to talking to one another instead of about each other.
And yet, we don’t seem to get it. I know I don’t.
In fact, I offer a story now which makes me cringe to even remember it, much less put it out there for all the world to hear and judge. I am not proud of it. And yet, if I’m honest, I know the part that makes it memorable and that stills fills me with such shame is the fact that I got caught.
I spare you the details now — in part to protect the one who was offended in the story, but also because many of them escape me now. Time has erased much of it except for the lesson I clearly so needed to learn.
I was at a church gathering. There were many people present — some I knew well, some were strangers, some I respected, and some I held at arm’s length.
I was walking to the rest room with a friend and we were (or maybe it was just me) complaining about another member of the gathering. I must have spoken her name out loud. I don’t remember what I said, but I can still taste my frustration. I’m also fairly certain there was a note of ridicule in my voice.
Restroom stalls, of course, have doors on them. In my thoughtlessness and yes, my unintended cruelty, I did not check to be sure we were alone. We were not. My unkind words were overheard by the very one of whom I spoke.
This came to my attention an hour later when in a quiet corner this one confronted me with an eruption of tears and accusations. All I could do was hang my head in my embarrassment. And say I was sorry. And I surely was.
We all do it. It seems it is our fallback position to criticize and complain behind one another’s’ backs instead of to one another’s faces. We all do it. We don’t always get caught. But caught or not, it always erodes our relationships — always it tears at that which makes us one.
Indeed, I can’t count the number of times I have stood in congregational circles which have been torn apart by conflict and without exception, this is always happening. One such time in particular stands out. There was one leader at the table who had been the ‘kind’ recipient of the complaining of many people in her congregation. She was a good listener and she loved them all and so she would turn no one away.
By the time I was invited into the conversation she was a huddled mess sitting at the corner of the four tables which had been pulled together for our meeting. All I could say to her was she was the only one who could make it stop. She had to urge people back into conversation with one another instead of about one another. She had to refuse to receive their complaints any more and she had to push people to do as Jesus tells us we must today.
Now often when I am among those for whom this has become a real problem, those gathered will say that it will make no difference if they try to do as Jesus says today, for so many others are so much more guilty and they didn’t bother to show up for the workshop. They may be exactly right, of course. Often those who most need to be there probably are not. And yet. I still believe that if even a handful of us would begin to do as Jesus did, the culture would begin to shift. And so I say this to those who have come together. And then we practice it: how to talk to one another when we disagree, or are wounded, or are afraid.
Now I know that one of the things which frightens us about these words of Jesus is there is a progression to the confrontation. First we are to go alone. Then we take a few others with us as witnesses. Then we take it to the ‘church.’ And yes, we get ourselves all hung up on what it would mean to ‘tell it to the church.’ And yet, if we were only to do the first one? If only we were to confront the one who has hurt us when we are alone — much of the time, we probably will have to go no further.
A long time ago one did this for me. She came to me when we were alone and let me know how badly I had hurt her. She didn’t have to do so. She could have told a hundred other people. By talking to me and letting me see her pain, she also allowed me the chance to ask her forgiveness so that in some small way we are still in relationship today. By telling me to my face she served to remind me of who I am and who I am called to me. And while I hate to remember it even now, I have always been and always will be grateful…
- These words of Jesus are well known. How have you seen them lived out — at home, at work, at school, in your congregation?
- I have always been comforted by the certainty that Jesus knew that we would have need for words such as these. Even in the church. Indeed, he anticipates that at one time or another we will hurt each other. At the same time, there is great promise and hope in these words. Our hurting each other does not have to have the last word. How about you? Are these words a comfort to you or not? Why or why not?
- Most congregational cultures are marked and shaped by the opposite of what is offered here. What can you do where you are to begin to change that?