I do know this from the teachings of Jesus. We will never change anyone’s mind through force, coercion, or violence. We will never change or influence a person or a community to which we are not connected. We can change the minds and hearts of those who sin against us, against God, against nature, only in the context of a relationship. It’s hard work. There are no short cuts. But that is our calling as the church, as disciples of Jesus Christ.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
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. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
When the Guard Dog Bites the Meter-Reader
I used to think this teaching of Jesus’s was straightforward. I often use it as a text for officer training. Jesus’s instructions to go directly to someone first who has sinned before talking about it to anyone else give a biblical undergirding to the principles of healthy community leadership.
Dealing with an offender one-on-one, face to face before talking with someone else makes a community so much healthier than those communities where people talk about each other rather than to each other.
It’s a pretty straightforward teaching. In an officer training class, we would review this passage, talk about its implications, and then I would throw out some stories of people offending within the community, events I had either witnessed or colleagues had told me about in the churches they serve.
One incident is so over-the-top that it’s hard to believe, but I trust the clergy colleague who told me about it; she wouldn’t make this up. It goes like this:
Once upon a time there was an aging mainline congregation. So, they called a young woman pastor thinking that might be a good way to connect with some of the younger people in the community. Sure enough, not long after Rev. Jeannie started there as pastor, a young couple with two young children came to visit the worship service. They enjoyed worship, so after a couple of weeks, they accepted the invitation to attend the potluck supper that evening.
After the night of the fellowship dinner, Pastor Jeannie noticed that the couple stopped coming to worship. After a couple of Sundays, she ran into the young mother as they were dropping their kids off at school (remember back then, when kids all went to school?)
“We miss you,” Rev. Jeannie said. “Was it something I said?”
The young woman hesitated for a moment, but then said, “It wasn’t you. Not at all.” But then she told her what happened at the potluck.
The young couple saw this as a traditional church, so they brought a traditional church supper dish, a jello salad with Cool Whip on top. The way the food was served in this church was very organized. Everyone took their dish to the kitchen and then the Kitchen Marshall, a long-time member of the church, put the dishes out on the serving table in order of category—salads, main dish, side dish, dessert, etc.
This young newcomer noticed that their salad was not on the serving table, even though there was room for it. She went back to the kitchen to see if it had been forgotten. The Kitchen Marshall told her, “Oh, honey, you’re new so you wouldn’t know this, but this is not a church where we serve Cool Whip. I had to throw it away.”
I told this story in a church officer training class in a small aging congregation that wanted to do a better job of reaching young people in their community. I had been invited to come in to lead as an outside consultant. I am a pastor, not a lawyer, so I specialize in asking people open-ended questions without knowing for sure how they will answer. And sometimes I get surprised.
I asked, “What’s going on here? What needs to happen next?”
A woman said, thoughtfully and seriously, “It’s not like Cool Whip is a mortal sin, but it’s a good thing somebody confronted her before she perpetrated it on the whole congregation.”
That answer was not what I expected.
A discussion ensued that did get around to somebody allowing as to how throwing away a newcomer’s contribution might have been offensive, a violation of Jesus’s teaching to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But, the anti-Cool Whip faction held their ground.
I’m not sure how much I helped that church session in their quest to do a better job reaching young people in their community, but I learned something important: Different people view the world through totally different eyes. Most conflicts, whether they be a church conflict, a family conflict, or a nation divided against itself, are not simple linear problems when someone commits a sin, the person offended confronts them, then maybe with two or three others join in, and the sinner is corrected and brought back into the fold.
That’s the hope, but the reality is that the person who sins against you believes they are doing the right thing.
In the days before gas, electric, and water meters sent electronic signals back to the main office automatically, a meter reader would come by every month, look at the meter, write it down, and send you a bill for your usage. Even though the meters are on your property, you had to grant an easement for the meter reader even if they had to step onto your property to read it.
The problem is that dogs do not understand what an easement is.
A friend who is the Director of Human Resources for a gas company in Texas told me he sometimes got called when his meter readers got bitten by dogs. One time, he arrived at the emergency room and the meter reader was getting sewn up from a dog bite and the property and dog owner was in the emergency room with him, probably against legal advice, saying, “I’m so sorry. That dog has never bitten anyone before, but I will make sure he is kept inside from now on when it’s meter-reading day.”
The meter-reader said, “It’s nobody’s fault. We were both doing our jobs.”
The challenge of resolving conflict between human beings is that, when we offend someone, we almost always think we’re doing the job we’re supposed to be doing. When somebody offends us, it is usually by doing the job they think they’re supposed to be doing.
Think of the people you find most offensive right now. Maybe in the church, maybe in your family or at work, maybe out there fighting on the extreme right or left of the political divide, maybe somebody on television or social media advocating violence for a liberal or a conservative cause.
Now think about this. Those people, all of those people on both sides, believe they are on the side of the angels.
The challenge of Jesus’s teaching here is so much deeper than simply having the courage to confront someone with their sin. It is a challenge for a Christian community to tune out the noise of the culture around us and listen, really listen, to what God has to say to us through the teachings, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That is the only way we can come to a common understanding of what is right and what is wrong. Then, the challenge is to listen to each other.
It’s a lot easier for me to say than to do.
But, that commitment to listen to one another, I am convinced, is the only way that we as the human race, and we as a nation, will come through this moment in history peacefully.
Every human conflict that comes to an end through violence leaves behind a tangle of thorny unresolved issues. The wars to subdue Native Americans left behind a series of treaties made, broken and remade, land and jurisdictional disputes still going on today. Our nation’s Civil War left behind a trail of reconstruction destruction that led to Jim Crow and the racial conflict we see today. World War I’s conclusion at Versailles led to the rise of the Third Reich and World War II. The conclusion of World War II led to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and on and on.
I don’t know what the coming months will bring. As Yogi Berra said, “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”
But I do know this from the teachings of Jesus. We will never change anyone’s mind through force, coercion, or violence. We will never change or influence a person or a community to which we are not connected. We can change the minds and hearts of those who sin against us, against God, against nature, only in the context of a relationship.
It’s hard work. There are no short cuts.
But that is our calling as the church, as disciples of Jesus Christ.
As the old Spiritual says, “Keep your hand on the plow, hold on.”