As school begins again, we kick off our annual peanut butter and jelly collection for Gaithersburg HELP. We do this every year to help re-stock the pantry and to ensure that all kids have lunch as they begin school again.
And in our culture, nobody has to explain why you need peanut butter AND jelly. If we said we were just collecting peanut butter, folks would wonder "why not jelly, too?" And if we collected just jelly, folks would wonder "why not peanut butter?" They just go together.
Sometimes, you just expect things to go together. And in the Bible, whenever you hear the word "sin" you always expect to hear it paired with either the word "repentance" or the word "forgiveness." They just go together.
If somebody sins, you expect that there's a question about forgiveness ... (as in next Sunday's Gospel reading where Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive somebody who sins against him...)
Or else, you might expect something about repentance. Throughout the Bible, when people "sin" (which means either they've done something wrong or that their hearts are turned away from God), they're called to "repent" (which means to turn around, or change the way they're living...)
Sin and forgiveness. Sin and repentance. They go together like peanut butter and jelly.
And that makes today's Gospel reading really strange. Jesus talks to his disciples about what they should do if another member of church sins against them. Nobody likes to think that'll happen, but of course it does and it always has. And so Jesus lays out this process for what you should do.
The goal of this process is that you should "regain" your brother or sister. And yet, the standard for whether or not this is going to happen is NOT "repentance" or "forgiveness", but listening.
"If the member listens to you, you have regained that one." If he listens. Not specifically if he "repents". Not if he begs you for "forgiveness." Not even if you convince him of what a jerk he's been.
Instead, the standard is "listening." And for the next several verses, the goal is to get the person to listen, instead of ignoring you and others in the community (the phrase "refuses to listen" is literally the word for "ignore.")
And maybe the reason that Jesus lifts up listening here, where we'd expect the words "repentance" or "forgiveness" is that he wants us to pay particular attention to what it means to be a community. Communities, even communities of faith, have disagreements and conflicts. Individuals, even within close and loving families, have disagreements and conflicts. But regardless of what those conflicts or disagreements are about, community between people can never be restored unless people are willing to really listen to each other.
And the goal that Jesus lifts up is "regaining" a sense of community with one another. And that's a different goal than we sometimes think of when we simply pair "sin" with "forgiveness" or "repentance." The goal is healthy community, which is different than:
- Winning the fight - that is, convincing someone else of how they're in the wrong and you're in the right...
- Making somebody feel bad or stupid for what they've done or said - which is sometimes what well intentioned Christians think "calling somebody to repentance" is all about...
- Making yourself feel smug or self-righteous by proclaiming your own moral superiority over that terrible "sinner"...
Listening is about hearing. And it's about being heard. And so while this passage focuses on what happens if the person doesn't listen, what happens if they do? If a person really listens, it means that the person speaking feels heard. And it also means that the person who's listening also has a chance to speak and listen as well.
That kind of listening rebuilds relationships. And it strengthens community. It may not win a fight, but that's just the point. The purpose of listening isn't to win, but restore relationship so that people can live and work together again.
And as a society, we're terrible at this kind of listening right now. Much of what passes for "listening" in our world today is about:
- Hearing only the voices that agree with us, finding news sources that match our political outlook, and sitting inside our own echo chambers of opinion...
- Telling people how stupid, insensitive or morally bankrupt they are for doing something or taking a position that's even slightly different than our own...
- Feeling smug about how we've "destroyed" somebody else's argument or excuse for their actions ... (I avoid all of those articles that get posted on Facebook!)
But none of those things are really listening in the sense that Jesus speaks of. And our world needs people to model healthy listening, which helps us hear one another so that we're able to live and work together. And what would it mean if, as Christians, we learned to model this for ourselves and for others in our world?
It's not an easy thing that Jesus is calling us to. But often, healthy listening begins with:
- Giving up the desire to "win the fight" with somebody else - if you're willing to go and tell somebody why you're upset with them, it's because you don't want to stay upset. And you can often only re-start conversation if your goal is to listen and to be heard instead of to "win the fight"...
- Understanding why somebody did or said something, even and especially if, in the end, you still don't agree. And you can never understand if you're not also willing to hear the other person out, instead of wondering how you can use their words against them at some later point...
- Being willing to see the conflict from the other person's perspective, as strange and bizarre as that perspective may seem to you at the moment! Because it's often the case that that exercise creates the kind of empathy for the other person's fears and needs that help the two of you to find some common ground...
We often read today's Gospel reading when people are in conflict with one another. But I think it's more important than that. Jesus intended his words to be more than a process to follow at times of conflict. He meant for us to learn to listen to one another all the time, so that we can live and work together in healthy community.
That's supposed to be one of the goals of being disciples of Jesus in every age. And at a time when listening to one another is so difficult in the world around us, learning and practicing this skill is really important. And it may be that in the end, modeling healthy listening isn't just good for us. If the Church can model and live this kind of listening, that may be the very gift God needs us to give to the world around us.