The Rev. Scott Walters
Christ Church, Little Rock
September 4, 2011
Proper 18, Year A
In the fall of 1979 my parents took me on a short pilgrimage to the Purvis-Powell Sporting Goods Store. I had just made the 7th grade basketball team, and it was time to get a proper pair of shoes.
That we were actually standing in Purvis-Powell was a minor miracle, since we tended to shop at places like JC Penney’s, where the brands were less exotic and therefore less expensive. But there I was, staring at a wall of Nikes and Converse and Pumas, posters of Sydney Moncrief and Larry Bird and Dr. J, assuring me that I would be joining their society of real athletes, serious athletes, or at least properly shod athletes, in a matter of minutes.
I picked out a pair of high top Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars in Panther maroon, that cost a mind boggling $16. And in this wonderful moment of weakness Mom and Dad said OK. To this day I don’t think anything smells as wonderful as a new pair of Chucks. A whiff of that perfect blend of canvas and gum rubber and the probably toxic glue that held them all together still transports me back 32 years in an instant.
I was reminded of that first pair of Chucks last Thursday, when, once again, I bought a new pair of shoes. But if the purchase of those basketball shoes three decades ago was an almost mystical experience, the shoes I bought last week provoked a minor existential crisis.
You see, I picked out the Converse All Stars for the simple reason that they were fabulous. Even though my skinny legs looked a lot like broomsticks stuck down into a couple of mop buckets, when I put on those shoes there was no doubt in my mind that I could pass for a bona fide basketball star.
But last week I found myself handing over a lot more than $16, even at 50% off, for shoes that were not endorsed by Dr J. There were no posters nearby of Sydney Moncrief, elbows splayed as he brings down one of his trademark dunks. No, I bought my new “European Comfort Shoes,” as their insoles boast, not because they make me look like a superstar. They just make my back feel better.
What a drag it is getting old.
Now I brought up the contrast in these two shoe purchases for a reason other than to stir up your sympathy, which I am grateful for, however. These two trips to the shoe store were for different purposes. They had different ends, we might say. And knowing what the end is can make a really big difference in our choices and our actions—the difference between a sweet pair of Chucks and a practical pair of German clodhoppers. The ends may not justify the means. But the ends determine the means.
There are no shoes mentioned in the story we read today from the gospel of Matthew today. It seems to be a little lesson in conflict resolution. Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you …,” here’s what you do.
Now undoubtedly we could still use advice and strategies from Jesus about resolving conflict in the church. And Jesus is refreshingly down to earth in this scene, as sensible and practical as a pair of comfortable shoes. But the actions Jesus recommends tell us something about the goal or the ends those actions are pointed toward. And take note, they’re not pointed toward justice.
Let’s start again. Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you …” So his hypothetical situation involves an injustice. This isn’t about determining whether a sin has occurred. It’s not even about forgoing judgment. It’s about what we do when a wrong, a real wrong, an injustice, has occurred.
And what does Jesus say? He doesn’t say, “Here’s the punishment you should mete out.” He doesn’t say, “Make sure the person is really, really sorry for the bad thing that’s been done.” No, he says, “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. That’s your best chance. Minimize the embarrassment. If the member listens to you, then you have regained that one.”
The end is not justice, is it? The end is regaining that one. The end is unity. The end is restoration. The end, really, is the community itself. In the face of sin and alienation, the end Jesus wants our actions to aim for is reconciliation, not justice.
Now, at this point you might remind me that the Bible is full of calls for justice. The prophets rail at us who neglect the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the alien. These are essential matters of justice for the Christian. But the implicit message in Jesus’ teaching is that justice is a means, not an end. The end is unity. The end is the undoing of the alienation that our sins and failures produce. If justice helps that, fine. If not, let it go.
You see, when justice is our central concern, when justice is our ultimate goal, we humans usually see our first task as extracting some payment for any wrong that has been done. We want a world in which wrongdoers get what they have coming. But Christian hope is supposed to be for a world in which wrongdoers get better. A world in which wrongdoers are restored. A world whose goal is something besides or beyond mere justice.
Of course, reconciliation is hard work. Visiting with the person who has wronged me, one on one, is a nice enough strategy. But you probably noticed that Jesus didn’t think that one strategy would be enough. We might have to bring in one or two others to negotiate. We might even have to take the matter to the whole community. And if the first three steps in Jesus’ conflict program don’t work, then we are to “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Whoa. So much for gentle Jesus meek and mild. Clearly there is a point at which the unrepentant wrongdoer needs to be kicked out, right? We can’t put up with an unrepentant sinner. Isn’t that what Jesus says?
Actually it’s not. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” is what he says. He doesn’t say make that person an outsider. He says let that person be an outsider. Our wrongs do cut us off from one another. So at some point we just have to admit that the relationship has been broken. We need to admit that the community, the church, has lost a brother or a sister. We’ve been diminished. Jesus says we should just tell the truth. Don’t pretend that all is well. It’s not.
And then, I guess, we’re supposed to treat the person who has wronged us and refused our efforts to restore the relationship, I guess we’re supposed to treat that person in the same way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. And how did he treat those folks again? Oh yeah, he ate with them and drank with them, and he got in trouble for it. He ate and drank with them as though he wouldn’t be contaminated or defiled by these heathens and crooks. He ate and drank with them, probably for the same reasons we eat and drink with one another: to connect, to make a friendship, to bridge the distance between a me and a you.
So the only reason to define someone who has wronged me and refused three attempts at restoration as an outsider, is to take up a different strategy for reconciliation.
Christians often imagine the cross as the payment of a debt for our sins. It’s as if the wrongs we’ve racked up in the universe have to be balanced out by someone’s blood or good deed. But doesn’t that sound like an eye for eye, tooth for tooth world? Jesus told us to give that world up. Forget getting justice. Seek restoration. Turn the other check. Go the extra mile. Give away your coat. The moral universe isn’t an account that needs to be balanced. Everything we do should serve a goal, the goal of restoration. The cross is the reminder that even the most basic justice for himself wouldn’t get in the way of Jesus’ work to restore the estranged to God and to one another.
So the Christian life is a little like buying shoes. There is no eternal truth about whether Converse All Stars or Josef Seibel comfort shoes are better. The ‘goodness’ of the shoe depends on the purpose, the goal, the end. It makes a difference whether your goal is to be ready in case an NBA scout drops by the Siloam Springs Middle School gym, or whether your goal is just to use a little less ibuprofen. You can’t judge a decision until you know the end.
And as Christians our lives and our actions are good and faithful only to the extent that they serve the end Jesus set out for us. The guiding questions for all that we do should be, “What brings reconciliation? What brings us closer to restoration?” Whatever brings together those who are estranged is what Jesus calls us to do. Perhaps as Christians, reconciliation should be the end not only of our ethics, but of our politics, our economics, our criminal justice, even of our parenting and our friendships and our love life, I suppose.
“Do whatever it takes to bring about reconciliation,” Jesus said. Maybe this is what that taking up one’s cross business means. Maybe it means we need to make everything else secondary, even our need for justice, and make reconciliation our end. Reconciliation. That’s all, said Jesus. That’s everything, said his life.