The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 10, 2017
When I was a child we’d often visit my great grandmother on Sunday afternoons. She lived only about 40 minutes away, and we could leave right from church and be at her house in time for a late lunch, eat some fried chicken and drink some sweet tea, enjoy a slice of chocolate pie that was her special recipe, and then change out of our church clothes into play clothes to go outside.
Outside was a wonderful place for a young child to be--no adults around to supervise, garden toolsthat doubled as toys, a wild rose garden with paths to explore, and a barn with a hayloft to climb up in. It’s a wonder I never got tetanus, climbing over rusty farm implements and boards with nails in them and all manner of other things that, today, seem pretty dangerous. But as a child there seemed to be no danger, and it was good to be outside, playing with my sister and our cousins.
My great grandmother, however, was wiser than I was, and she knew the perils of the outdoors. She’d warn us not to throw chinaberries at one another for fear we’d put someone’s eye out. She’d remind us to turn the water off at the pump house for fear the well would run dry. (It never did, as far as I know.) And she had a particular phrase for how she expected us to behave: “Y’all play pretty, now.”
Y’all play pretty. What my great grandmother meant was pretty straightforward. Don’t hit one another. Don’t break any bones. Don’t call each other names. Be nice. Be safe. Take care of each other. Play nicely with one another.
That’s a reasonable thing to tell children, isn’t it. It’s probably a good thing to tell adults, too, for that matter. Play nicely with one another. And we generally did. I suspect that, had we not been nice, if we’d “played ugly,” my great grandmother would have come out the door of the screened in front porch and told us about it.
As best I remember it she was a pretty straightforward person. She’d have told us if we were doing something wrong.
And that’s really what Jesus is talking about in the gospel reading for today. If someone sins against you, go and tell them privately. If the person doesn’t listen, go with one or two other people. If he or she still won’t hear you, tell the whole church.
Part of that seems like good advice. It sounds like my great grandmother stepping out of the screened porch onto the concrete steps of her farmhouse, calling across the garden to us to stop throwing chinaberries, or to quit running with the rake, or to turn the tap off at the pump house. It’s reasonable, instructive rebuke--clear, concise, and truthful.
But what really makes my skin crawl about that passage, and maybe yours too, is another image. The image of well-meaning, good Christian folks, banding together, coming to someone’s home and calling them out for something. In the community where I grew up, I heard this sort of thing called “speaking the truth in love,” and I imagine it went something like this. “Brother So-and-So, you’ve acted contrary to scripture. You’ve sinned against the Lord. You’ve not kept the faith.” And it makes me think of these stories I’ve heard of folks getting thrown out of their faith communities--sometimes for things that you and I wouldn’t think are sinful. Maybe for being who God has made them to be--gay, or lesbian, or transgendered--or somehow being a little bit “other” in the eyes of the community.
I tend to associate this passage with moral purity codes--of how the community think folks should act and be and do--which sometimes can align with what we know of God in scripture, and sometimes doesn’t.
I think that sort of approach, using this scripture as a proof-text to get what we want from another person, seems manipulative and, frankly, contrary to what the gospel is really telling us. “Telling the truth in love” isn’t a mandate for trying to remake the world in an imaginary image, or a way of testing someone’s purity, or a way of excluding someone from society. I’m not sure I trust the motivation of those folks who are showing up to “tell the truth in love.” So there’s the bit about manipulation that makes me wary about this passage.
But there’s also some discomfort around anyone telling me what to do, anyone calling out sin! I’m not very comfortable with that, and maybe you’re not, either. We are a pretty individualistic society, and we don’t want other folks to tell us what to do--and we certainly don’t want God to tell us what to do! That’s at the core of our human condition, isn’t it; what was the one thing God told Adam and Eve not to do? Don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; everything else is yours, just don’t eat from this one tree. And of course, that’s exactly what Adam and Eve did. They ate from the one tree that was forbidden.
We don’t like to be told what to do. But sometimes it’s actually good for us! God set boundaries for Adam and Eve that protected them from the problem of evil, and they broke those boundaries. They’d have been better off following what God said. My great grandmother was right to tell us not to run with rakes or throw chinaberries; there’s a slight possibility we could have injured ourselves.
But what Jesus is inviting us to do is not to be the morality police. It’s something quite different. He’s inviting us to be honest with one another in relationship; even to name when we have experienced sin personally; when we have been hurt.
That can be quite empowering, and it can indeed lead to repentance, to change.
If someone has hurt me, I can be honest about that hurt--to speak how I am experiencing that hurt--and perhaps they’ll listen. Perhaps they’ll change. But even if they don’t, I am surrounded by the Church, that bears witness to the kingdom of God come near.
“If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; 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. …Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’” (Matthew 18:17-18, 20)
Jesus is inviting us to be more than nice--to do more than “play pretty”--but to genuinely be honest with one another, to be open, vulnerable, to be in real relationship with one another where we can tell each other honestly how we are, how we experience one another; he is inviting us to be honest about sin itself. Not as a method of rebuke, as a way of shaming or blaming one another, but as a genuine expression of relationship, of honesty, of loving faithfulness to God and one another.
I hope this bears itself out in community here at Christ Church. I believe it’s part of what we’re working on at Saint Hilda’s--a life of Christian honesty. I like to think of Saint Hilda’s House as something of a lab for life--a place for discernment and formation where young people get to reflect on what it means to give their lives to Jesus; what it means to love one another, to be in honest Christian relationship. You know the part about service, how each Hildan volunteers for ten months in a nonprofit group focused on justice--the Community Soup Kitchen, Columbus House, IRIS, Christian Community Action, and, this year, Junta and the offices of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. You probably know that each Friday the Hildans spend a day in study and contemplation, reading and discussing theology together and meeting with spiritual directors and mentors to reflect on their time in the House. But also each week they have a house meeting--a facilitated time to check in with one another and a time to reflect, honestly, with one another on how their common life together is going. It can, and often does, involve telling the truth in love. It can be hard. And it’s also a primary way for the community to grow in relationship, to deepen in love.
“Playing pretty” -- being nice to one another--is good up to a point. But for real relationship to happen, we also have to be honest with one another. And here’s the catch--and here’s where that phrase “telling the truth in love” gets it right in theory if not in practice--the lens through which we relate to one another can only be love. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)
What would it look like if everything we did, every action we took, every word we said, was rooted in love? Love for our neighbor as ourselves?
How would our laws change? What would national borders and immigration policy look like if everything was borne of a place of love for our neighbor?
How would our criminal justice system change? If we love the neighbor who sins against us, who steals, who commits murder, how then do we go about the work of justice--the hard work of protecting the vulnerable in society, of lessening the danger around us, while loving even our enemies--even those who perpetuate crime?
How would we be in relationship with one another? How would we deal with hurt, with pain, if we loved one another? How would our tongues be tempered? How quick would we be to forgive--if we were rooted only in a place of love?
If it sounds like hard work, it probably is, and we have a lifetime to practice. When we don’t get it right we are assured of forgiveness. And that there will be a chance to try again. But through God’s grace we already have the pattern for love--the cross. We have already seen how Christ’s love for us has changed us, has changed the world.
I invite you this week to look at the relationships you’re in. To do more than “play pretty” or be nice--but to be in real relationship, to really love one another. Let everything you do be rooted in love.
Christ has shown us the way. We know how to love, because he has first loved us.