Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
It started with raised voices that half the office could hear, then the shouting began, and finally a door slammed followed by the sound of something smashing—that last bit adding a dramatic touch to the lively exchange of views that often characterized the frank and earnest discussions between two of my more volatile, opinionated colleagues. Counting down the seconds, he must have set a record for sprinting down the corridor to settle red-faced and breathless in the seat opposite me. Quite how two metallurgists can get so wound up over a pump selection, or pipe size beat me, but being the boss, my job was to adjudicate and restore a jolly work environment for everyone. She threw her coffee mug at me—a full one! I got out just in time,... the aggrieved party went on. Then there were the counter accusations, but after calming both down separately, the next step was the tricky bit—bringing them together to restore peace. Failing that, we had a rule that employees had 24 hours to settle any differences amicably, or else the entire team would meet to hold them to account for hurting morale. It worked.
Those three steps to conflict resolution, embedded in the company’s corporate culture, sound remarkably like the process we heard about in the Gospel—firstly, talk to the other person yourself and try to iron out the problem; failing that, bring a couple of others into the conversation in the hope that calmer heads can prevail; and finally, bring the matter before everyone affected—the entire community, whether it be a team, a church or any group of people capable of falling out from a family or circle of friends, to neighbours, strata councils and other committees, to members of governments, neighboring tribes, nations, and all the member states of the international community. We all know the pain unresolved differences can cause, either from personal experience or the lessons of history where failure to recognize the danger signs in time to reconcile people amicably has destroyed relationships and caused untold suffering through horrendous conflicts and wars.
Never let the sun go down on your anger—Ephesians 4:26. Good advice, but sometimes that’s easier said than done unless someone or something triggers the need and desire for reconciliation then shows the way. Both Jesus and Paul said love provides that essential motivation, acting as a preventative against people hurting one another in the first place, or as a prescription for healing wounds. They weren’t talking about some loosey-goosey feel good general kind of love, but the love of neighbour—of people we meet face-to-face, the folk we live and work with, people we serve or serve us, those we rub shoulders with and rub up against—maybe folk we’d even like to avoid because they rub us up the wrong way or we have offended. The worst of it is that just when I’ve learned to love someone like that, God goes and puts another in my way. But for what it’s worth, I’ve found that practice helps, and must thank the corporate world for that because it’s bad business to let problems fester, so good companies foster good relationships—they cannot afford to do otherwise. Hence the 24-hour rule on resolving differences, plus a lot of training to help us monitor our behaviour, and recognize if we were falling into a pattern of picking fights or falling victim to other people’s bullying or moods. To help us become more self-aware we were told to keep a daily log of our feelings about ourselves and reactions to others—what triggered those responses.
There’s a lot more to loving our neighbour than just being nice to others. Jesus said we must love our neighbour as ourselves, so we have to look at how well we love ourselves. You see, if we are hard on ourselves, the chances are we are hard on others, but if we cut ourselves some slack we are likely to be more tolerant of others. Great, but what if we realize we are in the habit of being hard on ourselves, being down on ourselves and down on others? There is a possibility we are depressed or physically sick so need to seek medical advice and counsel. But having ruled that out, the Biblical answer is to love God, because the more we love God and spend time with God, the more we come to see ourselves through God’s eyes—and the more we learn how much God sees in us and loves us, the more we learn to appreciate and love ourselves. Lastly, the more we love and accept and value ourselves, the more we can love, accept and value others.
It takes practice to reset a particular mindset but can be done. Here’s one way: firstly relax, take a few deep breaths and focus your full attention on Christ’s face. Next, imagine yourself behind Christ looking at yourself through Christ’s eyes—the eyes of the one who loves you as you are, the one who was willing to die to free you from whatever negative thoughts bother you, and channel hopes and encouragement in your direction instead. Still seeing things as Christ would, lift your gaze and look at the world you know letting others enter the picture as they come to mind, sending them all the love they need to help them. Lastly, only when nobody else comes to mind, gently return to yourself and give thanks for the grace of that time with God.
Sadly, even with the best will in the world, we can’t solve all the world’s problems—some situations and people remain beyond our capacity to help. This morning’s readings serve as a reality check reminding us there are times and relationships beyond our ability to mend even after we’ve called in mediators. The church Matthew knew was in a very vulnerable, precarious position being persecuted from all sides, so any challenges to its internal stability and solidarity between its members were potentially very serious, even life-threatening if someone was prepared to denounce a fellow Christian to the authorities. No wonder if the third step that involved the whole community (to guarantee a fair hearing) still failed to achieve a satisfactory resolution, then the offender was expelled, at least until they repented. Of course, forgiveness and reconciliation was always a possibility. At the other extreme, the account of the Passover the night before the Exodus from Egypt began reminds us that when every effort to secure freedom from an oppressive regime fails, maybe the only way forward to protect people is for the whole community is to leave. Sadly, the relationship between the Israelites and Egyptians that started off well had soured beyond repair, but that had taken generations to happen and while today’s story describes God’s saving grace in terms of triumph over oppression, I wonder how many danger signs had been ignored, so how many opportunities for a peaceful amicable exit had been lost along the way. Love of neighbour involves being alert to their needs as well as our own.
As a new school year marks the beginnings of so many activities, so many opportunities to try out new things, meet new people, forge new friendships,... it’s a bit like a clean slate—enjoy the freedom love brings.