US vs. US
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 7, 2014; 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Genesis 33:1-12; Matthew 5:21-24; Matthew 18:15-20

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out
the fault when the two of you are alone.”
Matthew 18:15

I’d like to begin today with the words of a great theologian. His name is Dr. Seuss.

I’m going to read you the first part of a book of his — not so well-known as Green Eggs and Ham or The Cat in the Hat. It’s called The Butter Battle Book.

On one level, it’s a children’s story, but on another, it’s a period piece for adults: about the Cold War that once pitted East against West, Communism against Democracy.

Symbolic of that rift between nations was the Berlin Wall. And so, it’s appropriate that The Butter Battle Book begins with a wall:

On the last day of summer,
ten hours before fall…
…my grandfather took me out to the Wall.
For a while he stood silent.
Then finally he said,
with a very sad shake
of his very old head,
“As you know…on this side of the Wall
we are Yooks.
On the far side of this Wall
live the Zooks.”
Then my grandfather said,
“It’s high time that you knew
of the terribly horrible thing that Zooks do.
In every Zook house and in every Zook town
every Zook eats his bread
with the butter side down!
“But we Yooks, as you know,
when we breakfast or sup,
spread our bread,” Grandpa said,
“With the butter side up.
That’s the right, honest way!”
Grandpa gritted his teeth.
“So you can’t trust a Zook who spreads bread underneath!
Every Zook must be watched.”

Grandpa then goes on to explain the long, sad story of the escalating hostility between the Yooks and the Zooks. As the wall rose higher and higher, each side developed its own clever weaponry — each terrible weapon intended only for defense, of course. There was the Snick-Berry Switch, the Triple Sling Jigger and the Kick-a-Poo-Kid.

Most terrifying of all was the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo. It was a tiny little bomb, but it packed quite a punch. If one of those things ever went off, it would be curtains for the entire world.

The book ends with a Yook and a Zook standing on top of the wall, glaring angrily at each other. Each one is holding a Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo — wondering who’s going to drop the first bomb — the first bomb that will also be the last.

*****

Conflict: sadly, it’s a part of human life. Ever since Cain killed his brother Abel, the children of God have gotten pretty skilled at finding things to hate and distrust about each other. You and I know it all too well: because there’s not a one of us who hasn’t had an enemy, who hasn’t — at some time in our lives — found someone else to hate and fear.

It’s such a common feature of human life, in fact, that Jesus himself gives some instruction about conflict resolution. You’ll find it in Matthew, chapter 18 — the second of two Gospel lessons I read for you today.

Jesus’ model of conflict resolution is a carefully-staged process. If another member of the church has wronged you, he says, proceed to Step One: Go to the other person and point out what that one has done wrong. No witnesses. Just the two of you.

If that doesn’t work, proceed to Step Two: take one or two others along with you, and repeat the process. There’s a very practical reason for bringing the others along: so they can serve as witnesses if Step Two likewise doesn’t work.

You’re going to need those witnesses if you have to move on to Step Three. In Step Three, you “tell it to the church.” There’s still hope the other person will come around, realizing what pain he or she has caused, and repenting for it. But “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

A careful, measured series of slowly-escalating steps. It’s the Grievance Procedure of the first-century church. It’s become the foundation for our Presbyterian “Rules of Discipline,” found in the Book of Order — little known, thankfully, and rarely used. It’s also become the foundation of the disciplinary procedures of every other Christian church.

Approach the person privately; then, with two or three others; then, “tell it to the church.” And if, in the end, there’s no admission of wrong, no move towards reconciliation, even when the whole church is calling for it, then “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Now, in case that last bit sounds harsh, coming from the mouth of Jesus, then think on this. How was it, again, that Jesus related to Gentiles and tax collectors?

He loved them, of course! He loved them unconditionally. He was famous for that. Jesus never gave up on them, always reached out, always hoped for reconciliation.

Yet, there does come a point when active intervention must cease. If wrongdoers, confronted by the righteous judgment of the whole church, still refuse to mend their ways, they have — by making that choice — effectively removed themselves from the fellowship. That’s the harsh reality that comes around to bite them — that comes around to bite you and me, as well, if we’re honest about how we sometimes allow conflicts to fester, to let disagreements with others go on, and on, and on. There’s simply no place in the body of Christ for protracted, unresolved conflict. Christ calls us to be a community of peace, together.

*****

Now, here’s an insight that’s really going to blow you away. It did for me. I was at a workshop a couple weeks ago, on behalf of the Presbytery, on conflict mediation. Our leader, Richard Blackburn — a Mennonite minister who’s worked for years in conflict resolution — pointed out that there’s another place in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus also gives instruction on conflict resolution. It’s Matthew 5:23-24 (that’s the first one I read this morning). It says:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

Notice how, in this earlier passage, the roles are reversed. In the other passage, from Matthew 18, the person who takes the initiative to go and visit the brother or sister is the person who’s been wronged. Here in chapter 5, though, it’s different. Jesus says, “If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you…”

In other words, you’re not the victim this time, but the perpetrator. The really interesting thing to me — the insight I’d never realized before, after years of studying these two passages — is that Jesus’ advice is pretty much the same for both parties. Whether you’re the one who’s been wronged, or the one who’s done the wronging, it’s still your responsibility to swallow your pride, get up and go to your sister or brother, seeking to be reconciled.

There’s none of this “Why should I make the first move? It wasn’t my fault. It’s the other person who’s got to reach out!”

That’s how feuds get started, you know. Both sides are absolutely convinced it’s the other person’s fault. They’re not going to budge. It can go on for years — generations, even. We’re talking Hatfields and McCoys, here.

Or — and this is a story I can tell, because it’s all over my in-laws’ family and they laugh about it now — there was the feud between Claire’s mother, Irene and her older sister, Wanda. Who knows how it got started? It doesn’t really matter. The two families lived in a double row-house in Baltimore, with a connecting door on the second floor. The kids could go back and forth at will, but Irene and Wanda weren’t talking to each other — literally — for years. If Wanda (who had no children) had to give Irene a message, she’d call one of Irene’s kids over, saying, “Go tell your mother such-and-such.” Incredibly, they’d even do that if they were sitting in the back seat of a car together, with a kid in between. They’d refer to each other in the third person — ostensibly talking to the kid, but knowing perfectly well the sister would overhear.

If no kid was available, Wanda had a system. I am not making this up. She’d write a note to Irene, paper-clip it to a piece of string, and lower it down from the second-floor landing. When Irene came along, she’d see it hanging there: “Don’t forget to pay the electric bill,” or something else like that.

Well, they did make up in the end, thankfully — but for years, those notes dangling on a piece of string were symbolic of two people stubbornly at odds with each other, each one patiently waiting for the other to make the first move towards an apology.

If you follow Jesus’ advice in these two passages from Matthew, that sort of thing never ought to happen. Whether you’re the injured party (chapter 18), or whether you’re the one whose brother or sister has something against you (chapter 5), Jesus says, “Don’t put it off. Just go. Mend the rift. Heal the relationship.”

*****

Here’s an example — a story I may have told you before, but I can’t remember — so, here it is, anyway. I read, once, about an old U.S. Army training manual for non-commissioned officers. The manual gave the sergeants some practical advice: on how to handle the case two soldiers from the same barracks who keep arguing with one another.

Assign them both to washing the same window, the manual advises: one on the outside, the other on the inside. As they stand there with their cleaning-solution and rags, moving them in the same circular motion, they can’t help but look at each other’s faces. As they do, they realize they have more in common than they have differences. They may even start laughing, as the common problem — the dirty window — takes precedence over their petty conflict.

*****

Here’s another way to look at it. Two parties in a relationship are sitting on opposite sides of a table. It’s the negotiating table. As long as they remain on separate sides of the table, it’s “Us vs. Them” — from both perspectives. Each party says, “‘Us’ is on my side of the table. ‘Them’ is over there. And ‘Them’s’ gotta make the first move!”

For years, during the Vietnam War, “Us” (the United States and South Vietnam) and “Them” (the North Vietnamese) were engaged in peace talks, in Paris. The two sides spent years — literally, years — arguing over the shape of the conference table! Resolutions were introduced — first by one side, then the other — and methodically voted down.

Neither side, of course, was truly interested in peace — not as long as they thought they could do better on the battlefield. It was a stall tactic, an intricate dance of the diplomats: one side preferring a round table, the other square. They might as well have called themselves Yooks and Zooks!

Reconciliation’s never going to happen, though, as long as it remains Yooks vs. Zooks, “Us vs. Them.” Somehow, a third element has got to be introduced.

*****

Let’s call it The Problem. The two parties have got to stop seeing the other person as the problem, and begin seeing the conflict between them as The Problem. It’s a problem they can only solve together.

Imagine The Problem is like a box of jigsaw-puzzle pieces somebody just dumped out onto the table. Silently, unwilling to speak, the two start to examine the pile. Each one sees some pieces that fit together, then connects them up. They bend to their work, creating little clusters of puzzle-pieces — a bit of sky here, a patch of grassy lawn there, the red siding of a barn over there. Eventually, they connect up those larger clusters. Before that happens, though, the two get up and start walking around the table, to get a different perspective on the emerging picture — or to pick up a stray puzzle-piece, to see if it belongs to the section they’ve been working on. They may even start talking to one another — imagine that! “Hand me that piece of blue sky over there.”

Eventually, it no longer makes sense to speak of “my side” or “your side” of the table. There’s only The Problem — and it takes two, working together, to solve it.

“Us vs. Them” has got to be transformed into “Us vs. Us.” It’s the only way reconciliation happens.

*****

Here, my friends, we do have a table. A communion table. Around it are gathered all sorts of different people, people who come from north and south and east and west. Perhaps there are disagreements among us. Perhaps there are jealousies or resentments. Yet, if we see what is spread upon this table — if we truly see, in the spiritual sense — and realize it’s the body and blood of our Lord who gave himself for us, then it can no longer be Us and Them. It can only be Us and Us — and Him.

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Around this table, we read that secret history. We come to understand the hurts and pains and trouble that have brought us here. What, then, is there to do, but to worship together the one who calls us here: the one we call Prince of Peace?