WHEN NEIGHBORS DISAGREE
Matthew 18: 15-20
As we enter our nations’ 9/11 week again, we are in a time of unusual turmoil and tension in too many places. We’ve spent four weeks watching neighbors in Ferguson Missouri in each others faces. We’ve become uneasy with the news that Ukraine has Russian troops entering that country. We know people in Israel and Palestine, who claim to worship the God we worship, who are living as if God’s guidance about how to treat your neighbor was not written for them. Although Jesus reiterated the words, “you shall your neighbor as yourself,” they were originally said in the part of the Bible known as the Holiness Code in Leviticus, a book that some don’t read carefully! In addition to Paul’s wise words about neighbors in Romans; and Jesus’ wise words in Matthew; listen to these words from Leviticus, a book both Jesus and Paul would have known well:
You shall not defraud your neighbor …. With justice you shall judge your neighbor …. You shall not slander your neighbor or profit by the blood of your neighbor…. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19)
Jesus did not make up that last sentence for his “Greatest Commandment” answer.” The full message from Leviticus was: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”
So why are laws drawn up; and why are guidelines needed? Clearly they are written when people have broken codes of law, of civility, or of morality. And codes are drawn up when a community agrees what is and isn’t appropriate. The freedom to have a loud party at your home at night might infringe on the rights of your neighbors to have a quiet evening. The freedom to load a plate with food at the buffet line at a family gathering might take food away from those who are last in the food line. Neighbors are local, but they are also global! The border issues in Ukraine, in Israel, or at the southern border of the United States should invite members of the world back to the dialogue table to re-think how a neighbor relates to a neighbor. Perhaps new response can be gained.
Sometimes neighbors down the block, down the hall, next door, or on the others side of the globe can just be belligerent, defiant, rude, or evil. Today we learn how Jesus gave permission for individuals, churches, and even nations to act at escalated levels of engagement when that’s the case. To paraphrase our Matthew text today, Jesus says “First go alone and talk with the one who has encroached on or harmed you. If that works, no more is needed. If not, go to level two: take one or two others with you as witnesses and as a show of solidarity. If that does not work, go to level three: let everyone in your faith community know what he or she has done and bring the person to stand before the community if he or she will come. Beyond that, you have the right not to associate with such persons, and to use other means, including courts.” In our day people forget that there are progressions of negotiation; but some people don’t want to put the effort into negotiating or speaking face to face. Instead they just decide to sue: they pay their attorney, and their neighbor pays an attorney, and they speak to each other in a limited fashion; usually attorneys presents their cases to a judge. So in heightened situations, tensions escalate and communication become highly controlled.
David Thorpe belonged to a church in DeLand before he moved here and joined our church.. He made a trip to the Holy Land three years ago. He just got a letter from his tour guide this week. Here is a portion of what his tour guide said:
Tourism is weak now. People are canceling. People are nervous, scared. But a plea to my friends: Israel, the Middle East, needs you now. You understand more than others. You are the friends of the peoples living here. You understand Israel’s Jewish Christian roots and also you know our Muslim Arab brothers. The extremists should not be allowed to win. The terrorists have to see how they are wrong. Most people want to live a normal life. We must listen to the claims of our neighbors. We may not agree but we should respect them: not the fanatics, but the majority. I just finished leading a Catholic group from Nevada. They were wonderful. I am sure they felt they had had a special experience coming to Israel at this time. They met Israelis, Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, soldiers, and saw the human face of the conflict. We were so moved at their coming that my wife insisted that all would come visit our home! They came with their Jerusalem Arab driver and a friend of his. It was a special evening, one of the highlights of the tour.
We too experienced such hospitality on our visit: moderate neighbors living side by side with others. It’s the radicals that make the choice of killing.
In the midst of the Russian border issues with neighboring Ukraine; with Israel and Palestine and several other neighbor conflicts, I was reminded of a book written during the Cold War by the famous children’s author, Dr. Seuss. The book was written for children on one level, but on another level was an adult commentary on the USSR- USA military actions. Read The Butter Battle Book through those eyes and see his comment about disagreeable neighbors.
In our world that has slid down the cliff of polarization for more than 20 years, Jesus’ words of guidance are an action plan for Christians and others who honor his wisdom: he had levels of approach for disagreements. Let’s work on not escalating disagreements too rapidly. Can we remember to talk face-to-face first, to start with civil discussion? But if, as is happening in more corners of our world than we care to count, we find our neighbor will not talk, or respond, or turn back from destructive and damaging actions, then we have the right, and the responsibility to move to higher levels of negotiation. Jesus outlined the pattern. Even he did not stand for arrogance, belligerence or injustice. As I said to the children today: I would love for the world to be more like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood; but I know the world of children is rarely so nice. I would love to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, but that sounds more and more like a pipe dream. But short of that, I will try to do what Jesus would do: pray, share, listen, and ask.
As we come to the Lord’s Table, recall what the English hymn writer Samuel John Stone called “Mystic sweet communion.” We don’t know how we are connected with those who have gone before us. We don’t know how Jesus is truly present with us. And we don’t know how we are connected with other Christians around the world every time we share the bread and the cup. But we are; we are connected; and in that connection, may you receive both blessing for today and inspiration for the ways you relate to others.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 7, 2014