Bound to be Broken, Bound to Love

September 10, 2017
Romans 13:8-12; Matthew 18:15-20

Here we are, two or three gathered in the Name (the name so holy that in the Jewish tradition it dare not be spoken.) We gather in the Name – of hospitality and love and peace. The Holy One promises to be here among us. Thank goodness.

Thank God because there are too many places these days that feel empty of love and peace and hospitality, where brokenness seems to prevail. Is God there too, amidst the brokenness?

This passage from Matthew is all too familiar to some of us. The “Matthew 18 process” has been imposed on us, forced on us, used in troublesome ways. Instead of being used to lessen grievances, it has amplified them. Instead of being used to increase deep listening, it has helped some to close their ears and hearts. If that has happened to you, I am sorry. I understand if you need to stop listening right now.

For those who can stomach one more pass at this text, let’s wrestle with it. Let’s see if we can wrestle with this text until it gives us a blessing. Let’s approach it with questions and wonderings, one eye on the text and one eye on our surroundings. We may not get clear answers but maybe we can receive a blessing, as Jacob received when he wrestled with the mysterious visitor at the river.

The “Matthew 18 process” describes a procedure to be used in the church, between people in the church. (As a point of clarification, let’s remember that Jesus is not a member of a church; he attends and teaches in the synagogue. He has a traveling band of followers, some faithful Jews and some probably still deciding if they want to be counted among the faithful.)

The process seems straight forward enough.

– If someone sins against you, go talk to them.

– If they don’t seem to hear you, take a couple of other people along so there are witnesses to the process.

– If you still aren’t heard, take it to the church.

– If they still don’t listen then let that sinner become to you like a Gentile or tax collector. (That is a little tricky since Jesus hung out with Gentiles and tax collectors though they might have seemed unapproachable to his followers.)

The goal of all this running around, trying to get people to hear each other, is reconciliation, reconciliation between individuals and restoration to the community. It is conceivable, that for the one who has “sinned,” it may feel less like reconciliation and more like escalation, especially since then there is the part about binding and loosing.

Frankly the whole binding and loosing thing has always baffled me. Maybe it’s because one of my heart songs is “I bind my heart this tide to the Galilean’s side.” I think of being bound to a commitment. But in this case binding is more like capturing, tying something up so it can no longer harm. We loose what leads to health, we give freedom to what is life giving – on earth as it is in heaven.

Perhaps one of the reasons we struggle with the Matthew 18 process is that we have misunderstood it. This is a simple formula to be used by those who have not had their voice heard, who have not had anyone recognize the sin done to them. Often the one who is treated badly is stuck in silence; they have no recourse but to live with the power imbalance. This process is supposed to empower the one who has been on the receiving end of the abuse and misuse of power.

The Matthew 18 process gives the one who has been sinned against some agency. They no longer have to suffer in silence. They can speak and even bring witnesses so they are not alone. It is a brilliant gift to people who have had no power. Here is a way to recover some dignity. Here is a way for the voiceless to be heard, to have witnesses to their experience.

As the powerless group that followed Jesus became the church and the church became powerful in its own right, the Matthew 18 process became property of the church. I would argue that, at least in the Mennonite church, Matthew 18 is used not by those who have no power but by those who already have power. Most often in the Mennonite church, those in power watch to see who has committed a sin. They confront the sinner, take more people along to bolster their case and soon the sinner is out of the fold, the sinner bound tight so no one else can be harmed by them. When used like this, Matthew 18 allows the powerful to increase and compound their power against those who are already disempowered. This kind of text twisting is the very thing Jesus spoke so strongly against.

Let’s keep wrestling with the text. Is it possible to use the Matthew 18 process to talk back to power? With one eye on the tensions in the world and one eye on the church, how does Matthew 18 work today?

As a historically white church, it is painful to admit but racism is present in the Mennonite Church. We know racism is among us because for at least seven years the denomination has named as one its priorities anti-racism work. How many generations of Native, African American, Latinx, Asian, even white people tried to talk to one person, then bring two or three witnesses, then bring it to the whole church in order to have the sin of racism recognized? Recognizing the sin is one thing; binding the sin of racism is a whole other project.

Today, structural racism is often disguised but unfortunately the church has, in the past, formally codified racism. Historian Tobin Miller Shearer writes about what happened in Virginia Conference decades ago.

In 1940, the Virginia Mennonite Conferences executive committee announced that they would be conforming to the “general attitude of society in the South toward the intermingling of the two races.” The executive committee segregated the rites of baptism, the holy kiss, foot washing, and communion, claiming that they did so in “the best interests of both colored and white.” Not coincidentally, they instituted the Jim Crow policy even as Mennonites in Virginia faced increased pressure for their non-conformity to the countrys military buildup during World War II.

My grandparents, Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber, were church planters and part of the Gay Street Mission in Harrisonburg, Virginia. It was an all African American congregation except for the Swartzentruber family. My grandparents challenged their supervisors, demanding scriptural backing for the action (of segregation). In a highly unusual reply, the bishops declared that not every decision necessitated scriptural mandates. Rather, they stated, “as a matter of expediency we must make some distinction to meet existing conditions.”  The decision to take away the shared communion cup particularly devastated Fannie.

For the better part of four years, (she) went along with the dictate. She took communion from a separate cup. She watched Eastern Mennonite College deny admission to the daughter of one her African-American co-believers, Roberta Webb. She said good-bye to her long-time companion, Rowena Lark, as Lark and her husband moved away from the Jim Crow South to plant churches in Chicago. Fannie (Swartzentruber) went along with the demands of her religious community—until she could no longer do so.

During the communion service at Gay Street Mennonite Mission in the fall of 1944, Swartzentruber had had enough. She got up and marched out.

Though she was white, Fannie had little power as a woman in the Mennonite church in the 1940s. When she and Ernest named the sin of breaking the communion bread not just to be eaten but to divide and separate, they were not listened to, though the witnesses to the injustice were many. After four years of not being heard, Fannie felt that her only recourse was refusing to participate in the segregated communion and foot washing, in effect to break communion.

But who was really being sinned against here? I am not sure it was my grandmother. It was the other members of the congregation who were seen as less than fully human. This story gets told and retold to highlight my grandmother Fannie’s resistance yet the names of the faithful African American people in the pews seem to be lost.

As we tell this story, we become witnesses to the sin, to the brokenness of generations. We are witnesses to the sin of racism. We are witnesses to the sin of segregating the bread and cup, the very things that are to bring us together.  We are witnesses to the preservation of white stories and the erasure of black stories. Where two or three are gathered – Is the holy here among us, in the brokenness?

That was then, so long ago. In 1955 Virginia Conference leaders overturned their segregation dictate. In a statement that year they publicly acknowledged their “former spiritual immaturity” and pledged to extend “the right hand of fellowship” to all “true believers.”

In 1985 the congregation, no longer African American but now all white, apologized to my grandparents, on behalf of the conference. Did anyone ever apologize, beg forgiveness, from the people in the pews, the African American believers who were failed by the church? Did anyone beg forgiveness for binding baptism, communion, the holy kiss and foot washing and loosing racism?

So often when I have read this passage, I have heard the binding and loosing part as a muddy insertion into an otherwise fairly clear passage. Perhaps binding and loosing is not misplaced phraseology but an extension of talking about the Gentile and tax collector. What if Jesus is using “Gentile” and “tax collector” as descriptions of institutional problems. Bind the institution of Gentile but loose the person. Bind the institution of tax collecting but loose the tax collector (like Matthew himself, in whose gospel we find this text.) It reminds me of what I learned in the non-violence training in Charlottesville. “We are confronting evil structures, not evil individuals.” Unfortunately it also reminds me of that problematic phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner.”

Racism is like a tumor that requires blood in order to grow. It takes life and strength from other parts of the body in order to feed itself. We must find ways to bind racism, to tie it off so that no more blood flows to the tumor giving it life and power.

And we know that binding institutional racism is not an easy, quick project. If it was, Quaker abolitionists would have worked it out centuries ago.

Neither is wrestling with the text a safe endeavor. Remember how Jacob wrestled with the stranger all night, and was wounded in the process. Most translations of the text are polite; we read that his hip was put out of joint. Some scholars argue that he was really hit in the groin, in his manhood, the place that gave him his power. As the sun rose, Jacob limped away, with a new name, Israel, and a blessing – and a limp.

If we are serious about wrestling a blessing from the text we might well watch for how we will be wounded. For white people, I think that we may well limp away, having had our whiteness, the thing that gives a false sense of power, hit hard. That tender place of whiteness we didn’t even know we were protecting, it will be pounded. It will make us limp but we will limp toward new freedom, toward reconciliation with siblings who we have been separated from. We may feel broken but in our humbled state we will find that God is there. “Where two or three are gathered:” to witness to sin, to witness God’s loving presence, the Holy is there.

Beloved of God, let us bind what is evil and loose what is good. Let us never forget that God is with us when we gather, even in the brokenness: in the breaking of the bread, in the breaking of unjust chains, as we limp together toward new life.