14th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson

Today’s scripture readings: Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Before becoming a pastor, I worked as a community organizer. One summer the entire organizing team where I worked attended Weeklong Organizing Training, a sort of boot camp for organizers. It’s an opportunity to learn all the essential tools of organizing, and it is an intense week.

Toward the end of the week, as we were delving into some of the more advanced topics, we had a long session on a technique called “agitation.” You can probably guess just from the name of it that this was the most uncomfortable training of the week. Simply put, agitation is a tool organizers use to help others push through whatever barriers are getting in their way and preventing them from being the best leaders they can be.

Let’s say you’re my coworker. I’ve been watching you work for awhile and I notice there’s a certain attitude or behavior that is holding you back. Maybe watching you bump up against that roadblock over and over again is starting to drive me a little crazy, and it’s actually impacting my work, too. Maybe it’s holding allof us back. I might be tempted just to say, “Hey, get it together! We need you to start pulling your weight!” Agitation is a tool that goes about this a little better way.

The first step in an agitation is telling the other person why you are invested in their leadership, why it’s important for you to have them as a successful partner in your work. The next step is casting a vision for the other person’s leadership, what you imagine could be possible for them if they were at their very best. What comes next is the very hardest part of an agitation: Naming what you think is holding them back. This is where it starts to feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. Oftentimes what gets named here is some sort of deep-seated shame, or fear, or insecurity, that is getting in the way. But in this step, you shine a light on it and expose it. No longer will they be able to hide from it or push it aside. And in the final step of the agitation, you make a plan together to help the other person take a risk, push through that barrier, and grow into the kind of leader you know they can be, the kind of leader they know they want to be.

After attending weeklong training together, my organizing colleagues and I would meet every two weeks and we would have an opportunity to agitate one another. When it was my turn to be on the receiving end of an agitation, I knew that one of my colleagues was going to uncover something that was getting in my way and I wasn’t going to have a choice but to confront it and make a plan to get past it. It was miserable.

And it was amazing. It was amazing to know I had colleagues who were so invested in me that, in addition to doing their own work, they were paying attention to how I was doing mine, and they would willingly engage me in a vulnerable conversation about how I could do better. Our team came to understand that these uncomfortable agitations were critical to our success as a team. We knew that when one of us does better, we all do better together. We weren’t just a handful of individual organizers out in the world doing our own thing, who happened to share space when we were in the office together. We were truly a team, invested in one another personally, recognizing that the only way we would accomplish our mission was if we all were at our very best.

Can you imagine being part of a team—or better yet, part of a community, or a nation—where we were that invested in one another? Where we didn’t give up on people who have let us down but worked hard to stay in relationship? Where we didn’t demonize people who disagree with us but instead tried to make a connection and seek understanding? Where we truly believed that we need everyone, and we need everyone at their very best?

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That’s what Matthew has in mind when he shares Jesus’ instructions about what to do when one person hurts another. Jesus doesn’t say, “Shake the dust of your sandals and move on.” He doesn’t say, “Cast them out of the community.” He says, “Do everything in your power to seek reconciliation.” He says, “Invest in one another.”

Jesus answers a question about how to address the sins of another person. Jesus says, first, go to an offender directly. If that doesn’t work, he says, take one or two witnesses along with you. And if that doesn’t work, take it to the whole church. If after all that the offender still hasn’t been able to acknowledge the harm they have done, Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Which, to our ears, might sound like an instruction to shun the wrongdoer and treat them as an outsider. But it’s worth remembering that the people Jesus spent most of his time with were Gentiles and tax collectors! Far from casting them out and giving up on them altogether, Jesus commands his listeners never to shun them, never to turn our backs on them, but always to seek reconciliation, and to keep at it as long as it takes. The work of Jesus is always the work of healing and restoration, and that is to be the work of the community that gathers in his name as well.

This work stems from recognizing shared humanity with the one who has wronged us and a desire to seek repair rather than revenge. Reconciliation does not ignore the harm caused by wrongdoing. In fact, the process of reconciliation begins with telling what has happened and naming the hurt. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed at the end of apartheid in South Africa took this as its foundational insight. Only when the facts and pain have been truly named can forgiveness be granted and a relationship restored. Moving to forgiveness right away short-circuits this process. Such unexamined, cheap grace actually hinders true forgiveness, and the kind of authentic, resilient community that could extend reconciliation. Reconciliation requires honesty, vulnerability, and a deep investment in one another.

Jesus says we are not to have conflict the way the world has conflict. We are not to exchange angry words, resort to name calling, or launch 280-character missiles at one another on Twitter. Nor are we supposed to give up and walk away. We are not to let wrongdoing go unaddressed. When one person has harmed another we have to confront it. But Jesus says, the goal is not vengeance. The goal is not even punishment. The goal is reconciliation, restoration, relationship.

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In the year 2020, 58 days before Election Day, in the midst of a pandemic when kids are going back to school, with communities across the country finally coming to terms with the reality of systemic violence waged against black bodies and so many of us feeling on edge, a little reflection on how we do conflict well, how we work for reconciliation rather than revenge, how we confront wrongdoing in a way that restores relationship rather than driving us further apart—this seems like work that is worthy of our time. If we can learn how to do that work well close to home, maybe we can figure out how to bring that work into our communities. The church can and should and must be part of the healing our world so desperately needs.

I, for one, appreciate that the Gospel writer lays out a clear process with concrete steps for seeking reconciliation. Maybe that kind of clarity can inspire us to get clear ourselves about concrete steps we can take, starting today, to bring about healing; to choose another way when, in the world around us, all we hear is anger and division, the tearing down of people who are different from us or don’t share our worldview. Jesus shows us another way, and now we have a choice whether to follow. Let’s go together.


Resources consulted:

Jin S. Kim, “Matthew 18:15-20: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).