As a kid, I remember my dad typing up the bulletin on a stencil in his office at the parsonage. Afterwards, he’d run it on the hand-crank mimeograph. That was a kind of Stone Age copying machine for the younger among us.
The bulletins would come spitting out, and when you picked one up and held it close to your face, it had this glorious smell—like chemicals—but in a good, pleasant, Haight-Ashbury kind of way. I loved the whole process. But what I was most fascinated by was the typewriter.
My father’s typewriter was an electric Smith Corona, which if you punched enough keys at once, the arms would all swing toward the paper at the same time and get stuck. And you’d have to pull them apart so they’d fall back to their original resting place.
And if you made a mistake, you had to use white out—which was a white viscous liquid in a bottle that you applied to the mistake with a small brush. Then you had to blow on it to make it dry so you could type over the top of your last error. White out was another glorious smell from my childhood—more chemicals. It was the sixties, after all.
Anyway, I found typewritten copy enchanting—much more professional than mere handwriting, more permanent and official somehow—documents that might someday be pulled from an archive to validate some great historical truth—like from the Warren Commission on the Kennedy Assassination, or the documentary evidence that Adolph Hitler faked his own death, or some such.
Another enduring fascination of mine was the idea of belonging to a club—preferably a secret club. What such a club was supposed to do, and why it seemed so important to keep the whole enterprise a secret was irrelevant. I just knew I wanted to be a part of one, and I wanted to invite my friends. We’d form this secret club and figure out the details later.
But in order to have a secret club, I reasoned, we needed to have membership cards—ones we could whip out when necessary for access to a secret hideout—nothing biometric, of course—just something that would pass muster with Peter Graves on Mission Impossible. Card stock would do just fine.
So, I laid my plan out to my father, who promptly said the best he could do was some weird shade of beige construction paper—which, why anyone would have that color of construction paper, I still have no idea. I also said that these membership cards needed to be typed out. My dad just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Ok.”
Being a Dad myself, I now know what that shoulder shrug was about: “This is not going to turn out the way you imagined it. You’re going to be disappointed, and I’m going to be the jerk who disappoints you—but what else am I going to do?”
So, my dad typed me a pukey beige-colored secret club membership card on construction paper with my name on it. And, even after all these years, I can remember my first reaction: It was hideous. You couldn’t have a secret club with a membership card that looked like it had been pulled out of the bottom of a litter box.
I wanted to be a member of a club so badly—to have friends like people I saw on TV, friends who’d have my back, and who’d cheer me up, friends I could help when they needed it. I wanted to be a part of a club, a small community of adventurers—lousy beige membership card notwithstanding.
I still recognize that pull inside myself, the pull to be part of something bigger—part of a community. Most people, in my experience, have that same longing. And it’s not like there aren’t any to be found. There are communities all over the place, organized around all kinds of things—gardening, writing, kitting, politics, bowling, Corvettes, catfish noodling.
But are those things communities? Aren’t they really more like affinity groups—you like the same kinds of things other people like, and so you hang out together and talk about playing the tuba or hang-gliding or fighting orcs, or whatever?
But why aren’t those kinds of groups usually true community?
Because what holds them together is not only a love of the same kinds of things, but an unwritten agreement that if you stop being satisfied, or if there’s conflict, or if you get bored, you can just move on and find another group. And if that’s the pact you’ve implicitly made with one another, the one thing you have to guard agains is being too honest. You’ve got to keep the peace—or things will fall apart.
But true community is just the opposite; it requires the kind of trust that can only come from complete honesty—which is really hard—but crucial nevertheless, because human beings are built for community.
Aristotle famously said that human beings are political animals—by which he didn’t mean that we all watch cable news and listen to talk radio. Politics comes from the Greek word polis—which we usually translate as something like community—a group of people bound together in their commitment to a goal. Which goal is the highest good.
Human beings are made for community. In fact, Aristotle said that any person who doesn’t need community is either a beast or a god.
But in order to have a community—our common life together demands honesty. Perhaps a reference to another moral philosopher, Immanuel Kant, will illustrate why the truth is so necessary to the maintenance of our communal bonds.
Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative says that we ought to do only those things that we would want to become a universal moral law. It’s a more formal, societal way of institutionalizing the Golden Rule. For example, to Kant, the reason I know it’s not ok to commit murder is because I don’t want there to be a universal morality that allows murder—since I don’t want to be the victim of that kind of morality. Same with tax evasion: I don’t cheat on my taxes, because no government can survive if it’s ok for everyone to cheat on their taxes.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right?
Kant, however, uses a specific example for how to think morally about truth telling. He says that the reason it’s wrong to lie is because not only does nobody want to live in a world where lying is accepted as normal, but that no community could survive it.
If we always have to wonder whether or not someone’s lying, how could we have a a healthcare system? I’d never know if the pain in my stomach is indigestion or trichinosis, since I’d never be able to trust the doctor to tell me my correct diagnosis.
How could we do business? Education would fall apart, because we could never be certain the teacher wasn’t just messing with us.
Love would be impossible if lying were not only accepted, but expected. You’re the only one for me. There’s nobody else. Seriously, I don’t have any communicable diseases . . . as far as you know.
Community demands the trust that can only come from honesty.
I worked in a church one time, where one large group of people was always convinced they were being lied to. They assumed everyone was dissembling until proven otherwise.
“Are you sure you didn’t see the stapler? I left it in the narthex and now it’s gone.”
“Sorry, I didn’t see it.”
“Really? You were in the building that day.”
“Yeah, no. I never saw it.”
“My aunt Marge gave that stapler to the church as a gift. How could you just take it?”
“Um, I’m not sure we’re dialed into the same conversation. I told you I never saw it.”
How does a community survive when we don’t trust each other to be honest?
That’s the central issue at stake in our Gospel this morning. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
This passage has often been used as a primer on church discipline—in many cases as a pretext for kicking people out of the community. Somebody offend you? Run ‘em through the social ringer. And if they don’t shape up, then run ‘em out. The steps for an ecclesiastical dishonorable discharge.
Unfortunately, such a reading—though it might work if this passage were read all by itself—fails to take into account the passage that immediately precedes it.
What is that passage, you ask?
“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones . . . If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he fine it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (18:10-14).
This crazy shepherd is missing one sheep. He’s got 99 other sheep.
What does he do?
Does he write the one lost sheep off on his tax returns? I mean, he’s got 99 well-behaved sheep, ones that haven’t given him heartache. Why risk losing anymore by going out hunting the one wayward sheep?
Who knows why he does it, but he leaves the 99, looking with knowing, loving eyes for that one inveterate, wandering little sheep—almost as a way of saying that this one is more important than the rest.
And when the shepherd finds the lost sheep, what does he do? Does he give it a good tongue-lashing? Does he make it walk through a humiliating gauntlet of 99 disapproving, judgmental sheep?
No, of course not.
So what does he do?
The shepherd throws a party. And the verse immediately preceding our passage for today reminds us that, “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
Leaving the 99 sheep to find one lost little sheep seems an odd story to tell as a prelude to our passage today if what Jesus is concerned about is making up a new H.R. policy about how to fire people who annoy you.
But I think Jesus has more on his mind than that. For one thing, Matthew has Jesus use the odd word, ekklesia—which is the world that gets translated throughout the Christian Scriptures as church. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
Well, the problem is that there was no church at this point. The church doesn’t come along till after Jesus is dead and gone. But Matthew, on the other hand, knows about the ekklesia—in fact, that’ who he’s writing to—a community of faith. It would appear that there are problems in the church Matthew’s writing to, problems that could be best addressed by having Jesus say a word about how communities of faith are supposed to live together—not with a set of rules to expedite the removal of a troublesome sheep, but a way of living together that trusts troublesome sheep enough to be honest with them.
Now at first glance, that kind of honesty is scary. After all, what if somebody comes to me and tells me things I don’t want to hear? I prefer having people tell me things I like, things that make me feel better about myself and the choices I’ve made.
But going back to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, if I will that people only tell me things I want to hear, instead of telling me the truth, I can never really trust anything they say. Community falls apart without trust.
But if I trust that people love me enough to tell me the truth—even though that’s sometimes hard to hear—that would be something to be a part of, wouldn’t it?
Wouldn’t we all love to be part of a community where trust was the defining characteristic—where I could be who I really am, without fear that my honesty about myself would be thrown back in my face, without fear that someone was hatching a plan to shame me or run me out?
What would it be like to be part of a community where each sheep is important enough to God (and to the rest of the flock) not to be left behind?
If we could live together without fear of the ulterior motives behind someone else’s agenda, without fear that when we hear, “We love you just the way you are,” another shoe’s certain to drop, without fear that our differences will divide us—but are the very thing we prize?
If we could live together like that . . . wouldn’t the rest of the world be more inclined to listen to us when we talk about justice for the oppressed and compassion for the vulnerable and peace for those in conflict?
If we could inspire the kind of trust that could withstand the forces of division, wouldn’t our voices be more easily heard when we talk about welcoming the stranger, embracing the rejected, and loving those who’ve too often felt unloved?
If we could be that kind of community, we wouldn’t need membership cards—all we’d need are open doors and enough seats around the table.
That’s a cost that surely seems worth paying.