“Two or Three Gathered” Colchester Federated Church, September 10, 2017, (Matthew 18:15-20) Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today isn’t the easiest scripture to talk about because it’s about conflict resolution.  What a wonderful topic for Rally Sunday!  Welcome back everyone, and thanks Lectionary for making me look like Debbie Downer up here!  So a path forward in interpersonal conflicts is laid out for us, and that can be helpful.  Talk to the person directly.  If that doesn’t work, take a few others along with you to speak with them.  If that doesn’t work, take it to the church.  Let’s see if we can figure this out in community together.

Living in community isn’t always easy.  Jesus says at the end of the passage that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among us.  Wonder if that sentiment was meant to give us some courage just to get through this process of conflict resolution.  Where two or three are gathered in the church, there could be disagreements.  But Jesus is there in the midst of it all!  Sometimes I lament that when it comes to our hyper individualistic culture in America, some people would rather walk out the doors and find another church as opposed to dealing with conflict that sometimes naturally comes with being in community.

What gives us hope as Christians is that our faith presents a different way.  In this same chapter in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is emphasizing that our job is to care for the least of these, the vulnerable, the powerless.  He reminds his followers that it’s better to tie a millstone around your own neck and jump in the ocean than to cause a little one to stumble.  It’s better to leave your 99 sheep grazing on the mountain than to lose one little lost lamb.  The point isn’t that the church has power to settle disputes and needs to exercise that authority.  Well yes, and the church has to pay attention to the least powerful members of the community.  We’ve gotta pay attention to who’s vulnerable, to finding that little lost lamb in the mountains.  That’s all part of this same chapter in Matthew’s Gospel even though today we’re talking about conflict resolution in the community specifically.[1]

What our passage points to is restorative justice.  It’s a concept with modern examples as restorative justice focuses on the rehabilitation of the offender through reconciliation with the victim and the community at large.  The most famous example is probably the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and the work their country undertook after apartheid.  The painful past wasn’t just swept under the rug.  Apartheid was a system of institutionalized segregation and discrimination that occurred with an all-white government in South Africa oppressing black South Africans for decades.  All of it was legal, mind you.  Because a bunch of unjust laws got passed by that all-white government.  Once apartheid finally ended, the now inclusive government set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that South Africans could come to terms with their past on a moral level and reconcile with one another.

There were several levels to the work in South Africa.  They had the Human Rights Violations Committee whose task was to investigate human rights abuses that occurred between 1960-1994.  “The Committee established the identity of the victims, their fate or present whereabouts, and the nature and extent of the harm they have suffered; and whether the violations were the result of deliberate planning by the state or any other organisation, group or individual.”  Once the victims got identified, they were then referred to the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee.  That committee’s focus was on the dignity and healing of the victim, their family, and the whole community.  Their goal was to ensure that the abuses would not be repeated and that healthy co-existence could occur.  Finally, there was an Amnesty Committee that could consider granting pardons from certain acts committed between 1960-1994.  If amnesty was granted, the perpetrator couldn’t be prosecuted for what they had done.[2]  This work is restorative justice at its best because these committees looked at what had happened and sought not just punishment but reconciliation.  This is hard considering what black people in that country had endured for decades.  Yet for South Africans the future of their country depended on this work.

So that’s a large example of a country using restorative justice.  Though a lot of schools have begun implanting this process in the hopes of lessening the number of suspensions and expulsions.  There was an article in The Atlantic about restorative justice working in a school system in New Hampshire.  Pittsfield is a small town and received community buy-in to try out this different way of discipline.  Here’s an example of it playing out—one day a boy named Brandon saw an opportunity to play a prank on his classmate Hope.  She had left her cell phone out and Brandon took the phone and texted obnoxious messages to people in her contact list, including Hope’s mother.  By the time Hope realized what Brandon had done, her battery died and so it was a while before she could reach out to all those he had texted to let them know what happened.  Hope’s mom lived out of state and they have struggled with their relationship.  Brandon had texted her mom the words, “I hate you” and that was a believable message at the time from daughter to mother.  When Hope got home from school she had to convince her father that the messages didn’t come from her since a lot of damage had been done with her mother in particular.  From then on at school she had to see Brandon every day who seemed to not care at all about the harm caused.

Meanwhile Pittsfield has been hard at work to improve their school system and ended up focusing on student-centered learning.  The students are encouraged to pursue what interests them thorough projects and internships, and the student-focus even extends to discipline.  For lower-level offenses students can request a conversation with the Justice Committee.  If all parties don’t agree to participate, the school’s traditional discipline is observed.  The Justice Committee is made up of student mediators with school administrators and teachers advising.  The goal is providing a nonconfrontational forum for students to talk through their problems face to face, address the underlying reasons for their behaviors, and make amends to the individuals affected by their actions as well as the larger school community.

Now Brandon wasn’t sure he wanted the Justice Committee to hear what happened.  He had already had in-school suspensions and weekend study halls.  But this time felt different because he knew that Hope’s dad was mad at him too.  There’s only 4,500 people who live in Pittsfield, New Hampshire and Hope’s dad happens to be Brandon’s mailman who he sees all the time.  So Brandon agreed to take part and the committee reviewed the cellphone prank.  Hope was the victim so got to speak first to describe what happened and how it affected her.  Brandon was sitting right across the circle from Hope and then responded.  The committee determined that Brandon needed to make amends and that Hope had violated a school rule by having her cellphone out in class.  Brandon wrote apology letters to each person who had received a text.  He apologized to Hope’s dad in person.  Moreover, the mediators decided that Brandon should talk to students in the younger grades to share what he had done and lessons learned.

Here’s where the transformation happened.  After completing each requirement Brandon found it easier to be face to face with Hope at school.  He also realized that he didn’t want to get into trouble anymore.  That incident was his last serious infraction.  Hope was impressed that Brandon even agreed to go to the Justice Committee and said that most kids would have just taken the suspension and not face the person who they hurt and make amends.  Taking part in the restorative justice program left Hope and Brandon on better terms.[3]

So this large and small example of restorative justice can make us think that maybe there’s something to what Jesus taught his disciples back in the day.  Maybe there’s something to speaking to each other directly when there’s conflict and then taking the issue to a small group and then to the wider community if that’s needed for reconciliation.  Of course this isn’t always possible, and sometimes victims shouldn’t come face to face with perpetrators again because it’s not emotionally safe.  But sometimes we may fear doing this kind of work because it’s hard and vulnerable.

Though here’s the thing, in community we can do so much more together than we can individually.  Over these next two Sundays we’re going to be collecting money for the victims of Hurricane Harvey to be sent to the UCC’s Disaster Ministries where 100% of our donations will go to those in need.  My old neighbor Burton’s church in Corpus Christi ended up sustaining minimal damage compared to some of the other communities down there.  Alone we can all contribute to these causes, and maybe already have.  Together, our donations can make a bigger impact.  And of course we can designate the gift so that it helps out those in the path of Hurricane Irma as well—for we all need to keep those folks in mind as these storms seem to keep raging in our country and the world.

In relationships, families, schools, churches, communities—not everything will be smooth sailing.  Stuff comes up.  Conflicts happen.  Though remembering that where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, he is here among us can give us the courage needed to face those conflicts and seek reconciliation.  To think about how restorative justice plays out and seemingly against all odds can bring back together victims and perpetrators and communities who never thought the day would come when justice would happen and forgiveness would be achieved.  With God the impossible becomes possible.  And what we thought we knew to be true can be challenged again and again.  So if you’ve been away, welcome back to church here at Colchester Federated Church—and may God continue to bless our community with compassion for each other and those who share our lives.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Stanley Saunders, Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20, Working Preacher, September 10, 2017 https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3392
[2] “The Committees of the TRC,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission, http://www.justice.gov.za/trc/trccom.html
[3] Emily Richmond, “When Restorative Justice in Schools Works,” The Atlantic, December 29, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/12/when-restorative-justice-works/422088/