I started telling the story because the scripture read at a Presbyterian Women Circle meeting reminded me of a woman in the first congregation I served. Vi was sitting in church and heard these words as if she had never heard them before:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.Matthew 4:23-24
On that day, those verses seemed to be written for Vi, and about her disagreement with another women who belonged to that church, who was sitting just a few rows away. I got that far, and then I went in another direction, because my point was about how we sometimes hear the words, even the words we know, in a way that is astonishingly personal.
Then one of the Presbyterian women pulled me back, asking earnestly, “What did she do?”
The question felt poignant. I let whatever my other point might have been drop; I could see that everyone around the table wondered. In any community of faith there are disagreements, squabbles, resentments, just as there are in any other human system. I wondered who these women were mad at, or who they feared might still be mad at them?
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses some kind of contention in the young church. Followers who claim him are at odds with the followers of Apollos. Paul reminds them that both he and Apollos are working on behalf of God, and all the credit for growth of the community, whether spiritual or numerical, belongs to God. Stop fussing with each other, he says. Stop being so human in your priorities.
I would argue that’s very easy to say from a distance. We who live in day-to-day, week-in-week-out church community know that it’s not enough to say, “Just stop it!” Like the woman from my first congregation, like the ladies at PW, we know that where there is conflict, we need to work through it, even if doing so feels daunting to contemplate.
So, what did she do? Vi took Jesus at his word and went to the woman with whom she had a conflict. She apologized for her part in their disagreement. She worked for reconciliation. She told me this not proudly, but with humility, recognizing that the fault was not all on one side.
We cannot live together well in community unless we can collaborate – unless we can co-labor. It’s another way of saying we are all in this together. Co-laboring is the work of being community. We can do it for other reasons; community doesn’t have to be explicitly Christian, of course, but how can we follow Christ without prioritizing it? Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus told us. Forgive 70 times 7. Sort things out with your siblings, your co-laborers. As Paul points out, it takes spiritual maturity to do this, something Vi had worked to gain, the experience of self-examination that allows us to admit it when we are in the wrong, and give thanks when we reach an understanding.
While these texts certainly have broader implications for how we relate across ecumenical and interfaith boundaries, if I were preaching I would lift up that that the work begins at a personal level. It’s too easy to project the fractures in our personal relationships onto people farther away and just ignore the ones we might actually have some power to heal.
What did Vi do? She took a risk, and she re-formed a relationship that had been broken. Jesus planted the word, and Paul watered it, and a teacher taught it to her in her youth; finally some pastor read it at the moment she could hear it, and then years later, she brought it to me, for we are God’s servants, working together.