Ever since reading the Gospel early this week I have been thinking about a young man I once knew named Todd.
Todd grew up in the Midwest as a Jehovah’s Witness. His father was a leader in that denomination’s hierarchy. His mother was active in the local congregation. The family’s life revolved around the church – there were no other social interactions or activities outside its orbit.
From a young age, Todd was groomed for leadership in the church. He was a golden boy. He learned the Bible from front to back. As a teen-ager, he preached frequently. He was active in every aspect of church life, and the church dominated every aspect of his life.
When he was still very young, Todd married a pretty young woman who was also, of course, a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Great things were expected of the handsome young couple.
But there was one problem. Todd was gay.
Todd knew by heart the handful of scripture verses that mention homosexuality. He accepted his church’s literal interpretation of scripture, the view that homosexuality was a great evil and sin.
He tormented himself with those verses, praying and begging God to take away his sin. He did everything he could to quash and deny that part of himself, including marrying the young woman he cared deeply about, but whom he could never truly love as a husband loves a wife.
Eventually Todd realized he could not continue to live the lie that his life had become. He confessed the truth about who he was to his wife, his family, and his church .
The response was swift.
Scripture is clear that homosexuality is an abomination, the church elders, including Todd’s father, said.
Todd had a choice. He could repent and change, or he would be banished from the church.
Being banished meant more than just not being able to attend services. It meant having no contact with any church member, even his family.
Indeed, church members who had contact with him, including his parents and siblings, would themselves be banished and shunned.
For a while, Todd tried to remain in the town where he had lived his entire life. But it was too painful. Eventually he moved to another part of the country, far away from the community that shunned him.
He found a partner who he truly loved, was successful in business, and found his way to the Episcopal Church. He became a confirmed Episcopalian, an enormous step for someone who once believed that salvation was reserved for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the only true Christians.
But even with finding love, success, a community of faith, and a God who allowed him to be honest about who he was, Todd was haunted by his banishment from his family and the community that had once been his life.
Each year on Maundy Thursday, he went to the local Jehovah’s Witness service and sat in the back row, in a pew reserved on that day for those who were shunned. Of course, no one at the service spoke to him.
When I asked him why he subjected himself to that kind of humiliation and pain, he shrugged. “I know it doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “But somehow it keeps me connected to my family and the community that formed me.”
A few years ago, Todd died of a heart attack at age 39. I can’t help but believe that the pain and stress inflicted upon him in the name of Christ was a contributing factor in his death.
I never spoke to anyone from that community or from Todd’s family, but my guess is that they would justify their actions by citing the verses of scripture that we heard in today’s gospel reading.
In that passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus outlines how to deal with sin and conflict within a congregation. Ultimately, he says, if the sinner refuses to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Most faithful Jews refused to have contact with non-Jews or tax collectors, although we might note that Jesus himself tended to ignore that bit of the traditional purity code, and was often criticized for his interaction with those unclean and unsavory characters.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are not the only Christians today who build an important part of their communal life around this passage, and who interpret it in a harshly literal and legalistic manner.
Several years ago, when a man burst into an Amish school in Pennsylvania, and shot and killed five young girls, and severely wounded five others, the Amish community immediately forgave the killer, an act that shocked the nation more than the killings themselves.
Radical forgiveness is central to the Amish life, even the forgiveness of such heinous acts as the murder of children. This was no lip service forgiveness, the families of the children who were killed reached out to the family of the killer, helping to support them through their own grief.
And yet also central to Amish life is church discipline as outlined in today’s Gospel reading, including the practice of shunning.
“Some outsiders think shunning is barbaric,” admitted one community member quoted in a book I read about the school tragedy, Amish Grace.
The authors cited an Amish woman who fell in love with a non-Amish man, and was shunned by her community.
“A terrible killer might be forgiven, but a woman in love with an English man could not be. Where is forgiveness for her?” the writer asked.
I think most of us see the practice of shunning as harsh and unchristian. In my eyes, the sin in the cases of Todd and the Amish woman lies with the congregations that treated them in such extreme manner.
So does that mean we just toss out this passage of scripture, or is there something of value here?
It helps to look at this passage within the context of the entire chapter of Matthew in which it is found, a chapter that as a whole warns against the kind of self-righteousness and harsh judgment that this isolated passage seems to inspire.
The 18th chapter of Matthew begins with the disciples asking Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus replies by embracing a child and saying, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest.”
The disciples are also told that God cares about straying sheep and rejoices when one is found. “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that even one of these little ones should be lost,” Jesus says in the verse immediately preceding today’s passage.
And immediately after the passage, Jesus warns Peter that forgiveness cannot be calculated. God does not keep a scorecard of rights and wrongs, and neither can we.
The chapter ends with a warning that we cannot fully embrace God’s forgiveness until we have forgiven others.
Seen in this context perhaps we can see this difficult passage is more about forgiveness than discipline and condemnation – that shunning is never a sign of grace, but a sign of failure and brokenness.
Jesus tells us in this passage that when we are the injured party, we should seek out the person we think has wronged us and initiate reconciliation.
“We have no right to nurse our grudges, whine about our wounds, and resist efforts at healing,” one commentator on this passage says. “We are to take the first step, to risk the engagement that can lead to a restored relationship.
“Forgiveness never happens by default. It occurs in the risky encounter between the alienated parties.”
Jesus is also saying here that the church should be a community where forgiveness and reconciliation are paramount. We are not to gloss over the conflicts and breaches that inevitably occur in any community, but are to work always to restore and heal broken relationships.
That can be hard work. Sometimes it can be the work of a lifetime. But it is what we are called as Christians to do.