On Rocks and Islands
(Ezek.33:7-9; Rom.13:8-10; Mt.18:15-20)
If someone hurts you, what do you do? Do you nurse your anger and pain? Do you retaliate or complain? Or do you seek reconciliation and healing?
In his song ‘I am a Rock’, Paul Simon tells the story of someone who has been hurt and has withdrawn from the world. ‘I am a rock,’ he sings, ‘I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.’ [i]
From time to time we all feel like withdrawing into our shell. We’d all like the world to go away. But today’s pandemic is a good reminder that we’re not meant to live in isolation; we’re all much too interconnected. We need each other, and when we’re separated, we become unhappy.
When God created mankind, he said ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’ (Gen.2:18). So, he gave Adam a wife, they had a family and we’ve been living in community ever since. Or at least, we’re meant to be living in community.
The famous English preacher Charles Spurgeon once visited a man who had isolated himself from his church community. Spurgeon walked into the man’s home without saying a word, and sat with him by his fireplace. The man felt uncomfortable. With some tongs, Spurgeon took a lump of coal from the fire and set it on a brick. Both men stared at that solitary coal as it dimmed and cooled. Spurgeon then stood up, and as he opened the door to leave, the man said, ‘I understand pastor; I’ll see you next Sunday’.
Living with others isn’t always easy. Tension and conflict so easily arise, especially when someone does something wrong. But as Christians, we have a duty to look out for others, even when they disappoint us. That’s the message from today’s readings, which give us three ways to respond when we find ourselves in conflict with someone.
These three ways are speaking, respecting and healing. [ii]
In our first reading, God asks the prophet Ezekiel to watch over his people in Jerusalem. His job is to protect the people by speaking up if they do anything wrong or if they put themselves in danger.
That’s what we are asked to do. As Christians, we all have a duty to speak up if someone’s doing something wrong. It’s not essential to change their behaviour, but we must speak the truth to those we care about. Otherwise our silence can be taken as tacit approval and we become partly responsible for their mistake.
But speaking up can be hard, so St Paul in our second reading reminds us to always respect others. Referring to the Ten Commandments, he says it’s important to respect the other person’s life, marriage, property and integrity.
Indeed, seven of the Ten Commandments are about our connection with others, and they can all be summed up in one rule: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. If we really love and respect our neighbour, we wouldn’t harm them at all and they’d be much more likely to stay in contact with us.
And finally, in our gospel, Jesus says that before talking make sure you have a humble, compassionate and forgiving heart. These are important factors in healing relationships.
Then go and talk openly and honestly with the person who has hurt you, he says, but do it privately, to avoid any embarrassment. If that doesn’t work, invite one or two others into the conversation, not to gang up on them, but to help them reconnect. And if necessary, invite someone else, perhaps a mediator, to resolve the situation.
But whatever happens, Jesus says, always pray for reconciliation and keep the doors of communication open, because we all need healing.
In his book, The Great Divorce, CS Lewis describes hell as a huge, dark place, where there’s no contact between people. Hell started out small, he says, but people quarreled with one another and split apart. Then there were other squabbles and people moved even further away, until no-one could even see anyone else. And there they lived, alone in the darkness. Jesus wants us to avoid this hell. [iii]
When we realise just how flawed and broken we all are, it becomes much easier to understand that we all have the same basic need for healing and wholeness.
We are not solitary rocks or islands. As the poet John Donne wrote: ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. [iv] We’re all meant to live and grow and thrive together, in our families and communities.
Christian love isn’t an emotion or a feeling; it’s a responsibility and a decision.
If ever you’re in conflict, remember the value of speaking, respecting and healing.
[ii] S Joseph Krempa, Captured Fire, Cycle A. St Paul’s, New York. 2018:121-123.
[iii] CS Lewis, The Great Divorce. https://barnardsvilleumc.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/ebook-lewis-c-s-the-great-divorce.pdf