I worry when I use a text like ours from Matthew’s Gospel this morning… immediately people start wondering: “Ru-ro, what’s going on now.” “Who’s battlin’ this time?” “What’s the pastor really talking about?” “Who needs now to hear Jesus’ reminder ‘play nice’?” Who’s the preacher trying to offer some direction about what to do — and what not to do — when you overflowing with angry or hurt feelings?
If you are going there, if your mind’s already leading you in that direction, remember I’m just back from vacation. So, while there’s probably something going on around here somewhere — there usually is… because we are all human! … I haven’t been back long enough to hear about it. One of the blessings of vacations!
So that means I’m not touting out this text as some remedial lesson. One meant for this or that person all knotted up and a bit out of control in some wrestling match. A lesson which, incidentally, most of us haven’t yet learned completely, and so still need. Because, Lord knows, when we’re upset, it’s hard to act adult about it. Hard times revert us, at the least to the children we once were, or even farther back, evolutionarily: it doesn’t take too much difficulty to tap into the reptilian reactions of our brain stem and suddenly all we got for choices are fight or flight.
So, church, it’s never a problem keeping this text close at hand. Jesus gives us a step by step process for dealing with “our issues.” First look to work it out with the person him or herself. And them if that doesn’t work out. Ask for help. That doesn’t sound so hard now, does it? Not triangling others onto your side of a disagreement. But both of you together agreeing to seek someone and saying, “We’re having a problem here; we can’t seem to get through it ourselves. And we’re not above asking for help. Because we don’t want to be broken and at odds. We’re asking your help… maybe you can help us get past this, to some new understanding and reconciliation, even peace.” I guess if we can do that much, get that far, it’s the beginning of some common ground…
At Old First, we even offer a ministry team that’s worked hard, trained to be ready for such situation: we call it our Circle Process.
So, I’m saying Matthew 18:15-20 is a good text to keep at hand. Around church. At home for your family. Taped to your desk on the job. In your vest pocket when you walk down the street. Because almost anywhere we can have trouble being our most mature selves and really solving interpersonal difficulties.
But this morning, rather than rolling up our sleeves and asking us to get into the process or practice the methods that Jesus is recommending. I want rather to ask us all to take a giant step back, and from a bit of distance begin to notice a basic difference between Jesus’ approach to life and how we most often go about our lives.
I bet we can agree that we all have issues and problems with others sometimes. I don’t believe in many hard and fast rules, except that when someone tells me they never have difficulties with others, I know they’re either fooling themselves or trying to fool me.
So the question becomes: when we find ourselves in one of this interpersonal struggles, sometimes even an interpersonal nightmare, when we realize we’re in some trouble in life… What do we do? Here’s where the divergence between what Jesus is suggesting and the path we often take begins. And it’s pretty clear cut!
Do we admit the problem to ourselves? If we aren’t sure if we can fix it or how we might improve it, can we at least just acknowledge it? Maybe even tell someone else about the problem that’s got the best of us? Maybe tell someone else BECAUSE it’s got the best of us?
Or do we try to keep it under wraps, hidden from others, even try hiding it from ourselves. And from God. (Like Adam and Eve though God might not notice, or Cain thought he could act innocent and stupid when God asked “Where’s your brother Abel?” Like God doesn’t know better than we know ourselves?)
You know what I think Jesus is saying to us? I think, Jesus is warning us: about our all to human strategy– if we act like we don’t see something, then it won’t be there. (This might be another leftover from our childhoods?) He’s warning us that that kind of magical thinking never really works, because we’re more complicated — inside and out, and more interrelated too, and there are these undercurrents, the streams and rivers running through our lives that we think we can keep underground, but they just keep forever bubbling up in our lives, even when we don’t notice or try not to notice, and certainly in ways we don’t have control of… Bubbling up and taking over, in shared glances and careful avoidance, words unspoken because our tempers are simmering or our feelings are boiling over. All the histories we so studiously hide, but still shape or distort our decisions or direction or interaction as a brother, daughter, neighbor, friend.
Isn’t Jesus just asking us point blank, “Are there conflicts in your path like puddles or pools or potholes on the roads of your life?’ Because it’s Jesus asking, maybe we can add this afterthought or explanation of the question… Jesus sort of sighing and offering a bit more pastorally, “As if the journey you’re on isn’t complicated enough and now you’re gonna put up and try to sidestep and leap over all these extra, unspoken obstacles?”
Beloved, to what extend do we believe that our bumps and bruises,our hurts and injuries are personal burdens to be carried, or worse, badges of righteousness that entitle us to our festering resentments? How much do we nurse our wounds, pick at the scabs, treasure our bruises? How much do these sorts of personal hurts, become ways of life, and part of who we are, rather than crossroads and dangerous intersections to be acknowledged, crossed carefully, navigated with help and left behind us as we continue onward?
Or do such difficulties, longstanding or not, know us up and hold us back? And tear at or become a part of the fabric of our lives?
Isn’t Jesus saying there’s another way?
Remember, right before these verses, Jesus preached about God’s unlimited and abiding care for the vulnerable. In Jesus’ explaining, God’s persistent and tender care, is like a shepherd who will leave the whole flock in search of one who is lost. Because for God, it’s all about setting out to find and seeking. not so much about guarding and protecting (or self-protecting) and running away. Think of sweeping the whole house for one lost coin. Or selling all you have to buy a field to search for treasure. Because for God, it’s never about punishing or exiling people, instead, it’s always about restoration. Think of a forsaken and dejected father looking like a fool, but running out to meet his prodigal Son just the same.
If God wills that not one little one should be loss, if God risks his sending his son into a world in order to restore, than life in its deepest meanings is never about distance and denial or punishment, condemnation and exile.
Instead it’s surely about being honest enough to admit the problems and your limitations and failings, and earnestly, hopefully seeking nonetheless, even if hope against hope, for restoration.
Remember right after these verses, how Peter reacts to Jesus’ approach. He gets legalistic. He clearly heard what his teacher teaching. And he’s had enough of this Divine expansiveness, so he takes Jesus on. Jesus had just said, “You got to keep trying. Until you can’t try anymore. And then what’s left… but to throw your arms around your brother or sister anyway?”
So Peter comes right out and asks what so many of us are already working on in the back of our heads. (We like to laugh at how often Simon Peter gets it all wrong, but maybe we should be thanking him too. Because isn’t this how we too start treating situations and people, asking after the rules so we can lay down dividing lines and cut people off… oddly, ironically, when we’re confronted with the demands and possibilities grace afford us?
Peter says in effect, “Enough with the poetry and hyperbole, Lord. How many times, REALLY, do you expect me to forgive someone who’s gotten on my last nerve, or done much worst to me? Give me a clear guideline. I need a rule so I know when they’ve gone too far, and I can declare others out of bounds, even dead to me.”
(Ok, Peter didn’t explain all that much, but that’s, I think, what he was about. And I get where he’s coming from!)
I think you all know Jesus’ answer. Or if you don’t, I bet you can guess…
Are you courageous enough, faithful enough, bold enough to let go of the rules by which you segregate and protect yourself and put others away? Are you courageous, faithful and bold enough to admit and confront your injuries and engage, and finally embrace your enemies so that healing and greater health are possible for all involved?
What’s Jesus’ instruction — “let the one you can’t figure out how to bury the ax with (except for wanting to use hurt them with it, ot to bury it in them!) … let such a one as this be for you as a Gentile or a tax collector?”
How’s that sound to you? Or more to the point, how’s Jesus treat the Gentiles, and the tax collectors, and the sinners, and prostitutes, and lepers, and anyone and everyone else whose been dismissed and put out? How’s Jesus treat us?
Redeemed by a search for the lost; saved by the extravagance of forgiveness, shouldn’t we start to embody some of the tenacity and grace God’s show us? Or are we just going to keep denying our problems and nursing our hurts and licking our wounds?
Honestly answering those two questions, might be where the two different paths — how Jesus invites us to walk and how we mislead ourselves — start to diverge. Amen.