Sunday, September 17, 2017

Forgiveness, for the sake of the whole community

Matthew 18:15-20 (Plus Matthew 18: 10-14 and 18: 21-35)  

This is what I would have preached, if we had had power at the church this morning. For those who don't know, no power means no well, no toilets, and no way to wash hands. Yes, I know there should be something about the immediate context: our struggles with Hurricane Irma, but this is what I have. By now, many families who have lived without electricity and water for a week may need to be able to forgive one another. ... 

Today’s text includes instructions from Jesus in conflict resolution, or in dealing with sinfulness in relationships.

Immediately after this text is a story and a parable about forgiveness. Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone. He wonders if seven times is enough. Jesus replies that he should forgive seventy times. Other texts say seven times seventy, or 490. That’s a lot of times, when we often find it hard to forgive even once.

Immediately before this text from Matthew is a story about a shepherd seeking a lost sheep. Jesus tells us it is so important to find the lost sheep that the shepherd leaves the other 99 and goes looking for the one who has strayed. After finding it, the shepherd rejoices. Jesus then adds the comment, none of these little ones should be lost.

These stories are important to our text for today because they inform us of the way we are to interpret Matthew 18:15-20 on resolving conflict or in dealing with sin in relationships. The point Jesus wants to make in these three passages is that keeping the whole flock together is important to Jesus. Forgiveness is important in keeping the flock together.

So, when there are arguments or other problems between members of the community, it is important to do whatever is necessary to keep the flock together. Jesus then gives a recommendation for how to proceed to resolve problems. We find this text in church constitutions of all denominations, including ours.

The essence of the process makes good sense. First, try to work things out face to face, just the two of you. Then, if that doesn’t work, bring witnesses, so others can help the individuals hear each other. If that doesn’t work, tell the rest of the members about the situation. And if the entire membership can’t help resolve the issue, then there are consequences.

Church constitutions list the steps for disciplining a member who is causing problems, including removing them from membership. It’s true that if there are members who are truly causing trouble, abusing others, teaching untruths, then they may need to leave the congregation, for the sake of the congregation.

Then Jesus says: Let the person be treated as a tax collector or a Gentile. We first remember how the Jews hated the Gentiles and the tax collectors. And we give a fist pump and rejoice that we can get that troublesome person out of the way.

However, if we remember the rest of the story, we discover that Jesus invited Gentiles and tax collectors to be his followers. This is the opposite of asking them to leave!

So, those who are indeed harmful to the community and its members may need to leave the community. Yet, it is best to allow those with different opinions to be part of the congregation, because it helps to keep the flock together. This means everyone needs to accept that not everyone agrees with them, and remember that they are all members of the same community, and all loved by God.

Every congregation has people who disagree with each other. Jesus’ assumption in this recommended procedure is that those who disagree or are causing problems will be willing to work out their differences and seek full restoration to the flock and reconciliation between members.

In truth, sometimes this procedure works, sometimes it doesn’t, because we are all human, and broken, and stubborn, and we know that what we believe is right, and the other person is wrong.

It is true in families, too. Sometimes these same steps work to resolve issues between family members, and sometimes it doesn’t. Most families have some sort of disagreement between members. There are plenty of stories of dreaded family dinners. There are plenty of stories where one child or one parent is estranged from the rest of the family. These situations arise because of human brokenness, because we are stubborn, because we believe we are right and the other is wrong.

Just so, it happened between my sister Pat and me. We now call it “that summer.” It was painful, and something we never wish to repeat. We were both stubborn, we were both right, and we were both broken.

My divorce was fresh, just a few months old, and I was learning to live on only my income. My sister’s relationship had turned violent and I paid for her to move from Florida to Michigan to live with me. When she left Florida, she also left her young son, who lived with his father. She was always on the alert for abuse, she was grieving leaving her son, and she was recovering from a health challenge.

She had some habits that were driving me nuts. She was having trouble finding a job, and I was having trouble supporting both of us on my income alone. I was not happy, and she wasn’t either.

One night we had a big fight. The next day, while I was at work, she packed up her things and moved to New Mexico, where a friend in New Mexico had invited her to live with him.

I tried to talk with her, to mend the relationship, but she refused to talk with me. Once in a while, I called, but she wouldn’t talk with me. She wouldn’t reply to my emails. The broken relationship was a constant ache in my heart. I prayed daily for her to forgive me, and to be able to forgive her. I prayed for her to be open to reconnecting with me.

It took two years; then one day, I received a card in the mail. It said, “I was wrong. Please forgive me.” I called her, and we talked. We stay in touch now, but never forget the pain caused by our own brokenness that summer.

The restoration of our relationship was healing for me. The ache in my heart is still there, but only as a reminder of my own brokenness, my own failure to understand my sister’s pain, my own failure to trust God to provide for us.

Healing is possible, once we begin to seek restoration to wholeness, and let go of our need to be the only one who is right. Reconciliation from disagreements and other problems takes prayer and persistence and a willingness to admit to being at least part of the problem. It requires that we recognize our own brokenness.

This is what Jesus wants for each person, each family, each community of faith. Jesus wants us to seek to restore wholeness to the flock. Jesus wants us to make a serious commitment to working out our differences so we can work together as his sheep, his flock, his children.

So, for now, take a moment to consider what brokenness exists in your personal life, in your family life. … What needs to happen for healing to occur? How can you work together with other family members to restore the family to wholeness? …

And, take a moment to consider what brokenness is present at St John. … What needs to happen for healing to occur? … What can you as an individual do? And, how do we work together to restore the flock to wholeness?

Please pray with me. God of mercy and grace. We are your children, broken, yet you love us anyway. Help us seek to restore wholeness to our families and to this flock.  In your holy name we pray, Amen