September 6, 2020

Pentecost 14, Proper 18

Today's Gospel teaching is about conflict, or arguments, or disagreements.  Jesus is not talking about disagreements in church because Jesus never talked about church.  The church came later as people began to respond to Gospel teaching and the Word of God was catching on.  Some sort of organization became necessary. We get some idea of how that happened in the Book of the Acts.

As the church got bigger so did the conflicts.  Then Jesus teaching about disagreements among people could be put into practice.

Church conflict is nothing new.  Sometimes people think there should be no conflicts at all in church.  If everyone is living according to the wisdom of Jesus, there simply would not be any disagreements.  Some think that by virtue of being Christians we can and should cover all disagreements with "niceness."

Jesus in his teaching seems to proceed on the assumption that conflict will happen whenever people gather for any purpose.  And disagreements in a Christian community is normal and natural and should be dealt with honesty and compassion.

As we all know, honesty and compassion are seldom the watchwords of any church conflict.  Many times, anger, hurt feelings and lack of clear communication drive us toward either sweeping everything under the rug to keep the peace, or open hostility and locked in positions that lead to explosions and people leaving the church.  Very often they leave permanently.

The result is either a Body of Christ pristine on the outside but riddled with the disease and resentment on the inside.  Or we have a shrinking Body of Christ, loosing members and vitality.  There must be another way.

And Jesus does give us another way.  First, he asks us to use direct and respectful communication.  If we are struggling with something a church member has said or done, we are not to talk behind his or her back.  And we do not stage dramatic confrontations at the coffee hour.  We take time aside, after the initial rush of emotion has subsided, and engage in dialogue with that person one-on-one.

If that conversation does not help solve the situation, we create a small group of everyone involved to discuss the issue and pray together.  If no progress is made, we search for a solution as a whole church community bearing one another's burdens and seeking reconciliation.

Some disagreements are so deep that even these steps cannot ease them, and so Jesus says, "If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."  At first glance it looks like Jesus gives the permission to walk away.  We have done all we can.

But it turns out that we are not off the hook at all.  Why?  Because of how Jesus treated gentile and tax collectors.  What can we learn from his words and actions toward them that we can apply to our church situation?

When Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple, he emphasizes the Pharisee's pride and self-satisfaction with himself versus the tax collectors pained and private acknowledgement of his own sin.

Jesus says this tax collector went home justified and forgiven.  Do we realize that we might be in danger of praying like the Pharisee, proud and certain of our own righteousness?

Matthew, one of the 12 apostles, was a tax collector, and Jesus called him right from his money table to follow him.  When Jesus tells us that we are to treat our most stubborn and contrary church members like tax collectors, he is telling us to treat them like members of his inner circle, disciples who are key to the spreading of the Word.

If our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who was perfect and without sin, can be persuaded to soften His approach and change his mind about someone, can we not do the same?  Are we really paying attention to the argument our opponent in the church is offering?  Jesus was not afraid to really listen and be changed by what he heard.  We have the opportunity to do the same.

And so we see that this gospel lesson does not give us license to get rid of people we don't like, to ostracize troublemakers and be happy when they leave the church.  Problem solved.

Jesus' instruction to treat the ones who seem to be the most difficult to talk to, the most uninterested in reconciliation, like tax collectors and gentiles, is to treat them with a greater love and greater understanding.  When we attempt to see the best in one another healing is possible even years after we have forgotten what made us so angry in the first place.

When we imitate Jesus, we find that treating others like tax collectors and gentiles is a path of gentleness, hope and has a great potential for healing.

All of this is so important not just because of the simple reality that there is no such thing as church without conflict.  It matters because of how Jesus concludes his instructions:

"Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

How we choose to treat one another when the going gets rough has consequences that far outlast any question of our theology or an argument about the color of the carpet in the church.  We have the power to bind and to loose.

With the choices we make, we can bind each other even tighter into our separate camps and polarize positions.  We can loose each other out into a world without the benefit of Christian fellowship, driving each other from the church with wounds that bleed for years to come.  

Or we can loose ourselves from our pride and our ever-present need to be right.  We can loose one another from assumptions and stereotypes and bitterness.  And then we can bind ourselves together with the unbreakable love of Christ, a body tested, refined, healed and flourishing with new life.

SEPTEMBER 13, 2020

Pentecost 15, Proper 19

Have you ever heard someone say be careful what you pray for--you might get it?  You just might not want your prayer answered.  What do you do when you change your mind after your prayer is answered?

Here's a prayer many of us pray at least once a week "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."  Is that what we really want?  We know we want God's forgiveness.  However, I am not so sure about the second part, about the way we forgive others.  We know that we are not so quick to forgive others as we hope and pray that God forgives us.

The Psalmist says, "The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness."  Boy that sure is good news.  We make a mess of something.  We ask God for forgiveness.  The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, and so God forgives us.  But...when someone does us wrong, when someone does us dirty, we say, "not so fast."  We are not so full of compassion and mercy.  We are not so slow to anger and of great kindness.  We may be quick to anger and full of...colorful language.

And yet, this is how Our Lord taught us to pray--forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  Be careful what you pray for--you just might get it.

In our Gospel lesson, Peter comes to Jesus and asks, "Lord, if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?"

Peter is so eager to do the right thing.  He heard Jesus talk about forgiveness, so he wants to know more.  There is a rabbinic tradition that says a person should forgive another who has sinned against him as many as four times.  So, Peter tries to be even more extravagant than the rabbis, and he adds three more times.  He asks, "Should I forgive a person even up to seven times?"

Seven times is a lot.  It is a lot of times to forgive someone who has sinned against you.  Maybe Peter was expecting Jesus to give His approval for suggesting such extravagant forgiveness.  Perhaps Peter was hoping for a pat on the back, a gold star for the day, for an A+ on his forgiveness exam.

This doesn't happen.  Jesus turns and says, "No, not seven times, but seventy-seven times."  Peter wants a rule, a measurement, so he holds his hands open wide and says, "This much, Lord?  Should I forgive even this much?"  And Jesus says, "No, much more than that.  You are not even using the right scale.  As far as the east is from the west, that's how much you should forgive."  It is such an enormous amount of forgiveness; it would be senseless to try to calculate how much or how often.

There has been a fair amount of social science research on forgiveness lately.  It turns out that forgiveness is good for you.  People who forgive have lower levels of anger, anxiety, and they have less depression, they are more agreeable and emotionally stable, and may also have picked up some very desirable health benefits along the way.

Two authors wrote a book "Character Strengths and Virtues".  In it they list forgiveness as one of twenty-four character strengths that make for a good life and contribute to a healthy society.  It's good to know that there is some scientific evidence that supports the claim that forgiveness is good for us, even though I'm not too sure that was what Jesus had in mind when He did this teaching.

There are tests that can assess our forgiving ability.  It is known as the "Forgiveness Likelihood Scale".  If you wanted to be tested on your ability to forgive you get asked how you would react to ten life situations and then rate ow likely you are to forgive on a scale from very unlikely to very likely.  Here are a few of the questions:  (1) You share something embarrassing about yourself to a friend who promises to keep the information confidential.  However, the friend breaks his promise and proceeds to tell several people.  Would you choose to forgive your friend?  Are you likely to forgive, or not likely to forgive?  (2)  A family member humiliates you in front of others by sharing a story about you that you did not want anyone to know.  What is the likelihood that you would choose to forgive the family member?  (3)  A stranger breaks into your house and steals a substantial sum of money from you.  What is the likelihood that you would choose to forgive the stranger?

What is your score so far?

It seems to us that following Jesus ought to make some difference in our lives.  He tells us to forgive those who have sinned against us.  He tells us to love our enemies.  He says our righteousness ought to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees.  Okay.  We want to follow, and we are trying the best we can.  For most of us, sometime in our walk with the Lord, we have probably asked ourselves:  How am I doing?"

Unfortunately, that question may be part of the problem.  The spiritual danger is that when we focus on our virtues and our successes, we may become a bit too preoccupied with ourselves.  And the real danger happens when we start thinking of our character strengths as accomplishments of our noble, virtuous, righteous selves.

Here we can easily forget that, while our character strengths and virtues may indeed glorify God, when it comes to the Gospel, our Lord doesn't just deal with parts of us, the noble bits and pieces that we would like to put on display, but rather God seeks a relationship with whole human beings.  He deals with every thought, ,word, and deed, everything that we are and everything we do.

And when we remember this, none of us, saints or sinners, people who are off the charts on the forgiveness scale and those of us who still struggle to forgive, do have a leg to stand on.  We are all utterly dependent on the unconditional, unmerited grace and mercy of Jesus, who has removed our sins as far as the east is from the west.

Jesus reframes the whole question about forgiveness.  When it comes to forgiveness, we are all like servants who owe our Lord and King more than we can imagine.  Try as we may to repay our debt through our character strengths or our virtues or our willingness to forgive as many as seven times, we will never be able to pay back all that we owe to God.

But the good news is that despite our inability to ever give back to God everything we ought, God forgives us anyway, completely.  In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has taken upon Himself all of our burdens and sins and debts and has forgiven them.

Completely, utterly forgiven and healed by Jesus.  God is the God who forgives.

We forgive, then, because God forgives us.  The forgiveness that we are to pass on to others is the forgiveness we have in union with Jesus.  Not because we are moral heroes or because we seek our own wellbeing, but because we are forgiven sinners.

Forgiveness may very well be a character strength and virtue.  It probably does contribute to leading good and happy lives.  Saints like Peter probably do score more highly on a Forgiveness Scale.

But, Jesus reminds us, when it comes to our ability and need to forgive, some of us have great character strengths and some do not.  But we are all penitents, debtors keeling at the foot of the cross.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Be careful what you pray for--you just might get it.

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