This is the message I preached on Sunday, March 10th, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6:30 PM at our fellowship hall.
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “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.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
These are the words of God for the people of God. May God add God’s blessing to them as we read them, discuss them, and embrace them. Amen.
What stands out to you in these words of Jesus in the Gospel?
(pass out stones, and ask people as they hold the stones to think about someone they have hard feelings toward they have trouble letting go of.)
One of my first memories is of conflict: in particular, of my brother and I having bloody noses from fighting, and us both being dragged upstairs by mom to face my dad for what we’d done. And boy, we got it! Yet, now that brother – who I fought with cats and dogs my whole childhood – is one of the closest people to me.
Conflict can happen in any relationship! In our Gospel reading, Jesus deals directly with the way in which conflict can emerge, bringing alienation and pain between people, even severing relationships. This is why I titled today’s sermon “Making Up is Hard to Do”
What are ways we are hurt by others in relationships? (allow discussion)
What are ways we hurt ourselves & others in relationships? (allow discussion)
In today’s Gospel Jesus gives instructions on how to pick up the pieces when relationships become damaged, and things threaten to escalate. Here Jesus is taking his beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God, and demonstrating practically what that looks like lived out in real life conflict situations. What do Jesus’ words teach us about how to handle conflict and broken relationships?
As we consider Jesus’ instruction, we need to remember that ultimately this path of forgiveness and reconciliation is not a path we can walk on our own. On our own, we can get so locked into proving we are right that we fail to really hear one another. We also can collapse, exhausted at how far the distance between us and another seems, feeling it is an impossible bridge to cross.
Yet with God all things are possible! The call to be peacemakers in our relationships is exactly one to be who cannot be on our own and do what we cannot do without Christ’s help. We need to experience God’s mercy, grace, and healing in our own heart every step of the way. This is why Deitrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who died resisting the injustice of Hitler and NAZI Germany said “[Jesus] stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things. He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality … There is no way from one person to another. However loving and sympathetic we try to be, however sound our psychology, however frank and open our behavior, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other man, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul. Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbors through him… “He is our peace,” says Paul of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:14).” Undoing the damage our conflicts bring requires walking with Christ, letting Him guide us through the Spirit in how to heal damaged or broken lives and relationships.
The first lesson Jesus teaches us about conflict here is that sweeping things underneath the rug is not the solution. A lot of times in our families, marriages or our partnerships, communities, churches – you name it! – we try to ignore real problems, acting as if they are not there when all we are doing is leaving them simmering in the background. Yet the more things you push under the rug, the more they just pile higher and higher. The simmer will heat up more if ignored, boiling over into a real mess, all over the place.
This is what has happened with a number of denominations and churches about sexual abuse in the church and abuse of children. People did the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil approach, pretending everything was fine while more and more people got hurt and now in some churches there are many devastated lives and churches torn asunder.
This is true with less dramatic issues. I can’t tell you how many people in long-term marriages or partnerships I’ve seen either come to me for couple’s counseling or have their relationship come apart at the seams not from some huge issue but from tons of seemingly smaller issues that never got worked through which simply snowballed into bigger and bigger concerns as they were not addressed.
Facing head-on, honestly yet graciously, the problems in our relationships and churches before they become explosive is a key part of peacemaking.
Yet before going to someone about a perceived problem, we also need to check ourselves. Jesus’ instructions are specific – his call to be pro-active in approaching one who has hurt you directly does not mean we have to confront people for everything they do we disagree with or every way they hurt us. Jesus says if someone sins against us individually or sins against the community, then we go to them.
Author and civil rights leader James Baldwin once said, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” This is a good line in the sand to draw about what we must confront.
Just as there are some folks who can be too quick to sweep things under the rug in ways that will only reap havoc later on, so some individuals and communities can also be too quick to assume another’s choices, beliefs, and actions are ones we must confront. They can forget that Christ is the Judge and the Holy Spirit is the one who convicts our hearts. They decide anytime anyone makes a choice they disagree with or voices a question or sincere belief they find troubling, that something has gone wrong in their soul and pounce on them. They also can be folks who are naturally sensitive so deeply hurt or offended by all manner of perceived slights, making every relationship they are in one where those they relate to feel they have to walk on egg-shells.
It is important to notice that Jesus’ instruction is not that we need to confront everything we disagree with in others, nor every time our feelings are hurt. Sometimes when people hurt us or others, if we pray and pay attention, we will see that maybe it was not intentional, or that we were having a bad day. Sometimes it feels like a pattern of not caring for others that is a sin against us, though. In Christ we are challenged to seek out our own salvation with fear and trembling and to study to show ourselves approved. Doing that will mean we each come to different points of view and perspectives on faith, making different choices than each other. A part of having a loving friendship, a loving family, a loving marriage or romantic partnership, a loving community, a loving church, is extending a graciousness that accepts difference, recognizing it not as something to be squashed or corrected but embraced. The ground is level at the foot of the cross and must have room for all.
We also need to check our own hearts and make sure the reason we are upset is not our own sin – our pride that says we need to be treated special; our prejudice against something about the other person; our desire for power or control that leads us to unintentionally push God and others into boxes.
Yet there are actions that people can engage in and things they can voice that deny another’s basic worth, that disrespect another’s basic humanity, that treat us or others as if we or they are not children of God for whom Christ died and whom God loves. There are actions and words, as well as patterns of behavior, that don’t just hurt us and others but harm us and others. That’s sin. Jesus is saying we need to be pro-active about addressing these to have healthy Christ-like relationships with each other.
The next thing Jesus’s teaching challenges us to do is to avoid making relationship triangles. What does is a relationship triangle?
To triangulate, or create a relationship triangle, is to bring others into a conflict whom it doesn’t involve, making them an unnecessary go-between and often causing rumors, gossip, and other drama to spread. Often people don’t mean that to happen when they do it, but even unintentionally such triangulation can be like adding gasoline to the flame of a conflict.
Jesus warns us against this way of handling conflict by telling us, if at all possible, to go directly to the person who has harmed us one-on-one without bringing any one else in order to resolve what’s happened. And when that is impossible – perhaps when the other person is bullying or abusive, or when they hold some power over us like pastor or boss or community leader, when the person harmed is a child being harmed by an adult, or if a part of the problem is they simply don’t ever listen. If that is the case, Jesus encourages you to tell as few people as you can get by with – ideally just one person, who can help mediate and who will not do anything to spread gossip or rumors or add fuel to the fire – to help you negotiate this situation safely, and in a way that helps resolve it. Sometimes this might be a mutual trusted friend, a church leader like a deacon or a pastor, a counselor. I’ve known some churches, jobs, and community groups that even have a few folks go through training to become special designated mediators. Even if a church doesn’t have someone special to fill that role, it is a great training for leaders like deacons or council members to have.
I think we’ve all had where we were in a relationship only to discover we were the last one to find out our friend, our partner or spouse, our kid, our fellow church member, had been hurt by something we did and that only by hearing it from someone other than them. By then what might have been small and manageable has already become more dramatic and hurtful to all involved than necessary.
The goal of coming to another person when a relationship has been damaged in this way, both on your own or with the help of someone else, is to help bring reconciliation and healing in a relationship.
The key thing this affects is how the conversation goes. If you are focused on steering the conversation to working through issues you can’t, on the one hand, minimize the pain that has been caused. That only will bring resentment for you and for others affected. But, you also can’t go in wagging a finger, condemning, assuming bad intent. You have to come using “I” language, talking about how you feel and how you are affected, rather than dictating what they mean. You also have to be willing to be compassionate and listen to understand what is going on with the person who has hurt you. If you can’t do that, you need a mediator with you who can help keep the conversation open in that way. The focus cannot be on one party or the other proving they are right but rather on healing the relationship for such a conversation to work. There are times when walking in Christ’s way in a relationship means valuing the relationship more than being right.
But though this is the goal, it is important to know this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the friendship will end, despite your and their best effort. Sometimes the marriage or partnership will come apart. Sometimes the broken relationship in the church will lead to a split of some type. Sometimes one person simply isn’t spiritually at a point to hear another out yet – and God needs to work on one or both people’s hearts. Sometimes such a conversation may lead people to discover that though they were close during this leg of their spiritual journey, what has happened shows that the best way to be loving to each other is to part wishing peace, accepting not everyone is a close person for all of life’s journey. All come for a reason – some come to last, some just for a season. Also when abuse is involved, it may be being close to another person again may not be a safe possibility.
Even in such situations, there is a kind of reconciliation that is possible – when you can begin to look another person with compassion, understanding, and respect, seeing that other person as a fellow Child of God, who is of worth, valued by God and valuable. I can’t speak for you but I have had close friendships, partnerships, and even church relationships that it took us both parting ways to forgive, to understand each other, and to begin to view each other that way. I even know people who say the only way they could reconcile with a certain partner or spouse was through the relationship dissolving. It ending opened the way for healing to come.
I want to point you back to those stones I passed out. My friend and mentor early on in my ministry, Rev. Jonathan Stepp, told a story of when he was a little boy and collected stones. He would stuff stones in his pocket whenever he found them. Eventually, his mom got mad at him – the stones that he collected tore holes in his pants. Resentment is like putting rocks into the pockets of your heart and soul, it tears you from the inside out. As Desmond Tutu, author of No Future without Forgiveness once wrote, Jesus’ command to forgive is your best self interest. Even if you and another cannot or should not fully reconcile, not forgiving another hurts you. It is like drinking poison to make another sick; like holding a live coal in your hand because you want another to burn. Forgiveness is letting go shackles that hold you to the past. Can’t engage the new future for you personally, new relationships, new opportunities , while holding onto that pain that becomes a chip on your shoulder or weapon against others. Even churches go through pain that, holding onto the resentment and fear surrounding, can keep them from opening up to God’s future.
As we sing our closing hymn, I want to invite you to think about who they need to forgive and, if you are willing to begin to work to let it go, come forward and lay the stone on the altar as symbol of letting go.