Messy Relationships

At this time of year, there is energy, and excitement:

  • The school year is rolling
  • Sunday School, confirmation and adult faith formation launch this next week
  • Today, we’re sending a couple of hundred people out into the community to serve with our partner ministries
  • We’re launching a brand new Wednesday night worship service
  • And tomorrow night, the Vikings kick off their drive to the Super Bowl! Skol!  (hey, cut me some slack.  The season has started, and they’re still undefeated!)

The beginning of the year is full of things new and exciting.  It’s also a great time for us to pause, to think, to wonder and to take stock.  It’s a great time for us to ask ourselves important questions.

And as I’ve spent the week studying, wondering and praying about today’s Gospel text, a question has emerged that I’ve been thinking about…a lot.  It’s a simple, but important question.  It’s this: “What kind of a community do we want to be?”  “What kind of a community do we want to be?”

Today’s Gospel, Matthew 18 is a piece of scripture that is well known and often quoted.  It creates an outline…literally a four-step process of how to handle conflict within the church.  As a matter of fact, these four steps to resolving conflict, are literally built into the governing documents of every ELCA church in the country, including Trinity.

Step one says that when another member of the church sins against you, first you should go to them individually and try to talk it through one-on one.  If they listen to you, your friendship is restored.

But if that doesn’t work, then step two is to go back to them again, but this time you should take one or two people with you, who can serve as witnesses to the conversation, and back you up.

In step three, Jesus says that if these things don’t work, then we are to take the issue to the whole church to discuss.  And the final step is to “let that person be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Of course, “Gentiles” and “tax collectors” were folks who the Jewish people basically shunned.  So, at first read, it appears that Jesus is saying that if the first three steps don’t work, then just turn your back on this other person.

I always appreciate having a good process, and I’m glad that these four steps commit us to addressing conflict directly, and not passive aggressively.  But I’ve got to be honest, this whole idea of turning your back on someone…of just bouncing people from the church has never felt quite right to me.  In 30 years of ministry, I’ve never actually seen conflict get to this dramatic a point.  But still, the idea makes me a little uncomfortable.

Isn’t the faith supposed to be more about grace than strictly law?  About forgiveness rather than punishment?  Well yeah.  And when we take a closer look at what Jesus says, I believe there is a deeper meaning that emerges.

I mean, here’s the thing:  Think of the stories of Jesus’ life.  How did he treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  What did Jesus do when he encountered them?  He didn’t shun or ignore them like the Pharisees would.  No, he engaged them.

Remember the woman at the well?  Remember Jesus healing the daughter of the gentile woman when he traveled in Caanan?  Remember Zachaeus, the tax collector, the wee-little man, up in that tree?  Jesus even invited himself over for to Zachaeus’ house for dinner.  Jesus didn’t shun these people, Jesus loved them.  He sought them out.  He spent more time with them.

So when Jesus says to treat troublemakers like Gentiles and tax collectors, he’s telling his disciples…us…that if someone sins against us, and we’ve tried to reconcile with them, our job isn’t to shun them, rather it is to treat them like Jesus would:  to seek them out, to engage them and to work to restore the relationship. Why?  Because they belong.  They belong to a family of faith.

Author, Timothy Paul Jones, has written about his family’s experience of adoption.  He and his wife heard about a young girl who had spent far too much time bouncing around within the foster care system.  She had never experienced stability as she moved from home to home.  Once, she had even been well into the adoption process, and had moved in with a family when the family changed its mind, and the adoption was dissolved, and she was returned to foster care.  Timothy and his wife’s heart broke when they heard the story, and they were moved to step in and intercede.  They ended up welcoming this eight-year-old girl into their home, and adopted her into their family.

For one reason or another, whenever their daughter’s previous family had vacationed at Disney World, they took their biological children with them, but they left their adopted daughter with a family friend. Usually, at least in the child’s mind, this happened because she did something wrong and this was punishment.

Once Tim and his wife heard about this, they knew that they needed to right a wrong, and so they made plans for a family trip to Orlando.  All three of their kids lit up with excitement when they heard about the trip.

What Timothy and his wife didn’t expect was the weird turn in their new daughter’s behavior.  In the weeks leading up to the trip, she would lie when asked simple questions; she took things that didn’t belong to her; She whispered hurtful insults at her brother and sister; and, as the days on the calendar moved closer to the trip, her mutinies multiplied.

A couple of days before their family headed to Florida, Tim pulled his daughter onto his lap to talk through her latest escapade. “I know what you’re going to do,” she stated flatly. “You’re not going to take me to Disney World, are you?” Tim suddenly realized that she was expecting to be left behind again.  And through her behavior, she was trying to make it her choice, not someone else’s.

Tim looked her in the eye and asked her, “Is this trip something we’re doing as a family?”

She nodded, brown eyes wide and tear-rimmed.  “Are you part of this family?  She nodded again.

“Then you’re going with us. Yes, there may be some consequences to help you remember what’s right and what’s wrong; but you’re part of our family, and we’re not leaving you behind.”  And so they went.

In their hotel room the evening after their first day at the Magic Kingdom, a very different child emerged. She was exhausted, pensive, and a little weepy at times, but her month-long facade of rebellion had faded. When bedtime rolled around, Tim prayed with her, held her, and asked, “So how was your first day at Disney World?”

She closed her eyes and snuggled in. After a few moments, she opened her eyes ever so slightly. “Daddy,” she said, “I finally got to go to Disney World. But it wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I’m yours.”

It’s because I’m yours.

You see, what Jesus words today remind us of is that the Christian faith is not about rules, it’s about relationships.  It’s about belonging.  Yes, there are rules…laws that exist to protect us, but they can never be separated from love.  Those laws exist not for just the sake of having laws, but because God loves us and seeks a deeper relationship with each of us.

And in the waters of baptism, we are all adopted in to God’s family.  And while we too have our issues…while we too sometimes fail to fulfill God’s hopes and dreams for our lives…while we to fail to follow God’s laws, God draws us close and reminds us that God’s promises to us are fulfilled not because of our success or failure at being good…but because we belong to him.

We tend to just look at these four steps to resolving conflict that Jesus gives us and to stop there. But after these four steps, our scripture text today goes on to conclude with a promise.  And these steps cannot be separated from Jesus’ promise.  He says: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  Jesus promise is to be with us whenever we gather.  That means that when we gather here for worship, when we gather for a council meeting, or a committee meeting, when a confirmation small group meets, or an adult ed class…when we eat donuts in Fellowship Hall…and even when we run into each other in the grocery store…as people who belong to God, Jesus is with us.

It means that when we sit down, one-on-one with someone who has hurt us, or whom we’ve hurt.  And we’re going to talk it through, Jesus sits there with us.

It means that when we as a larger community gather to work through difficult, divisive  issues, Jesus is right there with us.  This four-step process Jesus outlines is not meant as a wedge to divide us.  Rather it is meant to draw us together, to heal and restore our relationships and to remind us to trust in Jesus.

So what kind of community do we want to be?  I believe God has a vision for us.  And I believe that vision is to be a community where everyone belongs, and where everyone serves the needs of the world around us.

There is so much that is challenging in our world just now, from hurricanes to displays of hate, from injustice to intolerance, that the world desperately needs us to be the Body of Christ.  And I know that many of you have so much going on in your lives…both heartaches and hopes…and you need to be cared for, and to experience being the Body of Christ. Authentic community is hard, and there will be bumps and bruises; but it’s also powerful. And healing. And a tremendous witness. And it’s always worth it.

What kind of a community are we going to be?  We are going to be one that holds each other accountable…but with love and grace.  We are going to be a community that seeks out those who wander away, or who were never connected in the first place, and we are going to create and restore relationships…we are going to serve those in need…And when we grow weary following the path Jesus set, when we wander, perhaps we can remind each other that we have Jesus’ promise that each and every time we try, he is there with us, instructing us in the way of love, urging us on, forgiving us, and sending us out to be agents of reconciliation and peace, accompanying us wherever we may go.

The world needs us.  The world needs you.  And we need each other.  We are God’s hands, working together.  We belong to God, and we are not alone.


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