Matthew 18:15-20; Romans 13:8-14
When I was at my last church I would join, Ron, the minister of First Baptist Church, and Bob, the minister of First Methodist Church for an occasional round of golf. There was only one Presbyterian and only one Methodist church within the city limits of Clinton and yet there must have been ten other Baptist congregations. Bob and I quizzed Ron on the secret to church growth. His answer was quite simple. In the Baptist tradition when someone gets mad, they start a new church.
In the gospel of Matthew we are reminded that squabbles and hurt feelings are not limited to just the Southern Baptist. Since before the time of Christ people sitting in pews have found things about which to complain. Even here in beautiful Rockfish Valley, occasionally a distressful voice is raised about one thing or the other.
Idle minds often find complaining to be a way fill the void in their lives. We all have friends who are not happy unless they are complaining. I get it. As an avid sports fan, I spend way too much time second guessing the starting lineups of the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Braves. As a political junkie, too much of my idle time is consumed by thinking of the decisions and the lack of decisions made inside the DC beltway. Face it; satellite radio would crash if it weren’t for the number of people calling in to complain about anything and everything imaginable.
So I guess we should not be surprised that Jesus takes a moment to discuss discontent among church members. What does surprise me is where the writer of Matthew places this dramatic statement of Jesus. It comes before the parable of the lost sheep. I am sure you remember it well. A shepherd has 100 sheep. He returns home and counts only 99. By all accounts the shepherd did everything right. 99 out of 100 is pretty good especially considering the dangers that lurk in the fields. One sheep could have easily wandered off, or been injured, or even devoured by a hostile animal. Even sheep must take some responsibility for its predicament. The sheep chose a dangerous path and suffered the consequences. Most shepherds would have gone to bed and renewed the search in the daylight when it was safer. But not the Good Shepherd. Disregarding his own safety the shepherd goes out into the night to find the malcontent and bring it back.
I have to believe as the disciples are hearing this tale at least one of them is thinking, “If a congregant is that much trouble, why not just let them just wander off on their own. For the sake of the church, wouldn’t things be better if they just went off and joined another herd?” But that is not the way of Jesus. The lost, regardless of the reason they are lost, are to be searched for and when found invited to retake their place among the rest of the congregation.
If that parable wasn’t difficult enough, guess what Jesus talks about in the verses following the text we read this morning? Forgiveness!!! Not only does the Good Shepherd go out into the night to insure no one is left behind, the Good Shepherd is willing to forgive the waywardness of the sheep. Am I the only one thinking that sheep might continue to be a lot of trouble? Honestly, wouldn’t the herd be a lot better off if the wayward sheep were cut from the herd and forced to survive on its own. Why didn’t someone have the courage to remind Jesus that one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel?
The more I read the New Testament the more I am convinced Jesus did not have an ounce of common sense. The sheep gets lost. That should be strike one. The sheep has a confrontation with a number of members of the herd. That should be strike two. We know where the problem lies and yet naïve old Jesus suggests we sit down and have a conversation. If that doesn’t work we are to gather two or three together to hear the complaint of the trouble maker. And if that doesn’t work, you are going to love this, we, who have done nothing wrong, are asked to forgive, not just once, not just twice, but seventy times seven. Don’t reach for your calculators. In biblical terms seventy times seven means as many times as it takes. Why would Jesus place this burden on the innocent?
Perhaps Jesus knows that every incident has more than one version. Perhaps Jesus also knows conflicts quickly resolved can avoid confrontations that will erupt into battles that have nothing to do with the original complaints. Perhaps Jesus knows that the true test for one who claims Christ is the willingness reconcile oneself to another, even when there seems no way reconciliation can happen. How is that possible? Perhaps Jesus prefers short time memories and long time solutions.
I saw a TV commercial the other day in which James Harden of the Houston Rockets was having a conversation with NBA great Charles Barkley. Harden asked, “Charles, what did you do after a really bad game?”
Barkley responded, “You need a short memory. I can’t remember ever having a bad game.”
Harden shook his head, “But what about not ever winning an NBA title.”
Barkley, “I don’t remember that.”
“Or what about your legendary temper. Didn’t you throw a man through a glass window?”
“Not me. I’m a pacifist. A short memory is what you need. Don’t just believe me, ask Scotty Pippin.”
“Charles is right,” said Pippin, “Short memory is a must to play this game. I should know, I was the greatest player to ever wear a Chicago Bulls uniform.”
I am not trying to make light of the conflicts that arise even among the best of friends. But I am suggesting that our memories can become our worst enemy. We are all familiar with the phrase, “I will forgive but I won’t forget.” How much true forgiveness takes place with that sort of attitude? Memories often do two things. First, memories further villainize our adversary while lifting our own innocence to somewhat lofty heights. Second, memories concentrate on the second and third tense while neglecting the log that might be in our own eye.
Jesus calls us to be transformational agents of reconciliation. If I desire that role, the initial change must begin with me transforming me rather than me converting you. That calls for more imagination and less memory.
Imagine the desire to be more Christ-like.
Imagine the courage to hear the other side of the story.
Imagine yearning to preserve the honor of another.
Imagine not writing someone off even when their actions are beyond our comprehension.
Jesus knows this is hard stuff. That is why when we talk about forgiveness too often we use the language of the absurd. We ask questions such as, “How can we forgive an extremist group that has beheaded a fellow American?” I don’t deny the world is a dangerous place. I don’t deny international conflicts and the way we approach those conflicts challenge the very the very notion of forgiveness and reconciliation. But sometimes we mix apples and oranges in order to avoid the obvious. The text this morning deals specifically with folks who know each other, have a history with each other, and probably really like each other. A moment of anger or a word spoken in haste has disrupted the trust that existed between them. Such a situation is repairable if imagination can trump pride and the participants remember of the sacrificial nature of God.
God so loved the world. What does it cost God to continue this relationship?
Love God with all your heart and soul. What does it cost us to be without this relationship?
Love your neighbor as yourself. What does it cost us to continue this relationship? Perhaps more importantly what does it cost us if we lose this relationship?
The wonderful thing about the concept of church is the church is not a place where just one person gathers. It is where two or three come together. It is where we bring our joys, our talents, our love and our imaginations. But it is also complicated by our warts, our wrinkles, our imperfections and our occasional conflicts. The spirit of God mixes all these components into a body built on a profound trust and commitment toward each other. We don’t always agree. We certainly are not perfect and yet we are bound to each other by two great axioms:
- “God loves us, God forgives us, and God expects us to love and forgive each other.”
- “Be kind to one another, for everyone you meet is fighting some great battle.” (Philo of Alexandria)To God be the glory. Amen.