Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 28

Read Matthew 18:15-35.

For two decades I was a parish priest, before accepting a call to diocesan work a year ago. I am still very involved with congregations but it's a more itinerant ministry. During my ministry in one place for fifteen years, I developed abiding ecumenical and interfaith relationships. Along the way I learned that it didn't much matter what congregations professed with their lips about what they believed - that whenever two or three are gathered together there will be some conflict. The question is really about what happens next...and this is as true in independent evangelical congregations as it is in Reform Judaism. People are people. So when clergy get together to talk, it's rarely to debate theology. It's to tell "war stories."

Congregations, like families, can get stuck and mired in unhealthy conflict and hurt feelings. So these verses from the eighteenth chapter of Matthew take us very close to the heart of what it means to be members of Christ's Body and of one another.

First, if you have a problem with someone, go and tell them - not three other people in the parking lot. This includes issues you may have with your pastor. Conflicts that go underground cannot be worked out. So Jesus says, "if you've got a problem with someone, tell them about it. Alone." And only after that, if you can't work it out, go and find someone you both trust (or one that you each trust) and bring them along and try again. And if it can't be worked out, then walk away. Let it go. Life is too short to get stuck there. I think that is what it means to treat that person as a Gentile. To not give them rent-free space in your head anymore. Not every conflict can be worked out. It's just the way it is. Maybe in the economy of God's grace it'll circle back a few years down the road, and cooler heads will prevail. Or maybe not. Either way, allowing your issue with one person to become a divisive issue for the whole community? Not an option.

Such wise rabbinical advice - and so often neglected even by (and maybe especially by) church people who mistakenly believe that the conflict itself is bad. It does seem to me the percentage of Christians who are conflict-averse is higher than the general population - and within the Christian population it's worse among clergy than laity. Maybe that is wrong; maybe it's just anecdotal or just the people I hang out with. But I don't think so. So these words have power to transform unhealthy conflict into healthy conflict - both in congregations and in families, and the two are very often intertwined.

And then, forgiveness. The key to the Kingdom is about letting go and letting God. How many times? Not just seven - and here the text is ambiguous. Is it seventy plus seven or seventy times seven? Either way it's lots and lots of times. Forgiveness keeps us from getting stuck on real and imagined hurts.

I've also noticed this human tendency: when we cause harm to others, mostly we are pretty sure we didn't mean to do it. We spoke too quickly, we were having a bad day, we were reacting out of some old script. We are, after all, only human.

On the other hand, when someone hurts us we tend to assume they spent the day (or week) plotting how to inflict the most pain upon us. In some rare cases, this may be true. But as a general rule, it leads us to believe (mistakenly I think) that we have more reason to work on being forgiving than on asking for forgiveness. Whenever, as a pastor, I'd teach or preach on forgiveness these were usually the conversations I'd engage in afterwards. I am not yet sure I can forgive so and so for the pain they caused me. Far rarer, in my experience, was the conversation that began, it's time for me to ask so and so's forgiveness...

Such, however, is the wisdom of twelve-step programs; see in particular steps four through ten. Before we can grow spiritually, we need to be honest about the pain we have caused others. No where in there is an inventory of the grievances of things done to us.

So Jesus - such a great teacher - gives us this memorable parable that invites us to look in both directions. And he gives us a little Middle Eastern hyperbole (like the splinter in someone else's eye and the beam in our own) to ask us to reflect on how much we need to be forgiven for and how stingy we sometimes are in forgiving others. And then just to sit with that a while and see what comes of it.

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