Items filtered by date: September 2017
17 September 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness for the Sake of All

September 17, 2017     Maple Grove UMC


          One time an extended family member struck my mother in the face—hard enough to knock her down, make her bleed, and give her a black eye.  This was a dear family member, who loved my parents deeply but also had a violent temper.  He was immediately remorseful; nothing like that ever happened again.  But there were serious consequences—he was not allowed  in my parents’ home for a long time.  Eventually they worked things out and forged a new relationship.

          Years later, though, I was talking about that family member with my parents.  I said some uncharitable things about him.  My mother stopped the conversation, looked intently at me, and said, “Glenn, you’ve got to forgive him.”

          I said, “I have.”

          “No,” she said, “you haven’t.”

          I thought about that and said, “Okay, what of it?  Why should I forgive him?  He hit my mother, and that will never be okay.”

          She said, “No, that will never be okay.  But you’ve got to forgive him for the sake of the family.  He is and always will be a member of our family, just like you.  And the whole family depends on you forgiving him.”


          Desmond Tutu has written a magnificent book called No Future Without Forgiveness, describing the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa after apartheid.  For decades White people controlled, segregated, deprived and traumatized Blacks and what were then “Colored” people in South Africa.  White military and White police officers beat Blacks for the fun of it.  White authorities made Black activists “disappear.”  Sometimes brutalized Blacks struck back at Whites. 

          So when apartheid ended in 1991, the question was, how would majority Blacks treat the minority Whites who had oppressed them for so long?  Besides vengeance and retaliation, which everyone knew would be catastrophic, history, Tutu writes, presented two models:

  • something like the Nuremberg trials after WWII, where Nazis were hunted down and put on trial for war crimes

Instead, South Africa chose what Tutu calls a “third way”—Truth and Reconciliation.  If perpetrators of violence would publicly confess their crimes and apologize, they would be forgiven and given a fresh start in society.  The Truth and Reconciliation process was gut-wrenching and imperfect, Tutu admits.  But “on its success,” he writes, hinges “the survival of our nation . . .  It is ultimately in our best interest that we become forgiving, repentant, reconciling, and reconciled people, because without forgiveness . . . we have no future.”1


               Today’s Gospel reading is a famous teaching on forgiveness.  Just before today’s reading, Jesus lays out his four-step process for dealing with conflict.  This process involves confrontation and accountability for bad behavior, but it also requires forgiveness and reconciliation.  Jesus’ teaching apparently makes Peter a little nervous.  He asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times would I have to forgive someone—as many as, say, seven times?  Seven is a good biblical number.  But Jesus says, “No, not seven, but 77 times.”  Your translation may not say 77 times; it may read 70 times 7 times, or 490 times.  The original Greek can be read either way.  And it doesn’t make any difference.  It’s a number too high to keep track of.  As Martin Luther put it, “Forgiveness is not an occasional art, it is a permanent attitude.”2


               There are many reasons it’s important, even necessary, to forgive others.

  • One reason is that Jesus told us to.  For Christians, forgiving others is not a suggestion, it’s a commandment.  Jeanne Bishop’s husband and pregnant sister were shot and left to bleed to death, and the killer showed no remorse.  But Jeanne says, “I have to forgive [their] killer . . . not because he has an excuse—he has none whatsoever.  I forgive not because he asked for it; he has not. . .  Rather I forgive for the One who asked me to and taught me to.”3  One reason to forgive is that Jesus told us to.
  • But sometimes, we do forgive because others need it.  A friend told me that the teenager next door backed into his car.  And every time the kid saw him after that, he’d apologize all over again, “Mr. Jones, I’m so sorry about your car.”  Every time.  Finally my friend said, “Taylor, look at me.  It was a mistake.  You learned a lesson.  I forgive you.”  And the kid never mentioned it again.  Sometimes we forgive because others need to be forgiven.
  • Third, we forgive others so we can be forgiven.  It’s in the Lord’s Prayer:  “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Now, surely it isn’t that God won’t forgive us until we forgive others.  It’s that we can’t really receive forgiveness while we’re holding onto our resentment and bitterness towards others.  We forgive so we can receive forgiveness.
  • Finally, we forgive as part of our own healing, to no longer be controlled by past traumas. Jack Kornfield tells of two ex-prisoners of war who meet after many years. When the first one asks, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” the second man answers, “No, never.”  “Well then,” the first man replies, “they still have you in prison.”4 We forgive to set our own spirits free.


          All of those are good reasons to forgive.  But in light of our theme of “God-Centered Wellbeing and Community,” there’s one more reason:  We forgive others for the good of all, for the sake of the community, whether that community is your family, the church, our country, or what have you.  If we are going to live together, we have to find a way to forgive one another. 

          Now, I’m going to start by remembering what forgiveness is not.  Forgiveness is not forgetting—besides being impossible, forgiveness is about dealing with what happened, not forgetting it.  Forgiveness is not letting people get away with things—Jesus commands us to forgive 77 times, but in the context of confronting and holding people accountable for their behavior.  Forgiveness does not mean staying with someone who’s hurting you—you can forgive and protect yourself.  There’s much more to say here, but I want to save a few minutes to think about why and how forgiveness is important in community.

  1. For one thing, forgiveness rids a community of the poison of bitterness and resentment.  That’s what my mother was talking about—my anger at that family member was affecting the whole family.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”  If Paul had heard about these two women’s disagreement in prison hundreds of miles away, clearly their dispute was no longer just personal.  It was poisoning the whole church. They needed to work things out for the good of all the Philippians.
  2. Forgiveness is—at least partly--a community act.  In its context in the gospel, the question isn’t simply, “How many times do I personally have to forgive someone who sins against me?”  The question is, “How many times should the community follow Jesus’ four-step process for dealing with trouble in the church?  How many times should we confront and restore those who cause pain?”5  The burden of forgiving is not just on you or on me, but on us together.

     That’s why every time someone is baptized here, we say together, “We will surround this child, this person, with a community of love and forgiveness. . .”  We become forgiving individuals by being part of a forgiving community.  When I am unforgiving or you are unforgiving, how will our children know that forgiveness is the heart of the gospel?

  1.  Finally, forgiveness is the only way people can be restored to community.  Chris Dorsey points out that the king in Jesus’ parable forgave the enormous debt of the first slave because it was “important to the king that the slave and his family . . . continue as productive members of the community.”6 Sure, you can throw a debtor in prison, but how does that help the productivity of the country?  Sure you can ostracize and stay angry at someone who hurts your feelings, but how does that help the community?

     And this restoration to community works in both directions.  Miroslav Volf says that when I refuse to forgive, I exclude my enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.7 When we refuse to forgive, we think that we’re punishing and excluding the other person.  And we are.  What we fail to realize is that we are punishing and excluding ourselves to exactly the same extent.  “Our inability to forgive,” writes Chris Dorsey, “is just as disruptive to community as the original transgression.” 


          Forgiveness removes poison from the community.  Forgiveness is what Christians do together, what we receive from God and model for our children.  And forgiveness is the only way to restore others and ourselves to community.  No wonder Jesus said, “How many times do you need to forgive?  As many as it takes.  As many as it takes.”



1Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 165.

2 Alive Now (March/April 2003), 5.

3 John M. Buchanan, “A Historic Ban,” Editor’s Desk, The Christian Century (April 5, 2011), 3.


5 See Susan E. Hylen, “Forgiveness and Life in Community,” Interpretation 54/2 (April 2000), 152.

6 Chris Dorsey, Living By the Word, The Christian Century (August 30, 2017), 18.

7 Miroslav Volf, “Overcoming the Double Exclusion,” Circuit Rider (March/April 2003), 17.

10 September 2017

Matthew 18:15-20

Reconciliation 101

September 10, 2017     Maple Grove UMC


          Loving and hopeful as he was, Jesus was not naïve about the church.  Or if he was, he took off his rose-colored glasses before sharing today’s gospel reading.  “When another member of the church sins against you,” he says, here’s what you should do.  And if they keep on sinning against you, here’s what else to do. . .”  Even before there was such a thing as “the church,” Jesus was already giving a process for resolving conflicts in the church.  In fact, this is the one and only time Jesus himself ever uses the word “church”—when he’s teaching how to resolve conflicts in the church.1  Blest Be the Tie That Binds we’ll sing today.  And those ties are indeed blest, but they are blest because they are not automatic, because they cannot be taken for granted.  The ties that bind our hearts in Christian love are precious precisely because they are tender and fragile.


          (As an aside before we dig in, your own Bible translation may say, “If your brother sins against you” instead of “If a member of the church sins against you.”  Literally, the Greek says “your brother.”  But it’s clear from the context that Jesus is talking not about family relationships, but church relationships.  Matthew uses the word “brother” to refer to fellow believers, both male and female.  So “member of the church” is not a perfect translation, but is probably the best we can do.  Just so you know.)


          So . . . if a member of the church sins against you . . . Jesus lays out a four-step process for dealing with it. 

  1. First, go to that person one on one, privately.  Work it out yourselves. 
  2. If that doesn’t work, take two or three others with you, as witnesses.  Maybe that will get the person’s attention. 
  3. And if that doesn’t work, Jesus says, take it to the whole church—let everyone know what’s going on.  Surely that will change the person’s behavior.
  4. And if even that doesn’t work, he says, then let that person be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector, an outsider. 

I have to admit, this whole thing sounds harsh to me.  First of all, you’re not supposed to just let stuff go?  Jesus wants you to confront folks about their bad behavior?  Yikes.  And then he wants you to involve others in that conflict and make a public deal out of it?  Double yikes.  And then you’re allowed, essentially, to kick the person out.  Excommunicate, the Catholics call it.  Shun them, the Amish say.  Big time yikes.

          The whole business just sounded harsh to me upon first reading.  And second reading.  And third.  I mean we’re talking about the possibility of putting people out of the church here.  But the more time I spent with this scripture, the less harsh and the more loving it began to sound to me.  Let me tell you why.


          First, at least in Jesus’ plan the conflict is addressed, everything is out in the open.  I’ll admit to you, and many of you already know, that I am of the “ostrich” school of dealing with conflict.  The hope is that if you bury your head in the sand long enough, when you finally come up for air, maybe the conflict will have magically disappeared.  Please don’t ask me how well that works. You already know.  At least Jesus’ plan has a chance to deal with conflict positively; not dealing with it has a 0% chance of that.


          But here’s the thing:  clearly the goal of Jesus’ process is not punishment, though it could result in that.  The goal is not to remove someone from the fellowship, though in extreme cases that could happen.  And the goal is certainly not get revenge or to shame anyone—revenge is easy; this process is hard.  No, clearly the goal of all this is reconciliation, the healing of a troubled relationship, preserving the wellbeing of the whole community by putting out little fires before they become big fires.  In my initial readings of this scripture, I got hung up on the punishment part; Jesus is hung up on restoring relationships. 

          The context in Matthew’s gospel makes this even clearer.  Just prior to this scripture is the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  If a shepherd has 100 sheep and one goes astray, what does he do?  He leaves the 99 and searches for the one until he finds it. It’s all about reconciliation.  For Jesus it’s restoring relationships that matters.

          And right after today’s scripture Peter asks Jesus, How many times do I have to forgive a “brother,” that is, a member of the church?  As many as seven times?  No, Jesus says, not seven, but 77 times.  Not even 77 offenses is allowed to come between “brothers” of the faith.  For Jesus it’s restoring relationships that matters.

          Mennonite pastor, Arthur Boers, notes three errors people make when applying Jesus’ process from Matthew 18:

  1. Focusing on punishing a person rather than reconciling with a person
  2. Concentrating on the offense rather than the person
  3. Worrying more about rules and standards than about the person.2

In other words, if you’re focusing on the person, you’re probably doing it right.  For Jesus it’s relationships that matter.


          Here’s something else about Jesus’ four-step process:  When you confront a member of the church who has sinned against you, Jesus says, “if the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to,” then take it to the next level.  What the offended person can expect from the other person is simply to be listened to.  Jesus doesn’t say that the other person will always agree with your point of view.  He doesn’t say they have to change everything you don’t like.  He just says they have to listen to you.  Reconciliation may be less about changing other people than about simply listening to one another.  I can’t promise you that I’ll always agree with you.  I can’t promise I can change everything you don’t like about me.  But I can listen to you.  It’s about reconciliation; for Jesus it’s relationships that matter.


          And this:  even what I took to be the harshest part of Jesus’ conflict resolution process—to let someone be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector—even that isn’t as harsh as I was making it out to be.  I took this to mean removing someone from the church community, and maybe it does mean that.  But how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  He invited them to dinner, and he called them down from sycamore trees, and he even asked one tax collector—Matthew--to be his disciple.  In other words, when someone sins against you and won’t listen to you, what do you to?  You love them all the more!  You go out of your way to bring them back in.  It’s about reconciliation; for Jesus it’s relationships that matter.


          Before wrapping up today on God-Centered Wellbeing and Community, I just want to point out a couple of limitations with Jesus’ model for resolving conflicts.

  • First, in Matthew 18 it perfectly seems clear who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s done the sinning and who’s been sinned against.  But we all know it’s not always quite that clear.  I can think of several times when I thought sure I was the one who’d been sinned against, and lo and behold, the other person didn’t see it that way.  Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says to first take the log out your own eye before offering to take a speck out of your neighbor’s eye.  No, you don’t need to shy away from confronting someone who sins against you.  I’m just saying, oftentimes there’s more than one sinner in any crowd of two people.  And what matters most isn’t who’s right and who’s wrong.  What matters most is reconciliation.  For Jesus it’s relationships that matter.
  • And finally this: so many of our conflicts in the church aren’t really about one person “sinning” against another.  Our conflicts are about differing points of view, different visions of the church, different cultural or political or theological assumptions.  We have conflict not just because one person treats another person badly.  That happens, of course.  But more often we have conflict, for example, because we have different understandings of human sexuality.  Or because different things make us feel safe in the church.  Or because we like to sing different kinds of church music.  We’re not so much sinners and those sinned against; we’re brothers and sisters in Christ with different points of view.  Communications consultant, Nate Regier, has offered a four-point strategy for dealing with these types of conflicts:
  1. “Share how you feel about the conflict.”  It’s okay to talk about controversial things, so long as you don’t insist that everyone think and feel the same way you do.
  2. “Suggest what you are willing to do to work on the conflict.”  It’s amazing what others are willing to do to work on a conflict if they see you working on it first.
  3. “Discern and share what is at stake for you in [the conflict].”  If you can be clear and honest about why something is important to you, others may understand you better, have more empathy.
  4. “Temporarily suspend your own agenda in the conflict and listen to the other’s agenda.”3  And now we’re back to last Sunday and putting others first. 

          In the last verse of this scripture, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  We know that Jesus is with us everywhere, all the time—when we are pray and when we are at work, when we are sleeping and when we are awake.  But Jesus promised to be with us when we are working out conflicts in the church, when we are reconciling with one another.  The gospel is all about reconciliation; for Jesus it’s relationships that matter.  How is that for God-Centered Wellbeing and Community?


1 John Howard Yoder.  Quoted in Arthur Paul Boers, Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior (Alban Institute, 1999), 88.

2 Boers, 89.

3 The Christian Century (August 30, 2017), 9.

03 September 2017

Matthew 16:21-28

Life Is For Others

September 3, 2017

          Today’s reading is a watershed passage in Matthew.  Up to this point Jesus has called his disciples; he has taught and healed.  But in chapter 16 he gets down to brass tacks.  He asks the disciples if they know who he is.  And Peter gets it right:  You’re the Messiah, the Son of God.  But Peter didn’t get right what it means that Jesus is the Messiah.  When Jesus starts talking about suffering and death, Peter says, “No way, Jesus.  Not you!”  So from this point on, Jesus prepares the disciples for exactly that--his suffering and death.  Oh . . . and that to be his followers means denying themselves and taking up their own crosses.  This is a watershed moment in the gospel; no passage in Matthew is more important than this one.1

          This passage has many things to teach us, depending on our questions and needs. We could have turned to this scripture during our study on overcoming fear.  In Jesus’ time, of course, the cross was not yet a religious symbol.  It was a method of execution used by the Romans to intimidate and terrorize people.  Barbara Taylor says the cross was used to reinforce the idea that pain and death are the worst things in the world and that people should do anything to avoid them.  By telling his disciples to take up their cross, Jesus defied that idea.  In fact, he says, there are worse things than death in the world, and living in perpetual fear is one of those things.  Instead of running away from what makes you afraid, Jesus says, pick it up, take it on.  Instead of surrendering yourself to fear, surrender yourself to God.  That’s one lesson from this scripture.2

          Or we might bring to this scripture the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” That’s a big questions. Here is Matthew’s answer:  deny yourself, take up your cross, and especially follow Jesus.  Matthew defines faith not by what you believe, but by whether or not you follow Jesus.  I know that ‘believe’ is an important word in other parts of the Bible, in John’s gospel, for example.  But never once in Matthew does Jesus ever ask anyone to believe in him or to believe anything about him.  To be a Christian, for Matthew, is to do what Jesus did, to love the way Jesus loved, to follow him. That’s another lesson from this scripture.

               So today, in this worship series, we bring to this scripture the question, What does this passage have to say about God-Centered Wellbeing and Community? What does it mean to keep God’s love at the heart, not just each of us of our own lives, but at the heart of our life together?

          And the answer is:  to put others first.  In the words of Jesus, to “deny yourself.”  I’m aware that this verse has been used in hurtful ways, especially against women and minorities.  When people of greater power use this phrase “deny yourself” to keep people of less power down, that does not enhance community and does not keep God’s love at the center of life.  But to “deny yourself” does not mean to beat yourself up, or to fail to take care of yourself, or to look down on yourself.  To “deny yourself” means to subordinate your own will to God’s will (which of course is always a loving and life-affirming will).3 In other words, to “deny yourself” is to put God’s love at the heart not just of your own life, but at the heart of our life together. 

          We can tell that denying ourselves is life-affirming because Jesus says that those who “lose” their lives for his sake will actually “find” their lives.  Self-denial is actually the way to the greatest possible fulfillment.  “Denying yourself” doesn’t mean that you don’t get to do fun things; it means being set free to do the things that matter most.

          So what does it look like, this Christian denying of self?  Let me paint you a few pictures that I came across this past week. 

  • I read about a representative of Teach America at Duke University.4 Teach American recruits graduates from prestigious colleges to go into some of our poorest public schools. She stood in front of these Duke seniors and said, “I can tell by looking at you I’ve probably come to the wrong place. You’re all headed to Silicon Valley and Wall Street. And here I am, trying to get you to go to rural West Virginia and South L.A. to teach in dangerous schools for almost no money. I’m probably in the wrong place, but if by chance, some of you happen to be interested, I’ve got these brochures about Teach America. Meeting’s over.”

              And she was mobbed by students, fighting over those brochures. Now whatever you think Teach America, and I know some educators have objections, the point is that these privileged 22 year-olds were ready to deny themselves, eager to put others’ needs ahead of their own, to put God’s love at the heart of our life together. And not because they wanted to lose their own lives; but precisely because they wanted to find their own lives.


  • Chris Anderson, a Roman Catholic deacon, tells of an elderly church member dying in a dark, fetid room. His daughter caress for him tenderly, even though he was a harsh man and abused her and her mother. He had been in combat in war, and maybe that was it. But now he is dying, and his daughter is with him.

    Anderson came to read Psalms to him it seemed to soothe and comfort the dying man. But later, Anderson reports, the man opens his eyes and croaks out two words to his daughter. You witch, he says, only it’s not really ‘witch’ that he says.

    Now who knows what going through this man’s mind. Maybe he wasn’t seeing his daughter at all. Maybe he was talking to Death or something from the war decades ago. But that’s what he said: You witch. And this is what his daughter does. She rises from her chair, leans over the bed, and whispers in his ear: Daddy, I love you. And then he died.

    The last thing this man ever said was vulgar and angry and abusive. But that wasn’t the last thing he ever heard.5 She chose, in a way, to deny herself, to take the way of love and forgiveness, for the sake of everyone, for the sake of generations to come, to rise above bitterness and revenge. But not in any way to lose her own life, but precisely to find it, to be free, to set God’s love at the heart of our life together.

  • Just this past week I heard an interview with a homeowner near Houston. Her house had not yet been damaged, but authorities had come to evacuate her because they were going to release water from a reservoir upstream. They were going to intentionally flood her home in order to save other homes. She was in tears as she carried a few treasured belongings to a truck. And here is what she said: “It breaks my heart to think of losing this home where I raised my family. But we’re in this together, and if I have to lose my home so that other people can save theirs, that’s what I’ll do.” She denied herself. She placed God’s love at the center of her entire community. But she did not lose herself—no, far from it. She found her truest and holiest self in the dirty waters of Hurricane Harvey.

    Here’s how the Prayer of St. Francis puts it:

    O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

    to be consoled as to console;

    to be understood as to understand;

    to be loved as to love;

    For it is in giving that we receive;

    it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

    it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

In just a moment we'll come to the table where we will rehearse the story of Jesus giving himself for us, offering for us his very body and blood. And here is the prayer that we will pray when we are finished:

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery

   in which you have given yourself to us. 

Grant that we may go into the world

   in the strength of your Spirit,

   to give ourselves for others. 

Do I hear an Amen?

What does denying oneself and taking up one’s cross have to do with God-Centered Wellbeing and Community? Only everything.  Only putting others ahead of ourselves.  Not to lose ourselves, but to find our truest and holiest selves.


1 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 193.

2 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Pick Up Your Cross,” God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering, The Teaching Sermon Series (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 59.

3 See Hare, 195.

4 William H. Willimon, “The Journey,” Pulpit Resource (28/3, July, August, September 2000), 50.

5 Chris Anderson, Light When It Comes: Trusting Joy, Facing Darkness & Seeing God Everywhere (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 50-51.


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