Sunday, February 12, 2017
“Relationship, Relationship, Relationship.” My colleague Pastor Neil Harrison, director of renewing congregations, is famous for saying this phrase with congregations we work with. People catch on pretty quickly: “Relationship, relationship, relationship.” That is what God is all about, that is what Christ calls the church to be all about: relationship with God, relationship with each other as the body of Christ, and relationship with the larger world– with our community.
Jesus has some hard words for us about those relationships today. He reminds us that it is not always easy to be in relationship with one another. Jesus’ expectations for his disciples, which includes his expectations for us as his disciples today – not just those original twelve, by the way—are high. If I just look at the ten commandments without reading Jesus’ expansion of them, I fully intend to follow them, and they don’t seem too hard, especially the ones Jesus explicitly mentions in today’s gospel. I don’t plan on committing adultery, murdering anyone, or bearing false witness against anyone in court any time soon. But Jesus puts a harsh spin on things with his interpretation. I certainly have insulted people I know and even love, I’ve looked at someone with lust in my heart, and yes, even though I’m a pastor, I swear occasionally! So what do we do with Jesus’ words today, especialy when we know we can’t live up to those high expectations?
The most important thing that this part of the sermon on the mount from Jesus reminds us of today, I think, is our need for forgiveness. First, this passage pretty much hits us over the head with our need to ask God for forgiveness, and to thank Jesus for dying for us while we were still sinners. We don’t, we can’t, measure up to God’s expectations for us if we look only Jesus’ strict interpretations of these commandments. We can strive to be in better relationship with God and with our neighbor, but in humility, we also take time daily in prayer and weekly in worship to confess to God those times when we’ve failed. We need God’s forgiveness daily, and we can thank God daily that we’ve already been fully forgiven on the cross.
Next, Jesus is asking us to tend to our relationships with one another by extending the forgiveness we’ve received from him to others. He says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Reconciliation (forgiveness) between two people is a greater offering to God than monetary or physical gifts. It’s God’s intention that we live together in peace, in healthy relationships with one another. Like any good parent, God our Father wants his kids to get along!
As I was reflecting on this gospel this week, I thought about how I might improve in an ongoing way how I relate to others, but I also thought about those relationships that I have given up as broken and irreparable. You know, I don’t think I’m one to hold a whole lot of grudges, but there are some people that just rub me the wrong way – our personalities clash – and I have not sought out any kind of reconciliation with them. I don’t think that means we should be best friends, but there are ways I have hurt others and not asked for forgiveness from them, and people who have hurt me who probably have no idea that I am still hurt by them. Even in a marriage relationship, I learned that the two hardest phrases to say are “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you.” God’s mission in the world is diminished when fellow Christian believers are at odds with one another and sometimes won’t even speak to one another or work together. We all have experienced some of this, I’m sure, among our friends, in our families, and even at church. When we can reach out to someone with forgiveness or apology to heal a relationship, we are doing God’s work.
Jesus calls us to the ministry of reconciliation, to bring people back into right relationship with one another and with God today. It’s hard, uncomfortable work. I think this message from Jesus is particularly relevant for this time in our country, however, as we continue to be very divided politically. I notice how often we as Christians break those commandments from Jesus this morning on social media, in particular. It’s easy to attack people we don’t know on Facebook or Twitter, using insults and swearing all over the place. This happens even on our own ELCA CLERGY Facebook page! And how many family and friends do you have that you have become increasingly uncomfortable about due to their political posts that you don’t agree with? Maybe you’ve even had to block some of them. I have seen how we can use social media positively to create honest reflection and dialogue about where we are as a country and what our Christian response might be. But usually I am just embarrassed by how people are behaving and communicating, because it’s as if these good Christian people have never heard these words from Jesus this morning or other passages of the Bible, for that matter. I am trying to work out myself how I might continue to interact with family members and friends who are delightful, loving people in person yet I know that I deeply disagree with them when it comes to what they post online. It is very difficult to figure out how to confront someone about hurtful behavior, or stand for principles and values that we firmly believe when we know we have family and friends who will disagree. There has to be a better way.
Perhaps as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year, we can learn from Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment in the Small Catechism. If you remember back to your confirmation days, Luther says, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” Can you imagine a world where all of us followed the 8th commandment to this degree? Speaking well of our neighbors and interpreting everything they do in the best possible light? Whoa. In a way, social media might be a lot more boring. Certainly the daily news would. To be fair, not even Luther followed his own advice. He had a strong personality and was famous for creative name calling. Just read what he wrote about the pope, or even more unfortunately, the Jews. Luther’s Small Catechism drives us to the cross to ask God for forgiveness for all the ways in which we fail. And on the cross, Jesus offers us that forgiveness, extending his arms to us all. Relationship, relationship, relationship. God is continually, always seeking to bring us back into relationship with God, with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and with our neighbors. Receiving that forgiveness, may we strive to more fully extend those arms of Christ to others by saying what needs to be said, even when it’s hard. Amen.