I love reading things for the second or third time for several reasons, one of which is that I see new things. The words on the page don’t change, but I do, in both big and small ways. I was reminded of that this week as I read, for the more than third time, Jesus words about two or three being gathered together and saw something I had not seen before that was worth preaching about.
Last week, we looked at the questions Moses asked of God when he was confronted with the burning bush and God’s subsequent call to go back to Egypt to free the Hebrew people. “Who am I?” Moses asked first, wondering why he was chosen, and then, “Who are you?” or “Who will I say sent me?” wondering how on earth God could pull off such a feat.
Though the excerpt we read from Matthew 18 doesn’t include it, the whole conversation from which it came began with a question—this time from the disciples: “Who is really greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?”
Jesus’ followers always seemed to be jockeying for position, even as he was talking about compassion rather than control. Jesus saw a child nearby and called them to come over. Then he turned to his disciples and said, “You won’t even understand what God is up to until you look at the world the way a child does.”
Not long after that—and immediately before the words we read—Jesus told the parable of the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine of his sheep to go back out into the pasture at nightfall to find the one who was lost.
And then he started talking about forgiveness, not as a one-and-done kind of act, but as a relational process that takes place in the context of community. I think it matters to have the parable in mind because it calls us to remember that the point is to work towards belonging, not to see how quickly we can push someone away.
We talked about forgiveness several weeks back when we were looking at the Lord’s Prayer, and since I know all of you remember everything in my sermons (that’s a joke), I won’t repeat all of that. This morning let’s look at the process Jesus described, and what that has to do with how we learn to live out our love for one another.
Jesus said, if someone hurts you, try first to work it out between you. If that works, you have deepened your relationship with your honesty. If it doesn’t, take a couple of others with you and try again. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, tell the congregation—bring it before everyone. If that doesn’t work, circle back and try again.
Then he said, “And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.”
That last sentence has stayed with me all week.
As far back as I can remember, I have always heard that verse used as a way to talk about the significance of community, particularly when not as many folks show up for something as had been hoped. “Well, where two or three are gathered . . .”
But Jesus said it as a part of talking about how we deal with conflict. What he described is hard to do. For many, talking frankly about being hurt to the one who hurt us doesn’t come easy, much less being willing to pursue reconciliation by involving others in the story. Yet Jesus said that is exactly the place where God shows up. God is in the middle of the messy stuff. The conflict is difficult, yes, and it is part of life. God doesn’t shy away from that, Jesus said, and neither should we.
Jesus knew not every issue would be resolved by going through the process he described. In fact, when Jesus finished talking, Peter asked if seven was a good number as far as how many times to forgive someone and Jesus said it was more like seventy times seven. He didn’t mean we should live like doormats, or that it was God’s will for us to live in abusive or dehumanizing situations. The power of community in those situations is to help those who are being abused know they are not alone and they are not trapped, even as we remember that forgiveness and trust are not the same thing.
Forgiving someone four hundred and ninety times is a way of saying, “This is what life is. When you trust one another and speak the truth in love, I’m right there in the middle of it.”
On its own, four hundred and ninety sounds like a big number. When I think about thirty-three years of marriage, I am quite sure Ginger has blown past that number in forgiving me, much like the depth and length of many of the relationships in this room. The way to live together is to trust that God is as real in the messy stuff as in the good times.
Jesus wasn’t talking about keeping score. Peter was the one looking for limits; Jesus was talking about what it takes to live together, how we develop a lifestyle of grace and compassion. Life is a bit like a roundabout where we keep circling the same road, with the same travelers. The tone with which we say, “It’s you again” makes all the difference in the world. We can say it with the resignation of George Costanza’s dad in the “Festivus” episode of Seinfeld who invited everyone to the Airing of Grievances and said, “Now I am going to go around the room and tell each of you how you have personally disappointed me,” or we can say it with the exuberance of Loretta, our Schnauzer mix, who stands on her back legs and dances every time we come in the house.
Relationships are the fabric of life. We are all we’ve got. If we are not willing to do the good and difficult work of being honest with and trusting of one another, we cannot grow in love for one another. I don’t mean we begin our conversations at coffee hour with, “And another thing . . .” I mean we live together like the thing that matters most is to live together.
And so together we move to the Table where we embody our life together as we pass the bread and the cup and re-member ourselves—put ourselves back together—in Jesus’ name. Amen.