Should I not be concerned?

Today’s reading comes from Jonah 4:1-11.

Today we see the prophet Jonah in all his ironic, satirical glory. Much like Samson the judge, Jonah is almost a parody of a prophet. He hears the divine voice, but runs from it. When his preaching career turns out to be a success, he whines and mopes about it.

In today’s passage, Jonah loses his cool with God over a bush that had served as his shade from the sun for a day. He throws a dramatic tantrum comparable to that of a three-year-old who wants another piece of candy before bed.

Jonah feels utterly abandoned and unloved. One can imagine God standing by until the “prophet” runs out of breath and the screaming finally dies down.

God: “You done yet?”

Jonah: “Yup.”

God: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

The reality of the situation is precisely the opposite of what Jonah fears. It’s not that God doesn’t love or doesn’t care; it’s that God loves and cares even more than Jonah can possibly imagine. Divine compassion extends far beyond the bounds that Jonah’s prejudice will allow… even to the heathen, the pagans, and the sworn enemies of God’s chosen people.

Today is also the day that we remember St. Cornelius, who  served as Pope during one of the persecutions of the third century. He had a rival contender for that position: the Anti-Pope Novatian, who despised Cornelius’ liberal attitude toward those who had recanted their faith during the persecution.

Novatian, concerned primarily with the purity of the church, said there was no hope for those who abandoned Christ under duress; they were to be cast out forever.

Cornelius, on the other hand, left room for those who recanted to return to the fold, provided that due penance was completed. The door of divine grace is never closed to those who knock with an open heart.

I find it comforting that the historic church has acknowledged Cornelius over Novatian as the one who best represents the gospel. The church is willing to err on the side of grace and mystery, trusting that the river of God’s love runs deeper and wider than our own.

Let us not close our hearts to our fellow human beings like Jonah and Novatian. Whether it is in the name of politics or religion, our task is to “seek and serve Christ in all people” as it says in the baptismal vows of the Book of Common Prayer. This vow challenges us to not fall into the neat categories of politico-religious orthodoxy, purity, and exclusion. Our God is far to messy for that. God refuses to fit in our neatly organized boxes.

Like St. Cornelius, let us err on the side of grace and open our hearts, minds, and doors to our neighbors (especially those who we have reason to hate). Let us hear God challenge us again with the question he poses to Jonah:

“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh?”

Exaltation of the Holy Cross

From a prayer to the Holy Cross by St. Anselm of Canterbury:

We do not acknowledge you because of the cruelty that godless and foolish ones prepared you to effect upon the most gentle Lord, but because of the wisdom and goodness of him who of his own free will took you up. For they could not have done anything unless his wisdom had permitted it, and he could not suffer except that in his mercy he willed it.

They chose you that they might carry out their evil deeds; he chose you that he might fulfill the work of his goodness. They that by you they might hand over the righteous to death; he that through you he might save sinners from death. They that they might kill life; he that he might destroy death. They that they might condemn the Savior; he that he might save the condemned. They that they might bring death to the living; he that he might bring life to the dead.

Forgiveness: The Beginning of a New World

“An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.” –Mohandas K. Gandhi

This is one of those one-line quips that has stuck with me over the years. I think Jesus would high five Gandhi after hearing this. He might even say, “I wish I’d thought of that!”

In fact, he did say something quite like it in his Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also

I admit that I roll my eyes sometimes when I hear people getting excited about prisoners being executed for their crimes. Quite often, they are quick to cite Exodus 21:24, the original biblical source for the phrase “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

It almost seems to me like they haven’t read Jesus’ own teaching on that very subject in Matthew 5:38, where he quite specifically and deliberately overturns what was previously written in the Bible.

This is one of those moments when we (if we’re going to call ourselves Christians) cannot simply worship Christ as our Savior unless we also follow him as our Lord.

As God’s people, we are called to be “holy”, which is to say: “different from the rest of the world.” And how does the rest of the world operate? Is there very much “turning of the cheek” going on when it comes to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? How about Bloods and Crips? Republicans and Democrats? Ku Klux Klan and Black Panthers? Not so much.

I think our brother Gandhi spoke the truth when he said, “An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.”

We sinners have a pretty warped sense of justice when we limit its definition to punishment and revenge. Each side says, “Well, they started it!” meaning that “we” are always justified in our acts of violence against “them” because we are simply righting a wrong through vengeance: “An eye for an eye.”

So we set up these infinitely repeating cycles of violence where it’s “Us vs. Them” forever. Bloods vs. Crips, Israelis vs. Palestinians, Hatfields vs. McCoys. Where does it end? It doesn’t.

Whether it’s a feud between neighbors or nations, we’re just going to sit around, poking each other’s eyes out for eternity unless we can tap into some deeper vein of wisdom and come up with a better definition of justice.

I think you won’t be surprised to hear (from a preacher in church on Sunday morning) that our Lord Jesus offers us exactly what we need in terms of this deeper wisdom, this better definition of justice. I believe that he offers us the good news: “the truth that will set us free” from the endless cycles of violence and vengeance.

Jesus’ teaching this morning comes to us once again from Matthew’s gospel. It comes right on the heels of the passage we read last week, the one about “winning each other” and resolving conflict in a way that is consistent with what we believe as Christians.

Today’s passage is all about forgiveness. More specifically, it’s a cautionary tale about what is at stake when we don’t forgive and choose to continue those cycles of violence for another generation.

It begins with a question to Jesus from Peter:

“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Peter “tips his hand” and accidentally “shows us his cards” with this question. He reveals that he accepts the notion of forgiveness as a temporary measure for those minor offenders who “aren’t really all that bad” but his core assumption remains the same: that revenge is only way to achieve real justice.

Peter thinks mercy is weak, but he’s wrong.

It’s a common misconception: people mistake kindness for weakness. They equate violence with power, but they’re wrong.

In his usual style, Jesus answers Peter’s question and makes his point by telling a story.

Jesus tells Peter about a hypothetical employee who owed his boss an impossible amount of money: “Ten thousand talents,” to be exact. Now, I read in a commentary this week that a “talent” was a unit of measurement worth about six thousand denarii. So let’s do a little math:

A denarius is a day’s wage for a working person. Let’s be generous and go with the minimum wage that many people are currently fighting for in Michigan: $10 an hour.

$10 an hour times an 8 hour workday is $80. That’s a denarius in today’s terms.

A talent is six thousand denarii, which equals $480,000.

And remember that this employee owed his boss ten thousand talents, which equals a grand total of $4.8 billion, in today’s terms. That’s how much this person owed. This is no small debt.

When the boss simply forgives this loan, we’re talking federal bailout money.

On the other hand, this employee, who was forgiven so much, has a coworker who owes 100 denarii. Using the system we’ve just laid out, that would be about $8,000.

It’s a lot of money for a working person, certainly more than one could ever hope to pay, but it’s almost nothing compared to $4.8 billion.

But this first employee, still flying high from being bailed out by the government, serves an order of collection against the coworker who owed so little. The car is repossessed, the house is foreclosed on. This family is left destitute and the system calls it “justice.”

But Jesus sees this sham for what it is. He speaks through the boss in the parable, asking: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

Kindness is not weakness. Forgiveness is not free. It is given freely, but it asks everything of us.

When God forgives us our sins, it comes with the one and only price tag that we too must forgive those who sin against us. The only way to keep God’s forgiveness is to pass it on.

We Christians are called to make forgiveness the foundational principle of a new society, a new economy, and a new justice system.

When relationships are broken by sin, the only way to repair the damage is to let the cycle of violence stop with us. We have to refuse the rite of revenge and refrain from throwing the next stone of accusation at our neighbor. If a new world is going to be possible, then someone has to give up their right to having the last word.

According to the Christian gospel, that is exactly what God has done for us in Christ.

When our relationship with God was broken by our sin, did God simply stay up in heaven and reign down fire and brimstone on the world? No.

According to John’s gospel, God “took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood (see Peterson, The Message).” God dwelled among us in the person of Jesus Christ.

In Jesus, God experienced firsthand all the pain and torture that life has to offer. When the preachers and seminary professors saw the light of Jesus’ divinity, they called it demonic. Jesus’ own mother thought he was crazy. His followers abandoned him, his friends denied him, his apostles betrayed him. Ultimately, when the powers-that-be of this world could not stand to look at Jesus any longer, they brought down the full weight of their twisted “justice” system upon his head, back, hands, feet, and side. In the person of Christ and the body of Jesus, God absorbed the full force of humanity’s sin and refused to have the last word, except to say this:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus knew (and embodied this truth in his life and death) that in order to initiate a new world, which he called the kingdom of heaven on earth, he would have to absorb all the sinful violence and hatred without returning it in kind. To the rest of the world, this would look like failure, weakness, and death.

St. Paul, in his most famous commentary on these events (found in his letter to the Philippians), says that Christ Jesus,

though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

But death on a cross was not the end of the story.

We read in the gospels that, on the morning of the third day after these events took place, a few women made their way to pay their respects at Jesus’ tomb. But when they got there, they found something they didn’t expect to see:

The stone had been rolled away from the entrance, the soldiers had passed out from fright, and an angel stood in the doorway, picking his teeth and asked them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here.”

Why not?

“He is risen.”

Today is the day that everything changes. Death itself has begun to work backwards. The dead come alive. The blind see. The deaf hear. The mute sing. The lame dance. The weak are strong. The foolish are wise. The first are now last and last are now first. The whole world is being turned upside down… or is it right side up?

In these events, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the foundation for a new society has been laid. Herein we find a new definition of justice that goes deeper than “an eye for an eye.”

Mercy, and not revenge, has the power to restore relationships broken by sin.

This failed revolutionary, who died in failure and disgrace with forgiveness on his lips, is now hailed as the most influential person in human history. His ridiculous gospel, which looked so weak to the rest of the world, outlived the Roman Empire that tried to suppress it with all its military might. That same gospel has now reached the shores of every continent on this planet and continues to spread as people like you and I choose to forgive the small debts that are owed to us because God in Christ has forgiven the huge debt that we owed to him.

Jesus says to us and to Peter, “Don’t judge by what your eyes see: forgiveness is not weakness. Mercy has the power to save the world from self-destruction by halting cycles of violence in their tracks.”

Mercy has the power to create a new world.

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.

Faithful Wounds and Tough Love

Today’s first reading at the Office of Vigils was from Jonah 1:11-17.

Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.

I love the story of these sailors at the beginning of the book of Jonah. So gentle and humane are their spirits that they would even defy the pronouncement of divine judgment for the sake of their fellow human being. It reminds me of my own approach to life and ministry: Let theology be flexible; only let me care well for those entrusted to me.

Generally speaking, I think we need more people like these sailors in today’s world, where relationships are often sacrificed on the altars of ideology: opponents are demonized, gay and lesbian children are kicked out of homes by their parents, and friendships are ended (or never begun) because two people see the world differently. Where are kind souls who would risk their own lives (or their theologies) for others’ sake?

Nevertheless, there comes a moment in the development of relationships where it becomes impossible to go on, to grow as human beings in relationship, unless we risk confrontation and have the courage to tell one another the bad news.

This takes an incredible amount of trust between all parties if it is to work well.

St. Benedict writes in chapter 69 of his Rule:

Care must be taken that no monk presume on any ground
to defend another monk in the monastery

This sentence is written for those people who have made a lifelong commitment to one another in the intentional community of a monastery. Such commitment is not made lightly and only comes after an extended period of formation in the novitiate. People who have reached the point of professing permanent vows have presumably built enough trust with one another (and their superiors) to engage in the difficult work of truth-telling. We should be able to say the same about marriage, parenthood, and a handful of other relationships in life.

Rescuing (Benedict calls it “defending”) one another, so that our loved ones never have to experience any pain or hardship can sometimes short-circuit God’s work in their lives. There are trials we must endure if we are to grow as human beings and we must be able to trust God and a few others to help us work through them, rather than avoid them.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” goes the old saying in Proverbs 27:6 (KJV). Speaking the truth in love is an icky-tasting medicine. It should be used like a surgeon’s scalpel: as rarely as possible and only with great care by one who has earned the right to be heard.

The sailors on Jonah’s ship reached the point where they could not go on any longer. Like the addict who has “bottomed out”, they had to make a choice between drastic action or death. After a final prayer, they did what had to be done: they tossed Jonah overboard.

As it turns out, this hard act of trust had salvific implications, not only for their physical lives, but their spiritual lives as well. They came away from this encounter with a deepened reverence for Yahweh. Likewise, the sailors’ willingness to do the hard thing opened up the possibility for Jonah to fulfill his own destiny. The doom he feared did not come upon him: Jonah was rescued (albeit in the most disgusting way possible) and he went on to be the vessel of Ninevah’s deliverance from destruction. An entire city was saved because of the sailors’ willingness to let go and cast Jonah overboard.

Do we have that kind of faith in God and each other? Are we willing to do the hard thing and “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) when necessary?

Many who participate in Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12 Step groups have learned that kind of trust through their sponsors and the power of the group. Tough love makes recovery possible.

I learned it from a trusted mentor when I was in college. He loved me enough to back me up against a wall and tell me some hard truths when I needed to hear them. He did not employ this technique often or lightly. He did not do it just to “be right” or for the sake of his own ego. He earned the right to be heard by me. Faithful were the wounds of this friend.

A New Altar

Today’s reading is taken from 1 Maccabees 4:36-51.

It’s found in the part of the Bible that Protestants refer to as the Apocrypha. Christians in the Reformed tradition generally do not consider these books to be inspired or authoritative for establishing doctrine. Nevertheless, reading the Apocrypha can be helpful “for examples of life and instruction in behaviour, but the church does not use them to establish any doctrine” (from the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion).

Today’s reading is taken from the part of the story upon which the Jewish feast of Hanukkah is based. Judas Maccabee and his brothers defeated the enemy army against all odds and then went about the arduous work of cleansing and rededicating the temple.

The most difficult question concerned the altar of burnt offerings, upon which an enemy general had sacrificed a pig to a foreign deity. The priests determined that this violation of their sacred space was severe enough to warrant significant changes before they could move on in the process of healing.

And they thought it best to tear [the altar] down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it.

There are times in life when one must make a break with the past in order to move forward in faith. Sometimes, this even involves breaking away from the religion of the past.

I have known many good people who have made such a shift:

  • Catholics who become Protestant and Protestants who become Catholic;
  • Evangelicals who become Liberal and Liberals who become Evangelical;
  • Activists who become contemplatives and contemplatives who become activists;
  • Traditional liturgists who come to appreciate the freedom of contemporary worship and contemporary worshipers who fall in love with traditional liturgy.

Sometimes in life, we need to make a new beginning, to “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13). We must tear down an old altar and build a new one. There are many reasons why someone might feel the need to make such a shift: perhaps they experienced abuse or trauma in their old church, perhaps their legitimate questions or doubts were silenced by insecure leaders, perhaps their church’s staid formalism left no room for them to develop a personal relationship with God, or perhaps their church failed to provide them with adequate guidance for navigating the difficult waters of life.

Whatever one’s reasons for tearing down an old altar and building a new one, two features stand out from this story and strike me as significant. I will address them in reverse order:

First, “[the priests] took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one.”

The new altar is not constructed casually. The priests drew from the deepest roots of their religious tradition in the construction of this new altar. The break with the past was not a clean break. They keep that which is truest and best from the past and use it to make something that is simultaneously old and new. G.K. Chesterton described his own spiritual journey as the dual experience of setting out on a journey of exploration and arriving home at the same time.

Such was the case with me when I went through my own process of building “a new altar”. When I left the Evangelical faith of my upbringing, I wondered for a while if I even believed in God or if I could still call myself a Christian. During this time, I thought about continuing my career in the Unitarian Universalist Association, where I could avoid answering such questions.

I came to love and appreciate my UU brothers and sisters during that season. My soul was sustained by songs from their hymnal (which I could still sing with gusto in my state of doubt) and sermons from the epic All Souls Unitarian Church of Tulsa, OK. To this day, theirs are some of the best sermons I have ever heard.

But in the end, I decided to remain within my mainline Christian denomination. Two books in particular reminded me that I do indeed believe in God and I am indeed a Christian. The first was The Case for God by Karen Armstrong. The second was The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. They presented me with a new way of faith that brings me into a face-to-face encounter with the Great Mystery that has the power to transform my life from the inside out. The way forward, for me, actually involved reaching back farther into the roots of my tradition. I am a Christian, my heart belongs to Jesus, and there is nothing else I can be, even though my Christianity today looks very little like it did ten years ago.

My new altar is built of the same kind of “unhewn stones” as the old one. I take my direction from Scripture and church tradition, so there is continuity as well as innovation in my faith.

The second significant feature of the Maccabees’ new altar is that the priests, after they had torn down the old altar, “stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them.”

The old stones are not thrown away. They may not be useful for their former purpose, but they are not garbage.

There are many elements of my Evangelical heritage that I continue to hold in reverence and appreciation. In particular, I most highly value the Evangelical love affair with Scripture, their emphasis on developing a personal relationship with God, and their passion to share their faith with the world. These are elements that Catholics and Liberals could learn from and be enriched by, if only we could stop ourselves from throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Likewise, there are elements of Catholic and Liberal traditions that could bring depth and breadth to those who walk the Evangelical path.

When we build our new altars, let us store the old stones “on the temple hill” (i.e. on sacred ground), so that we might keep the good parts of the spiritual traditions that were handed down to us. Even if we don’t yet know what to do with those stones, we should keep them in sight while we worship at the new altar, trusting that there may yet come a day when some deeper prophetic wisdom might enlighten us as to how we might better integrate the old with the new in some new combination of reverence that transcends anything we could possibly build for ourselves right now.

Living Humanly in the Midst of Death: Obadiah and St. Peter Claver

 

Public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia commons.

This morning’s first reading at Vigils was from the Jewish prophet Obadiah 1:10-16.

In this passage, the prophet gives a stark warning to the nation of Edom, related to Israel through the brothers Jacob and Esau. According to the Talmud, Obadiah himself was an Edomite who converted to Judaism. He was also said to be a descendant of Eliphaz, the friend of Job. I find it fascinating that Obadiah is identified with a friend of one who suffered and then chastises his own people for refusing to do the same.

Obadiah’s beef with Edom is that they refused to get involved when the Babylonian Empire invaded and conquered the Kingdom of Judah, enslaving its people. He writes:

On the day that you stood aside, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you too were like one of them.

The result of this inaction, according to the prophet, is that cycles of violence will continue to be perpetuated. Those of us who excuse ourselves by saying “it’s not my problem” are not immune from the effects of violence. Obadiah says:

As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.

The end result is that we will annihilate one another, not by conscious actions, but through our mutual indifference and passive participation:

For as you have drunk on my holy mountain, all the nations around you shall drink; they shall drink and gulp down, and shall be as though they had never been.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of privilege is the self-deception that keeps us from accepting the reality that “we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality” (MLK). This is the demonic lie by which we absolve ourselves of responsibility when another woman fleeing domestic violence cannot obtain shelter because “she hasn’t been abused enough”, another black teenager is gunned down, and another lesbian couple’s home is broken into and the words “Move or Die” are scrawled on the wall. All of these have happened in my city (Kalamazoo, MI) this year.

In stark contrast to the indifference of Edom, there is the caring action of St. Peter Claver (1581-1654), who we remember today. Claver was a Jesuit priest and missionary to Colombia who focused his ministry on the slaves who were being brought across the Atlantic from Africa.

He brought food, medical care, and education to his fellow human beings in the ships’ holds. He refused to disembark until each person inside had received some measure of care. He likewise declined to accept the hospitality of slave owners. By the end of his life, he had baptized over 300,000 slaves, saying, “We must speak to them with our hands before we speak to them with our lips.”

Claver lived in a time when it was not possible for one person to turn the tide of the slave trade. Yet, he found a way to “live humanly in the midst of death” (Wm. Stringfellow). He refused to accept or participate in the injustice of his time.

People of faith and conscience, like St. Peter Claver, cannot afford remain silent or neutral in the face in injustice. We must not “stand aside” like Edom.

Perhaps we feel overwhelmed or hopeless when we think of our unfair social system that resists change. Perhaps the problem seems too big or too far away to do anything of significance. Perhaps we cannot do everything, but let us do something.

May God show each of us some way (however small) to “live humanly in the midst of death”, that we might find ourselves on the right side of history and our lives bear fruit for eternity.

 

Winning One Another: Jesus’ Guide to Conflict Resolution

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus has a lot to say about the way we fight.

He starts with the phrase “If another member of the church sins against you” but I think it also would have been fair if Jesus had said, “When another member of the church sins against you” because anyone who has been part of a particular church community longer than a few months can verify that the following statement is true: conflict is inevitable.

We are going to disagree; we are going to fight. It’s not a question of if but when. Why? Because the Church is made up of selfish, immature sinners: loved sinners, redeemed sinners, sinners called by Christ & empowered by the Spirit to become saints, but sinners nonetheless. And what is true of the parts, in this case, is also true of the whole. The “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” of Jesus Christ is prone to the same kind of divisive, petty, and selfish conflict that disturbs the rest of the human race. We can’t get away from it.

With that fact in mind, Jesus concerns himself with in this passage is not whether we fight but rather how we fight. When we fight, we are called to fight in a way that demonstrates who Christ is and what Christ means to us as Christians.

Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Do we dare think that this commandment only applies to those moments when we are all getting along and everyone likes each other as much as they love one another? On the contrary, I think Jesus’ commandment that we love one another as he loves us matters even more when we are fighting and we don’t like each other. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

Moments of conflict are the moments when loving your neighbor matters most, because these are the moments when we, as Christians, have the biggest opportunity to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not only with our lips, but in our lives. As the Church of Christ, we cannot afford to let these opportunities pass us by.

So then, how shall we fight, as Christians?

The first thing Jesus says about fighting as a Christian has to do with our goal in fighting. Why do we fight? What is the purpose? Do we fight in order to win? That certainly seems to be the world’s goal in the way it fights.

Is the fight over when the enemy lies defeated, when we’ve crushed our opponent, and we’ve proved our arguments to be right beyond any shadow of a doubt? Is that why we fight? Jesus would say no.

If winning was just about winning the fight, then the gospel, the central Christian message, would probably sound something like this:

God made the earth and called it good, but humankind came along and sinned, breaking God’s just laws;

God tried to correct us, giving us the law and the prophets to guide us back toward doing right, but when we still refused to listen and went on sinning, God sent his only begotten Son Jesus Christ, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, to make us suffer and die as punishment for our sins; thus, the righteous wrath of God was satisfied and moral order was restored to the universe;

then Jesus sat down at the right hand of his Father in heaven while the angels of God rejoiced and sang God’s praises over the smoldering ashes of the earth, which was now cleansed by fire from the filth of sinful humanity.

Doesn’t sound like much of a gospel, does it? The word “gospel” means “good news” but that message is neither good nor news. In fact, it’s the same old destructive story that people and nations have been playing out between themselves for millennia. The gospel, the good news of Jesus, is something entirely different.

The Nicene Creed says that it was “for us and for our salvation” (not for our punishment) that Jesus came down from heaven. “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” The creed also says that Jesus “suffered death” instead of dealing it out.

The Bible tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” and “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and while we were yet sinners, sent his only Son to die for us.” This is the Christian gospel: the good news that saves us.

If all that mattered was winning the fight and being right, then God never would have gone through the trouble of saving the world. God could have won the argument any time and silenced us forever with the fire of divine wrath, but that wasn’t enough for God.

It wasn’t enough for God to simply win the fight; God wanted to win us. God wants us to live in an intimate relationship with him and with our neighbors. When we sin against God and one another, those relationships are broken and fights happen. God’s goal is not to win the fight, but to heal those broken relationships. That’s the deepest longing of God’s heart and God will not rest until it is accomplished. As St. Augustine of Hippo said, way back in the 5th century: “God will not allow us to go to hell in peace.”

If restoring relationship is God’s ultimate goal in working through conflict, then it should be ours as well.

There is a particular turn of phrase that Jesus uses at the beginning of our gospel reading this morning: “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Some other translations (NASB) say, “if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “you have won the argument”; he says, “you have won your brother (or sister).” In other words: it’s not about winning the fight; it’s about winning each other.

Jesus takes these relationships so seriously, he calls upon us to enlist all of our personal and collective resources in the task of restoring them when they are broken. Christ calls us to apply the healing power of ever-widening circles fellowship where people speak the truth in love.

And if those gentle efforts appear to be finally fruitless before a hard hearted person who will not listen, Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Many people have interpreted these words of Jesus to mean excommunication from the church. After all, Gentiles and tax collectors were outsiders to the religious community of Jesus’ day, right?

Well… not exactly.

Here’s the thing: Jesus kind of had a reputation when it came to Gentiles and tax collectors. There was the Roman centurion, who Jesus said had greater faith than any of his Israelite compatriots. He healed the man’s sick servant. He did the same thing for a Canaanite woman whose daughter was afflicted by demons. I guess that’s what it means for Jesus to treat someone “like a Gentile.”

Then there were Matthew Levi and Zaccheaus: both tax collectors with whom Jesus broke bread. Jesus made a pretty regular habit of eating with notorious tax collectors, sinners, and other religious outsiders – a gesture that said, “There is a place for you at my table; I accept you as you are; you are family to me.” That’s what being a “tax collector” means to Jesus.

When it comes to dealing with conflict in the church, Jesus’ bottom line is this: If what you’re doing isn’t working, LOVE MORE. When you have a problem with somebody, go talk to them yourself. If that doesn’t work, expand the circle of care to include a select few others. If that doesn’t work, enlist the loving attention of the entire church. And if all else fails, open the floodgates of heaven and unleash the full torrent of grace: the grace that compelled the father of the prodigal son to run out and meet him “while he was still a long way off”; the grace that blinded Paul on the road to Damascus as he hunted and killed Christians, transforming him into a preacher of the faith he once persecuted; the grace that inspired Zacchaeus the tax collector to sell all his possessions and repay fourfold what he had gained by theft and extortion.

In the eyes of the world, grace seems weak and pointless. People cannot fathom the idea of strength without force. Most people haven’t contemplated the patient power of water, which slowly wears jagged rocks down into smooth pebbles after millions of years of and gently and faithfully flowing across the surface of stone. The river of grace wins in the end, eroding even the hardest hearts.

Jesus is able to accomplish this miracle in people because he faithfully keeps his river of grace flowing in the same direction: toward the restoration of broken relationships. Jesus is interested in winning hearts, not fights and we, as his disciples, need to be about that same business.

If, for whatever reason, we cannot find that same grace in ourselves, then perhaps we need to repent: to seek God’s forgiveness, so that the river of grace might smooth over the jagged edges of our hard hearts and flow through us to our contentious neighbors who need to feel love’s gentle power just as much as we do.