Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral

Article | September 11, 2023

Sermon: Like a Family Fighting

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

Watch the sermon on YouTube.

“For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near” (Rom. 13).

Matthew uses the Greek word for church (“ekklesia”) in only two places. One of them occurs in our gospel reading today. He concludes this passage about Christian community with one of my favorite lines in the Bible. Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18).

To most people in our culture this is not intuitively obvious. Outside the church, people describe faith as a private matter. It is something that happens to you by yourself on a mountaintop in the Sierras or alone on a tropical beach or woodland lake. Jesus tells the disciples that life in Christ happens in community even if it is only a community of two.

Perhaps this is his way of saying we need each other, not just practically, but spiritually also. He knows that we’ll be smarter and stronger together than apart, that only together will we have a chance to accomplish something great. He reminds us that we need each other the way brothers and sisters do. We, as Jesus’ disciples, belong to one family.[1]

Last month our adult children moved back home. It’s been so wonderful to have them with us. It reminds me that families work well they become God’s way of teaching us important lessons, like how to share and cooperate. We learn how to take care of someone else who may need something very different than we do. Family life smooths out the rough edges of our character. We learn that we can’t always have everything our own way. We give up what we want so someone else can have what they want.

Living with others teaches us to negotiate and compromise, to figure out together what’s best for the group. While this is not always pleasant, I believe it is a way that we become more fully human. It can take a long time to learn what your family has to teach you. Fortunately families don’t just teach us how to fight but how to forgive each other too.[2]

But not everyone grew up in families that worked well, because some don’t. These families do not teach forgiveness and cooperation. Often in them rules are more important than people and the first rule is silence about anything that might make waves. They say, “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.” Some families use this rule to enforce a kind of fake harmony. They use it to mean that if you have a problem with someone, you keep it to yourself, because the illusion of getting along is more important than anything else. This illusion is more important than the truth, more important than your feelings and even more important than you.

It is sad, but many families teach this lesson. Jesus’ point this morning is that the Christian family does not work like this. Jesus says that if your brother sins against you, you have to go back and talk to him. If this doesn’t work, you must keep going to him with others and do everything that you can to be his brother again.

Two things stand out about this advice. First, Jesus puts the burden of reconciliation on the victim, the person who was sinned against. This is not advice that holds in extreme situations, such as ones involving abuse. But for more ordinary interactions with each other Jesus wants us to cultivate an openness to the other person.

Second, he seems less interested in who was right than in getting the family back together again. What seems to matter most to him is that as members of his family we listen to each other. If a family member refuses to listen we do everything we can to keep the doors of communication open. Jesus insists that we do not simply pretend that nothing has happened. He wants us to recognize when someone has left our family, because the only thing worse than losing a sister or brother, is losing that person and yet still having them around.

We all can see the wisdom of this advice. In theory we know we should do this, but in practice we think of a thousand excuses not to. So let’s imagine what it would be like to really follow Jesus this way. So much of my sermon today comes from the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. I could use material from our life together as an example but I don’t want to embarrass anyone so I have modified Taylor’s story to suit our situation.

Imagine sitting in church every week and getting to know the person next to you. Let’s say his name is Duke and the two of you also share an interest in surfing. One September morning Duke asks to borrow your surfboard. You won’t be using it and it feels good to lend a Christian brother something that gives you both so much joy. The next week the waves are up and you want it back. Duke doesn’t return your calls. Finally you get through to him and he tells you that he lent the surfboard to someone else. That person damaged the board. It’s not just a little ding. He tells you that it was bad luck but your board broke in half.[3]

This doesn’t seem fair to you so you go over and talk to him. You say that because you are friends you’d be willing to pay half the cost of a new board. Duke gets angry and tells you that it wasn’t his fault, that the other guy broke the board and that you should be a better sport about it.

So you go back home and choose two fellow congregants at random and go back. This time Duke is really mad. He accuses you of ganging up on him and embarrassing him in front of others. He yells at you to get off his property before he calls the police.

Imagine sending out an email to everyone at the Cathedral asking them to meet in front of Duke’s house on Saturday afternoon. Since you know he won’t open the door you make signs that say, “Forget the surfboard, Duke” or “Let’s talk.” On Saturday everyone is there and the house is locked up tightly. You see the drapes pull back just a little to one side. You know Duke is watching so you smile and wave for him to come out. Ten minutes later Duke sheepishly comes out of the house and hands you a check for the broken board.

I know what you’re thinking. “I sure am sick of stories about surfing.” Perhaps even more likely you are saying to yourself, “that wouldn’t work.” But my point is how do you know? Have you ever tried something like this? Usually when I feel wronged by someone my strategy differs substantially from what Jesus suggests. The first thing I want to do is to pretend like nothing happened. Forget that old surfboard. Just let it go; don’t be upset. The awkwardness that I feel around Duke is better than a fight. I try to ignore it even though I can’t.

The second strategy is the cold shoulder. You don’t tell the person what is bothering you because that would be impolite, but you show it by treating them as if they weren’t there. It doesn’t occur to you to ask them what happened between the two of you because you assume that you already know.

The third strategy is revenge. Most of us wouldn’t quite call it that because we’re Christians, but it amounts to pretty much the same thing. We have such bad feelings in our heart that we do our best to turn other people against the one who hurt us. We tell jokes at their expense hoping that it will make us feel better.

In C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce he describes hell as a vast abandoned city, a kind of sprawl. The people have intractable conflicts with each other and simply move further away from the center so that they can be on their own. Lewis says that hell keeps growing larger and larger because everyone consistently chooses distance over confrontation.[4]

Jesus instructs us to do the opposite of this, to choose closeness even though it means confrontation. We have a thousand excuses to avoid confrontation. We say, “she’s the one who did something wrong, let her come to me,” or, “it wouldn’t make any difference anyway.” And so things never change.

These excuses are fine if you want to stay alone in your suburban hell, but they are not acceptable for those of us who are called to be in a Christian community. For Christians there is something more important than being right or wrong, and that is being a family together. Our real problem is not the wrong that someone has done to us, but our own desperate desire to defend ourselves at any cost. It is how quickly we will give up on relationships in order to nurture our own wounded pride.

The good news is that we do not have to inhabit an ever-expanding hell by avoiding conflict. Jesus says we can go to people who have hurt us and tell them what is wrong or even better what we think is wrong, because the best way to end a fight is to admit that we might have been wrong. We can ask ourselves if we really know what happened, where we got our information. We can think about our own motives in confronting the other person, whether we are doing it to hurt their feelings or to make peace. We can ask what it is that we are afraid of, whether the relationship is worth it.

Perhaps this last question is the most important one. Once you’ve decided that the relationship is what you want, you’ve taken the first step to realizing that your goal is not to win an argument but to be reconciled. At that point it is time to set the lunch date, make the phone call or write the note that is the first step toward having your brother or sister back. For homework this week, whether you are online or here in person, take this step to seek reconciliation or to build a new relationship.

It is not easy to be part of a family. In many ways it would be so much simpler if we were just a bunch of people here every Sunday each having an individual experience of God in the same church building. But a private relationship with God is not what Jesus intends for us. Our life together, through thick and thin is the primary way that God chooses to be with us, not only to smooth off the rough edges of our characters, but because we need to be loved and cared for by other people. God saves us through each other. How we choose to be reconciled with each other affects how we can be reconciled with God.

This seems like a hard teaching. When someone sins against us, Jesus wants us to be the first one to reach out for reconciliation even when we’ve done nothing wrong, even when we want to fight back, or seek cover.

The theologian Karl Barth writes that, “[The one] who loves is [the one] who has been touched by the freedom of God.”[5] This freedom, this joy is what Jesus wants us to have. So we are called to confront, to persevere and heal, to forgive and seek forgiveness – to throw a party in the center of hell and fill it with such music and laughter, with such love and affection, that all of its residents come in from their distant retreats to see for themselves this joy that we share as a family.[6]

[1] This entire sermon is so heavily indebted to Barbara Brown Taylor. It follows her outline and borrows her ideas and even illustrations. I’ve tried to use my own language but at times I can’t help but borrow even the words she uses to describe this experience. The sermon is Barbara Brown Taylor, “Family Fights” in The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 83-90.

[2] Since early childhood my brother has always been such a gentle soul. Perhaps most of our fights arose out of my tendency to always tell him what to do. I thought this would help him be better than he was. This may not have been so bad when he was younger, but starting in middle school he simply didn’t want to hear it any more. It has only been as an adult that I finally (but not perfectly) learned to stop doing this.

[3] “Week after week you sit in a pew next to Joe, whom you get to know rather well, so well that one day in early September he asks if he can borrow you lawn mower…” Ibid., 86

[4] “”Was there once a much larger population?” “Not at all… The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbor. Before the week’s over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very like he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbors – and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of town and build a new house… That’s how the town keeps growing.” C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (NY: Macmillan, 1946) 18-19.

[5] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition tr. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (NY: Oxford University Press, 1975) 498.

[6] “When someone crosses us we are called to be the first to reach out, even when we are the ones who have been hurt, even when God knows we have done nothing wrong… That is what we are called to do: to confront and make up, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to heal and be healed – to throw a block party smack in the deserted center of hell and fill the place with such music and laughter, such merriment and mutual affection that all the far-flung residents come creeping in from their distant outposts to see what the fuss, the light, the joy is all about.” Barbara Brown Taylor, “Family Fights” in The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 89-90.

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