Sunday, September 10, 2023
Our family likes to go tent camping at least once a year, and we had the opportunity to do so just down the way at Hecksher State Park a few days before school started last week. Being Labor Day weekend, the campground started filling up on Friday night. Have you ever tried to set up a tent in the dark? It is not so easy, right?! As the sun was setting and we were enjoying our campfire, I was looking at a family across the way who were obviously struggling to set up their tent. It was like as it got darker, their voices got louder and more frustrated! I don’t think they went camping very often from how it looked, and it also didn’t look like their tent was the easiest to set up in the first place, much less doing it in the dark. Oh I’ve been there, before; saying things I shouldn’t to my loved ones and getting bent out of shape because you just want to be done but you can’t eat or sleep or roast marshmallows until you’ve set up that darn tent! Living together isn’t easy all of the time as families; and camping outside takes it to a whole ‘nother level.
For the next few weeks, we will be looking at Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness in the gospel of Matthew. As a pastor, forgiveness is probably the topic I get asked about more than any other topic. “How can I forgive so and so after what they’ve done to me?” “I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself.” “Would Jesus really want me to forgive in this situation?” “Can you really forgive and not forget?” “Why is forgiving so hard to do?” These are just some of the questions that I hear often when it comes to talking about forgiveness. We have all been there – saying something we wish we could take back, holding a grudge, struggling to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. Maybe we’ve even said something like, “I will NEVER forgive you!” We might think of relationships that are less than healthy in our lives because of the hurt we have caused each other. Jesus knows: all of us need forgiveness, and all of us struggle to forgive.
When Jesus starts out his teaching on forgiveness, he focuses on the community, not the individual. And, he focuses not the difficulty of forgiving first, but on confronting the person who’s hurt you instead of holding onto hurt. Keep in mind, he and his disciples have been camping out together, traveling in close quarters for perhaps two or three years at this point in Matthew’s gospel. They may have even tried to set up a tent in the dark together. Jesus’ disciples are made up of people on complete opposite ends of the political spectrum, from Simon the Zealot, a member of a Jewish religious order who trained to violently overthrow the Roman government, to Matthew the tax collector who worked closely with Roman officials. There are twelve of them – away from their families, which means twelve different opinions, twelve different living habits, and so on! There were BOUND to be conflicts. The disciples would have learned well the old adage, “we hurt the ones we love the most” in their relationships with each other.
With that background understanding, then, Jesus gives his disciples (including us!) some practical advice on working through conflict and practicing forgiveness. Think for a minute on how you deal with conflict. If we are honest, most of us don’t handle conflict well all of the time. We may take the “say nothing” conflict avoidance approach, bending over backwards to let the other person’s way of doing things dominate and holding our issues in until we explode in anger or completely leave the relationship. We may go the opposite extreme and start out on the defensive attack, pushing the other person away from working on an issue together because we’ve only laid blame and not accepted any responsibility for how we’ve contributed to the conflict. Conflict resolution is not easy! But it happens – it’s a reality of life and living in relationships. Our relationships with each other can become stronger when we work through conflict. It’s better to work things out than to let a relationship slide so far into disrepair that the relationship is totally damaged. Jesus is concerned about the harmony, the FELLOWSHIP, of the Christian church. If 12 of his followers can’t get along, how can they possibly help model and teach about Christ’s reconciliation and forgiveness with others?
On my pastoral internship at Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Louis, there was a wise retired pastor there, Karl Boehmke, who wrote a book called, Forgiveness: Never Easy/Always Possible. He retells stories of the Bible and connects them to life today in ways that make sense. I want to share with you an excerpt from his book on Matthew 18, told from the perspective of Matthew the disciple: (pp.160-162). The point, Pastor Boehmke goes on to say, is about Christ giving us the courage to take the first step toward reconciliation and communicate with one another. The relationship is more important! Our unity in Christ is more important!
I have found Jesus’ model of talking about issues directly to be as useful and powerful a tool today working in the church as I’m sure it was with Jesus and his disciples. His model is not just for the church, but can work in families, in other organizations and businesses alike. Like forgiveness, addressing conflict is usually painful and necessary, but also worth it. In working through conflict, Jesus assures us he is there among us, where two or three are gathered. He helps us get back to the business of being the church; this unique community organization where anyone – rich, poor, old, young, different languages and races all come together to do God’s work with our hands, as we sang in our opening hymn today. Forgiveness is never easy, but always possible! Amen.
Forgiveness: Never Easy/Always Possible. A. Karl Boehmke. Minneapolis: Two Harbors Press, (2010).