FIRST LESSON: Romans 14:1-12
SECOND LESSON Matthew 18:15-20
SERMON: “Gyroscopic Grace”
Those of you who have smart phones – have you ever noticed that when you’re looking at your pictures, no matter which way you twist or turn it, it reorients itself so that the picture is right side up. It can do that because it has a built-in electronic gyroscope. The name gyroscope comesfrom Greek, γῦρος gûros, "circle" and σκοπέω skopéō, "to look". There are mechanical gyroscopes, fibre optic gyroscopes, and the very sensitive quantum gyroscope which theoretically can detect even minute changes in the rotational rate of the earth.
So how is this relevant to worship today? In our gospel reading Jesus is directing his followers to keep our relationships right-side up. That’s not easy, because we don’t have built-in gyroscopes to make it both automatic and easy. But hang in here with me and you’ll see that God has the way to keep our relationship with him right-side up. Getting it right with other people, however, is a different story.
Many years ago, Colonel Jeff O’Leary served as part of the UN peacekeeping forces in the Sinai Peninsula region. While there, he encountered a number of Bedouin people, a nomadic people who travel this desert region. One afternoon, Colonel O’Leary had tea with a group of Bedouin men. He couldn’t help but notice that his host kept staring at a man who was tending his camels. The host pointed out the man and hissed at Colonel O’Leary, “Do you see that man? He is a camel thief.” Colonel O’Leary wanted to know why his host would hire a camel thief to tend his camels, so he began asking questions. It turned out that in his host’s eyes this man was a camel thief because he came from a family of camel thieves. But why were they a family of camel thieves?
Because one of their ancestors had once stolen some camels from this man’s family. How long ago, O’Leary asked. Eight hundred years ago, the Bedouin host replied. For eight hundred years, the hosts’ family and this man’s family had hated each other, because one man had stolen the other man’s camels. For eight hundred years, the host’s family had passed down the story of the camel thief. Forgiveness was not an option for them. In the Bedouin host’s mind, the crime was just as horrible as if it had occurred yesterday, and this man was just as much a thief as his ancestor who had actually stolen the camel.
I found that story incredibly sad, both for the generations that were branded as thieves and for the generations who held hatred and contempt in their hearts.
Jesus instructed his disciples that if someone hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.
I’ve been reading Anne Graham Lotz’ book Wounded by God’s People. One would think that if anyone should be immune from attacks in a church, it would be the daughter of Billy Graham. But she endured hurtful things in the church on several occasions. God’s people are the very ones who are supposed to show us God’s love and grace. Among other things she reminds us that often people who wound others have themselves been wounded. It may help to understand that when they strike, it’s not always about their victims. It’s frequently that they lash out because they are in pain. She also tells us that when we are wounded, we have a choice as to how we will respond. We can either become wounders ourselves, or we can use what happened to become healers.
Sadly conflict happens in the church just as much as outside of the church. Comments are made at meetings and after meetings and various gatherings – in the board room and in the parking lot. The trouble with the church, is the same thing that makes for trouble in families, in the workplace, in sports and schools and business. All of these . . . well, they’re made up of people. And sometimes we get sideways with other people.
Lies get told.
Money goes missing.
Power gets protected.
Promises get broken.
Affairs take place.
Unfortunately when relationships get turned inside out and upside down, they don’t fix themselves automatically. We have to take action. I’m as guilty on this as anybody. Years of being in the church have conditioned most of us to be nice. We don’t want to stir up trouble and we don’t like to recognize that there are serious conflicts and divisions in local churches and in the regional and national church. We want everyone to just get along and not face the fact that people make mistakes; people sin. We’d rather pretend that problems don’t exist, and that eventually they will go away or work themselves out. We fear making things worse,
and we’re anxious to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.
But Jesus is pretty clear that if someone has sinned, done something to offend the heart of God and harm his/her relationship with you, then you must go to them. Jesus teaches the church to be a community that refuses to ignore destructive behavior.
First Jesus says go by yourself. Try to talk about the issue privately. I was at a dinner party once, years ago, with several couples. I noticed during the meal that one member or the other of each couple made a comment about their spouse, a jab, a criticism, a complaint -- often couched in a bit of humor, but a criticism nonetheless. It’s a common tactic in all kinds of relationships. Perhaps we feel safer making our point. We hope the other person isn’t likely to start a fight in front of all these people. But now we have compounded whatever the problem is because we have denied the object of our complaint the opportunity to save face and deal with the trouble privately.
But if that one-on-one conversation doesn’t mend the situation, then, says the Lord, take someone or . . . two .. . with you. Maybe you need a referee or a witness. Finally, if all else fails, he says bring it to the church. This passage has frequently been cited as a pattern for church discipline, but it is much more than that. It’s about the danger of sin and of God’s amazing grace.
Jesus has just talked with them about the Shepherd who will leave the 99 to look for one that got lost. He has taught about the servant who was forgiven a huge debt and is expected to be just as generous and forgiving with the person who owes him a small sum. He has answered the question of how many times we are supposed to forgive – not seven times, but seventy times seven – so many times that we lose count.
God doesn’t tell us that sin doesn’t matter anymore. God doesn’t tell us that we are free to do whatever feels good to us. God shows us our sin, but does so with compassion. God does not whisper our faults to our neighbors, but repeatedly invites us to return. With gyroscopic grace, no matter how we twist our lives around, God brings us right-side-up. That’s why we come to the Table – to be reminded of God’s grace.
Once upon a time, two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in their 40 years of working together. It began with a small misunderstanding, and grew into a major difference, and finally exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence. One morning, there was a knock on John’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days’ work,” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there that I could help with?
Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my younger brother! Last week, there was a meadow between us, but he took his bulldozer and dug a small river between us. Well I’m going to do him one better. See that pile of old lumber? I want you to build an 8 foot high fence between us. Then I won’t need to see his place or his face anymore.” The carpenter said, “Show me the nails and the tools, and I’ll do a good job for you.”
The older brother had to go to town, so he left for the day. At sunset, when he returned, his eyes opened wide, and his jaw dropped. There was no fence there at all. The carpenter had built a bridge that stretched from one side of the river to the other, with handrails and all! And his younger brother, was coming toward them, his hand outstretched. “You’re quite the guy,” he said, “after all I’ve said and done.” The two brothers met in the middle, and shook each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter leaving. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother. “I’d love to,” the carpenter said, “but I have many more bridges to build.”