11/25/2018


Carrie Mook Bridgman
November 28, 2018
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church

 

Hang Together or Hang Separately
Matthew 18:1-21

According to legend, after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the members of the Continental Congress looked at each other, realizing that they were now completely committed to the revolution against England. John Hancock remarked, “Now we must all hang together.”

Ben Franklin replied, “We must indeed hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.”

Jesus and his disciples were at a similar moment of crisis. They were on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus had been explaining that this was *not* going to be a glorious revolution; he was going to his death. Ignoring what they didn’t want to hear, the disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” This whole passage, ranging wildly from cuddling a child to talk about cutting off limbs to specific instructions for how to handle conflict to a challenge to forgive without limit–all of it comes from that question. Clearly it was the wrong question. Jesus was urgently trying to prepare his followers for life without him. Infighting would doom the young community; they must hang together or they would hang separately.

Crescent Hill also faces a challenging time, and must learn to handle conflict constructively in order to move forward. We must acknowledge and give up our own sin, even when that feels like cutting off a limb. We must confront our fellow sinners directly and respectfully, asking for help as needed. We must not put limits on forgiveness. Mutual accountability is possible through grace.

We must acknowledge and give up our own sin, even when that feels like cutting off a limb. Some of our faults are so ingrained into our personalities that trying to give them up really does feel like cutting out a piece of ourselves. This is especially true when we developed those traits as survival skills, but now find they are no longer helpful.

I tend to preach the sermons I need to hear, hoping that some of you are in the same boat. I am not announcing myself as an expert on conflict resolution. Just the opposite. I hate conflict. I generally do not handle it well. I get defensive, or I bury the whole issue, or I freeze. I don’t attack other people; instead, I avoid confrontation at all costs. That leaves the conflict simmering along, unresolved. Knowing these things about myself doesn’t make it any easier to change them, but at least I can (sometimes) be humble enough to admit them. Jesus took a child in his arms and told his disciples to be humble, like children. He warned them against taking advantage of “one of these little ones,” who are both actual children and anyone weaker than we are. He said that rather than putting stumbling blocks in someone else’s path, we should deal drastically with our own. As I hear Jesus telling his disciples, “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away,” I remember that he frequently uses hyperbole to make a point, and that he is still holding the child in his arms. He says we should take our own sin that seriously. Like amputating a diseased limb, addressing our own sin can save our lives. We must acknowledge and give up our own sin, even when that feels like cutting off a limb.

We must confront our fellow sinners directly and respectfully, asking for help as needed. Jesus doesn’t want us attacking each other. He also doesn’t want us avoiding conflict or ignoring injustice. He says we start by going directly to the person with whom we have a problem and trying to talk it out. If the direct conversation does not work, “take one or two others along with you so that every word can be confirmed by two or three witnesses.” Perhaps these others will back you up, or perhaps they will listen to the discussion and show you where you are wrong–or both. If the person (or people) at fault will not listen to them, take it to the church. And if they won’t listen to the church, “treat them like Gentiles or tax collectors.”

OK. We are not to begin by treating people with whom we disagree like outcasts. We are to go to them directly, one sinner to another. We are to treat them with respect. If we can’t work it out, we ask others to help–not to side with us against the other person, but to work with both of us to solve the problem.
This is hard. Most people, and most organizations, don’t do it well. This is why we have marriage and family therapists, and lawyers, and administrative commissions. All of these are ways we ask other people for help dealing with conflict. Rarely are we satisfied with the results–partly because we often wait to ask for help until the conflict has grown, and partly because the helpers are sinners, too. Jesus knows it’s hard, and yet he sets a standard for us: We must confront our fellow sinners directly and respectfully, asking for help as needed.

We must not put limits on forgiveness. Jesus was unpleasantly clear on this point. Sometimes we long to say, “No, you’ve done it now. I’m done with you. You are just evil, and I don’t have to care about you any more.” Jesus said we don’t have that option. Like us, the disciples were awfully quick to skip to the end of Jesus’ instructions on conflict: “If they won’t listen to the church, treat them like Gentiles or tax collectors.” At first, this sounded gratifyingly harsh. If you’ve *tried* to be reasonable and your opponent won’t budge, *then* you can treat them as an outcast. I can imagine Peter nodding along to Jesus’ words, satisfied. Then perhaps his glance happened to fall on Matthew, the tax collector, standing with the other disciples. Peter stopped nodding. He knew how his people treated Gentiles and tax collectors. He also knew how *Jesus* treated Gentiles and tax collectors.

So Peter decided to let Jesus know that he really had been listening. Maybe the others didn’t catch on, but he did. (Remember the question that started this whole incident, about who’s the greatest?) Peter knew Jesus would tell them to forgive those who sinned against them, so he took the next step: “How many times should I forgive someone? As many as seven times?” He thought he was being incredibly generous.

And then Jesus answered with “Seventy-seven times,” or, in some translations, “Seventy times seven.” In other words, forgive without limits.

The church has sometimes acted as if unlimited forgiveness means we have to accept people just as they are and suffer the consequences. No. That would mean any church, family, or group could be held hostage by the worst-behaved person in it. Jesus had just given explicit instructions for how to confront people who sin against you. He set extremely high standards for our behavior. He spoke out against self-righteousness and abuse. And we know from hard experience that sometimes it’s necessary to end a relationship for the sake of our own health and safety. I think what we cannot do is write someone off, set them outside the bounds of our concern, dehumanize them, wish them ill, and justify ourselves in sinning against them in return. That lack of forgiveness damages us as much as them, and blocks any possibility of repentance or redemption for either party. We may have to set boundaries on behavior, but we cannot set boundaries on concern. We must not put limits on forgiveness.

Mutual accountability is possible through grace. In this passage, Jesus offers a master class on how to deal with our own sin and that of others, and the primary lesson seems to be remembering that we are all in the same boat. None of us has any ground on which to stand except God’s grace. When we remember that, we can deal more graciously with each other.

When the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock said, “Now we must all hang together.”

Ben Franklin replied, “We must indeed all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.”

We don’t have a common enemy like Great Britain. The common enemy for us, as for Jesus’ first disciples, is the sin we all carry. Jesus told his disciples how to address that enemy: We must acknowledge and give up our own sin, even when that feels like cutting off a limb. We must confront our fellow sinners directly and respectfully, asking for help as needed. We must not put limits on forgiveness. Mutual accountability is possible through grace.

-Carrie Mook Bridgman