The God Who Meets Us In Our Failures
I will again be preaching this Sunday at the Methodist Church in nearby Joseph, Oregon. It’s where we worship most Sundays when we are here in the Wallowas.
The gospel text for this Sunday, Matthew 18: 15 – 20, is prosaic but urgent. “Prosaic,” in that it lays out a step by step process for dealing with conflict or a broken relationship between people in a congregation. Do this, if that doesn’t work, here’s the next step and so on. But also urgent as what do have in our relationships and in our churches but conflict?
Some, I suppose, think the church should be “conflict-free” zone where everyone is loving and kind and share common values and purposes. That, let’s just say, is ridiculous. Churches are full of conflict and often we don’t do very well at handling it. After many years of pastoral ministry I began to think that we might be better off if we assumed that churches were, in reality, labs for working on conflict. Instead of denying it, here we try to learn some skills for doing conflict that we might take with us into a world full of conflict.
This particular passage, Matthew 18: 15 – 20, read alone might be heard as describing a process for “excommunication,” as it does acknowledge that efforts at reconciliation may fail. But lest it become legalistic, note that it is wrapped, from the beginning of Chapter 18 (1 – 14) and then in what follows (21 – 35) in stories about humility and forgiveness without number. The context of a text is important. Good, always, to “read around” a passage we are trying to make sense of or preach on.
Still, forgiveness and reconciliation, can be hard. We may fail. Not quite a year ago I included in a sermon a story a preacher friend had shared with me. I’m not sure I’ll include it this Sunday. We’ll see. But it spoke a word of grace to me about the God who meets us in our failures, even our failures to forgive. Here it is:
“A young pastor friend of mine noticed that a member of his congregation had not been in church for several weeks so he sent her a note saying she had been missed and asking if she were okay. He got the following note back:
“’Dear Jason, thank you for your kind note. You’re right. I’ve not been to church in over a month. There is no reason for my absence other than to say that I simply could not do it anymore. I felt like, for my own good, I had to stay away.’
“’Some background,’ she added, ‘might be helpful: after my son graduated from high school, we discovered he’d been abused for years by someone close to our family. It tore us apart. My son lashed out with anger and alcohol. I blamed myself for not knowing, not seeing it, not being able to stop it. I nursed my own guilt with alcohol and pills. With a lot of help, he’s healing slowly and putting his life back together. When he was a boy, he was so happy. I could easily have shot the man when I first found out. That’s not all.’
“’My daughter married her high school sweetheart, whom, she did not discover until too late, was an alcoholic. He was a respectable-looking accountant who first just slapped her around a bit. When he finally really hit her, she left with our grandson but only after he’d spent all the money she’d saved.’
“’Jason, here’s why I have stayed away from church. I know that, as a Christian, I should forgive those men. I know I should forgive myself too. I know that I should at least be working towards forgiving them. But I can’t. And, believe me, it’s not because I haven’t tried hard.’
“’Maybe it’s not fair to you, but it felt like every time I came to church I wasn’t being told what God has done for me in Jesus. I was told instead what I needed to do for God, to do what I already can’t find the strength to do; namely, forgive them. Church just somehow became another place in my life where I felt like a failure, and you, though you seem like a nice person, you became another man in my life who was devouring the parts of me that remain.’
“She ended the note with a postscript:
“’I’ll be back and give it another try. But a word of advice, since you’re a new preacher: I don’t need to be reminded every Sunday of what I ought to do as a Christian. Believe me, knowing what we should do is not the problem for any of us. Every day, though, I need a reminder that God has met me in my failures— God has met me in my failure to forgive— and God forgives me.’ “
I include this story to say that there is a God who meets us precisely in our failures, and that this message — not constantly being reminded of what we need to do for God, as in “you should forgive” — is the good news of the gospel.