It’s an old story, this one, but one I return to again whenever I hear Jesus’ words of instruction to his disciples now. For it is an example of a time when it happened in a way that his wisdom for us was intended. This is how it was.
I was a young pastor, still, and sometimes I let my fear mostly born of inexperience have the better of me. This was certainly so when I heard that someone in our midst had a son in crisis and did not follow-up. It is hard from this great distance to understand why I did not, for while I might yet fail at this today, it would not be out of fear, but out of thoughtlessness, or forgetfulness, or just plain too much busy-ness. And yet, that is how I remember it. I shirked my responsibility to this family out of fear — of the unknown perhaps — or perhaps because I simply did not know what to say or do and avoiding it seemed easier than facing my own inexperienced fear of the unknown. Whatever my paltry excuse, my lack of response wounded and the mother who was so wounded struck back.
By then I had been a pastor in that place for all of six months when I received a single spaced typed letter from her carefully enumerating all that I had done wrong. In it she named not only her primary hurt, but other small slights which she had allowed to fester in that short span of time. And oh, I do remember receiving it in the mail. I recall opening it and reading it, putting it away, and pulling it out to read it again. At first I was hurt. And then I was defensive. I found myself coming up with excuses and reasons. I also recall shaking my head in disbelief at some of her critique for while I knew, deep down, that she was not wrong in some of it, in other places her complaints were way off base. At least that is how I saw it then.
And so I put it away again, tucking it in my top desk drawer next to spare pens and pencils. I lived with this for the better part of a week, only it was not going away. Finally, I took it out once more and realizing I could no longer ignore it, I called up the writer of that letter and asked to meet with her. She readily agreed and a few days later, she came into my office with her own copy of the letter in hand. Together we went through it line by line. I owned up to some of what she had written, agreeing with her that I had failed her and asking he forgiveness. There were other points further down where I did not agree and I said so and she did not argue with me there. I imagine now that in her hurt she was simply ‘piling on’ — thinking, somehow, that maybe I would more likely hear her if the list were longer. Or maybe it was so that her hurt was so deep that that she could not see any good in me by then. Either way, by her willingness to come to me directly, she kept with what Jesus offers now. And by my perhaps accidental wisdom in taking the initiative to meet with her alone, together we avoided what often happens in congregations when someone finds him or herself wounded by the action or inaction of another. You’ve been there, too, I imagine, where we refuse to deal directly with one another and share our pain with everyone else instead.
I have thought of that day often since then and while I am a little surprised that more such letters and more such awkward meetings have not come my way, I am also not necessarily thinking that is a good thing. More than twenty years have passed since that day and it goes without saying that I surely have offended or disappointed numerous others since then. Only in the ‘polite’ Midwestern culture where I serve we are more likely to bury our hurts — or to take them to someone other than the one who offended. Too much of the time, we tend to see one another as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad,’ it seems to me — a trait which is surely more and more common in the political climate we inhabit together. Only it is not so that any one of us is ‘all good’ or ‘all bad.’ Jesus pointed to this truth in his very words in this reading from Matthew for in it he anticipates that in our brokenness, we would wound one another. And that we would need a way to address it again and again.
I, for one, take great comfort in this truth that more than two thousand years ago Jesus ‘saw us coming’ and laid out a way for us to live with one another especially in the wake of the wounds we would inflict on each other. And I take great joy in the certain truth that it is in the midst of precisely this that Jesus said he would be in Matthew 18:20. That was certainly what I experienced as a young pastor so long ago. Now if only we could find a way to do so all the more. Indeed, what kind of ‘church’ would we be if we did not avoid one another in our pain, or share it with others instead of the one who has offended, but instead sat down with one another to work it out? And what kind of peace might we be able to lead the world into if only we could do this together first? What do you think?
- Can you think of times when this Gospel lesson came alive in your life? Do any of those examples ‘preach?’
- What is it like in the culture you call home? Do people address their concerns directly or do they let them fester or do they unload them on others? If they do address their concerns directly, how has this come to be? If not, what might be done to live more closely what Jesus offers now?
- Are you surprised to remember that Jesus promises to be present in such times? Why or why not?
Hi Janet, I wonder if this took place when we were serving congregations in the same small town in southern Will County in the late 1990’s? I was “taken to task” by a group of folks in my church who found fault in everything I did. Sadly, they didn’t bring their complaints & concerns to my attention first, but went directly to my District Superintendent. I’m glad to hear that you were able to work things out there, Unfortunately, I could not and left after four very painful years.
It seems that once things get to a certain point, recovery becomes really hard. And somehow there’s a sense of entitlement that leads to diminishing one another in the midst of conflict. The context for the text – caring for the least of these – catches me as well. The focus is on healing and ‘gaining’ the brother/sister in the process – or at the worst, leaving them as one who is still invited in – the non-Jew and the tax collector – and not left in the outer darkness…
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