Saturday Sermon: The art of fixing relationships
These days, there is a growing lack of civility, courtesy and honoring of persons. Some criticize the lack of respect children demonstrate to adults, and yet children model the bad behaviors of some adults. We are concerned about the bullying of kids by other kids, but there are adults who do this in the workplace, home, community and even the church.
One of my frustrations is how people, and more recently politicians, attack one another with words. I recently watched a "debate" that looked more like two pit bulls in a dog fight (and I mean no disrespect to pit bulls). But I expect better than lying or labeling persons as liars. Critiquing policy or decisions is appropriate, but destroying people and their reputations crosses the line. Scripture points us to a better way of behaving - pray for one another, love one another, put up with one another, forgive one another, and even love your enemies.
The church is not perfect. People are surprised when they are hurt by another believer. A spouse is surprised in being hurt by one's beloved, a parent by one's child, or good friends by one another. Hurt is the risk of relationships. Battered and broken relationships are the result of human sin. But Jesus calls us to heal those broken relationships, mend broken hearts, love and forgive.
We deal with folks who are annoying. What are you going to do when you can't avoid them? There are folks in our lives that are a pain. They trouble you. They cause trouble for you. They might even take some joy in the troubles that come your way. And here you are trying to do the right thing - your work, take care of your family, help people in need, worship and serve God, be a good citizen. But remember, we too have our moments when we may just like them - troubling.
There are some who think, "Life would be wonderful, if it weren't for all those difficult people." Writer Les Perot identified some of the difficult people - "the critic, the cold shoulder, the green-eyed monster, control freak, martyr and chronic complainer." And how do you deal with them?
Long associated with a previous president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, was the advice to "walk softly and carry a big stick." This, of course, will not work well if you are trying to turn unhealthy relationships into healthy ones, nor will it mend a broken relationship.
Through my years as a parent, pastor and a school board member, I have been called upon by persons and certain groups to find ways of dealing with some of those "impossible and difficult people." I point them to the novel idea of going to the Book, the Bible, the words of Jesus, like those found in Matthew 18: "When your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone" (If that fails, you involve a few more folks, and if that fails, you involve the church. But the goal is to restore the relationship). When my son was very young, he had gotten a tricycle for Christmas. I looked at the picture on the box and proceeded to put it together, but to no avail. My wife, wisely recommended that I go to the book or booklet and follow the directions for connecting part A to part B and so on. Similarly, if we go to the Book of Scripture, we find good instruction on how to fix relationships and honor others within a community.
Sometimes, we find ourselves dealing with a misunderstanding. Persons desperately want to resolve the conflict and restore the relationship. You hear it in their words. You find in by their presence. You see it in their tears. They seek to make amends.
But then there are those others. There are those who will have you trying to put out one fire after another along various landscapes - family, work, church, community - and leave you exhausted. They stir up things all over the place. Venomous and caustic remarks are toxic to everyone.
For the health of a community, such persons simply cannot be permitted to do what they're doing. As time goes on, they come to believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with what they are doing and they leave a legacy of suffering and casualties. For us to do nothing is simply to further enable bad behavior. A believer should quickly respond to a barrage of harsh and disheartening remarks, 'We don't talk that way as God's people. We don't act that way as God's people.' Another appropriate response to those who love to "stir the pot" is "You know that's not true."
Such persons are not likely use to anyone standing up to them or correcting such ugly behavior. Hopefully, they respond with changed appropriate behaviors, become very quiet, and contemplative, or they will walk away. But they have just learned you don't give people hell.
While we may be Christians and seek to live out our faith, it doesn't mean we don't have problems. The important thing is how we handle the problems, conflicts and hurts, and how we deal with people in our family, work, community or church and folks who are being difficult. It has to do with Jesus, and our responsibility to love and forgive.
You have to be a person with an open heart, a heart that is open to the will of God and this most certainly means the restoration of relationships. God sends Jesus to us and Jesus goes to the cross for us because God is in the business of restoring relationships. And we are all partners in this ministry of restoring, reconciling, renewing, forgiving and loving.
Some will resist the words of Jesus. Maybe they prefer to hang on to the anger of the past. Well, that's just bad medicine for the soul. Hanging on will only poison one's spiritual life and have a negative impact on relationships with others. Such persons tend to be more testy and more distant from family and friends over time.
We may fear the response to our efforts of reconciliation. Truthfully, we can't control how people are going to respond to our best efforts. But St. John reminds us: "perfect love casts out fear." We are loved by God. We serve a God of love. And we are called to love God, neighbor and even those difficult ones.
Our reluctance to use this Jesus approach can be our fear that we may have had some part in things going wrong with the relationship that we are in some measure responsible for the mess. And that is difficult to face.
In caring for couples and families who are out of sorts, you will find that pastors and counselors are not focused on blaming or finding fault with one individual or another. That kind of thinking just keeps people apart. It stokes the fires of anger and resentment. The real focus of Jesus and those of the Church is the mending, healing and restoring of relationships. And it's done out of love. It's done in private. It's not for the whole world to hear about the mess of a relationship with all the gory details. Unfortunately, there are those who will publicize their conflicts as a means of recruiting others to their side instead of dealing one on one in a constructive (and for that matter, a Jesus-designed) method.
Whether the wrong has been done to you or to someone else, it does impact our other relationships in the larger community. And the well being of all is an appropriate matter of our concern as the Church.
We pray in the Lord's Prayer that God will give us the same kind of forgiveness that we extend to each other. St. Paul in his letters speaks of how God gives grace and how we are saved by grace. Jesus speaks of the abundance of God's grace and love in such stories as the Prodigal Son. Jesus gives us a practical method to deal with the hurts, brokenness and sins in our relationships. Jesus says, deal with each other according to grace.
It is difficult to love and to forgive. But it is the only way that works to restore those who have been apart, to mend and heal what has been broken, and has the power to change one's enemy into one's friend.
The Rev. Herb Beyer is pastor of Tri-County Cooperative Ministries, ELCA.