Walking Blind

September 17, 2017

Bible Text: Romans 14:1-2; Matthew 18:21-35 |

I gotta tell you, being in the church business, it’s rather heartening to hear this morning’s New Testament lesson. Clearly, the church today is no different than the church in Rome two thousand years ago: we just love to get riled up about pious, little controversies. For us it’s issues of liturgy: Sing the psalms or speak the psalms? Too much chanting? Not enough chanting? Printed bulletin or the Book of Common Prayer? For the church in Rome it was whether or not you should eat meat, and which was the right day for worship.

And I love Paul’s response. He’s basically ambivalent: You want to be a vegetarian? Okay. You want to eat meat? That’s okay too. Some think you should worship on one day and some on another? Either one is fine. It doesn’t really matter.

But what’s not fine, what does matter, (and this is where Paul gets serious) is when your piety gives you permission to become quarrelsome and judgmental – when you start despising each other. No, that’s not fine at all.

And I think the principle Paul’s describing extends far beyond issues of church piety. I think it’s true across the board. As a people we’re so skilled at being outraged and offended by each other. But if we’re going to follow Jesus, we’ve got to find a better way to disagree with one another. We’ve got to find a way to be gracious even when we’re dealing with significant differences. Because there is no situation, no rightness of cause or purity of doctrine that ever permits us to despise our neighbor.

So what do we do? How do we change this proclivity to outrage and disgust? I think it starts with an honest recognition that none of us really knows what we’re talking about. The opinions and biases we hold so savagely are always incomplete. We never have the full picture of who the other person is or what the fully “right” solutions are.

I was out walking the other day, and – I don’t know why I do these things – but I decided to see what walking would be like if I were blind. So I set myself in the right direction, shut my eyes, then started walking. Slowly. Well, no surprise, it took about fifteen seconds before I was crunching in the gravel on the side of the road, completely incapable of keeping my bearings.

So I gave up on that and opened my eyes and made it home just fine. But for the rest of the way I was thinking about this whole idea of “walking blind.” And my conclusion was this: That’s what we’re all doing in this life. To one degree or another we’re all just walking blind, stumbling into one another as we go along. There’s no avoiding it.

But there is a certain freedom that comes if we’re willing to admit it.

A friend of mine is getting ready to retire and he said, “You know, I think I’ve spent my whole career making my employers believe I was more capable than I am.”

Or think about being a parent. It’s ridiculous! You take people – hardly done being kids themselves – hand them a baby and say, “Good luck! (Sucker)” And off they go without a clue, raising these vulnerable, little lives – passing on their love and dreams, mingled with their own fears and inadequacies and prejudices.

Or think about faith, for that matter. We feed you a little wafer and a tiny sip of wine and say, “Okay, so you’re cool with God, right?” How do we know and love an invisible God?

And this is to say nothing of our own self-knowledge. Why do we do the things we do and respond like we do? Why do we eat what we shouldn’t or look at the websites that are unedifying? There’s a reason. We’ve been formed to behave like this. But we hardly understand the cause or the complexity of who we’ve become.

We’re just walking through this world half-blind, bumping into each other, getting startled and afraid.

How much better for us – knowing it’s inevitable to bump into each other – to determine on the front-end that we’ll choose a posture of grace. We know how to do it when we run into one another in a crowd: You apologize to each other, smile, and go on your way. It’s the right thing to do with a little incident. But it’s also the right way to live and to respond to our larger offenses.

In fact, it’s the only way. But we have to choose it.

Nursing our grudges and complaining about people comes easily and naturally, be it co-workers or politicians or in-laws. And, sure, we’ve got the “right” to do it. But do we want to? What are we doing to our souls when we keep sipping at the fruit of bitterness? And what spirit are we releasing to the world around us?

How much better to choose instead the path of Jesus – which is always to desire the other’s good. When we find ourselves getting hung up in the cycle of being disgusted with someone, the best thing we can do is to start praying for them. Don’t bother trying to tell God how to fix them. We don’t have enough information for that. And besides, our own sorry attitudes disqualify us from being worthy advisors to the Almighty. Simply ask God to bless them and let God work out how best to do it. And in praying for their good, especially over time, we will begin truly to desire their good. Then the truth of the Kingdom of God becomes manifest in us, that in blessing the other, we become blessed as we increasingly become like the Jesus whose name we bear.

There will be times when our stumbling into each other will require far more than simply dismissing the mistake or tolerating our differences. Sometimes we are legitimately hurt by someone, whether they intended it or not. In the language of the church, we’ve been sinned against. And now it is time to choose the serious work of forgiveness. “How many times,” Peter asks Jesus. “As much as seven?” “Uh – bad news, Peter. How about seventy-seven?”

Now maybe Jesus is just exaggerating here to make a point. But you know what? If you’re in an intimate relationship with someone for a long time, like – say – a spouse or a parent – seventy-seven really isn’t a very big number at all. If we were actually taking forgiveness seriously as a way of life – for both large and small things – shoot, you could get through seventy-seven in less than a year. Every offense; every gesture of disrespect: I forgive. I forgive. I forgive. Just imagine what it would do for your soul if every day you were choosing to release every offense. Just imagine how your spirit would be conforming to the Spirit of God.

The point is, forgiveness is central to the gospel of Christ. It is the ultimate triumph of love over hate, of unity over division, of choosing the other’s good over your inclination towards self-centeredness. It is, in a word, the heart of God in Christ. And whether the parable Jesus tells about the unforgiving servant is hyperbole or literal, the point is clear: if you have received God’s forgiveness, if you accept God’s grace through communion week after week, if you’re one of those people who say, “God and I are good,” then you have no option but to turn and offer forgiveness towards anyone who has sinned against you.

To be forgiven by God is not simply a matter of striking the record clean so that we can carry on as we always have. In being forgiven, we are finally being released to live into our created identity as image-bearers of God, to participate in God’s heart of love and mercy. To turn around and withhold forgiveness is to reject the true freedom God is giving us.

I’m not saying it’s easy to forgive. I’m not saying it won’t take time. But there is no other option for a follower of Jesus.

But here’s the other thing: We don’t need to do it alone.

My dog, Marty, was with me when I was out trying to walk with my eyes closed the other day. So I shortened his leash, thinking he might be able to guide me and keep me on the road. Turned out, he was useless. He wasn’t trained as a Seeing Eye dog. He’s just a dog-dog. He likes to stop and sniff and pee on everything on the side of the road. He likes to roll around in dead, stinky stuff. So it was fine with him if we ended up in the gutter.

And that’s how it is in the spiritual life. If we’re only holding on to people who like to complain as much as we do, then we’re just going to end up in the ditch together, rolling around in dead, stinky stuff. If we want to change – if we want to begin choosing the way of blessing and forgiveness – then we need to spend our time with people who are already doing it. Then risk being vulnerable with them. Share the ways you want to change. See if you can be companions in the way of Christ. It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous, just a bunch of fellow travelers supporting each other in this difficult choice to live well.

If we want to take our spiritual formation seriously, then it’s something we need to choose. St. John’s is striving to help you in this – through growing our Pastoral Care ministries, through creating fellowship opportunities, through offering classes that are meaningful. The five-year vision document the vestry recently released shows all the ways we’re trying to grow our church as a place where true formation into Christlikeness can happen. But the only way it’s going to make a difference is if the people in the church are actually committing themselves to choosing the way of Jesus.

So what we’re going to do – what we’re asking all of us to do – is to begin by making a daily decision to pray a simple prayer, “God, help us to become like Jesus.” Every day. When you wake up, when you go to bed, whenever you pray. We’re handing out these cards for you to stick up wherever would be helpful: on your bathroom mirror; on your dashboard; on your computer monitor. Maybe move it around so you keep seeing it. “God, help us to become like Jesus.” Over time, it is a way to help us align our hearts with the heart of God. And, please God, over time, may you hear this prayer and make it so. Amen.

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