Christ the Pragmatist

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18), Year A.

Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Matthew 18:15-20

You could say a lot of things about Jesus, about His dual nature yet single personhood, His compassion, His power, His majesty, being savior, redeemer, on and on. We have no shortage of descriptors for our Lord. Though for all the titles and praise, a noticeable omission is “pragmatist”. When we think of Jesus, and hear Him in the Gospels, we tend to think of Him as an “idealist”, someone walking in that great line of prophets who sees the idealized world God has always intended for creation, someone living in the way things should be, rather than as they are. While this by no means is a wrong way to understand Jesus and His teachings, but it is a handy way to categorize his teachings if we would rather ignore them. Sure, we’d love to live in a world where difficult problems could be sorted out with an honest conversation, or where people had everything they need, or that when mistakes were made, forgiveness was readily available and trust could easily be rebuilt. That is the world that Jesus talks about after all, but it’s not the one we live in.

Then follows the parade of excuses: That’s nice, Jesus, I’d love to love my neighbor, but my neighbor is an inconsiderate jerk. I’d love to love my enemy, but they are threatening me, my friends, my way of life, or vulnerable people. It would be nice to not worry like the lilies of the valley or the ravens of the air, but who’s going to pay for that? I’d love to forgive, but they don’t even want forgiveness. So we tuck those wonderful teachings away as something to be admired, but not taken seriously as a means for positive change. Perhaps one day when the world is kinder, or perhaps much more desperate, can these ideals be enacted.

Last week Jesus gave us the command, “take up your cross and follow me”. An iconic teaching from our Lord that is as inspiring as it is politely ignored. It is a phrase that drips with idealism, that each one of us is significant enough to share in the cosmic drama of His own saving work. If we were to take up a cross and follow Jesus, we too might save the world, or at least share a part in it. Again, this is an idea that we prize, even much of our secular society prizes the idea of every individual carrying with them the potential of greatness.

Yet as much as we love this idea, we act as though we don’t believe it. No time to save the world, I’ve got to put food on the table for me and mine. Especially when confronting the issues that plague our society, such as income inequality, racial prejudice, and a disempowered citizenship, what are we supposed to do? We aren’t the ones who write laws, or have vast amounts of power or influence, sure we can vote, maybe go to a town hall or two, even demonstrate in the street. But at the end of the day, what can we do to solve these problems? What’s the point of taking up our cross if it only means we will suffer without any change?

These are the problems we run into when we fail to recognize Jesus as a pragmatist. If we think of Jesus’ teachings only in the most idealized, cosmic scale, we find excuses to settle for a world still mired in sin. We fail to recognize the part we are all called to play in Jesus’ saving work. While last week we had the iconic and idealized command to “take up our cross”, we can think of today’s reading as Jesus explaining how we actually do that.

But this far in, can you even remember what the Gospel lesson is? If you can, you’re better than me, (this is why I always keep a script on hand) because it is decidedly unglamorous. In the Episcopal Musician’s Handbook, which provides one-sentence summaries of the day’s readings so music directors can pick appropriate hymns, the summary for last week’s Gospel lesson was “Take up your cross and follow me”. The summary provided for this week’s lesson is: “How to resolve fights at church”. I cannot fathom a way to make it sound any more tedious.

This is precisely why we prefer the idealized version of Jesus’ teachings, not only are they easier to make excuses for not following, but they are much more exciting. It’s rather discouraging to go from such an iconic command to today’s tedious teaching about settling petty squabbles in a small community. It’s almost degrading to think of God Incarnate giving weekend training seminars on conflict management, though at least He didn’t have to conduct it over video conference.

But that is the Gospel truth about saving the world, it’s not something that can simply be idealized. Saving the world takes practical action, and it is decidedly unglamorous. That’s what it means to live Jesus’ teachings, to be a disciple, to take up your cross. It’s sitting through PTA meetings to make sure children get the best possible education and support, it’s going out and voting, sitting on company boards and promoting ethical business practices, doing quality farming and construction work so people can live healthy and well, joining the vestry to care for this faith community, and most importantly, living the life of love, embodying Jesus’ teaching and being the Gospel in the world.

It may not sound like much because we take it for granted, but all those boring, tired, well-known good things we have always been taught are what it takes to save the world.

Today’s lesson about conflict resolution is a small snapshot of Jesus’ pragmatic teachings through the whole of chapter 18 in Matthew. After Jesus tells the disciples to take up their cross and follow Him, the following chapters are mainly focused on practical application of that idea. Though it is not explicitly framed this way, if Matthew was a slick modern public relations advisor, he would summarize this chapter as:

“Jesus’ Five Easy Steps to Solving Complex and Incomprehensible Social Problems” (or “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Take up My Cross”).

The steps would go something like this:

  1. Cultivate a Childlike Humility (18:1-5)
  2. Avoid Creating Stumbling Blocks for Others (18:6-9)
  3. Treat Everyone Who Strays with Compassionate Care, and Help them Find Their Way Back (18:10-14)
  4. Make Attempts to Resolve Conflict with Compassion (18:15-20)
  5. Understand Forgiveness as Relational Rather than Transactional (18:21-35)

You might better recognize these as “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (18:4), “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks!” (18:7), “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” (18:12), “If another member of the churchbn sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” (18:15), and “[Forgive them] Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times (18:22).

This week’s Gospel is focused squarely on step 4, resolving conflict (step 5 about forgiveness is next week), but encompasses the teachings of the whole chapter. This practical advice is built on the more idealized teachings of Loving our Neighbor, and taking up our cross. How do I love my neighbor or even my enemy when we are fighting? Be humble and empathetic, don’t create stumbling blocks or make the conflict worse out of pride or spite, see your enemy as someone to be treated with compassion and help them, after all you don’t have to like someone to love them, Try to solve the problem together, and finally, be ready and willing to forgive when repentance is made.

“But what if my enemy refuses to cooperate, ignores attempts for resolution, etc.?” Here again Jesus gives us the answer: “Treat them as a Gentile or tax collector”. But be sure to remember how Jesus tells us to treat Gentiles and tax collectors, with love and compassion (I refer you to step 3.)

Jesus’ practical teachings are not glamorous or exciting, they are so well known and repeated they are the moral and spiritual equivalent of brushing your teeth and eating your vegetables. Yet they are what it means to take up your cross, what it means to save the world with Jesus.

It’s much like those flashy infomercials for kitchen gadgets. We are dazzled by the ingenuity, style, and engineering of a product that claims will revolutionize the way we dice an onion. Oh it is so clever and will save so much time and tears! But when you stop and think about it, you realize it has very limited use, would be impossible to sharpen or clean properly, and would just waste the already limited space in a drawer or countertop. At the end of the day, all you really need to dice an onion is the way you’ve always known: a decent knife, a steady hand, some practice, and a willingness to bear some tears as you prepare for the feast to come.

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