A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Closed Fist or Open Hand of Grace

Rev. Dr. Les Martin

Pentecost +15
Rev. Dr. Les Martin
Ezekiel 33:1-11, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 18:15-20

In the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Well, at one level we have quite a potpourri of readings today. It’s kind of hard to see how they tie together. We have this terrifying reading from Ezekiel, at least terrifying for Father Doug and me, that if you don’t properly warn someone of the danger in their lives, you will bear the iniquity. So it’s kind of license to preach, turn, or burn to you guys. We have Matthew where it seems like the subtle text message is if I really want to get you to do something in church, the goal is to gang up on you. And then there’s Romans. Insofar as it is possible, live peaceably with everyone. Oh, you get a little bit of the vengeance with the burning coals, but the burning coals are about kindness, and it doesn’t all seem to go together at first blush. But it does, bear with me.

December 17th, much to my amazement, I will have been ordained for 29 years. I don’t think I could have done anything for 29 years, but that’s a personal problem. In my 29 years of ministry, I want to tell you the secret I’ve learned about what debilitates Christians. It’s a healing service today so we really ought to talk about what breaks us. And in 29 years, what I’ve come to be aware of is that the three things that break Christians the most are shame, guilt, and victimization. More precisely the sense of shame, the sense of guilt, and the sense that someone’s hurting me. This ties into what Father Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk of Snowmass Abbey, said about the basic needs of humans, not Christians, humans, that strip away all our external pleasantries, strip away our facade, strip away our coping mechanisms. What we all really want is esteem, affection, and security.

Those don’t necessarily sound like bad things. But the Eastern tradition of the church would label these as passions, passions of the human heart, the fallen human heart, that lead us away from God. We can see it in our increasingly post-Christian culture. Esteem may not be a bad thing, but look at TikTok. Is that esteem? Affection may not be a bad thing, but look at what we do, what we give ourselves into if we’re not healthy for a scrap of love.

Security sounds like a good thing, but the unbridled pursuit of security actually makes us less secure and paradoxically more alone. You see, we can approach esteem, affection and security two ways, and this will help you the whole sermon. We can approach them as something to be grasped or something to be received, something to be grasped or something to be received. You know what happens to, oh, I don’t know, wet sand or water when you try and grasp it. You know what happens if your hand is open to receive.

So let’s go back to these readings and let’s consider them from the closed hand perspective, the “it’s about me” perspective. I need esteem, affection, security. I’ve got to do something about my shame, my guilt. And basically because people are hurting me, I’ve got to control other people. The best defense is a good offense.

Well, let me tell you about Ezekiel in a funny way. I work day-to-day in Methodist Medical Center as a palliative care chaplain, and the most interesting thing I find day-to-day is the staff is afraid of me. Not why you think. They’re afraid of me because although the world is changing, down here in the south, there’s still an odor of churchianity. Notice I said churchianity not Christianity. And so the staff, by and large, is afraid of me. They see me coming and they assume what about me? That I have an unkind word. They assume that I’m full of judgmentalism. They assume, whether spoken or not, that I have something to say about the nature of their life or the number of earrings in their ear or the color of their hair. They’re afraid.

I get it because back in about 1976, I was in that same hospital on the fourth floor in my oxygen tent recovering from asthma when the chaplain came in to see me. And don’t get me wrong, I believe he meant well. That’s the tragedy in this story. I believe he meant well. Back then the chaplains were just volunteers and he was a pastor from the local community and he came in and he apparently knew something about my family. Who didn’t know something about my family, about my mom and her manner of life? Let’s put it that way.

And he took my hand without asking, and he said essentially, “Les, you want to give yourself to Jesus today, don’t you? Because we all know where your mother’s going to go and you don’t want to end up like her.” That was my chaplain’s visit. See, the problem with closed-hand watchman duties is there’s not much difference between a closed hand and a fist.

Romans. Romans sounds like the easy reading today. It’s all full of love, right? Have you ever known anyone who’s used love to control you? No. I went to all this trouble to make the pie that you love and you’re not even eating a second piece. It’s rough when love is a weapon, when love is not love, but performative and manipulative.

And then there’s Matthew. Again, it sounds on the surface like a good thing and I promise you it is. We’re getting there. But let’s consider it in its closed hand perversion. When your brother sins against you, go to him privately. Oh, we like to skip that part. Or if we go to him privately, we’ve at least whispered about him to 20 other people first. Go to him privately and point out his fault. And if he won’t listen, well then take two or three. And then if he won’t listen, take him before the church. And then if he won’t listen, well let him be like a gentile and a tax collector. Do it my way, do it our way or hit the road, Jack.

Do you see how all of these, when we’re driven by that fear of victimization, that someone’s going to get something over on me, when we’re driven by that need for security turn into a closed hand weapon rather than what the gospel is calling them to be. It’s a good thing for the church to have watchmen. More on that later. But a watchman can just be a religious bully. You look at TV, I would’ve been shocked to believe that in 2023, the predominant culture in the medical industry would be afraid of me. But they are. They’re afraid of what I’ll think or what I’ll say.

I would’ve thought that in an age where church discipline is non-existent, that the idea that confronting a brother about his sin would seem silly or antiquated, but people live afraid of it. One of the biggest things that keeps people out of church is the question, can I be accepted as I am? And let me be clear, most people don’t want to stay the way they are. But can I be accepted? And love, see how they love one another. I don’t know if you’re like me, but there’s certain kinds of love I don’t want because I’ve come to realize in the long run they’re just not love. They’re a closed hand maybe sprinkled with a little bit of perfume.

So that’s one option. That’s kind of the broken option of how we can address these readings. And if you’re like me, not only do you see that effect in your life as the recipient of it, but if you’re driven out of the fact that you’re going around all day saying, “I need some esteem, I need people to realize, don’t you know who I am? I need some affection. Won’t someone just love me? I need some control because I’m not letting you people get it over on me.” If I’m driven by that, I can ruin biblical principles. I’ve let my needs predominate over gospel truth.

But let’s consider the same readings with an open hand where I’m less likely to punch you and more likely to offer you something, more likely to say, “It’s about you, not me.” Well, the truth is, returning to Ezekiel, that there’s some sense in which the nurses and doctors at the hospital are right. I do have some thoughts about them, but not the ones they think. The nurse who tells me that her marriage is falling down and that it’s not the first time, but the third, I don’t have any judgment for her. But I do want to ask, how’s that working out for you? Is that going well? The person who, again, is in ICU at 41 because of their inability to lay the meth aside, is this a good life plan, do you think? See the difference? It’s that same watchman duty, but now it’s about you, not me. I don’t have to pummel you into obedience.

Romans. Let love be genuine insofar as possible. Live peaceably with everyone. When I don’t need to protect myself, when I’m not driven by a need for esteem and security and affection, when I’m not wracked with shame and guilt and fear of someone taking advantage of me, well I’m free to love and not count the cost. I’m free to serve. It’s ridiculous really. If you go to Matthew today, our gospel lesson, and back up a little, what Jesus is talking about, he says, “What shepherd, if he’s lost a sheep, would not leave the 99 and go out and look for the one?” You remember that story? The whole idea, I’ve got 100 sheep, one’s run off. I’m going to leave the 99 and go look for the one. And he says, “What Shepherd wouldn’t do that?” I tell you what shepherd wouldn’t do that, any shepherd who caress about profits. You don’t abandon the 99 to go after the one. You just say, “Well, that’s a business loss,” unless you’re God.

And if you’re God, you go after the one. And because each one of us in this room at some point has been the one, well, look, we don’t have to worry about control and security. It’s taken care of, and we’re free to love. We’re free to serve. In this crazy gospel logic where I matter more than the 99 and so do you and so do you and so do you, I can lay down my constant need to try and manipulate you into loving me, respecting me, and providing for me.

Matthew. Reconciliation is so important, particularly in the church. But again, where the closed hand can drive us into conflicts that I’ve seen destroy churches. I bet some of you have, too. And if not churches, then Christians. Open hand reconciliation is another matter. It’s fascinating where Matthew starts. Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you,” right? That’s how he starts. It’s not if that so-and-so who you never liked at all sins against you. No. If your brother sins against you, someone who’s already a part of you, go and point out their sin. And if they don’t listen, well then get a couple of more of your brothers and try and talk to them. And if that doesn’t work, well then have a family meeting. And if that doesn’t work, then treat them like tax collectors and sinners. And let me take the sting away even there. How did Jesus treat tax collectors and sinners? Like the one who ran away, like the one who ran away.

You see, when we let what Paul is saying in Romans, we’ve been working through it. Take primacy. Remember what we said last week. Be humble, humble. Don’t think more highly of yourself. Recognize you have a place in the body. And then today live peaceably with one another. And looking ahead to chapter 13, I will now show you a more excellent way. Love, love, love, love, love.

When we let that take primacy, then even the hard things of Christian life aren’t driven by a closed hand, by our frustration, by our anger, by our judgmentalism, by our fear. They’re driven by love. I alluded to the fact that church discipline is non-existent. Sadly, that’s true. It’s true because we’re too afraid of it. We’re too afraid of it. And I understand why we’re afraid of it because if we have been as I have, and perhaps you have, at the receiving end of closed hand church discipline, well who wants that? I remember the time in my church in Pittsburgh that, for reasons I obviously won’t go into, felt like I could not marry a couple. And I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t marry you.” What do you think happened? They just went down the street and found a church that would. That’s the failure of church discipline. Because we’re afraid. We want our love, we want our steam, we want our affection. And if anything I do begins to look the least bit like a closed fist, well, you’re just going to run away and I don’t blame you.

But if we are not driven by our baser instincts of shame and guilt of control, but rather we’re driven by love, well then we can both give and receive church discipline in the way we’re supposed to, like a big old family meeting, like something that preserves relationships rather than destroys them. Now, if you’re like me, you recognize we’ve got a long way to go to get there. In fact, even saying the words church discipline in a fellowship like this might sound a little like this to some of you. And I get it. I get it.

The trick is this. Whenever we’re like this, whenever we’re in our own strength, whenever we’re driven by our passions, so often we can do no good thing whatever our intentions. I believe that chaplain talking to little Les, he was trying to help. Don’t get me wrong, he did virtually everything wrong and probably kept me out of the church for another 10 years. But I believe he was trying to help. The thing was, when you reach out to someone like this, they think you’re going to hit them. And passions well, they always drive us in that direction. When I’m in myself, when I’m in my constant need to say, “Please see me and see me, love me, and just don’t hurt me.” Well listen to what I’m saying. Me, me, me, me. I got to tell you, Kate will tell you, I was nervous even to preach this sermon this morning because I have these needs and some of you may not like what I’m saying. Some of you’ll think I’m too hard. Some of you’ll think I’m too soft. Please love me.

See if I’m driven by that, I wouldn’t have a word to say to you today. We have to risk letting go. We have to risk opening our hand and trusting that God will fill it with his grace. And then all these readings suddenly make sense because I am the one that this really poor shepherd, he did not have a good business mind. Because I’m the one he left the 99 for and came for, what does that say about my esteem? Wow.

Because I am the one that Christ would stretch out his arms on the hardwood of the cross for, what does that say about the kind of affection I receive? Because I am the one who Jesus will never leave or forsake, and even if I mess up in here so bad that I wind up out there like a tax collector, well, because Jesus will come and get me, what does that say about my security? I’m free. I’m free to quit saying me, me, me, and to try and learn to say you, you, you. I’m whole in Christ.

I don’t know if this makes sense to you. It’s not that standards are unimportant. They are the most important thing. Our society is falling apart because we don’t know our right from our left. We don’t know good from evil. It’s not that church discipline is unimportant. I’ve already said the church is almost ceasing to exist because we’re just like the world. Those things are very important. But whenever we come at them like this in an attempt to build them up, we only break them down. We become our worst enemy. Remember, it’s good news, not scary news, not destructive news, good news.

And when someone knows you love them, you can say, “I’m real sorry that your marriage is struggling, but maybe divorce isn’t the answer this time.” I can say to that young man whose liver’s almost gone on meth, “If you get out of here, you have to stop. I don’t want to see you die.” Love enables us to be a watchman. Love enables church discipline. Love enables service. We have to learn to love. And here’s the twist, and here’s why we say this at a healing service. We can’t learn to love until we learn we are loved. Do not be afraid, little children. It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Amen.

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