Let Mercy Loose

Scripture: Matthew 18:15-20

Toilet paper.

The man walked around with a sad piece
of toilet paper tagging behind his shoe.

As it dragged,
a stranger turned and said,
“If I had toilet paper on my shoe,
I would want someone to tell me.”

One of my mentors told me that story
of their real-life experience.

As the stranger,
he had creatively considered how
he could convey information
while preserving the other’s dignity.

He had settled on,
“If I had toilet paper on my shoe,
I would want someone to tell me.”

His words halted me.

How often do we ponder the ways
to preserve the dignity of others
when the manure of life
attaches to their heels?

Jesus ponders this in the
conflict resolution process
proposed in today’s instruction.

Specifically, Jesus suggests this,
“If your kindred in Christ sins against you,
go and point out the fault
when the two of you are alone.
If they listen to you,
you have regained that one.”

Jesus’ words remind me of the distinction
poet and cultural architect, Joe Davis, makes
between calling others out vs. calling others in.

This distinction highlights the difference
between calling out a stranger
for the purposes of diminishing them
and calling someone in compassionately
for the purpose of transformation.

In the “Gospel Beautiful Podcast”,[i]
the host Michael Chan points out
that in today’s culture – quick to cancel people –
there is not a lot of room for growth.

Davis responds that for him
its not about calling people out
but calling in dear ones
to deeper relationship,
trust, and accountability.

We are going to mess up.
That’s humanity.

The question now becomes:
How do we create an adult
learning community together?

Davis points out how a lot of people
respond out of ego and woundedness.

How can we counter that, he inquires,
to prioritize the ultimate goal
of healing, justice, and collective liberation?

Davis gives the example of his buddy,
Dave Sherer, with who he leads
intercultural development trainings.

Sherer, Davis reflects, is someone
to whom Davis can say, “You hurt me”
and who will receive it.

To give people the benefit of the doubt, Chan adds,
there are those who do not know
that what they are doing wounds you.

Others cannot mindread.

How can we learn to communicate our needs
with assertiveness, humility, and grace?

A question for the ages.

To return to our simplified example
of toilet paper, what do we do
when someone’s poor choices
follow them around
like toilet paper on their feet?

Consider these questions:

What process do you follow?

Does the person know that they
have toilet paper on their feet?

Are they accountable for their behavior?

Responsive? Receptive?

Are you?

In the weekly commentary “Journey with Jesus”,[ii]
writer Debie Thomas admits that
her temptation is to read this Gospel passage
as the would-be reconciler.

Her mind focuses on the query,

What should I do if someone sins against me?

For that reason, in her commentary,
she reverses the situation and asks:

Am I willing to hear hard truths
from the people I offend?

Do I value honesty and authenticity
enough to surrender my privilege and power,
and listen without defensiveness
when a human kindred confronts my sinfulness?

Can I stop shielding myself behind my ‘good intentions,’
and sit with the actual impact my actions have on others?

In the end, do I care about reconciliation, justice,
repentance, and restoration as much as Jesus does?

Or have I settled for a spiritual life in the shallows?

I feel convicted.

In the book Emotional Elegance,[iii]
psychotherapist Bob Beverley writes,
“Spend 99% of the time fixing your own life,
and this will keep you humble
as you offer guidance
or ask for better treatment.”

These words call me to self-reflection:

If I want to call others out online
for their lack of action around justice,
what about my own lack of action?

If I am annoyed with my friend for being late,
what about all the times I have been late?

If someone loses their cool around me,
what about the times that I have done that?

It feels easier to tell others where they are wrong,
than to admit the places where I have done wrong.

Suddenly, embarrassed, I wonder:

If I’m the one with toilet paper on my shoes,
how do I want someone else to tell me this news?

Speak the truth in love.
I hear Jesus saying this.

Yet, I also hear this:
Sometimes others will not hear the truth.

What do we do then?

Jesus continues,

“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.”

These words remind us that,
while we are called to love,
not all behaviors are permissible.

When harm is happening to others,
we have a duty and responsibility
to say that it is not okay.

Take theft for example. If a theft happens,
we have a duty and responsibility
to say, “Stop, this is not okay,”
because it causes real harm to others.

Now, here is where it gets interesting.

Jesus goes on to say,
“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 or a tax collector.”

Okay. Pause.

How does Jesus treat tax collectors?
How does Jesus treat outsiders?

Spoiler alert:
They are the ones with whom Jesus hangs out,
like, all the time.

Moreover, Jesus tells the story
of the shepherd and lost sheep
just before these instructions.

A shepherd has a hundred sheep, Jesus explains,
and one of them strays.

Won’t the shepherd leave the ninety-nine
on the hillside and go in search of the stray?
If the shepherd finds it,
there is more joy over the one found
than the ninety-nine that didn’t stray.

Such lengths Jesus goes.

How shall we treat the lost?
With exceeding mercy.

How shall we treat those hard to love?
With extravagant care.

Jesus’ words challenge and raise questions.

If someone is hard to love,
why are they hard to love?

Do we look deeper at what is going on in their life?
What kind of community did they grow up in?
Have they ever even known love?

Suddenly, I wonder:

Do we make space for people to change?
If so, how?

Suddenly, I am enthralled
by how Jesus makes space
for the disciple, Peter, to change.

Just a few weeks ago,
we heard how Jesus said to Peter,
“I tell you this: Your name is now rock,
and on bedrock like this I will build my community.”

Peter, the rock,
or maybe it would be better to call him
Peter, the glacial erratic.

If cancel culture existed back in Jesus’ day.
Peter would have definitely been cancelled.

As Jesus withstood trial,
and a death penalty sentence,
Peter warmed himself by a charcoal fire
retorting, Who me? I’ve never met Jesus.

In her sermon “Confession and Cancelation”,[iv]
preacher Nadia Bolz-Weber reflects
that if that happened today,
if Jesus made that kind of person
the bedrock on which the church was built,
people would be tweeting non-stop about Peter,
bringing up all past indiscretions,
drudging up the YouTube video of the charcoal fire
where he denied even knowing Jesus.

They would be letting loose on him,
in the words of Shakespeare,
the dogs of war.

That Peter,
he’s a horrible rock!

By doing so,
they would miss the secrets
that Jesus doles out.

People have character and
the word ‘character’ in Latin comes
from the word ‘rock’.

‘Rock’ lies as the foundation of ‘character’
because it takes time for us to change,
just like a rock. One chisel at a time.

Jesus gets this!

That’s why, after today’s stanzas about conflict,
the next words out of Jesus’ mouth are:

Forgive your neighbor 70 times 7 times.

Forgive your neighbor 70 times 7 times.
because that’s how long it takes to get it right.

Suddenly, I see that the bedrock on which
Jesus founds the church is forgiveness.

Jesus purposely picks imperfect Peter,
because Peter knows what it is to mess up royally.

Peter knows that he needs forgiveness, and so,
he lets mercy loose in the world,
rather than the dogs of war.

Wow. Jesus sees Peter’s potential.

What I love about Jesus is that
Jesus knows how to have conversations
in a way that people can really hear.

What does it take?

Time. Truth. Assertiveness.
Forgiving self and others 490 times.
Not giving up on others. Mercy.
Not wasting your breath when people aren’t listening,
but still caring all the same.
Pointing a finger and leaving a door open
so that they can change their minds.
So that they can come back.

As humans,
we are going to mess things up.
That’s true.

As humans,
we want to do better,
or maybe we hide ourselves in shame
because we have already cancelled
the idea that we can re-form.
That’s true, too.

Yet, what is most true is this:
Jesus sees beyond our broken record
to the embers of our soul.

Jesus wants to be with us,
to see our aliveness,
to love us all the way home
to the fire of God,
where the winds of mercy
blow and whip all into
the bonfire of birth.

The potential Jesus sees is yours.

Will you step into the changing winds of grace?


[i] I am referring to the episode “Episode 2: Joe Davis” of the Gospel Beautiful Podcast with Michael Chan, published on October 20, 2019, accessible here: https://www.buzzsprout.com/680528/1897904

[ii] I am referring to the article “The Beloved Community” written on Journey with Jesus by Debie Thomas on August 30, 2020, accessible here: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2740-the-beloved-community

[iii] Beverley, Bob. Emotional Elegance. Bob Beverley and Aaron Beverley, 2014.

[iv] I am referring to the sermon “Confession and Cancelation” preached by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber on August 23, 2020, and accessible here: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CEPQccgnoH5

The featured image, “Broken Dam” is by luxaeternum.  It is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

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