Reflection for Sunday – September 10, 2023

Readings: Ezekiel 33: 7-9; Romans 13: 8-10; Matthew 18: 15-20 
Preacher: Margot Van Etten

If you are old enough, the name “Nickel Mines” might spark a shudder. Or wonder. 

On October 10, 2006—an innocent age where mass shooting was rare, if you can imagine that —thirteen girls ages 6 to 13 were shot in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in a horrifying manner by a deranged man from the local town who then shot himself.

Around the country, journalists’ jaws dropped at what happened next.  Within a few hours, the Amish community enfolded not only the victims, but the killer’s family in their love and care. While their children died or fought for their lives, Amish families also comforted the wife and father of the killer, holding them, enfolding the community around them and even establishing a charitable fund for the shooter’s family.

When reporters asked why, they said they did it because that is Jesus’ way.

What a witness! This tiny Amish community became known worldwide because of the forgiveness, mercy and grace they extended.

Jesus was (and is) shockingly countercultural. His whole life and teaching contradicts the actions, priorities and—most of all—attitudes of his time, and of ours. “Love your enemies” is a flat-out commandment, difficult enough that when we see it in action, we are stunned.

Compared to that, the matter of settling conflict among neighbors, friends and—above all—our sisters and brothers in the Church would be pretty small potatoes, no?

Well, not always. All too often the scenario is quite different.

I remember attending a wedding once where one brother became so angry when his estranged brother showed up that he had a red-faced roaring fit. We were all afraid he’d have a stroke. When he retired to fume in his car (missing the wedding himself) someone behind me muttered “so much for family unity.”

Jesus calls for something totally different from us.

The base, the foundation—the bottom line—is love. “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another,” says Paul. And impelled by this love we are to seek reconciliation, show mercy, attempt to heal whoever is hurt and mend whatever is rent. Especially when the hurt, the rending has been done to us.

There’s an outline. Not surprisingly, since we’re all children of God called to be God’s family, it sounds a lot like what needs to happen in family struggles.  Jesus gives three steps towards healing the rupture.

But the power of these steps depends on something else: our own attitude. We need, as far as possible, to have the same attitude Jesus showed all along and calls for from us:  love.

Not a feeling, not a warm pitter-patter, not a pretense that what the other person is doing is all right, but a love that wishes for the deepest well-being, healing, blessing for the other person. The one we are close to. The fellow parishioner. The neighbor.  The one who has harmed us.

This requires some hard work. It wasn’t easy for the Amish folk of Nickel Mines, and they spent time encouraging those who found it hard to forgive. The grace they extended was costly. And even the smaller harms and disputes challenge us to develop our capacity to respond as Jesus calls us to.

So, at least for me, there’s work to do before I approach the other person. It starts with reflection and prayer. With the sometimes hard work of asking to see the person as God’s beloved child.  As a not-enemy. (Or sometimes asking God for the grace to be willing to see them in this way.) When we can do this we open ourselves to God’s grace, and often we can find creative ways to approach the problem person beyond what we were imagining before. Then even if all efforts fail and we have to end our connection with them, we are still free from the huge burden of resentment and anger that poison our lives and rob us of joy like that poor, resentful man who missed out on the wedding.

The work of opening ourselves to love is actually one of the secrets to joy, to the fulness of life Jesus offers us. As individuals and as a faith community we become beacons of God’s grace and love. And once in a while the world is shocked when we are able to rise to a radical offering of forgiveness because it’s Jesus’ way.

And the world sorely needs this kind of shock.

Margot VanEtten
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