These are the preaching notes for the sermon on Matthew 18: 15-20 & Romans 13:8-14.
So the fresh faced young thing is visiting her granny and says, “Granny, have you ever heard of Tough Love?” And Granny says, “Baby, there isn’t any other kind.”
Relationships are tough. They are what make life worth living - our relationships with friends, parents, members of the opposite sex, folks at work, on our teams, our children, even our brothers and sisters in Christ. These relationships make us who we are, connect us with God’s purpose for our life, give us satisfaction and pleasure. And sometimes drive us crazy. How do we handle relationships when they get tough?
There’s something very comforting in just knowing that our Lord and Savior - who was all about love - recognized and acknowledged that relationships get tough. In Matthew, Jesus gives the disciples and us a way to resolve conflicts between people who love each other and are bound together in Christ.
Lots of churches, including the Presbyterian ones, use this framework in their foundational documents as the right way to handle conflict: Step One - Go to the person you are having trouble with and try to resolve it. Step Two - take some people with you to help witness the process. Step Three - get the church involved. These are good, healthy steps. But I love that even Jesus acknowleges that they don’t always provide a satisfactory conclusion. If those steps don’t work, he says, then there is a fourth one - Treat the person like a tax collector or a Gentile. I think lots of organizations misuse this step, badly. Sometimes it is justification for shunning the person and ending the relationship with them.
But think for a minute about how Jesus treated tax collectors and Gentiles! Over and over in his life and ministry he forgave them, invited them to new life, healed them, included them, and generally continued to love them to pieces! We are reading this passage in a Gospel written by a tax collector - Matthew - who was called out of his tax booth and became one of Jesus’ closest friends. Jesus opponents shun tax collectors and Gentiles. But Jesus and his followers are called to a higher standard in relationships. Even relationships that get tough tough tough. That standard is love.
How does love act when the relationship gets tough? How do we say what we have to say to people we love in a way that heals and grows the relationship, instead of breaking it to pieces? How do we avoid doing more harm than good when we disagree amongst ourselves.
I have found the work of marriage and relationship specialist John Gottman to be very helpful in thinking about this.* He’s studied hundred and thousands of couples trying to resolve difficulties and he has come up with what he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” which applies not just to couples, but to any time love of any kind gets tough.
He says that there are four things that can happen when people disagree - these are the four horsemen - and that if they characterize the disagreement, then the end is near. It toally connects with Paul’s linking the end times with the law of love. It totally connects with Jesus’ putting this conflict resolution talk in the context of eternal salvation. Love and how we handle its tough parts has important consequences in this world and the next.
OK. When two people who love each other fight, they want to avoid riding any of these horses:
1 ) Criticism:
Attacking your partner’s personality or character.
Generalizations: “you always...” “you never...”
- Hostile humor, sarcasm or mockery - Body language & tone of voice: sneering, rolling your eyes, curling your upper lip
3 ) Defensiveness:
Seeing self as the victim,
- Making excuses (e.g., external circumstances beyond your control forced you to act in a certain way) “It’s not my fault...”, “I didn’t...”
- Cross-complaining: “That’s not true, you’re the one who ...” “I did this because you did that...”
Yes-butting: start off agreeing but end up disagreeing - Whining “It’s not fair.”
4 ) Stonewalling:
Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. People need time to cool off, but this is more than a cooling off period. It is consistent cooling off. stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, - Stony silence - Changing the subject - Removing yourself physically - Silent Treatment
These strategies for being in conflict within relationships will get you and the relationship into more and more trouble. They are the horsemen of the apocalypse! Don’t ride them!
Love finds another way:
Instead of criticism - love finds the way of “gentle complaint” - of making specific and personal observations. “When X happened, I felt Y” Instead of “You are a lazy no good jerk” say, “I want some help with picking up the living room each night.”
Instead of contempt - love makes the effort to express appreciation for the partner. It lets the other person know that we value them and value the relationship. Love respects a partner and never dismisses them.
Instead of defensiveness - Love claims responsibility. It asks, “What can I learn from this?” and “What can I do about it?” It listens to the complaint to try to understand what is underneath the words instead of instantly refuting them.
Instead of stonewalling, Love makes the effort to remain engaged, even if the terms of engagement shift - Jesus said, “Treat them like a tax collector or a Gentile.” Don’t be expecting brotherly or sisterly treatment from them. But you remember that they are related to you in love.
None of these strategies are easy. None of them can happen when our hearts are in turmoil and full of fear. Relationships are so important that when love gets tough, and we are hurting, we sometimes panic. It is fear that motivates us, instead of love. We feel so threatened that in our hurry to protect ourselves, we get on the apocalyptic horses and ride, ride, ride!
But love casts out fear. Jesus gives us a huge gift when he reminds us, in the context of talking about conflict, disagreement and relationships in trouble: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.” Jesus’ very real presence can help to calm and soothe us when love gets tough.
In just a few minutes we are going to come to the table of our Lord and receive the gift of his real presence that abides with us always. There is a place in scripture that says, “if you are on your way to the alter and you remember that your relationship with your brother or sister isn’t right, then go and fix the relationship and then come to the alter.”
But in actual fact, the times when love is tough may be the most important time for us to first come and receive the assurance offered here that Jesus himself is with us. His love and presence is the calming and soothing gift we need in order to then go and deal with the relationships that need fixing. I invite you to examine your life for those relationships where love is tough, and then come to the table praying that Christ’s presence will strengthen and nourish you to address them. When love gets tough, it is imperative that we remember Jesus’ promise: Whereever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am in the midst of them.
* Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, by John Gottman. 1994