Sunday, October 17, 2010

Happiness in Six Words (Matthew 5:23-24, Colossians 3:23)

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come back and offer your gift.

Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

I find that children often give us some of the best wisdom in life, and since we are talking about relationships today, I would like you to hear wisdom on relationships from children.

Alan, age 10, says, “You got to find somebody who likes the same stuff. Like, if you like sports, she should like that you like sports, and keep the chips and dip coming.”

There are ways for a stranger to tell if two people are partnered. Eddie, age 6, says, “Married people usually look happy to talk to other people.” Derrick, age 8, says, “You might have to guess, based on whether they seem to be yelling at the same kids.”

Kids have some great thoughts on what people do on a date. Lynette, age 8, says, “Dates are for having fun, and people should use them to get to know each other. Even boys have something to say if you listen long enough.” Martin, age 10, says, “On the first date, they just tell each other lies, and that usually gets them interested enough to go for a second date.”

And how do you make a relationship work? Ricky, age 10, says, “Tell your wife she’s pretty even if she looks like a truck.”

Today, we are talking about relationships. Does anyone here have any relationships with anyone else? I’m not just talking about romantic relationships, though we will certainly talk about our primary partner relationships. If you have to deal with people in any way in any context in any capacity, you have relationships. So, does anyone here have relationships with anyone else? And if you’re like me, those relationships could always be just a little bit better. May we pray.

Many of you have noticed that my fiancĂ©, Ashley, is here today. She got the Sunday off from responsibilities at her church, and she’s here with us, and I have to tell you, it’s a real treat when we are able to be in the same place on a Sunday morning. But, if I’m going to talk about relationships today with her sitting here, it’s going to keep me honest – both now in what I say, and later on, in how well I practice what I say.

Relationships are a mixed blessing, aren’t they? On one hand, they can be a source of great joy, and on the other hand, they can be a source of great frustration. As a pastor, one of the best parts about my job is that I get to work with people. One of the worst parts about my job is that I have to work with people.

Everything in life is about relationships. Relationships are complicated enough, so today’s message is very simple, and I’m going to share with you how, in only six words, you can improve every relationship you have today, and set you up for better relationships in the future. Does that sound good?

Now, just in case you’re like me and can’t trust your own memory to remember something so simple, why don’t you go ahead and get the sermon notes out of your bulletin – it’s easy to find; it’s the piece of paper that says “sermon notes” across the top – and grab a pen or pencil so you can take some notes, because I guarantee there are at least six words you’ll want to remember from today’s message.

These important words come in sets. The first set is three words, and don’t say it just yet, but I want you to start guessing in your mind what three words I am referring to. Let me give you a few hints.

Research indicates that married and partnered couples who use these three words regularly are half as likely to separate as couples who do not use three words. Well, that’s pretty important! The University of Michigan healthcare system trained its medical staff and hospital administrators to begin using these same three words to patients and their families in certain situations where patient care was compromised, and the result of doing this was that in one year’s time, letters of intent to sue for malpractice dropped from 262 to 130 – more than a 50% drop in just one year, and the amount they paid simply in legal fees dropped from $3 million a year to $1 million. That’s also pretty significant, and just from saying three words!

Just three words – do you any idea what those three words are? I AM SORRY. Those three simple words are huge, and if you’re going to succeed in life, these words are going to have to flow regularly from your mouth. A 2005 study conducted by Success-Motivation, Inc. found that one of the most important success factors among the people they studied was a willingness to admit when they were wrong. Successful people regularly apologize when they’ve been wrong, and people who aren’t successful? Rarely do they apologize or admit that they were wrong.

The Bible teaches us the need to be reconciled to each other and to God. The entire Old Testament is largely concerned with how we can be reconciled to God and to each other, how we can make amends when we’ve rebelled against God and how we can make amends with each other. The idea is that before you come to God and ask for forgiveness from God, you first need to ask forgiveness from others for ways you’ve wronged them. Because if you’re going to ask forgiveness from a God you can’t see and perhaps haven’t wronged directly, it’s pretty important to first ask forgiveness for people you can see, who have real flesh and blood, and have wronged directly.

The challenge is that by the New Testament period, people were trying to short-circuit that process. Ever notice that people are always trying to find a shortcuts? It was no different then from now. And so here’s what would happen. People would offend other people and hurt other people, and then they would go and ask for God’s forgiveness, but they wouldn’t ask for forgiveness from the people they had hurt.

Jesus addressed this in his Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, and Jesus said, “Hang on a second there, it doesn’t work that way.” He says, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Why do we need to ask for forgiveness from people? Because, when we hurt someone else, we give them baggage. We give them baggage that they’re going to carry around with them, and that’s going to weigh them down. So every time we do something that hurts someone else, we put another burden in their bag, and they’re stuck with it. They’re stuck carrying around that tremendous weight, and every time they look at us or think or us, they are reminded just how heavy those burdens are and how much they resent us for putting them there. And so the things we have done become like a great weight around their heart, and makes it hard to have joy and peace and vitality in their life.

But, when we hurt others and fail to ask for forgiveness, we don’t just weigh others down; we get our own set of baggage, as well. Every time we look at that person, we can tell they’re mad at us. Well, that doesn’t feel very good! That just grows on us. And so we end up with our own baggage, and we’re struggling with it, and we’re trying to pretend like nothing is weighing us down. But we end up with a big giant weight around our hearts as well, and we’re robbed of the abundant life God promises and desires for each of us.

Ethics – how we treat other people – is the other side of the coin of worship. Strained personal relationships negatively affect the authenticity of our worship. Worship and ethics go hand-in-hand. We can treat other people in such a way that it damages their experience in worship and ours as well. Do you want to know how to trainwreck my effectiveness as your pastor? Ask me a question or bring me a complaint about some aspect of church business two minutes before I walk into this sanctuary to lead worship. One, you’re probably going to get a very honest, direct, and blunt answer from me about how I really feel about whatever it is you’ve just brought up. Two, you’ve just vomited something on my lap that often makes it very difficult for me to get my head back into worship.

Has anyone ever done that to you? Or, have you ever done that to someone else? We see someone we need to talk to about something, and we rush over to dump on them. And here’s the thing, it annoys the crap out of me, and I do it too! It was 15 minutes before Randy Walker’s mother’s funeral on Wednesday, and I saw Hans Warren, who chairs our finance committee. There was something I needed to talk to him about, and I said, “Hey, we need to talk shop for a minute, but not here.” And then I proceeded to explain and outline the very thing I had just said I wasn’t going to talk about until later.

There is a direct correlation between our relationships with others and our relationship with God. When we come to worship, we need to be mindful about how we’re treating each other. So here’s what I propose from here on out – no discussion of church business with me or anyone else on Sunday mornings until after worship is over. Not when you first get here, not during Sunday School, not on your way into the sanctuary, not during worship. Is that a deal?

OK, then. Everyone raise your right hand and repeat after me: “I will not ruin worship for other people. I will not talk church business with others before worship. I will respect others. I will always seek to build others up when I am here. I will never tear them down. I will forgive people when they forget and mess up. I’ll ask forgiveness when I do the same.”

Sometimes, we’re just not very considerate. A few months ago, Ashley and I were out by my pool and I had a lot on my plate that week and I was struggling to get the sermon together, and there was a funeral and a wedding and lots of paperwork due in the district office and a function with my Rotary Club and I hadn’t been to the bank and I needed groceries and hadn’t paid bills all week and there was laundry and the car needed an oil change and I was halfway through painting my bathroom and my sister was coming to visit and guess what, I was a little stressed. And Ashley listened for over an hour while I unloaded and processed and thought through so much of that. And when I was done, I put on my sunglasses and picked up the book I wanted to read that afternoon. And Ashley started to tell me about something she was going through and she really just needed a listening ear, and I never even looked up from the book. Caveat here: if you don’t have my attention, I’m not good at hiding that. Ashley said, “You don’t really want to hear this, do you?” and I answered, “No, I really don’t.” I continued my reading for another moment and she was silent, and finally I looked up, and I knew from the look on her face that I had just hurt her deeply. Ever do that? Realize that the person you love the most in all the world is the very one you’ve just severely wounded? And when I looked in her eyes in that moment and saw the pain and frustration there, I felt about *this big,* and I felt this incredible sinking feeling in my chest, as all this baggage was hanging around my heart.

Now, maybe you’re disappointed to find out that your pastor can act this way and if you need a perfect pastor, you’re going to have to find another church, because yours is a real loser sometimes!

And so I put my book down, and I went over and put my arms around her, and kissed her on the top of her head and said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for acting like a jerk. Can you please forgive me?” She did, and you know what? That’s life sometimes. That’s how it works. We do things and we say things that hurt each other sometimes, and then we come back and we say, “I am sorry” and we come back together again – that’s how life works. My experience has been that when we apologize, the process of healing and wholeness and restoration can begin.

You know that heavy baggage we saddled someone else with when we wronged them? When we apologize, we lighten that just a little bit. Not only that, but you know your own baggage of guilt and shame that you’ve been feeling, some of that begins to lighten as well – but not all of it, because the rest of it is still in their court. So, when someone else has wronged us and has come and asked for forgiveness and we withhold it, we just keep their baggage and ours weighed down. But when we extend forgiveness, we lighten the load just a little bit.

And that brings us to the next three words that you should remember. What were the first three? I AM SORRY. Then, learn to say, I FORGIVE YOU. Six words used frequently that will change your relationships. Sometimes it takes awhile to forgive. People can withhold forgiveness for years, choosing to carry around bitterness and resentment, and you know what? You’re entitled to that option. I just can’t figure out why you’d want to.

Consider the words of St. Paul in Colossians, words that would be a great foundation to build any relationship on. Would you join in saying these words with me: “Bear with one another, and forgive each other.” As we go through life with other people, they are going to do things that irritate us and annoy us, and we can let those things bother us and weigh us down. Sometimes we want to hang onto those things – I’m not sure why that is – and even when people apologize we respond with “You can stuff your sorrys in a sack, mister,” failing to realize that’s exactly what we’re doing.

It’s also important to realize that forgiveness and forgetfulness are not the same thing. Our actions always have consequences. You can break the law and the person you’ve wronged can forgive you, but the consequences of your actions may mean you’re still going to jail. I can tell you something in confidence and you could share it freely, and I may forgive you, but the consequences of your actions may mean that I stop telling you things. You may betray my trust, and I may forgive you, but the consequences of your actions may mean I don’t trust you again.

Now, what do you do when someone has wronged you, but they haven’t come to ask for your forgiveness? A few options here. You can just keep holding onto the hurt feelings, you can keep that weight around, and refuse to let go of it. Or, you can just let it go. We do this all the time. We realize people didn’t mean anything by it, or you’re never going to see that guy who cut you off in traffic again, or we realize that life’s too short to have all that hanging over us.

Or, you can skillfully and tactfully confront the person who wronged you to let them know they did. A word of caution here: most of us are not very good at doing this without practice. We usually confront people out of our own hurt and disappointment with them, out of our own anger and frustration, and we do so in a way that simply raises their defenses and makes it impossible for them to hear us. So, if you do this, you want to do it in a way that is disarming rather than confrontational. Again, just be careful with that one.

Another option if you’re finding it difficult to forgive someone, and this is honestly the best one. Pray for them. Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Just naming them before God, asking God to help us let it go, asking for healing in the fractured relationship, asking God to bless them even when we’re still sort of upset with them is a great step toward being reconciled.

Now, it doesn’t always work instantly. In fact, it often takes months of praying through something or even years. I remember a situation in which someone had wronged me and hurt me deeply and I prayed for them – I prayed for them nearly every day for six months. Then I ran into them several months later and you know what? I realized I wasn’t mad at them anymore. Because while I was praying for them, something happened. God did something in my heart, and it took away those feelings of anger and frustration, and I realized I wasn’t mad at them anymore. There was still work to do in fixing that relationship, but at least my walls had finally come down. So if you feel like you’ve got walls constructed between you and other people, whether you built them or the other person built them, start praying for them.

I want you to all have some tools to take home with you so you can practice this stuff. On your way out, I hope you’ll pick up the bright green quarter sheet that has a few things on it to help you in saying I AM SORRY and I FORGIVE YOU. It has the five essential characteristics of a good apology so we can get better at saying I AM SORRY, and then it has a fivefold process for coming to a place where we can genuinely forgive others. On the other side, it lists some of the health benefits of both seeking and extending forgiveness.

So when we say these six words – I AM SORRY and I FORGIVE YOU – when we seek forgiveness and when we extend forgiveness, we lighten that heavy baggage we’ve been carrying around, and our relationships are improved.

Today’s message is simple, and it comes with a simple invitation: to regularly say these six words. What are the first three? I AM SORRY. And the last three? I FORGIVE YOU. And so here’s your homework. I’m guessing that all of us here today have someone in our life we need to apologize to. And, I’m guessing that we each have someone we need to forgive. Today’s a great day to ask for forgiveness, and today’s a great day to forgive someone else.

Would you bow your head and close your eyes?

Think about those people whose forgiveness you need to seek. Right where you are, ask God to help you ask for their forgiveness. And think about those people you need to forgive. Pray for them and ask God to help you forgive them.

God, give us courage and strength to admit when we’re wrong, to realize when we’ve hurt someone else, and simply to say, I am sorry. By your grace, help us demonstrate grace and mercy to others. Help us to forgive others, as you have forgiven us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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