Sermon from January 24: It Doesn’t Require Angels

It Doesn’t Require Angels
Epiphany III; January 24, 2021
Matthew 18

Since it is my calling to preach to you a sermon, I shall, although you have already heard two excellent messages this week in the President’s inaugural address and Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb.” Not in either of those, but at some point during the ceremony, there was an allusion to Abraham Lincoln’s hope in his first inaugural address that the nation’s wounds would be healed by “the better angels of our nature.” Please note that Lincoln was not saying that our nation was so divided that only angels could repair it; he was saying that we could be reconciled if we would attend to what is best about human nature.

Although I do identify as a Calvinist and I find our theological tradition to be compelling, I’m not inclined to think we humans are so far gone as many Calvinists do. Yes, we are sinners, but I also have found there seems to be something intrinsically good about human beings, and that’s where I want to focus today. To heal a nation’s wounds, to heal a family’s conflict, to heal a broken heart doesn’t require angels. It requires us to attend to the better angels of our nature.

Matthew 18 is chock full of wisdom and challenge and encouragement. Jesus says a lot of things in here that are worth paying attention to, and most of us have our favorites. Here is my general comment about them: he meant what he said. The teachings of Jesus are not simply nice ideas, something to admire and wish they would become real. They are practical guides for living well. If you’re a follower of Jesus, then you and I should strive to obey them. If you’re simply interested, then consider them good advice. I’ve heard it said that it’s a lot easier to praise Jesus than it is to follow him; to actually do the things Jesus advises in Matthew 18 is hard, but not impossible. It doesn’t require angels; it requires us to attend to the better angels of our nature.

There are four general principles in Matthew 18 for human relationships. If you and I work at these things then we can have better relationships as individuals. We can also be part of the work of healing the tears in our national fabric. I suggest you write these down and think about how you can make them part of your own agenda.

  1. Don’t bait each other (verses 6-9). Jesus describes it as putting a stumbling block in front of one of the little ones; he also says that extreme thing about cutting off body parts that cause you to be tempted. Since the Church as a whole is called the Body of Christ, I’m going to twist that a little bit today and say, “Don’t be the tempting body part.” When I was a teenager in the turbulent 1970s, my Dad and I enjoyed arguing with each other over environmental issues and other public concerns. I don’t know what he actually believed because he enjoyed taking a contrary position just to get me riled up. Some of you know it isn’t hard to get me riled up. When it’s all in good fun, that’s fine, but when a person or relationship is emotionally or intellectually fragile, it doesn’t help your relationship to bait them, to rile them up, to provoke them.

In public issues, I try (sometimes successfully) to assume that those who differ from me want the same things I do, but they have a different idea of how those things are to be achieved. The main difference between Democrats and Republicans, for example, is not motivation, but method. We want the same things for ourselves and for our nation: peace, prosperity, health for everyone, good relationships with others. We differ in how we think those things should be achieved. Refrain from calling each other names, from putting stumbling blocks in front of each other, from trying to rile each other up, and we may get along better.

  1. Make an effort to bring home the lost (verses 10-14). Although it takes only one party to destroy a relationship, it takes two to heal it. Do your best to heal relationships. Reach out to the one who has wandered off, to the family member who has been disaffected, to the church member who is angry. You cannot guarantee that the lost sheep will follow you home, but you will have tried.
  1. Talk to each other, not about each other (verses 15-20). This is the hardest one in the list, I think. You and I are so accustomed to thinking that we have to be “nice” to each other and never say anything to someone else that might cause discomfort – to that person or to yourself – that when we have a problem with someone we do not talk to that person, but talk about that person to others. Jesus explicitly tells us not to do that, but church people do it all the time. When they dislike another member’s behavior, they complain to the Pastor. When they have a problem with the Pastor, they complain to the Personnel Committee. If we’re going to pay attention to Jesus’ instructions, both of those are wrong: you talk to the person you have a problem with. If that doesn’t work, or you’re afraid to talk to them alone, take someone with you. Start there.

I did a sermon about this one day many years ago. Afterward, during the time of thanksgivings and prayers, one of our members stood up and gave testimony about a time he did that in his business. He could have sued someone, but instead he went and talked to them. They worked it out; it saved a relationship and also saved a great deal of time and money. Imagine what it could do for your family if you summoned the courage to talk to the family member who has hurt you, rather than gripe about them to everyone else. Imagine what it would do for our nation if we listened to each other and talked to each other, rather than insulting each other on Facebook or in the letters in the newspaper.

  1. Forgive, that you may be forgiven (verses 21-35). This too is hard, but it is possible. You have doubtless heard moving stories of forgiveness. One of them is from Phan Thi Kim Phuc, a Vietnamese woman who was pictured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph in 1972. The photograph is a group of screaming children running down a road after their village has been napalmed by the Americans. Kim is the little girl running naked, because her clothes had been burned off her, and screaming, “Nong qua! Nong qua!” (“Too hot! Too hot!”).

After months of pain and multiple surgeries, she was well enough to resume her life. Eventually she was married and had children; she lives in Toronto and runs a foundation dedicated to advancing healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. She became a Christian after reading the Bible as a teenager and says that God helped her learn to forgive. It was hard and it took a long time, but she finally got it. She even once had the opportunity at a Veterans Day event at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC to personally forgive an American pilot who had helped coordinate the attack on her village. Kim said, “Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days, but my heart is cleansed.”[1]

Whenever you and I say the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Think about that; what we are saying is, “Lord, if I refuse to forgive, then please do not forgive me.” Forgiveness is hard and takes a long time, but it cleanses the heart, as Kim Phuc said, and it is essential for the healing of relationships.

Well, there is more in Matthew 18 worth talking about, but I think I’ve said enough for one day. To recap, Jesus gives four commands or pieces of advice that help with healthy relationships:

  1. Don’t bait each other.
  2. Make an effort to bring home the lost.
  3. Talk to each other, not about each other.
  4. Forgive, that you may be forgiven.

All of these things are hard, but none is impossible. We don’t need angels to do it for us; we need only to attend to the better angels of our human nature.

Thirteen years ago Kathleen and I got to meet Joe Biden at a small gathering in Shenandoah, Iowa. I was moved by the positive way he talked about the American people: he spoke about our possibilities, about what good things we are capable of. In his address on Wednesday, he said, “We are good people. And over the centuries, through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we’ve come so far, but we still have far to go.”[2] Let’s not get too Calvinist and quibble over his words “We are good people.” Let’s take them for what they are and apply them to all of us: Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Libertarian; White, Latino/a, Black, Asian, Native; born here and immigrant. Assume the other is at least as good as you are.

And cling to Amanda Gorman’s closing lines; apply them not only to the nation but apply them especially to Jesus’ church. It doesn’t require angels; it requires that we attend to the better angels of our nature. And though I will not try to match her magnificent performance, I wish to finish by reminding you of her words:

We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.
The new dawn balloons as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.[3]

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska


[1] From Glenn McDonald, “Morning Reflection,” May 20, 2020

[2] Joseph R. Biden, Jr.; Inaugural Address. From the Omaha World-Herald, January 21, 2021,  p. A5

[3] Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb.”