Unfinished Business

Scripture: Matthew 5:21-26, 10:5-23

I have a great friend who is passionately dedicated to becoming the best person he can possibly be. Years ago, he went through a phase where he read lots and lots of self-help books, sending me copies of the ones he liked best. 

At first it seemed like a sweet gesture, but as time wore on I found it daunting to look at my nightstand and see tall stacks of volumes devoted to my improvement. As the pile grew, I wondered whether he was trying to tell me something.

To be candid, I didn’t finish all of the books, and there were a few I barely started. Some of them were poorly written. Others struck me as bossy, and brought to mind one of my favorite quotations from Thoreau’s Walden: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.” 

Also, I couldn’t figure out why a few of the authors were qualified to give anyone advice about anything other than on how to get a self-help book published despite their conspicuous absence of credentials. Nevertheless, I appreciated my friend’s kindness and I did, indeed, find valuable ideas in a number of the books he sent my way. 

One of my favorite books was about the leadership lessons that all of us can take from the principles followed by the United State Marine Corps. Now, we don’t ordinarily think of the Marines as being big on compromise. For example, after having been told that his troops were surrounded by the enemy, Marine Corps legend Chesty Puller is said to have responded: “Good, they’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us … They can’t get away this time.”

Nevertheless, one of the Marine Corps principles the book discussed is that in certain circumstances we should go ahead and take action even though we have only 70% confidence in our success. The Marines call this concept “the 70% solution” and they rigorously teach and follow it. The Marines believe that, particularly in the foggy conditions that characterize war, waiting until you have 100% confidence is often fruitless and even dangerous.

The book argued that because fogginess and uncertainty characterize many other parts of life as well, the 70% solution has applications beyond the battlefield. I agree. Since learning about it, I’ve used the idea productively in lots of different contexts—from courtrooms to classrooms to committee meetings. 

I’ve come to recognize that sometimes 70% is 100%, because 100% will end up being 0%.

And, yet, in other circumstances 70% simply isn’t good enough because it unnecessarily leaves behind a critical 30%. 

The small Michigan town where I grew up had only one handyman, who was notorious for failing to finish anything he started. He completed only about 70% of the electrical work my parents hired him to do, which was a less conspicuous failing than when he painted only about 70% of a neighbor’s living room. 

We don’t want a pilot who flies us 70% of the way to our destination, or a waiter who brings us 70% of our lunch order, or a surgeon who performs 70% of the operation. If someone asks if you love them, say “yes” or “no” but for heaven’s sake don’t say “70%.”

Granted, there may be Sundays when you wish I’d given 70% of my sermon. But I do try to remember that there’s a fine line between a long speech and a hostage situation.

In the gospel reading for today, Jesus touches on this issue of unfinished business. “Look,” he says, “if you’re offering your gift at the altar, and you remember that someone has something against you, stop everything you’re doing and go reconcile with them.” After you’ve done that, he adds, well then you can go offer your gift.

This simple directive seems to me charged with all sorts of subtle messages and insights that deserve our attention. Indeed, in terms of helping us figure out how to improve ourselves and add meaning to our lives, I’d stack this single verse up against all the self-help books ever written. 

To understand why, we need to look closely at what Jesus says in this passage and to break it down into its component parts. 

First, Jesus tells us to place more value in human beings than in institutions—even the most important of institutions. We know that Jesus venerated the Temple and its altar; that’s why he chased the moneychangers and the sacrifice merchants from the premises. Yet, in this passage, he says we must give a higher priority to our brothers and sisters and our relationships with them.

Second, Jesus tells us not just to proclaim our values, but to live them. Failing to reconcile with someone who has a grievance against us before making an offering at the altar doesn’t pass that test. Indeed, paying tribute to a compassionate and forgiving God—while refusing to exercise compassion and forgiveness ourselves—is a manifestly hypocritical way of going about things.

Doing so also disregards the will of the very God we claim to be honoring. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus tells the Pharisees in the ninth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, quoting the prophet Hosea. And so, in this passage, Jesus tells us to give God what He wants most and to save the ritual gestures for later. “Here’s my tribute,” we say; “Go love your neighbor,” God replies—“that’s the tribute I’m after.”

Third—and this strikes me as deeply interesting—Jesus tells us to do the hard thing first. Think about it. Jesus might have said: “Make your offering, and then—as soon as you can—go reconcile with your brother or sister.” But he didn’t do that. And he didn’t do that because he understood that reconciling with other people can be hard, and we human beings tend to put off the tough stuff until later—you know, until we don’t get around to it. 

Coincidentally, this guidance aligns with the advice provided in another of the self-help books my friend sent to me. The book observed that when our to-do list includes something difficult or unpleasant we tend to move that item to the bottom, muttering under our breath “I’ll deal with that later.” The book argued that this approach gets things backwards: If possible, we should take on the hard task first, get it out of the way, and shorten the time that it lives rent-free in our head.

Permit me also to point out that “later” or “as soon as I can”—the point at which we plan to do these hard things—is not a specific deadline but is a vague reference to all of time, which (last I checked) stretches indefinitely into infinity. Framing the project in these terms helps guarantee that we will never actually turn our attention there. 

In my mentoring of young lawyers, I often give them this bit of guidance: “Everything you truly care about must have a deadline, and that’s because things without deadlines do not exist, and that’s because things withdeadlines eat them.”

In his endless wisdom and understanding of how we operate, Jesus gave us a deadline. The hard work of reconciliation? Do that now. Do that first. It will help your peace of mind. And, otherwise, you will probably never get it done.

I have nothing against self-help books. But I believe we can save a lot of money and visual acuity—and can significantly better ourselves and the world around us—by just following the guidance Jesus gives us here. Put people above institutions. Live our values, don’t just talk about them. And do the hard stuff first.

Now, I want to return briefly to the 70% solution, because I think that it connects with something else Jesus tells us and because some of you may find the message useful, especially at this time of year. To understand that message, let’s look closely at the second scripture reading, this one from the tenth chapter of Matthew. And let’s remember what’s going on here.

At this point in the gospel story, Jesus has assembled his twelve apostles and is sending them out into the world. He gives them tremendous responsibility—the authority to cast out unclean spirits, the power to cure every disease and sickness, and the capacity to usher the children of God into His kingdom. 

Jesus assigns them the most important job description in all of human history: Bring light into a world full of darkness.

But what I want you to notice is that, in the midst of this commissioning, Jesus makes something else completely clear as well: The apostles? They matter, too. He knows that people will ignore, condemn, and assail them, and that he is sending them out as sheep among the wolves. So, he also instructs them in self-preservation. 

He says: Be as innocent as doves—but also as wise as serpents. He says: Flee when you must and you can. He says: If no one welcomes you or listens to you, then move on; shake the dust of that town off your feet.

His message is impossible to miss, although we manage to miss it anyway: Everyone counts in the Kingdom; and that “everyone” includes each and every one of us.

Now, why am I talking about this? Well, on Thursday of last week we celebrated Thanksgiving and initiated the season that will take us through Advent, Christmas, and the New Year. The holidays have begun. For some of us, this brings challenges of a depth and darkness that can’t be solved through glitter, packages, flickering lights on trees, and red-nosed reindeer.

Those challenges can come from many different sources. The loss of a loved one. A fractured relationship. Loneliness and isolation. Depression and grief. Addiction and obsession. Poor health and physical infirmity. Financial distress. Navigating complicated family dynamics. The current state of international affairs.

Even without these sorts of challenges, aiming for a 100%-level holiday season can set us up for spectacular failure. The world as we find it simply doesn’t look much like those Norman Rockwell paintings, or those Hallmark channel movies, or those television advertisements in which everyone is gifted a new car every Christmas—well, everyone but me. 

The holidays, as we actually experience them, often force us to shift our aspirations from the positive to the negative. We move from goals like “this will be the best Christmas ever!” to “I’ll try not to strangle my loud-mouthed uncle during Christmas dinner.” My friends, it’s a sacred time of year; we should at least let him finish dessert.

My point is simply this: During this season of generous impulses, don’t forget to give yourself a gift as well—the gift of grace. Remember that just like all of God’s other disciples, you matter, too. And in an exercise of self-care, you may need to be not just innocent but wise, to flee when you must and you can, and to shake some dust off your sandals.

To be clear, Jesus does not call us to a place of selfishness, grudge-bearing, and bitterness; absolutely nothing in the gospels gives a green light to the Grinch that lives within all of us. But we cannot simultaneously pay tribute to the One who brought Love into the world—and then fail to love ourselves. That’s just like ritual without reconciliation. And that’s something Jesus quite plainly tells us not to do.

Giving ourselves grace means giving ourselves room. Room to settle for 70%. Or 30%. Or .0001% if that’s all the circumstances and our intestinal fortitude make possible. 

This is not a contest, and there is no qualifying round at the beginning or trophy waiting at the end. This holiday season, God will meet you wherever you are. And if the formidable warriors of the United States Marine Corps will cut you 30% slack, imagine what your Father in Heaven will do for you.

In the course of my 65 years on planet earth, I’ve had some very rough holiday seasons. Seasons where it seemed like everything was lost. Seasons where it seemed like everything was on fire. But, on each of those occasions, God met me where I was and gave me reasons for hope. 

Those reasons usually came in human form, the good people that the Good Lord saw fit to put in my path.

The online writer Nikita Gill has a short poem that goes like this:

“Everything is on fire,

But everyone I love is doing beautiful things

And trying to make life worth living,

And I know I don’t have to believe in everything

But I believe in that.”

Me, too.

As I look out on this congregation, I see people I love. Doing beautiful things. Trying to make life worth living. Trying to make the world better. Trying to bring light into a world full of darkness.

We don’t need to believe in everything. But we can believe in that.

And we can believe in this: As we walk through the door of the final month of this year, the most powerful and most loving and most powerfully loving force in all creation will come right along with us. 

Not 70%, but 100% of the time.

100% of the time.

Praise God that it is so.

And the people said: Amen.

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