There’s a short story written by Flannery O’Connor entitled the “The Turkey”, and the story centers on a young boy named Ruller. One day in the woods he spots a wounded turkey. He imagines himself marching triumphantly through the front door of his house with the turkey slung over his shoulder, to the screams of joy from his family who will be amazed at his bounty. He’s finally able to chase down the turkey and starts carrying it home.
“Thank you, God,” he says. “Much obliged to You. This turkey must weigh ten pounds. You were mighty generous.”
Ruller thinks that this turkey might be a sign from God. He thinks about becoming a preacher. He wants to somehow pay God back for this turkey. Then he comes across a woman begging for money and gives her the dime he has in his pocket. He feels happy.
But then, as he walks home, he encounters a group of boys who take his turkey. Ruller is stunned. He watches the boys walk away until he can’t see them anymore. He slowly begins to walk home, and then breaks into a run. And this is how Flannery O’Connor ends the story: “He ran faster and faster, and as he turned up the road to his house, his heart was running as fast as his legs and he was certain that Something Awful was tearing behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch.”
In the text, Something Awful is capitalized and it reads capital S Something, and capital A Awful. Something Awful is capitalized because that’s how Ruller views God. For him, God is someone who might make you chase after a turkey all day, or give you a turkey, or take that turkey away. God is unpredictable, fickle and dangerous. And most of all, God is out to get him.
As O’Connor writes, “Ruller was certain Something Awful was tearing behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers to clutch.”
I wonder how young Ruller would read today’s Gospel reading from Matthew. If God is the Something Awful out to get us, then Matthew 18 looks like a battle plan drawn up to help us get other people when they get out of line. If someone wrongs you, you go get them individually. If they don’t submit to you and admit defeat, you take some more people to get the job done. And if that works, you expose that person in front of the whole church, kick them out, and treat them as an outsider.
If God is out to get us, then Matthew 18 becomes a way to get others. But the truth of the good news is that God isn’t out to get us, and Matthew 18 isn’t about getting other people.
This past week I was reading in Romans and yet again I was struck by the truth of God’s grace. God is the one who justifies the ungodly. We are all bound up in our own sins and the sins of others, yet God graciously offers us the free gift of new life, if we only put our trust in Christ. “While we were enemies of God,” Paul writes, “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” And as I read these portions of Romans, I thought about something the Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon wrote about the Reformation which was also greatly inspired by the same letter of Paul to the Romans.
“The Reformation”, Capon writes, “was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace–bottle after bottle of pure distilate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel–after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps–suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started…Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.”
During the Reformation, people were intoxicated by the truth that it’s God who single-handedly saves us. It comes down to God’s grace–totally unmerited favor. It’s pure, strong, and has to be drunk straight, not mixed with good works or our efforts to pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. It’s just a free gift to be received. In Christ, God has reconciled us to Godself. God has done this because God loves us and there is nothing we have done, or can do, to earn or deserve it.
This is the good news that God isn’t Something Awful tearing after us with rigid arms and fingers ready to clutch us. This is the good news that before we even showed up on the scene, God was already in the process of reconciling us, we were home before we even started.
In that light, Matthew 18 isn’t a battle plan for how to get at others. It actually becomes a way to share the grace we have received in being reconciled with God. If someone wrongs us, we go to them in private to honestly address the issue, but with reconciliation in mind. That the relationship might be healed. That the person sinning might turn away from what is destructive and turn back to the path of life. And then, if that person isn’t restored and won back, others are to be taken along to help restore that person to life and to the community. And if that person still will not turn away from the sin that destroys them and the community, they are to be treated as a Gentile or tax collector.
Now, this is an extreme circumstance, but I can imagine instances, though not many, where someone’s behavior is so destructive to themselves and others, that the best course of action is to remove them from the community. Separation is sometimes necessary. But let’s step back here and ask ourselves something. How does Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? And for that matter, how does Jesus treat you and me?
He looks at us with compassion and love. He sees how we are bound up in our sins that destroy and steal life from us. And then he offers himself in love. He offers us grace and a way back into life and wholeness. He reconciles what we have broken.
God isn’t Something Awful stalking with rigid arms and fingers ready to get us. God is the one who loves us even in our sins and gives us what only God can give that we might be reconciled to God and to each other—grace. Pure unmerited favor. It can only be drunk straight, no water or ginger ale, no mixing in our goodness or badness, just drinking in the truth that we were all home before we even started.
If a sister or brother in the church sins against us, we don’t seek to get them or win a battle. Instead, we try as much as we are able, to find ways to do for each other what God has always done for us, to find ways to heal what has been broken.
In the catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, the question is asked: “What is the mission of the Church?” The answer is given: “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
Let it be so.