Hockey Hassles

This is “Hockey Hassles,” a short story and illustration from A Prairie Boy’s Winter by William Kurelek:

“William dreaded arguments, and there always seemed to be arguments in hockey games. A common cause was the lack of a net. For goal posts, two oak poles had been driven into the ground before flooding the rink, but without a net it was often difficult to tell which side of the post the puck had gone. William was a poor skater and preferred not to play on skates, so he was made goalie. This put him right in the center of the arguments.  All the boys joined in. Sometimes, one side pretended to be generous and give in on a goal. But usually the side that shouted the loudest and longest won the point.

“William made his own shin pads by cutting off old trouser legs and sewing them up and down at regular, spaced intervals. Into these narrow pockets he slipped thin slats from apple boxes and then attached the pads to his legs with rubber sealing rings from his mother’s preserve jars.

“The goalie’s stick was easier to make than those of the offensive players. William had only to nail two layers of support slats on the side of a board. But other boys spent days examining branches and small trees on their way home from school in the hope of finding one suitable for a hockey stick. Some simply nailed two thin boards together neatly at the right angle, and hoped they would not come apart at a crucial moment during the game. A lucky few got real hockey sticks for Christmas. Jesse, the star player, was among the lucky, and it was often he who argued with William over which side of the post the puck went.”

And so it begins, apparently at a tender age: Our penchant to argue and bicker over weighty matters of right and wrong.

When luck is on our side, the puck clearly sails through the center of the goal, mercifully leaving precious little to debate. If only it were always that simple and easy – because there’s always one Jesse who fancies the splitting of hairs.

But when our luck runs out, the puck flies a volatile path so close to the edges of what’s in and what’s not, what’s right and what’s wrong, that making the call boils down to matters of different angle and varied perspective. Players often believe what they want to believe!

And so it goes, apparently not just for kids anymore: Passionate voices, not always of reason, arguing the merits of what was seen or not seen, what did or didn’t happen, what was experienced or unexperienced, what’s fact and what’s lie. In the obsessive search for what is and what isn’t, tempers inevitably flare, and volumes predictably increase. Once again, truth is the first casualty of war.

No doubt, as with those conflicted youngsters on a winter prairie, that the side shouting loudest and longest always wins the exhausting war of verbal attrition. Right doesn’t always beat might. Apparently, truth is a relative thing; justice is mere blind ambition.

And so it is, our “new normal” if you will: A dangerous sport that we dearly love to play on and off the ice.

But just as a coach leaves the bench to go out and counsel his players, Jesus steps boldly into the chaotic fray during winters of our discontent.  With a thick dark marker scrawled on a handheld whiteboard, Jesus maps out the movements of how the game of life is supposed to be played.

In the Gospel of Matthew, hear what without question is the Word of the Lord:

“If another member of the church sins against you,” Jesus said to his apostles, “then go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a pagan and a tax collector.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Then Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus replied, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:15-22)

For some, these step-by-step instructions for resolving conflict that Jesus sketches out here in Matthew are pretty much cut and dried.

When another’s unruly behavior burrows deep under your skin or shoves more than a couple burrs in your saddle blanket, you simply follow the rules and give that person the “biblical treatment.”

And if the sad-sack offender won’t see the error of his or her ways, refuses to repent of such unfaithful mischief, and trashes the notion of saying “I’m sorry,” then the Church is supposed to step in and move forward with a resolving means of formal discipline that safely distances the innocent from the guilty.

In short order, it’s perfectly OK to shun someone when you cannot reconcile your differences, and it’s equally fine and dandy for someone to shun you when the two of you are at loggerheads.

Well, maybe.

But I’m not entirely convinced that either of those binary outcomes fully pleases the Lord.

Jesus, I’m reasonably certain, does not intend his words to provide an inflexible template, a precise method, or a rote set of maneuvers for you and me to follow to the legalistic letter and thus regain relationship for the long run or cut off ties for forever and a day.

Yes, Jesus is advising a way for handling troubled situations and dealing with those whose opinions and behaviors range from irritatingly different to seemingly insane.

But no, Jesus is not suggesting that precisely following his plan lets you live your best life ever!

It just doesn’t seem all that Christ-like for the Lord to reduce the complexities of human life to a simple set of 1-2-3 steps that contain all the subtle nuance of a recipe for baking a loaf of bread.

Nor does it feel very Jesus-y to declare, after all is said and done correctly but to no avail, that you’re absolved of your responsibility to forgive or pray for that dirty, rotten scoundrel who’s done you wrong but feels no sense of guilt or remorse.

In the heart and mind of the Lord, none of us ever reaches the end point where grace, mercy and forgiveness no longer apply.

Since Scripture interprets Scripture, let’s zoom out from this morning’s lesson just a bit.

In the verses preceding this section of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable of lost sheep that pictures a God who at least knows no bounds when it comes to seeking out those who wander off and suddenly find themselves in desperate need of the Lord’s tender mercy and loving care.

And we just heard Jesus declare each and every one of us to be people whose debts has been forgiven again and again to exponential degree. Your sky-high debt, as well as mine, has been canceled free and clear.

Then, at the end of this chapter, Jesus uses another parable to pronounce harsh eternal judgment upon those who’ve been much forgiven but then turn around and refuse to offer even one iota of forgiveness to another.

So, as personally satisfying in a passive-aggressive sort of way as it sounds, Jesus gives no one carte blanche to go around shunning people. 

“But pastor,” you might object, “that’s all well and good, but Jesus does wrap things up with orders to treat the unrepentant person ‘as a pagan or a tax collector.’ Period. Full stop. That really does sound to me like the last word and end of the story!”

Um, ya. But no!

Remember, this is Jesus who speaks those words. His voice radically adjusts the tone of the message, and his Holy Spirit fine-tunes how we hear what he’s got to say. Think about it:

Does Jesus ever cross scriptural paths with a pagan he doesn’t seem to like?

Does Jesus spurn and shun tax collectors, prostitutes and other “sinners” who neatly fit into these broad categories of supposed ne’er-do-wells?

Of course not. Quite the opposite!

Jesus finds himself in hot water with the religious establishment of his day precisely because of his routine willingness to ignore moralistic custom and associate openly with those kinds of fallen, far-from-perfect people.

If Matthew really does have something to do with the Gospel that bears his name, then he surely knows firsthand what a blessed assurance it is that Jesus does not avoid tax collectors. Don’t forget: Before Jesus chooses him as an apostle, tax collection is Matthew’s day job.

So, it seems at best unlikely – and at worst all-but impossible – that Jesus would use the terms “pagans and tax collectors” with any sense of scorn or judgment.

Think about it this way: A person whose life is devoted to racial reconciliation and fostering peace among persons of different skin colors would never invoke racial slurs in ways that validate their hurtful use. Doing so undermines the whole of such a peacemaker’s life and flushes away every ounce of his or her ethical integrity.

Likewise, neither does Jesus flippantly toss aside the truth of who he is and the Good News of God for which he stands by using “pagan” or “tax collector” as the uncomplimentary means of name-calling.

Instead, I’d suggest that Jesus is engaging in some gentle satire, telling his disciples that, even when you’ve done all you can to come to an understanding with a person whose behavior is genuinely difficult – and even if you had to keep some distance from such a person for various reasons, you are ever so not done reaching out to that person in mercy and love, peace and grace — even to a pagan, even to a tax collector.

Just as Jesus launches his ministry by reaching out to those deemed untouchable in his day, so too do we continue being loving toward, hopeful for, and much in prayer about even those people who don’t want to hear what we’ve got to say much less listen to the Church.

Even when things go about as haywire as they can go in the varied communities that surround us, our need to extend gracious forgiveness and reconciling love never, ever ends.

Agreeing to disagree isn’t going to cut it anymore!

Indeed, a tall order.

I must confess my own dark night of the soul that finds me struggling to at least tolerate those whose opinions differ from mine and understand those whose attitudes and behaviors are far afield from my own.

A little distance definitely feeds my ailing spirit and beleaguered hope with some nourishing self-care. Unfollowing or unfriending someone on Facebook surely feels like a much-needed shot in the arm, and discretion is ever-always the better part of valor.

But eventually, the elephant in the room must be named. And thanks be to God, whenever two or more gather in Jesus’s name for the work of reconciliation, Jesus affords us naming rights through the power of his Spirit, who reveals a candid, disturbingly frank look at the enormity of everyone’s sins, debts and trespasses.

Jesus is there – smackdab in the middle of the rhetoric, standing strong between both sides through the power of his Spirit, who gives all parties on all sides the courage to seek forgiveness and the integrity of faith to offer it.

We much prefer to throw out that “whevever two or more gather” phrase in terms of worship. But the verse is really all about forgiveness. And with Jesus firmly grounded in the thick of our disagreement, it’s pretty hard to deny the truth of sin and brokenness that leads to conflict. Nor should it be easy to deny your own role in conflict, because everyone plays a part, however small.

Maybe it is so, for myself and others similarly conflicted, in this time of public health emergency that’s disrupted the routines of Sunday-morning worship, that our truest, most-faithful acts of praise and adoration to God the Father of us all occur not in a sanctuary but in those festering places of our lives and rotten corners of our world where forgiveness needs to be sought and extended.

Let the healing begin, for Christ’s sake, and let it begin with the me.

Let it begin with the calculus of Christ, who embodies forgiveness that numbers not seven or 77, but instead is counted in immeasurable terms of grace that are far too vast to count.

By grace both given and received, received and shared, let us loose on earth the forgiveness that’s been loosed from heaven!

In the game of life, and in the heart and mind of God, restoring and maintaining healthy relationships are far more important goals than deciding whether or not the puck was in or out.

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message during morning worship on Sunday, January 17, 2021. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by M. Eugene Boring, Daniel J. Harrington, and Scott Hoezee inform the message, which is the first in a series of sermons based on the children’s book A Prairie Boy’s Winter by William Kurelek. Our song this morning, “Oh, How Good It Is,” comes from the Nordic Choir at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Dr. Andrew Last directs the choir.

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