Today’s sermon gets into the nitty-gritty of relationships. We will talk about discernment as it relates to what is going on in the relationships that make up our lives. If we think about it, our life is populated with relationships at all levels. We cannot ever avoid relationships, even the most reclusive people have relationships that form their existence. Even when we distill it down to just us, we have a relationship with ourselves. We talk to ourselves, we ask ourselves questions, we can be good to ourselves or treat ourselves poorly.
In life spiritual discernment guides us towards positive relationships.
All of life’s activities connect back to relationships, discernment is the deciding factor that makes or breaks those connections. It’s not just a tool; it’s the foundation upon which you build relationships. It is a spiritual gift that we can ask the Holy Spirit for.
Consider for a second the relationship you have with yourself. How often have you expected too little or too much of yourself? We struggle with the discernment to know our own capacity for our work. How often do we wish we had the discernment to know what is good for ourselves. Routinely, I will sacrifice myself at the Foodbank lifting boxes, standing in the hot sun, being on my feet for many hours. Is this wise? Am I caring for myself? Is the sacrifice worth it?
It is hard for us to be good to ourselves. Imagine now the questions, decisions and discernment needed to navigate a relationship with another human.
In relationships, we can set boundaries, we can negotiate our relationship, we can share our lives, we can do life together, we can love each other. Doing all those things well requires discernment. We can even challenge people, ask them to do more, be more, give more, etc. Doing that with care requires even more discernment.
What we cannot do is try to change someone or require someone to change. Change only happens when a person decides to change. We can not have expectations that we have not clearly established through boundaries or negotiation. It is not fair to have expectations that we have not verbalized. It is also not fair to expect anything someone has not agreed to give.
What I have just said is scary. Without expectations, demands or control, we can feel very vulnerable. If we drop our expectations and verbalize our boundaries or needs, the person may leave us. If we accept that the people in our lives are not there to meet our desires, we may not get what we think we need. Relationships, love and community are an all-in proposition. We accept the person for who they are. We love them wholly, the parts we love, the parts we like, the parts that annoy us, the parts that frustrate us and the parts we dislike.
Consider Jesus as he speaks with a very rich young man.
Matthew 19:18-24 Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Jesus discerns that the man’s wealth keeps him from being in a deep relationship with Jesus as a disciple. Jesus challenges the young man. The young man is told what discipleship and perfection require. Now he must decide. Will he decide and accept the path the other disciples gathered around Jesus had previously chosen? Jesus offers the young man a relationship and the perfection he desires. Jesus tells him about the conditions for the relationship he desires. The young man says no. Jesus lets the young man walk away and go on with his life without Jesus. Jesus is prepared to love the young man completely, but the decision to accept that love belongs to the young man.
As Christians, we often think that it is our task to change people. Jesus commands us to go into the world and create disciples. We often take the command to mean that we need to change people. We need to convert them from their current life to a righteous life following Christ. I think the command by Jesus calls us to invite people to follow Christ. We are not called to wrestle them into submission. In fact, if I look at the ministry of Jesus, he invited many, but coerced none.
Discernment helps us invite people. It helps us determine if our invitation is positive and one that we can build a relationship upon. Discernment helps us come to know one another and gives us the awareness to be a loving companion. Discernment helps us live through the moments when the actions of a loved one challenge us. Discernment gives us the steadfastness to see the relationship through hard times and difficult changes.
In circumstances where the relationship is more than difficult, even abusive, it gives us the courage to establish boundaries and negotiate just treatment. In circumstances where the relationship is unhealthy and abusive, it gives us the courage to leave.
When Jan and I took the Re|Engage marriage group offered here at Place of Grace Fellowship, it encouraged us to end our expectations. It encouraged us to fully accept the other person and come to appreciate the gifts they naturally gave us instead of the gifts we desired or expected. Learning to accept what we receive and to expect nothing can often open our lives up to wonders and depth of meaning we never expected to receive.
Even in relation to ourselves, if we accept what God has given us and expect less of ourselves in the places we struggle, we will probably enjoy our lives more. For example, I have tried to be better at administration my whole life. Once I gave up that expectation, life was more fun.
With Jan, I decided to be all in and love her no matter what. We have had to renegotiate our relationship from time to time, but over the years, I have learned to love her. I work not to have expectations of her to satisfy my desires. Rather, I strive to appreciate her for her whole self.
I love my dog, but she is a dog. I cannot change her; she will always do dog stuff. She looks way too pretty to roll in dead stuff or bird poop, but she does. She looks too smart to eat stuff of the sidewalk or to chew on toads, but she does. She should have enough sense not to throw up on the carpet when the hardwood floor is right there, but she doesn’t. I cannot change her. I must love her as she is or give her away. I’ll keep her in all her dogness.
Alright, let’s get into it. This isn’t some lovey-dovey fairytale where you hope things magically align. This is the real world, and sometimes, the universe serves you tough choices.
And let’s not forget the Pharisee and the sinful woman in
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
Jesus offered both, Simon and the sinful woman, a relationship. The sinful woman takes it; she’s all in. Jesus accepts her desire to be in relationship. He has no expectations of her. He doesn’t even ask her to go and sin no more. He accepts her with her past, her current situation and her audacious gift. The Pharisee Simon? The jury’s still out. It is his choice to make. Jesus lets him decide. Jesus does not try to change him. Jesus does challenge him. He criticized Simon for not providing customary hospitality for an honored guest.
Jesus invites Simon to accept him. The story does not tell us Simon’s choice. However, Jesus moves on with his life and leaves the decision to Simon.
Your life’s a lot about relationships, right? You’ve got family, friends, maybe a spouse. Those relationships are like a big deal. You give something, you get something. But sometimes, people don’t hold up their end. What do you do then? Let discernment and the Holy Spirit direct you in prayer. Seek awareness. Ask what is going on? Can I make a difference? How can I invite or challenge without criticism or without making it about me. Struggle to continue to hold the person in a loving positive place in your mind and heart.
This isn’t about changing anyone. You can’t. Remember, Jesus knew Simon well, he was invited as an honored guest. Yet Jesus let Simon decide, Jesus challenged Simon, but did not condemn Simon. Jesus carefully humbled Simon, but left space for their relationship.
So, why does this matter? Your life’s pretty much shaped by your relationships. Good relationships can make you happy and successful. Bad ones can really mess things up. In life we need an awareness system. The Holy Spirit provides that with discernment. Discernment tells you something’s off. The awareness of discernment
Helps us dodge bad stuff. It also helps us find good stuff and invest in good relationships. Because when a relationship’s good, it’s good. It lifts you up and moves you toward your dreams.
So, take this to heart. Use discernment to guide your path towards great relationships. Discernment will always guide you toward grace and away from judgement. Grace builds, challenges and helps people grow. Judgement condemns, pummels with a law and cripples.
Sometimes a relationship requires a firm hand. Sometimes you’ve got to step back in a relationship, even if it’s with a loved one. This isn’t about quitting on them; it’s about setting boundaries that protect everyone. Setting boundaries isn’t failure; it’s an act of courage that respects you and your loved one. It can be the wake-up call they need to turn things around.
Remember Sarah from our previous sermons, we return to her story.
In the weeks following her time with Lily, Sarah pondered her relationship with Karen, an old work colleague. They’d seen good times and bad but things had changed. Their priorities didn’t match anymore. One day, Sarah, inspired by her lessons with Lily and the story of the sinful woman, decided to act.
She called Karen and said, “Our friendship means a lot to me, but I feel like we’re drifting apart. At the time neither Karen nor Sarah knew what to do. Sarah asked if they could take some time to grow on their own see where they were at a later time.
Karen answered, “It’s not a ‘goodbye,’ it’s a ‘see you later.’ Let’s leave the door open for the future.”
Sarah agreed, “I’ll look forward to it.”
Sarah’s courage had turned a stagnant relationship into a hopeful future possibility. She felt that she was beginning to understand the gift of discernment. She realized that setting boundaries didn’t always mean the end. Sometimes it meant creating a new beginning, a chance for something better to grow for both people involved.
Sarah felt optimistic, sensing that her life’s book was far from complete but increasingly guided by discernment. It had been hard to even temporarily say good bye to Karen, but she knew she needed to honor Karen by letting her go.
Sarah felt both relief and trepidation after her conversation with Karen. Weeks turned into months, and both women went on their separate journeys. Sarah found herself diving deeper into personal development and faith, while Karen pivoted into a new career that she felt passionate about.
Six months later, Sarah received an invitation to a seminar about “Redefining Personal Boundaries.” On the list of speakers, she saw Karen’s name. Intrigued and sensing that the time was ripe for reconnection, she decided to attend.
As she listened to Karen speak about the importance of boundaries in personal and professional relationships, Sarah felt a rush of affirmation. Karen had changed, and so had she. After the talk, Sarah felt compelled to approach her old friend.
Karen saw her, and her eyes widened, “Sarah, what a pleasant surprise!”
Sarah smiled warmly, “You were fantastic, Karen. I had to come after reading the topic of your talk.”
Karen replied, “I’ve learned a lot these past months. Setting boundaries changed my life.”
Sarah nodded, “Me too. In fact, our conversation was a catalyst for both of us, it seems.”
“Would you like to catch up sometime? Maybe we can rekindle our friendship and build something new,” Karen offered.
Sarah agreed, “I’d like that very much.”
From that point, a renewed friendship blossomed between Sarah and Karen. They started to meet once a month for coffee, grounding their relationship in their newfound wisdom. The monthly meetings became a sacred space for sharing, learning, and mutual support.
Sarah felt a sense of completeness she hadn’t felt before. She recognized the arc of their friendship as a testament to the strength of discernment. Both had had the courage to step back when the relationship needed space for growth. Now, they had the wisdom to step forward into a relationship that honored both.
One day, Sarah gave Karen a bracelet similar to the one she wore, symbolizing the rebirth of their friendship. Karen accepted it with gratitude, fully understanding its significance.
“Here’s to new beginnings,” Sarah toasted during one of their coffee meetings.
“Indeed,” replied Karen, “and to friendships that can endure change and come out stronger on the other side.”
Sarah marveled at the journey she and Karen had taken. It demonstrated that discernment, courage, and setting boundaries didn’t always lead to endings; sometimes, they were the precursors to new, richer beginnings.
And so, they both stepped into the next chapter of their lives, their friendship a living testament to the power of discernment, the virtue of courage, and the beauty of second chances.
Love All, Change None: Jesus teaches us that love is an all-encompassing force, but it never seeks to change or manipulate. Using Matthew 19:18-24 as a base, I encourage us to love our partners, friends, and family as they are, without the need for change. The need to change someone arises from our need and not from our love. When we recognize this, we can turn to love and respect that individual’s autonomy.
Courage to Choose: Jesus often presented people with choices that required enormous courage. In Luke 7:39-43, he challenged Simon the Pharisee’s judgmental stance with a lesson on unconditional love and forgiveness. Live life with courage. Have the courage to love completely without the expectation of a relationship meeting our desires. Our choices in a relationship should respect the other person’s individuality and freedom to be who they are.
The Gift of Discernment: Jesus was a master of discernment, understanding when to surrender and when to challenge. Discernment is critical because, every action we take stems from a relationship we hold. Cultivate discernment. Know when to hold on and when to let go. Know when to challenge and when to accept. Always love without strings. In other words—no expectations. Be open to receiving from the relationship, even if it isn’t what you desire. Jesus didn’t need to get his feet washed with tears, but the sinful woman needed Jesus to accept her gift.
Let us bow our heads in prayer,
Heavenly Father, we come before You with gratitude for the wisdom You impart on us through Your Word and through the voices that guide us in our earthly journey. Grant us the gift of discernment so that we may courageously choose paths in our relationships that honor You and respect the individuality of others. May Your love serve as our guide, and Your grace as our sustenance.
And now, as you go forth from this sanctuary, may the courage of Jesus Christ be your strength, the wisdom of the Holy Spirit be your guide, and the boundless love of God embrace you and all your relationships. Go in peace, go with courage, and go with love.