Proper 19, Year A ‘17
Matthew 18: 21-35
September 17, 2017
“Take my lips, oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
“And in anger the Lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. “That doesn’t sound like good news to me. What are we to make of it? The Gospel lesson for today challenges us to think about forgiveness. How are you are about forgiving? Some day’s I’m not especially good at it. A friend makes a cruel remark or spreads gossip or passes on something said in confidence. Someone breaks the trust I had in them by abusing power in some way and it hurts deeply. It is so much easier to hold a grudge or to react with anger. Not helpful perhaps, not especially healthy, but easier and, frankly, more usual. But that certainly is not what Jesus clearly says we should do. This statement from the gospel According to Matthew presents us with several problems. First, from talking with others, and knowing myself, I am not convinced that the ability to forgive is one that is especially common. Perhaps you too have seen the bumper sticker that proclaims: “Don’t get mad, get even!” It seems the more common human attitude. Here’s another problem I have with that statement about forgiving others. It feels like a set up for failure. It gives the false impression that we, all by ourselves, can be so much better than we seem to have been created to be. And another thing. That statement gives us a seriously inadequate picture of God. What kind of god is it who on one hand would create and call us good and then punish us for doing something so ingrained in our nature? Don’t get me wrong, I am NOT saying that, since we cannot forgive as God does we shouldn’t even try to imitate God by working and praying to forgive, not at all. God does in fact ask us to forgive just as we have been forgiven. Further, it looks to me as though forgiveness is absolutely essential to continuing healthy human relationships. Living in any kind of community is impossible without forgiveness.
We simply cannot keep from hurting one another, and without forgiveness those hurts deepen, fester, and become fatal. Fortunately for us this is a kingdom parable. One that serves to tell us something about what things are like in God’s Kingdom, “that ancient prophetic vision of a world of justice and peace”; to quote former presiding Bishop Schori. That vision of God’s Kingdom points to what God is like. Here’s the thing. What we think God is like is enormously important. It’s basic to our faith and our living. What we think about God shapes our relationship with our Creator. It shapes our behavior toward others and toward ourselves for that matter. So, what does this parable tell us about God? Let’s turn back to it. “Once there was a king, he found one of his servants owed him ten thousand talents.” I don’t know how the servant came to owe that much. It was a huge amount of money, something like the national debt of a small country. The king, wanting his own back, ordered the man to be sold, and ordered all his family to be sold as well. It wasn’t enough to pay the debt but it was something at least. But make no mistake. It was also extremely bad news for that servant. It would break up the family which would hurt the kids. And, who knows what use the poor wife might be put to, especially back in those days. The servant begged: “please give me time, I will pay it all.” It was a ridiculous promise to make. The man certainly could never keep it. But this is where the story gets really interesting. Instead of insisting on at least having some kind of payment plan the king simply forgave the debt entirely, no strings attached. Wow. It sounds as though Jesus is telling us that forgiveness is grounded in God’s nature. What is God like? God is forgiving, and forgiving on an astounding level. So it is in the Kingdom of God. Those who wish to be part of that Kingdom must also forgive and receive forgiveness as well. The problem, of course, is that we cannot, all by ourselves, imitate God so perfectly. So, where does that leave us? Let’s go back to the beginning of the story. We didn’t hear it today but just before telling this story Jesus taught that the only way to enter the kingdom was to become like children. Understand, that was a real insult back then and I’m not sure that we are any easier with that teaching today. But there it is. Only when we acknowledge our utter dependence on God can we get beyond our human need to get back what is owed to us, to have our own way. Much as it was foolish for that servant to say he would pay back what he owed the king it is also foolish for us to think we can earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others. Beyond that, what kind of God would stoop to behaving as we do and find some way to get back at us? That just simply isn’t how God works. That is making God in our image instead of remembering ourselves made in God’s image. I wonder sometimes if the problem isn’t mostly our pride. It’s so very hard to see ourselves as dependent on another or even on God. And much as it’s hard to put down our pride and forgive someone who has hurt us it’s every bit as hard to put down our pride and accept forgiveness, whether for those things we have done or for those we have left undone. As far as I can see all of that lands us squarely at the foot of the cross. The cross is, when all is said and done, God’s final act of love and forgiveness.
What God did through Jesus doesn’t fit with our notions of legal or right or correct. It’s not just, it’s not fair, not at all. Instead it’s pure grace, pure love. The thing is, God is unfairly and abundantly good. We might not feel easy about it. We might not like it one bit. But we are forgiven no matter what. I don’t know how it is for you, but this gospel left me revisiting those things for which it is hard to accept forgiveness and those grudges I find hard to let go of. Thankfully this is the God I know, the God I confess. God is creator of all, the Holy One who creates us new every day. God was willing to stoop down, to come and be one of us and so forgave us once and for all. God is perfectly able to sustain us in grace as well. It’s not so much that God loves us unconditionally, though that’s true enough, But that God knows us intimately, knows the very worst of us, and loves us despite that knowledge. Loves us enough to forgive us entirely. We can depend on God our Creator to answer when we call. We can depend on God, our savior, to point us in the right direction, helping us to grow in faith. We can depend on God, the Holy Spirit to give us what we need most to forgive both ourselves and others and go forward into God’s new day.Thanks be to God. Amen
Proper 18, Year A ‘17
Matthew 18: 15-20
10 September, 2017
Take my lips, Oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Tale our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
This week, as I prayed with and thought about our reading from the Gospel According to Matthew, I found myself reviewing what I’ve learned about Matthew over all. According to the notes in my Oxford Annotated Bible we can look at this Gospel as a kind of manual of Christian teaching. Jesus is described here as the fulfiller, and the fulfillment, of God’s will. Scholars have noted that the stories of Jesus’ actions and his teachings are arranged in both a kind of biographical order and in a grouping of five discourses by common themes. Our lesson today is part of the fourth discourse which has to do with sincere discipleship. So, think back. We’ve heard Jesus ask; “But who do you say that I am”? Do you remember Peter’s answer? Peter said this: you are “The Messiah, the Son of the living God.” That, pretty clearly, has to do with the theme of discipleship. Who do you say that Jesus is? However, the narrative has also reached a turning point in the biographical order. Jesus is beginning to announce his fate. Last week Jesus told his disciples that he would go on to Jerusalem. He would suffer and eventually be killed. That announcement was followed by a word to all Jesus’ disciples about taking up our own crosses”. Clearly being a Christian is no easy thing, it’s a serious commitment to a radically different way of life. Except, let’s admit it, it’s easy to believe in this time and culture, that following Jesus’ is much easier than it really is. After all, it’s not very likely, here in the US, that we will ever have to actually come to that hard point of dying for our faith. At the same time though, listen to our lesson today. This is where, for us, the rubber really hits the road. It’s a description of what Jesus means when he says, “Take up your cross”. Let’s listen to it again. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” That’s easier said than done for most of us. It’s so much easier, and often more satisfying for most of us to take our complaint to someone else first. But, here are Jesus’ instructions about what it means to be his disciple. Remember, this passage is set in a context, part of a longer teaching about our behavior as Christian people.It’s all part of what Jesus envisions our faith life to be.
Jesus’ expectation is that we will look after one another and be honest with one another.
It’s not easy though, is it? I fail at it, we fail at it, often enough because we are merely human. So, within his instructions to his disciples Jesus talks about reconciliation because our actions always have an impact on the whole community. The thing is, being a Christian really is tightly tied to living in community, which is surely a counter-cultural notion for us. So, reconciliation, it’s a big concept. Reconciliation means both parties in a dispute have a voice, both points of view are heard, and accepted, by the parties affected. The point of reconciliation is to restore relationship if at all possible. But, of course, it doesn’t always work out the way we hope. And so Jesus says if the other refuses to listen and the community can’t seem to help well, then, treat that person as you would treat a tax collector or a gentile. It’s important to remember that those folks were about as much an outsider as anyone could imagine back then. Who fits in that category for you?
Now, what do you remember about how Jesus treated those tax collectors and gentiles?
Think about how Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman and healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter. No Jewish man in his right mind would do such a thing back in Jesus’ day. Remember too that Jesus actually called a tax collector as one of his disciples. Matthew, in fact, is described as a tax collector. We aren’t allowed to put limits on who we reach out to either. Here’s another crucial thing about reconciliation. It calls us to always leave the door open to forgiveness. Whether we have been wronged or we have wronged another Jesus’ action paired with his teaching says leave that door open, don’t write anyone off. Jesus puts it in terms of binding and loosing. Those are technical terms as Jesus used them but we can extrapolate. We can choose, you see, to bind one another more tightly into separate camps, tying ourselves tightly into polarized positions, driving one person or another out of the community. Or we can let loose of our need to be right, of our pride, and of our fear of conflict. In the end that’s what has the best chance of binding a community together in the light of God’s love. That’s what opens the way to healing and to newness of life as God envisions it for us, God’s holy people. Do you want to grow in faith? Do you want to see your lives together as a church grow? How we treat one another is a powerful witness. As we hold ourselves open to forgiveness, whether to receive it or to give it, God works within us and we grow in faith. When others see how we speak of one another, how we treat one another we show others something of how God is at work in our lives and God’s love is spread in powerful ways. No, it isn’t always easy. And yes, we will sometimes fail. All we can really do is try, with God’s help, to live as Jesus taught us. And we can trust God to be with us always because Jesus has promised us that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” I don’t know about you but I call that promise very Good News. Amen
Proper 17, Year A ‘17
Matthew 16: 21-28
3 September 2017
Take my lips, Oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Tale our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
I wonder, how many of you tried the exercise I suggested last week? Remember? That spiritual exercise of coming up with 1000 names for Jesus? Hard as it is too think of 1000 names for me it’s even harder to hear those names applied to myself. After all, Jesus is Jesus, I call him savior and Lord. How is it for you? There are at least two things at work here I think. On one hand, it’s hard to believe our selves worthy of such high regard from God. Then again, and maybe this is the bigger concern, what would it mean for us if we did really believe that we are chosen by God, beloved of God, and possess some, particular, gift that God needs to fulfill the plan for God’s creation? It’s all well and good to hear Peter identify Jesus as God’s chosen, and to hear that wonderful story last week when Jesus went on to affirm Peter as the rock on which Jesus would build the church. But what about us? That story is a wonderful one for us too. When we hear it we can also feel affirmed. After all, we are, each and every one of us, part of the church that exists now as the body of Christ. Unfortunately, that was last week and this is this week. Today’s gospel is not nearly so much fun to listen to. Jesus’ words are hard ones as he tells Peter and the others about exactly how he will carry out God’s plan for all humankind. Jesus said: “You are right in saying I am the Messiah, but since I am, I must go up to Jerusalem where I will suffer much and be rejected by the religious leaders. There I will be killed, and after three days rise again.” Now, as usual, Peter jumped right in with both feet. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” I’m sure that Peter could never imagine that, if Jesus was the promised Messiah, his fate would be so devastatingly disastrous. After all, this crazy idea that the Messiah would experience rejection, pain, and death just didn’t fit with what anyone believed about God’s messiah.
Poor old Peter, much as he got it just right in last week’s reading he got it entirely wrong in this weeks. Jesus became so frustrated, so angry, with Peter that he really dressed him down. “Get behind me Satan!” And we can understand where Jesus was coming from too. He was counting on Peter to provide leadership. He needed Peter to understand. And Peter just didn’t. Perhaps Peter, like us, couldn’t quite believe that God had chosen him to be part of God’s plan. And perhaps Peter, again like us, was saying, “Oh no God, not me.” I’m with Peter here, I really don’t want to suffer unpleasantness or rejection, let alone real pain, suffering and death. I don’t imagine any of you do either. It’s so much easier to forget the details of what Jesus went through, to focus on Christmas and Easter, while turning away from Good Friday. It is, when you come right down to it, simply human to focus on those wonderful shining moments of joy, of triumph. It’s just that God’s ways are not our ways. Retired Priest Ken Kesselus, who inspired this sermon, has this to say. “With God…it has to be [another] way. For through his life, death on the cross, and resurrection, Jesus saves us by showing us the way to a life of God’s forgiveness, love, and grace – given with no conditions, no strings attached. God provides for us the chance to live a life with a full range of the possibilities potentially present in everyone.” The thing is to say that Jesus saves us by his death is to say that he, once and for all, overcame the power of sin. It’s to say that God has already forgiven us, that God will always forgive us. One thing that Jesus, the Christ, tells us through his life and through his death and resurrection is that God regards us as worth dying for. And God counts on us too. Certainly, our lives are made up of a mix, sometimes wonderful, sometimes bland, and sometimes difficult, even sometimes just plain tragic. That’s just the nature of creation. Still, Christ’s death and resurrection gives us the hope and the purpose to go on in the face of whatever happens to us. We do well, to ask “what next, with God’s help.” I know you have all heard what happened next in the Gospel. Jesus called his followers together. He told them, in the clearest of terms, what was at stake for God’s creation and what they were called to do. In order to follow Jesus they, and we, have to deny ourselves, take up our own crosses, and follow him all the way to Jerusalem. What does that really mean though? After all that phrase, “take up your cross” is applied to all kinds of situations, some fairly nonsensical. The thing is: Christ calls us to forget ourselves, and our own needs, in order to remember others and care for them as Jesus did. Christ calls us to be ready to endure what might happen to us when we live true to God and God’s values. No, being a Christian is not always easy just as life is not always easy. At the same time though, being a Christian is always meaningful, always life affirming, always life giving. But there is even more good news in today’s gospel.
Scripture tells us that we really do have the resources to take on or give up whatever we need to for God’s sake. God will always provide what we need in order to give of ourselves so that God’s will and God’s work may be done. God will give us just what we need to take up those crosses. We don’t have to horde our resources whatever they may be. We can give ourselves away because we know, deep inside, that God gave us life not to hold onto it but to spend it for the sake of God and all God’s creation. Taking up our own crosses is really nothing more than remembering with gratitude what God has already given us and then acting as good stewards of all those gifts of time, and treasure, and talent so that God can use them. And there is still more good news here this morning. Jesus also tells us about the result of our self-giving. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” There is no profit at all in trying to hang onto worldly riches, whether time, talents or treasure when hanging onto those things leads to losing our spiritual lives. Jesus tells us quite clearly, quite plainly, that we may, and sometimes do, find ourselves compromising honesty or honor for self or imagined safety. We may let go of Christian values or principles for popularity or to cling to a sense of our own rightness. But what does any of that gain for us in ultimate terms? Jesus points out that all we gain in the end is a kind of self-imposed exile from our greatest possible treasure: God’s self and God’s Kingdom. It doesn’t have to be of course, God has already given us all we need, exactly what we need, and always will, when we seek to be one with Christ, picking up our crosses and following Jesus as faithful members of his body in today’s world, living the Good News we have received so that others can hear and share it too. What will you choose?
Reverend Carol Ann Bullard, is our interim Priest and there is a quick bio on the home page.