Scripture: Matthew 18:12-22
Given on 1/26/14 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
My dad tells this great story about when he was growing up. Dad was the younger of two sons and his brother, my uncle is 2 years older. Growing up they were best friends. They hunted and fished together. Explored the woods around their house. When the time came, they even shared a car. However, as is often the case, they had their fair share of brotherly squabbles and even fought. My grandmother, a woman of infinite patience eventually got pushed to her limit and sent them to where all troubled youth end up, the pastor’s office. As the story goes, my dad and my uncle sat in Dr. Sloop’s office above the sanctuary at my home church and began to each give his side of the story and Dr. Sloop, also an infinitely patient man, listened to each boy for awhile and then, as pastors do every now and then, began to quote the bible to them. Now, my dad had offered a litany of complaints against my uncle, normal boys stuff. So when Dr. Sloop finally responded he turned to this scripture that we have before us today. And he read about how the inquisitive Peter came up to Jesus after he had finished talking about how a healthy community should function with one another and Dr. Sloop was an older man and so he pulled down his King James version of the bible and read to them, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” The boys hearing Jesus speak about how brothers should behave towards one another left Dr. Sloop’s office having been thoroughly chastised by scripture. When they returned home, my grandmother noticed some amount of calm had returned to the house. Anytime my uncle would do something to torment my dad, dad would take the higher road and forgive him. But as my dad tells the story, he began to record it every time my uncle did something to him that would necessitate forgiveness. Called him a name, recorded. Stole something out of his room, recorded. Took the last cookie from my dad, recorded. And my dad kept up with these things until he got to 490, and while history did not record what wrong number 491 ended up being, my dad, who had long grown frustrated with the forgiving approach, in his words, “laid my uncle out on the ground.” It is possible that he had missed something of the meaning behind the words of Jesus.
Today’s scripture comes at a point in the ministry of Jesus when it is getting time for him to turn towards Jerusalem. I mention that because as he is talking to him disciples he has to know that it is getting on time for them to start figuring some stuff out. From the beginning, Jesus has offered a message that runs counter to much of what the disciples had thought to be the case. Whereas the Greco-Roman world was extremely striated between economic classes with the ceilings between levels nearly impossible to break through, Jesus talked about an economy in which all person shared freely with one another so that no one would experience want. In an occupied area in which revolts and revolutions against the Roman forces and retaliations by those forces created an environment in which violence cycled into more violence, Jesus implored the people, “blessed are the peacemakers for theirs is the realm of God!” In a time in which might made right, Jesus reminded all who would listen of the blessedness of meekness and how it was those who practiced it who would inherit the earth. All this flew in the face of the dominant cultural narrative and he had figured it out. But it was clear that the disciples still had a ways to go. And so as the time when he was to return to God drew nigh, Jesus knew that it was time for the disciples to gain a greater understanding of how the realm of God would look when it became a reality. And throughout this whole passage Jesus continually comes back to the image of the one who might be left behind being more important than those who are already here. And so he offers this example of the shepherd and the sheep and on its face it looks ridiculous. The job of the shepherd is to keep sheep safe. If one should happen to be lost the presumption is that the shepherd will forgo that one so that the rest might remain safe and yet Jesus tells of the shepherd leaving behind all the other sheep to find the lost one. And when the shepherd does find the lost? Joy. Exuberant joy.
In the same manner, Jesus tells them of how they are to act towards one another. Because, it turns out even in first century Palestine, that someone could step on another person’s toes and rather than going to that person, rather than saying something to that person, even back then, folks would find someone else to whom they might tell about it. But Jesus says, “no.” If someone wrongs you, go to them. Tell them, “hey you did this and it bothered me, I wonder if we might talk about it.” Sometimes that doesn’t work. Jesus has an answer for that as well. “If that doesn’t work, it’s ok. Take a second and third person with you. If each of you put your heads together the chance that you might solve the problem, smooth over the rough edges, continue to view each other in the love of God, dramatically increases. And it progresses from there. Bring the church into it if you need to. And finally, give it over to God. If all these other steps don’t work out, pray about it, know that you have done your best and seek other avenues of relationship. And when you do gather, know that this is God’s world. When you come together in groups to pray or worship, know that Jesus stands with you and that God hears you and that God remains in control of the world and all that is in it. Finally, the lesson my dad tried to learn. Be effusive in your forgiveness of one another. At the foundations of the universe is a single truth, life is incredibly hard. We each carry burdens that none of us know about, that none of us can see, that most of us feel we can never share. Secret shames and failures that color the way we see ourselves in the world. So be effusive in your forgiveness. 7 x 70 times.
These are interesting days in which we live. These are days when an image taken in some of the most remote parts of the world can be seen by millions of people seconds after it was taken. More information than Einstein, or Newton, or Kant, or Nietzsche would have acquired throughout the whole span of their lives is now available to people all over the world with a few keystrokes. News can happen in remote places in Africa or North Korea or Columbia and seen within minutes and all this is amazing. And important. More than ever before, people are able to see how other people, other cultures throughout the world live and play and this is drawing us all closer to a single fabric of humanity, a single family of humankind. And yet, just as often as this power is used for the betterment of us all, it has also been used to tear down celebrities and ordinary folks. To put people’s most private moments on display for us all to see and judge and what has that turned us into as people when we feel like other children of God are their to be mocked and derided. This is not what Jesus would have us to do. And you can almost hear Jesus saying, “don’t mock, help. Don’t tear down, build up. Don’t hate, love.” It is our job to reach out to the lost, the hurt, the suffering. It is our job to reach down into the darkest parts of the world and pull people into the light. It is our job to go to the one who doesn’t feel like she has a friend in the world. The one who doesn’t think anyone cares about him. The one who is broken and ashamed and be the person of Jesus in their lives. To be not just the hands and feet of Christ but also Christ’s ears, eyes, heart and soul.
Another interesting feature of our world and our culture has become a polarization of individuals and groups. Postmodernity has arrived and torn down many of the communities that have kept us together as a people and as a church and it has declared that you only have to be in community with those with whom you completely agree. Those whom you like and it is perfectly acceptable to leave those whom you don’t care for out in the cold to find their own way and while many may celebrate this as a triumph of the individual over the forces of complicity there is nothing remotely biblical about that manner of interacting with the world. Over and over the Bible tells us that we are called to be a single family, a single fabric. A tapestry of difference woven together into a single cloth and we are never complete without each stitch. We cannot let our differences drive us apart. That’s why Jesus gathered his followers together and said, if someone does something to you that bothers you, tell them. Here them out. Because that is the only way we may be full of grace for one another. Don’t become hurt but then never do anything to actually address the situation. Be grace-filled and speak with love. Because grace is this, presuming that folks are, at every moment, doing the very best they can with the combination of circumstances before them. This isn’t to say that we all make the best decisions all the time. We rarely do. Our history as a people testifies to that reality. But within each moment is a chain of events, some good, some bad, that have all come to fruition at a singular point and there is no way to know how each of those chains is impacting the person who sits at the apex of all of them. People have long histories of hurt and celebration, of joy and pain, of wholeness and brokenness and we cannot presume to know which of those is carrying the most sway on any given moment. People really do do their very best each moment. That’s what makes the presence of grace so magical and powerful. We each, broken as we are, cannot separate ourselves from the love of God as we have seen in Jesus Christ. We can’t do it.
At my last church, we had two services, one more contemporary, the other traditional. And features of the contemporary service was having the sacrament of communion each Sunday. There was something nice about having a chance both to remember the last moments of Jesus’s life but also taking the opportunity to look forward to a time of unification with all people in the house of God. Practically speaking, it also gave us the opportunity to clear the air with one another. Because to break bread with another, to share cup with another, was to recognize their membership in the family of God and the family of the church, was to recognize the shared sisterhood and brotherhood of gathering together at table. And you could not break bread with someone and still be mad at them. To do so was to deny the redemption and reconciliation that was at work in the life, death, new life, and resurrection of Jesus. It was to deny the power that the simple act of coming together around table had on the lives of all those with whom you may struggle to be in community. In the same manner, our prayer of confession, assurance of pardon, and passing of the peace each week has the power to do this. When we speak words of confession, we are confessing not just to God, but to one another of our fallenness, our brokenness, our sinfulness, and asking for forgiveness with each other. And when we pass the peace, something magical and transforming happens with the simple words, “the peace of Christ be with you.” You are saying, whatever divides us, whatever we have done to one another, pales in comparison to the forgiveness that we experience in Jesus Christ and that we offer to all those we meet. 7 x 70.
And so, in a culture that forever is dividing people, one from another, in a voyeuristic appetite for destruction, lets us, in the church, be the place where people can come to put is all back together, where people come to be family with one another, where people come because it is a source of light in an increasingly dark world, because it is the one place where they know that they can get a smile, a hug, a cup of coffee, and can sit in silence knowing they are surrounded by the love of God. And glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.