15th Sunday after Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who forgives and calls us to forgive. Amen
Our lessons for today
deal with forgiveness,
this complex action that rests at the heart of Jesus’ ministry
and the way of life to which he calls his disciples.
all throughout his teachings
he has reinforced the idea
that forgiveness is key,
even to the point of teaching them to pray,
“forgive us our debts as we forgive the debts of others.”
now Jesus and the disciples
are talking about what happens when relationships in community are broken,
earlier in the conversation
Jesus has detailed a path to reconciliation with specific steps
So now seems like a good time to clarify
once and for all
what Jesus expects
and our friend Peter jumps into the breach.
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
by opening his mouth
Peter shows that he has missed the point,
Jesus responds “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Forgiveness is not always a one and done thing,
it is a continual action, a process,
a way of life
and often has more to do with the one doing the forgiving
than the one being forgiven.
The best definition of forgiveness that I have come across
came from a speaker I heard when I went to Israel/ Palestine in seminary,
she was a part of a group of families
who had lost loved ones to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict,
families from both sides
came together to share their grief and to work for peace,
so for this presentation there were two speakers,
a Palestinian woman whose husband had been killed by Israeli defense forces
during a random traffic stop
and an Israeli woman whose son had been killed by a Palestinian sniper
while he was on patrol as part of his monthly army service.
It was the Israeli mother
who tried to define forgiveness,
and while I’m sure it is not original to her,
I always associate it with her.
She said that for her,
her working definition of forgiveness
was giving up the right to revenge.
This definition rings true to me for a couple of reasons,
first it is from the perspective of the one who has been wronged,
and it acknowledges that in many cases
the wrong would understandably be cause to seek revenge,
the old an eye for an eye justice,
which according to Jesus
makes the whole world blind
and Revenge has a way of consuming the individual seeking it.
In the movie the Princess Bride,
the character Inigo Montoya
has spent his whole life seeking the six fingered man who killed his father.
His waking hours have been practicing sword fighting
and he knows exactly what he will say when he meets the man
“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.”
In the course of the movie the six fingered man is killed
and then Inigo reflects
“I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.”
In seeking revenge
Inigo allowed the six finger man
to take his life as well as the life of his father.
Forgiveness as giving up the right to revenge
also allows space for anger,
often the words forgive and forget are paired together,
but more often
that is not possible, nor is it practical
and it is right for the one wronged to be angry.
Forgiveness does not mean that the wrong done to a person is okay,
it means that the person who has been wronged
has chosen to stop the cycle of violence,
and to move forward with their life
and this takes time,
not seven times but seventy-seven times,
committing again and again
to moving forward with life,
working for peace in community
when the one who has sinned is repentant,
relationships are able to be repaired.
Our reading from Genesis is one such example,
the scene is the culmination of a long and tumultuous relationship
between Joseph and his brothers.
Remember Joseph is the youngest brother,
the favorite Daddy’s boy
who gets the fancy coat.
His brothers are jealous
so they sell him into slavery
and fake his death to their father to cover their tracks.
Joseph ends up in Egypt
and after much hardship rises high in the ranks of advisors of the pharaoh.
When the brothers come to Egypt seeking food during a famine
Joseph recognizes them and pulls a couple of tricks on them
before revealing who he is,
forgiving his brother’s and sending them home with food.
Now we have another forgiveness scene,
Much time has passed and Jacob dies,
Now Joseph’s brothers are worried
that Joseph only forgave them
while their father was alive
and now that he is gone
he will take revenge on them,
so they plot to secure their safety,
through inventing a final wish of their father,
that Joseph forgive his brothers
and once again they fall before their brother weeping
and seeking forgiveness
Joseph’s response is remarkable
he says “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
Over the long arc of his life
Joseph has not only given up the right to revenge
but he has been able to see how God
was able to make the best of a bad situation,
to bring good out of evil,
Joseph has made it to a place
where he and his brothers can be in relationship,
even without their father.
This didn’t happen overnight,
it took a lifetime.
When Peter asks Jesus
how many times he must forgive
he’s missing the point of forgiveness,
he’s looking to see how many boxes he must check off
to be right with God before moving on.
Jesus’ reply shows
that forgiveness is a way of life
and that God expects us to be changed
by both the giving and receiving of forgiveness.
And Jesus practices what he preaches,
making forgiveness a way of life,
constantly offering us grace and mercy,
setting us free in our relationship with God
and turning us back out to the world to forgive others,
and Jesus knows this is not easy,
that we will need some encouragement and strength along the way,
which is why at the last supper with his disciples
he promised to come to us
in bread and wine, body and blood,
forgiveness tangible in the crumbs between our teeth
and the wine sliding down our throats,
forgiveness becoming a part of who we are,
all because of the grace and mercy of God. Amen
14th Sunday After Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who offers a path to forgiveness. Amen
Our lessons for today
offer up a contrast,
the ideal versus reality.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans
he exhorts them to
“Owe no one anything except to love one another,
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law,”
all of the law is summed up in the teaching
“love your neighbor as yourself”
and he tells them
that now is the time to put on the armor of light,
to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Reading this leads us to expect
that those who have put on Christ,
who call themselves Christian
will do as Paul says,
who out of love will do no wrong to a neighbor.
This is the ideal.
then we have Jesus teaching the disciples in Matthew
beginning “If another member of the church sins against you…”
as he lays out a way to deal with conflict within the church,
taking into account
that it may not be easy
and even impossible
to reconcile a relationship broken by sin.
This is the reality,
and thank God,
Jesus is the one that is realistic,
he knows that when people gather together in community
there will be conflict,
and rather than simply condemning conflict
he provides a way to move through it,
to forgiveness and a stronger community.
One of the greatest complaints
of critics of religion and religious people
is that it is and they are hypocritical.
People say one thing and then go and do another,
they preach love of one another
and then go ahead and stab each other in the back,
or do things that do not look like love,
we constantly fail to live up to the ideal
and it makes people not want to be a part of it.
when the ideal is the only measure used,
we are hypocritical
because part of being human
is failing to love one another perfectly,
and contrary to what some on the outside, or even inside may think,
we are aware of our failings,
we know the painful truth that while God made us saints at our baptism
we are also still sinners,
which is why we come to church,
confess our sins in search of forgiveness
and to praise the God that does forgive.
This all reminds me of an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
It’s a tv show on Netflix and the premise is that the main character was kidnapped by an apocalyptic cult leader and kept in an underground bunker for 15 years before being rescued.
The show starts when Kimmy leaves the bunker and begins to rebuild her life, many 90s references and comedy of errors follow as well as genuine revelations about what it means to live in the world.
In season three Kimmy encounters a person who decides they want to be a Pastor and she freaks out, and she realizes that the only religion she has experienced is the underground bunker kind, so she gets her friend to take her to church.
At first she’s all excited about the nice people she meets who give her hugs at the passing of the peace and offer to pray for her, and who knew that churches did great things like feed and clothe the poor?
Then she gets to know the individuals a little better, particularly Ms. Clara, an older lady who takes cell phones from kids in church, knows everybody’s business and gossips about it
Kimmy’s ideal is shattered and she sets out to expose Ms. Clara as a bad person, when she accuses Ms. Clara in front of the whole congregation she is floored at the response, the minister affirms that everybody there is a born sinner but “as the old folks used to say, when you know better, you do better.”
Ms. Clara tells her “I know I’m a gossip and a scold, but I pray everyday for the strength to do better, I got to do better.” at this Kimmy has a revelation, “So I guess real religion is about knowing we’re not perfect but trying to be better, together.”
And that’s what Matthew 18 is about,
recognizing that we’re not perfect
but trying to be better together,
particularly through instruction.
Teaching was a huge part of Jesus’ ministry,
and the command at the end of the gospel of Matthew,
as Jesus is about to ascend into heaven,
is to baptize in the name of the father, son and holy spirit
and to teach everything that Jesus commanded.
Jesus know that we’re not perfect,
but when you know better,
you do better.
Today we’re kicking off our Sunday School ministry for the year,
we’re obeying Jesus’ last command,
gathering as a community
to teach and to learn,
it is important that we pass this knowledge on to our kids,
we promised we would do this when they were baptized,
to help them learn to love their neighbor as themselves
and what to do when that just doesn’t happen.
and it’s important that we keep learning as adults
because we know we’re not perfect
but we’re trying to do better,
a task that takes up our whole lives
and requires a community to hold us accountable.
Jesus doesn’t expect us to be perfect
but he does expect us to try,
and to hold ourselves and others in the community accountable,
and throughout all this
Jesus promises to be with us,
to be among us when we gather as a community and invoke his name,
to meet us at the table in bread and wine
offering forgiveness and strength
and in the very end
when we stand before God
because we have been joined to Christ,
God will look on us as perfect
for the sake of Jesus our Savior. Amen
13th Sunday After Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who calls us to a way of life. Amen
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
A way of life
is a series of choices
that are consistent with one another,
who we are
is revealed more by the choices we make
than who we claim to be,
and choices have to be made
when paths whether real or metaphorical intersect,
where they cross.
Who we are is revealed at the cross.
Before the cross
became shorthand for “Christian” and “salvation”
before people decorated it and wore it about their necks and on their hands,
before we carried it into houses of worship,
the cross marked a moment in time,
a decision point,
the place where life was uncertain,
where two roads diverged and a choice had to be made.
And it was both a tool and a symbol of condemnation,
used by the empire to signal
when the person crucified upon it
had made what the prevailing power determined as the wrong choice.
To choose to go against the prevailing power of the world
is the road less traveled,
and going down that road makes all the difference.
In our gospel today
Jesus tells his disciples
what will come from following the path he has chosen to take,
he will go to Jerusalem and there he will cross
(which we also use as a word to mean make angry isn’t language fun!)
the people in power
and as a result of his life lived this way
he will suffer and be killed
and he throws in here be raised on the third day.
And I don’t think Peter hears that last bit,
or understands what it means,
but he does understand the part about suffering and dying
and he doesn’t like it
and says “God forbid”
and begins to try to exorcise the demon from Jesus
who is making him say these things.
just moments before
Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the messiah, the son of the living God
and Jesus affirmed that proclamation,
and made him the cornerstone of the church.
And in this next instant
Jesus turns to Peter and says
“get behind me Satan”
and just like that the corner stone has turned into a stumbling block.
the problem Jesus says,
is at this crossroads in time
Peter has chosen to think of himself rather than God.
To set his mind, not on divine things, but on human things.
And Jesus lays it out for the disciples,
the way of life of a follower of Jesus
is a way of life that focuses on God
rather than themselves,
of choosing to serve God’s desires
rather than their own or those in power,
choices that often will come into conflict with the powers that be
but in the end actually lead to life,
It seems counterintuitive but it’s true,
a full life is lived beyond ourselves
while when we focus on our own desires,
or even our own fears,
the steps we take to preserve our lives
often lead to a restricting of our life.
It reminds me of this parable, there was this couple who lived in the city but began to become afraid of getting hurt by living in the city, all those dangerous people there, so they moved to the suburbs and felt safer until they realized that dangers lurked there too and so the stayed within their neighborhood and felt better until they realized that their neighborhood could be dangerous as well and so they lived within their block until they realized that there too lay the possibility of getting hurt, so they stayed within their yard until that too revealed itself to be dangerous and they moved to the house and gradually the rooms in their house revealed themselves as dangerous until the couple retreated to the closet where nothing could hurt them. In seeking to save their lives, they gave up everything that makes up a life.
Our lives are defined by the choices we make,
the choices we make reveal our priorities,
the choice is simple Jesus says,
either deny yourself
- that basic instinct aided and abetted by the powers of the world
that says take care of yourself exclusively
you are the most important-
or deny Jesus-
the way, the truth, the life.
This is the choice
every time we come to a crossroads,
it’s not a one and done decision,
as Peter shows us,
even a corner stone can become a stumbling block
when decisions are focused on self-interest rather than God.
We are at a crossroads in life,
the life of our nation, of our world
and the choices we make reveal the way of life we have chosen,
who we follow and who we deny,
which road we have decided to take.
If you want to be a follower of Jesus,
you have some choices to make,
not about salvation
God has already taken care of that
but about how we go about seeking life.
And yes these are difficult choices and often counterintuitive,
we get scared and focus on ourselves just like Peter
but Jesus’ relationship with Peter also shows us something else.
That God is willing to forgive,
even eager to forgive
and with the forgiveness of God
a stumbling block can be turned back into a corner stone.
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.