Sermon: 15th Sunday after Pentecost 17 September 2017 Proper 24
St Andrews 160th Anniversary
Genesis 50:15-21 Psalm 103: (1-7)8-13 Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18:21-35
Heavenly Father, we bow in your presence. May your word be our rule, your Spirit our teacher, and your greater glory our supreme concern, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.1
A man named John Oglethorpe, in talking to John Wesley, once made the comment, “I never forgive.” Mr. Wesley wisely replied, “Then, Sir, I hope that you never sin.”2
Last week we heard how Jesus addressed dealing with conflict within a congregation. We learned about the gift of community, of relationships, of reconciliation. There is a relationship between reconciliation and forgiveness, which Matthew makes clear in our Gospel reading today. Our passage starts where we stopped last week. Then Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? Peter narrows the context to individual conflict. What if someone does something wrong to me?
Peter has hung around Jesus long enough to know that a higher standard will apply. So he suggests forgiving up to 7 times. After all, someone might get a 2nd chance, but 7 chances, well, that is pretty generous. Jesus says, no, you must forgive 77 times, or 7 times 70. In any case it is a lot. Immeasurable. Peter tried, he raised the ante by 133 percent, but he is still thinking of measurable mercy, not unlimited grace. Jesus’ answer is telling us that forgiveness is not to be measured, it is limitless. We are not to keep track. If we put a limit on it, we will be waiting for a line to be crossed and then – poof - no more forgiveness. If you are keeping track, it is not forgiveness.
Then Jesus does what he often did, proceeds to tell a parable to illustrate his point. A story full of exaggerations. And starts with, the kingdom heaven of heaven can be compared to….
A king is calling in the debts from his servants. A man is brought to him that owes 10,000 talents – equivalent to about 150,000 years of a labourers’ wage. A ridiculous amount. Gazillions. Impossible to repay. Well, says the king, then you and your family will have to be sold so I can get some of my money back. Oh, no, please, no, just give me some time and I will pay it all back. Please! Well, the king had pity on him, and, instead of giving him more time to pay, he forgave the whole debt! Wrote it off and the man was let go.
What did the man do in gratitude? Well, he ran into a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii – about 100 days wages – and ordered him to repay the debt. Not only did he demand it, he physically assaulted the man. The fellow servant, said, please, just give me some more time and I will pay it all back. No way, and the man was thrown into jail. There were witnesses to this and they reported back to their master. The unforgiving man is hauled back up in front of the king and called out on his conduct. He didn’t pay it forward, in today’s parlance. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you? And he is thrown into jail to be tortured until he repays his debt, a debt impossible to pay. Jesus says the same will happen to everyone who does not forgive from the heart. Harsh? Yes. But in his Sermon on the Mount, which took place before this conversation, Jesus also said, for if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
What does it mean to forgive from the heart? How can we possibly guarantee that our forgiveness will be from the heart? God is a God of grace. Like the king in the story, he has compassion on our human failures, and like the king, acts more graciously than we could ever expect. The servant who owed an impossible debt simply asked for more time to pay but the king compassionately, and graciously, forgave the debt. When we experience such grace, truly, we are transformed in gratitude. Grace that is experienced as grace in turn begets grace.
If God’s grace has affected our lives, we will live differently in relation to others. This transformation through the experience of grace is not something mechanical or mathematical, rather it comes ‘from the heart.’
Joseph was terribly wronged by his brothers – sold into slavery because they despised him. He had a choice whether or not to forgive them. But over the years, despite all the hardships, he was transformed by God’s grace. Joseph forgave his brothers, to their utter amazement! Grace begets grace.
The relatives of the shooting victims in the South Carolina church forgave the man who killed nine people. Why? The relatives said that they lived in love. We have no room for hating, they said, so we have to forgive.
The father of the student shot in Taber, Alberta in 1999 forgave the assailant. Why? He recently said that if they hadn’t gone to the place of forgiveness, then they would be stuck in the place of bitterness, anger, resentment, and all that does is damage more people.
If Paul had preached judgement instead of understanding and harmony, would the new church have grown?
We are celebrating 160 years of worship in this place. This far by faith. For a good part of those 160 years, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterians and United congregations shared this building. They shared the cleaning, the maintenance, the expenses, the gifts, the problems and disputes. They came this far by understanding and harmony.
The path of forgiveness can be hard but a path without forgiveness is harder still. Pope Francis recently visited Columbia, a country under armed rebellion for 50 years. 250,000 people dead. 60,000 missing and millions more displaced. The government and rebels signed a peace accord a year ago but the Columbians are badly divided over the accord. In an appeal to the Columbians to begin the process of reconciliation, he quoted the country’s Nobel laureate: The solitude of being at loggerheads has been familiar for decades and its smell has lingered for a hundred years. Pope Francis then appealed to the young people to take the lead in promoting forgiveness, because they are more able than adults to leave behind what has hurt them and to look to the future without hatred. Commit yourselves to heal wounds, build bridges and support one another, he said. We don’t want any type of violence whatsoever to restrict or destroy one more life.
10,000 talents – an incalculable debt. So was the debt Jesus paid for with his life - for all of the sins - of all believers - in all the world - through all time. Each of us is the servant who was forgiven much but refuses to forgive little. It is not easy to forgive without condition, without limit. Forgiveness has to come from the heart. It means giving up our rightful resentment, surrendering our right to get even. Every time we fail to forgive from the heart, we pile up our debt. We are forgiven because God loves us. Failing to do so challenges the king to reverse his grace. If God’s grace has affected our lives, we are transformed and we will live differently in relation to others.
Joseph wept as his brothers begged for mercy. Forgiveness lifts the burdens we carry, whether guilt… or… grievance. It isn’t easy. When we have been wronged, we really take it personally. Grudges hurt. They hurt us, they hurt those around us. They hurt people we aren’t aware we are hurting. We have to find it in our hearts to forgive. We must not be like the forgiven servant who somehow put the king’s mercy aside, who gave no thought to extending a small mercy to someone else. Maybe he thought it didn’t apply to him? Well it applies to all of us. Think about it. Think about a lingering grudge with a friend. Think about that hurtful encounter with a family member. Think about forgiving.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
We don’t have to do it alone. Christ has promised to be with us, to support us, to lift our burdens. We are forgiven children of God. When we truly see that, truly believe that….. we will forgive from the heart.
We are called to be the presence of Christ in this world. We have no choice but to forgive.
Thanks be to God.
1 Excellent Preaching, Logos, p67, prayer before preaching by John Stott.
2 Michael P. Green, ed., Illustrations for Biblical Preaching: Over 1500 Sermon Illustrations Arranged by Topic and Indexed Exhaustively, Revised edition of: The expositor’s illustration file. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989).
Sermon: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: 2 July 2017 (Proper 13)
Jesus said, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (Matthew 10.42).
This is how Christ concludes his instructions to the twelve disciples as he sends them out on a mission. As we’ve been reading through this passage in recent weeks, we looked first at how Christ’s mission calls us to see the world around us with his eyes of compassion. We saw that giving love freely to everyone in need is the only way for love to grow; the more we use it, the more we have. Last week, we considered how this love must sometimes lead us into conflict even with our own families, as Christ calls us to stand up for the harassed and helpless. Now we conclude with a theme that’s been running through the whole passage, but which really comes together here at the end: vulnerability. Christ’s mission for his disciples requires them to seek the hospitality of others, to become vulnerable to those they are seeking to help.
Because, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” When he sent them out, Christ sent them not to gather the harvest but to give it away. Now, having warned them about all the dangers of this mission, he concludes with the rewards that others can expect to receive as a result of the apostles’ courage and hard work.
As we heard him say in those opening remarks, “You received without payment; give without payment” (10.8). Even the reward for all their labours is to go to others. “Give without payment” indeed. But this explicitly does not mean that they should refuse the support and hospitality of those they are working to help. On the contrary: in order for those people to receive the full benefit of this mission, including this final reward, the disciples need to allow them the opportunity to help them, to welcome them, to support them, to give them a drink when they’re thirsty. Accepting assistance is actually part of the mission.
He calls the disciples “these little ones,” as if they were helpless little children. Indeed, that’s just how he wants them to go out, “like sheep into the midst of wolves” (10.16a) – helpless, not in how they preach or help others, but with respect to their own needs. In a section of the passage that we skipped over, Christ tells the disciples not to bring money, a bag, a change of clothes, sandals or a staff to take the weight off their feet. He tells them simply to look for hospitable homes along the way, where locals will see to their needs. They aren’t equipped to take care of even their most basic needs. Like children, they’ll need to rely on others to take care of them. They’ll need to accept true hospitality. And in doing so, they’ll offer others a chance to receive the reward that comes from taking care of the vulnerable.
So basically, Christ is asking his disciples to be vulnerable to those they are trying to help. How different this is from our own approach to helping! Christ is sending them to the “lost sheep” of their own people, sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless – the poor, the sick, the lonely, the abused. And he is asking them to make themselves vulnerable to these helpless ones, to seek the help of those who cannot help themselves. And he promises that, as these helpless ones find it in them to welcome and help a disciple, they will receive a fitting reward – the very presence of God.
Yet we are hard pressed even to accept help from our own friends and family, from those who are far from helpless. We fear becoming a “burden” to others and so we refuse to undertake anything that we can’t complete with our own resources. And in doing so, we deny others the reward that comes from helping and hospitality. (It’s not that God hands out prizes, like money for passing the school year or a box of chocolates for being the biggest fundraiser.) God’s rewards are not rewards that could also be won some other way or that saved up money could buy. The rewards for hospitality and helping are in the acts themselves.
When we talked about “paying it forward,” we saw that the more we love, the more love we have and the more love there is to go around. Well, the same thing applies to receiving love, as we do when we accept help and hospitality. In allowing others to welcome and support us, we make room for love to grow in them as well as in us. When, on the other hand, we proudly seek to be self-sufficient, when we do everything to help others but refuse to accept any help ourselves, we stifle the love that is in others and make them less equipped to share that love in the future.
What’s at the root of our inability to take care of the vulnerable? Is it our lack of experience in being vulnerable? Do we have less empathy because of our self-sufficiency? Do we not see the humanity of the poor and helpless because we’ve so rarely had to receive even the modest hospitality they’re able to provide – a cup of cold water, for example? (We give to the food bank, but would we let its customers serve us a home-cooked meal?)
If we are to enter into God’s mission to the world in Christ, we need to let go of our self-reliance, our illusions that we can fulfil all our needs through our own energies, through the things we make, or through the families we create. God creates us to live and thrive in community, in interdependence with other people and with all of creation. Our children and families are training grounds for this, but that’s just the start.
In this Eucharist, Christ makes himself vulnerable to us. He becomes our guest as his body and blood make their home within us. As we learn to welcome him more and more, may we also learn how to follow him in becoming the guests of others. So, as we continue to look around us for the harassed and helpless, may Christ’s compassion for them also humble us to accept their help in carrying out his mission in our world.
Sermon: Third Sunday after Pentecost: 25 June 2017 (Proper 12)
Jesus said, “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10.34).
“What’s your conflict style?” This is a question that couples are often asked when preparing for marriage or when receiving counselling for their relationship. “Are you a competitor?” (It’s your way or the highway. You know when you’re right, and others would do best to admit it and fall into line.) Or, “are you a doormat?” (You’ve got your own opinions, but you don’t want to rock the boat, so you’re happy just to go along with what others think is right. Their opinion might be better than yours anyway.) Then there’s the compromiser, who’s happy to give and take a little; the avoider, who’d rather just ignore the conflict and hope it goes away; and the collaborator, who thinks that, with enough hard work, we can come up with a solution in which everyone gets what they want.
Of course, most people will try different ways to resolve conflict depending on the situation, and each of these approaches has its uses. But serious problems can arise when the wrong style is applied, or when a person always resorts to one approach to conflict, no matter the situation. And not only individuals, but whole groups can settle into a pattern in which only one approach to conflict is allowed, or where certain approaches are completely out of bounds.
Families can easily fall into this kind of pattern. Very often, keeping the peace becomes the cardinal virtue, and everything else is dispensable. We even tell ourselves that this is the Christian approach, that God desires “peace on earth, goodwill toward all,” and so conflict is something we should avoid or smooth over at all costs. To keep the peace, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert where they will likely die, even managing to convince himself that God told him it was ok, that it was most important for him to keep the peace with his wife.
But then we come to this passage. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” In the Epistle to the Hebrews, we read that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4.12). It is this sword that Christ has come to bring: courage and confidence to stand up for what’s right, to intervene on behalf of the abused and outcast, to love those whom it is dangerous to love, even when family loyalty seems to demand otherwise.
Family is a complicated thing. For most of us, family is where we first know love, where we learn right from wrong, where we’re taught to treat others with dignity and respect. For most of us, it’s also where we first encounter hypocrisy, where we find out that people don’t always practise what they preach, where we first grapple with the uncomfortable reality that good people can say and do some spectacularly selfish and hurtful things.
We also learn that family sticks together, that family protects family, that family tolerates each other’s faults and even softens the consequences of bad behaviour. This can be good. There are good evolutionary reasons for family loyalty. There are even good, theological reasons for helping one another through mistakes and wrong turns, out of love. But there’s a dark side too. Family loyalty can too easily make us accomplices to one another’s hatred, disdain and neglect of outsiders. In the name of family loyalty, racism and prejudice has gone unchallenged, revenge has been perpetrated, assistance has been withheld from needy people, innumerable injustices, big and small, have become entrenched as trans-generational habits.
In contrast to this, last Sunday, we examined what it means to look at the world through Christ’s eyes of compassion. We considered what it would mean for us to see who around us is poor and helpless, vulnerable or hopeless, and to work at harvesting God’s blessings for them. We considered what it would mean for us to give God’s love freely as we have freely received it, without trying to figure out who is worthy of it, without budgeting it only for our nearest and dearest, without measuring how much we can afford to give. What we discovered is that, the more freely we give love, the more of it we have to give. This is beautiful and true and inspiring.
Lest we get too caught up in the beauty though, today’s passage follows shortly after last Sunday’s, and it brings with it a sobering reminder: not everyone will see the free distribution of God’s love as a good thing. In fact many people will see it as a threat. Our structures of family, tribe, community and nation too often rely on the oppression and exclusion of some and the privilege and authority of others. We’ve cynically learned the importance of knowing who’s in and who’s out, and of guarding the gate ruthlessly. Christ’s mission to lift up the poor and downtrodden is a dangerous and threatening mission. It rocks the boat; it destabilizes the structures we have built to protect ourselves and those who matter most to us.
An example that may hit close to home: This year, we are celebrating what we’re calling Canada 150: 150 years since Confederation, Canada’s 150th “birthday.” Well, some of us are celebrating. But others are asking, “150 years of what?” For most of this country’s indigenous people, it’s been 150 years of oppression, of neglect, of abuse and cultural genocide. Even the celebration of this milestone as Canada’s “birthday” is more than a bit insulting to people whose history on this land goes back thousands of years.
Knowing all this, do we, as Christians, have the courage to resist celebrating a country whose many blessings come at the expense of people whose existence we’d rather ignore? Do we have the determination to proclaim God’s love and justice for abused and neglected indigenous people until it becomes reality? What is our conflict style? Do we have the strength to speak up for these hurting and vulnerable people, without worrying that it might ruin the family birthday party?
Christ’s love for all people calls us to exactly these kinds of challenges, and his cross gives us the courage to face them without fear. For, as we heard in the Epistle reading, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Rom. 6.8).
What is our conflict style? Is it strong enough to stand up for others and gentle enough to lay down our own lives while we’re at it? Through this Eucharist, may we receive the grace to do just that, following where Christ himself has gone before.
Sermon: Second Sunday after Pentecost: 18 June 2017 (Proper 11)
“You received without payment; give without payment” (Matthew 10.8b).
With these words, Christ sends his disciples as labourers into the harvest. Unusual directions for harvesters, no? “Give without payment?” Don’t harvesters expect to be gathering rather than giving? And the image of harvest early in the passage is so powerful – even for us non-farmers – that we end up reading the whole passage as instructions for gathering souls, for making converts to Christianity. But then this later detail easily slips by unnoticed: as he sends them out to work this harvest, Christ tells his disciples, they must “give without payment.” But what can that mean? What kind of a harvest are we dealing with if it’s gathered in by giving freely? What exactly are we harvesting and for whom?
To make sense of this, we need to think back a bit in the passage to what started this whole train of thought. “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9.36). The crowds are the poor, the marginalized, the sick in mind and body, the emotionally and spiritually abused and neglected, those who hunger and thirst for justice – yes, it’s right to hear some echoes of the beatitudes here. Christ sees these crowds of God’s blessed ones and is filled with compassion, with gut-wrenching sadness and pity for people who are unfairly starved of the good things for which God created them.
“Then he [says] to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few’” (9.37). He’s not talking about gathering the poor crowds of people as a harvest for God; this is about gathering God’s abundant blessings as a harvest for these people. Christ is moved with compassion for the poor crowds, but he also has hope for them because he knows that God’s goodness is a plentiful harvest, enough for all, only waiting to be distributed to those in need.
“The harvest is plentiful.” This is a hard outlook for us to adopt. We are so used to living with an outlook of scarcity: there’s only so much wealth to go around, after all; there’s only so much time in a day, only so much energy available. But God’s economy works differently. In God’s economy, there’s always enough for everyone; we only need to be willing to gather it up and hand it out. That’s because God’s economy is an economy of love. And unlike money, unlike products, even unlike time, love is not used up when it is used. In fact, the only way to use up love is to try and save it up: to store it away, to keep it safe or to budget it. But the more freely we love and the more freely we give it away, the more we have of it to give and the more there is to go around.
So Christ sends his disciples to the crowds of “lost sheep” with instructions to distribute God’s harvest of love, which is the kingdom of heaven come near.
Several years back, a movie came out called Pay it Forward, with a mostly forgettable plot but an inspiring idea. If, instead of paying back kindness as a debt to the person who has helped us, we were to pay the kindness “forward” to three others whom we find to be in need like we were, deeds of kindness and caring could spread like wildfire and make the world a better place. This seems like one good way to break out of our economy of scarcity and to test out God’s economy of abundance: “you received without payment; give without payment.” “Pay it forward” offers at least a picture of what it can be like for love to grow the more it is given.
To see the opposite image, of how love can shrink when it is stored away, budgeted and kept “safe” only for those who deserve it, we don’t have to spend much time paying attention to the news. Last week in England, Grenfell Tower, a 24-story apartment building went up in flames, killing dozens of people – they’re still trying to figure out exactly how many and who. As if tragedy weren’t enough, it turns out that the building was a public housing unit; that fire safety had been an ongoing, unaddressed concern of residents; that a sprinkler system was not installed – perhaps partly because of the cost; that the siding was flammable and not recommended for buildings of that height, but might have been installed partly to make it nicer for more wealthy neighbours to look at. Lost sheep without a shepherd. “When [Christ] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.”
Or then there’s the unending footage of refugees trying desperately to cross into Europe. They walk for weeks; they allow themselves to be packed into suffocating cargo containers; if they survive the journey, they crowd into refugee camps. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching are the images of over-loaded rubber dinghies barely floating on the waves of the Mediterranean, certain to go under sooner or later, less certain to be rescued – filled with men and women of all ages, but it is the children that always set the tears flowing. Lost sheep without a shepherd. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.”
There are so many crowds of these lost sheep. Our instinct is to pull back, to tell ourselves we don’t have enough resources to help them all, to budget and ration our love. But Christ tells his disciples, “the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (9.37-38).
By now, we should know that, like the first disciples, we ourselves are the labourers we’re praying for. We have freely received; we must freely give God’s love to all who are in need. To that end, we must look with the eyes of Christ to see with compassion the crowds around us.
In this passage, Christ sends his disciples specifically to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and to no one else. He limits their mission to those who are most like them – in religion, culture, language and geography. Later on, after his resurrection, he will send them into “all the world,” but here, he starts them out with a smaller field of mission. Maybe it’s because these are people to whom they can already relate, to make it easier for them to start to see others with his eyes of compassion.
How can we practise seeing with Christ’s eyes of compassion? Where are the Grenfell Towers of our neighbourhoods, where people are living in danger simply because they are poor? Where in our communities are the “boats” of desperate people trying to cross from despair into hope, but looking in vain for labourers to reach out a helping hand to draw them to safety? “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.” May we have courage to be sent as labourers in God’s harvest of love.