- Parish House
Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Matthew 18:15-20
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
Our prayers this morning are with all those in the path of hurricane Irma. We pray this morning for everyone’s safety in the midst of violent storms and floods, fires and earthquakes. We pray for strength and courage for all who need it. As a community, we will stay focused on the concrete ways we can help after these events. And we will surely be inspired by the countless ways that people will join together to help, to rebuild, to encourage, and to comfort. Times like this are strong reminders of how much we need each other.
One of the beautiful things about a religious tradition like ours is that the liturgy is meant to hold anything we bring to it. It can hold individual joy or grief and comfort us when we need it. And it can also seem as if the words were written to pray for large-scale events. Week after week, we hear the story of our salvation by the divine one who entered fully into human life, so that the full range of human life would be caught up in that salvation. It’s stunning really, how much our liturgy can hold.
And so we repeat the prayerful, poetic words. Which, on a lighter note, can feel a little, well, repetitive sometimes. For example, take the offertory sentence, what the celebrant says to invite the collection that will come as an offering to the altar. I usually say the one from Ephesians, “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.” There are other options in the prayer book; I tend to default to the one I have memorized. Steve, who hears it every week from the organ bench, has dared me on more than one occasion to use a longer, far more tedious offertory sentence that comes from the Gospel of Matthew. It goes like this: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come offer your gift.” Can you imagine? It would be like saying, ok you two with the conflict, take it outside and work it out. We’ll wait. Frankly, that would be awkward.
Which makes today’s gospel seem equally awkward and strange. Jesus is giving detailed instructions for what to do if someone sins against you. Take it outside, he says, and work it out. And if that doesn’t work, get some witnesses. Then, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jesus seems to be saying that we should give someone three chances to repent, and if they don’t, we are to consider them as an outcast to be written off. Three strikes, and you’re out.
What makes this teaching even more strange is that it comes right after the parable of the lost sheep. Remember the story of the shepherd to leaves the ninety-nine sheep and searches out the lost one, and rejoices when it is found? That’s a story about how God seeks us out, us wayward and lost sinners, and forgives us. God’s mercy is bestowed upon us regardless of our worthiness or actions. It’s like the story of the prodigal son, when the father comes out and hugs his son even before the son has a chance to plead his case and ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness comes first, without condition.
And, consider what comes after today’s teaching, the parable of the unforgiving servant. That’s the one in which the king forgives the large debt of the servant, but then the servant turns around and tries to collect from those who owe him a debt and shows no mercy to them. He could not manage to follow the king’s benevolent example. We also tend to skimp on grace and forgiveness with each other. But God is not stingy like us.
So what then do we make of today’s teaching which sounds like three strikes and you’re out, sandwiched between two parables about God’s prevailing, unconditional grace? I propose to you, through the wisdom of my favorite biblical scholar Robert Capon, that Jesus is being ironic. Jesus tells the story of the lost sheep and maybe the disciples just can’t fathom the he really means that this grace is unconditional. So, he tries a different tactic and says to the disciples, you’re right, that lost sheep only gets three chances and then he’s out of luck. You can kind of imagine a divine eye roll that goes with that version of the story. And the bit about writing someone off as a tax collector or Gentile – remember that those are the disreputable kind of people Jesus sought out and spent time with, not lost at all in his grace. And note that in the verse that follows our reading, Peter still doesn’t get it. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” To which Jesus says, according to Capon, “Aha, gotcha! How about seventy times seven? And how about checkmate? You thought I didn’t mean unconditionally, but I did.”
Today’s teaching is meant to show us how small our understanding really is about the mechanism of God’s grace in our lives. We are the lost sheep. We are the unforgiving servant. We are the Gentile and the tax collector. We are the prodigal son. Before we can even plead our case, grace comes down the road to greet us. Forgiveness if offered, however many times we need it.
And this, of course, needs to be our guiding principle as a Christian community. This is helpful to remember as we are being reminded how much we need each other. We are a community founded on forgiveness through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Not only do we need to let that knowledge sink in about ourselves, but also about each other. And about the next lost sheep or prodigal daughter who finds her way into this community of grace. And before we judge another person, perhaps someone who disagrees with us or who is different than us, we need to remember Jesus’ stunning checkmate – God’s mercy really is unconditional.
Today is fall kick-off, when we offer the full slate of Christian formation classes for all ages and celebrate our shared life with a picnic. As the beginning of a new season here, it is also a day for us to imagine how we might be a beacon of grace for one another, for this larger community, and for any who need comfort or help in the midst of storms. Jesus said that whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, meaning that our patterns in this life are enduring. We can choose mercy over judgment. We can choose love over fear or hate or intolerance. And this can become a pattern, a holy offering back to a gracious God. No matter the storm, may we always walk in love as Christ loved us.