A sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 10, 2017
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.
If you take today’s Gospel lesson by itself, in isolation, it looks like an outline of a dispute resolution manual for litigation in the church. It’s often approached that way, but I think that is a big mistake. This lesson is the middle of the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. In this chapter, Jesus’ disciples ask him the question, “who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” and he responds by pointing out the humility of a small child. Not only is the child a model for us all, but “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
This chapter is about God’s welcome and God’s mercy. Today’s lesson is sandwiched between the Parable of the Lost Sheep—where the shepherd leaves his flock to go search for the single missing sheep—and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant—where the servant is pardoned of a great crime and a great debt but then turns around and brutally deals with another servant who owed him a small amount.
The context of today’s gospel is illustrations of God’s compassion and the life of compassion—of Jesus’ expectation of generosity of spirit and energy, and of the ugly consequences of selfishness and a lack of mercy. In case you’re not familiar with the story, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant ends thus: “ ‘Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”
So this passage is about life in the community of mercy and compassion. It’s about including the little ones who might be lost, overlooked or put to the side. When Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you…” he’s not giving instructions on how to find the sinners and put them to right; he’s not setting as a goal tossing out all the bad people who make life miserable—what Jesus is talking about here is living together in God’s mercy.
I’ve been reading a little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Life Together. It is about life in Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes:
Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.
God’s grace—in other words, it is the gift of God that our community is filled with imperfect people, people definitely in need of God’s mercy, and it is the gift of God that our overly perfect expectations are shattered, leaving the real community in its place. There is no Christian who is not in need of compassion—from God, and from our sisters and our brothers. Those who think their goal should be to be so perfect or self-sufficient as to not need compassion will find themselves frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed and unhappy. And if there is someone who thinks they have no need of forgiveness or compassion, that is a very serious problem indeed, for them or anyone whose lives are affected by them.
So when Jesus says, “… go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” it’s not about identifying who is in the wrong, who is the sinner, who is the bad person. It is not about that at all, it is a matter of honesty among the sinners in God’s community, of communicating clearly about hurts and offenses taken. Sometimes that communication is hard or frightening, and it takes another—someone outside the relationship, someone to help communication or provide support when getting truth told is a daunting prospect. This passage frankly acknowledges that there might be situations where relationships are so badly damaged and trust so ruptured that reconciliation won’t take place. It is clear that such things happened in the churches we know about from the New Testament and historically in every age. But Jesus is not looking for a community where there will be no disagreements or hurts. Quite the opposite, Jesus creates a community where there will be hurts and breaches of trust, and in his presence they will be healed. We are called to be the mercy of Christ and it takes real work to live that honestly and compassionately.
The lectionary chops the lessons in some odd ways sometimes, and today is one of them. Today’s lesson is followed by the parable of the Unmerciful Servant—one who asserted his rights in a brutal and uncompassionate way—a warning to those who would cleave to the values of this world rather than the mercy of God’s Kingdom. But the ending of todays’ lesson is interrupted. Here’s how the section ends in the Gospel of Matthew:
“Again, Amen I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name. I am among them. Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”
Then Jesus launches directly into the parable I just mentioned. It’s on good authority that we constantly misunderstand this lesson. St. Peter himself wants to limit the mercy in the community to a certain number of offenses before you’re tossed. Jesus’ response is basically to shake his head—No! Not just a number of times you can count—seventy-seven! (Some manuscripts actually say seventy times seven—perhaps he really meant seven to the seventieth power.) We are held fast in the community of God’s mercy. The realities of sins, missteps or offenses do not break the fabric of that divine community—we are blessed to live in the honesty of Christ’s mercy. St. Paul says it this way in today’s epistle:
“You know what time it is, how it is now the time for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day.”
I’m very happy to join with all of you here at Calvary. As we walk together in the light we will focus on Jesus and how he leads us into the compassion of God. Church is not about the priest, or program, or success. It is about our lives being incorporated into the mercy of God in the real world.
In your compassion, there is a lot to remember this week in that world: remember on the anniversary of September 11th, those who died sixteen years ago in the World Trade Center and those who still mourn them; remember also those in harm’s way at this time, including those suffering from the earthquake in Mexico, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, and those suffering from Hurricane Irma which is now passing through Florida. Trust in God, and hold God’s children in your hearts.