Exodus 14:19-31, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
A Sermon by the Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt, for Proper 19 A, September 17, 2017
Today’s lessons are full of people who find themselves in impossible situations! As I was listening to the Holy Spirit this week, I found it hard not to get bogged down like the wheels of the Egyptian chariots! These are not easy lessons; they are hard going. But like so many parts of the Bible, these lessons are worth the time and the trouble to spend some time, to thoughtfully consider, and to admit even as we are trying to grow and live as Christians that there is plenty we still don’t understand.
First off: let me set some parameters: Or as I have been encountering on my drives to and from Hancock, allow me to point out some large, orange construction barrels – directing us away from hazards:
The first barrel points out the hazard to always identify with the persecuted: The Hebrews escaping from those dastardly Egyptians, the Christians in Paul’s letter who have been unfairly judged by others, or the debtor in Jesus’ parable who is unfairly thrown into prison for having a small debt by the debtor who has been forgiven a humongous debt, or perhaps the hapless Peter who really wants to know just HOW many times must I forgive the one who has sinned against me? Too, often, we land on what we think is the obvious lesson – or perhaps the one we have heard the most – and miss what might be a deeper message of REALLY Good News.
The second cautionary barrel directs us away from the hazard where we ignore language about slavery and the abuse of power found in Exodus and the Gospel of Matthew, remembering that Paul, too, used the word “slave” when referring to his listeners – some of whom WERE enslaved persons! This week, St. Mark’s is sponsoring a seminar about Human Trafficking – and as you know, I am called upon to lead workshops for faith leaders on the issue of the recognition and prevention of Domestic Violence. There are people living in this very community who are treated as if they were enslaved – or may even be held in a kind of modern-day slavery—who live in fear and intimidation without the freedom to act or respond without fear of retribution for themselves or the ones they love. And there are others who use power as an excuse for keeping others in check; whose method of operating has to do with power and control of those who are close to them.
Which leads us to the third cautionary barrel and hazard: our tendency to cheapen the grace and forgiveness offered by God through Jesus Christ; to make forgiveness a kind of commodity that we “pay” for belonging to Christ; or make forgiveness into a simple parable – [like the one I hear most often “forgive and forget;” where did that come from? Not from the Bible!!!], without taking into account the issue of justice, freedom and the privilege to live a peaceful life. So, like the driver on the road, pointed into the one-lane traffic during repaving or reorganizing the traffic pattern (Thank you, I-70 and Sharpsburg Pike!), let’s slow down and pay attention to our surroundings. As I said at the beginning of this sermon, today’s lessons are about people who find themselves in impossible situations.
The Hebrew people are on their way to freedom having survived a hair-raising night when the first-born of Egypt died; even as their children were spared. They can see freedom on the horizon until they come to the murky shores of a large, swampy barrier. The Red or “Reed” Sea puts them in between the on-coming and vengeful chariots of powerful Pharaoh and their path to freedom. (Remember what the weather folks told us about running water? Even a few inches can knock someone off their feet. Which is to say, the crossing was probably not between the dramatic walls of water in the famous Charlton Heston version!) Their faith in Moses leadership and his message of the God who calls them to leave slavery behind is sorely tested. But in the darkness of twilight and all night, the people are led through the waters toward freedom; until the dawn when they look back and find the chariots of the mighty army have been thrown into disarray and clogged in the mud. What first seemed impossible was made possible by the mighty action of God on behalf of enslaved persons. No wonder this story still stand as the anchor of the faith story for the Jews and Christians. It is the one we retell at the Easter Vigil, the one which reminds us of baptism – the impossible journey from the death of sin to new life in Christ.
Paul, in the waning years of his missionary journeys around the Mediterranean, is writing to the church in Rome. He is preparing to travel to Jerusalem and then to Spain, a trip he will never make; as his arrest, final trip to Rome, and execution took place soon after these words were written. But at the time, Paul is continuing to address the challenges presented to him by those who, like us, were trying to live a Christian life – but still found themselves quarreling and in conflict with one another. Church has always been a messy business!! So Paul sets forth to remind everyone that judgement is a risky tool, and that the bonds of the beloved community are based on our shared redemption and our shared Salvation. Grace is the roof over our heads, and justice for the weak are the walls of the Church. Paul repeats this theme again and again in the 14th – 16th chapters of this remarkable letter – And sums it up in Chapter 15:5-6:
“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Jesus’ parable in our Gospel of Matthew is a response to Peter’s question – So, how many times must I forgive? The commonly understood rule of the first century was to forgive three times, then lower the boom on the fourth. Peter, trying to be magnanimous poses a more liberal interpretation – seven times? But Jesus blows him the listeners and us out of the water with the parable of the forgiven debtors and ending with the words: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive our brother or sister from your heart.” An impossible situation! For which one of us, if we are to be brutally honest, has lived up to these words? But please remember the third barrel I mentioned – our tendency to cheapen the grace and forgiveness offered by God through Jesus Christ. The problem of forgiveness is a universal question—and is essentially the same for all people in all times and places. It is uniquely human problem not shared with the natural world which has no choice or no ethic. Hurricanes come and go, as do tornados, fire, and floods; and my dog Sammi always greets me with love when I come home.
The need for forgiveness arises because human relationships are complicated. And when relationships are broken and boundaries are violated, people get hurt. Listen carefully to this next part: we can forgive and ALSO act in ways that prevent evil from flourishing. Forgiveness does not take the place of safety, security, and justice. Notice that the slave who was forgiven by the King misuses that forgiveness to abuse someone else. We sell ourselves and the Grace of God short when we believe that forgiveness means to overlook or forget the wrong that has been done.
So, then, where does that leave us today? I have tried to slow us down and steer us around the barriers to keep us safe from crashing into dangerous places, and I hope maybe I have raised more questions than I have addressed!!!! -- For sometimes that is the job of the preacher – to crack open assumptions and let the light of God’s truth warm our narrow notions.
But I am aware of time – and of the impossibility of being able to sew this sermon shut in a neat row of stiches…..speaking of impossible situations!!! So allow me to close with some words from one of the greatest truth-tellers of our time, our own Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Bishop Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, is credited with saving South Africa from a terrible racial bloodbath after the ending of the era of Apartheid – the forced separation of whites and blacks – of the ruling colonial class who oppressed the sons and daughters of the homeland. He posed a simple four-part process toward forgiveness:
1. Telling the Story
2. Naming the Hurt
3. Granting Forgiveness
4. Renewing or Releasing the Relationship (Notice, that some relationships must be “released” or ended, when they are harmful to us and others.)
But in order to fully appreciate this process, let’s hear from the Archbishop himself:
There were so many nights when I, as a young boy, had to watch helplessly as my father verbally and physically abused my mother. I can still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in my mother's eyes and feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways. I would not wish that experience on anyone, especially not a child. If I dwell on those memories, I can feel myself wanting to hurt my father back, in the same ways he hurt my mother, and in ways of which I was incapable as a small boy. I see my mother's face and I see this gentle human being whom I loved so very much and who did nothing to deserve the pain inflicted on her….
When I recall this story, I realize how difficult the process of forgiving truly is. Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he himself was in pain. Spiritually, I know my faith tells me my father deserves to be forgiven as God forgives us all. But it is still difficult. The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them….
A human life is a great mixture of goodness, beauty, cruelty, heartbreak, indifference, love and so much more. All of us share the core qualities of our human nature and so sometimes we are generous and sometimes selfish. Sometimes we are thoughtful and other times thoughtless; sometimes we are kind and sometimes cruel. This is not a belief. This is a fact….
Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering--remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened….
In the end what matters is not how good we are but how good God is. Not how much we love Him but how much He loves us. And God loves us whoever we are, whatever we’ve done or failed to do, whatever we believe or can’t….
Dear Child of God, I write these words because we all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in the world will ever end. I want to share with you my faith and my understanding that this suffering can be transformed and redeemed. There is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now--in our personal lives and in our lives as nations, globally. ... Indeed, God is transforming the world now--through us--because God loves us.”
― Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time
May these words of a great, humble, and holy man; words which echo the Gospel, give us hope and healing in our own time, in our own communities, and in our own lives.
Anne+ is the Rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Lappans. She says,