15 Pentecost/Ordinary 24/Proper 19 September 17, 2017
Luther Memorial Church Seattle, WA
The Rev. Julie Hutson
Exodus 14: 19-31 + Psalm 114 + Romans 14: 1-12 + Matthew 18: 21-35
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, who creates us and all things, from Jesus who saves us, and from the Holy Spirit, who is our guide and holy agitator. Amen.
When I was reading today’s assigned Scripture texts, it occurred to me that they all have to do with how we live together in community. Each reading addresses what it means to be the beloved community of faith, the Body of Christ. The Exodus story is about a community that finds its way to safety and another one that does not. The Romans reading is an excerpt from Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome, who were arguing over things like dietary restrictions and special days. And in the Gospel, Jesus talks about forgiveness, which is one of the hardest but most essential qualities about living in community.
Community. Being together.
These days many people prefer to worship God outside of the confines of organized religion. God can be found….well everywhere….but most often we hear folks talk about worshiping God in nature or as they travel or sitting on the beach. And hey….God created this good earth so of COURSE God is in nature, or in far away lands or on the beach. Absolutely God is in every sunrise and in every sunset, which can be pretty spectacular.
It is so much harder to find God in the person who took our place in our favorite pew or the person whose political viewpoints differ from ours. So to live together in community as the people of God who gather as a congregation to worship and serve….that’s another thing entirely.
Hollywood screenwriter Dorothy Fortenberry says that being a screenwriter in Los Angeles is like being on a perpetual date; she must always be charming and witty. But, she says, she doesn’t have to be that way when she goes to church. She can say words that people have written centuries before her, that give her a starting place to articulate her faith. Fortenberry writes: “Church is a group of broken individuals united only by our brokenness traveling together to ask to be fixed.” She says that she finds faith hard to explain and she’s glad that people who are much smarter than she is have thought about it.
I like to think that we are willing to be vulnerable enough in this community of faith to bring our brokenness, not only to God, but to the community. To trust that the community will hold what we offer with tenderness and care. And in community, we find and experience the body of Christ.
Paul writes to the believers in Rome and here’s just a little interesting tidbit to know about Paul and the church in Rome. He’s never met them. Paul was intending to go visit them, mainly to ask them for financial support of his ministry. But he’d heard about them and their struggles to live in community and understand what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Because, not unlike the church today, the early believers in Rome would get sidetracked arguing over things like whether you should be a vegetarian and whether some days of special observance were better than others. The church in Rome didn’t have thousands of years of working these things out. (Because surely the church today doesn’t argue over small things, does it? ) Paul writes “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” Just welcome them. Warmly. Genuinely. And the word translated here as weak, might be better translated as new….welcome those who are new in faith, new to your community. Don’t ask them why they are there or pressure them to serve on a committee or ask them who they voted for. Welcome them. Good advice for us too, as we welcome folks who are new to the neighborhood or this community or to worship. Hospitality is a hallmark of community and of the Body of Christ.
Jesus offers us another mark of community in the Gospel reading from Matthew today. Forgiveness. Oh, this is a harder one, at least for me. So much harder to forgive someone who has wronged me, broken my heart or my spirit, or just plain hurt my feelings…or perhaps they have hurt someone I love. That is my Achilles heel where forgiveness goes. You hurt one of my beloveds, I will be hard pressed to forgive you. But Peter is asking Jesus specifically about another member or the church. If they sin against me, how often should I forgive? We get the sense that Peter has someone specific in mind. How often am I going to have to keep forgiving them, Lord? Because I’m about done.
And Jesus offers this hard answer. Not once, not twice, not seven times…but seventy seven times. Most translations say seventy times seven. But so many times that we get the sense that it may be an ongoing process, this forgiveness.
Earlier this week Pastor Chris, Vicar Laura, and I were talking about forgiveness…about what it is and what it is not and how it is almost always really hard. Because we want to hold onto our hurt, it gives us power. And it helps us feel protected from being hurt again, which we know is just wishful thinking on our part. And Pastor Chris offered this very helpful thought: Jesus does not call us to uninformed forgiveness. There are people who we are called to forgive but we are not called to resume relationship with. Those who abuse us – physically, emotionally, verbally. We forgive them because in doing so, we free ourselves from carrying the burden of the pain they have inflicted upon us. We remove them from the journey of our current life. We forgive them but our forgiveness in not uninformed. We protect ourselves.
Episcopal priest, Barbara Crafton writes this: “At first, it sounds like we are expected to submit to endless abuse. But to forgive does not mean to acquiesce in another’s evil, act, whether it was committed against me or against someone else. That I forgive something doesn’t mean I condone it. I always have the responsibility to resist evil.” Informed forgiveness, many times over, is a hallmark of community, of the Body of Christ.
Finally, we turn to the story from Exodus of the Egyptians and the Israelites going through the Red Sea. Many of us know this story and we most often like to think we are the Israelites…God’s chosen for whom God will part waters and make a way through. But I’ve got to be honest, sometimes the Church is much more like the Egyptians. When you look at this text you’ll see that it appears that the Israelites went through without a lot of stuff. But the Egyptians have all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. In other words, they took all of their weapons for battle into the sea with them. In the Bible, horses are only representative of weapons of war. So, into the sea and into the mud go all of the Egyptians and their tools for battle. I mean, think that through. Wouldn’t you imagine that your chariot wheels might in fact get clogged in the mud? Wouldn’t you think that all of those weapons you are carrying on your back might weigh you down?
How often, when we are presented with a challenge or an opponent do we gather up all of our weaponry and charge in head first instead of keeping our eyes on God and walking through the deep waters toward the other side? Peace making is a hallmark of Christian community, of the Body of Christ.
Beloved community….beloved community….God is found everywhere….in the beauty of nature and the love of family, But we do the work of being the Body of Christ in faith communities. Here we use ancient words to echo the cries of our hearts. Here we are welcomed and we welcome one another, strangers become friends and our community widens. Here we forgive and remember that we are also the forgiven. Here we lay down all that we are carrying through life: burdens, weapons, and we walk through rivers of tears toward the One who loves and comforts us.
Dorothy Fortenberry might have said it best when she summarized: “My family and I don’t go to church to deny the existence of the darkness. We go to look so hard at the light that our eyes water.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.