Sunday, September 17, 2017

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today I am at All Saints, South Hadley, home to Mount Holyoke College. As mentioned in my sermon, below, I've been there many times before but this is my first time preaching there. It's been fifteen weeks since the Feast of Pentecost - the readings for this day can be found here.

What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us? This is the question on the hearts of Joseph’s brothers in today’s Old Testament reading. You will remember, I’m sure, that they are the ones who left him in a pit and sold him off to some Midianite traders, but not before they first contemplated killing him. Something to do with that multi-colored dreamcoat, and because dad always loved him more. In the end I guess selling him to those Midianite traders was an act of mercy, but it probably didn’t feel that way from the pit.

You will recall (even if it’s from the Broadway version of these events) how things went from there: the sexual abuse accusation from Potipher’s wife that landed Joseph in jail, his release from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s anxious dreams, his rise in Pharaoh’s cabinet as Secretary of Agriculture. Joseph is no longer the “little brother” when we see him today. He’s got lots of power and these brothers come from a land that has been suffering from a famine. Given that he now has all this power, they are afraid that he’s about to use that power to seek revenge. That he will, as we heard, “pay them back in full.” You know how it goes: what goes around, comes around. I mean, they have it coming. Joseph knows it. The brothers know it. We, the readers, know it.

What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us?

Joseph chooses to forgive them. He chooses to let that old grudge go. He chooses to see the hand of God in his past that leads toward forgiveness in the present and hopefully toward reconciliation in the future. He is, where he is, because of all that has happened and well, it is what it is. This is a holy moment to witness, when old grudges are left in the past and no longer define the present, or what is possible, with God’s help.

I want to ask you to hold all of this for a moment or two, and perhaps reflect on grudges you’ve held in your own life, or grudges that have been held against you. Grudges where there’s been an opportunity to “pay them back in full” and grudges that have been let go of. Hold that, if you would, for a moment or two and I’ll circle back. I promise…

Some of you know who I am and some don’t. And I know who some of you are and some I’ve not yet met. I work as one of the two Canons to the Ordinary in this diocese – the ordinary is a fancy Latin derivative for the Bishop, the one who ordains. If I were a Lutheran I’d be called “Assistant to the Bishop,” but Canon to the Ordinary sounds that much more impressive, doesn’t it?

I’ve been in this church building many times over the past two decades or so; I’m guessing more than twenty and probably more than that. Before I held this position, I was the rector of St. Francis in Holden for fifteen years. I’ve been here for Diocesan Clergy Days and Continuing Ed events and I’ve been here for Commission on Ministry Meetings when Betsy Fowle was the chair, before I took over from her. I’ve been here for meetings for General Convention Deputies. It’s a pretty central location as Tanya likes to remind us at Diocesan House. I’ve been here to meet with your rector and executive committee and vestry and I was here for Chip Doherty’s retirement party. And I was here when Lawrence House was blessed and those first Lawrence House interns were commissioned. In fact the picture Vicki Ix uses on my diocesan bio was taken here in South Hadley at that great event. But this is my first time in this pulpit. I’m grateful for the opportunity and I hope it’s not my last chance.

I love this building, and as I said, it works as a meeting place for many, not just members of this congregation. But I learned in Sunday School (and maybe some of you did too) that the Church is not a building, but a people. That I am the Church, and you are the Church, and we are the Church together. And I think we have to keep saying that until we believe it, and once we believe it, we need to live it. In other words, the work that sends you out from this place as the people of God called to love your neighbors defines you.

Part of spiritual growth—for an individual and for a parish—is to pause every now and again and figure out what our gifts are, what our ministry truly is, so that those gifts can be shared for the sake of the gospel. Sometimes ministries need to die because they belong to the vision of a past generation and we have neither the time nor the passion nor the energy to do them any longer. Letting go is usually accompanied by grief. In the work I do with congregations in transition, congregations that are seeking new clergy in particular, I often remind them that in spite of what we usually say about Episcopalians resisting change, it is not so much change we really resist as loss. When we move forward, we lose something from the past and that involves some emotional work. We are a people who do not ever believe death is the last word, so we can let go in hope. But that doesn’t make it easy.

Sometimes new ministries are born as someone comes up with an idea, with a hunch, with a hunger. And then by God’s grace and with the help of others and the stars aligning, that vision is implemented. I think of Lawrence House as mustard-seed-like parable of that not just for you at All Saints, but for all of us in this diocese. And we are seeing that growth as Lawrence House comes into its own. So thank you all for that good work toward fulfilling God’s mission of mercy, compassion, and hope.

Now, do you remember where I began? With grudges. Joseph’s brothers worry he may still have a grudge against them, which would be for good reason if he did. They worry that now that he’s in power he will repay them. But instead he shows mercy. And in showing mercy he claims all that has been as part of God’s work in the world. He models forgiveness in a very real and specific family situation. I want to suggest here today among God’s people gathered at this Table on this September morning that we are called to do the same; that we need to do the same to bear witness to a polarized world that God is love.

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew comes to us from a first-century community in Syria, probably Antioch. They didn’t yet have a building, but they gathered in each other’s homes. Their specific struggles and concerns were different from those in Jerusalem or Rome or Springfield or South Hadley. But there, as anywhere where two or three are gathered together, there was a need for forgiveness. How hard that can be: both to accept that God forgives us and that we are called to forgive others!

How often, Jesus is asked. As many as seven times? Jesus says no, more than that. It’s not clear whether he says seventy seven times or seventy times seven; the text is ambiguous. Since some of you may not yet be awake and I didn’t warn you there would be math this morning, I’ll just say that seventy times seven equals 490. But whether it’s 77 times or 490 times, it’s a lot.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus prefers telling stories to setting down dogmatic rules? Jesus invites people to reflection. He doesn’t “lord it over” his disciples. He doesn’t preach at people. Instead he tells stories that invite them to see things in a new way and to change our perspective. Jesus doesn’t say, “you better forgive 77 times or else you are going to hell…” The Church has had a tendency to add that sort of thing, which I think can leave people paralyzed and feeling like they don’t measure up. Instead, Jesus tells a story. Only because most of us don’t understand the first-century Roman monetary system we tend to miss the point, or skip over it. But let’s linger a bit with a little more math if you are up for it. One denarii is equal to one day’s wages. There are ten thousand denarii in one talent. To put that another way, one talent is like thirty years wages. That’s one talent but the parable says that the guy is in debt ten thousand talents, which is to say something like a billion dollars – a ridiculously huge amount of debt equal to that of some small nations.

It’s an absurd number. This is Middle Eastern hyperbole which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus is exaggerating. Now this debt is forgiven. The guy in turn is owed a comparably small debt, but nevertheless a not insignificant one. One hundred denarii is like three month’s wages. So let’s call it $15,000. The guy who has just been forgiven a billion dollar debt now wants every penny of what he believes he has coming to him. I think we are meant to laugh when we hear this story but after the laughter may come some tears, and some questions, and some self-reflection. Many of us have a tendency to get focused on the hurt done to us more than on the hurt we’ve done to others which I think is the reason for the Middle Eastern hyperbole here to help us see that. We tend to focus on the grudges we must hold onto rather than the ones we have been forgiven for. So we might wonder – and I’m not asking for volunteers here because we are, after all, Episcopalians, but in the quiet of our own hearts we might wonder: when have I been like the forgiver? Like the forgiven? When I have I held onto a grudge longer than I needed to? We pray at least once a week as we gather that we might forgive others as we have been forgiven. Do we dare to live as if we believe that?

Yes, that’s hard. And yes people really do hurt us. My experience teaches me, however, that when we get stuck it is very often ourselves that we hurt for we let the other continue to control us and take up residence in our heads. True freedom in Christ is about letting go. Again, think of Joseph. All those years he didn’t have his brothers in his life. Now he has a choice: to keep that status quo or to open the door to a new future. To hold on to that grudge or to let it go. Where forgiveness happens, creativity and energy for ministry are unleashed, on all sides.

In his short story, “The Capital of the World,” Ernest Hemingway tells the story of a Spanish father and his teenage son. It’s the story of a strained and eventually shattered relationship that causes the boy, Paco, to run away from home. Like the father of the prodigal son, this father in this story longs to welcome his son home, and so he goes in search of him. When he comes to Madrid he places an ad in the newspaper which reads:

Dear Paco, Please meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon. All is forgiven. Love, Father

The next day, at noon, there are 800 Pacos at the newspaper office, all of them apparently seeking forgiveness from their fathers.

There are worse ways, I am convinced, than to be known than as the Church where love is unleashed through the power of forgiveness. I truly believe this takes us to the very heart of Biblical faith, in both the old and new testaments. In a world of shrill polarities, I think it offers real hope for the world for us to proclaim not only with our lips, but our lives:  Paco, Tanya, Shalom, Chip, Rebecca, Susan, Terry - all is forgiven. 

May we forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven, in the name of the living God. That isn't the end of the story of the good news of Jesus Christ, but surely it is a good place to begin.