Pentecost 13 A: The Essential Ingredient

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I wish I had an easier way to say it, but here’s the straight-up truth: authentic community is incredibly hard to come by. In case you’re not sure, take another look at these verses from Matthew. Actually, don’t look at just these verses, or you’re likely to fall into reading the Bible as some kind of divine reference book instead of the living Word of God. Here’s what I mean.

The heart of chapter eighteen is about forgiveness: about how important it is to God, about how important it is to us, and about how hard it can be to actually extend and receive it. And so in the verses just before those we read this week, Jesus tells a brief parable, or really uses an analogy, to get at how much God wants to draw us into God’s rich embrace of forgiveness and mercy. God is like a shepherd who will leave ninety-nine sheep to themselves, Jesus says, in order to find the one that has gone astray. Similarly, the verses just after our passage describe Peter’s question, “how many times must I forgive someone?” followed by his diligent suggestion of seven. Jesus, however, isn’t satisfied with merely towing the line of the law and so instead says, “seventy-seven,” or about as many times as it takes to love your neighbor back into right relationship with you. And then Jesus follows up his instructions with a rather stark parable about what may happen to those who, even though they’ve experienced God’s forgiveness, cannot extend it to others. (I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that the typical threat of “gnashing teeth” seems downright attractive by comparison.)

The reason forgiveness is so important – from God, to and from each other, pretty much everyday and all the time – is simple: we screw up. Whether out of insecurity, bad training, or habit, we all too often put our wants, needs, and desires ahead of those of others. And so we hurt the people around us. And they hurt us. You know what I’m talking about. There won’t be a single person sitting in your congregation this week who hasn’t been hurt in some way recently, and who hasn’t also hurt someone else. That’s just life in this world. We screw up. Which means that forgiveness is perhaps the essential ingredient in our relationships at home, work, school, church, and all the rest.

All of which brings us back to the troublesome verses we’ve been dealt this week. You see, without keeping the centrality of forgiveness in our relationships firmly in mind, it’s easy to hear the verses in this week’s reading as a divine recipe for dealing with troublesome Christians. Step one, take the offender aside and show him/her the error of his/her ways. Step two, bring a group to confront said offender. Step three, shun and/or banish unrepentant offender. Repeat as necessary.

Read all by itself, this counsel is wide open to abuse, as (probably) well-meaning people decide to have Christian con-friend-tation (yes I’ve actually heard that word used!) with someone they fear is “backsliding.” But read in light of the larger context of forgiveness and relationship, everything changes. The primary goal is no longer to change someone’s behavior, or demonstrate how he or she is wrong, or even to invite him or her to repentance. Rather, the goal is to restore a damaged relationship by speaking truthfully about the breach or hurt you are experiencing, taking responsibility for your feelings and your actions and inviting the other person to do the same, and inviting dialogue and conversation that you might find a way forward together.

Read this way, these verses are remarkably counter-cultural. For we live in a culture of digital dehumanization, where we can accuse or complain about someone else at the safe distance of the comments to a post, trash someone’s reputation via social media, or share difficult news via an email rather than through face-to-face conversation. In each case, we have failed to take seriously the humanity of the person with whom we are in relationship, hiding ourselves in the digital forest of 24/7 messaging.

Jesus, however, invites a different way. He invites us to love each other enough to speak not just to but also with each other, holding each other accountable through vulnerability rather than by force. After all, it takes guts to talk to someone you feel is in the wrong without judging them, putting them down, or taking responsibility for their actions. And it takes guts to listen when someone else tries to do the same thing for you. In this way of relating, the key is to put being in relationship above being right, and to take incredibly seriously how much God wants us all to be in good relationship with each other and with God.

This sense of forgiveness and community also helps get at the second part of this passage as well. When I was a child, I always assumed that Jesus was giving us some magic words to peace and prosperity. You know: just find another Christian or two and agree on what you want. But I think Jesus hasn’t left the zone of our relationships but has only gone deeper. That is, I think Jesus is saying that when we nurture the kind of caring, vulnerable, honest, and authentic community he’s talking about, literally anything is possible. Why? Because God’s will and presence become manifest as Christians gather together in faith, hope, forgiveness, and love.

The hard part, of course, is doing it, not just talking about it. Which makes me wonder, Dear Partner, if on this Sunday – which for many of us will be the first Sunday back in school and back together for another program year at church – we might not ask people to commit to putting relationship above being right and to practice giving and receiving forgiveness. We might do this by asking them to visualize a troubled relationship in their lives and guide them to a place of extending to that person forgiveness (or asking it for themselves). We might also do this by giving them a piece of paper and taking two minutes to write to someone in their lives with whom there has been a breach in relationship and ask them to start a letter where they offer or receive forgiveness. They don’t have to finish the letter; just getting it started will be enough. (They can finish it in the privacy of their home.) Or we might simply move whatever form of confession and absolution you may use to just after the sermon and before sharing the Peace.)

One more thing before signing off: Given my penchant for stressing the importance of preaching the gospel in every sermon, one might wonder where the “good news” is in all of this instruction about forgiveness, relationship, and community. Well, have you ever wondered how odd it is that God cares this deeply about our relationships, not only with God but also with each other? It’s actually quite unusual in relationship to most religious faiths and systems of philosophy. But this passage testifies that God cares – really cares – about how we treat each other and are treated in turn. God loves us enough to help us better love each other. And God wants to redeem us enough to embody the forgiveness God invites us to in the form of God’s only Son, Jesus, as he lay upon the cross.

Good Lord, but I wish it were easier, Dear Partner. I really do. Sometimes I find it so hard to forgive others for the wrongs I believe they’ve done me. And sometimes I find it even harder (at least at first) to receive the forgiveness of another. But when I do – when I let go the burdens of accusation and blame – it’s like a whole new world of possibilities opens up. We call that whole new world the Kingdom of God, and every once in a while we get a full-bodied taste of that forgiveness when we’re caught up in the difficult, demanding, and oh so sacred work of tending our relationships.

Thank you for our good work, Dear Partner. And blessings on your ministry this week and always.

Yours in Christ,

PS: I’ve been getting an email or two each week asking for a link to the Dear Working Preacher I wrote for the last lectionary cycle through Matthew. You can find the one for this week – which I see delved into similar themes – here.