“For this reason” 03/10/2019 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

March 10, 2019“For this reason”

Matthew 18:21-35

               A few days ago, my 24 year old son and I fell into a conversation about religion.  I should have known it would not to end well.  But after a bit of back and forth, he said that he could concede that there may be a God and that God may be good and that it may be a good thing to practice goodness.  But as for the bible and religion? Well they are just down right problematic, he said, and we’d be much better off without either of them.   


               When I turned to our scripture passage for today, I had to admit, I could see his point. The text for today is a troubling one.  It is not unreasonable to think that perhaps we would be much better without it.    

               But before we go any further, Let us pray. Holy God, seeker of the lost and healer of the broken, enter into the words that I speak and the meditations of all of our hearts so that we may enter more fully into your presence.  For you are our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

               Earlier this week, I stopped at Wegmans to do some grocery shopping.  When I pushed my cart into check-out line, I was greeted by a cashier who was practically bouncing on his toes as he asked me quite enthusiastically — “Did you find everything you are looking for?”

For whatever reason, I found his question profoundly irritating.  “Did I find everything I am looking for?”   

               I started perseverating “Does he really think that everything I am looking for is to be found within this 80,000 square foot space that is the Wegmans grocery story?  Everything I am looking for is not the odds and ends I need to purchase to tie us over this week.  What I am looking for is actually much more than toothpaste and ketchup. What I am looking for is Joy?  Does he have Joy somewhere on the shelves?  And not just Joy but how about Hope? Does he have Hope? And what about Love?”

               Now, not to worry.  I did not say any of this out loud to my rather annoying cashier.  I replied, of course, with a polite “Yes, thank you. I did.” But the question stayed with me. It stayed with me because that question clearly touched something raw within me.  My reaction got me wondering about my expectations about where do I go to find what I am looking for?    It got me thinking about church, religion and what it is we are doing here.

               Wouldn’t it be rather wonderful if church was like a big box store where you could wander down the aisles and find everything you are looking for?  Wouldn’t it be a relief if all we had to do was just take it what we needed off the shelf, put some money in the plate and be on our way? 

               For many, this is exactly what religion and church is thought to be.   Religion supplies the truths that the church then makes available to those who it decides to allow through its doors.  This way of thinking about religion and the role of the church can be compelling.  When the world is so confusing and our lives filled with so much suffering and uncertainty, the appeal of having a place of order, certainty and predictability is pretty enticing.  It can be comforting to know that someone is going to tell us exactly what God wants and exactly what we are supposed to do.  It can be a source of great consolation to know that if we play by the rules, and act just right then we can rest assured that everything is going to work out.   


               I cannot help but think this kind of clarity is what Peter was looking for when he pulled Jesus aside that day.  I think he had his rule book out and his ledger and wanted to be sure that his calculations were right. 

               You see, as Brian mentioned last week, Jesus has now turned his face towards Jerusalem.  He has told his disciples that he is going there and that in time he will take up his cross and be crucified.  This news has shaken Peter to his core.  Hearing that it is all going to end on Calvary in Jerusalem is scary and so desperately sad for Peter. 

               And so Peter does what he does best. He doubles down with a plan.  If he can just get it right, then he perhaps there will be a way through whatever it is that is coming.  And so after Jesus has concluded his teaching for the day, after Jesus has finished speaking to them about how precious they are to God and how God will go to any length to find one who is lost, after he has finished telling them that they too must then see how precious each other is and how they too ought to be reconciled one to another, after all of this, Peter pulls Jesus aside to ask a clarifying question.

               “How many times, Jesus are we to forgive?” “Seven time?”  To which Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Which in Biblical parlance is the equivalent of saying a gazillion times. 

               Peter must have still looked puzzled.  So seeing where Peter is headed in all of this, Jesus continues and says to him “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts…”

               As Jesus begins speaking, I can imagine, Peter nodding his head as he takes notes.  Perhaps he even looks up in astonishment when Peter hears the size of the debt that this slave owes the king.  The amount is hyperbolic, more money than anyone could possibly have or owe, but Jesus continues.  The debt is forgiven!  Amazing.  As Jesus then goes on to tell that this same slave who was just forgiven refuses to do the same for someone who owes him a few day’s wages, I imagine Peter shaking his head and furrowing his brow at how wrong that is.  When Jesus get to the part when the King then calls the unforgiving slave back and condemns him anew, I can see Peter nodding in agreement.  Yep, that’s how it works.  Question answered.  There is a limit to how much we have to forgive a brother or a sister! 

               But the parable is not over.  Jesus has one thing more to say and that is that that if Peter cannot forgive, then the same thing that happened to the unforgiving servant is bound to happen to him.

               I’m sure that stopped Peter in his tracks.    It stopped me.

               What I hear is a warning from Jesus that without forgiveness we will most end up stuck in a world of our own making.  Without forgiveness, we risk losing track of who God really is and start remaking god in our own image.  Without forgiveness, God can easily become a tyrant that is merely a projection of the anger and hurt in which we ourselves dwell.  And without forgiveness, we risk living within a loop of punishment and reward in a world devoid of grace. In his book The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr writes “as long as we keep God imprisoned in a retributive frame instead of a restorative frame, we really have not substantial good news; it is neither good nor new, but the same old tired line of history.  We pull God down to our level.” (Rohr p. 29)   

               This is the religion that I think my son is objecting to.  A prescriptive religion that set the rules and then adjudicated them.  A religion that that was more about getting people to conform that it is about helping people transform their lives.  This is sadly, I think a pretty prevalent view of what church is, particularly so for young people.   


               But such a version of church and religious prescriptive certainty, actually has very little to do with what Jesus is doing.  Jesus tells Peter this parable so that Peter might wake up to the gravity of what can happen if Peter loses sight of what he and Jesus are doing together, what can happen when we allow hurt and fear to collapse us back into old patterns and thinking. 

               I have come to see that Jesus is calling us into a radical new way of living.  A way that is shaped by Love. A way that has nothing to do with meeting a requirement or measuring up.  Love occupies a different reality all together and Jesus is asking and showing us how to cross over into that reality.  Richard Rohr quotes first British theologian G. K. Chesterton in his latest book “the Universal Christ” : “Your religion is not the church you belong to, but the cosmos you live inside of.” And then goes on to day “Once we know that the entire physical world around us, all of creation is both the hiding place and the revelation place for God, this world becomes home, safe, enchanted, offering grace to any who look deeply.” 

               If we are able to step out of the small places of our hurt and into the great expanse of wonder and mystery that is this amazing world of ours then the role of religion is not adjudicate worth but instead it is (as Rohr writes) “to radically connect us with everything.”  Rohr reminds us that the word religion comes from re-ligio which means to re-ligament or reconnect. 

               This is, I believe the move we are to make so that we may come to participate in this great mystery and revelation which is Christ in the world. 

               So how are we to do this?  How do we get out of constricted spaces and into the expansiveness of God’s love?  Through the doorway of forgiveness.   Forgiveness is love in motion.  Just like hospitality that we are going to take up next week and generosity the week after that.  Forgiveness is a grace.

               I am sure there is not a person in this place who does not know what it is to be hurt by another.  I am sure there is not a person in this place who has not felt white hot burn of righteous indignation and anger and having been wronged.     

               But I am sure, many of us have also come to know how it feels when a certain kind of tightness, and contracting starts to work in us around that place of hurt.  How we end up circling and circling around the hurt contracting tighter and tighter.   

               How many times are we to forgive?  7 times?  No seventy –seven times.  Why? Because our very lives depend on it.  Forgiveness is the doorway we are to walk through if we are to move out of what is keeping us small and into the expansiveness of the grace drenched reality of all creation which is our true home.


               Now, I would be irresponsible if I did not take a moment to be clear about what forgiveness is and what it is not.  Forgiveness is not condoning what has happened to us.  Nor is it forgetting.  Forgiveness does not mean we don’t need boundaries that keep us safe. 

It is important also to be clear that forgiveness is a process that can take time.  It is a grace that works on our hearts and not a light switch that can be flipped on. 

               And finally, let us not forget that one of the hardest things we are called to do is to forgive ourselves.  I believe it was Kierkegaard that said our life work is to really come “to accept that we are acceptable.”  It becomes really hard to forgive someone else when we have not first done the hard work of forgiving ourselves. 

               Today on this first Sunday in Lent, Can we dare to identify all of those places that are keeping us tight and stuck? Is it possible that our liberation will come when we work to release them?  Can we courageously move into the hurt while praying that the grace of forgiveness will be upon us? Maybe this is where we will find release from our self-made prisons. Maybe then we will actually know the wonder of deliverance from self-imposed restrictive captivity into the wide open grace drenched cosmos of God with us. Maybe then we will find everything we are looking for.

               I think I will begin with that overly enthusiastic clerk.  Next time   I am at Wegmans I am going to look for him specifically and thank him.  For while I may not have found everything I am looking, he helped me articulate a way of doing so.

               And as a final note. After it all is over.  After Jesus has been handed over, crucified and then resurrected, the risen Jesus will come to the disciples on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.  He will cook Peter and the others breakfast. And then Jesus will pull Peter aside and this time Jesus will ask Peter a question.  Jesus will ask Peter if he loves him. Peter will then respond YES and in doing so he will come out of that tight confined place of shame and pain within himself and standing there face to face with LOVE, he will find everything that he is looking for.  May it be so for us as well. Amen