Monday, September 11, 2017

Enabling Forgiveness

September 10, 2017 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Half of the preacher’s job is to invite a congregation to see that the kingdom of God that is breaking in all around us. The other half is to invite them to get up from their pews and do something about it. Sometimes I leave the pulpit thinking that I’ve done a pretty good job of the first half but realize that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the second. For example, two weeks ago, I preached a sermon about how those of us who, like Simon Peter, identify Jesus as the Messiah must also confess that we are no longer willing to live in a world where the way of Jesus does not reign. And, after I finished, about half way through the Nicene Creed, it occurred to me that I needed to climb back into the pulpit and preach another sermon on what we’re going to do about it. And I almost did.

We know that Jesus came to make this world the place where God’s ways reign. There’s a reason that he taught us to say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” every time we pray. God’s dream for the world is what we see in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s something small and humble growing into something complete and all-encompassing. It’s welcome for the outcast. It’s fellowship with the stranger. It’s wholeness for the broken. It’s freedom for the prisoner and a new start for the oppressed. It’s the weak and defeated and dead coming back to life and having that life abundantly. It’s all of those things and more. But what does it take for those things to happen? What does it take for that kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done here on earth just as it is done in heaven? What do we have to do in order to stop watching and waiting for it and become a part of making it happen?

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells the church how to make God’s kingdom a reality, and, at first glance, it seems to be all about confronting sinners. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If that doesn’t work, take one or two others along with you. If that doesn’t work, tell it to the whole church, and, if the sinner still won’t repent, write him off as a Gentile or tax collector.” In other words, “You’d be better off without him.” It would be easy to interpret this anachronistic instruction to the church as Jesus’ warning that we’d better do whatever we can to get rid of sinners by either making them repent or chasing them away. And many churches have taken that approach to the kingdom of God. They think that the best thing they can do to make God’s reign come is to launch an all-out assault on sin and the sinners who commit it. But it turns out that that’s not what Jesus has in mind.

The people who designed the lectionary did us a real disservice by cutting this passage about going after sinners out of its original context. Do you know what the rest of Matthew 18 is about? Right before today’s lesson, Jesus says to his disciples, “What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And, if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” And right after today’s passage, presumably in response to it, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive—as many as seven times?” And Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” And, on top of that, don’t forget that Matthew himself was a tax collector. So, when he tells us that Jesus wants the church to treat an unrepentant sinner like a Gentile or a tax collector, there must be at least a little bit of irony there—perhaps even a subtle invitation to consider that no one, not even a tax collector, is really lost forever. Pretty quickly, therefore, we realize that this isn’t a passage about confronting sinners; it’s about enabling forgiveness.

In fact, many of the most reliable manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel account leave out the words “against you” in the first line of Jesus’ instructions. Listen to what a difference that makes: “Jesus said, ‘If another member of the church sins, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…” Jesus isn’t interested in helping the good Christians win their disputes over the bad ones. This isn’t even about reconciling the differences between two members of the church. Instead, Jesus wants us to do whatever it takes and to go to whatever lengths are necessary in order to recover someone who has been separated from the body of the faithful by sin.

And that is both the good news of how the kingdom comes and the challenging news of what it takes to make it happen. Jesus isn’t telling us how to keep the kingdom free of sinners. He’s telling us that it’s our job to go and seek out the lost and bring them back into the fold. That’s what it takes for God’s reign to be established on the earth. God’s kingdom will only be a full reality when all of creation is reconciled together and to its Creator. And that doesn’t happen when we sit back and wait on Jesus to come and sort everything out on our behalf. It happens when we hear Jesus’ words and get up out of our pews to go and find the ones who aren’t here because of guilt and shame and embarrassment and share with them the gospel of unlimited forgiveness.

It’s a lot easier to close our church’s doors on the people whom we have labelled as sinners than it is to knock on their doors and invite them back in. Likewise, it’s a lot easier to assume the church’s doors are closed to you when you’ve wandered off and become a lost sheep than it is to feel like you belong back amidst the flock of the faithful. It’s hard coming back to church after a messy divorce. It’s hard finding your way back after ninety days in rehab. It’s hard getting in your car and driving into the parking lot and walking through that door when the imperfections of your life are a part of the public record. But, until all people know that they have a place in God’s church, we can’t live into the fullness of God’s kingdom.

The truth of the gospel is that God pursues sinners like you and me until he finds us and brings us back home. But that doesn’t happen by magic. It happens when you and I realize that the work of forgiveness and reconciliation belongs to us. If a member of the church sins, reach out to that person when you are alone. Tell him or her that repentance means turning around and coming back. Assure him or her that he or she is already loved beyond measure and that we have a place for him or her right here in the company of forgiven sinners like you and me. And, if that doesn’t work, ask the rest of the church to help you. This is too important for us to get it wrong.

As followers of Jesus, we must be so filled with the power of God’s forgiving love that we refuse to keep it to ourselves. We must recognize that the power of God’s love and the kingdom that it brings cannot be complete until we have shared that love with everyone who hasn’t found it yet. Who isn’t here? Who is missing from the body of Christ? Who is staying away because they presume that the church’s doors are shut to them? Who doesn’t know that God loves them just as they are and is waiting to welcome them back with open arms? Those arms belong to us. We must be those open arms.

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