Lectionary Reflections for Sunday, September 14, 2014
14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Forgiveness as a Mark of Christian Community
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘ Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ Matthew 18:21-22
Peter the model disciple must think that he is being quite generous in his question to Jesus. Forgiving a fellow believer not once, not three times, but seven times must have seemed pretty magnanimous in his eyes. But of course, Jesus has other ideas about the nature and frequency of forgiveness. So, instead of seven times, Jesus says one must forgive seventy-seven times. In other words, don’t even think about putting a limit on how far you’re willing to go in the mercy game, because forgiveness Jesus-style occurs exponentially, without limits, without expectation, and without rationalizations.
Why is it so hard for us to forgive? Jesus tells a parable about a slave in deep debt who receives mercy from his master. One would think this might have made an impression, yet this man who benefited from the generosity and mercy of another turns right around and acts downright stingy in not forgiving the smaller debt of a fellow slave. Suffice it to say, things ended badly for the unforgiving slave.
When Martin Luther died, a slip of paper was found in his pocket on which these words were written: “We are beggars, this is true.” Yes, we all are beggars. We are not worthy of the forgiveness, the grace, the love, and the redemption we have through God in Christ Jesus. And there is not a single thing we can do to earn mercy or deserve a place at the table. Even forgiven seventy times seven, we are not worthy. The simple fact is that it is God’s nature to love.
If you happen to be celebrating Holy Cross Sunday this week, you will hear those magnificent and beloved verses from the third chapter of John’s gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
God loves us. Jesus does not condemn but rather desires to reconcile all creation. This is “seventy times seven” kind of forgiveness that knows no limits. And we are called to practice this same radical forgiveness and reconciliation as followers of Christ. It’s a mark of discipleship and an identifier of Christian community.
So how many times are we to forgive our sister or brother? Don’t count. Don’t ask. Just practice forgiveness, relying fully on God’s grace to sustain you. It may not make sense, especially to the world, but that’s alright. We are all beggars in need of forgiveness. This is true.
Forgiveness isn’t always easy. In fact, sometimes grudges are born for years–even to the grave. Jesus tells us to forgive our brothers and sisters from our heart. How is this possible when our hearts are so often hard and unyielding? How do we make this happen when our minds seem to prevent us from living out this divine command?
Invite each worshiper to take a small heart-shaped wooden token or smooth stone with a heart drawn on it with a sharpie or paint. Remind them that forgiveness isn’t easy, but it’s about laying down the hurt, anger, and pain with the help of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t always involve forgetting, and it’s surely not about being a doormat. It’s really more about a change happening in our own lives and hearts. Tell the worshipers to assign to this token a hurt involving someone else that they need to let go of. There is no time limit; the letting go can happen during worship or it may take weeks, months, even years. Invite them, when they are ready and able, to bring the token and place it in a basket by the font or at the foot of a cross. Forgiveness, like faith, is part of the discipleship journey. It’s more process than destination. Offer a simple prayer for help with forgiving, and make sure that you take part in the project, too.
Are vegetarians weaker than omnivores? What in the world is Paul really talking about in this week’s epistle lesson? Youth are all too well acquainted with being judged at school, in sports, or even with family members. Invite them to process what it feels like to be judged. Virtually all will report it to be an uncomfortable or unpleasant experience. Paul reminds us that “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Our worth is not defined in how others judge us, but rather in the simple fact that we belong to God. Whether you’re fond of bacon or kale, indie rock or country, baseball or lacrosse, your worth comes from your status as God’s child — not your appetite, your clothes, or the car you drive. This is completely countercultural–and it reflects the foolishness of the cross–but it’s absolutely real and true for the Christian. Invite youth to explore this reality and also how they might extend this same grace to others. Be prepared for the conversation to take some strange twists and turns but do trust the Spirit to give you guidance and support.
Does God Keep Score? We live in a world where keeping score is important. We keep score to know who wins a game. We keep “score” to make sure we are getting our fair share. We keep score to know how we are mastering learning goals and objectives in school. And we tend to keep score when we’ve been wronged or hurt, too. Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t keep score when we mess up. He forgives us and loves us. Peter asked Jesus how many times he ought to forgive a fellow church member, suggesting seven times as a generous number. Jesus says seventy seven times — in other words a lot, as many times as it takes to make things right. Whew! That’s good news and hard work at the same time. Forgiveness is something we have to practice just as we practice a musical instrument or a sport. We have to keep at it. The more we forgive, the more our heart grows in its ability to forgive. Thankfully, God isn’t a sinner’s scorekeeper, but that does not mean we stop practicing forgiving others. We keep at it, working day by day by day. “I forgive you.” These are very important words. They feel good to hear, and if you work at it, they can feel good to say. Finish with a prayer for strength to keep practicing forgiveness.
Narrative Lectionary, Year 1, September 14, 2014
Sent Forth with God’s Blessing
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” Genesis 12:1
Last week we celebrated the covenant between God and creation. This week, we shift from the cosmic to the personal, from the general and epic to the specific and intimate. In nine short verses we are introduced to Abram and Sarai, the patriarch and matriarch of the family that will become God’s chosen people. And so the journey begins.
Go. Leave all that you know and trust me to guide you. I’m going to make something really special of you. You will be blessed and will be a great blessing. No map. No GPS. Just go from Haran to Canaan. And Abram packs up all his belongings and people and leaves all that he has known to follow the voice of the Cosmos. What a bold, brave step! I wonder how many of us can respond so trustingly and immediately to the call of God in our lives.
When we hear or sense the nudging of the Spirit, how tempting it is to say, “Not now. I’m way too busy.” Perhaps we ignore that small, still voice altogether because we are fearful of what might follow. Go. Leave all that you know and trust me to guide you. Put your entire life–all of it–into my divine hands. Relinquish the pitiful illusion of control over life unto which you cling; let me transform you and make of you something really wonderful. Let me mold and shape you for my purposes in my time and in my God-ways.
Can we hold a sacred space, at least in our time of worship if nowhere else, to listen for God’s call and to allow the sending of our liturgy to be an entry point into putting our lives into God’s hands for God’s purposes? We are not merely sent home for an afternoon of yardwork or out to eat with friends. We are not charged with going forth to live mundane, exhausting rat-race kind of lives without deep, abiding meaning and purpose.
We are sent as people of God and as communities of faith–to continue the great faith narrative ,and share the good news and love of Christ–blessed to be a blessing.
Sent with a Blessing: Read this excerpt from Barbara Brown Taylor’s lovely and powerful book, An Altar in the World. Think about the power of blessing one another before being sent from worship back into the world. It’s one thing for the ordained leader to offer the benediction. It’s another thing entirely for God’s people to bless one another. Invite pairs or small groups of people to talk briefly about the things they are facing in the week to come for which they might seek a blessing. Perhaps it is beginning a new job, facing an uncertain doctor visit, traveling somewhere alone, or simply encountering others with whom they might share the love of Christ. Invite each person to bless the other. You may have to spend a bit of time explaining and modeling the process, perhaps working it into your sermon or other spot in the liturgy. Do this and witness the incredible power of the Holy Spirit equipping everyday saints right before your eyes. If nothing else, you too will be blessed by this powerful sending.
Abram’s was a tribal culture, and so is the world of the teenager and young adult. We are drawn to others with whom we journey through our days and years. These self-selected “tribes” are bound together by many things–music, culture, sports, hobbies, ethnicity, geography, or various combinations. In our lesson this week, Abram’s tribe is sent by God from all that is familiar and comfortable into a foreign land with the promise of becoming a great nation and a blessing.
Invite youth to ponder how God might be calling your youth group “tribe” into a journey of service and witness. Are you beginning to plan for a service trip or short-term mission next summer? Do you have a national or regional gathering to which you’ll be traveling? Consider how you might begin planning a sending liturgy for some big event, but also invite youth to write sending blessings and litanies for the end of each youth group meeting or Christian ed gathering. Practicing everyday rituals can become a powerful and tangible mark of faith for your youth “tribe.” Don’t miss the opportunity to engage your youth in this and other powerful blessing, gathering, and sending rituals. These moments give important shape and definition to the life of faith in community.
During the Children’s time today have the children help you write an alternative sending for worship and invite them to help you proclaim it to the congregation. Lean heavily on the word “GO” because this is a word that even the smallest child can grasp and speak. Have the children identify ways and places that people “go” from worship. Do they go on foot or in cars? Do they go home, to school, to work? Do they go to love and serve? Do they go to remember their baptism and serve the poor and lonely? Do they go to be Christ’s hands and feet and heart in the world? Write the sending on poster boards with big colorful letters and simple illustrations. Keep it short and easy, but do invite the children to come back and help you send the congregation forth in joy. Get God’s people GOING!