Monday, September 15, 2014

Forgiving as We Have Been Forgiven

The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs
Matthew 18:21-35

I remember hearing this Gospel lesson read aloud in church as a child. I was eight or so, and I had just learned multiplication. The King James Version, which is what I heard that morning, translates the number in the passage as “seven times seventy,”and I sat in the pew trying to figure out the exact number of times I had been wronged by my younger brother, so that I could subtract that number from four hundred and ninety. I was so very determined that I was not going to forgive him any more times than Jesus said I had to.

I think that’s the mindset that prompts Peter to ask Jesus this question, “How many times do I have to forgive?” I think he probably felt pretty magnanimous about offering a number as large as seven. As a child, I remember thinking to myself, four hundred and ninety is way too many times, Jesus. Matthew’s Greek is a little confusing here, but seventy-seven times or four hundred and ninety, the point is that Jesus gives Peter a number that’s too large to practically keep track of, whatever our eight-year-old selves might think. But part of me still wants to.

I’m willing to guess that’s the reality for most of us. Forgiveness is a hard, messy, and uncomfortable business, especially when we are talking about wrongs that have been done to me, or wrongs that I have done. And that’s what Jesus is talking about this morning. Peter’s question isn’t about abstract conflicts. Peter’s question begins “If another member of the church sins against me…” It comes at the end of an entire chapter in Matthew’s Gospel that is devoted to handling conflicts within the church, not outside it. This is intimate stuff, where we wrong and are wronged by people that we know, people that we hope will love us and who hope that we love them. It’s not easy. I wish it were. I’d like it to be easier, but I’m not any more comfortable with forgiveness at twenty-eight than I was at eight.

This past week, a seminary colleague who remembered that I live in Baltimore called me and asked, “Don’t you feel called to preach about Ray Rice this week?” Don’t worry; I said no. But I think this question, which was an attempt to deflect this question about forgiveness to something that is so external to our life together as a parish community, represents an attempt to make things easier. Let’s face it: it so so much easier to talk about someone else’s sin, especially someone who we don’t know, especially a celebrity. Talking about our own sins, talking about the people who we need to forgive is hard. Jesus knows that it’s hard. But he doesn’t make it easier. He doubles down with the parable he tells in answer to Peter’s question. Do you notice the shift that’s happened? Peter asks about forgiving someone else, but Jesus responds with a parable that is equally about our own need to be forgiven.

Now, it’s really easy to get caught up in the details of this parable.We’re trained to thing that kings the Jesus’ parables always represent God. Maybe that’s not a good thing this time, because this parable is about a king who’s willing to sell us into slavery to cover our debts, and who tortures us when we fall short of forgiving. We believe that God is more merciful than that. We’ve got to pay attention to how very exaggerated this parable is, though. That’s a sign that Jesus doesn’t intend us to take it literally. The first slave in the parable owes ten thousand talents. A talent was equal to about fifteen years’ wages for an ordinary worker in those days. So this slave owes the equivalent of one hundred and fifty thousand years’ worth of income. No one ever owes that much money. Like forgiving seventy seven or seventy times seven times, this is supposed to be an absurdly large sum. But this slave, who has been forgiven, doesn’t extend that forgiveness. He immediately goes out and finds someone who owes him some money, an amount that was equal to about one hundred days’ worth of work. It’s not insignificant, but it’s nothing like the debt that he just got out of paying. And you’d think that this slave would show mercy, having been showed mercy. But he doesn’t. He wants revenge. And it’s his downfall. And he receives the exact same punishment he subjected his fellow slave to, but our first slave can never repay his debt, so he’ll never finished being punished. And Jesus tells us that God will do the same thing to us if we don’t forgive others.

That’s harsh. That’s not what I want to hear. I wonder though, since we’re not supposed to take this very hyperbolic parable literally, if this punishment that we’re promised doesn’t occur here and now. When you are really caught up in keeping track of wrongs done, in how many times you need to forgive someone, you get miserable quickly. All the more so if you just flat out refuse to forgive. It takes a lot of energy to carry a grudge, especially against someone close to you. There’s release in forgiving, just like there’s release in being forgiven. St. Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Colossians: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.”

Close your eyes, and take few moments to ask yourself: “Who do I need to forgive? What grudge am I carrying?" Remember, you have been forgiven much. Extend that forgiveness to that person in your life this week. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. Amen.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What is Church?

Jesus said, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone...For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Matthew 18:15ff

Well – I have to tell you – for some of us this is day 3 of church, church and church!  Josh and I – and the clergy of this diocese and many of the people of this diocese have been together non-stop for 72 hours!  And are finally at the resurrection day of completion for celebrating the gathered faithful giving thanks to God in Christ.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about – let me explain.  Yesterday, as you may know from our announcements, we ordained Heather Cook a bishop and consecrated her ministry as a Suffragan bishop in our diocese.   Of course when a someone is ordained bishop – the person who does so – is our presiding bishop Kathryn Jefferts Schiori.  And it is her practice – maybe the practice of all presiding bishops to meet with the clergy of the diocese before the big event.

So Friday morning Josh and I and I guess about 100 other priests gathered at St. Michael and All Angels downtown to hear her – but she didn’t do much talking.  She had us think about God’s words at Jesus’ baptism – you are my son and with you, I am well pleased.  And she reminded us of our baptism – because at our baptisms – regardless of whether or not we are priests – God speaks those words to us as we are marked with the sign of Christ.

You are my beloved – with you I am well pleased.  She invited us to close our eyes, sit with the thought quietly for a few minutes.  And then she invited us to turn to our neighbor and talk about what that phrase made us think about.

And then, she opened it up – and one by one – many of us shared our thoughts on that phrase.

Someone once said to me – you know, priests are a little like fertilizer – they shouldn't be all clumped together, its much better to spread them around.  And yes, some truth to that.  Because we tend when we’re speaking in those situations – to want to prove our spirituality, our faith, our knowledge.  And, I’m one of that group, and yes – I lump myself and my insecurities in with that need to.  And listening to everything being said – I wondered to myself – Jesus, is this what you were thinking of when you talked about the church?  Jesus never seemed really keen on the religious experts.
And then yesterday – the 11am service at Redeemer – holy moley was that an event.  It started at 11am I got there at 10 and had to park down the road, on a side road that was already packed with cars.  And inside the building was swarming with people – clergy getting vested, a gazillion acolytes – choir members – people preparing the reception inside and outside.  Signs for restrooms and gathering rooms and special orders for the procession.  Hats off to the organization team, honestly, it was truly controlled chaos.

And then they line us up for the procession – and I was part of I think the 3rd section of the procession which began with banners from every single church – our banner carried faithfully by Cynthia Frasier (thank you Cynthia) – then all the clergy (even though the first shall be last, somehow clergy always get the best seats) – then the bishops.  And as we process into the church – the church is packed like Easter morning – with Praise my soul the King of Heaven joyfully being sung full voice by everyone there.  It was indeed the church triumphant!  And I wondered to myself – is this it Jesus?  Is this what you imagined when you talked about church?

Because I totally underestimated that event – Josh and I scurried out of that service right after the sermon because at 2 o’clock we had a funeral.  Hugh Stierhoff, 83, member of Good Shepherd for at least 20 years if not more.  Taught Sunday school, came regularly, and it was pretty full in here.  Family and friends from near and far – I think we counted about 100 people.  And yep, in the midst of that I wondered – how about this Jesus – is this what you imagined your church would be?

And then – at the end of the service the the family and I and Josh processed to our columbarium – holding the “earth to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust” that we are at the last – and now we were down to 15?  18 people – gathered around a niche and tearfully saying final prayers – a small flock, a family taking comfort in the faith of God’s eternal promise.

This, I think, is what Jesus imagined when he talked to his disciples about church.  Its not a building – stones will always topple, Jesus said (Matt 24:1-2).  It’s not pageantry and banners and us looking and singing our best – they did that right before the crucifixion with those shouts of Hosanna in the highest (Matt 21:1).  It’s the small gatherings – its 12 disciples – or 18 vestry – or 15 mourners – or 2 or 3.  A community of people working through something in Jesus’ name – that is what church is really all about.

You know that phrase – where 2 or 3 are gathered there Jesus is.  You hear that one a lot, its pretty well know.  It’s either the phrase we use when only a few people have shown up for a church event.  Or we use it when talking about prayer and worship.  If only 2 or 3 are gathered to pray Jesus is there.

But this morning we have the phrase in context (and this is the only place it occurs in the scripture) is not about prayer or worship – it’s about conflict and disagreement.  Specifically when one member of the church has a conflict with another – feels they’ve been sinned against or wronged. 

So, that tells me something else about what Jesus thought church would be.  He thought it would be a community of people who make mistakes, who hurt one another, who disappoint one another – BUT – just as God does with us – it is a community of people who have been given the grace to work through hurt and anger and disappoint – in a whole, new way.

For example, let’s pretend Jesus is talking to a 21st century Peter – he might say, if another member of the church sins against you in an email – do not reply with an email!  We’ve all been there, right?  We read this epistle in our In box that gives a one-sided, and totally unfair representation of an point of contention.  In the church – I think Jesus wants us to then go and talk it out!

Jesus has this crazy idea that relationships are in person – not on Facebook, or email, or through an opt-in opt-out dialogue box or tweeting or texting what we think and feel and want to say.  Jesus says – go and talk to the brother or sister you have an issue with because – you are a member of the church.  You are a member of a family that gathers in Christ’s name.

Please note, my friends, this instruction of Jesus’ is not to the crowds – this is specific to the people who want to be in a Christian community. I don’t say that to be exclusive – or to suggest we are any better than any other community or religion – but Jesus is saying, this community is to practice Christ-like behaviors when we are together.

You know, right that this is why we have committees?  We’re great with the jokes about committees – how many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb?  1 to start the committee, 1 to suggest a motion, yadda, yadda, yadda.  But really – work done by committee is harder than just having one person do everything (the trap of church is that you know, one person doing everything)  Because in the committee we have to practice working together.

This – worship – this is practice too.  This is how as a community we practice reading the bible, praying the bible, praying for each other and the world, remembering Christ’s life and sacrifice for us, remembering our vows to seek and serve – this each Sunday is practice.  But conflict rarely comes into it because we are following a script!  It’s all spelled out, what we’re supposed to do.

But, when we have to deal with scheduling Sunday school – scheduling readers – making decisions about how we spend our money – how we raise our money – how we maintain the property – how we handle a problem – that’s when we see if we just talk the talk or walk the walk.  Where 2 or 3 are gathered struggling with something difficult in a loving way – that’s where Jesus says he is.

So, here we are again – start of the program year.  And it’s also a week that marks my third year as rector of this church.  And I have to tell you brothers and sisters I continue to be surprised that the people of this church do not know one another.  Very often I mention someone to someone else and they do not know who I’m talking about and I’m shocked because this is someone who attends regularly, who I see often.  And here we are in S’maltimore/Baltimore in a church that is not mega size!  So it seems in this community we need to do some relationship building, some being together in groups of 2 and 3 or more and working out what God wants us to be doing here and now.

I invite you therefore, if you have not participated on a committee or ministry team in this church for the last three years to try it out!  Get involved with some people and strengthen this community because it will not only be good for us as a church – but more importantly – it will be a witness to the beloved community that we are.  For that is what Jesus imagined a church would be – a beloved community of people who know that they too are beloved.  And that what we are called to do in Christ’s name to spread some much needed good news.  Amen.

- The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

When It's Okay to Make Mistakes

Matthew 16:21-28
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs

Pop quiz time: Do you remember last week’s Gospel lesson?

It’s really important for understanding today’s Gospel lesson, because it’s the first half of the story we’re hearing today. In case you’ve forgotten, or if you weren’t in church last week, let’s refresh everyone’s memories. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And his disciples reply, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus shouts, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” And yet, this Sunday, five verses later, Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” What happens? How do we get from Jesus calling Peter blessed to Jesus calling Peter Satan?

It’s clearly got something to do with what Jesus tells his disciples between the two statements he makes to Peter. From that time on, Matthew tells us, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great sufferings at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed…Peter doesn’t like this. It goes counter to all his expectations about the Messiah. Peter believed that the Messiah was God’s Anointed One, sent by God to restore David’s kingdom on earth. That’s what he means when he calls Jesus the “son of the living God;” it was one of the titles of the kings of Judah, David’s heir. The king of Judah, the Hebrew people believed, was God’s agent on earth, adopted as God’s son on the day he took the throne. When Peter acclaims Jesus as the son of God, that’s what he’s thinking of, not that Jesus is God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Peter thinks Jesus is supposed to be the king who will defeats the Romans, and that means that he cannot go to Jerusalem to die. Peter is setting his mind on human things, not divine things.

I’m a lot more like Peter than I care to admit. I think that’s why I like Peter so much. He’s always messing up like today, when he goes from blessed to Satan, or a few weeks ago, when he tried to walk on water, but sank. Peter, try as he might to get it right, never seems to actually do anything right. But Peter, poor, misguided Peter, is probably the disciple that best exemplifies the Episcopalian and Anglican view of the spiritual life. Some Christian traditions focus on the fact that we humans are basically good. We’re made in the image of God, and we basically get things right. But that doesn’t seem true for Peter, does it? No matter what Gospel you read, Peter gets things wrong, even though he tries so hard to get them right. Other Christian traditions focus on how sinful and depraved we humans are. They tell us that we are incapable of even wanting to do anything good. But Peter proves them wrong, too. Peter really, really wants to get things right. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be trying nearly as hard as he does. In the middle, you’ve got us Episcopalians, there with Peter. We want to do the right thing, but a lot of times, we fall short, don’t we?

The truth is, I don’t always understand heavenly things. I don’t get this losing my life to find it. I’d much rather just keep it in the first place. But Jesus says that if I do that, I’ll lose it. And this reality that Peter and I share, this fact that we are all so prone to focus on the things we do understand, rather than the ones we don’t, this fact that we want the messiah we expected to arrive on our time table, this reality is at the heart of the way we Anglicans see the Christian life. We want to get things right, but so often we don’t.

If you ever get bored and flip to the back of your Prayer Book, you’ll find a section marked “Historical Documents.” One of these documents is called the “Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.” They were originally written in Queen Elizabeth’s I reign, set out as a guide to the things that the Church of England believed. And one of these articles (the twenty-first, if you’re worried about that sort of thing) says something really remarkable, something that no one really said before it was written: “When [general counsels of the Church] be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God." In 1571, when the bishops of the Church of England wrote this, no one made this claim. Everyone said that the mistakes that you thought other people in the church made were a sign that they weren’t really part of the church. That’s why Luther left the Roman Catholic Church. It’s only in England that you get a group of Christians admitting that the church gets it wrong sometimes. Peter got it wrong, and he had Jesus with him!

This is the heart of Anglican spirituality: we want to get it right, but sometimes we get it wrong. We pair this realistic view of our humanity with a high view of grace. We believe that somehow, in a way that we cannot understand, Jesus Christ shows up at the altar every Sunday, in bread and wine, to give us grace to journey on. Jesus teaches Peter why he’s wrong. He doesn’t just call him Satan and write him off. Jesus doesn’t write us off, either, even when we’re wrong. We, like Peter, are going to vacillate rapidly between the high and low points of our spiritual journey. We, like the counsels of the church, since they are made up of people, are going to get it wrong sometimes, even when we’re talking about God. The good news is that God doesn’t leave us there. God doesn’t abandon us in error. God gives us grace, and grace helps us to continue to journey closer to God, so that mistaken step is never our last. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.