Sunday Message: “Practicing Forgiveness”

   Text: Matthew 18:15-20

   Liturgist Text: Romans 13:8-14

Purpose: the purpose of this message is to inspire our congregation to work creatively and cooperatively toward reconciliation and vital ministry.

     Have you ever messed things up so badly with someone you love that you were stymied over how to make things right? Perhaps you wish you could set the clock back for a ‘do-over?’ Perhaps you wish you could take back words spoken in anger or haste? You desperately want to be forgiven, but you just don’t know how to ‘get there.’ Or maybe someone has wronged you and things have become awkward. You want to restore the relationship to what it once was, but you are not sure of how to proceed.

     The human condition is riddled with challenges like these and they were known to Jesus just as they are to us. Among his teachings recorded in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers a strategy for resolving such conflicts which is as sound today as it was in ancient times. I say ‘strategy’ because there are multiple steps and the outcome is not guaranteed, but the process, when conscientiously applied, holds great promise for reconciliation and miracle.

     Let us begin with context. Just before our lectionary text begins, Matthew records the parable of the lost sheep: a shepherd leaves 99 to search for one which is lost, celebrating when it is found and restored. In the verses which follow our reading, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive one who sins against him, seven times? Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” The context of our lesson, then, is restoration and reconciliation, though it sometimes requires exaggerated effort. Nothing less reconciliation will do.

     What is the strategy? First, speak with the person one-on-one to resolve the impasse. Often, that is all that is necessary; yet, we often go to great lengths to avoid such a conversation. Why? Probably because we fear it will be unpleasant. Perhaps we anonymously lobby our complaint through an unbiased third party, hoping they will fix it for us, but that often creates hard feelings which might have been avoided. According to Jesus, it is better to be direct and transparent—that opens the door for honest communication and reconciliation.

     I remember one Pentecost, Memorial Weekend Sunday when I was criticized at a choir practice for not choosing patriotic hymns for congregational singing. I reacted defensively, and intuitively knew the relationship would be severed if I did not do something about it. Later that afternoon, I visited the parishioner and apologized for my behavior. She not only forgave me, but became a loyal defender from that day forward—our friendship continues to this day. Honest, one-on-one encounter often is all that is needed to resolve conflict.

     But what if it doesn’t? Jesus offers a second step to his strategy for reconciliation. If the person refuses to listen when it is one-on-one, then it is time to enlist the wisdom of one or two others. Test the assumption by asking if the concern is truly legitimate, unbiased and worth pursuing. As it says in Proverbs, there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors. Now, you know as well as I do that a group can be wrong just as a person can be wrong, but the perspective of respected others can serve as a reality check to our own self-interest. If there is agreement regarding the course of action, Jesus instructs the pair or trio to meet with the person to resolve the conflict in favor of reconciliation.

      What if that doesn’t work either? Jesus offers yet a third step to this strategy of reconciliation. This is why I call this sermon, “Practicing Forgiveness,” because it is a multi-layered journey toward recovering shalom in relationship. Sometimes forgiveness given or received happens in an instant, but when the rupture is deep, it must be practiced again and again and again, not seven, but seventy-seven times.

     In Jesus’ third step, the church community is enlisted to be the arbitrator of dispute. The goal is not judgment, but reconciliation. Some faith communities use Jesus’ statement in Matthew as justification for the practice of ‘shunning,’ that is, turning one’s back on the non-comformist or so-called ‘sinner.’ Since Jesus says, “…if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let that one be as a gentile or tax collector,” they feel the shunning is implied. But let us never forget that this is the same Jesus who counsels us to ‘love our enemy and turn the other cheek.’ The hope of reconciliation is never lost to those who follow the ‘Jesus Way.’

     This strategy for reconciliation, I believe, holds the key for other kinds of recovery as well, including our healing from troubling realities thrust upon us by the global pandemic. Feelings of grief are normal and are to be expected at a time of loss; and let’s face it, we have all lost much due to the coronavirus pandemic. But there comes a point when we catch our breath, accept the new limitations we have, and say, “What now?”

     At our Church Council this week, Joel Irish recalled the witness of Superman actor Christopher Reeve after he became a quadriplegic following a horseback riding accident. For a time, he needed to grieve and adjust to his unwanted, new normal. But there came a day when he realized, “This is what I now have to work with. What can I make of it?” He became an effective advocate for the disabled, a director of film and even returned to acting in a remake of Rear Window.

    We are at that point as a church. For a time, we grieved over the loss of in-person worship and fellowship as we knew it. Though we tried to find new ways to continue some of these things, we felt paralyzed in many ways. But now we are at a different crossroad. We hear Paul’s call from Romans 13 which Kary read earlier, “You know what time it is, how it is time to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near…Let us put on the Lord Jesus Christ…”

     Like Christopher Reeve, we are ready to say, “What now? What resources do we have in this context for being the United Methodist Church of Auburn?” The answer, of course, is bigger than two people. We need to find ways of meeting together to have the conversations that enable us to transform the world as Christ calls us to do. Zoom meetings are one way to do this, but they are not the only way. There are also conference calls or in-person, outdoor, parking lot meetings with masks and social distancing.

     It is my hope that each small group leader and program area chairperson will call her or his group together this month, not to discuss what cannot be done, but to dream together about what can be done. There are ways to safely do more than we might expect. The High Street Food Cupboard team is one example of this. Distribution was interrupted for a very short period of time before new procedures and accommodations were discovered for making sure the people who need the food would be able to get the food. Even 16 boxes of books were distributed by partnering with Trinity Jubilee Center to include them in the backpacks given out to students. But it didn’t happen without planning, prayer, cooperation, and hard work, and that requires a different way of networking.

     Jesus words in Matthew 18 offer assurance that much can be done: “Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” The key is connection. What we do together is ever so much more than what we try to do alone. I close with a quote from John Wesley’s sermon On a Catholic Spirit, “If your heart is as my heart, given me your hand…”