September 17, 2023 Sermon: The Final Form of Love

Rev. Christa Burns
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
September 17, 2023
Psalm 114:1-8
Matthew 18:21-35

Every once in a while, or maybe more than that, I figure the lectionary was written with me in mind. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been struggling lately. I’m tired of being nice! I’m tired of being a good listener! I’m tired of trying to see the other person as a child of Christ when they are so not being a child of Christ! When I hear people denying climate change and thereby risking the lives of my grandchildren; when I hear people just plain being ugly; when I hear people repeat flagrant mistruths (my mother wouldn’t let us say “lies;” quaint, right?); when I hear people speak hateful things about a person’s sexuality, I just want to be done with them! Then, Peter comes up—it would be Peter—and asks: “Jesus, just how many times do I gotta forgive?” Jesus basically says for as long as it takes. There is no limit on forgiveness. It doesn’t matter if the person isn’t contrite. It doesn’t matter if a person asks for forgiveness. We just have to forgive. If we are going to live together, we are going to be asked to forgive again and again and again. It’s exhausting!

Jesus tells the story of the king who wants to settle up with his servants who owe him money. The king summons one fellow who apparently owed him ten thousand bags of gold. The king orders the servant, his wife and children to be sold, at which point the servant falls down and pleads for patience, promising to repay the king. As hard as it is for us to believe, the king releases the servant and forgives his debt. When the servant is leaving, he meets another servant who owes him money and he demands to be repaid. That servant asks for mercy but, instead, he is thrown into prison until the debt is repaid. When the king hears about this, he calls the first servant back. “I forgave you,” he said, “why didn’t you forgive your fellow servant?” The king throws the unforgiving servant in jail until his debt is repaid.

I am an incurable reader of mysteries and I love to watch the televised ones, especially if they involve a member of the clergy. Just this last week, I watched the last episode of the most recent Grantchester. Grantchester is about an English vicar who is a bit unbelieveably good looking. Alas, he is not perfect, having had a damaged childhood. Will drives a motorcycle and one afternoon, he accidentally hits and kills a man. Because he cannot forgive himself, he takes off, leaving his expectant wife and adopted son. He feels they would be better off without him. I’m not going to give away the plot. I will simply say that in this last episode, everyone has an issue with forgiveness, no more so than the vicar who has been so generous in his forgiveness of others, but who cannot forgive himself.
That is the problem with the unforgiving servant, isn’t it? He doesn’t remember his own forgiveness or his need to be forgiven. Therefore, he cannot forgive another.

When my brother got married the first time, I was to perform the ceremony at a rather swish Presbyterian church in Pasadena. At the time, the Presbyterian worship book recommended that weddings are appropriately worship services and could include all the traditional parts of worship, such as a prayer of confession. I (being my younger self and much more prone to doing things decently and in order) proposed including a confession in the wedding service. I was promptly informed that, “We don’t do that here.” And it was all I could do not to ask, “So, you don’t need forgiveness at the San Marino Presbyterian Church?” Trust me, after my experience in that church they most definitely did need a prayer of confession! Never mind that isn’t a marriage or a committed relationship a fertile testing ground for our ability to accept forgiveness?

We read Jesus’ words about forgiveness in a section of Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus is teaching his disciples about what it means to live in community. Jesus starts off by addressing the issue of seniority—you know—who gets to sit at the head of the table, who gets the biggest raise, who gets the promotion. Jesus says that in this community, i.e. his community, unless we can become like a lowly child, we aren’t going to cut it. And if we ever cause a child to stumble, we might as well pack it in. Doesn’t a shepherd leave his flock of a hundred sheep just to look for just one lost child? God does not want one of these little ones to be lost!
Then Jesus addresses the matter of when—and its not if, but when—another member of the church wrongs us, what do we do? Well, we should go to that person alone and talk about what happened. If that doesn’t work, we are supposed to go back with two or three others. If that still doesn’t work, then we go to the whole church and if that person still won’t listen, Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Didn’t I say this text was for me? After being patient and trying to understand all those people who I deem so hateful, it’s OK for me to regard them as I would… a tax collector or a Gentile! If that is the case, then why don’t I feel better?

Could it be because at the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus is born, who is the first to come and visit? Wise men…from the East! Foreigners! Gentiles!
In chapter 9 of Matthew, we read the account of how Matthew came to be a disciple: “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” Matthew, the author of this gospel, was a tax collector! And, what was the Pharisees’ problem with Jesus? He ate with tax collectors and sinners! Not only that, Jesus healed Gentiles.
So, when Jesus says to treat the one who offends you as a Gentile or a tax collector, what he is really saying is treat them as you would a lost sheep, or…someone worthy of forgiveness.

At this point, I confess, I have a sinking feeling that it isn’t all those other shameful, misguided people Jesus is talking about. He’s talking about me! I am the lost sheep. I am the one who needs forgiveness. And those tax collectors? Those sinners? Those far right hate mongers? Jesus wants them to have a place at the table!
Reinhold Neibuhr said that forgiveness is the final form of love. God so loved this world and us that God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn it, but in order that the world and we might be saved. Thanks be to God!

ABOUT REV. CHRISTA BURNS: Christa was born in Iowa, and has lived in Southern California, Tulsa, St. Louis, New York City and Baltimore. She graduated with an MDiv from Union Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1979 in the Long Island Presbytery. Christa has served churches in Long Island, Brooklyn and Baltimore, most recently Faith Presbyterian Church (2001-2018). She has four children and six grandchildren.