In the Middle of Them

Sermon for Sunday, September 6, 2020 || Proper 18A || Matthew 18:15-20

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus says this amazing promise at the end of our Gospel reading this morning. We’ve heard this promise every week since we began worshiping together online at the start of the pandemic. At the end of the service of Morning Prayer, we say a prayer written in the early centuries of the Church by St. John Chrysostom: 

“Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them…”

I am so thankful that our Gospel reading inspired John Chrysostom to write this prayer, especially in these days when we cannot be in close physical proximity with each other. The prayer reminds us of the singular truth that Christ connects us one to another. But “I am there among them” is a rather anemic translation. I “am in the midst of them” is better. The original language translates most directly to, “I am there in the middle of them.”

Continue reading “In the Middle of Them”

Common Ground

Sunday, September 17, 2017 || Proper 19A || Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

My best friend from seminary is a man named Bret. Back in 2005, Bret and I bonded over our shared love of both Star Trek and Jesus, and our friendship has remained solid all these years. But there’s one thing Bret and I have never agreed on. He’s a high church Anglocatholic, who loves all the smells and bells, all the pomp and circumstance he can stuff into a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. You probably know by now that I am…well…not that. I prefer simpler, unadorned worship.

Now such a difference of opinion could have led us to part ways because Bret could claim I didn’t care about the sacrament of Holy Communion. And I could claim he put so many trappings around the sacrament that its true meaning was lost.* Churches have broken away from each other for far less than this particular difference of opinion. Indeed, a few hundred years ago, people were burned at the stake for espousing one or the other viewpoint. Continue reading “Common Ground”

10,000 Talents

Sermon for Sunday, September 14, 2014 || Proper 19A || Matthew 18:21-35

10000talentsImagine with me the Apostle Peter in prison in Rome near the end of his life. He is talking to his cellmate, a new convert to the Way of Jesus Christ.

I’ve been thinking about what you said last night – about getting arrested at your first ever gathering of Jesus’ followers, about wishing you had had the chance to talk to your mother before being thrown in this cell with me, about feeling guilty for having lied to her as to where you were going. You seek forgiveness, and you’re not sure you’ll ever have the chance to ask for it. For both your sakes, I hope you do. Son, there’s nothing as precious as forgiveness for making a life worthwhile. I wish I had understood that when I was your age.

I understood so little back in the days when Jesus was with us. I was headstrong and curious, but I was curious about the wrong things. If I had known then what I know now, I would have asked different questions. Instead of asking Jesus about quantities and statistics, I would have asked about values and purpose. I remember this one time, I asked about forgiveness. Well, not about the practice of forgiveness, but about how often I was obligated to forgive my brother or sister. And knowing Jesus to be the generous sort, I shot high. Seven times seemed a bit excessive, but still reasonable. Seven is, after all, a number that, in my culture, evokes completion.

For once Jesus answered the question I asked rather than the one he wished I had asked. And yet, as he always did, he answered it in his own unique, unexpected, and unrelentingly gracious way. I remember him raising his eyebrows and tilting his head to one side. It was his, “Seriously, Peter?” look. Bartholomew used to do a spot on impression of it. “Not seven times,” Jesus said. “Try seventy-seven times.” Now, he could apparently see me doing math in my head, so before I finished my multiplication table, he made his outrageous hyperbole clear.

He told a story about a slave who didn’t understand forgiveness, and this slave owed his master 10,000 talents. You don’t use talents where you’re from? Let’s see: 10,000 talents is equal to…about 150,000 years worth of wages.* You see what I mean about Jesus’ hyperbole. This slave had a debt that neither he, nor the next hundred generations of his family could ever hope to pay off. You wonder how he ever accumulated that much debt, but Jesus never went into that part of the story.

But his master forgives it all. Just waves his hand, and the slave is forgiven. If it were me, I think I’d about float away with such a weight lifted off my chest. But this fellow doesn’t float. No, he sinks. He goes out and demands the 100 denarii another slave owes him. That’s only about three months wages – a laughably tiny amount compared to his own forgiven debt. Makes you wonder about the nerve of some people or their lack of compassion or just plain lack of decency. But don’t be too quick to count yourself out of such a group. I’m in it. We’re all in it some of the time.

This story has stuck with me all these years. It reminds me of the prayer Jesus taught us. You might have said it at the gathering before you were arrested. Do you know the line I’m thinking of? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Now what’s the line right before it? “Give us this day our daily bread.”

I prayed Jesus’ prayer for years before I ever saw a connection between these two phrases. I always said them in isolation. I prayed for my daily sustenance. Then I prayed for the capacity to offer and receive forgiveness. It must have been fifteen or more years after Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to guide us when the two lines finally joined for me. There was a big council of the various groups that had sprung up around Jesus. People came from all over. Paul was there – you may have heard of him. I don’t want to bore you with the issues we discussed, but suffice to say tempers got heated. There were arguments, rancor, vitriol spat back and forth. I gave as good as I got, I’m sorry to say. I left the council with the taste of bile in my mouth. And for days and days after, that’s all I could taste. Any food I tried to eat made me so nauseated. I didn’t eat for a long time. I started wasting away.

During those days of unintentional fasting, I continued praying Jesus’ prayer. I had my daily bread, but I couldn’t stomach it. I had been forgiven by our Father in heaven – to the tune of those 10,000 talents in the story. But I had not practiced forgiveness myself. I had not let it flow from my heart, as Jesus taught. Instead, I had relished the anger I had for my opponents at the council. For those first days, the bile I tasted was like a war wound proudly worn.

But as food continued to turn to ash in my mouth, I realized that my stubborn refusal to forgive was the cause. When the desire to forgive finally returned, so did my appetite. And the return of my daily bread gave me the strength to ask for forgiveness from my opponents and grant it, too. From then on, the two lines of Jesus’ prayer have gone together: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those you trespass against us.”

You see, my young friend, forgiveness is not just something we do occasionally. Like our daily bread sustaining us each and every day, forgiveness is a posture that we can employ all the time, an attitude that leads to open, trusting, caring, and fulfilling relationships. Forgiveness is an act of grace, a gift given or received whether or not it is deserved.

That’s why Jesus told me to forgive 77 times. He didn’t mean exactly 77. He didn’t mean for us to take out our accounting ledgers. No. Just look at the number. Two sevens. Two instances of completion. A beginning and an end. A life made complete by the grace-filled act of forgiveness.

So if you ever get out of this cell, my son, I hope you reunite with your mother in order to ask for her forgiveness. But don’t stop with just that one instance. Make your life one in which you never grow accustomed to the angry taste of bile in your mouth. As your daily bread sustains you, remember that offering and receiving forgiveness are parts of your sustenance, as well. And through them you partner with God in nourishing this hollow and starving world. We all have a tendency to sink in the mire, like the wicked slave in the story. But God has already forgiven our 10,000 talent debts. In response, make such outrageous and extravagant forgiveness one of purposes of your life. And instead of sinking, you will float on the wind of grace.

* The calculation about the 10,000 talents comes from this article by Karl Jacobson.

The Challenge of Christ’s Presence

Sermon for Sunday, September 7, 2014 || Proper 18A || Matthew 18:15-20

challengeofchristspresence“For when two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” I’ve always heard these famous words of Jesus as an astonishing promise, as a steadfast assurance that Christ is present in our midst no matter what. If you’ve ever been to a church gathering where only a few people showed up, I bet someone said, rather wistfully, “Well, when two or three are gathered…” I’ve said the same many times as a way to remind myself that what we’re doing when we gather as the church, as the body of those whose faith and action is motivated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is important, no matter the size of the group.

This is all well and good, but I think our wonderful verse of scripture suffers from the same ailment as the most famous verse ever, John 3:16. I call it the “fun-sized candy bar” problem. Now bear with me: At Halloween, all the candy in the supermarket starts showing up in big bags filled with little individually wrapped units. They call them “fun-sized,” but I don’t understand what’s fun about getting a smaller candy bar than normal. In the same way, we wade into dangerous biblical territory when we individually wrap single verses of scripture, isolating them from their neighbors and from the larger interpretive ecosystem as a whole. It’s easy to get the Bible to say exactly what you want it to say when you pinch a verse from here and snipe a verse from there.

So this week, I went back and read the Gospel surrounding our famous, fun-sized verse: “For when two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” Right before these words, Jesus counsels his disciples in the proper way to deal with broken relationships amongst members of the church. Right after these words, Peter tries to nail down the number of times he’s obligated to forgive someone. He pegs the number at seven, but Jesus multiplies that by eleven, essentially saying, “Forgiveness should be limitless.” Thus the interpretive ecosystem, within which our fun-sized verse lives, seems to be about how difficult it can be to live together in community. Community can be messy, especially church, because church is for broken people. It would be for perfect people too, but there aren’t any of those.

So while I still see the beautiful promise embedded in Jesus’ words about being among us when we gather, I now also see something else. I see a challenge – a challenge to share the Spirit of Christ residing in us with others and to recognize and honor the Spirit of Christ residing in them. Jesus promises to be with us whenever we gather in his name. This is Gospel truth if I’ve ever heard any. Our challenge comes when we strive to make this truth evident in our lives.

I invite you, as we begin another program year here at St. Mark’s, to join me in this challenge. After being with you these past seven months, I’ve seen so much evidence of Christ’s presence in our midst, but from here on out I invite each and every one of you to name that presence when you see it flourishing in one another. Name it aloud. Celebrate it. Thank each other for making the Spirit of Christ more present in our midst. When visitors or guests pass through St. Mark’s, I want them to depart knowing Christ better than when they entered. I want them to meet Christ when they meet you. And I want you to meet Christ when you meet them.

I’m conscious of the fact that we enter rather ephemeral territory when we speak of being and seeing the Spirit of Christ. It can all be a bit theoretical or metaphorical. But we need something we can sink our teeth into, that we can really engage in. Therefore, in full awareness that what follows is only a tiny portion of the ways we can be and see the Spirit of Christ, I’d like to name three specific actions that each and every one of us can do – today, even – to live into the challenge of Jesus’ presence in our midst.

The first is inviting. One of my favorite stories of Jesus comes from the first chapter of the Gospel according to John. A pair of John the Baptist’s disciples hears their teacher call Jesus “the lamb of God,” and so they follow him. Jesus asks them what they’re looking for and they in turn ask where he is staying. “Come and see,” he replies. Come and see. He doesn’t tell them where he’s staying; instead, he invites them to join him. This is the first of many invitations Jesus offers throughout the Gospel. Each subsequent invitation involves Jesus expanding his followers’ comfort zones and moving them to embrace the abundant life he offers to all.

When we take seriously Christ’s presence in our midst, we embrace his attitude of invitation. We open ourselves up to the vulnerable nature of the new. We reach out our hands to those we don’t know, those whom we consider “other.” And in so doing, we discover one of the secrets of life: there’s no such thing as a stranger.

When we reflect Jesus’ priority of invitation, our group gathered in Christ’s name becomes permeable. We draw others towards us with the charisma of the Spirit of Christ: with our welcome, our hospitality, our utter delight in saying, “Come and see,” to those hungering for spiritual connection. Jesus drew people to him, and when we accept the challenge of living with him in our midst, we will draw people to us, as well.

Along with inviting, our next action is serving. One of the holy invitations Jesus offers to all is to serve in his name. His was a life of service to those who were poor and marginalized. He healed people not just by curing ailments, but by seeing a person standing before him when society saw only a problem or a disease or a demon.

When we take seriously Christ’s presence in our midst, we embrace his attitude of service. We actively seek out ways to step outside of our comfortable bubbles and rub shoulders with those on the margins. I spent an hour at the WARM shelter in Westerly last Wednesday, and the opportunities for us to serve their population are myriad. I can’t wait to imagine with you how to expand our work with them.

With inviting and serving, we come to our third action, which is sharing. On the night before he died, Jesus shared a meal with his friends. We participate in this same meal each week as we share his Body and Blood with each other. In this sharing, we become Christ’s Body, a group gathered in his name, strengthened and unified by his Spirit.

When we take seriously Christ’s presence in our midst, we embrace his attitude of sharing. We take an interest in each other’s lives. When we ask how you’re doing, we really want to know. When we embrace, we feel the kinship of Christ holding tight even after we let go. We share our talents and our resources with the group because we are stronger together.

Our sharing strengthens us for service. Our serving broadens our understanding of invitation. And our inviting expands our circle of sharing. Each of these actions responds to the challenge of Christ’s presence in our midst. When we gather together in Christ’s name, he is here among us. This is Gospel truth. This is the reality that makes our lives what they are. This is Jesus’ promise to us. Embedded in that promise is our challenge to make visible, to make tangible the gift of his presence. So this year at St. Mark’s, we will invite any and all to come and see what God is up to. We will serve those on the margins. We will share our lives with each other. We will gather in Christ’s name. And Christ will be among us.

Art: Detail from “The Disciples at Emmaus” by Eugene Delacroix (1853)