A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 17, 2017

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost + Proper 19A
First Lesson: Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:8-13
Second Lesson: Romans 14:1-12
Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35

Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

4388395205_d91fae7771_oMy wife, Chelsea, and I were engaged to be married almost twelve years ago. I was living and working in Savannah, Georgia, at the time, and Chelsea was visiting me from Auburn, where she was still hard at work earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

In the several months that followed our engagement, I began traveling to Auburn more frequently so that Chelsea and I could meet with our priest, Father Wells, who agreed not only to marry us at St. Dunstan’s, which is where Chelsea and I discovered the Episcopal Church, but also to prepare us for marriage through a series of premarital conversations. You may not know this, but in the Episcopal Church, any couple who wants to be married must participate in these types of conversations with their priest. So, we spent some time with Father Wells in the months leading up to our wedding talking about important topics, such as finances, family history, and whether or not we wanted to have children. We talked about the wedding ceremony itself and the significance of the liturgy that we use for marriage. But, perhaps the most important thing that we talked about in our premarital conversations was conflict and how each of us deals with conflict when we have a disagreement about something.

Actually, I would argue that this is the most important conversation that two people can have when preparing to enter into the covenant of marriage, and in my experience as a priest, these conversations about conflict have certainly been the most important and the most meaningful for the couples with whom I’ve had the privilege of marrying. In these types of conversations, we talk about several things. We talk about the various ways that people respond to conflict and how conflict, when used in a healthy way, can actually be a positive thing in a relationship. We talk about communication skills and the importance of being open and honest with each other, and we talk about the difference between cooperation and compromise. There is a difference. Cooperation implies that both people work together when there’s a disagreement to come up with the best possible solution while compromise implies that one person mostly gets his or her way while the other person mostly misses out on something. In my opinion, a healthy relationship is built on cooperation because when you rely on compromise, it leaves too much room for resentment and pain to grow and fester. I think that cooperation is the better choice and really the only path that leads to reconciliation. I would say that’s true for just about any type of relationship.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m spending so much time talking about marriage this morning. After all, the Gospel lesson for today has nothing to do with marriage. I’m talking about it because this week, I was once again reminded that the relationship that two people share when they are married is a powerful symbol of the kind of union that God desires between God and God’s people. In fact, the Church as a whole is often referred to as the bride of Christ with Jesus as the bridegroom. This is a theme that can be found throughout the New Testament, including the letter to the Ephesians, which emphasizes the important of reconciliation among members of the Church. To be reconciled with God, we must also be reconciled with one another.

The covenant that two people make with each other in the Sacrament of Marriage serves as a reminder to all of us, as baptized Christians, that our lives are not our own. We make our own decisions, of course, but we’re accountable to one another. By virtue of our baptism, we are forever joined with our brothers and sisters as fellow members of the Body of Christ, and as difficult as it may be sometimes, we are called to be reconciled.

In our lesson today from the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus tries to emphasize this point in his response to an important question posed by Simon Peter. Peter asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy seven times.” Jesus then proceeds to further emphasize his point by offering a parable about a servant who refuses to show mercy toward another servant, despite the abundant mercy that was shown toward him by his master.

This parable could be used to demonstrate the importance of forgiveness and mercy toward all people, but that isn’t really the point that Jesus is trying to drive home. In this lesson, Jesus is first and foremost concerned with teaching his disciples about the importance of forgiveness within the Church. He wants them to learn and know how important it is for them to remain united as one Body.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, it is within the community of faith that we are formed as Christians and sent back out into the world to serve as the hands and feet of Christ. So, to me, it makes perfect sense that Jesus would want us to learn to forgive by first learning to forgive each other.

But of course, this is easier said than done. I don’t know about you, but I often have a pretty hard time forgiving my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ because honestly, I hold them to a higher standard. I expect my fellow Christians to love others with the same open and inclusive love that God has shown toward us. I expect my fellow Christians to serve others, especially the most vulnerable among us, just as the Lord has taught us to serve. I expect my fellow Christians to stand up for what is right in the eyes of God, despite the world trying to convince us otherwise. In short, I expect my fellow Christians to be witnesses of the Gospel of Jesus Christ wherever they may be, both inside and outside of the Church, and when I see this being neglected, it’s hard for me not to get frustrated and upset. It’s hard for me not to take these things personally because they affect all of us, as Christians. It’s hard for me not to be resentful and angry toward those who are given so many opportunities to be an instrument of God’s love and peace in the world, yet for whatever reason, choose to ignore their calling.

We see this in lots of places, don’t we? In random people we encounter in the community. On Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. In the news and in politics. We see Christians who profess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior yet often live their lives in a manner contrary to what Jesus actually taught. Perhaps, we even we even see this in ourselves from time to time, but I’ll save that for another sermon.

Friends, we can’t control the decisions and actions of others, and, despite our best attempts, we can’t control how other people conduct their lives. All we really have control over is how we live our own, and part of how we live is choosing whether or not to forgive others when they sin against us and whether or not to allow ourselves to be weighed down with the burden of anger and resentment. Jesus teaches us earlier in Matthew’s Gospel in his Sermon on the Mount that to forgive is to be forgiven, and we’re reminded of this every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Yes, to forgive is to be forgiven, but let us remember that to forgive is also part of our call as followers of Jesus Christ. The covenant that we make with Christ in our baptism calls us to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters. Amen.

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