Do We Forgive and Foreget?

Rev. Dr. Jeff McDonald | September 6, 2020

Sermon from St. Paul UMC in Houston

Do We Forgive and Forget?                
September 6, 2020                        Rev. Jeff McDonald

I’m reading a book called The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices. The book explores how we can nourish our souls by transforming things we do daily—yoga, reading, cleaning the house, walking the dog—into sacred rituals that can help us through this time of social isolation. The author writes, “That what used to hold us in community no longer works, and that the spiritual offerings of yesteryear no longer help us to thrive. We live in an era of fragmentation. There is much to praise in the era of fragmentation: the rise of rights and freedoms, the growing number of women in power, the democratization of art forms and information, and the glacial but accelerating move away from homophobia and racism that defined our recent history of colonial conquest.” Even before the isolation of Covid we were living in a lonely society. He goes on to say, “there is much to be concerned about. People feel the absence of community. Studies find the average citizen of the U.S. and likely the world, is lonelier than ever before. People have fewer friends. They spend inordinate amounts of time commuting in the car and scrolling through online feeds.” People are detached and distanced. I was thinking that in these days of Covid and isolation we need that community more than ever. And in our gospel message today Jesus reminds us that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is with us.

We are continuing this time in the Gospel of Matthew and learning what it means to be a disciple and to be the church. Today we get Matthew’s instructions from Jesus on how to “start over” if the community is disrupted. Part of being isolated has led us to a place where we are quick to say, “Who am I to judge.” What we really mean is I’ll promise to stay out of your life if you in turn promise to stay out of mine. But that is not how friendships and relationships really work.

Relationships and community are important. A year ago we might have said I really doesn’t matter that I get along with the folks further down the pew from me or at the desk next to mine at work or the others in the classroom—all that matters is that we get our worship checked off for the week, or that we’ve done a good job, or the family is fed. Low on the list were harsh words spoken, awkward silence, just ignoring neighbors. But I think we realize now that relationships are so much more important.

After reading today’s gospel—well all of Matthew, we realize that relationships are a vital part of who we are. John Wesley wrote that Christianity is essentially a social religion and to turn it into a solitary religion would destroy it.

Being in community is so important that Matthew gives us these detailed instructions on what to do if a relationship goes bad. If someone sins against you or treats you unjustly, we are instructed to go and confront that person. If that goes well, then we know that it is a true friendship. If however, they don’t listen, then go again and take some others from the community. And if they still will not listen, then tell it to the church. And if they still will not listen, then let it rest. Let the offender be to you as a Jew or tax collector—two groups of people a good Jew in Jesus’ day would try to avoid.

That means there is a lot of work and energy to put into a relationship. Wouldn’t it be easier to just let those who have wronged us be as Gentiles and tax collectors. That’s just a lot of trouble to go to. The fact is, what we learn from Jesus is that relationships are important. That how we live together in this life has eternal effects. If that is true, think about the eternal effects and it puts a new light on the differences we may have with friends, family, those in our community.

I’m reminded of Bowen’s Family System Theory and the concept of emotional cutoff. This is where people manage their unresolved issues with others by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact. Relationships may look better if people cutoff, but the problems are still there, lying dormant and unresolved. Maybe like a volcano that could erupt at any time.

According to the teachings of Jesus we can’t just leave things in a cutoff state. We may need to keep on going back and repairing until the relationship is mended. We are created to be in relationship, that is part of who we are as the church.

In all the Gospels, today’s reading is only one of two places where the word church is used. To be clear, Matthew was not talking about the same thing we think of when we talk about church today. He was talking about a small group of disciples following this radical teacher.

But in another sense, mentioning church here is appropriate. It is who we are – that the church is a place of truthfulness—truth telling—truth loving. And the goal of all this truth telling is to gain a sibling. Truth telling sometimes reveals that our friend was not as good a friend as we thought. What we thought was friendship was merely an acquaintance that couldn’t survive the truth. But sometimes in truth telling we find that we have an even better friend than we thought.

And then Jesus talks more about this upside-down notion of whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Is he talking about what we talked about last week, if you want to save your life you have to lose it and if we lose our life for Jesus, we find it? If you look at it in context with today’s passage maybe he means the friend we have on earth will be the one we have in heaven. Or maybe it is about forgiveness—we will be talking more about that next week but for now we could say that forgiveness releases us and results in freedom but unforgiveness binds us.

If that is the case, then forgiving relationships have so much redemptive value that one’s life is completely changed. Our attention to mending a broken relationship is a way that the kingdom of heaven comes close to us here on earth.

But then the opposite would also be true. A lack of attention to those broken relationships, those cutoffs, would cause binding—a kind of self-imprisonment. Little things can have eternal effects. Life is not really made by giving all our attention to the so-called big things—the salary increase, the bigger house. The good life, the life that matters, pays attention to our relationships with one another. And in those relationships, we see the power of God and find redemption.

Care and forgiveness as well as seeking reconciliation are part of what it means for you and I to be the church. Scholars relate this language of binding and loosing to rabbinic authority to interpret how or even if one should apply a commandment or law in a given situation. Binding would hold to the law. Loosing would determine that the law was not applicable in a given circumstance. In this inheritance of binding and loosing, Jesus gives that power and authority to the church.

Back in 1921 in the south of Poland, following all the destruction of World War I. A Quaker nurse had driven herself in selfless service to the people whose lives had been devastated by the war. She had spent herself in tireless love, and she died—having literally given her life away.
A question came up: Where would she be buried? It was Roman Catholic territory and church law forbade any but baptized Roman Catholics be buried in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery—and that was the only cemetery around. Yet the Quaker nurse was deeply loved by all. It was a far more serious question than we modern Protestants can get hold of. Where would she be buried? Finally, though, it was settled. The decision was made that she was to be buried just outside the cemetery fence. So it was done.

During the night, however, some of those she had served so faithfully moved the fence so that it would include the grave of their friend, inside the sacred ground.

Now that’s what Christ does, and that’s the task of Christians—to move fences, to tear down walls, not to be bound up. God was in Christ reconciling the world, and we are a part of the ministry of reconciliation

Our role as a disciple is more than a sense of call and sacrifice in our ministry to the world. Being a disciple involves living within a community of disciples all at various stages on our path. We seek to care for one another even when injured or offended—and this requires a discipline of binding and loosing ourselves to repent and forgive—all done with Christ among us.

Maybe that is why Jesus chose to end this little sermon with a promise, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.” Isn’t that a great thought? All it takes to have community in Jesus’ name is just two or three of us, gathered. How gathered? Well that looks different these days. But we sing hymns, we have prayers, we listen, we find ways to share in holy communion. But more than that I think it means that wherever and however two or three of us are gathered to tell the truth to one another, to be in relationship, to seek repentance and to offer and receive forgiveness—that Jesus is with us.  In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit. Amen