Bill Hattendorf, Lay Preacher
May the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord Amen.
“How many times should I forgive, Lord? As many as seven times?” Peter asks how wide our forgiveness should be, how many times must we be slighted before we say “enough?” How long before our reservoir of grace can be exhausted? It’s a natural question. We know too well both the small and large ways that others can tread upon us, the way others can take advantage
of our generosity, the sting of consistent slights and affronts. At what point can we say, “Enough?”
Jewish tradition limited forgiveness to three times. Why did Peter suggest seven? Did he think “Oh let’s double it and add one to grow on?” I don’t think so.
We know back in the First Century, the # 7 indicated perfection. Seven is a holy number to Jewish people, symbolizing perfection or completion. It has overtones of infinity – (O) – as in the seven days of the week constitute an endless cycle – so Peter’s proposal may be even more generous that it seems at first blush.
Jesus answered Peter, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times – or depending on the translation – seventy times seven times.” Either way, we’re talking about a a big number times infinity. Yes, OK, think Buzz Lightyear and “To infinity and beyond!”
Today’s lesson follows the story in Matthew about the lost sheep. If a man has 100 sheep and loses one, won’t he leave the other 99 to go out and look until he finds that lost one? One thing these two lessons have in
common is a call to throw away the calculator when dealing with relationships.
Forgiveness, for Jesus, I think, is not a quantifiable event. It is a quality, a way of being, a way of living,
a way of loving, a way of relating, a way of thinking and seeing. It is nothing less than the way of Christ.
If we are to follow Christ then it must become our
way as well. “Not seven times, but, 70 times infinity.”
Does that mean forgiving the drunk driver? Yes.
The cheating spouse? Yes. The abusive parent? Yes. The rapist? Yes. The bully? Yes.
The greedy corporation? Yes. The racist? Yes.
The terrorists of 9/11? Yes.
Some days it feels like we’re in a very difficult, maybe impossible, time and place, at a very uncomfortable
intersection. This past week was another anniversary
of the September 11th tragedies and we saw all those images again in glorious technocolor on our screens. (I knew four people who died that day, two in the towers, one in the Pentagon, and one on the plane that went down in Pennsylvania.) For many of us every year the 9/11 anniversary coverage keeps those images so fresh in our minds that they live there for weeks on end.
Those memories, images, anger, fear, pain and losses
all intersect with today’s gospel, Jesus’s teaching on
forgiveness. Both are real. Both are true. And even
without 9/11, many of us remember the JFK assassination, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the genocides in Bosnia, wars and torture in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even in our own lives we can find broken promises,
hurt feelings, emotional wounds. We’ve all been hurt or victimized by another. Beneath all the pain, wounds, losses, and memories, lies the question of forgiveness.
Everyone in the room, I suspect, is in favor of forgiveness, at least in principle. C.S. Lewis, author of Narnia, and so many others, writes in his book Mere Christianity: “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until there is something to forgive.” What do we do then? What do we do when there is something to forgive?
Some will strike back seeking revenge. Some will run away from life and relationships. Some will let the
darkness paralyze them. I don’t say that out of criticism or judgment. I’ve done them all. I know how hard
forgiveness can be. I certainly struggle with it.
Forgiveness, though, is the only way forward. That does not mean we forget, condone, or approve of what was done. It doesn’t mean we ignore or excuse cruelty or
injustice. It just means we are released from them. We let go of the thoughts and fantasies of revenge. We look to the future rather than the past. We try to see and love as God sees and loves. Forgiveness is a way in which we align our life with God’s life. I think that to withhold forgiveness is to put ourselves in the place of God, the ultimate judge to whom all are accountable.
God’s forgiveness and human forgiveness are very
related. That’s certainly apparent in today’s parable. The king forgives his slave an extraordinary amount. Ten thousand talents is 3000 years of work at the
ordinary daily wage. It seems there is no debt too large to be forgiven. This man was forgiven. Maybe that’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. This slave, however, refused to forgive his fellow slave 100 denarii, about three months of work at the ordinary daily wage. Too often, perhaps, that’s what our world is like. Frequently, it is how we are. In that refusal the forgiven slave lost his own forgiveness.
None of today’s lesson is news to us. We know it well. We acknowledge it at least every Sunday. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The words are familiar and easy, but do we live our prayer? Do our actions support our request?
So how do we begin to forgive? There is no easy way. Simple answers only demean those who suffer and pick at the wound. Sometimes it takes outside help.
When I came home from my 14 months in Vietnam with the 75th Rangers and another unit, I thought I could jump right back into society, into my former life, and continue as I had been. Maybe my friends had
become a bit older and seemed a little distant, but I was surely the same, I hadn’t changed, and it all smoothed out. And I thought I was doing a pretty good job of being who I used to be; to most people I think I was “passing as normal.” It took me more than 35 years to understand that I had some issues, and I came to understand that forgiveness was one of them.
One of the programs that I got involved with finally was an organization called the Warrior Connection and its week-long retreat to help combat veterans dealing with PTSD. After considerable talk about forgiveness, we made lists of those whom we wanted to forgive, and those from whom we wanted forgiveness. It works both ways. We ceremoniously burned the lists in a firepit, our pleas for forgiveness lifting heavenward in the smoke.
It made enough of an an impression on me that I
followed up later with people in my life where forgiveness needed to play a role.
Forgiving others takes time and work, something we need to practice every day. It begins with recognition and thanksgiving that we have been forgiven. We are the beneficiaries of “the crucified one.” Hanging
between two thieves Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them” That is the cry of infinite forgiveness, a cry we need to echo in our own lives, in our families, our work places, our parishes, our day to day life.
Forgiveness, of course, does not originate in us. It begins with God. That’s what the slave who refused to forgive didn’t understand. It wasn’t about him. It’s about God. We do not choose to forgive. We only choose to share the forgiveness we have already received.
How many times must we choose to forgive?
How many times have we been hurt and suffered by the actions or words of another? How many times has anger or fear controlled us? How many times has the thought of revenge filled us? How many times have we shuddered at the sight, the name, or the memory of
another? How many times have we replayed in our heads the argument with another?
That’s how many times we must choose to forgive.
With each choosing we move a step closer to forgiveness. And to quote the French martyr Dom Christian du Chergé, “Then one day, God willing, we will meet again, [victims and perpetrators,] as happy thieves in the Paradise of God.
Rev. Heather J. Blais Matthew 16:21-28
As we make our way through Matthew’s Gospel, we watch from the sidelines as Peter grapples with what it means to follow Jesus. One minute he is full of faith, trusting in God and walking on water towards Jesus. The next minute, he begins to sink in doubt. One minute he confesses Jesus is the Messiah, and is named the rock on which the church is to be built. The next minute he takes his newfound authority too far by rebuking Jesus. It’s a cycle we see over and over again with Peter. He has great faith, he makes a big mistake, he is forgiven and reconciled with Jesus...Great faith, big mistake, forgiven and reconciled...
It is this very cycle which makes Peter so relatable, so accessible, because he is just like each and everyone of us. When we look back on our journey with God, we can likely point out the moments when we had great faith, when we made big mistakes, and when we received forgiveness and were reconciled with God. Throughout our lives we will find ourselves at different points in the cycle, just like Peter. It’s all part of grappling with what it means to follow Jesus.
In today’s passage, Peter goes particularly astray when he rebukes Jesus for telling his disciples that when they arrive in Jerusalem Jesus will suffer, die, and rise again. As is so often true for us, this was not an intentional choice to disregard God. It was simply being caught up in Peter’s plan instead of God’s plan. Jesus startles Peter to attention when he says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He then tells his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Just like Peter, sometimes we unintentionally get caught up in trying to control the future; we end up focusing more on our plan then on God’s plan.
The path that led me into ordained ministry was not particularly straight, especially the final six months that led up to my ordination. The ordination process in the Episcopal Church has several steps, and every ordinand must complete those steps prior to ordination. In order to complete the process, between January and June of 2011, I would need to finish seminary, pass the General Ordination Exams, interview and hopefully receive approval from the Commission on Ministry, Standing Committee, and Bishop of Maine; interview for associate positions, prepare to move, be ordained and begin a new job, oh, and have our second child at the end of April. I naively thought this plan which had been carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully crafted, must surely also be God’s plan. But as you will frequently hear me say: life happens.
The plan evaporated in March after a series of events.
First, there was the General Ordination Exams that ordinands take in January. I failed a few of the exams. This was shamefully embarrassing, and led to a lot of sleepless nights full of doubt.
Second, early in the morning on March 15, my water broke six weeks early. I was supposed to be interviewing with the Commission on Ministry and the Bishop later that week to come up with a plan to prove my competency in spite of the exams that I failed. So as an ambulance drove me from our local hospital to Maine Medical in Portland, Jason was charged with calling the Bishop’s office to explain why I wouldn’t be able to make those meetings. In hindsight, this was a completely ridiculous thing to have asked my spouse to do in that moment! But it also goes to show how much my own mind was set on human things instead of divine things, just like my buddy Peter. Thanks be to God, Lucas was doing incredibly well in spite of arriving six weeks early. He spent the next three and half weeks in the NICU before being house bound for another month, after not passing the car seat test.
This led to the third event: In order to be with Lucas, I was unable to finish my last couple months of seminary. Would they still let me graduate? And the fourth event, we left the hospital with several thousands of dollars in medical bills that our insurance would not completely cover. At a time when I felt like I desperately needed to know I would have an income to pay my seminary loans and for our NICU stay, we were not sure I would even be able to proceed with a June ordination, let alone starting the job I had been offered.
In late April, I found myself with a completely busted plan and entirely unsure of how any of it was going to come together.And yet, I had these two beautiful children, an amazingly supportive spouse, and an entire network of friends and family that were there with us through it all. I was still ordained in June, but not by following the path I had prepared for. Like Peter, my mind had been set on human things not divine things. And it wasn’t until a little red head burst into this world that I was able to wake up to God’s plan. Great faith, big mistake, forgiven and reconciled.
Just like Peter, we are all going to get our priorities askew from time to time. We will naively think our plan is God’s plan when our mind becomes fixed on human things instead of divine things. I suspect that is particularly true for a community like ours that is still in the early days of being a merged church. For the folks that originated from Turners, there has been one change after another as you had to begin driving to a new building on Sundays, sit in a different pew, see a different worship space, adjust to new customs and traditions. For the folks that originated from Greenfield, change was subtle at first, as you continued to drive to the same church and sit in the same pew seeing a similar view. The reality of being merged may have actually taken longer to sink in, or might still be sinking in right now.
It would be very easy to fix our mind on human things at this hour in our merger, fussing over things we may not like: Maybe you don’t like how many people are on the altar, maybe you don’t want to discern a new name, maybe you don’t like that some of our customs and traditions are changing. Maybe you just are tired of change and would like to tell God (and the clergy leading our community) to quit it already.
Except, we are not called to focus on human things. We are called to do our best to be prayerfully open to divine things, denying our checklists, plans, and visions to follow God’s plan. We are called to grapple with what it means to follow Christ in a merged congregation in a world hungry for the love and nourishment only God can give us.We are called to have great faith, to admit we sometimes make big mistakes, to be forgiven and reconciled. In order to keep God ever before us, we must continue to be a prayerful people. Let us pray our prayer, written for us as we became the people of Saints James and Andrew:
A Prayer for Transition
O God, giver of every good gift:
we give you thanks for your constant presence. Through seasons of both constancy and change
you are with us –
calling us into deeper waters, calling us together
in a spirit of unity, calling us out of ourselves
into the world to serve others.
Look graciously on your whole church,
and so continue to guide Saints James and Andrew through this time of transition,
that we may grow in our commitment to you,
to one another,
and to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
We need your wisdom,
that we might be receptive to change, conversion and growth.
We need your grace to direct our hearts so
we may be willing to offer ourselves
in loving service.
Instill in us a vision of the life
you intend for us to lead.
As we move forward together,
help us to do so with joyful and thankful hearts.
We ask this is the name of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
Rev. Heather J. Blais Matthew 14:22-33
How did your parents respond when you lost your way?
Were they angry? Yelling their point at you until they felt their words had finally penetrated your skull and sunk into your brain. Were they a bit passive aggressive? Using body language with their eyes and sighs as a means to control your life as they saw fit?
Were they silent? Did it feel as though you were invisible to them, and like they barely noticed you, let alone noticed that you lost your way. Were they disappointed? Sometimes unintentionally shaming you and making you feel about an inch tall?
Were they compassionate? Did they help you to grow and learn from the experience? The way we experience our parents emotions towards us can have a big impact on how we see and understand God as our parent.
Take for example today’s gospel lesson. Jesus has just finished caring for a crowd of 5,000, first by healing the unwell members of the crowd, and then by feeding them all until they were full with just two fish and five loaves of bread. Immediately after Jesus made the disciples get into a boat, while he went up a nearby mountain to pray. By early evening, the wind had moved the boat into the middle of the lake. When Jesus had finished praying early the next morning, he began to walk on water towards the battered boat.
As this figure approached the disciples, they became terrified, crying out, “It’s a ghost!”
Immediately, Jesus spoke to them, saying “Take heart; it is I, do not be afraid.”
Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come”.
Before Peter can even begin to realize what is happening, he finds himself getting up, and walking towards Jesus. He looks around, a bit astounded, half smiling at the disciples, as if to say, “Look at me! I’m walking on water!” And then, it’s as though this information begins to slowly register in his brain as the strong wind blew against him, “I’m walking on water...I’m WALKING on WATER…I’M WALKING ON WATER?!?!?!”
At this climactic moment, he becomes terrified, and begins to sink. He cries out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!”
Jesus reached out his hand, caught Peter, and brought him into the boat. When they sit down in the boat, Jesus turns to Peter and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The wind ceased, and the disciples began to worship Jesus as the Son of God.
While walking on water is miraculous, it’s Jesus’ words to Peter that stand out for me. You of little faith, why did you doubt. Do we hear that coming from an angry parent? You of little faith, why did you doubt? Or do we hear it from a passive aggressive parent? You of little faith, why did you doubt? Do we hear it from a disappointed parent? You of little faith, why did you doubt? Or do we hear it from a compassionate parent? You of little faith, why did you doubt?
We bring our own life story to the text and it can dominate the narrative if we let it. No matter how our earthly parents guided and raised us, whether it be in anger, passive aggressive tendencies, disappointment and shame, or love, most of them were simply doing the best they could based on how their parents had raised them. And because like us, our parents are also broken human beings, they are not going to be able to love us perfectly in just the ways we need them to all the time. It’s unrealistic for us to expect our earthly parents to love us exactly as we need and want them to our entire lives.
Yet in God, we all have a parent that loves us in every way we need to be loved at every moment of our lives. So often we look to our earthly parents, expecting or wishing for perfection, when in reality, they are just like us, needing the very same thing as us. Together, we are broken, vulnerable, and in need of God’s endless love and compassion. When we are awake to this, we can become awake to the compassionate God waiting for us in scripture, in every story, and in every real moment of our lives. Jesus speaks to Peter as his beloved and cherished follower. No matter how much we may lose our way, God will always speak to us as his beloved and cherished children. God will support us and help us to grow into the persons God has called us each to be.
This week, I would invite you to do two things: First, I invite you to examine how you relate to God. How do you hear God’s voice speak to you? Is it still your parents voice? Is it the tone of a parent speaking to their beloved child? Second, help the children that attend Vacation Bible School to know how beloved they are by God. If you are here serving a meal, leading a group or activity, speak to the kids and fellow adults as beloved children of God. Even, or especially if they are not acting particularly lovely! Everyone else, please pray for the volunteers, that they can do this, and pray for the kids to be open to receiving this kind of agape love. Twenty years from now, we want them to remember the fun they had this week, but more importantly we want them to take with them an overwhelming sense of being beloved by God just because they are who God made them to be. Amen.
Meet our preachers
Rev. Heather Blais,
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm,
Rev. Deacon Ann Wood,
Lay Preacher, Postulant
Lay Preacher, Verger
Coffee with Clergy
Do you want to get together to talk about your spiritual life or learn more about our community? Contact us and we will find time to get together.