By Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew records one of Jesus’ many encounters with the religious leaders who worried about Jesus growing popularity and authority. In it, they ask Jesus a question that Matthew says was “to test him”.
I’m wary, as I have remarked before, about Matthew’s pretty consistent attempt to discredit the Jewish religious authorities; I’d like to think that perhaps the Pharisee’s question to Jesus about which commandment was the greatest may have been offered sincerely.
Certainly, those great life questions – “How shall I live my life?” and “How do I choose what is right?” are questions we all should wrestle with.
We’re now in a time of year we call Stewardship Season. In it, our tradition invites us to reflect on our blessings and asks us to consider the ways we choose to make use of the gifts God has given us.
So, think with me about this…..
That concept of Stewardship reminds us that we are stewards of our lives - we could also say “caretakers”, or “trustees” – they all mean the same thing
We don’t choose to be born,
We don’t choose, AND we don’t earn
These are gifts provided – not always easy gifts, but gifts given into our keeping by God – AND THEY ARE ALL IMPERMANENT.
All of the benefits we “possess”, all of the things that make life comfortable and convenient, all of the pleasures that make our lives meaningful, can disappear in a flash. We’ve seen it, this year in particular, that illness and accident strike, and natural disasters and human evil change the course of lives overnight.
We are stewards, caretakers, trustees of our lives and the blessings that fill them
To use an image from Brother Curtis Almquist of SJE, in a sermon I heard years ago, but which has remained with me since that time:
If we truly believe and understand that what we have is gift, something we hold in our safekeeping, how can we do other than live generously, in thanks?
I read an article recently in which the author distinguishes two kinds of economies – transaction economy, and gift economy.
In a transaction economy everything has a price, and we pay for what we need.
Most of our lives are lived in a transaction economy.
In a gift economy, on the other hand, what is given is given without expectation of anything in return. Healthy families and friendships are examples of gift economies, in which people extend themselves for others on the basis of love, without expectation of return or reward.
God’s gifts to us of life and freedom are gift economy. As is God’s gift to us of God’s own self, in the life of Jesus, showing us what it means to hold the gift of life in open hands and share it without expectation of repayment.
In a gift economy, we know that we are loved; we care and are cared for, we give and receive, living a cycle of kindness and generosity in which we deepen our relationships and understand the meaning in our lives.
Our challenge and our possibility as Christians, as “members of the Jesus Movement”, is to live in the reality of the transaction economy of the world WHILE ALSO striving to live with open hands and generosity, offering and sharing, in acknowledgement and gratitude.
So, practically speaking, how do we approach this?
And in particular, how do we figure out how to respond to the request we have all recently received, to make a pledge of support to this parish in the year ahead?
Each of us needs to figure this out, in prayerful conversation with God - what we can share and with whom.
The biblical standard is to tithe – to give 10% of what comes in to us back out to others. In “Bible Study for Nerds” this week, in fact, we read the passage in which this idea originates – Jacob’s prayerful declaration of gratitude to God after his dream at Bethel of the stairway open to heaven. He declares that Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know it!
Jacob then goes to pledge that “of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”
Tithing is affirmed by Episcopal Church as an appropriate proportion of our income to share with others.
Not everyone feels able to reach this standard, and given existing financial circumstances for so many in these days of pandemic and uncertainty, many of us feel less confident about the future that we would otherwise. Let me suggest a few principles to think about in considering how and what we each might share with others:
Living generously is one of the ways we can “love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind… and love our neighbor as ourself.’
Living generously frees us from being hostage to our possessions. Living generously reminds us whose we are, and helps us to trust the one who gives us life, who surrounds us with a world of beauty and opportunity, who preserves and sustains us all of the days of our lives. Living generously is the way to freedom, and to peace.
In the name of God. Amen
By Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning we’ve heard a couple of very familiar stories – the Israelites’ extremely bad decision-making in violating the terms of their brand new covenant with God by building a golden calf to worship, and Jesus’ familiar parable of the wedding banquet, in which many of the invitees opt to decline their invitations, other unlikely guests get included, and one poor fellow gets sent to the outer darkness for wearing the wrong outfit.
I think these two stories have a lot of elements that should disturb us. The primary obstacle in these stories, for me, is their emphasis on a vengeful God.
Yes, in the Golden Calf story, God does back down from the impulse toward vengeance after a timely intervention by Moses (who, I might add, has certainly come a long way from being the guy who didn’t even want to get involved with the mission when God first spoke to him from the burning bush.)
And yes, the vengeful king of the parable is just that, a character in a story.
Let’s take a look at what Matthew, at least, may have been up to in shaping the wedding banquet story the way he has, emphasizing the king’s anger and his violent retaliation against the people who refused his invitation and then killed his slaves.
I think we’d always like to imagine that the gospel writers are always reporting just what Jesus said. Over and over again, though, we can see that separate gospel writers tell the same story in very different ways.
Perhaps the story, as they heard it, had already been modified in repeated retelling over the course of decades from when Jesus actually spoke.
And certainly, when we look at each gospel as a whole, we can see that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each have distinctive themes that are important to them, and that where common stories are reshaped in their gospel accounts, the stories are reshaped to reflect their particular perspectives.
Luke tells the wedding banquet story, too. In his version, plenty of the guests invited to the banquet decline their invitations because they have more pressing business, and the host – not a king in Luke’s version – also gets angry. He doesn’t send anyone to kill the ones who declined, however, let alone burn their cities.
Luke’s host simply turns around and sends the servants to invite those who have been rejected by society, “so that my house may be filled”.
Matthew has turned what was probably a simpler story reflecting God’s radical hospitality into an allegory that conveys what Matthew sees as the history of God’s salvation.
Matthew, many scholars conclude, is telling a story of God’s outreach to Israel through prophets whose messages Israel rejected.
Matthew suggests that because the top-tier guests opted not to accept their invitation, God sent his son Jesus to reach out to the disenfranchised, and that it is this motley crew of sinners and tax collectors, during Jesus’ ministry, and gentiles, in the time of the apostolic church, who get to enjoy God’s salvation.
Matthew is concerned about the Final Judgement that he anticipates is coming, and is, frankly, using fear tactics to try to sway his fellow Jews into coming over to what he believes is “the right side” before it is too late.
So what about the poor guy who was not wearing a wedding robe?
Here’s what we know. It would have been common for folks in Palestinian society to have two outfits – their everyday wear and what we called, in my prep school days, their “special occasion dress”. Everybody knew how to dress for a banquet. Some commentators speculate that because the tradition was so strong and universally accepted, hospitable banquet hosts would have wedding robes available for loan, for guests to slip on over their everyday clothing.
Why didn’t this fellow comply? We don’t know. Maybe he forgot. Maybe it was his disposition to reject social norms. Regardless of his reasons, while he chose to attend the banquet, he also chose not to fully participate. As is unfortunately so often the case for those who don’t comply with expectations, he suffered the consequences.
So what do we do with this story, those of us living in the complexities of the 21st century, contending with the terrors, and I do mean terrors, of global pandemic, environmental destruction, and deep social division?
We focus on our own invitation to God’s banquet.
We focus on
These riches are the wedding banquet to which each of us has been issued an invitation.
God’s invitation to us is to look for her and meet her and know her presence in every moment of every day, and to partner with God in building up his Realm, on earth as it is in heaven.
We’re all invited to the table. We have the option of how fully we choose to accept the invitation.
By Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm. (View the sermon and worship here).
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
I’ll bet Peter thought that he had really gotten the message, that Jesus would be proud of him for understanding the importance of forgiveness. I’ll also bet that he felt rather crushed by Jesus’ reply, which amounts to saying that Peter ALWAYS had to forgive, and that he would never have forgiven “enough”.
Jesus followed his answer to Peter with a distinctly disturbing parable.
It’s about a king who shows mercy to slave who has accumulated massive debt by entirely forgiving the debt.
The parable goes on following the slave who has been forgiven, who in turn runs across a fellow slave who owes HIM money. The one who has been shown mercy, when his opportunity comes, has no mercy at all, and arranges for his debtor to be thrown into prison.
When the king learns of the first slave’s hard-heartedness, he turns him over to be tortured.
Jesus tells the story with a frequent and familiar introduction: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like this”, and it’s not hard to understand the point, especially if we pay attention to the figures involved in the two slaves’ debts:
This parable-of-the-Kingdom reminds Peter – and us - how extravagantly we are forgiven by God:
Our failings are numerous, beyond measure, and yet we are loved and accepted by God beyond our deserving or our comprehension.
The parable asks us - how, then, can we refuse to extend compassion and generosity to one another?
A good sentiment, but I’m sure we all know what a huge ask this can be.
Some of the wrongs we are called to overlook – a phone call not returned, a thoughtless remark, are small potatoes, and forgiving them doesn’t cost much and even allows us to feel good about ourselves.
Other debts can cause us so much pain that they feel utterly unforgiveable. Some of the wrongs done us cause true, ongoing hurt every time we think about them and seem like they’ll never go away. Wrongs can be hardest to forgive when the other person won’t acknowledge or take responsibility for their wrongdoing, let alone apologize.
Holding onto unforgiven hurts can ultimately do more damage to the one who cannot forgive than it does to the wrongdoer, however. Nurturing resentment, hurt, and anger can become its own prison, leading us into bitterness and self-pity that separate us from others. Forgiveness frees us.
You may be familiar with a story that was much-publicized back in October of 2006; it’s worth remembering again.
A man in Lancaster County PA was unable to get over his grief over his daughter’s death, nine years previously, and was unable to forgive God. He entered a one-room schoolhouse in a nearby Amish community and shot ten young schoolgirls to death.
It’s a horrible story, and one can barely imagine what it may have felt like to the peace-loving Amish community. But their response was equally unimaginable. Here’s an excerpt from a report at the time:
In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, they didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family.
The afternoon of the shooting an Amish grandfather of one of the girls who was killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer, Charles Roberts. That same day Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain.
Later that week the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed. And Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral.
Perhaps Martin Luther King had it right: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act,” he said; “it is a constant attitude.”
Jesus calls on us to live out of a spirit of generosity, just as God shows immeasurable generosity to us – not keeping a record of wrongs done us and what we are owed in compensation - but of compassion for the many ways in which we all stumble and fail, a spirit of readiness to extend new chances to others, to let them get it right.
Having said all of this, I also believe that accountability is important, and that “get out of jail free” cards are not always called for, and not always what is best for us.
Considering this passage this year, in a time when we need and are trying to come to terms with the deep and persistent wrongs done by white America to our citizens of color, I also see it as dangerous to hold up limitless human-to-human forgiveness as an ideal.
I don’t have easy answers, but I do feel that there are some principles that are consistent with the Gospel that we need to hold in tension with the mandate to forgive.
Again, no easy answers, but I think there are some principles we might apply when looking at the question of forgiving wrongdoings:
So, hearing this gospel, let us strive to live into and extend to others the inexhaustible grace that has been extended to us. And let us do it with judiciousness and wisdom.
Let us extend compassion to one another in ways that help us all to take responsibility for our acts and to live, more and more, into the Kingdom of God.
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