Sep 302014

Audio Sermon

This morning in our lesson from the book of Exodus and again our passage from Matthew’s Gospel this morning we have stories of faith by fits and starts.

In the reading from Matthew we have the two sons of the farmer.  One son resists his father’s instruction and later relents and follows through with what his father asks. On the other hand the second son gives his word to work as his father instructs and then does not do as he promised

In Exodus the people of Israel suffering under the burden of slavery in Egypt are a bit like that second son in Jesus’ parable – they give their word of assent early on – they respond to God and what God is calling them to through Moses and dare to follow Moses out of Egypt into uncharted territory.  They give up every sense of normalcy they have ever known, and God leads them and provides a path of escape through the midst of the Red Sea.  But then the find that life on that other shore is not magically happily-ever-after.  They feel quite ill-equipped to deal with the uncertainties and unknowns of wandering through a wilderness terrain.  Food is scarce, water is scarce, any comforts of a settled existence are absent, so like that second son, their initial enthusiasm wanes and they begin to fall away from following God’s plan.  And in this context there is a cycle that takes place over and over: the people feel lack, they grumble and complain to Moses, Moses talks to God, God provides for their lack, they take the next leg of the journey… then the people feel lack, they grumble and complain to Moses… and the whole cycle happens again.  And so it goes for the people, Moses and God and it takes them 40 years to get to the Promised Land.

Faith by fits and starts and maybe this does not surprise us, because I daresay many of us travel this way – so often it is two steps forward and one step back and our progress is spasmodic.  Sometimes we express strong faith only to fall back into insecurity and fear. At others times we resist faith, only then to have life conspire to draw us more deeply into the heart of faith in God.  I think the biblical point here is that none of us corners the market on righteousness – as the Pharisees Jesus was talking to hoped they had – nor have any of us cornered the market on sinfulness – as the tax collectors and prostitutes Jesus made reference to feared they had.  We are all human –complex and changeable – all needing God’s grace to live as God calls us to live.

And that last part is really the key.  We each need the grace of God to keep moving along our path of faith toward deeper participation in the life of God.  What the passage from Exodus reveals is that all along the way God provided what the people needed, whether they were exhibiting faith in God, or looking backward longingly to the days of their captivity in Egypt, God was providing them the grace to go the next step of the journey.  Sometimes that grace came in the form of water, at other times manna, at other times it came in the form of Moses exhorting them to trust God.  The only thing they were required to do was reach for the grace – to let it draw them forward on the journey.

This is as you may know the kick-off Sunday for our stewardship campaign.  So I thought a lot this week about what this biblical message has to do with us as stewards of what God has given us and as members of this parish.  What I came away thinking is that this message about  faith by fits and starts which is always deepened by reaching for God’s grace,  is a good metaphor for the life of stewardship.

Most of us begin our stewardship journey not quite sure what to give.  The parish provides us with some suggestions, and you will see those in the stewardship brochure that comes to you through the mail this week with a pledge card enclosed.  We suggest that each household consider making a pledge of $40 a week as a starting point.  For some this level will be just right.  For others with more modest incomes this will not be possible.  For many of us we will be able to reach well beyond that level of giving.  It is just the practical truth that we need increased giving each year from our members to meet the increasing expenses of keeping the parish running in this building and with our current level of staffing and programing.  Last year we raised our Assistant Rector’s position from 15 to 20 hours a week to meet the needs of our growing parish.  Costs for health insurance for our staff continue to climb, and we seek to keep our staff fairly compensated through cost of living increases.  These rising costs mean that our bottom line of expenses go up and so must our income.  Those are the simple practical facts that will inform our pledging.

But beyond the facts are the deeper truths of pledging.  One of those truths is that sacrificial giving is good for the soul, just like working out is good for the body.  A practical definition of sacrificial giving that I found on the web this week reads this way:

“Sacrificial giving is the act of strategically giving something that is precious and costly or something one barely can afford as an act of worship and devotion to God with an express purpose of getting an extraordinary breakthrough.” (from the website

So as the physical workout that pushes us a bit past our comfort zone is good for our body, sacrificial giving pushes us a bit past our comfort zone and into the land of God’s grace.  There we find we must trust God more fully to provide, rather than simply relying on ourselves alone.  As the definition states when we do this, we dare to believe that we will receive an extraordinary breakthrough.  Those who have traveled that way report time and again that God does indeed provide all that they need, sometime in unexpected and miraculous ways.

Just as importantly these givers tell how any fear they have carried into the process of sacrificial giving dissipates and is replaced with as deepening perception of the blessings God has bestowed upon them.  In Luke chapter 6 Jesus puts it this way:

 “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”(Luke 6:38)

Let us be clear that we are not claiming that God blesses sacrificial givers more than anyone else.  Rather we claim that sacrificial giving sets the giver free to perceive God’s ever present love and blessing more clearly and fully-  just like the people in the wilderness all of a sudden coming to the realization that they are already in the promised land because they are traveling with God’s unending grace. This experience in turn equips us more fully to be bearers of God’s redeeming love to others which is at the heart of what Christ calls us to be.

So I invite and challenge each of us this year to be bold and sacrificial in our pledging to this wonderful community of faith we call St. Paul’s Church.  Then we leave it to God to weave them all together into a tapestry of vibrant with hues of Faith, Hope and Love!

In Christ’s name and for his sake.  Amen+

 Sermon for Sunday September 28 2014 The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Tue, 30-Sep-14 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday September 28 2014 The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sep 222014


The day on which the people of Nineveh repented was a very bad day for the prophet Jonah.  Most prophets would have been thrilled with the success that Jonah had realized, but not Jonah.  As he stood in Nineveh and watched the Assyrian residents of that city repent and turn to the Lord, as a result of his prophecy to them, his heart was seething with anger.  He railed at God, saying, “I’m angry enough to die!”

In Jonah’s mind the whole situation was cruelly unfair.  What right did the Assyrian’s have to be spared from God’s wrathful destruction?  The Assyrians; who had pillaged and plundered Israel time and again, year after year; who had taken Israelites away in chains, to live in exile far from their homeland; who had never before cared anything for God’s word or will. And what cruel injustice that he, Jonah, a faithful Israelite had been called to be the prophet who had made this Assyrian repentance possible.

From the minute God proposed it, Jonah had wanted no part of it.  He had even tried to flee to Tarshish, which was in the opposite direction from Nineveh.  But God had worked it so that Jonah had been thrown overboard from his Tarshish bound vessel and been carried to the shores of hated Nineveh in the belly of a whale who spit him up on the shore with no further hope of escape.  It’s hard to have a good day as a prophet when you feel like nothing more than fish vomit.  But, the call was then crystal clear.  He was to prophesy in Nineveh.  He did it grudgingly.  And the outcome made him cry out that he would rather die than live with this injustice.  The injustice that Israel’s most hated enemy should be saved.  It just wasn’t fair.

It just wasn’t fair.  That is what the day laborers told the landowner.  How unjust that they, who had worked a whole day, received the same pay as those who had worked half day or even just one hour!  In their minds, they had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”, while these other part day laborers were merely opportunists.  How could the landowner dare to pay them the same wage?  It wasn’t fair.

It just isn’t fair.  How many times have we felt that same way?  Like Jonah, or the day laborers, we look on in unbelief and sometimes even disgust as others enjoy life situations that they don’t appear to have earned, or deserved.  And this feeling of injustice is only magnified when we ourselves view those unearned blessings from a place or situation, which we have not chosen for ourselves.  From a shore where we have landed after having been spit up, as it were, from within the belly of the twists, turns and paradoxes of this life.

We don’t like it when we, who try so hard to be faithful, seem to finish last behind those who in our mind seem less deserving. And with Jonah, we stand on the shore of our discontent and shake our fist at heaven, and accuse God, “Now wait just a gosh darn minute here, this is not fair! This is not the way it is supposed to be!  What about the verse in this morning’s Gospel says the first will be last and the last will be first?  Aren’t we supposed to finish ahead at some point?  Aren’t we supposed to get moved to the head of the line while those who have lived on top get to move to the back?” 

If we look and listen carefully to this morning’s readings, we find that such an interpretation of the saying “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” is a misinterpretation.  These readings point in a very different direction from our “just desserts” thinking.  These readings present us with the very real possibility that the reversal of last and first will be no reversal at all, but rather a leveling out of sorts.  In other words the line won’t be turned back to front, but rather everyone in the line will be brought to stand shoulder to shoulder, and each will receive enough.  The last will be first and he first will be last, because first and last will be the same thing.  I envision it at a circle of humanity- even all creation- standing shoulder to shoulder with God in the center.

In this world of ours, this vision may seem a long way off.  This week the Census bureau released some statistics on poverty in the US.  Here is some of what they reported:

  • First of all, the annual income threshold for being counted as living in poverty was $11,490 last year for a single person and $23,550 for a family of four.
  • More than 45 million people, or 14.5 percent of all Americans, lived below the poverty line last year. When the recession begain in 2006 the rate was 12.3 percent in 2006.
  • Median household income barely budged last year, edging up to $51,939 from $51,759 in 2012, the Census Bureau noted. Median income is still far from the $56,436 in 2007 and the all-time high of $56,895 in 1999.
  • In this regard, the typical American household has suffered from a lost decade.Stagnant income is a big reason why nearly half of all Americans think the recession is still going on, even though the National Bureau of Economic Research said it technically ended in June 2009.
  • The poverty rate for black Americans was 27.2 percent, unchanged from 2012 and higher than 24.3 percent before the recession began. More than 11 million black Americans lived below the poverty level last year. About 42.5 percent of the households headed by single black women were in poverty. The Hispanic poverty rate was 23.5 percent.
  • There is no housing market in our country where a worker, earning minimum wage at one job would be able to afford average fair market rent for a family of four.

These are only the economic statistics.  We know that closely linked to poverty are many other social problems. So, most of us in this room are fortunate enough not to struggle financially.  Yet clearly many in our society are living on the edge, and many are suffering in poverty.  So how do we live into the Gospel vision of each having enough – of the last being first and the first being last?  What would the prophet called to preach to Ninevah be called to preach to us in this society? The point is not to feel guilty, but rather to be inspired.  We can’t solve it all, but we can take actions that will help turn the tide.  God can use us.

We need to stay awake to the realities that these census bureau statistics reveal – that there is a real live problem of economic inequality here in our country and indeed around the world.  If we can sit with that reality, and not give into the temptation to do something to be distracted from that reality, then we can ask God to guide us to become agents of transformation.  And there are many actions we can then be guided to take.  In this season of political elections we can listen carefully and try to find out the most we can about who is running for office.  Will they be protectors of the status quo, or will they seek to use their political office to benefit the poor?  Sometimes it is hard to figure that out based on the political advertising we are fed.  But let us make every effort to discern what our vote will mean with regard to economic justice, so that the exercising of our civic duty will be pleasing to God.

Writing for the Soujourners, a Christian community in Washington, DC that works for social justice, Shelley Douglass reflects:

“God’s economy is not like ours.  We hoard and stockpile; we measure out a day’s pay according to hours worked. God, however, simply sees that there is enough for everyone.  Enough manna-but no more.  A day’s wages – no less.

In God’s economy there is enough.  In our world, which is God’s there is enough – but not if we take more than our share”

And then Douglass ends with the provocative question: “What do we have that is more than our share?” (Living the Word, p. 37)

When our hearts and minds are transformed with the vision of God’s immense generosity to us, we begin to see what we have, not as ours, but as on loan to us to use in merciful and generous ways that benefit the larger circle of humanity where such inequality and need abound.  And we realize that when we live from that place, God can do miraculous things through us.

I want to close with an excerpt of an article by the Rev. Anthony B. Robinson which was published in the Christian Century Magazine.With regard to our Gospel lesson Robinson wrote:

     Are we really like the all-day-workers (of this Gospel)? Or are we the inheritors of gift and grace…of mercy and blessing that are not strictly correlated to our efforts and virtues, and are far greater an wilder than we imagine or deserve?  Is it possible that from God’s perspective we’ve all shown up to work at 5:00 P.M.?

When our only measure is fairness, when our preoccupation is our just desserts, we lose touch with a sense of grace and graciousness.  We forget …the God who has extended generosity and forgiveness to us.  True compassion is probably most evident not when the deserving share their well deserved surplus, but when those who feel that they have been blessed and forgiven beyond what they have right or reason to expect, express their gratitude.

O Lord, may it be so among us, here gathered in the circle of your grace.  May the first and the last be indistinguishable, and may we spread that vision abroad in your name. Amen+

 Sermon for Sunday September 21 The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Mon, 22-Sep-14 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday September 21 The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sep 192014

Let the one who has ears, hear! –Jesus

We offer assistive listening devices at St. Paul’s. These are little gadgets that look like old-timey transistor radios with earbuds. They’re powered by 9 volt batteries, and pick up a signal transmitted from our public address system.

We bought them here. This setup with a transmitter and four receivers costs $410.

If you need extra receivers, you can buy them individually for $50 here. We are doing fine with the four receivers in the original kit, but it’s helpful to know how easy it is to add receivers and replace lost or damaged ones.

We also bought some cheesy rechargeable 9v batteries (I forget where… Radio Shack??) to power the receivers.

Finally, we bought some extra standard earphones of various kinds. Some of our worshippers prefer over-the-ear stuff.  And a couple bring their own earphones. To plug standard earphones into these receivers, you need these adapters, which are 41 cents apiece. (Amazing! the only thing cheaper is a gumball.)

You should be able to get going, batteries and all, for about $425 or so.

 Assistive Listening at St. Paul’s  Posted by on Fri, 19-Sep-14 Contributing Comments Off on Assistive Listening at St. Paul’s
Sep 182014

On September 18th, St. Paul’s Church was delighted to welcome the members of The Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce and Industry to St. Anna’s Chapel. It was great to have conversations with members of our community, learn about the work they do, and welcome everybody to our beautiful space.

Our newly restored chapel is available to community groups for lectures and exhibitions as well as weddings and other religious events. It was a gift to the church and the Newburyport community in 1865, intended for use by the public. Please contact the church office for more information.

The Chamber of Commerce at St. Anna's

The Chamber of Commerce at St. Anna’s

 The Newburyport Chamber of Commerce visited St. Anna’s Chapel  Posted by on Thu, 18-Sep-14 News Comments Off on The Newburyport Chamber of Commerce visited St. Anna’s Chapel
Sep 152014


Wow, it is so great to be back here in worship with all of you again.  There are even some new faces in this crowd and that is a wonderful gift (if we have never met before, wave your hand – let’s make sure we have a chance to say hello after the service!).  Being on sabbatical for 3 months has been such a blessing! Thank you to all of you who carried on ministry here while I was away, particularly Ollie… our wardens, Olyce and Nancy… and our tireless staff, Bob, Deb and Mark.  Ninety days to spend in relaxation, in prayer, traveling with my family, and weaving was such a gift and so restorative to my body, mind and spirit. I stand before you today truly refreshed!

And oh the places we went and the people we saw!  After some days of retreat and together time with Marco early on in June, the children got out of school and we took off on our first trip, across Massachusetts, New York and into Ontario.  Along the way we connected with friends and family in Westfield, Albany, Penn Yan, Niagara Falls and Toronto.  Then we were back for 4 days of laundry and repacking and it was off to Europe for 6 weeks, where we visited family and friends in Switzerland, Germany and France.  For fun along the way we splashed in pools and on waterslides, slam dunked at the basketball hall of fame, and enjoyed cold treats at many ice cream stands.  We grew in knowledge through 2 weeks of French immersion and by learned about weavings and tapestries here in the US, in Toronto, through the Historical Museum in Basel and the museum of medieval history in Paris.  To expand our perspective, we hiked up mountains in Switzerland, lived for 2 weeks on a hilltop town in France, and climbed the Eifel Tower and Arch de Triumph in Paris. During these months we drove past houses we used to live in, and visited all 3 churches I served before coming to St. Paul’s. And woven through all of this activity and travel were the threads of love that reconnected us with friends and family from all chapters of our lives all along the way.  Tome it felt a bit like the old TV show called “This is Your Life” in which the host surprises a guest, and proceeds to take them through their life in front of an audience, including special guest appearances by colleagues, friends and family.

One of those “this is your life” moments came one Sunday morning when we visited one of my former parishes.  As we entered the church that morning, a parishioner approached me and said how good it was to see me and that she knew that there were many other people who would want to talk with me but she just needed a few moments to tell me something. After taking a few steps off to the side together, she told me that she wanted to let me know that she was sorry for not having done enough to support me during my time of ministry in their parish, and that she had felt badly about it for years.  I was shocked. I saw it very differently.  I had always appreciated her steadfast support of me during my time in that parish.  I told her just that and said I hoped she would lay her burden down then and there.  That was the sum total of that interaction because we were then quickly interrupted as a flurry of people who wanted to greet me.  But that blessed interaction has stuck with me since.

I was reminded of it again this week as I read our first lesson, from the book of Genesis.  At the outset of the reading Joseph’s brothers are worried, because they are in dire straits.  Nearly starving due to the famine in their homeland, and having come down to Egypt where there is food aplenty, they find that the one Egyptian official who can give them relief is none other than their brother Joseph, whom they sold into slavery years before.  So they begin worrying among themselves, saying, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”

It is a difficult thing to come face to face with someone you fear may bear a grudge against you, whether your wrongdoing was real, as in the case of Joseph’s brothers, or imagined as in the case of my friend who made amends to me in church this summer.

In Joseph’s life story we can see the transformation that needs to take place for each of us if we are going to embody the forgiveness God calls us to throughout our scriptures this morning. A journey that includes coming to an expanded view of ourselves and others.  If we read back into this story of Joseph and his brothers we will see that though his brothers’ actions in selling him into slavery and telling their father he was dead were unquestionably wrong, their frustration with their prideful younger brother was understandable.  To say the least, Joseph, as a young man did not show finesse when telling his brothers about the future he was perceiving in his dreams.  What sibling likes to hear that one day in the future they are going to be bowing at the feet of their brother?

If we did not know the outcome of this story, the prevailing tone of the present day world might lead us to expect this story of Joseph and his brothers will end with Joseph exacting revenge and triumphing over his brothers who indeed were now required to bow before him.

But that is not the way this story ends.  Joseph who once was a proud young man has grown into a much humbler older man.  His response to his brothers’ fear that he will take retribution is to say, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” 

This summer as I encountered so many people from earlier chapters of my life that I gained an expanded view of myself. As we reconnected, reminisced, and remembered together I began to see my younger self with more clarity.  I caught sight of how both my strengths and shortcoming were woven into the fabric of my life and relationships.  Maybe you have had similar moments of self awareness.  Seeing our strengths is edifying, while recognizing our shortcomings can be very humbling.  Thankfully, the good news of the Gospel of Christ is that God loves us fully and unconditionally and has already forgiven us for all our wrongs and shortcomings.  Yet so often it seems we have a hard time accepting and trusting that radical love and forgiveness.

In a book of meditations I read daily, yesterday’s entry read:

“To err is human; to forgive divine.

                                      -Alexander Pope


If I am unable to accept the fact that people make mistakes, am I not rejecting them as human beings? Even more to the point: does my inability to accept my own failings cause me to see myself as not measuring up?

For my own peace of mind, I need to forgive even the most damaging transgressions; but forgiveness of others can only come when I have learned to forgive myself.

For Today: I pray for a forgiving heart and the willingness to let go bitterness.”


If any of that rings true, there are prayerful actions we can take to move us toward greater forgiveness of ourselves and others.  First we can put pen to paper and list anything we feel guilty about or ashamed of, things which we do not feel fully forgiven for. Second, we can be greatly helped by finding a trustworthy person to share this list with, because sometimes, like my friend I spoke of earlier, we are carrying burdens that are not really ours.  A trusted and wise friend can help us tease out what our responsibility is in various complicated situations.  Third, once we have discerned the things on our list that we are truly responsible for, we can intentionally take them to God in prayer, asking God to hold them and help us to experience and relax into the full and absolute divine forgiveness that Jesus assures us of.

These are simple, but not easy actions to take, and of course this is an ongoing process.  The more we practice this process the more we will discover about ourselves and about God. As we reach for self-forgiveness, we become more able to be ministers of that same forgiveness for others. Then we are woven more fully into the tapestry of grace and love which God is weaving for nothing less than the redemption of this world. It begins with the personal but can powerfully ripple into our corporate and societal interactions.  What could our world look like if our governing policies were rooted in a sense of forgiveness?  I believe God holds hat vision ofr our world!   May God bless us with all we need to be partners in bringing it to pass!  In Christ’s name.  Amen+

 Sermon for Sunday September 14 2014 The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Mon, 15-Sep-14 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday September 14 2014 The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sep 072014

Audio Sermon


Grace to you, and peace, from God our creator, and our lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

This business of binding and loosing in Matthew is one of those parts of scripture that gets overinterpeted sometimes. A couple of Sundays ago we heard this from Chapter 16 (which I’ll read in the old-timey King James language) :

Simon Peter answered [Jesus] and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. … And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Now today we heard, in Chapter 18, Jesus say this to his disciples.

Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Do you hear the difference between these two passages? What’s the difference?  … Right, singular and plural. Whatsoever thou shalt bind / whatsoever ye shall bind.

In chapter 16 – the first one – we overhear Jesus speaking personally to Peter. If all we heard was chapter 16, I imagine we’d say, whew, that’s lucky for us. This business of binding and loosing / blaming and forgiving / hoarding and sharing / stinginess and generosity / law and grace … it’s not up to you and me. That’s hard stuff to do. But it’s Peter’s problem, not my problem, not your problem. We’ll leave the hard stuff to him.

And, indeed, the church has been known to focus sharply on that first passage “Peter, I will give thee the keys of the kingdom … and what thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” In that focus, the keys belong to Peter and his direct heirs. The main feature of the Vatican coat of arms has always been a pair of keys, one bright and one dark. The Roman Catholic expression of Christianity believes that the Bishop of Rome – the Pope – holds those keys.

The Episcopal Church also believes and teaches that our bishops are heirs of Peter. Next Saturday we have the chance to be witnesses to that. Alan Gates, by laying on of hands, will be consecrated as a bishop, and made an heir of Peter. If you want to see that happen, it’s still possible to get a ticket. We have a couple of extra here.

In the meantime, if somebody offends me, should I wait until Saturday? Should I let Bishop Gates turn the key of forgiveness? Should I, maybe, leave the work of forgiveness to Francis, the present Pope, or to somebody else who is a direct heir of Peter?

Obviously not. First of all, that’s overinterpreting Chapter 16. Secondly, Chapter 18, this week’s gospel reading, makes it clear that all of us – Jesus’s disciples gathered – share that power to bind and loose / hoard and share / blame and forgive.

Our use of that power extends both to the realm of this world – on earth – and to the realm of God – in heaven. Listen to what Jesus said: What you and I bind on earth is bound in heaven. That’s a mighty big responsibility. What you and I set free on earth is set free in heaven. That’s a whole lot of power Jesus gave his followers: the disciples and us.

We – you and I – have the power to forgive those who sin against us, or not. Our power to forgive – or not – isn’t just for this neighborhood and for today: it extends everywhere and throughout time to the realm of heaven.

Do we deserve this power? Are you and I wise and compassionate enough judges to decide whether to bind or loose for everywhere and always? No, obviously not. In this Gospel reading Jesus also offered us guidance for using this power.

Whenever two or three of us gather in Jesus’s name, he’s there with us. Jesus invites us not to judgement, but to faithful conversation.

Suppose, heaven forbid, I did something wrong. Each of you has the power to forgive me, or not. Still, according to this Gospel passage, I may hope that the person I wronged will speak to me privately. If I don’t listen, then maybe two or three of you will work with me. If I still don’t listen, only then should the whole community call me on the carpet.

And if I still won’t cooperate, I still have hope. I can hope you’ll treat me as a “gentile and a tax collector”: as a stranger who needs to hear the Good News of Jesus.

That’s life-giving for me, the wrongdoer in this example, because I always have hope. It’s also life-giving for you, the ones whom I hypothetically mistreated, because it draws you together and invites you to temper your personal judgments in conversation, and always hold the hope of reconciliation.

In other words, this vast eternal power of binding and loosing is best used in community and not alone. (This is why it bugs me when I hear people say “I’m spiritual but I don’t like religion.” We all need the love of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustaining Spirit, and we also need the support of a community.)

Thanks, Jesus (I guess) for trusting us with this power. Give us, we pray, the love to use this power always to give one another hope, and always to build up your realm of peace.

But, Lord, there’s something baffling here. You give your gathered people the life-giving power to give and accept forgiveness. In that case, Lord, what’s up with all the plagues against the people of Egypt? Why do you ordain that your people perpetually remember that fearful night? Why did the people and animals of that nation have to suffer for their Pharaoh’s stubbornness? What does all this mean, Lord?

Is it a sign of your anger? Do the peoples of West Africa deserve this present plague of Ebola because their rulers somehow have disobeyed you? What about your promise that we may always have hope?

Is the promise only for us? Are we somehow special? Are we to live by the triumphant spirituality of Psalm 91?

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, …
You will not fear … the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.

Is this how we should live? No. For one thing, look at our graveyard. There’s plenty of tragic evidence out there that pestilence stalked our ancestors in this place: the times of widespread disease are recorded on many gravestones. For another thing, look at our families and neighborhoods. We all have various struggles, big and small: sickness, addiction, anger. Pestilence at night, destruction in the day. It’s part of life.

There’s nothing especially triumphant about us in this place. It’s not because of our triumphant strength that Jesus gives us the eternal power to forgive, or not. That power is not a reward for earning some special place in the shelter of the Most High.

Quite the opposite. We have that power because we struggle. The people of God are commanded to remember that fearful night in Egypt forever, not because we’re better than the people around us. Not at all. We’re commanded to remember so we know that our lives are both fragile and eternal.

It’s so we remember why we have the eternal power to forgive, or not. It’s so we may hold one another and our neighbors in holy love. It’s so we may comfort the mothers of the little children buried in our graveyard. It’s so we can rejoice with one another in happy times.

Friends, I hope you’ll do something in this week to come. I hope you’ll intentionally use the power Jesus gives you. I hope you’ll find a situation where you are holding – binding – a grievance against somebody. I hope you’ll choose to loose it, to let that grievance go, to forgive that person. Because what you forgive here and now is forgiven everywhere and into the ages of ages. Amen.

 To Forgive — Or Not? Sermon for September 7, 2014  Posted by on Sun, 7-Sep-14 Sermons Comments Off on To Forgive — Or Not? Sermon for September 7, 2014