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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
20th Sunday After Pentecost • October 2, 2016
A group of thin, raggedy boys file into a room with tables, singing a song with the refrain “Food, glorious food”, lamenting their hunger. Instead of the wonderful things they imagine in the song, they are served a small bowl of gruel. An imposing man in a blue uniform with a wooden staff stands at the front commanding. After a few moments of frenzied eating, one boy gets up; one boy walks forward, obviously fearful, yet driven by his hunger to say, “Could I have some more please?” That scene from the musical, Oliver!, came to mind this week as I opened the scripture and read the disciples’ request of Jesus: “Increase our faith!”What would you ask from Jesus? What do you ask in your prayers? What do you want Jesus to do for you?
The disciples ask for more faith. Perhaps the reason is in the context. Jesus has been speaking about forgiveness. He lives in a culture where honor and shame are key values and there are rules for how you treat family. But in his teaching, a son who treats his father shamefully is received home and feasted, forgiven, the father simply saying, “This my son was dead and is alive again.” Just before the section we read today, he says,
If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
Matthew’s version of a similar saying says,
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘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.
Just as the elder brother reacts to the amazing forgiveness of the father in the story of the prodigal son, this seems to be more forgiveness than the disciples are prepared to imagine.
The Hard Part
Forgiveness is tough. Part of what helps us function in the world is our ability to remember and act from previous experiences. Touch a hot stove: you learn never to do it again. Pour out some milk and drink it and discover it’s soured and you learn to sniff the container next time. I’m sure you have your own list of life lessons, many earned at the cost of a scar. We bring the same process to our relationships: hurt me and I remember and do whatever it takes to avoid being hurt again. So the process goes on and on, in our individual lives, in the lives of communities.
Our scripture lessons, as you know, are drawn from the Revised Common Lectionary, chosen in some sense by the whole church for churches everywhere. I almost always follow these. But today’s Psalm was too terrible for us to share responsively. It is Psalm 137.
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
In 587 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, threw down its walls and temple, took its sacred things and thousands of captives, holding them in captivity in Babylon. In this sad song we hear, decades later, the pain and problem of the exiles. The Psalm ends with terrible words, indicting the Edomites, neighbors who joined the enemy:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
What anger, what pain, what hurt could call up such a terrible vision of violence?
Voting for Peace
Colombia has been the scene of a violent civil war for about 50 years. Think what that means: what were you doing in 1966? How old were you? Were you even born? Throughout that time, both guerrillas and government troops have made war on civilians. Yolanda Perea was 11 in 1997 what guerrillas attacked her home. A few days later, they came again and shot her mother. Now she’s facing a vote on a referendum designed to bring peace by providing amnesty. She is planning a “yes” vote for the referendum. She says,
“I don’t win anything if I continue to hate,” she said. “I have to vote yes because peace depends on each of us. There are more of us who are good, and we simply have to keep fighting for a quiet country for our children and grandchildren.”
What Jesus Says
This is what Jesus understands, this is what Jesus knows: we cannot enter the coming Kingdom of God chained to a past of division and hatred. Forgiveness unlocks us so we can follow him.
So Jesus responds to the disciples in two ways. First, he tells them to open their imagination. Even a little faith opens the door to a world of possibility. Only a little faith is needed to make amazing changes. The mulberry tree is famous for putting out tough roots that make it impossible to move. If all it takes is a tiny faith to create such change, what would it create in human life? Could it move them to the same forgiveness as the father in the story? Second, Jesus reminds them of their relationship. They are there as servants, disciples, followers of a Lord. Servants do not turn to the Lord for resources, the Lord gives them what they need and sends them out to do the job he sets. So also, followers of Jesus are not free to wander off on their own; they have a Lord to follow, a Master to serve.
What Jesus Gives
Most of all, Jesus gives them each other. We often become so focused on Jesus himself, we forget to see the people around him. There they are, people who would never have met without him: a tax collector, fishermen, and others as well, women, gentiles, all together, all brought together, at the table of the Lord. This fellowship is his gift to them.
The gift we mean to give is not always the one received. Maybe you remember a Christmas when you gave a little child a present, only to discover they were more enthralled with the box in which it was wrapped then the present you so carefully purchased.
O Henry’s story, The Gift of the Magi, imagines two young married lovers, so poor they cannot afford Christmas gifts for each other. She has one great thing she values: her long, beautiful hair; he prizes a gold watch, an inheritance from his father. But her love is so strong, she sells her hair to purchase a gold watch chain that will perfectly set off his watch. When he returns, she is excited to give him the gift but mystified by his behavior, because he seems to draw back. She’s afraid her shorn head makes him no longer want her. But then he gives her his present: a set of combs, meant to complement her hair; he explains, he pawned the watch in order to buy them. Both have given up what was most important, most valued, to give a gift to the other. The gifts cannot serve the purpose they meant but the larger gift, the gift of love, is imperishable.
Giving Us To Each Other
Jesus gives his disciples a precious gift, though not the one they ask. By teaching them to forgive, to reach over boundaries, to embrace each other, he creates a fellowship that endures. It lasts beyond his death and it is in that fellowship, he is recognized as risen. It lasts beyond that moment and becomes the life of all who follow him. Now we are a part of that fellowship.
Today is world communion Sunday. All over the world today, Christians, despite 500 years of division, remember today we are meant to forgive, to embrace each other, to live as one family of God. Like Yolanda Perea, we are reminded, “Peace depends on us.”
When we act like Jesus, we find the faith Jesus meant us to have. When We act like Jesus, forgiving and loving, we become the disciples he meant us to be. When we act like Jesus, we receive the gift he meant to give: practicing loving each other, we know ourselves loved by God.