Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Sermon for a Divided People

Church of the Holy Rule
photo by Becky McCray / flickr
Several years ago my wife and I visited Stirling Scotland. Stirling is north east of Edinburgh and is the gateway to the Scottish highlands. This is where Robert the Bruce fought to gain Scotland’s independence in 1314. It is a beautiful city, dominated by a wonderful castle high on a hill overlooking the whole city. Near the castle is the Church of the Holy Rude. In case you’re wondering Holy Rude was a medieval term for the Cross of Christ’s crucifixion. 

In this church that dates back to the fifteen century, Mary Queen of Scots was crowned there in 1543. Prince Henry was christened in this church in 1594. As we stood there in the sanctuary, the guide said: “Do you see the brick line there?” He pointed to a line from floor to ceiling right down the middle sides of the church. “This was one of our painful stories. During the turbulent 17th century when there were no many religious and political troubles, the congregation was split into factions. An extreme and bigoted Presbyterian Pastor, James Guthrie refused to accept his more moderate colleague. After trying to resolve the conflict for a long time the Town Council finally solved the problem by building a wall across the church between the west pillars of the crossing. They did this in 1656. So one church became two separate churches, the East and the West. They worshipped back to back. One altar at one end and a second altar at the other end of the sanctuary. Those two churches worshipped that way from 1656 until 1935 when the wall was removed and the church was reunited. For 279 years they worshipped in a divided manner. 

I looked up at the scars where the bricks had finally come down. I thought about the churches I have known and served from its beginning until now. All those divisions in that little band of twelve Jesus called. Peter, James and John—and then the others. Peter was loudmouthed and impetuous. James and John wanted to be in charge. Judas, the treasurer—well you know that story. Standing there in that 900-year-old church I thought about all the jealousies and the jockeying for power from then until now. The splits and divisions between Peter and Paul and Apollos. The hassles, struggles over doctrine, disposition and personalities. 

I thought about church history standing there. The storms had raged in that very building. When the Protestants went on a rampage and smashed statues and windows and tore great art from the walls and left them bare and ugly. But this church was spared. I thought about the heresies and the holy wars and all the fighting we have done in the name of God up until this very time. There is not a major denomination in this country that is not having serious trouble with each other. 

While we were there we heard N.T. Wright the Bishop of Durham speak one Sunday. Bishop Wright is no liberal. And his whole sermon was on the unity of the church. He said the great heresy of the church is its disunity and that the church could not divide over any single issue or several. The church had to stay together and work it out. 

One of the things I love about the Bible and about the early church. is that they were realists. When they took the stories about the life of Jesus and pieced them together the church was young and green and struggling. There were a lot of conflicts. They sometimes wondered if they could pull this thing off. Rome pressed down on them. Culture twisted them. The Jews gave them a hard time. There were sexual problems and ethical violations aplenty. It was a mess. And so as they put together the documents that would become in time our gospels one of the things Matthew wanted to do was to help the struggling church find its way. Those early believers needed help on what was it that would create and sustain real community. And so one of the purposes of Matthew’s gospel was to help the church maintain a meaningful fellowship in a hard time. And as I look at our stormy political scene—I feel like we erected some walls and divisions that make unity and progress almost impossible.

photo by Jennifer W / flickr
What is the glue that is supposed to hold church and society together? What is it that keeps the walls down or at least tear the walls down once they’ve gone up? What is it that moves us down the road without killing each other off? What is the glue that makes church church and this nation the United Sates of America?

One of the great scholars on world religions was a man named Houston Smith. He talked about the contribution that every major faith group in the world had contributed to making the world better. And so when he came to Christianity, people wondered what we would say. What was it that made the Christian faith unique from all the other religions? And do you know what he said. The quality that separates Christianity from the other religions and makes it the faith it is one word. Forgiveness. Houston Smith said our focus on and our demand for forgiveness is at the heart of our faith. 

Simon Peter came to Jesus in Matthew 18. He was the spokesperson. Strong man. Opinionated. A little pushy. Smart. A man’s man. Jesus had already talked about who was greatest in his kingdom. Become like a child, he said. Jesus tells them not to put a stumbling block between any of the weak ones. They must help one another. Do not despise, he said, any of the little ones. Be like the Shepherd who went out after the one lost stupid, stubborn sheep. He shouldn’t have run off. That sheep should never have gotten lost. But Jesus said we have to go after him. And if one member of the church sins against you—get this—sins against you—you have to do something about it. You have to reconcile. You have to get together. You can’t just sit there puffed up. You have to do something about these brick walls between you. 

Peter heard it. He heard it all. The words about greatness, this helping the weak ones. This story about the one lost sheep who got himself into trouble or this would have never happened. He heard Jesus’ words about reconciliation. Those he had bumped heads with. Those that despised him. All the troubles he had known in the church. And standing there was Donald Trump and all his followers. And not quite so close to them was Hillary Clinton and her followers. 

This is all background to our text. “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another
photo by Christa Lohman / flickr
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 times seven.’”
(Matthew 18. 22)

How often should I forgive someone who has sinned against me? Notice what Peter said. How often should I forgive someone who has hurt me? He decided to be generous. Seven times, Lord? The Rabbis always said to forgive someone three times. That’s going more than the second mile. But if someone offends me—trips me up—makes me lose my job or just cheats and lies and just makes life miserable for me how many times must I forgive them, asked Peter? Seven times. Wouldn’t that be great, Lord?

It was quiet for a moment. Jesus answered his old impetuous friend. And he looked out across his disciples' heads to Donald and Hillary. Peter, not seven times. Seventy times seven. And the Bible says that Simon Peter got out his calculator and began to multiply it and looked up with his mouth wide open. Lord, that’s 490 times! And Matthew put this story in his document to help a very troubled church by saying this is the only way you are going to survive.  Seventy times seven.

Will Willimon, Methodist preacher says that not far from his South Carolina home there was a church. He said actually by the time he came along it was not a church any longer. It was just a decaying, rotting shell of a building where once there had been weddings and funerals and worship week after week. Not it was covered in kudzu vines that kept creeping over a crumbling roof and into holes where windows had once been. The front door was gone and there was just the opening where once it stood.

photo by Anna Lee / flickr
Will asked his grandmother one day, “What happened? What happened to all the people who went to the church?” His grandmother laughed slightly and said, “Well, son, that was a church—a very active church. I remember it well when I was a girl. There used to be services there very Sunday and picnics in the Spring and fall and then something happened. They have their ‘great falling out.’”

“What was that?” Will asked. “Well,” the grandmother said, “’the great falling out’ was when Mr. Jones, or was it Mr. Johnson?…at any rate when either Mr. Jones or Mr. Johnson wanted to pave the driveway to he church. Some of them thought it were a waste of money. Said that Mr. Jones, or Mr. Johnson, whoever he was, was trying to take over the church. You can see today the drive never did get paved. After that fight, the church split. One group went and took what it had and left. And a few of them stayed, tried to keep the church going for a while. Eventually, they just died off or moved away and what you see now, crumbling and covered in kudzu, is the end of the argument. Nobody won.”  They had somehow failed to hear and inculcate today’s text into their lives and into the lives of their church.

Peter just stood there with his calculator. He checked it again. Seventy times seven. 490 times. We’re supposed to forgive four hundred and ninety separate times. It isn’t in the text but I can almost hear Jesus tenderly saying: “Simon put away your calculator. It isn’t about math. It isn’t about linguistics. It’s about forgiveness. It’s an attitude, a way of life,  Peter—it’s a matter of the heart.” What is our definition of forgiveness? We know when it happens to us. We know what it feels like. It is not a matter of calculators. It really is a matter of the heart.

Matthew envisioned the Christian church as some kind of laboratory where we learn to forgive. And I think this is also true of the nation. One day as Benjamin Franklin was leaving Constitution Hall a woman recognized him and asked, “Mr. Franklin what kind of government are you giving us?” And he said, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”

Statue amid ruins of old Coventry Cathedral
 I watched some of those hearings the other day when the FBi Director and later the Attorney General were quizzed about why they didn’t put Hillary Clinton in jail. And the ugliness of many of those asking questions was so mean so nasty. Ever watch some of business meeting at church? People are just furious. Red-faced. Sitting there all puffed up. Saying the ugliest things to their neighbors or to some leader You see the church hasn’t done a very good job of dealing with forgiveness and reconciliation.  And neither has there country. And this is the one differentiating point between us and the rest of the world. If we really do forgive one another. Forgiveness is not to build walls or coexist. Forgiveness is to be reconciled. Forgiveness is to feel like you are part of the family. That's reconciliation. 

Link between old Coventry Cathedral
and new. 
While we were in England we decided to go up to Coventry. In the Second World War the Germans destroyed that beautiful cathedral that was hundreds of years old. Many citizens lost their lives. And so when the war was over they were trying to decide what to do. And some wanted just to tear down what was left of the church. Not much. Just some crumbling brick walls. But they decided to prop up that shell of the old church and next to it build a new cathedral. And in  that crumbling space someone has erected this wonderful stature of two old enemies meeting and hugging. It was a symbol of what they said the new Coventry Church was to be. And as you move from the old ruins into the new church they have erected a cross that was made from the charred embers of the building they loved. And underneath are the words: Father Forgive.

Jesus said you are to forgive 490 times, Peter says. 490 times? And Jesus nods his head. And 490 times does not mean to keep a record. It does mean that forgiveness for all of us is not some isolated, occasional act of heroism but forgiveness, real forgiveness is a way of life. Forgiveness, then, is the constant homework of Christians. And for we citizens of the United States too. Unfinished business, always. We never graduate. Seventy times seven.

A man named Sebastian Junger is a journalist who has written several books about the Iraq-Afghanistan war. He spent about 15 months over there living with the troops. He went out with them when the battles were going on and IED’s were blowing up our soldiers. Scary. But he learned a lot. And writes this book called Tribe. And he said from the beginning of this country until the present time the the binding tie was the connections we have with one another. And he writes that over there something happens to the men and women that serve. They really do have each other’s backs. And he said it did not matter where they came from if they were rich or poor. It didn’t matter if some had even been in prison or cussed like some soldiers do. He said it didn’t matter if they were gay or straight or black or white or Hispanic. All those divisions fell away. Some were evangelical Christians and some didn’t believe anything. And he said they forged a unity—and they fought for a common cause and it was something to see.  And then he writes those same men and women come home and look around at a country divided and fighting with each other. And Junger says many can’t stand it. They fought for this? For this? And some commit suicide. Some live all their lives with PTSD. Some sign back up some for five and six deployments. They can’t find at home what they found over there where the bullets were flying and death was everywhere. 

When Jesus told Simon seventy times seven he was talking about some superficial holding hands and singing Kum Bah Yah. He was talking about you and me and everybody forgiving one another and making it work. Over here we also are to be a tribe. Having each other’s backs regardless of who we are.

Seventy times seven. Simon looked horrified. That’s a lot.  And he was right. But whether your crazy relative or some mate you can’t stand or someone on the other side of this room or some Democrat or Republican—seventy times seven. That’s our charge. I wonder in this strange time will we get Jesus’ message?

photo by Penn State / flickr

(This sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church, Pendleton, SC July 17, 2016)

--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com

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