As many of you know, or have heard me say: we are shifting our ministry with children and youth right now. The ongoing pandemic has made it pretty impossible to find any consensus about children’s Sunday school. So, instead, we are focusing our attention on parents.
And I have met already with several parents and families. And these meetings have been amazing. You all need to know there is deep spirituality in our parents. Of course this is a tough time to be a parent—a tough time to be anybody, really. But something that came up over and over as I asked folks to talk about their faith, was the welcome they have received here. The relationships they have formed.
Often, they kind of apologized for it. Kind of like, “Well, you know, it’s not a big deal, but I really value the friendships here.” But I had to tell them, that’s actually a really, really big deal. Relationships we form, both inside and outside the church, are the core of how we express our faith.
The question, however, is not when all is hunky-dory. But instead, our faith truly shines when things get rocky in our relationships. And that is what today’s readings from Scripture really show is the heart and soul of what it means to be Church. Called by the Holy Spirit, made part of Christ’s body, we declare to the world their sin. And we declare to the world their forgiveness too. That’s a bit of a paradox, though.
Jesus’ words this morning come in a section of lengthy teaching in Matthew. All of chapter 18 actually is about sin and forgiveness. Just before our Gospel lesson for this morning comes the famous and curious parable of the lost sheep. A shepherd has 99 obedient sheep, but one has gone astray. Does the shepherd, does God, focus on the 99? No. God foolishly focuses God’s attention on the lost one. And all heaven rejoices when that lost one is found.
Maybe you wonder, how can we, the Church, both declare to our world its sin—it’s error, selfishness, cruelty, hypocrisy—and at the same time declare everyone’s forgiveness too? The answer is in one simple word: relationship. Sin, confession, and forgiveness are not just impersonal transactions. They are ongoing, a push and pull, all within the boundaries of relationship.
Those of you who are, or have been, married can certainly attest: marriage is not easy. It is compromise and bad habits and stupid mistakes. Those of you who are parents I think can also understand: it’s not the rosy picture you imagined. Parenting is discipline, and boundaries, and patience! But you know—for the most part—one fight for a couple does not spell divorce. And though your children at times drive you absolutely nuts, they are still your beloved kiddos. Relationships have twists and turns. Relationships have falls and stumbles. This is true of relationships with people, and, with God.
That’s exactly what God is saying to Ezekiel in the Old Testament today. Ezekiel often get’s a bad rap as this out-there, psychedelic visionary. But he, like all Israel’s prophets, was only begging Israel to return to God. Return to true, heartfelt prayer, and deal out real, human justice. God says to Ezekiel: “As I live I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
In this relationship we have entered into with God, in our baptism, our discipleship—we stumble. The world stumbles too. Maybe, you ask, why has God made it this way? Why do we have to go through these ups and downs? Well. It takes us all the way back to the beginning, I think, that question. Back the very nature of God and who we are as creatures, creations, of this God.
We say it hundreds of times a year, 2 or 3 times every Sunday: “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” God is a Tri-unity. A trinity. A relationship. The Father is only the Father because of the Son, the Son only because of the Father. And so the same with the Breath, the Spirit, of God, breathed into us by both the Father and Son. God created us in God’s image as Genesis so wonderfully tells us.
Yes to our knowledge of evolution, galaxies of stars, billions of years and single cell organisms, yes, sure—all true. But those things don’t tell us who and what we are. We are made in God’s image, which means made, built, designed to be in relationships. Relationship with God. Relationship with Creation. Relationship with each other, you and me, our church family, and all our human neighbors.
And, as you all know, relationships have ups and downs. Part of relationships are boundaries. A marriage is defined by boundaries, going outside the lines there is called “adultery.” Our marriage to God in baptism is defined by boundaries too, going outside the lines is called “Sin.”
In the Old Testament, these boundaries God gave to God’s creatures, and called them Torah, law. “I am your God,” said God, “You are my people. And these are the parameters.” In Romans this morning we have St. Paul’s beautiful summary of the “parameters,” of law: “‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
You can see we are back again at relationship. How do we fulfill our relationship with God? by being in loving and respectful relationships with others. We honor God, who is relationship in God’s own self, by honoring all the relationships in our lives, large and small.
Now, as I said at the start: called by the Holy Spirit, made part of Christ’s body, we declare to the world their sin. And we declare to the world their forgiveness too. Or, as Ezekiel hears it, this morning: “So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.”
Jesus in Matthew is giving us, the Church, just the same responsibility to warn others. If someone with whom you have a relationship has hurt you, has gone outside the boundaries—has made you say “ouch”—Jesus says, then go and confront them. Declare to them their sin so that apologizing and changing they may receive, not only your forgiveness, but God’s forgiveness as well. If that doesn’t work, take someone else with you, make the circle wider. If THAT doesn’t work, make the circle even wider! To declare to the world, to declare to the church, to declare to St. Andrew’s its sin, is to give, at the very same time, the full opportunity for forgiveness.
As Matthew’s Gospel continues, Peter, thinking he had gotten the picture, comes up to Jesus. He says, “So, if a brother or a sister in the church, sins against me, I should forgive them like 7 times, right?” Peter really thinks he’s being generous, here. You would have to admit, that if someone did something very hurtful to you, forgiving them 7 times would seem just outrageously generous, almost like being a doormat. But Jesus is teaching us God’s own heart. Jesus is God’s own heart.
And Jesus says to Peter, not 7 times, but 77 times. Jesus’ play on numbers, means, a bajillion times. God, who is relationship, is also, therefore, endless mercy. Which is why we see so many ups and downs in our relationships.
As capital “C” Church, and lowercase “c” church here at St. Andrew’s, and us, as individuals and families, as citizens of the United States and creatures in this world, we are made to reflect God our creator in our relationships. When our relationship flow from who we are in God, when we are full of love and compassion for those around us, our neighbors, then what Jesus says today in Matthew is certainly true: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” So, in our conflicts and our apologies, in our stumbles and our-getting-back-up-again, as we strive together to love each other and the world—there is Jesus, here, for real, abiding among us.