Proper 18A Matthew 18:15-20
Good morning, and blessings on this Sunday of the Labor Day weekend. I know school is already back in session, and has been for several weeks now for some. And although the weather this weekend so far has been pretty much like summertime, we already last weeks had a few cool evenings. Not crisp, exactly—but enough to send the message that fall is out there and moving in our direction. I understand that tomorrow the high is to be only in the low ‘70’s, and I find myself looking forward to the cooler days of early fall . . . . This always seems to me to be a “transitional” weekend: the end of one season coming near the beginning of the next. Perhaps a moment to pause, for a last moment or two, before pressing on to all the action ahead of us in the weeks and months to come.
There’s a bit of a transition going on in Matthew’s gospel now, too. Jesus and his friends having left the Galilee and now are headed on toward Jerusalem—on their way directly now toward Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Good Friday. And along this road and journey Matthew has us listen in as Jesus tells stories and parables and gives words of instruction with a sense it seems almost of urgency. As we step back and know the whole story now we might understand at least from his conversation with the disciples and Peter especially at Caesarea Philippi, as we heard it read in our gospel lesson appointed for last Sunday, that Jesus sees his road now to its end. The Cross in a sense already appearing on the horizon. And so he’s giving the disciples something of a review course. It seems he knows that it’s going to take them a long time to sort out the meaning of everything that has happened and everything that will soon happen.
Jesus wants to plant in their minds and hearts and imaginations and memories the kinds of seeds that will in time begin to grow and shape them, to make them ready to do the work and to be the people he is calling them to be. He touches on all kinds of foundational themes: faith in God, humility, costly and sacrificial obedience. He talks about marriage and family, about stewardship. And right at the center, at the very heart of this review section, and repeated several times, he talks about forgiveness—again and again, forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration. It seems to be something he thinks they and we need to hear a lot about.
Actually the passage that we have this morning from chapter 18 has right before it a story or parable that sets the stage for our section. In verses 12-14 Jesus says, “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So, it is not the will of my Father who is in heave that one of these little ones should perish.”
I’ve said many times that if I were this shepherd’s insurance agent or business manager, I’d want to have a serious word with him. This extravagant and risky enterprise just doesn’t make much sense from any common-sense, worldly point of view. To put the whole flock in danger, the livelihood and wealth of the family, and perhaps of several families, all for one? In most enterprises 99% is a fine result, but here is what God has to say about the one who is lost, separated, estranged, cut off. No risk too great, it seems, no cost too high. And so the great joy when the wanderer is restored, and the flock is made whole again.
Jesus has told them this story before. The parable of the Lost Coin, and of the Treasure in the Field. The passage that we have just heard translates it in a less poetical way into the practicalities of our lives. Jesus tells his followers then, when there is brokenness and separation, when you have a grievance, when there is division, brokenness, you don’t just sit back and accept the situation, perhaps tapping your foot and saying, “well, if he wants to return, he’ll have to make the first move.” No, like the shepherd, you go to the one who is separated. You make the first move. And you make every effort. And if after trying your absolute best to work things out, you find that you can’t bring about a restoration of relationship, you don’t even then give up. You go and find other members of the community, and you bring them with you. Because this isn’t just about two people. Not just about the sheep and the shepherd. It’s about the health and well-being and wholeness of the flock. It may be Jane and Sally who are estranged, but their separation affects and diminishes and damages each and every one in the community. No such thing as a private dispute.
And even then, there is this saying which I have always found odd. If the subject of the grievance refuses even after all this to be reconciled, let him be to you, Jesus says, as “a tax collector and a Gentile.” I know what that sounds like Jesus is saying, and certainly we know how the orthodox Jew of First Century Palestine would have heard it. But then I think, I wonder if as they remembered these words later, the friends of Jesus would ask themselves, “how did Jesus relate to tax collectors and Gentiles?”
Isn’t that actually a pretty significant part of what got him in trouble in the first place? That even when these are folks who by their very nature are seemingly incapable of being included in the community, he doesn’t pass them by. Dinner at the home of Zacchaeus the tax collector, an absolute scandal. The healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, of the Roman Centurion’s servant. When it comes to putting relationships back together, Jesus just keeps pushing the margin. If every effort of reconciliation fails, then let that person be to you as a tax collector and a sinner. Which for Jesus seems to mean, never never never take “no” for an answer.
In the passage immediately following this story we’ve heard this morning Peter asks Jesus, “so how long do you keep at this?” What are the limits? Again and again and again, and again and again and again and again, seven times? And of course, Jesus: “Seventy times seven.” This kind of mystical number. Zillions of times. Zillions and zillions. The shepherd wouldn’t sleep until the flock was once again whole, and so our heavenly Father will never be satisfied, until every last wandering one is brought home.
And there is this commission in the reading today. Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is what he had said to Peter just a short while ago at Caesarea Philippi. “The keys of the Kingdom.” And exactly what Jesus would say to his friends once again a few weeks later, on the evening of Easter Day, as they were huddled together in fear in that upper room. In the 20th Chapter of John, beginning at the 19th verse, sometimes called John’s Pentecost. This is the story when Jesus appears to the disciples when Thomas was away. He is there with them suddenly, despite the fact that the windows are shut and the doors locked. Suddenly. And he speaks. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
It is just one of those things that he’s always talking about. From the beginning to the end. Calling us to him. Sending us out.
No question a challenge for us. Personally, as we wrestle internally with hurts and grievances, injuries, loss. In our marriages, our families. The neighbor who plays his stereo too loud. The colleague who took an idea I had and presented it to the boss as his own. Even in the Church, in our congregation, in our diocese, among all the groups and factions and denominations. I’ve been thinking about Pittsburgh Episcopalians and Pittsburgh Anglicans this week. A lot of history, a lot of bad blood sometimes. Difficult memories and fresh wounds. And then Politics. Democrats and Republicans. Labor and management. And nation and nation. Just how much can we risk? What amount loss are we willing to suffer? How patient, how persistent can we be, really? How much of an effort, deep down, do we really even want to make? Doesn’t it seem o.k. just to move on?
Of course, he’s put it out there for us, and we keep working on it. Which we’ll keep doing this morning as we come together to the Holy Table and then go out into all the messiness of our lives. It is the meaning in some way of both the Manger and the Cross. The heart of what calls us here this morning, however we would articulate it. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saves a wretch like me. I once was lost, now am found. Was blind, and now I see. How he comes for us. And even here in all the messiness of our lives, how he keeps coming for us, and how he would go any distance to bring us home.