Trusting relationships matter in all arenas of our lives including in our chosen faith communities. There are people in faith communities--and not just from the monotheistic traditions--who don’t trust each other; some of the mistrust is justified, and some of it isn’t. Justified or not, however, loss of trust in a church setting is just as difficult to repair as in any other relational context even though forgiveness is supposed to be a given in the way all people relate to each other in all circumstances. Forgiveness doesn’t mean “forgive and forget,” but rather “remember and forgive.”
It’s so odd that the Roman Catholics adopted Peter as its first pope; of course, Peter knew nothing about it as this honor was bestowed upon him long after he had departed this earth. On the one hand, he was married, which would eventually become a no-no for Catholic clergy; on the other, he was a rather bumbling sort of fellow. Like Vice President Biden, whom I thoroughly respect, Peter was extraordinarily capable, but a fair amount of the time he seemed to have his foot in his mouth.
One day, he came up to Jesus in a sort of what-a-good-boy-am-I frame of mind. He wanted to clarify a couple of matters with Jesus about the practice of forgiveness. He must have been an engineer as well as a fisherman because he had done some calculations and wanted to apply those calculations to his faith experience. Jesus, being a definite right brainer, was put off with Peter’s efforts though we all have to give Peter credit for at least trying to think carefully through the forgiveness process. Many people, even in churches or especially in some churches, have no plans to forgive anybody so they never bother giving the matter much thought. Forgiveness must have become for these folks an old religious relic like fasting or alms giving. It’s something rather quaint to acknowledge, but modern, thinking people don’t bother themselves with such out of date practices. This is very sad since there is absolutely no way to build trust and maintain trust and repair broken trust without practicing forgiveness.
So, Peter, who fully intended to practice forgiveness, came up with a mathematical computation that resulted in a maximum number of times anyone was required to be forgiving if she or he wanted to stay in good with God. Here’s the well-remembered snippet from the teachings of Jesus that has been edited to fit in nicely with the themes of Matthew chapter 18.
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 times seven or] seventy-seven times” (Matt 18:21-22 NRSV).
As much as I hate to, I’m going to have to chase a little rabbit here. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible is a relatively strong one as far as I know, but there’s a glaring error here. There’s an important Koine Greek word, ekklesia (εκκλησια), which after the church is founded will be properly translated as “church,” but before the church was founded--which includes the whole of Jesus’ lifetime--there was no church. Jesus never saw a church, never heard of a church, never founded a church, never predicted a church. Have I been comprehensive enough? Jesus knew nothing of anything that would later come to be called “Christian.”
This word, ekklesia (εκκλησια), then, should be translated as “congregation” or “assembly.” It literally means “called out ones.” Peter had to have had in mind the only congregation he would have known anything at all about--namely, a synagogue. Thus, in English, “church” just botches up the understanding of a scripture reader who doesn’t know that translators, too, have to be second guessed by their fellow scholars.
Alternatively, the whole episode was entirely concocted by later storytellers or by the editors of the Gospel of Matthew themselves to make a point about how church people should behave. My initial solution is a much more hopeful way of making the conversation between Jesus and Peter rooted, at least to some degree, in something factual. OK. Having nabbed that little rabbit, we will set him free in a safe, verdant wooded area and go along with our investigation.
What Peter asked Jesus here was what the limit should be for maximum acts of forgiveness extended to a sister or brother in one’s synagogue family. The word Peter uses to describe wrongs potentially committed against him is a standout word too. He asks Jesus about what to do when someone in the synagogue SINS against him. Sin is most often seen as an act that is, if it’s against anyone at all, committed against God. Less frequently, the word can be used to describe an offense against one’s fellow human being or against oneself.
The offense alluded to by this word must have been rather serious; it was something more than stealing a bulletin, failing to pay for your Fair Trade kosher coffee, or gossiping about how much of a sister’s ankle you can see because she has hemmed her toga up too high. So, Peter is trying to clarify with Jesus how much he, as a responsible person of faith in a faith community, is expected to forgive someone else within that community who keeps wronging him in a way that is tough to forgive.
Peter wanted Jesus to tell him if seven times would be sufficient, and the way he had counted things up and done his calculation that seemed like way more than enough and far better than most anyone else would be willing to do. Some strands of Hebrew tradition suggested that three times would be plenty generous in terms of how many times one person should forgive another. If Peter knew that tradition, he had doubled it and added one for good measure, or else if he were familiar with some of the codes of numerology of his day, he might have used 7 because some people took it to be the perfect number. You get 7 by adding together the divine number, 3, to the number for human completeness, the number 4. Either way, he was wrong from Jesus’ point of view.
Jesus said to Peter, “No, not seven times; more like 7 times 70!” There are lots of proposals made by interpreters in regard to exactly what Jesus meant by that. Literally, and I don’t buy this suggestion, he told Peter to forgive the one who keeps wronging him 490 times. I think it’s figurative for, “You don’t keep count.”
Contextually, this is not a teaching for anybody and everybody. It’s a guideline for how one is supposed to interact with and get along with one’s sister or brother in a faith community. Someone keeps messing up. What do you do? Well, you try to help your fellow member not to keep messing up, but if the errors continue, it’s not up to you to keep up with or her or his failure record. Now, this doesn’t mean that if someone steals from the church you give her or him the chance to do it again. Nor does this teaching suggest that you need to be all huggy and kissy with someone who, let’s say, has had a history of saying unkind and often untrue things about you. You don’t write off that person as a worthless human being, however. Giving someone who has failed you in some way, giving her or him the benefit of the doubt in a comparable situation, you keep doing that without keeping count.
Jesus also taught that when two people have a rift in their relationship, when one has done the other wrong, the wronged party goes to the one who has wronged her or him and confronts the person, or in one terribly complicated scenario that Jesus describes the one who knows that someone has something against her or him goes to the individual and tries to make things right. Festering wounds, old battle lines never completely erased, grudges held into eternity--these do not lead to the building of trusting relationships.
As far as local congregations risking trust, practicing forgiveness, and seeing lost trust regained, we have to be honest and say that there is no broadly institutional paradigm for it. The larger institution and smaller groups, such as denominations, have forever been breaking up, factionalizing, and warring internally--using energy and resources to stand ground or fight. Even so, we smaller religious organizations are going to have to do better than our larger umbrella groups. If there’s ever going to be any positive changes, we smaller entities will have to set the tone; the larger groups have consistently failed miserably. Mistrust and the absence of forgiveness prevail; this is historically true, and it’s true at this very moment.
The National Council of Churches more or less spearheads a Christian Unity Sunday each year. This particular Sunday is prepared for by a week of prayer for Christian unity. The sentiment is good, and the impulse for such an event is strong; but in terms of large-scale contributions it falls woefully short. A similar kind of thing is supposed to be emphasized by Worldwide Communion Sunday each year, but there is no unity, sad to say. So far as I know, the church has never been in any kind of agreement on who Jesus was or what his teachings meant or how they are to be used.
Various groups have not been content to say to others, “We’re glad you emphasize the importance of Jesus and his teaching with us.” More often than not, they have said, “We have found the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and if you don’t agree with us, there is something wrong with the way you think if not with your faith and your relationship to God. Disagreeing with OUR version of TRUTH may just land you in hell for eternity.” Now, hell threats may be uttered out of compassion, meaning the people who say such things really are convinced that those who differ with their perspectives are so repulsive to God that God is already warming up a spot for them, and they are speaking of hell out of concern; or those hell threats may be pronounced in anger and glee by which I mean that the person or group claiming that others are bound for hell are angry at those who differ with them and utterly delighted to be able to more or less sentence them to unquenchable eternal flames.
I can’t see the building of trusting relationships in a context of anger and threat. A child growing up with a parent who is consistently angry and who threatens the child with horrendous punishments for failing to keep the rules will not be a trusting person, cannot mature into a trusting person, will be scarred in that regard for life without some powerful professional intervention.
Similarly, I find it impossible to believe that someone who attends a church where God is portrayed as irritable and angry, ready to punish at all times, can ever trust that god or the clergyperson who claims to speak for that god. The most you can muster in that kind of environment is appeasement skill, but someone who is willing to send you to hell to burn for eternity if your offense is serious enough is not someone you can trust with lesser infractions either.
In my earliest years, I did hear about such a god, a god to be feared, a god who terrified and terrorized. Thankfully, and for what reason I don’t know, that was not the most influential factor in my finding my way to a connection with God. It was definitely the loving God about whom Jesus taught that got my attention. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am that I found my way into the Jesus Movement through the door of love. I still had some baggage to toss aside along the way, but fear of a threatening God was not one of those bags. Given enough time and space, I gave up my belief in a literal hell. I trusted that the God whom I had come to know through the teachings of Jesus would not, could not, torture at all--much less interminably.
I want to be a part of an entity that proclaims a God who is love, who loved and who loves the world and all its inhabitants, a God whose love so shaped an amazing man from Nazareth that he was able to inspire others to dare to let the love of God come alive within themselves as well. That is a sentiment, that is a reality, on which truly trusting relationships can be built within a faith community.
Have you heard of “Father Oprah” by now? If not, he’s a wildly popular Roman Catholic priest in Miami who has a huge fan base among Catholic couples, and I’d guess some non-Catholic couples as well, built around his charisma and his relationship advice and encouragement. A Cuban American, Father Alberto Cutie must be the most popular Latino priest in the world. Tons of people who didn’t know about him before certainly know about him now. Unquestionably, one of the best ways to grab a headline is through scandal--not that he intentionally went out trying to get in the headlines that way.
It seems the Father Cutie, bound by the rules of celibacy as are all Roman Catholic clergy, has had a girlfriend for quite a while. I don’t know if the celibacy rule was ever violated and don’t want to know, don’t need to know, couldn't care less. But having that lady friend does explain why he was so good at giving other couples such on-target advice about their relationships.
Somebody took some pictures of the good Father without his clerical collar on, in fact without much of anything on. He was on the beach with his--would you call her his PRIESTess?--and they were wearing what people on beaches wear; thankfully, it wasn’t a nude beach. Then other pix began to show up online and here and there. He was kissing her goodnight at her apartment building; I guess he couldn’t sneak her into the rectory.
As I tell you this story, and it has a place in today’s sermon, which will eventually become clear I hope, I don’t want you to think that I’m putting the guy down at all. He was single, and if he found love, good for him. It probably would have been better if he had resigned from the priesthood instead of having pictures of him and his girlfriend showing up all over the place, but when one is in love logic isn’t often the dominant motivator.
Cutie had no intention of giving up his girlfriend as it turned out, so there was no way he could have stayed within the Roman Catholic priesthood. So he shocked the public, and I’m sure the Roman Catholic hierarchy right on up to Pope Benedict, with his decision to become an Episcopalian. His girlfriend is now his fiancee. The Episcopal church has received both of them, and preparations are being made to move him through whatever processes may be required to ordain him an Episcopal priest.
The Catholic Church is angry, and it may be more angry at the Episcopalians for making a place for Padre Alberto than it is at Cutie himself. This heightens what I was talking about a few minutes ago. Instead of sending the man on his way to find his way, there are now angry words being directed at the Episcopalians who received him into their ranks. The competition is incredibly intense. One branch of Christianity is angry at another branch of Christianity for making a place for someone who couldn’t live by the one group’s established rules. Leave him to us to punish! Leave him to us to discipline! Leave him to us to see that he pays for his sins!
Can anybody find any kind of trust in this picture except for the Episcopalians who said that a gifted clergyperson shouldn’t be thrown to the wolves or left out in the cold for his inability to live up to one of the clergy requirements over there? So why not make use of his gifts in a group that has different expectations for a clergyperson’s personal life?
Instead of focusing on the unchurched who seem pretty happy to be unchurched if we judge by how that group is growing in our country, Christian bodies are now having to be in competition for a shrinking pool of people who want to be in any church, and institutionally it’s frightening. So the Catholics get Tony Blair and Newt Gingrich, and the Anglican/Episcopal Communion replaces Blair with Father Cutie. So far, the Baptists haven’t been able to replace Newt, though.
I asked Kasia to focus in all of our Gathering readings today on the fourth chapter of New Testament book of Ephesians, which has traditionally been attributed to Paul though not without scholarly disagreement. There are so many points raised in this one chapter about trust in a church that I couldn’t leave this sermon series without giving it a chunk of our attention.
I kind of lean toward Pauline authorship of the letter written to the Church at Ephesus, and Paul shows some of his true pastoral gifts as he writes. Not everything about Paul or what he wrote were pastoral, but we see it here.
He is writing in this section of his church letter the basis of a manifesto for trusting relationships within a congregation or community of those who are followers of Jesus. Paul begins what we now call chapter 4 by begging, his words, those who will read this letter and the larger group who will hear it read in a worship gathering to lead lives worthy of what they have been called by God to be and become. To what had they been called? What would come to their minds when Paul made reference to their calling? Unity. They were called to nurture a congregation where unity could prevail. There is no unity unless people can trust each other.
Making the effort to maintain the unity to which Paul says the Ephesians were called would require of them humility and gentleness; Paul paired these. It would require patience of the members of the congregation. They would have to bear with one another in love, and there would have to be a bond of peace among them. Oh, is that all?
Is that doable? Well, not many congregations have done it, but it is doable for those who make it a priority and who are willing to expend the effort. Imagining that a church will be unified just because some folks hope it will is even more useless than a couple getting married and hoping that theirs will be a unified relationship without work on both their parts to promote oneness.
If unity around here at Silverside Church means that we all agree on a few points of doctrine, we’re done for. If unity around here means that we all agree on ONE, just one, point of doctrine, it’s all over for us. There is not one point of Christian theology on which all members of this church agree--not one. Paul would have needed much more theological conformity than we’d be able to provide, but thankfully theology isn’t at the core of what he’s calling for so his advice to the Ephesians may help us too.
Let’s see here. After focus on the goal of unity, what does Paul call on the Ephesians to do to preserve unity. They have to do what they do with humility and gentleness. OK, no problem for us! There’s so much humility around here that arrogance and pride haven’t been seen in years! If you believe that, I want to make a bet with you about Father Cutie’s celibacy! There are types of humility here; I wouldn’t say it pervades all we’re about, but there are people of privilege and position who don’t think a whipstitch about rolling up their sleeves and doing the dirty work.
Paul pairs humility with gentleness. Gentleness is very prevalent in how this church carries out its work. Gentleness is akin to kindness, and our people truly are for the most part gentlefolk.
I will embarrass him when I say this, but I’ll say it anyway. A fine example of gentleness is Dr. Tom McDaniel. My Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board rep was down from New York to see me the other day, and I was telling her, Betty Wright-Riggins, about some of the exciting things going on here. I mentioned that Tom was going to be here the last Sunday in May and the first Sunday in June to teach, and she said, “Oh, I’m an Eastern Baptist/Palmer Seminary alum, and I just love him. He’s such a gentle, gentle man. A brilliant gentle, gentle man.” Amen to that!
Next comes patience. Every member of Silverside is an amazingly patient person! I’m sure that applies to Silverside something, just not to Silverside Church. Actually, it does for the most part. Any organization that’s been around for nearly 175 years has had to exhibit patience at several points along the way.
What about holding it together during the tense Civil War era, when not all Delawarians and not all members of this church were committed to freeing the slaves--and though it meant condemnation by fellow Wilmingtonians and loss of church members yet seeing the core membership stand with Pastor James Stokes Dickerson and President Lincoln who praised him?
What about through the discussions regarding the move from downtown to the suburbs?
What about during the debates pertaining to changing the church’s original name, Second Baptist Church, to its present name, Silverside Church?
“...bearing with one another in love....” I can’t even joke about that one. Members of this church stand lovingly with one another though thick and thin. They celebrate every member’s success; they surround you with care and concern in times of crisis and sorrow.
Paul believed that one of the ways a church stayed unified was by finding a means of focusing on and benefiting from the gifts of the members. That makes really good sense.
Paul was writing in all cases to small churches; none of the churches to which he wrote were large. We’re large by comparison. Therefore, the churches needed to know what all churches except supermarket or mall churches need to know; not one of us churches can be all things to all people. Among other things this means that no one church is everyone’s cup of tea, and there’s no way to grow a church unless everyone in the church faces that reality.
In deciding what a church can and will be and who can most benefit from participation in a given church, the healthy, unified congregation takes advantage, in a good way of course, of the gifts the members bring to the community. They don’t appoint someone who struggles with basic addition to be the treasurer. Those who can’t sing don’t.
Paul told the Ephesians that God doled out the gifts, and it was their job to help the folks discover their gifts and put them to use. For example, and for some reason here Paul lists only gifts of leadership and communication though there are many other gifts, he says that some were gifted as apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors-teachers; not everyone is supposed to try every job, but everyone has the same goal of honoring God, the gift giver, while building up the congregation--not calling attention to self because of a gift.
Those who are gifted as apostles are those with the strongest sense of the church’s mission. Prophets can tell us what’s going to happen in the short term if we do this or neglect that. Evangelists have the edge on getting outsiders to become insiders. Pastoring and teaching surely seem to be tied together and may be inseparable in Paul’s thinking.
Regardless of your gift, and there has never yet been a follower of Jesus who lacked a gift, we all speak the truth in love to each other and to those whom we serve; service is the one job to which we are all called. Whether you are an artist who helps us appreciate beauty or a teacher with special love for children or a handy man or woman who keeps the doors opening and the water flowing or a publicist who can draw people into a community of love, we speak the truth in love, and we keep building each other up in love. My dear friends, I want to tell you that trusting relationships will inevitably grow and flourish in such a loving environment.