Rev. Pamela Shepherd
Matthew 5:21-24

We’ve been talking these last few weeks about what God hopes for God’s people. And reading after reading has said God doesn’t care about temple sacrifices, tall steeple churches, gifts to the priests and all that stuff. God’s hope for humanity is that we do justice, love kindness (or mercy) and walk in the God-path in a way that is humble.

Our readings today continue Jesus’ teachings on this. Jesus says right living before God is right living with each other. Don’t go bringing your big spiritual gifts to the altar or to the church if you are living in conflict with a sister or brother.

First be reconciled, Jesus tells his weary followers. And I imagine they have been bumping into each other all over Galilee as they struggle to follow this wild prophet, Jesus, and it seems to be bringing them more and more trouble.

But there they go, bumbling around Galilee. They argue about who is first among them, who rides in the boat and who can walk on water, who will be in charge of what ministry team; who gets to use the Common Room for which adult ed class, who will provide the loaves and fishes for hospitality when the Sermon on the Mount is finally finished. Sound familiar?

Jesus was simply a genius about people and life. Here’s the deal, he said. Love God, love your neighbor, and if you’re fighting with somebody then you need to reconcile.

I’ve been thinking about the prayer attributed to St Francis, that says, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.”

Here’s the part that’s hard, I think. When we’re hurt or annoyed or angry or wounded we want so much to be understood that we fail to shift perspective and try to understand others.

I have a family that’s as crazy as anyone’s, and I’ve always been pretty sure I deserve better than us. A new, improved family; I can imagine it. We would be all taller and thinner, for one thing. Better educated, better dressed: we would discuss interesting, brilliant ideas together, and listen to each other with thoughtful respect.

But that’s not who we are. We’re not that. We eat too much, some drink too much; we talk over each other, and step on each other’s sentences. We talk badly about one another and hardly anyone ever listens to anyone really. We just wait for when its our turn to talk.
Forgiveness is the only hope we have; the only way to survive each other and find joy in what relationships remain. If we abandon one another in search of better, higher quality, more worthy people, just we’ll end up alone. There is no one to be family with but us.

There’s a great song by Asleep at the Wheel I used to sing while I worked in my chicken house: Ain’t nobody here but us chickens; ain’t nobody here but us. There is no one on this planet but plain old-fashioned, human people. There is no one in this church or town but regular annoying us. There is no one who is not broken. We all cause each other pain. We are instructed to accept that and forgive us.

This does not mean that every person must be your cuddly best friend. It means we must try to understand one another as best as we can and care about what the other person is living with or carrying. Simone Weil once wrote, The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, “What are you going through?”

There’s a great story in Genesis that is really a short novel. It’s the story of Joseph, who had the coat of many colors. You might remember him from Sunday school. You should read the whole story, I can’t repeat it all, but the end of the story is all about forgiveness.

See, Joseph, when he was young was vain, stuck up, and annoying. His brothers got sick of it and threw him down a well. Then they sold him into slavery, and he ended up in Egypt, where, through plot twists as many and weird as that TV show Homeland, he became the most powerful guy in the land.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (as they say), his family and nation were starving from famine. So his brothers come to Egypt and beg him for help. They don’t recognize him, of course. That makes it such a better story. But he knows who they are, and, in spite of the grief he still carries, he finds mercy in himself and he forgives them.

Am I in the place of God? He says.
Am I in the place of God? I love that. It is one of those Hebrew phrases that holds so many meanings.
Do I stand in for God?
Do I see with God’s eyes?
Do I know the whole story?
Am I not, quite literally, standing in God’s house, God’s Place here?

In another forgiveness teaching in the Gospel of Matthew Peter asks Jesus, How often do we need to forgive each other? As many times as seven? Now seven is a lot, if you think about it. But Jesus replies with that impossible answer—that completely impossible 70 x7. This one teaching from Jesus caused John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, to ask, If this be Christianity, where do Christians live?

Forgiveness is an essential and difficult Spiritual Practice for Christians. Jesus doesn’t say it’s optional, or a thing we might consider. He left us a prayer that forces us to it week after week after week: forgive us our sins, our debts, our trespasses, as we ourselves forgive others….

As Progressive Christians, we sometimes talk as if by Progressive we mean that we believe some of the same things as our Fundamentalist sisters and brothers, but we’re Christian a little more lightly.

I want to suggest to you that Progressive Christianity is a much more demanding and challenging path than fundamentalism. It is a way of being Christian that grounds us in the teachings of Jesus rather than teachings about Jesus. And the Spiritual Practices of Love and Forgiveness are essential to this Path.

And being just people who come here, and not being saints, we are going to have to practice this over and over. And our minds will always tell us why this particular resentment is too special to be dropped. We could forgive so much, we think, but not this resentment, or that one.

Joseph doesn’t wait to forgive his brothers until they act right. They never act right. He forgives them because he can forgive them–because it is his way, his Practice.

And we follow in the footsteps of the one who forgave his executioners, who forgave and asked forgiveness for men who hammered nails through his hands. And he didn’t forgive them because they repented and were sorry. He forgave them because it was his Way, his Practice.

If you are sitting here this morning with a resentment against anyone; if you sit here with a conflict you have not reconciled, then ask yourself Joseph’s illuminating question: Am I in the Place of God?

And if you are sitting here in church this morning without a single resentment against any one of us, you are not coming to church nearly often enough, and you need to sign up for at least one committee.

As we join together in a few minutes to pray that beautiful prayer Jesus left for us, are you willing to let drop from your hands the resentments you carry?
Without asking if it’s time yet? Without asking if the one who wronged you finally repented; without insisting that you must be understood?

Don’t worry that your forgiveness might be psychologically premature. Because if it works for you like it works for me, you can pick those resentments right back up if you miss them when you leave here this morning.