March 17,
2019 // Narr 1.27 Lent II // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // First Congregational
UCC, Ashland, OR // “Where Words Don’t
Reach”:
Matthew 18:15-22; Matthew 18:23-35

[Content Warning: Human beings are the
worst sometimes. Sermon no more violent than this week’s news, and yet… Also,
spoilers ahead if you do not yet know the storyline of the hit-musical Hamilton.]

Intro

Alexander Hamilton, mastermind of the U.S.
Treasury department, signer of the original U.S. Constitution, congressman, and
Cabinet member to our nation’s first President… was quite a cad, evidently. At least, when it came to women and
lovers. Hamilton’s affair with a woman who was not his wife, and which he
describes in publicly published pamphlets in order to defend a political
threat, nearly destroys his career and his family. And the way Lin-Manuel
Miranda dramatizes Hamilton’s life in the hit musical, that affair also indirectly
contributes to the death of his eldest son in a duel. One of the most evocative
songs in the musical begins deep in the resulting pain, loss, and estrangement
that his wife, Eliza, and Hamilton share. “There are nearly 24,000 words in
Hamilton… more than an audience hears in The
Merchant of Venice
, Richard III,
or the Taming of the Shrew,” and
significantly more than in Macbeth.[i] Yet, it is at the end of
words that the musical through art tells some of its truest truth about the
miracle of forgiveness and reconciliation.  Deep in
the Second Act, the character Angelica sings:

There
are moments that the words don’t reach
.

There
is suffering too terrible to name.

You
hold your child as tight as you can

And
push away the unimaginable.

There
are moments when you’re in so deep

It feels easier to just swim down… and try to push away the
unimaginable.
(Pause)

 I.

My memory is pretty hazy. I was an 18-year-old
Freshman in college, after all.
But in the middle of a worship service at a
little church in the Midwest, I listened as a pastor began explaining to the
congregation that a public ritual of repentance would happen in worship that
day. During one of the hymns, a couple I did not know personally came in.
Elders stood with them in the front rows. There were words of liturgy. Bits of
song. A call to repentance. And a clear severing of the ties between that
couple and the church. People were crying quietly in the back rows as the
pastor explained, very briefly but specifically, that the man had been credibly
charged with molesting the children in their home, both biological children and
foster children, and his wife with failing to intervene. The abuse had
continued for years, while the couple served abroad as missionaries and then as
church elders back in the United States. It was because they had been elders,
even though it had been some years before the current pastor took the job, that
the pastor and church leadership made the decision to address the abuse in
worship. The current elders and pastor felt they owed it not only to the
children, many by then young adults, but also to the church. This was a small,
nearly family-sized church, barely able to fit 75 people in the sanctuary, and
this is the kind of scandal that could have destroyed the church. But the
pastor and elders felt they owed it to the community to say: this happened,
this was wrong, and to try, though their invitation was rebuffed, to call the
couple to repent and repair the harm.

We were all a part of it as we sat there
and sang and prayed and kept silence.

There
are moments that the words don’t reach
.

There
is suffering too terrible to name.

You
hold your child as tight as you can

And push
away the unimaginable.

 (Pause)

I.

Into these moments of pain and loss,
Christians have a long habit of tossing the words “forgiveness” and
“reconciliation” all-too-soon.
My friend and UCC colleague, whose aunt died
in the Ebenezer Baptist Church attack in Charleston four years ago, will attest
this happens in moments of public terror. (It will always happen more quickly
when the perpetrator is a white man because we are a country built on white
supremacy.) It happens in the more private spaces, too. Among the spiritual
truths kickboxing, of all things, has taught me this last year, is that to
really land a strike, a person must be close. That’s why the translations that
read “sister” and “brother” in Mathew 18 make the most sense. When the harm
comes from someone in your circle of intimacy, someone who is supposed to care
about you, with whom you should be safe, those wounds go the deepest and leave
the most permanent scars. That’s why intimate partner violence is so
devastating and why it can take so long for very smart people to realize what
is going on or to find a way out.  So, as
I read these words of Jesus in Matthew this morning, words about reconciliation
and forgiveness, words about forgiving a ridiculous number of times, I can’t
help but ask:

What about the
attacks that make you afraid to enter your sanctuary to pray… or otherwise innocuous
coffee shops or parks around town… or your own home?

What about the man
who made it so you will never feel completely safe with any man again?

What if even in
adulthood you can’t be certain your mother will protect you?

What about abuse?

What about the systemic
imbalances of power as when abuse happens at work or school or when the police
pull someone over at the side of the road?

What is forgiveness? Do Jesus and I even
mean the same thing?
(Pause)

I.

Jesus has been preaching impossible ideals
about forgiveness for a while, even before we get here to Matthew 18.
Chapters
ago, in that Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed followers to “forgive as
your Abba in heaven has forgiven you.” He puts it in our weekly prayer. By the
time we get to today’s story, when Peter asks, “How often must I forgive my
brother or sister?” Can we be honest about this for a minute? When Jesus
replies seventy-seven or seven-times-seven, I’m falling out of my chair. Me?
I’m a “one and done” gal. “Fool me once, shame on you,” they say, “Fool me
twice…” yeah, I’m not gonna let that happen again.

What can we know about reconciliation and
forgiveness, grappling here with Jesus’ words?
It’s a little unfair for me
to give you the whole of Matthew 18; every three sentences could be another
sermon. But I think we have to see the bigger picture, see the bookends Matthew
places around these words about forgiveness to grasp what this reconciling life
really means. Let me briefly try to
outline it:
Right before this sermonette, Jesus has told that famous and
completely bass-ackward parable about a Shepherd leaving 99 sheep in the
wilderness to go in search of one
that is lost, something no shepherd in her right mind would do, lest she lose
the 99 in the wilderness, too. That’s just happened. Jesus explaining, Our
Heavenly Parent, doesn’t want to lose even one. Then, Jesus describes this
process for “when a brother or a sister hurts you,” using a Jewish pattern of
reconciliation in community designed to minimize public embarrassment and also
keep the parties honest. It’s the pattern that little church tried to use. You
may have heard of this pattern, sometimes used quite destructively. It goes
like this: first, try one-on-one, and if you aren’t heard take two others with
you, and if the person still won’t stop or respond, take it before the church. Paul
Minear explains this ancient procedure: “The sinner is guarded against
arbitrariness and hasty action brought by a single individual or even by two or
three leaders. The leader is protected from their own prejudices and from hasty
action. The congregation is guarded from violent disruption and from the slow
erosion of unresolved antagonisms.”[ii]
(Is that not one of the most evocative phrases written? “the slow erosion of
unresolved antagonisms” — I’ve worked at that non-profit organization.) This
is Jesus saying, hurt needs addressed, or it erodes community over time. Then
he moves into Peter’s question about how often he has to forgive a brother or
sister. And here comes that outrageous advice about forgiving 77 times. I think
what he is saying is, don’t let church devolve into some spiritually litigious
scorecard; Mercy, ideally, should be limitless. And then, this section closes
with a wacky parable about a Gentile king, which as an allegory, does not
really work today the way Matthew wants it to, but is a provocative parable on
its own, partly for the sheer volume of the debt. If you translated the debt,
the first debt is a double-digit lifetimes’ worth of debt (impossible to pay
back), and the second debt is more reasonable, something like 9 months’ worth
of income. As the parable evolves, one of its weird truths is that mercy goes
to the merciful. Taken as a whole, this
chapter helps us understand what Jesus really means calling us to forgiveness
and reconciliation.
In Matthew 18, we have a Jesus acknowledging that
forgiveness and reconciliation are a costly and complicated thing, and not just
one thing, but a way of life. They take a whole community. (Pause)

I.

We could translate
the scope of this chapter into the present using the words of Krista Tippett: “Truth
can be told in an instant; Forgiveness can be offered simultaneously. But
reconciliation is the work of lifetimes and generations.”[iii]
(Pause) Here’s another illustration: In
2016, as a congregation, we suffered a trauma.
I say “we” and include all
of us who experienced it, both those who are still here and those who are no
longer part of us. Everyone got a little hurt, and some people got a lot hurt.
Some will never be the same. For those of you who are new and thinking, “OMG,
what did I step into this morning?”, I want to be clear that we did not have an
instance of child sexual abuse — I want to be clear about that. There was no
physical or sexual abuse of anyone, but there was harassment and verbal abuse
and some physical intimidation and the kind of repeated personal attacks that
can make a church no longer a sanctuary. I don’t bring it up today to rehash or
correct or reignite conflict but to acknowledge that for three years now, I’ve
skirted the passages on forgiveness and reconciliation because I knew I could
not with integrity preach on Matthew 18 without naming what we experienced in
2016. Our deepest values as church were challenged, violently, if you allow
that words can do violence. We wanted to keep all 100 sheep, and we were not
able to do so. Those of us here for all of the last three years know viscerally
that when it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation, the way of Radical Love
is no easy path. Reconciliation means
more than conflict resolution.
Quoting one of our Reconciling Group
members, Joe Fichter: “A conflict can be resolved with a gunshot.” Reconciliation does not stop at conflict
resolution. Reconciliation is a daily call to work out what mercy means in our
lives. Because…

There are moments that
the words don’t reach

There is suffering too
terrible to name

That wound, though, can be a womb.[iv]
That’s what I learned and am still learning from the psychologist and actor
and torture survivor Hector Aristizabal. Here at Ashland UCC, I think if we
were a Catholic spiritual order, Reconciling would be our “charism,” an
anointing and a vocation. It was in our DNA long before 2016, way back when the
search committee described to me the Restorative Circles that so many people
invested time and energy, exploring how to do conflict restoratively. And I
think it goes back further than that, back to when this congregation voted to
become and Open and Affirming Congregation, recognizing that religious
judgement had cut people off and deciding to state publicly that we would be a
church that tried to heal people back in. Reconciling is our charism, which
does not mean it’s easier for us than for others, but that we are called to it
and gifted by the Spirit to do it. We have here all kinds of folks with
experience in nonviolent communication, Restorative Circles. We have people exercising
the muscles of real, raw reconciliation, and our Reconciling Group is central
to our Future Story as church. As they have tried in this last year and a half
to figure out their call in this place, they have figured out they are not the
complaint department, but that they can be our conscience as friends of Jesus
and as a church, equipping us with tools, with education, with room to be human
and be whole. When people ask what we mean by “the way of Radical Love,” I
point to the Reconciling Group as the heartbeat of that way. They are there
calling forth our community’s deep gifts, naming the costliness of compassion
and helping us grow in our understanding of what Reconciling really requires. They
are teaching us that forgiveness is freedom, that it is the release of carrying
resentment, not something we can program into the computer and make happen at
will. Whether through confrontation, confession, and repentance, or through
some other route, sometimes when and how it finally happens is a miracle, is unexplainable,
is beyond words. Forgiveness is moving
forward into life without carrying resentment, but it is still only part of our
reconciling way.
(Pause)

I.

Much Christian jabber about reconciliation
and forgiveness comes nowhere near the excruciating work required.
Sitting
in that little church I attended in college, I could not believe that a group
of Christians would tell that kind of truth. I told the pastor later, in the
middle of a new member’s catechism class, that’s the day I decided to join.
Because they made room to tell the truth about real harm, to aim for
reconciliation and not only forgiveness. It was painful. It carried a cost. Did
we forgive that abusive elder in my college church? I don’t know, I don’t have
the exact liturgy in my possession, but I believe we did in fact say something
to the effect that God’s grace was for even that abusive man… as we encircled
him and his wife there, even as we said: Stop. No more. Repent. Make amends. We
did not keep that lost sheep in the fold, though. And it hurt. It cost us. Even
if it was the best decision the church could make. There are a million facets
of love and mercy, and no one prescription for how to live Jesus’ reconciling
gospel in every place and time. By
assembling these sayings and parables in this one chapter of Matthew 18, I
think Matthew is trying to open our imaginations to a source that is 38
lifetimes’ worth of mercy, of release. “Can you imagine what the fount of
limitless mercy and love could do in and through you, could heal, could make
whole, could liberate?
” If we can imagine that, we will have some inkling
of the vast mercy of God available to us as we work out this reconciling way of
radical love. (Pause)

Concl.

Not every
situation of pain and hurt and harm resolves this way. But in the middle of
“It’s Quiet Uptown,” there’s a moment that the words don’t reach, when the days
of silence and pain and confession finally transform a relationship. It happens
in the music, when after moving down, down, down, the band plays a bright
upward flourish. (For the music nerds: the song’s root chord gets played with
an added ninth tone, or “the sound of yearning, of seeking release,” of finding
freedom to keep living.) Angelica again sings:

There are moments that
the words don’t reach

There is a grace too
powerful to name

We push away what we can
never understand

We push away the
unimaginable.

Eliza takes the
repentant Alexander’s hand, and the company sings,

Forgiveness.

Forgiveness. Can you
imagine?

Art illuminates
gospel this time. And even without knowing what that word means, everyone
listening can feel that Eliza and Alexander “have found their way home.”[v]
May we, too, as we follow Jesus on this reconciling way. Amen.


[i] Lin-Manuel
Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, “On Losses Beyond Words,” Hamilton the Revolution, (New York: Hachette Book Group, Inc.,
2016), p. 250.

[ii] Paul
S. Minear, Matthew: The Teacher’s Gospel,
as qtd in M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew, NIB Vol. VIII, p. 379.

[iii]
Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith, [day and citation?]

[iv]
Hector Aristizabal, “Theater for Personal and Social Transformation,” workshop
offered at Pendle Hill, C. Kukuk personal notes.

[v]
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, p. 251.