The way to the Kingdom

Matthew 18:21-35

Some of y’all may have heard me say, “It’s a small Episcopal World.” And it is!

I’m always reminded of just how small… when I go to Annual Council each year and get to see so many dear Episcopalian friends I’ve met and gotten to know over the years, all gathered under one roof for worship and fellowship and collaboration. I’m reminded of it when I get a note from a family member whose spouse took a position with Amazon, out in California, and when they visited St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church there in Mountain View, my name came up and the Rector exclaimed, “Oh! I know Kemper!” She and I had attended seminary together. And I even received word recently that one of my Sewanee classmates will be assuming the role of Priest-In-Charge of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Bon Secour, Alabama, down on the Gulf Coast, where Paul and Linda M. attend when they’ve flown south for the winter. It’s a small Episcopal world.

And that can be awkward, sometimes. I remember once… we had a gentleman over to the house to give us a quote on a home improvement project we were considering. No need to tell you his name or the name of his company—I’ll just call him… “Al.” Al is a super nice guy (which helps when you’re in sales) and, as it turned out, his father had also been an Episcopal priest! Did I mention it’s a small…? Oh, I guess I did. In any case, while Al was proud of his Dad’s service to the church, he himself had felt it necessary to step away… because of the church’s stance on certain social issues. He was now active in a new community of faith whose doctrine and practices were more in line with his own thinking… but he clearly had fond memories of the church of his youth. Sitting at our kitchen table, Al told a story about a recent visit to an Episcopal church while he was away from home on business. He enjoyed the liturgy… but was utterly mortified at the content of the homily. Al didn’t mention to us precisely what had so offended him but said that, at the Peace, he confronted the preacher, Bible in hand: “You’re preaching heresy! How can you do that?” Apparently, the priest just looked at him. Given the absence of pushback, all Al felt he could do was walk out. He didn’t even stay for Communion.  

I’m not sure why Al told Philippa and me this story. Perhaps he thought that since I had been a cop and in the military, I would see things differently than other, more progressive, Episcopalians. Maybe he was looking for a little affirmation… or maybe even some pushback… maybe he wanted to be challenged… I don’t know. In the end, I gave him neither. I listened to what he had to say but didn’t take him up on his implicit offer for a theological debate. While I’m not necessarily averse to mixing business with pleasure, it just didn’t seem like the place and time. So, I can make some assumptions about Al’s beef with the Episcopal church, based at least in part on what I know about his new church, but I’ll never know exactly what underpins Al’s understanding of God and God’s relationship with humankind.  

But here’s what I do know: in our Gospel today, Jesus tells a story about forgiveness that should inform our relationships with brothers and sisters of all stripes. Everyone. No exceptions. We all have a tendency to get wrapped up in trying to be “righteous,” don’t we? And, all too often, this “assumed rectitude” makes us think it’s OK to judge others for all manner of supposed lapses and infractions against God’s holy ordinances. As if we were capable of making such judgements! Jesus once said, “How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4) That’s the very definition of hypocrisy, according to Jesus. How can we know what stands in the way of another person’s salvation when we haven’t yet figured out what stands in the way of our own? In today’s Epistle, the Apostle Paul writes, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand [emphasis added]” (Romans 14:4). Each of us is accountable to God alone. It’s not up to us to decide who’s good in God’s books. That’s up to God, and the overall trajectory of the Gospel leads me to believe that ours is not a “gotcha” God. God will stop at nothing to help us stand… make us stand… all of us… in spite of our resistance and faithlessness.

So why do we judge? Why do we hesitate to forgive? I wonder if our disobedience in this regard might stem from the most basic of human instincts, instincts instilled into Adam and Eve by Satan in the Garden after they had first trespassed against their Creator… the instincts of shame and fear. Shame and fear are powerful things and I wonder if, somehow, it makes us feel better about our own shortcomings when we dwell on the supposed inadequacies of others. Misery loves company, after all. Maybe in donning a mantle of assumed righteousness before others, we are actually attempting to reassure ourselves that our own transgressions aren’t all that damning. Maybe. Except—and here’s the thing—our own sins need not place us beyond the reach of salvation. We need to know that. God will uphold us and make us worthy of the Kingdom… but it’s God’s righteousness we’re talking about here, not our own. There’s no way we can ever earn Salvation. It’s a gift, offered free of charge, to us and to all of God’s creatures… the good the bad and the ugly. Because God loves us that much. Enough to send his son to show us how we can be fully-human, like Jesus, in accordance with God’s plan for our lives. So be kind to yourselves and, while you’re at it, be kind to others as well. Love… and be loved. Forgive… and be forgiven. Judge not… and be spared the judgement. It’s easier said than done, I know. Sometimes it seems we’ve created God in our own image… a “zero-sum God,” who has only so much love and forgiveness to parcel out… and that we must always seek new ways to set ourselves apart from (and above) our fellow creatures in order to earn his affection. But that’s our thinking… not God’s. God’s capacity for love and mercy are infinite, and Jesus came to show us the way to the Kingdom… how we can become more like God by following the example he set for us during his earthly ministry. So, it’s up to us to be better than we think we can be: more loving… more forgiving… less prone to judge. In the end, that’s why we’re here, I think. And that’s what we’re asking for when we pray, “Thy Kingdom come….”  Let us pray.

O God of infinite love and mercy, you sent your Son to show us the way to your Kingdom. Guide us, we pray, along the path of your righteousness, helping us to love and forgive and cherish brothers and sisters made in your image without hesitation or precondition, that we may grow daily in wisdom and acceptance of your will for our lives. In Jesus’ name we pray… Amen.

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