Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24] rcl yr a
Sunday, September 17th, 2023
EXODUS 14:19-31; PSALM 114; ROMANS 14:1-12; MATTHEW 18:21-35
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
An old friend, and I do mean an old friend – I’ve known him since I was a child and he was a teenager – wrote me this week inviting any comment I might offer on the present state of the Church. He wrote of amalgamations and two or more formerly unlinked parishes now being served by one priest. There are several churches in our deanery that fit this profile. Very proudly, he told me of his son, a United Church minister, who moved from a thriving congregation in London (Ontario) last year to a healthy congregation in Etobicoke. In other words, it’s not all bad news.
My friend and I haven’t seen each other in over two years, and we when we write one another, it’s not always about Church. This time, though, I thought I should let him know that Paula and I had become parishioners here at St. John’s, and that contrary to the struggling church model, St. John’s is a growing church. ”Paula and I are now active at St. John’s Anglican in Kitchener,” I wrote Frank. “It’s an old building, but we have a youngish minister (he turned 50 this week), excellent lay leadership, I’m one of the assistants (preaching this Sunday as it happens), good music, and a young, growing, culturally diverse, all-ages congregation. We’re fully involved in downtown ministries providing support for our hundreds of neighbours who are struggling with a complexity of issues. I often say to my Lutheran pastor friend, André, who also attends St. John’s now, ‘the kingdom of God looks like this’.”
If you have ever wondered why I care so much about this parish that I step into leadership roles when developmentally it would be more appropriate for me to focus on retirement, it is exactly this reason. The kingdom of God does look like this congregation, its inspired leaders, its faithful and hard-working parishioners, its desire to be a welcoming and supportive community, and its dedication to ongoing mission and ministry. Our current appeal to gather warm clothing for the migrant workers in the Long Point area is typical of the care and concern this parish has for our neighbours whose needs we can graciously meet.
But the truth is that every congregation, by definition, is a microcosm of the kingdom of God, little plantings of God’s realm here, there, and everywhere, all around the world. Martin Luther didn’t say this, but he almost said it when he suggested that civil society was an earthly expression of divine order. I’m not sure his models were any more or less flawed than ours, but my own life experience with government always has me challenging Luther on this point. But churches? Yes. Congregations, parishes, perhaps deaneries, even dioceses and federated churches have the capacity to approximate the kingdom of God because we are formed by the love of Jesus, not our love for Jesus (although that and the Holy Spirit form the glue that holds us together); but it is the love of Jesus that animates us – his birth, life, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection. We are formed by the good news of God, in other words. Why wouldn’t we resemble the kingdom of God?
Well, to answer what might have been a magnificent rhetorical question, we’re all works in progress – individual Christians, parishes, deaneries, dioceses, and federated churches (what we call General Synod and Lutherans refer to as National Assembly or National Convention). And if we ever wonder how true the works-in-progress assessment is, all we have to do is look at our Second Reading and Gospel today.
The apostle Paul is stretched to his diplomatic limit in counselling the Church at Rome toward a “kingdom of God” vision when it comes to understanding that it is acceptable for different pieties to co-exist in one community; that there is no need for Gentile Christians to despise the Jewish Christians who continue to observe Torah when it comes to keeping kosher and observing special days on the Jewish calendar. Similarly he tells the Jewish Christians not to pass judgment on the Gentiles. In the kingdom of God, all expressions of devotion to God are acceptable, Paul teaches. But when we fail to honour one another and recognize that our diversity is itself a gift and not something to divide over and quarrel about, then we cease to proclaim the reign of God in our communities and are accountable before God for our actions.
Today’s Gospel stands by itself, but Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and his illustration through the parable of the unforgiving slave is a also a lesson for our life together in the Church. Mercy and forgiveness stand at the heart of Jesus’ healing, teaching, and preaching. As Jesus’ present-day disciples, we aspire to the mercy and forgiveness he embodied, thereby replacing with grace the stubbornness and mean-spiritedness of the unforgiving slave in today’s parable. But of course there is still a huge gap between our world and the values and the love of Jesus that sets the coordinates for the kind of mercy, forgiveness, and grace Jesus teaches and embodies. “How often should I forgive?” asks Peter. “As many as seven times?” “I want to know,” you can almost hear him saying to himself, “how long I have to be gracious to all the annoying people I know.” “Not seven times, Peter,” Jesus replies, “but seventy-seven times.” In other words, there is no limit. We forgive for as many times as we’re asked, and unlike the unforgiving slave, we forgive when it’s the last thing we want to do. The kingdom of God comes near when we forgive others as we have been forgiven.
And the Church brings near the kingdom of God when we reject the often-unstated-but-nevertheless-punishing attitudes that blame people for their own misfortune. Homelessness and addiction, for example, are only going to increase as we try to offload these problems onto governments at various levels. Keeping a clinical distance from those who suffer will not result in healing our community. The Church shows forgiveness when we recognize the many who struggle as our neighbours and friends and use our own resources to provide support and offer friendship. This embodied forgiveness in the form of our friendship and support is the gift of grace to a world that is harsh with blame and judgement.
As many of you know, if you have read this week’s Mailchimp letter from our Stewardship Working Group or this Sunday’s edition of On Eagle’s Wings, next Sunday we begin a four-week focus on our life together as the community of St. John the Evangelist, Kitchener. Next Sunday, Preston will consider how giving of ourselves, the many gifts we have for sharing with this microcosm of the kingdom of God, is not only good stewardship, but also our answer to the call of discipleship. We may not be quite as diverse as the apostle Paul’s Church at Rome, but we still need to pull together so that this community continues to grow and be a blessing to many. Strengthening and building up our community is one of the goals of our annual stewardship programs.
In two weeks, on Sunday, October 1, we are all invited to a special Celebrating Our Community Lunch in the Upper Parish Hall, following worship. We have many new parishioners, and the best way to build up and strengthen our parish community is to take the opportunity to break bread together and get to know one another in a relaxed and fun environment.
On Thanksgiving Sunday, October 8, we’ll give thanks for the many blessings we receive as the followers of Jesus and children of our gracious and loving God, and consider our authentic response as faithful disciples and caring stewards.
And on October 15, we’ll ask you to join in the mission and ministry we undertake in and through this community, some of you by renewing your commitment to the work of the Church, others of you by celebrating your feeling of belonging by doing a new thing – becoming involved in a parish group, committee, or ministry and/or joining in the financial support of this parish.
We hope that as we explore together what it means to be faithful disciples and caring stewards that it will be a graceful and gentle journey for everyone; that we will continue to look like the kingdom of God throughout and perhaps even grow more deeply into that identity; and that those kingdom values of love, mercy, justice, forgiveness and grace will always be the marks of our life together here at St. John’s, for Jesus’ sake and for the healing of the world.