Monday, September 18, 2023

Forgiveness: A Sermon for 16A Pentecost

 Really, this sermon is sort of a "Part Two" from last week's and it comes at a crucial time in my particular journey. 

I have been struggling for several years with how, or even if, I can forgive a family member who did serious damage to me and my wife. Events at St. Barnabas recently reopened that wound. I didn't bleed out all over the congregation, but I did realize that if I don't do some things to address this wound, it has the potential to hamper my ability to function well as a priest. 

And so I am doing what I need to do. And offering what I can offer in my sermon... which began with my honest gut reaction to the Gospel. See what you think.

Text: Matthew 18:21-35


I don’t know about y’all….but when I read the first two verses of this Gospel…with Peter asking “How many times must I forgive…” and Jesus was saying, “Not seven times…but seventy-seven times…” my initial response was…

Really, Jesus? Really?!

Because that’s how hard it can be to be forgiving.

Truly forgiving from the heart.

For anyone who has ever been used or abused in any way….anyone who has ever felt the sting of discrimination…this idea of forgiveness and getting to that place of forgiving the one who has committed the wrong against us can feel that the task is as an impossible as Sisyphus pushing that huge boulder up a hill.

And this passage has been misused by some in the church to wrongly chastise people living in abusive relationships.

To be clear: not any part of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit condones abusive behavior of any kind.

To wrap our minds around today’s reading…it’s important to remember last week’s Gospel.

I wish the two parts had been read together…but they weren’t.

So…quick review of what we called “The Rule of Christ” from this past Sunday:

When we last left Jesus and the disciples…Jesus was laying out for them the way to live in harmony in community…and managing the conflicts that inevitably arise in community.

An example of this: let’s say a member has done something… broke some kind of trust with another member. The first thing that must happen is that the offended person goes to the offender and says,

“You hurt me…and this is how you hurt me.”

The offender listens…perhaps didn’t realize what they had done.

Maybe they give their perspective.

Perhaps there’s more listening…more discussion…and in the end… the offender makes apology… and the relationship can be reconciled.

If that doesn’t happen… and there’s still conflict… or perhaps the issue has escalated…bring in two or three others to work out a resolution and get the offender to right their behavior.

If that still doesn’t stop the wrong behavior… it’s time for the whole church to get in on the issue.

And then… if things are really not going to change… then the person who is the disruptor will ‘be as a Gentile or tax collector’… a First Century way of saying to this Jewish audience hearing all of this… “this one is not one of us.”

This system is a way of giving the one who has been hurt a chance to air their grievance…while establishing a system that insures that the one accused of committing a wrong isn’t simply thrown out without bringing in cooler minds to hear the whole story.

The church back in Matthew’s days… and in some ways still … remains a fragile community,

Nobody wanted to just toss aside people whenever there was disagreement.

This Rule of Christ sets up boundaries for behavior…and how to manage the conflict.

That brings us up to speed with Peter and Jesus and today’s Gospel.

Peter isn’t talking about any old person who he might need to forgive.

He says “if another member of the church”…in other words…if one of my kin folk here does me wrong… do I need to forgive them seven times?”

Seven… meaning “perfection.”

So does my forgiveness need to be perfect?

And Jesus’ answer is basically… it needs to be more than perfect.

We are to live… knowing that we are a forgiven people.

But forgiveness doesn’t happen without the acknowledgement…and the recognition that a wrong… a sin… has happened.

We can’t forgive something where there isn’t a wrong that has occurred.

And forgiveness can only come from the person who has been wronged.

To make this point abundantly clear… Jesus tells a parable of the servant and the king.

And it’s a really over the top story!

As Eugene Boring notes… in the economy of Jesus’ day… a talent is the largest monetary unit.

Just one talent is the equivalent of the wages of fifteen years.

In the parable… this servant owes the king ten thousand talents….in other words… an impossibly high number.

It would be like saying that a person working at a fast-food restaurant for minimum wage must pay back a debt of one trillion dollars or be thrown in jail and their family members sold into perpetual slavery.

It’s just not possible for the worker with that sort of salary to make the payment.

In the story…when the servant begs for mercy… the king (who knew the guy would never be able to pay him back)… cancels the whole debt and sends him away.

Again… this is an extravagant move… an unexpected gesture of kindness.

But that servant never acknowledges the grace granted to him.

Instead… when he runs into a fellow servant…a guy who owes him basically the equivalent of maybe fifty or sixty dollars…not only does the fortunate and forgiven one demand the money right there on the spot… when this other servant also begs for mercy… this guy starts to choke him…before having his colleague thrown in jail.

Others see what’s happened.

We might call these others “the church”.

They run to the king: “Your lordship… oh benevolent mighty one… this man who you forgave of his debt has lashed out at another!”

The king explodes in anger.

He revokes his mercy.

And he has the man tortured for the cruelty shown to a fellow servant.

Again…this is another outrageous action.

If we are to follow what seems to be Matthew’s logic… that “the King” is a representation of God… do we believe that the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” as we hear often in our psalms…can be so vicious as to demand torture of those who fail to show forgiveness?

Would God really cancel mercy?

Remember…this parable is full of extremes.

Extremes that are meant to shake us up and get our attention.

So…perhaps rather than get so bogged down in the details of the parable itself… we should take it as answering Peter’s question about how perfect does he need to be in his forgiveness?

Or to personalize it… how perfect do we need to be in forgiving others?

Maybe instead of seeking to be perfect in our ability to forgive others… we need to get back to that idea that we have been granted grace… and mercy…and forgiveness from a God who knows us better than ourselves…and that includes those parts of us that we aren’t proud of.

It’s interesting to me that we have these examinations of forgiveness in our tradition at this time of year while our siblings in Judaism are entering those days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur… The Days of Awe…a period where Jews throughout the world are expected to do a self-assessment at how well are they doing at tikkun olam…the work of healing, repairing, and transforming their communities.

Like us…wrestling with forgiveness… this involves admitting that there are short-comings in that effort to repair breaches.

That work will require heartfelt apologies and seeking forgiveness.

And it is on-going.

It may never be perfect… but it is necessary to keep engaging and never giving in to despair.

At the Rosh Hashanah service I attended with my wife yesterday… her rabbi mentioned in his sermon that perfection is an expectation we place on ourselves.

 To be “perfect” leads to disappointment and loneliness.

Because God alone is perfect.

We can only do our best to live into that Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

Or… in the words we say each Sunday with the Lord’s Prayer… “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Forgiveness is hard work.

But when a person makes a true apology…seeks mercy… and changes their actions to right their past mistakes… forgiveness is the appropriate response.

It’s not that we forget…or gloss over what has happened.

But our forgiveness is a way to liberate ourselves…the ones offering forgiveness… from the need to seek revenge.

Freeing us to live more in love rather than stewing in hate…and it helps us to return to right relationship with God and each other. 

In the name of God…F/S/HS.


Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Practicing the Rule of Christ

 Sometimes, the Sunday lectionary grabs one by the throat and insists that you must not look away from the very difficult lesson. That's how I felt, anyway, when I saw what was on the docket for Sunday.

This lesson on how to deal with conflict in the church is showing up at a time when the Episcopal Church is facing scrutiny for some incidents involving bishops who have used and abused their power. I have already talked enough here about my own involvement in shedding light on the wrongdoings in the diocese of Florida. Bishop Howard is now a subject of a possible Title IV proceeding, the ecclesiastical discipline canon for those clergy who have not done right by their office. Articles in The Living Church and Episcopal News Service revealed that there are additional Title IV cases involving two other bishops, one of whom is retired an reportedly assaulted the President of the House of Deputies at last year's General Convention. After going through the proper channels to address this problem, an attorney in the Presiding Bishop's office recommended that the offending bishop be given "pastoral care" instead of being stripped of his privileges as a bishop. This failure to discipline the offender set off a tidal wave of anger in the church, which the Presiding Bishop was forced to address.

All of this, coupled with a few tense moments recently at St. Barnabas, weighed heavily on my heart and mind as I wrote this sermon. See what you think.

Texts: Matthew 18:15-20, Romans 13:8-14


One of the things our Episcopal Diocese of Georgia requires of all new priests serving parishes here is that we have to take a week-long course in Conflict Management.

Note that it’s not called Conflict “resolution” but Conflict “management.”

The understanding is that in any group…and a church being a particular type of group… there is always going to be conflict.

Because we’re human beings…each with our own experiences of life which inform how we interact with other human beings.

And that will…inevitably…lead to conflict.

I’ve done the training…in fact, I did some of it twice because another diocesan requirement of priests is to attend Leading with Grace where some of the same conflict management concepts with the same trainers happened again.

One of the things I remember about the Conflict Management training for priests was that there was only one person who was entirely comfortable entering into a conflict situation…and she was one of the trainers!

The rest of us fell along a spectrum of “I’ll do it if I really have to” to the ones who really didn’t like conflict at all…and joked that the turtle…a reptile able to tuck its head back into its shell… was their power animal.

We all loved each other through our hesitations…and examinations of how we handled conflict…and left with tools and understanding that we could apply not only in our church communities…but in our everyday dealings with others.

What we learned is pretty much the directives laid out in our Gospel lesson.

We could call this “How to Manage Conflict in the Church.”

But another theologian had a snapper title.

Estrella Horning called this “The Rule of Christ.”

And it’s a simple concept of how to preserve community living.

Because that’s really Matthew’s goal with this particular story.

If someone commits a wrong against you…your first step is take that person aside and have a one-on-one. And hopefully, that will be all it takes.

But…y’know…that step is probably the hardest step.

Some people simply suffer in silence and say nothing…harboring the hurt…taking the abuse…feeling unloved…until it comes out in ways that are usually self-destructive.

Some people… instead of taking the person aside and addressing them directly… begin a campaign of talking behind their back and spreading gossip and rumors about them.

Telling five or ten others rather than the one person who needs to hear the complaint.

Nothing can be more destructive to a community…and more antithetical to love… than gossip.

Gossip goes against the whole notion of “love your neighbor.”

And this is why…once more…Jesus’ instruction in his “Rule of Christ” for living in a community…is to start at the most intimate level…the one-on-one.

When speaking to the person…know that they might not be aware that they have been doing harm.

Talk it out…pray…and hope that this will resolve the issue.

If that doesn’t work… then bring in two or three others into the discussion. See if a few more minds around the table can come to a better understanding.

If the person who has committed the wrong still won’t listen…that’s when it goes to the wider church.

The point of this Gospel lesson isn’t about being punishing and punitive.

What Jesus is driving at is that when living in right relationship in community… the person who has committed the wrong or the sin against another member deserves protection from arbitrary actors. At the same time…those who’ve suffered wrong need to be heard…and their injury taken seriously.

If we follow this model… not just in church but in how we live and go about our lives in the world… the outcome is a healthier community…one that “lays aside the works of darkness and puts on the armor of light” as we heard in Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome.

And fair warning to y’all: Jesus will be making even more of this lesson next week. Because of course this Gospel falls in a much larger context.

In the section right before today’s reading… Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep.

The shepherd…upon realizing that one sheep has gone missing…leaves the other ninety-nine… the ones who are doing OK… and goes off to find the one that has wandered away.

Upon finding that one… the shepherd rejoices. Because…ultimately…God’s goal is to bring all back into right relationship.

Hence…this Rule of Christ reading this morning.

The timing of this Gospel lesson couldn’t have been more prescient…at least in the life of the broader Episcopal Church.

Some recent reports have come out in various church news publications about bishops in the church behaving badly. One was accused of verbal and physical assaults of family members.

Another is under investigation for intentionally ignoring church canons that allow for the full participation of LGBTQ people in the life of the Episcopal Church.

And in yet another case… a high-ranking member of the laity was reportedly assaulted by a retired bishop from her diocese at last year’s General Convention as she entered the hall to be introduced to the House of Bishops.

All this at a time when we’re in the midst of doing our part here in Georgia to complete the Safe Church Safe Communities training before November…. the very training that demands better of all of us in how we treat each other.

When the mechanisms in place in the church fail to protect the rights of those injured…all of us suffer.

In this case with the bishops…the loud megaphone of the church news services brought the issue into the light.

And the offending parties have become to us as “a Gentile or a tax collector.”

It seems justice could only truly happen when the press became “the church.”

There is now a pledge from members of the House of Bishops…including our own Bishop Frank Logue…that there will be an examination of what went wrong in these processes.

With God’s help…and with true repentance… those bishops who will be gathering at their fall meeting in a couple of weeks… will make amends and work toward a more just outcome for people who’ve suffered abuse.

What does all of this mean for us at St. Barnabas?

I think the main take away is that if we intend to follow Christ…we need to be prepared to air out our differences with each other in a manner where love, mercy and forgiveness are at the center of our discussions rather than getting into an argument over who is in the right.

This doesn’t mean that the person who commits a wrong or does injury gets away with what they’ve done.

But when we bring it to the person’s attention…we take the time to listen to each other…in love.

And when apologies are made… we accept that as true and work toward the reconciliation of relationship.

Coming into right relationship is God’s ultimate goal.

And that needs to be ours as a church… as a representative body of Christ… as well.

May we treat one another justly, rightly, and in love…in the name of God…F/S/HS.



Sunday, September 3, 2023

Finding True Religion After the Storm


This has been a really tough week for the region. Hurricane Idalia sent me and my wife to a hotel for the night as we anticipated 100+ mile an hour winds in our city full of live oak trees. Instead, the storm shifted to the east at about 2am Wednesday morning which took Tallahassee out of the center of the hurricane. Good for us.

Really bad for Valdosta, another city with lots of pines and live oaks. I spent many hours between Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon seeking information from parishioners, offering a sympathetic ear, understanding the frustration of being without power and trees either on their homes or leaning precariously on wires by their house. 

By the time I got to sitting down to write a sermon... I felt like most of what I wanted to say was "How long, O Lord?!" 

I did come up with a sermon. It is what it is. And it was preached to a faithful remnant of ten. 

Text:  Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12: 9-21; Matt 16: 21-28


Good morning! I’m glad to see you here especially after the week that we’ve had.

Our opening collect of the day caught my attention.

I was struck with the choice of some words and phrases…things like “graft in our hearts the love of your name” “increase in us true religion” and “bring forth in us fruit of good works.”

Those words…and our readings this morning… along with the experiences of this past week with Hurricane Idalia and the difficulties of when nature lashes out in such a violent way…gave me a lot to think about.

We’ve seen this past week the destructive power of wind and water.

We’ve had plenty examples recently in scriptures of the way water and wind toss boats around on the Sea of Galilee.

Peter starts to drown when he feels the wind blowing against him as he stands on water.

In our reading from Exodus today… we have another natural phenomenon—Fire—which also wreaks havoc and causes destruction.

Think of the images from Lahina and Maui in Hawaii…with charred vehicles amidst the ashen ruins of what had been paradise.

Some of us know the frightening experience of escaping from fires in our homes.

Most of us remember the devastation of September 11th almost 22 years ago…when the heat from two crashed passenger planes melted the steel and caused the World Trade Center to collapse.

Fire is extremely destructive.

But here in Exodus…we see a different image of fire.

“The bush was blazing but not consumed.”

A fire is raging and yet the bush itself isn’t burning up.

And yet it is.

It’s a fiery passion.

What Moses sees and hears coming from the bush is a fire lit up for justice…one that has seen and heard enough from the Israelites:

“I have observed the misery of my people. I have heard their cry on the account of their taskmasters. I have come to deliver them.”

This is a God on fire for making things right that are going wrong for the people of God.

We can hear that same passion when we listen to the exchange in the Gospel between Jesus and Peter.

Jesus tells the disciples what’s in store for him as he marches on toward Jerusalem, and Peter takes him aside to tell Jesus to stop talking that way.

“Get behind me, Satan! You’re a stumbling block to me…”

Jesus is hot.

He knows what his mission is… he knows he is walking into a dangerous situation. And he knows that Peter simply doesn’t understand.

Peter may be “the Rock” but he hasn’t grasped yet that to challenge the status quo… and to push back against Empire, and tyrants and bullies…it’s going to involve pain and suffering.

Because Jesus is charting a different way of responding to the evil of his society…an evil that frankly still exists around us today.

Jesus isn’t leading a revolution which burns things down to the ground.

His is a revolution that sets aflame the hearts of those who speak words of love in the face of hatred…

keeps the faith against all odds…

and doesn’t let the fire within consume us with rage that it tips us over into becoming the very bully and tyrant being challenged to change.

Jesus is showing the disciples…both those that were with him then… and those of us who are still following him two thousand plus years later… that we must stick close to the source of love and life…and let that be the energy…the fire… that burns within us. 

It’s that source which nourishes us with all goodness,

We learn from Jesus. We see how he interacts with those in need as well as the way he interacts with those in positions of power.

We don’t just admire Jesus; we attempt to live our lives in such a way that people see Jesus in us…through us… and around us.
This is the Jesus who shows hospitality to strangers and doesn’t believe in payback when someone does wrong.

This Jesus demands that we back away from the temptation of self-centeredness and self-reliance…and accept that God will show up in the form of others offering help… and putting us on a path of repentance, love, forgiveness, and mercy.

That’s the “true” religion we want to increase.

Marion Hatchett, who was the chair of the commission which created our 1979 Book of Common Prayer, wrote in his commentary on the prayer book that the phrase “true religion” came from Thomas Cranmer, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer…and it may have been a reflection of controversies occurring within the church back in the 16th century.  

A “true religion” is what Paul is encouraging among the followers in Rome… and is great advice for us in these times of such political conflicts… and short tempers.

To be a follower of Jesus is to be different than what has become the accepted norm of hurling insults…or settling arguments by picking up a pistol.

To be true to Jesus means having that flaming bush for justice burning within us…advocating and encouraging cooler heads to prevail in tense situations… and remembering that the person we are having a conflict with is also one of God’s beloved children.

When we put all of that into action…the grafting of God’s name… that sacred name of “I AM who I AM”…will shine through us like a neon light flashing in the store front window.

Difficult, sad, and exhausting as it is to go through a hurricane… it’s in these times…when we are at the mercy of nature…and those big trucks and linemen…that our Christianity is called upon to show up. Because Christianity is a communal religion.

And that’s been happening.

Neighbors checking in on neighbors with offers of food and shelter.

Those with generators giving respite to those who needed a place to cool off.

Restaurants serving up hot dogs and hamburgers as a way of giving back to the community that kept their doors open during the challenging times of the pandemic.

These are all signs of God’s fiery work in us and through us as a community.

So many of you spoke of how you tapped into your faith during the storm…and the thankfulness to have made it through alive.

The most consistent message I heard was: “We’ll get through this.”

And yes, we will.

Because God hears the call of the people… and responds.

Thanks be to God for that!

In the name of God…F/S/HS.



Saturday, September 2, 2023

"Who is Jesus Christ?!"

My biggest disappointment this week was that I didn't have the story of Moses and the burning bush to work with since we're talking about "Who do you say that I am?"

My second biggest disappointment was that I was so drawn to the Gospel reading that I couldn't work with the First Lesson from Exodus about Moses being picked out of the water by Pharaoh's daughter...and the two Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah who saved many a male child with their cunning and devotion to God. 

But the Gospel did provide me with some things to say. 

I chose not to dive too deeply into the conversation that I had with Bishop Howard. If you really want to get more of that story, I refer you to this entry from earlier this year.


Texts: Matthew 16:13-20; Romans 12:1-8


“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?”

I’m pretty sure I’ve already shared this story with y’all, but given this Gospel lesson, it’s worth telling it again.

About ten years ago… after wrestling with this nagging idea that God was calling me to ordained ministry… I told my then rector at my church in Tallahassee that I was going to have to leave his church and transfer my membership to St. Thomas in Thomasville.

Given how active I was… this distressed and alarmed him. So he made a call to Bishop John Howard of Florida and requested that the bishop meet with me.

The bishop agreed and my rector went with me.

We made the long thunkity-thunkity drive along I-10 to Jacksonville.

We prayed before we went into the offices on Market Street.

And then I endured a 45-minute oral examination on the catechism by the bishop.

I remembered that I was in the middle of answering one of his questions when he abruptly stopped me with yet another question:

He demanded to know: “Who is Jesus Christ?”

(Now, in my head, I’m thinking, ‘You’re a bishop and you don’t know who Jesus Christ is?!’ Of course, I didn’t say that).

I remember smiling, and with almost that Peter-like wonder and certainty, the words spilled out of my mouth:

“Jesus Christ is the greatest liberator from oppression ever!”

It wasn’t some rehearsed answer.

It wasn’t something I picked up from a book.

It was something that came from the very depths of my heart… from the experiences I had had of a love and a life that knew me… the whole me… and gave voice to how Jesus kicks open the closed doors that limit our sense of self… and self-worth… and gives us the strength and courage to stand for justice and respecting the dignity of ourselves and all human beings.

When I said those words… my body was flooded with a warmth that Peter must have felt when Jesus blessed him with the nickname, “The Rock.”

Simon…now nicknamed “Peter… The Rock” had given voice to something greater than anything he could’ve asked or imagined on his own.

And he made this bold confession in the presence of the others… all of whom had attempted to give a “right” answer to the question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

Now… to be fair to the disciples… Jesus’ question was about “What’s the buzz on the street” about his identity. And they were being truthful.

People really didn’t know what to make of this itinerant rabbi… and they were falling back on the things they did know.

They knew about the prophets.

They knew about John the Baptist.

They also knew the hardships and yet faithfulness of Jeremiah standing in the midst of the ruins and crisis of the Jewish diaspora.

It’s also important to know where Jesus and the disciples are when he’s asking them this question.

They’ve been on quite the trek through the Palestinian countryside.

As we heard last week… they were in region of Tyre and Sidon with the Canaanite woman along the Mediterranean Sea.

They’ve traveled down along the Sea of Galilee up a mountain where Jesus healed and fed four thousand people.

And now they’re standing in the middle Caesera Phillipi… which is about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee almost to the Syrian border… so about the distance of here to Lakeland. 

This city has changed hands several times. And while there are Jewish residents…it is largely pagan territory.

In fact… scholars believe this whole exchange with Jesus is happening in front of a grotto dedicated to the birthplace of Pan… the Greek god of nature, fields, forests, mountains, flocks and shepherds.

So this discussion about the identity of Jesus is occurring in a place and at a time when this fledgling movement he’s leading is coming more into focus.

Jesus and the disciples are distinguishing themselves as Jews with a slightly different focus from that held by the scribes and the Pharisees.

In a way… Jesus’ question to the disciples is a little bit like crafting the mission statement for who this group is going to be.

How do they envision living and practicing and being this movement?

How do they know and understand what it is to be a follower of the ‘Son of the Living God’?

As much as these questions are about honing in on the identity of Jesus… it is also helping the disciples become clearer about their own identities as part of the Jesus Movement.

And—again—these questions posed and asked and pondered so many centuries ago remain the same questions for us today.

When we think about who is Jesus Christ…how do we answer that question?

How do we make a Peter-like confession… especially in our world where there are fewer and fewer people who profess a belief in Jesus Christ or even bother to associate with the Christian Church at all?

Do we recite the rote answers we learned in Sunday School or a catechism class?

Or do we allow Jesus’ question to lead us to our own break out moment of finding the words… the images… or the phrases that tell our story and what Jesus has meant to us?

Is Jesus a liberator?

A friend?

A model of a life to emulate?

If you don’t have an answer to that question today… or even tomorrow… that’s OK. Prayer and time are all part of the work of discipleship…and discipleship isn’t a destination; it’s a lifelong journey.

In Paul’s Letter to the Romans… he notes that we are all given different gifts… different ways in which God is working in us and through us to accomplish the mission of God to bring relief to those in need…and freedom to those getting weighed down.

When we know who Jesus is…who Jesus was… and continues to be for us…it’s like a supercharge to those gifts so we can make strides toward ending the various “isms”—racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism—that continue to keep us divided and angry as a people.

When we know Jesus then we too will be like Peter…the rock upon which God’s dream for this world will become more fully and beautifully realized through us and our interactions with others.

In the name of God….F/S/HS.