Here is something I have noticed: It is not uncommon for a person to come to church when she is seeking instruction. We all want to know what we’re supposed to do. This can lead us back to prayer even when it’s been a minute; it can drive us to open a Bible again. And it makes good sense! We feel our human longing to be close to God, now please, Jesus, tell us what we should do.
These days we are following the Narrative Lectionary through the Gospel of Matthew. Today we find ourselves directly in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. The writer of Matthew portrays Jesus issuing instructions to his disciples. He tells them: Do not brag about giving alms, be humble in your generosity. Do not make a big show out of praying as though the validity of the prayer is determined by its word count! Do not make a huge event out of fasting. When you are fasting, just be cool, says the Lord. Do not store up treasures for yourself on earth; instead store your treasures in heaven.
Jesus presents the directions as clearly as a person introducing you to a board game you’ve never played before. “This is what you can do. These are the rules. This is the object. You’ll get the hang of it once we start playing.” So it’s no wonder we Christians become convinced that we’re hungry for this type of instruction. Just give us the dos and don’ts…
Now. Something to know about the Sermon on the Mount: it only appears like this in the Gospel of Matthew. Other sources quote Jesus saying some of these same things, but whoever wrote Matthew decided that Jesus preached them in a sermon on a mountain. This means some parts of this sermon are Jesus and some parts are Matthew, and what I need to tell you is there is one spot where Matthew is wrong.
Matthew six, verses fourteen and fifteen: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” I do not believe Jesus said this. I do not believe it is true. Now we don’t all read the Bible the same way, you are free to disagree with me. There’s a wide range of biblical commentary with all different theories on what to make of these verses.
I believe the LORD our God is more powerful than we humans can fathom, and the power of God is grace. This means there is nothing any person could do to limit the mercy of God. We do not have the authority to determine whom our father in heaven is allowed to forgive and whom he’s not, as though it’s not even up to God, sorry her hands are tied. No. We are not in charge of the mercy of the LORD.
So here we are. I think I’m right to argue that in this one spot, Matthew is wrong. But you didn’t come to church today to hear this dispute, and there could be something more important going on. Now it’s true that scholars don’t know who wrote the Gospel of Matthew, but in this book, there is some attributive connection, some affection for the person named Matthew who was a disciple and a tax collector. Here’s my theory: What if the author of Matthew is trying to showcase the mutual activity of forgiveness by using accounting imagery…
In the world of the New Testament, forgiveness was a financial concept. It was literally the canceling of debt. What if the Gospel writer is saying, Look at this balance sheet! Notice how the transactions go both ways. When you forgive others, God forgives you. Outflow becomes inflow: do the math! says Matthew. It’s beautiful!
Sure when we look at this, we see clunky tit-for-tat reciprocity. We get hung up on who owes what how much, and whether we are are worthy of God’s forgiveness, and by what percentage, and maybe this misses the point.
What if Matthew had said this instead: Whenever you forgive another person, what you’re doing is opening your heart to receive forgiveness. When you cannot forgive, you cannot receive forgiveness. (Not because God is withholding it, but because the flow has been disrupted.) So it goes the other way too. If we cannot allow ourselves to be forgiven, then how can we go around forgiving anybody else? You cannot pour from an empty cup, and nobody has to.
They say if you want to become a better writer, read better books. If you’re a musician and your playing is off, notice what music you’ve been listening to. Our creating comes from our consuming; we write how we read, we play how we hear. This is the flow of creation.
The flow of the universe is generosity. As created beings, our impulse is to give. It is how we were made. The flow of the Holy Spirit is grace; this means we already have mercy flowing through us; we already have the mercy we need to give. Forgiveness is in our blood.
It makes so much sense on paper, don’t you think? Of course, my paper would be a watercolor picture of a river spiraling and spilling over the edges and sparkling with glitter. The writer of Matthew would have a paper with an Excel spreadsheet. Either way, forgiveness is not too hard to understand on paper.
But go ask anyone who’s ever tried, forgiveness can be impossibly hard to believe.
You might have heard the quote famously attributed to Peter Drucker. He says “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” This is the problem. There’s no measuring the mercy of God and no managing it either. This makes grace really hard to believe in. There are no reliable metrics. I mean they tried with the seventy times seven, but that’s like saying infinity times infinity, and how does that make sense.
The truth is, God forgives each one of us, all the time, thereby proving that we are forgivable. We have it in us to be forgiven.
We can still be forgiven by God. We can still forgive God. We can find ourselves swept up in the current of forgiveness, and when we do, God help us. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy upon us.
I want you to believe in your own capacity to be forgiven, because it could be that somebody here really did come to church today for that. I’m standing here trying to explain forgiveness by describing a picture of a river. The writer of Matthew is trying here with a treasurer’s report.
It’s important to notice, Jesus takes a different approach.
When you don’t believe that you can be forgiven, because there will come a time when you won’t believe your own forgiveness. When you cannot forgive God, when that happens, sit here, says the Lord. Eat this bread. You don’t have to overthink it. The grace is in the bread. The bread is for you.
It means something that in the middle of this whole sermon of instructions, Jesus doesn’t just explain how to do a prayer. He stops issuing dos and don’ts in order to pray. In the middle of all this teaching is the Lord’s Prayer. Exactly in the middle of the prayer is the bread. Give us this day our daily bread as we forgive, as though eating the bread has something to do with the forgiveness of God.
If you ever want an outward and visible sign of the grace of God, I encourage you to come here some Saturday morning. If you’ve never seen our Food Pantry in action, you might be imagining a transactional operation. You know, people show up. When their number is called, we hand them bags of food, and diapers, and toilet paper. And this is part of what happens.
More than distributing groceries, the Food Pantry is the event where we meet our neighbors. We learn how to pronounce their names, and we might introduce ourselves. Sometimes Taylor comes bringing recipes and samples to share. If you’re here when she’s here, expect to get handed a plate of something delicious! Sometimes children dig through the basket of books and find one they love.
At the Food Pantry, we practice seeing Christ in each person who sits in the lounge and who comes through the line. If you try this sometime, what you’ll notice is not just what our neighbors look like, but how our neighbors look at you. They are seeing the grace of God in you, and there’s nothing you can do to hide it. You can expect to leave the Food Pantry on Saturday with compassion in your hair and on your clothes. You will probably be hungry.
Something I have noticed is that it is not uncommon for people to come to church when we’re hungry for instruction —at least that’s what we think. What if we’re actually hungry for something so much more…
In a few minutes we will come to the table of Jesus Christ. This is the table of forgiveness, and if you’re not sure how you feel about forgiving, you don’t have to be. Take and eat, says the Lord. Taste and see. Grace is broken into the bread. Mercy is poured out in the cup. And what if we are more forgiven and more forgiving than we even imagined…
What if the world right now is harboring a growling hunger for mercy, and what if we’re the ones who have it to share… I hope we’ll find out.