07 September 2014

A Wonderful Story

Matthew 18:15-22

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 7th September 2014

Several years ago I came across the work of contemporary poet Stephen Dunn. There’s one poem that particularly spoke to me.  It’s called “At the Smithville Methodist Church.” Dunn recounts his daughter’s experience at Vacation Bible School one summer. Dunn and his wife are essentially agnostics.  They’re skeptical about religion in general, not hostile to it, but they’re not sure what to make of VBS and their daughter’s emerging faith. Here’s how he captures the experience:

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the "Jesus Saves" button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren't
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home
singing "Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so,"
it was time to talk. Could we say Jesus

doesn't love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
sufficiently dead,

that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can't teach disbelief
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn't a story nearly as good.
On parents' night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out

like appetizers. Then we took our seats
in the church and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and Hallelujah

and one in which they had to jump up and down
for Jesus.
I can't remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what's comic, what's serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can't say to your child "Evolution loves you."
The story stinks
of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,

occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do but drive, ride it out, sing along
in silence.

“I didn’t have a wonderful story for my child,” Dunn said.  So what exactly is this “wonderful story” of ours?  How do you sum up it up?  I’m not sure the Church tells one story.  The story is Jesus and Jesus is the story of God’s love. But how do we tell such a story, this multi-faceted-gemstone-kind-of-story of ours?  There are many aspects to it and we approach it from many perspectives and angles.

It seems to me that everything we do in a church is grounded in the belief that we have a story for our children. Our worship, our fellowship, our community around this Table are all because we have a wonderful story for our children. Our ministries of sympathy, service, and witness, our educational and missional aims are all because of this story. Even all the dust and debris around here at the moment with the demolition and reconstruction of the Beechwood steps are all because this is the place where we tell our wondrous story and we need a way to get in here to hear it.

There are plenty of great stories to shape the lives of our children, marvelous stories that enliven the lives of our children.  But what makes this story—our story—so different is the way it speaks to the why question.  Evolution, for example, speaks to the how question.  That is, how we got here. But evolution doesn’t love you and me. The Bible’s story, including the opening chapters of Genesis, is less about how we came to be than why and for what.  I do not doubt the veracity of evolution.  However, Genesis is not a scientific text.  It tells a different kind of story and answers a different set of questions. Our job in the Church is to speak to the question why.  Parents can tell their children (in good time) how they came to be.  But the deeper, more profound question why?—why do they exist? why do we exist?—the answer to these questions requires a different kind of narrator. 

The Bible’s story puts our children—and us—into the world, into this deeply disturbing and scary, yet wildly wondrous, glorious and beautiful world.  The Bible places our children and us into this amazing world with meaning, purpose, love, and grace. This story tells our children why they exist. It gives them and us a song to sing and sanctifies our lives and makes us holy.  Our children can’t discover this story on their own and neither can we. The story tells us that we are loved more than we could ever possibly imagine, that we’re not alone in this universe, that Jesus is present within us and among us.

And for Matthew here one significant part of the gospel story is forgiveness. Forgiveness, because it is related to God’s love and grace, stands at the center of the gospel narrative, the Church’s story.  However neither Jesus nor Matthew had any romantic illusions about the nature of the Church and it’s ability to practice forgiveness.  We might sing, “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love,” yet painful breaks can and do occur in our relationships.  We might sing, “We are one in the Spirit,” yet cruel words and thoughtless actions can and do separate and divide us.  We might sing, “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord,” but there’s plenty to weaken the strongest of churches.[2]

Matthew tells us how to live together. Work it out. Seek reconciliation. Try to make amends. Reach out. Why? Because wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name he’s there too. When we’re quick to accuse and judge, shun and exclude someone from the Church, we need to remember that Christ is among us and in the person we dislike or want to shun, in the one who makes us uncomfortable.  When we focus on Jesus at the center of the community we remember it’s not about us: the church doesn’t exist for us, we exist for the church.  God doesn’t exist for us; we exist for God. The focus on Christ draws us out of our isolation and allows us to live together.

But Peter, always the practical one, says, “Okay, Lord, fine. Sounds great in theory. Just tell me the minimum number of times I have to forgive so I know when I don’t have to forgive any more and can then throw that person out of the church.” Peter wants to put a limit on the generosity of grace. In fact, Peter doesn’t understand grace.  Actually, a person who knows something about grace would never ask such a question.  If we think and act like Peter here, then it means that we don’t know what grace looks like and feels like either. Seventy-seven times.  Don’t count.  Don’t keep track. Grace doesn’t keep count. Grace doesn’t keep count.  Just keep on doing it. Why? Because without forgiveness there’s no community, there’s no Church.

Now it’s possible to just tell or teach the story of forgiveness without being shaped by it. We can teach our children how they ought to forgive, but ignore it ourselves. However, the nature of this story is such that we can’t just teach or simply tell it (and when we do, we’ve missed the point). It’s a story we have to experience.  And we experience it even as we tell it because we discover is that we’re already we’re in it.  By virtue of our baptism we’re already within the grand narrative of God’s grace. And we can tell that the story is having an influence us in the difference it makes in our lives, in the way it’s shaping us—in the way followers of Jesus relate to others, especially when the family of Jesus gathers in community and tries to be faithful together.  That’s the test.  For, to know that God has forgiven us but then withhold forgiveness toward our neighbor is, in the end, to be ungrateful.  It’s forgiveness known only intellectually, not experientially, personally, from within.  To know that God has forgiven us but then withhold forgiveness toward ourselves is also to be ungrateful. An experience of forgiveness yields further forgiveness.

Knowing the undeserved and unearned forgiveness of God becomes the cornerstone of the Christian experience and sits at the center of who we are. It’s embodied in the Table. Several years ago, worshipping in Iona Abbey in Scotland, a long Communion Table was set up right down the center of the medieval nave. There is a tradition of this within the Scottish Church.  The Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, built by the Church of Scotland, has a very wide center aisle in order to accommodate a Communion Table, stretching from one end of the sanctuary to the other. I wish we could do the same here at CPC. It’s a powerful way to say that the Table sits at the center of what we do. It’s why Jesus gives this meal to us.  It’s why John Calvin (1509-1564) wanted Communion served every Sunday in Geneva, because this meal helps to remind the Church that Christ is among us and within.

Jesus makes the story of God’s forgiving love tangible and real. And this meal is offered again and again and again in the hope that someday we’ll finally get it—that we and our children will know that we’re forgiven in the eyes of God and then, in the words of Paul Tillich (1886-1965), finally “accept our acceptance” and live from this truth.[3]
  For people long to know they’re forgiven, whether they believe in God or not. People are hungry to know they’re forgiven. This wonderful story of ours tells us that nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8). When we know—really know this—we’re living from within the story.

And so with grateful hearts, accepting God’s forgiveness offered at the Table, we can rejoice. Like Stephen Dunn’s daughter at VBS, we can jump up and down all the way to the Table—go ahead, if the Spirit moves you—singing hallelujahs, beaming all the way home.

[1] Stephen Dunn, New and Selected Poems, 1974-1994 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1994), 183-184.
[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 209.
[3] From Paul Tillich’s famous sermon “You Are Accepted” in The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955).

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