God's presence is the heart/center of the christian/seminary community enabling and strengthening us to live and forgive.
The following sermon was preached by Joy Stuber Alsop, LSTC student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, September 18, 2008.
Matthew 18: 21-35
At the end of today, we have all made it through three weeks of being back to school. And to that I say, thanks be to God! Yet, it still feels a bit like the beginning as we figure out how to get back into the flow after being away or how to get into the seminary flow for the first time. We still may be trying to discover the survival tactics that we will need to carry us through the semester. We may still be trying to discover what our role is in this place and how we are going to live into it. For those who are around here more permanently, it is re-learning how to live/function with all of the students back around campus. Learning how to live and work and serve in this place, in this community, is no easy task. Learning the "rules" so to speak takes a few weeks, maybe even months, or in my case, years. And then, just as you get them figured out, things change, you change. We are all coming to school this year from different places, whether it be college, or internship, the professional world or CPE, summer travel experiences, you name it. We are all coming to this place with different experiences and now it is time to put all of those experiences together and to live as a seminary community. A community of believers that are all gathered here for the same purpose. Serving God and learning how to better serve as leaders in this great church that we all love.
I find it to be somewhat ironic that the texts from Matthew that we have heard together these past few weeks are from the section of the gospel that provides instructions for living together as a Christian community. Both last week and this week we have heard the gospel from Matthew's 18th chapter in which he discusses how Christians are to relate to one another. As we figure out our roles here at LSTC and how we are going to live together this year, we hear Jesus' thoughts on this very thing.
In the story that we heard today (and a few other times this week as well) we are greeted by Peter asking Jesus about forgiveness. He wants to know how many times he needs to forgive the people in the church community who sin against him. I don't know about you, but I find it to be a very logical question. Being somewhat organized and always desiring a plan, I too would want to know the answer. Peter suggests seven. This sounds good to me. If there is a solid number then it makes it easy to keep track of and then once I get to seven I can cross them out of the forgiveness column in my planner and just stay mad. Or better yet, I love check marks. You know, Write a paper, check, read a book, check. Anything I go to that has an agenda or schedule is covered in check marks when the event is over. The same could work for forgiveness... forgive so and so, check and then once I get to seven, I will know that I am done forgiving that person. Unfortunately, Jesus quickly squelches Peter's suggestion that I had already taken a liking too. Jesus simply says, Not seven but seventy-seven. In some places, we hear seventy times seven. It gets a little confusing but the point is clear. You can't put a number on forgiveness. Forgiveness is continual, always, never ending, everlasting. I can fill my planner with all of the check marks in the world and I still will not be done forgiving my brothers and sisters in Christ. I assume that this is not the answer that Peter was looking for and I KNOW that this is not the answer that I am looking for. It is so open ended and in many ways, so difficult.
It seems to me that even if we can wrap our heads around unlimited forgiveness; genuine, sincere forgiveness is another story. It is one thing to say, "I forgive you" it is another to truly mean it. It is no easy task to offer gracious forgiveness that is reflective of the forgiveness that we have all been given in Christ Jesus. I think that it is especially difficult in a community like this. One might think the opposite, after all this is a Christian community. But let's face it, there is a lot of competition here whether we like to admit it or not. Many of us are or are preparing to be pastors and all of us are or are preparing to be leaders in the church in one way or another. It is easy to step on toes, or upset, or offend. I will be the first to admit that I have done all of these things and had all of these things done to me in this very community. You know that what I am describing is not unique to this community, it happens everywhere, it is part of human nature. I do think that it is important to admit that it exists here. The questions is how then do we express unlimited, genuine forgiveness when our brothers and sisters in this community sin against us?
I think that we need to return to the words that concluded last week's pericope, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Christ is in this place. This is how we do it, not alone, but with Christ. And not only is Jesus in this place but Jesus is the center of this community or better yet the heart. The heart that strengthens us as the people of God to live together and to forgive each other. To remember that Christ is the heart of this community is life giving and hopeful. I give thanks that Jesus is present in all of the work that daily seminary life can bring. The papers and exams, the readings and reflections, the lesson plans and grading, the paperwork and the administration. Christ is present. I give thanks that Jesus is present in all of the frustration and stress that daily seminary life can bring. The deadlines, the interviews, the candidacy work. Christ is present. And I give thanks that Jesus is present in the hurt and the anger that daily seminary life can bring. When we say hurtful things or act in a way that alienates, offends, or upsets our sisters and brothers, Jesus is present reminding and strengthening us to forgive, sincerely and genuinely as we have been forgiven. Jesus is present in our community as a constant reminder that we are a gift to each other. We are surrounded each and every day by a community of believers that is here for the same reason. We are surrounded by God's beloved creation and we are blessed to work, live, study, reflect, argue, laugh, plan, forgive, and celebrate the gift that we are all given in Christ Jesus.
Friends, Jesus says to us today, living in community is not easy but I am here with you. When the morning overwhelms you and the stress of this place becomes unbearable you can walk into this chapel and run your hands through the life giving water in the font. You can make the sign of the cross and remember that you are my child and I am here with you. You can sit in these seats and hear the life giving Word of God preached from the lips of your professors, colleagues, classmates, and friends. You can come to this table and receive the life giving meal of bread and wine, my body and blood given for you. You can gather with and love and forgive this community of believers genuinely and sincerely, because each and every one of you are mine and I am present here strengthening and supporting and loving this place. Thanks be to God. Amen.