Comparing Faith…Losing Perspective

Today we started our lessons with Moses. Moses was one of those prophets we were praising last week for the start of Rally Day, and in today's lectionary, Moses is front and center. In Sunday School, the children learned about Moses and the Burning Bush, and then we continued that story with Moses leading the people across the Red Sea, a wonderful triumph of the Lord saving the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. And in the coming weeks, we will follow this story of Moses for a little while. But do you remember, the people wandered for awhile. And Moses goes on the mountain to pray to be with the Lord. And while he's up there, he receives the Ten Commandments. And if you remember, the Israelites, not fully knowing what's going on, not fully knowing their faith at the time, needed a god to worship.

So while Moses and Aaron were gone, they decided to make a golden calf and worship it as a symbol of their god because all they knew was their faith from the people in Egypt. We know Moses comes down and is very upset with them and part of their punishment is that they will now wander for forty years in the wilderness so that not one of that generation would walk into the Promised Land. Nevertheless, the Lord did deliver the people from Egypt and we know that the Lord brought them into the land of Canaan. So this story of deliverance, God delivering the people, was fulfilled.

Now we move to our faith. Instead of the faith of the Israelites, we have an even larger and expanded faith as those who follow Christ. We heard the story of Jesus when he is asked by one of his disciples about forgiveness. That's a good question, one we might have asked Jesus as well. Of course, we probably would have given him ten different scenarios about forgiveness: "What about in this case?" "What about in this one?" But the Gospel writer sums it up in this one story of Jesus' disciples asking so that they know what to teach: "If a member of the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive him, seven times?" Jesus responds with one of his stories, comparing this lesson to what the Kingdom of heaven is like or how it may be in the Kingdom of heaven and expands that number. "Not seven times, but seventy-seven times." In other Scripture, it is seventy times seven. There are different renditions, but the point is you forgive over, and over, and over again.

In order to reinforce the importance of that, Jesus tells the story of a lord and his servant. That servant owed a great sum of money and begged for mercy. The debt was forgiven, and that very same servant walked out the door and had someone who owed him a small sum thrown into prison. This servant was shown mercy, but then showed no mercy toward the next person. He received what he deserved…his lord summoned him back and decided to punish him, to throw him into prison and be tortured. It seems pretty extreme. And that is followed up with, "And so the Lord will also do to you if you do not forgive." Harsh words in that story from Jesus to his disciples. But it made a great point, didn't it? They didn't forget. Seventy-seven times or else! They made that connection. In the kingdom of heaven, forgiveness is there again, and again, and again…and again.

And here we are, followers of Christ, the bringers of the Kingdom to those around us. We ourselves, being a microcosm, as part of the Kingdom of heaven, how well do we do with forgiving? Do we offer forgiveness even seven times, let alone seventy-seven times? "Well, Pastor, it depends on the nature of what someone did to me as to whether I can forgive him." Yes, that is true. Forgiveness is hard and sometimes it never fully comes. Something else I can tell you about forgiveness is you can tell someone, "I forgive you," but know in your heart you still haven't but are trying to offer them that grace. And that's important too, to offer that grace and that olive branch, but continue to work on that forgiveness.

Paul, in his letter to the Church in Rome, makes another point, and it's about forgiveness and grace combined. In that lesson, we hear him explaining to them, "Don't worry about these different practices of these new Christian converts who are coming onboard. Yes, they're doing things differently, they may be doing some things from their old traditions and their old faith, but don't judge them. Just as you stand before the Lord, they stand before the Lord. And just as God upholds you, God will uphold them." What a poignant lesson that is for us today. And let me explain that. If we take this lesson from Paul's letter to the Romans and apply it to the entirety of the Christian church, the body of Christ, we realize that we're not just looking across the aisle at each other here in this congregation and comparing one person's practice on this side of the aisle to another person's practice on that side of the aisle, but one denomination's practice compared to another denomination's practice, one group's beliefs and slight differences over another group's beliefs and slight differences. And so exactly what Paul is talking about here is not letting these differences divide the body to the point where forgiveness and grace are not a big part of it. The differences we have do not need to divide us. The differences we have don't mean that we are to condemn each other and to not forgive each other just as Christ has forgiven us.

You can parallel this to our larger society, left versus right, and right versus left. "We're right, you're wrong." We see a lot of this going on recently in secular society. And perhaps on both sides there are a lot of wrongs and a lot of rights. However, when we spend too much time worrying about that instead of talking about what really matters and forgiving each other and moving forward, it all winds up just being wrong, much like churches no longer speaking to other churches. It diminishes the body of Christ. In secular society, it diminishes our country, it diminishes our communities.

We are called to be people who unite. In the United Church of Christ, that's the big part of who we are. In 1957, the Evangelical & Reformed Church merged with the Congregational Christian Church, two separate bodies who had both come through mergers a couple of decades before they merged together to form the United Church of Christ, with the emphasis that God wants us to be united into one body. And they cite that passage of Jesus' prayer when he's praying, "That they may all be one, as I am one in you," praying to God before Jesus himself goes off to face judgment.

As the United Church of Christ, part of our calling is to be that group that Paul is calling the church to be, those who instead of finger-pointing offer forgiveness and grace, brotherhood and sisterhood, and work to find common ground, to work to find the things that we can do together. I'm happy to report that the Caring & Sharing churches work together very well to do wonderful ministry in this town, from helping to support the local food bank, to our Carpenter's Table (which is like a soup kitchen), to providing backpacks for children at back-to-school time, coats during the winter months, anything that comes along. You wouldn't believe the excitement that comes up in the group when we realize, "Here's something else we can do together." Now, on occasion we bring up hot-button topics and then it's hard for the clergy to contain themselves and we have to say, "Okay, we're not all going to be in one place on that. Let's look at what we can do together." And so we have a successful model in front of us. I want you to realize how blessed Taneytown is to have such a close ministerium. As a matter of fact, when you look at other places, you find more division than you find community so we're truly blessed. And, in part, I'd like to think that this congregation was a big part of that going all the way back, I think, to Pastor Fuss. I think he was part of helping to organize this Taneytown Caring & Sharing. And that legacy lives on, he along with other pastors who made that joint ministry in the community happen. And it's an important ministry, one I hope that you all will support.

So we have some good examples. We see what happens in secular society. We see what division does to our denominations in the Christian faith, in the body of Christ. We even know what divisions do amongst us here. We know what lack of forgiveness can do in our own households and in our friendships. In all of these areas, God is calling us to remember our deliverance and to offer that love and that grace again and again. May we do so.

September 14, 2008

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