Sermon on 9/13/20: The Devil’s in the Details!

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15 Pentecost

Psalm 114; Exodus 14:19 – 31; Romans 14:1 – 12; Matthew 18:21 -35


Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”  Matt. 18:22


And so, we begin the countdown or, more precisely and more accurately, the “count-up”:  486…, 487…, 488…, 489…, 490!  That is the magic, applicable, operational number: 490!  Consider again that three digit number: 490!  Some health advisors recommend that we chew each mouthful of food 25 times before swallowing.  Most of us, myself included, a) never bother to count as we chew and, b) should we count, never advance beyond 10 chews.  And we are expected to forgive someone, anyone, everyone who offends us 490 times?!  Honesty makes us realize that this admonition from Jesus falls into the category of the ‘highly unlikely.’  Or as we say colloquially in today’s jargon: “It ain’t gonna happen!”


Which of us, whether [as former child-attendants] at Church School, or now as adults at Mass, can forget (even as we ignore or claim that such behavior is not applicable or practical in today’s social settings) another similar message of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you.  Do not resist one who is evil.  But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…” (Matthew 5:38f.)  “It ain’t gonna happen!”


And if we count, how should we count?  The umpire of a baseball game calls a play [that] stands even should instant replay, as is now available thanks to technological advances, show otherwise.  The referee in a boxing match sets the definitive count to 10—the secondhand of the clock notwithstanding.  Should we count as we were instructed as children? 1 Mississippi; 2 Mississippi; 3 Mississippi, until we reach that defining number of 490?  Even as we see numbers on a page, a three digit number, say, as we read silently, we say also silently: four hundred eighty-five, four hundred eighty-six.  I repeat: “It ain’t gonna happen” that we count to 490, before we address the insult or assault made to us, an action [that] the Bible calls “sin.”


Should we follow this mandate of Jesus, it is guaranteed (well, almost certain) that we shall have lost recollection of or interest in what the offense was [that] prompted our ire, our hurt and, if not forgotten, then sensing more importantly the need to correct what went awry.  Perhaps that is the point of Jesus’ seemingly terse response to his disciple Peter who, so it seems, appears always to say the most inappropriate thing or to ask the wrong question.


The question of forgiving and of forgiveness could not be more poignant than on this Sunday, only two days after a day of national remembrance.  Two days ago, 11 September, some of us recalled an incident [thaNYCskline.nightt] occurred on 11 September 2001, now an unbelievable 19 years ago, and [that] shocked our nation’s major city, the City of New York, and our entire nation to the core.  And it was not solely New York City, but our Nation’s Capitol also came under attack, with a less successful attack ending in a field in Pennsylvania.


It occurred to me, as I remembered where I was and what I was doing—because included in that massacre were graduates of the college at which I was Dean of the College, graduates whose diplomas I had signed, and because the younger of my two daughters who worked in the downtown area of that assault, had been spared to live to see another day by the thread of a serendipitous decision made only the night prior—it occurred to me that time allows us to remember but forces us as well to look forward.  Recognizing my own and our common humanity, I lamented, nevertheless, a fact of history: there are those for whom this date carries no significance because they were children at the time or were not yet born.  And, third, I lament that there are today those among us who sense not the urgency of Jesus’ attempt to discipline Peter, to make Peter to reflect but also to look ahead.  Today, we would still use as our guiding principle: An eye for an eye.


The catalyst of that massacre—a term [that] I employ most knowingly, for a tragedy is something [that] could not have been avoided, whereas a massacre is something [that] is set deliberately into motion—the catalyst of that event rested on the foundation against which Jesus of Nazareth spoke, and speaks, repeatedly.  His “seventy times seven” is a turn of phrase [that] captures his mission.  In order to solve and to resolve problems and our differences, dialogue is essential.  Hence, seventy times seven requires us to stop, listen, and respond.  At no time in my lifetime as currently, have I pined to hear the voice of those in authority of government acknowledge, without reference to any particular religious or political creed, the essence of our common weal and the value of the individual within what I call the human enterprise.


If, as the ancients have taught us, “Speech is a mirror of the soul…” and thus “as a man speaks, so is he,” (Publilius Syrus. Maxim 1073) and further, if “speech was made to open man to man; and not to hide him,” as David Lloyd in the 17th Century has said (1635 -1692), what does this mean for our public discourse, whether in the councils of our churches, or in our market places, or in our seats of government?  First and foremost, it seems to me, there has to be someone who is listening and someone who is willing to listen.  Speech is actually a social activity.  Speech requires a partner.  As I mentioned only last week, the monk who has committed himself to a vow of silence has God as his conversationalist.  I have been known to speak to myself and then answer myself, aloud.  Motor skills and development of musculature notwithstanding, we learn language by listening to others, with our ears and with our eyes.  We need, as Americans and Christians and citizens of the world, to listen to what others are saying, and need as well to learn, both literally and metaphorically, their language so that we might understand what is being said.


Perchance, I had stumbled across several non-Biblical sources [that] caused me to think about the events of 9/11/01, as well as our stance, vis-à-vis our vulnerability, during the COVID-19 pandemic and during the ongoing protests against inequality and systemic racism during our political campaigning.  One such source was a speech given by Henry Cabot Lodge (1850 – 1924), a Boston Brahmin, i.e. a man of the upper class whose words would come to have meaning beyond his own social class.  In an address given 1888 to the New England Society of Brooklyn, Lodge wrote:

“Let every man honor and love the land of his birth and the race from which he springs and keep their memory green.  It is a pious and honorable duty.  But let us have done with British-American and Irish-American and German-American, and so on, and all be Americans….If a man is going to be an American at all let him be so without any qualifying adjectives; and if he is going to be something else, let him drop the word American from his personal description.”  (The Day We Celebrate (Fore-fathers’ Day), Address, New England Society of Brooklyn. December 21, 1888)


These same sentiments were repeated by President Theodore Roosevelt a quarter of a century later:

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism…,” wrote Roosevelt.  Further, said he, “the one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.  (Speech before the Knights of Columbus, New York, October 12, 1915)


Most assuredly, the writer of the Gospel [that] bears the name Matthew, did not have a Ph.D. in theology or psychology, nor an M.B.A. in human management.  But, time and time again, Matthew gets it right when he presents us with seemingly impossible mandates of Christ.  Who among us is going to take the time and make the effort to forgive 490 (speak it aloud or silently: that is four hundred [and] ninety) times?  Even those who call themselves biblical literalists, those who maintain that every word in our Book of Record is to be believed and taken literally, fail here to follow their own belief.


When we hyphenate or call attention to an attribute or physical difference of our fellow beings, when we fail to hear the grievances of those whom we encounter (to use biblical terminology “against whom we sin), we run the risk of turning a creature of God into The Other, as being outside our group and our sphere of responsibility, as being less worthy.  Instead of rejoicing in our acquired ability to communicate, to speak and to listen, as did the deaf-mute of the Gospel, we allow ourselves to become shrill, which, in turn, becomes its own impediment to the Messianic vision seen by the Prophet Isaiah where “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.” (Isa. 35.4b)  We fail and will continue to fail, should we delude ourselves that our speech is a product of our own making.  We fail because our speech has become the new idol, the new golden calf.


So where are we on this 19th anniversary of a massacre [that] may have been prevented had we but taken the time to listen attentively and to correct our own visions?  I call us back to the Good News of Christ as recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel.  I call us back to a re-voicing of the Good News of Christ as stated by Paul in his letter to the Romans.  It is a clarion call [that] we tend to hear primarily at funerals and memorial service but [that is, actually,] about life, about living, and which, in my estimation, is so desperately needed today.  Paul writes:

One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike…  None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.  For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.  (Romans 14:5ff.)


I come then to Peter’s defense.  Peter is human.  Peter is us.  Perhaps we are meant to see in his question the two sides of our own human nature, two halves of a whole.  The two sides do not represent different kinds of people.  Rather, they represent each of us at different times in our lives.  Sometimes we are strong and resourceful, but at other times we need others to speak up for our needs and wants, to carry us to those who can help us, and to plead our case.  Whether we are female or male, strong or weak, bold or shy, hyphenated or indigenous, the Gospel demonstrates that Jesus has broken down the barriers.  Jesus gives voice to the voiceless.  He welcomes us and, by example, teaches us to welcome others.  “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” (Mk. 7.37)  Amen