Today is Welcome Back Sunday, Isn’t it a wonderful day?! We rejoice with the Psalmist who declares” How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity! “Psalm 133. It’s a day that the church family gathers together after typically being away for the summer to start a new season. Today is especially poignant because of the impact of the coronavirus upon our church life. We haven’t gathered normally since March. Even today, looking around we have masks on, we’re socially distancing, we have our hand sanitizer in our pockets and around the church --it reminds us that we’re not out of the woods yet.
I don’t know about you but living with the specter of conronavirus all these months has been painful, scary and lonely. It’s impacted families, our jobs, it’s been especially hard not to see church family up front and real, to exchange hugs, to shake hands in friendship, to pass the peace, to support each other face to face. The loss of the routine of being present in the sanctuary, worshipping God together has taught us the importance of being together. It has been said that because of COVID isolation, 40 percent of people have experienced some sort of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. There has been a 30% increase in substance abuse or relapses. Some of us have experienced increased health issues, gained or loss significant amounts of weight, are sleeping poorly. I would dare to say each one of us could speak of some ill affect this coronavirus, this social unrest, has had on our lives these past seven months. If we didn’t know it then, we know it now: We are meant to be together. We thrive and survive through sustained interactions with others. Our spiritual lives depend on being together, worshipping together, serving together in order to be spiritually whole.
Look at the Bible. Abraham and Sarah are sent forth, not for themselves, but for all humanity. God says: “I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. Gen. 12:2” There are not sent forth for themselves but for all of us. Exodus tells us the story of the liberation and journey of the people of Israel, not just for Moses, or Aaron or Miriam or Joshua. God sends the commandments, the instructions for building a tabernacle, the development of the priesthood, not for one person, but for the entire community. Even Jesus went to the Temple and attended synagogue. The Story of the Acts of the Apostles is the story of the spread of the church of Jesus Christ. The epistles of the New Testament are written to Churches and were circulated throughout the new, growing church throughout the Roman Empire. Even the book of Revelation Jesus does not initially address individuals, but seven distinct churches. The power of the Bible is not just for each of us individually but for us collectively as a spiritual body. Down through the centuries the focus of the bible was to be proclaimed corporately. So, we have the best of both worlds, we can individually and corporately read the word of God. Today we celebrate that sacred privilege. There is grace in sharing the Bible as a community from the heart.
As we begin a new church season our readings from Matthew and Romans are reminders of how we are to live together, what we are to strive for, even if we are at home listening remotely. Let us enter this new church season making a commitment not to judge each other and a willingness to forgive each other.
In our passage from Matthew, Peter comes to Jesus with this question ‘If someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as 7 times?'
Peter thinks he is being very generous here. The Rabbis said forgive three times. If somebody does something to you three times, it’s hard enough to forgive them for what they've done, but when they've done it so many times it just wears us down and ignites a low-grade resentment.
Forgiveness is serious business. Nobody is saying we should just be a doormat and let somebody walk all over us. Jesus is talking about real life here. Forgiveness is a transaction that recognizes the offense, and where possible makes amends, and then finds a way to heal the wound that's been created. Forgiveness calls everyone, victim and perpetrator, to the transformational place. So Jesus tells this story of the King settling accounts. A servant owes 10000 talents, an obscene amount, nearly 3.5 billion in modern currency. Clearly the debt is so large it is impossible for this servant to every repay. The King, merciful, hears his servant’s pleas, and forgives the entire debt. This same servant next refuses to forgive a fellow servant a minor debt, about $45 dollars. But he refuses to forgive his fellow servant. The king revokes his own forgiveness and sends the servant to be tortured. This is what our world is like when we refuse to forgive.
Pastor Paul Yonggi Cho was in a box of conflict and hatred. Yonggi Cho is pastor of the largest church in the world which is in Korea. Several years ago, as his ministry was becoming international, he told God, “I will go anywhere to preach the gospel— except Japan.” He hated the Japanese with gut-deep loathing because of what Japanese troops had done to the Korean people and to members of Yonggi Cho’s own family during WWII. Through a combination of a prolonged inner struggle, several direct challenges from others, and finally an urgent and starkly worded invitation, Cho felt called by God to preach in Japan. He went, but he went with bitterness. The first speaking engagement was to a pastor’s conference—1,000 Japanese pastors. Cho stood up to speak, and what came out of his mouth was this: “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.”
And then he broke and wept. He was both brimming and desolate with hatred.At first one, then two, then all 1,000 pastors stood up. One by one they walked up to Yonggi Cho, knelt at his feet and asked forgiveness for what they and their people had done to him and his people. As this went on, God changed Yonggi Cho. The Lord put a single message in his heart and mouth: “I love you. I love you. I love you. Forgiveness triumphed.
So, to remain sane in our present difficult times, we should practice forgiveness. But along with forgiveness let us practice not judging.
Paul addresses the Corinthians as they are judging each other and to the point of tearing each other apart. The so-called “strong" apparently eat everything, observe all days as the same, and perhaps drink wine. The so-called "weak in faith," mentioned in the first verse of this reading apparently abstain from meat, probably because there was no kosher meat, or it was meat sacrificed to idols. They observed some days more special than others like the numerous Jewish or Gentile feast days--and abstain from wine. More significant than these differences in lifestyle, however, were the attitudes that were dividing the church. Paul's commands toward both groups make it clear that the "strong" were despising the "weak," while the "weak" were judging or condemning the "strong." Lost in this contention was keeping our focus on Jesus as Lord, who can make all his servants stand. Paul is encouraging the church to be sensitive with one another, not getting caught up in differences, instead focusing what keeps us together. So, to survive this time, to thrive, we practice forgiveness and not judging, from the heart. We must love each other more than love our theological biases. That’s how we honor and love God and each other. That’s how we will keep our church strong and thriving during this time of trial.
Hebrews 10:24-25 sums it up for us: “Let us consider how to provoke one another in love and good deeds; not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
As we start this new season, with hopes and visions for our church, still coping with the coronavirus, confronting the divisions of the world, I would recommend that we commit this verse to memory and deed. We will make not judging and forgiving a habit, deep from our hearts. To do this, let us not neglect to meet, to encourage each other to love and good deeds. We have a blessed future together. So we will commit to forgive. To not judge. To promote love and good deeds. To gather together, whenever we can, as often as we can. Let that be our vow to each other, from the heart.