Sunday, September 14, 2014

We are Supposed to Be Different

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
September 14, 2014

Year A, Proper 19: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm 114
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

We are Supposed to be Different

            I haven’t said much about this lately, but one of the things that makes me happiest at St. Paul’s is that, thanks to hard work of some very faithful people, we’ve managed to maintain our schedule of weekday worship now for more than a year.
            Week in and week out we gather for Evening Prayer on Tuesday, Healing Eucharist on Wednesday morning, and Morning Prayer on Thursday.
            For the past six months or so a few of us have been heading up to Christ Hospital on Thursday afternoons.
            Plus, we’ve had a service on each of the major feasts – as we will on Monday for Holy Cross Day.
            I love weekday worship because it symbolizes the fact that we’re Christians all the time – not just on Sundays.
            As we gather week in and week out we bathe this beautiful old room in prayer – prayer for all those on our prayer list – prayer for our broken world – and prayer for intentions known only by God and us.
            And, at least some of the weekday services give me the chance to just sit in the pew – to just go to church, thank you very much.
            Finally, the weekday services give us the chance to get to know some of the holy women and holy men of the past who we honor in our church calendar.
            Sometimes I know very little about these holy people myself – so I need to do some research before I give a homily. I think of it as part of my “continuing education.”
            Other times, I know their story pretty well.
            For example, this past Wednesday we honored a man named Alexander Crummell.
            Crummell was born in New York City in 1819 to a free black woman and a former slave who were both active in the abolitionist movement.
            He was bright and received a good education – a good education that was interrupted when a mob destroyed the school he was attending in New Hampshire. As you might have guessed, the mob was unhappy about the presence of black students in that school.
            Crummell felt called to Holy Orders and applied to General Seminary in New York. He was denied admission – because he was black.
            He was eventually ordained in Massachusetts in 1842 and then applied for work in Philadelphia. The bishop of Pennsylvania was willing to  allow him to serve there on the condition that he – and any black congregation – would not be allowed to sit in diocesan convention.
            Alexander Crummell rejected those conditions and left for England where he’s believed to be the first black man to earn a degree from Cambridge.
            He was one of the early believers in Pan-Africanism, the idea that Africans in Africa and among the diaspora in the Americas needed to work together. He put Pan-Africanism into practice, going to Liberia where he helped the growth of the Episcopal Church.
            Finally, he returned and served in Washington DC where he founded the first independent black Episcopal church in our capital city.
            Alexander Crummell lived a remarkable and inspiring life. He must have known a lot about the difficulty – the cost – of forgiveness.
            Crummell’s life was made so much harder by vicious racism, especially racism in the church.
            Racism in the church will come as no surprise to most of us here.           
            Right here, as you know – the Church of the Incarnation exists because, to our shame, in the past people of color were not welcome in the other Episcopal churches of Jersey City.
            We might try to excuse that ugly behavior by saying, well, that’s how it was in those days. Everybody was racist. They didn’t know any better. They were just like everybody else.
            But, here’s my point in telling you all of this: We are supposed to be different!
            We Christians are supposed to be different from the rest of the world. If our values are the same as everybody else’s then we should really close up shop - sell our buildings and all of our stuff and spend our Sundays just like everybody else - in the park or in bed or at the mall or doing our chores or whatever.
            We are supposed to be different!
            And one of the big ways we’re supposed to be different is we are called to be forgiving people.
            If you were here last week you’ll remember that in the lesson from the Gospel of Matthew we heard Jesus give very specific instructions on what we should do if a member of the church sins against us.
            And the answer was – keep reaching out to them, over and over again.
            Very different from the world – where let’s face it, forgiveness is hard to come by and second, third, hundredth chances are almost unheard of.
            Evidently, our old friend Peter can’t believe Jesus is serious about all this forgiveness business.
            Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
            Seven times of forgiveness is a lot.
            But Jesus requires even more of us – seventy-seven times worth of forgiveness. Or maybe seventy times seven times worth of forgiveness.
            Jesus calls us to offer infinite forgiveness.
            The world is slow to forgive and quick to hold a grudge.
            We are supposed to be different.
            Which is awfully hard, isn’t it?
            So, why are we called to be forgiving people?
            Well, today Jesus offers a parable that is kind of like a commentary on one of the more challenging parts of the Lord’s Prayer where we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
            In the parable, Jesus tells the story of a king who forgave the debt of one of his slaves. We’re told the slave owed the king ten thousand talents – an impossibly huge debt – like us owing someone a billion dollars today. There is no way that the slave could ever, ever pay back the king even if he was sold along with his wife and children and all his possessions.
            And yet the king forgives this astronomical debt.
            God forgives. Not just once or twice or seven or seventy times seven times, but God forgives forever.
            One of the worst, most inaccurate, images we have of God is the old man with the long flowing beard watching our every move and marking down in his heavenly ledger every time we mess up.  
            We have this idea that when we die we’ll have to face that long, horrifying list of mistakes and sins.
            But, Jesus is clear that God is willing to forgive it all.
            Unless…we refuse to forgive others.
            God is a forgiving God.
            And we are called to be forgiving people.
            Out there, the world is slow to forgive and quick to hold a grudge.
            But, we Christians are supposed to be different.
            It must have been very hard for Alexander Crummell to offer forgiveness to the many people in the church who wronged him.
            And it’s hard for us to offer forgiveness to people when they wrong us, too.
            But, we are supposed to be different.
            We are called to be forgiving people.
            So, today let’s really ask God to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.