This was the sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 12 September 1999. I presented this message at Walker Valley United Methodist Church and the Scriptures were Exodus 14: 19 – 31, Romans 14: 1 – 12, and Matthew 18: 21 – 35.
When I first moved to Minnesota back in 1991, the department I was going to work for asked me if I wanted to use an IBM-type computer or a Macintosh computer. Now, having just completed a three hundred-page book and a number of other manuscripts on an IBM-type computer, I didn’t really feel like learning a new system. So I told them I wanted an IBM-type computer.
As it turned out, everyone else in the department was using a Macintosh and I was viewed with a cautious eye. And the caution turned to anger and shouting every time I tried to print something on the department printer. Every time I would send a print job to the printer, the system would “crash” and anyone “downstream” from my office would not be able to do anything.. Since I was the only PC user in the environment, the other users in the department naturally that this problem was totally and completely my fault.
Now, for the most part, these same individuals were new to the world of computers, by they PC or Mac, so this was a natural reaction. But as it turned out, it was not a problem related to the machine, per se, or the user of the machine. The fault was in a faulty network card, the piece of equipment installed in the computer to enable to work with devices on the network. Once the card was replaced everything was okay.
But this situation is emblematic of what we see happening in our society today. No matter what the problem is or how simple the solution, the first thing done is to fix the blame on someone.
Paul is addressing a similar situation in the Epistle reading for today. At the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, there was a serious division in the church. For some of the early Christians felt that to be a true Christian, one had to first convert to Judaism. But for others, this was not considered an important step. And much discussion had gone into whether or not one had to follow Jewish dietary laws and observe the Jewish calendar.
Paul basically told the Romans that they should forget the difference and recognize all that that was needed was to simply follow Jesus.
How we react to a problem and the solution that we offer is what the Gospel reading today is about. As a society today, we are just as likely to demand more from those whom wrong us than to offer to those whom we have wronged, traits not that much different from Jesus’ time.
I might add that the solution for the payment of debts that is offered in the parable that Jesus told was not simple an institution of Israel of that time. Up until the 18th century, people could still be thrown in jail for not paying their debts and would not be released until such time as the debts were paid. Of course, there is a certain lack of logic in a solution that puts you in a place where it is impossible to do what it is you must do to get out. In many of Wesley’s early writings, you can read how he felt about the injustices of debtor’s prisons.
For many people, the only alternative to debtor’s prison was indentured servitude and that is how many people came to America in the early 18th century.
But in the parable that Jesus is telling us, a master demands payment from one of his slaves, which the slave cannot make. Just as the slave and all of possessions, his wife, and children are to be sold to pay off this debt, the slave begs his master for mercy. The master quickly does so.
But when this now debt-free slave encounters another slave who owes him less than 1% of what he had owned, he demands payment, and failing to receive an immediate payment, he had the second slave thrown into debtor’s prison.
Jesus told his disciples that they should love one another, as they would have others love them. This parable is one that reinforces that commandment. If we are to expect mercy from our Father, should we not grant the same mercy to our brothers and sisters here on earth. Jesus pointed out that should we fail to do so, our master would cancel all that he has done as well.
The Old Testament reading is a clear example of the power that God possesses and what he can do to protect his people. The Pharaoh, after all of the plagues, the destruction and death, relented and let the Israelite people go only to quickly change his mind after they had left. The destruction of the Egyptian army was a clear demonstration that the Israelites were God’s chosen people and that He would protect them as well as a clear demonstration of what God’s wrath could be like.
A second point that the readings for today bring out is how we are to act in a society comprised of many different individuals and beliefs. Jesus spoke of a compassion that went beyond simple forgiveness.
One of His most characteristic activities was an open and inclusive table. “Table fellowship” – sharing a meal with somebody – had a significance in Jesus’ social world that is difficult for us to imagine. It was not a casual act, as it can be in the modern world. In a general way, sharing a meal represented mutual acceptance. More specifically, rules surrounding meals were deeply embedded in the purity system of the day. These rules governed not only what might be eaten and how it should be prepared, but also with whom one might eat. Refusing to share a meal was one form of social ostracism. In Jesus’ time, the meal was a microcosm of the social system, table fellowship an embodiment of social vision.
The inclusiveness seen in Jesus’ table fellowship was reflected in the shape of the movement itself. It was an inclusive movement, negating all the boundaries that society had erected at that time. At Jesus table back then, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees and Scribes, were women, untouchables, the poor, the maimed, the marginalized and people of stature who found what Jesus had to say attractive. We celebrate this same table fellowship as the Lord’s Supper today.
Communion, the Lord’s Supper, can be seen in two ways. There are those who see it as a memorial, a way of remembering what Christ had done fall humanity. But other see the Lord’s Supper as quality spiritual time, a means of becoming closer to God. As we come together for this occasion, we can see both of these visions.
On a number of occasions in the New Testament besides what we call the Last Supper, Jesus commanded the disciples to share in a fellowship meal. The Last Supper is the commemoration of the Passover, of the freeing of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. And telling his disciples that this was a meal that he really wanted to eat with them (Luke 22: 15), Jesus was showing the importance of Passover.
In 1 Corinthians 11: 23 – 26 we read:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread and, when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
One critical word in this passage is remembrance. In the Old Testament, remembrance is something God does. God remembers his chosen people in mercy and grace. Because God remembers, Israel is to remember. In the New Testament, remembrance is more that just a mental thought, it is an act. As God remembered Israel and acted, so to must Christians remember God’s action in Christ.
By remembering God’s action in Christ, Christians bear witness and testify to our gracious and loving God. In telling the Corinthians that Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me”, Paul was telling them to be an active witness to God’s love for humanity!” By doing this, we can refer others and ourselves back to God.
We live in a world that often times demands actions that simply make bad things worse. Peter asked how many times we should forgive our brothers. Jesus said not just seven times, but seventy times seven. The compassion that He expressed, both in how we are to forgive and how we are to live, is expressed in the communion we are about to partake.
What we do, we do because we remember Christ, remembering that no one was shut out from His table. We in the United Methodist Church serve an open table, inviting all that so desire to come. We do not set down any requirements that must met before hand but only ask that you come with an open heart and mind.