Extravagant forgiveness, extravagant love

Matthew 18:21-22

How many of you have found yourself weeping this week?

How many of you have found yourself turning off your televisions and radios, turning past stories in the newspaper, skipping the Facebook comments …

… because you just can’t go there again?

Ten years after the horrible tragedies of 9/11, many of us, myself included, are still filled with grief.

We have moved on from the immediate shock, from the numbness, from the piercing pain that came with the attacks.

But we are still filled with grief.

• • •

This morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew – chosen years and years and years ago, long before September 11, 2001 – is about forgiveness. In it we hear the story of Peter – poor, befuddled Peter, who never quite gets it but never stops trying – asking Jesus how many times he has to forgive.

“As many as seven times?” he asks, knowing that seven times’ worth of forgiveness would be wildly extravagant.

No, Jesus replies. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

This is, I tell you, a lesson in extravagance, in the extravagant, wild, radical, never-ending love of God that Jesus proclaims in his preaching, in his teaching, in his healing, and in the end, with his own life.

We are, Jesus says, to forgive extravagantly. More than we want. More than we can imagine.

And yet, on this morning, on this tenth anniversary of terror and murder, that kind of forgiveness seems … well, it almost seems out of our reach.

It almost seems as if God is asking us to do something far greater, far grander than we can possibly imagine, much less accomplish.

And yet … it is what God is asking of us.


More than you want.

More than you can imagine.

I don’t know about you, but I need to admit something, I need to put something out on the table:

I am not certain I know how to do this.

I am not certain I can forgive as extravagantly as Jesus asks.

And I think that is why I am still weeping, 10 years after the fact.

Like you, I remember that day.

I remember hearing the plane fly over my parish in Annandale and saying to the secretary, “Wow, that guy is way off course.”

I remember hearing the plane hit the Pentagon and saying to her, “Man, that guy just dropped a load,” because I thought it was a construction accident.

I remember returning hours later to my apartment, less than a mile from the Pentagon, and finding it filled with dust and ashes … because I had left the windows open – it was such a beautiful day, wasn’t it?

I remember being unable to keep my apartment clean or to sleep soundly for weeks afterwards, because the trucks carrying the debris – the dust and the ashes – drove by my place, day after day, night after night, constantly spreading more dust, more ash, constantly rumbling along.

Like you, I remember the military jets that flew overhead night and day, watching as they left lazy contrails in their wake.

I remember the fear … the grief … the loss …

I remember …

And because I remember … so vividly … so profoundly … I think I cannot fully forgive.

Not as Jesus asks.

Not seventy-seven times.

Not yet.

• • •

And yet …

I want to forgive.

Really, I do.

I want to forgive because it is what Jesus taught us to do. It is what we pray for when we pray in the very words that Jesus gave us: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

I want to forgive, because I think if I don’t, my very soul may be in danger.

But I’m not certain I’m there yet.

Which is why, especially this past week, I have cried.

• • •

You know what is that I cannot forgive?

It’s not the hijackers, Mohammed Atta and those 18 others who turned airplanes into missiles.

And it’s not Osama bin Laden and all who have followed his misbegotten ideas of faith.

No, what I cannot forgive is the hatred that fueled those men to do commit these atrocities.

What I cannot forgive is anyone bastardizing the love of God for all of God’s beloved children.

And what I cannot forgive is the suffering that these men caused, all so they could – they thought – have their own way.

I agree with Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who wrote, in 1955:

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and a willingness to remain vulnerable.”[1]

The hatred they rained upon us, the deliberate misinterpretation of God’s will, the suffering they caused … for what? I ask you … those are the stumbling blocks on my path to forgiveness.

From conversations I have had with others, from news stories I have read and the very few news shows I have watched or listened to, I think I am not alone in this pain.

And so I think that perhaps now, on this day, the tenth anniversary of that awful day, which we cannot escape no matter how hard we try, I think that perhaps today is a day to … let go.

A day to … set my feelings free.

A day … for release.

For that is what the word forgive means, in the Greek. It means release. To let go. To set free.

Because only by releasing, by letting go, by setting free, do we have a chance … a chance … not of moving on, but of moving forward.

Author and priest Barbara Brown Taylor, writing in 1998 – again, years before 9/11, proclaimed:

When you allow your enemy to stop being your enemy, all the rules change. Nobody knows how to act anymore, because forgiveness is an act of transformation. It does not offer the adrenaline rush of anger, nor the feeling of power that comes from a well-established resentment. It is a quiet revolution, as easy to miss as a fist uncurling to become an open hand, but it changes people in ways anger only wishes it could.[2]

I want fists to uncurl today. Not just my fist, but all fists. I want our hands to be open … to the possibility of transformation … to the possibility of peace … to the possibility of love.

The Rev. David F. Sellery, a priest in Bay Shore, N.Y., wrote about forgiveness in a reflection for today:

Forgiveness, he says, “is the essence of Christian love. … It is not a largesse we dispense by power of our innate superiority [but rather] the grace of God transmitted through us. It is,” he says, “the ultimate witness of Christ’s love in the world.”[3]

Sellery knows that the pain of 9/11 remains. And he is clear that forgiveness is not a “get-out-of-jail-free card for perpetrators.” God, he says, “has not issued an easy-pass for evil in the world to benefit the bad guys.”[4] There is to be justice – as long as it is not revenge.

Sellery concludes: “The choice is ours. We can live in love or we can live in hate. Both are transformative forces. We can become what we value and love or we can risk becoming the evil we obsess upon.”[5]

Forgiveness, it seems, really is about opening our fists to the possibilities of new life.

Writing in The Washington Post last Tuesday, Lynne Steuerle Schofield, whose mother, Norma Lange Steuerle, died on American Flight 77 when it flew into the Pentagon, suggested the same kind of transformation, the same willingness to open our fists to release. She said that with every anniversary, it is as though she is being asked to go to her mother’s funeral over and over and over again. Instead, she wrote:

What if we all spent the 11th anniversary of the attacks (she is speaking of next year) reflecting on what we admired most about our lost loved ones and trying to emulate those ideals? Or what if we spent time building not another structure in memorial but, instead, building our relationships with others? Or raising money for our favorite charity?[6]

If we want the world to be more compassionate, safer and more equitable, she writes, we have to work to make that happen. We all have to be on board. We should reflect on the characteristics of our loves ones that we want to keep alive, and then we must behave that way.[7]

Our Gospel today, my friends, teaches us about forgiveness. It teaches us about extravagant forgiveness, which can only come from extravagant love.

Not our love.

For our love is, sadly to say, far too often far too small.

But God’s forgiveness?

God’s forgiveness is extravagant. It is overwhelming.

Because it comes from God’s extravagant love.

And it is what God is calling us to.

I may not be there … yet.

But if I can’t forgive extravagantly, perhaps I can love … just a little bit more extravagantly. Perhaps I can, as Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori says, be “more inclined toward peace,” at least a little bit more extravagantly.

Perhaps I can relax my hand on the pain that still grips me – and in that moment, release the pain as I reach out to others still in pain, still in mourning.

I think that this morning, I am more like Peter than I realize: I haven’t quite gotten it yet, I still can’t quite go to where Jesus wants me, but I am still trying to understand. Still trying to be extravagant with my forgiveness, my release, my love.

My prayer for us this morning … for those of us here, for the Church as a whole, for this nation and for the world … is that we relax our hands, opening them as much as we can. My prayer is that we focus on the extravagance of God’s love for us, and in the releasing of our pain and sorrow, we set that love free for the whole world to see and know and hear and feel.

We do not have to forget.

We cannot forget.

But perhaps … just perhaps … with the help of our Lord, we can forgive.


Sermon preached for the Service of Remembrance on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church, Leesburg, Va., Sept. 11, 2011. (Proper 19, Year A)

[1] Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, 1955.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Christianity Today, Feb. 9, 1998.

[3]The Rev. David F. Sellery is rector of St. Peter’s By-the-Sea Church and Day School in Bay Shore, New York. http://www.episcopalchurch.org/80050_129713_ENG_HTM.htm

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lynne Steuerle Schofield, “A 9/11 event that embraces the future,” The Washington Post, Sept. 6, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-911-event-that-embraces-the-future/2011/09/01/gIQAm6np7J_story.html?fb_ref=NetworkNews&fb_source=profile_multiline.

[7] Ibid.

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Go ahead: I dare you. I double dare you!

Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

       ‎In the summer of 2003, I attended the General Convention of The Episcopal Church, out in Minneapolis. You all know that Convention – that’s the one where Gene Robinson’s election as bishop of New Hampshire was consented to by the Deputies and Bishops. If you remember, after the House of Deputies consented to Gene’s election, but before the Bishops voted, allegations of sexual misconduct were raised against Gene.

My job at General Convention is not to be a deputy but to be a reporter for the Diocese of Virginia’s daily newspaper, the Center Aisle. Because I spent so many years as a journalist, I also spend time as an informal adviser to the secular press who come to cover Convention and often don’t know very much about the Church, about who we are and what we believe, much less what we do.

When the controversy erupted over the misconduct allegations, I was but one of many Episcopalians trying to explain to the world that an allegation made between votes by the separate Houses was something new to us; that no, we actually did not have anything in our canons that covered this; no, we were not trying to hide anything from the world, and that yes, that we were investigating the allegations, for which we had a procedure.

       Forty-eight hours later, it turned out that the allegations were not valid, that Gene had not been involved in sexual misconduct, and the charges were dropped.

        Now, what was interesting is that as soon as that happened, my friends in the media rushed to ask, “What will you all do now? Will there be retribution against the person who made the allegations? Will Gene or the Church retaliate?” They were practically daring us to live out our revenge, our retribution, on the front pages of their newspapers and at the top of their newscasts.

         But we didn’t. We didn’t retaliate. There was no retribution. We simply asked forgiveness, gave forgiveness, sought understanding, and most of all, we loved.

         We did such a good job that a few days later, the Dallas Morning News, in an editorial, wrote:

         “…We have been struck by the calm and deliberative process the Episcopalians followed in reaching their conclusion. … Watching these Episcopalians of all beliefs reason their way through their disagreement on this issue could serve as a guidepost for the larger society. … Perhaps their thoughtfulness and mutual respect for one another on this issue will have a positive impact on how all of us Americans carry on our larger societal debates. At least we hope so.”

Now, I know that you, more than the majority of the Church, know how much pain the ultimate decision to consent to Gene Robinson’s election, and his subsequent consecration caused. You lost your home. You’ve spent the last four-and-a-half years in exile.

But you did not retaliate. You have not sought retribution. Instead, you have focused on the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who told us exactly how he wanted us to act as Church in this morning’s Gospel.

            Jesus says, If a brother or sister (and yes, he actually says “brother,” which in the Greek would include “sister,” and not just a “member of the Church”), if a brother or sister sins against you, go talk with him or her. Try to work it out.

            If that doesn’t work, Jesus says, go get one or two others, and all of you go talk to the one who has sinned against you.

            And if that doesn’t work, Jesus says, well, heck, tell the whole church (and here Jesus does say Church), and try to work it out in church.

            And if that doesn’t work, Jesus says, well, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

            Now, most people believe that in this passage, Jesus is telling us, “If you can’t convince a person that you are right and he or she is wrong, cast that person out. Make him an outsider. Turn your back on her. Shun that person.”

             But I don’t believe that’s what Jesus means. In fact, I think that right here, Jesus is being both subversive and subtle. Because he certainly didn’t do what most people think he did. He didn’t shun Gentiles and tax collectors, did he?

            Remember, this is the man who healed the centurion’s servant, who was a Gentile. (Matthew 8:13) He was the one who casted the demons out of the two demoniacs in Gadarene, which was Gentile territory. (Matt. 8:28-34) He healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman, a Gentile, who wouldn’t take no for an answer. (Matt. 15:22-28)

            And did he not say that we are to “go … and make disciples of all nations (meaning, the Gentiles), baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”? (Matthew 28:19-20a)

            Jesus treated Gentiles with love and compassion, not with hatred and condemnation. He did not exclude them. He welcomed them in, showered them with love, healed their sick, fed them, preached to them, prayed over them.

            And how did he treat the tax collectors? Well, you know all those examples I just gave you? They come from Matthew’s Gospel … Matthew, the tax collector, whom Jesus called to be one of his disciples, a member of the inner circle, (Matt. 9:9-13), who was sent out by Jesus (Matt. 10), along with the other 11 disciples, to preach, teach, pray with and heal.

            What I’m saying is this: When Jesus said to treat those who disagree with us, who sin against us, as Gentiles and tax collectors, he was not telling us to turn our backs on them, to disparage them, to make them outcasts. Not if the examples from Jesus’ own life and ministry are to make any sense to us.

            In essence, Jesus was saying, Go ahead. I dare you. I double dare you. Treat those people the way I do: Love them!

            If you read Matthew the way most people do, which I think is the wrong way, you end up excluding people. And you all know about that – because that’s what happened with you.

            But if you read Matthew the way I think Jesus intended for us to read it, then you end up loving people. You end up doing exactly what Paul says in his Epistle to the Church in Rome:

            Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments … are summed up in this word, Love your neighbor as yourself.

            Love, Paul says, does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

           The great German theologian Karl Barth, in his commentary on this epistle, sums up Paul’s words this way: “Love of one another ought to be undertaken as the protest against the course of this world, and it ought to continue without interruption.”[1]           

            Even when people sin against us.

Imagine what would happen if we actually took Jesus at his word, if we actually took him up on his dare and dared to love people, no matter what? Imagine what the world would look like then?

You all already know what it looks like when people read Matthew as permission to exclude. And you all already know what it looks like when you read Matthew as an injunction to include.

Now imagine what would happen if everyone read Jesus’ words as a dare to love … Wouldn’t that be a protest against the course of this world?

We live in a society where partisanship is our way of life. Look at the gridlock in Washington, just across the river. Look at it! Our leaders – with a whole lot of help from the rest of us (and yes, we are just as guilty as the politicians and their staffs are) – can’t get anything done because everyone, it seems, is committed to excluding, to condemning, to making sure that our way is the only way.

Is anyone in Washington – anyonedaring to take Jesus up on his dare?

You and I both know there are some people who are attempting to do this, but louder, more strident voices are drowning them out.

Which is where we come in.

We, who follow Jesus, are the ones who are called to set the example. To say to others, “Wait. There’s a better way.”

To say, “Actually, Jesus didn’t mean we were to shut people out. Jesus wants us to love one another, and we can’t do that if we exclude them.”

And we are the ones who are called to love one another – again and again, no matter how hard that is, no matter how many times we want to walk away, no matter now many times others walk away from us.

           We are the ones who have to dare to stand up against the vitriol, dare to include those with whom we disagree, dare to be with those who do not like us, much less love us.

My friends, this Gospel, which so many have used to exclude and to hate, is really a command to include and to love. It’s an instruction manual about how we are to love one another even when we don’t like each other, even when others are pushing every button we have, annoying us, hurting us, making us feel like dirt. In Jesus’ eyes, none of that matters.

Because above all else, we are still called to love.

One person at a time, one community at a time.

Edward Everett Hale, a 19th century author, historian and Unitarian minister, points the way for us when he says:

I am only one.

            But I am still one.

            I cannot do everything.

            But still I can do something:

            And because I cannot do everything

            I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.[2]

Each of us, alone, may not be able to do much.

But all of us, together, can change the world.

Jesus is daring us to do that. In fact, he’s double-daring us.

To love.


 Sermon preached on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year A, at The Falls Church (Episcopal), Falls Church, Va., on 4 September 2011.


[1] Karl Barth, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 492.

[2] Edward Everett Hale, “The One,” via Emergent Village Daily Communique, 29 August 2011.

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Step away from the lawn mower …

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

More than half my life ago, after I graduated from junior college, I moved to Milwaukee to live with my brother and his family while I attended university. I hadn’t been there very long when the family went on vacation, leaving me in charge of the house, the dog, the yard and my sister-in-law’s vegetable and flower gardens.

I have to admit, while my family was gone, I probably wasn’t the best caretaker there ever was. So on the day they were due back home , I worked diligently – and frantically. I cleaned the house, and then worked outside. I weeded, I mowed, I edged. And when I was done, after several hours of hard work, I was pretty pleased with myself.

Until I looked over at one flower bed and discovered, to my great horror, a huge weed. A giant weed. A ginORmous weed. How could that have gotten there? I thought. And then I thought: How dare that thing grow in my sister-in-law’s beautiful flower garden?

So I restarted the mower, went over to that ginormous eyesore, and I mowed it into oblivion. Back and forth I went, making sure this … this … thing … was dead, dead, dead.

Then I went and got a trowel and I dug up the roots, removing every trace of this eyesore.

Just as I was satisfied that I had done a good job (no, really, it was a great job!), my family pulled up.

Out jumped my two nieces and one nephew, my brother and my sister-in-law.  I was hugging my nephew and chatting with my brother when I heard this terrible shriek from behind me.

“Mom! Where’s my straw plant?!?!?!?”

I looked at my brother and he looked at me, and then he looked at the lawn mower, at the flower bed, at his daughter (who by now was crying hysterically), at his wife, and finally, again, at me.

“Used the lawn mower, didn’t you?” he asked.

“Straw plant?” I whispered. “What’s a straw plant?”

“You had to use the mower, didn’t you?” my brother whispered back.

And then I heard my sister-in-law’s voice behind me.

“Lauren?” she said.  (That’s it. She didn’t say anything else. Just “Lauren?”)

I turned and walked across the yard, dragging my feet as I listened to my 6-year-old niece cry – actually, she was wailing – about her beloved straw plant and how it hadn’t grown while she was gone, and what was she going to tell her teacher when she went back to school.

“You used the mower, didn’t you?” she said in that voice that only a mother can use.

“Um, well … I used the mower to cut down a weed,” I said. “Really. It was just a weed. What exactly is a straw plant?”

“It looks like a weed,” she said. “And you cut it down. With the mower.”

“um ….”

“You used the mower to cut down Jennifer’s straw plant.”

My sister-in-law was not amused.

In fact, she was so not amused that the very next day, my brother and I found ourselves lugging railroad ties into the backyard and placing them around all the flower beds.

“I can’t trust you two not to use the mower,” my sister-in-law mumbled under her breath while she supervised us. “See something you don’t recognize and zoom! Mow it down! I swear, you two know nothing – nothing! – about gardening! I can’t trust either of you with my flowers, can I?”

The lesson I learned that day, the lesson I have never forgotten, was simple:

Do not presume that just because something looks like a weed, it is a weed.

Because there’s a very good chance that what looks like a weed to you is precious in the sight of others.


So don’t take a mower to it!

This is the same lesson that Jesus is trying to teach us in this morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew: What looks like a weed to us very well could be precious in the sight of God.

Let’s go back to the parable for a moment: The word Matthew quotes Jesus using to name the weeds in the master’s fields – zizania – “in modern botanical terms refers … to wild rice grasses.”[1] But what Matthew is most likely talking about is something called darnel, which is prolific in Palestine. The problem with darnel is that you can’t tell the difference between that and real wheat until harvest time, when both plants have matured. Then, the darnel – bearing nothing life-giving for us – stands up straight and tall. The wheat, on the other hand, droops over from the weight of its life-giving grains.[2] So if you go out into the field before harvest time to weed? The chances are good that you will take out just as much wheat as weed.

So what Jesus is saying is that we have to be careful, to not take a mower to every weed we see, because there’s a chance that what’s a weed to us is precious to God.

Now, let’s be clear about one thing here:

Jesus is talking about evil in this parable, but he is not talking about Capital-E Evil. He’s not talking about injustice and hatred, intolerance and bias, disease and famine and violence and war and genocide. We know what that evil looks like, and we know what we’re supposed to do about those evil thing: we have to working against them and stop them, because if we don’t, then justice will never flow like waters and righteousness like an ever-living stream.

What Jesus is talking about are the smaller evils, the weeds that grow in us: greed, bias, hatred, the need to get ahead by leaving others behind. Anger, and the times we lash out at folks who pass us on the highway or make our jobs more difficult. Jealousy, because someone else has more than we have. Those are the weeds that grow in us all the time.

Those are the same weeds that we like to find in others all the time, don’t we? We love to tell others about their weeds.

But just because we think they’re weeds doesn’t mean God does.

So be careful. Be careful about rooting them out. And for God’s sake, don’t take a mower to them!

• • •

In a couple of days, I’m heading down to Alabama to lead a program for rising 7th and 8th graders at Camp McDowell, the diocesan summer camp. A friend of mine and I are going to lead a program focused on teaching the kids – all 185 of them[3] — that they were created for mission. That God, who created each of us in God’s image of love and community, created us to live in love and community. And that living in love and community is our mission in life.

I want them to learn that God created us to live lives of mission, every moment of their lives.

We’ve come up with a great name for our eight-day program: OMG, Y’all! On a Mission from God, Y’all! (Remember, this is Alabama …) We’re trying to teach these campers that because they are created in the image of God, the image of love and community, they are called to live in that image, to live in love and community every day. And that living in love and community is their mission in life.

But living our lives in love and community is hard. It’s hard, because we see people, we see things that are different, and we react as though that difference is bad, and next thing you know, we’re ready to take a lawnmower to those people and those things, never stopping to think that perhaps God sees things differently, and that what we thought were weeds are precious in God’s sight.

So one of the big lessons I want the campers to learn is this: Different is simply different. It is not better. It is not worse. It simply is different.

Meaning: Just because it looks like a weed to you, don’t – do not – take the lawn mower to it. Not just yet.

Because you never know:

It might just be precious in God’s sight.

So leave the mowers alone, OK?


A sermon preached on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 17 July 2011, Proper 11, Year A, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Hot Springs, Va.

[1] Elisabeth Johnson, Pastor, Watertown, Minn., “Commentary on the Gospel,” on http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=4&alt=1, lectionary for July 17, 2011.

[2] Ibid.

[3] (or however many register this year)


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