Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost Matthew 18:21-35 9/13/2020

As it happens, in the last few weeks, we have explored both forgiveness and hospitality, which makes the readings for today something of a challenge. But part of the limitless and eternal mystery of Scripture is that it has never finished communicating what it has to say.[1]

Today’s lessons all seem to center on forgiveness, even under extraordinary circumstances. And especially with the passages from Genesis and from Romans, the focus on forgiveness comes to you and me through the lens of hospitality and welcome. What happens when we put the ideal of forgiveness on the table with the ideal of hospitality in the name of Jesus? What happens when welcome meets the laying down of burdens?

We begin with the concluding chapter of Genesis, among the last scenes in the life of Joseph, son of Jacob the patriarch. After Jacob dies peacefully with his children by his bedside, Joseph’s eleven brothers engage in one final deception.

Of course, Joseph’s life as the fortunate son of Jacob, the favorite, the one with the coat of many colors, had been turned upside down because his brothers were jealous, pretended that he had been killed, and sold him to slave traders.

And even all these years later, even after Joseph has risen to prominence and security in Egypt, and welcomed his family and saved them from starvation, even after all that, these brothers have long memories. They know what they did. And so they fear that Joseph also has a long memory. Because they acted deceptively, they fear that Joseph will also act deceptively. In other words, they are projecting their own impure motives onto their brother.

Something I do all the time. Maybe it’s something you’ve been known to do as well. And such thinking is a stumbling block in the Kingdom of God as you and I live within that kingdom here and now.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola describes it as “presupposition.” When you or when I encounter someone we disagree with, what Christ would have us do is check our emotions, and “presuppose” good intentions on the part of the other.[2]

And that presupposition changes everything, including my own heart and soul and mind. I believe that it has the potential to change yours too.

Three years ago, in a magazine essay, Amanda Elder wrote about her conscious switch. “It has made me feel so much more empowered,” she says. “It’s not just my words that changed, but the actions I take before speaking them. Rather than seeking bits of approval and reassurance in apologies, I give them to myself.

“The other day a neighbor came over while I was feeling down. Clearly, she could tell because she asked me questions and encouraged me to open up…. By the time she left I felt kind of bad for being such a drag. I wanted to text her an apology, but when I switched my mentality to one of gratitude, something else shifted in me too. I gave myself approval, rather than asking someone else to tell me It’s okay. Instead I wrote, ‘Thank you for being so receptive to my mood earlier and listening to me.’ In those words, I didn’t only make her feel appreciated for her kindness, I felt worthier of it.

“But this isn’t just about my well-being, it goes over well for others too. They don’t feel … annoyed when I decline an invitation or have to go, because they’re too busy being appreciated for their invitation, company, and friendship.

“Of course there are times I actually am sorry, but then, the words carry more meaning. I recently apologized to a friend for being out of touch, but it was real and healing to do so. I’ve found the more I honor myself, the more others honor me, too. And the more I act with dignity and authenticity, the freer others feel to do the same.”[3]

And that’s what happened between Joseph and his brothers. And that’s what we hear in the prayer of the psalmist in Psalm One Hundred Three. “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

“He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger for ever.

“He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”

That’s what happens when we lay the Jesuit quality of presupposition over all of our words and thoughts and deeds. This is what it looks like when Jesus’s ideal of hospitality sits down at the table with Jesus’s ideal of forgiveness.

Saint Paul writes in Romans about people who observe sabbaths and festivals differently. “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.”

We do not live to ourselves,” he reminds them, and me, and you, “and we do not die to ourselves…. Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

Dr. Israel Kamudzandu is a professor of theology. He says that today’s reading, the “clarion call” of this passage “is captured in a single concept, ‘hospitality.’ ”[4] The human family “dehumanizes and pulls down all those who do not belong to the tribe.”

So Paul is quick to let his followers see – which means he is urgently letting us see – how dangerous it is when we fail to live as a family. “When all is said and done, it is about believing in God.” Just as Paul did, just as Joseph did, just as his brothers did.

And Dr. Kamudzandu echoes what Amanda Elder, who has started to say “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry,” shows us. “To be forgiven before we confess our shortcomings is indeed to be given the gift of reciprocity.” This is where hospitality embraces forgiveness.

This is what is necessary to be a hospitable church, to be a church that is truly welcoming.

And the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, which continues to speak across the millennia to me, and to you, and to all who will hear, points us toward Peter, who today is looking for a number, something tangible, something that he can count and measure. “How many times must I forgive?” Not seven, not seventy times seven. It’s not about the numbers, it’s not about the math. “ ‘Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in his anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” Another parable from Jesus in Matthew, this one with a compelling invitation.

Forgive your brother or sister from your heart. What happens when I say thank you in place of I’m sorry? How does your heart open wide when you embrace your cheating brother? How beautiful does the world become when we try being curious and open-hearted about someone who worships in a different way?

What happens when we accept the invitation of the Lord?

[1] “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature.

[2] The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius; also, The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, by the Rev. James S. Martin, S.J.

[3] Amanda Elder, “What Happened When I Replaced ‘Sorry’ With ‘Thank You,” © HuffPost, Feb. 23, 2017.

[4] Israel Kamanzande, Ph.D., Working Preacher, for Pentecost 15 Year A.