Sermon by the Rev. Westley Conn, Ministry Fellow, Memorial Church, September 13, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
I am quite dependent upon the GPS system in my phone to get me from point A to point B. I was not gifted with an innate sense of direction. If you’ve ever asked me for directions, you likely experienced the awkwardness of my ability to navigate. I’m one of those people who relies heavily upon landmarks to show me the way, as opposed to actual street signs. And, what might not be a surprise to you: my go-to directional landmarks are churches. Some friends have learned to give me directions by describing the series of church buildings I will pass en route to my destination.
Christian architecture has captivated me ever since my childhood, when I would spend Sunday mornings watching the light change colors as it shown through the stained-glass, or drawing on my bulletin the church’s interior features, like the magnificently carved wooden beams that soared above my head in the nave. The splendor, shapes, and colors of the church showed me the mysteriousness of belief and the beauty of belonging to a community who cared to express their faith through art, inviting all who passed through the red doors to make meaning and find their way.
In the book The Geometry of Love, Margaret Visser explores the intent and nature of Christian architecture. She states: “A church building, too, is thought of as a ship, sailing onward, bearing the congregation inside it…The word ‘nave’ means ‘ship,’ navis in Latin… The fact that the wooden beams of church roofs were often left exposed must also have encouraged people to think of travel in the hold of a ship…Thus the building is turned into a metaphor for a journey; stationary space signifies moving time.”
I think it’s safe to say that, by now, we are all missing our church building and all of its light and symbolism calling us onward to greater acts of devotion, like the light that filters through the enormous Palladian window in Appleton Chapel. This time away from the church building has reminded me that churches haven’t always been and still aren’t places of welcome and delight for everyone. Churches and their congregations can be the epicenter of oppression, exclusion, and even violence. History is replete with accounts of harm at the hands of churches and church members. Howard Thurman, in his autobiography, told of his hurtful childhood experience at his father’s funeral when the pastor and church “preached his father into hell” for not being a church-going man. The phrase “Jesus yes, church no” speaks to the way many people feel about church.
The Gospel of Matthew is the only Gospel that uses the word “church.” The Greek word that gets translated as “church” is ekklesia, meaning literally “to call out.” This refers more to the congregation, the assembly of people, than the building. Today’s lesson from Matthew, read by Nathan Samayo, a first-year student in the Divinity School, is one of the passages that mentions the word “church.” These verses are situated in a chapter about life in a community, as the followers of Jesus try to set faithful expectations for their relationship together as a church, an ekklesia. Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
To Peter’s question about the duration of forgiveness, Jesus says that seven isn’t enough, that the members of the church should forgive seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven. Here Jesus isn’t setting out a numerical expectation for forgiveness. Mercy can’t be counted. In typical fashion, Jesus follows-up with a teaching in the form of a parable. The parable involves a king, slaves, and debtors. In its detail, the parable tells of power, privilege, and an oppressive system of bondage and banking. It is disturbingly violent, with threats of torture and acts of aggression.
Forgiveness is not simple, and it isn’t often sensible. In fact, forgiveness itself has been wielded by churches as a tool for manipulation and to coverup abuse. Forgiveness isn’t a call to forgetfulness or an excuse for harm, that much is clear. This parable illustrates the seriousness of forgiveness for God and God’s church. Forgiveness remains at the heart of our faith in God and thus our love for one another. A community absent of forgiveness leads to an unholy solitude. Without forgiveness we are an unreliable community. Without forgiveness the Church, Christ’s Body becomes dismembered. The Rev. Chris Dorsey, in reflecting on forgiveness, suggests that what’s at stake isn’t simply a transaction of recompense for transgression; it is ultimately about the balance and integrity of community.
When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we first ask God to forgive us our trespasses, our wrongs, so that in receiving this reviving act of mercy we then are able to offer forgiveness when others come seeking it, when they become indebted to us. This is the same framework for forgiveness offered in the parable. Forgiveness is a process that involves the transgresson and the one who is owed a debt. There is a fluidity to forgiveness, a back and forth journey between the wronged and the one who acted wrongly.
As a church, we may not be in our building, but we remain “those called out” to take on the practices of Christ, among them being forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t always practiced within our churches, and churches themselves are sometimes in a place where we need to recognize our transgressions and seek ways to pay our debt. Forgive as we have been forgiven. A deep search for forgiveness could involve churches seeking to right the wrongs of their slaveholding past. This is the Christ-like work that our neighbors at First Church, Cambridge have started as they reckon with their church’s involvement in the living legacy of slavery. The congregation came together for roundtable discussions to learn about its early members who were Black and enslaved, grounding these conversations in Scripture and a desire to seek God’s grace. Now a few years into this project, the congregation is ready to ask themselves how do they make reparations; how do they remember, repair and restore.
It’s hard to detail what forgiveness looks like in every situation, but Jesus teaches us that together we can find a way to forgiveness. When we travel together to make amends, God attends us. Just like when God went with the Israelites on their journey through the Red Sea, which was read for us by First-Year Student, LyLena Estabine. Like the Israelites, God sends a cloud of light and angels to help us arrive safely where we are going. As our Christian Education programs resume today, I imagine God’s cloud of light directing us when we seek to learn about forgiveness at the Faith and Life Forum or when it’s modeled in the Church School. Sustaining the reliability and life of the Body of Christ also means modeling forgiveness for our youngest members, that they would witness the honesty of confession and absolution. I wonder what forgiveness could look like in our other relationships at MemChurch?
The Body of Christ, the church, is created by God to be a place where we are held closely to the light that leads us to love. The same light that shows us our shadows and gives us direction in the valley and shadow of death. It is where we continually discover the light and life that is creating and has created. We are not always going to get forgiveness right, but in striving to do so we participate in the regeneration of the connective tissues that give form to Christ’s Body.
Early on in her book, Margaret Visser describes churches as a contradiction. Speaking of church buildings as well as their congregations, she says, “Churches can be confining and deadening – and churches may liberate and enliven. Buildings are unnecessary – but needed. Churches remain – but they remain in order to keep alive a message that is all about movement, about hope and change.”
Even though we practice forgiveness in worship every Sunday, I don’t always know how to actually get there. It’s easy to get lost on the journey; mercy isn’t easy to follow. When I can’t find my way, the Body of Christ is there to say “take the next left, and look up; go towards the white steeple that stretches into the sky” or in more recent times “Use this link, and once your there we’ll add you to a breakout room.”