Sermon for September 10th, 2017
If you are visiting us this morning, welcome; and if you are coming back after having been away for all or part of the summer, welcome back. The summer is a wonderful time of diversion and refreshment and travel, but I always feel it is nice to get back into the regular routine once it is over. Besides the autumn is my favorite season, so it is something I always look forward to.
If you are visiting or if you’ve been away, then you might not know that I have been away from the pulpit myself for the largest part of the summer. I had a very invasive jaw surgery this summer, that left me with my mouth more or less banded shut for six weeks. It will take some time before I am completely back to normal, so please bear with me if my pronunciation seems more off than usual.
I wrote on my blog a few weeks ago about how much I love the Andy Griffith show. Watching reruns of Andy and sucking milkshakes from a plastic bottle were my two primary sources of comfort during recovery, and while I promise I won’t keep referencing Mayberry in every sermon, I just can’t help sharing one of my favorite episodes with you this morning.
Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife were cleaning out the case files in the Mayberry courthouse one afternoon, when Barney stumbled upon a 19 year old case involving Floyd the barber and Mr. Foley the greengrocer. They had both been arrested for assault involving some altercation, but much to Barney’s dismay, no resolution was mentioned anywhere in the file. No guilt was assigned, no restitution or punishment proscribed. Nothing. Barney can’t believe it. Barney wants everything to be neat and orderly and he insists that everything be done according to the proper procedure. Andy tells him that it can’t be too important, just file it or throw it away. Floyd and Mr. Foley are two of the nicest and gentlest men in town and they have been friends for over 20 years so obviously whatever it was, was past. Let it go.
Well Barney won’t have any of that. He is determined to settle this case properly. He starts by interviewing Floyd, who doesn’t remember much. Then he interviews Mr. Foley, who thinks the dispute was over getting charged for a shave that he didn’t ask for. Then he tries to interview Goober who was five years old at the time and had been sitting in the corner reading a comic book and didn’t see anything. Well Barney tries to bring all the parties together to try and reenact the whole incident, and pretty soon their conflicting memories get in the way, then Mr. Foley calls Floyd a crook, Floyd punches Mr Foley, who then tries to get Goober to take his side, and Goober once again was reading a comic book and claims he didn’t see anything.
Then the whole town gets in on the battle: Mr. Foley punches Goober, Otis punches Floyd, and on and on until pretty soon half of Mayberry has a broken nose. Even Opie gets into a fight at school. Andy can’t take it anymore and he pulls Floyd and Mr. Foley into the courthouse. He sends Barney away and says to the two of them that we need to try to settle this like friends.
He says: “you two have been friends for more than 20 years, more than that you have been neighbors; you have been there for each other. You aren’t kids neither one of you and you both know the value of old friends and the first law of friendship is to be ready to forgive.”
The first law of friendship is to be ready to forgive. Forgiveness comes first. That isn’t what we think of when we think of Justice. When it comes to Justice we think that facts should be examined, guilt should be declared, restitution should be made, and then and only then maybe forgiveness can happen. That’s the way our legal system is setup to work. That is certainly the way Barney expects things to happen. But Andy sees things differently. Andy thinks that forgiveness comes first, and then reconciliation can happen. I wonder where he got such a crazy idea…
If Barney Fife represents Justice, then Andy Taylor represents Mercy. They are both fighting on the same side of the law, but you get awful nervous when Justice is left on its own. Mercy always needs to take the lead. Forgiveness needs to come first.
The first few times I read this morning’s Gospel passage, it seemed to me like Jesus was outlining a procedure for how to deal with conflicts in the Church. But as I dug deeper into this passage, I discovered that Jesus wasn’t creating new rules and procedures, he was amending old ones. In Deuteronomy, in the Law of Moses, it says that in order to prosecute someone for an offence or a sin, you need at least two or three witnesses. It’s a good law, because it is there to prevent someone from being unjustly accused, but Jesus thinks we can do even better. Before you go out and try and find other witnesses, before you involve anyone else, go to that person alone and try to reconcile. And even if you do have to involve two or three others, or even the entire community, your goal should always be reconciliation, not prosecution, not condemnation. But how does Jesus see reconciliation happening? Through forgiveness.
It becomes clearer if you keep reading beyond this morning’s Gospel passage and look ahead to what we will be reading next week:
Then Peter came to him and said: “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?”
Jesus saith unto him: “I say not unto thee until seven times, but until seventy times seven.”
Well I’m not good at math, but I can tell that that is a pretty big number. I think Jesus is trying to say that we always need to be ready to forgive, no matter how many times we have been sinned against. Of course, that’s an easy thing to say, much harder to do. Jesus knows that, so he goes on to tell a parable, and I won’t retell the parable now, you will hear it next week, but I think the gist of the parable is this: forgiveness will get a lot easier when you realize how much you have been forgiven. If you know, truly know and appreciate how much you yourself stand in need of forgiveness how can you stand in condemnation of another? It is so much easier to forgive and be reconciled and to love your neighbor when you realize that we are all transgressors of the law; that we are a community of broken, sinful people, that despite our sins are still beloved of God.
If you come to church here regularly you will hear the word sin a lot. We are what is known as a “Rite One” parish; we use the traditional language liturgy, and despite what some people think, the difference is about more than just thees and thous. You get a lot more talk about sin and sinfulness in Rite One. It is still there in Rite Two, but not nearly as strong. I often joke that if Jesus didn’t wash away our sins the 1979 Prayerbook certainly tried. I get that such talk about sin can make people feel a bit squirmy and uncomfortable. Everybody wants to be built up and told how wonderful they are, nobody wants to hear that they might not be as lovely as they imagine. But I think it just might be something that we need to hear. Understanding and appreciating how much we have been forgiven, just might help us when it comes time for us to forgive others.
Our faith proclaims that while we were still sinners, Christ was willing to die for us. God was ready and willing to forgive before we were ready to ask for it. Forgiveness comes first.
I used to think that Barney Fife was just a bumbling fool and that Andy Taylor was wise and had it all together, but since I have reviewed the series with older eyes, I realize now that Sheriff Andy was a mess too; he made mistakes all the time. It is just easier to forget Andy’s mistakes, because his character always puts love and mercy first. He believes in the law, but he also believes that love is the fulfilling of the law, so love and forgiveness always come first. Where did he get such a crazy idea?
At the beginning of the episode I mentioned, before the old case of the punch in the nose is found, Andy and Barney are singing a hymn as they go about their work. Andy says the title is “Lose all their guilty stains” but you probably know it as “There is a Fountain.”
There is a fountain filled with blood,
drawn from Emannuel’s veins
and sinners plunged beneath that flood
lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
that fountain in his day;
and there have I, though vile as he,
washed all my sins away
E’er since by faith I saw the stream
thy flowing wounds supply,
redeeming love has been my theme,
and shall be till I die.
Redeeming love has been my theme…maybe that’s not such a crazy idea after all. Maybe it is something worth sharing.