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The Abundant Gift of Freedom: Sermon for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost

-- The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire

Readings for Proper 19A:

We are here this weekend celebrating so many things: the start of a new program year, the 58th anniversary—on Tuesday, actually—of our first Eucharist as a parish in 1965—58 years ago, and the start of our annual pledge campaign at a critical juncture in the life of this parish.

Since the start of September, we have met seven times for worship, offered three online services to the world, all due to hundreds of man- and woman- hours in preparation, from more than 15 hours creating and printing all the bulletins, to the efforts of the altar guild, the printing and the publishing of them here and on the website and newsletter that a volunteer curates and maintains to the preparation of the readers and Eucharistic ministers, to the ten-plus hours of programming the broadcast crew provides and then watches over each week, to the preparation and return of our choir and the efforts of our music director. We have excited volunteers offering scores more hours creating the curriculum and teaching our littlest members in church school, and are preparing for the launch of a new adult forum.

We have had staff and volunteers adapting, printing, and preparing the mailings for our annual pledge campaign and getting them to the post office. We held a fellowship gathering out at a local restaurant in our community. We are preparing to enjoy a delicious feast with our brunch later this morning, and preparing for another day of fun and fellowship with the Lunch Bunch, and are in the midst of preparing for our annual pet blessing on October 7 and our Fall Festival on October 21.

But that’s just within our doors. Since the start of September, this parish has kept one family from losing its electricity; has provided one person with the means to get new clothes so that they could work after everything they had was stolen as they moved here; has funded and assisted in cleaning laundry for a dozen households; has provided school children with new backpacks, food, and personal items from our blessing box; and has begun winding down our garden ministry which provides food throughout the Midwestern growing season to hundreds of people. We have visited and cared for members who are ill or housebound.

And that’s just in 16 days—because this day has barely started. In the next few days, we will, God willing, hold a nearly fully subscribed blood drive that will help as many as 144 people in need of blood in the coming weeks throughout the St. Louis region. We will also attempt to help a person struggling to get to work who lacks transportation whom we also helped keep their power on in the spring.

We are preparing to provide the means for people in our community to avoid death by overdose in the midst of a silent plague of opioid addiction in this county that enslaves millions of people and devastates millions more and costs billions of dollars each year. This parish has provided a priest to pray over and share the communion of this parish with the dying last night, and to comfort the living as they begin both their anticipating the grief of the passing of a loved one.

In other words, we have been not just a beacon of Christ’s love, but a beacon of the freedom and abundance that Christ lived and died and rose again among us to embody and to model.

Now imagine if St. Martin’s was not here. The world, my friends, would not just tick on, unnoticing. Instead, there would be an enormous void throughout this area.

Each one of those ways we help our community around us is an offer of empathy, independence, and most importantly freedom with our joyful, generous accompaniment alongside them. Not out of a sense of superiority but out of a recognition that we are all equally beloved in the sight of God. This parish is a living witness to the actual real, LIBERATING love of God in a world that spends 99% of its time trying to divide, oppress, and impoverish the majority in the service of a few who then benefit with the hoarding of wealth and power.

A world whose modus operandi is TAKING from others rather than giving to others. A system that actually fears the growth of generosity and empathy for fear of people realizing the liberating power and the joyful sense of freedom that God’s love in action in the world offers.

We stand as witness to the power of freedom—real freedom. Not the freedom to oppress, or grab at the expense of others. But the freedom and flourishing that love, compassion, repentance, and forgiveness bring. The freedom that comes from believing that there not only is enough, there is MORE than enough among us.

In our gospel passage today, Jesus is concerned with helping his followers live a life embued with grace, but even more importantly, with freedom.

Peter’s question that opens our gospel reading today should be relatable to most of us. Peter wants to know what the limit is. He wants to know what is the least he can do when someone has wronged him. He wants to know when he is let off the hook if someone continually injures him.

He starts—like most of us—in thinking about times when he has been the injured party. Yet how would the question change if we approached it from the position of the transgressor? “Lord, how many times should my brother, sister, or friend forgive me?”

Do we want the answer then just to be only seven?

I am certain that I could pile up seven offenses against my loved ones in a very short amount of time. When we are on the giving end, we like to limit our obligation. When we are on the receiving end, we want a never-ending stream.

And life together in this parish of St. Martin’s reminds us again and again that the “least we can do” is basically the same as doing nothing, the same as standing by a burning house with a fire hose and refusing to turn it on because we are worried about the water bill.

We are called to embody the grace of compassion, mercy, community, and forgiveness because we ourselves have received it without limit. That’s who God is. God never gives up on us or keeps tally when we fall short in our lives of living the completely loving, completely free way God created us to embody.

We all know apologizing sometimes seems to be harder than forgiveness in our culture. And that is exactly why using today’s gospel for self-reflection is so necessary. Because when we try to avoid apologizing, or when we refuse to forgive, we are chaining ourselves to the past. I ask you to think really hard about the last time you really forgave someone, yes, but also the last time you apologized and were forgiven.

Do you remember the sense of relief you felt in both instances? Do you remember the weight that was released from your shoulders and your heart, and the freedom you felt?

Yes, freedom. Yale professor theologian Miroslav Volf calls forgiveness “… a genuinely free act that “does not merely re-act,” forgiveness breaks the power of the remembered past … and so makes the spiral of vengeance grind to a halt. This is the social import of forgiveness.”[1] And that is true relief, and repair of our fragmented world. That is our path to true freedom. And it starts with loving and caring for each other as though we were a single body.

Because we are. What happens to anyone happens to all of us. That's another reason why forgiveness and repentance are vital Christian practices.

Forgiveness, and true repentance, are part of the gift of freedom Jesus pleads with us to accept. To use our own freedom to set real love in motion throughout our lives and the lives of our communities-- for our own flourishing, and, better, for the flourishing of others.

As we begin our program year and our annual pledge campaign, it is more important than ever that we step out of the paths in our past that have not served us well. The paths that have sought to find “the least we can do.” The paths that have convinced ourselves that this parish of St. Martin’s doesn’t really matter, and does not make a vital difference in the lives of literally hundreds of people each and every week of our 58 year existence. And the next 58 years in the future. And beyond. We are, instead, called by God to embrace our freedom by seeing the world through the eyes and heart of abundance and grace. Of forgiveness and reconciliation. By pooling together our substantial resources to OWN our agency and our witness to the world that there IS enough. We are called to free ourselves from the fear of scarcity, and embrace the abundant freedom of securing our financial not just survival, but flourishing. For the life of the world. For the lives of our neighbors. For the lives of joy we all want and NEED to live. And in that proclamation, to embrace the freedom of living in a way that matters, a way that gives purpose to each day because we know we are accomplishing real miracles and making a real difference in the world. And it starts by truly walking the path that the liberating love and forgiveness of God places before us. Starting now.

[1] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, Revised and Updated (pp. 121-122). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

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