Before being sworn into office, the president-elect places his or her hand on the bible and swears this oath in public to the people of the United States of America:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
I fail to see how President Trump kept his commitment to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States when he attacked NFL players for exercising their First Amendment right of free speech by kneeling during the National Anthem. I believe Trump violated that sacred oath when he stated, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field now. Out. Out. He’s fired!’”
Any president who encourages the firing of any U.S. citizen for exercising their First Amendment right has clearly committed an impeachable offense by violating their oath of office.
Out, Mr. Trump, you’re fired.
“He said to them, ‘You also go out into the vineyard.”
If Jesus tells us to go out into the vineyard, we can just go. It’s okay. It’s not against any law that matters.
We don’t need anyone else’s permission. We don’t require any bureaucracy’s approval. There is no ring that we must kiss.
We just go out into the vineyard.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus empowers his disciples to get up, go out and do things.
Feed his sheep. Share the good news. Work for reconciliation and healing. And do this in remembrance of him.
Jesus never said, “but first you are required to…” Jesus never made his disciples get a license. Jesus never said, “Do this in remembrance of me but first spend three years in seminary writing papers and passing tests.”
Jesus never told anyone that they must find a Notary Public to validate the movement of the Holy Spirit through his disciples.
The fact is, Jesus never earned a degree, either, though many Sadducees and Pharisees thought Jesus was breaking some Holy law by what he said and did without their stamp of approval.
So, we, too, can just go out into the vineyard. We can just do the things that Jesus told us to do.
Bear in mind, however, that others may disagree. Some may not believe that we have any right to be in the vineyard with them at all because they’ve passed tests, been given diplomas and have been out in the vineyard for 30 years.
There are Sadducees and Pharisees in our day, too. They are good people. They have done good things for the kingdom of God. But, like those who opposed Jesus, ours also believe that they know best what is right for us all and who needs permission from whom and for what reasons.
Such good people are susceptible, nonetheless, to believing that the vineyard belongs to them, that all of the grapes are theirs and that only they can say who serves the wine.
But, that is their misunderstanding, not ours.
We are simply doing what Jesus told us to do.
“You also go out into the vineyard,” Jesus tells us.
No ifs or buts. No dues to pay. No pre-conditions to be met. No hoops to jump through. Nobody else needs to bless us with their permission.
Because the vineyard belongs to Jesus and he told us to go out into that place of waiting vines and expectant fruit.
Because the grapes are his.
Because the wine is his vintage alone.
Because we are told to do this in remembrance of him.
And because we have the explicit permission of Jesus, how can any human-made power on Earth truly believe it has the moral authority to stop us from doing what Jesus has clearly told us to do?
Those who attempt to control and limit who does what in remembrance of Jesus undoubtedly have the best of intentions. But nobody has the words of Jesus to support a belief that any person or organization owns the majority shares of stock in what is holy and sacred. Nor do the words of Jesus give anyone veto power over Christ’s bread and wine.
The communion we share together in the corner of the vineyard where Jesus told us to go is inherently a sacrament.
Jesus makes it so.
Because, as he told us, we do it in remembrance of him.
If permission is required, it has already been given.
Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Peter had wanted to know how many times he must forgive someone who sinned against him. Probably thinking himself extravagantly generous, Peter suggested seven times. Forgiving someone a single time can be a struggle. Sometimes even once can feel like it is one time too many.
But seven times is not enough, Jesus made clear to Peter, and so to us.
Seventy-seven times, Jesus answered.
Seventy-seven times? Turning the other cheek that often could give us whiplash, couldn’t it? But that is what we must do.
It’s instructive to return to a point Jesus made in last Sunday’s Gospel lesson. If a brother sins against you, Jesus said, and refuses all attempts at reconciliation, then treat that individual as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
If Jesus is to be our guide, our Good Shepherd and our Savior, let us ask ourselves how Jesus treated tax collectors. Did he condemn and shun them, make an example out of them as evil and worthy of our disdain?
No, Jesus did not.
Jesus forgave them. Jesus loved them. Jesus opened his heart and God’s grace to them. Jesus, in fact, brought one of them into his inner circle of disciples.
How ironic that the Gospel of Matthew tells this story because Matthew, himself, was a tax collector when he first encountered Jesus.
So, how perfect that Matthew tells us this story because he knew from personal experience how Jesus treated tax collectors.
If we are to treat those who sin against us as pagans and tax collectors, that means we are meant to forgive them. It means forgiveness is for everyone.
Even for us.
Forgiveness is one more example of the narrow gate that opens up to the wide place of God’s love and grace. But how very hard it can be to fit feelings of forgiveness through the small opening in our heart when someone harms us. How difficult to squeeze forgiveness through the shrinking passageway in our wounded feelings.
But how far our hearts can travel when we do because forgiveness is a road with two lanes: forgiveness is for the person being forgiven but it is also for the person offering the forgiveness.
When we offer forgiveness—whether it is accepted or not—we free ourselves of the soul-harming burden of carrying that piece of pain forward day by day, like a heavy and ponderous chain dragging down moments of possible joy.
Seventy-seven times is a lot of repetitions, a whole lot of exercise. If forgiveness were a muscle, seventy-seven repetitions would strengthen it until we could forgive even the heaviest hurt.
By the seventy-seventh time, as we wrestled with the angel of absolution, forgiveness would have become a reflex action in our heart.
Whether seven times or seventy-seven times, forgiveness becomes less difficult when we understand what Jesus understood:
God loves us all and that necessarily includes those who have sinned against us.
We know that to be true because God keeps loving us even when we sin against someone, even when we sin against the love of God, itself.
As he hung dying on the cross, Jesus forgave those who hammered the nails. He set the standard for forgiveness. He walked his talk. But, I wonder if Jesus struggled to speak those words of mercy. If so, how many times did Jesus swallow his pardon into silence before declaring his exoneration for all eternity?
Forgiveness is not always easy but it is always worth the effort because it opens up the wide space where redemption may gather us in its embrace.
And where healing, too, may find us.
Redemption and healing for the forgiven and the forgiver.
“For wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Fellowship of the Ring” makes it very clear: companionship on the journey is important, and can be crucial. I am re-reading Tolkien’s epic masterpiece—I’ve lost track of how often I’ve delved between its covers—and Kim and I are re-watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy on DVD.
The timing was perfect as I contemplated today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
In the book, the wizard Gandalf has advised the hobbit, Frodo Baggins, that he must leave his beloved Shire and take the One Ring with him to prevent it from falling into the clutches of the evil Sauron. With that ring, Sauron could destroy all goodness and rule Middle Earth, enslaving all in a great, evil darkness.
The Shire is something of a paradise. No apples have been eaten off the tree of knowledge there. And Hobbits retain much of the innocence of childhood throughout their lives.
The odyssey Frodo ultimately undertakes—journeying into Sauron’s stronghold of Mordor to try and destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mt. Doom—places him in constant and grave peril.
But, Gandalf makes certain that Frodo does not travel into the wilds alone. A trusted friend, Sam Gamgee, will remain at his side through the thickest thicks and the thinnest of thins.
I believe that Jesus had the same thing in mind when he told his disciples that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” God doesn’t want us to be wrapped in shrouds of loneliness and Jesus knows that.
It is interesting to observe that by removing the letter L in lonely it becomes “one-ly” and loneliness becomes “one-liness.” But that is what being lonely and loneliness literally are—having nobody but ourselves, being one, alone.
Too much “one-liness” and being too often “one-ly” can have the same effect as the One Ring would have in Sauron’s hands—it can ensnare us in a kind of emotional and spiritual darkness. We fall too easily prey to anxiety, fear and doubt. Obstacles along the way can seem insurmountable and there is nobody with whom we can share our moments of joy.
Jesus is encouraging us to open our hearts to fellowship and companionship as we journey through life. I most definitely believe that the Holy Spirit of Jesus and the love and grace of God come to us in moments of solitude. Prayer, for example, is most often a solitary act and Jesus, remember, would often go off to a lonely—or “one-ly”—place to pray and re-gather his strength.
But Jesus would always return to the fellowship of his disciples.
His example is worth following. Thankfully, none of us has to travel through Mordor to Mt. Doom and save the world by destroying the One Ring. But we each encounter challenges, opportunities, obstacles and joys across our lifetime. How much better it is, in all respects, to have companions by our side on the journey. And to feel our companionship ending the loneliness of others along the way.