“Abundant Grace” Sermon for Sunday, March 17, 2024

Growing up with two siblings, an older and a younger brother, I can testify to the “truth” that when two or more are gathered, there is sure to be conflict. Yes, there will be laughing, playing, and fun all around, but there will also be mischief, crying, and conflict.

When two or three are gathered, it can be hard to get along—even in the church, as Jesus explains to his friends.

Dr. Audrey West recalls, “It is not only deadly viruses like the coronavirus, with its threat to physical bodies and emotional well-being, but also the deadly viruses of systemic racism, sexism, ageism, or many other -isms that establish hierarchies of human value while infecting the communal bodies of the church and the world.”[1]

We in the human world are in the business of power games: of distancing ourselves from one another, judging, critiquing, and stratifying persons based on likes, differences, and even more differences. When pressed rather than seek to forgive and find peace amid the storms, we often hunker down and isolate further, choosing allies already on our side and preceding the opportunity to be challenged, to listen, or to hear another’s point of view. For decades, science has pointed towards the idea that opposites attract, that we are drawn to those different than us, and supposedly like the challenge of negotiation in relationships. This field of study is changing, and the new paradigm in relationships based on a 2006 study out of the University of Kansas suggests that we are naturally more drawn to people like us- not opposites, which they call our psychological default.[2]

It can be hard to get along with the people we love, the people we have chosen to spend our lives with, let alone those with whom we disagree, who we see as different or other. It can be hard to love and forgive…even in spiritually rich environments, yet Jesus’ call to us is one of abundant grace.

We live in a time when listening and “forgiveness” are not always politically correct. The growing cancel culture phenomena and modern social media platforms birthed by the digital/new media age have given the masses a new forum for accountability and judgment in the face of wrongdoing. Not sure this is precisely what Jesus meant, but our secular church also called the internet, is a readymade tool for our diligent policing of one another. And many of those being canceled are being called out for their lack of listening to the truths of others.

Elon Musk has become a walking punchline and a popular target for online trolls. After getting canceled last year for his messy acquisition of X, formerly Twitter, and his mass firing of company staff, this tech titan is getting canceled again for appearing to endorse anti-Semitic posts on his social media platform as “the actual truth.”[3]

Will Smith

Everyone will remember where they were when they heard the slap that echoed worldwide. Actor Will Smith experienced the stinging sensation of cancel culture after slapping fellow actor and comedian Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars for a comment Rock made about Smith’s wife.[4]

Kanye West

The rapper dropped from billions to millions after his anti-semitic comments banned him from both Instagram and Twitter. He lost his endorsements, his money, and mostly his credentials.[5]

James Corden

Who doesn’t love carpool karaoke with James Corden? Nobody, not anymore. “James Corden is a Hugely gifted comedian,” said Keith McNally, owner of famous NYC restraint Balthazar. “but he is a tiny Cretin of a man. And the most abusive customer to my Balthazar servers since the restaurant opened 25 years ago.”[6] Canceled.

When Jesus stands before Peter in this morning’s gospel text and calls for infinite forgiveness, he is asking for a superhero-like counter-cultural response to the world’s infected humanity. Raise your hand, you without sin, and cast the first stone? Anyone? Anyone? Not only are we beautiful and beloved people, but we are also broken people who often harm each other, even if unintentionally and our species, “thank you survival of the fittest,” is also prone to pride and ego rather than forgiveness and grace. But Jesus does not bat an eye here when he gives Peter the details of how many times he is to forgive. Whether 77 or 70 x 7 or 777, it means a lot! Often! Always!

Jesus sets a high bar. He is asking us to offer one another Abundant Grace.

As early as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ breakthrough public appearance in Matthew’s account, Jesus spells out a series of virtually unattainable expectations for those who are being “trained for the kingdom of heaven” (see also Matthew 13:52). If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment

(Matthew 5:22) … If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away (5:29) … Do not resist an evildoer (5:39) … Love your enemies (5:44) … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (5:48).[7]


Jesus set the bar pretty high but also created an environment where we are not called to do any of this work alone. Living together, serving and worshiping, sharing and loving side-by-side, Jesus establishes a model for the church that necessitates an accountable, mutual belonging to what is good and what is hard, in times of sorrow and joy, in pain and celebration, in want and in abundance. Jesus’ instruction is explicit: In this pseudo conflict resolution 3-step model from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus outlines a process that involves hearing or listening at every step. “Four times in the first three verses, Jesus refers to listening or refusing to listen. The repetition suggests,” says West, “that the call to hear one another, to listen closely to the truth of the other, is a vital component of a community grounded in the ways of Jesus,” in a community committed to the way of God’s transformative love.[8]

Listening is hard work. It means we give space for others to exist on their terms. True listening is selfless love; it is the embodiment of a God who hears her children and sends the one God loves, enfleshed with their skin, pain, suffering, and redemption.

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and spiritual director, wrote, “To listen is very hard because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept.”[9]

Church, rather than viewing others through the narrow lens of our own eyes, in listening, we are open to seeing beyond the binary bounds of perceived identity.When a parent listens to his child, he no longer sees the child he named daughter as he seeks to define her, but in listening, he is free to see them or him as a son, for the fullness he is, as he calls a father to listen to his soul, his deep self, and his truth.

Church, listening to another opens one’s soul to generative, Spirit-infused eyes that enable us to see with our hearts. When we lack understanding, we are broken open so that God can help us grow with new eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts willing to receive someone else’s truth. Only then will we move from a community when two or more are gathered, and there is conflict, to when two or more are gathered, there is an opportunity for God’s kingdom to break forth.

The Franciscan Methodist shares a story on his blog of an Australian man who has been called an “angel.” His real name is Don Ritchie, and for the past 50 years, he has lived across the street from a rock cliff at the entrance to Sydney Harbour called “The Gap.” While this rock cliff is famous for its views, it’s also renowned for another reason. Since the 1800s, people have come to this place to jump off the cliff and end their lives. There’s only a small fence separating people from the edge. One person a week commits suicide there. Yet one man there has been trying to make a difference. “You can’t just sit there and watch them,” Don said in an interview. “You gotta try and save them. It’s pretty simple.”

That’s what Don has been doing for 50 years. According to official records, he has saved 160 people, but many believe that number is much higher, maybe even 500 people that he has saved. How does he do it? What is his miracle method? Each morning, as Don Ritchie gets out of bed, he looks out his window and watches throughout the day to see if someone is alone and close to the edge. If he notices this, he rushes out of his house to interact with the person. A news article describes those moments well, “In those bleak moments when the lost souls stood atop the cliff, wondering whether to jump, the sound of the wind and the waves was broken by a soft voice. ‘Why don’t you come and have a cup of tea?’ the stranger would ask. And when they turned to him, his smile was often their salvation.” That’s all he did. He offered them a cup of tea, a smile, and, most importantly, someone not just to hear them and their pain but someone who would listen.”[10]

Sometimes, the forgiveness we need is for ourselves. When life’s circumstances seem to crowd out the grace, hope, and forgiveness Jesus promises, we stop hearing those messages of love and instead start to self-shame and doubt and isolate ourselves from our communities, our families, or our friends. For all kinds of reasons, the world is happy to turn its back on the vulnerable, ready to judge, shame, and reject those hurting the most. We have a chance to change that narrative.

Part of being accountable to Jesus’ call to discipleship is showing up no matter how we feel, who we’ve wronged, who has wronged us, or which side of the fence we are on. If we don’t speak our truth, we don’t allow our community to hear, listen, and grow into the beloved kingdom God promises. And as science reveals, it is not second nature to listen for how we might change and evolve based on others’ truths. We have a world of evidence to prove it— exploding bombs, starving children, a people divided and death tolls rising, innocent people held hostage. We are hard-wired to choose “our way or the highway,” but we are also given a choice, the opportunity to be brave, to choose differently, to listen, forgive, and love— beyond ourselves.

Deep listening requires intentionality, effort, and commitment. Jesus even lays out a process for us. It is hard work. But Suppose we don’t listen when our neighbors, friends, and strangers among us speak out. In that case, we will miss out on the life-changing, transformative power of love that alone can move us from a conflict to a people of compassion, from a people ruled by anger and aggression to a people fueled by hope and changed by peace.

Church, the world is unraveling one person at a time. But as Dr. Lester shared this week, our unraveling can lead to profound growth when we truly listen. Like Peter, we may have to face inconvenient truths and drop our preconceived notions. Jesus’ response to Peter reminds us of our commitment to God’s mission, even when it is difficult.

We live in a culture where being canceled is more about the fear of losing our freedom to spew hate online than the desire to grow in our deep listening to the truths of our friends, family, and neighbors when opponents on either side of a warring fence are deaf to the ways of peace, we are called to the deep listening of the soul. In our listening, against the backdrop of hate and judgment, amid the sounds of shame and violence, might we choose instead to be that tiny voice disrupting the noise, halting the pain, and with a smile, beckon another to come for tea? It’s that simple, said Don Ritchie, “we gotta try and save each other.”[11]

Remember, Church, Jesus set the bar high for a reason.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] West, Audrey. “Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20.” Working Preacher from Luther Seminary, 11 Nov. 2020, www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ ordinary-23/commentary-on-matthew-1815-20.

[2] Lynch, Brendan M. “Study Finds Our Desire for ‘like-Minded Others’ Is Hard-Wired.” KU News, news.ku.edu/news/article/2016/02/19/new-study-finds-our-desire-minded-others-hardwired-controls-friend-and-partner. Accessed 20 Mar. 2024.

[3] “14 Celebrities Who Got Cancelled in 2022, from Musk to Ye.” South China Morning Post, 25 Dec. 2022, www.scmp.com/magazines/style/celebrity/article/3204356/14-celebrities-who-gotcancelled-2022-elon-musks-twitter-mess-and-kanye-wests-controversial-comments.

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] West, Audrey. “Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20.” Working Preacher from Luther Seminary, 11 Nov. 2020, www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ ordinary-23/commentary-on-matthew-1815-20.

[8] ibid

[9] “A Quote from Bread for the Journey.” Goodreads, Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/quotes/ 6660239-to-listen-is-very-hard-because-it-asks-of-us. Accessed 20 Mar. 2024.

[10] Pastormattlandry. “Sermon, ‘Listening Is an Act of Love’  .” Thefranciscanmethodist, 22 July 2018, thefranciscanmethodist.wordpress.com/2018/07/22/sermon-listening-is-an-act-of-love/.

[11] ibid