Jesus and Jackie – Raising the Bar

September 17, 2017

Church of the Servant, Wilmington, NC
Proper 19, Year A
Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Listen here, or read below:

As promised last week, this week’s gospel presents a lesson about forgiveness. Just a quick reminder: By the time Matthew’s gospel was written, the temple had been destroyed and the Hebrew people, as well as early Christians, had been driven out of Jerusalem. So Matthew’s gospel is intended to help this early Christian community stay faithful to God and to one another in an unfamiliar land.

In the preceding chapters, Jesus’ teachings have moved the bar on what it is to be faithful. In his estimation, the ten commandments didn’t go far enough. It’s not only those who murder that are liable to judgement, but those who are angry with others.  Not just those who commit adultery, but those who look with lust at another person. Jesus-followers were expected to not just love their neighbors, but to love their enemies, and to turn the other cheek.

I contend that this message in Matthew’s gospel wasn’t trying to put stumbling blocks in the path of these early Christians, but instead, was trying to protect them. Before the destruction of the temple, they had been living in their own community in Jerusalem, insulated from others. Now they were dispersed, cast out and outnumbered among the Gentiles. They were exposed.

It reminds me of Jackie Robinson as he became the first African American to play on a major league baseball team. While there were many great ballplayers in the Negro League, as it was called, certainly some better than Robinson, in an article written by bestselling author and radio host, Eric Metaxas, I learned that, it was Robinson’s faith and moral character that made him the go-to guy for Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey.[i]

Rickey was a “Bible-thumping Methodist” who felt called by God to integrate baseball. He believed it to be his contribution to advance the moral history of this nation. But Ricky knew it would take a special person to be the first to cross the color-barrier. When he talked with Robinson, he said he was “looking for a man ‘with guts enough not to fight back.’ He needed someone who will resist the temptation to retaliate.” Fortunately, after being somewhat hot-headed in his youth, Robinson learned from a mentor that turning the other cheek wasn’t an act of cowardice, but one of courage.[ii] So he, literally, stepped up to the plate.

When teammates, opponents, coaches, umpires, and even fans taunted him, he didn’t let it get to him. When they tried to goad him into fights, he had to walk away. When hotels and restaurants refused to serve him, he took the high road. Not just for a day, not for a month, not for a season, but for years. The article went on to share that, to deal with this challenge, “Robinson got down on his knees many nights during those first two years, asking God for the strength to continue resisting the temptation to fight back, or to say something he would regret.”[iii]

It must have been brutal. I have no way of imagining how grueling and exhausting it would be to always be on guard. Yet, it was the only way he could begin to make room for a new way forward – not just for himself, but for countless others.

In the same way, these early Christians were trying to create a new way forward in a new land. They were people, just like us. They woke up each morning to take on the day – to make a living, raise a family. They worried about the future, and had regrets about the past.

Those around them, both Jews and Gentiles would challenge them because they believed something different. These few had experienced the resurrected Christ, and as such, they were trying to live into what God was calling them to do. They were tearing down walls between cultures previously expected to stay separate. They were challenging the systems that kept the elite in power at the expense of the poor and the oppressed. It was a new way forward, and it was different. And then as now, it’s not easy to do something or be something different. It takes a lot to stand up for yourself and stay true to your convictions. To live into your principles, and live as God would have you be.

That’s all Jackie Robinson was trying to do. Live each day being the best ballplayer and teammate he could be. I’m sure he never could have imagined during that first invitation from the Dodger’s GM, that his acts of perseverance – of staying faithful to his convictions – of turning the other cheek – would forever break the color barrier in major league baseball, and all professional sports.

And now, in ballparks across the country, he’s honored each year on April 15th. While this is a day we automatically associate with taxes and the IRS, wouldn’t it be so much more pleasant if we could embrace it, instead, as Jackie Robinson Day?This is the day each year that every player in the major league wears the number 42 in honor of Robinson and his gift of forgiveness.

You heard me right. Each time Robinson stepped up to the plate, I believe he was living into the call from scripture to forgive.

The Greek word used for forgive also means to let go of or to keep no longer. For Robinson to do what he did, to continue to stand in the batter’s box, knowing a pitch may be coming at his head, he had to let go of that offense, even before it happened. And when it did happen, again and again, he had to pick himself up off the ground, dust himself off, and head down to first base on the count of “Ball Four!”

Only by forgiving, by letting go of those injustices, could he keep moving forward.

In today’s gospel lesson Peter asked Jesus:

Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Some translations raise the bar further – with seventy times seven.

And while Luke’s gospel provides a version of this that requires the offending person to repent, Matthew’s account makes no such requirement.

I’m pretty sure that most opponents of Robinson didn’t ask forgiveness, yet it was Robinson’s ability to “let it go” that allowed him to keep moving forward. Not just to survive, but to thrive – becoming the Rookie of the Year, and helping lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the National League Pennant. It also allowed him to remain faithful to who he was as a follower of Jesus. 

Matthew’s gospel presents again and again the necessity of forgiveness. It’s integral to the instruction for how these early Christians could survive, even thrive, in community. So, too, for us. Those who practice forgiveness don’t let the offensive actions of others cause us to get stuck. Instead, proactive forgiveness keeps us living into all God would have us be.

Just as Robinson learned before saying yes to the Brooklyn Dodgers, this kind of forgiveness is an act of courage, not one of cowardice. It isn’t condoning bad behavior or allowing oneself to be a doormat for others, but instead it empowers us to live into our better selves in spite of others who try to bring us down.

And at the risk of stating the obvious, although this passage specifies behavior toward “a fellow church member” which is the narrow lens through which Matthew focuses his attention, we know that the generosity of God’s love is for all people, and so, too, is our capacity to forgive.

And how many times are we to forgive?

Well, whether you ascribe to the translation of seventy-seven times or seventy times seven, which is 490 if you do the math, in his first season in the majors, Robinson came to the plate 590 times, thereby raising the bar beyond both options in scripture.

So let us be proactive forgivers, for our own sake, and the sake of community.

Don’t keep count – just do it.


[i] Eric Metaxas, “Jackie Robinson a man of faith,” USA Today, Published 6:15 p.m. ET April 11, 2013 | Updated 7:21 p.m. ET April 11, 2013, Website:, Accessed September 15, 2017.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.


Gospel Text:

Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Mt 18:21-35)

3 Responses to “Jesus and Jackie – Raising the Bar”

  1. jg3potomac said

    Jody: This is beautiful! I am reading it after watching the Astros clinch the American League Western division championship. I think how much I wish we could be sharing a hug as we have after many a joyous Astros victory, and even after a few tough losses. I think your comparison of Jackie Robinson’s 590 times at bat in 1947 to Jesus’s 70 times 7 forgiveness admonition was sublime, though it probably doesn’t come close to the number of times a base runner’s spikes or bench jockey’s or fan’s epithet or slur compounded Jackie Robinson’s diamond injuries with further insults. His forbearance and Branch Rickey’s Christian courage helped change our country’s history, though we still have a long way to go to in term of racial justice. It will take lots of sermon’s like yours followed by principled action on a grand scale to hit that home run. I admire your courage in stepping up to the plate in that ballgame. You are a winner. Bless you. Love, Dad

    Sent from my iPad


  2. You “hit it out of the ballpark!” God has blessed me with your insights.💞🐢

  3. Carole said

    What a fantastic sermon! Thank you so much for your brilliant insights, and the analogy of Jackie Robinson.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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