Sermon for Proper 19, Year A, September 13, 2020

Genesis 50:15-21,  Psalm 103:8-13,  Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter asks Jesus.  Jesus says, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  People do have a tendency to keep score, so Jesus is challenging Peter to think differently about forgiveness.  Peter, has been taught by the teachers of his faith, to forgive three times. Being a disciple of Jesus; has him wondering if that is enough so he asks if he should forgive more. 

Jesus may be pleased that Peter is considering that forgiveness should not be limited to just three times, but as Jesus has been known to do – he challenges Peter – and us, to think even bigger.  If we apply the Second Great Commandment to forgiveness – to love our neighbor AS ourselves, we need to ask ourselves, “when, if ever, do we want others to withhold their forgiveness from us?”    

I know I want to be forgiven more than 3 times, more than 7 times, and even more than 77 times.  I dare say Cathy can count well past 77 and I’m thankful she hasn’t stopped forgiving me.  To be human is to make mistakes – lots of mistakes!  Forgiveness is not; however, the same as forgetting.

Forgiveness is often misunderstood as forgetting, but there is a big difference between the two.  Forgiving is a spiritual discipline that allows emotional closure.  Forgetting implies that everything returns to the way it was before. 

Acts of selfishness and betrayal are indications that things should not return to the way they were.  Things need to change or history will repeat itself and we will be hurt again.  When our trust is broken, we need to do the work that needs to be done to re-establish that trust. 

Last Sunday I spoke of Jesus teaching us to address conflict directly.  It is impossible to restore trust if we avoid the person who we feel has slighted us.  It is also impossible to resolve or move beyond, a conflict, if we hold a grudge.  We need to let go of the emotional baggage if we are to move beyond the hurt. 

Several years ago, I was asked to say a prayer at a 9/11 Memorial Service.  I, of course, prayed for who died and all whose lives were forever changed that day.  I also prayed for those who were involved in carrying out those acts of terrorism.  Jesus teaches us to pray for our enemies.  

My prayer then and today is that light with overcome the darkness in the souls of those who spread hate and promote acts of destruction and violence in our world.  I pray that they will be transformed by the love of God.  I pray that the love of God will overcome all human tendencies to be judgmental and heal the divisions that prevent us from seeing one another as children of the one God who created and loves all of us. 

I am no more able to walk the way of love Christ teaches me to walk than my enemy is if I am unable to forgive.  Forgiveness, as it pertains to 911, is a stark example of the importance of remembering the past and taking the necessary steps to prevent it from happening, again and forgiving those who involved so that we do not continue to live in fear.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells a story about a man who cheats on his wife, divorces her, and marries the other woman.  His first wife is unable to let go of her anger towards him. She is still bitter and unhappy years later.  Rabbi Kushner tells her that her ex doesn’t deserve her forgiveness, but she needs to forgive him for herself.  She needs to forgive him so she can move on with her life.   She needs to forgive him and use all the energy that has been fueling her bitterness and invest it in her own happiness.  Carrying a grudge hurts us, more that the person who wronged us. 

My 911 prayer drew some criticism in the form of a letter to the editor by someone who was offended that I had prayed for our enemies.  The hurt and anger this person expressed seemed as fresh as it must have been, at that time, a decade earlier.  Remembering is important; but reliving the events of that day over and over again, can keep us in the past.  Hate draws our attention away from God who offers us the hope of a better life.

The parable Jesus uses to illustrate forgiveness is one in which a king forgives the debt of a slave when he could have sold the slave and his family to recover at least part of the debt the man owed him.  Or, he could have had him work off the debt – but instead he forgave the debt, which was considerable.  The slave; however, did not act in kind when he came upon a fellow slave who owed him money.  He has the debtor thrown into prison until he pays the debt. 

The King hears what happened, reinstates the slave’s debt and has him tortured until he pays it back.  This parable is told to teach us that we are to forgive others as we are forgiven.  This is, after all, part of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray:  forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.  The Amish interpret this as meaning that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others.  The father of a child who had been murdered, spoke of having to forgive the killer over and over again – because his feelings of anger and hatred kept returning. 

This view of being forgiven AS we ourselves forgive is one that further points to our need to practice forgiveness as a spiritual discipline.  Whether or not you believe you have to forgive if you are to be forgiven, it is clear to me that the spiritual practice of forgiving others (and often ourselves as well) is one that enables us to channel our energy is a healthy and positive way.  It helps us to seek the kingdom of God.  It enables to want others to find true happiness, happiness which can only be achieved when we do God’s will and love one another as Christ loves us. 

Let us pray.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble,  grief that hinders us may be overcome, fear that cripples us may give way to hope,  suspicions may disappear, hatreds cease; and that we may rise above all that holds us back from offering ourselves to your service.   We offer our prayers through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.