Message: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103: (1-7), 8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Rabbi Kushner tells the story of a woman, divorced, a mom. She’s faithful. She’s also troubled by the command to forgive. Now, with her marriage dissolved, her ex-husband enjoying the frivolous freedom of his new life, not upholding his responsibilities, she works endlessly to support their three children and pay the bills. The angry woman is tired of telling her children they can’t have the newest ipad, or go to the movies or enjoy a vacation at the beach. She struggles to forgive this man who repeatedly has done her wrong and cheated their children. Embittered by having to forgive her ex once again, she asks Rabbi Kushner, “how can you keep telling me to forgive him yet again?” Rabbi Kushner answers, “I’m not asking you to forgive your ex-husband with the understanding that his cheating and abandonment is acceptable. It isn’t acceptable. He’s done very hurtful and selfish things.” Rabbi Kushner goes on to say, “I’m asking you to forgive him because he doesn’t deserve to have that kind of power over you. As long as you can’t forgive him, you hold onto resentment, anger and bitterness and that gives him power. If you forgive him, you’re letting him go, and the hurt as well. Then you are free to be all God intends you to be and not stuck in anger and hurt.”
Forgiveness. Forgiveness is a free sovereign gift bestowed upon us by a loving God made known to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, restoring us to holiness in God and in one another. For faithful folks like the divorced woman struggling, and like each of us, forgiveness starts at the beginning. In the garden, created by God, good, and in God’s image, the woman and the man, sin, turning away from God. There is pain and suffering and struggle in our sin. But, our God is a forgiving God, at creation and for evermore. God is with us, always, to the end, loving us, forgiving us. God forgives. So we forgive.
God’s forgiveness does not mean that God simply dismisses and moves onto the next thing. Forgiveness is not about letting go of the woundedness and then returning to the relationship to be hurt again. (1.) Forgiveness is holding one another lovingly accountable: a reckoning of betrayal, resentment and revenge for compassion, patience and love. (2.) Forgiveness is about living in the freedom of living in a new relationship. (3.) Forgiveness is limitless.
When Peter approaches Jesus in the story we hear today from Matthew’s gospel, he’s asking about the limits to forgiveness. Just earlier Jesus is teaching his disciples about repairing relationships in the community of the church. Now, Peter, who often trips over himself with his words, is asking how often he must forgive. It seems Peter is concerned about the newly forming Jewish Christian church community. Jesus has warned them about exclusivity, about temptations that lead us away from God and the community, about humble service and about the discipline necessary to make the kingdom of God known here and now.
Peter is well schooled in the Judaic teaching on forgiveness: three strikes and you’re out. Ancient teaching claims God enters into our acts of forgiveness. If we can’t forgive, on the fourth offense, punishment will ensue. In an effort to impress Jesus with his knowledge and his commitment to God’s kingdom in Christ, Peter ups the ante and asks Jesus if seven times is enough; well over the mandated three times. Lovingly holding Peter accountable, Jesus teaches, “not seven times, but I tell you seventy-seven times.” Frankly, Jesus could have said, we’re to forgive a zillion times. There’s no limit to forgiveness.
Jesus reinforces limitless forgiveness with the story of a worker who owes an unimaginable sum of money: millions, even billions of dollars, to a king. The sum exceeds any possibility of full re-payment; not unlike our sin. There is no power great enough that we possess to make payment toward our sin. God in Christ makes payment for our sin.
The king is merciful. The king knows that while selling debtors into slavery is permitted, the practice is not common in Jesus’ time. As the worker falls to his knees in prayerful penitence pleading for patience, the king takes pity on the worker. He releases the worker from his debt; which, indebts the worker to the king with greater commitment; saved by grace he now holds an indebtedness of faithfulness and trust in a redeeming, loving God. And yet, rather than responding with great thanksgiving for such a merciful act, it seems the economic revolution stops before the worker even gets out the front door. The forgiveness does not have a trickle down effect. The worker’s remorse is short lived as he returns to business as usual.
The forgiven one, grabbing a fellow worker in a choke hold and demanding payment for his meager debt resorts to violence and punishment. The fellow worker, paralleling the forgiven one’s response, also pleads for patience and mercy. Instead, without a moment’s hesitation, without compassion, without grace, without mercy, he throws his fellow worker into prison. The king quickly learns of his merciless wickedness. Angry, he hands him over to a torturous life of indebtedness.
Jesus rounds the story to its end cautioning Peter and the remaining disciples on the consequences of halting forgiveness. Our God in heaven expects us to forgive, not three times, not seven times, but we’re called to forgive endlessly.
Jesus knows forgiveness is hard. Partly because in forgiveness, it has to be genuine: from the heart. It’s not enough to say “I’m sorry” if we don’t mean it and we’re going to turn right around and do the same hurt like the man with his fellow worker as he grabs him by the throat. Forgiveness also means we’re claiming a new relationship. In entering into a new relationship, we’re intentional about not re-creating what was. It takes work to build a new relationship; to leave behind what was and venture forth into healing wholeness. Forgiveness must be authentic to take hold. We will slip back into our old anger, our old hurt, and fail to forgive. Forgiveness takes practice. Another way to look at the high cost of forgiveness: forgive now. Then, forgive tomorrow. Then forgive the next day. Keep at it. Forgiveness isn’t a one time payment. Forgiveness is what we do repeatedly, over and over and over, with the strength of God’s grace building us stronger with each effort.
We pray the prayer Jesus has taught us: Our Father, who art in heaven; hallowed by thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven…Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us… We pray this prayer over and over and use it as a tool to keep us on the forgiveness tract. It’s not easy. But, as we gather as a community of faithful souls, together leaning upon one another God in Christ works within us. What do we do? We live in the fulltime love and mercy of God given to us upon the cross of Jesus Christ those two thousand years ago. Jesus, who dragged that cross through the streets of Jerusalem, up onto the hill of Golgotha to the cries and shouts of unforgiving witnesses shouting, “crucify him, crucify him.” And Jesus upon that cross calling out his final words, “forgive them Lord,…” breathing his last, dying for us, took with him our sin, that we, for all time, would know God’s redeeming love and forgiveness and we are made free. Our sins; our hurt; our anger; now and forever more hangs upon that cross in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In just a minute we will witness the baptism of Grant Warren Von Schuch, brother to Luke and son to Danny and Kate, godson to Matt and Sarah. In baptism we are washed in the Holy Spirit. We are blessed with God’s grace; God’s favor upon us. God’s grace is our tool to forgiveness.
What will forgiveness look like for each of us?
Jesus tells us to forgive and then forgive again, and then forgive again, over and over. Today, we’re just going to take one more step toward forgiveness. In your bulletin you have a 3×5 card. Use your 3×5 card to ask God for forgiveness. Write on your 3×5 card whatever it is you need God to forgive. Or, perhaps you need to ask God for the strength to forgive another: God help me to forgive. Write it on your card. No one will see or read your cards or read your cards. Your prayerful steps toward forgiveness are strictly between you and God in Christ. When you come forward to receive Holy Communion in a little bit, there is a box here for you to drop your forgiveness cards. Offer them up to Jesus. Come forward with arms outstretched to receive the holy meal of Christ’s body and blood in this bread and this wine given for us. Be fed and fortified by this holy meal to go out boldly, made free in Christ Jesus in the path of forgiveness.