Sunday, September 14th, 2014 – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35
Hymns: “Bless His Holy Name”, “10,000 Reasons”, “Lord, Speak to Me”, “He Leadeth Me”, “Give Me Jesus”
“Forgiven, Don’t Forget”
There’s a worship aid that exists known as the Revised Common Lectionary. This splits up the four Gospels, along with sizable chunks of the Old Testament, the Psalms, and Paul’s letters, into a series that stretches out over three years. The idea is that if you preach the lectionary, you’ll cover the entirety of Jesus’ ministry on earth along with a large percentage of the remainder of the Bible every three years. Then you start over.
Not all pastors preach out of the Revised Common Lectionary. I tend to do so about two thirds of the time. Sometimes it gives you a good continuous theme to preach based on a certain set of Christ’s teachings that are presented over the course of a couple of chapters in one of the four Gospels.
But sometimes, the lectionary just doesn’t jibe with what’s going on in the world or with what the preacher is feeling in any given week, and so, the preacher goes off lectionary. There’s nothing wrong with that – lots of preachers do so. Heck, every time a preacher does a specific sermon series, you can bet they’ve probably gone off lectionary.
And then… then there are weeks like this week. Weeks where the lectionary just puts the preacher in a really, super-uncomfortable place. A place where the preacher says, “I don’t really want to preach on this text… and yet, how can I not?”
You see, I have a problem this week. On the one hand, we have the Gospel passage from Matthew 18. “How many times should I forgive the one who has sinned against me?” Peter asks, responding to Jesus’ discussion, which we covered last week, of how to handle one who has sinned against you in the church. “Seventy times seven,” Jesus tells him, before recounting the parable of the servant who was forgiven and then refused to forgive.
But how do I make that Scripture work, this week? How do I look at the world, where in the last week, we have watched, horrified, as video leaked onto the Internet of a man regarded as a hero by many, an NFL running back who shouldered a large portion of his team’s offensive load in their Superbowl win in 2013, a video wherein he brutally beat his fiancée before dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator they were riding in? How on earth am I supposed to preach forgiveness in light of that?
And of course, I would be remiss to not consider that three days ago, we commemorated the thirteenth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack to ever occur on American soil. Though it occurred in 2001, and it is now 2014, the September 11th attacks are still a raw wound for many Americans, no less American Christians than any other. How on earth am I supposed to preach forgiveness in light of that?
I really got to thinking about it earlier in the week. I asked myself what exactly I was supposed to do. I spent a good deal of time in prayer and careful consideration regarding this week’s sermon – more so than usual, to be sure. Finally, I had to break it down to the simple catchphrase that was oh so popular in the ‘90s, having been set forth a century earlier by Charles Sheldon – what would Jesus do? Would Jesus advocate forgiveness of Ray Rice? Would Jesus advocate forgiveness of the nineteen men who boarded those four flights on the morning of September 11th, 2001, shortly thereafter to forever change the trajectory that America would take into the 21st century?
The inescapable answer, of course, was yes, absolutely. Jesus would look us in the eye and tell us that those men are to be forgiven seventy times seven.
Now to be sure, to forget the crimes committed would be foolish. Ray Rice must be held accountable for the savage manner in which he treated the woman to whom he is now married. And surely we must not forget that there are those in this world who would see harm done to us. But in that not forgetting is the idea that we forgive. For every time we remember that offense, we must say, “But for that offense, you are forgiven…
“Just as I was first forgiven.”
There we have the rub.
You see, each of us has sinned. We have sinned egregiously. Every one of us. None of us is without sin, and to say that we are is to lie – a sin in and of itself. And what’s more, no one of us is “less” of a sinner than another – all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the apostle Paul tells us in Romans 3. He would later, in I Timothy 1, declare himself to be the chief of sinners. And if such a man as Paul, a man who has been credited with having written anywhere between 10-15% of the Bible, a man who was considered among the greatest of Jesus’ apostles – if he is the chief of sinners, than surely we must be his first-line deputies.
But that is what Jesus was trying to communicate in the parable in today’s Gospel lesson. “A servant was in great debt to his master,” he explained to his apostles. “He went to his master, and begged for leniency. His master, feeling merciful, said, ‘Get up, and go, for your debt is forgiven.’
“Some time later, the now forgiven servant came upon a lesser servant who owed him a rather paltry sum of money. Becoming enraged, he seized him and demanded that the debt be paid. The lesser servant explained that he did not have the money, and begged for mercy. But the servant refused, and had him thrown into prison.
“Needless to say, his master was less than pleased. Summoning him, he said, ‘Did I not forgive you a far greater debt?’ And the master had the servant thrown into prison until his debt was repaid.”
In this parable, we must consider the master to be God, and we are in great debt to God. Each of us has sinned against God. It could be as simple an act as having taken the name of the Lord in vain – which you’ve probably done if you’ve ever driven in rush-hour traffic – or it could be a horrible act such as having actively discriminated against somebody because they were different. It doesn’t matter, each of these is a sin that has placed us in debt to God.
But our God is in a merciful mood, all the time. In fact, God is so merciful toward human beings that God’s only Son was sent to the Earth, to teach us a better way of living, and then to die and be raised from the dead, so that in the power of the resurrection, the victory over death, we could find salvation from our sins. Our debt has been forgiven.
So if our debt to GOD has been forgiven, doesn’t that mean we are therefore obligated to forgive the debt in which we hold other people on this earth?
I’m not saying it easy. Heck, I’ll be honest, sometimes extending the kind of forgiveness God requires of us absolutely sucks. I don’t want to forgive Ray Rice for treating his wife like a punching bag instead of like the human being she is. I don’t want to forgive the nineteen members of Al Qaeda who brought terrorism to our doorsteps. For goodness’ sake, I still don’t want to forgive the miscreant who broke into my car eight years ago, causing $400 worth of damage to steal a stupid $20 CD player. If I still struggle with that, how on earth am I supposed to deal with forgiving the 9/11 terrorists?!
I guess we have to try to put ourselves in God’s shoes for a moment.
A few months ago, I preached a sermon where I talked about how the fact that Jesus Christ was the earthly incarnation of God would have given God a first-hand human perspective on experiences up to and including death. If such experience would have given God a more complete understanding of the experiences of God’s beloved creation… isn’t it possible that we can look at it from the other direction, too?
Let’s think about God AS A HUMAN in the person of Jesus for a moment. If you look at God as being the divine Father of Jesus, then you have to consider that God allowed Jesus, God’s only Son, to die a painful, horrible death at the hands of Rome in order that God’s power might conquer death, allowing that victory over the grave to be visited upon each of us. If you look at God as being human incarnate in the person of Jesus, God willingly went to that cross that the same might happen.
When you look at it from that perspective, is it really that tough to forgive somebody for wronging you?
You know, I’ve heard that a good sermon is one that really challenges the people who hear it to take a good, long, hard look at their lives and consider if they’re living as God would have them live. I think a good sermon is one where the pastor ends up having to do the same with him or herself while writing it. It’s not easy to forgive the people I should be forgive, to be sure. I have a whole laundry list of people to whom I would love to give a piece of my mind – a person who fired me while I was on a leave of absence without telling me, a person who denied me the chance to continue being part of a ministry I loved simply because we disagreed on a couple of points, the aforementioned breaker-into-of-Mitsubishis – I don’t WANT to forgive any of them. But God has required it of me, because God first forgave me.
I would urge each of you to remember that as you go forward. Chances are, you may discuss Ray Rice with people you know. And to be sure, it is quite alright to say that he needs to pay penance for what he has done. But we must remember that he is a flawed, fallen human being, just like us, and he is deserving of forgiveness, just like us.
And of course, at this time of year, discussions run rampant of 9/11, and how we must never forget, and how the 3,000 deaths must be avenged, and so forth. And to be sure, it is alright to say that we should never forget, because a people who do not learn from their own history are doomed to repeat it. But we must remember that those people who carried out the attacks, and those people who directed them to do so, were flawed, fallen human beings, just like us, and they are deserving of forgiveness, just like us.
You may find that it takes you a while to forgive. You may find that carrying out the commands of Christ are not easy. But eventually, you will find it in yourself to grant that forgiveness…
Because God has first forgiven us.
May we never forget that.