Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 24A)
Sunday, September 13, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester

Watch Here (Minute 23:00)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Today’s scripture readings return us to that important and central, though difficult and challenging, topic of forgiveness. Before we explore what today’s scriptures say about forgiveness – let me ask you, “What is forgiveness?  What does it mean to forgive someone?”

  • Is forgiveness the right combination of words that need to be said to a person who has wronged us?  “I forgive you for _____ (Fill in the blank)”
  • Is forgiveness a feeling?  Is it a moment when one set of negative feelings – anger/hurt/betrayal/abandonment/bitterness – is replaced by another set of feelings – acceptance/understanding/peace?

Just what exactly is forgiveness that we are talking about? Saying the right words?  Feeling the right feelings?  In our scripture readings today, I see something else. 

If there was ever a family in need of forgiveness, it would be Joseph’s brothers, which we read about in our First Reading this morning [Genesis 50:15-21].Let’s not sugar coat things in Joseph’s story: Joseph’s charges against his brothers would have rightly included kidnapping, assault and battery, and attempted murder.  Joseph’s brothers left him for dead in a pit. And yet, years later, they stood before Joseph begging for forgiveness.

Scripture doesn’t actually say that Joseph spoke words of forgiveness to his brothers. There is no “I forgive you for what you did to me” in this story. Nor does scripture tell us the feelings in Joseph’s heart at that moment.  While verse 17 does say “he wept” in response to his brother’s cries for forgiveness, that doesn’t necessarily mean Joseph forgave his brothers. His tears may have come from an image of the lost years of what might have been if he hadn’t been ripped from his family.

What scripture does record, is that in response to his brothers’ begging for forgiveness, Joseph promised that he would provide for them and their families. Verse 21:  “I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”

Might this help us see, that forgiveness is those things we do, those actions we take, to build back up what sin has torn down?

Joseph’s brothers kicked him out of the family, but Joseph welcomed his brothers back – even though his brothers were willing to be servants as consequence for what they had done to Joseph, Joseph instead welcomed them back as brothers. Joseph’s brothers robbed him of years with his family, but Joseph promised to provide not only for them, but for their families, for “their little ones.”  

Might we understand forgiveness as a verb – as those actions we take in faith – that are the opposite actions done to us in sin?  And from the gospel reading, might we see this not as a one-time event, but that forgiveness, is a series of actions to restore and heal.

Our Gospel reading this morning [Matthew 18:21-35] begins with an interesting interaction between Peter and Jesus. 

The truth is, Peter’s offer of forgiveness was generous and abundant.  Peter was willing to give six second-chances! “How many times should I forgive?” Peter asked Jesus.  “As many as seven times?” How many of us can say we’re ready to forgive someone as many as seven times?

And yet, Jesus responded to Peter’s generosity by saying: not enough! “No, Peter, not seven times, but seventy-seven times!” Or, 7 times 70 depending on how the original Greek is translated … Or, as one commentator warned, this isn’t about numbers, it’s about God’s mercy that goes far beyond our limited mercy and calls us to forgive more than we can imagine forgiving!  

I wonder if we could we see in this impossibly large number of the times we are called to forgive, that forgiveness is a collection of actions that make up a process of forgiveness? Could it be that forgiveness is a series of little positive actions of faith in response to sin? 

Maybe before we’re ready to say, “I forgive you,” wesend a birthday card, or show up at a family event, or offer a compliment.  Maybe before our heart is ready to let go of the bitterness and pain, we simply stay in communication with someone, as difficult as it might be, we might have otherwise wanted to cast off and ignore.  Maybe all of these are actions, seventy-seven times, or seven times seventy, give our hearts time to heal and our mouths time to form and vocalize the words, “I forgive you.” 

Again, might we understand forgiveness as a verb – as those things we do to restore and reconcile?

The Gospel reading concludes with a parable.  A caution about the parable … In light of our ongoing need to work towards racial justice, it is sobering to imagine how this parable might have been used once upon a time to justify slavery, or any system where it would be right to sell off an entire family. It’s my understanding that in Jesus’s day when “slavery” is referenced in the scriptures, “slavery” was much more about “servanthood.” Think more Downton Abbey, and those engaged in “service” – those who attended to household affairs –  rather than chattel slavery of the South.

With that in mind, the point of the parable is a great debt was owed by the servant to the owner. The story starts with a surprise! Though owed a massive amount of money, the owner of the household forgives the servant!  But then, in another surprise, the man who had his massive debt forgiven turned around and demanded that those who owed him money must pay up!  Receiving mercy and leniency on one hand, he then went out and treated those under him with harshness and cruelty.

It doesn’t take much effort to see a link with humanity today.  Having received grace, forgiveness, and mercy from God – announced in Water and Word, proclaimed in this meal we celebrate today, instead of responding with lives of abundance, forgiveness, and mercy, we far too often are guided by scarcity, revenge, retribution. 

Lutheran pastor Hank Langknecht asks:  “Why does God’s forgiveness of our ridiculously huge debt not inspire in us a joy  and relief that results in our magnanimity to all fellow debtors? Is God’s grace-based initiative finally an unworkable motivation for God’s desired community because where God expects a responsive heart there is, in us, only a self-absorbed vacuum?”

Having received the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, month after month, year after year …why do we then go out and harshly treat those around us the first chance we get? That’s a question we can all can reflect on: why do we repay God’s generosity with scarcity and sin?

And again, in this Gospel story, we see a way that forgiveness is a set of actions. In this case, the action of forgiveness is, to use an expression from today, “To pay it forward!” Forgiveness is not something to be stored and hoarded, it is something that is both received and given away – forgiveness is intended not to stop IN us, but to flow through us.

The truth is, for God, forgiveness of our sins is God’s action in Jesus Christ. The forgiveness we have first received from God, is in the activity of Jesus Christ who emptied himself, took the form of a servant, and was obedient even to death on a cross.

For God, forgiveness of our sins is the action of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this ongoing process of forgiveness is announced by the Holy Spirit who in the water of baptisms, and in the meal shared again and again, forgives, reconciles, and restores us, sinners that we are, maybe seventy-seven times every single day, day after day.

So, apply this to your life …

Who do you need to forgive? Who has hurt you and that hurt continues to weigh you down?  What actions are you called to take to demonstrate forgiveness? Most likely, it will be a process of forgiveness – a series of little steps of love.

And remember, last week’s gospel reading still applies. Last week we read in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s command that when someone sins against you, you should confront the person one-on-one. If the sin continues, take two or three others with you. If the sin continues take it before the church, if the sin continues, then discontinue the relationship. 

Forgiveness OF sin is NEVER permission TO sin.  Abusive and toxic relationships – whether in marriage, in a workplace, in a social circle – are sinful and there are times these relationships must end for the sake of all involved. Maybe the first step in forgiving an abuser is to exit and end an abusive situation?  The truth is, Joseph had many years apart from his brothers, before he was reunited with them, and had the chance to forgive them.

Forgiveness is not easy.  The process of forgiveness may be long and complex. And yet, it is our call as disciples to be a people of forgiveness and love. It is for our sake, Jesus invites us into a lifestyle of forgiveness – that sin would be overcome, that we would not be weighed down by sin, but freed from sin.

The Good News today is the radical grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.  

In water, word, and meal, here forgiveness in Christ is announced for you, for me, and for all.  Jesus Christ, and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, are God’s actions of forgiveness drawing us as sinners into the communion of saints through grace.

May the Holy Spirit grant you the courage and strength to enter into a lifestyle of forgiveness. May the Holy Spirit fill you with wisdom and peace to know how to love and forgive those who have wronged you. May the Holy Spirit lead us all, into the communion of saints, into the community of the reconciled, where love, peace, and forgiveness will be known and practiced by all.  

Thanks be to God.