Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sermon, Proper 19A, Matthew 18:21-35

Sin, forgiveness and repentance -- Jesus continues to discuss this theme that we heard begun last week. Peter asks the question, "How many times must I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus answers, "Not seven times but seventy-seven times." Hearing Jesus' answer to Peter, along with the parable of the unforgiving servant, might give you the impression that forgiving the sins of another is important. And it is. Jesus talks about forgiveness a whole bunch of times.

Before we talk about forgiveness, though, we need to understand sin. Just what is sin? Sin, at its most basic level, is those thoughts, words and deeds, known and unknown, done and left undone, that take us away from the will and love of God.

We sin when we hold grudges against our neighbors. We sin when we treat God with less respect than he deserves. We sin when we say things that hurt other people. We sin when we fail to acknowledge the humanness of the Other. We sin when we withhold our love or use our affections as a bargaining chip. In short, we have ample opportunity to sin; and there is ample opportunity for people to sin against us.

If you are like me, we tend to keep score. The ratio between my sins against others and their sins against me is . . . well . . . let's just say unbalanced. It's easy to look in the mirror and say, "I'm a nice guy; people like me. I don't sin all that much." While at the same time keeping track of all the sins committed against us. Everything from the neighbor's dog destroying our property to our spouse yelling at us to our kids' snide remarks to the guy on the road who cuts us off.

So here's something to think about: if we don't think we sin all that much, but know all the times someone sins against us, how do other people see us? This is kind of like that survey about cell phone usage where the results showed that a majority of people believed their cell etiquette was better than everyone else's. The simple fact of the matter is that we live in a world of sin.

This is where forgiveness comes in. When I talk about forgiveness, I'm willing to bet that most people most of the time think that means our dealing with the other person. We forgive someone for spreading lies about us. We forgive someone for killing a relative. We forgive people for flying planes into buildings.

And I think there's a feeling that forgivenss equals a free pass. That maybe there's a feeling that if we forgive someone, all will be hunky dory, everyone gets off scot-free and life will be a bed of roses again. And that is not necessarily true.

Forgiveness is a process. It is how we are reconciled with other people and the church. It includes recognizing what sins we have committed and how they are negatively affecting us. It includes making contrition, penitence, and other amends as required. And then, finally, it is not discussed again.

It's that middle part that people forget. The forgiveness process includes making things right. Just because we ask for forgivenss doesn't mean that it has to be granted right away. If you come to me and say you embezzled from your employer and ask for forgiveness, I will tell you to repay that money before forgiveness will be granted.

Or . . . imagine you have someone who mows your yard and that person stole something from your place while you were gone. Imagine that it was discovered and the person either paid a fine or served time in jail. Now imagine that that person comes back to you looking for a second chance and a job. Do you give it to him? And do you forgive him? There's a line in a prayer that goes something like this, "And lead us not into temptation . . ." Maybe you do forgive him and give him a second chance. But maybe you also make sure that he only works when you are home, sitting on the front porch, supervising his work.

But there's another aspect to forgiveness and that has to do with ourselves. I said earlier that we probably have a tendency to keep score, to keep track of who sinned against us; by doing that, we keep all of that anger or hatred inside of us. It sits there and festers. And then, like a colleague of mine said, we become like the unforgivng servant who refused to forgive his fellow slave and ended up being tortured because of it.

My family watches a lot of movies. One we watched recently was "Diary of a Mad Black Woman." In this movie, a devoted wife is tossed out of her house so that her husband can have his mistress and two kids move in with him. During the course of the movie, he is shot before the divorce is finalized and ends up in a wheelchair. The as yet un-divorced woman moves back into the house to take care of her husband -- where she abuses him in the process. Eventually she comes to see her actions as just as hurtful to him as he was to her. And it is through that process that she forgives him for his past abuses and for tossing her out; upon which she grants him the divorce. She forgave him, but his previous actions still led to the consequences of the divorce. And she had to forgive him if she was ever to let go of her anger and hatred. Sometimes we can be tortured by all that we carry inside of us if we aren't willing to forgive.

Finally, I came across something interesting by St. Augustine on the nature and meaning of forgiving 77 times. Augustine apparently did some research and claimed that the Lukan genealogy of Jesus consisted of 77 generations from Adam to Jesus. Therefore, says Augustine, we forgive 77 times because there is no sin between Adam and Jesus that cannot be forgiven.

Think back to Exodus and Judges and any number of biblical passages that indicate God is willing to forgive again and again and again; not the least of which is Jesus hanging on the cross and saying, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." God's willingness to forgive is generous and expansive and limitless. As a people who proclaim the gospel and love of Jesus Christ, shouldn't our willingness to forgive be just as generous and expansive?


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